Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Nadine M.

Opposing Nuclear Arms: Notes From a Marxist Perspective


First Published: Forward Motion, March 1982.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

A powerful movement for nuclear disarmament has emerged in Western Europe. This fall hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of Western European capitals; organizations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in England jumped from three to thirty thousand members in less than two years. Helmut Schmidt of West Germany and England’s Margaret Thatcher acknowledge that the mushrooming anti-nuclear arms movements in their countries may significantly influence their nations’ defense policies. And there are even surprising indications that a parallel movement is emerging inside the Soviet bloc. A demonstration of 100,000 people calling for bilateral disarmament was reported in Romania; West European disarmament organizations say they have built close ties with dissidents in Czechoslovakia and (before the imposition of martial law) with Solidarity in Poland (New York Times, 11/3/81).

So far, anti-nuclear arms efforts in this country have neither the strength nor the coherence of their counterparts in Western Europe. But echoes of Europe’s protest against the bomb have been heard here. On Veterans’ Day this year, thousands of people gathered at teach-ins on 151 campuses in thirty-seven states to particiipate in educational programs about nuclear warfare. Nuclear disarmament organizations here have strength mainly among professionals and scientists. Still, the renewed prominence of such groups as the Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Union of Concerned Scientists (responsible for the Veterans Day teach-ins), the Federation of American Scientists, and the Council for a Livable World is encouraging. And there are indications that anti-war activity may soon spread out to broader sections of the US people. Mobilization for Survival attempts to reach beyond professionals, among students and activists, in its organizing efforts. The Freeze Newsletter goes out to two hundred local anti-nuclear arms groups across the country. Ground Zero, headed by former National Security Council staff member, Roger C. Molander, is planning a series of nuclear arms educational programs across the country on April 18–25 to be held in “Rotary Clubs and American Legion Posts–community environments that people will feel comfortable in.” It’s just possible that we are witnessing the beginnings of a broad and vital new political movement.

Despite this growth of activity, few Marxists seem to have much to do with the anti-nuclear cause. There are reasonable explanations for this lack of involvement. Left wing activists in this country are already committed to supporting anti-imperialist struggles being waged in places like El Salvador, Azania (South Africa), Namibia, Kampuchea, Poland, and the Middle East. Marxists have also generally concentrated on organizing in the working class and national movements and so have less access to organizations centered around professional concerns. Still we could be making a mistake if we do not turn some of our attention, both theoretical and practical, toward helping build the movement for nuclear disarmament and for peace. The appeal and challenge of this effort is that we will be joining forces much broader politically than the anti-imperialist Left in response to the most monumental political issue of our times: the gathering danger of war between the superpowers. Besides something to gain, we have something to offer. Our commitment to organizing efforts in the working class and national movements, a strong anti-imperialist approach, and a materialist analysis of the forces actually leading us to war could prove a valuable contribution to the peace movement.

Is Reagan Responsible?

Perhaps a good place to start is to ask ourselves why now, in the early 1980’s, the concern about nuclear war has gained such urgency? Where has the impetus for this new activism come from?

The dangers of nuclear war certainly gripped people in the US and the NATO countries with new immediacy during the first months of Reagan’s presidency. His responses to international events are definitely a shift to the right in comparison to Carter’s; his rhetoric is more disquieting. He escalated expenditures for military hardware; he has tinkered destructively in the area of foreign relations–escalating aid to El Salvador, refusing to censure Israeli and South African incursions across national borders, condoning Nestle’s exploitation of third world women and children, playing Taiwan off against China. Taken together with the administration’s domestic policies of shutting off vital social programs, these things have understandably infuriated and frightened many people.

Still, the Reagan administration has actually done nothing dramatically provocative in the realm of international policy. He has stuck surprisingly close to those policies he inherited from Carter. Despite the fierce rhetoric, there have been no invasions of other countries, the draft has not been reinstated, commercial and financial interests have prevailed in the debate over sanctions against the Eastern bloc, and even the acceleration of military expenditures follows a trend begun under Carter. Given this situation, it seems likely that, while the Reagan administration encouraged concern about nuclear war, his administration alone is not the catalyst of this movement; its more profound impetus lies in a war danger in which current US foreign policy plays only one, albeit a significant, part. What we are seeing today is the first popular resistance to superpower war preparations which overshadow the policies of any one administration.

Of course this is a controversial point. It relates directly to what estimate we make of the other superpower, the Soviet Union, and its worldwide aims and potential. This question is bound to preoccupy most everyone concerned about world peace in the years to come and is already the focus of a major debate going on among activists in the peace movement both here and in Europe.

