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Ian H. Birchall

Revolt Without Leaders

(Summer 1964)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.17, Summer 1964, p.32.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dare Call It Treason
Richard M. Watt
Chatto and Windus, 30s.

We must be grateful to Mr. Watt for his valuable study of the mutinies in the French Army between May and September 1917. Although he has some rather reactionary prejudices, and has filled the first part of the book with a great deal of material about the earlier stages of the war which can be easily found elsewhere, he has produced an interesting narrative. Although there were 110 separate outbreaks of mutiny, with altogether 100,000 men involved, there is still too little known about the subject; an ignorance contributed to by the French Army’s continuing refusal to disclose details.

We may agree with the author that the mutinies arose from despair rather than revolutionary convictions – an amply justified despair, for in the first two and a half years of the war a French life was lost every minute. Mutinies rose not against the war itself, but rather in protest at minor injustices, such as being sent back to the front out of turn. Drunkenness, presumably induced by the unbearable conditions of the trenches, was a contributory factor.

But the mutinies contained a genuine revolutionary potential. The influence of events in Russia was strongly felt, and in some places Soldiers’ Councils on the Russian model were set up. The military unrest was paralleled by growing industrial militancy, notably a strike of women armaments workers. In many mutinies the soldiers tried to return to Paris, apparently with an incoherent desire to take power. Watt notes the ‘ominous thrill’ felt by soldiers as they realised ‘there were too many of them to be punished.’

Nonetheless, there was never any hope that the mutinies could succeed, for the struggle was a completely fragmented one. The crushers of the mutinies were able to play off one section of the Army against another; the cavalry, having a traditional sense of superiority to the infantry, was used to suppress revolts, and Indo-Chinese troops were used against strikers in Paris. Above all, the very spontaneity of the mutinies meant that they were isolated from one another. The mutineers had no theoretical or organisational leadership to which they could turn; pacifist leaflets and newspapers had some influence on the mutinies; but the politicians of the Left were either hopelessly corrupt, like Almereyda, or hopelessly constitutional, like the pacifist deputies, who were horrified at the thought of using false passports. Even Jaurès had been infected by patriotism in 1914, leaving the Left bankrupt. And so the mutinies were smashed; better conditions were conceded to the soldiers, but ruthless executions were carried out.

This story bears witness to the tenacity and courage of ordinary workers – and to their impotence when without leaders, theory or organisation. With nothing but experience of the trenches to guide them, it took the soldiers three years to free themselves from the illusions of patriotism – next time we shall not have so long.

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Last updated: 9 April 2010