The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Anti-nuclear Movement and the Revolutionaries

Jun 30, 1980

In recent years, a movement has developed against the use of nuclear reactors for generation of electric power. The movement is not limited to just this country. In many of the richer, more industrialized nations where nuclear power plants have been built, there are growing anti-nuclear groups.

In the United States, the anti-nuclear movement was relatively small for many years. But the accident at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, changed the situation significantly. Since March 28, 1979, when the TMI accident occurred, the U.S. anti-nuclear movement has grown rapidly. Many people who had been indifferent, or even hostile to the movement before TMI, now agree with it. On the first anniversary of the accident, 7,000 people gathered in Harrisburg for a rally against nuclear power. Many of those attending were local residents, who had never before been involved in protest activities of any kind. On the same date, many times this number of people participated in locally organized anti-nuclear protests in many other cities across the nation.

On April 26, 1980, an anti-nuclear demonstration that drew people from all over the country was held in Washington, D.C. Twenty-five thousand people participated in this demonstration, and again, many thousands more participated in locally organized anti-nuclear protests in other cities.

The growth of the anti-nuclear movement has raised the question for the revolutionary groups of what attitude revolutionaries should take toward it.

Nuclear Power and Capitalism

The movement as it stands today opposes one of the more destructive products of capitalist society. It calls for a total prohibition of nuclear power production. And it often proposes to substitute other, what are said to be safer, sources of energy production.

The movement has posed the problems of nuclear technology as being inherent in the technology itself.

For sure, nuclear technology, as it presently exists–developed by the capitalists to serve their own interests–is a time bomb. It is producing nuclear waste and other sources of harmful radiation even now, the long-term effects of which are not completely known.

On the other hand, as revolutionaries, we say that we do not know what nuclear power could be within the framework of another society. Whether or not nuclear power can even provide a cheap, safe and concentrated form of power that can help to move society forward is impossible to know for sure at this time. Nuclear technology, as it exists now, in the service of capitalism, clearly does not do this, but rather it only increases the profits and power of the big capitalists, while threatening the very existence of humanity itself. The thing that is certain today is that the safety of the technology is not ascertained before it is put into widespread use.

We are not against nuclear power, itself; we are against nuclear power in the hands of the capitalists.

Within the framework of a society where there is no drive for profits, nuclear power might be a powerful means of making human labor more productive, and therefore more able to provide a better life for everyone. Certainly, we have no way of knowing this; but what we know for sure is that today, under capitalism, nuclear power is not safe.

Today, capitalism has developed to the point where some of its technologies–including nuclear technology, but not limited to it–pose health and environmental hazards not just to relatively small, distinct groups of people–perhaps even many thousands of people–but to humanity as a whole. Some of the environmental problems these dangerous technologies create may be irreversible.

For example, since the beginning of the widespread use of coal, oil and natural gas in the 1800s, the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has constantly increased. And it will increase even more rapidly in the years ahead, as even greater quantities of fossil fuels are burned. What the effects of this long-term build-up of pollution and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be is not known for certain at this time. But certainly it threatens to disrupt the long-term equilibrium of weather patterns.

And there are many other examples of this same kind of catastrophic danger: the oil tankers which have destroyed whole areas of the oceans; industrial pollution which could destroy marine life in a lake the size of Lake Erie, etc.

Since its inception, capitalism has threatened the health and safety of human life; the search after profits is the main reason why work in the coal mines, in the factories, in the mills has always been so dangerous.

And this doesn’t even take into account that the capitalists, in their preparation for war, consciously decide to develop a technology of destruction, including nuclear weapons.

So long as capitalism itself exists–developing technology for the purpose of increasing profits rather than for the purpose of advancing humanity–more and more of these threats to the whole environment and to human life itself will be created–even if tomorrow the particular threat posed by nuclear technology were eliminated.

Why Revolutionaries Should Support the Anti-nuclear Movement

The anti-nuclear movement does not see capitalism itself as a threat to humanity, but rather sees just one of the most obviously dangerous technologies that the capitalist system has created. Within this framework, in effect, it demands that the bourgeoisie reform their own system, at least as far as nuclear power is concerned; but the movement ignores the overall threat to life posed by the functioning of this same system.

Barry Commoner, one of the leaders of the anti-nuclear movement, and a featured speaker at the April 26 demonstration in Washington, D.C., has stated these ideas very clearly and directly. Commoner is the 1980 presidential candidate of the recently formed Citizens Party, a group that has taken up the opposition to nuclear power as part of its program.

An early statement of the Citizens Party declared that, “There is nothing wrong with profit, or with private ownership.” And in a recent newspaper interview, Commoner said that his aim is to “correct the faults of capitalism,” one of which he sees as being the use of nuclear power.

Despite the fact that the anti-nuclear movement poses the problem in this way, nonetheless it is a movement which is revolted by one of the results of private ownership of production. Despite its narrow view of the problem; despite the fact that right now it is a petty-bourgeois movement in its composition and in its leadership; nonetheless revolutionaries should support this movement.

As revolutionaries, we do not require that people who are oppressed by capitalism, or revolted by its waste and destruction, agree with our revolutionary ideas before we support them in their struggle. We are opposed to all forms of oppression and to the destructive results of the way the capitalists have organized their society. And we support anyone who fights against them as long as their struggle does not run against the interests of the working class and its ability to fight for a revolutionary change of the entire system.

