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International Socialism, Spring 1963


Dave Peers

The Impasse of CND


From International Socialism, No. 12, Spring 1963, pp. 6–11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Dave Peers studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford and is active in the Young Socialists (Tottenham).

‘I do not agree with Sir Richard Acland when he says this (Nuclear Disarmament) will be a five year job. If we could get people to do this it would be a three or six month job.’ (Clive Jenkins, Peace News, 20 June 1958)

This was in 1958, just after the first Aldermaston March. In the aftermath of the Cuban crisis and the disintegration of the Committee of 100, this year’s march is unlikely to produce similar sentiments. The four days of commitment demonstrate, but not resolve, the predicament of the unilateralist movement.

The optimism of 1958 makes strange reading today; at that time, it will be remembered, CND was regarded by many, especially those in the New Left, as a breakthrough for a new type of politics divorced from the machine manipulation of the Labour Party and the CP. The infant seemed to possess unlimited potential. Five years later it is probable that CND has stopped growing, certain that if it is still growing, its rate of growth has been slowing progressively over the past two years. Its vision of a Bombless Britain is tarnished but still largely intact, yet the gulf between end and achievement is as wide as ever. ‘Realism’, ‘practicality’ and other verbiage of traditional politics have, however, gradually crept into the statements of a Campaign which had started as a reaction against this very thing. But the move towards ‘realism’ is merely symptomatic of the general crisis of CND, a crisis precipitated by its rebuff in the Labour Party [1], which has grown steadily more acute since. What this crisis is, or rather the way it manifests itself, scarcely needs formulating; no one active in the Campaign can fail to be familiar with its endless seeking for answers to the question of what next, where do we go from here, etc. Since the demise of the sitdown tactic, there have been the usual crop of blueprints for the way forward, and although there is a close relationship between the two, it is convenient to deal separately with developments in the CND and the Committee of 100.

In September of last year the Committee of 100 called for at least 7,000 pledges to sit down outside the Air Ministry. 4,000 responded and remained erect. The combined sitdowns at airbases the previous December revealed limitations in this tactic; the Air Ministry demonstration killed it. As a means of gaining publicity it had necessitated a sacrifice on the part of the demonstrators quite disproportionate to its end. As a means of immobilizing the State in an otherwise unrevolutionary situation, its misassessment of actual social forces led to rapid disillusionment. But the sitdown and the Committee were so closely identified that the failure of the one led to the disintegration of the other. Russell has retired to the Welsh hills and of the Committee there remain only the original Direct Actionists and an anarcho-Left rump. Yet despite the loss of its mass following, the Committee’s activities are of political interest in that those who remain are continuing what has always been a feature of its work, the attempt to link the Bomb to other political questions. Recently this has taken the form of demonstrating outside Newington Lodge reception centre for homeless families and the opening of a ‘Factory for Peace’. An evaluation of these activities will be included later in a general assessment of the peace movement’s approach to the working class.

The Cuban crisis gave the final kick to the sitdown as a protest technique. For the Committee of 100 it was the end of its traditional policy, but for the Campaign as a whole, the crisis was something of a turning point. Five years of campaigning and increasing support might have led one to expect that something more than 10,000 (a generous estimate) would have been involved in the London demonstrations. The feelings of helpless frustration during the crisis while Kennedy and Khruschev considered the odds punctured many illusions about the influence of the Campaign. It was revealed as a small, ineffectual group. The total effects of Cuba on the Campaign are as yet unclear, but it seems likely, and the supposition is backed only by personal knowledge of some London groups, that it was a severe blow to the confidence of local activists. The response of the Executive took the form of a new policy statement, Steps Towards Peace. It was described by one of its authors as an attempt to combine ‘utopianism and practicality’. [2]

‘There is an urgent need to concentrate on a number of concrete steps which can be taken in a short period of time. They should command the support of all those, inside and outside CND, who now question the whole concept of nuclear deterrence and the balance of terror. They should make agreement on the first stage of a general disarmament treaty a real possibility...’ (Steps Towards Peace)

