Peter Sedgwick

NATO, the Bomb and Socialism

(Autumn 1959)

From Universities & Left Review, No.7, Autumn 1959, pp.7-13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IN the September of 1948, the United States Secretary of Defence, James Forrestal, conversed with the Ambassador to Moscow. The Senate’s Vandenberg Resolution of June had committed the United States to seeking a regional military arrangement with Europe; NATO was in gestation. Forrestal heard the Ambassador’s estimate of Soviet possibility, and noted afterwards: “The Russians cannot possibly have the industrial competence to produce the atomic bomb now, and it will be five or even ten years before they could count on the manufacture of it in quantity”.

Nine months after the Vandenberg Resolution, the North Atlantic Treaty was duly published. “Democracy”, proclaimed Ernest Bevin at the christening, “is no longer a series of isolated units”. The Portuguese Foreign Minister hailed the signatories as “the depository of the ideals of Western civilisation”. And in September, 1949, one year after Forrestal’s contented forecast, the first nuclear explosion was detected in Soviet Russia.

To a generation whose apathy or protest has defined itself against an ever-present background of “nuclear stalemate”, “calculated risk”, “massive retaliation”, and all the cliches of annihilation, it is hard to believe that all this is “something that no one willed”. The Great Deterrent, together with the political and military arrangements which make its delivery possible, is so often and so highly extolled by our diplomats and generals that we might be forgiven for thinking that our danger was the outcome of deliberate high policy, pursued with single-minded foresight since the Cold War began.

For the officialdom of the United States (and, we may presume, of Western Europe), the Atom Bomb was, at the time of the Atlantic Treaty, not a present threat to their own populations. That possibility could be safely relegated to (say) 1958, according to the estimate they made at the time. What President Truman, in authorising its development, in early 1950, was to call “the so-called hydrogen or super-bomb” (an outlandish term, quite clearly), was not yet begun when the airstrips that would house it were laid down. “Fall-out” was something that had happened at Hiroshima or might happen (mainly to the Russians) if war ever started; not something that was there, in your glass of milk and the bones of your children. The Inter-Continental Missile and even its Intermediate junior did not exist. The Bomb was horrible, yes; but horrible for Them if They overstepped the mark, not horrible for Us and Them and Everybody if some fool, Here, There or Anywhere blundered or bluffed just once too often. “Whatever happens, we have got/The Gatling gun, and they have not”: only bigger.

This is possibly a misinterpretation of the mood of Western foreign policy at the time. Yet it seems hard, without assuming some such gigantic complacency, to account for certain significant contrasts between then and now. As, for example, that between Lord Russell, the sage of CND, and the Russell who in the late 1940’s could advocate crude atomic blackmail to force Soviet totalitarianism to heel; or between the Priestley who contributed to Collier’s Magazine’s notorious Cold-War issue with prophecies of a Russia devastated and poisoned by American bombardment, and the Priestley of Doomsday for Dyson and anti-nuclear sanity; or between George Kennan, advocate of “disengagement” in the Reith Lectures of 1957, and the NATO strategist of “containment”, “Mr. X”, of ten years earlier; or between “the Labour Left’s honeymoon with American foreign policy” of 1948- 50 (documented in Leon D. Epstein’s Britain – Uneasy Ally, whence the above phrase originates), and The Paper That Leads The Anti-H Bomb Campaign of recent times. (It is curious now to note that Ian Mikardo’s attack on NATO in the Tribune of April 20th, 1949, was in the form of a lone-voice dissent from the editorial line.)

These perhaps embarrassing reminders are not set down for the sake of wisdom after the event or destructive heckling at the platform speakers. It is necessary to recall such facts in order to capture the flavour of those nineteenforties, when the political and strategic framework for today’s thermonuclear poise was laid down, with hardly a murmur of opposition. The pacifists objected, of course, and so did a few Trotskyists; and there was Mikardo and Zilliacus; and naturally, the Communist Party and the British Peace Committee. But even apart from the fact that these last sources of protest were tainted by their acquiescence in frame-up, murder, and all-round political thuggery, the very language of the Stalinist “struggle for peace” harboured certain deficiencies of principle whose consequences will be examined later.

It is true that the New Statesman at the time devoted several hostile editorials to the conclusion of the Treaty. But within a fairly short period that journal had reverted to its role of giving progressive advice from within the political assumptions of the Establishment. “The American presence in Europe” was one of those assumptions: “the danger of a third world war – we dismiss as unreal the theoretical alternative of western capitulation without fighting – would be diminished by large-scale reinforcement of Western armies by American troops” (New Statesman, October 28, 1950).

The default of the independent Left over the initiation of NATO made possible, or easier, a whole chain of appalling effects which the Left was then forced to contest in piecemeal and rearguard fashion.

