The Communist Party and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

CND pic 1

A few sentences in the biography of the CPGB’s Industrial Organiser, Bert Ramelson, by Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley, Revolutionary Communist at Work in a chapter on Ramelson in the 1950s has sparked debate on the relationship between the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in its early years. In my review of the book, I wrote:

In several spots in the same chapter, the authors seem to suggest that the CPGB was at the forefront of the 1950s peace movement and nuclear disarmament activism. This is in contradiction to the arguments put forward by Nigel Young, David Widgery, John Callaghan and Geoff Andrews, amongst others, that the CPGB was slow to support unilateral disarmament and the CND in the 1950s, preferring until quite late on to promote the idea of the ‘People’s Bomb’…

Seifert and Sibley replied to this, stating:

Before CND (that is, up to 1958), the CP and the British Peace Council (a CP front) were almost alone, apart from the Quakers and other radical church people, in campaigning for peace and disarmament including nuclear disarmament.  From the late 1940s onwards (two years before the Soviets had developed the A-bomb) the Party campaigned for the total worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons.  It never promoted the idea of a ‘people’s bomb’.  There were some differences in the peace movement between those advocating multilateralism (the campaign to rid the world of all nuclear weapons by negotiation) and unilateralism (banning the bomb in Britain alone).  But this was resolved in 1960 when the CP recognised, following the US Pentagon’s scuppering of Summit Talks, that total abolition was not on the agenda of the Western nuclear powers and would not be for the foreseeable future.  At the same time CND accepted that, prior to 1960, its campaigning activities were too narrowly based and accepted that multilateral objectives such as the disbanding of NATO and a Test Ban treaty were essential complements to unilateral disarmament by Britain.

In a series of exchanges between Seifert and Sibley, Peter Waterman and Ian Birchall on the London Socialist Historians Group blog, the debate about whether the CPGB supported the CND in its early years was more in-depth. Seifert and Sibley produced quotes from the Daily Worker, which seems to contradict the consensus formed by earlier scholars.

So what did these earlier scholars say exactly?

In 1976, David Widgery wrote in his anthology The Left in Britain (Penguin, Harmondsworth: p. 106):

[T]he Communist Party announced itself converted to unilateralism in May 1960. Until then, in pursuit if the party line that unilateralism destroyed unity and split the ‘peace forces’, militants like Abe Moffat were to be found speaking in favour of the official reight-wing TIC/Labour Party line against a CND resolution moved by Bert Wynn of the Derbyshire miners. The 1958 Labour Party unilateralist resolution from the Fire Brigade Union was also crushingly defeated by Communist Party administered block votes.

The following year, Nigel Young, in his comparative study of the New Left in Britain and the US, An Infantile Disorder? (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London: p. 154) wrote:

Communists had played little part in sustaining the first anti-nuclear protests.

Had the CP been in CND from the start, the story might have been more similar in England [to that in the US], but as it was, the initial embrace of the Party came not until 1960, after nearly three years of non-aligned campaigning when CND’s size and success were already assured. In these years, the old Marxist left had a weak foothold in the CND; they muddied its public image but they could not hope to control it.*

*A footnote was here: Indeed the Communist Daily Worker attacked rather than supported CND policy in its first years.

Willie Thompson’s history of the CPGB, The Good Old Cause (Pluto Press, London: p. 116-117), published in 1992, reiterated the same consensus:

The party had been initially opposed to CND. In the first place it had seen the new movement as a distraction from what was really important, namely disarmament negotiations between the Great Powers… The second reason for the party’s suspicion was that the Campaign was seen as a potential rival to its own front peace organisation, the British Peace Committee, and its youth equivalent, the Youth Peace Committee….

In the course of the same year [1959], however, the party leaders came to realise that the CP could not afford to hold aloof, let alone continue disdaining the movement, without the risk of being sidelined. In any case, since they were not specifically forbidden to do so, members had been getting involved with CND. The party’s attitude had been griping rather than denunciatory, it had enough sense not to discredit itself totally by treating the CND as an enemy organisation… Without any great travail, therefore, the party by 1960 had committed itself to CND’s support…

John Callaghan’s 2003 volume of the CPGB’s ‘official’ history (Lawrence & Wishart, London: p. 147), Cold War, Crisis and Conflict, also discussed the relationship between the CPGB and the CND:

At Easter [1958] a demonstration of around 4,000 rallied in Trafalgar Square at the end of the first CND march from Aldermaston… Communists (especially YCLers) undoubtedly participated as individuals in the following year’s demonstration. But it was not until 1960 that the Party leadership changed its mind and formally supported the Easter march.

The last volume of the Party’s history, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism, written by Geoff Andrews and published in 2004 (Lawrence & Wishart, London: p. 30) stated:

[A]fter initially opposing the unilateralism of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) when it was formed in 1958, the party had thrown its weight behind it from 1960.

A few pages later (p. 33), Andrews developed this further:

While the Communist Party remained opposed to unilateralism until 1960, on the grounds of pro-Soviet loyalty, YCL members were quick to endorse the movement, in some cases holding dual membership in Young CND and the YCL.

