First published in International Socialism 2 : 11, Winter 1981, pp. 1–29.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
From the beginning of 1958 through into 1964 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was a huge mass movement. During that period it involved in its activities literally hundreds of thousands of people, many brought into politics for the first time.
A movement of such scale deserves detailed examination in its own right. But today with the movement against nuclear weapons once again bringing a hundred thousand out on the streets, it is even more important to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign first time round.
Here we offer a sketch of the first great movement in Britain against nuclear weapons, and then examine some of the major factors in the campaign. We hope it will be the start of a discussion which will strengthen the new movement.
Officially CND was launched in February 1958. But if we discount the formalities of names and organisations it effectively got going in 1957. This was the year that saw the first significant demonstrations on the issue of nuclear weapons and the rallying into action of what were to become the movement’s characteristic component parts: the direct actionists, the local groups, the celebrities and the Labour lefts.
At the end of 1956 the government announced that the first British H-Bomb test would take place on Christmas Island in 1957. The announcement led several apparently rather insignificant, more or less pacifist organisations to overhaul themselves.
A number of local committees against nuclear tests had been in existence for some time. In early 1957 they formed a national organisation, the National Committee Against Nuclear Weapons Tests (NCANWT), with Peggy Duff (a former circulation manager of Tribune), and on May 12, 1957, this committee organised the first big demonstration on the nuclear weapons issue with 2000 women in black sashes marching from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. By the end of the year NCANWT claimed 115 local groups.
Parallel with this the Labour left revived its H-Bomb Committee and in September 1957 this organised a rally of 4000 people in Trafalgar Square.
The third organisational overhaul was made by small groups of believers in direct action on the Gandhi model who in the early fifties had organised some tiny sitdowns at the War Office and some military bases. In April 1957 they formed the Emergency Committee for Direct Action Against Nuclear War (the ‘Direct Action Committee’), including as its most prominent figure the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
So, by the autumn of 1957 the movement was well under way and in October it was given one final spur by, though he didn’t intend it, Aneurin Bevan. For it was at the 1957 Labour Party Conference that the hero of the Labour left ratted on his own previous beliefs and supporters by denouncing unilateral nuclear disarmament as an ‘emotional spasm’ and declaring that without an H-Bomb he would be sent ‘naked into the conference chamber’. The unilateralist motion was convincingly defeated by 5,836,000 votes to 781,000.
Even to the most convinced reformist it now became obvious that there was no easy road through the Labour Party to nuclear disarmament, and that therefore it was necessary to build an independent organisation of sufficient size and power that it could not be ignored. This was the background to both the formation of CND and its most famous activity.
In November 1957 the Direct Action Committee, later supported by the Labour left H-Bomb Committee, decided to organise a 52 mile march to the government nuclear weapons research establishment at Aldermaston.
And in November 1957 too the full time organiser of the National Committee Against Nuclear Weapons Testing, Peggy Duff, initiated the discussions that were to lead to the founding of CND at the end of January 1958.
The NCANWT wound itself up into CND and Peggy Duff transferred to being the new organisation’s Organising Secretary. But only two members of the old NCANWT national committee were on the new CND executive, because it was felt that the new executive should be more ‘political’ and more ‘prominent’. So the old NCANWT campaigners were joined by, for example, left Labour figures like Michael Foot, New Statesman editor Kingsley Martin, and celebrities like JB Priestley and James Cameron. Canon Collins was selected as chairman because of his long experience in various pressure groups.
The Labour left H-Bomb Committee became CND’s Labour Advisory Committee. The Direct Action Committee, however, maintained its independent existence but continued to work with representatives of the new CND Labour Advisory Committee in an ad hoc committee to organise the first Aldermaston march.
The inaugural rally of CND on February 17, 1958, was enormously successful but exposed tensions between the different components of the movement that were to become familiar. 5,000 people packed into Central Hall Westminster and various overflow halls and gave their greatest applause to out-and-out moral condemnations of the Bomb voiced by speakers like A.J.P. Taylor and Richard Acland.
These went much further than the extremely cautious statement issued to the press by CND before the rally. This had not been unilateralist. Rather it called for a negotiated multilateral end to tests and measures to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, an end to further missile bases and further manufacture of nuclear weapons in Britain, and the establishment of nuclear-free zones. If necessary to promote these measures Britain should suspend flights by its nuclear bombers, tests and the setting up of additional bases.
Immediately after the rally a meeting of groups supporting CND was held to work out a new policy statement confirming the unilateralist position which had effectively been decided by the audience at Central Hall. So the CND leadership’s initial attempt to confine the campaign to the pieties of multilateralism was brought to a speedy conclusion. But the pattern of political dim-wittedness and lack of appreciation of, or confidence in, the rank and file was an augury for the future.
But the mood of the Central Hall audience was not just confined to imposing a policy of unilateralism on their leaders. After the rally 1,000 people spontaneously marched to Downing Street and several were arrested. Here clearly was an element that would not be satisfied with public meetings, no matter how impressive.
The new Campaign was an immediate success in organisational terms. In the first two weeks of February 1958 it registered a hundred branches. The first Aldermaston march in Easter 1958, though not, as we have seen, initiated by CND, was an instant success in terms of publicity and the ‘image’ of CND was fixed forever by Gerald Holton’s ‘drooping cross’ and the lines of cheerful, dogged, weary but respectable marchers. Roughly 4,000 set off on the march and 10,000 attended the closing rally. On May 20 CND and the Direct Action Committee called a lobby of Parliament. 3,000 people lobbied, 7,500 attended public meetings that evening. In June four simultaneous marches converged on London, and in late June/early July a trans-Pennine march was organised from Hull to Liverpool.
This sort of activity continued on a mounting scale through 1959 and into 1960. One measure of the growth of the campaign is the number of people estimated to have attended the rally at the close of the Easter Aldermaston march. In 1958, as we have seen it was 10,000, in 1959 15–20,000 and by 1960 estimates varied anything from 30,000 up to 100,000. By spring 1960 CND proper had reached its organisational height. 500 adult groups, 100 college groups and 160 youth groups were organised into seven regions with seven full timers.
Alongside this apparently uninterrupted growth of CND activity in the localities and on the streets went a growth in support of unilateralism in the official Labour movement. At the TUC’s 1958 conference a unilateralist resolution was heavily defeated. But it already had the support of the Firemen, Tobacco Workers, Vehicle Builders, Draughtsmen, Foundry Workers and ASSET (the predecessor of ASTMS). And this was before any extensive work on this subversive idea had been done in the trade union movement. At the Labour Party Conference a month later 102 out of 428 resolutions submitted were unilateralist.
In 1959 the trade union establishment got a shock when the normally staunchly right wing General and Municipal Workers Union conference went unilateralist. Even though a special conference reversed the decision a month later it was an indication of the way things were going. At the NUM conference that year a unilateralist motion was only defeated with the aid of the Communist Party (who at that time still held the view that unilateralism was ‘divisive’) and at the 1959 TUC conference, the unilateralist motion, though defeated by 2 to 1, was now moved by the giant T&GWU, which under Frank Cousins had swung over to a unilateralist position.
In 1960 the trade union conference season saw a flood of unilateralist victories: the Shopworkers, the Railwaymen, the Miners, and the Engineers and several smaller unions.
This swelling tide of opinion in the most respectable trade union circles prompted the Communist Party to abandon (in May 1960) its previous opposition to both unilateralism and CND, and it was henceforth to be an important element inside CND.
By the Summer of 1960 it was clear that both the TUC and Labour Party conferences would go unilateralist. At the TUC the victory was slightly spoiled by the Engineers voting both ways and thus ensuring that both unilateralist and ‘official’ multilateralist motions were passed.
But a month later, at the Labour Party’s 1960 conference at Scarborough there was no doubt. ‘Official’ TUC and Labour Party defence policy was defeated by 297,000 votes, the Engineers’ unilateralist motion was passed by 403,000 votes and a rather more explicit motion from the T&GWU, demanding an end to any defence policy based on nuclear weapons, squeaked through by 43,000.