The most immediate of these effects were not entirely novel. “The military definition of reality”, to use one of Wright Mills’ most memorable phrases, did not begin with NATO. But the foundation of NATO undoubtedly helped to fix that particular disorder of ruling-class perception, strengthened its international and official status as the latest brand of sanity and, in the name of Security, rationalised the mental barriers which its victims erected round themselves. Interestingly enough for the student of elite psychology, the West’s military paranoia grew side by side with a parallel psychosis in the East: what might be called “the police definition of reality”. Intertwined in a global folie a deux, the two sicknesses fed upon each other with a painful ferocity. Each engineered coup, each faked trial by which the collectivist bureaucracy marked its progress, was viewed by the privately endowed wards of the lunatic West through the haze of military hallucination. On the other hand, the bellicose threats of Western generals, the construction of armed alliances and encircling bases, served to intensify the bloodthirsty introversion of the Kremlin: free from the treason of opposition, single in its purged purity, the Camp of Peace renewed its vigilance.

Among the rulers of each bloc, the nightmare took its toll in the transition from metaphorical to actual psychosis. In the West, “Mr. Forrestal became obsessed with the idea that the Russians were invading the United States, and when a fire siren blew he jumped out of bed and had to be restrained. Later the siren blew a second time and Mr. Forrestal then ran out of the house in his pyjamas, screaming about the Red Army, and it was with some difficulty that he was caught and brought back into the house ... It is hoped that important decisions made when he was possibly not in his right mind will be reviewed”. (Extracts from a broadcast by Drew Pearson on April 10, 1949). Later in that year Forrestal was to jump out of the window of the naval hospital where he was confined during his “occupational overstrain” and finished up with a state funeral. The victim in the Communist camp was more exalted. “He had completely lost consciousness of reality,” a friend of the patient has stated in an obituary memoir, whose pathological details are otherwise mercifully vague. (Krushchev’s Secret Speech, Manchester Guardian edition 1956, p.25).

Nuclear Power-Politics

Nowadays, these brainstorms are mentioned on both sides if at all, with a certain delicacy, as part of a past which is best forgotten. We are sure that the Soviet Union has never actually wanted war. The Central Committee has taken the necessary steps to safeguard Soviet legality. Only from time to time there has been the odd relapse or two, a fit of State Department brinkmanship, say, or the murder of a few revisionists.

The early frenzies of the Two Camps are almost wholly absorbed in the cooler lunacy of mutual deterrence. Yet while the military rage lasted, damage was done to Socialism, as an idea and as a movement, whose repair in Britain is only now beginning. The calculations of nuclear power politics obliterated internationalism. Reliance upon the strategy of American capitalism was preferred to the building up of a militant and independent working-class movement.

“Socialism vis-à-vis American capitalism had, in matters of foreign policy, become irrelevant under the pressing demands of national security. The sources of policy were not Labour manifestos but Churchillian texts and Foreign Office knowledge” (Epstein, op. cit., p.133).

Once again: neither diplomatic bipartisanship with Toryism nor the wholesale assumption of bourgeois military ideals began when the Labour Government entered NATO. The support of the Greek monarchy and Right against the Communist Resistance and the war against the Malayan guerrillas preceded NATO. In 1948, the alacrity with which the Labour Cabinet accepted the American proposal for B.29 bases in Britain astounded even the State Department. Later in the same year Sir Stafford Cripps told Forrestal that “Britain must be regarded as the main base for the deployment of American power, and the chief offensive against Russia must be by air” (Forrestal Diaries, p.460).

All the same, NATO formalised and internationalised military relationships which had so far been nationally separate and largely unacknowledged. A character in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins states that the Soviet Union is superior to all other kinds of Socialism, simply because it exists. The formation of NATO made possible a somewhat similar defection of the ideal before the march of brute fact. “The military definition of reality” was now incarnate in the world, here to stay. The Socialists’ definition of reality wasn’t, except in the heads of a few idealists whose consciences were of course to be respected (unless they were too fellow-travelling or too noisy) but who couldn’t be taken seriously.

The Holy Alliance

If NATO clinched militarising tendencies in the preceding years, it performed a similar political function. The Truman Doctrine of 1947 had made it clear that the United States was prepared to shore up right-wing European regimes (in this case those of Greece and Turkey) that were in danger of collapse through internal difficulties. In 1948 Admiral Carney, acting on his own initiative (which was later to be praised by Forrestal) made ready to provide arms for the Christian Democratic reaction of Italy in the event of its defeat at the polls. In an interview with l’Europe in 1952, Carney reminisced:

“In 1948, when it seemed that the Italian elections might end in civil war or at least in attempted revolution ... I loaded a transport ship with light arms and ammunition and ordered it to the Mediterranean. The captain had orders to cruise the coast for 200 miles awaiting orders ... It returned to the US with its cargo intact, because fortunately it was not necessary to put down any revolution.”

