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Fourth International, April 1947


R. Henry

Atomic Energy


From Fourth International, April 1947, Vol.8 No.4, pp.124-127.
Condensed from Quatrième Internationale, August-September 1946.
Translated by Ed Wilde.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


At the present time the use of atomic energy as a military weapon unquestionably is by far more important than its use – primarily potential at the moment – as an industrial productive force. But the day will come when the application of atomic energy will revolutionize the industrial production of power, which is the truly key industry. From a purely technical standpoint, this could come about in a period of from ten to twenty years. Even today nuclear energy has been liberated on a very large industrial scale in the Hanford, Wash., plants, but for the time being, the hundreds of thousands of kilowatts of thermal energy produced there serve only to heat up the Columbia River.

Atomic Energy as an Industrial Productive Force

A kilogram of coal, burned in a stove, produces energy amounting to 8½ kilowatt hours. But a kilogram of fissionable substance completely transformed into energy would produce 25 billion kilowatt hours, which is almost twice the monthly production of electrical energy in the United States. It is true that such a complete transformation of matter into energy is as yet unobtainable by any known process. In the disintegration of uranium or plutonium, one one-thousandth of the mass is transformed into thermal energy. This means that to attain the US output of electrical energy, it would be necessary for atomic energy plants, operating on the principle of the Hanford plants, to transform only about six tons of uranium. 235 annually. This would simultaneously produce several tons of plutonium. (To produce the same quantity of energy by burning coal would require 20 million tons of coal.)

These figures compared with the many-millioned ton annual output of oil, petroleum, etc. provide us with a gauge of what vast perspectives the initial industrial application of atomic energy would open up.

What are the technical difficulties which today obstruct the industrial use of atomic energy?

  1. The problem itself must be considered as actually solved in principle. But the industrial utilization of nuclear energy, liberated in the form of thermal energy, depends in the first place upon its transformation into thermal energy. To achieve this with a satisfactory degree of efficiency, it is first of all necessary to solve a great number of technical and metallurgical problems, which will undoubtedly take several years. For example, an atomic energy plant must operate at a high temperature in order to be a source of thermal energy.
  2. The only known process for liberating nuclear energy, the only chain reaction as yet known, employs uranium as the primary substance. Uranium is not a very common ore and up to now it has been found in concentrations suitable for exploitation only in a few rare spots on the globe (Canada, Belgian Congo, Bohemia and elsewhere). The richest known deposits of uranium are controlled by the United States (Belgian Congo). Competitors of the United States will assuredly explore – if they have not already done so – territories under their control in order to locate uranium deposits. In all likelihood richer deposits of uranium will be discovered.
  3. Properly speaking, the substance that supplies the energy in the uranium pile is not the most common variety of uranium (atomic weight 238) but another variety which is 140 times as rare, with the atomic weight of 235. This means that large amounts of uranium must be processed and all impurities must be removed as completely as possible. For this reason the production of energy through the disintegration of uranium is still quite costly.

Further developments may occur along two lines. First of all, the process employed in the United States of building the uranium piles can be improved and simplified.

The production of energy through the fission of uranium unquestionably remains more difficult today than the production of energy by means of waterpower, but the most efficient and cheapest methods are undoubtedly still to be discovered. We can expect processes applied in the future that will be greatly simplified. On the other hand, maximum efforts will be exerted to discover new chain reactions within atomic nuclei in substances which are available in nature in far greater quantities than uranium-235. Assuming that far greater efforts will be expended in the future on such research, it is highly probable that within a relatively brief space of time the production of energy (or, under capitalism, the manufacture of bombs) may be realized through the transformation of elements that are quite common and available in large quantities, like iron, for example.

However long it may take to solve these difficulties or whatever may be the manner of their solution, it is virtually certain that the requirements for industrial energy will within a few years be covered by a far smaller expenditure of labor than heretofore. In this way productivity and productive capacity can be increased many-fold, both directly and indirectly.

