Total Solutions

Alan Brinkley

  • The Heavy Dancers by E.P. Thompson
    Merlin, 340 pp, £12.50, March 1985, ISBN 0 85036 328 4
  • Star Wars: Self-Destruct Incorporated by E.P. Thompson and Ben Thompson
    Merlin, 71 pp, £1.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 85036 334 9

About ten years ago, I heard Edward Thompson give a public lecture at Harvard University. He was not then an internationally renowned spokesman for the peace movement: there was at that point no peace movement of any consequence to be a spokesman for. He was, however, one of the most influential historians of his time. Thompson was speaking in one of the university’s largest lecture halls, and the room was full to overflowing. People were sitting on the floor, standing against the walls, spilling out of the doors into the corridors. Unlike audiences at many academic lectures, the men and women who had come to this one were overwhelmingly young. Many were graduate students (in history and other social sciences) for whom Thompson’s scholarship – above all, his great book The Making of the English Working Class – had been an intellectual inspiration. But many were also people in some way affected by the anti-war movement and the other upheavals of the Sixties; and for them, his work was also a political inspiration.

The relatively arcane issues Thompson was discussing before this large crowd had no immediate political urgency. But one could feel in the gathering a fleeting, perhaps willed revival of the Sixties, a momentary glimpse of the spirit of ‘movement’ and ‘community’, a brief sense of shared purpose. It would not have been difficult to imagine Edward Thompson speaking before a similar gathering, not as a scholar, but as an activist. But few imagined it at the time. And so, when it was over, the group dispersed into the cool Cambridge evening and into the cool political climate of the Seventies.

For most of his adult life, Edward Thompson has been involved in one way or another with mass politics. During much of the Forties and Fifties, he was a member of the Communist Party (which aspired to, even if in England and America it seldom achieved, a real connection with the masses). He left the Party in 1956, but remained politically active in the Sixties and Seventies while producing his important scholarly studies of class formation and social protest. Then, in 1982, he published a pamphlet entitled Protest and Survive, which, as he modestly describes it, ‘made a little stir at the time’. As a result of that stir, he became a ‘prisoner’ of the peace movement, putting aside his scholarship and transforming himself into ‘a famous (or infamous) Public Person ... on call at any hour of the day and sometimes night’. Since then, he has written and spoken incessantly, and with geat effect, for the cause. He has exhorted the faithful and excoriated the infidels. He has helped to forge links among the disparate peace movements of Europe and North America. He has, on occasion, demonstrated a sophisticated technical understanding of nuclear weapons and an ability to fuse his knowledge with brilliant polemicism (as in his recent pamphlet denouncing the Reagan Administration’s Star Wars proposal). But most of all, he has worked to provide the two things any successful movement must have: an unambiguous moral vision, a clear, understandable goal free of numbing complexities and bureaucratic obstacles; and a sense of solidarity, shared purpose, community. At least in part as a result of his efforts, the international peace movement has emerged over the last few years as one of the most striking political developments of our time.

No one is better-equipped to explain this phenomenon than E.P. Thompson himself. But his most recent book (or, more accurately, his hastily-assembled hodgepodge of pamphlets, letters, rejoinders, poems and memoirs) is not an exercise in explanation: it is an exercise in self-indulgence. As a political statement, it adds relatively little to Thompson’s last collection of essays, published in Britain as Zero Option and in the United States as Beyond the Cold War. And as a literary effort, it is in every way inferior – sloppier, more discursive, more piecemeal than his earlier work, which was itself something of a shapeless jumble. The Heavy Dancers includes several uninteresting reminiscences of Thompson’s experiences in World War Two, a lengthy and somewhat mawkish critical assessment of the American radical poet Thomas McGrath (whose work ‘will be remembered in one hundred years when many more fashionable voices have been forgotten’), another, better tribute to C. Wright Mills, snatches of Thompson’s own, unimpressive poetry, and, apparently, virtually everything else he has written over the last two years, no matter how trivial, much of it so out of context as to be all but incomprehensible. According to the normal standards by which books are judged, this one is a considerable embarrassment.

But this is not, of course, an ordinary book, just as Thompson is not an ordinary author. And, as such, The Heavy Dancers is in certain ways an important and revealing document, even if in ways the author may not have intended. Although he has made no self-conscious effort to do so, Thompson has managed to suggest a great deal here about how the peace movement has gained its strength and how it may, in the course of things, lose it.

