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Communists and nuclear power

31 December 1986
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Resolution adopted by Workers Power conference, December 1986.

1. For Marxists the goal of communism entails the fullest development of the productive forces so that the material necessities of life are automatically available to all and not only to the tiny minority which is a characteristic feature of all class societies.

Capitalism, as the highest and most progressive form of class society based on private property, has witnessed the greatest quantitative and qualitative development of the productive forces, based on the application of science and technology. This development has not been an even and continuous process due to capitalism’s contradictory laws of motion. Its development is motivated not by planned satisfaction of human need but by the capitalist class’s competitive compulsion to increase the rate of exploitation and offset the tendential fall in the profit rate.

Thus, cyclical crises, longer periods of stagnation or expansion, wars and revolutionary upheavals have given the development of technology in particular, and the forces of production in general, an erratic, convulsive character. Successive scientific breakthroughs and their technological application within capitalism have both raised the productivity of human labour (and with it the quantity and quality of material goods) and intensified the exploitation of the labouring masses (and with it the inequalities of distribution).

The imperialist epoch has sharpened these contradictions. The productive forces have, in certain periods, expanded in certain countries and certain sectors of industry in a manner unimaginable during capitalism’s youthful epoch. In other periods they have stagnated as never before. But the epoch, as a whole, because it is the epoch of monopoly and world economy, has proceeded by way of enormous convulsions, antagonisms, sharp revolutionary and counter-revolutionary periods, of division and re-division of the world market.

It should therefore be obvious that scientific advances and any technological fruits that follow these advances are indelibly marked by the nature of the epoch and the period in which they occur. Electricity, radio, microchips, nuclear fission, have all revolutionised industry, communication and energy production. However, each scientific advance does not automatically find its most widespread application under capitalism, particularly in the imperialist epoch. The cramping nature of private property and the relations of production under capitalism restrict the application of new technologies to within the limits of what it is profitable so to do.

The widespread application of computerisation was unthinkable until after World War II with its enhanced conditions for profitable investment. On the other hand, the scientific breakthrough in robotics is incapable of widespread application in the renewed period of imperialist crises. The expansion of the civilian nuclear power industry in the 1950s and 1960s was itself based upon an optimistic view of the continued future of profitable accumulation, the expansion of production and the ensuing demand for energy. But the slowdown in growth and the two generalised recessions have closed the door on the economies of scale envisaged and required if the promise of ‘too cheap to meter’ energy was to materialise.

In this context, with only 13 percent of the world’s energy provided by nuclear power, the ‘revolutionising’ character of nuclear energy remains more an unfulfilled potential than actuality.

2. If the fundamental contradiction of capitalism is between the limitless expansive powers of socialised production (and on this basis the unlimited ingenuity of science and its potential for consciously controlling nature), on the one hand, and the cramping mode of private appropriation on the other, then this contradiction gives rise to others.

Production for profit rather than for human need means that capitalist production is also wasteful and destructive of the means of production themselves. It ruthlessly squanders the living forces of production—human labour. It also ‘masters’ nature in a destructive and thoughtless manner. These phenomena were visible even in the earliest period of capitalism where booms, crises, and wars saw the wanton destruction of machinery, of workers’ health and lives and the environment in both industrial and agricultural areas.

The working class was and is obliged to resist the destructive effects of blind capitalist production on itself fand its environment. After its constitution as a modern proletariat—i.e. after the disappearance of the last admixture of the old artisan class, the working class realised the impossibility of halting or reversing technological developments (Luddism) and adopted a different strategy, most clearly and scientifically expressed by Marx and Engels. It learns to fight not technological innovation itself but its destructive effects on the working class and its environment. This meant struggles to increase safety at work, to enact legal measures to ensure against environmental pollution, to prevent the sale of commodities injurious to health, etc. As the scale and universality of capitalist production has increased on a world scale, so has its destructive potential with regard to human life and nature. But the struggles of the working class over safety over nearly two centuries have succeeded in restraining and reversing countless dangerous elements of capitalism. The scale of the new dangers, in the nuclear and chemical industries require a higher stage of struggle than most previous ones. This fight poses not only legal changes within capitalism but a struggle to wrest control of these industries themselves from the control of the capitalists.

These struggles for safety are not simply immediate or ‘democratic’ but are transitional ones; ones that can only be fully successful to the extent that they join up with and help lead to the abolition of capitalist ownership of the means of production itself.

Thus, a qualitative expansion in the means of production, like nuclear power, necessarily brings with it a qualitative increase in the danger to humanity and this can only be met by a qualitatively different combination of tactics; namely, the struggle for workers’ control as a bridge to the overthrow of capitalism.

