Growing a radical peace movement

IssueJuly - August 2009
Feature by Milan Rai

Earlier this year, I was invited to take part in a discussion about “growing the radical peace movement” in Britain. I immediately turned to my esteemed co-editor, who suggested that “the radical peace movement” would to some extent not be able to take part in the discussion because it was out in Gaza, standing alongside Palestinians as they faced the might of the Israeli state and then struggled to recover from Operation Cast Lead.

Another long-term activist objected that many of those courageous people who had gone out to Gaza probably didn’t see themselves as “peace movement” folk, but as “anti-war activists”. Leaving such distinctions aside for the moment, there are two main issues: What does it mean to have a radical peace movement? How might its growth be encouraged?

Our history

My own activist career only goes back 25 years or so, starting with the European movement against US cruise and Pershing II ground-launched nuclear missiles.

25 years or so earlier than that, the nuclear disarmament movement was sharply divided. To put it crudely, there was CND, a top-down, fairly authoritarian, elite-orientated lobby-and-march group (which was reluctant to accept individual membership and internal democratic structures) under Canon John Collins; and there was the Committee of 100, a more anarchic and anarchist direct action network committed to “filling the jails”, with Bertrand Russell as its figurehead.

There was tremendous friction between the two approaches and the two groups (and the two leaders, Collins and Russell). Which was a great shame, as both approaches were equally unsuccessful in their own terms.

Top-down vs people-power

Canon Collins hoped that a year of intense lobbying would lead smoothly to abolition, as it seemed to have done recently in the case of the death penalty. Present the right arguments to the right people (influential people), and Parliament would shift and a law would be passed, and CND could be dissolved.

CND did some intense lobbying. It has been putting the right arguments to influential people for 50 years, but Parliament has not shifted, and the abolition law has not been passed.

The Committee of 100 scorned the parliamentary route and “the normal channels”, which were corrupt – or had become corrupted. Power didn’t listen to reasoned arguments unless they were backed up by irresistible people power. If you filled the jails with mass nonviolent civil disobedience, escalating all the while, the system would shift, it would give way under the strain and the government would capitulate.

The Committee of 100 got thousands of people arrested, it didn’t quite fill the jails, but it did manage to escalate the actions for a while. And since then, thousands more people have engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience in the cause of nuclear disarmament, but the system hasn’t given way under the strain, and successive governments have stubbornly refused to capitulate.

This is not to deny that both groups made enormous contributions towards social progress. It’s just that by their own yardsticks, things did not work out.

Second wave

When I came to political consciousness at the time of the second wave of CND (also the era of the Falklands/Malvinas war of 1982 and the miners’ strike of 1983-84), the two streams of the disarmament movement had come together and were flowing as one broad river. General secretaries of CND were being elected for holding up bits of wire snipped from the fence of a military base (albeit snipped by someone else). Direct actionist Pat Arrowsmith became a vice-president of CND.

There was a sense of urgency, of desperation, and, compared to the first wave of CND, a sense of unity.

There was something of a national convulsion in the first half of the 1980s, with the women of Greenham Common as the shining embodiment of the new movement. Feminism and grassroots democracy were bedding down in the movement as disruptive but core values.

Despite a number of shocks, including the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 and the collapse of the Soviet empire and then the Soviet Union itself, the disarmament movement maintained an impressive level of cohesion compared to its earlier incarnation.

Probably because the peace movement (and the general population) developed a higher level of knowledge and awareness in the 1960s and 1970s, so that when the movement caught fire again in the 1980s it did so with a general appreciation of the limits of parliamentary action and a little bit more humility about what could be achieved by civil disobedience (though escalating mass actions were tried again with the Snowball campaign).

The final straw for the first wave of CND was the Vietnam war, which captured much of the youth and the energy of the movement. For CND’s second wave, the analogue was perhaps the 1991 Gulf War, which became the central focus for CND as a national organization: CND was a key part of the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf.

But the second-wave CND dealt with the stresses and strains of the brief 1991 war much more successfully than first-wave CND dealt with the long, grinding Indochina wars. The two London demonstrations before the 1991 war were the biggest foreign policy demonstrations ever seen in the capital up to that point - 200,000 people each time. (Estimates of the unexpectedly large anti-Suez invasion demonstration of 4 November 1956 go as high as 40,000. The nuclear disarmament demonstration in 1960 was 100,000-strong.)

These were certainly the biggest anti-war demonstrations ever to take place in Britain before a war had even started.


With both the anti-cruise mobilisation in the 1980s and the anti-war mobilisation of 1990-91, there was a strong sense of existing norms being violated, of a stable, reasonably benign situation being disrupted and destabilised – by aggressive US policies.

In the 1980s, the movement campaigned against cruise and Pershing on the basis that they were “first strike” weapons, designed to fight and win a nuclear war. Their accuracy and explosive power meant that they appeared to be designed for a disarming pre-emptive attack on the military chain of command and control, and Soviet nuclear missile silos. This was the complete opposite of what most people understood to be “nuclear deterrence” or “mutual assured destruction” (thought to be the same thing), which they regarded as a reasonably stable (if undesirable) status quo.

Actually, for nuclear policymakers, “deterrence” means using force to get one’s way, to bend other countries to one’s will.

Military historian Julian Lider points out that “deterrence” has had four principal meanings in the strategic literature, including: “Deterrence against any hostile action including blackmail [sic] concerning Western interests in the Third World.”

Fifty years ago, in 1959, Lord Home, commonwealth secretary, stated that the countries of the British Commonwealth (former colonies) were “rich and tempting prizes to the Communists”. He observed that: “to abandon the [nuclear] deterrent, the only weapon with which we could come to their rescue and save their freedom, would seem to me to be impossible.”