So from the literature before Seifert and Sibley’s book was published, the consensus seemed well formed that the CPGB were ‘late to the party’ regarding CND. Following discussion on the LSHG blog and then on Socialist Unity, I thought I’d look at the CPGB archival papers to see whether the Party had any internal discussions about the CND (and unilateralism more widely) to compare with the quotes found in the Party press by Seifert and Sibley. Using the microfilmed papers of the CPGB archive (originals held at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre in Manchester), I looked at the papers of the Executive Committee from December 1957 to July 1959 and the Political Committee from December 1957 to September 1959.


In March 1958, the Political Committee were to write a report for the Executive Committee on the political situation since the 25th ‘Special Congress’. In the notes for the report, the PC stated:

The Communist Party pledges its support to the efforts of all peace organisations, the meetings of the Nuclear Committee, the conference and the work of the B.P.C., the coming World Peace Congress.

(John Gollan, ‘Notes for Report to Executive Committee’, March 6, 1958, CP/CENT/PC/03/15, LHASC)

In the same month, Assistant Secretary George Matthews criticised unilateralism as often being too ‘liberal’ or ‘defeatist’, arguing that:

[E]ven if what the unilateralists propose were to become Government policy, it would not solve the problem of the H-Bomb, since American and Russian H-Bombs would remain. [Emphasis in the original text]

Matthews proposed that the focus should not be on unilateralism, but on trying to obtain an international agreement between the superpowers. Matthews wrote:

[T]he best way to rally the people to secure the banning of the bomb by Britain an all other countries, is to concentrate on the fight for international agreement. (George Matthews, ‘Unilateralism and the Fight for Peace’, 6 March, 1958, CP/CENT/EC/05/07, LHASC)

A draft political resolution for the upcoming 26th Party Congress prepared by the PC in October 1958 included this call for action:

Appeal to the Peace movement to unite, unilateralists and non-unilateralists, in a supreme effort to this end. [disengagement between NATO and the Soviet bloc in Europe] Unity of the peace movement and the Labour movement for these aims. 

(PC, ‘Draft Political Resolution’, n.d., CP/CENT/PC/04/07, LHASC)

By December 1958, the resolution had become more structured and firstly criticised the leadership of the official labour movement for splitting the movement over the issue of unilateralism:

Instead of placing Labour at the head of a great movement to secure the international banning of nuclear weapons, they have concentrated their fire against those advocating unilateralism and have utilised this issue to divide the peace forces.

The PC advocated that the key issue of the peace movement was ‘the struggle to end nuclear weapons and to achieve measures which would lead to a settlement in Europe, based on co-existence of the two social systems’, and argued that:

The immediate aims of the peace struggle should be to end tests for all time and achieve a measure of disengagement in Europe. Victory on these issues could pave the way for a more lasting settlement.

The resolution then concluded that:

Congress therefore appeals to all sections of the peace movement in Britain, unilateralists and non-unilateralists, to unite in a supreme effort to this end. It appeals for the unity of the peace movement and the Labour movement for these aims.  It calls upon the Communist Party to support all peace activity and increase its own peace activity on these lines.

(PC, ‘Draft Resolution for the 26th National Congress’, n.d., CP/CENT/PC/04/09, LHASC)

In January 1959, the PC created some topics for discussion in the lead up to the 26th Congress inside the weekly CPGB paper World News, which included several on the topic of ‘peace’. Although the document doesn’t indicate the Party’s position on the questions raised, they are interesting to note nonetheless:

(v) Isn’t it more important to get the Labour movement to act for peace than to spend time with the peace organisations?

(vi) Do we still believe peace is the central issue?

(PC, ‘Some Proposals for Pre-Congress Discussion in World News’, 29 January, 1959, CP/CENT/PC/04/10, LHASC)

Antagonisms between the CPGB and the TUC, as well as the CND, over the issue of the direction of the peace movement can be seen in an internal PC document from June 1959. The Party had dedicated a lot of effort to building support for a demonstration called for by the British Peace Movement for 29 June, believing that momentum could be sustained from the Aldermaston march in Easter that year. However the PC alleged that the ‘General Council of the TUC and the top leadership of the C.N.D. have both advised against support’ for the demonstration, but also commented that they believed that this advice was ‘being widely disregarded’. (PC, untitled document, CP/CENT/PC/04/15, LHASC)

In July 1959, the CPGB acknowledged the Aldermaston march as one amongst a number of events that showed ‘the widespread alarm at the nuclear dangers’ amongst the British public, but celebrated the ‘March for Life’ demonstration (which they claimed ‘the working class predominated’) as an example of ‘what tremendous efforts could be unleashed if only there were greater unity’. (PC, ‘Labour and the Bomb’, 11-12 July, 1959, LHASC)

However the clearest statement of the CPGB’s attitude towards the CND can be found in a draft political report for the 26th National Congress drawn up by the Executive Committee. The report stated:

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has brought into activity many from the professional and middle sections of the population, and played an important part in the general peace fight 

Its weakness has been that its leaders have held themselves aloof from the organised Labour movement, have often taken up a ‘anti-political-party’ attitude, have tried to impose bans and proscriptions, and have emphasised the issue of unilateral nuclear disarmament in a way which has tended to divide rather than unite the forces for peace.

