Peace conversion

from Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984); this is the revised 1990 version.

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Peace conversion means changing from military production to production for nonmilitary uses. Equipment used to produce bullets is adapted to produce nails. Scientists designing missiles turn to designing mass transit systems. Machinists making military aerospace components switch to making heating systems for the poor. Psychological warfare experts turn their attention to helping people learn how to recognise and resist propaganda.

It is not enough to assert that an alternative to military production exists. A way of moving towards this alternative needs to be spelled out as well.

Peace conversion involves carefully analysing the material and human resources involved in war-related production, formulating an alternative use of these resources, and making the shift towards the alternative. Peace conversion focusses on transformation away from war, overcoming the fixation on the horrors of the present and the seeming idealism of long-term alternatives.

Not everything can or should be converted for nonmilitary uses. There are some facilities and products of the war system which must be abolished or destroyed, such as supplies of napalm, skills in torture and plutonium factories.

Peace conversion as a concept and as a practice has several characteristics which are subversive of the roots of war.

Questioning of production

The concept of peace conversion invites searching scrutiny of current priorities of production. If military production and related activities are to be questioned, then why not question other harmful or wasteful practices such as planned obsolescence, promotion of cigarettes and other harmful drugs, mass advertising, centralised energy production, high-technology curative medicine, and stultifying schooling and working conditions? The idea of peace conversion challenges the myth that the economic system, whether the economy works on alleged market principles or by bureaucratic planning, is automatically beneficial. In its place is put the idea that workers and members of local communities should be directly involved in deciding on economic priorities.

Just as important as the concept of conversion is the practical experience gained in conversion campaigns: experience in analysing economic production, formulating alternative directions, mobilising support and confronting vested interests. This experience provides support for and gains strength from other social movements seeking changes in political, economic and social priorities.

Worker-community control

Peace conversion is a natural component of campaigns for worker and community control of production. The key roots of war are forms of social organisation which channel power into the hands of elites. Worker and community control involves workers and members of relevant communities actively participating in, controlling and implementing decisions about how production should be organised. This includes both economic production and the wider supports for it such as child care, schooling, medical care and consumption of goods. Worker-community control thus presents a fundamental alternative to and fundamental challenge to the hierarchical structures underlying war.

Struggles for worker and community control lay the basis for successful peace conversion, while the struggle for peace conversion contributes to the extension of worker and community control.

Spreading of skills

Conversion of military production to less harmful production is aided by the spreading of knowledge and skills in how to dismantle and reconstruct production systems. Military preparations depend to a fair extent on secrecy in areas such as weapons design and intelligence information. There is also an extensive division of labour, from the computer specialists designing missile trajectory programmes to the machinists making missile components. Only a few top planners can gain a comprehensive picture of military production. The spreading of skills in questioning, analysing and redesigning production systems helps undermine the power of elites that is strengthened by secrecy and the technical division of labour.

The spreading of knowledge and skills is a strong support for peace conversion. Once workers and communities know what is happening, know about alternatives and know how to make the change, they are ready for direct intervention to change production systems, for example by directly shutting down military production and setting up for nonmilitary production.

More widely, preparation for peace conversion can be seen as a part of wider preparation for running the economy at the level of local communities. This preparation can be the basis for a campaign to change the economy, or serve as a reserve capacity for self-managed production to be invoked in a social crisis. Learning how to run the economy clearly is a threat to the power of economic and political elites and hence to the war system. Of course, to prepare to run the economy in a more locally self-reliant way requires considerable preparation and also models of alternative economic and political organisation, which as yet are not well developed.

People's disarmament

Even if governments were to agree to completely disarm and major steps were made towards this goal, the whole process could be undermined by one or more governments hiding a few key weapons, nuclear weapons for example. The possibility of such recalcitrance is routinely invoked as an excuse for not disarming in the first place. Furthermore, even if complete disarmament were achieved, current and future knowledge on weapons construction (for example, possible breakthroughs in laser enrichment of uranium for making nuclear weapons) would mean that even small governments or non-government groups could produce powerful weapons secretly.

The conventional solution to this problem is inspection. Yet the usual degree of inspection envisaged would not be enough to uncover a few hidden nuclear weapons or to prevent the manufacture of biological weapons in ostensibly nonmilitary research laboratories. But if inspection systems were powerful and pervasive enough to thwart such problems, the inspection operation would be the equivalent of a powerful secret police.

