“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Jan 31, 1982
Late in 1981, mass demonstrations swept the capitals of Europe. In October, hundreds of thousands marched in Bonn, Rome, Brussels, and London. The next month, even more people took to the streets in Madrid and Amsterdam. According to the press, more than 2 million
people – most of them young – protested the threat of nuclear war in Europe.
Last fall’s demonstrations brought many people into political life for the first time. The marchers included students and workers, church groups and revolutionary groups. They carried signs like, “Reagan: Your Bomb will not be our Tomb,” and chanted, “No Euroshima.”
They are right to protest. Not only do we confront the most terrifying arsenal in history, but also the assurances of the U.S. government that it is preparing for war. The U.S. already maintains 6,000 nuclear warheads in West Germany alone and has already announced plans to deploy in Europe a new series of nuclear weapons beginning in 1983.
On top of all this, in the middle of the period of the demonstrations last fall, Reagan and Haig openly discussed whether NATO would detonate a “warning” bomb, presumably somewhere over Europe, at the outset of a military confrontation. What could better validate the fears expressed by the demonstrators than this nuclear sabre-rattling? The crassness of Reagan and Haig is a reminder, if one is necessary, that the U.S. government does not consider it at all impossible to use nuclear weapons against people. Of course, 36 years ago Hiroshima and Nagasaki had already proved to the world that the U.S. was indeed prepared to use these weapons.
The demonstrations show that millions of people do not accept such a possibility. These are millions of people who, on a certain level, propose to make themselves heard. They have decided that they can no longer wait for the politicians to act, that they can no longer simply hope for peace. And they are surely right to try to intervene in political life.
What are the limits and what is the potential of such a movement?
Something about the current limits of the movement can be seen when we consider many of those who claim to speak for it. Up until now, much of the leadership of the movement has been assumed by bourgeois politicians of the Social Democratic parties.
In Britain, the Labour Party has played a leading role in the movement. In contrast to
Conservative Party Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who calls for a strong NATO nuclear force, the Labour Party calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament. But while Labour Party leaders
like Michael Foot speak against nuclear arms, they do not challenge the very concept of NATO, the imperialist military alliance. Even more revealing, the Labour Party which today, when it is outside the government, speaks against nuclear weapons, took a very different position when it was at the head of the British government. Then it didn’t do a thing to disarm Britain’s nuclear force or break with the U.S. We can conclude that the Labour Party’s current opposition is motivated by the desire to ride the back of the movement to get back into control of the government.
In West Germany, we see the same kind of opportunistic role playing, although the contest for power is between factions within the Social Democratic Party. The government headed by Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, strongly supports U.S. nuclear policy. The opposition to this policy is today led by Social Democrats around former Chancellor Willy Brandt, who conveniently forget that when Brandt headed the German government he had the same policy as Schmidt has today.
Politicians such as these try to use the popular feeling against war to win a place in the government again. But if they were to come in the government again, there’s no reason to believe their policies would be very different from those of the politicians currently in power. In fact, it’s worse than that because once these phrasemongers were in power with an antiwar mandate, they might be in a better position to carry out a policy leading to war. All they need is the proper excuse.
This happened before, including in the U.S. Lyndon Johnson was particularly well-suited in 1965 to escalate the war in Viet Nam precisely because he had campaigned for the Presidency in 1964 as a “dove” to Barry Goldwater’s “hawk.”
Last year, Socialist Francois Mitterrand campaigned for the French presidency, promising, if elected, to halt French H-bomb tests in the Pacific. After his victory, he reversed his position at the urging of the French generals who said the tests really were important. Mitterrand also is a staunch supporter of the U.S. arms policy in Europe.
One of the limits of the movement as it is today is to be led by bourgeois politicians like these people who will betray its goal further down the road.
The other major component of the leadership has come from the churches and other religious organizations. Generally, they take a more or less pacifist attitude, condemning the threat of war, but without explaining its causes.
Indeed, the predominant demand of the recent movement has been that all nuclear weapons should be removed from European soil. The intention is to reduce the risk of Europe being a direct target in a nuclear war.
But this begs the question – even from the technical point of view. In the event of war, the continent would still be easily within range of the nuclear weapons from nearby submarines or even remote launching facilities. No location in the world is immune from nuclear attack.
From a political point of view, even if the European bourgeoisie agreed to banish nuclear weapons from their borders, this would not mean a change in the basic interests of the European imperialisms, interests which inevitably lead imperialism toward new wars. Furthermore, banishing the weapons today from Europe would not even mean a break with U.S. imperialism. Whenever U.S. imperialism decides to go to war against the USSR, the European imperialisms would be implicated. The people of Europe would still be victimized. And finally, when a war started, it would be simple for nuclear weapons to be placed again in Europe.
