Challenging communist militarism

Author's note I wrote the first version of this article in October 1985. Over the following years, it was rejected by six magazines: Quadrant, Pacific Defence Reporter, Simply Living, Meanjin, Island Magazine and Queen's Quarterly. This version dates from 1988.

Brian Martin

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With the signing of the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe in December 1987 and the widely touted hopes of major cuts in strategic nuclear forces, many commentators see the emergence of a new era in East-West relations. The Soviet government led by Gorbachev has taken several noteworthy initiatives, including an 18-month unilateral cessation of nuclear testing, withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the tabling of several far-reaching disarmament proposals. Peace movements have claimed credit for providing some of the general stimulus for these developments.

History suggests, however, that a healthy scepticism should be maintained about the long-term impact of current developments. The previous upsurge in grassroots action for peace in the late 1950s and early 1960s focussed on radioactive fallout as a key symptom the nuclear arms race. This activity indirectly led to one major government-level agreement, the Partial Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1963. It eliminated most atmospheric nuclear testing and the resulting fallout, apparently answering peace movement demands. (Preparations had been made for underground testing, allowing nuclear research and development to continue virtually unabated.) The treaty helped speed the demise of the peace movement which was already in decline.[1]

The IMF treaty represents a striking repetition of history. The 1980s peace movement was triggered by concern about the planned installation of US cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. These highly symbolic missiles are now to be removed. It is an obvious prediction that this will cause a further reduction in already declining peace movement activity.

The history of arms negotiations is one of dramatic offers, high hopes and repeated failure. Arguably, the main effect of such negotiations is to regularise military races while providing the illusion that significant breakthroughs are possible. Negotiations distract attention from the need to change the structural underpinnings for war.[2]

Military interests in the United States and the Soviet Union can be expected to mobilise to try to prevent 'excessive' steps towards disarmament. In any case, military research and development remain unhindered, as does the process of modernising weapons systems, whether conventional, nuclear or biological. The military implications of the INF treaty are not great, since banned land-based missiles can and are being replaced by sea-based missiles. Even ignoring the limitations of the treaty, the most radical government proposals make no suggestion that the role of military force will be undercut in East or West.

Going by history, the problem of militarism and war cannot be solved by treaties. After this sceptical prelude, I now want to focus on one facet of the wider problem, namely communist militarism and methods used to challenge it. This can also provide insight into limitations of usual methods to challenge Western militarism.

Stepping back from recent policy developments, there seems to be a close connection between war and communist states. In terms of origins, the Soviet Union was spawned by World War One, the communist regimes in China, Vietnam and some other countries were established after long guerrilla wars, and most of the communist states in Eastern Europe were established following Soviet conquest. (This is not to deny the role of war in the development of capitalist and other societies.)

In capitalist societies in wartime, the power of the state is expanded to control much larger segments of the economy and is used to repress internal political dissent.[3] In essence, they become similar to the regular operation of communist societies. Hence communist states can be characterised as permanent war economies.

Today, the Soviet military is one of the two most powerful in the world; forces in China, Eastern Europe and Vietnam are also large and powerful. These forces have been regularly used in war and also against their own peoples.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan does not eliminate the problem of Soviet militarism any more than the exit of US troops from Vietnam meant the demise of US militarism. Whatever treaties are signed in the foreseeable future, the need to challenge communist militarism will remain.

Western military responses

Western governments have mainly countered communist military power by developing Western military strength. I argue that this approach has been counterproductive: it entrenches communist militarism rather than overturning or undermining it.

The history of communist societies shows the inadequacy of outside military power to overturn them. There are some examples of the use of Western military intervention to prevent the rise of a socialist state, such as in Malaya. Also, in a number of countries, such as Chile and Indonesia, the local military has taken power in situations in which left-wing political strength was great. Nevertheless there is no example of a well-established communist state being toppled by outside military force.

There have been three major outside challenges to the survival of the Soviet Union since its inception in October 1917. Arguably, each of them has strengthened rather than weakened Soviet militarism.

