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The New International, April 1941



Total War and the Revolution


From New International, Vol. VII No. 3, April 1941, pp. 46–49.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.


NO SERIOUS PERSON dares to speak any longer about the “phony war” between the Axis and the Anglo-Saxon bloc. War in its most concentrated form, total war, has come to stay with us for quite some time to come. It extends its battlefields with every month. It is cutting ever so deeply into the remotest domains of social life. Like crises and fascism in the past, so will war and militarism now determine the further course of the class struggle.

Nor will the theoretical and practical work of revolutionists remain unaffected by the war and the changes it wreaks upon the life of society. They must learn to adapt themselves, in thought and action, to the new conditions. They must keep in mind that our entire generation of revolutionary Marxists since the creation of the Third International had been educated with a view to revolutions growing out of peace-time conditions.

It was the fight against the reformists first, against the fascists later, which above all determined the strategical and tactical preparations of revolutionary cadres. True, both the Chinese and the Spanish revolutions, more so even than the Russian revolution, were harbingers of a new type of the struggle for power, of a swift passage from insurrection into protracted warfare, which in Spain already took on aspects of a miniature total war.

It became more and more evident that, due to the synchronization of political and military struggle, the political influence wielded by the proletarian revolution and its various fractions was commensurate with their respective military power, and conversely.

Even such passing insurrections as the Vienna uprising and the Austrian miners’ revolt of 1934 displayed the mortal threat to workers’ rebellions from a modern standing army (artillery in Vienna, airplanes in Austria). Both uprisings were quelled with relatively small forces.

The Fourth International, due to its preponderantly propagandistic character, paid little attention to these problems. It is precisely for this reason that Trotsky, impressed by the swiftly spreading military transformations throughout the world, became so insistent in stressing the coming of a “military epoch” and its bearing upon the revolutionary struggle. I must say I have the impression that not very many comrades have heeded his warnings.

Total War – the Rise of an Elite Army

And yet, in private talks they all, leaders and rank-and-filers alike, would time and again raise questions which undoubtedly are looming in the minds of many a class-conscious worker.

What are the chances of victory for revolutionary mass uprising facing modern armies, equipped with devastating mechanized weapons which can be handled by a small force of skilled pilots and mechanics?

Did not Hitler’s Blitzkrieg show, they ask, that the days of mass armies are gone? That war tends to be fought by a new type of soldiers’ aristocracy, an elite army? Are not the pilots and tank drivers, the technicians of mechanized warfare, a new sort of “knights of the military epoch”? Are we not about to witness a revival, in modernized form, of the exclusive soldiers’ caste of feudal times?

If entire empires can be crushed by these new “knights,” what about the masses of badly-equipped infantry soldiers and unarmed industrial workers? Could they not be wiped out at any time by a hand-picked crew of hostile air or tank-men?

To answer these questions we must look somewhat closer into the composition and the functioning of modern armies.

Obviously the air and tank arms, the former more than the latter, constitute aristocratic units tending to develop an esprit de corps of their own. The handling of complicated machinery calls for rigorous physical and psychological selection.

The German as well as the British air forces use young boys of eighteen to twenty-one as fighter pilots. “A fighter pilot of 27 is an old man,” writes Vincent Sheean in a study of the air war over Great Britain, “and the only such pilot known to me was grounded ... to make way for younger boys.” The reason: young and physically fit boys can better stand the “black-out,” i.e., the loss of consciousness in the quick turns, dives and maneuvers at break-neck speed. In the bomber squadrons the men “are a little older.”

Of the mentality of these youngsters, Sheean writes: “The boys have a terrific loyalty to their own squadron ... they are high spirited ... their language is something that would curl the hair of their maiden aunts ... they are not keen about political and patriotic speeches ... [In the bomber squadrons] the type is very much the same.”

These adolescents form the “vanguard” of British democracy. Of them Churchill has used the phrase: “So many owe so much to so few.” With scarcely any life experience behind them, except the craft of flying to kill; imbued with a narrow spirit of exclusiveness; isolated from, or incapable of checking their experience against, older people and broader masses, these “democrats” display an adventurer’s spirit very reminiscent of the crude killer’s pride of Mussolini’s flying sons. To shoot against the Germans or against revolting “plebeians” – as long as it were a question of isolated acts, it would make little difference to their dull and unquestioning minds.

But it would be different once the revolution had taken on a true mass character and, like the tidal wave of Russia’s 1917, use setbacks only as a stimulation to renewed aggression. Then, other factors would count.

