The campaign to discredit and sabotage Jeremy Corbyn has reached new levels of absurdity, following his “disrespectful” bow at the Remembrance Day service. Central to their attacks has been Corbyn’s opposition to Trident, the UK’s nuclear weapons system. James Kilby looks at the issues behind Trident and nuclear weapons.
“Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.” General “Buck” Turgidson, (Dr Stragelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964).
The campaign to discredit and sabotage Jeremy Corbyn has reached new levels of absurdity, following his “disrespectful” bow at the Remembrance Day service. Anxious to remove Corbyn as soon as possible, the ruling class have stepped up their campaign to discredit him, focussing particularly on his “military policy”. In short, the ruling class want nothing less than a faithful servant, ready to bomb whoever and whenever, in order to protect their profits and interests.
Central to their attacks has been Corbyn’s opposition to Trident, the UK’s nuclear weapons system. The Trident arsenal is made up of four submarines, each carrying up to 40 nuclear warheads. Each of these warheads is eight times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There is one submarine on patrol somewhere in the world at all times.
It is no exaggeration to say that if used, 160 warheads would result in a nuclear winter that could eliminate all life on the planet. This is a striking reminder of the dead-end of capitalism – that such enormous resources are spent developing and maintaining a technology that, if ever used, could destroy the whole world.
The existing nuclear submarines are due to reach the end of their life in the 2020s. The issue of replacement is therefore a hot topic in politics, particularly given the enormous costs involved; especially so when the bankers and their Tory representatives are demanding massive austerity. It is estimated that to replace Trident like-for-like would cost over £23 billion to construct, and over £100 billion to operate over its future lifespan.
Full replacement is the preferred option of the Tories, who campaigned on this basis in the 2015 general election. Ed Miliband’s campaign was unclear on the issue; although in favour of keeping the system, he hinted at reducing the number of submarines from four to three. The Scottish Nationalist Party, who swept up north of the border, campaigned to abolish the whole system.
It is with this background that Jeremy Corbyn included the demand to scrap Trident during his campaign to become Labour leader. This is no surprise, since Corbyn has been a supporter of nuclear disarmament since his teens. Indeed he has been the vice-chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) for many years.
Corbyn won the Labour leadership by a landslide, because he gave an expression to the discontent of millions of people in Britain who are against the establishment, against austerity, and against the Westminster elite.
The ruling class are noticeably panicked. It is one thing for the CND to campaign for nuclear disarmament. But when the leader of the Labour Party does so – a mass organisation of the working class; a party that has been in power on several occasions – it is another thing entirely.
Within hours of his victory, the Tories published a statement that Corbyn was “a threat to the economy, national security, and your family”! The renewal of Trident became one of the main points of attack against Corbyn. Even before his victory, Labour MPs and shadow cabinet members said they would resign if he did not backtrack on the issue. The issue of Trident therefore cuts to the heart of the interests of the ruling class and their representatives in government.
The ruling class have a problem, however: Corbyn’s programme is extremely popular. Even on Trident, a majority of Britons support its abolition – particularly so in Scotland, where the weapons are based. On the other hand, however, Corbyn is almost completely isolated within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Corbyn only had the backing of about 20MPs to get on the leadership ballot; and of those, only a handful are what could be described as genuine “Lefts”.
Most of the Labour MPs still represent the past period of Blair and co. The Labour Party is full of right-wing careerists, who want to see the party as a safe pair of hands for big business. They have no conception of socialism, and no confidence in the working class to change society. As a result, they easily succumb to the pressure of the ruling class to blunt any possibility of the Labour Party becoming a threat to their profits.
Although Corbyn has the support of the overwhelming majority of the membership, he felt obliged to put these right-wingers into his shadow cabinet. Thus Maria Eagle, the new shadow defence secretary, and Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, have come out in support of Trident, as well as Tom Watson, the deputy leader.