The alternative to inspection by outsiders is people's inspection and people's disarmament. Everyone in every context would be responsible for making sure that previous weapons were dismantled and that no new weapons were produced. Anyone becoming aware of weapons or weapons production would as a matter of course notify others and help organise community action to expose and stop this. People's inspection and disarmament would need to become a common and well-established social expectation, voluntarily undertaken, rather like support for relatives or neighbours during natural disasters. This approach has the great advantage that the people cannot readily be bought off or fooled, unlike small contingents of official inspectors.

The reality of people's inspection and disarmament is a long-term goal. It would require considerable erosion of knowledge barriers embodied in professional specialisation. Otherwise, for example, a small group of technologists could possibly hide a weapons project. Clearly, people's disarmament would be difficult to sustain in the face of repressive state force: social defence would need to be well advanced.

People's inspection and disarmament is a natural extension of peace conversion. The capabilities, participation and motivation for these processes are very similar.


Relevant experiences

Is peace conversion possible in a technical sense? Can machinery and skills be redirected without massive expense and disruption? The answer to these questions is yes, according to the evidence. Both at the beginning and ends of wars, national economies have shown a remarkable capacity to retool for different products in a short period of time. The major obstacles to peace conversion are not technical but political in the widest sense, namely the vested interests of corporations and state bureaucracies in particular types of production. Peace conversion plans serve to discredit some of the excuses offered for not disarming, namely that the economic disruption would be great and that the economy depends on war production for stability.

The idea of peace conversion has a long history, as the slogan 'from swords into ploughshares' suggests. Typically, peace conversion has been raised by peace movements as a demand, bolstered by logically argued cases prepared by sympathetic researchers. The limitation of presenting peace conversion as a demand is that conversion is seen as something implemented from the top, in particular by governments. The idea seems to be that once a government agrees with the necessity or desirability of disarmament, then peace conversion plans will be brought out of closets and used in implementing the government's programme, thereby minimising economic disruption.

Peace conversion as a logically argued case and as a demand presented to governments is fine as far as it goes. But, as I argued in chapter 1, it is futile to expect more than superficial changes towards eradicating the structures underlying war to be implemented by those in the elite positions within those structures. Furthermore, by concentrating on the narrow economic logic of peace conversion, an economic logic which is closely tied to prevailing structures, many of the characteristics of peace conversion most subversive of the roots of war tend to be avoided or glossed over. In particular, by focussing on peace conversion implemented from the top, the connections with worker-community control, spreading of knowledge and skills, and people's disarmament are submerged.

To have some chance of success in the long term, peace conversion needs to be developed as a grassroots campaign that involves workers and local community members in planning for, preparing for and implementing conversion. Several initiatives around the globe have shown what is possible in this direction.

The University of California Nuclear Weapons Laboratories Conversion Project (UCNWLCP) was one example. This organisation focussed on the two United States nuclear weapons design laboratories, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory, both nominally under the supervision of the University of California. The UCNWLCP was based in the San Francisco region in which the Livermore lab is located. It had a small but active membership, and drew support from several local organisations such as the War Resisters League. The UCNWLCP researched the activities of the nuclear weapons labs and the skills of their workers, and formulated a set of suggestions for nonmilitary use of the facilities and skills found in the labs. Its activities generated a considerable amount of publicity and drew attention to the role of the lab managements in opposing a comprehensive nuclear weapons test ban treaty and in fostering technological initiatives which stimulate the nuclear arms race.

In 1981 the UCNWLCP in effect disbanded, and a new group, the Livermore Action Group (LAG), was quickly formed with many of the same people and some new ones. Many of the efforts of the UCNWLCP were continued by the LAG, but with much more emphasis on large-scale demonstrations and civil disobedience. There were several demonstrations with thousands of people, and over a thousand people were arrested in a civil disobedience action in 1983. These efforts were aimed at directing public attention and mobilising people against the weapons labs. One reason for the shift from the UCNWLCP approach to the emphasis on direct action by the LAG was a feeling that conversion by means of research, persuasion and publicity was an unrealistic goal while the Reagan government was in office. But within the LAG there has been considerable discussion about the emphasis to be placed on civil disobedience and the emphasis to be placed on community organising and developing political skills and understanding.