The weapons are, after all, tools of war, not causes of it. It was not a new military technology which caused either World War I or World War II or any of the colonial wars we have seen in the last several decades. The causes lay somewhere else.
In every case, the ultimate causes lie in problems of the economic system. In 1914, the imperialist powers had already conquered and divided the entire world among themselves. But each continued to need markets, resources, and investment opportunities in order not to fall into economic difficulties. They plunged their peoples into World War I, each to try to gain more territory for itself, at the expense of the other imperialist powers. In World War II, each of the imperialist powers sought for itself a resolution of the severe economic crisis of the 1930s. Once again they resorted to war, on a more mammoth scale than ever before. In the colonial wars, the imperialists sent their armies to fight to maintain the political and economic hegemony which was being contested by the aspirations and struggles of the colonized peoples for a better life.
The possibility of war is more likely imminent today, as the current world economic crisis, unresolved since 1973, continues to deepen. Perhaps the crisis will be resolved without war. But the longer it goes unresolved, the greater becomes the possibility of war.
It’s not nuclear weapons which have brought on this crisis. But these weapons may ultimately be used if the economic situation deteriorates. The antiwar movement is absolutely correct to seek a way to prevent their use. The problem is to understand what it is which has produced the threat of war.
A movement, such as the current one, can have the potential of interfering with the plans of the imperialists concerning nuclear weapons, concerning war. Of course, this could be so, only on the condition that the movement grows, that it mobilizes more people, that it more directly intervenes in political life. But even if this movement could do that, there is another point to be considered: interfering with is not the same thing as banning forever. And so long as the system which produces war is not banished, it will resume inevitably its head-long flight
When we look at the period of the 1960s in the United States, we see something of both the potential and the limits of movements like the anti-nuclear weapons movement might become.
The early 1960s saw the continuation of the struggle for civil rights, a struggle which by now was beginning to engage many young students. By the mid 1960s, college students had begun the resistance to the U.S. war against Viet Nam. As these movements grew, they confronted and attacked a wider range of issues: poverty, the activities of imperialism outside Viet Nam, the oppression of women, the destruction of the environment, and more. Millions of people, especially young people, challenged arbitrariness, bungling, and corruption in government as well as the machinations of the military, the CIA, and the FBI. And when black people went into the streets from the mid 1960s on, confronting police, national guard and paratroopers, when the cities began to burn, the social fabric of American society began to come apart.
Political life in the U.S. changed. On a formal level, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act acknowledged the successes of the mobilization of black people. But in general there was a greater involvement in politics among the population, a practical extension of democratic rights. For the first time in over a generation, many young people began to look to revolutionary ideas about the nature of society and the means to change it.
Yet, today, we see much of this has been reversed; many of the gains made by these movements are being called in question. The Administration’s ruling on state funding for segregated schools and the court’s ruling on the ERA are symptomatic of the reversal. And now the threat of war – one more time – reasserts itself.
When we see such reversals today, we can understand something more about the limits which movements such as these set on themselves. The movements of the 1960s were deep-rooted: they had reached a stage where social disruption was making the bourgeoisie pay a certain price, and threatening to exact an even bigger one. Even so, the American bourgeoisie hung on to its old policies up to that point, and that was in the context that imperialism had other
options open in front of it. The American bourgeoisie had other means than military victory in Viet Nam to guarantee its domination over the underdeveloped countries; it also could afford, particularly given the favorable economic climate of the 1960s, to remove some of the legal discrimination against black people. At that time, imperialism was not so pressed that it could not afford to dole out a few crumbs to many different sections of the various movements of the 1960s. Finally it did so. Even so, it did not give these concessions forever; it gave them only for so long as there was a population mobilized to insist on them, or at least in so long as there existed a threat that people might mobilize again.
Today, the issue is posed even more starkly. For we may already have entered a period
where imperialism itself does not have so many options left. Imperialism today is implicated in an economic crisis which could be pushing down the road to a worldwide war, that is to war in which its basic interests are implied.
Confronting this possibility – and certainly, today yet, it is only a possibility that we have entered on the path to world war – what is required of a movement which wishes to put an end to war, to the nuclear weapons which will be used in that war?
To put an end to war in this situation requires not one bit less than to put an end to imperialism itself. Those who wish a permanent end to war and all the other evils of this system, must also wish an end to the system itself. They must wish it, and they must fight for it.