Commentary Magazine

The “Neutralism” of E. P. Thompson

Over the past years E.P. Thompson, the British social historian, has become the most influential intellectual figure of the European campaign against nuclear weapons. His books, pamphlets, and newspaper articles permeate the British political debate; his formulations have touched all the corners of Western Europe and have been hailed in America as well. In his native land the media treat him with the deference reserved for living legends. Even magazines and newspapers that have remained skeptical of his message outdo themselves in inflating his personal prestige. The London Observer writes that Thompson’s “goodness is unquestioned by his fiercest opponents,” while a profile in the London Times finds that he “stands, as it were, on the crest of a hill, looking two ways at once, making his deductions about the future from his knowledge of the past.” One British writer has been moved to suggest that in Thompson, the peace movement has found its Luther.

The note of Thompson’s which resounds most clearly among his followers is, of course, the fear and hatred of nuclear weapons, their delivery systems, and the arms race which beckons them on. Sentences like the following, from his lecture “Beyond the Cold War,” display the Thompson argument at its most attractive: “Human ingenuity has somehow created these immense destructive powers, which now appear to hang over us, alienated from all human control. They are now talking of siting laser weapons on the moon—weapons which, in a literal sense, will be lunatic.” These beguiling words clearly delineate the central front of contention: “They” are the weapons-builders and strategists; “us,” the people, who deserve the chance to live out our lives without having to face a historical tragedy of unprecedented dimensions.

Thompson’s placement of the central antagonism above and apart from ideology and politics allows him to cast for followers with a wide net. He portrays his campaign as a popular challenge to the military structure of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, promising advantage to neither and implying nothing in particular about the ideological reordering of British politics. In one sense it is hardly surprising that Thompson should take this stance. Those in Britain who have been bestirred to march behind the banners of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and END (European Nuclear Disarmament) are, in their great majority, middle-class people quite deaf to the siren call of radical politics. To thrive as a mass movement, the peace campaign must appear to be animated by impulses which are essentially conservative—that is, primarily, by the desire to protect an existing political and cultural arrangement from the threat of a nuclear war which would quite evidently destroy it.

But it is precisely Thompson’s pretense of political neutrality which merits serious examination. For his professed stance of neutrality between capitalism and Communism, and between the United States and the Soviet Union, flies in the face of thirty years of political writings and commitments. While Thompson’s recent pronouncements on peace deserve criticism in their own terms, his ideological biography helps to illuminate the political motive that drives them. Indeed, that biography makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that Thompson’s peace advocacy is, in Clausewitz’s phrase, a continuation of politics by other means.



Thompson joined the British Communist party in 1942, when he turned eighteen, and left it in 1956. To the party he brought a Cambridge (and prep-school) education, literary talent, and a durable utopian aspiration. His first major work of history, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955), put these qualities on display. The work is also a striking example of history written in the service of a political cause. In it Thompson seeks to reclaim his hero from a sanitizing “Morris myth” which emphasizes his quaint and archaic guild socialism and his contributions to the arts-and-crafts movement of the 19th century. Instead, Thompson inducts Morris into the ranks of revolutionary socialism and rushes him to the historical front:

In Britain it seems that the traditions of peasant art are dead; nothing could revive them—short of revolution. But in Asiatic Russia, in China, in all of Eastern Europe we are witnessing a popular art that is cherished by the people, and that is reviving and strengthening its hold alongside the advance of Socialist industry. Twenty years ago, even among Socialists and Communists, many must have regarded Morris’s picture of “A Factory as it Might Be” as an unpractical poet’s dream. Today visitors return from the Soviet Union with stories of the poet’s dream already fulfilled.

