By Sacha Ismail
In “Military coups and soldiers’ rights’ (Weekly Worker, 26 October), a response to our editorial “Keep the army out of politics” (Solidarity 3/100), the knives were out. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, they were not very sharp.
Perphaps the CPGB have decided that their orientation to Respect and the SWP requires them to up the ante of their attacks on the AWL. Thus their article not only denounces our “pro-imperialist” (yawn) politics, but has us “joining with Tory grandees and woolly liberals in defending the United Kingdom constitution” — which we apparently regard as “the embodiment of democratic values or a ready-made vehicle for socialism” (you might want to read that again).
All this because the editorial in Solidarity denounced the intervention into public debate on Iraq made by Sir Richard Dannatt the chief of the British armed forces’ general staff.
The Weekly Worker has nothing to say about Respect’s claims that Dannatt has “joined the anti-war movement” or the warm words the general’s comments on Iraq elicited from George Galloway and John Rees. (It also, like the rest of the left press, has nothing to say about the ultra-reactionary, nationalist and, yes, Islamophobic tenor of his comments.) Instead it risably tries to claim that our support for subordination of the army to civilian politicians means that we defend the bourgeois parliamentary status quo.
As anyone who has read our pamphlet Socialism and Democracy or kept up with our publications for any length of time, will know, the AWL’s attitude to the institutions of bourgeois-parliamentary rule has consistently been that of revolutionary working-class democrats. The CPGB can only delete this inconvenient political fact by bizarrely equating the “right” of General Dannatt to publicise his views with the right of rank-and-file soldiers to speak and organise.
“It is not just the Dannatts who must have the right to speak out,” say Weekly Worker, “so too must every soldier of whatever rank”. Thus the class line between workers in uniform and that section of the ruling class whose job is to organise the military is magically erased. We can only defend soldiers’ rights if we accept the right of the army top brass to speak out against the policy of the elected government?
Yes, “communists welcome and encourage armed forces blogs such as ARRSE and Rum Ration” (though we generally try to do it less pretentiously). Contrary to the author’s straightforwardly untrue claim, the Solidarity editorial did not dismiss these initiatives but pointed out that they are of a “different order” from comments by the chief of staff.
We defend and advocate soldiers’ right to organise not because we are in favour of “every soldier of whatever rank” having the right to speak out, but because we want to encourage the self-assertion of the ranks against the officers, to disrupt and weaken the army as an instrument of bourgeois rule. Without soldiers’ self-organisation to challenge and ultimately break the power of the armed forces’ ruling caste, a successful working-class revolution is difficult to imagine. This is what has happened, to varying degrees, in every workers’ uprising from the Paris Commune and the Russian revolution to Hungary in 1956.
In so far as the recent initiatives in the British army are positive, it is because they represent the first glimmers of vocal complaint and conscious self-organisation on the part of ordinary soldiers. If they are to develop further in the direction we want, they will have to split along class lines, with at least a significant section of the rank-and-file realising that their interests are counterposed to those of their leaders. The recently formed British Armed Forces Federation was launched with the press full of approving comments from senior officers; its website proclaims emphatically that it is ‘NOT A TRADE UNION!’ It “will not conduct or condone any form of industrial action or insubordination within the armed forces”.
A process of class differentiation is essential if soldiers’ organisation is to become self-organisation, and open the possibility of democratic soldiers’ unions acting as an ally to the working-class in struggle in place of reactionary associations allying with the top brass to demand better hardware to ‘get the job done’ etc.
Meanwhile, why does any of this mean that we should support Dannatt and his like intervening in political life? To put it mildly, the CPGB’s claim that "publicity gives our side the best chance of taking advantage of divisions and prepare [sic] for any moves against us" misses the point. If the generals are plotting a coup, they are not going to give the Daily Telegraph interviews about it! Any minimal gain from knowing the chief of staff’s views on Iraq is massively outweighed by his undemocratic attempt to put pressure on the elected government.
Rank-and-file soldiers getting organised (or speaking out on politics, which implies a desire to organise independently from their commanders) would be a gain for democracy and for the working-class. Dannatt’s intervention is just the opposite.
So unfounded are the CPGB’s claims that the editors of Weekly Worker have allowed straightforward lies to be printed in what is presumably a desperate attempt to justify their polemic. Nowhere has the AWL claimed, nor as Marxists could we ever claim, that the armed forces are “non-political” or that we should be “keeping politics out of the army”.
In fact, our point is exactly the opposite. We opposed the general mouthing off and support civilian control of the armed forces for the same reason that we support soldiers’ self-organisation: because we to bring politics and democracy into the army, not the other way around.