There are many signs that these questions are being discussed by supports of the Campaign, in an effort to overcome the weaknesses which have been shown in its work in the recent period.

Our Party and the Daily Worker have always given the fullest support and publicity to all advocates of the Campaign, and will continue to do so, while criticising the questions of policy and tactics where we think it necessary in the interests of the peace movement as a whole.

We have given our full support to the Aldermaston March which is taking place this week-end, and we hope that it will be an even greater success and have wider repercussions than its predecessor last year.

But while supporting the C.N.D. and all other organisations fighting for peace, we are also aware that the interests of peace require an organisation like the British Peace Committee, which because of its policy and constitution, fulfils a role which none of the other organisations can.

It is an organisation trying to conduct continuous activity for peace, on all the major international issues, and not engaging in only spasmodic campaigning on particular questions.

It is all-embracing, imposing no bans and proscriptions, and inviting all who want peace to join its activities.

It recognises the key importance of winning the organised Labour movement into action for peace…

For these reasons we believe that the British Peace Committee deserves special consideration and help from all who want peace.

(EC, ‘26th National Congress Draft Political Report’, 14-15 March, 1959, CP/CENT/EC/06/05, LHASC)

What I haven’t been able to find the archival papers is the turn-out of the 29 June BPC demonstration. I am wondering whether one of the reasons that the CPGB got fully behind the CND in 1960 is that it may have been obvious that the BPC was losing momentum to the CND. I need to investigate whether there has been any research done on the BPC.

So why is the CND important in the history of the CPGB and the wider British far left? The CND, unlike previous single issue campaigns, could possibly be described as the first proper ‘social movement’ in Britain, which brought together people from various political backgrounds and classes to engage in political activism, that mixed traditional forms of protest, such as the Aldermaston march, with subcultural activities, such as folk and pop concerts, which attracted otherwise non-political youth. The CND simultaneously drew together people from the Labour Party, the new left, the Communist Party, and the various Trotskyist groups, as well as Christian peace activists and other progressives, which introduced the young people who became involved to a variety of different political ideas. As Celia Hughes wrote in her PhD thesis, the CND was an entry point for many young activists of the 1960s and 1970s into the world of politics: ‘the first radical social, cultural and political space in which socially-aware youngsters could invest an uncertain teenage identity; at odds with the conservative customs of home, school, and official state institutions’ (p. 96).

This concerned the Communist Party as they struggled to connect with youth in the post-1956 political environment, where the new left and the CND existed as attractive alternatives to the CPGB and the Labour Party. The CPGB noted the appeal of the CND to young people, who were potential Party recruits in a PC report in August 1958:

The large number of young people on the Aldermaston march and the overwhelmingly youthful composition of the march after the May 20th Lobby organized by the Nuclear Disarmament people, has been widely commented on.  Young workers, though not in sufficient numbers, were involved in our Party demonstration on March 1st and again on June 29th.

If young people, often students, clerical , and even young professional people, can be so inspired by a peace movement, will not a bold, clear and decisive lead for peace win a colossal response from the young workers?

But while young people were becoming politically active through the CND, they were not joining the Young Communist League, or the CPGB. In the same report, the PC lamented:

In spite of all the good discussions, decisions and intentions, the membership of the League is half what it was six years ago and there is still little attention being paid to winning youth on the part of the Party as a whole. Although over 200 recruits have been made to the League since April this year, this is not enough to replace losses and represents a rate of recruitment far below that which is possible.

(PC, ‘The Communist Party and Young People’, 28 August, 1958, CP/CENT/PC/04/05, LHASC)

In the history of the CPGB, the relationship between the Party, the CND and post-war youth is significant because it symbolizes the beginning of the gap that developed between the upper levels of the Party and the young people that did join the Communist Party after 1956. Firstly, youth culture became a central part in the politicization of post-war youth in Britain and the Party did not know how to react to popular youth culture. Secondly, the wider political and social milieu which the Party’s young recruits came from meant that they were more willing to challenge some of the traditionally held notions within the Party, with younger intellectuals leading the reforming push in the CPGB in the 1970s towards Gramscism and Eurcommunism. As I wrote here:

A major problem that the YCL (and also the CPGB) faced was the fact that the composition of the YCL membership was changing, with a greater enthusiasm for popular youth culture and identity-based politics… The membership numbers were also shrinking…

The first divisions between the CPGB and the post-war YCL had been over the ‘socialist humanism’ of the New Left and the appeal of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament… The CND brought together activists from varying political backgrounds, combining direct action politics with popular music and other artistic endeavors, which greatly informed politically informed youth in Britain over the next decade… The YCL was inspired by the CND, but the CPGB was reluctant to support the campaign… and the disunity over this support fuelled divisions within the League and he Party over the coming years.

So the story of the interaction between the Communist Party, the peace movement, the CND and British youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s is a complex one, and one that needs more research. Hopefully this post will help foster further discussion and possibly even some new research!

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