Communism’s traumatic year of 1956—which began with Khrushchev’s critique of Stalinism at the 20th Party Congress and ended with the Soviet invasion of Hungary—saw Thompson’s departure from the British party. It was in many ways a reluctant parting, and it elicited little in the way of a reappraisal of his past commitments. The immediate issue was an intra-party newsletter, the Reasoner, which Thompson and a colleague had begun to publish in the aftermath of Khrushchev’s speech. They had worried that the British party’s failure to adopt a more independent position toward the Soviet Union was driving its members to “anti-Soviet attitudes dangerous to the cause of peace and socialism.” Yet even this mild demurral brought party discipline down upon their heads, and Thompson and his colleague were suspended. Under suspension, and in the wake of the invasion of Hungary, Thompson resigned.

Years later Thompson would speak of the “stubborn pride” he felt over the fact that he and others who left the British party in 1956 had refused “to enter into the well-worn paths of apostasy” or to play “the accepted role, in liberal capitalist society, of Public Confessor or Renegade.” This is a justified boast. For whatever criticisms Thompson would make of Stalinism, he never challenged the central Leninist idea of the one-party state or the bureaucratic ownership of all of the means of production. His departure did, however, liberate him from the onus of depicting Soviet reality as the fulfillment of socialist aspiration. After 1956, Thompson became a sort of fellow-traveler with his own car, intermittently defending aspects of the Soviet experience and proclaiming that its blemishes should have no bearing on anyone’s judgment of Communism as a social system.



Right away Thompson began a publication, the New Reasoner. He quickly published a long article on “socialist humanism,” a movement which he thought was destined to sweep away the remnants of Stalinism in Russia and restore the shaken confidence of Western Communists in the revolution. Only the “solidly based fear of aggression from American imperialism,” he wrote, held Stalinism in power. This theme, with attendant variations, became a leitmotif in Thompson’s work over the next quarter-century. Its implication is quite clear: since Communism’s flaws are attributable to its enemies, the path to its redemption must begin with the weakening or elimination of those enemies.

In 1959 he returned to social prophecy. “The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe,” he wrote, “will prove to be the area of expanding liberty and human fulfillment whereas the West, unless transformed by a strong democratic and revolutionary socialist movement, will prove to be the area of encroaching authoritarianism.” But therein lay the problem. There was no such “revolutionary socialist movement” in the West. In 1960 Thompson published two essays exploring the reasons for this, and suggesting a strategy for creating just such a movement.

The first of the essays, “Outside the Whale,” blames the absence of a revolutionary movement on a betrayal by British intellectuals. What they betrayed was their socialist fervor of the 1980’s. The chief culprit is George Orwell, who had the bad taste to draw conclusions about Communism from his experience with it. Orwell’s apostasy, according to Thompson, consisted of describing Communism by its “deformities,” without reference to “the nature and function of the movement itself.” Thompson singles out for particular censure Orwell’s essay, “Inside the Whale,” which struck hard at the embrace of Stalinism by left-leaning intellectuals. In that work, Thompson argues, “the aspirations of a generation were buried”—with the consequence that nearly the entire British intelligentsia had retreated to what Thompson calls “the Nato-politan ideology,” whose defining feature is a disenchantment with revolutionary socialism.

In the second essay, “Revolution,” Thompson suggests a way to circumvent the roadblock. Here he attacks the Labor party, which, with its strategy of bringing incremental improvements to the conditions of working-class life, will never establish real socialism. A more decisive rupture with capitalism is required, he writes. But the Leninist-Trotskyite model of armed confrontation between the working class and the rest of society also seems unlikely to succeed. He asserts that the “transfer of class power” will require a break with “parliamentary fetishism,” but argues that a revolutionary coalition cannot be based on the working class alone. A broader coalition of forces is needed—and this is more likely to emerge in the context of an international crisis.

Thompson points to a possible catalyst: the protest marches then being organized by the CND against the British nuclear arsenal. “Should the protest in Britain gain sufficient strength to force our country out of NATO,” he wrote in 1960, “consequences will follow in rapid succession.” The United States might reply with economic sanctions, which would force Britain to choose between compliance and a far-reaching reorientation of trade. This “dilemma . . . would agitate the consciousness of the whole people.” Politics would spill into the street and “ideological antagonisms would sharpen.” The same popular energies which were mobilized in World War II could be mobilized once more, this time against America. “One choice would disclose another, and with each decision a revolutionary conclusion would become more likely.”

