Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners

Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

August 22, 2017
9 min read


Jane ShalliceJane Shallice is a writer and activist


Jenny NelsonJenny Nelson is a Red Pepper web editor.


  share     tweet  

The first ever exhibition looking at the anti-war movements in Britain from WW1 to the present runs until 28 August at the Imperial War Museum. ‘People Power: Fighting for Peace’ displays letters, paintings, photographs, and documentary film, together with all the paraphernalia of political actions, banners, posters and badges in a compelling overview of decades of activism.

The exhibition looks as far back as the introduction of military conscription in 1916. We learn that the strength of the opposition to war during this period – whether from religious or political reasons – ensured that in the run up to WW2, there was greater support for conscientious objectors, despite many people deciding the fight against fascism was crucial. Much of the exhibition is focused on CND, women’s actions at Greenham Common airbase and later Stop the War.

Ernest’s work is prominently featured. He grew up in a politicised household; Doris Lessing was a friend of his mother, an he was in contact with characters such as American writer Clancy Sigal, and Raphael Samuel, one of the founders of the New Left. Sixty years ago Ernest helped refurbish the Partisan Coffee house in Soho, the UK’s first political coffee bar with meeting rooms above. So he offers a broad view on the anti-war movement with a little more insight into the political left than the Imperial War Museum provides.

Resisting military conscription

“I was at college when I was called up for National Service and decided I didn’t want to have anything to do with armaments and the British armed forces. Most of the conscientious objectors acted on religious grounds, I think I was the third person who refused military service on nuclear grounds,” says Ernest.

The first section of the exhibition focusses on the treatment of conscientious objectors, the principles they stood for and the campaigns to support them. They were treated brutally during WW1 but the movement forced the state to accept that people had a principled opposition to fighting and needed to be dealt with differently. By WW2 more conscientious objectors were being accepted and allowed to do alternative service.

Ernest’s grandfather was a conscientious objector in WW1 when the most severe punishments included imprisonment, hard manual labour and even execution. He was not a pacifist and in front of a tribunal argued that it was a capitalist war. By the 1950s Ernest himself faced a tribunal: “I was asked ridiculous questions like what would you do if people were raping your mother or your wife? My answer was that I would not go off and kill the brother or sister of the person who had done that. I would not contribute to extended warfare. I was clear I would not spread the violence. There were old fuddy gentlemen – retired businessmen – who would ask dry formulaic questions and I found it difficult to make my case because I was not a pacifist. I took that stand against being in the armed forces because they were dependent on nuclear weapons and using them would mean the end of civilisation as we knew it. It would be the amount of killings that nuclear weapons involved and I wasn’t prepared to support the doctrine of ‘an eye for an eye’.”

European peace festivals

Ernests’ mother Joan Rodker was also politically active and helped organise peace gatherings across Europe. The camaraderie of a huge festival in Moscow had an impact on him;

“Youth festivals were organised by the Communist Party in different capitals of Eastern Europe and when I was at technical college, I decided to go to a festival in Moscow. It was an amazing experience. It was the first time that Moscow had opened itself to people from around the world. On arrival, we were driven around the city in lorries and young peace activists from all over were greeted by about 2 million people who had turned out. They were roaring their approval and jumping on to the lorries and we were hauling them up crying “Peace and friendship! Peace and friendship!”

Ernest didn’t join the Communist Party and of those he knew who had been members, many left disillusioned, critical of the Soviet Union and Russia’s suppression of Hungry in 1956.

The Aldermaston anti-nuclear marches

Thousands marched over fifty miles from London to The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire. The first major march in 1958 was organised by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) and supported by the recently formed CND. Starting in Trafalgar square, it took four days to complete the route.

Organising meetings were held in the basement of the Partisan coffee house. Ernest remembers:

“I took responsibility for printing 180,000 leaflets and arranging three loud speaker cars per day to tour around London in the run up to the event. We drove slowly through central London and Soho with a sound system and I was threatened with legal action for making too much noise, but nothing came of it.”

On the first day of the march a good crowd had gathered, then on the second day, news reports claimed that the march was a failure, drawing only small numbers. But that news item encouraged many others to come out and join in, so by the evening of the second day it was clearly a success. Along the route people volunteered their houses and shared their food.

CND and the Direct Action Committee of 100

As people learned more about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — facts and pictures were circulated and people started to understand the full effects of the bombings — the anti-nuclear issue surfaced and built-up until it burst with young people and the disillusioned of all ages. By the early 60s the membership of CND and the size of the Aldermaston marches had become huge, “there was a sudden explosion of people feeling dissatisfied and wanting to do more than just read about it”, says Ernest.

He was one of the first to join the Committee of 100 against all nuclear weapons, a group that aimed to up the ante and were prepared to break the law. With Bertrand Russell as a leading signatory they called for mass nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. In one instance a sit-down protest lead to 800 arrests, filling most of the police stations across London – footage is shown in the video interview below.

(The badges pictured above were designed and sold by Ernest to raise campaigning funds).

Vietnam solidarity

Vietnam was the next catalyst for the anti-war movement and it brought thousands out on to the streets. Dramatic demonstrations involved tearing down iron railings in central London and dodging repeated charges by mounted police. Some participants remember it as a cathartic and energising expression of rage, but divisions played out as CND distanced itself from the perceived violence. There were also tensions between those demanding peace in Vietnam and others who identified more with a national liberation struggle than a ‘peace movement’. Ernest remembers the chants ringing out down Oxford Street: “2, 4, 6, 8, Who do we really hate? 6, 7, 8, 9, Destroy the Americans in our time!”.

The Vietnam Solidarity campaign was infected by the spirit of ’68 and Ernest helped raise money to send streams of activists over to Paris, many travelling with cars of food to “feed the resistance!”.

Looking backwards, we move forwards

In terms of lessons to be learned and what a new peace movement could look like, Ernest remains ever optimistic; “People feel a certain anger and at a certain time. These things have an internal combustion, that you can’t organise. If one person feels it why shouldn’t others?”

There were clearly moments when there was a feeling of success or strength in the peace movement, but it’s debatable how far it was successful. Perhaps we would have seen more wars if it wasn’t for the protests. ‘Victory’ can also be seen in the cross pollination of the ideas and skills of into other areas: for instance, many people who participated in the mass mobilisations took their new-found skills and confidence back to their local communities to campaign on housing and health issues. Ernest himself was involved in publishing a local radical newspaper called Pavement.

He recalls an upsurge in squatting in the 50s and 60s and says “The internationalist dynamic did generate a huge amount of interest in socialist ideas. I got involved in housing in the Wandsworth Community Workshop which had links to other groups across the UK… As for “ victory” I think you organise and put in as much effort as possible. You want to win your battles but part of the winning is politicising people and then you just don’t know what the victories will be.”


The above video was recorded in 2013 by WMD Awareness for the #TalkingTrident project. The People Power: Fighting for Peace exhibition is running until 28 August at the Imperial War Museum.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Jane ShalliceJane Shallice is a writer and activist


Jenny NelsonJenny Nelson is a Red Pepper web editor.


What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament


28