Category Archives: Protest/activism

This year’s Nobel prize winners are changing the culture on nuclear weapons – interview

This year’s Nobel prize winners are changing the culture on nuclear weapons – interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 November 2017

Changing the culture around nuclear weapons to seeing them as just another dangerous weapon of mass destruction, won ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) a pivotal UN treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize last month. Ian Sinclair interviews Rebecca Sharkey, ICAN’s UK Coordinator from 2012-2017 on the background, the future – and the UK’s role in it.

Ian Sinclair: As the Nobel Peace Prize highlights, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was an incredible achievement. How did it come about? What was the most difficult hurdle ICAN had to overcome to make it happen?

Rebecca Sharkey: Nuclear weapons were born in WWII, one of the darkest chapters in human history. The fear of nuclear weapons hung like a silent and terrifying cloud over the lives of millions of people during the decades following Hiroshima. And it was only by luck that one of the very many near misses didn’t mutate into a nuclear nightmare. Growing up in the eighties, I can remember that on the horizon in the distance in my nightmares was a mushroom cloud, silently unfurling in slow motion to destroy everything I knew and loved. But although my fear largely dissolved at the end of the Cold War, as it did for most people, the threat of nuclear weapons did not go away; if anything, our volatile world is more unsafe than ever. At the heart of ICAN’s campaign is a wake-up call to the world about this existential threat, and an urgent call to action to prevent catastrophic humanitarian harm.

One of the myths instilled in those of us brought up in nuclear armed countries is that nuclear weapons provide security. It is this unsubstantiated claim that underlines the theory of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and is an article of faith for so many decision makers in countries like ours. Prime Minister Theresa May stated in July 2016 that it would be “an act of gross irresponsibility” for the UK to give up its nuclear weapons; it would constitute “a gamble with the safety and security of families in Britain that we must never be prepared to take”. At the same time, the UK’s [then] Defence Minister Michael Fallon MP repeats the mantra that “We share the vision of a world that is without nuclear weapons, achieved through multilateral disarmament”. This ‘doublethink’ is the reason why so many previous attempts at nuclear disarmament have stalled: why would you give up something that you believe is essential to your security? Overcoming deep acceptance of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and what currently represents a mainstream moderate position in nuclear armed states was ICAN’s central and most difficult hurdle to overcome.

ICAN strategy is to change the culture around nuclear weapons, stripping them of their perceived value and status, stigmatising them so that they can be seen for what they really are: weapons of mass destruction with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. As ICAN colleagues have argued, “We showed how the claim that nuclear deterrence has prevented war requires ignoring the poor record these weapons have at preventing conflict. We demonstrated the pervasive harm they have caused to many people living in areas affected by use and testing, undercutting claims that nuclear weapons provide security”. Instead of answering the question ‘how can my country be safe without nuclear weapons’ we turned the tables and asked ‘how can the world be safe while nuclear weapons continue to pose a threat to everyone?’

In practical terms, this involved building a global coalition of organisations and individuals all committed to campaigning for the prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law, as the other weapons of mass destruction are. In 100 countries, ICAN campaigners lobbied decision makers, circulated petitions, organised creative stunts, wrote articles and pitched to journalists, held public meetings, protested in the street, made a splash on social media. We came together at civil society forums to share and debate ideas, to sharpen our messages and tactics, and to make friends. We shook up international government-level disarmament conferences by bringing groups of campaigners of all ages and from all continents to debate with diplomats and promote our talking points; we gave speaking platforms to the survivors of the atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as to the victims of nuclear testing, such as members of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association; we showed hard-hitting films to diplomats to shake them out of their complacency; we brought in experts to explain in alarming detail the impact of nuclear weapons on the human body, on the environment, on the climate, on the global economy. We built strong partnerships between civil society and the states championing the treaty, without whose brave leadership the treaty – and ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize – would not have been possible. The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, hosted by Norway in 2013 and Mexico and Austria in 2014, shed new light on the perils of living in a world armed to the brink with nuclear weapons. They clarified the urgent need to prohibit these weapons under international law.

Campaigners for a nuclear-free world have traditionally been dismissed by the establishment as being idealistic peaceniks. ICAN turned this unfair characterisation on its head by focusing on facts, and by ‘owning’ realism; we showed up the theory of ‘nuclear deterrence’ for what it is: a theory. We highlighted Ward Wilson’s 2013 book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons, which cast a critical eye over some of the myths that have become ingrained in our thinking about nuclear weapons, especially that they ended WW2 and have kept the peace since (they didn’t and they haven’t). At meetings with politicians and civil servants, I would arm myself with copies of ‘Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy’, a chilling 2014 Chatham House report which showed that “since the probability of inadvertent nuclear use is not zero and is higher than had been widely considered, and because the consequences of detonation are so serious, the risk associated with nuclear weapons is high”. I also took copies of ‘The climatic impacts and humanitarian problems from the use of the UK’s nuclear weapons’ by Scientists for Global Responsibility, which presents sobering evidence that the launch of the nuclear missiles of just one UK Trident submarine could kill 10 million people and cause devastating climatic cooling. Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book Command and Controldocuments the risks inherent in possessing, in his words, “the most dangerous technology ever invented”. Speaking at ICAN meetings, Schlosser encouraged campaigners to draw attention to the numerous instances during the Cold War when a nuclear detonation hung on a razor’s edge, as well as the close shaves such as when the US almost detonated its own nukes on its own soil. Inspired by this approach of highlighting the potential for self-inflicted disasters, we launched a campaign in the UK – ‘Nukes of Hazard’ – which threw a spotlight on the lorries which routinely transport fully assembled nuclear warheads along ordinary roads across the UK, often passing close to schools and homes (what could possibly go wrong…?).

When the risks and consequences around nuclear weapons are looked at face on, it becomes an idealistic position to suggest that the status quo can continue indefinitely. By focusing on humanitarian and climatic impact, on risks and consequences, the terms of debate are moved from the theoretical (and therefore unprovable) realm of ‘deterrence’ to a pragmatic discussion of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), human rights and environmental protection. Within such a framework, it is impossible to argue for the continued existence of nuclear weapons. It is the disarmers who become the realists, the proponents of nuclear weapons the idealists.

IS: What was the involvement of the US and UK in the negotiations that led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

RS: In October 2016, the UK’s disarmament ambassador Dr Matthew Rowland was seen fist-bumping his US counterpart after speaking at the United Nations General Assembly against a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. As I wrote at the time, “It was staggering to hear the hypocrisy in Rowland’s speech. He lectured UN member states on the need to ‘do no harm’ whilst doing harm himself to proposals for genuine progress on nuclear disarmament. But the UK and other nuclear armed states continue to threaten catastrophic worldwide harm to people and the environment through their continued deployment of nuclear weapons which creates an existential risk of accidental, unintended or deliberate use. Far from being a leader on multilateral disarmament, the UK has been unilaterally rearming its nuclear arsenal and is now refusing to support new multilateral negotiations towards a global ban treaty”.

Ahead of the first Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo in March 2013, colleagues at Article 36 put in a Freedom of Information request which revealed that Foreign Office officials were well aware of the potential for success of ICAN’s approach. In their emails to each other, they acknowledged that a humanitarian approach had led to the effective stigmatisation and prohibition of cluster munitions, and expressed concerns that something similar could happen with nuclear weapons. Far from engaging with the substance of the conference, which was a facts-based discussion of the consequences of nuclear detonation and the challenges of providing any kind of humanitarian response, Article 36 argued that the “UK’s internal and public explanations for its eventual decision not to attend are focused on concern that the UK would not be able to pass itself off as a leader in nuclear disarmament and anxieties about international political processes”.