This remarkable scenario proved stillborn in the early 60’s. Unilateral-disarmament proposals met with decisive defeat within the Labor party, and soon afterward the protests dribbled out. Twenty years would pass before Thompson returned to the issue.

During the 1960’s Thompson’s political voice lapsed into near silence, and his energies were increasingly devoted to the scholarly discipline of social history. His renowned study, The Making of the English Working Class, appeared in 1963, inspiring a generation of historians to emulation or debunking. The book’s stated purpose—“to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded followers of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”—was pursued with unflagging energy and literary verve. Thompson’s presentation reopened a field which had grown arid from yielding too many statistical studies by economic historians. Neither the book’s frequently noted exaggerations nor its avowed political intent—as in the hope expressed by Thompson that “causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won”—detracted from its provocative merit.

In the dozen years after the appearance of The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson tacked backward in time in his choice of studies, to 18th-century urban crowds, criminality, and the study of law and class hegemony. The books and articles he produced during that period breathe empathy with society’s underdogs, and their political lessons are drawn with judiciousness and little Marxian dogma. Yet what is remarkable in the light of these works is Thompson’s relative lack of empathy with the greater part of the oppressed of his own epoch. For he is quite numb to the experience of hundreds of millions who have lived out their lives, or had them ended, under our century’s experience with Communism.



This double standard was defended by Thompson in 1973 in his first serious political essay in nearly a decade, an “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski.” In 1956 the Polish philosopher had been one of the voices of Marxist revisionism whom Thompson had admired. But since coming to the West in 1968 Kolakowski had become a more open critic of the Marxian revolutionary ideal altogether. Against Kolakowski’s disenchantment, Thompson set out the reasons for his own continued fidelity; his essay is an important elaboration of the ideological perspective which informs his disarmament crusade of today.

Some of the reasons advanced by Thompson are long-standing leftist commonplaces. There is the perennial attribution of Communism’s “deformities” to the West. The failure of Communism to renew itself in 1956 is a “failure imposed by the West . . . [since] the manifest function of the statist oligarchies in the socialist countries is the organizing of defense against capitalist aggression.” Although the nature of this aggression cannot easily be specified, Thompson suggests a scenario of “Sherman tanks rolling into the East, breathing . . . freedom of capital down the barrels of their guns.” This, one might remark, is not a fantasy which seems ever to have disquieted the Soviet general staff. “The first socialist revolution,” Thompson opines, was obstructed by “contingencies, accidents, and events and the logic of polarities within a divided world.” Yet this could be said about any new government which has ever come into being. It is a logic which could be used to justify Nazism.

But Thompson has prepared a fallback position. “I still reject,” he neatly declares, “any description of Communism or of Communist-governed societies which defines these in terms of their ruling ideologies or the institutions of their ruling casses.” Instead we are instructed to attend to “the alternative meanings, values, traditions, and potentials they may contain.” Real Communism, in other words, exists not in the lived social experience of Communist countries, but somewhere else—in the Prague Spring, perhaps. As for the crushing of the Prague Spring with tanks, that is not Communism but another problem altogether, appropriately subsumed under “defense against capitalist aggression.” Thompson has traveled around this circle many times.

Finally Thompson brings forth against Kolakowski another proposition, one which those less experienced with historical archives might not have hit upon. “To a historian,” he avers, “fifty years is too short a time to judge a social system, if such a system is arising.” Fifty years was ample time to consolidate the revolution, murder the socialist opposition, eliminate all freedoms of speech and publication, shut down the elected parliament, destroy the agricultural system, conquer and collectivize a dozen neighboring countries, establish a gargantuan system of slave labor, commit political murders on a Hitlerian scale, and, finally, brandish a nuclear arsenal unprecedented in size at every nation in the world where people are free to elect their rulers. But according to Thompson, it is “too short a time to judge.”