We have dealt here with only one application of atomic energy and with the possibility of transforming elements that are available in large quantities. There are certainly other countless applications which may be of lesser importance but which are by no means negligible. For example, right now it is possible to produce the most diverse types of radioactive substances, such as radi-active carbon, radioactive steel, radioactive iodine, and so on. This is already of utmost importance in biology and medicine. Thus, radiotherapy (for the treatment of cancer) can now be practiced with substances far more effective and less expensive than radium. Uses of this type are extremely numerous, just like those which were developed after the discovery of X-rays, electronic tubes, etc.

Had the technical conditions for a rational production of power through the liberation of nuclear energy been created before the decay stage of capitalism, this great technical advance would have cut a path for itself under the pressure of competition and in spite of the resistance of the coal barons and the oil and electric trusts. What would the results have been? There would have been mass unemployment on a far larger scale than hitherto under the “normal” conditions of capitalist society; there would have been an extreme aggravation of the contradictions inherent in this society, with all the consequences that this entails. The decay of capitalism would have been accelerated. Nuclear energy is as incompatible with the capitalist system as the atomic bomb is with the existing imperialist system.

In a socialist society, the utilization of nuclear energy opens up the vastest perspectives to human civilization for the achievement of cultural and industrial tasks. A socialist society can and would systematically develop the use of nuclear energy with the aim of reducing the intensity and duration of work and for the production of an abundance of primary necessities. Atomic energy can thus become, in a socialist society, one of the most powerful levers for the advancement of human civilization.

Marxism regards the development of the productivity of human labor power as the prime mover of social evolution. That is why it is impossible for Marxism to underestimate the importance of a new force which appears within the sphere of natural forces of which man possesses knowledge and which he has technically mastered. After thirty years of research the first decisive step in the technical application of atomic energy has been taken. This first step may be of far greater importance on the road of progress than the conquests of hydraulic energy, steam and electricity attained during the capitalist era. If steam and electricity provided the technical bases for the capitalist era, then nuclear energy, which in the epoch of capitalist decay serves only as an instrument of unimaginable destruction, will provide the technical basis for the socialist epoch.

The Atomic Bomb as Military Weapon

It requires no great imagination to foresee the importance of the atomic bomb as a military weapon in a future war waged by the imperialist states against the USSR or against one another. Nor can there be much doubt as to what awaits the populations of the great cities in the next imperialist conflict. The atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dropped immediately after the first experimental test. The effectiveness of such bombs can doubtless be considerably increased by improvements, for example in the method of firing.

On the other hand, the utilization – within certain limits – of greater quantities of plutonium in a bomb will produce even more terrible destruction. Like every other question, the question of atomic energy must not be approached separate and apart from the framework in which it appears. We ought to recall that other new spheres of technical application of natural sciences have undergone a rapid evolution, for example, the technique of ultra-high frequencies (radar), the technique of rockets, and so on. Most dreadful is precisely the combination of the most recent weapons perfected during the last war. We cannot thus reject as sheer fantasy the idea that in a short while atomic bombs may be propelled over great distances by rockets of the V-2 type, guided by radio.

The bourgeoisie is fully aware of how politically dangerous to its rule is the widespread knowledge among the toiling masses of the destructive character of the atomic weapon. This knowledge might prove to be the drop of water that causes the measure to overflow; it might unleash a powerful movement against war that would certainly also affect the Anglo-Saxon countries. Instead of boasting of the invincible weapon, of which for the moment it is the sole possessor, the imperialist government of the United States is beginning to dilute its wine with water, to talk of effective methods of defense, and so on. This road is being taken by the militarists of the whole world who are issuing reassuring statements to the effect that methods of defense will be found against this weapon as against all previous ones; that the army and the navy will remain masters of the situation, provided there is no loss of confidence in the state and in the ruling class! All these pacifiers of public opinion have been denounced as either ignoramuses or liars by every scientist involved in the development of the atomic bomb, because the scientists have not been able to free themselves from a certain feeling of responsibility – a feeling which, in the nature of things, is lacking among militarists, politicians and journalists.