The UK government decided to join the US and the other ‘P5’ nations (permanent members of the UN Security Council – UK, US, Russia, China and France) in a boycott of the Oslo Conference, as they went on to do again for the second Humanitarian Impacts Conference held in Mexico the following year. Bitterly divided amongst themselves, these five nations ironically united against the rest of the world to defend the weapons of mass destruction they point at each other. However, without these ‘heavyweights’ present, it was in some ways easier for the 127 nations which did participate at the Oslo Conference to make progress, alongside international organisations, UN agencies and a focused and well organised civil society contingent under the umbrella of ICAN. At the 2013 Committee of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) a couple of months later, South Africa delivered a statement on behalf of 80 member states on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, which boldly stated: “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances”. The foundations for a new ban treaty were firmly laid, with these 80 countries being joined by many more at the next round of disarmament talks – all spurred on by ICAN campaigners lobbying politicians and decision makers at international conferences and at home in capitals across the world.

Fast forward to the treaty negotiations earlier this year, and the UK chose once again to boycott UN-mandated negotiations (122 countries had voted in favour of them), in spite of treaty obligations under the NPT to “negotiate in good faith”. Instead, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft joined the Trump administration in a highly unusual and irregular press ‘protest’ outside the UN conference room, refusing to take questions from journalists on a floor NGOs couldn’t get to, whilst other countries filed into the room behind them to do actual work. This was following previous attempts by the US to pressure its allies, particularly NATO states, to vote no to the ban treaty resolution, and “not to merely abstain”, and furthermore that “if negotiations do commence, we ask allies and partners to refrain from joining them”. Despite claiming that a ban treaty without the nuclear armed states would be meaningless, the United States revealed through this diplomatic move that it believes a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, even without the participation of nuclear-armed states, would indeed have a significant impact.

IS: In the New Statesmen you note ICAN’s strategy “was to push ahead whether or not the nuclear weapon states participated”. What was the thinking behind this strategy?

RS: To use an analogy from the smoking ban: for years, the government knew smoking was very bad for the health. Successive public campaigns urged smokers to cut down, not to smoke in front of their children, not to smoke in the car etc. All the attention was on the smokers. It was only when the evidence about the damaging effects of passive smoking emerged that the idea of banning smoking in public places become possible: now instead of this being about the smoker’s needs it became an issue of public health, of concern to everyone. As someone who can remember working in a windowless basement office with colleagues who chain-smoked, I can really appreciate the cultural shift that has thankfully made such a situation unthinkable nowadays. I can also remember wondering how on earth the smoking ban would be enforced – would the police go to all the pubs in the land and arrest thousands of people? But the smoking ban marked real societal change – the smokers, while still battling with their addiction, understood that their behaviour was damaging to others, and without too much fuss took their smoking to the pavement outside the pubs and offices. It’s far from a perfect analogy with the nuclear weapons ban, but the smoking ban illustrates a point about how change in society can happen by reframing an issue so that the damaging behaviour of a minority is not allowed to threaten the basic rights of the majority. It’s also about understanding where and who the change is going to come from – and that’s not smokers banning smoking or nuclear-weapons-possessors banning nuclear weapons.

Proponents of nuclear weapons, like smokers, are not bad people. But both have developed a dangerous habit, which they may need help to quit. The oft-repeated line of British politicians and officials is that the UK is committed to nuclear disarmament, but only when the conditions are right. The humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, which led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, is going a long way towards creating those conditions. In the last few years, evidence about the catastrophic climate impacts of nuclear weapons was confirmed using the latest climate change modelling technology, revealing that the ‘nuclear winter’ scenarios described in the eighties were not exaggerated. Soot thrown up into the atmosphere from the gigantic explosions would block out the sun, triggering a mini Ice Age which would cause a global crop failure leading to widespread ‘nuclear famine’. This is the equivalent of the evidence about passive smoking: it makes nuclear disarmament an urgent global public health imperative, one that trumps the perceived needs of the nuclear possessors.

Nuclear weapons can’t be uninvented; but the notion that they are acceptable can be. 159 countries – 80% of UN member states – signed up to a joint statement at the United Nations led by Austria in 2015 expressing deep concern about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Like the passive smokers, this silent majority of non-nuclear-weapon countries has a right to be heard and protected – and this is why ICAN was determined to push ahead whether or not the nuclear armed states participated.

IS: Are you hopeful that the UK will engage with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in the future?

RS: Uniquely among all nuclear armed states, the UK has within it a significant body of population and politicians opposing the status quo: Scotland. During the independence referendum, Scots engaged in real debate and discussion about what sort of society they wanted to live in – the sort of political engagement that is so lacking for most of us most of the time. If you were setting up a new nation, would you choose to spend billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction that are stored an hour’s drive from your major cities and transported by road past your population’s homes on a regular basis? Uh, no. Ronnie Cowan MP, whose Inverclyde constituency borders the Faslane nuclear weapons base, explained how having nuclear weapons on your doorstep sharpens the mind: “Sometimes I think that people’s approach to Trident is an abstract one, but in my constituency it is real; it is a real weapon with the very real capacity to murder millions of men, women and children”. In Scotland, elected representatives and parliament overwhelmingly oppose nuclear weapons. Campaigners like Janet Fenton and politicians like Bill Kidd MSPhave worked hard to ensure that Scottish resistance is aligned with ICAN’s humanitarian approach and the global ban treaty movement, and a recent speech by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon emphasised this link: “We will never accept that a limit should be placed on the contribution Scotland can make to building a better world. Strong voices for peace and justice are needed now more than ever. Last week, ICAN, the global campaign against nuclear weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize. Our party stands proudly as part of the global movement for peace. So let us restate this today. No ifs, no buts from the SNP. We say NO to weapons of mass destruction. We say NO to nuclear weapons on the River Clyde, or anywhere else”. One of the main contenders for leading Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard, has also called for the UK to sign the new global ban treaty. Incidentally, another reason that Scotland has been able to have such an honest public debate about nuclear weapons is the emergence of crowd-sourced independent media outlets such as CommonSpace and The Ferret.

Again unique among nuclear armed states, the UK has as Leader of the Opposition a politician who is a long-time campaigner for nuclear disarmament. Jeremy Corbyn has a long way to go to persuade his Party of his view, and Labour policy continues to be the same as the Conservatives’ in favour of renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons at eye-watering cost. But there is the real prospect of change, a glimmer of which was seen last year with the opening up of public debate when Corbyn stated he would not be prepared to ‘press the button’. A good friend of ICAN’s, Jeremy Corbyn sent his new Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, Fabian Hamilton, to attend the UN treaty negotiations earlier this year. Hamilton wrote afterwards that “Labour will work with ICAN to prevent the use of these horrific weapons that are not only a threat to innocent lives, but also a threat to international peace and stability”. At the end of October, Fabian Hamilton went further by telling a newspaper that a future Corbyn government would sign the treaty: “Parliament voted a year ago to renew Trident and it’s in the manifesto, but let’s move on. In July the United Nations voted for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. I supported it and Jeremy Corbyn supports the ban – that has gone unnoticed.” Hamilton said Corbyn should move “slowly and through Parliament” to sign the treaty if elected prime minister, and said similar UN treaties for chemical weapons and landmines had proven effective. (A nation that possesses nuclear weapons may join the treaty, so long as it agrees to destroy them in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan). Also at the UN treaty talks in June was Green MP Caroline Lucas, an ICAN champion who wrote: “You might hope that Britain would be taking a leading role in the talks, but our government is conspicuous by its absence”. Sturgeon, Corbyn and Lucas all raised the humanitarian initiative and global ban treaty when addressing tens of thousands of people in London in February 2016 for what was dubbed the country’s biggest anti-nuclear weapons rally in a generation, organised by ICAN partner CND.