The essays reveal, first, how Thompson has contrived to translate the dauntingly complex political issues of international armaments into a simple, unambiguous moral problem. The existence of nuclear weapons is, in his view, an affront to the most basic principles of humankind, the embodiment of a hideous new genocidal doctrine he has labelled ‘exterminism’. Normal diplomatic and political considerations are irrelevant in the face of the threat of extinction; and normal diplomatic and political solutions are, therefore, unsuitable. The peace movement must be an expression of moral and emotional commitment; and out of it must come a spontaneous popular clamour of sufficient strength and urgency to change the world. As a start, the peoples of Europe – East and West – must rise up in horror against the prospect of extinction and join together to expel nuclear weapons from their soil. In the process, they will provide a model of reconciliation that America and the Soviet Union will find it difficult to ignore. ‘We need to make a space between the two super-powers,’ he said in his 1984 Oxford Union debate with Caspar Weinberger (here reprinted with Weinberger’s remarks excised), ‘by commencing a healing process of citizens, of scholars, of doctors, of churches, a healing process underneath the level of the states.’

Peace will come, in short, out of the collective energy of men and women of hope and good will, whose example will serve to bring the walls of political venality and diplomatic obtuseness tumbling down. The forces of peace will confront and destroy the hegemony of the ‘heavy dancers’ (the ‘image-conscious public persons who crowd the media of the world, “summoning up the ancient spirits of the tribe as they prepare us for the ultimate war” ’) and show the way toward a new society: ‘Despite the worst that agro-business and multinationals can do, despite the avarice of developers, despite the blasting of our inner cities, and despite the growing invasion of an arrogant state upon our rights, there is still enough here – not just to preserve but to carry us forward – to bring us through to a humane commonwealth.’ In place of the depressing prospect of endless negotiations and slow, frustrating political effort, Thompson substitutes a vision of a spontaneous welling up of popular will. The peace movement will operate outside of politics, outside of governments. It will become an autonomous force gathering such power and such moral urgency that it will ultimately topple the political obstacles to its goals.

Central to all this, of course, is not just a clear, unambiguous moral message, but a vision of community. For Thompson, as for others in the peace movement, participation in the crusade has been in many respects its own reward – just as participation in any movement can be motivated as much by the appeal of the movement’s communal life as by commitment to a particular issue. (What Thompson recalls most clearly about his own, youthful membership of the Communist Party, for example, is the warmth, the camaraderie, the solidarity – the participation in ‘an international fraternity and sorority’ suffused with ‘internationalism and optimism’.) He notes at one point, in recounting his baptism in the peace movement, that writing Protest and Survive ‘was the most ill-advised action of my life, for which I have been kicking myself ever since’. But he has not, one suspects, been kicking himself very hard. For his ‘captivity’ to the cause has brought him not only heavy responsibilities, but great rewards: ‘the friendship and companionship of thousands of people – people whose resourcefulness reminds me of the best moments in our nation’s history’.

Everywhere, he tells us, ‘I have met with the same rising peace consciousness, the same gestures and assurances of international solidarity’. The peace movement, in short, ‘is very much larger than those who join organisations or who wear its badges – it is also a mood, a happening, a raising of consciousness. It is not just – as some people suppose – a “no” movement, no to nuclear weapons: it is also a “yes” movement, yes to real exchanges and friendship between peoples.’

Exchanges and friendship, for example, such as those displayed by the thirty thousand women who formed an ‘immense and life-affirming ring’ around the fence of the Greenham Common military base in December 1982 to protest the arrival of American missiles. ‘It was an extraordinary sight,’ says Thompson:

No one was quite sure exactly what was supposed to happen, nor even the exact moment when the miraculous linking was finally achieved. Some of the linked women were facing into the base, but at another part of the perimeter they had turned their backs upon the base and were looking outward into the world ... They came, they embraced the base, and they greeted their sisters, and then they drifted back home ... It did not only symbolise but it actually was, for a moment, an expression of international sisterhood, peace and love.

Thompson has been frequently (and often rightly) attacked for the romantic and at times naive quality of his politics. American critics, in particular, balk at his insistence that there is no moral difference between the foreign policies of the Soviet Union and the United States, that the threats to peace arise equally from both sides. (This is, of course, a considerable step away from the older arguments of the Left, which placed the blame largely on the United States alone; Thompson is, in fact, at least as critical of the Soviet Union as he is of the United States, and he recognises a significant moral difference between the domestic politics of the two nations.) Others scoff at his vision of a reconciliation between the peoples of Eastern and Western Europe as the key to disarmament; it is implausible, they claim, to believe that public opinion can change the political behaviour of Communist governments, implausible even to believe that public opinion could find any viable means of expression under such governments. But the heart of the criticism is a more basic objection: that Thompson has failed to come to grips with the enormous complexities of the arms race and the equally enormous complexities of all feasible solutions to it. He has brushed aside bureaucratic and political realities and called, in effect, for wishing nuclear weapons away on a wave of commitment and good feeling.

