Growing a Radical Peace Movement

Invited to take part in a discussion about ‘growing the radical peace movement’ (in Britain), I turned to my esteemed co-editor (of the London-based monthly Peace News), who suggested that ‘the radical peace movement’ would to some extent not be able to take part in the discussion because it was out in Gaza, standing alongside Palestinians as they faced the might of the Israeli state and then struggled to recover from Operation Cast Lead. Another long-term activist objected to this characterization, saying that many of those courageous people who had gone out in Gaza were not ‘peace movement’ folk, but ‘anti-war activists’ who would not identify themselves as part of the ‘peace movement’.
It may well be true that the international volunteers in Palestine (who we were thinking of) do not identify themselves as part of a ‘peace movement’, but that seemed to raise a lot of questions. One being: should those who are comfortable identifying themselves with ‘the peace movement’ exclude others as ‘not peace movement but anti-war’.
Another unavoidable question is whether discussing these matters, and gathering together many fine people for reflection and discussion, is morally justifiable as the smoke clears on the ruins of Gaza, as the bombs go off in Baghdad, and thousands more Western troops stand poised to add to the invasion of Afghanistan. What is the real benefit (clearly not an immediate benefit, but perhaps a solid benefit nevertheless) to the victims of Western power in activists sharing and musing rather than acting and planning?
I’ll come back to this.
I can’t think of many things more urgent, at this point in time, in this country (Britain), than creating a large, strong, confident, committed, active, radical peace movement. The question is two-fold: What does it mean to have a radical peace movement? How might its growth be encouraged?
My own activist career only goes back 25 years or so, to the European movement against US cruise and Pershing II ground-launched nuclear missiles. 25 years or so earlier than that, the nuclear disarmament movement was sharply divided between CND, a top-down, fairly authoritarian, elite-oriented lobby-and-march group (which was reluctant to accept individual membership and internal democratic structures), under Canon John Collins; and the Committee of 100, a more anarchic and anarchist direct action network committed to ‘filling the jails’, with Bertrand Russell as its figurehead. (The Aldermaston march was started by the direct actionists (first organizer Pat Arrowsmith), and then handed over to CND.)
There was tremendous friction between the two approaches and the two groups (and the two leaders, Collins and Russell). Which was a great shame, as both approaches were equally unsuccessful in their own terms.
Canon Collins hoped that a year of intense lobbying would, as recently in the case of the death penalty, lead smoothly to abolition. (In fact the 1956 bill to abolish capital punishment was overturned by the House of Lords, but almost-complete abolition came in 1965.) Present the right arguments to the right people (influential people), and Parliament would shift and a law would be passed, and CND could be dissolved. CND did some intense lobbying. It has been putting the right arguments to influential people for 50 years, but Parliament has not shifted, and the abolition law has not been passed.
The Committee of 100 scorned the parliamentary route and ‘the normal channels’, which were corrupt – or had become corrupted. Power didn’t listen to reasoned arguments unless they were backed up by irresistible people power. If you filled the jails with mass nonviolent civil disobedience, escalating all the while, the system would shift, it would give way under the strain and the government would capitulate. The Committee of 100 got thousands of people arrested, it didn’t quite fill the jails, and it did manage to escalate the actions for a while. And since then, thousands more people have engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience in the cause of nuclear disarmament, but the system hasn’t given way under the strain, and the government has stubbornly refused to capitulate.
When I came to political consciousness at the time of the second wave of CND (also the era of the Falklands/Malvinas War (1982) and the Miners’ Strike (1983-84)), the two streams of the disarmament movement had come together and flowed as one broad river. General Secretaries of CND were elected for holding up bits of wire snipped from the fence of a military base (albeit snipped by someone else). Pat Arrowsmith became a Vice-President of CND. There was a sense of urgency, of desperation, and, compared to the first wave of CND, a sense of unity. There was something of a national convulsion in the first half of the 1980s, with the women of Greenham Common as the shining embodiment of the new movement. Feminism and grassroots democracy were bedding down in the movement as disruptive but core values.