Further instances of official American preparedness for military intervention in France and Italy are documented in the early post-war sections of the Forrestal Diaries.

Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty runs:

“The parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.”

Lester Pearson, in a press conference at the time of the Treaty ceremony, gave a revealing gloss to this somewhat ambiguous sentence. He said:

“The ‘internal aggression’ clause was included in the Atlantic Military Pact at the request of France, Italy and other European countries. They want to know how many troops we can get to their countries in 24 hours if need be.”

Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State at the time, confirmed this interpretation at his press conference: “revolutionary activity in a member country inspired and assisted from outside as in Greece would be considered as an armed attack”. It would be difficult to find an instance of revolutionary activity anywhere in the world which was not seen by the State Department, the F.O. or the Quai d’Orsay as “inspired and assisted from outside”. NATO was quite clearly intended by its founders to be a twentieth-century edition of the Holy Alliance, dedicated to the preservation of the capitalist status quo in Europe.

With the decline of the Communist Parties of France and Italy, the threat of a NATO-sponsored intervention against “revolutionary activity in a member country” must now seem remote. The resuscitation of dead dangers is a risky ploy in political evangelism, “a retrospective radicalism”. Nonetheless, such a review at ten years’ distance has its point. Radicals ought to retrospect every now and then, if only to note their own failures of response. And the Holy Alliance is still with us; no longer the solid front against the single foe of Communism, but an unstable compound of reactionary elements whose enemies, to a large extent, differ. To translate strategic terms into political equivalents, NATO functions in Europe no longer primarily as the Sword of intervention, but as the Shield affording diverse forms of protection to the Right in each member state. The chief enemy of German Christian Democracy is Socialist neutralism, that of Italian Christian Democracy is a mainly Communist Left. France and Britain need power behind them when they negotiate from strength (where negotiation rather than repression is the order of the day) with Afro- Arab-Asian nationalism. Upon all these interests of the Right, NATO confers prestige and legitimacy (as well as the tangible asset of a streamline and dollar-oiled military machine). Adenauer, de Gaulle, and Macmillan are ‘the West’; Ollenhauer, Nenni, and Bourdet are not. Within NATO, national capitalisms bask in one another’s reflected power and glory – stunted Greece in the German Miracle, Salazar’s Portugal in Danish parliamentarism, and all the European Right in the American ascendancy.

Where these interests diverge or compete, NATO is powerless. The rival parties may be confronted (as in the Cyprus issue), but a solution depends on their gradual agreement. Where nothing else can be done, a discreet silence or a face-saving formula has to serve. When the requirements of Cold War strategy and of French Colonialism conflicted in the withdrawal of NATO-assigned divisions for the Algerian war, the North Atlantic Council ambiguously expressed “the hope of an early and lasting settlement”, and “noted the determination of the French Government to restore, as soon as possible, its full contribution towards the common defence of Europe” (NATO Letter, April 1st, 1956). A clearing house does not issue cheques of its own.

The original military purposes of NATO of course remain. Equipment is standardised, the military infrastructure co-ordinated, missile preparedness enhanced. But increasingly, rockets, troops and bases are manipulated within the alliance, not as means of military retaliation against Moscow, but as sources of political bargaining power against Washington and other NATO members. De Gaulle, in pursuit of la Gloire and American backing for the Algerian war, ushers SAC bases from France. Fortified by his front-line indispensability, Adenauer obstructs Western approaches to the Summit. The recent agreement on the separation of nuclear warheads from the Thor missiles in Britain serves the Macmillan government’s desire to keep the deterrent in partial cold storage until the development of Blue Streak completes Britain’s nuclear independence. Franco’s renewed attempts to enter NATO are prompted by his calculation of the extra boost that admission would give to his failing dictatorship.

NATO and the Labour Party

It is idle to speculate whether Attlee and Bevin would have given such an enthusiastic welcome to the Alliance if its political consequences in a later decade could have been reliably forecast to them. We are not entitled to ask of Labour Foreign Ministers that they be successful crystalgazers. We may, however, reasonably demand that they have enough sense of political reality to hesitate before bequeathing legacies whose final beneficiaries can only be the Tory International.

NATO’s effects within the Labour Party itself were hardly less comforting to the Right than its later direct benefits were for the European Establishment. Any party of Labour, no matter how lofty the preambles to its constitution, must have at its heart a sharpness and separateness of outlook, some kind of sense of class, if it is not to putresce and become only one more Establishment. A movement may be as reformist as the Labour Representation Committee, as divided as early German Social-Democracy, as millenarian as Spanish syndicalism, and still possess cohesion and momentum, so long as it is gifted with this essential partisanship: Labour as against Capital, men as against masters, the low ones as against the great ones, Us as against Them. And nothing can be more calculated to dilute this elixir of rank class-sense than a Holy Alliance between Labour’s representatives in office and an assortment of bourgeois-imperial or bourgeois-Scandinavian, bourgeois-fascistic or bourgeois-democratic, bourgeois-feudal or bourgeois-managerial, but always bourgeois governments.

