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Politics and the Peace Movement

Metta Spencer (interviewer) — October 1984

Metta Spencer: Paula, you say you don’t believe in electoral politics. Why not?

Paula Rochman: Just look at what happened on Tuesday, all the effort that was put into the election, and look what’s happened. Now we have a Prime Minister who thinks the Russians are ahead in nuclear weapons, who’s for increased defense spending, who’s for everything we’re against. So, all that effort of focusing on electoral politics, I don’t think it was a waste, but obviously we didn’t get what we wanted.

Beth Richards: Why don’t you think it was a waste?

Paula Rochman: I don’t believe that you can tell people to just abandon electoral politics, to just ignore that whole process. I think you have to take people through it and then they will say, “What a waste of time’‘’, but I think that is something that people have to see on their own, get frustrated by it, and then realize that it’s just not worth it.

Metta Spencer: What’s your alternative?

Paula Rochman: This is something that we’re all struggling with right now. I personally have a commitment to a strategy of civil disobedience. I recognize that there are a lot of impracticalities about it, and I recognize that there are a lot of people who aren’t willing to do it, and that it is very draining on peeople’s personal lives ‘and professional lives. But personally it’s what I believe has affected the most people; it’s the most honest thing to do.

Graeme MacQueen: I certainly agree in considering civil disobedience and related tactics to be sometimes. very useful and also honest. I’m not sure about electoral politics. I was

skeptical about the Peace Petition Caravan Campaign. I think you’re right – that it didn’t work in the sense of getting a majority government which was in favour of peace, but I think sometimes electoral politics has been important to social change in the past in a curious roundabout way. To give a concrete example, suppose that Reagan gets elected and decides to go for Central America. Or if Sinclair Stevens was in External Affairs – it might make a difference. Potentially it does make a difference. I had to think about this when Ellsberg came and said he was really into the electoral thing, that he thought it would make a big difference if Mondale was in.

From one point of view I think Mondale and Reagan are interchangeable, but from another point of view I say “now wait a minute.” If I were in EI Salvador and Nicaragua right now, would I really be saying they were interchangeable? I wouldn’t because I don’t want bombs dropped on me. And so from one point of view we have to be careful because even a little bit oJ relief for people who are being blown away in the Third World, for example, something to give them a breathing space, can be worth it.

Paula Rochman: I don’t negate that. I think the problem with electoral politics is that people think that, when the election is over, they’ve done their democratic political thing now for five years.

Matthew Clark: There were a lot of people who felt, with the (Vietnam) anti-war movement, that you could chart militant anti-war activity in an inverse relationship to whether there was an election on. Whenever there was an election, the movement fell apart for six months or a year, and then it took six months or a year to get back together and to have a flurry and then there’d be another election and the bottom would drop out again. That certainly supports what you’re saying.

Beth Richards: I don’t know. I don’t understand how civil disobedience could be the alternative. I’d like to hear that elaborated. For example, when we’re talking about elections as just this one day a year when people think they’ve done their thing to make it a better society – demonstrations can have the same effect. You come out to one peace rally a year and that’s your thing for peace. Couldn’t civil disobedience be the same thing? You come out for your one or two civil disobedience actions, get arrested, spend a few days in jail, come out. and that’s your big romantic thing for peace for the year?

What I think you’re implying is needed goes deeper than civil disobedience, something like an entirely thorough educational process, a kind of personal life-change, so that individuals begin to understand the relations between the arms race and their daily lives, in terms of their pay cheques and social services, and in terms of relationships between men and women, however militarism affects that. So the alternative to electoral politics seems to be something that’s extremely long-range and thorough, a deep kind of social change that has to happen on many fronts, including electoral politics, demonstrations, civil disobedience, education in the schools, the labor movement, doing studies on economic conversion, elc., etc., etc.

Paula Rochman: I realize part of that. I disagree with your saying that people who do civil disobedience do it as just a one or two day thing, though. Most of us are middle class people. We have never been affected by the jail system. We hear stories about jails, we hear these things, but we’re basically not affected by them in our society every day. And just about everybody I know who’s gone through civil disobedience, who’s gone through the legal system here, is appalled by it. And I think that feeling doesn’t just go away two days later.

Beth Richards: So you see that as part of the thorough educational process that I’m talking about?

Paula Rochman: I just know, since I’ve participated in civil disobedience, how many people it’s affected. Just talking about it. If I say I’m going to a demonstration, I don’t find that that has any effect on people. It’s safe. I mean, you’re not chalIenging anything

People don’t care if we demonstrate. But they do get upset if you keep going back and just challenging the fundamentals of what they are doing. I mean, obviously there’s an education process, but the point is, what inspires people to educate themselves? What inspires people to hold politicians accountable?