The movement then suffered a significant blow with the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a significant victory to force the two superpowers to withdraw ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe. However, the exercise was to a large extent a publicity stunt designed to demobilized the European peace movement – successfully. Not a single nuclear warhead was destroyed under the INF. Nuclear warheads withdrawn with ground-launched cruise missiles were returned to Britain on air-launched cruise missiles. (My anger over this con trick led to my first arrestable action at Upper Heyford, where US F-111s were due to carry the refitted warheads, on the anniversary of the INF Treaty, 8 December 1988.)
Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of Eastern Europe and the gradual disintegration of the Soviet Union. Advances for human freedom, no doubt (though qualified by the loss of substantial social, economic and gender rights). The disarmament movement, and the wider peace movement, suffered further demobilization as the threat of nuclear devastation appeared to recede. Nevertheless, the movement held together to an unprecedented degree after the fading of Reagan-Thatcher emergency conditions. For example, CND membership declined did not collapse after the second wave/INF Treaty, in the way it collapsed after the first wave/Partial Test Ban Treaty.
How did the disarmament movement (only part of the ‘peace movement’, but much the largest and strongest element of it) overcome the divisions of the first wave? Why didn’t CND membership collapse completely after the INF Treaty/Berlin Wall? My guess is that part of the explanation is that the peace movement (and general population) developed a higher level of knowledge and awareness in the 1960s and 1970s, so that when the movement caught fire again the in the 1980s it did so with a general appreciation of the limits of parliamentary action and a little bit more humility about what could be achieved by civil disobedience (though escalating mass actions were tried again with the Snowball campaign).
And perhaps the experiences of the 1980s, the cruelty of the Thatcher years, the experience of repression, welded the 1980s generation to CND with more enduring bonds than seen before. It was another learning experience. While the energy of the time came from masses of young people throwing themselves into struggle, I can’t help feeling the backbone of the movement was slightly older, middle-class and tending towards middle age. People who committed to CND in the way they committed to family, to a mortgage, to work. People who felt their values and feelings articulated by Bruce Kent, Joan Ruddock, EP Thompson, Rebecca Johnson. What can we learn from the later lives of these spokespeople? Rebecca Johnson is still an activist, but now also an international lobbyist and world-renowned researcher on nuclear matters; EP Thompson kept producing elegant academic radicalism until he died; Joan Ruddock became a junior minister under New Labour; Bruce Kent remains unalterably Bruce Kent.
The final straw for the first wave of CND was the Vietnam War, which captured much of the youth and the energy of the movement. For a variety of reasons, Marxist-Leninist groups became very influential. There was something you could call a peace movement – its central demand was peace (with justice) – but a significant part of it was mobilizing for victory to the NLF (the Communist-led National Liberation Front of South Vietnam). Many of the most committed activists went beyond opposing the US assault to actively supporting armed insurgent groups (and a beleaguered state system in North Vietnam). This was considered to be ‘more radical’ at the time.
For CND’s second wave, the analogue was perhaps the 1991 Gulf War, which became the central focus for CND as a national organization. CND was a key part of the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf. (A small Trotskyite group had a wholly disproportionate influence in the workings of the Committee – outstripping the much larger Socialist Workers Party.) But the stresses and strains of the 1991 war did not finish off CND. A large core membership stuck with CND and it retained a broad range of specialist sections, regional and local groups and programmes of activity.
Where the Vietnam War had dragged on for years and descended into a grinding end game after most US ground troops had been withdrawn, the 1991 war was six weeks of shock and awe. The two London demonstrations before the war were the biggest foreign policy demonstrations ever seen in the capital – 200,000 people. The biggest demonstrations ever to take place before a war had even started.
With both the anti-cruise mobilization in the 1980s and the anti-war mobilization of 1990-91, there was a strong sense of existing norms being violated, of a stable, reasonably benign situation being disrupted and destabilized – by aggressive US policies. This perception, this sense of discontinuity, was a sign that though the peace movement had developed in understanding since 1958, we were to a large extent still prey to official propaganda and mystique as to both nuclear weapons policy and foreign policy in general.
In the 1980s, the movement campaigned against cruise and Pershing on the basis that they were First Strike weapons, designed to fight and win a nuclear war. Their accuracy and explosive power meant that they appeared to be designed to attack the military chain of command and control, and Soviet nuclear missile silos. They seemed to be parts of a First Strike capability, giving the US the notional ability to destroy the USSR’s capacity to launch a nuclear attack in a disarming pre-emptive attack.