Oliphant, one of the scientists responsible for the British atomic project, stated in his now famous Birmingham speech:

This whole thing is so gigantic, of an importance and meaning so immense for all humanity, that we should in a case like this throw overboard all secret diplomacy. Atomic energy cannot be discussed except openly and before the whole world, for we have now arrived at a point where we can abolish war once and for all, or we must resign ourselves to see all the cities in one country after another in ashes and ruins within a quarter of an hour following the declaration of war. Science knows of no defense against the atomic bomb. Our scientists say nothing because they fear to wake up some morning in prison for divulging secrets. [1]

Dr. Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Los Alamos project where the bomb itself was designed, stated in reply to a question before the Senate Commission:

“There is no effective defense against atomic bombs. I do not know about other bombs, but the ones we are making cannot be exploded under any conditions before the objective is reached.”

A.H. Compton, dean of American physicists and one of the most responsible scientific directors of the US atomic project, declares:

“The liberation of atomic energy places an imperative command upon men to find a means of averting another war. No city of more than 100,000 will remain an active center after the first hour of war. At least 10 per cent of the population of an attacked country will be exterminated by the first blow.”

It is beyond doubt that with this new weapon the havoc, hecatombs and devastation will reach apocalyptic dimensions in the third imperialist world war in which the opposing camps will possess atomic weapons. Any statement to the contrary or any statement tending to weaken this observation can be considered as a deliberate falsehood. One is at a loss for words to describe the consequences of such a war because the terrible heritage of the second imperialist slaughter already surpasses all human standards. It is absolutely impossible to conceive of a means of defense that will be 100 per cent effective against atomic bombs, or of a means of defense that would prevent the complete destruction of large cities at the outbreak of war. A third imperialist world war within the next ten or fifteen years threatens to bring about the disappearance of the entire existing civilized world (North America and Europe) and would thus complete what the second imperialist world war has begun (the wholesale destructions of regions in Central Europe and Western Russia, the hurling back of civilization on the European continent as a whole).

The illusion spread primarily by liberal and petty-bourgeois periodicals to the effect that the mere threat of such complete destruction is enough to make war impossible, is so absurd that it would be a waste of time to dwell on it. Against the atomic bomb, as against every other weapon, measures will be found which, from the military standpoint – but not from the standpoint of the populations involved – may be considered as “defense measures” and which will permit the continuation of war for six or sixteen years after an atomic bomb attack, unless the world proletariat in alliance with the colonial peoples puts an end to it through revolutionary action.

Active anti-aircraft defense may destroy part of the air fleet transporting the atom bombs, jamming transmitters may throw a certain number of radio-directed rockets off their course. Organizational centers and industrial installations indispensable for the continuation of war may be buried very deep underground (armored shelters could doubtless be built at a very great depth and large enough to accommodate the bourgeoisie and the generals). The most effective measure of military “defense” would be the greatest possible decentralization. All this does not alter what has been said above: The population of industrial countries, concentrated in large cities, is threatened with extermination far surpassing the consequences of Nazi terror or of the Anglo-American bombing policy. We must not shut our eyes to this situation! Revolutionists must put themselves at the head of every genuine anti-war movement with the slogan: The Third Imperialist World War MUST Be Averted! Only revolutionary action by the workers and small peasants of the entire world, fraternally united, can prevent it, by destroying the capitalist state and replacing it by the state of socialist and proletarian democracy.

Technical mastery of atomic energy (which is, we repeat, still only in its initial stages) does not create a new situation fundamentally. We do not expect any miracles. The tendencies of the present imperialist epoch will become more palpable, the disintegration of the capitalist order will be accelerated, the fulfillment of the task before the proletariat and the revolutionary parties becomes more urgent. The atomic bomb does not create the drive for the establishment of the unlimited rule of Yankee imperialism (after the destruction of Nazi imperialism) first of all by the overthrow of the Soviet Union, the bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state – but it does add more weight to this drive. It reveals most crassly that the Soviet Union has emerged from this war weakened and not strengthened vis à vis world capitalism; and, moreover, that the only way to guarantee the continued existence of the Soviet Union in face of the pressure of world imperialism is, more than ever before, through the world proletarian revolution, which is being obstructed above all by the policy of Stalinism.

