Saturday, October 31, 2015

Fission confusion (2011)

The Pathfinders Column from the July 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
The political fall-out continues from the Fukushima plant as radiation levels continue to be revised upwards and the problems continue to cascade, with each solution itself presenting a new problem. Neighbouring states glare balefully as the Japanese now try to justify dumping 110,000 tonnes of  radioactive water into the local fishpond. Meanwhile governments across the world hold Nuclear Safety Reviews in a fever to satisfy worried populations that they are not being as careless over nukes as they usually are over everything else.

The UK’s Chief Nuclear Inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, has been hurriedly asked to do a review of all nuclear facilities, and has delivered his interim report (Link). The bemused Dr Weightman sees ‘no reason for curtailing the operation of nuclear power plants or other nuclear facilities in the UK’, no doubt because category 9 earthquakes and giant tsunamis tend not to happen in Britain very often.

However this hasn’t stopped the Nuclear Free Local Authorities pressure group, together with the Greens, from trying to whip up the anti-nuke fever with a briefing seminar at Westminster on the future of nuclear new build (

Now the EU is even talking about a nuclear-free Europe, after Germany and Switzerland have announced the winding down of their entire nuclear programme and Italy has just overwhelmingly voted against nuclear energy in a landslide referendum (BBC Online, 14 June).

Almost alone in Europe, France continues to be independent and pro-nuke, possibly because of its history of being invaded by other Europeans, and Britain too remains resolute, possibly because of its history of being invaded by the French.

Folks with long memories were probably surprised at the renaissance in recent years of the nuclear option. There was a time when the anti-nuclear lobby seemed to have won the argument, or at least the contest for public opinion. The anti-nuke brigade had always got its biggest boosts from accidents at nuclear power stations, notably at Windscale in 1957, later at Three Mile Island in 1979, and of course famously at Chernobyl in1986.

Older Britons might remember having to pour all their milk down the sewers in Lancashire in 1957, but it was a shock to have to do it again in 1986 because of a leak the other side of the world. From this last disaster the pro-nuclear lobby seemed destined not to recover. Soon after this the German Greens saw a large increase in their support and the Green Party in the UK had its peak electoral success. But the opposition would not last indefinitely.

Indeed it was the very success of the environmentalist agenda itself which began steadily to erode the consensus against nuclear power. It was after all the only realistic alternative to fossil fuels, and there wasn’t much doubt among experts that fossil fuels were implicated in global warming.

While environmentalists protested loudly about viable alternatives it was clear to many that these didn’t amount to much in practice. As solar, wind, geothermal, hydrogen and other more exotic technologies continued to make little headway, the debate remained a two-horse race of fossil versus fission.

The problem is that nothing comes close to fossil fuels for reliability, adaptability or energy conversion efficiency, while alternatives are always piecemeal solutions which cost a fortune to implement and maintain, and for comparatively low returns.

Short-term governments dislike sinking money into projects with long-term gains (for which they won’t get the credit) when there are always more immediate demands for cash (for which they might). So all the most viable sustainable energy technologies continue to contribute negligible amounts to global energy requirements and where they contribute more, like hydro or biofuels, they end up causing massive environmental or social damage of their own. If there is any major technological advance it is not likely to come from the so-called viable methods but from some less likely source, as Scientific American argued in May this year.
So, as the new century dawned and no new technologies were found and significantly, no new Chernobyls occurred, people began listening to the pro-nuke assurances that ‘lessons had been learned’ and ‘technology had progressed’. As old installations neared their pension dates and the question of replacement became pressing, governments talked bullishly about expanding their nuclear build, confident that the people would accept the least-worst option, with resignation if not enthusiasm.

Then Fukushima. And what it has showed is a fundamental split between what governments want and what populations want. The real problem that faces the world’s governments, and by extension the various warring parties of its ruling class, is nothing to do with the environment. It’s the ability of some
countries, notably Russia but also China, Venezuela, the Gulf states and potentially even Norway and  Canada, to hold the world to ransom through their ownership and control of oil and gas supplies.

The recent Gulf wars, together with Russia’s trigger-happy hand at the gas tap, have persuaded every economic bloc that it’s either Do It Yourself nuclear or Do As You’re Told fossil imports. And for a bonus, with nuclear power you can get nuclear bombs, as the mullahs in Iran are keenly aware. In any conflict with your neighbours it’s much more effective to throw lumps of plutonium than lumps of coal. Thus, with the global balance of power at stake, nobody’s much interested in the environmentalists and their windmill schemes.