Performing the necessary decoding, we see that the noble lord was saying that to maintain the Commonwealth of “friendly” states ready to take their subordinate place in the British economy, all military power should be at the ready, including nuclear weapons. One can find other such statements, and plenty of long-range flights by strategic nuclear bombers to the corners of the empire.

The British government was fairly clear 50 years ago that nuclear weapons were also for controlling developing nations, and not just for the “protection” of the homeland or Western Europe from Soviet invasion.

“Deterring rogue states” is not an excuse for nuclear weapons invented after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

From what I’ve read and heard, I think the disarmament movement developed greater understanding of the political system, grew more tolerant or supportive of nonviolent civil disobedience, and became more radical in its thinking, and that’s why the movement was more united in the 1980s than in the 1960s, and sustained a level of activity even after the INF treaty and the 1991 Gulf war.

On the other hand, the peace movement in general was still suffering from some illusions about nuclear policy and foreign policy in general, problems which persist.

The double failure

And on the deeper questions of how to make change – how to ban the bomb, for example – I think we still have a long way to go. For a start, we could try to come to some common understanding of why the early CND and Committee of 100 approaches both failed so completely.

I’m not saying that a better understanding of the limits of previous strategies will lead immediately to new ways of working and new objectives that will bring about rapid break-throughs and an avalanche of disarmament. What I am suggesting is that coming together to try to understand past failures, current frustrations and future opportunities can lead to better strategies and faster progress towards common goals, towards the fulfilment of common values.

Building a movement

How are we going to encourage the growth of a radical peace movement? Let’s turn to Chomsky. Noam Chomsky wrote in Liberation in 1969 (re-printed in his book Radical Priorities): “The best way to defend civil liberties is to build a movement for social change with a positive programme that has a broad-based appeal, that encourages free and open discussion and offers a wide range of possibilities for work and action.... “[I]n the long run, a movement of the left has no chance of success, and deserves none, unless it develops an understanding of contemporary society and a vision of a future social order that is persuasive to a large majority of the population. “Its goals and organizational forms must take shape through their active participation in political struggle and social reconstruction.

“In an advanced industrial society it is, obviously, far from true that the mass of the population have nothing to lose but their chains, and there is no point in pretending otherwise.

“On the contrary, they have a considerable stake in preserving the existing social order. Correspondingly, the cultural and intellectual level of any serious radical movement will have to be far higher than in the past, as Andre Gorz, for one, has correctly emphasized.

“It will not be able to satisfy itself with a litany of forms of oppression and injustice. It will have to provide compelling answers to the question of how these evils can be overcome by revolution or large-scale reform.

“To accomplish this aim, the left will have to achieve and maintain a position of honesty and commitment to libertarian values. It must not succumb to the illusion that a ‘vanguard party,’ self-designated as the repository of all truth and virtue, can take state power and miraculously bring about a revolution that will establish decent values and truly democratic structures as the framework of social life.”

Chomsky observed that if a movement’s only clearly-expressed goals are to smash and destroy, “it will succeed only in smashing and destroying itself”.

Chomsky suggested in a 1971 interview (also re-published in Radical Priorities): “it seems perhaps not unrealistic to look forward to a mass political movement that will be devoted to badly-needed reforms, anti-imperialist and antimilitarist, concerned with guaranteeing minimal standards of health, income, education, industrial safety and conditions of work, and overcoming urban decay and rural misery.

“Within it, or related to it, there might develop a variety of more radical movements that explore the possibility of dismantling the system of private and state power and democratizing basic social and economic institutions through cooperatives and community and workers’ control.”

The suggestion here is that radical movements – including a radical peace movement – only have a chance of really flourishing and developing as elements of larger reform movements. The movement as a whole has to grow if the radical fringe (or core) of it is to grow. That’s the necessary condition. The sufficient conditions are that the radical movements have to be intellectually excellent, libertarian-democratic, honest, persuasive and international.

Chomsky wrote about the disarmament movement back in the 1980s, saying that while “it would be wrong, even criminal, to fail to do what can be done to constrain the military system and to reduce the tensions and conflicts that may lead to its employment”, it was not enough to “concentrate all energies on delaying an eventual catastrophe, while ignoring the causal factors that lie behind it”. Ignoring causes would simply “guarantee that sooner or later it will occur”.

There are underlying reasons why states pour their resources into improving the technology of destruction, seeking international confrontation and undertaking violent intervention. “If these reasons are not addressed, a terminal conflict is a likely eventuality; only the timing is in doubt.”

What is needed is to change “the structures of power and dominance that impel the state to crush moves towards independence and social justice within our vast domains and that constantly drive it towards militarization of the economy.”

Chomsky suggested: “Protest over Star Wars, massacre in El Salvador, and so on, is a sign of our weakness. A strong peace movement would be challenging military-based capitalism and the world system it dominates”.

In other words, a “strong” peace movement would be a radical peace movement, an anti-capitalist peace movement that was powerful enough to seriously challenge wage-slavery, investor control and unaccountable management.

It would be a movement able to abolish the transnational corporations that rule the world, and to replace them with new democratic social and economic forms. If we are talking about a radical peace movement, this must be a key element of what we are talking about.

I suspect that one of the divergences between many of the people who identify with “the peace movement” and many of those who would rather identify with “the anti-war movement” might revolve around their attitudes towards “anti-capitalism” in the sense just described.

I think it’s perfectly sensible to say there is a “peace movement”. It’s a mélange of groups and individuals working on issues around militarism and war. It contains the traditional peace organizations such as CND, and newer forms such as the International Solidarity Movement, members of which are under fire in Gaza as I write, standing alongside Palestinian herb farmers struggling to maintain a semblance of normality in what Israel describes as a “ceasefire”.

Topics: History