Since Autumn 1979 there has been a vigorous renewal of campaigning against the nuclear arms race. Its immediate occasion was the nato decision to deploy Cruise missiles in Western Europe, with further effects from the failure of the United States to ratify the Salt II agreement. But it was then rapidly intensified by the development of a complex international crisis, involving the Iranian Muslim revolution, the Soviet military action in Afghanistan, and heightened tensions in the Middle East and in the Gulf oil states. Yet while these conjunctural reasons are evident, it now seems that the specific campaigns against nuclear weapons have emerged with renewed authority, independence and strength. Residual and new campaigning formations have attracted many new members; successful meetings and demonstrations are again being held; and there has been a significant body of new writing and new analysis. The issues are so fateful that there can be nothing but welcome for this vigorous renewal of attention. Yet it is at just this moment that we have to look very closely again at the politics of nuclear disarmament. It is not simply that we have been here before; that in the late 50s and early 60s we had a powerful Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which, for whatever reasons, was contained and dissipated. Indeed the most salutary effect of the renewed campaigning is that the more complacent conclusions about the decline of cnd have been decisively challenged by the more substantial dimension of actual strategic and weapons developments, which the merely political conclusion—‘we’ve had cnd’—sealed off in thousands of minds. Anyone who has read the details of these new developments must be shocked by the extent to which ‘the Bomb’, as fact or slogan, has operated in the culture as a static if terrible entity, provoking resignation, cynicism or despair, while the reality has been the unceasing development of new and ever more dangerous systems. Moreover, in left politics especially, ‘the Bomb’ has for the most part been pushed into the margin of more tractable arguments about political strategy and tactics. When we now read, with full attention, the most sober descriptions of the appalling new military systems and strategies, it can seem like a waking after sleep, though it is not really that; it is yet another and perhaps now absolute demand, when we have already given available time and energy to other necessary work.

This is now the central political question. As the nuclear arms race again dominates attention, where is the rest of our politics, or is there indeed any other important kind of politics? Many comrades and friends are now arguing, eloquently, for an absolute priority of specific, autonomous and collaborative campaigning against the nuclear arms race.footnote1 The shock waves of recent events are pushing many thousands in that direction. But then it is here, at whatever risk of misunderstanding, that we must, as comrades and friends, ask and indeed insist on certain fundamental questions, and begin to suggest some answers.

There is a first and relatively simple set of questions. They can be summarized as: give absolute priority to which campaign against the arms race? In Britain, for example, there are at least three campaigns, all gaining support. There is the revived Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (cnd), campaigning broadly but centred on a demand for unilateral British nuclear disarmament, in very much its original terms. Coherently but not exclusively associated with this is the urgent campaign against the siting of Cruise missiles in Britain. Then, second, there is the new and important campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament (end), still needing to resolve its relations with an older unilateralism, but centred on proposals ‘to free the entire territory of Europe, from Poland to Portugal, from nuclear weapons, air and submarine bases’.footnote2 Third, there is the World Disarmament Campaign, centred on the comprehensive proposals of the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament, convened in 1978 and to be renewed in 1982. In the urgency of actual campaigning against powerful opposing forces, the differences of emphasis, some radical, between these campaigns can and at times must be set aside. Yet it is not only that the differences are already being exploited by the political and military establishments. It is that arguments drawn from these differences of emphasis become confused, even in single minds, and that genuine differences of policy and affiliation are overridden by the too simple conclusion that since all are against the arms race, all know how they will work to end it.

This state of mind was memorably and damagingly indicated at the 1980 Labour Party conference, when motions deriving from all three positions were passed, allowing endless opportunities for subsequent confusion and double-talk. Moreover it is significant, as was again evident at the Labour Conference, that at just the points where these differences of emphasis need to be discussed there is a regular reversion—of course in its own terms impressive—to simple restatement of the horrors of nuclear war, which are indeed the beginning but cannot function as the conclusion of any of the arguments. Nobody is quicker to agree about these horrors than the defenders and actual executants of the arms race, who then derive their own models of deterrence and swing much public opinion behind them. If a version of absolute priority to the anti-nuclear-weapons campaigns is then practically dependent on simple restatement of the terrible consequences of nuclear war, it is plainly insufficient.

There seem to me to be three broad questions. First, whether the development of nuclear weapons, and of the political and military systems associated with them, has so changed the character of otherwise determined social orders, that what we now confront, as Edward Thompson has powerfully argued, is in effect a new social condition of ‘exterminism’. Second, within a different context, there is the question of the current real meanings of the leading terms of the general argument, notably ‘deterrence’, ‘multilateralism’ and ‘unilateralism’. Third, and now of critical importance (though it depends on our answers to the preceding questions), what is or should be the specifically socialist contribution to activity against the nuclear arms race, whether autonomous or as an element in broader collaborative campaigns?