As part of a compromise with these types, Corbyn suggested that he would be prepared to allow a free vote on the issue at the most recent Labour Party conference in September. The trade union leadership, however, blocked the discussion and vote on the issue at the conference. The parochial position of the leaders of the biggest unions – such as Unite and the GMB – is that Trident must be renewed in order to keep British jobs – as if a Labour government couldn’t find plenty of jobs in green energy, construction, education, and healthcare with the £100bn saved by abolishing Trident!
Over half the jobs involved in Trident are for engineers and scientists. Imagine what could be developed if the talents of those involved were put to socially useful work. The CND estimate that:
“This money would be enough to fully fund A&E services for 40 years, employ 150,000 new nurses, build 1.5 million affordable homes, build 30,000 new primary schools, or cover tuition fees for 4 million students.”
In reality, the leaders of the big unions do not support Corbyn. They reluctantly backed him in his leadership campaign, due to pressure from their members, and would have preferred to give their support to Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper.
Now, with Corbyn at the helm, these big union leaders – such as Len McCluskey, Dave Prentis, and (Sir!) Paul Kenny – are worried about there being a confrontation with the ruling class, which they desperately want to avoid at all costs. Used to the period of social peace from the past, many of these leaders fear that Corbyn will re-vitalise the trade union movement, which will put them under pressure to come out and fight for their members against the Tories and their austerity.
Most of the Constituency Labour Parties also rejected discussing the renewal of Trident, since the delegates to the last conference would have been elected during the pre-Corbyn days, and were thus more a reflection of the past period.
Press the button
Since discussion of the issue at conference was prevented, Corbyn then went on record as saying that if he was elected as Prime Minister, he would never authorise the use of nuclear weapons – i.e. he would never “push the button”.
“There are five declared nuclear weapon states in the world. There are three others that have nuclear weapons. That is eight countries out of 192. 187 countries don’t feel the need to have a nuclear weapon to protect their security; why should those five need it themselves? We are not in the era of the Cold War any more, it finished a long time ago.”
He also pointed out that nuclear weapons “did not do the United States any good on 9/11”.
This has led to all sorts of hysteria from the ruling class, including their apologists within the Labour Party. Immediately, Hilary Benn, Maria Eagle, Andy Burnham, and Lord Falkoner waded in to criticise him, calling into question his ability to become the Prime Minister.
Even before Corbyn’s statement, an “unnamed serving general” in the British Army, announced to The Times that in the event that Corbyn becomes Prime Minister “you would see a major break in convention, with senior generals directly and publically challenging Corbyn over vital important policy decisions such as Trident”.
More recently, the head of the UK armed forces, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, said he would be worried by any prospect of the Labour leader’s views being “translated into power”.
“The whole thing about deterrence rests on the credibility of its use,” Sir Houghton said. “The purpose of the deterrent is that you don’t have to use it because you successfully deter”.
Corbyn correctly attacked the general for intervening in politics; however, we should be clear that the army is not and has never been a neutral force. The state is a product of class society, and consists in essence of armed bodies of men, prisons, courts, etc., organised in defence of the private property of the ruling class. The military coup by General Pinochet against the left-wing government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 is a brutal reminder of this.
General Houghton does have a point, that if the purpose of having nuclear weapons is to deter another country from using them against you, and the one person with authority to use them publicly commits to never do so, then the supposed effect of deterrence is lost.
However, the real question is – what threat are nuclear weapons actually supposed to deter? In order to answer this, it is necessary to look at the history of Trident, and ask a further question: why do states go to war in the first place?
Trident was put in place by the Thatcher government in 1980, and has been operational since 1994, replacing an earlier submarine-based system launched during the cold war. Its stated aim was to provide “the minimum effective nuclear deterrent as the ultimate means to deter the most extreme threat”.
What threat is this? In theory it was supposed to be the threat of the Soviet Union launching a nuclear attack on Europe. It was argued that in such an event, the USA may chose not to strike back, so as to not risk reprisals against its own population.