This was the complete opposite of what people understood to be ‘nuclear deterrence’ or ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’, which they regarded as a reasonably stable (if undesirable) status quo. This was a misunderstanding of what ‘deterrence’ actually meant. For nuclear policymakers, ‘deterrence’ doesn’t just mean ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’, but has a wide variety of meanings, including ‘threatening weaker states to make them do things that are desired or not do things that are not desired’.

Before CND arrived to put the pressure on, British policymakers used to be open about this kind of thing. Sir John Slessor, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, was one of the most influential military theorists of his time (influencing the Pentagon). Slessor wrote in The Great Deterrent (1957): ‘In most of the possible theatres of limited war… it must be accepted that it is at least improbably that we should be able to meet a major communist offensive in one of these areas without resorting to tactical nuclear weapons.’

In 1956, Lord Montgomery stated that it was ‘unlikely that a war as big as Korea could be fought again without the use of nuclear weapons.’ The term ‘limited war’ meant wars like Korea – wars in the Third World.

The 1956 Defence White Paper said: ‘we have to be prepared for the outbreak of localised conflicts on a scale short of global war. In such limited wars the possible use of nuclear weapons cannot be excluded.’

Why? The Chiefs of Staff wrote in 1958 that: ‘tactical nuclear weapons would be needed to offset adverse balances of manpower and deter limited war’.

Strategic nuclear weapons were for ‘deterring’ the Soviet Union. Tactical nuclear weapons were for ‘deterring’ unruly Third World states. Of particular interest to Britain were the colonies and the Commonwealth – states formerly subjugated as part of the British Empire, now in some way dependent on Britain. In 1959, Lord Home, Commonwealth Secretary, stated that the countries of the British Commonwealth were ‘rich and tempting prizes to the Communists’. He observed that: ‘to abandon the deterrent, the only weapon with which we could come to their rescue and save their freedom, would seem to me to be impossible.’

Performing the necessary decoding, we see that the good lord was saying that to maintain the Commonwealth of ‘friendly’ states ready to take their (subordinate) place in the British economy, all military power should be at the ready, including nuclear weapons.

The British Government was clear fifty years ago that nuclear weapons were for use against Third World states, and not merely for the protection of the homeland (or the European landmass) from Soviet invasion. This is not a desperate post-Cold War rationalization for nuclear weapons.

This was not merely a matter of theory. In 1963 alone, Britain’s strategic nuclear bombers made 400 overseas flights – to the Caribbean as well as stops on the way to Australia. RAF historian Andrew Brookes comments in The History of Britain’s Airborne Deterrent: Force V that the 1960 non-stop flight of a V-bomber from Norfolk to Canberra, Australia, was designed to: ‘underline the point to anyone with designs on the further fringes of the Commonwealth.’

Military historian Julian Lider points out that ‘deterrence’ has had four principal meanings in the strategic literature, including ‘Deterrence against any hostile action including blackmail [sic] concerning Western interests in the Third World.’

That was a long nuclear detour. The point is that the massive mobilization of the 1980s was based on an awakening about developing US nuclear strategy, along with, in my view, a significant degree of misunderstanding about existing British and US nuclear strategies. Of course, this ‘misunderstanding’ has been carefully fostered by the Establishment, and the British mass media in particular.

Similarly, the invasion of Iraq in 1991 was not as aberrant as it felt for much of the peace movement. The post-war history of British interventionism (Greece, Indonesia, Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Oman and so on) had been forgotten or never really noticed as it was going on, and the reality of British brutality in the north of Ireland had never been fully digested. The result, I think, was a degree of illusion about British foreign policy.
So it’s a mixed picture. From what I’ve read, I think the disarmament movement developed greater understanding of the political system, grew more tolerant or supportive of nonviolent civil disobedience, and became more radical in its thinking, and that’s why the movement was more united in the 1980s and sustained a level of activity even after the INF Treaty and the Gulf War I.

On the other hand, the peace movement in general was (in my view) still suffering from some illusions about nuclear policy and foreign policy in general, problems which persist. And on the deeper questions of how to make change – how to ban the bomb, for example – I think we still have a long way to go.
For a start, we could try to come to some common understanding of why the early CND and Committee of 100 approaches both failed so completely.
I’m not saying that a better understanding of the limits of previous strategies will lead immediately to new ways of working and new objectives that will bring about rapid break-throughs and an avalanche of disarmament. What I am suggesting is that coming together to try to understand past failures, current frustrations and future opportunities can lead to better strategies and faster progress towards common goals, towards the fulfilment of common values. That’s the real benefit that the victims of Western power – present victims and those at risk – could gain from activists gathering to talk and share and not merely to plan.

