Michael Kidron

Her Majesty’s Humble Petitioners

(July 1954)

From Socialist Review, Vol. 3 No. 11, July 1954, p. 3.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The fear of the Hydrogen-bomb has bred many reactions, one of the most common and most useless of them is the attempt to prevent an atomic war by means of piling up signatures on petitions to the Government praying that it take measures to ban the bomb and so save humanity from a suicidal World War III.

Launchers of such petitions would have us believe that a British Government that has a vested interest in force – we have only to remember the Rubber War in Malaya, the War for White Supremacy in Kenya, the Sugar and Bauxite Occupation of British Guiana, the threatened war in Uganda – will willingly disarm because it is faced with the consequences of its use. We are supposed to believe that the British capitalist economy which is having such difficulty in competing in the world market is not going to be forced into the limitless market of war when threatened with unemployment and working class initiative in the movement towards Socialism. We are told that the U.S. capitalists who need a war to get rid of their surpluses while maintaining full employment and industrial “peace and the Russian bureaucrats who need a war to complete the robbery they started in Eastern Europe by engulfing Western Europe as well, that these two powers who have to use everything they have including the H-bomb to maintain the balance between them, will voluntarily disarm and lay themselves open to a breach of the gentlemen’s agreement between them, to a military defeat for the sucker. No, any petition to the manufacturers of H-bombs is as effective as asking brothel keepers to guard the virtue of the girls in their “care.”

Nothing can be gained from petitioning the British Government about H-bombs and disarmament; their, hands must be forced. The only guarantee of peace is the control of the atomic industry by those who 'have most to fear from that industry, by those who can have no conceivable interest in war, the workers of Great Britain, Russia and America. Workers’ control of the atomic industry is the only effective international control. It must start from below, in the plants themselves.

The more intelligent petition-mongers have another point to make: although they themselves are useless and have no direct effect petitions cause People to think and, in the long run, to act. This is quite untrue.

In the first place, a petition justifies its existence only in so far as it collects as many signatures as possible; its formulation must be, therefore, the highest common factor of generality. It never raises new issues but puts down on paper whatever is likely to receive general acquiescence. There is no possibility of arguing a point, of proving an approach right because the launching of a petition already assumes that the body of opinion which is going to support it is already in existence.

Secondly, it is untrue that petitions rouse people to action. On the contrary, they lead to quietism and a useless salving of conscience. They are organised by a small body of people who are active while the mass of the people play the most passive of passive role – a person who signs has, after all, done something and may now hibernate and take no interest in the affairs until another petition-hawker wakes him up to put his conscience to sleep. There is no common activity about the wording of the petition, a struggle which can have immense educational value, as have, for example, resolutions passed in T.U. and Labour Party branches. A signer can either take it or leave it, there is nothing to show him all its implications, and there is nothing he can do besides sign.

Petitions as a medium of mass education, as a means of rousing mass consciousness, are worse than useless. They come to the rank-and-filer from outside as a finished product. Nothing he can do can change its form. The real educational medium is the resolution passed in the trade union branch and in the local Labour Party ward, because these resolutions are the joint product of all members and truly reflect the mood of the meetings.

Resolutions in branches are part of the normal lives of the members as is their branch, and are thus able to be linked up with all of their other normal activities. Resolutions can thus, lead to action – strike action as a result of some political resolution for example – and don’t necessarily lead one to the dead end that is inevitably the terminus of a petition.

The question of war or peace, war or Socialism, lies in the hands of the working class; petitions are useless in the arsenal of the working class; the strongest weapon in our hands is the strike, whether for pay or politics, and our strongest educational medium – the branch meeting and the branch resolution.

Last updated on 16 February 2017