We do this even when people fight against just one aspect of the system, rather than the system as a whole. And we do this even if people are not conscious that to achieve just a narrow goal, they must ultimately take on the entire system. So we support this movement.

Could Revolutionaries Take the Leadership of this Movement?

Of course, a big revolutionary party, deeply rooted in the working class, could not just say that it supported a movement like this without playing an active role in it. And this party would certainly fight for the leadership of the movement and try to turn it in a revolutionary direction.

But this is obviously not the situation we are in today. The revolutionary groups are small and composed almost entirely of militants from petty-bourgeois backgrounds. Revolutionaries have almost no roots or influence in the working class.

Some of the revolutionary militants, who argue that we should help build up the anti-nuclear movement and fight for its leadership, engage in wishful thinking, when they overestimate the capabilities of the revolutionary groups today. Today we are at the point where the anti-nuclear movement is not asking for help from revolutionaries, precisely because it is much bigger and more influential than all of the revolutionary organizations put together. It is doubtful that revolutionaries could gain the leadership of the anti-nuclear movement precisely because the revolutionary groups are so weak today.

But even if they did gain the leadership, without a strong revolutionary organization to make a pressure on such a movement and give a revolutionary direction to its struggles, the great majority of the activists would remain liberal in their political outlook. At best, the revolutionary militants at the head of the anti-nuclear movement would end up as leaders of a petty-bourgeois movement; they could not implement other politics than those of the movement, that is to say, liberal politics.

In fact, this was precisely what happened in the anti-Viet Nam war movement, where many revolutionary militants played important organizational roles. But these militants never gave a revolutionary direction to the movement. Liberals remained firmly in the leadership from beginning to end, and in fact, strengthened their political domination over the movement as it grew larger.

If by participating in a mass movement it was possible for revolutionaries who were members of weak revolutionary organizations to make the movement–or even big parts of it–into a revolutionary movement, then revolutionaries had a far better chance of doing this in the past in the trade union movement–a working class movement–than they have in such petty-bourgeois movements today. Yet, despite the occasionally important roles played by revolutionaries in the past in the trade union movement, this movement remains solidly reformist today. And revolutionaries have little to show for their efforts.

We could also add that a movement like the anti-nuclear movement could become radical, whether there were revolutionaries in the leadership, or even with liberals leading it. But if this would happen when the working class was still not mobilized and participating consciously as the working class in this movement, then a certain danger would exist. A radical petty-bourgeois movement like this could even claim to be anti-capitalist in some senses. But we could imagine that it could also become anti-working class in these same circumstances. A radicalized anti-nuclear movement could end up using very militant tactics, for example–even violent ones–to stop the construction and operation of nuclear power plants. But it could also support the government’s use of violence to force striking miners back to work in unsafe mines in order to get out the coal to replace nuclear fuel. It could end up calling for the breaking up of the miners’ union, if it stood in the way of increased coal production.

A Short Cut to the Building of a Revolutionary Party?

In a certain sense, this discussion misses the point, because the real reason that most revolutionary groups propose to put many resources into such a movement is that they believe this will make it easier for them to recruit many people out of the movement into revolutionary organizations. During the movement against the war in Viet Nam, many revolutionary organizations took exactly this position.

To recruit more than a few individuals out of the anti-nuclear movement, that is to recruit a few thousands of people, which could change the situation of the revolutionary groups, would require something more than participation by revolutionaries in the movement. It would require a strong revolutionary organization rooted in the working class, able to help the movement, and yet also able to fight on other questions, to show another direction to the anti-nuclear movement, and so to win the confidence of many people in the movement. In such circumstances, if the anti-nuclear movement came up against the system’s resistance to even the limited changes that the movement is demanding, then whole sections or layers of the movement could become convinced not only that a revolutionary change was necessary, but also that such a change was possible. A strong revolutionary organization rooted in the working class would make the ideas of revolutionaries real, give them flesh and blood and life. To attract and transform people already organized inside a mass organization, you must have a strong revolutionary organization.

But the biggest problem facing revolutionaries in the United States today is still their lack of roots in the working class. And this has largely been the result of their refusal to dedicate themselves to recruiting militants, and building a revolutionary organization and influence, in the working class.

In place of this, they have dedicated the essential part of their work to recruiting out of the petty-bourgeois milieus. Certainly, they may have recruited several hundred militants, but in the meantime, they have not sunk roots in the working class. In this circumstance, even if a few hundred people were recruited, the basic political activity of these militants could not be directed to the working class; all that most of them could do is turn to the petty-bourgeois milieus to carry out their activity. The organization remains a revolutionary organization with no ties to the working class. Today they are bigger than before, but with still the same deformity. But now they have even more of a petty-bourgeois character to their organization.

Each new time that a revolutionary organization poses the problem as a problem of finding a short-cut, outside the working class, it defers once more the task of constructing a working class organization, working class not only formally in its program, but also in its composition.

Certainly, today revolutionaries should support the anti-nuclear movement morally and politically. They should participate in its activities when such participation will not detract from their basic activity in the working class. But we must be clear that the building of a revolutionary organization rooted in the working class comes before participation in any petty-bourgeois movement.