The Bolshevik takeover, contrary to popular belief, was accomplished with relatively little violence. The Bolsheviks' success grew out of the collapse of support first for the Czarist regime and then for the Provisional Government as they persisted in the war against Germany. Many troops deserted, and the army no longer could be relied upon to smash internal revolt.

In the early months after October 1917, the revolution had many libertarian aspects.[4] The fledgling soviets -- councils of workers -- took many decisions directly. There was an outburst of popular participation, workers' control, political discussion and intellectual and artistic creativity.

One of the Bolsheviks' first steps was to sue for peace with Germany. Yet shortly after this, the regime was forced to fight for survival against internal military resistance supported by numerous foreign powers.[5] This had a drastic effect on the power structures within the Soviet Union. The Soviet army had been imbued with much of the spirit of the revolution, instituting soviets of soldiers and breaking down the rigid hierarchies in the Czarist army. This democratising process was quickly reversed in the struggle against the invaders. Trotsky took control and reorganised the army along traditional hierarchical lines, bringing tens of thousands of former Czarist officers into positions of command.

The war from 1918 to 1920 thus had the effect of militarising the revolution. As the Soviet military was recast in a traditional hierarchical form, the Bolsheviks gradually asserted their control over independent political and economic decision-making, and also gradually stifled internal dissent within the Communist Party.

The now conventionally organised army could be used to repress any challenge to the increasingly centralised Bolshevik rule. The most notable example was the smashing of the Kronstadt revolt in 1921. The Western military intervention was not only a failure in the field: it helped foreclose whatever internal options existed for a more democratic, less repressive Bolshevik rule.

The next major external threat to Soviet rule was the Nazi invasion beginning in 1941. The outcome was a great expansion in the territorial and political sway of the Soviet Union. The amazing feature of the Soviet war effort was the overwhelming support given by the Soviet people to their government, in spite of the ruthlessness of Stalin's rule before, after and even during the war. Admittedly, the Nazis squandered their opportunity to utilise popular dissatisfaction with Stalinism. In any case, the invasion strengthened the military position of the Soviet Union and reinforced popular support by the Soviet people for their government. This legacy remains important today, many decades after the war.

The third major external threat to the Soviet Union has been the cold war. This has been a political and economic confrontation more than a military one, but a continuing military race has played a major role. For example, one objective of Western military spending has been to weaken popular support for the Soviet government by diverting Soviet expenditure from civilian to military production.

In terms of undermining or overthrowing Soviet militarism, the cold war has been a failure. The Western threat has been used by the Soviet rulers to justify their own military build-up and internal repression.

One of the major confrontations of the cold war was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. At that time the Soviet nuclear forces were far inferior to those of the United States. Khrushchev's backdown over the missiles was proclaimed as a great victory for the United States, but this ignored the political repercussions within the Soviet Union. Realising its nuclear inferiority, the Soviet government began a massive missile build-up that eventually led to the present situation of approximate parity. In addition, Khrushchev's removal from power in 1964 may be partly attributed to his defeat over the Cuban missiles. The result of the United States government's 'victory' in the Cuban missile crisis thus was much greater Soviet military strength and more severe internal Soviet repression.[6]

Peace movement responses

Western peace movements have been the foremost critics of Western militarism. What have they done about communist militarism? In brief, their most common responses have been to ignore it or to make rhetorical criticisms. There are several reasons for the lack of direct action against communist militarism.

First, the movements have been Western ones, and the most immediate and obvious target is Western militarism. Most of the movements have been very much oriented to developments in the country from which they spring. There has always been a difficulty in envisaging what the movements could do about problems in a faraway country. There is a practical dimension here, namely that it is much easier to take action at home. There is also a moral dimension, that one should put one's own house in order first.

Furthermore, arguably, Western militarism is stronger and more active and hence needs to be challenged more urgently than communist militarism. United States military bases and alliances outnumber those established by the Soviet government, and US troops have seen action in more wars and interventions than Soviet troops.

