Monday, 21 October 2013

Outbreak of Peace at War Museum

Conference Report (2007)

Originally published in Medicine, Conflict & Survival, vol.23, no.4. Republished here in anticipation and some apprehension of the full reopening of the Imperial War Museum following the massive refurbishment at present under way preparatory to reorganisation around the First World War commemoration. It seems unlikely to enhance its peace-museum side.

Autumn 2013: “IWM London is undergoing a major building redevelopment, transforming our museum to mark the Centenary of the First World War.”

(The spelling-out of Imperial would seem to have become, belatedly, something of an embarrassment)

Braving the enormous naval guns dominating the approach and the tons of military hardware looming oppressively inside its main entrance, about a hundred assorted anti-war activists, students and interested parties made their way to London's Imperial War Museum (IWM) on Friday 13 and Saturday 14 April 2007 to attend a conference entitled 'Peace History: Encouragement and Warnings'. The invasion was officially sanctioned, and the event which occasioned it organised by the International Peace Bureau and the Movement for the Abolition of War, in association with the Imperial War Museum itself, a cooperative effort welcomed and appreciated on both sides.

            The object of the exercise was to draw attention to forgotten or neglected aspects of history concerned with peace-building, with an emphasis on practical examples drawn mainly from the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Before proceedings began and at intervals throughout the two days, participants had the opportunity to learn or remind themselves about many of these examples by browsing an impressive array of exhibits on the walls, celebrating women activists for peace on one side and Nobel prize winners on the other, while the Peace Museum (Bradford) was prominent among many organisations which made literature, posters, and speakers available. A banner of the Movement for the Abolition of War (MAW) beside the platform caught the eye and set the tone with its equation of war with poverty.

A later flyer for the Bradford Peace Museum

            After introductory remarks from Bruce Kent, long-serving former chair of CND, and from the Director of the IWM pointing out that this location for such a conference was less incongruous than might appear, in view of its origin (commemorating the end of the First World War), Peter van den Dungen from the University of Bradford gave an informative paper on Bertha von Suttner, 'the woman behind the Nobel Peace Prize'. He summarised her eventful career and the influence of her writings, in particular Die Waffen Nieder! (1889), translated in 1892 as Lay Down Your Arms). Another two outstanding personalities were remembered in the following sessions: Hodgson Pratt, in connection with the early history of the International Peace Bureau (IPB); and Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the 'Frontier Gandhi' who proclaimed and fostered a non-violent Islamic tradition in the face of daunting difficulties. These two figures, as described by Verdiana Grossi (Univeristy of Geneva) and Shireen Shah (Bradford Peace Museum) respectively, had in common, in addition to their dedication to campaigning for peace, an awareness of the social context of their efforts and of the inestimable value of education. More social background, and more emphasis on collective action and general movements rather than individuals, was evident in the lively presentation on 'Civilian Resistance to US entry to the First World War', by Joe Fahey of Manhattan College, New York, who made the point that the peace movement needed to organise protest from below instead of always trying to appeal to the better natures, if any, of those in positions of power.

            The first day's proceedings ended with a panel discussion and the programme continued on the Saturday, with an introduction on the IPB leading on to a paper from Terry Charman of the IWM on the League of Nations and the Briand-Kellogg Pact, which had sought, in the optimistic aftermath of the 'war to end wars', to outlaw war as an instrument of national policy. The history of the League was covered in some detail, acknowledging its short-lived successes and achievements in the areas of tackling epidemics; work for refugees and against slavery, provision of a passport for the stateless; in relation to labour conditions and in industrial health and safety. At the same time its limitations and the factors inhibiting it from achieving its ideal aim of guaranteeing world peace in perpetuity were discussed, including: problems of representation; dependence on the victorious powers; the occurrence of expulsions and withdrawals; a tendency to perennial indecision; and the fact that there was no legal obligation upon states to apply sanctions which it was anyway reluctant to enforce, indeed lacking the means to do so.

            Kate Hudson (South Bank University), current Chair of CND, continued the story of attempts to ensure international peace, this time with reference to the World Government Movement, looking at its early history, 1945-1950. One impulse for its creation was a critique of the United Nations, based on the perception that sovereign states were part of the problem, therefore not the solution, and that their existence was itself the cause of war. The newly emerged atomic threat lent urgency to the project, which gained widespread support, recruiting about 400 communities to 'mondialisation' and speading the gospel of world citizenship, recorded in an International Registry in Paris. Its own model came in for some criticism, however, as being too closely based on western, even imperialist assumptions, Peace News, the newspaper of the Peace Pledge Union, being among those to voice dissent. There were concerns over the apparent intention that the proposed World Government was to have a monopoly of military force, including atomic and other weapons of mass destruction, and of weapons research and development, while mechanisms for control and accountability were unclear. Nevertheless a People's World Committee was established in 1950-51 in Geneva, and the plans included a World Bill of Rights, and Food Bank. That the idea still has its adherents, despite its decline with the onset of the Cold War and outbreak of the Korean War, was attested by at least one member of the audience, a world citizen still belonging to a mondialised community.

