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Vol. 75/No. 13      April 4, 2011

What social class can meet
energy needs of billions?
(feature article)

The following is an excerpt from “Our Politics Start with the World,” by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. It is based on a talk Barnes gave to a 2001 international socialist conference in Oberlin, Ohio. We are reprinting here the section that presents a working-class position on nuclear power, an issue under debate as dangerous radiation is released from nuclear reactors in Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The full talk appears in issue 13 of New International, a magazine of Marxist politics and theory. Copyright © 2005 by New International. Reprinted by permission.

Since the mid-1970s, the Socialist Workers Party has opposed the production and use of nuclear power in the United States. We’ve held this position because the owners of capital and their government are incapable, by the laws that drive their system, of placing human beings above profits in addressing the questions posed by the operation of nuclear power plants: the design and operation of nuclear reactor cores to prevent meltdowns, the manufacture and redundancy of secure containment vessels, and the disposal of radioactive and other toxic waste products.

But our position is political; it isn’t based on the half-life of an atom. Marxists start from the historically demonstrated capacity of human beings to transform nature, raise the productivity of social labor, and advance the accessibility of civilization and culture to more and more of the world’s toilers.

That’s the main thing that’s wrong with Fred Halstead’s argument in What Working People Should Know about the Dangers of Nuclear Power, a pamphlet we’ve used as part of our propaganda arsenal for more than twenty years. From the pamphlet’s very first sentence—“Nuclear power’s special danger to health, safety, and even life itself can be summed up in one word: radiation”—to its very last—“[W]e can end nuclear power’s threat to the very existence of the human race”—it approaches the safety issues posed by nuclear energy and radioactive wastes as immutable facts of nature, not as social and political questions that can be addressed and solved by the toilers. It does not start with where the development of nuclear power—and the questions of safety, health, and environmental degradation posed not only by it but also by alternative energy sources—fits along the line of march of workers and farmers toward the revolutionary struggle for national liberation and socialism on a world scale. It is in large part a valuable layman’s explanation—atomic diagrams and all—of the ABCs of nuclear physics: what’s an atom? what causes radiation? what’s the difference between fission and fusion? how do reactors work? and so on.

The point is not that much of the basic information in the pamphlet is necessarily wrong (although the virtual dismissal of the damaging health and environmental consequences of coal combustion, including the production of carbon dioxide waste, is certainly mistaken). But the pamphlet avoids the central political questions the revolutionary workers movement needs to address. Nuclear power will continue to be developed. The question is what class will end up guiding this process and in whose interests.

The competition of capitals, the drive to maximize profits, spurs technological innovation under capitalism and will continue to do so for as long as this social system exists. At the same time, these same laws of capital accumulation press the employing class to subordinate (and often suppress) scientific and technological developments that would benefit competitors—and the producers—in order to maximize profits. In the process, capitalists display wanton disregard for the health and safety of workers and the broader population. Nor do they care one whit about the long-term or short-term consequences for the natural environment.

A testimony to the barbaric, antihuman character of capitalism is the reality that many of the greatest advances in science and technology, including nuclear power, are byproducts of the rulers’ preparations for war and mass slaughter. That’s been the case throughout the history of class society, in fact, but the consequences in the imperialist epoch genuinely threaten the existence of humanity….

Given the unmet energy needs of billions across the globe, especially in semicolonial countries; the rising extraction and refining costs of the world’s oil resources; and accumulating and accelerating damage to the earth’s atmosphere from the burning of oil, coal, and other fossil fuels, nuclear reactors will be used to generate a growing percentage of the world’s electrical power in the twenty-first century. That’s for sure, and necessarily so. The question is how long will the design and construction of containment vessels, the monitoring of reactor operations, and disposal of atomic waste products—with all the consequences for public health and safety—be carried out by governments beholden to the imperialist ruling families and other capitalist exploiters. How long before these vital matters, including the eventual transition away from nuclear power toward other, safer energy sources yet to be developed, will be organized by workers and farmers governments acting in the interests of the great majority of humanity. The stakes in the resolution of that question—an outcome that will be settled in historic class battles—could not be clearer.

The dangers of nuclear power are not an argument against its potential benefits in advancing electrification of the world, but an argument for organizing the toilers to take power from the hands of the capitalist exploiters. The communist movement does not have “a position on nuclear power,” for or against. We have a proletarian internationalist course to advance the revolutionary struggle for national liberation and socialism. Along that road, vanguard workers in the imperialist countries make clear to the people of the semicolonial world that we reject the politics of our own ruling classes and support the extension of electrification to the billions around the earth who are forced to live and toil without it. We will fight to win the workers, farmers, and middle-class layers we can influence to understand and support this course as well.
Related articles:
Capitalism’s toll mounts for workers in Japan  
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