Peter Sedgwick

Sedgwick disagrees with Rex ...

(August 1962)

Peter Sedgwick, Sedgwick disagrees with Rex, Socialist Review, August 1962, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THIS New Left pamphlet, published in time for the recent Aldermaston March. contains many virtues and a few important vices. The virtues will be catalogued in order to induce every one to buy and read it. There are telling, detailed sections on the 1958 and 1960 Defence White Papers, on the origins of NATO, on the myth of the “Free World”, on the United States volte-face in the disarmament talks, on Mr Dennis Healey’s recent Fabian pamphlet, and on the unilateral case.

Each of these sections is backed by reasoned witty argument and in many cases by eye-opening quotations from official sources. The two central virtues of the pamphlet are first, its linkage of the Bomb, through the factually and logically based analysis that we have come to expect from Rex’s writings, with NATO and the wider issues of the Cold War; secondly, its analysis of the strategic and technical data of the military status quo, as facts in their own right, in the lately neglected tradition of Engels and Tom Wintringham.


My first disagreement with Rex relates to his estimate of the possible good that can be achieved by disarmament conferences conducted by capitalist and Stalinist governments. Rex argues that the CND should have a “second-stage” policy to be operated after British renunciation of the Bomb. This policy would partly consist in urging a comprehensive, multilateral disarmament agreement upon other existing governments.

Controversy has existed among Socialists for a considerable time concerning the degree to which demands for a radical turn in foreign policy should be presented as demands upon bourgeois governments at present in power. Engels, towards the end of his life, argued that Socialists should press for a disarmament conference attended by all European powers in order to halt the drift toward world war which he rightly foresaw as the only possible consequence of the arms race. Others, horrified at these proposals, denounced them as a snare and a delusion: the only safeguard against war was working-class organisation, and any suggestion that the Powers could he forced to disarm amounted to the creation of a fatally misplaced confidence. (The controversy is recorded in the standard biography of Engels by G. Mayer).

The argument has gone on in much the same terms ever since. The record of disarmament conferences has so far confirmed the views of those Socialists who were willing to rush in where Engels feared to tread. Rex, however, states:

“Today the Russians do want a disarmament agreement. It is pointless to argue, therefore, that because previous disarmament conferences have failed, this one must fail too. If the opportunity be seized now, it is possible that we may be able to create institutions which will make H-bomb war impossible for all time. If it is not, we may find ourselves faced eventually with a Russian leadership which has returned to its former intransigence and the nuclear nightmare will be permanently with us.” (p.16)

These words ring ironically, with the recent apparent switch in Soviet leadership and foreign policy. But even if Khrushchev were still pursuing a flexible policy Socialists would still have the permanent war economy in the West to contend with. Rex nowhere considers the thesis, cogently argued by Mills and Cliff, that the present level of military spending in the West provides an essential boost to the economy.

U.N.O. Ineffective

The second feature of Rex’s “next stage” is “that Britain’s whole weight and authority should be placed behind the United Nations General Assembly as the ultimate arbiter in international disputes”. (p.20) Rex sees the increasing prominence in the Assembly of uncommitted, underdeveloped nations as constituting sufficient grounds for trust in UNO as an effective arbiter. He cites the ending of the Korean and Indo-Chinese wars, and the Tory withdrawal from Suez as instances of successful mediation by independent Powers. Since the present alternative to nuclear war is some mediation of this kind, he asks: why not regularise the process of mediation via UNO?

The answer to this is, briefly, that, given existing regimes and existing socio-economic relations mediation can only be forced on guilty Powers by military stalemate (Indo-China and Korea) and economic blackmail (Suez) or inter-imperialist rivalry (Indo-China and Suez). Despite the anxiety of metropolitan Powers to avoid alienating the uncommitted nations the mere passing of resolutions in the Assembly does nothing of itself to arbitrate conflicts, in the absence of these cruder pressures. Hungary, Cyprus, South Africa and Algeria have all been denounced at UNO, without effect.

Into Socialism

Until radical changes can be forced in the power-structure of the industrial nations which mainly direct the Cold War, nothing permanent can be devised as a means of resolving great-Power conflicts. Yet Rex seems to envisage his “second-stage” policy as directed primarily to influencing diplomats and statesmen: “... one must ask whether the policy of unilateralism, taken by itself, is one which is sufficient to convince those who have the responsibility of government.” (Rex’s italics – P.S.) Yet it is impossible to conceive of any adequate answer to, for example, Gaitskell’s dire warnings of a Germany armed with the nuclear weapons rejected by a unilateralist Britain, unless the Campaign’s “second stage” is directed primarily to peoples, if necessary over the heads of their governments.

Finally, it is disappointing that Rex’s advocacy of the “second stage” nowhere includes any reference to the domestic problems a unilateralist British government might encounter. E.P. Thompson in his chapter on Revolution in Out of Apathy (reprinted in NLR) has convincingly outlined a set of possible consequences to the British renunciation of the Bomb (including, for example, big-business resistance), which would put the unilateralist action into fatal jeopardy unless a revolutionary transition to Socialism was successfully carried through. This kind of approach amounts to saying that the “second stage” of the unilateralist case must be Socialism.

Whether unilateral renunciation of the Bomb must be preceded, or only must be followed, by a Socialist revolution, is a crystal-gazing detail over which it would be hair-splitting to argue. The point is that unilateralism must break through into Socialism, or go under. The only “institutions which will make H-bomb war impossible for all time” are those of an international Socialist commonwealth. The fact that this solution seems very far off at present should not tempt us to place any confidence in apparent solutions which may seem more realisable, but in fact solve nothing. Until international Socialism is achieved, mankind lives in danger of extermination. On the other hand, we will not bring Socialism nearer merely by advocating it in general terms. Part of our work for Socialism must be in stating the case against the Bomb and for its unconditional renunciation, to as many people as possible. It is the merit of Rex’s pamphlet that so much of it is valuable, or rather indispensable, in this work. Its failings should not make any campaigner hesitate to buy it.


Last updated on 21.11.2004