Ian Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Ian H. Birchall

Armed Bodies of Men

(Spring 1964)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.16, Spring 1964, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The French Army: A Military-Political History
Paul-Marie de la Gorce
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 50s.

M. de la Gorce traces in this book the role of the Army in French politics from 1890 to 1962. He provides us with a wealth of factual detail, and some shrewd insights into the attitudes of the officer class as he follows the history of the Army through the Dreyfus case, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Fascism, the Second World War, Indochina and Algeria.

Such a study is of value from two points of view. It can help us to understand the exceptionally significant part played by the Army in France in recent years, and the peculiar psychology of France’s present leader. It also provides evidence on the general problem of the relation of the Army to the State. The French Army has always been an anti-socialist weapon as much as an instrument of national defence. The Army was used frequently against strikers in the years following 1906; in 1919 it participated in the overthrow of Bela Kun; in the 1930’s there were several anti-Communist and Fascist networks within the Army; since 1945, the Army leadership has come increasingly to see as its main enemy international communism, which it has equated with the colonial revolution. But the French Left’s policies towards the Army have been generally ineffective. After 1870 the ‘extreme Left’ campaigned for conscription; Jaurès’s first reaction to the Dreyfus Affair was ‘Let him be shot if he is guilty’ (though the offence was not capital); Leon Blum’s Popular Front Government took measures to strengthen the Army; Bayet and Herriott, supporters of the Popular Front, invoked the name of Joan of Arc.

Both in peace and wartime there have been violent clashes between the military and political leaderships, and the policies of the reactionary officer class must not be equated with the will of capitalism. Large sections of the Army opposed Algerian independence, but French capitalism has easily accommodated itself to it.

Nonetheless, de la Gorce concludes: ‘Any risk of social revolution in France would entail the risk of renewed military interference in the political domain.’ The Army poses a serious problem to socialists in all lands; and we are entitled to an answer from all those prophets, of Westminster or of Moscow, who proclaim a peaceful transition to socialism.

Ian Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 9 April 2010