The armed forces belong to the monarch, not the government

A Labour military programme – LPM submission to Labour’s defence review


Emily Thornbury has been asked by Jeremy Corbyn to lead Labour’s defence review. Its remit is to “examine how the safety of the British people can best be secured in the global conditions of the 21st century”. The shadow defence secretary has asked Labour Party members, affiliates and the wider public to contribute to its work. This is the submission of Labour Party Marxists.

Despite a fraying US global hegemony, China’s rise, the decline of Russia and a stalling European Union, there is no immediate prospect of an all-out World War III. With the likelihood of mutually assured destruction (MAD), who would fight and why? Nevertheless, there is the increasing danger of a regional hot spot accidentally boiling over: Korea, Ukraine, Kashmir, Syria, Palestine and the South China Sea immediately spring to mind. Militarily, a direct clash between the US and Russia or China could quite conceivably rapidly escalate. Even a limited nuclear exchange would exact an almost unimaginable human toll.

However, what distinguishes Marxists from others on the left who oppose the war danger is that we see the need to retaliate not with the Labour Representation Committee’s touchingly pacifistic call to appoint a “UK minister for peace” and “progressively withdraw the UK from the international arms trade”.1 Nor Left Unity’s ambiguous demand for a “drastic reduction” in military expenditure.2 Nor with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s no less vague “Cut arms spending”.3 The same goes for the number-crunching plea of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain to “cut military spending to average European levels”.4 Ditto the Scottish Socialist Party’s recipe of reducing “defence spending” to no more than the per capita level of the Republic of Ireland.5 Banal, timid and self-defeating.

Our military policy should not legitimise a reduced version of the existing armed forces. Despite the verbal, statistical and factional variations, what that theme amounts to is the attempt to win the working class – as individuals and as an organised force – to the hopeless illusion of securing peace, while the capitalist system remains intact.

Inevitably there is a corresponding refusal to take up the elementary demand of arming the working class. That is certainly the case with the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the CPB.6 But, if untreated, what begins as a scratch ends with gangrene. Confronted by the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 and the formation of hit squads, the Marxism Today Eurocommunists condemned “macho” violence. They offered instead the mystical, women-only pacifism of Greenham Common. Come the ‘war on terrorism’, not a few of these former peaceniks were to be found amongst the ranks of the Bush-Blair interventionists: eg, the newspaper columnist, David Aaronovitch.

Marxists are convinced that the bour­geois state machine must be broken apart, demolished, smashed up, if we are to realise socialism and put an end to war. So, concretely, in today’s conditions, that not only means scrapping Trident and all nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction – they are indiscriminate and therefore inherently inhuman. We should be arguing for the scrapping of standing armies.

Peace will not be realised through the United Nations, Nato or by appealing to good business sense. Paradoxical though it may seem, peace has to be fought for. That is why the working class has to develop its own militia. Such a body actually grows out of day-to-day struggles: enforcing picket lines, defending Muslims from fasc­ist thugs, guarding our local offices, meeting places and demonstrations, etc. And, of course, with a strong, determined and well trained workers’ militia, it becomes a realistic possibility to split the state’s armed forces. Fear of officers, sergeants and court martials can thereby be replaced by the rank and file’s readiness to disobey orders. Certainly, army regiments, airforce squadrons and naval crews declaring for our side provides us with the military wherewithal needed to safeguard either an expected or a recently established socialist majority in the House of Commons.

Programmatically the labour movement should therefore demand:

● Rank-and-file personnel in the state’s armed bodies must be protected from bullying, humiliating treatment and being used against the working class.
● There must be full trade union and democratic rights, including the right to form bodies such as soldiers’ councils.
● The privileges of the officer caste must be abolished. Officers must be elected. Workers in uniform must become the allies of the masses in struggle.
● The people must have the right to bear arms and defend themselves.
● The dissolution of the standing army and the formation of a popular militia under democratic control.


Strange though it may appear to the historically ill-informed, here contemporary Marxists draw direct inspiration from the second amendment to the US constitution. Ratified to popular acclaim in 1791, it states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”7

Those who made the American revolution – above all the urban and rural masses – saw a standing army as an existential threat to democracy. Eg, in her Observations on the new constitution (1788) Mercy Otis Warren – the mother of the American revolution – branded the standing army as “the nursery of vice and the bane of liberty”.8 At great sacrifice the common people had overthrown the tyranny of George III, and were determined to do the same again, if faced with another unacceptable government.