The ban treaty provides an opportunity for a new public discussion about nuclear weapons in this country, side-stepping the divisive polarisation that this topic usually generates. One of the few Conservative politicians to engage with ICAN, Derek Thomas MP wrote after our meeting: “I am completely in agreement that multilateral disarmament is something that we should pursue as an urgent priority and I will be pressing the Government to take all necessary steps in its power to secure multilateral disarmament. I have looked closely at the work of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) and am in support of their aims”. Unfortunately, this positive statement is to be found in the middle of a blog entitled ‘Why I am voting in support of the Prime Minister and our nuclear deterrent’, but it does show how the ban treaty can start the vital conversations and debates that need to happen in order to create change.

Nuclear weapons aren’t going to disappear overnight, but the stigma now enshrined in international law will help to change attitudes. Nick Ritchie, Lecturer in International Security at the University of York, wrote a couple of years ago that, “A new ban treaty would strip UK nuclear weapons of their veneer of legitimacy and substantially diminish the domestic political values assigned to these weapons. Such a shift in the international normative context of nuclear weapons would begin to wither the roots of cultural nuclearism in the United Kingdom”. We are already seeing how the treaty might affect UK law on nuclear weapons: anti-nukes activists from Trident Ploughshares cited the ban treaty as part of their defence in court last month and were released with just a warning, after they took part during the summer in a blockade of RNAD Coulport, where the UK’s nuclear warheads are stored and loaded onto Trident submarines.

It is my firm belief that the British establishment will soon wake up to the reputational damage that our possession of nuclear weapons will increasingly cause. We like to be seen to be doing the right thing; we care what other countries think of us. UNA-UK’s ‘global Britain scorecard’ highlights the good work the UK proudly does in contributing to UN peacekeeping and providing support for overseas aid, while criticising the UK for failure in ‘responsible arms trading’ and ‘multilateral nuclear disarmament’. UNA-UK’s methodology “follows the UK’s own analysis that Britain’s security and prosperity is underpinned by a strong, rules-based international system with the United Nations at its heart”. The ban treaty has stigmatised nuclear weapons, making them not just illegitimate but illegal: threatening to use WMDs is no longer an acceptable or legal way to go about international relations. It may take some time for this truth to sink in, but with the combination of pressure from the international community, from global and UK civil society, from Scotland and from within the political establishment at Westminster, change is coming.

Britain renounced the use of poison gas after WWI by signing the 1925 Geneva Protocol; now, nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, we should show moral and political leadership by stopping Trident renewal and joining the majority in the international community to renounce nuclear weapons. While the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons may be controversial today, a few years from now I believe it will be the new normal for the UK and the rest of the world. The door remains open for the UK and other nuclear armed nations to Do the Right Thing. In the words of the ICAN statement on winning the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize: “We applaud those nations that have already signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and we urge all others to follow their lead. It offers a pathway forward at a time of alarming crisis. Disarmament is not a pipe dream, but an urgent humanitarian necessity”.

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The Power of Protest: the anti-Vietnam War movement

The Power of Protest: the anti-Vietnam War movement
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 October 2017

The new 10-part Vietnam War documentary from legendary American filmmaker Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has garnered much praise (in the Guardian and the Morning Star television guides), along with some searing criticism from journalist John Pilger.

In addition to the conflict in South-East Asia, the series covers the extensive and diverse anti-war movement back in the United States, the influence of which continues to be contested today. For example, in his 2012 study Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement Simon Hall, currently a Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds, argues “when it comes to the ultimate test – whether it helped to end the war in Vietnam – it is far from clear that the anti-war movement had any meaningful impact at all.” Interestingly, many anti-war activists at the time also saw the movement as powerless against the US military machine, according to historian Tom Wells.

The impact of social movements is certainly often difficult to quantify. The evidence is messy, sometimes contradictory. ‘Decision-makers’ are usually loath to admit they have been swayed by public opinion on matters of war and peace. And there are many influences on governments and public opinion during wartime, including domestic and international politics, geopolitical concerns and the progress of the war itself.

However, despite these caveats the evidence of the power of the anti-Vietnam War movement is clear. Wells, who interviewed over 35 senior US government officials from the period for his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, notes “If many protesters failed to appreciate their political clout, officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations did not.” Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon administration: “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.” For Moorer the movement “had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of the government.”

Wells elaborates: “The movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.”

US dissident Noam Chomsky remembers becoming active against the war in 1962, when the US intervention in Vietnam was still relatively light. “You couldn’t get two people in a living room to talk about it”, he notes. “In October 1965… in Boston… we tried to have our first major public demonstration against the war on the Boston Common, the usual place for meetings”, he recalls. “I was supposed to be one of the speakers, but nobody could hear a word. The meeting was totally broken up—by students marching over from universities, by others, and hundreds of state police, which kept people from being murdered.”

From these modest and difficult beginnings, the movement – which continued to be unpopular throughout the war according to opinion polls – grew in tandem with the increasing levels of US military aggression in Vietnam. According to Gallup, in 1965 24 percent of American felt sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake. By 1971 the figure was 61 percent.

Like Wells, the historian Melvin Small also believes the anti-war movement had “a significant impact” on the Johnson and Nixon administrations managing the war, highlighting two key points of influence – October 1967 and October 1969. Informed by interviews with US policymakers and archival research, Small argues in his 1989 book Johnson, Nixon and The Doves that the famous March on the Pentagon in 1967, which involved 35,000-50,000 protesters marching to the heart of military power in Washington, “shocked” the Johnson administration. By early 1968, Pentagon officials were warning a further increase in US troop levels in Vietnam in the face of the public’s “growing dissatisfaction” risked provoking “a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” Clark Clifford, who served as US Secretary of Defence for a short period from 1968-69, said this advice had a “tremendous” impact on him.

In autumn 1969, President Richard Nixon was threatening North Vietnam with an escalation in violence if it didn’t play ball in peace negotiations. The historian Marilyn Young notes the proposed assault – known as Operation Duck Hook – “explored a new range of options, including a land invasion of the North, the systematic bombing of dikes so as to destroy the food supply, and the saturation bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong.”

However, Small notes The Moratorium – a series of demonstrations held across the country in October 1969 that drew more than two million people – “helped to convince Nixon that Americans would not accept the savage blows envisaged by Operation Duck Hook.” Nixon’s memoirs support this conclusion, with Tricky Dicky writing that after the huge protests “American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war.”

“The protester’s victory over the war machine was not, of course, absolute”, Wells notes. The movement had not prevented the war’s escalation, some two million Vietnamese deaths, or the 58,000 Americans who returned home in a body bag. “Nonetheless, their influence on their government had been profound”, he explains. “Had they not acted, the death and destruction they mourned would have been immensely greater.”

Wells sets out a number of other effects of the decentralised, often chaotic anti-war movement: it fed the deterioration in US troop morale and discipline; hastened troop withdrawals, promoted congressional legislation that limited US funds for the war; and applied pressure on the Nixon administration to negotiate a settlement of the war. Writing in 1988, McGeorge Bundy – National Security Advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson – argued that public opinion was a key factor behind why the US government never seriously contemplated using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. One could also point to longer term influences, including playing a key role in germinating other social movements such as the environmental movement, and its constraining effect on US military actions abroad until the epoch-changing 9/11 attacks.

“The movement cannot be measured on the basis of its instrumental achievements alone”, argues scholar Winifred Breines. “The whole culture was transformed.”

Why is it important to highlight the power and influence of the American anti-Vietnam War movement over 50 years later in a British newspaper?

Rebecca Solnit’s extraordinary introduction to the new edition of her powerful book Hope in Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities provides a good explanation. Quoting theologian Walter Brueggemann that “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair”, Solnit argues established power is always keen to present the status quo as “immutable, inevitable and invulnerable”. Highlighting the success of the anti-Vietnam War movement gives hope, showing people that protest and activism – broadly nonviolent in nature – is a powerful force that can compel significant changes in government policy and save lives.