            The afternoon began with a return to the theme of individual rejection of particpation in war, in a survey by Guido Grunewald (War Resisters International) of the history of conscientious objection, illustrated in its early stages by efforts that predated the First World War, in the form of non-violent anarchist publications and the English Peace Society's Pledge for Young Men (1902). The risks run by and suffering inflicted on those who followed this path, especially in wartime, were shown and compared, with an account of the legal situation in different places. While some governments enacted laws allowing for bona fide conscientious objectors (COs) to be excused from military conscription on some terms at least, their implementation was not always straightforward: in France, while such a law existed, there was a ban on publicising that same law, and Greece was carrying out executions for refusal of military service as late as 1949. Several countries were slow to introduce laws to make any provision for COs, delaying until the 1960s and 1970s. Discussion followed, in the course of which Bill Hetherington of Housmans Bookshop announced that a database of COs in the UK had collected 5,000 names, and people were encouraged to contribute to its further development if they knew of anyone in this category whose stand should be remembered.

            In the last formal presentation the 'history of art working for peace' was summarised with reference to various modes of cultural production but especially using the visual arts, including posters and ephemera, many of which were shown in pictures of exhibits from the Bradford Peace Museum, and again supporters were invited to join in the preservation of this history by searching out any artefacts in their possession that might be offered to the collection. The conference concluded, after a summary of its coverage and success, with a film on Danish resistance to Nazi occupation, and a closing reception. Participants are likely to have taken more encouragement than warning from it overall, and anyone who wandered in from the IWM at large (leaflets were left at the main desk) could perhaps have come away with the feeling that working for peace is a less eccentric notion than the media would sometimes have us believe. 

L. W.

July 2007

 Also available in pdf format with (publisher's caveat)

The Peace History Conference series was to continue, sometimes back at the IWM:-
April 2009
June 2017

One way of looking at it… (Such fun!) -

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Libertarian Mary Wollstonecraft

Originally published in the last ever issue of Solidarity: A Journal of Libertarian Socialism (London, UK) No.30/31 [new series] Spring 1992, under the title “Two sexes,  yet one truth”. It was subject to some ‘subbing’ from the then editor so may not have been written (or published, due to re-subbing), exactly as it appears below. (L.W.)

Subheadings and quotations in boxes added.
“Those who are bold enough to advance before the age they live in, and to throw off, by the force of their own minds, the prejudices which the maturing reason of the world will in time disavow, must learn to brave censure. We ought not to be too anxious respecting the opinion of others. – I am not fond of vindication. – Those who know me will suppose that I acted from principle. – Nay, as we in general give others credit for worth, in proportion as we possess it – I am easy with regard to the opinions of the best part of mankind. I rest on my own.”

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) rejected both marriage and the available ‘suitable’ jobs for women, to earn her living by writing and win fame or notoriety in her public life as “English miscellaneous writer”: pioneer of sexual liberation, champion of women’s rights, wife to William Godwin, and mother of Mary Shelley. While Godwin has always had a secure place in the history of (pre-)anarchist political thought, libertarians have tended to neglect or be ambivalent towards Wollstonecraft.

In recent years, the women’s movement has accorded her a deserved revival of attention and done much to counter the more negative, grudging, patronising and romanticising tendencies of earlier commentators. But in-depth analyses of what she actually said have remained fairly thin on the ground, There are still aspects of her work and thought to which her numerous friends and critics have done less than justice, including some of particular interest to libertarians – rejection of authority and received opinions, insistence on individual autonomy, and the recognition that the liberation of women had to be an integral part of an enlightened outlook. These are illustrated in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the first feminist manifesto and her best known book.

This was not her first venture into the contemporary political fray. In 1970, her Vindication of the Rights of Men was one of the first published ripostes to;[Edmund] Burke’s notorious attack on the principles of the French Revolution, and she now proceeded to expound her conviction that “the rights of humanity have thus been confined to the male sex from Adam”. She saw the logical and moral necessity of rounding out the concept of full human emancipation, “to be free in a physical, moral and social sense”.

She undertook this new championship thoroughly and conscientiously, aware of its audacity and significance in “representing the whole sex, one half of mankind”, and also with passion against injustice, anger at suffering, and humour at the many absurdities she exposed. These qualities, and her unwavering commitment, make her still worth reading and eminently quotable. Confronting the question of what was wrong and why, and what could be done to put it right, she proceeded to develop a detailed critique of existing society and its coercion and/or persuasion of female children into the acceptance of traditional sex roles and values – the art of ‘pleasing’.

 “Asserting the rights which women, in common with men, ought to contend for,” she wrote, “I have not attempted to extenuate their faults; but to prove them to be the natural consequence of their education and station in society.” Education was the key to improvement, not only for the good of their souls but to break the chains of economic dependence. She outlined a system to replace the confinement, ignorance and affectation imposed on girls (and the differently pernicious alternative imposed on boys), which would have gone a long way to undermine the dominant ideology. At the same time, she recognised the importance of external restrictions, and intended to deal with the matter of legal disabilities in a second volume, which never appeared – although it has been observed that her unfinished novel, The Wrongs of Woman (1797) effectively fills the place of such a work by illustrating the fate of women in different classes in society.