Second, peace movements have often been influenced by communist sympathisers. The Soviet government has encouraged its supporters in the West to work within Western peace movements, in an attempt to turn support for 'peace' into support for Soviet foreign policy. But the influence of communist sympathisers in Western peace groups owes less to Soviet encouragement than to the dynamics of Western social movements. Western Marxist parties and organisations that see themselves as vanguards for socialism have seldom had a large base of support. One opportunity for them is to enter popular movements and obtain positions of power. This strategy has been used most notably within the labour movement, but has also affected the peace movement. (Other movements, such as the feminist and environmental movements, have not been affected so much because their methods of operation are more fundamentally at variance with the masculine, productivist and elitist orientations common in the vanguard left groups.)

A third reason why Western peace movements have taken so little direct action against communist militarism is the strong anti-communism promulgated by Western governments. In opposing the policies of their own governments, whether in the nuclear arms race or in the Vietnam war, many members of peace movements fall into a stance of anti-anti-communism. Although they may in principle condemn communist militarism, they see it as more important to 'balance' the public debate by criticising the excesses of Western militarism.

For example, many opponents of United States military involvement in Vietnam went to great lengths to expose the 'disinformation' put out by the United States government and routinely reported by the media; many of them developed a sympathy for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese government. It is a short step from this to a disinclination to criticise the Soviet government that provided military support for the North Vietnamese.

Most of those involved in peace movements have believed that maintaining unity within the movement is important. When a minority of peace activists do not want to criticise communist militarism, the result often is agreement on particular demands which turn out either to be critical mainly of capitalist militarism (as in opposition to US military bases) or to be ostensibly neutral (as in the nuclear freeze).

The influence of communist sympathisers within peace movements has varied a lot. In periods when the movement is small, such as in the early 1950s or late 1970s, they can be quite influential. But when popular involvement in peace groups greatly expands, as in the 1980s, the mass of new people without particular political 'lines' overwhelms those with partisan views. Nevertheless, the standard agenda of the movement may persist, because no alternative strategies have been developed.[7]

The above factors can cause peace movements to be reluctant to speak out against communist militarism. But there are many exceptions: critical stands are taken on occasion. The difficulty then is in having any impact. Having been involved in a number of protests and other actions critical of Chinese and Soviet militarism, I know the difficulty in gaining media attention. Because right-wing anti-communism is so vociferous, similar opposition from within the peace movement is ignored. This suits the interests of opponents of the peace movement in painting it as pro-communist.

The final problem is that peace movements have relatively few resources with which to have an impact on militarism, especially militarism in other countries. Governments have economic resources, control over communication, formal positions in countless international bodies, and large numbers of personnel to administer policies. Peace movements have nothing like these political and economic resources. It is hard enough for them to slightly influence their own governments, so perhaps it is no wonder that the task of challenging militarism in other parts of the world has received little attention.

Nonviolent alternatives

Nonviolent methods of struggle have been used for centuries to oppose various sorts of oppression. There are an enormous range of methods, including demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and setting up alternative institutions.[8] What possibilities do such methods hold for challenging communist militarism?

Before trying to answer this question, it is worth examining why neither the supporters of conventional military forces nor the peace movement have developed the methods of nonviolent struggle to challenge communist militarism.

Western governments have used a number of nonviolent methods against communist states, such as the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe, symbolic boycott (such as of the 1980 Olympics) and boycotts of some strategic goods. But nonviolent methods have been incidental to the basic thrust of Western policy, which is to rely on military force. Indeed, in a number of cases nonviolent movements have been squashed between opposing sides both using force, as happened to the Buddhist opposition in Vietnam.[9]

Many people in peace movements, especially those of socialist persuasion, are not committed to nonviolence. Those who support the various guerrilla struggles for national liberation find it hard to develop enthusiasm for nonviolent struggle (even though guerrilla struggles rely on a wide range of nonviolent methods as well as violent ones). But even those people in peace movements who favour nonviolent alternatives have not worked at developing strategies against communist militarism, for reasons described above.

The first person to tackle this problem in depth was Sir Stephen King-Hall, formerly an officer in the British forces in World War One. In his 1958 book Defence in the Nuclear Age, [10]King-Hall argued for a switch to nonviolent methods for national defence. This book was the first major presentation of what is commonly called social defence, nonviolent defence or civilian-based defence: the use of nonviolent methods of struggle by the general population as an alternative to military defence.