Debate About The Superpowers

A term has already been coined to distinguish the two sides in this debate: on one side are the “isomorphists”–those who think that the USSR has at least equal motives and responsibilities for the nuclear arms race as the U.S.–and on the other side those who argue that the left “needs to combat the notion of ’isomorphism’ between the US and the USSR.” (Joe Shapiro of the North Manhattan Disarmament Coalition quoted in the Guardian, 2/10/82).

E.P. Thompson, an influential spokesman for the anti-nuclear arms campaign in England, provides a carefully considered argument for the view that the Soviet Union is not motivated by aggressive designs for world domination.

The Soviet Union is a society in great difficulty and has an ideology which is ceasing to have any vitality. It is not necessary to say that one likes anything about the Soviet Union to contest the view that it is an expansionist power. (our emphasis) New York Times, 11/13/81.

Thompson sees the Soviet Union maintaining a defensive–although paranoid–posture. He explains the enormous build-up of the Soviet war machine as the irrational activity of a “wounded bear” and points to the Soviet’s economic weakness as proof of its defensive position. His general orientation towards curbing the nuclear arms build-up is to focus on what he sees as an irrational, technologically-propelled mad drive for superiority that gains momentum irrespective of political relations. George Kennan in this country, while not as actively involved in the peace movement, is also an articulate proponent of this viewpoint that credits the Soviets with defensive motives.

Thompson, Kennan, and others have put forward in clear, straight-forward fashion one side of the debate about the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, those of us who see the Soviet Union as an increasingly aggressive world power, whose characteristic forms of domination and expansion have been military, have not yet provided the peace movement with our views in such a popular and thoughtful way. Those who view the nuclear arms race in the context of a very real political struggle for world domination now underway between the US and the USSR have an obligation to present this side of the debate in an equally reasonable fashion. For, if our analysis holds true, the nuclear disarmament movement in this country and in Western Europe is faced with a complex task of opposing war preparations on the part of both superpowers without giving any ground for further Soviet aggression. If the Soviet threat to world peace is genuine, a peace movement that refuses to acknowledge this will be left open to legitimate attacks by conservative forces ready to take advantage of any such vulnerable point.

Practical Questions

The peace movement is not likely to set itself a decisive strategic course without taking steps towards settling the issue of the Soviet Union at the level of political analysis of the world situation. Yet, much of the debate within the movement is bound to focus on practical questions of program. These include such options as calling for unilateral versus bilateral disarmament, and the question of conversion of the military budget into domestic programs or in popular lingo “jobs with peace.” There is also the issue of whether or not the peace movement should take a stand on any of the particulars of military strategy, budget, and arms choices being debated in Washington, and there is the debate on whether or not the peace movement should take a position on broader questions of US foreign relations, today most urgently perhaps in the case of El Salvador.

Unilateral vs. Bilateral Disarmament?

Perhaps the most crucial decision facing the anti-nuclear arms movement in the West is whether to call for bilateral disarmament on the part of both superpowers as the only way to defuse the nuclear arms race or whether to propose as a minimum program the unilateral disarmament of just the US and the NATO alliance.

There are real reasons why the call for unilateral disarmament appeals to many people. Most people respond with a certain common sense gut reaction when we think about weapons powerful enough to destroy the world as we know it. We want to get rid of them, wherever they are, whatever the circumstances. Popular discussion on the possibilities of nuclear war being triggered by mistake, by madmen or computer failure, deepen this feeling. And the fact that no anti-nuclear war movement in the Soviet bloc countries is likely to emerge soon strong enough to force concessions by the Soviets makes it seem more realistic to concentrate on where there is the best possibility of a break-through–in the United States and Western Europe.

Still, a campaign for US nuclear disarmament with no consideration of Soviet reciprocity, a campaign for unilateral disarmament, would be very dangerous. In today’ s circumstances such a move would very likely hasten not postpone a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. At this point, the unpleasant reality is that the two superpowers’ nuclear arsenals do serve as a deterrent for either to launch an attack. To disarm the US would be an open invitation to the Soviet Union to bully its way into unrivaled world domination.

It is encouraging that there are strong voices in the peace movement today calling for bilateral–not unilateral–disarmament. Many forces in the European movement are demanding removal of the new Soviet SS20’s as well as a halt to additional cruise missiles from the United States. And a number of activists in the recent teach-ins in this country took a similar approach. Dr. Henry Kendall, Chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained that they were in no way “advocating unilateral disarmament . . . .”

Conversion: Guns to Butter

A second issue facing the nuclear disarmament movement in this country is how it should deal with the popular demand to convert Reagan’s bloated military budget into expenditures for much-needed social services here at home. The call for “conversion” has an appeal among people concerned about war as well as those primarily enraged by Reagan’s attacks on essential social programs. This was demonstrated in Boston, Massachusetts, when a referendum was recently passed mandating the City Council to call upon the US Congress:

to make more federal funds available for local jobs and programs–in quality education, public transportation, energy-efficient housing, improved health care, and other essential services–by reducing the amount of our tax dollars spent on nuclear weapons and programs of foreign military intervention.