She did not, however, regard women either with indulgence or despair as inevitably helpless, passive victims of circumstances; they had to take responsibility for their own behaviour, even granted that they were in many ways up against it from their earliest days, beset by double-think and double-binds at every turn. Wishing “to see women neither heroines nor brutes, but reasonable creatures” who did not “have power over men, but over themselves”, she addressed them directly and uncompromisingly. She pointed out the fallacies and dangers of prevailing attitudes towards them, however hypocritically flattering in appearance – as long as they fulfilled the desired stereotypical roles – but covering hostility and contempt: “This separate interest – this insidious state of warfare…”

Reason and Autonomy

Her project involved demolishing many prestigious theories of education and infant management as expounded by such luminaries as Rousseau, whose more absurd fantasies about female character she was ready to dismiss with a brisk “What nonsense!” despite her admiration for some of his other ideas. Her style was normally forthright – “What she thought, she scorned to qualify,” as Godwin observed – but always based on reasoned argument, reason being in her view a chief good and guiding principle, its exercise a right and duty for both sexes.

For modern readers, the placing of these concepts in the context of an overall deistic philosophy may be off-putting, but the point is that whatever the framework, men and women must be equally free to confront and come to terms with their own reality, and factors impeding their doing so must not be tolerated. Her religion was rationalist too; the admittedly paternalistic God was expected to act in a reasonable and humane manner – practically a mandated deity subject to recall. She had no time for the barbaric notions of eternal punishment of the hell-fire brigade and rejected the fall-of-man creation myth as an excuse for denigrating women.

Demonstrating how women were moulded into being “insignificant objects of desire – mere propagators of fools!” she was ready to take on just about anyone, male or female, obscure or famous, for “the books of instruction, written by men of genius, have had the same tendency as more frivolous productions… Viewing them [women] as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone”. Such a view could be deeply internalised, and was all too often reinforced by women themselves imposing it on each other, as Mary well realised, understanding but pleading for rejection of the psychological mechanisms and motives involved.

She knew she was asking women to embark on what could be a painful process, but saw it as inevitable as well as ultimately desirable. “Why have we implanted in us an irresistible desire to think?” she exclaimed in [one of] her early letters, declaring that women should “struggle with any obstacle rather than go into a state of dependence”. She spoke from hard-won experience as well as observation and conviction – “The world cannot be seen by an unmoved spectator, we must mix in the throng.” Her personal antipathy to her conventional role comes out more than once. “On many accounts I am averse to any matrimonial tie,” she explained:

“It is a happy thing to be a mere blank, and to be able to pursue one’s own whims, where they lead, without having a husband and half a hundred children at hand to teaze and controul a poor woman who wishes to be free.”

This did not indicate a dislike of children or disregard of their interests; on the contrary, their welfare was central to her emphasis on (conditional) duties and responsibilities of women as mothers: “Make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives, and mothers – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.”

For, even in its own terms, she pointed out, the existing system of female education was riddled with contradictions, and militated against “domestic virtue”. She insisted that men should also take responsibility for the children they propagated and relationships they undertook outside marriage – “When a man seduces a woman, it should, I think, be termed a left-handed marriage” – arguing cogently against the unfairness of the prevailing double standards of sexual morality (from which she herself was to suffer): “I here throw down my gauntlet, and deny the existence of sexual [gendered] virtues... for men and women, truth... must be the same.”

In the public sphere likewise, she illustrated the evils of “blind obedience” and its corrupting effects in creating chains of despotism and debasing its victims. She can be said to have made some sort of connection between sexual repression, authoritarian conditioning and the irrational in politics. She takes an integrated view, trying to understand what is happening throughout society and why. Her themes include fear of freedom, authority relations, repression: “The being who patiently endures injustice, and silently bears insults, will soon become unjust, or unable to discern right from wrong”; and the refusal to think.

“Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they know not how, rather than to root them out. The mind must be strong that resolutely forms its own principles; for a kind of intellectual cowardice prevails which makes many men shrink from the task, or only do it by halves…”

There is quite a lot in this vein, its implications largely unremarked by successive editors. 

“There seems to be an indolent propensity in man to make prescription always take the place of reason, and to place every duty on an arbitrary foundation.”
“The many would fain let others both work and think for them.”
“... [T]he fear of innovation, in this country, extends to everything...”

Class and Revolution

Our more class-conscious comrades may wonder whether her theories are mere bourgeois(e) complaints. It is true that Rights of Woman is addressed to the “middle” sort, but by contrast with the hopelessly effete aristocracy rather than in order to exclude the lower orders, who for practical reasons she evidently did not see as the agents of the sort of change she advocated, although according respect and consideration to working-class women as individuals – “with respect to virtue… I have seen most in low life…” Later, her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794) illustrated sympathy with and understanding of the revolutionary cause in spite of her profound misgivings about the turn events had taken. Realism did not make her pessimistic or reactionary, but she saw more clearly what preconditions were required:

“People thinking for themselves have more energy in their voice, than any government which it is possible for human wisdom to invent, and every government not aware of this sacred truth will, at some period, be suddenly overturned.”

And not only self-managed autonomy, but mutual aid: “Till men learn mutually to assist without governing each other, little can be done by political associations towards perfecting the condition of mankind.” 

Although her ‘class politics’ were inevitably circumscribed by her historical situation her perceptions were often strikingly sound:

“But one power should not be thrown down to exalt another – for all power inebriates weak man; and its abuse proves that the more equality there is established among men, the more virtue and happiness will reign in society.”

Of course this must all be seen in historical context, but it seems to have more to do with a libertarian tradition than either bourgeois liberalism or the authoritarian left.