The root of his serenity lies in the phrase, “if such a system is arising.” For that Communism is the world’s future—of that, Thompson is certain. “No matter how hideous the alternative may seem, no word of mine will wittingly be added to the comforts of that old bitch gone in the teeth, consumer capitalism,” he writes. This is a colorful way of saying his mind is made up; such pronunciamentos come easily to those who know history’s ultimate direction. Indeed Ezra Pound, who in 1920 first described bourgeois capitalism as “an old bitch gone in the teeth,” embraced the future with equal decisiveness when he jumped on the train called fascism.

These ideological sallies, it must be said, left scant ripples on the surface of British political discourse. Thompson’s long-winded explanations of where, precisely, he stood in the Marxist tradition mattered to few. But in late 1979, in the aftermath of the NATO decision to deploy cruise and Pershing missiles in response to the deployment of SS-20’s by the Soviet Union, he changed the subject. One need not speculate on the particular events which prompted the change. It is true that Thompson focused his concern on the campaign for unilateral disarmament right after returning from a visit to Bulgaria, in the fall of 1979, where preparations were just beginning for the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Council festival, planned for Sofia the following year (preparations which, it has been noted, followed directly upon the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan). But Thompson did, after all, have personal reasons for his visit (his brother died in Bulgaria during the war). Moreover, he had not been a party man for some time, and he was certainly able to conceive of the significance of the peace issue without higher guidance.

In any event, the essays which began to pour from Thompson’s pen in 1980 do differ dramatically from his previous interventions on contemporary questions. Thompson had by now learned to keep silent about socialism. No longer did he rush to tell his readers what sort of revolution he dreamed of; all systemic criticisms of “that old bitch gone in the teeth, consumer capitalism” were jettisoned. By changing the subject from socialism to the dangers of nuclear war, he captured a wider audience almost immediately. Within six months of shutting up about Marx and William Morris, E.P. Thompson was transformed from a respected but relatively little known Marxist historian into a media figure of tremendous stature.

Early in 1980, Thompson explained his change of emphasis in an essay published in the New Left Review, “Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization.” The guiding idea of this essay is that the possession of nuclear weapons and sophisticated delivery systems determines the nature of society. The United States and the Soviet Union do not just possess military-industrial complexes, they are such complexes. This is not an idea that can be pursued very far, nor is it certain Thompson so intends it. The political point of the essay is more important. Thompson calls upon British Marxists to mute their ideological postures and join forces with elements of the Labor party, with ecologists, and with religious groups in a campaign against nuclear weapons. It is a call for something like the Popular Front of the 1930’s, in which revolutionary goals were temporarily put aside in the service of coalition politics. The Marxist Left should cease speaking of the Bomb as a “class issue,” and adopt, instead, a tactical stance of neutralism between the two military blocs.



Freed of his ideological encumbrances, Thompson went into the new campaign with passion. He helped to organize a new peace group, European Nuclear Disarmament (END), whose goal was to mobilize citizens from East and West to free all of Europe from nuclear weapons. He haunted his readers with terrifying renditions of the nuclear risks Britain ran because of its alliance with the United States. His dismissal of the strategy of nuclear deterrence (“a pitiful, lightweight theory”) was presented as the searching intervention of a very moral man peering into the arcane world of soulless strategists. As a counterpoint to the hard vision of the defense experts, he proposed a majestic redemptive rhapsody: a Europe united “beyond the cold war” as a place where “constructive elements” from the East embraced sensible men and women from the West to forge the moral regeneration of the European continent. These compelling themes, elegantly presented, fell upon fertile ground.