3. It is characteristic of the epoch in which the industry has developed that all the contradictions latent within this energy source have reached their sharpest pitch. In the split between the civilian and military use of this energy we have before humanity the prospect of either an abundant energy source which could help eradicated generalised want or a terrible weapon of destruction, a tool of imperialist imposed slaughter capable of destroying the seed of life itself. It is the task of the revolutionary working class to resolve this contradiction in its favour (for and on behalf of humanity) through the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

Historically, the main purpose in the construction of reactors was the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons, and the existence of a nuclear power industry facilitates the possession of nuclear weapons. But the lack of such an industry is not an insurmountable obstacle to any state determined to develop nuclear weapons.

As a technology and as an industry nuclear power cannot be abstracted from capitalist social relations any more than any other industry which involves risks to the health and safety of large numbers, or which, as with industries such as aerospace and electronics, are intimately linked to imperialist war preparations.

      4. We reject the claims of the ‘left critics’ of nuclear power who either assert that the industry in intrinsically and irremediably unsafe or who hold that a nuclear power industry should only be allowed to operate under a health workers’ state.

      The first position is metaphysical. By what criteria is the industry deemed beyond recall? By what scientific judgment? The revolutionary party is confronted with competing claims of pro and anti-nuclear scientists. The revolutionary party makes no claim to ‘command’ in the field of the separate natural sciences. It is obliged to restrict itself to drawing practical conclusions from the debates of the experts as they affect the immediate and long-term interests of the proletariat.

      This means subjecting these experts’ opinions to a rigorous test in front of the labour movement in conditions where commercial and state secrecy can be eroded and eventually abolished. Only in this process can the dishonest hirelings of the bourgeoisie or the petit-bourgeois pessimists be exposed.

      Only in front of a tribunal that has no vested interests in continuing capitalist recklessness, on the one hand, and on the other has no a priori commitment to closing down nuclear power stations, can the safety of the industry be established.

      We reject too the view that the technological fruits of science in the form of the nuclear power industry is in itself reactionary, that is, it can only be used for reactionary purposes. The position that technology, which is linked to militarism or, more generally, the offspring of the imperialist epoch, is therefore reactionary technology ignores the contradictory development of technology and again abstracts from the social use of technology under definite class relations, (do we reject radar because it is a byproduct of militarism?)

      Under capitalism it has been the struggle between competing capitals and between capital and wage labour which produced successive waves of new technology. The quest for higher productivity on the one hand, the determination of workers to resist death, degradation and mutilation on the other, has resulted in refinements and replacements of technology. Competition and class conflict have been the far from impartial handmaidens of scientific development. The nuclear power industry is not immune from this law of history!

      5. What then are the responsibilities of the ‘vanguard of the vanguard’ in this area? We are the memory of the class, we seek to embody its historical generalised experience. We do not abandon our responsibility to lead. We must convince workers that the bourgeoisie is a reactionary class whose contempt for the future is proven by its carelessness in regard to the dangerous effects of the nuclear industry. We should not seek to minimise the dangers of nuclear power, nor exaggerate the preparedness of the bourgeoisie to deal with major accidents in the industry. The record of minor accidents, of near ‘meltdowns’ over the last thirty years in Europe and America, the deaths and ecological destruction from Chernobyl and lack of concern about the long term future of high-level waste disposal are proof of this. A class which is conditioned by its frantic concern for next year’s profit ledgers cannot be trusted with the future of humanity hundreds and thousands of years from now!

      But against this record we must set down the equally terrible record of many other industries; of Bhopal with its 3000 deaths and 200,000 serious injuries; of ‘Chernobasle’ in Switzerland which killed off 200 miles of the Upper Rhine. The opponents of nuclear power do not call for the total closure of the chemical industries, but merely an inquiry or its ‘restructuring’. This indicates an irrational extension of the genuine fear millions feel about the dangers of nuclear power, which in part stem from a grasp of the horrendous consequences of nuclear war.

      The safety of workers in the industry and the safety of future generations of working people mesh and find a common focus in the struggle to impose safety standards within the nuclear power industry. Here we should remember that it is not the case that the party leads and the class follows; the dialectic of the relationship means that the class, or this section of it, must also teach the party how to concretise its demands out of the living experience of daily life. Thus, our safety proposals in the struggle for workers’ control must have a provisional character; the final word on what is an ‘acceptable level’ of radiation contact, what structural improvements/containment vessels are adequate etc. cannot be settled now by our propaganda.

