Monday, June 13, 2016

What to do about the H-Bomb (1954)

From the May 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

The probable consequences of using the hydrogen bomb as an act of war must now be familiar to everyone. The newspapers, screens and radio have given enough facts and pictures of the latest tests to leave us in no doubt about the “progress” that has been made in the development of atomic weapons since the days of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Almost as often as we hear descriptions of the tremendous destructive power of these weapons, we hear a demand to “ban” them. That revulsion at the prospects is widespread cannot be doubted—only the form and direction of this revulsion is questionable. Often the grave issues involved are reduced to a question that seems to ask no more than “Are you for or against the Bomb?" Yet the question and the answer are made meaningless by the fact that no one wants the hydrogen bomb to be used, not even those who are in favour of carrying on war with the "conventional” weapons.

Everyone wants peace, and most would like to believe the prediction of the physicist Hans Thirring that settling international disputes by killing as many enemies as possible is about to become outdated. But the work of making and developing the destructive power of these weapons continues. In order to study this whole question seriously we must look beyond the banner headlines and the more emotional than reasoned appeals to “Stop the Bomb!”

We live in a world in which the possession of property and the protection of property institutions is the dominating feature. Inseparable from Capitalism is the capitalist state, the machinery which governs the countless individual acts of exploitation and which can, as in Russia, actually constitute the exploiting agent. The state is power and, whether democratic or dictatorial, holds sway by virtue of having force at its command—armed force, the purpose of which is safeguarding capitalist property and the prosecution of war against economic rivals when other methods of settling disputes over markets, trade routes and sources of raw materials fail.

The hydrogen bomb is merely the most efficient way known at present of carrying out this purpose. It is often said that the tremendous destructive power of such weapons will act as a deterrent to their use. There is no reason to believe that it need be any such thing. It could reasonably have been predicted that the last war would cost millions of lives, yet no such prediction was allowed to interfere with the prosecution of the war,

The childlike faith in the argument that atomic weapons must continue to be made and developed so that the certainty of retaliation would stop an "aggressor" using them is foolish and dangerous. It amounts to saying that we must have the hydrogen bomb in order that hydrogen bombs won't be used. It is difficult to think of any other sphere in which such fallacious reasoning would be seriously entertained. If a scientist were, to announce that he was breeding rabbits in order that rabbits would be abolished, he would be looked upon askance. And if he were to produce a breed of super-rabbit which could multiply much faster than the ordinary kind, and then claimed that the danger of rabbits was lessened, he would probably be certified.

One of the more hopeful aspects of this ghastly business is that many of the ideas that used to be advanced to make it seem “not so bad after all" are becoming more and more untenable. As Earl Nelson wrote in the News of the World (28.3.54):
“The inhabitants of large cities are being prepared for civil defence against bomb attack, but since a single hydrogen bomb could blast a city such as London, New York, Paris, Berlin or Moscow off the face of the earth the only benefit of civil defence would appear to be keeping up the morale of the population prior to their annihilation.”
It is clear from what has been said and written on this subject by people who otherwise hold widely differing opinions that all stand aghast at the prospects opened up by the development of the hydrogen bomb. Every "authoritative” article, every school-room meeting, all the pub and club talk is avowedly in opposition to atomic warfare. Yet it cannot be disputed that the two vast camps into which the world is at present divided are arming against each other. Each side is afraid lest the might of the other is bigger, and neither is likely to abandon any strategic advantage it may have or see the chance of having.

What does the ordinary working man think about all this, he who is content to give power to politicians and to bemoan the consequences? He doesn’t want to drop a hydrogen bomb on anyone. In past wars he was persuaded to take up arms to protect his hearth and home, his poor old mum, or his violable sister. Such arguments cannot be used today (not that they were valid when they were used) because it is quite obvious that bombs capable of destroying cities don’t protect civilians. He has to be given another line—another phoney reason for killing his fellow-men. He feels his powerlessness as an individual lost in a group. He is therefore persuaded to recognise himself as an instrument of that group, to make its "cause” his cause.

The groups which stand out today as most likely to be adversaries in a future war (it is never safe to predict the actual line-up) are the " Communist World ” versus the " Free World.” To make it easy for you to follow this deadly game, they mark, the shirts "East” and “West.” All that is needed now is the patriot and his propaganda. He doesn’t have to be a politician—there is always the lurking suspicion that politicians have an axe to grind. Let a famous author and dramatist such as Charles Morgan explain "our” dilemma as nicely as possible:
  “Because everything that we value in Western civilisation, including Christianity, is threatened from the East, we cannot abandon the use of the atomic bomb for the purpose of defence ...
  “This is the great paradox to which we have been driven. A man of good will who loathes war and, above all, the use of the H-bomb . . .  to destroy his fellow-creatures cannot reject them as defence and deterrent.”
And there we have the justifying lie in all its subtlety. Robert Briffault once said that if a lie has power it will be bloody and murderous. This latest and most heinous offender against humanity is the assertion that atomic weapons can be used to defend—that is, to ward off, resist, protect or maintain against an attack. They cannot. They can only destroy.

There is nothing paradoxical in what Morgan writes, unless it is his claim to be of good will. The man who cannot reject the use of bombs as deterrent cannot reject the burning, maiming and blasting of his fellow-men. He cannot reject the property relationships which set men at each other’s throats and which are always seeking to perfect the means of mutual — but "defensive" destruction.

The socialist argues that it is senseless to imagine that the problem of war will be solved by advocating the banning of this or that weapon, or even of all weapons. Sir Hartley Shawcross was near the mark when he said that it was no use pretending that a treaty made in advance would make countries obey the rules of war as if it were a game of cricket. The only solution to the problem of war is the removal of its cause—the property basis of society.

Let us make our position quite clear. We have no objection to the banning of hydrogen bombs. But we do have an objection to people getting killed by other methods also. Our cry is not, therefore, "Ban the H-Bomb!” Carry this a stage farther. There is no objection to banning all war. But, even assuming that this aspect of present society could be changed without changing its whole basis (and there is no reason to suppose that this is possible), it would still leave unsolved the other problems of poverty and insecurity which also take toll of human life and happiness.

All of the separate cries to end this or that social evil in the world today add up to the cry to end Capitalism. The singling out of objects “for immediate attention" may claim the merit of moderation, but it is tragically inefficient in obtaining results. To treat each symptom separately—"Ban this Boil!”," Abolish that Pimple!”—is to let the patient go on suffering from a disease which only a revolutionary change can cure.
Stan Parker

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