It was good that the people of Boston had a chance to voice such a sentiment. For it is certainly hard to imagine any defensive value in increased expenditures on nuclear weapons, and programs of foreign military intervention are always a bad idea.

When taken too far, however, the “conversion” argument has pitfalls. The position that we should convert all military expenditures into domestic programs is based either on a classic pacifist view or else the dismissal of any Soviet threat to world peace. It denies any legitimate role for US arms against Soviet aggression. In These Times recently took a position like this in an editorial that posed the situation as one in which “we can’t have guns and butter”; ITT opted for butter. And in the campaign literature publicizing the referendum quoted above there is an impossibly vague and misleading “statistic” on the balance of forces in the world today. According to the authors, the US and its allies now hold “65% of world power” as opposed to the Soviet Union and its allies modest “20%”.

Given the degree of waste and unnecessary expenditures in the defense budget, there is a good deal of room to call for some conversion of the military budget towards domestic reforms. However, there is no room to call for halting US military expenditures altogether. Nor do we need to base the call for conversion on the premise that the Soviet Union presents no genuine threat to “world power.” This country could build a better defense without spending more money.

Military Particulars

A third question facing the peace movement is whether it should take part in current debates on various technical and military considerations or should it abstain with a kind of “know-nothing” position on the weapons of war. The logic of a “know-nothing” position goes: If all military expenditures are bad, if nuclear weapons should all be dismantled here in the US no matter what, then why bother delving any deeper into specifics? Why get caught up in a debate locked into the warped framework of the Defense Department’s logic?

Again, there is something appealing in such a “pure” position of abstention, but if we believe that technical decisions must be analyzed on the basis of politics, and if we are willing to grant that the US must have some sort of military, then we have to move from political principles to positions on the current military options facing the US people. We have to try to distinguish between defensive rather than offensive military strategies and we need to ask the question: who is going to be in control given specific military innovations.

Take two examples: Civil Defense and the neutron bomb.

Most people on the left of the political spectrum rightly tend to dismiss the shoddy civil defense plans that now exist as worthless posturing. We should be able to agree, for instance, that current plans to send everyone in Eastern cities rushing out to the countryside are ludicrous. But Marxists can’t stop here. We have to ask whether civil defense planning is always a worthless exercise aimed at deluding people into believing that we could survive a nuclear war. Or is it possible that a sizable number of lives could be saved in the event of a nuclear attack, given some more rational and substantial plan for civil defense? The point is–if you think the Soviets are capable of launching a nuclear attack and if you value the lives of the US people, then you cannot dismiss the discussion of civil defense out of hand.

The neutron bomb. Conventional left wisdom in this country has it that the neutron bomb is intrinsically bad, that it is a piece of US weaponry which can only be deployed at the expense of the people of E urope. Yet the French government has opted to build the neutron bomb based on the idea that this nuclear weapon might turn out to be an important element in Europe’s defense. Certainly, the French might be wrong; their view might be motivated by a desire to save French at the expense of other European lives, but we do have to view the pros and cons of the neutron bomb in the context of European independence. If the US bullies Europe into deploying the neutron bomb, that is bad. If Western European countries seek to deploy the neutron bomb themselves, that may be a very different matter.

In short, the peace movement needs to open discussion about these and a host of other questions concerning practical military and technical options. “Know-nothingism” simply won’t do.

How Much Politics?

In spite of the importance of military options, it remains true that international relations are based on politics, not simply on technical military strength. It is vital for the peace movement to challenge the Right’s preoccupation with military issues as the only way of insuring “national security.” We have to respond to the Right’s narrow-minded drive to “take our national security into our own hands.” The disarmament movement’s vision of how to stave off world war will ultimately have to include relatively dramatic changes in the US’s political and economic relations with other nations. Without breaking the united front of the peace movement, Marxists should be working to persuade people that our best hope of helping stave off world war rests on pressuring the US government to do such things as: recognize Palestinian and Namibian national rights, forcefully oppose apartheid, reverse support for such reactionary powers as Israel, South Africa, and El Salvador, give more support to the Eritreans, Afghans, Poles and others struggling for independence from the Soviet Union, recognize third world nations’ rights to control their own resources, and move towards multilateral defense efforts with Western Europe.

Of course a movement calling for such policies on the part of the US government would be attempting to muzzle the US in its role as superpower. But don’t Marxists believe that this is really what the US people must demand of their own government? Perhaps, given the threat of nuclear holocaust, strong work by the Left will help convince growing numbers of people in this country that a more democratic direction is the best, if not the only, direction in which United States foreign policy can go.

February, 1982