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

Julian Putkowski

Observations on Mutinies

THE following observations are mostly derived from writings about the historical experiences of British Army mutinies and mutineers.

A mutiny is a bit like the double-headed coin beloved of con artists. Energetically flipped into the air, it creates a transient illusion of a gamble – but that is the best it gets for folk seduced into betting their all. The result is never really in doubt – the profile of authority is stamped on the outcome. Mutineers are losers – if for no other reason than the fact that lexicographers have not yet managed to conjure up a word that would define a successful mutineer.

Defining what is a mutiny, and therefore who may be categorised as a mutineer, has always been informed by the appropriate code of military discipline. As far as the British Army’s Manual of Military Law is concerned, mutiny has always been regarded as an act of collective insubordination, and the necessary ‘combination of two or more persons’ resisting or inducing others to resist are treated as military criminals. The latter include not only conspirators or participants in a mutiny, but also those who omit to report the conspiracy, and others who fail to do their utmost to combat the resistance. [1] It may be appreciated that for the rank and file, this catch-all definition, matched by officers’ monopoly of the military-judicial process, represents more of a deterrent against dissent than the execution of convicted mutineers. [2]

Socialists, for whom mutinies have been viewed as an aspect of the class struggle, have produced alternative definitions. For example, after recounting the causes and outcomes of a series of historical examples, Tom Wintringham defined mutinies as ‘the revolt of men under discipline of life and death … Mutinies are the battles between classes, a struggle that runs through all the events of history; the cause underlying all mutinies is the refusal of subject classes to remain in subjection.’ [3]

Wintringham’s allusion to the general class representation of the rank and file holds good for conscript armies. However, a number of important qualifications have to be entertained with regard to the social composition and the dominant ethos of professional forces. This is because the recruiting booth has always lured a disproportionate number of the least advantaged, the politically inert or most conservative sector of the working class. Their induction and army basic training fosters identification with a regimental ‘family’ or ‘mates’, and uncritical acceptance of a highly conservative, corporate ethos. Of course, from time to time, there are minor eruptions of collective dissent by soldiers, but like arguments within an extended family, even the fractious soldiery themselves rarely appear to regard their grievances as being of concern to anyone outside their unit. Also, for very obvious reasons, mutineers, and the officers whose authority they challenge, almost invariably avoid conscious reference to the political. This is not because mutinous activity is bereft of political significance, but because the language employed by those involved, and the nature of the collective bargaining process itself, tend to restrict the scope for more extensive debate. With discourse thereby confined to immediate grievances, both sides are afforded a better prospect of a mutually convenient resolution to what both find opportune to regard as a discrete episode. Rarely are these incidents formally termed a mutiny, but when they are thus designated, a handful of soldiers are classed as ringleaders and get victimised.

Viewed thus, it is not difficult to excuse revolutionary historians for downplaying the significance of mutinies and simply dismissing the regular army as the White Guard of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, as Cecil L’Estrange Malone discovered, any attempt by civilians to suborn soldiers or incite disaffection attracted a punitive response from the authorities. Governments have also dealt harshly with pamphleteers who appealed to soldiers not to act as strike-breakers in industrial disputes. [4]

Mutinies in the ranks of conscript armies, particularly when they have been mobilised for war, attract far more attention from revolutionary socialists and anti-militarists. This is not only because of a metamorphosis in the social composition of the army, or because of the admission into the ranks of an unknown number of political activists and people with experience of shop floor advocacy. It is also because mass mobilisation, combined with the vicissitudes of war, always prompts an increase in the frequency and size of incidents that are formally classified as mutinies. Although these developments are not mutually exclusive, it is important to acknowledge that the eruption of discontent may simply be an inevitable reflection of the army’s inherent conservatism and resistance to change, rather than the blossoming fruits of political agitation. The extent to which this hypothesis can be tested is constrained by the comparative paucity of research, as well as the unreliability of much published work about mutinies and mutineers.

It is unfortunate that much writing about mutinies that erupted in the British Army during the two World Wars has tended to over-sell their significance. There are various reasons why this has occurred. Obviously, wartime censorship inhibited compilation, let alone communications about mutinies and mutineers – and the agreed lies that pass for official histories, by omitting reference to mutinies, have somewhat perversely invested outbreaks with a cachet of importance that may otherwise have been ill-deserved. Postwar accounts by journalists all too frequently succumb to melodrama and exaggeration, and old soldiers’ tales are inclined to inflate events. [5] However, due allowance also has to be made when reading commentaries crafted by revolutionary socialists.

For example, while it is unquestionably true that the majority of soldiers were working-class men, the most successful exercises in collective bargaining were coordinated by non-commissioned officers who were neither politically radical nor horny-handed proletarians. In 1919, almost all the major acts of collective disobedience associated with demobilisation were coordinated by men who had been white-collar workers in civilian life (for example, the Kantara soldiers’ committee), town councillors (for example, Dover and Folkestone), or even regular army NCOs (for example, Bowker in India). Yet Andrew Rothstein, on the basis of an incomplete survey of the unrest, concludes with the ringing declaration that they were ‘paying an effective, if belated and unconscious, tribute to the October Revolution’! [6] As for the deeds of the ‘good soldiers’ of the Second World War, published accounts tend to be over-influenced by other Stalinist historians, including Richard Kisch. He regrettably omits reference to the political chasm that evidently existed between the Communist Party hierarchy in London and Young Communist League activists like Dave Wallis in Cairo. Nor does Kisch exercise much generosity in recording the rank-and-file activism of non-party members (for example, the anarchist, Albert Meltzer) or political organisations; for example, ‘the Common Wealth lot’ are dismissed in a single sentence. [7]

Historians like David Englander, Gloden Dallas and Douglas Gill have produced well-researched and well-written accounts of British Army mutinies, but their contributions need to be matched by more work of similar quality. Not only do the Second World War, the Korean War and the colonial campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s need to be researched in further detail, aside from a few anecdotal references, there are no published studies about rank-and-file dissent in the British army covering the past 40 years. For folk who feel daunted by the challenge, the rich sample of mutinous endeavour in this issue of Revolutionary History amply testifies to the fact that the study of such notionally dud coinage is far from being politically valueless.


1. Although reference is made to the British Army, the definition also holds good for most other armies.

2. Until 1998, the British Army was legally entitled to execute mutineers. Though it engaged in promiscuous, summary shootings of non-European military labourers during the First World War and over 50 Russians serving with the North Russian Expeditionary Force during 1919, officially only half-a-dozen convicted mutineers have been executed since 1900.

3. T.H. Wintringham, Mutiny, London 1936, pp. 338–9.

4. For example, with reference to Fred Crowsley and Tom Mann, see The Times, 8, 11, 18, 20, 22 and 26 March 1912; 1, 4, 8, 9 and 11 April 1912; Public Records Office, Kew, DPP 1/18 Sedition – Crowsley Case, February 1912; K.D. Ewing and C.A. Gearty, The Struggle for Civil Liberties, Oxford 2000, pp. 118–27; S. Peak, Troops in Strikes, London 1984.

5. For example, W. Allison and B. Fairley, The Monocled Mutineer, London 1978.

6. A. Rothstein, The Soldiers’ Strikes of 1919, London 1985, p. 94.

7. R. Kisch, The Days of the Good Soldiers, London 1985, p. 114.

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011