Liberty, Equality, Comradeship

Mary would not necessarily make an automatic or comfortable conscript into some sections of the modern feminist movement either. One factor is her consistent denial of biological determinism/ sexual dimorphism (“Mind has no sex”). Rather than wallowing in imposed and alien ‘feminine’ attributes, and abdicating from whole swathes of human activity, or alternatively aping ‘masculine’ patterns, she saw the arrogating of certain qualities and propensities to the dominant sex as wholly unacceptable and at variance with reality.

Rejecting inhibiting assumptions, she asserted that the basic premise should be of equal potential, deserving and requiring equal opportunity to develop. Rather than branding females as by definition weak, illogical, childish, incompetent, and thereby preventing them from being anything else, both their minds and their bodies should be encouraged and preserved in health and knowledge. If they then turned out not to be able to attain the same heights as their male companions, so be it; but the experiment had never been tried, so the case was unproved – it was mere prejudice, Likewise they should not be confined to the domestic zone, but take their places in professional and public life: “I may excite laughter, by dropping an hint… that women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed…”

Her methods would, she argued, have the effect of making better wives and others, but this was not the primary aim: “The great end of [women’s] exertions should be to unfold their own faculties and acquire the dignity of conscious virtue.”

There are many digressions and repetitions in Rights of Woman as well as some engaging sidelights, such as concern for animal welfare and a recurrent antimilitarism. She was aware of [the book’s] faults: “… dissatisfied with myself for not having done justice to the subject – had I had more time I could have written a better book.” But she didn’t do so badly, religion, middle-class origins and bees-in-the-bonnet notwithstanding.  It is altogether a remarkable production, and many of her observations are highly relevant today.

Rather unfortunately, the book ends with an appeal to (enlightened) men to see the sense of what is being argued, and act on it, and is prefaced by an address to Talleyrand, the French politician who she thought had the power and capacity to introduce principles of sound education in revolutionary France. The idea, however, was to remove the multitudinous massive obstacles in the way of women’s autonomous action, rather than to substitute for it. She was not exactly pessimistic about what women could achieve, even though she took a dim view of what in the present state of society most of them had become. There were examples, including her own, to demonstrate an alternative, but she knew there was a long way to go.

Private Life and Public Persona

Mary’s eventual decision to marry seems to have been a rational though reluctant adaptation to circumstances and recognition of the realities of a social life from which she did not wish to be totally excluded – “The odium of society impedes usefulness”. (Ironically, [the decision] did lead to a measure of ostracism, by spelling out the fact that she had not been married to Gilbert Imlay, the father of Fanny, her first child.) It is certainly unfair to blame her for Godwin’s apparent abandonment of long-held principles; they were both in the same boat, and acknowledged as much, even if society would not have penalised Godwin in the same way for defying its conventions.
[Marriage: “law and the worst of all laws... an affair of property and the worst of all properties” – William Godwin]

Some censorious commentators have maintained that it was the ‘scandalous’ dimension that ‘set back’ the cause of women’s emancipation, but the times had grown increasingly reactionary and theirs was not the only good cause to suffer. In any case, the principle (that she should have modified her behaviour for the sake of public relations), as well as the [supposed] fact, is dubious. Conversely, modern feminists may see the ‘romantic’ view of the relationship as somewhat detracting from Mary’s character and principles. This would be to ignore the context, and the innovative attempt to forge an equal partnership based on mutual respect, even if it did not work perfectly in practice every day: for example, Mary had occasion to point out that Godwin continued to assume priority for his sacrosanct ‘work’, while hers was supposed to be shelved in order to deal with domestic matters as required.

The events of her life have alwavs been difficult for observers to view in detachment from her writings, and many of the unreasoned critiques published in her lifetime and shortly after her death were frankly ad feminam attacks. Another effect of this was that her writings have seldom if ever been given due consideration. Even many comparatively favourable write-ups have an apologetic tone, while recent feminist commentators often tend to overlook her more generally political (libertarian) significance. In any case, she acted in accordance with her ideals in difficult circumstances with courage and honesty, and provided an example and inspiration, rater than an awful warning, to others in the next and subsequent generations.

“And who can tell, how many generations may be necessary to give vigour to the virtue and talents of the freed posterity of abject slaves?”

hedgehog reprints @ smothpubs

At the time of writing the above, the main modern source for Mary’s life was: Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976.

There have been a number of useful publications about Mary Wollstonecraft in the past twenty years, including:

Lyndall Gordon, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. (Little, Brown 2005) Virago 2006. Closely attentive to MW’s writings and sympathetic with her character.

Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft, a Revolutionary Life. Weidenfeld & Nicolson,2000.

Janet Todd, ed. The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft. Allen Lane 2003.

Claudia L. Johnson, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft. CUP 2002.

Black Flag no. 227, Summer 2008, includes writing by Emma Goldman on Mary Wollstonecraft.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other writings by MW herself can be found in various editions in libraries and/or currently in print.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Before Chernobyl: Kyshtym, USSR, 1958

Originally published in Solidarity: for Social Revolution (London, UK) No. 13, Aug.- Sept. 1978, under the title “THE WHOLE WORLD OVER: THE WHOLE WORLD – OVER!

The gaff was blown on the Soviet nuclear disaster in the Urals almost inadvertently, in an article entitled “Two Decades of Dissidence” (New Scientist, Nov.4, 1976). Describing the growth of the dissident movement among Soviet scientists, Zhores Medvedev, a biochemist now working in London, referred to a “tragic catastrophe” which occurred in 1958 as a result of the burial of nuclear reactor waste.

