Book Reviews: ‘The CND Story’


‘The CND Story’, ed. John Minnion and Philip Bolsover, Allison and Busby (1983).

In the preface to this book the editors point out that it is a collection of individual views and that it is ‘in no sense an “official history”‘ (p.7). This has always been the stance adopted by CND, which claims to be a movement not an organisation as such. Its aims are simple but vague enough to bear many interpretations. It is a broad church which embraces christians, pacifists and left-wingers. There are a multitude of peace groups now in existence: Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons, Journalists Against Nuclear Extermination, Teachers for Peace, Families Against the Bomb, Women Oppose the Nuclear Threat, Tories Against Cruise and Trident, Babies Against the Bomb, Women for Life on Earth, etc. They represent an outcry against the horrific consequences of technological advance in weaponry. Such protests have always existed. There were protests against waging war on civilians, the bombardment of towns, chemical weapons, submarines, napalm and atomic weapons. Socialists also oppose the slaughter of human beings, but in any form of war whether conventional or nuclear. CND in the 1970s developed its campaign to “increase its opposition to chemical and biological weapons” (p.32) yet it still wishes to see the retention of capitalism. For this reason CND’s programme of action is futile. Restricting the type of weaponry available does not reduce the chances of war nor the horrific consequences of war.

Janet and Norman Buchan in the section ‘The Campaign in Scotland: singing into protest’ say:

    “From a very early stage we had won full support from the Labour Party, Trades Council and the STUC  . . . And it was they who were largely responsible for securing the biggest post-war demonstration in Glasgow till then, at the start of the 1960’s. Incidentally, that was the demonstration that produced the sectarian slogan to end all sectarian slogans. Just as we were turning round the corner of Sauchiehall Street two grim stalwarts of the Socialist Party of Great Britain were standing heralding the march with a huge banner and slogan which read: “This demonstration is useless—You must first destroy capitalism” (p. 53).”

The Buchans have clearly not grasped the profound nature of this criticism of CND. They may wax lyrical about the support from different reformist groups but this has in no way reduced nuclear weapon proliferation. War is endemic to capitalism. Nuclear weapons represent only one aspect of the arsenal of modern capitalism and these weapons will be used if the capitalist powers (whether NATO, Warsaw Pact, China or any other) feel the need to. In 1925, 114 countries signed the Geneva Protocol banning the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases but countries still reserved the right of retaliatory usage. This is the recurrent hypocrisy of the arms race but it does not mask the willingness to develop, produce and ultimately use any weapons. Supposed peaceful intentions do not hide the reality of weapons retention. CND’s problem is how they can effect a change in government policy in order to bring about unilateral disarmament.

Andrew Papworth says that CND must avoid “the dangers of creating illusions about the extent to which Britain is a responsive democracy” (p. 126). He talks about the failure of political parties to carry through into government disarmament policies and about their failure to respond to disarmament demands. What he should recognise is that this is the inevitable outcome for political parties who are committed to capitalism. Dan Smith argues that the strength of CND is in its non-political nature and that its “basic role is to close the door against certain options in defence policy — nuclear options” (p. 107). What Smith’s argument does emphasise is that CND is not concerned about the eradication of war; he talks of guerrilla style territorial defence and non-nuclear armed forces. Nuclear weapons are an unpleasant aspect of war but death in the wastes of the Falklands is not glorious and is no less final than nuclear obliteration. John Fremlin argues that to call for a rejection of all weapons would turn away those who “genuinely afraid of giving up our conventional territorial and naval defence” (p. 104).

It is little wonder that The CND Story presents a confused image of what CND is about for the various attitudes adopted within CND are essentially confused. For Joan Ruddock the task of CND is to “make work within the Labour movement a priority” (p. 98). Such faith in the Labour Party suggests that CND have learnt little since the reversal of the Labour Party’s unilateralist vote between 1960 and 1961. Ruddock also talks of extending political activity through the newly formed Parliamentary and Election Committee. It will be interesting to see if CND secure any more votes than the 1,000 or so gained by Michael Croft when he stood for an Independent Nuclear Disarmament Election Committee in 1964. What most CND supporters claim is that there  is a need to swing the policies of one of the established political parties and for David Griffiths the “Labour Party is, for the present, the only serious candidate” (p. 133).

CND have always claimed that their strength is in being a broad church. This is in fact one of their weaknesses. Not only do disagreements occur as to how to get rid of nuclear weapons within CND but there are now a host of different peace groups. They may ostensibly share a single aim but profound disagreements occur as to how to achieve that aim and what exactly that aim is. The CND Story emphasises the frustration and anger felt by people in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation. What CND and the other peace groups have failed to grasp is that wars do not occur as a result of having weapons but because of the conflicting economic interests of capitalist states. CND have helped to bring into public debate the horrific consequences of nuclear war. What is needed is to go beyond a moral outcry and to attack the system which creates war. Good intentions will not solve the problem of war but there is a revolutionary alternative: “You must first destroy capitalism”.

Philip Bentley

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