Monday, 27 January 2020

CND at 50 - striking gold (2008)

CND at 50 – striking gold
Written By: Megan Davies & Keith Flett
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter  Issue 31: Summer 2008  

SUNDAY 17th February marked the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Events to mark the occasion, including a special CND conference at City Hall at the weekend, drew moans from the right-wing media just as were heard fifty years ago.

CND has not been hugely well served by historians. Current chairwoman Kate Hudson has written a very serviceable history of the campaign, but it may be that because CND is still very much with us, as are many of the original activists, it is felt that it is not time for history writing yet. But fifty years of what is one of the world's great protest movements does, we think, deserve placing in some historical context.

Radio 4 has already had a go in the form of the Archive Hour. Former Tory MP Matthew Parris produced a programme with the revealing comment that Tories like himself were always troubled by CND - they knew that they had no effective answer to the point that, if used, the bomb would mean the end of the world as we know it.

It is a fair bet that such history as is produced won't tackle the role of the left (except to smear it and, particularly, the role of communists) or the labour movement or focus on the effectiveness of the tactics the campaign launched or revived on that February evening in 1958.

It may have been luck that the campaign struck political gold while others did not, but if so, the equation might well be 10 per cent luck and 90 per cent preparation and hard work. Gerald Holtom's CND symbol, which is now a universal sign for peace and protest, caught a mood and perhaps one that was receptive, as the new advertising and PR worlds of the late 1950s opened up to the idea of a visual representation. Likewise, the ability to bring together several pre-existing campaigns under the single CND banner required organisational flair.

The idea of marching from London to Aldermaston at Easter, although not originally under official CND auspices, captured a mood as well. That mood may well have been stimulated by the events of Suez in 1956 and concern at where Tory British foreign policy was going. It was certainly also focused by Nye Bevan's refusal to go "naked" into a conference chamber – a refusal to commit Labour to ditching the bomb.

So, while a sociological study of the early years of CND by Frank Parkin published in 1966 was titled "middle-class radicalism," in fact, the battles of CND were fought out at Labour and TUC conferences between right and left. The left won in 1960, but, as Peggy Duff notes in her 1970 biography Left, Left, Left, the enormity of the victory led to its reverse. If Britain were to abandon the bomb, that would mean ejection from NATO and a challenge to the capitalist order of things domestically.

These were certainly among the questions raised by CND and why the left could thrive in its milieu. But, as Parkin demonstrated, just being against the bomb did not make you automatically left-wing either.
From that start at Central Hall Westminster on 17 February 1958, it was the left that called the shots and ensured the success of CND. Not only did that meeting end with an impromptu march to Downing Street, underlining that banning the bomb was about action as well as words, but the tone of that event also ensured that CND adopted a position of unilateral disarmament.

It was a more radical one than the forerunner campaign against nuclear testing had taken and it meant that the establishment would never make its peace with CND. And it was this that gave it, and continues to give it, a mass audience and provides an opening to the left.

The wider point is that the best way to understand CND is not to be found in sociological theory but in Marxism. We would argue that CND is best understood as a movement that is based around a transitional demand.

The idea of such demands, in essence ones that seem reasonable but are in fact unrealisable in current society, goes back to Trotsky. His “Transitional Programme” containing such specific demands became a fetish amongst a small group of his followers, but it is the method that concerns us here.
It is certainly possible for capitalism to get rid of nuclear weapons, and from time to time numbers have been reduced. But a system that has wars and arms races at its core (not something that it goes out of its way to advertise as a virtue) is really not going to junk the bomb.

That means that the fundamental impetus that keeps CND going will remain as long as capitalism remains, although the level of activity will vary as will who the activists are.

Traditionally CND activity has been identified as being in ‘waves.’ The first lasted from 1958 to 1963-4. The second was in the 1980s and third wave is associated with Trident and the anti-war movement from 2001. Some members have remained active throughout, and that is unusual. CND’s first organiser Peggy Duff makes clear in her autobiography why this was so - primarily because long lasting activists did understand the transitional nature of the campaign and were active in wider politics.

CND was never quite a single issue campaign, because it was not just the bomb but the whole question of defence and international policy that was at issue, and that raised wider questions. Adam Lent (Adam Lent, British Social Movements Since 1945: Sex, Colour, Peace and Power. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001) sees a trajectory from CND, the Direct Action Committee and the Committee of 100 to the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign.

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