According to this account, a sudden enormous explosion led to the scattering of radioactive dust and materials over a wide area, affecting tens of thousands of people and killing hundreds. The figures were, of course, never made public. Many villages and towns were evacuated only after the appearance of radiation sickness, and others, with high or moderate but not lethal levels of radioactivity, were not evacuated at all. The stifling of certain branches of science, under Stalin, was a serious handicap in treating the victims.

The large contaminated area was considered dangerous and kept closed to the public. As “the largest gamma (radiation) field in the world” it became a focus for the study of radiation effects and the resulting publications eventually provided corroborative evidence for the disaster.

Following the “unexpected sensation” caused by this article, Medvedev supplied more details (New Scientist, June 30, 1977, “Facts behind the Soviet nuclear disaster”). The affected area was described as being near Kyshtym, between the Urals cities of Cheliabinsk and Sverdlovsk and the accident is said to have happened in the winter of 1957-58. It was pointed out that confirmation had been received from another émigré, Lev Tumerman, and detailed reference was made to Soviet scientific journals. Tumerman’s eye-witness account  described hundreds of square miles of heavily contaminated “forbidden territory” in which all the villages and towns had been destroyed to prevent the return of evacuees.

Medvedev  reported that since 1958 more than 100 works on the effects of the long-lived radioactive isotopes strontium-90 and caesium-137 on natural plant and animal life had been published. The time span of observations – 10 years in 1968, etc. – relates to the date of the accident, and the scale of research indicated a much larger field than could conceivably have been created deliberately for experimental purposes. Despite general cageyness about the causes and location of the contamination, indications pointed to the Urals region, and Cheliabinsk was mentioned once. The early work had all been classified, but publication became possible after the death of Khrushchev.

The revelations were not only greeted with comprehensible shock/horror, there was also a strong defensive reaction from the nuclear establishment in the West. Scoring points off the USSR appeared less important than whitewashing the nuclear industry and its safety record world-wide. Sir John Hill, chairman of the UKAEA [United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority] (well-known manufacturers of such white-wash) “tried to dismiss [Medvedev’s] story as ‘science fiction’, ‘rubbish’ or a ‘figment of the imagination’.”

More seriously, experts in the field queried whether such an event could have occurred in the way described. Some of  Medvedev’s contentions were open to challenge and raised controversies which are not yet fully resolved. His own speciality lying in a different, though not unrelated, branch of science, he had had to study the subject in order to prove that what he knew had happened was not impossible or imaginary.


Further confirmation of the event, though not of all the details, was forthcoming when CIA files revealed contamination emanating apparently from military nuclear facilities near the city of Kasli, north-west of Kyshtym. This evidence is discussed in Nuclear Safety, Vol. 20, No.2, March-April 1979 (J. R. Trebalka et al., “Another perspective of the 1958 Soviet nuclear accident”), and compared with the other versions. According to this, the nuclear-related incident(s) occurred around 1957-58, resulting from an explosion in a high-level-waste storage area or experimental airborne nuclear weapons test, and leading to loss of life, evacuation of civilians from a large area, and the establishing of a restricted radiation-contamination zone near the Kasli site.

There were, however, inconsistencies in some of the CIA reports regarding dates and location of fall-out, and the authors of the “Nuclear Safety” article commented on the absence of first- or second-hand reports or confirmed authoritative information, as well as on differences between the various accounts and internal anomalies within them. They nonetheless conclude that radiology studies had evidently been designed to take advantage of a large, inadvertently contaminated area of which the total minimum area could reasonably be estimated at well over 25 square kilometres. The most credible case for the cause of the accident appeared to be some sort of accidental airborne release, but they considered the range of possible explanations to be broader than suggested by Medvedev  or his critics.

The lad himself returned to the fray with a book: Zh. A. Medvedev  , Nuclear Disaster in the Urals, 1979. An excerpt published in New Scientist, Oct. 11, 1979, shows a readiness to re-assess the possibilities without any inclination to deny it ever happened. He goes into the history of reactor construction in the USSR, in a context of great urgency to catch up with the USA, and the ad-hoc working out of storage methods for waste.

He also makes the point that the USSR by no means has a monopoly of nuclear hazards, citing the near disaster, by all indications apparently analogous to the one in the Urals, which was “barely averted” at the Hanford Nuclear Centre in the USA. The location of this “near-miss” was one of the trenches into which the less active waste was poured. Plutonium was adsorbed and accumulated in a relatively thin layer of soil, and a chain reaction resulting in an explosion could have been set off if water soaked into the plutonium-rich soil.

In Cheliabinsk, this scenario could have been a reality, with snow in the region and the water-table closer to the surface. Alternative hypotheses are: an explosion in an insufficiently cooled tank, e.g. one with a single cooling system which failed, or with none at all; an explosion occurring during the pumping of high-level liquid wastes under high pressure into “authorised” geological formations; residual plutonium in the processing solutions disposed of underground becoming concentrated by selective adsorption and, in the presence of abundant water, constituting a critical assembly which eventually exploded.

“But,” the article concludes, “that the explosion actually occurred, causing a great many casualties and contaminating a vast territory, and that it resulted from the improper storage of reactor products cannot be doubted.” The plethora of possible ways in which such a serious accident could have happened is in any case far from reassuring.