In Toronto, Canada, the Cruise Missile Conversion Project (CMCP) pushed for the conversion of the Litton Industries plant in nearby Rexdale, which produces guidance systems for cruise missiles. The core of the CMCP was an affinity group of 8 members. It operated by consensus procedures, sharing of all tasks, sharing of feelings, and discouragement of hierarchy and discouragement especially of domination of men over women. Members of the group regularly distributed leaflets to workers at the Litton plant, spoke at public meetings and did door-to-door canvassing in the neighbourhood. With the support of other groups, the CMCP organised rallies of up to a thousand people, and also organised civil disobedience actions focussed against the plant.

Both the UCNWLCP/LAG and the CMCP are good examples of peace conversion campaigns. Both questioned the economic and human priorities embodied in military research and production. Both saw the necessity of gaining the support of at least some workers in weapons labs or factories, although this was one of their greatest difficulties.

It was a great advantage to the UCNWLCP/LAG that a few researchers at Livermore took a public stand against some of the priorities and activities of the labs. For quite a few years the only Livermore researcher to do this was Hugh DeWitt. Because of his outspokenness, DeWitt came under severe pressure from Livermore management, and it is probably only because of the many individuals and groups in the wider community that have supported him that he has not been sacked.

DeWitt is an exception: he is one of the very few Livermore workers sympathetic to conversion. Both the UCNWLCP/LAG and the CMCP tried to encourage the establishment of networks of supporters of peace conversion inside the weapons labs or factories. And they sought advice from workers in developing their campaigns. But the degree of active support from inside the labs and factories for peace conversion was low. Before looking at some of the reasons for this, another example is worth some discussion.

Lucas Aerospace in Britain is a large corporation whose main production item is aerospace components. In the mid 1970s, shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace were apprehensive about major cutbacks to the workforce. The shop stewards had come together from 13 different trade unions and 15 different sites in Britain to form the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards' Committee, which had had some success earlier in opposing retrenchments. The Combine adopted a strategy of drawing up an alternative corporate plan, to protect jobs and job skills. The plan involved a shift to production of more socially useful products such as road-rail vehicles, heat pumps and devices for remote handling rather than components for military aircraft. The alternative corporate plan was developed by the Combine with the involvement of many workers in collecting information on skills and equipment and in contributing ideas on alternative products. Implementation of the alternative corporate plan was resolutely opposed by Lucas management: the plan clearly represented a threat to their power and prerogatives. In addition, little support for the alternative plan came either from the Labour Party (when it was in government) or the trade union hierarchy.

The Lucas Aerospace workers' initiatives have been widely publicised and have been highly influential in stimulating similar initiatives in many other parts of the world. Here I only raise a few points in relation to peace conversion.

The alternative corporate plan for Lucas Aerospace was presented as a logical argument: as a way to protect jobs and job skills and to provide social benefits. As part of the bargaining package, the plan included profitable socially useful products as well as non-profitable but socially useful products: the Combine was basically interested in 'social profitability,' not narrow corporate profitability. It is not surprising that taking the plan to Lucas management, the elite group with the greatest vested interest in the status quo, led nowhere. Taking the plan to other elites, namely government elites or trade union bosses, fared only a little better. The plan received the greatest acclaim and support from community groups, especially the peace movement and the alternative technology movement. This experience adds support to the approach of promoting peace conversion through grassroots campaigns rather than by appeals to elites.

In each of the three examples above, a key priority of the main organising group has been to gain some support from workers. This task is probably hardest at the nuclear weapons labs, since most scientists identify themselves as professionals and resist organising for collective action but instead do their technical work for whoever is the paymaster. In addition, professional scientists typically have more years of schooling and are more conditioned to bureaucratic environments and operating within the system as it exists. For the factory workers at Litton Industries at Rexdale, there is likely to be more responsiveness to attempts to organise for conversion. The primary obstacle there is jobs and livelihoods: a serious obstacle indeed. In both these cases, the primary initiative had to come from outside groups.