Richard Barnet, in a recent piece on Thompson’s new book, Beyond the Cold War,1 wrote that Thompson displays “a formidable command of the technical literature” of armaments, and that he and other members of the European peace movement have “learned to talk about nuclear weapons like nuclear strategists.” Yet this impression is unlikely to be derived from the text itself. About American nuclear strategy Thompson is quite articulate. He writes about it with a good deal more color than the Soviet diplomats who contribute an occasional guest column to the opinion pages of European newspapers. He does, however, make the same points. The Americans, whom he describes as “infantile” or, alternatively, as the “alchemists of superkill,” are said to be preparing a nuclear war for Europe. They have designated the “people of Europe” as a “sacrificial proxy” for this war, while they remain safe in “Sanctuary USA.” To clinch his point he refers often to NATO military exercises, in which, he correctly points out, contingency plans have been prepared for nuclear strikes behind the lines of Warsaw Pact forces.

But Thompson invariably leaves something out of these menacing scenarios, and this should surprise anyone who thinks him possessed of “a formidable command of the technical literature.” For what he leaves out is nothing less than the central subject of that literature, namely, the question of how NATO should respond to a Soviet attack. For the nations of the Warsaw Pact, at what would seem to be a substantial cost to their own domestic economies, maintain a very large military force poised on the frontiers of Western Europe. Its numerical superiority over the NATO forces is 2.64 to 1 in tanks, 4.83 to 1 in land-based bombers, and over 5 to 1 in lighter combat aircraft. Unlike the NATO units which in their maneuvers practice retreat, defensive battle, and counterattacks, the Warsaw-Pact forces train in rapid advance, assaults, and river crossings, utilizing airborne operations ahead of the advancing main force and chemical weapons to neutralize defensive positions. This is not to suggest that the Soviet army and its allies plan to do what they train to do. But it would be imprudent of the NATO nations not to develop some strategy to deter such an assault; after all, the Soviet Union has sent its armies across its borders several times since 1917, and is a much larger country as a result.

Thompson’s discussion of intermediate-range missiles is equally evasive. For the past twenty years NATO strategists have debated what sort of force structure is required to “couple” America’s strategic nuclear arsenal to the defense of Western Europe. The intent has always been to make it clear to the Soviets that if they launched an attack the resulting tragedy would not be limited to Western Europe. The SS-20, which the Soviets began to aim at Western Europe in the halcyon days of the Helsinki agreements in the mid-1970’s, made this problem much knottier. The weapons seemed designed for a quick strike at NATO’s airfields and communications facilities, utilizing warheads small enough to avoid massive civilian casualties. This posed the question of whether, in response to such a strike, the United States really would escalate to a catastrophic strategic exchange. The answer given was NATO’s decision to install some American strategic forces (cruise and Pershing missiles) which would necessarily be engaged in any Soviet nuclear strike at Europe. So much for the idea that the Americans wish to use Europe as a “sacrificial proxy” while they remain safe in “Sanctuary USA.”

But if Thompson’s rendition of the decision neatly avoids all mention of its intent and effect—that is, to couple America’s fate with Western Europe’s—he does seem clear on one point. He opposes cruise missiles, Pershing missiles, and the SS-20. He goes so far as to call the SS-20 “foul and unnecessary,” and advocates that all three systems be abandoned. But when, in late 1981, the Reagan administration suggested just that, with its zero-option proposal, Thompson corrected himself. The zero option, he declared, was “either a tough negotiating position or a provocation.” He still does not care for any of the missiles, but lest his position be misunderstood, he has stated that he would oppose the NATO missiles whether the SS-20 was dismantled or not.



From the outset of his campaign for peace, Thompson has acknowledged that if the disarmament movement were to appear to be a Soviet-orchestrated movement directed, like the peace campaigns of the 1950’s, only against NATO weapons, its potential following and impact would be severely limited. So he has made a considerable effort to portray himself as a foe of both military blocs. At the same time, however, the practical emphasis of his activity, as we have seen, lies on one side of the equation only—that is, for the unilateral disarmament of Western Europe. In order to reconcile this emphasis with his claim to evenhandedness he has repeatedly insisted that his work for the unilateral disarmament of Western Europe is part of a continent-wide process which challenges Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe as well.