It is no doubt possible to cite impressive precedents in which even very militant Socialist governments were willing to ally themselves with capitalist states for the sake of some important advantage. Lenin waiting vainly in 1918 for the Allies to accept his offer of a joint attack against Germany. Tito accepting American military and economic aid while Cominform tanks were massing across the border. But in these instances what was done was done unavoidably, and several governments in both Europe and the rest of the world have managed to avoid being drawn into the various regional divisions of the Holy Alliance. And in any case, Lenin and Tito were acting in accordance with the classic advice of Bacon: while never missing the chance of a bribe, never to let it influence one’s conduct in the slightest. (A principle incidentally brilliantly exemplified by the Bolsheviks’ acceptance of German government funds in the lean years before the revolution).

Hook, Line and Sinker

Labour’s participation in NATO was (by contrast) wholesale, hook, line and sinker. It is an interesting feature of the speeches made at the signing of the Treaty that, if you remove the names of their orators, shuffle them and deal them out in a row, it is impossible without prior knowledge to distinguish who said what. The individual backgrounds of the speakers – Italian aristocracy, American Ivy League, Portuguese Fascism, Transport and General Workers’ Union – all seem to have been absorbed in one great eupeptic anti-Communist mush. Nor will it do to blame this sad state of affairs on a handful of right-wing Labour bureaucrats tricking or steamrolling the masses of militant shopstewards and Constituency workers. Konni Zilliacus concludes regretfully in his Penguin Special of 1949:

“... the record of successive Annual Conferences on foreign affairs shows how unfair it is to blame Labour’s leaders for practising to deceive, when the great majority of the rank and file care so little about what happens to their fellow workers in other countries and understand so badly that our own lives and fortunes are bound up with theirs, that they will vote for anything endorsed by Mr. Bevin.” (Choose Peace, p.373).

In those days the Municipal and General didn’t need to recall its Conference to make sure that its block vote would go the right way, and T.&G. were the middle initials, not of Frank Cousins, but of Arthur Deakin.

So far, only the broad and intangible effects of NATO have been considered: the most general presuppositions and commitments assumed at the conclusion of the Treaty. Within a short space, however, the beginnings of specific policies emerged. It is not too much to say that all the issues of foreign policy which have so deeply divided the movement over the last eight years have been NATO issues.

Strangely enough, the Right has been far more ready than the Left to recognise the relationship between the general obligations of NATO and the contentious policies to which those obligations have successively given rise. “Our commitments to our allies” was the slogan brandished by Attlee, Morrison and Shinwell to confute Bevan in opposition, and by Bevan in Establishment to confute his own opponents of the Left. The Bevanites of the early Fifties, to the extent that they shared the Right-wing’s support for the Alliance, were forced into the unenviable position of not objecting to NATO so long as NATO was conducted inefficiently. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and, in recent months, Tribune (see Michael Foot, The Labour Party and NATO; A Question for Mr. Gaitskell, in the issue of July 17th this year) have taken a far more consistent and tenable stand in their willingness to return a straight “Yes” to the official platform’s favourite question: “Are you willing to jettison our commitments?” A brief review of the record will serve to confirm this analysis.

NATO and the Labour Rebels

It would be foolish to argue that the astronomic sums budgeted for armament by NATO governments in the post- Korea years were consciously envisaged at the time of the Treaty. Lavish rearmament was intended, to be supported in part by major contributions under the United States military aid programme. But it took the outbreak of the Korean War to jack up American military expenditure from the $18,000 million of 1949 to the $65,000 million of three years later. It was over the later stages of the British rearmament drive that the Bevanite controversy was precipitated.

”On 12th September, 1950, the Prime Minister announced an expansion of our armaments programme to a figure of £3,600 millions over three years. ‘This great expenditure’, he said, ‘represents the maximum that we can do ... without resorting to the drastic expedients of a war economy’! A bare twenty weeks later, on 29th January, 1951, he raised the programme to £4,700 millions and proposed to carry it out without resorting to the drastic expedients of a war economy and without explaining how the impossible had suddenly become possible.” (One Way Only, by Bevan, Wilson and Freeman, July 1951)

The timing of the Bevanite resignations from the Cabinet is interesting. NATO, as we have already seen, was acceptable to the Labour Left. So was the creation under NATO, in late 1950, of an integrated force under centralised command, and the appointment of the first Supreme Commander in Europe. So was the principle of large-scale rearmament; the 1950 “maximum” of £3,600 millions sparked no resignations. Only a particular extension of rearmament formed the ground for objections. Later in the controversy, Michael Young wrote:

“The Bevanites have not committed themselves to any detailed declaration in conflict with the NEC ... On the face of it there is only a small difference of degree over rearmament, over the American alliance, over nationalisation, and surely so much heat cannot be generated over a little more or a little less.”

