Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2

I: Mutiny and the Cohesion of the Armed Forces

Mutinies may be conspired into existence by activists, or they may be spontaneous. They may have limited demands, such as swift demobilisation, respect from the officer class, or better food. Or they may be more ‘politically conscious’ and develop new forms of self-governance or articulate internationalist sentiments and agitate for an end to war against their brothers. Mutinies may express a high level of class-consciousness and definite political demands – or they may appear to be more chaotic, a riotous breakdown of the chain of command. But even the temporary breakdown of such a key command chain has potentially great implications. Any mutiny can be a flashpoint of revolution.

This issue of Revolutionary History is especially keen to trace the connections between mutiny, social class and class consciousness. It is for this reason that we open this section with Ted Crawford’s article on changing social and technological relations in the armed forces, in particular in the navy. Mutinies are frequently associated with sea-based rather than land-based forces. This impression may be based on the widespread cultural resonance of one notorious mutiny: the mutiny on the Bounty. However, it is also the case that the most dramatic mutinies have occurred at sea or in ports. The ship of war in the modern period was a condensed rendition of the larger class society, its hierarchy was extremely rigidly enforced, and its conditions harsh for some and less harsh for the few with whom those abused sailors shared close quarters. When the majority decides to overturn that inequity, there are few places for the officer class to hide.

We begin by implicitly posing a question of immediate relevance to the present – to what extent is mutiny possible in the hi-tech, professional armies of today’s advanced capitalist nations? Is widespread ‘political’ mutiny a possibility in today’s hi-tech professional armies of Europe and the USA (where mutiny – or the ‘fragging’ of officers – was last experienced during the Vietnam war)? Or is mutiny reserved for the under-equipped and overwhelmed armed forces in faraway countries facing the might of NATO in today’s new perma-war adventures? The reader is also pointed to Ted Crawford’s further work on these matters – Military Matters, New Interventions, Volume 7, no. 3, Autumn 1996, pp. 18–24.

Also of interest for broader questions of Marxism, militarism and war are Siegfried Kissin, War and the Marxists, two volumes, London 1988; reviewed by Ted Crawford in Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 1, Summer 1990, pp. 39–40; Dona Torr (ed.), Armies and the People and Antimilitarism, in Marxism, Nationality and War, Volume 1, London 1940, pp. 109–21.

Leon Trotsky was, of course, also well versed in military matters. Key writings include How the Revolution Armed: The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky, five volumes, New Park Publications, London 1981 – Volume 1 (1918), Volume 2 (1919), Volume 3 (1920), Volume 4 (1921–23), Volume 5 (1921–23); Marxism and Military Affairs, Colombo 1969; Leon Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, Pathfinder Press, New York 1980.

See also Harold Walter Nelson, Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, London 1988; reviewed by Ted Crawford in Revolutionary History, Volume 3, no. 1, Summer 1990, pp. 37–9; Hal Draper, War and Revolution: Lenin and the Myth of Revolutionary Defeatism, edited by E. Haberkern (from articles originally published in New International), New Jersey 1996, also excerpted in Lenin and the Myth of Revolutionary Defeatism, Workers Liberty, Volume 2, no. 1, pp. 84–110.

The old Socialist classic on the question of war is Jean Jaurés, L’Armée nouvelle, 1910, reprint reviewed by Genéviéve Lagrange in Lutte ouvrière, no. 85, 15–21 April 1970. Other key texts include Karl Liebknecht, Militarism and Anti-Militarism, Writers and Readers, London 1972 (original 1907); Karl Liebknecht, The Future Belongs to the People (speeches made during the First World War), New York 1918; Ralph Lyndal Worrall, Footsteps of Warfare: A Study of the Origin and Development of War, Peter Davies, London 1936.

Questions of cohesion, discipline and disintegration within the armed forces are discussed in Bruce Allen Watson, When Soldiers Quit: Studies in Military Disintegration, Praeger, New York, 1997; Dale O. Smith, What Is Morale?, Air University Quarterly Review, Winter 1951–52, pp. 42–50; S.P. MacKenzie, Politics and Military Morale: Current Affairs and Citizenship Education in the British Army, 1914–50, Clarendon, Oxford 1992; Brian Holden Reid and John White, “A Mob of Stragglers and Cowards”: Desertion from the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861–65, Journal of Strategic Studies, no. 8, 1985, pp. 64–77; Desmond Morton, Kicking and Complaining: Demobilization Riots in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1918–1919, Canadian Historical Review, Volume 61, no. 3, September 1980, pp. 334–60.

Social class and the armed forces is also considered in C.B. Otley, The Social Origins of British Army Officers, Sociological Review, Volume 18, 1970; C.B. Otley, Militarism and the Social Affiliations of the British Army Élite, in J. van Doorn (ed.), Armed Forces and Society, Mouton, The Hague 1968; C.B. Otley, The Educational Background of British Army Officers, Sociology, Volume 2, no. 2, September 1963; P. Razzell, Social Origins of Officers in the Indian and British Home Army, British Journal of Sociology, Volume 14, 1963, pp. 248ff.; D. Englander and J. Osbourne, Jack, Tommy and Henry Dubb: The Armed Forces and the Working Class, Historical Journal, 1978, pp. 593–662.

For a general study of naval mutinies across history, see Leonard Guttridge, Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 1992; Lawrence James, Mutiny: In the British and Commonwealth Forces, 1797–1956, Buchan and Enright, London 1987. This study of mutinies includes the Spithead mutiny, the revolt of Sudanese troops in Uganda in 1898, mutineering Indian troops in Singapore in 1915, the mutiny of British forces in Etaples in 1917 and the mutiny, shortly afterwards, by Chinese Labour Corps workers on the Western Front; and revolts by the Slavo-British Legion in Russia in 1919, the Connaught Rangers in India in 1920, British forces at Salerno in 1943, and the Royal Indian Navy in 1946.

For a study of mutiny across history but with particular reference to Vietnam and the US army, see the work of peace activist David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt: The American Military Today, Anchor/Doubleday, New York 1975; reviewed in The New York Review of Books, 13 May 1976, p. 30. See also David Cortright and Max Watts, Left Face: Soldier Unions and Movements in Modern Armies, Greenwood Press, Westport 1991. Also of interest, for a view of mutiny as a part of the creation of the modern working class on all sides of the Atlantic, is Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Verso, London 2000.

Others too, of course, have argued that the term ‘to strike’ has its origins in mutiny, particularly the ‘Great Mutinies’ at Spithead and the Nore in 1797 when sailors would strike the sails – that is, lower them – in order to hold up the flow of trade and disrupt the war machinery of state. The OED registers the first usage of the word ‘strike’, referring to a concerted cessation of work by a body of workers, in an American document from 1810.

This section closes with a short article by Julian Putkowski. These observations from a historian of British Army mutinies discuss the difficulties of defining what mutiny is and assessing what any particular mutiny means politically. The article exposes and accounts for a tendency to over-value the significance of mutinies within the socialist tradition. In pointing out the shortcomings of previous attempts, the article hopes set further research in this area on a more secure and self-aware footing.

Ted Crawford, Mutiny and the Cohesion of the Armed Forces

Julian Putkowski, Observations on Mutinies

Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011