First of all, there is a terrific turnover in both the air and the tank force, due to the strain on human mind and body. The death rate is high, too. Only 40 per cent of the British flyers brought down over the Isles were saved. The percentage of the wounded is unknown, but high. On the other hand, the air and tank forces are compelled to expand their effectives with every month of the war. As a result, the selection is becoming less rigorous as to the social background. Boys of “plebeian” origin have to be admitted. They will, in critical times, remember their own class background.

Furthermore, pilots who are “old men” at 27 join the more proletarian gunner and ground crews. Without losing their flying experience they are drawn closer to the influence of the “plebeian” mechanics and auxiliary forces. In the same way, during the last war, a strong feeling of solidarity developed between the front officers of lower rank and the soldiers against the haughty staff officers. Many a front officer later joined the ranks of the revolution.

As to the ground crews, predominantly highly-skilled workers, they already reach the scope of a mass army. The German air force, with an estimated 36,000 planes, included by November 1, 1940, one million men, i.e., one-fifth of her total man power under arms. The British R.A.F., estimated at 5,000 planes, employed 150,000 men, about 17 per cent of her total man power. What an overwhelming dependence of the “flying knights” on plebian ground crews!

But this is not all. Planes and tanks deteriorate quickly. By mid-January the Germans had lost about 4,000 planes over the Isles, the British had lost about 1,100. These losses will grow further, proportionately to the growth of the air power and air warfare. The same is to be said of the tank arm.

Moreover, there is the rapid wear and tear of both planes and tanks. During the last war, planes lasted from one to two months, tanks three months. By 1918 Great Britain had to produce 2,700 planes a month to keep up an air force of 2,000! Mechanized warfare reveals itself again as a war between huge production units, dependent on the workers.

The knights of mechanized warfare are, then, far less an independent and exclusive fighting force than would appear at first. They may be able to strike a swift blow against passing mutinies or uprisings. As to maintaining their striking power in a protracted war or revolution, their dependence on servicing crews and on industrial replenishment is overwhelming.

Blitzkrieg and Revolution

Still the chances of military survival of contemporary revolutions are far from clarified by what was said up to now. Has not the German army set the startling example of cutting to strips entire countries, even entire empires, with but a small mechanized force and in record time?

Can the proletarian revolution, usually clumsy and slow in organizing its dictatorship and the corresponding military machine, hope to win the race against a technically superior and better prepared counter-revolutionary foe?

Will the political differentiation among the elite, the superior number of the infantry mass as against the elite, and the dependence of the latter on the industrial working class, be given time to work against the pace of total war?

These are no simple questions to answer. But some light can be shed upon them by eliminating certain misunderstandings about the nature of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg.

First of all, the concept, brought forth by sensational journalism, that Blitzkrieg means the end of using huge field armies, does not correspond to the facts. After the collapse of France, when these concepts filled the pages of the American press, G.C. Marshall, U.S. Chief of Staff, wrote in a letter published later in Harper’s Magazine:

[Out] of some two hundred and forty divisions [of the German army] now in action in France, only twelve ... are armored divisions and eight others are fully mechanized. With a natural tendency to emphasize the dramatic aspects of the fighting, war correspondents have created in the popular mind the impression that the bulk of the Germany army is made up of bombing planes and armored divisions, and have thereby obscured the essential clew to its remarkable success – the fact that it is a balanced force of all arms, with the proper proportion of infantry, artillery, planes, tanks, mortars, engineer, signal and service units, with a thoroughly equipped service of supply, all designed with complete unity of command and purpose. Probably the most impressive aspect of that army ... has been the ability of the infantry-artillery to follow up the penetration raids of the mechanized forces, covered by the air force, and consolidate every gain of ground. [It] means teamwork at its best.

The Chief of Staff’s namesake, S.L.A. Marshall, in his book, Blitzkrieg, comes to the analogous conclusion that total war does not consist in the use of independent air or tank weapons at the expense of infantry and artillery, but in the “perfect marriage” of all arms and all resources, material and psychological, within the capacity of the warring powers.

At the height of the Blitzkrieg in France “the tanks and armored car divisions (supported by the air arm) served with ever-increasing effect as shock units softening up the ground for infantry advance, depriving the enemy of his mobility.”

The weakness of the Dutch and Norwegian armies made it possible to operate with small selected forces. But in Poland, Belgium and France the daring advance of the mobile units was made possible only because they operated from bases consisting of huge mass armies which protected the general position against reversals, small or great, and provided a backbone even if entire advance columns of tanks and armored cars would have been wiped out.

