Anarchist History and Thought
10 May 2010
Against the Bomb:
Anarchism and the Nuclear Disarmament Movement
The ominous image of the mushroom cloud is infamous in modern society; it has become a symbol of annihilation. Ever since the advent of nuclear weaponry in the 1940's, the world has lived in the shadow of the potential devastation. In response to this horrifying prospect, scores of anti-nuclear organizations sprung up in the mid-twentieth century and eventually blossomed into a movement that transcended national boundaries and gained significant global attention. What is less well known, however, is the deep connection between the anti-nuclear movement and the modern anarchist movement. Although the struggle against nuclear weapons was not strictly an anarchist campaign, the structure of many of the organizations involved as well as the tactics the groups utilized directly reflect anarchist principles.
Although anarchism and the anti-nuclear weapons movement were often tightly intertwined, the connections were not usually blatant. Moreover, anarchism's role in the movement has only been sparsely documented in texts; rather, the history has been passed down primarily through the word of mouth of those involved with the two movements. Among those familiar with nuclear disarmament and anarchism, it is widely known that the modern anarchist movement, especially in the United States, stayed afloat in the mid to late twentieth century largely because of its involvement with the anti-nuclear struggle. Despite the general lack of literature on the subject, some writing has been done – in his book Middle Class Radicalism: The Social Bases of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Frank Parkin discusses anarchism in connection with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), especially among the youth in the organization. In the mid 1960s, he conducted surveys of CND supporters in order to gain an understanding of the types of people who composed the group, and he found that among the youth who responded, ten percent identified themselves as anarchists (Parkin 162). This percentage may appear insignificant, but anarchism nevertheless played a notable role in the CND. As Parkin goes on to demonstrate, the CND and the nuclear disarmament movement as a whole was a major force in interesting young people in anarchism:
Very few of the [Anarchists'] parents were politically engaged – proportionately fewer in fact than the parents of the 'non-political' respondents. This, coupled with the fact that only thirteen percent of respondents [those who identified as anarchists] were Anarchists before entering CND...does point very strongly to the independent influence of the campaign in drawing them into the Anarchist movement (165).
Thus, not only did anarchist involvement help enlarge the CND, the CND in turn contributed to the expansion of the anarchist movement.
Though the connections between anarchism and the nuclear disarmament movement may at times be difficult to discern, they are very apparent in the organizational structures of many of the groups affiliated with the movement. One of the basic tenants of anarchism is the denunciation of hierarchy, authority and coercion; instead of these repressive institutions, anarchists advocate "a federation of voluntary associations of free and equal individuals" (Marshall 3). These associations include local councils, which each regularly send a delegate to a regional, national or international council. The delegates, however, have no unilateral decision-making authority – they are simply messengers to bring the recommendations of the regional councils back to the local groups who in turn make determinations via consensus (Marshall 7). A crucial aspect of these associations is that they lack any form of coercive authority. They are also small in order to make the decision-making process inclusive, simpler and less susceptible to domination by individual members (Ward 31). This style of organization (federations, complete horizontalism and decisions by consensus) is characteristic of all anarchist associations, and although it often refers to the organization of a post-state or post-capitalist society, it also is reflected in many of the groups involved in the anti-nuclear movement. Another connection is elucidated by David Graeber: "The anti-nuclear movement was also the first to make its basic organizational unit the affinity group – a kind of minimal organization first developed by anarchists in early twentieth century Spain" (Graeber 129). Affinity groups – tightly knit, small and local associations aimed at precipitating changes in certain aspects of society – have been incredibly important in the anarchist movement since their development in the Spanish Civil War, and they remain crucial to the organization of the movement today.
One of the groups that best exemplified the anarchist style of organization was the Clamshell Alliance based on the East Coast of the United States. Formed in reaction to the government announcement that two nuclear reactors were to be constructed in Seabrook, New Hampshire, the Clamshell was launched in a New England backyard by a group of anti-nuclear activists in 1976. As the group coalesced, it emphasized direct democracy and decisions by consensus – giving everyone involved an equal opportunity to be heard was considered crucial. As it grew, the Alliance needed a method of coordinating activists who were scattered throughout New England, and consequently it developed a network of local affinity groups. As the website for the Clamshells explains: "Representatives, 'Spokes,' from local and regional groups around New England sent representatives to discuss issues and planning. The spokes brought those discussions home to the groups and returned with the voice of their group until we hammered out a shared decision or consensus. It was a superbly grassroots democratic process" (Clamshell).