Naturally Marx and Engels considered the second amendment part of their heritage. Clause four of the Marx-Engels Demands of the Communist Party in Germany (1848) is emphatic:

Universal arming of the people. In future, armies shall at the same time be workers’ armies, so that the armed forces will not only consume, as in the past, but produce even more than it costs to maintain them.9

The Marx-Engels team never wavered. Read Can Europe disarm? (1893). Here, in this pamphlet written by Frederick Engels, 10 years after the death of his friend and collaborator, we find a concrete application of Marxism to the dawning epoch of universal suffrage and universal conscription. Engels concluded that the key to revolution was mutiny in the armed forces. His pamphlet outlined a model bill for military reform in Germany. Engels was determined to show that the proposal to gradually transform standing armies into a “militia based on the universal principle of arming the people” could exploit the mounting fears of a pending European war and widespread resentment at the ruinous military budget.10 For propaganda effect, Engels proposed an international agreement to limit military service to a short period and a state system in which no country would fear aggression because no country would be capable of aggression. Surely World War I would have been impossible if the European great powers had nothing more than lightly armed civilian militias available to them.

Not that Engels was some lily-livered pacifist. He supported universal male (!) conscription and if necessary was, of course, quite prepared to advocate revolutionary war. Needless to say, his Can Europe disarm? was not intended to prove the military superiority of a militia over a standing army. No, Engels wanted a citizen army, within which discipline would be self-imposed. An army where rank-and-file troops would turn their guns against any officer tempted to issue orders that were against the vital interests of the people.

In that spirit the Marxist parties of the late 19th and early 20th century unproblematically championed the demand for disbanding the standing army and establishing a popular militia. Eg, the 1880 programme of the French Workers’ Party, the 1891 Erfurt programme, the 1889 Hainfeld programme of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, the 1903 programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, etc.

In the ‘political section’ of the programme of the French Workers’ Party (Parti Ouvrier), authored jointly by Karl Marx and Jules Guesde, we find the demand for the “abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people” (clause 4).11 A proposition faithfully translated by the Germans: “Education of all to bear arms. Militia in the place of the standing army” (clause 3).12 The Austrians too are adamant: “The cause of the constant danger of war is the standing army, whose growing burden alienates the people from its cultural tasks. It is therefore necessary to fight for the replacement of the standing army by arming the people” (clause 6).13 Then we have the Russians: “general arming of the people instead of maintaining a standing army” (clause c9).14

And after theory there must come practice.

Amongst the first decrees of the 1871 Paris Commune was the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by the national guard – “the bulk of which consisted of working men” (Marx). By actually constituting a new state, based on a repressive force that did not sit outside the general population, the Commune opened a new chapter in global politics. And Russia, of course, took what happened in Paris to new heights. Formed in April-March 1917, the Red Guards proved crucial. Red Guards, and increasing numbers of army units, put themselves at the disposal of the Military Revolutionary Committee – a subdivision of the Bolshevik-led Petrograd soviet, formally established at Leon Trotsky’s initiative. On October 25 (November 7) 1917 the MRC issued its momentous declaration: the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky “no longer exists”. State power has passed into the hands of the soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers.

There are many other splendid examples.

Beginning in the early 1920s the two main workers’ parties in Germany built their own militias. The SDP dominated the soft-left Reichsbanner, while the Communist Party formed the much more militant Rotfrontkämpferbund (at its height it boasted 130,000 members). Despite its 1923 founding statutes emphasising ceremonial paraphernalia, marches and band music, the Schutzbund in Austria served as a kind of “proletarian police force”.15 When it came to strikes, demonstrations and meetings, this workers’ militia maintained discipline and fended off Nazi gangs. Though hampered by a dithering social democratic leadership, the Schutzbund heroically resisted the February 12 1934 fascist coup. Workers formed defence corps during the 1926 General Strike in Britain. American workers did the same in 1934. There were massive stoppages in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis. In Spain anarchists, official ‘communists’, Poum, etc likewise formed their own militias in response to Franco’s counterrevolutionary uprising.

Then, more recently, in 1966, there was the Black Panther Party. It organised “armed citizen’s patrols” to monitor and counter the brutal US police force.16 Even the “non-violent” civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, included within its ranks those committed to “armed self-defence” against Ku Klux Klan and other such terrorism.17


Speaking to a Hiroshima remembrance event in August 2012, Jeremy Corbyn spoke of his wish to emulate “the people of Costa Rica”, who “abolished the army”. Leave aside the concrete situation in Costa Rica and the synthetic outrage generated by The Sun18 and the Daily Mail.19 Demanding the disbanding of the standing army has assumed a burning importance since Corbyn was elected Labour leader.

Imagine for one moment that Corbyn wins a general election majority in 2020. Supposedly because it is constitutionally inappropriate for serving officers to “intervene directly in matters that are of political dispute”, are we really expected to believe that the armed forces will idly sit by and behave in a thoroughly trustworthy manner?20 That would be parliamentary cretinism – a disease that infects reformists of every stripe and variety with the debilitating conviction that the main thing in politics is parliamentary votes.