While we are on the subject of Medvedev, it is worth mentioning another book of his, Soviet Science, Oxford University Press, 1979, £5.95. An extract in New Scientist, May 17 1979, touches on some of the differences between the scientific establishments east and west. Science in the Soviet Union, financed exclusively through the state budget and state industrial systems, is not subject to public pressures, which are anyway strongly inhibited by the lack of freedom of the press and of association, preventing the spread of knowledge and organisation.

Russians, it would appear, live near nuclear installations “either without any protest or without any knowledge of them”. The example is given of Obninsk, with 10 nuclear reactors operational within the town limits or 2-3 kilometres outside. Yet Medvedev “never heard a single complaint about these ‘environmental’ problems” during the 11 years he lived there. “The logic was simple – if you come to live and work here, don’t worry.” The scientific community is also, of course, subject to strict controls. In the context of a system where the first small reactors were tested in “half-institutions, half-prisons, with much of the work being done by prisoners, according to the custom of the time”, and where dissent draws the penalties we know of, the lack of direct evidence when things go disastrously wrong is perhaps less surprising than the fact that these things do come to light eventually.

Even among safety-conscious scientists, however, it would seem that concern does not lead to rejection of the state’s nuclear programme. A writer in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Feb. 1980, interviewed several dissenting scientists on the subject, and found at most a readiness to comment unfavourably on aspects of safety policy, e.g. the fact that no-one knew those directly responsible for the safety of power reactors, and the absence of outside checks. Evidently some attempts at improvement have been made: experimental reactors at Leningrad, Moscow and Dubna were started with no safety rules and no safety committees; now there are 5 separate supervisory safety committees in Leningrad. Cynics may wonder whether this is an improvement  but we are told that although these first needed to be educated, they are “now even helpful”. Incidentally, no information was requested or volunteered about the accident in the Urals.

Little prospect, then, of Torness-style occupations, Brittany-style barricades and mass demos., or even Windscale-type enquiries to give pause to the Eastern European nuclear power programme. But at least there are unofficial groups monitoring developments and spreading news. The Charter 77 group in Czechoslovakia produced a document describing two serious accidents at an operating power station in 1976 and 77, both leading to radioactive contamination of the atmosphere (see New Scientist, Oct. 18 1979, “A Czech Three Mile Island”). The Czech Atomic Energy Authority did not deny the occurrences, but said they were “not big, not like Harrisburg”. Causes were said to include lax safety procedures, bad labour relations, over-emphasis on productivity, and widespread alcoholism.

Back in the USSR, alcoholism was also said to have played a part in the outbreak of a fire which threatened a fast reactor cooling system on New Year’s Eve, 1978-79, at Beloyarsk. Several firefighters were killed; there was a risk of explosion which would release a radioactive cloud, and trains and buses were standing by to evacuate the nearby settlement of Zarechnyi (Nature, Jan. 31 1980). Local opinion assumed that “the shift was drunk, like almost everyone else in the Soviet Union that night”.

In April 1980 it was reported that the most advanced fast breeder reactor in the world had become operational at Beloyarsk. Cheers, comrades.


None of this means that the West had any grounds for complacency, either in the matter of safety or that of “open government” and civil liberties. That nothing has happened – yet – to compare with Kyshtym/Kasli is due more to good luck than good management (the latter is a paradoxical expression anyway). An extensive dossier could be compiled on things that have happened already: the fire at WIndscale in 1957; a recent electricity breakdown in France that would have been disastrous if the reactor concerned had been fully operational; cracks in reactor turbine blades; leaks of radioactivity all over the place.

In fact such dossiers have been compiled, a good example being Clamshell Alliance’s “Nuclear Accidents: a look at the record” printed (with an attempted answer) in IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science, Oct. 1978. Here too we are dependent on groups outside and dissenting from the establishment, and the odd maverick within it, to spread vital information. Three Mile Island highlighted not only the fragility of the nuclear safety record but also the readiness of those responsible to suppress and distort the news of what was happening and its effects. The cover-up was a long-term process, and the repercussions are far from over. The story is not being written here, but it is significant that the official response in the U.K. was a clampdown on information to the public.

Official secrecy is only part of the apparatus of security and “unacceptable” (even by bourgeois democratic standards) disregard of civil liberties which is seen as an inevitable concomitant of nuclear power, not by paranoid leftists but by sources such as the Flowers Report on “Nuclear Power and the Environment”, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution No.6, 1976. This in turn is one aspect of a whole scene which lends weight to the argument that while, in a sense, technology may be neutral, certain applications and developments of it are manifestly more suited to an authoritarian society than a libertarian one. Clearly, too, the energy programme is based on the presumed requirements of advanced capitalist societies.


Because of this, and because detailed discussion of the subject involves difficult and even intractable problems, there may be a tendency to think that it is futile for us to intervene, especially if what we have to say is already being said by others. But the anti-nuclear movement includes a number of elements, some of whom more or less explicitly recognise that the question raised is one of decisions vitally affecting ordinary people, and over which they have no control. Any capitalist- or state-benefiting energy system is going to involve an alienated, exploited and physically endangered work force, as well as damage to the environment for all of us. You couldn’t trust them to run a windmill decently. Opposing an outstandingly harmful course of action does not oblige us to come up with an alternative acceptable to the ruling class, or to support another faction of it. What they decide to do, if nuclear power production is obstructed, is their problem; that they have the power to decide is ours. Our only “advice” can be that they abdicate that power.