Unlike most later commentators, King-Hall's major concern was resistance to communist aggression. He argued that the most important thing to be defended by democratic societies was not territorial boundaries but a way of life. To try to defend a democratic way of life using weapons of mass destruction had become counterproductive.

Many will be put off by King-Hall's uncritical support for the 'democratic way of life', namely British parliamentary democracy. But this can be set aside to examine King-Hall's ideas for nonviolent defence. How could nonviolent methods by the British people work to deter or repel a Soviet invasion?

* Without nuclear or conventional weapons, the Soviet military would have no reason for attacking Britain with nuclear or even conventional weapons. If they did attack a militarily defenceless nation in this way, the world outcry would be disastrous for them. (It is only necessary to note the enormous outrage at the Sharpeville massacre or the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior to realise that attacks on unarmed opponents can be incredibly counterproductive politically.)

* If a Soviet invasion took place, the British people would be prepared to boycott the Soviet rulers and their collaborators, to disable production, go on strike or otherwise make British industry unusable by the invaders, and to carry on with their own procedures for education, political decision-making and the like.

* The British people would make every attempt to convert Soviet soldiers. This might not be too hard, given that many Soviet soldiers are conscripts on low salaries, who might be tempted by the offer of a job and a place to live.   The economic cost of making such offers would not be excessive compared to present military expenditure. The power of fraternisation was demonstrated by the Czechoslovak resistance to the Soviet invasion in 1968, in which Soviet soldiers had to be rotated out in a matter of days since they became unreliable after talking to Czechoslovaks.[11]

* All sorts of communication channels would be set up to broadcast news of what was happening around the world, including into the Soviet Union. This would take some advanced planning, but there is no reason why cheap short-wave transmitters could not be produced for most people in Britain, why broadcasts to the Soviet people could not be beamed down from satellites, or why messages could not be taken into communist countries by the hundreds of thousands of tourists.

With these sorts of preparations, an invasion of Europe by Soviet forces would be a grave risk to the survival of the Soviet ruling elite. The very rationale for attack would be removed, and an actual attack would open their armed forces and population to all sorts of subversive ideas. As a result, a prepared nonviolent resistance would serve as an effective deterrent to invasion.[12]

Within Western peace movements there are a few groups trying to promote this sort of alternative. Social defence has been gradually gaining attention for a number of years,[13] though it is not yet supported, or even known about, by many members of Western peace groups. To spread similar ideas into communist countries is very hard, given limited resources, but there are some groups, such as the East-West Peace People in London, who smuggle materials into Eastern bloc countries. Canberra Peacemakers has produced a Russian-language version and translation of its broadsheet on social defence, and has been able to get some copies into the Soviet Union, as well as distributing copies to workers at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra.

The key difficulty in promoting social defence is convincing people that it is not necessary to rely on someone else, namely professional military forces, to handle the problem of 'defence'. The people who best understand and respond to the idea of social defence are those who have been involved in nonviolent direct action, such as environmentalists who have joined blockades against logging of forests and feminists who have joined women's peace camps. Carefully planned nonviolent actions typically involve study of the theory of nonviolent action, analysis of social forces, detailed practical preparations, roleplays and practice in effective group dynamics in stressful situations.[14] All of these are ideal training for social defence.

The social space for such study and practice of nonviolent action is difficult to attain in communist societies, but the ground is potentially receptive, as shown by the highly effective use of nonviolent action by Solidarity in Poland since its inception. It remains unclear how the step from experience in nonviolent action to social defence and resistance to communist militarism might occur.

Limits to action

In every case, including the Western military, Western peace movements and nonviolent initiatives, the failure so far to effectively challenge communist militarism can be analysed in terms of adherence to the present social order. There are limits to what is considered permissible in terms of action.

Western governments routinely interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, frequently in their role in fostering or inhibiting corporate investment and occasionally in direct military terms. But Western governments typically refuse to mobilise their own citizens to mount concerted and open campaigns to undermine other governments by supporting nonviolent opposition movements. The emphasis is on government action, not people's action. Two examples are the failure of the West German government to support the East German uprising in 1953 and the lukewarm response of Western governments to Solidarity.

