Issue 191 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
I start with Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. The hero is a far from celibate alcoholic priest. When he could escape from persecution and death over the (Mexican?) border he turns back because one of his parishioners needs him. That sounds a bit flat now. But it had a profound effect on an 18 year old brought up to understand that religion and respectability go hand in hand. Greene had other ideas.
Next I choose Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. It is a long time since I first read it on a Greyhound bus crossing the United States. I well remember the sense of relief I felt as I read it. At last, I thought, someone is thinking seriously about ways of directing indignation into effective public action so as to empower and change minds.
I read Alinsky at the right time. When I came to CND administration the Aldermaston Easter march had become an annual ritual about as effective as the boat race in political terms. It was time for a change. My guess is that the letter writing campaign, for instance, called the Press Gang, which committed thousands of ordinary people to write short letters to their local papers, did more to change public attitudes than many an outdoor demonstration. Marching up and down shouting. 'Maggie. 'Maggie. Maggie! Out, out, out!' may not be the only or best way of getting ideas over.
My third choice is not really a book at all. Much too short. But it had an electric effect on me and on many, many others. I refer to E P Thompson's Protest and Survive. I did not know that such writing existed. It raged with indignation and bristled with ideas. The title said it all: a take off from the Home Office's nonsensical patronising Protect and Survive. The latter was part horror and part comedy at the expense of the British people.
Edward's fuse was lit by a letter from an establishment academic which appeared in the Times. The writer said, in support of government policies, that we must show we are ready to accept 'the disagreeable consequences' of nuclear war. So I came to meet Edward Thompson and to admire one of the great minds and one of the most humane figures of our age. Only recently I have looked again at his essays in The Heavy Dancers, which Merlin Press produced in 1985, and wished that I had had the time, in those frantic days and nights, to pay attention to all he wrote. His reflections in one essay, 'The Liberation of Perugia', are as to the point today as when they were written. Disarmament is not an adequate goal on its own. We have to look beyond to a different world with a different culture and set of loyalties.
Lastly I choose the story of my hero, Franz Jägerstätter, which was so well told by Gordon Zahn in In Solitary Witness. Jägerstätter was a young Austrian farmer who was married with three small children. He was called to serve in the Nazi army in February 1943. Despite the advice of his parish priest and his bishop, both of whom wanted to save his life, he refused to take the unconditional oath of loyalty to the Führer demanded by the military. Jägerstätter made the lonely decision to refuse to serve in a war which he was convinced was unjust. He paid for this choice on 9 August 1943 when he was beheaded in Brandenburg prison. Gordon Zahn many years later, brought his story to the world.
The ripple effect of that courage still spreads. Daniel Ellsberg says that, when he was wondering whether or not to release the Pentagon Papers and so help to turn public opinion against the war in Vietnam, it was the example of Jägerstätter which helped him to take his own courageous step.
Those in the 'Swords into Ploughshares', movement in the United States and this country who have faced months and years in prison for direct action often acknowledge the power of the example given by a then unknown farmer in 1943.