Matthew Clark: I want to get back to the electoral question just for a second. There seems to be one situation anyway – complex and not unambiguous – in which there was an electoral movement that had some kind of impact: the electoral process leading up to the election of Lincoln. It lasted over a long time, with three political parties forming, two of them dropping away, one of them staying around. In the 1830’s there was a lot of non-electoral abolition politics, and then in the 1840’s and 1850’s it became increasingly electoral under the leadership of people who had been part of the non-electoral abolition movement. Some of them went into the electoral movement and eventually they came up with a mildly abolitionist president, which turned out to be the crisis point. I’m not saying it’s unambiguous or that it led to the political situation one might have desired, but still something was happening there.

Beth Richards: And don’t you think that-in our election – well, I’m totally cynical about the main reason why a lot of the Liberals came out in favor of the freeze. For one thing, the freeze is a safe issue, because it has nothing to do with Canada. And for another thing, having nominated Turner, who was basically the establishment right wing of the Liberal party, they were afraid that they had lost the left-Liberal votes, and peace was the safest left-Liberal issue to win back that vote. So I’m very cynical about the reasons why they supported the freeze, and I don’t attribute it to the hard work of the peace movement. But some Liberals and also a few Tory M.P.s did come out in favor of peace, and this makes them somewhat accountable. It doesn’t help that much, but it helps a little bit, and that’s how the peace movement grows. I was really happy with the results despite my cynicism.

Paula Rochman: But I think the point is, now we have to hold those people accountable. I mean, look at someone like Jim Coutts. At the (Spadina) all-candidates meeting, he endorsed the nuclear weapons free zone, but he said Litton had nothing to do with it. He went on and said there are no nuclear weapons in Canada. And then when I phoned him at his office, he had a different line – all of a sudden Litton was part of the nuclear weapons free zone, there were nuclear weapons in Canada.

Matthew Clark: Yeah, that’s because we put some pressure on him.

Bob Penner: There are different ways of evaluating tactics. I think that commonly they are evaluated in terms of how they influence people or policy immediately. That has some importance, but I really think tactics should be evaluated on how they help the movement. And so I. think the peace issue in the election campaign was successful – phenomenally successful – because of all the attention that was drawn to that issue. It’s not so much what the politicians thought. It’s what everybody else thought about it. The way change is achieved, in my understanding of history, is by the activity of large numbers of people over a long period of time. That’s what does it. I don’t think there’s any particular hierarchy of tactics. I mean, different tactics serve different purposes.

Say, you had an anti-cruise demo and that didn’t stop the cruise, is it wrong? That’s not the point. You had an anti-cruise demo and you mobilized people around that issue and you educated them. And you had an election campaign and you didn’t elect that pro-disarmament candidate to Parliament, but that was never on the agenda. Nobody thought it was. What it did do was raise the issue for public discussion for millions of people at a time when they were most apt to publicly discuss things.

Beth Richards: It’s great education.

Bob Penner: I mean, everybody’s compelled, or almost compelled, whether they participate in politics at any other time, to do It during an election. So our role is to intervene in that and say, “Here’s something we want you to discuss too.” And that was successful.

Paula Rochman: But what was discussed? There was really no connection made between the issue of peace and jobs and the economy. We have to get to the point where people see it’s the same issue. All the people were blathering away about bringing down the interest rates, which we all know is not going to happen until the Americans have decreased their military spending. But they were allowed to be separated as issues, because there’s this nice motherhood issue: Support the freeze.

Graeme MacQueen: I agree with that one. It. was quite clear the issues were separate. They would do little polls on who wants more jobs and who wants peace, and they were very distinct. And in the debates, too, they were treated as totally separate issues.

Okay, as far as I am concerned, we use elections, we use any opportunity when things are being discussed in public. We use it for sure. But we have to evaluate it by seeing, has consciousness been raised or lowered? And that’s where I have trouble on all these issues. Let’s say we win something on the freeze. We get some government or other to say, “Fine, we’ll go for the freeze.” Okay, what has happened to the consciousness of most people?, Why have they voted for that? What has been their image of the world? When I look at some of the literature on this I wonder whether it is leading them to what I think is the proper intellectual development or stunting it.

Matthew Clark: Can I ask a more specific question: What about the literature that you see? Do you suspect it stunts rather than develops?

Graeme MacQueen: Number one, it alienates the issue of peace, as we’ve been saying, from other issues. It makes no tie-ins. No tie-ins with unemployment, no tie-ins with oppression of people in our society and in the Third World, no tie-ins with military intervention. It doesn’t talk about conventional weapons and the threat there, it has no class analysis at all, it says nothing about what democracy means or the fact that there’s a relatively small elite and that about it. It never even touches any of those issues, but simply says, “Yes, folks, you’re scared of the Russians, and you have the right to be, but here’s one way to stop them, we can get them to agree on a freeze. They’ve said they’ll agree with it so for God’s sake, let’s go for it.”