Organized along very similar lines was the Sound-Hudson Against Atomic Development Alliance (SHAD) in the southern part of New York. Formed in 1978, it was composed of approximately twenty small groups of activists scattered throughout the region. Although there was a larger office in New York City that coordinated a great deal of the Alliance's actions, SHAD remained quite un-hierarchical – the various local groups met frequently in a congress-like setting to discuss plans and tactics (it was in one of these meetings that SHAD decided that one of its primary aims would be halting the construction of the nearby Shoreham nuclear reactor). The group gained a great deal of support, but eventually intra-group conflicts and dwindling interest caused the group to disband in 1982 (SHAD Records).
Another anarchically organized group is Food Not Bombs!, a nationwide network of groups who cook and serve free meals to those in need. It was started by a group of friends who cooked meals for those involved with the Shoreham nuclear power plant protests in 1979. Eventually the group moved to San Francisco, and the idea quickly spread – currently there are hundreds of Food Not Bombs Groups scattered throughout the United States. As David Graeber explains, the structure, or lack thereof, of Food Not Bombs is perfectly in line with the ideals of anarchism: "Food Not Bombs is not an organization. There is no overarching structure, no membership or annual meetings. It's just an idea – that food should go to those that need it, and in a way that those fed can themselves become part of the process if they want to" (Graeber 129).
All three of these groups are prime of examples of anarchist-style organizations. None employ internal coercion or impose repressive hierarchies. There may be people in each association who have some capacity as leaders, but this is chiefly for the purpose of coordination and is not used to establish a power structure within the groups. Furthermore, they each, especially the Clamshell Alliance and SHAD, emphasize the importance of face-to-face deliberation and consensus-based decisions which ensures that no one person or faction can become dominant and subsequently take control of the group. The Clamshell Alliance, SHAD and Food Not Bombs are all comprised of small, local groups, which in many cases send delegates to larger national bodies, and this promotes direct democracy – the preferred anarchistic method of decision-making. Also reinforcing the ties between the two movements was a Philadelphia anarchist group known as the Movement for a New Society (MNS), which provided an organizational model for many of the American nuclear disarmament groups including the Clamshell Alliance. The MNS vociferously advocated the consensus and "spokescouncil" methods, and this had a profound influence over many groups associated with the anti-nuclear struggle (Cornell).
The fight against nuclear technology was not limited to the United States, however. Britain also boasted an impressive set of disarmament groups including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Direct Action Committee (DAC) and the Committee of 100. In response to Great Britain's rapidly expanding nuclear weapons program and a stirring article in The New Statesman criticizing the nation's nuclear policy, the CND was formed in 1957 and rapidly multiplied in size (Taylor 6). The DAC, in turn, was also conceived in 1957 after Harold Steele and a group of other disarmament activists began protesting nuclear weapons tests on Christmas Island (Whittner, "Resisting" 45). The DAC was eventually absorbed into the Committee of 100 which emerged when Bertrand Russell, an anarchist and the president of the CND, resigned to develop the more civilly disobedient Committee (Whittner, "Resisting" 187).
Although the organization of these groups was not nearly as steeped in anarchist principles as that of the Clamshell Alliance or SHAD, anarchism was nonetheless an integral part of each. Unlike the two aforementioned American groups, the CND, DAC and the Committee of 100 all had clearly defined leadership positions that carried a fairly significant amount of weight in the decision-making processes of the organizations (Whittner). They all, for example, possessed executive committees complete with the usual array of positions such as Chair, Vice Chair and Secretary (Taylor 6, 80). Despite the existence of a locus of organizational authority within these groups, they nevertheless retained some anarchistic qualities; for instance, the CND included a number of various small sub-committees (e.g. the Labour Advisory Committee) and numerous branches around Britain (e.g. the CND Women's Group) all of which had their voices heard in the organization at large (Whittner, "Resisting" 48).