How are we going to encourage the growth of a radical peace movement? I’m afraid this is where I’m going to have to turn to Chomsky.

Noam Chomsky wrote in Liberation in 1969 (re-printed in Radical Priorities): ‘The best way to defend civil liberties is to build a movement for social change with a positive programme that has a broad-based appeal, that encourages free and open discussion and offers a wide range of possibilities for work and action…. in the long run, a movement of the left has no chance of success, and deserves none, unless it develops an understanding of contemporary society and a vision of a future social order that is persuasive to a large majority of the population. Its goals and organizational forms must take shape through their active participation in political struggle and social reconstruction. A genuine radical culture can be created only through the spiritual transformation of great masses of people, the essential feature of any social revolution that is to extend the possibilities for human creativity and freedom…. In an advanced industrial society it is, obviously, far from true that the mass of the population have nothing to lose but their chains, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. On the contrary, they have a considerable stake in preserving the existing social order. Correspondingly, the cultural and intellectual level of any serious radical movement will have to be far higher than in the past, as Andre Gorz, for one, has correctly emphasized. It will not be able to satisfy itself with a litany of forms of oppression and injustice. It will have to provide compelling answers to the question of how these evils can be overcome by revolution or large-scale reform. To accomplish this aim, the left will have to achieve and maintain a position of honesty and commitment to libertarian values. It must not succumb to the illusion that a "vanguard party," self-designated as the repository of all truth and virtue, can take state power and miraculously bring about a revolution that will establish decent values and truly democratic structures as the framework of social life. If its only clearly expressed goals are to smash and destroy, it will succeed only in smashing and destroying itself. Furthermore, if a radical movement hopes to be able to combat imperialism, or the kinds of repression, social management and coercion that will be developed by the evolving international economic institutions, it too will have to be international in its organizational forms as well as in the cultural level it seeks to attain. To construct a movement of this sort will be no mean feat. It may well be true, however, that success in this endeavour is the only alternative to tyranny and disaster.’ (‘Some Tasks for the Left’)

Chomsky suggested in a 1971 interview (also re-published in Radical Priorities): ‘it seems perhaps not unrealistic to look forward to a mass political movement that will be devoted to badly needed reforms, anti-imperialist and antimilitarist, concerned with guaranteeing minimal standards of health, income, education, industrial safety and conditions of work, and overcoming urban decay and rural misery. Within it, or related to it, there might develop a variety of more radical movements that explore the possibility of dismantling the system of private and state power and democratizing basic social and economic institutions through cooperatives and community and workers’ control. I would hate to see the Left too well organized at this stage (not much fear of this in any event), though one would hope that destructive factional squabbling could be overcome in favour of sympathetic and fraternal disagreement and, where possible, cooperation among those who have rather different ideas about what are, after all, rather obscure and poorly understood matters.’ (‘The New Radicalism’)

If we take this as a rough model, the suggestion here is that radical movements – including a radical peace movement – only have a chance of really flourishing and developing as elements of larger reform movements. The movement as a whole has to grow if the radical fringe (or core) of it is to grow. That’s the necessary condition. The sufficient conditions are that the radical movements have to be intellectually excellent, libertarian-democratic, honest, persuasive and international.