I don’t think that you can be purist and say everything at once, but are you taking people even a little step in the right direction? I was reading carefully the literature put out by Operation Dismantle on the freeze, and some of it I thought was great and some of it I wasn’t so sure about. I mean, there’s no reason why the Canadian public should believe us. Why the hell should they? They’re being lied to, swindled, all the time – not only by the government, but by all sorts of little groups, right? So we come to them and say, “Hey, we’ve got the real facts on disarmament; we’ve got the real facts on peace,”

Will they believe us? I don’t think there’s any reason they should. So we’ve got to make ourselves believable. We’ve got a lot of things going against us, in terms of who we’re confronting in this whole issue. They’ve got physical violence, they’ve got media, they’ve got all sorts of things. But I think we’ve got (righteous as it may sound) the facts, morals on our side. So for God’s sake, let’s use them.

Matthew Clark: One thing has interested me in some of the discussion around P2C2 – it happens quite frequently that someone will come up to me and say, “What are you fooling around with such a completely corrupt, bourgeois style of politics for?” And they assume that my motives are completely different from what they really are. I mean, there’s nobody here who’s a gung-ho electoral politician, you know. And I don’t think in the P2C2 there are many people who are. Almost all of the people who are involved in it see it as a tool, a vehicle to get somewhere else, And I’ve been kind of disturbed. I don’t mind disagreeing; people can honestly disagree about tactics. It isn’t that they disagreed. It’s that they didn’t see what we were doing. That’s really bothered me from the very beginning. And you know you can’t get up in the middle of a campaign and say publicly, “Well, this is what we’re really doing, you know.”

Metta Spencer: Could you elaborate a little bit on what you think you are doing?

Beth Richards: Can I answer that? The people who give you those lines should just come to the meeting of a trade union local and hear how this campaign has been an incredibly effective tool in getting this educational process going which we were talking about. When I first started doing this campaign in the locals, I had no idea what kind of success it would have.

The most important way of ensuring its success in the trade unions was to make the links. Peace on its own would just fall flat on its face. It had to make the links to real life – jobs, social services, the struggles of the labour movement over the years.

I found that, with the petition, people were forced to get into a debate. If you just give them a flyer, or tell them to come out to an action at Litton, or whatever, or give them some material to read, 99 percent of the time they don’t read it. You know, who wants to? You just get too much of that sort of stuff. But a petition, where they have to sign their names/to it, they really start talking about it and the links are automatically made, Every single local meeting I’ve gone to where this question has been raised, the demands are raised. And when the demands are raised, the links are made. For example, the third demand concerns wasteful spending on the arms race. People start saying, “Well doesn’t this mean that.. workers are going to lose their jobs? We get right into the whole economic question.

Graeme MacQueen: How do you feel about the criticism that that kind of process reinforces certain unfortunate ideas people have? I’m getting back to one of the objections Paula had – that we the citizens have to petition these “leaders” in government, especially Ottawa, to please maybe let us survive for a few more years. A petition is just that. In terms content it may be good
but in terms of process, the deep stf1lctural things that it’s inducing people to be of a petitioning mind, of a voting mind.

Beth Richards: Can I just answer this in terms of the labour movement? None of the people in the peace committees in union locals has ever thought that this petition would actually make a nuclear weapons-free zone in Canada. None of them even think too much about what the M.P. is going to say when he gets it in his hand. We don’t even talk about that. All of us, when we look at October 20, the end of the campaign, we see it as the beginning of a new stage in labour’s commitment to peace. This campaign has been an educational process; I haven’t seen anybody fall under the illusion that we’re going to have a nuclear weaponsfree zone when the campaign ends.

Bob Penner: Well, I believe there are lots of people who think that. It’s not my orientation in the campaign, but I think a lot of people believe in petitions. The argument that you (Graeme) raise is a common argument and I totally disagree with it. When you say “Doesn’t this reinforce belief in this kind of tactic?” That argument means that any tactic that is not absolutely revolutionary can be evaluated that way – a demonstration, civil disobedience – anything. You can say about civil disobedience – “doesn’t CD just reinforce that this one company has so much power?” You can always say that about any tactic “Doesn’t it reinforce?” The direction of that argument is the wrong way around. It’s that people believe in those things anyway: People believe In electoral politics, people believe in petitions. What it does is go to people where they are and move them the other way. They already believe in all those things, so by their participation, they have a chance to move elsewhere. And if you look back at your own political experience, what’s radicalized you, I don’t think people will say they’ve read something which changed their mind. I think that people are educated, and that consciousness is raised, by their activity or their experience.