From the November 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard
As if there were not enough political lunacy already, we have proposals now to raise private volunteer forces to deal with “national subversion”. The ones which have specially attracted publicity are General Sir Walter Walker’s Unison Committee for Action — “a vigilante body set up to assist the civil authorities in maintaining law and order in an emergency” — and Colonel David Stirling’s Great Britain 1975. The assertion is that a state of anarchy is at hand, caused by left-wing influence in the trade unions — hence, inflation due to wage demands — and in the Labour Party, and that in this situation a "nationwide body of disciplined men” would maintain public services and direct the population.
It has been taken seriously by many people. In an article in The Times on 5th August, Lord Chalfont asked “Could Britain be heading for a military takeover?” He contended that power is passing into the hands of the unions and bureaucracy, and parliamentary government has been brought into disrepute by Wilson and Heath: consequently “those at the private enterprise end of the political spectrum” have no option but to arrange their own defences. Other writers discounted the idea of a military coup, but agreed on the dangers of the situation. On 23rd August Peace News published documents circulated privately by Stirling, on the organization of Great Britain 1975 and strategies for breaking strikes.
The possibility of military rule has also been raised by left-wing groups. In the enquiries into the June 15th demonstration in Red Lion Square the existence of a special police squad was alleged. A few months earlier, when troops and armoured cars were taken to London Airport in view of a possible bomb attack on a foreign dignitary, this was claimed to be a rehearsal of government plans for the not-distant day when capitalism attacks militant workers with machine-guns in the streets. The Peace News publication presaged the same thing: “. . . ultimately, radical social change will require some showdown between the forces for change and the forces of the status quo.”
What the State is for
The questions posed have a special interest for us. Our case has always been that the establishment of Socialism can be achieved only by parliamentary means: once the working class understands and wants Socialism it will send its elected representatives to take control of the governmental machinery by which capitalism is maintained. We have frequently been told that this could not happen — that, in the face of such a threat, the capitalist class would suspend democracy and use armed force. Can Socialism be prevented by military rule?
The first thing which must be understood is that the “subversive influences” against whom these private armies are mooted are not Socialists. The left, whether trade-union militants or in political groups in and out of the Labour Party, stands for not the abolition of capitalism but a variation of its form. Indeed, given a crisis of the magnitude they think they are talking about, the left would run to heel behind capitalism — as it did in the world wars. Second, political power cannot be transferred to bodies which do not hold it, i.e. do not participate in government. Though it is true that the trade unions have to make bargains with the parties in power, they remain dependent on the law — which is administered only by governments and supported absolutely by courts, police, legal penalties and, in the end, armed force.
It is not a question of saying "Could it exist?”; it is already there. Socialists do not need to have it pointed out or a supposition made over it. On the contrary, it is the fact which our statement of the necessity to gain control of the powers of government recognizes. If the left were correct about the tanks and guns at London Airport, what would the left do about them ? Overthrow them with slogans from behind barricades? Not only do the powers exist, but they have been used — for instance in 1948 the Labour Government’s employment of the Emergency Powers Act (use of soldiers) to break the dock strike, and more recent punitive actions against strike pickets and local councillors. Oddly enough, the leader of Great Britain 1975 recognizes them too. Despite talking about the breakdown of law and order, one of David Stirling’s memoranda is on the need for a "judiciary committee” to advise on the legality of his organization’s actions. One question is:
Would [trade] Union members who are volunteers, of whom we can expect a great many, be protected by the police against extremist Union efforts at intimidation?(Peace News Special Issue, 23rd Aug.)
The New Law Journal in an editorial on 29th August hinted that the Public Order Act would quickly dispose of the private armies — but also that they might be trained as police auxiliaries by putting them to keep the more notorious football crowds in order.
There is precious little evidence that any of these bodies can manage a whelk stall, still less a general-strike-ridden country (there is a difference, which seems to have escaped many commentators, between commanding NATO or SAS forces and directing a civilian population in peacetime), and a little practice at a task with narrow and limited objectives while keeping strictly within the existing law might produce interesting results.
In one sense this is hitting a nail on the head. The sort of person who may join or support these bodies is the self-important little man wanting to show superiority to the Lower Orders he can’t help belonging to, who was a special constable in the General Strike and Nat Gubbin’s “ironmonger with a commission in the Home Guard” in the war; the New Law Journal is, rather contemptuously, suggesting an activity for him now. (Curiously again, Stirling himself says in effect the same — he looks for recruits from “Rotary Clubs, the Free Masons, certain women’s organizations and so on”.)
But underlying the contempt is the knowledge that the only kind of power in society is political power, and without it, the intentions of these organizations can only be talked about. Moreover, it depends on having the support of the electorate — the idea of a coup by a dozen armed men walking into Westminster and thereafter ruling as apolitical dictators is dramatic but unrealizable. All dictatorships require popular support (as was evidenced by the National Front’s unconvincing best-suit-and-speak-nicely TV broadcast in the Election). It may be chilling to recall that the Nazis began as a whelk-stall handful; nevertheless, they were ineffectual until the majority of the German people elected them.
False and Correct Answers
The struggle to change society from capitalism to Socialism has nothing to do with fighting in the streets or organizing strikes. It has to be a political one. The powers of government include and in the last analysis rest on armed force to maintain capitalism in each country. The only logical strategy to abolish capitalism is, therefore, for the working class — not leaders or an élite, but the Socialist working class itself through its mandated delegates — to take control of those powers; so that the protection of capitalism has gone, and no-one can prevent the establishment of Socialism.
In those circumstances, hypotheses about opposition by army officers etc. are not only improbable but define themselves out of existence. If a military-minded group seeks power, it must do so as a political party. For that it requires the assent of the ruled-to-be, which is obtainable only in the absence of Socialist understanding. Even under capitalism, forcible rule without that assent does not work as the ruling class needs. The immediate example is Northern Ireland, where the fact that military occupation has achieved nothing is testified to by the search on all sides for “a political solution”, i.e. a régime acceptable to the population: which is what we were saying. What is much more likely than military resistance to the rapid growth of Socialist consciousness is that the ruling class will offer sops and reforms galore to try to buy it off.
Nevertheless, there is an ugliness in the present situation which cannot be denied. If the would-be Napoleons are pernicious buffoons, they are not the only ones. For the past generation the Labour Party has promised over and over again that it can end strife and bring prosperity to everyone; what it has produced instead is the conviction that parliament is a sham and democracy a failure, while capitalism flounders on the edge of an economic crisis in which the working class will unfailingly be the sufferers. Don’t confuse the nature of political power with the complaint, made by the private-army people and the left alike, that it is not being used “properly” — i.e. to suppress their opponents, who happen to be each other. The left has exactly the same ambitions as Stirling and Walker. The Communist Party at its inception was committed to the idea of “an armed uprising” (Statutes of the Communist International. 1920), and it was only last year that the International Marxist Group was urging workers “to centralize our resources for fighting the police” (May Day pamphlet).
The working class has had ample experience that all attempts to reorganize capitalism fail. What it needs to learn is the reason why, and the alternative in its hands — Socialism.