TV Review from the September 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard
Last month this column berated Channel Four's Secret History series for its tedious and irrelevant programme about the tactics of the British army during the Falklands war. This month we return to the scene of the crime, battered by two weeks of heroic British failure at the Olympics and endless summer repeats of second-rate sitcoms. On 8 August—like a diamond glistening in a vast cow-pat—Secret History redeemed itself with a documentary called Mutiny In The RAF. This, at least, was a secret history worth commenting about, centring on the massive wave of strikes which broke out in the RAF after the end of the Second World War in India, Singapore, the Middle East and other centres of British imperial rule. Largely due to the activities of the British ruling class, few will have been cognisant of the facts surrounding this series of mutinies against military authority, and the documentary team compiling this particular programme can be satisfied with a job well done.
The British bourgeoisie—one of the most experienced ruling classes in the world—has long done its best to hide the real truth of the various mutinies and strikes in HM Forces throughout this century. For decades it tried to keep hidden the nature of the massive wave of discontent which took place in 1919 after the so-called Great War, when soldiers and policemen went on strike and mutinied, and when sailors demanding better pay hauled down the British Ensign and hoisted the Red Flag. For entirely understandable reasons it has tried to do the same in relation to the wave of discontent of 1945-6 too. Thankfully, it has failed.
Secret History told the history of how over 50,000 RAF servicemen refused to do the dirty work of British Imperialism in its outposts of Empire any longer. Serving in appalling conditions and with little chance of demobilisation, this mixture of volunteers and conscripts refused to obey their officers' orders, substituted self-discipline for hierarchical rule, formed democratically-run strike committees and successfully spread their struggle even to section's of the Indian armed forces. They were met with bogus trials and false imprisonment, harassment from the military police and the ultimate deterrent of threatened executions. Expecting sympathetic treatment from the newly-elected Labour Government under Clement Attlee, their actions instead were met with subterfuge and repression, characteristic treatment of workers by Labour governments before and since. That they eventually met with some success in ensuring early demobilisation for hundreds of thousands was a testament to their tenacity and the power of working-class combination. Not unwisely, the British ruling class took the view that to keep such disgruntled servicemen in troubled outposts like India at such a sensitive time was to invite chaos.
It was not, of course, the case that those who mutinied in the RAF wanted socialism any more than their fellow workers back home who had joined with them to vote in the pro-capitalist Labour Party the previous year—their struggle was in fact more akin to a defensive economic trade union struggle within capitalism. Indeed, many of the strikers had been active trade unionists before the war. But what it did got to show—like many other similar incidents across the world—is that men and women in the armed forces are generally workers in uniform. They are doing an unpleasant job on behalf of the capitalist class, but then again, so do millions of other workers. And just like other workers, those in the armed forces are capable of critically assessing their own class position and of coming to the conclusion that it is at odds with the position of the bourgeoisie. This is contrary to the unhistorical and anti-materialist position of so many Leninists who don't even regard members of the armed forces or the police as being members of the working class in the first place. It can also be added—far in advance of the Leninist vanguards—workers in uniform have demonstrated time and again that they can organise democratically and collectively, without leaders, to further their own class interests. This in turn demonstrates that the armed forces, like all other sections of the working class, are capable of developing recognition of their real position within capitalism and of the necessity of socialism.
The RAF mutiny in 1946 was a case in point and its lessons must never be forgotten. Working-class self-activity and democratic organisation is the key to any struggle whether for economic defence within the system (as with trade unionism) or for revolutionary transformation. As the movement for final working-class emancipation can only be collective and majoritarian, the former will surely still have an important role to play as the training ground for the latter.