How Revolutions Split the Armed Forces

I write these words as Israeli ground forces besiege and attack Gaza. I fear for the innocent millions in Gaza and around the world who are victims of imperialism. To service members who read this, I hope you see this as inspiration for how awful events like this can be avoided. The Russian, American, British, and French soldiers who mutinied in the winters of 1917 and 1919 certainly believed this was the way.

The greatest event in human history began with the women and ended with the soldiers. Since it is physical violence that solves any political question in the last analysis, as Marxists, we must understand how this unfolded. The February Revolution began with the women workers’ mass walk out for bread and fuel. But the revolutionary process culminated with a decisive blow by armed Red Guards and Bolshevik military units in the capital during the October Revolution. This was only possible because of the hard work done organizing within military ranks.

The Russian social democrats didn’t start organizing soldiers and sailors in 1917. It was an ongoing process beginning more than a decade earlier. One of the earliest soldiers to defect was a military cadet named Antonov-Ovseenko. He secretly joined the RSDLP in 1902, but was arrested in 1905 during an uprising in Poland. At its third congress in 1905, the RSDLP resolved to leaflet and fraternize among the soldiers. This organizing is always viewed with extreme suspicion by the ruling class. While winning over the soldiers is of secondary importance to winning over the masses, since the soldiers will ultimately follow the masses, it would be mechanical to think soldiers will simply fall in line. The masses, and by extension, the soldiery, can’t follow a leadership they don’t know of or respect. To this end, the working class must eventually develop connections among service members.

Although there are different obstacles to overcome, organizing among soldiers is not fundamentally different from organizing among workers. The primary difficulty is that their living conditions and role in society serves to weaken their organic bonds to the broader working class. Additionally, as their wages are guaranteed by the state, capitalist crises do not affect them in the same way as the rest of the working class. However, in times of intense crisis, especially during wars, they will feel the pressure more than the rest of society, and can under certain conditions be susceptible to revolutionary propaganda. Communist propagandists have long sought to use these opportunities to split the armed forces along class lines.

The ruling class takes sedition and mutiny very seriously. In 1918, the US federal government arrested Eugene Debs for urging young workers to dodge the draft. Debs would remain in prison until 1921.

Eugene V Debs
In 1918, the US federal government arrested Eugene Debs for urging young workers to dodge the draft. / Image: public domain

The German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht was arrested twice and conscripted for his anti-war activism. However, Liebknecht made full use of his time in uniform. He was forbidden from participating in politics outside of his activities in parliament, but he spent his time finding soldiers to join the International Group and expanding its ranks. In his attempts to organize soldiers, Liebknecht and the USPD worked with the Revolutionary Shop Stewards to demonstrate outside soldiers’ barracks.

There is a reason these great working-class fighters sought to engage with soldiers. At its core, the state is “special bodies of armed men,” and the aim of Marxists is to win over those who are wavering in their support for the status quo. All the courts, prosecutors, ministers, and representatives are mere window dressing for the ruling class. As compared to those with arms in hand, they do not comprise the primary function and indeed basis of the state. It is the state’s capacity for violence which gives it real power, and using that force against the mobilized working class is its last line of defense. This is why mutinies among troops are so dangerous to the powers that be.

Splitting the state apparatus along class lines is not a simple task, but it is made easier by the fact that very few actual capitalists actually hold positions within the state. More than ever, the state relies on ordinary workers to fulfill its functions.

Up until World War II, US military officers were typically of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois origin. To become an officer, one required a letter of recommendation from the President, Vice President, a Representative, or Senator. Select enlisted personnel could receive a recommendation from a commissioned officer, but this was rare. Prior to WWII, most officers were commissioned after graduating from service academies such as West Point or the US Naval Academy. During WWII, given the volume of officers required, the balance shifted to Officer Candidate School, and the vast majority of officers began to come from the enlisted ranks. There were simply too many billets and not enough petty bourgeois volunteers.

West Point Washington Hall
Prior to WWII, most officers were of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois origin and graduates of service academies such as West Point or the US Naval Academy. / Image: Ad Meskens, Wikimedia Commons

After the war, they attempted to go back to a service academy system, but Korea and Vietnam ultimately made that impossible. Finally, after 1974, the DOD settled on the Reserve Officer Training Corps and Officer Candidate School as the primary commissioning sources for officers. This meant that for the first time in US history, a majority of officers came from working-class backgrounds. This, coupled with the historic decline of the American farmer, means the US military is upwards of 95% working class in composition, of which 82% are enlisted personnel and 18% are officers.

However, as I’ve explained previously, despite their class background, these same service members are under immense alien class pressure. Some enter the service as liberals and exit as libertarians. Many service members sincerely defend and support the ruling class. Senior enlisted personnel are selected and trained to play the role of sheep herders of the lower ranks. And most senior officers are craven defenders of the status quo. Pretty much everyone is afraid of not following orders for fear of the consequences to their careers or comfort.