Perhaps the most significant phrase in the above extract is ‘... steps which can be taken in a short period of time,’ for the problem of what to do next has merely been reformulated, not resolved. By whom are these steps to be taken? The statement has two incompatible answers. First, appeal is made to all those who ‘question the whole concept of nuclear deterrence, inside or outside CND’ (who are these people outside of CND?). But this is not the body which is to enact the ‘steps’: here the harbinger of disarmament becomes transformed from the peace movement to ‘Britain’. As part of the policy statement calls for a Test Ban Treaty NOW, and its raison d’être is that its proposals can be realised within a short period of time, one must conclude that the CND Executive is not aware that the men who control this country do not ‘question the whole concept of nuclear deterrence and the balance of terror’. Cuba shows that the peace movement was powerless to influence war decisions. It is still powerless. The production of policy statements which are blueprints of what a ‘neutral’ Britain could and should do, ensure that it will remain powerless. As an attempt to unite utopianism and practicality STP succeeds admirably, for its ‘practicality’ is simply veiled utopianism. Because of this, STP is a reactionary step. Because its demands are no more within the power of CND than unilateralism itself, they cannot be regarded as transitional steps to a radical objective, but as substitutes for it. Once unilateralism is pushed into the background and the ‘inevitability of gradualism’ is accepted, then the division between CND and the ‘orthodox’ peace movements of the CP becomes blurred. The alarms and excursions of the Oxford Conference over the WPC delegates illustrates the development of this process. Perhaps next year there will be room for Kennedy’s Peace Corps under the umbrella of ‘peace’.

This retreat from unilateralism was not, however, initiated by STP, for ‘Realism’ had already won a major victory at last year’s Conference. In 1961, Conference agreed on the following resolution from Crewe:

The Campaign, while having as its immediate objective the renunciation of nuclear strategy by Great Britain, calls on every country which possesses nuclear weapons, including the US and the Soviet Union to renounce them unilaterally and pledges its support for any organisations or individuals working in good faith to persuade their own governments to renounce nuclear strategy.

The change in 1962 was achieved by omission, and is more difficult to record. But the following extracts from the revised policy should be sufficient:

‘America can accept Russia’s proposals, Russia can accept America’s proposals. Britain, while she is part of the American system of nuclear strategy, remains impotent, insecure, and ineffective ...’

‘... we ask the Executive vigorously to build links with unilateralist groups in all the NATO countries at all levels, and, if possible, in all Warsaw Pact countries.’

No mention is made of what CND’s attitude is to be towards the unilateralist groups in the US, but the implication must be that they are wasting their time. The pattern of policy shifts is clear, but its significance depends on what caused the changes.

It is tempting to subscribe to the conspiracy theory of history, and characterize the retreat from 1961 as a ‘sell-out’ by the leadership. But even the policies of CND are not made in a social vacuum. What had seemed a natural extension of the unilateralist case in 1961 when the CND was, in retrospect, on the crest of the wave, with the Labour Party’s formal support behind, and the Committee of 100 blazing a trail ahead, appeared in a different light the year after. The re-establishment of the real balance of forces within the Labour Party was the first serious reverse that the Campaign had suffered. This, and the failure of the December demonstrations of the Committee of 100, had some effect in swinging the Campaign away from its earlier radicalism. This may have influenced the delegates. The Executive hardly needed external pressure. They had never publicized ‘unilateralism the world over’, for their theory of positive neutralism tacitly accepted that the deterrent theory, though inapplicable to Britain, did apply to the US and the USSR. Worse than this, the capitulation of Tribune to the Crossman-Padley manoeuvre showed that even unilateralism for Britain was too radical for some of its members.

This process of castrating unpalatable resolutions was repeated last year over the 1962 Conference decision to sup port token and direct industrial action. The resolution had been passed against the wishes of the Executive and was never implemented. A Factory Week during which CND supporters were to urge workers to be active in their unions and the Labour Party was put forward as a substitute. Michael Scott and Pat Arrowsmith resigned from the National Council as a consequence. The New Left’s vision of a ‘new politics’ seems to have become a pale shadow of Gaitskell.