Even those who consider that nuclear energy might have a place in a different type of society will agree that it is bloody dangerous in the hands of any ruling elite – and what they do with it now may pre-empt some options for the future. Although the doomwatch sub-title of this article is still more appropriate to the discussion of nuclear weapons than to the “peaceful uses” of atomic energy, the latter is affecting increasingly large chunks of the globe here and now, whether spectacularly as in the Urals or insidiously with the seeping of caesium-137 from Windscale [/Sellafield] into the Irish Sea.

Even if they leave us with a world to win, radioactive waste will not disappear, come the glorious dawn.

L. W.

hedgehog reprints @ smothpubs

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Another Book Review about Iran

Originally published in Solidarity: A Journal of Libertarian Socialism (London, UK) No.18 [new series] Autumn 1988, under the title “What Iran could do again”.

Assef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran: A Third World experience of workers’ control. Zed Press (c1988).

Few revolutionaries – not counting religious fanatics – would think of looking to Iran for inspiration, now that years of relentless repression have obliterated any optimism engendered by the overthrow of the Shah. It may come as a surprise to many readers that anything occurred there which could plausibly be described as having much to do with workers’ control. But Assef Bayat’s book presents evidence to show that quite a lot did happen, of interest not only to specialists in Iran or the Third World, but to the rest of us as well.

Of course there were problems about conducting field research on such a subject in Iran in 1980-81, and the author had to make the most of limited opportunities. He describes his “guer[r]illa-type tactic of research – ask and run”, evidently not a bad system to judge by results. Even when he arranges the material in figures and tables, its direct human relevance is clear. At the same time, this is not a piece of myth-mongering; Bayat tells us that he was familiar with romanticised views of the Iranian workers’ councils (“shuras” in Farsi), but that his decision to study them in detail arose from observation of what was going on. Likewise, his evident political awareness has not led him to press awkward facts into a rigid framework.

There is a certain amount of theory, for those who need it, orientating the project in the context of workers’ control, as distinct from “participation” and all that. Then we are given the background to the Iranian experience, with analysis of the process of industrial development and “proletarianisation”, emphasising special features like the effects of migration from the countryside, the Shah’s political dictatorship, and the contradictions and contrasts involved. Religion inevitably rears its ugly head, and an attempt is made to explain its role as a cultural form, the point of reference of socio-cultural activities, subject to change and modification in accordance with workers’ own socio-economic and political ends. We are shown how collective action and workers’ resistance developed before and during the revolutionary crisis; the demands made by the workers are examined, and their implications, missed by even workerist-type organisations, are brought out. Real attitudes were complex and various, not to be categorised in a dismissive fashion as merely “spontaneous”. Actions were carefully thought out, planned and put into practice through strike committees and mass meetings, without intervention from outside leaders or instigators, at least until a later stage of the process, when left-wing groups, students, and finally mullahs, began to mix in.

This strike-committee movement remained dispersed and fragmented until the pro-Khomeini ‘Committee for the Co-ordination and Investigation of Strikes’ began to assert itself, whereupon conflicts immediately arose. By the end of January 1979, that is even before the actual insurrection, 118 production units and a few public services had been persuaded back to work, allegedly in the interests of the revolution. Some saw more clearly whose interests were being served: shortly afterwards, the leader of the oil strikers resigned in protest against the “dogmatic reactionary clergy” and the “new form of oppression under the guise of religion”.

According to Bayat, the workers had been in struggle as an oppressed mass, not a unified class force, but the revolutionary crisis had nonetheless furnished the basis for proletarian organisations whose form was present in embryo. There were instances of cooperation between two or three industries, and of non-industrial councils taking over a number of cities and towns and establishing themselves in the armed forces. In one case, twenty-seven industrial groups and trades were linked in a Solidarity Council. From this sort of background the “shuras” emerged.

Shuras, as described here, are shop-floor organisations whose elected executive committee represented all the employees of a factory or industrial group, whose major concern was to achieve workers’ control, and which took the offensive to this end. They were not under the influence of outside leftist groups, and did not see themselves as a vehicle for social change, but for the transformation of authority relations in the industrial area. Such a programme inevitably meant struggle against the post-revolutionary regime as much as (and very soon much more than) against survivals of the old. Internal contradictions as well as external pressures are seen to have been too powerful for the shuras. Each aspect is explored in depth: on the one hand, a catalogue of repressive laws, undermining tactics, and outright attack; on the other, reports and quotes from the factories, for example: “The revolution was made to determine our own destinies… We did not want the situation where one or a few made decisions for two thousand”. Despite such encouraging noises, workers who had been running their own workplaces decided in the end that they really needed managers, and asked for their return.

Apparently almost the entire left was surprised and confused by the shuras, overlooking their real significance while welcoming them with appropriate rhetoric, and assessing them by reference to their members’ political tendency rather than by the extent and nature of the control they achieved. At times the author seems to go to the opposite extreme, glossing over what might have been the more negative aspects of this control in practice, for example when young workers pressed for instance dismissal as a “counter-revolutionary element” of anyone whose face didn’t fit, and claimed to know better than people with specialised (for example, medical) knowledge. The role of women, too, we are left to infer, must have been played largely off-stage; of course there are reasons for this, but they should not be omitted from the analysis.