How Jeremy Corbyn can beat the establishment

How Jeremy Corbyn can beat the establishment
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News blog
11 October 2017

My new Peace News article ‘The biggest fight of our lives’ includes comments from George Lakey, Matt Kennard and Alex Nunns. Due to space considerations I could only include a small portion of the commentary each of them sent me in the article itself. Below are their full comments.

Why is Jeremy Corbyn seen as such a threat to the British establishment?

Matt Kennard, author of The Racket: Corbyn is seen as such a threat to the British elite and establishment because he is a major threat to their interests. They are not stupid. They understand when a political figure and movement endangers their ability to retain domination of the economy and political system. Never in the history of Britain has an anti-imperialist socialist ascended to the position of leading any of the major parties. It’s huge moment in British history – and arguably world history. If he becomes Prime Minister it will be the first core capital country ruled by an anti-imperialist socialist. They have every right to be fearful. Corbyn is the real deal, he can’t be assimilated into the state-capitalist elite’s framework on either end of their spectrum. Because of that they have to turn to unconventional warfare, which we’ve seen over the past two years every day.

The threat Corbyn poses is that he shows that Another World Is Possible. His vision is optimistic about what we can achieve as a species and upends all the useful ideology that has been built up over the neoliberal period that says we have to cut public spending and to eliminate any idea of collectivism. Corbyn has shown that it doesn’t have to be like that, and not only that, but these policies are popular amongst the electorate. He has put to bed for generations the idea that left ideas can’t win elections, the idea they’ve been beating us with ever since 1983 and Michael Foot’s ‘longest suicide note in history’. Now, we find out that actually it was the policies themselves that the Labour right didn’t like, not that they won’t win elections. The 2017 elections changed everything.

Alex Nunns author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power: There was a period when Labour under Corbyn was accused of being no more radical than under Ed Miliband, but those criticisms were dispelled by the election manifesto. It’s inconceivable that Miliband would have stood on a promise to renationalise energy, water, railways and the Royal Mail, for example. The difference is shown by the two leaders’ tuition fees proposals. Miliband’s offer to reduce tuition fees by £3,000 to £6,000 was a neat encapsulation of his entire leadership strategy: well-intentioned but timid. Corbyn had a no-nonsense approach: Labour will abolish fees all together.

There’s clearly been a fundamental shift in Labour policy. If you look at the policy papers Corbyn released in the 2015 leadership contest, which were pulled together in a rush by his policy advisor Andrew Fisher, so many of them appear in the 2017 manifesto, also authored by Andrew Fisher. A National Education Service, rent controls, a National Investment Bank—it’s remarkable the extent to which Labour ran a general election on Corbyn’s leadership contest platform. That programme was such an astonishing success in 2015 precisely because it was such a break from Labour under Blair, Brown and Miliband, so I don’t think it’s possible any more to argue that Corbyn offers reheated Milibandism.

Corbyn is seen as such a threat by the establishment because he would mark a historic break with the Thatcherite consensus that has dominated British politics for more than three decades. Extracted from its political context, Labour’s 2017 manifesto could be seen as quite mild compared to historic socialist and social democratic programmes. But politics is all about context, and while the manifesto was not perfect, it represented a bold challenge to the status quo. It unashamedly outlined a vision of a different society based on the principles of collectivism and universalism, after decades of individualism and means-tested entitlements.

Of course what the British establishment fears most about Corbyn is his foreign policy stance, which wasn’t so clearly represented in the manifesto—for example the continuation of Trident was in there because it is Labour Party policy, but it’s obviously not Corbyn’s preference. But I think the British state fears that he means what he says on foreign policy, and if he was prime minister he would have an enormous opportunity to transform Britain’s role in the world. That would meet fierce resistance.

If Corbyn’s Labour Party is elected into government at the next general election, how do you think the British establishment will try to undermine it?

Alex Nunns: In every way possible! We know from history what usually happens when left governments are elected. They face destabilisation from capital, both domestically and internationally, they are subjected to a hysterical press operation to undermine them, they face diplomatic pressure from other countries, and they have to deal with sabotage from the state they have been elected to run. We’ve already seen threats of a military coup against Corbyn.

There is one caveat though: how vociferous these efforts are depends on the circumstances. We don’t know when the next election will be, but it’s possible that the instability of Brexit will present a unique historical opportunity for a radical Labour government. The forces of capital are not onside with the Conservative Party’s version of Brexit. It’s possible to imagine circumstances where tolerating a Corbyn government, at least in the short term, becomes an option for them. It was very interesting in the 2017 general election that business and the state did not intervene in any major way on the side of Theresa May. No doubt that was largely because they all expected a Tory landslide anyway, but what didn’t happen in the election was almost as interesting as what did. There were no doom and gloom threats about a Labour government from big business, there didn’t seem to be an effort to sabotage Labour by the state. Given that even Conservatives now expect Corbyn to win the next election, you’d expect it to be different next time. But Brexit throws a unique variable into the equation.

Matt Kennard: Well, the method of choice in peripheral world economies has been military coups and political assassinations. I’m thinking of people like Allende in Chile or Lumumba in the Congo. I wouldn’t expect that to happen in the UK, but the establishment has never been tested properly in this way for centuries (we never had a revolution in the French sense so the social relations and the aristocracy are literally centuries old).

But there’s other ways to do it. And actually what is happening to Donald Trump in the US is instructive. I despite everything he stands for and worry for the future of humanity while he is president, but it’s still clear that the overt imposition of the deep state into the political life of the US is hugely worrying. If they do this to a far-right oligarch who threatens what the establishment wants, they will do the same, probably worse to a left-wing version who doesn’t accede to bombing the designated enemy of the day.

George Lakey author of Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right – And How We Can: They will use whatever tactics and strategies will put us on the defensive, because, as Gandhi never tired of pointing out, going on the defensive is a sure way to lose! If they are smart strategists, they will be flexible and keep trying things that will get progressives to mount the barricades in defence.

Military generals agree with Gandhi about the importance of staying on the offensive. Even folk wisdom has an appropriate saying: “The best defence is an offensive.” So avoid trying to maintain any previously-made gains; instead, go forward to make new gains. Even when Corbyn himself is attacked, an obvious thing for them to do, don’t meet them on their terms but instead borrow the old civil rights expression and “keep your eye on the prize:” escalate your efforts to make new demands and new gains.

How can activists, grassroots groups and concerned citizens support Corbyn’s Labour Party in office?

Alex Nunns: The first 19 months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership proved one thing above all else—it’s not enough to just elect a leader and think the job is done. Corbyn was leader of a party he did not control. When there was an emergency, such as the coup in 2016 or the general election in 2017, the movement that propelled Corbyn to the fore showed how powerful it was. But in between times, when the action receded to Westminster, there were lulls in the movement and Corbyn struggled as a result. The need for the movement to stay mobilised will be multiplied by a hundred when Corbyn is in government. For this whole project to achieve success, it won’t be enough to have Corbyn as prime minister. He will face resistance. Only the political strength of a movement embedded in society will be able to push him through it. It will have to be on a scale we haven’t seen so far, not even in the general election. This pressure will need to be exerted not only in the Labour Party, but in the broader social movements. How can Corbyn change foreign policy without a powerful anti-war movement? How can he overturn the economic orthodoxy of decades without the anti-austerity movement buttressing him? It has been an exhilarating two years since Corbyn emerged, but the work of campaigners and activists has only just begun.