The machinations of the Executive and the confusion of the rank and file (revealed in the number of contradictory resolutions passed by Conference) prompt the question of where the power lies in CND, and the broader question of what kind of movement it is.

With CND these problems present more than the usual difficulties. In most political parties, for example, decision-making tends to go hand in .hand with control over the functions of the organization. The importance of policy decisions rests upon the power of enforcement, and the main function of the organization tends to define the centres of power. Thus the Labour Party’s main role is to achieve Parliamentary office and the formal supremacy of the Annual Conference is not compatible with proper Parliamentarianism, see, for example, the 1960 Conference. If appeals to Party unity fail to contain recalcitrants, the leadership can apply the ultimate sanction of expulsion.

But one cannot construct a similar model for CND. Without formal membership, the Executive can have no power to expel. The relation of the supporter to the Executive is therefore imprecise. There seems to be no advantage in this, for the lack of clear lines of responsibility is more conducive to bureaucracy than democracy. The relation of branches to the Executive is as informal, or chaotic, as that of the individual supporter. That this is not an academic point can be seen in the situation now existing in Marylebone, where there are at present two CND organizations, the ‘official’ branch, and an Independent Supporters of Marylebone CND Group. The latter allege that the branch officers have been guilty of malpractices such as abusing individuals, forceful barrings, secret mailing-lists, no questions to the treasurer, etc. The Regional National Campaign have investigated but their inaction demonstrates CND’s organizational dilemma. For to define the organizational structure of the Campaign, the Executive, or the AGM, would have to clarify what they thought their function was, and to do this might fracture what is in a sense, the strength of the CND, its umbrella of unity. But the issue cannot be shirked indefinitely, for if the Campaign’s refusal to adopt formal membership, to fight by-elections etc., indicates that it regards itself as being no more than a pressure group, then what is it to do when the traditional channels of pressure group politics, the parties and Parliament, refuse to be moved by the sound of marching feet?

The statements and policy decisions of the Campaign seem to show that in fact it does regard itself as a pressure group (this came out clearly in the INDEC controversy). The purpose of the Aldermaston march, before it became an end in itself, was clearly to influence the government. The first march was followed by the first of many mass lobbies of Parliament. But CND has always been careful not to mar the ‘moral’ nature of its appeal by political partisanship. Representations were always made to all parties (and to the Queen, and Archbishop of Canterbury). In these respects the Campaign conforms to the usual pattern of single-issue pressure groups . Like the Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, CND sees its issue as a single blot on an otherwise healthy system, a blot which can be removed if all decent men and women would act through the proper channels. Because the Bomb affects everyone, CND would be shirking its duty if it were to identify itself with only one party or one class. This attitude is admirably expressed in a letter in the December issue of Sanity.

‘On the next Aldermaston march I hope the shouters of political slogans will remember the Tory populace of the towns they pass through, for you might as well shout. “We don’t want you in our Campaign”. Surely the wife of a managing director is as concerned as the wife of a trade unionist in this overwhelmingly moral issue.’

If the Bomb is just a moral issue, and one only has to read the resolutions passed by successive CND Conferences on questions of political affiliation and commitment to other political struggles to see that the majority of supporters accept this view, then questions of organization, of policy shifts, and of Executive irresponsibility become insignificant. The only important activity is the gaining of numerical majorities among MPs and the electorate. Therefore on the one hand the Campaign should continue to pour out even more propaganda on the horrors of nuclear war (would you press the button Mr. Macmillan?), and assuage patriotic pride by producing even more blueprints on the power and plenty that disarmament would bring to a regenerated Britain. What else can the CND do without endangering its unity? The blanket appeal imposes very tight restrictions on its choice of methods; growth becomes the principle means of action; marches must be bigger and better; all of which adds up to yet another dilemma. For CND’s growth is related to the concrete successes it can achieve; and so far it can only record defeats. Even though its activities demand minimal commitment, confidence is one of the most important factors in the survival of the Campaign. Another Cuba, or a smaller Aldermaston, would probably be enough to set in train a downward spiral which would kill the CND. Perhaps the process has already started.