It was unfair of the Left to accuse Bevan of being a turncoat in 1957; all he had done was to carry longheld assumptions, of the efficacy of deterrence and the necessity for the Alliance, to their ultimate conclusions.

It is in fact now difficult to see how, having accepted NATO, a future Labour Minister could boggle at any further inflation of the arms budget. The costs of supersonic aircraft and ballistic missiles are so colossal that it would appear niggardly to quibble over a few hundred million pounds which might make all the difference to success or failure in the programme. It is all very well for Labour military experts to list the costly failures of the present Government’s record in aircraft and missile development. But scientific research is such that one cannot decide in advance what is going to be an expensive failure, and skip it. We would of course be able to save quite a lot by following the Liberal policy of not developing nuclear warheads of our own, but (as Mr. Strachey has pointed out) not more than about 10-20% of the present total arms bill. The only alternatives to the present scale of armament are either to allow the Americans to foot the bill for everything, whatever figure we thought reasonable, or to follow King-Hall’s advice and rely on a Citizen army. (The further possibility of a Great-Power agreement on disarmament can, on the record so far, be relegated to a cloud-cuckoo future). Both these alternatives would cause so much trouble in NATO that we might as well be straightforward and say that we don’t intend to be counted on as allies within the Treaty.

Much the same approach holds good for the trouble over German rearmament. Hardly anybody in the Labour Party (and far less the Bevanites) questioned the decision to maintain large ground-forces in Europe in addition to the overall deterrent of Strategic Air Command. This is not surprising since, in the absence of such a ground force, the only means of defending Central Europe against the Red Army would have been to blast the whole area to radioactive smithereens from the air. The combined contingents of the NATO countries, without the addition of Germany, simply did not add up to enough power to resist the Russians. Successive NATO Supreme Commanders in Europe have made it quite clear that, without the requisite twelve German divisions, Europe could offer only “token resistance”. (Estimates of this order are gathered in Chapter Three of M. Margaret Ball’s recent NATO and The European Union Movement.) Anybody, therefore, who opposed German rearmament without opposing NATO at the same time, was therefore committed to saying either (a) that NATO was all right so long as it never had the means to fulfil precisely those purposes for which it was intended or (b) that it was very unlikely that the Russians would now attack. In practice, the latter argument (b) was the most popular one. However, if a Russian attack was considered unlikely in 1952-54 (when German rearmament was the main issue on the Left), it is strange that it was considered sufficiently likely in 1948-49, when Russia was much weaker, to justify the construction of NATO in the first place. In these inconsistent terms the struggle within the Labour Party was indeed waged, culminating in the 1954 Annual Conference where the Left’s opposition to German rearmament was only defeated by gerrymandering and switching of votes on a scale surpassing even this year’s manoeuvres on the nuclear issue.

CND Against the Pacts

The debate on the Bomb appears to have torn the scales from the eyes of many on the Left. The challenge of “our NATO commitments” has been thrown back in the faces of the Labour leadership for whom this argument had been the ultimate deterrent in the cold war of inner-party dissension. It is both curious and moving that the moment of truth should have broken within the movement so suddenly, after the years of grudging acquiescence. The clause in the CND’s objectives stating that Britain must renounce nuclear weapons “and refuse to allow their use by others in her defence” was adopted in March last year with a remarkable absence of fuss, considering that a few months previously the core of the organisation had confined itself to the demand for the abolition of nuclear testing. The directness of the original Municipal Workers’ resolution opposing the use of the Bomb “by or from” Britain is momentous in its implications for NATO, as its sponsors quite well knew; yet those simple three words which I have quoted were not based on any elaborate analysis of the Alliance and its role in international affairs, but on the straight conviction that compromise of the Liberal Party type, the sanctimonious luxury of abandoning the British deterrent while continuing to bask in the “protection” of the SAC, was a fraud and a hypocrisy. NATO as an organisation is not specifically denounced; yet, to this powerful and growing minority entrenched in every bastion of Labour Party conformity, NATO is, at the very least, expendable.

Thus, what the Communist Party and the British Peace Committee could never manage in years of direct assault on NATO has now largely been achieved almost as a byproduct of campaigning on a different although closely related issue. Part of the failure of the Stalinists is, as I have already mentioned, the fault of the totalitarian example in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Budapest 1956 provides no similar set-back for the CND (apart from the still too numerous hecklers who insist on telling the Aldermaston marchers to go back to Moscow). The Campaign can consider Budapest as the worst result that the abandonment of the Bomb could cause us to face, and set it against Hiroshima – and then, ask us which one of these ultimate possibilities we should choose. For the British Peace Committee, the choice Budapest-Hiroshima (which must be faced by any honest thinker) cannot be put, since Budapest cannot be acknowledged too strongly as a horror; it was horrible, undeniably, but too great a concentration on its horrific (negative) aspect might cause the audience to neglect the positive adornment of a blow against counter-revolution.