Matt Kennard: I think it’s clear that just getting out on the streets and talking with people and telling [them] what Corbyn’s Labour is about is powerful. The Momentum mobilisation during the general election was amazing. I door knocked for the first time and I’ll do it a lot more. It’s really important. Also, making sure the Labour Party is democratised in this period is so important. This is our chance to open the party up and make it a mass social movement rather than a plaything for elite liberals who want power. The numbers are on our side which is why the Labour establishment is trying so hard to stop the many efforts to democratise the party and give more power to members. I would give up if I were them, it’s never going to be stopped now, there are too many of us who have been galvanised and involved. Every member vote is won overwhelming now by Corbyn-affiliated candidates. So everyone should join Labour and Momentum. This is a unique historic moment and chance and we have to grab the opportunity.

The other thing is become active on social media. I was initially resistant to social media because I think it plays on some of the worst aspects of human nature, especially narcissism. But the general election proved how important it is now. The Sun and The Daily Mail no longer have the power to sway elections through doing PR for establishment. When they spout lies and nonsense, they will be shamed online, it happens all the time. It’s powerful and we should continue doing it.

George Lakey: What puts us on the offensive, where we can win, is (1) to identify just demands that are in alignment with widely-shared values and can be expressed in common-sense terms. Then (2) to identify a target that can deliver that demand, which might be governmental but could instead be an economic entity like a bank or corporation. Then (3) to launch (or reinforce) a nonviolent direct action campaign that (a) uses a series of escalated actions and (b) attracts a growing series of allies.

A cluster of campaigns around a particular issue becomes a movement. One advantage of a movement is that any particular campaign can succeed or fail in achieving its particular demand but the movement as a whole can nevertheless succeed. Another advantage of a grassroots movement is that it stimulates campaigns around other issues, which in turn can cluster into movements. In the process of all this it’s wise to do intentional leadership development and empowerment at the grassroots, without which the one percent continues to hold too much power no matter how much drama we create with our campaigns.

As the number of movements grows, it becomes possible to create a “movement of movements.” In that stage we become a decisive force on the macro-level and provide openings for Corbyn and other party political leaders to do their part in the arena of state power and, so to speak, “seal the deal.”

Fortunately, we have nearby examples of successful strategy in 1920s and ‘30s Norway and Sweden, especially in their understanding of the role of political parties in making fundamental change. They understood the difference between the tail and the dog. The dog was the animating power of social movements — mobilized grassroots coercive power for change. The tail was the political parties that represented the grassroots in Swedish and Norwegian Parliaments.

The movements’ mobilizations took place mainly through direct action campaigns and cooperatives, both of which remained independent of the parties. The movements strategized independently because they believed that equality, freedom, and shared prosperity could only come from a power shift in society. They saw the political party as the tail of the dog, expressive and useful, but not the same as the animating force, which is the heart and mind of the dog. Jeremy Corbyn’s career has shown how much he understands how fundamental the movements are; the question is whether his new young followers understand that.

I learned from studying Norway and Sweden that if they had relied on Parliament and the electoral process, they would still be waiting for the power shift that in the 1930s enabled them to invent the Nordic model that has out-performed Britain and the U.S. for over 60 years. From the perspective of power, Parliaments negotiate and express change, they don’t make change.

If Jeremy Corbyn is somehow elected Prime Minister, the great temptation in Britain will be to repeat what I call the Obama Syndrome. In the U.S. progressives saw Obama’s election as placing our ally in the White House. What most forgot is that the priority duty of the state’s leader in the U.S. (and UK) is to govern, that is, to hold the state together while managing it. Most progressives fantasized that Obama could instead lead the country into a disruptive period of major change.

I knew that Obama wanted to do so: he’d already acknowledged the correctness of a single payer health plan like Canada’s, and the primacy of avoiding austerity, making peace, and even dealing with climate change. Like the UK, however, the U.S. remains dominated by its one percent no matter who is elected president. Changing that power dynamic cannot happen via the electoral arena, especially when the leader’s party base (the Democrats in the U.S., the Labour Party in the UK) is already owned by the elite.

The way to use an ally in the position of President or Prime Minister is not to fantasize that “they can lead us” but to create the conditions under which they can use their limited power in a one percent-dominated system to tip the balance in struggles between the majority and the one percent.

I knew that Obama would need militant mass movements using direct action to enable him to manoeuvre for major policy changes. Americans were befuddled, however, about which was the dog and which was the tail, and somehow expected Obama to deliver outcomes even though the masses of people were not demanding them through direct action.

The good news if Corbyn is elected is that progressives can do what grassroots movements do best: people power. We can give up one-off protests (rarely worth the time and effort) and organize direct action campaigns with specific demands that can be formulated as common sense and gain wide support, then implement a strategy of escalation in which, to use Dr Martin Luther King’s phrase, a “crisis is created” that forces a response on the state level.

The bad news if Corbyn is elected is the temptation to repeat the Obama Syndrome: an electorate that believes it delivered a “mandate” for change and is disappointed that the valiant leader didn’t somehow “deliver.” A “mandate” is a concept in search of legs; it has no power on its own. Progressive power comes from the collective, disruptive nonviolent action of the people.

One way to use the Corbyn political moment is to allow the freshness that he represents to spread to our own movement actions and organizing methods. For example, progressives could experiment with “taking the pledge” at the outset of each campaign, agreeing never to organize a march or rally.

Why? The pledge empowers the creativity that is too often suppressed at the grassroots. I’ve found that campaigners taking the pledge come up with a marvellous diversity of actions that energize them and motivate others to join them. Their creativity itself breaks through the disempowerment that keeps so many on the sidelines. Nearly 200 different methods of campaigning are on a website, documented in over 1400 campaigns in the Global Nonviolent Action Database (https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/). You need never march or organize a rally again!

The Biggest Fight of Our Lives

The Biggest Fight of Our Lives
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2017

An ‘epic fight’ between the broad left and the forces of the establishment has begun (see PN 2586–2587). The prize couldn’t be bigger. The British left, for the first time in decades, has a very real opportunity to implement significant progressive change on the epoch-altering scale of the 1945 and 1979 elections. As Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani tweeted: ‘If we win, and survive, and enact a major program of economic and political change, the whole world will watch. The UK really could be prototype.’

The June 2017 general election result was ‘one of the most sensational political upsets of our time’, according to Guardian columnist Owen Jones. Despite being repeatedly laughed at and written off by an intensely hostile media, by other parties and by much of the Labour Party establishment itself, Jeremy Corbyn led Labour to its biggest increase in vote share since 1945. Labour leapt to 40 per cent of the vote after the party had achieved 30 per cent under Ed Miliband just two years earlier.

On 20 April, only 22 per cent of people had a favourable opinion of Jeremy Corbyn, and 64 per cent had an unfavourable view. (Added together, that was 42 per cent unfavourable overall). By 12 June, the figures were 46 percent favourable and 46 percent unfavourable. (Overall, neither favourable nor unfavourable.) (YouGov, 15 June).

Though the Tories have managed to cling onto power, Corbyn’s rise has created shockwaves throughout the political system.

Writing for Open Democracy, Jeremy Gilbert, a professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London, noted the election ‘was a historic turning point’ as it ‘marked the final end of the neoliberal hegemony in Britain’ (1 August). In response the Tories are reported to be considering relaxing the pay rise restrictions on public sector workers, while Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon unveiled a range of progressive policies, including possible tax rises, ‘in an effort to reinvigorate her government’ (Guardian, 6 September). With a recent poll from Survation showing Labour on 43 per cent – five points ahead of the Conservative Party on 38 per cent – Jones believes Corbyn now ‘has a solid chance of entering No 10’ (Guardian, 9 August).

Corbyn is a threat

Though some commentators have argued Corbyn’s Labour Party differs little in policy terms from the party under Miliband, ‘those criticisms were dispelled by the election manifesto’, Alex Nunns tells me. Nunns, author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, says: ‘It’s inconceivable that Miliband would have stood on a promise to renationalise energy, water, railways and the Royal Mail’, as Corbyn did.

