ISSUE 29
SPRING 2000
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alex comfort

 
 


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- Sinister cults
- Intervention in Kosovo
- Children in war
- Collective amnesia
- Catching them young
- Alex Comfort

 


Alex Comfort, who died on 26 March, aged 80, amid much acclaim in the Press for a variety of contributions to society, in earlier days played a notable part in the radical wing of the peace movement.

Comfort dated his lifelong pacifism to his time at school, and with the coming of conscription in the Second World War he refused war service, as he put it, rather than saying he claimed exemption as a conscientious objector whilst pursuing his medical studies. He later described himself at that time as an aggressive pacifist, and was particularly trenchant about the Allied mass bombing of German civilian populations combined with the food blockade on occupied Europe. In a 1946 Peace News pamphlet, Peace and Disobedience, he wrote, ‘The democratic allies have reduced indiscriminate bombardment to a fine art. They have replaced famine, destruction and repression with repression, destruction and famine.’ He went on to argue that it is not enough simply to object at a personal level: ‘the political relevance of pacifism lies in its willingness to substitute [nonviolent] resistance for objection’.

He returned to the theme in a BBC broadcast in 1949, The Right Thing to Do, ‘[Your] responsibility is twofold – a positive duty to remember that you are a human being, and a negative duty of disobedience to irrational and inhuman instructions’. By this time Comfort was a regular writer for the Peace Pledge Union, becoming one of its honorary Sponsors. He was rapporteur of the Commission on Science in the PPU’s seminal Steps to Peace Conference in November 1949, arguing that the PPU ‘should try to encourage individuals or groups of scientists in refusing to undertake research which is directly military in character’.
Alex Comfort played a notable part in the PPU’s 1950 campaign against government propaganda for Civil Defence, purportedly necessitated by the Cold War. A leaflet signed by Comfort and entitled ‘Civil Defence – What YOU should do now!’ was pushed through as many letter boxes throughout the country as local members could manage: ‘If war comes, there will be no winner, no loser, and nothing to defend...We are not choosing between tyranny and war, but between tyranny, war and annihilation on the one hand, and the determination to find some way of dealing with totalitarianism on the other’. The leaflet caught the attention of the Press, and then the Home Secretary was questioned in Parliament; Chuter Ede described the leaflet as ‘defeatist’, but said he could not ban it.

In 1951 Comfort was a signatory of the Authors’ World Peace Appeal, but resigned from its committee when it began to be taken over by Soviet sympathisers. Later in the decade he actively supported both the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War and CND; when the Committee of 100 was formed, he went to prison for a month, alongside Bertrand Russell and others, for refusing to be bound over not to take part in the Trafalgar Square mass sit-down in September 1961.

Although increasing immersion in academic work, and a long residence in the USA, diminished Comfort’s peace activism, it did not diminish his concern. In a message to the PPU Conference in 1969 he wrote, ‘The fact of the new Revolution is this, that free, concerned and educated people are basically and rightly ungovernable, and that refusal to obey gratuitous orders is the stamp of this state of mind. This is...a revolution against those who, having allowed themselves to be non-people, want us to be the same.’

In 1990 Alex Comfort gave permission for part of his major book, Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950), to be reprinted as a PPU pamphlet. War is described as ‘by far the most important type of group-delinquency in contemporary societies. It is aboth an institution and a psychopathological entity.’ To which Comfort’s own response was as he put it in Art & Social Responsibility (1946), ‘Man against Obedience. Man against Death. If we cannot win the second battle, we can at least win the first.’
Bill Hetherington

 
         
         
     

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