But the debate revealed some problems. Not only did Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell pledge to ‘fight, fight and fight again’ to reverse the policy, he also made it quite clear that while the conference decision had gone against him he would ignore it. And, although the CND conference of 1960 had passed a motion making it clear that unilateralism meant leaving NATO, Cousins et al. refused to commit themselves on that issue.
The years of apparently massive and uninterrupted growth for CND culminating in the Scarborough victory did not however see the direct actionists silent, nor did they see an entirely smooth relationship between the CND leadership and its rank and file.
The Direct Action Committee had, as we have seen, maintained its independence when CND was founded and in December 1958 mounted sit-downs at the construction site of the North Pickenham rocket base. This was part of a campaign combining direct action and the attempt to win over workers involved in military projects.
The response of the CND leadership was characteristic. In the early part of 1959 CND National Council repeatedly repudiated the direct actionists’ calls for blacking and other industrial action against nuclear weapons. And at the CND conference in March it was only by threatening to resign en masse if it were passed that they succeeded in getting a motion approving the civil disobedience at North Pickenham rejected by 109 votes to 77. It was also only with considerable reluctance that the CND National Council could even be brought to endorse a second Aldermaston march. And even then it was to be on its own terms. There were to be no political banners and marchers were instructed, ‘Don’t do anything or wear anything that will distract the attention of the world from the great issues with which we are concerned.’
During 1959 the Direct Action Committee put considerable efforts into campaigning round a number of military sites and on April 10 actually got a token strike of an hour by a thousand building workers in Stevenage where it had been campaigning around two factories making the Blue Streak missile (then Britain’s forthcoming strategic weapon). But elsewhere results were less visible.
If the ‘industrial’ initiatives of the direct actionists bore little fruit, direct action itself continued to gain in support. And in November 1959 the quarterly meeting of Youth CND passed a resolution approving direct action in principle. The 1960 conference of CND passed a resolution stating that participation in direct action activities was compatible with membership of CND. While no more than a recognition of the way things were moving in the movement as a whole, it was a step forward from the position of the previous conference.
The 1960 CND conference also passed a resolution which committed the Campaign to opposition to Britain’s continued membership of the NATO nuclear alliance. It was a decision, however, largely ignored by the CND leadership. So as the movement as a whole increased its impact, with even opinion polls registering 30% support for unilateralism in 1960, so did the commitment of a large number of its active supporters to direct action increase. In September 1960 the Direct Action Committee met with an American student in Britain, Ralph Schoenman, and adopted his brainchild: a better organised and more populist focus for direct action, a committee of prominent individuals publicly committed to organise civil disobedience to nuclear weapons, the Committee of 100.
One of the letters of invitation to join the new Committee miscarried and was published by the Evening Standard on the eve of the Scarborough Labour Party conference. Canon Collins for the CND leadership described the formation of the Committee as ‘the greatest possible mistake’ since CND was making satisfactory progress to its goals by legal democratic methods. A rebuke was issued by the CND leadership to Bertrand Russell, one of the members of the new Committee of 100, with the result that shortly after Russell resigned from the post he had held as president of CND.
The 1961 Easter Aldermaston march was even bigger than before: starting with 20,000 people it ended with an estimated 150,000. But despite this, an annual budget of £30,000 and the establishment of a regular newspaper Sanity (which claimed a circulation of 40,000 at its peak) CND proper was in trouble. It was threatened on two sides.
First of all the gains made in the Labour Party were rapidly crumbling. Within two weeks of the Scarborough conference vote a number of Labour right wingers, led by current ‘gang of three’ member William Rodgers, formed the Campaign for Democratic Socialism with the aim of reversing the conference decision. By February 1961 they were claiming over 2,000 offers of support.
Gaitskell stuck absolutely firm to his position of disregarding the Labour Conference decision. He was challenged for the leadership of the parliamentary Labour Party first by the unilateralist Anthony Greewood, who then withdrew in favour of the multilateralist, but (then!) opponent of British nuclear weapons, Harold Wilson. Gaitskell won handsomely by 166 votes to 81.
Many trade union leaders therefore shied away from confrontation. They were aided in this by the so-called ‘Crossman-Padley Formula’ cooked up by former Bevanite Richard Crossman and Shopworkers’ leader Walter Padley in February. This proposed an abandonment of the independent British bomb while maintaining a firm commitment to NATO. Supported by Tribune and Michael Foot it let many weak-kneed unilateralists off the hook.
In March 1961 the Shopworkers reversed their unilateralist position. Bill Carron swung the Engineers back into line, and very soon eleven unions with a total of 1,551,000 Labour Conference votes had switched back to supporting Gaitskell. At the 1961 Labour Party Conference the multilateralist Policy for Peace was passed by a majority of 3 to 1.
On the other side the CND leadership was challenged by the growing activities of the Committee of 100. The Committee’s first meeting took place on October 22 1960 with personalities like Doris Lessing, Alex Comfort and John Osborne, who were never to attend another meeting, present. The initial aim was to get 2,000 pledges for a ‘one off’ act of civil disobedience. The pledges were got and on February 18, 1961, 1,200 people sat down on the pavements surrounding the Ministry of Defence, while another 3,000 took part in a supporting march. The police however arrested no one. Next day Bertrand Russell complained, ‘We do not want forever to be tolerated by the police.’
The new era of direct action was, however, to deliver a lot more. The huge Easter march of 1961 proved more ‘difficult’ than ever for the organisers, and Ralph Schoenman peeled off 500 of the marchers to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, where he and others were arrested. Demonstrators then sat down outside Savile Row police station demanding their release and in the ensuing scuffles there were another 25 arrests. The next day all the publicity went to the sit-down, which was to become very much the pattern for the coming months.
Civil disobedience was now mounted on a large scale. Immediately after the 1961 Easter march 35 Direct Action Committee stalwarts started a seven week march to the American Polaris submarine base at Holy Loch. 2,000 people took part in the final march to the base itself, where 70 tried to board the submarine tender HMS Proteus and another 200 sat down on the pier. Scottish police and US sailors combined to beat up the demonstrators and the resultant fines left the Direct Action Committee with a £650 debt to clear before it finally wound itself up in July.
It was to be the Committee of 100 which would keep the torch of direct action alight and for some months make it burn even brighter. Already, on April 29 1961, it had organised a public assembly in Parliament Square. Some 10,000 people marched down Whitehall, over 2,000 sat down, and there were 862 arrests, the majority of whom agreed to pay the generally fairly modest fines rather than ‘fill the prisons.’
By the end of the summer the certainty of defeat at the Labour Party Conference further fuelled the Committee of 100’s activities. It planned simultaneous demonstrations for September 17, 1961, in London and at Holy Loch. The state worked hard to make them a success. It arrested 36 Committee leaders and tried to bind them over. 32 refused and got a month in prison. The 89 year old Bertrand Russell got two months; reduced, after a storm of protest, to a week. Access to Trafalgar Square was banned under the Public Order Act. The result was that 12,000 people turned up and 1,314 were arrested. Late at night, after the press and NCCL had gone, many of the remaining few hundred sit-downers were beaten up by the police. At Holy Loch there were 351 arrests.
Immediately after the September demonstrations the Committee of 100 renewed itself. Many of the original members had very rapidly dropped out. Now they were replaced by 51 new members many of them young and inexperienced. The hard core was provided by former Direct Action Committee activists who were anxious to turn from the propagandist civil disobedience of the previous few months, designed mainly to influence public opinion, to direct confrontation with the state. This was how they intended to follow up the relative success of September 17.
The Committee called for a massive nation-wide demonstration on December 9, 1961, in which civil disobedience would be simultaneously undertaken at several NATO bases. The boldest of these was to be a mass walk on to the unfenced base at Wethersfield. The state response was massive. At Wethersfield there were 5,000 RAF personnel and 900 police and they also rapidly fenced-in the 7.5-mile perimeter. On the eve of the demonstration six leading members of the Committee were arrested under the Official Secrets Act.