Socialism, which is perhaps not feasible without electricity, will be unable to get along without atomic energy; and even without the menace of the atom bomb, the social revolution is the prime condition for the survival of the proletariat. But the necessity of the social revolution and of an internationalist, socialist revolutionary policy has not only become more urgent but also more apparent. To the extent that it increases the instability of the capitalist system and accelerates its disintegration, atomic energy, as a new factor in the existing social relations, contributes to the maturing of objective conditions for the revolutionary crisis on a world scale.

The bourgeoisie will undoubtedly try to intimidate the proletariat by claims that the atomic weapon henceforth renders revolution militarily impossible and that the bourgeoisie now possesses the means of beating back every armed revolt against the bourgeois state. The reformists will add their voices to this campaign of intimidation. But this argument is hollow. No military weapon, regardless of its character, can render the revolution impossible, if the objective and subjective conditions for it exist. The development of the technique of weapons renders the class war, the revolutionary war, proportionately more sanguinary and exacts a greater toll of victims, but this will always be far smaller than the toll of an imperialist war in which the most modern weapons are employed with maximum effectiveness.

In the first place, it is necessary to recall the rather obvious but nevertheless decisive fact that the proletariat produces and transports atomic bombs, just as it does all other weapons. Whoever forgets this should be reminded of the reality by the strike of foremen in Oak Ridge plants, where the material for atomic bombs is produced, as well as by the strike of the soldiers of the Royal Air Force toward the end of January 1946 in various Asiatic airdromes. “All wheels stop when your mighty arm wills it.” The atomic bomb, as a weapon in the civil war of the proletariat, adds an even greater weight to the solidarity of the proletariat, above all to international solidarity. The chances for the success of an isolated revolution are reduced; but in a coordinated international revolutionary movement, the atomic weapon, if it is employed, could be of use to the proletariat as well as to the bourgeoisie. So long as no clear demarcation of territories occurs in a civil war and so long as the bourgeoisie retains hopes of remaining master of its sources of profits without resorting to complete destruction, the atomic weapon cannot be used by the bourgeoisie. Only after there is a clear territorial demarcation and only when the bourgeoisie despairs of success with all the other means at its disposal, can such a crime have meaning for the ruling classes. But in that case, the possibility of using the atomic bomb would likewise be available to the proletariat, which may use it as the final blow against the bourgeois centers of power: at that moment it might already be too late for the ruling class.

To evaluate correctly the relation of forces, not alone on national but also international lines, to avoid every light-minded and inadequately prepared attempt at revolution, to coordinate closely every revolutionary action on an international scale, especially with the class movement of the American proletariat – this becomes more than ever a life-and-death question for the revolutionary party which must solve the task of revolution.

The Threatening Monopoly of the United States

It required the enormous scientific and industrial potential of the United States in order to successfully accomplish the completion of the atomic bomb and its industrial production. This was accomplished in the course of the five years of war, while the entire productive apparatus was strained to the limit. At the beginning of the war, England started work along these lines, continuing the labors of the Joliot group at Paris. But in the end these efforts were coordinated with those of the American groups and the British research specialists were transferred there in 1943. (The English atomic bomb project was concealed under the name of “Tube Alloys Development.”) In Germany the development of an atomic bomb project was certainly also under way. It will be recalled that British air raids destroyed the hydroelectric plant “Norsk” in occupied Norway; the production of heavy water in this plant was presumably intended for the German atom bomb project. News of work on the production of atom bombs in Germany spurred British and American war effort in the extreme. Obviously it is not known just what stage had been reached by Germany in her atomic bomb project at the time of her defeat; but apparently Germany was still far away from any tangible results. It is likewise unknown whether any work was undertaken along these lines in the USSR prior to August 6, 1945. But in view of the general situation of the Soviet Union during the war, it seems unlikely that any work there could have gone beyond the stage of general, basic research.