His claim that the movement is not one-sided rests upon two assertions. The first is simply that the Soviet Union has no military or imperialist designs that would be served by Western disarmament. It is, Thompson says, fundamentally a defensive power with a “siege” mentality, and as such presents no real military threat to the nations of Western Europe. This has not been an easy case to make at a time when Soviet forces or Soviet proxies have been engaged in aggressive wars on four continents, but Thompson has had years of practice at it. Exemplary is his apologia for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That country, he told an interviewer, is a “client nation” of the Soviet Union to begin with—and in any event the true responsibility for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan lies with NATO and Margaret Thatcher. Thus “NATO played the cruise missile ball, which struck the Afghan black, which rolled neatly into the Russian pocket. It was as if Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Pym, and Mr. Bill Rodgers were there, perched on the leading Soviet tanks, waving at the astonished people of Kabul.” Mrs. Thatcher leading the Soviet tanks into Kabul—this is a very high order of dialectical thinking.

The other argument upon which Thompson rests his assertion that the peace movement is not merely an adjunct of Soviet diplomacy is a far more innovative one. The movement for Western disarmament, he has maintained, parallels the efforts of Eastern Europeans to win greater freedom for themselves; both Solidarity’s fight to exist and the campaign against cruise missiles are part of the same far-reaching historical process to put the fractured continent back together again.

Initially, Thompson presented this claim with caution, as a goal rather than as a description of a process already under way. “Our movement cannot succeed,” he wrote in early 1981, “unless we call forth reciprocal responses from the East.” Soon such caution was abandoned. “The Western peace movements,” he proclaimed in his “Beyond the Cold War” lecture, “extend their support to the Polish renewal and to Solidarity, and to the movements for libertarian dissent in the Warsaw bloc. And from Eastern Europe also, voice after voice is now reaching us—hesitant, cautious, but with a growing self-confidence—searching for the same alliance: peace and freedom. . . . Eastern Europe has commenced its own self-liberation.”

This is a remarkably suggestive statement. First, it implies that there exists in Eastern Europe a political groundswell, a “self-liberation” movement capable of influencing the diplomatic postures of the governments there in a manner comparable to what happens in the West. Second, it confers on Western peace marchers some noble political virtues: by striking at Europe’s links to America, Thompson informs them, they are helping to dismantle the totalitarian structures of Eastern Europe. Finally, Thompson presents himself as an appropriate translator of the voices of libertarian dissent in Eastern Europe, and proclaims to his Western audiences that these voices share his political goals.

However, as Thompson has been forced to acknowledge, some of these voices in the East have been less enthusiastic than he over the prospect of the unilateral disarmament of the West. One Czech, Václav Racek, wrote to Thompson that the whole business reminded him of the 1938 sort of appeasement, and that Western Europeans would be better advised to heed the inextricable links between militarism and the means by which Communism maintains its rule. In reply, Thompson said that Racek had probably been deluded by Western intelligence services.

Nor did Solidarity, in its legal life span the most plausible agent for the process of self-liberation that Thompson alludes to, find Western unilateral disarmament a particularly uplifting idea. Actually, although Thompson uttered many fine phrases about Solidarity, nowhere in his vast peace opus is a Solidarity leader ever quoted; nowhere in the many colorful pamphlets distributed by END has Solidarity been permitted to speak in its own name. This is in itself noteworthy, for END, of which Thompson is the “coordinator” for Eastern Europe, boldly advertises that it seeks “a European-wide campaign, in which every kind of exchange takes place.” Yet END made no exchanges or contacts with Solidarity during the sixteen months of its legal existence.

The reasons for Thompson’s reluctance to transmit the true feelings of Solidarity to the Western peace movement were suggested by him in an article he wrote in the aftermath of the imposition of martial law in Poland. “Too many of Solidarity’s leaders and advisers looked to the wrong friends in the West,” he said. Later he elaborated. Solidarity, he noted, “had certain features which might wrinkle the nose of the purist: it was nationalist, Catholic, predominantly male. . . .” Its “internationalist perspectives were confined and confused.”