Organisation was chaotic, but on the day roughly 2,200 people took part in sit-downs across the country, and others participated in supporting marches. There were 850 arrests. Creditable as this turn out may look in isolation it was a bitter disappointment to the organisers. At Wethersfield around 600 sat down, but the Committee had wildly called for a turnout of 50,000!
When Pat Arrowsmith proposed a return to Wethersfield with a national demonstration at the January 1962 meeting of the Committee she was defeated by 32 votes to 12. And in protest at the trial of the Wethersfield Six in February the Committee organised only legal activities, a mass rally and a picket of the court. Five of the defendants were sentenced to eighteen months, the other to a year. Repression was working. The Committee again reorganised itself, extending its political goals beyond the bomb and was soon taking a general pacifist-anarchist position with inevitably a narrower base. Although in 1962 tens of thousands of new supporters were drawn into political activity and awareness by the movement, the truth was that it was already past its peak. The numbers at the end of the 1962 Aldermaston march were as high as the previous year. But the atmosphere of frustration and bitterness in and around the campaign was unmistakable.
No fight was being put up within the official labour movement to retrieve the position lost in 1961. On the direct action side sit-downs began to take on a rather routine air.
A sit-down at Holy Loch in June 1962 scored less than half the arrests of the year before, and when the Committee of 100 tried to pull the movement together for a major action in the late summer the result was failure. 7,000 pledges were sought for a sit down at the Air Ministry on September 9. By September 2 only 3,900 pledges had been obtained, and the sit-down was cancelled; to be inadequately replaced by a legal public rally on September 23.
The movement was thus at a low ebb when it faced a major test with the Cuban Missile Crisis in late October 1962. Campaigners poured out onto the streets all over Britain, only to realise their impotence when they got there. In London on October 27 thousands packed Trafalgar Square, though permission for a meeting had been denied and speaker after speaker was arrested as soon as she or he stood up. The demonstration marched and sat, first in Whitehall, then at the US Embassy and finally, a dogged few hundred at the Russian Embassy. Very few can have gone home less depressed and anxious than when they set out.
Two leading Committee of 100 activists caused no small amount of ridicule and resentment by decamping to Ireland faced with the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. But what was more important in the aftermath of the crisis was the fact that the world was very much in one piece. No matter that the crisis showed how close the world was to self-destruction. Its very survival was a blow to those who had based five years of their political life on its imminent doom.
The crisis also provoked a further row over CND policy. It seemed to many of the leaders that the campaign should have some immediate proposals as to how the world might move back from the brink of destruction. These were put to the movement as Steps Towards Peace in November 1962. It was Step One that caused the trouble, because it seemed to endorse deterrence between the two super powers by calling for all nuclear weapons to be confined within their territories. To many of the rank and file this seemed like back-pedalling towards multilateralism. Ominously, not a word of the controversy appeared in Sanity, which had previously been an extremely open publication.
By 1963 the movement’s troubles were going public. The Easter March was still huge but for the first time its numbers were down on the previous year. CND was having trouble in running its budget at £1000 a month. Anthony Greenwood, Judith Hart and Michael Foot withdrew from its National Council.
But there was one important achievement. ‘Spies for Peace’ exposed a network of secret government bunkers prepared for the preservation of the state in a nuclear war. The information was published with immense effect on the Aldermaston march, together with a leaflet inviting marchers to step aside to visit Regional Seat of Government No. 6. Thousands ignored the official CND marshals and took up the invitation. And as the demonstration marched into London they sang ‘I’ve got a secret, a nice Official Secret’ and shouted out the forbidden telephone numbers. The publicity surrounding the revelations helped to swell the final day of the march, but Canon Collins characteristically censored the back page of Sanity containing the information and vigorously denigrated the ‘Spies’ in a Panorama interview on the Monday night.
The other significant development in the movement in 1963 was the demonstrations organised by the Committee of 100 against the visit of the Greek Queen in July. Significant in two respects: first because it showed that the direct actionists were broadening out from the simple nuclear issue, and secondly because many of the militant demonstrators had no intention of sitting down as the Committee organisers wanted. The fetish of non-violence was breaking down.
By 1964 the decline of the movement was there for all to see. The Easter CND march was cut down to only one day and there were only 10–20,000 at the rally. The Committee of 100 organised a rival demonstration to Ruislip airbase. Their plans to enter the base were foiled, 300 were arrested sitting down outside the fence and several hundred more marched in support. But on both the ‘official’ and the direct action sides of the movement the numbers were now down to less than a sixth of their 1961 peak.
After 1964 the movement was a shadow. The Easter marches continued as one day rituals drawing together a few thousand of the left up until 1968, when the militants used it as an opportunity to march up to the Daily Mirror building as a protest against the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke. As for the Committee of 100 it existed as an increasingly uninfluential rump after 1964 and significantly wound itself up in that most revolutionary of post war years, 1968.
The fact of the matter was that the youth generation had moved on. It had been radicalised by its experiences in CND and the Committee of 100. It had seen the limitations of both the passivity of the CND leadership and the Committee of 100’s civil disobedience. It saw the need to generalise the ‘Spies for Peace’ and the Queen Frederika events were a testimony to that. And it was moving away from simple opposition to the bomb and on to fighting – in however confused a way – the society that produced it. This meant the need to act in solidarity with those who were actually involved in struggles against it – most obviously and most magnificently the NLF in Vietnam which CND refused to support. For this purpose the moralism and pacifism of CND and the Committee of 100 were a distinct impediment. Small wonder that the youth flooded into the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign with great militancy, and that as a result of them doing so the bottom dropped out of CND itself in the middle 1960s.
The first great movement against nuclear weapons had reached its highpoint in 1961, continued to have a mass base until 1964, and maintained a token presence until 1968. Thereafter the issue of nuclear weapons disappeared as a popular movement until the massive revival of 1980.
‘Direct action’ was a concept of crucial significance throughout the anti-bomb campaign of the fifties and sixties. Debate on it was vigorous from the beginning to the end of the movement. And the obsession with direct action – for and against- produced two myths, the liberal and the anarchist. The liberal myth, which is still shared by most of CND’s current officials, is that civil disobedience killed off popular support and was in part or the main responsible for CND’s collapse in the mid-sixties. The anarchist myth is that civil disobedience is the weapon par excellence which can be progressively built up to confront and eventually paralyse the warmongers.
Let us look at these myths in turn. But in looking at them we will find that the term ‘direct action’ takes on a number of different meanings which were by no means always clear to those who used it. Initially it was not seen as opposed to ‘indirect action’ – demonstrations, mass leafletting etc. – but as opposed to merely asking your MP or union official to do things for you. It was only later that it became synonymous with civil disobedience. The inertia or even downright anti-activism of the CND leadership ensured that the ‘direct action’ debate would continue to dominate the movement even at its height, often to the detriment of discussing what sort of mass activity could relate to the working class and its struggles.
The direct actionists were certainly no ‘Johnnie come latelys’ to the anti-bomb movement. From 1951 to 1953 the predecessors of the Direct Action Committee had mounted small scale sit-downs at the War Office and a number of military bases. And the Direct Action Committee itself was an important component in the launching of CND despite (very wisely) maintaining its independence. It, after all, initiated the first Aldermaston march and one of its members, Bertrand Russell was one of the founders (and president) of the new campaign.
From the beginning direct action, including civil disobedience, was popular among the activists. For example on the first (1958) Aldermaston march at the first night’s public meeting the loudest cheers were for a trade unionist calling for strike action and blacking against the Bomb. And on the third night, at Reading, Michael Scott’s call for a campaign of civil disobedience against the Bomb drew further rapturous applause. No wonder the CND leadership were reluctant to endorse a second march: a lot of subversive ideas got around in those heady four days.
We have noted that despite the extreme hostility of the CND leadership to direct action at its 1959 conference, by 1960 it was unable to resist toleration of it – at least formally. One illustration of this growing pressure, while CND was quite clearly on the ascendant, was the Direct Action Committee sit down at Harrington base on January 2 1960. Seven of the organisers had been imprisoned for two months when they refused to be bound over to keep the peace after having been charged with inciting the public to commit a breach of the peace by urging them to go on the sit-down. Support was so high as a result of this repression that CND was forced to organise a ‘legal’ supporting demonstration to the base headed by Canon Collins.