Chomsky has written about the development of the peace movement back in the 1980s: ‘The threat of nuclear war is real enough. There is much that can be done to reduce the threat, and it would be wrong, even criminal, to fail to do what can be done to constrain the military system and to reduce the tensions and conflicts that may lead to its employment, terminating history. Nevertheless, to concentrate all energies on delaying an eventual catastrophe, while ignoring the causal factors that lie behind it is simply to guarantee that sooner or later it will occur. There are reasons why states devote their resources to improving the technology of destruction, why they seek international confrontation and undertake violent intervention. If these reasons are not addressed, a terminal conflict is a likely eventuality; only the timing is in doubt. It is suicidal to concentrate solely on plugging holes in the dike without trying to stem the flood at its source. For us, that means changing the structures of power and dominance that impel the state to crush moves towards independence and social justice within our vast domains and that constantly drive it towards militarization of the economy….
    ‘As our society is constituted, public policy will be guided by the imperatives on intervention and military Keynesianism; protests against particular excrescences, however successful, will lead to pursuit of the same objectives by similar means along other paths, since the state – in the broad sense of earlier discussion – relies on them for its survival in its present form. Alternatives to existing forms of hierarchy, domination, private power and social control certainly exist in principle, and are well-known, and even supported by much of the population despite their remoteness from the intellectual scene, as already briefly noted. But to make them realistic will require a great deal of committed work, including the work of articulating them clearly. Similarly, opposition to slavery would have failed if no realistic alternative had been advanced: rental rather than ownership of labour, in our own history, not the end to which we should strive, but a major advance nonetheless. Determined opposition to the latest lunacies and atrocities must continue, for the sake of the victims as well as our own ultimate survival. But it should be understood as a poor substitute for a challenge to the deeper causes, a challenge that we are, unfortunately, in no position to mount at present though the groundwork can and must be laid. Protest over Star Wars, massacre in El Salvador, and so on, is a sign of our weakness. A strong peace movement would be challenging military-based capitalism and the world system it dominates while seeking to support similar forces to the extent that they can survive in the so-called "socialist world"….
    ‘Unless the various strands of the movements for peace and social justice can develop and sustain a vision of an attainable future that expresses the felt needs of the overwhelming mass of the population for freedom, justice, decency, solidarity and meaningful democracy, and unless they can find a way to follow Bakunin’s advice to construct the "facts" of this future within existing society, there will be no way to proceed beyond attempts to mitigate the worst atrocities and to delay the final catastrophe.’ (Turning the Tide, pp. 249-250)

In other words, a ‘strong peace movement’ would be a radical peace movement, an anti-capitalist peace movement that was powerful enough to seriously challenge wage-slavery, investor control and unaccountable management. A movement able to abolish the transnational corporations that rule the world, and to replace them with new democratic social and economic forms.

If we are talking about a radical peace movement, this must be a key element of what we are talking about.

I suspect that one of the divergences between many of the people who identify with ‘the peace movement’ and those who would rather identify with ‘the anti-war movement’ might revolve around their attitudes towards ‘anti-capitalism’ in the sense just described.

Personally, I think the peace movement is a loose melange of groups and individuals working on issues around militarism and war, and contains the traditional peace organizations such as CND, and newer forms such as the International Solidarity Movement, members of which are under fire in Gaza as I write, standing alongside Palestinian herb farmers struggling to maintain a semblance of normality in what Israel describes as a ‘ceasefire’.
Some final words from Chomsky:

‘Prospects for freedom and justice are limitless. The steps we should take depend on what we are trying to achieve. There are, and can be, no general answers. The questions are wrongly put. I am reminded of a nice slogan of the rural workers’ movement in Brazil (from which I have just returned): they say that they must expand the floor of the cage, until the point when they can break the bars. At times, that even requires defence of the cage against even worse predators outside: defence of illegitimate state power against predatory private tyranny in the United States today, for example, a point that should be obvious to any person committed to justice and freedom – anyone, for example, who thinks that children should have food to eat – but that seems difficult for many people who regard themselves as libertarians and anarchists to comprehend. That is one of the self-destructive and irrational impulses of decent people who consider themselves to be on the left, in my opinion, separating them in practice from the lives and legitimate aspirations of suffering people.
    So it seems to me. I’m happy to discuss the point, and listen to counter-argument, but only in a context that allows us to go beyond shouting of slogans – which, I’m afraid, excludes a good deal of what passes for debate on the left, more’s the pity.’

‘[A] general strategy for overcoming authoritarian institutions, how could there be an answer to that question? There isn’t any. In fact, I think those questions are mostly asked by people who don’t want to become engaged. If you want to become engaged and do it, there are plenty of problems around that you can work on, whether it’s what you started with, hungry children, or the destruction of the environment, the breakdown of security in the workplace, public subsidy to huge transnationals, we can go on and on. But it’s not going to happen by pushing a button. It’s going to happen by dedicated, concentrated work which will slowly build up the understanding, the relationships among people, the perceptions, the support systems, the alternative institutions and so on. Then something can happen. But there’s no general all-purpose strategy for that.’

‘Separatism, subcultures or actions that remain meaningless or offensive to much of the population, lack of an articulated vision of the future, acceptance without awareness of the doctrines of the state religion – these are among the many reflections of the enormous power of the Western system of fragmentation and ideological control, and of our inability, so far, to combat it, except sporadically.’ (Turning the Tide, p. 250)

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