Meanwhile the arms escalation continues unabated. At best CND can offer only 20 more years of marches and propaganda. The Committee of 100 attempted to find a way out of this situation; urgency and individual sacrifice (Fill the Jails etc.) were its dominant strains: and for a while its tactics did succeed in canalizing the frustration of the youth of the Campaign. But because of its short perspective, the Committee was even more dependent than the Campaign on successes. Nevertheless the civil disobedience campaign did succeed in demonstrating to its participants that the coercive apparatus of the state was related to the Bomb. On the debit side its failure probably disillusioned many of the most active supporters of unilateralism.

But sitting down was not the only activity of the Committee. As early as November 1958 its forerunner, the Direct Action Committee, had picketed the Thor bases being constructed in East Anglia. They attempted to persuade workers and contractors to black construction on the bases. Earlier in the year Peace News had contained an article calling for a mass strike against the Bomb. The attempt to involve workers in the anti-Bomb struggle continued under the Committee of 100, notably in the London docks and in Liverpool. Individuals such as Pat Arrowsmith devoted a tremendous amount of energy to get workers to act against the Bomb, and minor successes such as the Stevenage token strike were recorded. But these actions have proved to be of no significance. No permanent links, even on the smallest scale, have been forged between industrial militancy and the Bomb.

This failure is not peculiar to the Committee of 100. Unilateralism was not even an issue at last year’s Labour Party Conference – one indication of how little impression the campaign has made on the unions. With rare exceptions those workers who participate in CND demonstrations belong to the small minority who are already politically involved in the Labour Party or CP. The failure of the unilateralist movement to involve the working class is intimately connected with its other dilemmas. The root of all these crises is, I would suggest, that CND has been incapable of seeing the Bomb in its social context. The INDEC controversy exposed the limitations of treating the Bomb as an isolated issue. For even if ‘the wife of a managing director is as concerned as the wife of a trade unionist’ about the prospects of nuclear annihilation, there would be little else that they have in common. On unemployment, education, welfare services, victimization, colonial policy and the rest of the social and political problems outside defence, CND is silent. The statement of the National Executive explaining why they have come out against the Common Market is a typical example of the CND’s approach to the world outside.

‘The question of Britain’s entry into the Common Market has until recently been presented as an economic matter, to be judged by possible effects on industry, agriculture and trade. In this light it would clearly have been inappropriate for CND to adopt an attitude one way or another’. But ‘in the present political context of the Rome Treaty entry into the EEC would tie Britain to a defence and foreign policy which would be irreconcilable with CND aims. The CND National Council and Executive Committee maintains an attitude of respect to supporters who may favour entry into the Common Market...’

The heterogeneous coalition which comprises CND makes it impossible to commit itself to a political issue outside defence unless it can be approached through the question of the Bomb. Its approach to the working class, like that of the Committee of 100, has similarly been via the Bomb.

The bread and butter issues upon which workers are active are for the Campaign a distraction from the main aim.

But how can the Campaign or the Committee of 100 raise the general level of political consciousness to prod the unions into activity over the Bomb if they both remain apart from the unions and uninterested in their day-to-day struggles on conditions and control? The same argument applies to the Labour Party, or for that matter to any other political party. The Bomb is a relatively abstract issue, and unless it is related to the other problems which face those engaged in industrial or political activity, it will tend to remain irrelevant. Similarly the utopianism of CND policies and its naivete on the question of how it is ever going to see its policies realised rests upon the assumption that there is no connection between politics and the Bomb. The failure of the Campaign to make any real impact and its present crisis suggest that there is something seriously wrong with this analysis of the nature of the Bomb. If this is the case then what is the relationship between the Bomb, politics and economics.

CND has not been unaware that there are links between economic interests and the threat of war:

‘One of the most ominous by-products of the arms race – of any arms race – is the development of an industrial and commercial group with a vested interest in the continuance of arms programmes ... where a supposed need for war preparations dominates political policy this group inevitably assumes a dominant role in the national economy and thus in the machinery of policy-making.’