And this is the nub of the matter for socialists. Global energy policy is not being driven by concerns about the environment, however much governments dress the thing up in a pretty green frock, it’s about ownership and control of key resources, who has them, and who’s got the weaponry to seize them.

In capitalism such conflicts are endemic and often end up as wars, but in socialism, where by definition resources are shared and controlled by the collective human race, the problem would be a simple technical one uncomplicated by geopolitical or military questions.

Can nuclear power ever be safe, and even if it can, what do we do with the waste? Can a mix of sustainable resources really meet local needs and what are the environmental or social costs? Can wholesale reduction in consumption, facilitated by non-market production methods, help solve the  problem? Will fusion ever work? Is there something we haven’t thought of yet? Well there is something the world hasn’t thought of yet.

The only way to take politics out of the energy question is to take capitalism out of the equation. Of course capitalist governments are not going to entertain that option. But we ought to.

Trotskyist Zealots & Stalinist Neanderthals (1995)

Book Review from the January 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Seeds of Evil. Lenin & the Origins of Bolshevik Elitism by Robin Blick, Ferrington Press. 31-35 Gt. Ormond Street, London WC1. £5.

The front cover of this book shows a Russian doll. The top one is Stalin, underneath is Lenin and underneath Lenin is Robespierre, the jacobin dictator who ruled France briefly in 1794. The theme of the book is that Lenin's elitist view that the workers needed to be led, and then ruled, by a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries had nothing in common with Marx's theory of the democratic self-emancipation of the working class, but derived ultimately from an organisational form developed to further the bourgeois minority revolution in France.

Blick sets out to argue:
"(a) that Leninim's claims to Marxist 'orthodoxy' are bogus;
(b) that Leninism 9in whatever of its versions or mutations) was and remains, by virtue of its assumptions and ethos, an elitist and totalitarian doctrine, capable of creating, whatever its subjective intentions, only elitist and totalitarian societies, in which the proletariat either becomes or remains a politically repressed and economically exploited class;
(c) that, consequently, Leninism constitutes a monumental and tragic hoax perpetrated on countless millions of oppressed and exploited human beings, not only in Russia, but throughout the world."
We would agree with every word here. After all, we've been saying the same thing ourselves for years. In fact there is very little in the whole book that we would disagree with, including the demonstration that the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 was not a "working class soviet (workers' council) revolution" but a military coup engineered by Lenin, Trotsky and the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party.

Although, as Blick points out, the pretensions of Leninism are now only defended in the West by "a dwindling fraternity of third-rate intellectuals, Trotskyist zealots and Stalinist neanderthals", this book is one any Socialist should have on their bookshelf in order to be able to refute the twin lies that Leninism is a form of Marxism and that Leninism did not lead to Stalinism.
Adam Buick 

Something to Remember You By (2012)

From the June 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
It says a lot about the society we live in that there are so many war memorials. The latest addition to London's collection is to the men of RAF Bomber Command who were killed in operations over enemy territory during the 1939/45 war. Wait a minute; that war ended nearly seventy years ago. What took so long? Well to answer that we might do worse than think about Terry, who does not rate a place on a memorial because, although he flew in many of those operations he avoided being killed in them. Strip away his agonising dependence on alcohol and nicotine and you are left with Terry as a nice guy – gentle, caring, sociable. Restless, mind you, which may have been related to his comfortably-off family whose farming allowed them to plonk him into a posh nearby grammar school, but which infected him with an addiction to fast motor bikes and big, powerful goods lorries. And which then led to his partaking in a cruelly prolonged and deliberate act of mass destruction and killing.

Rear Gunner
At the time the gossip was that a desire to escape from his family drove Terry, when he was seventeen, to volunteer for Royal Air Force aircrew. Perhaps he dreamed of being a Spitfire pilot - Winston Churchill and The Few and all that. But he was forced to contain such energies when he was classified as a rear gunner - the coldest, most isolated, most dangerous position - in a squadron of Lancaster bombers. This aircraft was regarded as a marvel of speed, operating ceiling and bomb load, useful to the policy of what came to be known as area - saturation - bombing which emphatically laid waste to a number of great German cities and killed between 300,000 and 600,000 civilians. The casualties in Bomber Command exceeded 55,000 killed - one seventh of all British deaths in action during the course of the war. But the Lancaster offered its rear gunner one hopeful feature, for in an emergency he could use a mechanism to spin the turret so that the armoured doors he had entered through opened out at the tail end of the aircraft; he could then escape by tipping himself backwards and operating his parachute.

