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?

‘If “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist”, what are we given by those Satanic mills which are now at work, grinding out the means of human extermination?’footnote3 The question is urgent and relevant, but behind it, of course, is another question: who ‘gave us’ the hand-mill, the steam-mill, the missile factories? The intricate relations between a technology and a mode of production, and indeed between a mode of production and a social order, are only rarely of a kind to permit simple analysis of cause and effect. Technological determinism, as indicated in that combined sentence from Marx and Edward Thompson, is, when taken seriously, a form of intellectual closure of the complexities of social process. In its exclusion of human actions, interests and intentions, in favour of a selected and reified image of their causes and results, it systematically post-dates history and excludes all other versions of cause. This is serious everywhere, but in the case of nuclear weapons it is especially disabling. Even when, more plausibly, it is in effect a form of shorthand, it steers us away from originating and continuing causes, and promotes (ironically, in the same mode as the ideologies which the weapons systems now support) a sense of helplessness beneath a vast, impersonal and uncontrollable force. For there is then nothing left but the subordinated responses of passivity or protest, cynical resignation or prophecy.footnote4 That the latter response in each pairing is infinitely better, morally and politically, should go without saying. But that the tone of a campaign can be radically affected by the initial assumption of so absolute and overpowering a system is already evident, mixed incongruously as it also is with the vigorous organization and reaching out to others which follow from different initial bearings.

In the case of nuclear weapons, nothing is more evident than that they were consciously sought and developed, and have continued to be consciously sought and developed. It is true that, as so often in modern technological innovations, much of the basic research had been done for quite other reasons, without foreseeing this particular result. But again as in many other comparable cases, the crucial moment of passage from scientific knowledge to technical invention, and then from technical invention to a systematic technology, depended on conscious selection and investment by an existing social order, for known and foreseen purposes. Thus the atomic bomb was developed within a situation of total war, under the familiar threat that the enemy might also be developing it, by states which were already practising the saturation-bombing and fire-bombing of cities and civilian populations. The atomic bomb gave them very much greater destructive power to do the same things more absolutely, more terribly, and (with the new genetic effects of radiation) more lastingly. Yet while it is true that massacre is not a twentieth-century invention, it has made a radical difference that massacre was first industrialized, in the nineteenth-century development of high explosives and the twentieth-century development of the bombing plane, and then, in the late-twentieth-century development of guided missile systems, in effect automated. It is not only, though it is most immediately, a matter of nuclear weapons. Contemporary developments in chemical and bacteriological weapons, also capable of combination with missile technology, belong to the same escalation in the extent and practicality of massacre.