It is for these reasons that the ruling class knows the military is a tool of last resort in the class struggle. The military is capable of extreme acts of violence, but when armed forces are turned against their own domestic population, strange things happen. The bottom line is that soldiers are just as susceptible to societal pressures as workers, and this means that all bets are off in a confrontation between the two. Any civilian political leader must balance the needs of the ruling class with the politics of killing unarmed civilians. It was under such circumstances that the Bloody Sunday massacre during the 1905 Revolution and the February Revolution occurred. Both had disastrous consequences for the tsarist regime.

As Trotsky explained in his History of the Russian Revolution:

However, on the eve of that day an incident occurred which in spite of its episodic nature paints with a new color all the events of the 26th. Towards evening the fourth company of the Pavlovsky regiment of the Imperial Guard mutinied. In the written report of a police inspector the cause of the mutiny is categorically stated: “Indignation against the training squad of the same regiment which, while on duty in the Nevsky, fired on the crowd.”

Who informed the fourth company of this? A record has been accidentally preserved. About two o’clock in the afternoon, a handful of workers ran up to the barracks of the Pavlovsky regiment. Interrupting each other, they told about a shooting on the Nevsky. “Tell your comrades that the Pavlovtsi, too, are shooting at us—we saw soldiers in your uniform on the Nevsky.” That was a burning reproach, a flaming appeal. “All looked distressed and pale.”

A similar instance is relayed by workers who believed that when hearing of the mutiny, Cossacks sent to break the workers winked at them instead of bludgeoning them. This perceived wink emboldened the workers. They believed the Cossack soldiers were on their side, or at the very least, would not defend their superiors’ orders.

The classic example of a mutiny is also Russian. The battleship Potemkin was an obsolete class of battleship stationed in the Black Sea, crewed by anxious sailors and impertinent officers. The ship was already boiling with class hatred prior to the Russo-Japanese War. When news reached the ship of the lost Battle of Tsushima, the crew’s morale plummeted. Of course, these were not normal sailors. A number of social democrats were aboard. In those days, a social democrat was a revolutionary Marxist and many would become communists later.

When maggot-infested beef was brought aboard and served in borscht, the crew refused to eat. The second in command, Ippolit Giliarovsky, was a paranoid and cruel officer, according to his captain. Giliarovsky determined that refusal to eat was a mutinous act and threatened to shoot anyone who declined the meal. Acting in self defense, the crew killed Giliarovsky, almost half the officers, and seized control of the ship. Afanasi Matushenko, revolutionary socialist and noncommissioned officer, took command of the ship and helped form a committee to run the ship.

Potemkin 1905
Acting in self defense, the crew of the Potemkin killed Giliarovsky, almost half the officers, and seized control of the ship. / Image: public domain

To give a final historical example, most American textbooks imply it was bread riots in Germany that ended WWI. While this was certainly a factor, a sailors’ mutiny in Kiel had the largest impact. The mutiny was led by revolutionary socialists inspired by the ongoing Russian Revolution. Although somewhat confused, they ultimately made a conscious decision to raise the red flag over Kiel and seized control of the naval base and the town. This mutiny spread throughout Germany and threatened to upend all existing social relations.

Trotsky refers to such processes as “the molecular process of revolution.” Marx explains that history has no will of its own. It is men and women who make history. We do this within the limits of our contemporary existence. And our current existence is one of constant war, crisis, and instability. Insofar as there is such a thing as “human nature,” it is the desire for stability and security—something capitalism cannot provide for the majority.

In recent years, mutinies are increasing in frequency and duration, while coups d’etats are decreasing, according to Jaclyn M. Johnson’s article Things Fall Apart: The Determinants of Military Mutinies. Her article asserts that soldiers, like any population, have their own grievances, and failure to appease those grievances can have mutinous consequences if they are not addressed. The article is insightful, but fails to account for the most obvious indicator of mutiny: social crisis. It was the general social crisis that permeated through the Black Sea Fleet in 1905 and inspired the mutiny of the Potemkin.

As the social crisis of decaying capitalism becomes more acute, we will see more intense crises among soldiers. Like the rest of us, they too have grievances against the status quo. While the military does a good job of insulating soldiers from general society, it is not airtight. Intense social crisis will eventually break through any insulating measures taken by the DoD. The more shrewd imperialists clearly understand the threat posed by soldier grievances.

In facing the state in its struggle for a better life, the working class must aim to split the state along class lines. History shows that opportunities for this will develop from the circumstances. To this end, workers should appeal to service members in order to drive a wedge between them and their superiors. Remember that today’s military is much more heavily proletarian and even junior officers can be radicalized by events. This process is in direct relationship to civilian society. As the capitalist crisis intensifies, soldiers will feel more sympathy with the working class. It will not be easy to fraternize with soldiers at first. It may take years to make inroads among soldiers and sailors, but it is possible—and absolutely necessary.

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