However valid such criticisms may be, however, they are essentially irrelevant to what Thompson has been trying to do. His mission, as he seems to see it, is not to worry about practical details: it is to build a movement. Political and diplomatic manoeuvring requires patience, compromise and an appreciation of complexity. Movement-building requires passion, commitment and simplicity. What in one context may be naivety is in another context political astuteness. And the evidence for that is Thompson’s undeniable success in mobilising popular support for peace and in making himself one of the best-known political figures in Europe. That would not have occurred, surely, had he taken a more realistic, less ‘naive’ approach to the issues.

But if the practical realities of arms control are essentially irrelevant to the building of the peace movement, it may also be true that the peace movement in its present form is essentially irrelevant to arms control. Indeed, the very years in which the peace movement has enjoyed its most dramatic growth and its highest visibility have been the years in which governments hostile to disarmament have been triumphantly re-elected in both Great Britain and the United States. They have been the years in which the arms race has dramatically and dangerously accelerated. They have been the years in which there has been less progress in negotiations than at any point in the previous two decades. And they have been the years in which the American Government and (even if with some reluctance) its European allies have embraced the fantastic concept of the so-called ‘Star Wars’ defence which Ronald Reagan claims to believe will ultimately make nuclear war obsolete.

In a sense, then, the peace movement and the nuclear policies of the Reagan years have come perversely to mirror one another. Both take comfort in the delusion of a total solution to the problems of nuclear weapons; both look outside politics – the peace movement to a popular uprising, the American Government to technology – to achieve their goals; and neither has any patience for, or apparently any real belief in, the possibilities of negotiated progress. Gradually vanishing from public discourse, in the meantime, is a less glamorous middle ground, which offers no simple, quick or complete solutions, but which may offer the only realistic hope of escape from the nightmare of the arms race. For if there is to be an escape, it is likely to be the result of slow, incremental and endlessly frustrating efforts by people imbued, not just with commitment and good will, but with the patience and the willingness to accept limited achievements and partial triumphs.

It is just such patience with ambiguity and gradualism that popular movements generally lack. Indeed, such movements generally are able to survive only as long as they can avoid confronting the complexities of the issues they are addressing. The American Civil Rights movement, for example, flourished in the Sixties as long as it was able to fix its gaze on the unassailable morality of its challenge to segregation: it disintegrated once that unambiguous issue began to give way to the more complex and frustrating task of confronting economic inequality. Successful movements have been relatively rare in 20th-century America and Britain; when they have emerged, they have generally been short-lived. For all the passion and strength they display at their height, they are fragile things, easily destroyed.

Already, in America at least, what two years ago seemed to be a vigorous and growing peace movement appears rapidly to be fading. The movement may have more durability in Britain and Europe, but there, too, the signs are not auspicious. In the face of continuing, impenetrable obduracy by the military bureaucracies on both sides, in the absence of even fleeting successes in reversing the prevailing course of international politics, in response to frustration and uncertainty and complexity, the men and women who have flocked to Thompson’s ‘international brotherhood’ are likely, not, perhaps, to put aside their fear and revulsion, but to put aside their hope and to drift away.

Thompson’s critics on the right have accused him of countenancing appeasement, of weakening the will of the West to resist Communism, even of acting as agents of the Soviet Union (a charge that appears particularly preposterous in the light of the savage criticisms of Thompson and the movement that have come from the Soviet press). It is difficult to take such accusations seriously. Yet there is one sense in which the peace movement could succeed, as its critics maintain, in making the world not a less but a more dangerous place. And that is by channelling the deep passion for peace that men and women have been developing into an inchoate moral fervour; by encouraging its people to ignore the political world and reject the possibility of gradual progress; by stimulating instead faith in visionary goals incapable of attainment. The result of that is not likely to be the achievement of the ‘humane commonwealth’ that E.P. Thompson dreams of. The result will be frustration, disillusionment, and an ebbing of the patient commitment the world will need if it is ever to make the threat of nuclear extinction abate.