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Peace News: the early years

A PN board member looks back over the early years

ImagePeace News had its origins in a pacifist study group convened by Humphrey Moore in Wood Green, London in 1936. Having completed their programme of studies they decided to engage in some form of practical action that would propagate the pacifist case to a wide audience. The publication of the first issue of Peace News on 6 June 1936 was the result, financed by donations from members of the study group and their friends.

The first issue had a print run of 5,000. Humphrey Moore was the only experienced journalist in the group and so it was upon his shoulders that the bulk of the new venture lay. The “editorial office” was a spare room in his house.

The paper soon came to the attention of Dick Sheppard, the founder of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), and within a few months Peace News became the official organ of the PPU. Despite adverse conditions, the paper’s circulation grew impressively. By October 1936, it had reached 6,000. A year later, this figure had doubled, and by the end of 1938, circulation had steadied at around 20,000 a week – although it did reach a peak of nearly 35,000 in October 1938.

The context of such an impressive circulation during its early years lay in the equally phenomenal growth of the PPU during this period. Its origins dated back to October 1934, when Dick Sheppard published his Peace Letter requesting people to contact him who shared his pacifist commitment, to renounce war and never support or sanction another. The overwhelming response indicated that there existed a strong basis for a pacifist organisation, and in 1936 the PPU was formally constituted. Sheppard based his appeal primarily on the moral repugnance of war and the consequent need for people to take a principled stand against such barbarism. His aim was to create a movement of such magnitude that no government could ignore its influence.

The popularity of the PPU in those pre-war days, as the New Statesman observed, lay in its appeal “not only to the convinced absolutist pacifist but to the large number of people with only slight political knowledge but with a recent realisation of the fearful imminence of war, who are fascinated by the direct simplicity of the crusade.” It was the role of Peace News to support and service this “broad church” of a movement, whose members shared little other than their repugnance at the horrors of war. Then, as now, Peace News’s columns reflected the range of viewpoints and positions that characterised the peace movement or, rather, peace movements.

The reality of the movement that Peace News has sought to serve and inform has been a myriad of different groupings, tendencies, and faiths. The history of Peace News is largely a reflection of the changing balance within the wider movement, and certain recurring themes can be seen in its pages. Thus, issues that occupied its columns during the Second World War have to some extent prefigured debates that have continued to trouble the peace movement throughout the nuclear age.

Second World War

With the formal declaration of war on 3 September 1939, the key question for the PPU became the appropriate role of pacifists in wartime. Underlying this was the problem of how to reconcile the promptings of the pacifist conscience with one’s duty as a citizen. Three “ideal-type” positions were adopted in response to this dilemma: “relief”, “resistance” and “reconstruction”.

Advocating “relief” were those like Philip Mumford who urged that pacifist should refrain from opposing government war measures such as civil defence and conscription, and confine themselves to humanitarian relief work. They should seek to soften the blows of war by helping to alleviate the suffering of its victims. (PN, 1 January 1938) The Pacifist Service Corps (later Bureau) was established by the PPU to assist those pacifists and conscientious objectors who, in the words of Alex Wood, “are so sensitive to the claims of the community on their service, that they are eager to find some positive and constructive work to do which is not primarily war work” (PN, 2 December 1940).

As opposed to this strand, the “resisters” advocated continued active opposition to war measures. While not objecting to humanitarian relief work in itself, they urged that the prime duty of pacifists was to resist war rather than accept it and devote themselves to ambulance work. It was this element within the PPU that concentrated on political developments during the war and used the pages of Peace News to campaign for “peace by negotiation” and, later in the war, tried to launch an “armistice campaign” against the imposition of a vindictive peace settlement.

By contrast, the third group, the “reconstructionists”, were those who eschewed engagement in such short-term protest campaigns, and emphasised the role of pacifists as a redemptive minority, bearing witness to a higher order of morality and pointing the way towards a new order of communal life. Thus, John Middleton Murry, the leading intellectual force within the PPU during the war years and editor of Peace News from July 1940 to October 1946, likened pacifists to “the raw material of a new Christian Church”, and sought to argue that “socialist communities, prepared for hardship and practised in brotherhood, might be the nucleus of a new Christian society, much as the monasteries were during the dark ages”. (PN, 17 May 1940).

These different tendencies were all given space in the columns of Peace News, although the key editorial figures during the war-period (Middleton Murry and Wilfred Wellock) clearly identified with the reconstructionists – to the extent that in March 1941 they began publishing a monthly supplement under the title of Community to promote the cause of pacifist communities.

Yet, despite the differences, the sense of a wider community embracing all shades of pacifist opinion and action emerges clearly from the pages of Peace News during the war period. Throughout the war, conscientious objectors and pacifists needed each other for mutual support. They read Peace News in part for the assurance that they were not alone in their moral stance, while the news of pacifist projects and activities helped reassure them that they had a positive contribution to make to society.

Moreover, the difficulties encountered with the printing and distribution of Peace News in 1940, after the original printers refused to print the paper and the wholesalers refused to distribute it to the retail outlets, ensured a close relationship between the paper and its readers. (Eric Gill’s company printed two issues, each letter set in type by hand. Then the firm run by Hugh Brock and his brother Ashley took over. Hugh was to remain closely involved with Peace News until his death in 1985.) By 1941, somewhere between 18-20,000 copies were being distributed by volunteers up and down the country. It was due to this alternative distribution network that Peace News succeeded in making a profit during the war years – for the only time in its life!

