Mutiny - Past and Present

A talk given to the London Socialist Historians' Group, April 2002

I first conceived of this issue of Revolutionary History on mutinies in the Autumn of 1999. More usually the journal Revolutionary History has devoted itself to the Trotskyist tradition - in its own terms and inevitablity in relation to Stalinism, digging out suppressed or unpublished items from the archive of Trotskyism or inveigling testimonies from one time participants in the movement. This movement was an international movement - by conviction as well as in fact - and so the journal likewise has reflected this fantastic scope - investigating the Trotskyist tradition in Ceylon, in Poland, in Germany, in South Africa, Eastern Europe, Vietnam and so on. I am not suggesting that its outlook has been narrow - it saw further and deeper and into more occluded areas than many other historians or analysts of the past - but I am suggesting that frequently the journal had a very specific research target - Trotsky and Trotskyism. When I proposed an issue on mutiny, I was suggesting a widening of focus into dissidence and class struggle in general - not just dissidence within the organised labour movement, and certainly not just the Trotsky-inspired part of it - but more general dissidence, refusal, moments of a breakdown in the order of the most orderly part of society, unorganized or spontaneous dissidence, revolt that might not be easily analysed or characterised or attributed - breakdowns occasioned by necessity or agitation, class conscious or unclassconscious. Mutinies may be conspired into existence by activists, or they may be impromptu. They may express a high level of class-consciousness and definite political demands, demands that might rattle the highest levels of the ruling class and engender the downfall of dynasties - or they may be more chaotic, a disruption to the chain of command, a sudden refusal that does not demand anything more than better food, a date for demobilisation. Of course one of the most famous films about a mutiny - Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin - conveys efficiently in filmic terms the ways in which the one - rotten meat and general officer brutality - might lead to the other - generalised revolution. In Eisenstein's film, the crew members of the battleship, cruising the Black Sea after returning from the war with Japan, are disaffected because their officers are inhuman and their food rations are maggoty and disgusting. Revolting food incites revolt. Officers throw a tarpaulin over the ‘agitators’ and order them to be shot, a firebrand named Vakulinchuk cries out, "Brothers! Who are you shooting at?"' The firing squad lowers its guns. An officer attempts to enforce command, and mutiny breaks out. News of the uprising makes its way onshore, and the long-suffering people send supplies to the ship. Czarist troops put down the populace on the Odessa Steps in a fictional scene that is one of the most famous in film history. The tsarist government ordered the whole Black Sea Fleet to seek and destroy the Potemkin, but the crews refused to follow orders. The film was banned in many countries on its original release because of its theme of mutiny. By the way, our journal includes an article by Christian Rakovsky from 1907 on this event, called "The Origin of the Potemkin Revolt", which provides a rather different account.

In gathering together archive materials - many translated for the first time - and specially commissioned or previously unpublished essays by Julian Putkowski on India 1919, David Renton on Egypt, Ian Birchall on Engels and Kersausie, David McKnight on Comintern work in the army and Ted Crawford on class and casualties, I was interested in gaining an overview of twentieth century mutinies, against the backdrop of Marx and Engels’ military analyses and the debates on militarism and anti-militarism as conducted by Karl Radek, Liebknecht and Luxemburg in the months around the outbreak of the First World War, a war that hindered internationalism in the socialist movement. I hoped through this material to pose questions about the role of political consciousness and class consciousness and the ways in which political and class consciousness brings events into being or are themselves altered by events. This keenness to ask questions about consciousness and the self-understanding of mutineers - in connection with the wider political environment - explains why there is, in the issue, an emphasis on testimonies, participant accounts and memoirs, or analyses that foregrounded the attitudes and opinions of mutineers. So for example we have a piece on the Black Sea Revolts of 1919, vividly described by participants, Marcel Monribot, Charles Tillon and Virgile Vuillemin. One of the things that emerges from this portrait of events on the ship is the importance of the sailors' internationalist sentiments. We also have two pieces by French scholar and student of Pierre Broué, Remi Adam on the situation of Russian soldiers stationed abroad in the First World War. The first investigates the mutiny by Russian soldiers stationed in France in 1917 from the perspective of their political consciousness. The second article by Rémi Adam gathers together correspondence from Russian soldiers ion French territory after the Russian Revolution, and reveals how, in conditions of war and repression, the soldiers managed to generate a revolutionary consciousness in response to political events of which they got wind. The soldiers’ rapidly developing political consciousness can be gauged by reading their letters home. The soldiers’ opinions, voiced privately to friends and family, are read by Remi Adam as evidence of the strength of the tide of revolt and dissent that swelled after the revolution in Russia. Adam’s conclusions - expressed more fully in his French language book on the same subject - are quite different to those voiced in the only other extended - and widely reviewed - study - Jamie H. Cockfield, With Snow on Their Boots: The Tragic Odyssey of the Russian Expeditionary Force in France During World War I, (St Martin’s Press/Palgrave 1999). His is a fairly unsympathetic account that tends to empathise with the generals, patronisingly describing the mutineering Russian soldiers as "drunk with freedom" and akin to schoolchildren.