More broadly, Matt Kennard, a former Financial Times reporter and author of The Racket, explains to me the key is the direction of travel Corbyn represents: ‘The threat Corbyn poses is that he shows that another world is possible.’

Echoing Gilbert’s analysis, Nunns believes: ‘Corbyn is seen as such a threat by the establishment because he would mark a historic break with the Thatcherite consensus that has dominated British politics for three decades.’ The Labour manifesto ‘unashamedly outlined a vision of a different society based on the principles of collectivism and universalism, after decades of individualism and means-tested entitlements’, he says.

‘Of course, what the British establishment fears most about Corbyn is his foreign policy stance’, Nunns notes. Dr David Wearing, a lecturer at SOAS University of London, agrees that Corbyn represents a huge challenge to the foreign policy elite – and conventional wisdom. Though he has had to compromise on Trident and membership of NATO, Corbyn ‘is a straightforwardly anti-imperialist, anti-militarist figure’, Wearing recently argued on the Media Democracy podcast. ‘I can’t think of any time in the last several decades where it has been a realistic possibility that the leader of a UN security council permanent member, a great power, a great capitalist Western power, could be in the next few years an anti-militarist and an anti-imperialist.’

Kennard agrees: ‘It’s a huge moment in British history – and arguably in world history’. The establishment ‘have every right to be fearful’, he adds.

Rejuvenated Tories

For the words ‘prime minister Jeremy Corbyn’ to become a statement of fact rather than wishful thinking, Labour needs to win the next general election. Standing in their way will be a rejuvenated Conservative party and their powerful supporters, who will likely have learned lessons from their poor performance in June.

According to the Guardian, the Tories have been undertaking an internal review, which will urge the leadership to offer voters clear messages on policy and shake up the party machine (Guardian, 29 August). ‘What didn’t happen in the [general] election was almost as interesting as what did’, Nunns says. ‘There were no doom and gloom threats about a Labour government from big business, there didn’t seem to be an effort to sabotage Labour by the state. Given that even Conservatives now expect Corbyn to win the next election, you’d expect it to be different next time.’

Interviewed on BBC Newsnight, former Labour leader Tony Blair voiced similar concerns on 17 July. ‘The Tories are never going to fight a campaign like that one’, he said. ‘I know the Tories, they are not going to do that. And they are going to have a new leader as well. Secondly, our programme, particularly on tax and spending, is going to come under a lot more scrutiny than it did last time round’.

Barriers

With a Corbyn-led Labour Party victory in the next election a real possibility, it is worth considering the challenges it would face. Speaking to Jacobin magazine, Jon Lansman, chair of Momentum and a close associate of Corbyn, is clear: ‘We will face opposition from all aspects of the establishment, from the powerful, from global corporations’.

Having reported extensively from the Global South, Kennard notes ‘the method of choice’ for undermining leftist governments ‘in peripheral world economies has been military coups and political assassinations.’ The UK, of course, has a very different political landscape with very different political traditions.

Despite this, it’s important to note that soon after Corbyn was elected Labour leader, in September 2015, the Sunday Times carried a front page report that quoted ‘a senior serving general’ saying the military ‘would use whatever means possible, fair or foul’, to prevent a Corbyn-led government attempting to scrap Trident, withdraw from NATO and ‘emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces’.

There is also evidence that MI5 attempted to undermine Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1970s (see David Leigh’s book The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government), and Corbyn himself has been monitored by undercover police officers for two decades as he was ‘deemed to be a subversive’, according to a former Special Branch officer (Daily Telegraph, 7 June).

However, though he notes the British establishment ‘has never been tested properly in this way for centuries’, Kennard is quick to clarify he doesn’t expect a military coup or assassination attempt to happen in the UK.

‘We know from history what usually happens when left governments are elected’, Nunns says. ‘They face destabilisation from capital, both domestically and internationally, they are subjected to a hysterical press operation to undermine them, they face diplomatic pressure from other countries, and they have to deal with sabotage from the state they have been elected to run.’

North American radical activist and author of Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right – And How We Can, George Lakey tells me the elite ‘will use whatever tactics and strategies will put us on the defensive, because, as Gandhi never tired of pointing out, going on the defensive is a sure way to lose.’ If those trying to undermine Corbyn ‘are smart strategists, they will be flexible and keep trying things that will get progressives to mount the barricades in defence’, he notes.

The Labour leadership are, of course, aware of these likely challenges, and seem to be making early moves to neutralise them. ‘The issue for us is to stabilise the markets before we get into government, so there are no short-term shocks’, shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the Guardian on 19 August, explaining he had been meeting with ‘people in the City – asset managers, fund managers’ to reassure them about Labour’s plans.

Mobilisation is key

Speaking about US politics in 2007, Adolph Reed Jr, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, noted: ‘Elected officials are only as good or as bad as the forces they feel they must respond to’.

In the UK context, this means the actions of the movement supporting a Corbyn-led government will need to match – and overpower – the establishment onslaught that will be waged against it.

‘The first 19 months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership proved one thing above all else – it’s not enough to just elect a leader and think the job is done’, Nunns notes, pointing to the movement’s central role in fending off the attempted coup against Corbyn in June 2016. ‘The need for the movement to stay mobilised will be multiplied by a hundred when Corbyn is in government.’ Moreover, Nunns points out that the movement ‘will have to be on a scale we haven’t seen so far’.

Lakey points to the successful strategies used in 1920s and ’30s Norway and Sweden as examples Corbyn supporters should follow. ‘The movements’ mobilisations took place mainly through direct action campaigns and cooperatives, both of which remained independent of the [political] parties’ that represented them in parliament, he explains. ‘The movements strategised independently because they believed that equality, freedom, and shared prosperity could only come from a power shift in society.’

‘I learned from studying Norway and Sweden that if they had relied on parliament and the electoral process, they would still be waiting for the power shift that in the 1930s enabled them to invent the Nordic model that has outperformed Britain and the US for over 60 years’, Lakey continues. ‘From the perspective of power, parliaments negotiate and express change, they don’t make change.’

Kennard is strongly in favour of joining the Labour Party and hitting the streets to campaign. ‘I door knocked for the first time [during the June general election] and I’ll do it again’, he notes. Indeed the importance of traditional campaigning techniques was highlighted by a London School of Economics study which found the seats where the Labour leader campaigned – often holding large rallies – saw an average swing of 19 per cent in the Labour Party’s favour (Independent, 15 August).

Kennard also supports the democratisation of the Labour Party to give members more say in policymaking and choosing their representatives. Finally, he recommends people get involved on social media. Though sceptical of the medium initially, he now sees platforms such as Twitter as a way to combat the misinformation and lies spread by newspapers like the Sun and Daily Mail.

With the establishment likely to try to put a Labour government on the back foot, Lakey says it is essential that Corbyn stays on the offensive. ‘So avoid trying to maintain any previously-made gains; instead, go forward to make new gains’, he argues.

The general election campaign provided a good example of how successful this could be following the May 2017 terrorist attack in Manchester. Thought to be weak on ‘defence’ by many, Corbyn could have chosen to follow the government’s line on terrorism. Instead he confronted the issue head on, giving a relatively bold speech that, in part, made a connection between Western foreign policy and the terrorist attacks directed at the West. Rather than being cornered and weakened by the government and media, Corbyn took control of – and arguably changed – the narrative surrounding terrorism, with a YouGov poll showing a majority of people supporting his analysis (YouGov, 30 May) [See editor Milan Rai’s article on the PN blog about Corbyn’s speech and ‘foreign policy realism’.]

Defend him and push him

With foreign policy likely to continue to be a significant line of attack on Corbyn, the peace movement has an essential role to play, both in defending Corbyn’s broadly anti-militarist, anti-imperialist positions and in pushing him to be bolder.