The national strength of the Direct Action Committee at this point is worth noting. Besides the small committee of 12, they estimated that they had 1,600 active supporters within a practicable day’s return journey from London. A group of sympathisers in Hull who made moves to organise a Northern Direct Action Committee through 1959–60 estimated their regional support at between 400 and 1,000 people.
So well before the 1960 Scarborough Labour Conference and at the same time as the Easter marches were still growing in size, the direct actionists were growing in strength and undoubtedly formed a large part of the cadre of the movement.
The high point of the civil disobedience campaign proper, 1961, included the largest Easter march to date and the numbers continued in 1962, immediately after that high point. Hardly an indication that civil disobedience turned the ‘broad masses’ off the movement. Indeed rather the reverse. What fuelled support for the Committee of 100 was the impasse felt after the Labour Conference victory and the rapidly growing realisation that it was going to be taken away. The enormous publicity given to the sit-downs must have contributed greatly to swelling the numbers at the Easter marches in both 1961 and 1962, their high point. Indeed in the popular view at the time CND was seen quite simply as synonymous with the sit down.
The same point could be made about the 1963 Easter march. By then the movement was definitely past its peak and the initial numbers on the march well down on the previous two years. But then there was ‘Spies for Peace’ and the march to the Regional Seat of Government. Canon Collins might vigorously condemn it and the CND marshals might urge marchers not to take part in ‘diversions’, but the fact of the matter is that the resultant publicity ensured a huge turn out on the last day, and a turn out with momentarily very high morale.
So the liberal myth, that civil disobedience was an important cause of the movement’s collapse is just that – a myth. On the contrary, whatever its weaknesses it put new life into the movement and helped build and maintain its mass support.
But having rejected one myth we cannot fall into another: the anarchist myth which simply glorifies the civil disobedience element in the campaign without looking at its all too apparent failures. For these failures were not simply a result of lack of sufficient will by sufficient numbers to implement a strategy of civil disobedience, they were due to essential weaknesses and confusion in the strategy itself.
First of all there was confusion over whether the purpose of civil disobedience was to win publicity (which it seems was Bertrand Russell’s view) or whether it was supposed to make a serious challenge to the state.
As we have shown many of the acts of civil disobedience were extremely effective means of winning publicity and made an important direct contribution to building the mass movement. But another word for a publicity seeking action is a ‘stunt’. Stunts can be very useful but they have very serious dangers. There is the cost of doing them in terms of organisation, possible fines and imprisonment. And these were real enough for the direct actionists of the early sixties. There is also the danger that stunts may become a substitute for the movement they are seeking to build.
An editorial in International Socialism (No. 5, Summer 1961) put it like this:
‘(The danger is) that acts of civil disobedience come to be thought of as a self-sufficient method of advance, or as a substitute for other methods ... The central question that is posed more and more urgently to those who participate in acts of civil disobedience is the question of how they may bring their action to a successful political conclusion. The Indian example was not the quiet, disciplined stroll to prison of Direct Action mythology. The struggle included terrorism, sabotage, mob violence and mutiny among its methods as well as hunger-strikes and passive disobedience.’
At the time (the high point of Committee of 100) the editorial also emphasised the consciousness-raising possibilities involved in mass civil disobedience and concluded: ‘sit-down – without illusions’.
But by the end of the year the dangers of which the editorial had warned were becoming the reality. The Committee of 100’s simultaneous actions against NATO bases in December 1961 were precisely based on the illusion that civil disobedience was a self-sufficient method of advance. They attempted a direct confrontation with the state, with totally inadequate forces, in the naive belief both that this would encourage others to follow their example and that this in itself would immobolise the state. Both the poor turnout and the aftermath we have described show how wrong they were.
After this experience an article in International Socialism, (No. 10, Autumn 1962) posed the issue starkly.
‘The Committee of 100 itself has not helped to clarify its intentions on this score – if its demonstrations are means of achieving publicity they are successful and the poorness of response recently, while disappointing, is not disastrous ... If, however, the aim is to challenge the State seriously, the entire operation is not only wrong, but dangerous: i.e. not only can the State not be defeated until a majority segment of the country firmly opposes it (as, for example, in a General Strike), but also to mislead its supporters on the assumption that the State can be so defeated is to lead them to rapid disillusionment and alienation from the general (and less demanding) struggle. Thus, for example, to demonstrate outside a base (the disobedient aspect of such demonstrations is not in question here) is one thing; to seek to immobilize a base in the hope that this in any way deflects the State from its purpose is merely foolish. The State is only ‘immobilized’ immediately before a revolutionary attempt, and although some small and temporary inconvenience to particular servicemen may be achieved by Base demonstrations, there can be no question of defence policy being affected.’
Failing to recognise this the direct actionists inevitably degenerated into a sort of ‘pacifist terrorism’ in which the individual heroics of a minority increasingly tried to substitute themselves for a declining mass movement.
If direct action was one pole of attraction for CND the other was the Labour Party.
In one respect this was strange. For it was after all the Attlee government which had undertaken the development of British nuclear weapons (without even consulting its cabinet never mind the party as a whole) and the official right wing leadership of the Party had maintained a bi-partisan approach to Conservative ‘defence’ policy during the fifties, supporting the 1955 Conservative Defence White Paper which committed Britain to the development of the H-Bomb.
But there had also been a tradition of opposition to the imperatives of Cold War represented by the Bevanites, with the support of a minority of Labour MPs (and probably a majority of constituency Labour Parties), but blocked by the right wing control of the big unions. In the early fifties this tradition had focused on the issue of German rearmament, but by the mid-fifties it was taking up the issue of the H-Bomb. 62 Labour MPs defied the whip to vote against the 1955 White Paper.
As we have seen it was Bevan’s reneging over the H-Bomb issue in 1957 that provided the backdrop for the launching of CND and from the start CND was not officially tied to the party; it was far wider and had at its centre people who were either not in the Party or were marginal to it.
Soon however the campaign was inextricably tangled up with the Labour Party. Partly, no doubt, this was due to the recognition by most members of the campaign that their ideal needed political implementation, partly it was due to the considerable presence of established Labour lefts within the campaign. But above all there was the rapid and apparently spectacular progress of support for unilateralism within the Labour Party which culminated in the conference victory of 1960.
Now it is important to note a number of things about this road to Scarborough – and away from it.
The spectacular rise and fall of unilateralism in the Labour Party did not by and large occur within the constituencies. A majority (though not as big a majority as today) of these had been left wing throughout the fifties and they fairly automatically supported a soft unilateralist position. The proportion of the constituency parties voting unilateralist seems to have remained relatively stable throughout this period.
What produced the dramatic swings in conference policy was the block votes of the unions and here some relatively accidental factors were at work.
First of all, in 1956 the ‘leftist’ and unilateralist Frank Cousins had acceded to the leadership of the Transport and General Workers Union. In the early fifties the T&GWU had been run by the right wing Arthur Deakin and his continued use of the union’s block vote to defend the Labour leadership led to the left coining a phrase for it: ‘Deakinism’. Cousins gained the union leadership not through any substantial rank and file shift to the left but because Deakin’s ‘natural’ successor died within a few months of taking office and Cousins was next in line. By 1959 Cousins was casting the huge T&GWU block vote, as big as all the constituency votes put together, for unilateralism. The switch was made from above, without a fight. It was ‘Deakinism’ in reverse.
The second accidental factor was the quite remarkable ineptitude of Gaitskell, the Labour leader, and of the Labour right. For forty years and more the party had combined right-wing pro-capitalist policies with a constitution that contained a commitment to abolish capitalism – ‘clause 4’ of its constitution. The Labour governments of 1924, 1929, 1945 and 1950 had ignored this clause with impunity, and Labour’s lefts – then as now – were too caught up in the party committees, the GMCs and so on, to build the kind of rank-and-file workers’ movement outside the party that could have stopped them. Clause 4 was a sacred cow; its rhetoric fired the enthusiasm of the constituency activists and made them serve themselves up as willing servants of the right-wing parliamentary leadership.