1950s and direct action

In 1954, following nonviolent direct action against nuclear weapons by the Operation Gandhi peace group, the Pacifist Youth Action Group was formed among the voluntary workers at Peace News, and it was out of this group of radical pacifists that the Emergency Committee for Direct Action against Nuclear War was formed in April 1957 to act against the British nuclear H-bomb tests at Christmas Island (near Indonesia).

In 1960, it was from among the members of the Direct Action Committee, with its headquarters at Peace News’s offices in Blackstock Road, London, that the activist core of the Committee of 100 emerged. A key figure in the development of this nonviolent action (resistance) wing of the peace movement was Hugh Brock, who had taken over the editorship of Peace News from Allen Skinner in 1955. It was under his guidance that Peace News developed into a campaigning vehicle for the nuclear disarmament movement following the launch of CND in January 1958.

During the 1950s, Peace News offered support for liberation movements in the Third World, with Fenner Brockway’s regular column on the anti-colonial struggle, the personal links that were established with Kwame Nkrumah and Kenneth Kaunda, Michael Scott’s championing of the people in South West Africa (Namibia), and Peace News’s close involvement with the anti-apartheid struggle, which led to the banning of the paper in South Africa in 1959.

This sympathy with liberation movements prepared to countenance armed struggle, the active support of unconstitutional measures of direct action, and the focus on a campaign against one aspect of modern war (nuclear weapons) rather than against the institution of war itself, caused concern to many of the more absolutist pacifists of the PPU.

In a typically provocative piece in Peace News (8 August 1958) called “The map of Mrs Brown”, Reginald Reynolds delineated some of the divisions within the pacifist movement in the late 1950s.

There was the pacifist “old guard”:

“They are good old sloggers who cling bravely to the belief that the slogans and activities which have been proved and tested by decades of dismal failure deserve our allegiance and will at any moment lead on to victory.”

Then there were the “perfectionists” who, “having proved that there can be no peace without a complete social, political, economic, psychological and spiritual revolution, they nevertheless leave me with an awkward feeling that they are talking very good sense about town planning when the immediate and urgent necessity is for a fire engine, which they reject as a palliative.” The third group were the “firefighters” who were driven by a desperate sense of urgency and a passion for action, but for Reynolds they appeared to lack “any real understanding of what they are up against”.

It was clear that Peace News had come under the sway of the “firefighters”, and the concentration on the “resistance” mode of peace-making caused some dismay among the other groupings. Wilfred Wellock, the most prominent advocate of the “reconstruction” mode, complained about “the dearth of materials on the social revolution that ought to be appearing regularly in Peace News”, and bemoaned the fact that Hugh Brock had become “so overwhelmed with the nuclear weapon campaign”. The strength of feeling was such that the decision was taken to sever the formal ties between the PPU and Peace News in the spring of 1961.

Radical pacifism

Free from the need to look over its shoulder, the paper was now at liberty to explore the implications of radical pacifism in the nuclear age. A central feature of the analysis that began to emerge was drawn from the experience of direct action against the nuclear threat – people acting, refusing to be passive, seeking to participate in the determination of their future.

From this there developed a concern to foster a reversal of the flow of power, a democratisation of all areas of institutional life – the advocacy of workers’ control in the economic sphere, and regional devolution and decentralisation in the realm of politics.

In exploring this wider vision of peace, Peace News was very much part of the intellectual ferment of the new left that followed the crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

During the late 1960s, Peace News began to move towards a synthesis of the three modes of peace action and thought that characterised the peace movement during the Second World War. The focus on community action for social change combined a humanitarian concern to relieve suffering, a campaigning style that drew upon the direct action tradition of the war resistance movement, and a vision of a decentralised and radically democratised social order. This latter was a direct continuation of the libertarian tradition of ethical socialism that had been a crucial component of pacifist communitarian thinking in the 1940s.

Peace News also began to advocate the creation of “counter-institutions” and alternative structures as a form of positive action that went beyond “banning the bomb”. “Peace is beautiful, live it”, announced an editorial in May 1967.

Anarcho-pacifism

These developments took place in the context of a serious quest to develop a “pacifism for peacetime”. The aim was to be both relevant and practical, by addressing issues of immediate concern to people, and “utopian” in the sense of not losing sight of the pacifist vision of a nonviolent world.

In a series of editorials that appeared early in 1968, entitled “Towards a definition of ourselves”, Peace News tried to spell out its developing position, one best depicted as anarcho-pacifism: a fusion of the anarchist critique of the state and the pacifist critique of violence as a means of revolutionary transformation.

The term “nonviolent revolution” began to appear referring to a liberatory “movement of movements”, the task of Peace News being to act as a link between the different movements, seeking to join radicals in different areas into a new resistance movement opposed to war and war-preparation, but also exploring ways of constructing a mass nonviolent movement for this new society.

This essay is excerpted from “Peace News, 1936-1986: an overview” in Gail Chester and Andrew Rigby eds., Articles of Peace: celebrating fifty years of Peace News, Prism Press, 1986

Andrew Rigby is a Peace News board member.