“The continuation of politics by other means”
In reality, this threat of nuclear attack from the USSR never actually existed. States do not go to war for fun. As the Prussian military strategist Clausewitz observed, “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. In other words, issues that cannot be settled by diplomacy (which often involves the implicit threat of force) are of course settled by the actual use of force.
The “Cold War” was a clash between two fundamentally irreconcilable economic systems: capitalism, based on the exploitation of the working class, versus the nationalised planned economy of the USSR.
Although the Soviet Union had started out as a democratic workers state – having come about as the product of a revolution involving millions of workers and poor peasants – it degenerated over a number of years due to the economic backwardness of Russia, and failure of the revolution to spread internationally.
These are the primary factors behind the development of Stalinism, i.e. the development of a massive bureaucracy standing on top of the nationalised planned economy, which more and more stifled the economy and led to all sorts of distortions.
The bureaucracy became an extremely privileged layer, and thus had no interest in expanding the revolution internationally, but turned instead towards the theory of “socialism in one country”.
In essence, this was an acknowledgement to the capitalists around the world that the USSR would not threaten them or their interests. Stalin even went as far in 1943 to dissolve the Communist International – the organisation established by Lenin and Trotsky as the vehicle of the world revolution.
Unlike the imperialist powers, which due to competition depended on gaining ever greater access to markets for their goods, the bureaucracy of the USSR did not require expansion. Therefore the bureaucrats were happy not to upset the world balance of forces, but to simply maintain their spheres of influence.
They had no interest in launching a war against Western Europe, or the USA. To do so would have risked the complete destruction of the USSR, due to the nuclear capabilities of those involved.
Even if the war remained a “conventional war”, in the event that the USSR won such a war, and removed capitalism and landlordism from Western Europe, it is highly unlikely that they could have installed Stalinist regimes there in the image of Moscow, due to the strength of the working class organisations in such countries.
More likely would have been the workers taking power, which would likely have sparked a political revolution at home. This would have resulted in the removal of the bureaucracy, and the restoration of workers democracy.
So was deterrence against the USSR really the reason for the UK developing the bomb? Perhaps this was the case in the minds of some of the politicians at the time, but it was unlikely to have been the main reason for the serious strategists of capital.
The logic of imperialism
So what other reasons could there have been? As stated earlier, war is the continuation of politics by other means.
It was the USA that first developed the atomic bomb during the Second World War. It is also the USA that is the only country to have ever used it, having dropped bombs on both the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In Hiroshima alone, it is estimated that up to 166,000 people were killed by the end of the year after the bomb was dropped, and approximately 70% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. At least another 80,000 were killed in Nagasaki.
The propaganda by the Americans was that they were dropped to bring short the end of the war. But the war was effectively over for the Japanese before these bombs were dropped. The real reason was to send a message to the USSR that the Americans possessed such a deadly weapon, and were prepared to use it on civilian populations.
It was in this context that the USSR developed their own bomb, at the risk of facing extinction from the USA. Thus began the insanity of the “arms race”, whereby trillions were spent on amassing ever more powerful destructive weapons that would never be used, but which could cause the destruction of the whole planet.
Over the next 60 years or so, the following countries also developed nuclear weapons: Britain, France, Israel, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1992, Russia continued to hold onto its nuclear capabilities, although other former Soviet republics gave up their weapons.
Note that it is either the biggest imperialist powers (the USA, UK, France), or countries locked in struggles with their neighbours or wider enemies (Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and historically Russia and China) that have developed nuclear weapons.
“My gun is bigger than yours!”
It is no coincidence that the five “declared” nuclear states under the non-proliferation treaty of 1970 are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This helps illuminate why the British ruling class (and those of other imperialist countries) are so keen on nuclear weapons.
The idea that Russia, or North Korea, or China are going to launch a war against the UK is laughable, with or without nuclear weapons. As noted above, the ruling class of a country does not go to war for fun, but to pursue definite economic and political aims. To launch a war that would risk the destruction of their (and their enemies’) working classes, not to mention their industry, would therefore be extreme folly.