After Labour lost its third successive general election in 1959 a special party conference was called at which the right wing tried to get rid of clause 4 and were soundly defeated. Gaitskell’s leadership was seriously weakened by the whole bungled attempt. What is more, by choosing the arena of the party conference rather than ignoring it, Gaitskell was adding to its significance and making himself more of a hostage to its decisions: all of which heightened the atmosphere in the run up to the Scarborough conference of 1960.
It was this that gave the initiative to the left. With no election in prospect for four years the machine politicians could take some time out to settle scores with Gaitskell.
And it was in this situation that the great swing of unions to unilateralism took place in 1960. Not that there was not some genuine shift underneath the top leaders. The right wing baron of the engineers, Bill Carron, after all lost control of his delegation on the issue that year. But the shift cannot be understood as representing a fundamental shift in consciousness among the great mass of trade union members. Rather it must be put down to the work of a relatively small number of trade union officials and activists, some undoubtedly motivated by a commitment to the anti-bomb campaign, others seeking any stick with which to beat Gaitskell.
In these circumstances Scarborough should have been seen, not so much as a victory in itself, but as the opening of a potentially more promising stage for the left. As an editorial in International Socialism (No. 3, Winter 60/61) put it:
‘The Left is in no position to face Gaitskell’s machine with one of its own. Our organizational resources reflect our weakness in policy magnified by the greater stress we place on convictions and on the spontaneous recruitment of people to implement them. Our strongest weapon would be to link the issue of defence with the stuff of ordinary life on which workers have shown unshakable convictions to the point of heroism.
‘From this angle, it is significant that those sectors of workers that have been engaged in industrial struggle latterly – railwaymen, engineers, transport workers – are in general the most outspokenly unilateralist. It is even more significant that the Central London busmen, highly critical as they are of Cousins’ leadership on industrial matters, are solidly behind him on the Bomb issue. It is obvious that progress for the Left lies in breaking down the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle ...
‘The issue of defence is too fateful for reconciliation. The Left might be muddled and disorganized, but it represents a real protest at the suicidal implications of Gaitskell’s policy. It represents the possibility, at least, of embedding anti-Nato politics in the soil of class struggle. It represents the unity and working-class bias of the Labour party. In order to win, the Left will have to recognise at some point that the fight needs to be generalized and carried beyond the arid corridors of Party headquarters. Likewise, it will have to conclude that the defence problem cannot be solved in a purely British context, and that the time has come to promote – actively – internationalism as an alternative to Gaitskell’s “collective security”.’
But the CND leadership recognised none of these things. It certainly didn’t recognise the need to link ‘the issues of defence with the stuff of the ordinary life of workers’ (on which more later). But it also failed to recognise the partly accidental and essentially machine nature of the Scarborough victory. So immediately after the conference the CND leadership issued a hopelessly unrealistic bulletin giving the impression that the Labour Party itself rather than a mere conference vote had been won. They therefore stood by impotently as the stronger Gaitskellite machine reversed the block votes and some of the left ran for cover. On the machine question they should have known better after the success of the right in reversing the General and Municipal Workers vote the year before. And over the trade union lefts who ran for cover CND was crippled by its failure to develop (in the words of the editorial) ‘an active internationalism as an alternative to Gaitskell’s “collective security”.’
At the Scarborough conference many of the unilateralists had been very much on the defensive on this question. The mover of the Engineers’ resolution, for example, explained that it meant nothing one way or the other about Britain’s membership of NATO. That was Cousin’s position too. And that left them very vulnerable to backsliding in the face of the Labour right, especially as the official Labour position was now shifting toward phasing out the independent British bomb. What else was at issue apart from NATO?, the Right could argue.
This made particularly attractive to many of the left union leaders the then famous ‘Crossman-Padley’ formula which, as already described, seemed like a sort of halfway house between unilateralism and multilateralism, but with a firm (and therefore inevitably nuclear) commitment to NATO. Tribune and Michael Foot supported the formula, Cousins toyed with it. Gaitskell, not in a compromising mood, rejected it. But it gave a bridge for some to cross. Padley for example, persuaded his Shopworkers to accept it rather than their 1960 unilateralism and then when it came to the 1961 conference got them to vote for the official Defence Statement as the nearest approximation to it!
The CND conference had adopted the position of opposition to NATO but the CND leadership generally ignored this. The price they paid was shown in the confusion created by the ‘Crossman-Padley’ formula.
After the unilateralist position was defeated at the Labour Party conference of 1961 the left never made any serious attempt to retrieve the position. There were no serious debates on either defence or foreign policy at the Labour Party Conferences of 1962 and 1963. Why was there no fight back? Presumably because to have waged a serious fight would have needed organisation at grass-roots level in the union, a strategy of which the CND leaders had no comprehension and which, anyway, would have endangered their relations with those union leaders who remained unilateralist.
In fact, in order to win the battle inside the Labour Party it would have been necessary to have a strategy whose main focus was outside of the party. A mass rank-and-file movement inside the unions fighting around the issues which faced workers on the shop-floor was the only force which could, as an incidental by-product, have challenged the hold of the bureaucracy over the Labour Party. But to do that would mean the necessity of having a much broader political perspective – indeed to have the perspective of building a mass revolutionary party. Paradoxically, only a strategy which regarded the Labour Party as an obstacle to social change could have any hope of winning the Labour Party firmly to unilateralism.
If CND persisted in keeping company with the Labour Party after losing the unilateralist position in it and refusing to mount a serious counter attack, it could only do so by adapting its policies towards that of the Labour Party. Hence the proposal of the ‘realistic’ (and implicitly multilateralist) document Steps towards Peace in November 1962 and its adoption by a special CND conference in July 1963.
The process was speeded up by Harold Wilson’s election to the Labour leadership in January 1963 after the death of the much unloved Gaitskell. Wilson was a multilateralist and shortly after his election told an American reporter ‘Labour’s main point of difference with the Conservative Government is a feeling that Britain is not making sufficient contribution to NATO in conventional terms’. (New York Times, April 1963)
But despite this, unilateralists in the Labour Party gave Wilson almost total and often obsequious support until after the election victory of 1964. This support took its toll. By May 1963 the Reverend Donald Soper could tell the Committee of 100 that their protests were no longer desirable because all their demands had been adopted as Labour Party policy! Untrue? Of course. But the fact of the matter was that some Labour Party unilateralists were managing to convince themselves otherwise.
And that affected their unilateralism. Take Michael Foot again, writing in Tribune,
‘How far and how fast a new government could move in assisting this [unilateralist] policy would partially depend on the reactions of other governments – that is on circumstances which cannot be defined in advance.’
Labour unilateralism was putting on a multilateralist face with a vengeance!
In gradually adapting themselves to the official Labour position, the Labour unilateralists and CND leaders might have argued that they had got one small gain in return. Wilson fought the 1964 election pledged to phase out the independent British Bomb while remaining a member of the NATO nuclear alliance.
But it was one of the many pledges he did not keep. Over a decade later the British Bomb remained with a Labour government, now including Michael Foot, spending £1,000 million to modernise it.
It wasn’t much to show for seven years of one of Britain’s greatest mass campaigns.
There were two reasons why CND’s orientation on the Labour Party was harmful. Firstly the Labour Party could not effectively be won for unilateralism. At the highest level the Labour Party has always been safely incorporated within the British state, and hence within that state’s commitment to the possession of sufficient nuclear force by the West for it to continue its economic grip on some two-thirds of the planet’s inhabitants. British nuclear disarmament cannot be permitted, not because of its military but because of its political implications.
Secondly, CND’s orientation on the Labour Party, and especially its bureaucratic machinery and its electoral exigencies, led to its wasting, frustrating and alienating important layers of support, especially among those people who want nothing to do with ‘party’ politics as it now is.