But typically the next step in the argument is yet another exercise in the comparative static approach which dominates CND thinking:

‘If general and complete disarmament were agreed, or if Britain took radical unilateral action, could the vast manpower and manufacturing plant of the arms industry and the armed forces be switched to work demanding a totally different experience, totally different skills, a totally different technological apparatus?’ [3]

From this point the argument descends into calculations of how the transition to peace can be achieved with minimal dislocation. Normalcy is restored and we peacefully coexist happily ever after. As in Steps Towards Peace the crucial issue of achieving power or disarmament within this country has been sidestepped.

It was suggested earlier that CND’s confusion on action, organization and policy stems largely from its insistence on regarding the Bomb as an isolated issue. The extracts above show that it sees the socio-economic apparatus that produces and sustains the Bomb in exactly the same light. No attempt is made to examine the function of the arms establishment in the capitalist system. An armaments investment of 7-10 percent of the national income is seen as a symptom of the lack of trust between nations and as nothing more. [4]

But the original sin hypothesis does not explain other distinctive features of the last decade – full employment and prosperity. Is it just a coincidence that on the one hand the regular capitalist cycle of boom and slump has not operated since the war, and on the other that a higher proportion (about half) of the investible surplus has during the same period been devoted to armaments? I would suggest that there is in fact a direct causal relationship between these two phenomena. The dynamic of capitalism is the expropriation and accumulation of value produced by workers. But this relationship is immediately pregnant with instability and contradictions: for the fact that the capitalist saves the majority of the surplus produces a discrepancy between consumption and productive capacity. The model is familiar, but it is the factors which counteract the tendency to overproduction which are of immediate relevance. Any investment performs this function in the short run, for the building of a road or a factory increases employment and consumption without increasing the volume of goods on the market. But as soon as the construction is complete, the problem of overproduction becomes acute again as the new road or factory increases the productive capacity of the economy. The export of capital to backward countries performs a similar function – but once again the investment is eventually realised in new productive forces which can only add to the volume of capital seeking investment openings.

What then is really needed is a credible form of unproductive investment which would be acceptable to the capitalist class. ‘Planned obsolescence’ in the consumer goods industries is one solution, but its effects are marginal, for consumers cannot as yet be induced to buy a car that would fall to pieces in two years instead of ten. The Keynesian solution for overproduction is public works carried out by the state. But to work such public works must have the following basic characteristics:

  1. That they do not compete with private interests which produce in the same field. Thus a state chemical industry competing with ICI would not decrease the danger of overproduction but increase it.
  2. That they employ the industries which are most susceptible to instability and slump – the capital goods industries and heavy industry.
  3. That they do not add much – and preferably should subtract from – the productive capacity of capital and should as far as possible slow down the growth of social capital.
  4. That they do not add much, if at all, to the output of mass consumer goods and thus are not dependent on higher wages for an increasing market.
  5. That while not adding to the national productive capital the capitalist class should consider them an important enough factor in the defence of their interests and markets to justify paying for them in taxation. [5]
  6. That all major countries indulge in these public works to an extent corresponding to their level of national output and wealth. If only one or a few countries were to do so they would have less resources for capital accumulation, would suffer more than others from inflation and would be in an adverse competitive position in world markets. Only if ALL major countries indulge in them will each dare to do so. [6]

It is clear that only armaments can come up to the standards required by such public works, and it is not only socialists who recognise this:

‘What H-Bomb means to business. A long period ... of big orders. In the years ahead, the effect of the new bomb will keep on increasing. As one appraiser puts it: “The H-bomb has blown depression-thinking out the window”.’ [7]

The effect of militarism on the structure of capitalism has been enormous. In the United States manufacturing industry doubled its capacity in four years of war. However this growth was not evenly spread, but was largely undertaken by the big firms, thus accelerating the tendency to the monopolization of capital. This trend is accentuated by the rapid technological developments which have been a by-product of the arms industry. Increasing automation drives up the cost of investment and drives out those firms whose scale of production is not sufficient to take advantage of such plant.