The shop stewards who have promoted the alternative corporate plan for Lucas Aerospace also made gaining support from workers a top priority. Their efforts were more successful than elsewhere. Partly this is because the Lucas workers are highly skilled and involved in small batch production, giving them both relative freedom at work and solidarity. This meant they were more able to envisage and carry out a conversion plan. But most importantly, the plan was established and was always designed to protect the workers' jobs. In many ways the Lucas workers were in an especially favourable situation for supporting a conversion initiative. By comparison, the workers at Livermore and Litton Industries quite reasonably saw conversion as a threat to their jobs: if military production was cut back, retrenchment rather than conversion was more likely. (Ironically, the threat of retrenchments at Lucas receded when British military aircraft production picked up in the late 1970s.) Another problem is the lower level of worker solidarity and union radicalism in North America compared to Britain and other European countries.

But even if significant numbers of workers at Livermore or Litton Industries came to support conversion plans, what next? The lesson of the Lucas plan is that more is needed than worker and community support. Most managements and governments oppose conversion. They have an array of methods to help them do so, including stalling, dismissals of key activists (as in the case of Mike Cooley at Lucas Aerospace), harassment, use of spies and provocateurs, transfer of production, and shutting down production. Here are some possible directions for campaigns on peace conversion.

Making alternative products

Instead of waiting to convince elites to implement conversion, workers or communities could go ahead and start making the alternative products both inside and outside existing factories. If done carefully and competently, this could serve as a demonstration of the viability of the alternative. At the same time it would mobilise those involved in practical activity that challenges military production. Lucas workers did a bit of this in developing prototypes of some of the products which they had proposed in the alternative corporate plan.

This could be carried much further, by trying to develop a regular programme of alternative production, even if on a small scale. Of course such a programme would come under heavy attack from managers and governments. But if developed, it would have the great advantage of being a going enterprise that had to be attacked, rather than being prevented from being implemented. That is the advantage held by military production presently. It is also the reason why antiwar movements are more successful in opposing new initiatives in the arms race (such as the antiballistic missile) than in opposing established weapons and in shutting down existing production facilities.

Spreading knowledge

Knowledge about production processes is presently monopolised by managers and hired technical experts. This knowledge includes knowledge about the technical organisation of production, personnel management practices, criteria for investment decisions, contracts and other interactions with corporations and governments, and marketing arrangements. Collecting and making this knowledge available to workers and members of local communities would be a vital advance in challenging military production. The knowledge could be used to challenge prevailing patterns of production, to plan alternatives, and to develop tactics taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of management. For workers or outsiders to gain knowledge normally restricted to management often shows the incompetence or superfluousness of management, and gives confidence to workers and communities to challenge managerial prerogative. Spreading knowledge is also essential to developing a participatory challenge to military production.

Preparation for direct disarmament

If people's disarmament is to occur, then it must be prepared for. This means learning about how weapons and weapons factories can be disabled (as well as converted) and about the likely methods that would be used by elites to oppose this. It means spreading information about direct disarmament not only at home but also in 'enemy' countries. It means organising groups to be ready to undertake these tasks. The requirements would not be very great. Disconnecting power circuits or, if necessary, smashing vital machinery will often be the most that is required. Wrenches, screwdrivers and wooden sticks may be the only equipment needed.

The opportunity to carry out direct disarmament would probably not arise except in exceptional circumstances, such as conditions favouring social revolution. But the preparation itself would be valuable in focussing attention on the requirements for people's disarmament and in challenging the sacredness of military facilities. Of course, this sort of activity would be ruthlessly opposed and claimed to be spying and subversion against the 'national interest.' The extreme response to protesters who have taken token but nevertheless unmistakably direct action against military equipment is indicative. This response is also indicative of how important it is to elites that workers and communities restrict their antiwar activities to verbal dissent and symbolic action.

Taking over production

If conversion is not implemented from the top, then it will come about through people's direct action to take over and convert production. Peace conversion campaigns can aim to provide information and stimulate organisation and initiative for the long-term aim of direct action to take over production. As in the case of direct disarmament, this is likely to happen only in a crisis situation. But organising with this possibility in mind is a good way to move in a direction which provides maximum challenge to the roots of war.


Difficulties and limitations

Peace conversion, though simple in conception, must confront a number of theoretical and practical difficulties. Here I outline a few of these.