Failure of the Peace Movement

Apart even from this influential factor, the very language of the Peace Movement was suspect to wide circles of the potential Left. In the first place, a Conspiracy theory of history was implicit in all analysis produced from within the Stalinist orbit. “The ruling circles of the United States” were “bending all their efforts to prepare a new war”, “fresh plans of aggression” being constantly prepared by these very circles. A criminal foresight was thus ascribed to the enemy, in a manner both implausible and alien to Marxist categories. What Wright Mills calls “the drift and the thrust towards World War Three” is indeed to be ascribed to the existence of oligarchic and military ruling classes (whose distribution over the continents of the globe is, incidentally, somewhat more widespread than the Partisans of Peace ever hinted). But the danger of war arises, not from conscious planning on the part of these elites (despite the intermittent presence among them of addicts to “preventive war”); if this were so, we all could sleep safely, for the “ruling circles” would hardly be likely to plot their own annihilation, inevitable in the case of a World War fought with modern weapons. War is possible as the outcome of policies initiated by these irresponsible minorities, as the final unforeseen link in a causal chain forged at each stage by the previous choice of some ruling class. World War Three could burst out as “something that no one willed”; the resultant of competing configurations of social forces, rather than the random catastrophe of an individual will turned lunatic at a crucial point in the chain of command – SAC radar-screen, say, or Politbureau office. (The latter kind of outbreak might well happen, but as Mervyn Jones has pointed out, its total unpredictability removes it from the range of any possible political counter-attack.) At each foreign crisis when we have trembled in our shoes for mankind’s danger – Suez, Quemoy, Lebanon – we have surely all sensed this paradox: a process at work whose components were obviously a matter of conscious policy, and which yet in the outcome, taken as a whole, seemed frighteningly aimless. If Man is ever obliterated from the earth by means of his own armaments, there will be no simple answer to the question: Did he fall, or was he pushed?

A Ruling-Circle Conspiracy

By contrast, the theory of ruling-circle conspiracy is over-simple, a bogey-tale for the credulous. It is rather like a hysterical version of the old Union of Democratic Control story about the fatal ambition of statesmen and the wickedness of generals, unrelated to any wider context of social or economic power-relations. Indeed, in the nature of things, capitalism could never be analysed in the documents of Peace Congresses, for was this not a “broad movement”, aimed not merely at socialists but at all men and women of good will? The vocabulary of class is not for such “wide sections” as Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians or Rajagopalachari of the Indian Right. (Obviously the CND does not use Marxist language either, but its assumptions are at least compatible with a rational socialist approach.)

The second failure of principle inherent in the Peace Movement’s propaganda lay (and still lies) in its theory of national sovereignty in the advanced capitalist countries. The ruling circles of the United States – we were told – were not only planning aggressive war; they were also undermining the national independence of Britain, France and all the NATO countries. The Quisling Tories and Labour leaders were assisting in the process. The banner of national independence had been cast down by the bourgeoisie, said Stalin at the 19th Congress – the Communist Parties must pick it up from the dust. The British Communist Party took this advice so literally that in every demonstration on a foreign policy issue, whether organised directly by the Party or by the Peace Committee, there were the comrades waving the Union Jack. I can remember one Communist being very indignant with the way in which the British working class stampeded out of cinemas during the playing of God Save the Queen; the tune was slush of course, but the best National Anthem we had, and we ought to defend it against American and cosmopolitan influence. (The Communist concerned was, incidentally, myself.) Quite apart from the symbols, though, the National Independence theory had the effect of turning the fire from the only target Socialists can aim at effectively – the home government – to the United States or, to use the correct proletarian-internationalist phrase, “The Yanks”.

The practice of attacking American policy was often right. All the same, when it is possible to discover whether the CP or the CND is organising an anti-nuclear march by finding out whether it is directed towards an American or a British base, something is very seriously wrong. And as for National Independence, we have our bellyful of it these days. Suez, Algeria, our Bomb, the French Bomb, the Adenauer-de Gaulle axis, the lot. A nationally independent capitalism is as dangerous as a capitalism lined up with Wall Street, and very probably more so. NATO is not America’s chosen instrument for the domination of Europe, it is the cockpit of imperialist rivalries. And it is no good attacking it by appealing to the crudest working-class jingoism, as the Daily Worker does with its headlines about G.I. roadhogs and rapists. That current will drown you if you try to swim with it.