The standard mode is government-to-government interaction, whether this is mutual acceptance or hostility. This cements the general legitimacy of governments in relation to their citizens. Mobilising people's action to support opposition groups in other countries sets a dangerous precedent.

Western peace movements also have been limited in their challenge to the social order. Most campaigns have been directed against particular wars, such as the Vietnam war, or against particular weapons, especially nuclear weapons.[15] In addition, peace movements have typically argued in favour of national sovereignty, in response to Western military interventions against liberation struggles. In essence, the aim has been to stop wars or get rid of certain weapons but otherwise leave society pretty much unchanged.

This also applies to most proponents of social defence. The standard approach is to advocate social defence as a replacement for military defence. This does not lend itself to the development of fundamental challenges to either Western or communist militarism.

Guerrilla warfare in this century has challenged the assumptions about social order inherent in the classical strategic paradigm based on unified societies confronting each other only through their governments and militaries; guerrilla warfare is a form of struggle that aims at political victory from within rather than by external assault.[16] But guerrilla warfare, arguably, has no chance of success in contemporary industrial societies.[17]

What then about nonviolent action? In order to be an effective challenge to militarism generally, nonviolent approaches need to overcome inhibitions about changing society. That means they cannot rely on government endorsement or implementation. Western governments are unlikely to support the sort of popular nonviolent initiatives that might undermine communist militarism, since the same initiatives could be used against their own powers.

Just as guerrilla warfare challenged assumptions of social order built into classical strategic theory, nonviolent activists need to escape the constraining assumptions of orthodox domestic politics and international relations. This project has been called nonviolent revolution.[18]

In order to encourage effective grassroots challenges to communist militarism, activists will need to mount similar challenges to their own militaries. This means confronting state power in a fundamental way, rather than appealing to governments to solve the problem. That this goes against the dominant trend in recent centuries towards increasing state power suggests the size of the challenge. But just as guerrilla warfare signified a dramatic shift in world politics, it remains possible that nonviolent struggle may yet prove to be what is required to challenge the roots rather than just the symptoms of militarism.

Acknowledgements I thank Phil Anderson, Jenny Lee and an anonymous referee for useful comments in preparing this article.


1 Nigel Young, An Infantile Disorder? The Crisis and Decline of the New Left (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, l977).

2 Johan Galtung, The True Worlds: A Transnational Perspective (New York: Free Press, 1980), pp. 200-205; Alva Myrdal, The Game of Disarmament (New York: Pantheon, 1976).

3 Clinton L. Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948).

4 Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets: The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1921 (New York: Pantheon, 1974).

5 D. F. Fleming, The Cold War and its Origins (London: Allen and Unwin, 1961), chapter 2.

6 David Holloway, The Soviet Union and the Arms Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

7 Brian Martin, 'The social construction of Australian peace movement demands', in Paul Patton and Ross Poole (eds.), War/Masculinity (Sydney: Intervention Publications, 1985), pp. 87-99; Malcolm Saunders and Ralph Summy, The Australian Peace Movement: A Short History (Canberra: Peace Research Centre, 1986).

8 Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973).

9 Marjorie Hope and James Young, The Struggle for Humanity: Agents of Nonviolent Change in a Violent World (New York: Orbis, 1977), chapter 6.

10 Stephen King-Hall, Defence in the Nuclear Age(London: Victor Gollancz, 1958).

11 Philip Windsor and Adam Roberts, Czechoslovakia 1968: Reform, Repression and Resistance (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969).

12 Anders Boserup and Andrew Mack, War Without Weapons (London: Frances Pinter, 1974); Gene Sharp, Making Europe Unconquerable (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1985).

13 See the journal Civilian-Based Defense: News & Opinion.

14 Virginia Coover et al., Resource Manual for a Living Revolution (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1981).

15 Bob Overy, How Effective are Peace Movements? (London: Housmans, 1982).

16 Alexander Atkinson, Social Order and the General Theory of Strategy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).

17 Martin Oppenheimer, The Urban Guerilla (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1969).

18 George Lakey, Strategy for a Living Revolution (New York: Grossman, 1974); Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984); Geoffrey Ostergaard, Nonviolent Revolution in India (New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1985).