Similarly, the idea that without Trident, the UK would be subject to “nuclear blackmail” from such countries is also absurd. Is Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, or any other non-nuclear country subject to such blackmail?
Rather than deterrence, the real motive for possession of nuclear weapons for the major imperialist powers is to maintain their prestige and influence on the international stage. In a system based on competition by the imperialists to carve up their own pieces of the world market, it certainly helps in their bullying of smaller countries if they have the most deadly weapons in their arsenal to act as their credentials for such harassment.
Consider the United Nations (UN). Rather than existing as an organisation for the prevention of wars, it is in fact a club for the major imperialist powers to assert their dominance, and a talking shop for smaller countries to vent their spleen against the more powerful.
When the UN was established, shortly after the Second World War, the UK was still a major industrial power, with a worldwide empire. Although in decline in the previous period, the war was the final blow to Britain’s status as a world superpower, which was then replaced by the USA.
It was the post-war Labour government of Clement Atlee that gave the go ahead to the development of nuclear weapons in Britain. This was clearly an attempt to puff up Britain’s status, in order to be able to punch above its weight in the arena of international relations. This is reflected by Britain’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Fundamentally the same situation exists today. The only difference is that Britain’s status as a world power is far smaller than ever. Its manufacturing base has largely been destroyed by a completely degenerate ruling class, which is more keen on speculation in property and the stock exchange than actual production. Furthermore, its military and working class is completely demoralised or fed up due to 14 years of imperialist adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence the inability of David Cameron to intervene in Syria today.
As an imperialist power, the bulk of Britain’s domination over other countries is through finance capital, i.e. through the banks and the world market. But that doesn’t mean that the imperialists do not require a military force, in order to back up their threats to smaller countries, and protect their existing interests. They therefore want all the weaponry possible at their disposal, including the most destructive and deadly technologies.
For a nuclear-free world!
Of course we support Corbyn in his demand to scrap Trident. It is a colossal waste of money, which serves no purpose other than to inflate the status of our ruling class in matters of world diplomacy – i.e. the plunder of smaller countries by the imperialists.
However, we should have no illusions that were Britain to unilaterally renounce nuclear weapons, any other country will follow suit.
One of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism is the nation state, which is too small to offer a market and resources for the colossal productive forces that can be developed within each territory. Hence the antagonism between the ruling classes of different nation states, over markets, raw materials, spheres of influence, etc.
As long as there is capitalism, there will be nations and competition between these nations over profits, markets, resources, and influence; and this means the need for the imperialists to maintain their nuclear arsenals as a tool for their domination. In the final analysis, therefore, the struggle for nuclear disarmament is inextricably linked to the struggle for socialism.
Major wars between the big imperialist powers are ruled out due to the class balance of forces within each country: the working class in Britain, or America, or France, has no interest in fighting each other, and would not put up with it. However, this does not rule out all sorts of smaller wars, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria today.
Socialism must be international, or it is nothing. This is not for sentimental reasons, but is due to the fact of the worldwide division of labour that capitalism has created.
Marx and Engels pointed out in the Communist Manifesto that “workers have no country”. How true this rings today – as a class, we have far more in common with workers from other countries than we do with our own national ruling class!
This can be seem from the fact that every major revolutionary movement that has been led by the working class, has never stopped at the national frontiers of that country. For example, the Russian Revolution of 1917 quickly spread to Germany and the rest of Europe. The same applies for the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, which quickly spread across the whole of North Africa and the Middle East.
Only with the victory of the worldwide socialist revolution, will we be able to do away with the military as a force for imperialist plunder. On the basis of a voluntary worldwide socialist federation could we actually put an end the development of weapons of mass destruction, and move instead to a system based on the cooperation of workers across the planet to transform the world.
We therefore support Corbyn in the struggle to abolish Trident in Britain. But we must point out that the only way to abolish nuclear weapons worldwide is to abolish the capitalist system, a system based on the antagonism between classes and nations. The campaign for nuclear disarmament is a fight for international socialist revolution.