For example, Greens such as Rupert Read have criticised the Labour manifesto for pushing for more economic growth in the face of looming climate breakdown (Morning Star, 12 July), while British historian Mark Curtis has highlighted a number of problematic foreign policy pledges contained in the Labour manifesto, including support for the ‘defence’ industry. And despite Corbyn’s historic opposition to both, as Wearing indicates, the manifesto confirmed Labour’s ‘commitment to NATO’ and its support for Trident renewal.

Despite these important concerns, Corbyn’s campaigning and current polling, showing Labour would have an opportunity to form the next government if an election was held tomorrow, puts the Labour Party, the peace movement and UK politics firmly into uncharted territory.

If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough

If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
4 September 2017

Every now and then an opinion piece is published in the press lamenting the lack of political songwriting today.

A couple of assumptions lay behind this much repeated concern about popular music. First, ‘political music’ is taken to mean music giving voice to left-leaning, anti-establishment politics – AKA protest music. Second, that the Golden Age of political music ran from the 1960s to the 1980s, from Bob Dylan’s broadsides against the military-industrial complex and American racism to John Lennon’s feminist Woman Is The Nigger Of The World and a slew of anti-Vietnam War songs. Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi echoed the concerns of the emerging environmental movement, while artists such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder soundtracked the racism and economic disadvantage experienced by African Americans. In the UK Pink Floyd released bestselling albums making uncomfortable statements about consumerism and suburban living, while Canadian Neil Young sang about colonialism from the POV of first nationers on epic tracks like Cortez the Killer and Pocahontas.

With the turn to neoliberalism still being contested in society, Thatcher’s Britain was also a fertile ground for protest music, including songs and public statements made by The Smiths, working-class hero Billy Bragg and The Jam (see Going Underground and Town Called Malice). Robert Wyatt’s version of the anti-Falklands War song Shipbuilding hit the top 40 chart in 1983, while Ghost Town, The Specials’ spooky hymn to urban decay, reached number one two years earlier. Social and political concerns were also important to many of the bands that dominated the international stadium circuit during the 80s. On the electrifying Bullet in the Blue Sky U2 denounced US intervention in Central America, Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel sang about apartheid South Africa, and Bruce Springsteen gave a voice to working-class families struggling to make ends meet in Reagan’s America.

However, by the time New Labour was at the height of its power in the late 90s British popular rock music had come to be dominated by deeply bland music. Coldplay, Keane, David Gray, Dido, Travis and Robbie Williams all sold millions of records by saying nothing at all, to paraphrase another nondescript songwriter popular at the time.

Fast forward to today and a slew of hipster-friendly rock acts endorsed by the Guardian, Q, Uncut and Mojo magazines are in the ascendency, though they seemingly have nothing coherent or substantive to say about what’s going on in the wider world: Fleet Foxes, Australian experimentalists Tame Impala, Grizzly Bear, War on Drugs, Spoon, Wilco and Kevin Morby to name but a few.

Dominating the Latitude, Green Man and End of the Road music festivals, these bands are very obviously influenced by classic rock artists like Dylan, The Beatles, Young, Springsteen and Pink Floyd – but the influence seems to be solely musical, with their heroes socio-political concerns largely disregarded. US singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, who is often compared to the great wordsmiths of the past, has released sixteen albums since 2000, with pretty much every song on every record focussed on the never-ending ups and downs of his romantic life.

(As an aside, I should say I am a fan of nearly all of these bands – my critique is not coming from a position of ignorance or antipathy).

Of course, there are exceptions to my argument – Radiohead’s twenty first century ecological dread and critique of late capitalism (see Idioteque and all of their seminal OK Computer album) and PJ Harvey’s musical exploration of the UK’s foreign wars come to mind. However, these artists tend to be disconnected from the broader trends and fashions of popular music. For example, Asian Dub Foundation’s incendiary 2000 album Community Music attacking Blairism, corrupt cops, nationalism, racism, corporation-led globalisation and warning of an impending financial crash, stuck out like a sore thumb at the time and has been quickly forgotten since then. And let’s not forget Springsteen and Young have made two of the angriest political albums in recent years with Wrecking Ball and The Monsanto Years, respectively – a fact that should shame their younger musical peers.

Finally, these OAP rockers highlight a key third assumption behind the original lament about politics and popular music: it really only applies if you define popular music as mainstream ‘rock music’ or ‘guitar music’.

There is lots of exciting and interesting protest music being made today – just in different genres and away from the mainstream. Rapper Plan B’s 2011 riots-inspired Ill Manors is arguably the greatest British protest song of the last decade. In the US R&B star Beyonce’s message of feminism and black power has reached a mass audience with her hit 2016 album Lemonade, while hip hop’s man of the moment Kendrick Lamar’s Alright is sang at Black Lives Matter rallies. Kanye West’s 2012 track New Slaves draws a connection between slavery and the involvement of profit-seeking corporations in the US criminal justice system today. Across the border, on her latest album Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq sings about the rape of indigenous women and lands in Canada. Elsewhere, on her electronic 2016 album Hopelessness the brilliant Anohni turned her attention to Obama’s drone wars, climate change, toxic masculinity and the death penalty.

Finally, the Morning Star’s favourite singer-songwriter Grace Petrie has been skewering the hypocrisy of the British establishment since 2010 – and, amazingly, still doesn’t have a record deal. As she sings sarcastically on last year’s I Wish The Guardian Believed That I Exist, “We’re not on the radio because they don’t want to know and by this point it’s really pretty clear that the mainstream music press they just couldn’t care less”.

 

Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis: Interview with George Paxton

Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis: Interview with George Paxton
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
19 July 2017

In his 2016 book Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis George Paxton, a Trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, sets out what is effectively secret history in a culture that reveres the violent struggle against Nazi Germany – Dunkirk and Churchill being the latest films that focus on the military campaign.

Ian Sinclair asked Paxton about the nonviolent resistance to Nazi Germany in Europe – its breadth, the methods it used and how it compares to the military struggle.

Ian Sinclair: What was the scale of the nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in occupied Europe? What were some of the methods used?

George Paxton: The extent of nonviolent resistance (NVR) used against the occupiers varied from country to country with the most active probably being Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. The attitude of the Nazis to Eastern Europe, which they wanted to clear of its population in order to settle Germans, meant that the resistance was different in nature.

The size of the different campaigns of resistance ranged from a single individual to large sections of the population. In the case of the Norwegian teachers opposition to Nazification of the schools it was around 10,000 teachers supported by about 100,000 parents. Some strikes elsewhere involved even more than this.

The methods used in the various campaigns were very diverse such as marches, wearing symbols of resistance, private and public letters of protest, refusing to be conscripted for work, resigning from professional bodies taken over by the Nazis, hiding Jews, helping Jews escape, listening to BBC radio broadcasts, producing underground newspapers, collecting funds for resistance, deliberate slow working and many more.

IS: You include a section with a number of case studies of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis. Do you have a favourite?

GP: It is difficult to choose one but for a small scale resistance, involving just dozens of individuals, the White Rose group in Germany is one of the most impressive. Set up mainly by students at the University of Munich and including a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, the group produced leaflets attacking the immoral nature of the Nazi regime and also the likelihood of its failure. Leaflets were printed secretly then posted out to individuals and left in public places. Groups were also started in other German towns and leaflets were transported by a resister by train in a suitcase. But due to a careless act when Hans and Sophie were distributing leaflets at their university, they were arrested, interrogated, quickly tried and executed.  This was followed by other arrests, executions and imprisonments. While their resistance was a failure in that the revolt of students they hoped to trigger did not occur, knowledge of their courageous acts spread widely in Germany and indeed abroad.