It is not just dispatches from the front that allow access to all too often obscured parts and occluded voices of the historical past. This issue also publishes two retrospective interviews with mutineers. One is with YCL activist Dave Wallis who was involved in the Cairo Parliament, and whose interview - carried out by Julian Putkowski, reveals details of the methods of political organisation and covert activities in the British army in Egypt during the Second World War. The other is Ian Birchall’s short interview with Duncan Hallas on dissent amongst the British forces in Egypt in 1946.

It is not however just that I wanted to allow mutineers to speak or be interpreted - virtually uniquely in the history books - by sympathetic authors. I mentioned at the beginning that this project was conceived in the Autumn of 1999. In Autumn 1999 Europe and the US faced the aftermath of their war in Kosovo. This was a war unlike the Gulf War of the early 1990s, where a large army and its firepower was mobilised by Bush - with 24/7 t.v. pyrotechnics to grip the nation - emotionally and hegemonically - and Russia was left out for it was still unclear if that breaking monolith could be ‘relied upon’. The Kosovo War was confidently fought in the name of humanitarianism, and Russia had proved itself a friend enough - enough a friend to be allowed to bomb Chechnya. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin wall an the proclamation of the New World order, it appeared clear that war inhabited this order quite cosily and had bedded own - war was not just an outcome of the first days of superpower decomposition and recomposition, like the aftershocks of an earthquake, when elements are in fact on a tendency towards re-settling again. Rather violence and military rearmament and deployment was a necessary facet of this new world.

War, in its various varieties, was pervasive then and has continued to be. This is the epoch of perma-warfare and it struck me that to think about mutiny was to think about last chance ways in which these new bold global ruling class alliances might fall apart. At a time when so much seemed to be going their way. (I note that Eric Hobsbawn has an article on war in the 20th century and beyond in the current LRB - he observes that the 20th century was a century of war - and there has been no point at which the world has been fully at peace since 1914. Interestingly, Hobsbawn ducks a lot of issues by dividing this century of war into three phases labelled I, II, and III - thereby avoiding the need to negotiate Marxist or other political terminologies - of imperialism and the like, avoids ascribing any sort of blame or real charaterization fo epochs. Hobsbawn also notes the increasing percentage of civilian impact of war - through refugee displacement or death and injury across the century and in to our own day. He notes a general blurring of boundaries between states of war and not war, civilian and combatant, interstate conflicts and conflicts within states. A confusing scene in which nothing but violence is certain - though, rather too optimistically, Hobsbawn predicts that the violence will not stop but the degree of murderousness will decline - but all this is an aside). I raised Hobsbawn’s spectre, only to underpin the notion of an ever-present face of war - albeit a changing face - which was also a backdrop to the mutiny issue, having loomed at that point yet again unmistakably into view in the middle East first and then in South East Europe - as well of course further away too.

Intellectually I had long been fascinated by war. And I was unfortunate enough to coincide at university with the intellectual fashion of postmodernism, which became most notoriously encapsulated in Baudrillard’s statement ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place’. The essence of this theory was anti-humanism, a techno-obsessionalism, probably worse than any determinism seen in the Marxist tradition.