Yet at the same time, if the Bomb is recognised as a class issue, there can be no way of simply ignoring or by-passing the labour movement and its official if bureaucratised structures. The attempt to seek a reformist road round the Labour Party by Michael Craft and others when they founded the Independent Nuclear Disarmament Election Committee was doomed, not only to failure, but to arouse the antagonism of any class-conscious Labour supporters. In short, there are no short cuts. The struggle against the Bomb is inextricably linked to the struggle against reformism.
But what of the part played by the second force on the British left – the Communist Party? The CP’s role in British politics has always been greater than mere membership figures or election results would suggest, and its part in the evolution of CND is no exception to this. At the time when CND emerged the British CP was still resolutely pro-Moscow; the leadership had held the line over Hungary, even at the cost of losing a quarter of the membership. So it comes as no surprise that the Party’s line faithfully reflected Russian foreign policy at the time, and the many ‘peace’ initiatives that emanated from that source.
Lagging behind the West in nuclear weapons, but much less in conventional weapons, Russia’s position until 1955 was that both sides should multilaterally ban the bomb and only then begin a phased reduction in conventional weapons. Its opposition to the bomb as a specific weapon was based on the weakness of its nuclear as opposed to its conventional arsenal. By contrast the West’s position – for a phased reduction in conventional weapons and only thereafter a banning of the bomb – reflected with a similar cynicism the superiority of the West’s nuclear arsenal. The ‘peace’ proposals of both East and West were, in fact, merely ways of diverting attention from their own considerable contribution to the arms race. Unfortunately the Russian line, for which the CP did an enthusiastic publicity job, had a considerable influence in parts of the movement.
The CP’s attitude to nuclear weapons therefore varied according to tactical circumstances. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Daily Worker made no criticism; on the contrary, it headlined ‘Japs still trying to haggle’. (Daily Worker, August 14, 1945) By 1952 however, it had come to see the bombing of Japan as a ‘bestial action’. (Daily Worker, August 7, 1952) This was just before the first British A-bomb test, in the Monte Bello Islands in October 1952. But when Russia exploded its first H-bomb the following year, a party publication made no criticism, but merely commented: ‘In this situation there is a powerful basis for widening and extending the peace movement’.
The Party’s main peace initiative in the early fifties was its support for the Stockholm Peace Appeal, backed by CPs throughout the world. The Appeal called for an international ban on nuclear weapons, and for the first use to be given the unequivocal status of a war-crime. The line was thus entirely multilateralist. But whatever its political weakness, it is undoubtedly true that the one million or more signatures collected for the Stockholm Appeal by the British Peace Committee (a body heavily influenced by the CP) constituted the first mass public gesture against nuclear weapons made in Britain.
In the first years of the Campaign the CP clung to its multilateralist line, and actually expressed positive hostility to unilateralism.
The Party Congress in 1959 confirmed this position at the very moment thousands were marching from Aldermaston:
‘Congress cleared up some mistaken ideas about our attitude to the demand for the unilateral banning of the H-bomb. John Gollan pointed out that the Communist Party had always been against the Bomb ... Experience has shown that unilateralism only divided the movement, and diverts attention from the real issue, namely international agreement to ban nuclear weapons. This is the only way to banish the menace of nuclear war and also the issue on which the greatest number of people agree.’ (Marxism Today, May 1959)
Gollan’s disapproval was undoubtedly a matter of indifference to the thousands marching from Aldermaston. But it did have an important impact in the place where the CP had its greatest strength – in the trade union conferences which determined TUC and ultimately Labour Party policy. Thus after the 1958 TUC Tribune commented: ‘Some delegates at last week’s Trade Union Congress were puzzled at the size of the opposition to the Fire Brigades Union motion urging unilateral disarmament. Many of the unions traditionally supporters of nuclear disarmament, either voted against it or abstained. Some of them even failed to support the Public Employees resolution urging the “drastic curtailment of military expenditure”. What happened within these union delegations? The answer is simple: the Communist Party members within them urged this course of action in line with the policy line plugged by the Daily Worker.’ (Tribune, September 12, 1958) And at the 1959 Conference of the National Union of Mineworkers, Abe Moffat, Communist Party leader of the Scottish National Union of Mineworkers, spoke in favour of the official right-wing TUC-Labour Party statement and opposed a CND resolution moved by Bert Wynn of the Derbyshire miners. These facts were studiously ignored by those who argued that the Campaign was masterminded by Communists and ‘fellow-travellers’.
Early in I960 the CP stood on no democratic ceremony in casting aside the decision of their own latest Congress against the unilateralist position. Large numbers of CND members participated in the 1960 Easter March, undoubtedly contributing to make this by far the biggest demonstration yet. And on May 1960 the CP formally urged all its members to join CND. But the main emphasis of the shift in line was organisational rather than political. The CP was clearly anxious not to be left on the sidelines by a mass movement which had an undoubted attractive power over its periphery and even its members. But there was no real self-criticism or any substantive change of policy towards whole-hearted unilateralism. The CP’s decision certainly strengthened the Campaign at a time of growth, and in particular helped to shift the position of a number of unions in the run-up to the unilateralist victory at the 1960 Labour Party Conference. But at the same time the presence of these unconvinced multilateralists-in-unilateralist clothing was undoubtedly to play a role in later developments in the Campaign’s politics.
As the Campaign passed its peak, with the reversal of Labour Party policy at the 1961 Conference, the CP more and more came to side with the more conservative elements in the Campaign. The Party’s orientation to the Labour Left and to the left elements in the trade union bureaucracy made it very susceptible to the pressures on the Campaign to adopt a more moderate and ‘realistic’ line as the prospect of a Labour Government became more probable. No real fight was put up within the official Labour movement to try to retrieve the position lost at the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool in 1961. It began to be very clear that, faced with the choice between persisting in unilateralism and preserving the existing social order, the CP would line up with its allies in Labour CND to choose the latter. And in turn they blamed their defeats on the ‘ultra-leftism’ of the Committee of 100.
Politically, the CP helped to push the Campaign to the right. The potentially revolutionary demand for unilateralism was made to take second place to more ‘realistic’ reformist demands for multilateral negotiation and agreement. The CP tried to link the Campaign to pro-Moscow ‘peace’ movements on an international level. And, worst of all, the CP actually succeeded in injecting the poison of nationalism into CND. More and more the CP tried to narrow down the focus of total opposition to all nuclear alliances, and to stress the role of West Germany in the Western Alliance. Slogans such as ‘No German finger on the trigger’ and ‘No German troops in Wales’ were pushed by CP members on demonstrations and in CP publications. The political ‘realism’ behind such propaganda was doubtless to win sympathy among the generation that remembered World War Two. It is dubious whether any such impact was made, and the anti-Germanism was regarded with suspicion by the younger generation who made up most of CND’s active forces.
Organisationally the CP’s intervention was to harden the bureaucracy of the Campaign and to help dampen down the spirit of spontaneity and participation which had characterised the] Campaign in its most vital period. The CP was able to control many of the lines of communication between the Campaign and the lower reaches of the trade union bureaucracy, and also for a while had a substantial influence in YCND, the Campaign’s youth wing. In some cases too, local branches were heavily controlled by the CP and their Left Labour allies. The most blatant case was that of Marylebone CND in 1962, where left dissidents were physically excluded from the AGM. Eventually the independent left were obliged to set up an ‘Independent Supporters of Marylebone CND Group’. The CP were clearly much happier by the late sixties, when the Campaign had adapted to its new role as a modest pressure group with occasional public appearances, such as the Easter festivals organised in the Communist Party tradition. CND was now staffed by a dedicated alliance of Christians and Communists.
The CP then, had a significant but not massive effect on the Campaign. But the Campaign was also crucial for the development of the CP. The Party had lost membership heavily in the aftermath of the Twentieth Congress and Hungary. Although some slight recovery had begun before the entry into CND, it was the years of CND above all which saw the recovery of previous membership levels, and in fact represents the last phase of significant growth in the Party’s history.