But the permanent arms economy only brings stability at a price, and that price is a potential instability incomparably more dangerous than any previous fluctuations.

Firstly, the function of armaments as an economic stabilizer tends to become progressively undermined precisely because it is so successful. The stability it brings to the capitalist class in the form of steady markets and permanent boom increases the temptation to divert more and more resources into productive investment. As the effects of the USSR’s higher rate of growth become translated into increasingly severe economic competition, there will come a point where a choice has to be made between guns and butter, where the diversion of resources into armaments becomes a barrier to economic competition. In this situation disarmament is likely. But with disarmament capitalism’s main stabilizer removed the crisis of overproduction is once again on the cards. Paradoxically, in such a situation disarmament could be the prelude to war.

The rapid rate of technological progress which characterizes the arms race also tends to undermine its function as a stabilizer. The development of automation weakens the armaments industries’ role as a generator of employment, and structural changes in the demand for weapons gives rise to pockets of unemployment and the destruction of whole industries (where would the aircraft industry be but for Britain’s obsolete deterrent?). Creeping unemployment on the US model which we are now experiencing here can be counteracted by a further increase in the arms program – but such an increase would slow down the rate of growth of the economy and weaken the competitive position of British capital. Furthermore automation, by pushing up overheads, restricts capitalism’s room for manoeuvre should markets contract. For the most modern firms, production below 60 per cent of capacity tends to be more costly than closing down.

From this analysis follow certain conclusions which are relevant to the CND. The first is that because the Bomb is not an excrescence on capitalist society, but a product of its contradictions, the struggle against the bomb is part of the broader struggle for socialism. In a very real way the Bomb embodies one of the central characteristics of the system.

It is an elitist weapon which permits no more than one finger on the button. In this respect workers’ control and banning the Bomb are one issue.

But CND cannot become a part of this broader struggle and remain a pressure group uncommitted to class or party. It must orient itself to the arena where the issues of control and extension of democracy are still alive. For better or worse this means the unions and the Labour Party, especially as they are the organizations which have the traditional loyalty of the working class. The Labour Party and the unions are reformist, bureaucratic organizations in which democracy is more a tactic than a principle. But what alternative is there, and how else can CND ever achieve any influence?

This is not of course the first time that the Campaign has been urged to commit itself to the Labour Party, but even in 1961, with Scarborough behind it, motions for affiliation met with relatively little support at CND Conference. Last year it was not even an issue. The cause of this is to be found not in the perfidy of a National Executive (most of whom are Labour Party members anyway) but in the very nature of the Campaign. Its middle-classness causes it to see the Bomb in a certain way; this in turn causes it to regard political power and political commitment in a certain way. In short, composition, policy and structure are so intertwined that it is inconceivable that CND should go into the Labour Party without first undergoing a radical change in these respects. But unfortunately it is very likely that such changes would come too late, for CND would first have to recognise that its present methods of action have failed.

For CND to enter the Labour Party en masse, would not end its troubles, for which there can be no short term solution, but it would bring the possibility of such a solution. On the other hand one can be sure that outside of the Labour Party, CND is faced with the certainty of decline. For without power it can achieve no concrete successes, without such successes it cannot grow, and without growth it can never attain any power.

It is impossible to see any other way out.



1. For an account of CND’s relations with the Labour Party see Labour and the Bomb, IS 10 (Autumn 1962).

2. Stuart Hall, Peace News, November 1962.

3. Can we disarm without a Slump? David Boulton, Sanity April 1962.

4. cf. at the height of the arms race before the First World War, Germany was spending less than 4 percent of its national income on armaments. Capitalism and Socialism on Trial, Gollancz 1951, p. 141, Fritz Sternberg.

5. e.g. US Budget deficits (000m. dollars)












The prewar deficits of the Roosevelt administration were bitterly criticised by business. There were no complaints about the ’41-2 deficit. (See article by T. Cliff, Socialist Review, July 1957.)

6. e.g. American pressure for German re-armament, and for W. Germany to share US military costs in Europe.

7. Quoted in the Nation, 28 October 1961.

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