From the October 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Lazarus-like, CND is groping its way out of its grave. Having already demonstrated, over a number of years, the utter futility of its activities, it seems determined to point up all over again the lessons we—and it—should have learnt from its earlier failures and disappointments. And in consequence, time seems to be standing still. There is a strong whiff of what the French term “deja-vu” in the air: it has happened before and—or so it seems—we are about to go through it all again. But before CND starts yet another of its barren exercises let us recall some other human experiences from which we should have learnt a vital lesson, however bitter.
It has been estimated that more than 10,000,000 military personnel alone died during the First World War. A further 50,000,000 people, military and civilian, perished in the Second. More millions have died in South-East Asia, Africa, South America and in many other smaller theatres of war. In addition to these, many millions may be reckoned to have died from starvation, malnutrition and disease in the so-called “third world” countries. All these catastrophies are so vast as to defy comprehension. And anyway, converted as they have been into an arid statistical exercise, they seem devoid of meaning. Perhaps we need to turn, for understanding, to the vignettes of human tragedy rather than the great traumas of world war and mass starvation. To take an example or two:
A file of blinded British infantrymen, each with his hands on the shoulders of the man in front of him, and silhouetted against the sky, crocodile their way back to some Flanders field dressing station.
A press photographer pulls off the coup of a lifetime: he photographs a soldier of the Spanish Civil War at the precise moment of his death from a sniper’s bullet.
In some German concentration camp lethal gases wreathe around the walls of a sealed chamber packed with naked men, women and children.
A skinless and screaming child, unfortunate enough to have been in the path of an American napalm attack, rushes imploringly toward a news-cameraman.
In Cambodia the calculated genocide of a million or so anonymous peasants and their dependants has been exploited in an international diplomatic chess-game played out by would-be rival alliances.
It will be noticed that in none of these events have nuclear weapons played the remotest part. Yet the human suffering involved is no less poignant.
But what, it has to be asked, do these and numberless other terrible events inspire in the minds of the vast majority of people today? Shocking though it is, and difficult though it may be to reconcile oneself to it, the answer is: relative indifference. Workers whose political consciousness has been hampered by their “educators” and by the mass-media are unwilling to identify with, and therefore do not care deeply about, such matters. We seem to be inured to the sufferings of others, however graphically they may be illustrated. But then, as is implicit in the above, perhaps that very presentation is, in part at least, responsible for this indifference. The bloody images flickering away in the corners of our living-rooms are taken as being ail of a piece with the tomato-ketchup dished out to us by the “entertainment” moguls.
Perhaps we can no longer discriminate between fact and fiction. Indeed, it is probably intended that some such confusion should exist. After all, the “suspension of disbelief” can all too easily slide into a suspension of belief. Certainly much of the gory drivel which passes for “entertainment” these days breeds a callousness and insensitivity which must blunt any attempt to understand the true plight of those millions of our fellow-workers who possess nothing at all, leave alone a television set.
“But surely”, we hear you say, “most people cannot avoid caring about such things?” Not so. Most of us are unable to care because we have never been encouraged to understand the true reasons why otherwise normal men and women have this “inexplicable" capacity to behave so cruelly toward their fellow human beings—of whatever nationality, including their own. In the absence of any such understanding it is all too often put down to “human nature”; or “God’s will”; or “Fate”; or some other metaphysical characterisation.
Socialists are often scornfully asked: “What, then, are these reasons you keep harping on about?” We reply: The true—and only—reason is the existence, in our times, of the capitalist system, and the implacable determination of its principal beneficiaries, a tiny handful of greedy and power-hungry wealth-owners and their acolytes, to preserve and enhance their class status. These latter are cynically indifferent to the anguish of those who happen to be standing in the way of their miserable ambitions.
It has been observed that our masters would rather wade up to their necks in our blood than concede an inch of real power in their determination to cling to their privileges. Looking back over recent history alone, who can deny the truth of this observation? From Passchendaele to Stalingrad; from Belsen to Hiroshima: from Vietnam to Chile; from Dresden to Cambodia: nothing has been allowed to stand in the path of capitalism’s ruling classes; most certainly not the agony of the innocent millions who, possessing only their capacity to work and reproduce, have died like cattle in their wars, in ignorance of the true reasons for their pointless martyrdom.
However, in speaking of our apparent indifference to our fate under capitalism, it would be wrong to oversimplify. As the opening paragraph of this article has indicated, some of us care, however ineffectually. The streets of the world's cities frequently bear witness to this. Banner-carrying processions made up of earnest individuals from all walks of life and of all manner of opinions and beliefs may be seen parading this or that “cause”, or deploring this or that outrage. All credit to them (one might observe) that they have the guts to get out and do what must surely stick in the throats of so many of their numbers unused as they are to making such “public spectacles” of themselves.
Unfortunately, willingness to put up with blistered feet and the jeers of bystanders isn’t nearly enough. Unaccompanied by political understanding, such uninformed “witness” must inevitably dissolve; at best, into an emotional and platitudinous wallow in a tepid and vaguely unsatisfactory bath of self-righteousness: at worst, into the vicious, not to say ridiculous, punch-ups of Grosvenor and Red Lion Squares. But whichever way it goes one thing is certain: our economic and political masters will have lost no sleep. For once again they will have had demonstrated to them that the true responsibility for the human misery which leads to such demonstrations—capitalism itself—has once more gone unidentified and, therefore, unexamined and unthreatened. Demonstrators and their critics alike will have been restored to their television sets and what passes for “news”-papers and, with varying degrees of scepticism (or, more likely, none at all!) will already be harvesting yet another crop of lies and half-truths. As for our masters: they, no doubt, will shortly increase the pay of the police “for services rendered”. A handful of sycophantic press humbugs can confidently expect to be remembered in the next Honours List. And for the rest of us, life, with its attendant miseries, frustrations and risks, will proceed as “normal”.
So demonstrators, including those of CND. are certainly successful in one major respect at least: they deflect even the more politically-conscious from a true recognition of our existence—and therefore of our condition—as a class. They undermine a proper understanding of the capitalist system in a way which can only bring relief to, for example, the manufacturers of the very weapons they march to abolish. But—worst of all—they drain workers of energy we can ill afford to waste in what should properly be our common struggle to achieve an enlightenment without which socialism, our only remaining hope and goal, is not possible.