Limited involvement

Peace conversion has had the most appeal in areas where obvious and major military-related production is taking place. In regions far from major military production, such campaigns may seem much less relevant. Another problem arises in areas totally dominated by military production, where the social basis for opposition is weak. The community-based UCNWLCP/LAG campaign is based in the San Francisco metropolitan area, near the Livermore lab. In Los Alamos, a small town dominated by employment in the Los Alamos lab, no strong community-based campaign is evident. By the same token, the parts of peace conversion campaigns involving community action and support are vulnerable to geographical removal of military production to remote regions.

Worker vulnerability

Workers involved in conversion efforts are very vulnerable to reprisals. Hugh DeWitt is an exception in being able to speak out and retain his job in spite of low support for his position within Livermore. In many cases outspoken or socially active workers will simply be fired unless they have the strong support of the whole factory, workshop or lab staff. In some cases even whole workplaces can be dismissed. There is a need for:

The alleged necessity of military production

Peace conversion campaigns are usually based on an argument for disarmament. Thus they are vulnerable to attack based on real or alleged military threats from enemies and all the other arguments against disarmament. This can be partly overcome by linking peace conversion with social defence. Social defence plans and preparations would give workers and local communities knowledge and skills for pursuing nonviolent action campaigns towards peace conversion. Conversely, peace conversion plans and campaigns would provide the basis for converting military production once social defence became a well planned and prepared method for resistance.

Work organisation

Peace conversion campaigns usually focus on what is being produced: missile components or bomb designs rather than insulation or models for participatory town planning. There is a danger that conversion of what is produced will not be accompanied by conversion of how things are produced. Will workers continue to work in narrow roles under the arbitrary authority of managers and bureaucratic planners? Or will they be involved in collectively organising their own tasks and deciding on production methods and priorities? How things are produced is vitally important. Indeed, the present control over the form and content of work by a small elite of managers and planners is a feature of the inequitable political and economic structures which underlie modern war.


Jobs are a key to peace conversion: the need to maintain employment can be either an obstacle or an incentive to development of conversion plans. But the very idea of a job (paid work under someone else's direction) is part of the problem of unequal political and economic power. The idea of a job, as distinguished from the idea of work, assumes bosses or some other form of control from the top. To develop plans for conversion which maintain jobs does not challenge the roots of war sufficiently. What is needed is formulation of a different way of distributing the output of the economic system to those who need it, and a different way by which people can contribute their labour. The basic model favoured by peace conversion advocates usually involves greater state participation in economic processes, but this holds little potential for overcoming war, since states are a central part of the war system. What is required is grassroots economics: coordination of economic production and distribution by the workers and communities. Relatively little work has been done on what this means in practice.

Human needs

Peace conversion is commonly said to be conversion of military production to production for human needs. But what are human needs, and who decides what they are? This is not a trivial question. Food, housing, transport and communications are among commonly accepted human needs. But there are many ways to provide food, ranging from locally grown vegetables to factory farming of animals involving high inputs of grains, energy and antibiotics. One criticism of the Lucas Aerospace workers' plan is that the alternative products, although more socially useful than aerospace components, still fall in the mould of high technology: kidney machines rather than changes in diet to prevent kidney disease, more efficient and versatile motors and vehicles rather than new modes of town planning.

It is unfair to expect the Lucas workers to come up with a plan that leaps abruptly into an alternative future involving local self-reliance in health, education, food and energy. The Lucas workers, after all, necessarily began with their own skills and resources, and for political reasons chose to present a plan that, while moving towards an alternative future, had credibility within the present economic system. The implication for peace conversion is that conversion is not a one-step process. By necessity it will have to be a continual conversion, not stopping at removal of only that production which is overtly military.

The peace movement slogan 'Fund human needs' is nice rhetoric which hides a host of difficulties. Do advertising, professional sports, banking and air travel count as human needs? Whose needs should be funded: poor people in the Third World, poor people in rich countries, or also the well-to-do? Who provides the funds: corporations, governments or local communities? All these questions need to be answered in the course of developing peace conversion campaigns.


Guns, nuclear weapon designs and missile components are products useful for military purposes. But products are only symptoms. The roots of war are the structures which give rise to military products, including political and economic inequality and injustice which are closely associated with modern industry, bureaucracy, science and technology. Peace conversion tends to focus more on obviously military production and less on the root structures which lead to military production. The danger is that peace conversion, if promoted or carried out while ignoring worker-community control and other critical aspects, could leave intact the infrastructure of industrial production and bureaucratic administration.