Membership rose slightly from 24,670 in 1958 to 25,313 in 1959 and to 26,052 in 1960. After the CP joined CND it rose much more rapidly to 27,541 in 1961, 32,492 in 1962, 33,008 in 1963 and to a high of 34,281 in 1964. The figures for the Young Communist League are even more striking, rising from 1,387 in 1958 to 2,705 in 1961 to around the 4,000 mark for the next few years.
But the impact of the ‘CND levy’ on the Party’s evolution was not merely quantitative but quantitative. The early sixties saw no halt to the industrial decline of the CP which had begun in the mid-fifties. The ETU case in 1961 not only saw the Party witch-hunted out of control of a major union, but led to a wider demoralisation and loss of confidence in the Party’s industrial fractions. And following the Sino-Soviet split in 1963 a small number of the more militant trade union membership (most notably Reg Birch) went over to Maoism. The new membership recruited through CND was certainly more middle-class, less oriented to industrial struggle. The ‘CND levy’ was undoubtedly a contributory factor towards the Party’s open criticism of Russia in 1968, its ‘Eurocommunist’ evolution in the 1970s, and its collapse into the federalism of disparate pressure group’s which passes for a ‘Communist Party’ today.
All this, however, should not deflect us from the basic paradox – that one of the main organisational beneficiaries of CND, a movement conceived in moralistic opposition to nuclear war, should be a Party still tightly wedded to the politics of one of the world’s two nuclear superpowers. The Campaign posed for a whole generation the need for politics, and they took their politics where they could find it. In the face of the flabbiness of the Labour Party and the numerical inadequacy of the revolutionary left, the CP was able to fill the gap.
The nuclear disarmament movement was never as ‘middle class’ as its critics have suggested. But it is certainly true that all of the organisations involved faced enormous problems when they attempted to relate to the working class movement. Individual members, particularly amongst the youth, were often working class, but no-body ever succeeded in winning a real base for action inside the working class.
The CND leadership, as we have seen, were obsessed with the trade union bureaucrats and their prestige and block votes, and for them a conference decision was the aim of activity. This meant that anything which looked as though it might upset the bureaucracy, for example attempts to organise independently of them at the rank-and-file level, were not important and would be positively dangerous if they ever did get off the ground, since they might upset the very trade union leaders who were the subject of so much attention.
The Direct Action Committee and the Committee of 100 on a number of occasions made much more serious attempts. The initial activities the Direct Action Committee consisted of sit-downs at such targets as the construction sites for military bases. They campaigned around the two factories in Stevenage where the ‘Blue Streak’ missile was being built. Three local trade union branches called for strike action in favour of peaceful industry being brought to the town, and a token one hour strike of 1,000 building workers took place on April 10, 1959, 50 of the workers came to the DAC meeting on the issue. Other attempts were made around rocket bases in Suffolk and the East Midlands, but there were no similar successes to report.
The formation of the Committee of 100 Industrial Committee led to renewed efforts. Factories involved in weapons production were leafleted with calls for strike action, but they were ignored. A number of ‘Factory for Peace’ projects were set up, investigating ideas for alternative production, but again with singularly little result.
Part of the problem was the politics of those involved in these attempts. Most of them were definitely not revolutionary socialists who saw the battle against the bomb as part of the struggle of the working-class for its own self-emancipation. Consequently they were unable to think in terms of what the energy and resources of the campaign could do to help workers in struggle. Rather, they were calling upon workers to help in the campaign against the bomb.
It was this that led to the demand that munitions workers should refuse to go on working on the bomb. As an isolated demand, it was bound to fail, since it asked for a small section of the working class to bear the costs of banning the bomb by sacrificing their wages. And it gave nothing in return. The only way to avoid this trap was that the actions of the munitions workers would have to be part of a massive movement involving the whole of the working class. Only then could the danger of isolated moral gestures be avoided, the material sacrifices of industrial action against the bomb be sustained, and a sense of isolation leading to despair be overcome. Only as part of a general movement to change society does stopping making bombs carry any conviction at all.
What very few people at the time realised was that to get this sort of movement, it was necessary that the tens and hundreds of thousands involved in protests against the bomb would also have been involved in every aspect of the day to day class struggle. One of the few publications to make the point was this journal, most clearly in the editorial we have already quoted:
‘Our strongest weapon would be to link the issue of defence with the stuff of ordinary life ... It is obvious that progress for the Left lies in breaking down the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle.
‘It is here that the Left might show its greatest weakness. There is nothing in the record of its accepted leadership to suggest that it will organise around a program of argument by action rather than by words, or indeed that it sees any connexion between Boss and Bomb.’ (International Socialism, first series, No. 3, Winter 1960–61)
A little later, the journal returned to this theme and drew out the consequences for industrial action in more detail:
‘There is no particular merit in armaments workers per se striking. Not only is it only effective, but also more desirable on other grounds that general workers should be asked to strike. But asking people to strike is not something that can be done by a few outside militants temporarily visiting a factory – it can only be achieved if there is genuine (which means durable) political commitment by the workers themselves – even if this means no more than the minimum demand, viz. marching from Aldermaston at Easter. It has been said that there is a strike a day in Fords – and those strikes occur because workers are intimately implicated in the continuing controversy concerned, and know that their action can achieve some change. In the case of unilateralism neither of these conditions exist. Moreover, to fulfil the second condition, sectional strike activity is pointless – neither dock workers blacking armament materials nor Stevenage builders knocking off for an hour can rid Britain of the Bomb – only the combined attempt of all sections of workers can exercise requisite power to achieve this.’ (International Socialism, first series, No. 10, Autumn 1962)
In the conditions of the late fifties and early sixties there were enormous objective difficulties in achieving this, even if the whole of the movement had enthusiastically adopted such a strategy. A capitalist boom of unprecedented length, full employment and rising real wages had produced a militant but highly sectional working class. It was the epoch of ‘do-it-yourself reformism’. Battles for higher pay, union recognition, etc. were largely fought out in the confines of a single factory or even within one section. And in those circumstances it was sufficient to have a consciousness that was only factory-wide in order to win.
But the struggle against the bomb needs a global consciousness. It is only at the level of the world system, in terms of the struggles between national capitalist states, that the bomb can be understood. And it is only at this level that it can clearly be seen to be a bosses’ bomb.
Consequently, the gap between the actual consciousness of the working class and the ideas needed for a mass industrial struggle was very wide indeed and would have been very difficult to overcome even if the whole of the movement had been ready to try.
In the circumstances, what was important was to get these problems clearly understood in the movement and to win the best disarmers to revolutionary socialist class politics. While it might have been impossible to win over the mass of the workers directly and immediately to unilateralism, the first step towards trying was to win over at least a minority of the unilateralists themselves – particularly amongst the youth and the workers – to class politics, and to begin to involve them in the class struggle more generally.
All but a tiny handful of revolutionary socialists – most of them in or around the International Socialism group – chose to ignore this perspective. They were side-tracked into what were, in reality, much less important debates over whether the campaign should confine itself to legal means or whether it should break the law. Consequently, while the movement attracted much support from individual workers, it was never really able to command a mass base inside the factories. It was the politics which dominated the campaign which stopped it getting a real hold on the only social base which could have any chance of realising its goals.
Any serious prospect of changing that politics had to take place in the massive youth rebellion to which the Campaign gave voice.
Looking back on it, it might seem a little odd that a mass youth revolt against the bomb was spawned by the early 1960s. Sandwiched between the immediate post-war period with the Berlin blockade and Korea, and the period since with Vietnam, Afghanistan and the unratified SALT 2 agreement; it might appear to have been a period of diplomatic tranquillity in which falling arms expenditures and the rapid settlement of the 1962 Cuba crisis were only to be expected. Although Washington and Moscow’s sabre rattlings were dangerous games which put us all at dire risk, there certainly can be no question that either ruling class was so pushed by an imminent crisis as to make nuclear war into a serious deliberate policy option.
It was not the objective likelihood of nuclear holocaust that made the movement flourish when it did, but quite other factors. At the level of global politics the twin events of 1956 – Suez and Hungary – were of particular importance. At Suez the pathetic weakness and ludicrous pretentions of Anglo-French imperialism were revealed by the failure of their military adventure. In Hungary, there was the equally obscene spectacle of a workers’ revolution, complete with workers’ councils and Soviets, being crushed by the tanks of the supposedly socialist Russia.
