It may be useful, in considering the possibilities for radical social change in the industrial democracies, to look back at Britain in the early 1960s, when thousands of young people risked arrest in a determined effort to force British nuclear disarmament.
There were very different political currents in the nuclear disarmament movement at the time. In Britain, the main organisation in this field is the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which had its inaugural meeting in February 1958. In its first incarnation, CND was anti-direct action, which it feared would weaken its ability to win over the Labour Party.
Several of the members of the CND Executive Committee had been part of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, which was run as a brief, focused publicity-and-lobbying operation between 1955 and 1957. In its brief life, the campaign succeeded in forcing the British government to pass a Homicide Act which introduced degrees of murder, and limited the use of the death penalty. The group closed itself down when it became apparent that no further success could be expected with the current government – it went into hibernation waiting for elections and a new government.
Canon John Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, who had been a member of the steering committee of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, became the chair of CND. He wanted the new campaign to be a similar top-down steering committee – made up of eminent names – focused on changing Labour Party policy.
This strategy was contested by one of the eminent names on the Executive Committee. In October 1960, the philosopher Bertrand Russell resigned as president of CND (it has had many vice-presidents, but never again a president, for some reason) and helped to initiate the Committee of 100 dedicated to organising mass civil disobedience.
There was a strange coincidence between Russell’s resignation as CND president and the apparent success of the party-political strategy. Just days before Russell left CND in October 1960, the Labour Party conference in Scarborough passed unilateralist motions submitted by two major unions, and rejected the official policy document on defence. It seemed that the next Labour government would ban the British bomb.
However, the weakness of the party-political strategy was evident immediately in Scarborough when the leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, spoke up just before the first unilateralist vote, vowing to ‘fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love’. He added: ‘We will fight, and fight, and fight again, to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity, so that our party – with its great past – may retain its glory and its greatness’ – by retaining nuclear weapons.
In other words, Gaitskell made it clear that he would ignore Labour Party policy in government.
CND noted at the time that all the unions which had voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament had done so after full debate and majority votes at their own conferences: ‘and in all of them except the Transport and General Workers’ the leaders had bowed reluctantly to a rank-and-file decision’. Gaitskell succeeded in swinging 11 trade unions back to conventional politics in the following months, and Labour policy reverted to the nuclear mainstream at the next party conference in 1961.
We should note that even when the Labour Party made nuclear disarmament a manifesto commitment in 1964, this was not felt to be binding. The new Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had no difficulty after the 1964 elections in proceeding with the purchase of Polaris submarine-launched nuclear missiles from the United States, despite the fact that the manifesto had rejected Polaris as ‘nuclear pretence’: ‘It will not be independent and it will not be British and it will not deter. Its possession will impress neither friend nor potential foe.’
Returning to the CND-Committee of 100 breach of 1960-61, Bertrand Russell explained the strategy of the Committee of 100 (as he saw it) in the New Statesman in February 1961: ‘There is a very widespread feeling that the individual is impotent against governments, and that, however bad their policies may be, there is nothing effective that private people can do about it. This is a complete mistake. If all those who disapprove of government policy were to join in massive demonstrations of civil disobedience, they could render governmental folly impossible and compel the so-called statesmen to acquiesce in measures that would make human survival possible.’
Massive demonstrations of civil disobedience followed. On 18 February 1961, perhaps 4,000 people sat down on the pavements surrounding the Ministry of Defence. There were no arrests. On 29 April 1961, 10,000 people marched down Whitehall in central London; over 2,000 sat down; and 862 were arrested. On 17 September 1961, over 12,000 people attended a banned demonstration in Trafalgar Square, and 1,314 were arrested. In Scotland, on the same day, a mass sit-down demonstration at the Holy Loch nuclear base resulted in 351 arrests. This was the high-water mark of the Committee. On 9 December 1961, civil disobedience was organised at several NATO bases simultaneously, with 2,200 taking part and 850 being arrested.
Early on, the Committee had adopted the idea of pledging, with individuals committing themselves to civil disobedience in writing before an action. A planned action at the Air Ministry in London on 9 September 1962 was cancelled when only 3,900 pledges were received by 2 September – the Committee had set itself a goal of 7,000 pledges. The direct action movement led by the Committee of 100 was in decline – as was the constitutional movement led by CND.
Peggy Duff, the organising secretary of CND, later wrote that one of the central problems of the organisation was summed up in an observation by the US pacifist Staughton Lynd. He contrasted two styles of politics: ‘political paternalism as against political self-reliance, plebiscitary democracy in contrast to participatory democracy, vicarious politics opposed to political direct action’. Duff wrote in her 1971 memoir Left, Left, Left, ‘too many of the [CND] leadership, too large a part of the centre, was paternalist, plebiscitary and vicarious, and basically lacked the imagination or the courage to accept and lead the movement as it was’. She was equally stern in her criticisms of the membership of the organisation: ‘They wanted to have their cake and eat it, to remain respectable within the establishment and to challenge it too, to operate inside and outside conventional politics, to marry orthodoxy and nonconformism, to remain inside the system and to destroy it, to create a new sort of politics within the confines of the old. It was this dichotomy that killed it.’
No doubt similarly harsh words could be said of some of the leadership and many grassroots supporters of the Committee of 100 (Duff notes that ‘because so many sat and paid their fines and went home, the emphasis on personal action never overcame the ingrained habit of relying on a leadership’).
More important than these problems were the core strategic ideas held by many in each organisation: that the retention or disposal of British nuclear weapons was a policy like the abolition of capital punishment, or that mass sit-down demonstrations by themselves could significantly alter nuclear policy. While the constitutionalists led by Canon Collins sought to dissociate themselves from the direct actionists, both wings of the disarmament movement were actually operating on a similar analysis of the nature of the problem – and its solution.
Noam Chomsky has suggested that civil disobedience in modern western societies can be effective only under two conditions: when the issue at stake is ‘a marginal class interest of the ruling class which will be conducted if the costs aren’t too high at home’; and where a large part of the population understands that the policy in question is morally wrong. In these circumstances, civil disobedience can mobilise the large part of the population who see the policy as objectionable, and this mobilisation can raise the costs of the policy ‘to the point where people who run the society will decide that it’s not worth it’.
Chomsky observed in 1974 that civil disobedience in these circumstances ‘is useful and important and, you know, a courageous thing to do, and I’m all for it, but it has virtually nothing to do with social change as far as I can see’.
Chomsky began these observations in relation to the ongoing war in Vietnam, saying that civil disobedience was ‘precisely useful’ in situations such as Vietnam, which was a ‘peripheral concern of the managers of the US global system’, despite the massive resources devoted to stamping out independent nationalism in Indochina. In contrast, ‘Other tasks are much harder, those that begin to touch the structure of power and privilege; serious efforts to confront the military system are a case in point.’
Many in CND and in the Committee of 100 – perhaps the mainstream in both organisations – saw nuclear weapons as an aberration, a surface phenomenon that could be detached from the body politic. They failed to see that nuclear weapons were near to the core of the British structure of power and privilege, critical to Britain’s control of its external domains and its international financial and economic interests. As such, their abolition needed much more than the huge Aldermaston marches organised by CND every Easter, or the massive sit-down demonstrations organised by the Committee of 100 in 1961. Chomsky wrote in 1985: ‘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 state capitalism and the world system it dominates’.
Milan Rai, editor of Peace News. A fully-referenced version of this essay will appear on the Peace News website.
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