1980s >> 1984 >> no-959-july-1984

Greenham reconsidered

The women at Greenham Common have surprised cynics by their determination not to give in to any attempts to remove them. They have come to be admired by many as a symbol of peace in the shadow of a military base, a courageous flicker of human feeling, around the perimeter of a wire fence enclosing some of the most barbaric weapons of destruction.

Sincerity and determination are not always very useful things in themselves. It depends what aim they are turned towards. Thatcher is sincerely determined to run British capitalism without any concession to workers’ demands or to easing misery and discontent. The women of the peace camps, on the other hand, have the far more worthy aim of opposing a collective human suicide. Who could disagree with this? But having arrived at a general aim, such as disarming the world and ending war. it is then necessary to decide what is the best way of achieving it.

The multi-lateralists, who believe that the best way to achieve peace is to prepare for war, claim that “deterrence” has worked. True, there has not been a global nuclear holocaust yet, but this of course does not prove that there will never be. The multi-lateralists always fail to mention that since 1945 not a single day has passed without a major war between two or more nations being fought somewhere in the world. Millions of people have died in those wars. Even during the past four years, in the Iraq-Iran war alone, nearly half a million people have been killed. With its smug faith in arms negotiations and treaties which have gone on for many years and produced no reduction in arms at all, the theory of multi-lateralism is not just conservative, it is insane. It regards the wars of the world as the unavoidable outcome of a mysterious disease called “human nature” and wants to see the game of human annihilation played to the rules of cricket or croquet.
Sadly, the often quoted, unilateralist “alternative” to all this is not as different as CND would have us believe. Still thinking within the rigid framework of capitalist society, divided as it is into competing nations, the unilateralists want the British ruling class to show their true colours, play the gentleman, and agree to defend their profits, their markets and lucrative trade routes with more moderate, “conventional” weapons of destruction. For example. a CND leaflet called Questions And Answers About Non-Nuclear Defence asks the question: “Could Britain defend itself without nuclear weapons?” and gives the answer: “Yes . . . There are various options available for a real defence policy”, suggesting that Britain could “take up new ideas about purely defensive military policies and weapons using new technologies”. It would be interesting to know just how peaceful and harmless defensive militarism would be; as for new technologies, there is of course a great deal of research being carried out into “non-nuclear defence” using nerve gas and other chemical and biological weapons.

The problem, then, with the popular alternative to the multi-lateralist bomb squad, is that CND accepts the international rivalry of capitalism which produces war as surely as night follows day. They embody the same nationalism which is used to persuade workers to go periodically to settle their employers’ trade wars on the battlefield. CND have issued a statement complaining about the government’s acceptance of a second assignment of cruise missiles . . . on the day after British women have been rounded up for peacefully protesting against cruise missiles” and a woman from the peace camp. Lyn Jones, was quoted as saying “. . . the British people do not want these cruise missiles” (Guardian, 6 April 1984). As long as workers believe that there is such a thing as “the British people”, who don’t want cruise missiles, “the American people”, who, presumably, according to Lyn Jones, can keep “their” cruise missiles. and “the Russians”, who have got “their” SS-20s. then we will remain cannon fodder. The workers of the world have no country: a mortgage, a rent-book, a UB40. these things look the same everywhere even if their labels are different, and they produce the same misery. Ninety per cent of the people of the world share a global common interest, economically and socially. It is the ten per cent who invest in our labour, in whose interest it has been to divide the planet into areas of control called “nations”.

What, then, of the women at Greenham? They have had the support of CND, but their protest was not organised by that body. They have failed to prevent the arrival of cruise missiles. They have failed to prevent cruise being made operational. . What has their presence at Greenham achieved? There are two things they claim to have achieved. Firstly, to increase public awareness of the real horror of the nuclear threat and the urgent need to do something about it. Second, to build up strong bonds of solidarity and confidence among those who seek peace, and between women in particular. In other words, to create an alternative culture, in which the values of present-day society, of violence and aggression, are rejected and people are instead creative and care for one another.

It is much harder to measure what success has been had in relation to these two secondary aims. Even before Greenham, there was a growing awareness for many years of the threat of nuclear war, as the number of nuclear weapons in the world spiralled. But spreading information about the nature of a threat to millions of lives cannot be separated from ideas about how that threat is to be dealt with. The Greenham Common women have opposed the idea of working-class political organisation, men and women together, to dispossess the world’s capitalist class of their ownership of the means of life. Instead, there has been a tendency to sneer at such ideas and to favour spontaneous acts of peacefulness within a society rooted in property and violence, with the control of the state left in the hands of the agents of capital.

This brings us to the second aim, of promoting an alternative culture of co-operation. Like the Welsh hippy communes of the sixties, this is an idealist and utopian hope that a world-wide system of competition and profit can be escaped from, without the political and democratic action of a socialist majority. The Greenham women have been divided as to what place, if any, men are to have in this alternative culture. Only a minority fell for the dangerous biological determinism, which says that it is men who are genetically programmed for violence and women for peace. Most of the women a Greenham are united, though, in the feeling that men have been conditioned into aggression and violence and should therefore generally be excluded from the birth of this new culture of peace.

This is just the kind of irrational judgement which justifies war. Was it not women who waved white feathers at the men [who] would not fight in the 1914-18 war, to taunt them for their refusal to kill for “our country”? Was it not women who proudly kissed their sons and husbands into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean in the Falklands war? The fact is both women and men are taught, in different ways, to support the capitalist system the world over. This conditioning will only be destroyed by men and women workers joining together to face a common enemy, rather than allowing conflicts between workers to blind them to what is really happening. What makes men flock like sheep to their death in wars is not really strength or aggression but the most pathetic weakness. After all, militarism is based on the strict obeying of orders, which is hardly a model of self-assertion.

These two aims, then, of alerting public awareness and building a counter-culture of peaceful solidarity have not been at all successful in removing the threat of annihilation from the human race. But, in any case, these were not the original aims of the Peace Camp: the object of preventing the arrival and preparation for use of cruise missiles has failed miserably, and is being gradually forgotten. Any movement must be judged, in the end, by the success or failure of its strategy. By that standard. Greenham has been a total fiasco. It would be patronising in the extreme for us to continue any longer to pat them on the head, and admire their sincerity. If their strategy for getting rid of nuclear weapons is not effective, then to encourage the continuation of that strategy is nothing less than collective suicide.

Unfortunately, as with CND in general, there is a smug self-righteousness about the women at Greenham, which treats all criticism of their policy with the same pious smirk. Having been branded by the media as the “Peace Women” they seem to feel that anyone who dares to question their approach must be a warmonger, defending male attitudes of aggression and oppressive forms of political organisation. Perhaps they don’t know, or don’t care, that socialists alone have opposed every single war this century, not just before they began, but during and after them too, even where this meant incarceration in prison for many of our members during both World Wars. We do not sneer at the opposition to war of millions of our fellow workers. But how is this opposition to be turned into a practical movement, which will be effective in ending all war?

The Greenham Common and other peace camps have degenerated into tourist attractions, because they present no real threat to the forces of mass destruction around which they are gathered. The weapons of war will only be dismantled when the cause of war the way society is presently organised — is removed. Nothing short of a social revolution will prevent humanity staggering from one mass grave to another

Clifford Slapper