Very well then. After all the years of inflated idols and tub-thumping hysteria, blind alleys and guilty silence, here we are now, with our Campaign lollipops stowed ready under the stairs, our resolutions lined up for the next committee, and our calloused feet. Priestley, MacNamee, Russell, Arrowsmith, Cousins, Healy, Logue, A.J.P., Thompson, old uncle Canon Collins and all – and each name is important not as a “front” for a donations appeal or a “good draw” for a meeting, but as representing a layer of society or an ideological trend that either wasn’t politically there or wasn’t noticed a few years ago. For the first time since God knows when, there is a substantial foreign policy pressure-group in the land with no ties to Moscow and no hint of bipartisanship with the official credo.

What, if anything, has a militant Socialist got to say within this movement, that nobody else can say? Some Socialists would regard this question as an impertinence. What right have we, they ask, to waste the time and disrupt the programme of the Campaign with our pet sectional theories and raucous slogans? I can only think that this kind of Socialist regards his Socialism as a private possession, to be enjoyed each Friday when the New Statesman arrives. We have the same right to witness our Socialism in the Campaign as the Christians have to display their crosses and Biblical allusions. If we take Socialism seriously, we must accept the responsibility of winning Socialists; and where better should we win them but in a movement of men and women who have broken with the strategic illusions of our social order?

Are Nuclear Weapons Neutral?

Other Socialists would put the objection differently. The Socialist case on foreign policy (they would say) is completely irrelevant to the nuclear issue.

“The danger arises ... because of a technical factor, quite neutral politically, namely the destructive power of nuclear weapons ... A policy for opposition to nuclear arms and their use must be separated from the political ideologies of the Left and of the Right.” (Is Neutrality Necessary? by Roddy Barry, New Reasoner, No.5)

The destructive power of nuclear weapons is indeed a technical fact; and as such, as something explicable in terms of isotopes and critical mass and so on, it will always exist, even if all the present stockpiles were to be destroyed. But the present use of that destructive power in a manner dangerous to humanity is social fact, explicable only in terms of the history of particular configurations of social power. This social factor in the nuclear danger is the concern of the Socialist; for he believes that, given the replacement of the bourgeois nation-state by an international co-operative commonwealth, and the liquidation of irresponsible military and economic elites, any potentially lethal “technical factor” uncovered by Science will find no use on the scale of twentieth-century war.

It is this preoccupation with power-relationships that I believe to be the unique contribution of the Socialists in the fight for peace. “Who rules whom?” is today as good a question for getting to grips with the causes of a political issue, as it was when Lenin first put it. Neglect or mis-reading of power structures can be crucial to the stand one takes, or does not take, in this or that contingency. Leon D. Epstein notes in Britain – Uneasy Ally that the Left’s acceptance of the Truman administration as being some kind of American equivalent of a Labour government, made it very hard for them to oppose the foreign policy of that administration – including NATO. The consequences in policy of illusions about the “Socialist” character of the Soviet bureaucracy are well known. If Socialists do not constantly strive to place the great issues of the day in their power-context, it is not likely that anybody else will.

The Means of History-Making

Yet the general absence of any such consideration is one of the major weaknesses of the Left in foreign policy. The Cold War is continually treated as an autonomous process, accountable for in no other terms but those of military and diplomatic ploy and counterploy. Certain policies have been wrongly devised by statesmen; therefore let us, as statesmen in our own right, devise further and better policies on this or that issue – irrespective of whether the organisation of power in the regions under discussion is compatible with the practice of our policies. Konni Zilliacus is the best exponent of this approach, as befits an old League of Nations enthusiast; and within its limits, he is brilliant. There is no more diligent and retentive scavenger of diplomatic and military absurdities than Zilli. Edward Thompson, in a somewhat different way, is also pursuing the quarry of Cold War as thing-in-itself. Seek ye first (he seems to say) the abolition of the Cold War, and various things will be added unto you: the release of human energy from the arms race, the decline and fall of the Soviet bureaucracy, the unfreezing of Socialist movements from the political Ice Age.

The Cold War is presented as almost the principal cause of present troubles. Yet it is surely more than this: Stalinism was not created by Western brinkmanship (although Brinkmanship had a brutalising effect on Stalinism). The Cold War is also the consequence of particular power-structures, a direct assault on which must be the ultimate aim of the Socialist. If the end of the Cold War is a prerequisite for the rebirth of Socialism, in East and West, the Stalinist and bourgeois elites can ensure their own survival simply by piling on the tension at opportune moments. The future of Socialism will then depend on the kind co-operation of Krushchev and Eisenhower, or at least of the various anti-Socialist forces that Thompson assumes as possible successors to the present militarists. The struggle cannot be a two-stage process: first the cold-war breakthrough, then the Revolution. The direct attack on the strongholds of irresponsible power and the fight against the fore’gn policies emanating from these citadels, stand or fall together. In Wright Mills’ words once again:

“The corporate economy, the military ascendancy, and the political vacuum go together and support one another. One of the major reasons for their development, I believe, is the thrust towards war, which they in turn further. Accordingly an attack on war-making is also an attack on the US power elite. An attack on this power elite is also a fight for the democratic means of history-making. A fight for such means is necessary to any serious fight for peace; it is part of that fight. Military forces and economic facilities are as much a means of history-making as is the apparatus of the state. In so far as men want peace, they must see to it that these means are used to bring it about, that they are not made irrelevant to the drift and thrust toward war. If broader publics are to make history, they must gain control of these means of history-making.” (The Causes of World War Three, p.124.)

The second unique contribution which I believe the Socialist can make in the movement is a persistent concern with the growth of consciousness among the working class. Now that the trade unions have begun to move in on the anti-nuclear campaign, it is easy to believe that one of its chief deficiencies – its failure to appeal to any large working-class audience – is beginning to be remedied. This is in fact so to a certain extent; but the Labour Movement and the working class are not the same thing. The Labour Movement – that is, the activists who attend and vote in trade union organisations and bear the brunt of Constituency work – is largely internationalist and hostile to the Bomb. The working class, except for this minority of activists, is overwhelmingly jingoist, and acclaims the Bomb. Fifteen per cent seems to be the proportion which Gallup polls and observation would suggest could be counted as an “international” working-class minority. The beginning has been made; but the progress of anti-nuclear sentiment in the huge general unions should not deceive us. The very ease with which the CND has been able, in less than two years, to advance from a handful of enthusiasts to Transport House’s most feared rival, is largely a symptom of the small total of actual voters behind the millions written on the block-vote cards. This is not a matter of gerrymandering; if trade unionists will not attend branch meetings, the delegates to conference and the mandate they are given (if any) will be decided by the minority actually present.

Even trade unionists who have been involved in bitter industrial warfare cannot be relied on to reject jingoism, although there is no doubt that in every big dispute the consciousness of many workers is heightened to an extraordinary degree. But the gap between even the most militant of trade-union consciousness and internationalism is quite considerable. And it is just this gap which will have to be closed, in the minds of millions, if the Campaign is to succeed. It would be a bitter paradox if the Campaign were to gain the party, only to lose the class.

What can be done? Every attempt should be made to contact workers on the job, both on the lines of the Direct Action Committee’s picketing of rocket-sites, and in a more general way, by means of propaganda conducted by the activist minority among their workmates. Yet the limitations of this approach are obvious. Even if enough activists could be found to be available for work all over the country, it is impossible to change the basic attitudes of millions of people simply by lecturing at them. The assumptions of the approach are excessively rationalist; men’s minds are formed primarily not by the words they listen to and read, but by their life-experience, by what Marx called “sensuous practice”.

What could have the effect of changing the minds of millions by changing the terms of their life-experience? There is no possible answer to this, except in one word; crisis. The form of crisis – political or economic – is secondary; so (as Rosa Luxemburg argued in Reform or Revolution) is its degree of resemblance to the classic catastrophes of the capitalist market. But without some great social shock, or sequence of shocks, which polarises the nation into a weakened, tottering Them and a millionheaded, rebellious Us, there is no hope of serious change. The conditions for a decisive transformation of foreign policy are the same as the conditions for a socialist revolution. This remains true whether you imagine the problem from- the top – in relation to the ruling elites who mould that policy – or from the bottom, through an analysis of the dynamics of mass conviction.

Certain members of the Left have spent so much energy proving that such a crisis is not inevitable that they have almost persuaded themselves that it is absolutely impossible. I cannot share this complacency. The record of capitalism over this century, coupled with its present lengthy list of explosive areas, makes it more reasonable to believe that the system still has large and hideous potentialities of crisis, in which the alternatives set forth by Marx of “the revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or the mutual ruin of the contending classes” will be as starkly defined as they ever were. We do not have to choose between “Socialism through the belly” and “Socialism through the humanist influence of the New Left”. The only chance of Socialism lies in the conjunction of conditions in which economic necessity and political conviction coincide, in which the division between activists and class is in essentials obliterated.

And meantime? The immediate jobs still have to be done: the victimising boss to be resisted, the colonial expedition to be checked, the pressure-groups of the sane to be strengthened and enlarged. And immediate successes, wherever they are possible, are important. A working class demoralised by strike fiascos, a CND which has made no impression on official Labour policy, the unhindered generation of another long colonial war, will do no pood to the present and augur none for the future. Only to remember: it is all about Power. If the history of NATO has anything to tell us, it is that Socialists who forget this become very peculiar indeed.


Last updated on 13.8.2007