A Corbyn government would – hopefully – be committed to sweeping away the anti-trade union laws, reversing austerity, renationalising the rails, ending British involvement in Syria, decommissioning Trident and maybe announcing a withdrawal from Nato. However, say in the name of keeping the Labour right, the Mirror and the liberal intelligentsia onside, the Corbyn government decides to maintain MI5, the police and the standing army. Frankly, that would be an open invitation for a British version of general Augusto Pinochet to launch a bloody counterrevolution. In Chile thousands of leftwingers were butchered after the September 11 1973 army coup, which overthrew the Socialist Party-Communist Party Popular Unity reformist government under president Salvador Allende.

Already, Sir Nicholas Houghton, the outgoing chief of the defence staff, has publicly “worried” on BBC1’s Andrew Marr show about a Corbyn government.21 There are accompanying press rumours swirling around of unnamed members of the army high command “not standing for” a Corbyn government and being prepared to take “direct action”.22 Prior to that, the normally sober Financial Times ominously warned that Corbyn’s leadership damages Britain’s “public life”.23

In fact the army is an instrument of counterevolution. Institutionally it is run by an officer caste, which is trained to command from public school to Sandhurst as if it is their birthright. When it comes to the grunts it relies on inculcating “unthinking obedience”.24 And, of course, the British army no longer has unruly conscripts to worry about. Instead recruits voluntarily join, seeking “travel and adventure” – followed by “pay and benefit, with job security”.25 Because they often live on base, frequently move and stick closely together socially, members of the armed forces are largely cut off from the wider civilian population and from any growth of democratic, progressive and socialistic ideas. Indeed far-right views appear to be the norm – see Army Rumour Service comments about that “anti-British, not very educated, ageing communist agitating class war zealot”, Jeremy Corbyn.26

Still the best known exponent of deploying the army against internal “subversives” is brigadier Frank Kitson in his Low intensity operations (1971). The left, trade unionists and strikers – they are “the enemy”, even if their actions are intended to back up an elected government.27 Legally, the “perfect vehicle for such an intervention” would be an order in council.28 After consulting the unelected and undemocratic privy council, the monarch would call a state of emergency and instruct the army to swiftly and decisively restore order. Remember, army personnel swear an oath that they “will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors”, and that they will “defend Her Majesty … against all enemies”.

As made crystal-clear by Michael Clarke, director of the United Services Institute, this is no mere feudal relic. “The armed forces don’t belong to the government: they belong to the monarch,” insists Clarke. “And they take this very seriously. When [the Tory] Liam Fox was defence secretary a few years ago, for his first couple of weeks he referred to ‘my forces’ rather than Her Majesty’s forces – as a joke, I think. It really ruffled the military behind the scenes. I heard it from senior people in the army. They told me, ‘We don’t work for him. We work for the Queen.’”29

In the late 1960s and early 70s there were widespread media reports of senior officers and ex-officers conspiring against the rightwing Labour government of Harold Wilson. Many were unhappy about Rhodesia, many branded him a Soviet mole. However, their pathological hatred was directed squarely against leftwing Labour MPs such as Tony Benn, Irish republicans, communist trade union leaders, striking workers and protesting students – the background to Chris Mullin’s novel, A very British coup (1982).

If Corbyn even looks like making it into office, there is every reason to believe that threats of “direct action” coming from the high command will take actual form. That is why we say: have no trust in the thoroughly authoritarian standing army. No, instead, let us put our trust in a “well regulated militia” and the “right of the people to keep and bear arms”.
1. LRC Programme for a real Labour government, no date, no place of publication.
3. ‘AWL election campaign: why we are standing and our policies’:
6. See Weekly Worker May 21 2009.
9. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p3.
10. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p371.
13. I am grateful to Ben Lewis for his translation of the Hainfeld programme.
15. M Kitchen The coming of Austrian fascism London 1980, p116.
17. See CE Cobb This non-violent stuff’ll get you killed New York 2014.
20. Jeremy Corbyn quoted in The Mirror November 8 2015.
21. The Mirror November 8 2015.
22. The Sunday Times September 20 2015.
23. Financial Times August 14 2015.
24. NF Dixon On the psychology of military incompetence London 1976, p244.
25. Lord Ashcroft The armed forces and society May 2012.
26. The Guardian January 25 2016.
27. F Kitson Low intensity operations London 1991, p29.
28. P O’Conner The constitutional role of the privy council and the prerogative London 2009, p20.
29. Quoted in The Guardian January 25 2016.