A contrasting successful resistance was the rescue of Jews, mainly children, by the villagers of Chambon-sur-Lignon on a high plateau south-west of Lyons in France. This village (and others in the region) became a hide-out for those escaping the Nazis and became a centre of safety, particularly for children. The inspiration for this action came from the Protestant pastor and his wife, André and Magda Trocmé. André was an incomer from the north-east of France and a pacifist and his actions were a product of his Christian belief which influenced also the nature of the resistance. Thus he did not deny that Jews were hidden in the village and surrounding farms but refused to tell the police where they were hidden. André survived the occupation, although imprisoned for a time, and several thousand Jews and others hidden there survived until liberation.

There are detailed studies of these two cases published but many more have not been studied in detail and indeed no doubt some actions have been lost to history.

IS: What struck me reading your book was how Nazi Germany was not all powerful in the countries they occupied, but was often forced to compromise and, occasionally, to back down because of nonviolent resistance. Can you talk about some of the successes those carrying out nonviolent resistance had?

GP: One of the most outstanding successes of resistance was the rescue of the Danish Jews. Denmark was treated relatively mildly by the Germans in part because the Danes were willing to supply Germany with agricultural produce. Their own government was allowed considerable independence for a while although the relationship soured eventually and the Germans took over. The local German administration was then ordered to round up the Jews for deportation to Germany. But at the German embassy was an attaché, Georg Duckwitz, who contacted a leading Danish politician to tell him when the round-up was to take place. He in turn informed the Chief Rabbi who passed the word to the Jews, while non-Jewish friends hid Jews and then transported them to the coast where boats were hired to take them to neutral Sweden.  Although there were only about 8,000 Jews in Denmark almost all of them survived, even the few hundred who were captured and sent to Germany were not sent to the death camps as a promise had been given to SS General Werner Best, the German head of government in Denmark, that they would not be.

In the Netherlands an attempt to conscript former Dutch soldiers who had been disarmed by the Germans was met by the largest strike in the occupied countries. It began in mines and factories and spread until it involved half a million people who took to the streets. In response more than 100 people were executed but far fewer former soldiers enrolled than the Germans wanted.

In Belgium, students and staff at the University of Brussels protested at the employment of Nazi staff and then organised teaching underground.

In the Netherlands and Norway the Germans failed to bring the doctors’ professional associations under their control due to non-cooperation by the doctors.

Opposition in Germany, particularly by Catholics, forced the stopping of the ‘euthanasia’ programme although many had been murdered before it was abandoned.

A recent study, Hitler’s Compromises by Nathan Stoltzfus, shows that Hitler was very careful to keep the German population ‘on side’. He was wary of dissent and compromised if it looked as if opposition to a policy was growing, e.g. the euthanasia programme and the Catholic opposition to attempted Nazification in the Catholic Church; also the effective opposition of German wives to the deportation of their Jewish husbands from Berlin.

NVR in Eastern Europe was different due to the more ruthless methods of the invader. In Poland, in spite of the extreme repression, the Nazis failed to destroy Polish culture due to the extensive development of underground organisations. School and university teaching continued in people’s houses with degrees being awarded and research papers published; courts conducted trials; political parties operated with a parliament and government departments also; separate military and civilian resistance groups operated; money was obtained from the Polish Government-in-exile in London.

The hiding and rescuing of Jews was on a large scale throughout Europe with possibly as many as one million Jews being saved (see Philip Friedman’s Their Brothers’ Keepers); this being done at great risk to the rescuers.

IS: Why do you think some campaigns were successful and others not?

GP: I think solidarity within the resisting group must be of great importance. The absolute numbers of resisters may not always be significant. For example, in Belgium insufficient solidarity and firmness by the higher civil servants and judges led to the Germans ultimately achieving their aims. Support from the general population was important elsewhere, e.g. funds to pay teachers on strike or working underground.

There were some quite important incidental factors such as nearness of mountains and forests for hiding and a border with a neutral country for escape.

The use of nonviolence itself is of great importance. A violent opposition will be resisted with maximum violence from the controlling power but nonviolent resistance will send different signals, e.g. we are less of a threat to you. This may give rise to a degree of sympathy among the security forces. The resisters have to be firm but not aggressive. The occupied population has the advantage of superior numbers if they choose to use their power.

IS: You contrast what you call Gandhian resistance with the pragmatic nonviolent action that people like Gene Sharp advocate. What are the main differences between the two?

GP: There isn’t a great deal dividing Sharp and Gandhi. But most of the NVR used by resisters during the Nazi occupation was pragmatic in the sense that it was not usually underpinned by nonviolent theory; in fact it simply did not involve the use of weapons and so other writers prefer to call it civilian resistance.

Sharp developed NVR theory which was independent of religious belief, Gandhi’s or others. In reality Gandhi’s beliefs were very inclusive although he tended to use Hindu terms which Sharp wanted to avoid as he did not want to tie nonviolence to any particular culture. Both of their approaches are grounded in ethics. Sharp’s academic work actually grew out of his interest in Gandhi’s career but Sharp put more emphasis on the use of power in considering the possible mechanism of NVR; Gandhi hoped for conversion of the opponent.

IS: How do you respond to the argument that it was ultimately violent action that ended the Third Reich, not nonviolent resistance?

GP: People in general and governments in particular think of defence only in terms of military action. This is still true today as it was in the 1930s. Therefore for most of the occupied populations a nonviolent resistance was simply not in their minds, except for a small number of pacifists. However, when their country was occupied and they did not have the means to resist in the conventional way the braver and more imaginative sometimes turned to non-military means.

Most people expected their countries to be liberated by military means from outside but what we need to take into consideration is the cost of violent resistance, which in WWII proved to be enormous in terms of deaths and destruction. And as Gandhi pointed out before WWII began the Allies would need to resort to the Nazis’ foul methods in order to ‘win’. When one remembers the blanket bombing of the German and Japanese cities which were largely occupied by civilians it is difficult to disagree.

The NVR used in the occupied countries was too small in scale to defeat the invaders but I believe the potential is there, and with the knowledge we have today future conflicts could be handled by NVR.

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis by George Paxton

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis by George Paxton
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2017

“But what about Nazi Germany?” No doubt many Peace News readers have been asked this question when they have voiced support for nonviolence outside activist circles.

Summarising a range of published material, George Paxton shows that nonviolent resistance to Adolf Hitler’s government was widespread. And though it is often poorly referenced and somewhat repetitive, Nonviolence Resistance to the Nazis feels like one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time.

From underground newspapers, open letters, graffiti, socially ostracising the occupiers, to slow working, boycotts and hiding and rescuing Jews, Paxton sets out what is effectively secret history in a culture that reveres the violent struggle against Nazi Germany. Who knew, for example, that on the first day Copenhagen was occupied handwritten leaflets appeared on the streets, titled ‘Ten Commandments for Passive Resistance’?

In the book’s middle section Paxton zeros in on case studies of resistance, such as the extraordinary White Rose Group. Active in Munich in the 1940s, this secret band of young people printed thousands of anti-Nazi leaflets and distributed them throughout Germany – often travelling to other cities to post them on to avoid detection.

Though they worked under an extremely repressive state, individuals, groups and populations were able to win some limited successes – highlighting the fact the Nazi leadership was not all powerful, but often compromised for political reasons. In Denmark nearly all of the Jewish population were rescued from the Holocaust, while a 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons. In Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street over the threatened deportation of their husbands. Though the Gestapo HQ was close by “they did not act against the women fearing that the protests might spread”, notes Paxton, and the deportations were suspended.

Citing French historian Jacques Semelin, Paxton argues a number of factors increased the chances of success: a united front by the occupied populace, strong democratic traditions and grassroots organisations, a belief in tolerance and a good source of money and food. Like nonviolence guru Gene Sharp (PN 2543), Paxton, who is a Trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, believes that nonviolent resistance would have been most effective against Nazi Germany if it had been deployed at the earliest stage possible.

A goldmine of information, fascinating stories and inspiration for peace activists, Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis deserves a wide readership.