Mike Gonzalez, co-editor of Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring (Pluto, 2012), has written a long piece for Canada’s New Socialist this week. The article covers much of the same ground as the book, which draws on a range of global historical experiences to examine the relationship between mass movements and the military.
In every revolutionary crisis the state will slip off the velvet glove to reveal the iron fist underneath; that is the nature of the beast, as Lenin reminded us. Armies are there to serve the capitalist order, whether their activity is described as “peacekeeping,” “national security” or simply the maintenance of public order.
The paradox, though, is that those ranged behind the wire, driving the tanks and firing into the crowds are, in their vast majority, young working-class men obeying orders barked at them by (mainly) men of a different class. As Karl Liebknecht put it in his famous 1907 pamphlet Militarism and Anti-Militarism, “Modern militarism wants nothing less than to square the circle; it arms the people against the people itself; it is insolent enough to force the workers… to become oppressors, enemies and murderers of their own class comrades and friends.”
More than workers in uniform
How they are forced is key to the way in which we address the central problem that every revolution faces and must resolve: what are the circumstances in which a working-class soldier can be reminded that those he faces across the line of shields are his class comrades, and that he should cross the line and join them? The class to which they belong is objectively clear: just listen to the roll call of the dead from Iraq to Afghanistan and the areas they come from, and notice how rarely an officer’s name joins them or a middle-class suburb is included in the list of places of origin. But the soldier’s subjective condition, his or her class consciousness, does not follow automatically from the material facts of birth and upbringing.
We have all seen enough Hollywood films about the basic training of soldiers to know what that training is about. The brutal, sadistic sergeant, the relentless chanting of aggressive slogans, the punishments, the physical deprivation, the refusal of leave, the growing shared identity of the frightened recruits. It is the stuff of every post-Vietnam military movie. And it is real. That recruitment has a purpose that is not overtly ideological, yet it prepares the ground well for the ideological assault to come.
First, the soldier has to be isolated from his or her class — physically, socially, mentally. The uniform does that; it is a symbolic shedding of all those links. The training serves to break down resistance, to create a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, a dependence on the military institution in the violent vacuum in which they are trapped. A number of recent cases in Britain of the deaths of young soldiers during their initiation have exposed how savagely brutal the process is. But the soldiers are not left without identity; the group of recruits replaces the community they came from. They almost certainly have a similar background, but their new identity is forged under siege, at first in the training camp and then in the reality of the exercise of their role, when they are surrounded by enemies in a world of aliens. And all of this is especially true in an era of professional armies, where the commitment is more long- term and the separation more absolute.
They are not left without a community. Now they belong to a new collective — a “Nation” which is internally undifferentiated, has no classes, and is united around fear of the eternal enemy. And they are its defenders. Hollywood in the 1950s always elected to represent communists as enemy aliens, sometimes even aliens from outer space (as in the 1980s TV series V) or, more recently, from a strange dark Arab world which was, as Samuel Huntington argued, threatening civilization itself (not our civilization, let it be it noted).
So it is not enough simply to say that “soldiers are workers in uniform;” objectively this is true, but it is not how soldiers see themselves. The community of their class is replaced at the global level by the community of the Nation, while at the local level they are part of a tight community of soldiers dependent on one another for their very survival.
But that identification with the ruling class masquerading as Nation has been broken time and again. The Arab Spring brought back the issue in the most dramatic way, when the tanks rolled into Tahrir Square bearing banners proclaiming “Army and people are one hand.” That was two years ago. Today every sign points to an attempt to reimpose a version of the previous regime, and the key weapon in carrying through that threat is, once again, the army.
So when and how did revolutionary movements “win the soul of the army”?
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