 Not everyone that we see as negative is as bad as it seems, though, given the “culture of insecurity” that goes with prolonged repression, and leads to phenomena like “tactical legalism” – vociferous but often superficial or self-interested “support” for the dominant ideology. This occurs in the use of officially sanctioned chants to disrupt official meetings, or clamoring for time off for prayers as a hindrance to production. Thus any channel is used to advance the convert struggle, and, Bayat says, there will continue to be periodic eruptions, confounding those not on the masses’ wavelength. And a quote to cheer us up: “Just as we brought down the Shah’s regime, we are able to bring down any other regime”.

We may be tempted to ask what they’re waiting for, but of course it’s far from being as simple as that; the point is that the struggle has not been either completely suppressed or co-opted, even after so many and such varied efforts (the Islamic Associations, determined to operate in all workplaces and social contexts, and arguably reaching parts other totalitarian regimes couldn’t reach, deserve and receive particular attention). Still, in 1984-85, two hundred “incidents” concerning pay-rises, delayed wages and such, were reported; there were ninety (illegal) strikes, and in 65% of them workers won their cases, most spectacularly at the Esfahan steel mill, where 27,000 workers won a fifteen-day strike. The book’s prognosis is of continuing self-perpetuating industrial crisis, unless and alternative democratic political form could allow the setting up of the sort of special third-world workers’ control for which the last chapter gives a recipe. Unfortunately the libertarian tradition and historical experience are by-passed in favour of more statist roads. But the core of the book is the Iranian experience, which is certainly worth finding out about, even if it wasn’t quite like Span in ’36 or Hungary in ’56.


hedgehog reprints @ smothpubs

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Iran: the CIA-directed coup of 1953

Book Review: Originally published in Medicine, Conflict & Survival (a few minor changes have been made here).

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, by Stephen Kinzer. John Wiley, Hoboken NJ, 2003, 258pp.

While pessimistic political commentators on the world situation, after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, have taken to suggesting 'Iran's next', readers of this book will learn the extent to which Iran was first: as Stephen Kinzer puts it in his preface, “the first time the United States overthrew a foreign government. It set a pattern for years to come” and provides a 'stark warning to the United States and to any country that ever seeks to impose its will on a foreign land.' (p.x) Among the now familiar motifs of the pattern, British complicity and the seeds of a lasting legacy of bitterness are conspicuous. The first chapter launches into a racy narrative of the dramatic events of August 1953, when, as Secretary of State Madeleine Allbright put it in 2000: 'the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.' (p.212) The Shah fled into exile and it looked as though the CIA's attempted coup had failed, until the situation was turned around by the determination of their man in Tehran, Kermit [really] Roosevelt.

            Not that the Americans were the only or original villains of the piece: for the first half of the twentieth century they appeared in this context enlightened and benevolent by default, and by contrast with the British. Before resuming his page-turning story of the coup in chapter 11, Kinzer does an excellent job of summarising how history led up to it, especially the dismal saga of British dominance via the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which meant not only appalling conditions for the Iranian workforce but pervasive interference, and the use of all kinds of dirty tricks in retaliation for any attempt to wrest control from the profit-making élite. He goes back further, to the sometimes illustrious past of a country that is no diplomatic fiction with geometric boundaries but is rooted in an ancient civilisation. Naturally it was not idyllic; given the brutality, despotism and corruption of the ruling dynasty, before and after the modern world made its presence felt. The advent of the British and other foreign powers, notably Russia, made a crucial difference, however, bringing a new dimension of exploitation and oppression. At the same time the people were provoked to periodic resistance on crucial issues, learning that “History changes course when people realise there is an alternative to blind obedience”. (p.33)

            During the twentieth century successive interventions and conflicts reflected a changing world, from the blatantly ruthless profiteering of private companies, backed at need by the Foreign Office and the threat of occasional gun-boat diplomacy, to the confrontational mindset of the Cold War, which led the US to take such a disastrously active interest, lest the Communists get the oil. Meticulously documented throughout, using a full range of sources enhanced by personal observation and investigation, the evidence accumulates to constitute a damning indictment of those governments, agencies and individuals responsible. Their motives and mentalities are analysed with wit and insight, particularly in the character of Mohammad Mossadegh, whom Kinzer describes as a man of towering intellect and education, such as would be, he observes, “a drawback for a politician in some countries but not Iran.” (p.57) He survived the events of 1953 and his subsequent trial, to be confined to a village where he studied medicine in his old age; for the present regime, he is, as a potent signifier of freedom, an abiding source of uneasiness despite his undeniable role in opposing the Shah and ousting the British, winning his case at the World Court..When it came to the crunch, Prime Minister Attlee was not prepared to go to war, holding to the view that: “such action [...] would, in the modern world, have outraged opinion at home and abroad.” (p. 201)

            Iran as the first victim of a CIA-directed coup was consequently foremost in incubating the resulting detestation of American imperialism and reacting violently against it, as the slogans of the 1979 Islamic revolution, and the hostage crisis in its wake, spectacularly showed. And of course it did not end there. Considering all the consequences, Kinzer concludes that “Only a Soviet takeover [of Iran] followed by war between the super-powers” - an improbable scenario – “would have been worse”. (p. 215) The publishers' claim that this book, dedicated to the people of Iran, is or should be essential reading is hardly an exaggerated one.

L. W.
April 2005