Coincidence And Cowardice
Terry contributed to the horror, as he recalled, by completing over sixty operations - well above the average or any expectation - which he survived through a combination of beneficial coincidences and cowardice. On one occasion, in terror while under attack, he used the aircraft Elsan and came back to his turret to find it had been blasted away. On another, soon after taking off and while still in English air space, he heard the pilot shouting that he could smell someone smoking; Terry heard only the word “smoke” so without asking any questions he spun his turret and threw himself out into the evening air. He could give a vivid account of dangling calmly from his parachute while watching the bomber continue on its way to the flak and night fighters. The most colourful incident was when the pilot found, after landing safely from an operation, that Terry had fallen asleep - which was strictly forbidden. He ordered the crew to leave Terry there while he took the aircraft out to the dispersal point at the remotest fringes of the airfield. When Terry eventually woke up his first, immediate sensation took in only the absence of vibration and engine noise so again he threw himself out – except that in this case he was only a few feet off the ground and had a long walk back to the airfield buildings, dragging an open parachute with him. In the years after the war he could laugh at these experiences but he could not laugh - could not even talk about - two incidents when his pilot could not get a badly damaged bomber back to base and crashed it into the sea, or another when his squadron came back to be told that they had seriously failed to hit their target and so must return at once to do it as ordered, flying in the daylight formation for which they had no training. Terry's dominating memory of that raid was of spotting another Lancaster alongside, in which he knew a close friend was the rear gunner. As he watched the bomber dissolved into a ball of fire.

Terrifying Force

By the time Terry was flying on operations, the effectiveness of RAF bombers, in terms of their range, power, technological equipment and bomb load, had been vastly improved. Which must also be said about the disciplined brutality of the raids. Now it was all controlled over the target by a designated Leader Marker who dropped a first flare. This was followed by the Pathfinders dropping aiming marker flares, which the main bomber force then used (once the Marker Leader was satisfied it had all been carried out accurately) to aim their bomb load onto the buildings and people below. And while this was happening the higher levels of command, where the policy was laid down, were involved in a long debate about the most effective – the most damaging and most murderous – method of wielding that terrifying force. Should it be against targets such as aircraft factories, oil plants, railways? Or should it be straightforwardly used against human beings, smashing their homes and all around them and killing as many as possible with the object of undermining their morale and affecting the German war effort. In the process of this argument a number of German cities - Berlin, Cologne, Essen and others - had to pay a savage price. A passionate devotee of the policy of area bombing was then at the head of the RAF Bomber Command - Air Marshall Arthur Harris (known, for obvious reasons, as “Bomber” Harris).  Air Marshall Harris persisted in the face of some influential opposition and attempts to sack him: “ . .  . in the last eighteen months Bomber Command has virtually destroyed forty-five out of the leading sixty German cities. There are not many industrial centres of population now left intact. Are we going to abandon this vast task, which the German themselves have long admitted to be their worst headache, just as it nears completion?” (1 November 1944). The rancour in this dispute over the most likely way to kill the largest number of the enemy was unusually enduring; Harris had to wait until 1953 for the government to award him a baronetcy, there was no campaign medal for the crews and only recently has there been that permanent memorial.

Against the odds Terry survived into civilian life, got married, had kids and was soon brought up against the fact that being one of yesterday's heroes - one of the glorious Bomber Boys - was not unfailingly attractive to employers. And then there was the ever-present need to control the more erratic features in his personality, which may have been acceptable up in the air above some burning German city but not so useful on the ground in peacetime. In bald terms, he and his family had a hard time of it. He split from his wife and was told that he suffered from an aggressive cancer in his lungs. In his last days in hospital he once blurted out that he “...could fight all those fucking Germans but I can't fight this.” At that time the ravaged cities were being re-built, the places of those who had died were being taken by others. And now, in a most blatant example of ruling-class hypocrisy, there is offered a monument to the men who died while they did their bit to make it happen. All of them were victims of the propaganda which insisted that there was an enemy who needed to be fought to exhaustion when in truth all of their interests were in unity. Terry was there because he accepted those lies – allowed them to wreck what should have been another useful life.