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New Left Review I/124, November-December 1980

Raymond Williams

The Politics of Nuclear Disarmament

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.

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