The mere fact that German imperialism – despite its assuredly great efforts – was unable to develop atomic energy for its own ends is proof by itself (even if we knew nothing else) of how extraordinary is the scientific, financial and industrial effort required for its production. But it is absolutely beyond dispute that other great industral powers – for the moment this means, first and foremost, Great Britain and the USSR – will also be able to produce atomic bombs now that the possibility of making atomic bombs and “utilizing” atomic energy has been demonstrated in practice. This means that England and the Soviet Union will have to work along these lines with the labor power and industrial installations at their disposal, given that the fundamental phenomena are by and large known, and that many of the details will of necessity be discovered. It is only a question of time, and, at a conservative estimate, it is a matter of several years, perhaps only a few. The loss of the monopoly of the United States imperialism is unavoidable. The only serious attempt to maintain it would involve placing the entire world under its control not only economically and financially but politically as well. [This is the aim of the Baruch plan.]

Atomic Barbarism – or Socialism

The second imperialist world war has considerably strengthened the superiority of Yankee imperialism over its capitalist rivals and has reinforced its position in relation to the USSR. The atomic bomb appears to be the very crown and guarantee of this preponderant position of the United States. It is not hard to understand that just the contrary is true. For by creating a weapon of fantastic destructive force in order to strengthen its own power, American imperialism has at the same time created a means of destruction which will in the long run constitute the most serious threat to its own position in the capitalist system.

In his testimony before the Senate Commission, Dr. Oppenheimer correctly said:

“In reality, atomic power has weakened the military position of the United States. While it has strengthened our power for the moment, this will not be lasting. Some people appear to admit this only with the greatest reluctance.”

R.R. Wilson, president of the Los Alamos Scientists Association, states: “Our country, with its extremely concentrated centers, will be particularity vulnerable to this weapon.” To the argument that the United States can always keep far ahead of its neighbors, R.R. Wilson replies as follows:

“It has been proposed that our country seek to maintain its present position by constantly producing bigger bombs and in larger quantities than other countries. The mere possession of more bombs than another country is not at all decisive; it suffices for another country to have enough bombs to destroy our cities and our armament depots. The advantage will certainly be with the aggressor and our superiority can thus be lost in the first minutes of a surprise attack. A world in which many countries possess nuclear weapons and in which only fear of reprisals prevents them from employing these weapons, will be a world of fear, of suspicion, and in the end of inevitable explosions.”

American imperialism expended gigantic efforts and two billion dollars to enable its scientists to develop an instrument whereby its dominant position can one day be destroyed by its imperialist rivals or by the Soviet Union. No power on earth – at least until imperialism is almost completely vanquished by the proletariat – can match or surpass in the near future the industrial potential of the United States, or construct as powerful a naval or aerial fleet. But a great industrial country can readily manufacture, within a certain space of time, enough atomic bombs to reduce the American industrial centers to ashes and to knock out the major part of the gigantic fleets of the United States. Obviously such a country would itself suffer frightful destruction. Yankee imperialism is therefore aware that its great advantage will be transformed sooner or later into a great disadvantage. Just when this will take place is not known, which does not at all contribute to lessening the apprehensions.

The atomic bomb is not merely a revolutionary weapon in military technique; it does more than revolutionize military strategy. It has also a revolutionary effect upon society because it renders even more unrealizable any possibility of temporarily restoring an equilibrium in the imperialist system.

Even as a purely military weapon, the possibility of utilizing atomic energy is incompatible with the conditions necessary for maintaining an equilibrium between the powers in an imperialist system. It undermines especially the position of the most powerful imperialism.

If the scientific experts shout for a “world authority to control atomic energy,” and for a “world government,” accompanying their declarations with most convincing arguments, then it is not for us, the internationalists, to pursue an ostrich policy. On the contrary we must seize upon these statements and explain that the only possible world government and the only one that can save humanity from a third imperialist world war is the power of a world Soviet system, the federation of democratic socialist proletarian states, the world Soviet Union. This is the only world government that is possible, because it is irreconcilable with the “liberty” and the “sovereignty” of capitalist exploiters and parasites. It is the guarantee of the liberty and sovereignty of the working class and of all the exploited throughout the world.


1. The above quotation, like the other quotations in the text, is a translation from the French. – Ed.

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