Looking now at the experiences of Albania and Lybia, it becomes evident that the relatively small use of German infantry in actual combat was due to the complete impotence of the Allied Staffs. These experiences show, furthermore, that while mobile warfare causes quick reversals, shifts, and turns on the various fronts, the war as a whole tends to be protracted, once the adversary has learned to meet Blitz tactics with Blitz tactics.

In other words, as both camps learn to pit against each other modernly equipped forces in the air, on the land and the seas; as the surprise element is eliminated – war settles down to a stalemate. The military limitations of purely mechanized warfare; the lack of man power adequately trained for such warfare; the limitations in the mass production of planes and tanks; and finally considerations of climate, terrain and supply facilities – all combine to give greater weight to the use of the infantry mass in order to force a decision.

A few general conclusions in respect to the military “perspectives of revolutionary movements are possible even today, though the war has not yet reached its peak of technical achievement.

First, the quelling of partial or spontaneous mutinies and rebellions will be much easier than in the past.

Full-fledged revolutions, too, will be threatened with lightning strokes of annihilation from a superior adversary within the country and especially by foreign intervention, on the part of countries where the mass radicalization would proceed at a slower pace.

The respite the Russian revolution was granted for raising its Red Army, may very well be refused to many of the revolutions growing out of modern wars. Thus, it is not excluded that incipient Communes would suffer militarily the fate of Holland, or Norway, or Poland.

To check such dangers, to gain time, the revolution would, from the outset, have to have at its disposal an air force and mechanized shock brigades strong enough to ward off the first assaults of the counter-revolution.

This is why the participation of class-conscious workers and Marxists is paramount for the future of socialism in the epoch of “universal militarism.”

Their task would be facilitated by the already mentioned general factors working to the detriment of the counter-revolutionary military elite. Moreover, protracted revolutions will occur in a time when, due to the general exhaustion of the war industries, the pace and scope of air and mechanized warfare would be universally reduced. And in the use of infantry, of mass forces, the revolution would prove incomparably superior, once it could resist the first onslaught of the counter-revolution.

Infantry Mass – Skilled Workers of Warfare

The backbone of total warfare, and even more so of revolutionary warfare, is, then, still the old infantry soldier, “the nation in arms.” His importance for the outcome of the revolutionary struggle calls for a closer scrutiny of his physiognomy.

The popular idea of an infantry soldier is that of a human robot drilled to blind obediance, to complete abstention from anything but purely mechanical, physiological reflex.

It is true that the war game of 1914 required such a type of soldier. The armies were pitted against each other in straight, linear formations. The task was mainly to advance from or against trenches and fortifications, protected or attacked by a heavy curtain of artillery fire. Increased fire power of the enemy, close coordination of advance with the screen of supporting artillery fire – made automatic, unthinking action of the individual soldier his best virtue. He had to proceed with clock-like precision, shooting straight in front of him, irrespective of the objective. In this duel between the opposing lines, it was in the end the superiority of artillery fire that decided the outcome.

But soon the disadvantages of straight-line advance became manifest. Machine guns, now attached to every infantry platoon and protected by steel shields, could not be put out of action by straight-line fire. Flank attacks became increasingly necessary. But flank attacks broke up the automatic advance and fire-direction. The infantryman had now to be given “a fairly wide degree of independence in the choice of his aim” (L. Renn, Warfare).

The Germans, always first to learn the lessons of war, adopted by 1916 new infantry regulations, significantly enough based on the literal translation of the manual, discarded by the French, of Capitaine Lafargue!

It provided for the breaking up of the old rigid platoon into small units, consisting of a light machine gun surrounded by riflemen, who were divided into a defending and an attacking wing, advanced and acted on their own, at an angle to the main line of the defense, with the aim of reaching the best position in order to hit the enemy target.

But this was only the beginning. In an attempt to break the stalemate that had developed towards the close of the war, Ludendorff devised a new type of attack, which was but the rifleman’s variation of the tactics of “breakthrough” used by present-day mechanized forces.

Heavily-armed infantry, broken up into small groups, began to feel out the “weak spots” in the rigid enemy lines. “Infiltration emerged as a plan for fragmenting and destroying piece-meal a partially armored line (trenches, fortifications), in the expectation of effecting a breakthrough and achieving decisive tactical objects.”

These new tactics, in turn, called for a new type of defense, “defense in depth,” the famous “strong points” which Weygand tried, belatedly and in vain, to oppose to the German tank attacks.

Linear warfare gave way to area warfare, which is the main feature of the land war.

Even in its embryonic forms, at the close of the last war, the new type of warfare completely altered the training and the function of the infantry mass.

