As well as the lurid Battle of London, I’ve been looking at another paranoid Red menace story of the twenties, F.Britten Austin’s They Who Laughed, in his future-war collection, The War God Walks Again.
Like Hugh Addison’s novel, this places the Red hordes in control of London landmarks. It begins with socialist leaders looking down happily on:
an immense crowd contagiously intoxicated with excitement, a coalescence of its impulses at their lowest common denominator of latent atavism inherited from aeon-back gorilla-handed, snarling-fanged, primeval ancestors, its individual superficialities of civilisation obliterated, its seething vital forces fused into a homogeneous torrent of blindly fierce sub-human energy for those few clever ones cynically to direct.
“Sub-human” is the key descriptor. The revolutionaries are “a vast amorphous monster” which screams “in paroxysms of wild-beast delight.” They hate the civilisation that despises them, and include “degenerates, failed ‘intellectuals’, ignorant manual workers with pathologically inflamed brains… Ghetto-bred aliens with ages-old scores of scorn to wipe out, they took their revenge now.” The usual suspects, in other words.
Opposed to this animal mob is the Cabinet, mostly conventional politicians who cannot see a solution. A General outlines his plan – frontal attack with vast numbers of forces, that will crush the result, but with appalling loss of life, especially of the tens of thousands of hostages held by the revolutionaries. Should we read this as the Douglas Haig solution – overpowering force, at immense cost to our own people?
A young officer suggests an alternative plan, and it is put into action. It involves the co-ordinated use of air power and tanks, and crucially, gas. Compound A, a lacrimatory- cacchinatory gas, is spread over the Red troops, which causes them to at once weep and dissolve into uncontrollable laughter.
The Soviet emissary who has been controlling the Reds is in despair:
Eet is ze fault of somevon – I know not – zat ve ‘af not gas-masks. I vos not to know!
Typical weak-kneed socialist -trying to shift the blame.
So one can read the story as one of the twenties texts (John Buchan wrote several) that suggest that in war lateral thinking can win the day economically, whereas conventional methods just lose lives.
But another way of looking at this nonsense actually makes it seem rather prophetic. Rachelle H. Satltzman, an anthropologist, writing about the General Strike, noticed that in the mythical version of the strike that took a hold of people’s imaginations, a significant factor was that the young volunteer strike-breakers made it obvious through their behaviour and dress-code that they seemed to be playing rather than fighting:
Representatives of the upper and upper-middle classes defended their right not to do manual labour by doing it – temporarily. They countered the accusations of the socialist labour movement that they were the “idle rich” by demonstrating their ability to come through in a crisis. […] Yet because the forms the volunteers chose were derived explicitly from the customary forms of dramatic play and unpaid service, which were the preserve of the upper and middle classes, no one besides the striking workers was obliged to take them seriously.
Students driving buses wore plus-fours and flashy socks. They chalked notices on the buses: “Pretty Flappers free of charge: Others threepence all the way” and “Please don’t stop me. I can’t start again.” They asked passengers “Where do you want to go?” and took them there. A spirit of jolly camaraderie was built up, in strong contrast to the grim seriousness of the strikers, and this is what remained in people’s minds. My mother, a young office worker in the twenties, told me stories about the fun of the strike forty years later.
So perhaps defeating the revolutionaries with laughing gas was not so far from the mark…