      6. Those ‘left critics’ who want a shutdown now and an opening up under a healthy workers’ state have effectively abandoned the method of transitional politics. The struggle now to improve and impose safety measures upon the bosses pushes forward new scientific and technological developments. Under capitalism, if our masters wish to retain their cherished industry, then under the hammer blows of this struggle they will be forced to refine and improve their industry; if they decide that the cost of concessions is such an intolerable pressure upon their profit margins that they stop building new plants or close down existing ones, then we will fight to stop them closing these plants if such action would be at the expense of the workers in the industry or the mass of consumers. We are not blind and wilful optimists; we are revolutionary realists. We do not say that a safe industry is compatible with capitalism. Cheapening the technology of safety, bringing nearer the day of nuclear fusion, or closing down certain plants—all these are possible outcomes of struggle. But whatever the case, the fight for safety prepares the ground for a safer nuclear power industry under a workers’ state just as the struggle for workers’ control in that industry helps prepare the ground for a workers’ state itself.

      The struggle for transitional politics, for workers’ control, builds a bridge to the consciousness of workers in the industry. These workers are not simply bosses’ agents; they combine a respect for the fears of the class as a whole with a determination to hold onto their jobs in an age of mass unemployment (and an age of scepticism about the ability of trade union leaders to find them ‘alternative employment’). But this method also builds a bridge between the workers in the industry and the working class community at large. In short, it unites the working class against a common enemy.

      Of course, our programme for the nuclear power industry is not guided by sectional interests. We cannot sacrifice the interests of the whole class to those of one section. Just as we will not tail the spontaneous opposition to nuclear power of many miners, so we cannot allow nuclear power workers’ complacency about safety to prevent a vigorous campaign for workers’ control over safety.

      The ‘left critics’ are imbued with a two-fold pessimism. On the one hand they reject that there are remaining reserves within this mode of production for technological advance; on the other hand, they have not fully broken with the pessimism of the petit-bourgeois opponents of nuclear power who have long spurned the revolutionary capacity of the working class.

      7. Our action programme for nuclear power must start from a recognition that the issues involved and the struggles that occur are international in character. We reject the national-centred and myopic view of the SWP (GB) and Militant whose propaganda and programme starts and finishes with a concern for the British situation.

      The struggle in the semi-colonial world has a contradictory aspect all of its own. On the one hand, the desire and need to satisfy their energy requirements in desert areas, far from the coast and with no fossil fuels underlines the progressive potential in nuclear power for these countries. On the other hand, an element of the anti-imperialist struggles in Pakistan, India, South East Asia or Latin America involves a fight against reactionary governments conspiring with multinationals who find no market in the imperialist countries (e.g. the USA) for their (often unsafe and out of date) technology. The fight for stringent safety measures and workers’ control in the construction of the plant is doubly important in these countries.

      8. The transitional programme for the nuclear power industry begins with the fight to change the defensive, economic struggle of the nuclear power workers into the struggle for workers’ control, not just of ‘health and safety’ but of production in the plant. This assumes immediate relevance where accidents occur inside the plants. In this context we fight for:

      The central element of our programme however is the demand for a workers’ inquiry. The demand is applicable both generally into the nuclear power industry of a state or region, and specifically when new reactors, dumping sites, reprocessing plants etc. are proposed, or when an accident occurs. The main purpose of the workers’ inquiry is to unite the nuclear power workers, the communities affected, the organised workers’ movements, youth and progressive sections of the middle class around the struggle to render waste products safe, impose workers’ control and veto in the proposed plants, on the process of construction. Should the workers’ inquiry find types of reactor or dumping inherently unsafe, or unsafe as planned by the capitalists, then the struggle becomes one to shut down/prevent the building of them. In this struggle, the battle needs to be generalised to the class as a whole. We fight for mass strike action as the key to this. Whilst we will take part in mass physical confrontations and occupations of sites, we fight to win the best elements in this to the working class strike action.

      The demand for a workers’ inquiry, whilst placed on the capitalists and the state in the first instance, may also take the form of first winning the workers’ movement to the inquiry, then fighting to implement the demands of the inquiry. In either case it should not be allowed to be simply an inquiry of pro-nuclear trade union bureaucrats petit bourgeois environmentalists but of the rank and file representatives of plant workers, building workers, working class womens’ groups and representatives of the working class communities affected by local plants.

      9. The Labour Party tries to look both ways on the question of nuclear power. It is forced to give expression to the genuine fears of its supporters and yet is intent on reassuring the nuclear power chiefs that a future Labour government will not impose harsh conditions on it or impede its plans. We must fight for the following:

      10. In the USSR the nuclear power industry, while not subject to the laws of profitability, has been expanded in the 1960s and 1970s under the direction of a bureaucracy that has cut back on safety standards. As the bureaucracy diverted its oil and gas resources into a means of earning hard foreign currency, it built plants at breakneck speed, on the cheap. The consequences are to be seen in Chernobyl. Bureaucratic mismanagement has been aided and abetted by cracking down on dissent and even blocks the means of communication within the bureaucracy itself, making it particularly inept at taking effective preventative action. Chernobyl shows that the Stalinist usurpers must be overthrown by a political revolution if nuclear power is to be harnessed in the transition to socialism. As a consequence, we fight in the USSR for:

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