At home, too, there was not much to be commended in the alternatives offered by the elder generation. Social democracy – if it could ever win an election – could only lead to a country looking a little more like the Gas Board and a little less like ICI. Was that reality worth fighting for? Yet Britain’s imperial decline and the balance of payments crises (and the stop-go policies that went with them) made suggestions of leaving everything to market forces pretty unappetising too.
Culturally, the birth of rock ’n’ roll in 1956 was of particular importance. The horror with which it was received by the elder generation went much deeper than their counterpart’s horror at punk rock in the late ’70s, and it was a crucial form of expression of youth’s rejection of the alternatives offered them, a rejection indicated by the millions of kids who flocked to see James Dean’s Rebel without a Cause. Osborne & Wesker in Britain and Kerouac & Ginsberg in the USA, plus the rediscovery of black music (folk, skiffle and blues), completed the picture for the narrower milieu of youth who went on to become involved in the fight against the bomb.
The social composition of this youth revolt was very far from being entirely middle class. While the movement did command massive support in the Universities, it also found an echo amongst sections of working class youth. The problem was to find some sort of organised focus for the energies of the newly-radicalised youth. It is important to remember that CND did not then exist as a body with active local committees that could draw people in on a regular and systematic basis. Nor could YCND, which, apart from the occasional demonstration, was largely restricted to social activities.
In 1960, an important opportunity presented itself through the Young Socialists. The run-up to the Labour Party Conference drew many young people into the YS. They saw that a fight was on and they wanted to be part of it. After the conference many more joined. Although the matter had been decided by block votes and manoeuvrings, the fact that Gaitskell had been beaten encouraged thousands. No doubt many of them had incredible illusions in the newly unilateralist party while others just wanted to fight off the challenge of the right. But, whatever their motives, thousands of young militants were looking for answers to political problems and were open to the ideas of the far left.
Compared with the Communist Party, the far left was then very small and on the fringes of the Labour movement. The largest group was the SLL (now WRP), which had perhaps a couple of hundred members and had picked up some of the best militants who had left the CP in 1956. They certainly made gains in the YS during this period, but they did not have things all their own way. Like the CP, the SLL defended the right of the Russian bureaucrats to bomb the workers of the West into extinction. This argument, insane at the best of times, was particularly so in a milieu which had been drawn together precisely on the fear that they might do just that.
Another current that had influence at the time, chiefly amongst students, was that represented by the magazine New Left Review. In the Autumn Term of 1957, its immediate predecessor, Universities and Left Review had sold some 8,000 copies amongst students and it provided a strong focus in that milieu. The group of intellectuals who ran the journal organised their supporters through quite an extensive network of local Left Clubs and had some influence on the movement.
Unfortunately, the direction they wanted to go in was not at all clear. Thus in 1958, a rising star of the New Left, Stuart Hall (later to be the first editor of NLR) published a pamphlet called Breakthrough, in which he argued that Britain did not need to leave NATO, when carrying out nuclear disarmament, but should rather try to reform the Western alliance from within. In 1960 Hall changed his position, urging British withdrawal from NATO. But in late 1962 the self-same Hall jotted down in a train a handful of points which were to become CND’s Steps Towards Peace, a document which, as we have seen, made no mention of NATO and seemed to endorse deterrence between the superpowers.
The politics of the one or two dozen Socialist Review supporters who were there at the start of the campaign and who would, in 1962, form the International Socialism group, fitted the period very much better. Stressing that Russia was not socialist but state-capitalist was crucial. It enabled a thorough-going opposition to all rulers’ bombs to be coupled with a ‘socialism from below’ approach that fitted the anti-authoritarian drive of the movement. The understanding that armaments in general, and the bomb in particular, were not just accidents but part of the logic of an ageing capitalism – expressed in the theory of the permanent arms economy – provided an explanation for the place of the bomb in politics as a whole.
The YS provided a forum in which committed socialists could organise and differentiate themselves from those who supported the ruling classes and their bomb either East or West, while masquerading as ‘socialists’ or ‘trotskyists’. And it also provided a forum through which unilateralists who had been through the experience of confrontation with the realities of class society and the bourgeois state could be won over to the more direct forms of class struggle. Such politics provided a fresh perspective when it gradually became apparent that demonstrations and sit-downs on their own would not work.
Despite its tiny size, the IS group made rapid gains. It expanded ten-fold in the CND years. The gains were by no means simply middle-class youth. They included Glasgow apprentices, engineering workers and many others. The social composition of IS at the end of 1963 was probably more proletarian than at any time for the next 8 or 10 years. The struggle around the bomb was by far the most important factor in building IS into a modest propaganda group. Most of these gains came from those who were attracted to CND as young militants. If the gains were not large in absolute terms, this was a product of the almost insignificant forces with which it entered the campaign.
CND first time round was ultimately a failure. We have examined some of the reasons for this. But it was a magnificent failure, a mass movement rich in experience.
Now, twenty years after its first bloom there are again huge demonstrations, meetings of thousands up and down the country and a mushrooming of vigorous local committees. Once again, the Labour Party is singing its siren song. Things look set for a re-run.
There are, however, very important differences this time around. In the early sixties, the danger was seen as being one of the possibility of more or less accidental nuclear war. Today, sharpened competition between the big power-blocks has led military strategists to look for ways of deliberately using nuclear weapons in order to win a war. The connection between nuclear holocaust and the day-to-day workings of the system are that much clearer.
The economic crisis means that the burden of weapons spending bears ever more heavily on working people. Last time round the world system was expanding and arms bills were falling in real terms. Welfare spending was increasing. Now it is the other way around: every hospital that is closed pays for a few more nuts and bolts for the Trident system.
Consequently, the bomb is not only a much more obviously political issue but it is also much more obviously a working class issue. The objective possibility of building the sort of movement that can actually win substantial support in the working class is therefore much greater. Any serious strategy for fighting back will therefore have to take up class demands like ‘Jobs not Bombs’ if it is to have any hope of flourishing. While the moral demand on munitions workers to stop building bombs will cut little ice when the alternative is unemployment, the demand that the vast sums spent on useless weapons should be put to use creating jobs has the potential of mobilising the whole of the working class.
But there are other problems which make things different too. Last time round, the CND ended up effectively dissolved in the Labour Party. The danger this time round is every bit as great. While some of the leaders will argue, in private at least, that they have learnt this lesson, others clearly have not. The attraction of the Labour Party, on a wide range of issues, is very great indeed under Foot’s leadership. And all the signs of the first few months of the campaign are that the leadership is very hardened into bureaucratic routines and will use almost any methods to ensure that it keeps a tight reign on things. While the campaign may mobilise thousands of new people, they are going to have a very hard job making their voices effective inside CND.
On the positive side, the whole of political life is much more generalised than it was twenty years ago. The limits of factory-based action are clear to many militants. While they may not have drawn revolutionary conclusions from that experience, they are much more open to our ideas. The revolutionary left – and particularly the SWP – is many times stronger than it was last time. We have much more implantation in the labour movement and experience of engaging in class struggles. Thus the opportunities for real influence are considerable, provided that the tactic of the united front is operated sensitively and correctly.
CND in the 1960’s radicalised a whole generation of youth. Today a new generation is clearly joining CND. Perhaps the basic motivation is fear and despair rather than hope, but there is a link between the two. Socialist theory alone can explain why it is correct to despair of any change within the systems of the rival blocks of capitalism, East and West. And it can point to an alternative basis for hope in the struggle for their overthrow. Together with rank-and-file activity it can give that hope a viable channel.
When the movement was last at a peak, those organisations which stood outside of it paid a penalty in poor recruitment. Those who entered whole-heartedly grew rapidly. It will be no different this time. Not only are revolutionary politics essential to the campaign if it is to have any chance of winning, but the campaign is essential to revolutionary organisations if they are to have any chance of growing.
Last updated on 18.8.2013