Soon after finishing my course at the Army Formation College I was posted away from my regiment to an infantry signals office in Catterick. The only other person there was a lieutenant and there was nothing to do. I had no duties except dealing with non-existent mail and answering the telephone which never rung. Although Catterick was a large army base we had no contact with anyone else. In fact the office should have been shut down. I wonder whether my posting to this non-existent job had anything to do with my encounter with the brigadier over the mutinies.
I was demobilised later in the year, in August 1946 after five years in the forces.
So ended my years in the army. I continued as a political activist until I left the movement in 1960
I was by no means the only revolutionary socialist active in the armed forces; nor is my account the only one.
Raymond Challinor in The Struggle for Hearts and Minds ( Bewick Press, 1995.) mentions the anarchists and their paper War Commentary and the trial of four anarchists of the Freedom press Association – and also others. Challinor writes
‘The authorities had unearthed a network of contacts in the armed forces. With every copy of War Commentary sent to a serving soldier, a monthly newsletter was enclosed. John Olday, a talented refugee from Nazi Germany, produced it. He had established a network of 200 contacts, mainly during his two years in the Pioneer Corps. Attractively produced and illustrated, the monthly newsletter strived to articulate many grievances of the armed forces and promote action against them. Soldiers councils needed to be created.
Alongside this there was a plethora of pamphlets, including one entitled “The Wilhelmshaven Revolt”. It gave an exciting account of the mutiny of the German navy that sparked off the German Revolution of 1918…Describing those stirring events, his message was quite simple: go and do thou likewise.
Besides the anarchists, both the ILP and Trotskyist RCP maintained organised factions within the armed forces. The ILP Forces group, whose first secretary was Ken Eaton, followed by Cyril Hughes of Manchester, produced a regular bulletin…[He] stressed the importance of always striving to get soldiers and workers united in struggle. Even those who remained loyal to the capitalist system would be overwhelmingly workers. Propaganda along class lines, like Tom Mann’s “Don’t Shoot” leaflet, should be directed at them. (ILP Forces’ Bulletin, May and June 1945)
Challinor also describes several war-time bye elections during which soldiers openly supported Independent Labour Party and other ant-war candidates.
A weekly column in the ILP paper The New Leader had a regular column written by its general secretary, John McNair, which often quoted letters from serving soldiers.
For an account of the activities of Communist Party members in the armed forces see The Days of the Good Soldiers: Communists in the armed Forces WWII, by Richard Kisch, Journeyman, 1985. This also has an account of the mutinies in the Greek army in Egypt and how British servicemen helped them. There are also accounts of the Cairo Forces’ Parliament and the mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy. Written from a Communist Party point of view it gives an interesting insight into the tensions within the Communist Party resulting from the leadership’s class collaborationist line.
Revolutionary History, Mutiny, Volume 8, No.2, Socialist Platform, 2002, has several articles on disaffection in the army in World War II besides articles on World War I movements.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight what lessons can we learn from our wartime experiences? In particular – what conclusions can I draw both personally and politically?
Were we right to oppose the war as an imperialist war that the working class of each country should oppose? Yes. I think we were. Were we right to expect that the war would give rise to revolutionary situations which could bring about the overthrow of capitalist structures and open the road to socialiism? If this had happened and a united socialist Europe had emerged this would have had consequences worldwide.
For a start the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe would not have continued to degenerate. Freed from the threat of capitalist encirclement and counter-revolution - factors which contributed to and continued to encourage the growth and maintenance of the Stalinist police state - and encouraged by the proximity of other democratic socialist states, the democratisation of the Stalinist regimes might have been possible. Instead the Stalinist police states survived for four decades and finally collapse into rampant capitalism.
The existence of a united socialist and democratic Europe would have had consequences in the United States too. It would have strengthened the civil rights, labour and socialist movements that have always existed in America and enabled them to defeat the reactionary forces. There might have been no Reagan and certainly no Bush. Humanity might have been spared Vietnams and Iraqs. The world might have been very different.
But this did not happen.
Some have argued that the traditional working class parties – Social Democrat and Communist – in France, Italy and other Western Europe countries could have taken power between 1943 and 1948. as the Yugoslav Communist Party did. We Trotskyists correctly anticipated that the Socialist and Stalinist leaders would refuse to do so and, instead, join coalition governments and prop up capitalism. Stalin did not want revolutionary upheavals that might provoke nuclear retaliation and also set a bad example to the oppressed workers of Russia.
We Trotskyists expected that in these revolutionary situations we would be able to win the working class away from their social-democratic and stalinist leaderships, build mass parties and achieve the revolution.
We were sadly mistaken. We remained small isolated sects while the working class continued to place their faith in their traditional parties. We had overestimated the revolutionary potential of the working class. We had under-estimated the resilience of capitalism and its ability to recover and enter a period of sustained growth. It was this which made possible the introduction of Welfare states, a long period of full employment and rising living standards. It was this which turned the working class away from revolutionry politics and strengthened reformist ideology.
The collapse of the Stalinist regimes, the sad experience of “actually existing socialism” – which was not in fact socialism but Stalinist despotism – has discredited the idea of socialism in the eyes of millions . The Labour Party and other social democratic parties have abandoned even the rhetoric of socialism. Except in some Latin American countries are there, anywhere parties with mass support committed to socialism
Since my break with the Trotskyist movement I have attempted in a series of writings in various left wing journals to understand where and how we went wrong .(2)
Today, at the age of eighty-seven I no longer consider myself a Trotskyist, or even a Marxist. If asked to describe myself, I would say I was a rather pessimistic independent socialist. I don’t belong to any political organisation.
Despite the increase in the general standard of living in the developed countries rampant poverty continues to plague millions in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
This is the outcome of our failure to end capitalism after World war II. Global capitalism’s chaotic expansion also threatens environmental catastrophe. I still believe that capitalism generates exploitation, poverty and social conflict and wars (Iraq being the latest example). I think a socialist society is a desirable alternative, but see no prospect of it in the near or intermediate future.
Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to fight for immediately realisable objectives that will reduce human misery and avert environmental disasters even if these fall short of socialism. People all over the world are doing just that. They are continuing to fight poverty and injustice. There are the “anti-globalisation” movements, the world social forums, the demonstrations against the Iraq war and the demonstrations aimed at the G8 meetings demanding aid to Africa, cancellation of Third World debts, and measures to save the environment.
Even the very limited measures agreed at the G8 summits, while well short of what was demanded and of what is required, will, hopefully, relieve some poverty and bring some improvements. Even this meagre aid would not have happened without the campaigns and demonstrations. These must continue. The Left groups must shed their dogmatism and sectarianism and relate to the broad coalitions of those fighting for environmental and anti-poverty measures in pursuit of achievable goals – however limited these might be.
There has never been a period in history when some people, somewhere, have not fought for a better society and against wars and oppression. It is within this context that I view my own activities during the war and those of other international socialists. We could not prevent the war; nor did our hopes of the war leading to socialist revolutions materialise but I like to think that we contributed, in some small way to the ongoing struggle.
1.A full account is in Reluctant Revolutionary, Memoirs of a Trotskyist 1936-1960, by Harry Ratner, Socialist Platform Ltd, 1994.
2. Mostly in New Interventions and What Next?
See also the What Next website http:// www.whatnextjournal.co.uk