Furthermore, anarchists were prominent in the membership of all three organizations as well as on the leadership committees. Anarchism played especially important role in the Committee of 100 – Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and the Committee's founder, Bertrand Russell, were the three most acclaimed anarchists. Those anarchists who advocated more militant tactics gravitated to the Committee because the CND and DAC were far more oriented toward non-violence (Taylor 80). Though many involved were self-declared anarchists, others, though they did not consider themselves anarchists, held many of the same ideas. For example, Ralph Schoenman, one of the primary figures involved with the founding of the Committee, represented one of the more radical viewpoints. Though whether or not he believed himself to be an anarchist is uncertain (some on the Committee felt he was), he made it clear that he wanted to force the end of the arms race and the crumbling of the State through large-scale civil disobedience orchestrated by the Committee (Taylor 80-81). Anarchists also played important roles in the leadership of the CND and DAC, however, their activities were the most prominent within the Committee.
Just as the interweaving of anarchism and nuclear disarmament can be seen in the organization of various activist groups, it is also clearly manifest in the tactics employed by those groups. The primary modus operandi of the anarchist movement is and has long been direct action. The distinguishing feature of direct action is the fact that it does not involve action through political parties or processes and hence precipitates change from outside of the existing political structure (Schmidt 138). Instead, direct action entails techniques such as marches, building occupations and strikes. Although it is often referred to in the context of workers' battles against the injustice of capitalism, the term and its implications are also applicable to a myriad of other attempts at initiating change – anything from an anti-war protest to a sit-in fits under the umbrella of direct action. Voltarine de Cleyre, a late 19th century American anarcha-feminist, explains its importance:
It is by and because of the direct acts of the forerunners of social change, whether they be of peaceful or warlike nature, that the Human Conscience, the conscience of the mass, becomes aroused to the need for change. It would be very stupid to say that no good results are ever brought about by political action; sometimes good things do come about that way. But never until individual rebellion, followed by mass rebellion, has forced it. Direct action is always the clamorer, the initiator, through which the great sum of indifferentists become aware that oppression is getting intolerable (de Cleyre).
De Cleyre's belief that direct action is not only the main channel through which people become aware of the need for change but also that through which change is achieved is echoed throughout the anarchist movement; instead of using political action to transform society, anarchists prefer to utilize more incendiary strategies. Many of the same tactics are observable in the work of the anti-nuclear movement.
The Clamshell Alliance frequently engaged in anti-nuclear direct action throughout the nearly two decades of its existence. Shortly after its inception, the group occupied the Seabrook nuclear power plant site (which was still being built at the time) twice in attempts to halt the construction; eighteen people were arrested during the first action and 180 during the second. Though the construction proceeded, the Clamshell did not concede defeat – eight months later 2,000 people from around the United States marched on the plant and occupied the site for two days. 1,414 of the 2,000 people present were arrested, and from this erupted a wave of media coverage. One year later, in June of 1978, 20,000 people joined the Clamshell in a protest at the Seabrook plant before hundreds moved down the coast to Washington D.C. and began a three-day take over of the sidewalks in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Finally, before the dissolution of the Alliance in the early 1990s, it hindered the delivery of a key component of the plant's reactor by blocking the road into the site. Although the Clamshell's efforts failed to stop the completion of the Seabrook plant, only one of the two planned reactors was ever brought online (Clamshell).
The Abalone Alliance, a west coast version of the Clamshell, was formed in May of 1977 in opposition to the construction of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Facility in San Luis Obispo, California. They began protesting outside the plant in August of 1977, and one year later, another larger protest was staged – 5,000 people turned up to block the gates into the site, and 487 demonstrators were arrested. In subsequent years, rallies held by the Abalone Alliance drew up to 40,000 people; they also staged a sit-in in the California governor's office. Perhaps their biggest effort came in September of 1981 when the Alliance began a two week long blockade of the Diablo Canyon site that pulled in tens of thousands of protestors and resulted in 1,900 arrests (Energy Net).