The blind robot-like discipline of the linear “time-table” advance had to give way to a training aiming at the development of (he greatest degree of individual initiative, independence and intelligence, corresponding to the action needs of huge area operations, with numerous units acting on their own.

Ludendorff, describing the adaptation of the infantry set-up to the tactics of infiltration at the close of the last war, gives – according to Wintringham – highly instructive figures:


Tactical Unit


Men in Unit


Number of Men
in a whole army
responsible for
tactical decisions






Brigade or Division




Battalion or Brigade







1917 (Germany)




Note the amazing decentralization of commanding responsibilities within a modern army in action. From whole armies down to basic units of a dozen or so; from 200–10,000 responsibles at the outset of the last war to 100,000–200,000 at its close!

This process has largely grown since, and been further intensified by another feature of total warfare, the close interaction of air, tank, artillery and infantry power, which makes necessary a greater mingling of the various arms within an infantry division, requiring that the soldiers, having had “some grounding in the use of their own weapon, should also learn about the use of weapons employed by other units and other arms.”

Thus, total warfare is completely transforming the physiognomy of the “nations in arms.” The infantry soldiers are no longer a dull, patient mass of slaves at the hand of a few arbitrary commanders. They are a “closely woven web of various arms and various services” taxing every individual soldier with increased skill and increased responsibility. “The life of the modern infantry man has become difficult and complicated. [He is] performing hard labor of one sort or the other [even when] actual fighting belongs to the rarer happenings.”

The German army was again first to produce this type of highly skilled soldier. While its high command is still recruited from the old Junkers’ caste, its skeleton of middle and lower officers is Composed of former privates of the professional Reichswehr, giving the army the “plebeian” but highly efficient character of a body of skilled workers, closely knit together and closely collaborating, acting under centralized strategic command with utmost freedom in tactical execution.

Things have been, and still may be, different in the British army. Wintringham, the “left-wing” defensist, writes:

But owing to the social structure of Britain in the past, and of the class that rules the army, it is difficult for the higher commanders to trust and encourage their juniors ... The leadership that hunts foxes cannot believe that the young officers from civil life (so charmingly labeled “temporary gentlemen” in the last war) can possibly think for themselves and act for themselves without close and continuous control from above. As for sergeants, corporals and ordinary men of the ranks, they are unfortunately debarred by birth and income from polo and fox-hunting; how can they possibly be given the right and the duty to act on their own? In this way class considerations have in the past made it difficult for the army to achieve the form of leadership necessary for modern war.

Under the combined pressure of the soldier mass and purely military requirements, John Bull is slowly “stream-lining” his army.

As to the United States, her army leaders, too, are beginning to awaken to the new situation. Pearson and Alien report in their column on February 13, 1941, about the work of Infantry General George Lynn in the training of the new U.S. army:

An infantry regiment in 1917 had 2,500 riflemen of 3,600 in the regiment. In modern infantry a regiment has only 900 riflemen, the rest of the men operating tanks, mortars, heavy machine guns and repeating rifles.

Modern infantry actually carries its own light artillery. It can operate effectively without supporting artillery. Instead of going into action abreast, one man to a yard, modern infantry spreads its fire over a wide area.

In 1917 the Army had not one machine gun and no tanks until the war was almost over. But the new doughboy will handle himself far more effectively.

Thus, total warfare produces peculiar changes in the use of human material, changes which may prove of deep significance for the course of future revolutionary struggles.

In industry it tends to standardization, to mass production principles, to the lowering of the proportion between skilled and unskilled workers, to the “diluting” of skilled into semi-skilled labor, to the mobilization of inexperienced, often backward, elements of the population for industrial production, women and children included.

In the army, it tends to increase the specialization, the skill of the individual soldier in every class of arm. It draws a large part of the skilled industrial workers into the army, many of whom have gone through the experience of labor organizations. And the very nature of the war makes it impossible to impose upon them the blind and rigid robot training of the last war.

In other words, production for war becomes, more than in the last war, a matter of unskilled, mechanical labor in Ford style,. whereas the use of war weapons, and battle tactics, in generally demand higher skill and higher individualization than before.

In the Russian revolution, the “skilled workers” of warfare the sailors, machine-gunners, armored car crews, provided the backbone of the revolutionary leadership among the masses.

The raising of mass armies consisting of specialists and skilled soldiers of “low” origin will again furnish a vast reservoir for the coming revolution. The former workers or unemployed, experienced in a new “trade,” given to self-confident initiative and hardened in action, will be among the ablest, if not the very leaders of the masses of industrial workers at home.

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