In the early 1970s, the philosopher, Jean Baudrillard proposed the thesis that reality has disappeared in the information-saturated, media-dominated contemporary world. Baudrillard calls this state of affairs hyper-realism. The concept of hyper-realism describes experience of the contemporary world as unoriginal; experience is always second-hand, always mediated, in the sense that experience is always an experience of signs and simulations taken for real: t.v. and film images, newspaper photographs, adverts, video-games, language, and so on. For Baudrillard, if authenticity or a source of meaning is to be found, it is the copy that is of greater contemporary significance. Only that which is represented, that which exists as a representation, can begin to lay any sort of claim to exist or rather be hyper-real. Baudrillard suggests a possible definition for the real, if we insist on using such terminology: the real is ... "that for which it is possible to provide an equivalent representation". This world of simulacra is for Baudrillard a product of the technical changes which make possible mass reproduction of cultural products: television and computers. Basically what has been termed the information society. The proliferation of phenomena of reproduction [fashion, media, publicity, communication networks] In Baudrillard's scenario, then, computers might appear to be the last word in the refinement of the hyperreal: computers are the ultimate technology of an irreversibly imploding system which is bringing about the disappearance of the real and meaning, and promoting the growth of a fascination with images and, specifically, an enchantment with representation without referent. Events and things, such as warfare disappear or, at the very least, become obscured, behind representations, behind image reproductions and simulations. It was this that enabled the notorious statement about the Gulf War not taking place.

The other theorists who I read while at university and as the Gulf War twinkled across television screens was Paul Virilio - who has argued that for world history there is only one causation, the techno-military logic. Through twenty five years, Virilio’s over-driven diagnosis has remained consistent, and the world has met and exceeded his worst dreams: inventing ever more scary techno-gadgets and mounting the perma-spectacle of war after war, each one with its "particular personality": wars of perception, wars of deception, media blackout and faux-imperial adventure, nuclear smart bombs and 24-hour CNN, refugee exhibition and aerial attack. And war has moved out from the theatres of action to be everywhere – from land and sea attack to a generalised assault on the environment - though chemical and biological warfare. The Gulf War’s computer driven smart bombs with their built in cameras was evidence for Virilio of a drive to warfare that exceeds the human, that is technologically determined, outside and beyond human control - its own techno-logic.

I disagreed with these thinkers - and back then, during the Gulf war, asserted my continuing understanding that humans - as classes - declare war, make weapons, fight war, end wars. So much so, that it was at this time that I joined a revolutionary party that insisted on Marx’s watchword about humans making their own history. War - despite all the gadgetry remains, like everything else, a human event - and so what intrigued me was thinking about the ways in which humans - that is, as soldiers - might still be able to assert themselves against the machinery - in as much as this did indeed represent a new stage of smart techno-fighting - for, as we know, often Virilio’s vaunted camera missiles and automatic weapons systems were frequently more hype than actuality.

But it was one thing to assert the human factor, another to perceive whether indeed it did or could manifest itself in acts of refusal, and real refusal rather than just desertion or going crazy or callous illegitimate/legitimate acts of insubordination. If an age of new wars was upon us - a new imperialism as it has been dubbed in some quarters - did it have anything in common with the first age of imperialism, which was for sure marked by mutinies and dissent in the ranks. Could that come again? It was in order to assess this, I fled into history to ask questions about context, consciousness, conditions, the connections between mutiny and a wider political scene at another time of high imperialism.

It was interesting in this respect to look at a tradition of political activism and strategy within the army - discussed in this issue by David McKnight in Comintern Work in the Armed Forces of the West in the 1930s, and represented in an archive document, Work in the Army, Comintern Report [10.10.1935]] by Boris Vasilyev. It also became clear that the enemy can be quite revealing too - hence the inclusion of a rather strange document that is probably a fake - Sir Basil Thomson's Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom [4.11.1920] with the text of the likely faked British Red Army 'Red Officers' Course'.

I’ll end by saying that the important questions are not answered in this issue of Revolutionary History - whether mutiny is still a possibility in today’s hi-tech professional armies of Europe and the USA - whether mutiny can make sense if the pursuit of war has shifted to smaller highly trained, rarely directly attacked units who are, like the rest of the population, heavily dosed up on ‘humanitarian ideology’. Is it the case that mutiny is a facet only of the underequipped and overwhelmed armed forces in faraway countries? These questions can’t be answered in a journal though - they can only be answered in practice. And so I will finish by pointing outside the journal to an interesting development in a high-tech modern army of an imperialist country under pressure - Israel where currently Israeli reservists are refusing to serve in the occupied territories


Contents of Revolutionary History issue on Mutinies

Back to Anti/War

Get You Back Home