Similar direct action occurred on Long Island Sound at approximately the same time as the Seabrook and Diablo Canyon protests. In 1965, the Long Island Lighting Company decided to build the Shoreham nuclear power plant on the Sound between the small towns of Brookhaven and Riverhead. As construction commenced in 1973 and the cost of the project soared, people living on the Sound as well as anti-nuclear activists from around the country (coordinated by SHAD) began stirring in opposition to the plant, and there was a small protest in June of 1976. Over the next three years, the protesting was never very vociferous, but after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 (a serious nuclear reactor accident in Pennsylvania), anti-Shoreham sentiment surged, and a 15,000-person demonstration took place on June 3. Many protestors climbed the fence around the site, and 600 were incarcerated. Despite the enormous outburst of hostility toward the plant, it was completed in 1984; however, after problems following Hurricane Gloria in 1985, Shoreham was closed in 1989 and decommissioned in 1994 (Lam).
Across the Atlantic, the British anti-nuclear movement was also deeply engaged in direct action. The CND, DAC and the Committee of 100 were all incredibly devoted to civil disobedience and protests, and perhaps the most striking manifestations of this were the yearly marches from London's Trafalgar Square to the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (Taylor 78-80). The inaugural march, arranged by DAC and backed by the CND, took place in April of 1958 – approximately 5,800 demonstrators marched fifty-two miles over four days to reach the facility (Whittner, "Resisting" 48). The marches became an annual occurrence and quickly attracted a great deal of media attention; they peaked in 1962 with a record of 150,000 demonstrators (Whittner, "Resisting" 190). In addition to the yearly marches, DAC also organized other forms of protest at the Aldermaston site such as vigils, pickets and blockades of construction efforts (Whittner, "Resisting" 49). Even after the decline of the Aldermaston actions, the CND maintained its commitment to direct action against nuclear weapons, for example an unheard of 250,000-person rally in 1981. Two years later, the CND organized a 70,000-person "human chain" that wove around three nuclear weapons facilities and covered fourteen miles (Whittner, "Abolition" 131). That same year, a CND demonstration in October attracted 400,000 marchers, an event which may have been the biggest British demonstration on record (Whittner, "Abolition" 138). Though they were working towards the same goal, there were some important distinctions between the types of action taken by the three groups. The CND was a strong supporter of direct action but generally opposed illegal civil disobedience. The DAC, on the other hand, backed non-violent direct action including multiple forms of civil disobedience. The Committee of 100 not only upheld civil disobedience but also was not hesitant to use slightly more militant tactics than the other two groups.
Clearly, the types of direct action that these various organizations engaged in further substantiates the claim that anarchism played a key role in the anti-nuclear movement. Unfortunately, it was incredibly rare that nuclear projects were discontinued due to the action of protestors. However, the fact that the actions garnered a great deal of attention from the media and those holding political power as well as the fact that they drew countless numbers of people into the movement all without operating within the political system speaks to the considerable power of those actions. If the groups had attempted to create change by working inside the political machines of their respective nations, not only would they have potentially failed to gather the attention that they did, they would have also been significantly less effective due to the convoluted nature of pushing reforms through governments. Furthermore, many of the forms of protest that those involved in the nuclear disarmament movement utilized are directly reflected in the actions taken in classic anarchist struggles such as those for the emancipation of labor and the overthrow of capitalism. In these movements, for example, workers occupied and expropriated factories or staged mass demonstrations and strikes. The parallels between these and the actions taken throughout the course of the nuclear disarmament movement are easily discernable.
Despite the undeniably solid link between the anarchist and the anti-nuclear movements, many people may question the importance of that bond. Though it may not be apparent without a study of the two movements, they turned out to be quite mutually beneficial. Anarchist organizational strategies and tactics proved to be incredibly applicable to the nuclear disarmament movement and thus greatly increased its efficacy and visibility on the world stage. The anti-nuclear movement in turn mobilized a great number of anarchists, introduced many people to the ideas of anarchism and provided fertile ground for anarchism to grow. In fact, neither the nuclear disarmament nor the anarchist movement would have been anywhere near as potent a force in society had the other not existed.
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