Maybe martial law was just as well. Thompson certainly has given it the benefit of the doubt. General Jaruzelski has found, Thompson claims, “a Polish solution arising from Polish conditions.” Seven words and the Soviet Union is exonerated. The Western governments, by contrast, are not so innocent: they, wrote Thompson, are “accomplices.” Their “showy nuclear posturing was a factor beckoning on the declaration of martial law.” This is a rationalization that has not even occurred to the propaganda specialists of the Polish junta.

Evidently the voice of Solidarity is not among that multitude of voices reaching out to Thompson from the East in search of an alliance for “peace and freedom.” Nor, presumably, is Václav Racek’s voice the sort he has in mind. But there is in Hungary an “autonomous peace movement” which has become END’s showcase illustration. Last fall, Thompson visited Budapest where he spoke before the Communist party’s official peace committee, and also, at his insistence, gave the same speech to private Hungarian citizens. One can imagine the excitement—after years of invoking the voices reaching him from Eastern Europe, Thompson finally found himself before a non-official group from the other side. Two young Hungarians spoke, and Thompson spoke, and a brightly colored pamphlet was rushed into print by END to commemorate the occasion.

What did the Hungarians say? Ferenc Koszegi got right to the point; he spoke about freedom. “What is meant in this context,” Koszegi proclaimed, “is freedom to choose our fate with regard to nuclear destruction.” The only freedom that matters is freedom from nuclear war. This is perhaps not a definition which would have completely satisfied our century’s victims of the totalitarian experience, but it is one which suits Thompson’s purposes completely. He can henceforth claim in all seriousness that there are voices reaching him from Eastern Europe perfectly in tune with his own.



Thus we come to the political heart of Thompson’s crusade. He proposes the shredding of the Atlantic alliance and the unilateral nuclear disarmament of the states of Western Europe. He professes, and perhaps believes, that this policy will shame the Soviet Union into a parallel disarmament and tempt it to loosen its control of the states of Eastern Europe. He suggests that Western Europeans, disarmed, utilize their status as moral exemplars to mount a more assertive campaign of building bridges to the peoples of the East, in order to heal the fracture across the heart of the continent.

It is improbable, to say the least, that disbanding NATO and disarming would lead to the kinds of results that Thompson claims to desire. To imagine that Western Europeans would have the political will to challenge the internal-security structures of the Communist bloc from a base of self-imposed and self-proclaimed military vulnerability is to imagine a very large fantasy. Western Europeans, wedded, in Thompson’s own felicitous phrase, to the imperatives of the “Euro-stomach,” are unlikely to take great risks from a position of great weakness. Few peoples in history have done so.

What is far more likely is that the disarmed states of Europe would pursue policies of accommodation and appeasement of the Soviet Union far beyond anything which has already taken place. There is no great reason to suppose that this accommodation would stop before the reordering of the domestic institutions of Western Europe. The free election of representatives to parliament has always been a direct affront to the tenets of Marxism-Leninism. The relative success of the economies of Western Europe, and the freedoms of its citizens, make it a beacon of hope to the peoples of the Soviet empire—a beacon which that empire’s rulers would be all too happy to extinguish. History yields few examples of periods where rich, weak, and divided states bordering on a large and well-armed empire have maintained their autonomy for very long. If disagreements were to arise, the nations of Western Europe, deprived of any military means of deterring even the most gently insinuated of military threats, would have an overwhelming incentive to see reason in the Soviet view of things.



If the policy Thompson proposes is unlikely to yield the rosy consequences he has so eloquently described, it is legitimate to ask whether he is aware of it. For E.P. Thompson is not a fool. He is a revolutionary socialist. Before he launched his peace barrage he had been writing, intermittently, for more than thirty years about strategies to bring socialist revolution to Britain. When confronted with the implications of his past allegiances he retorts with the evasive truism that no politics, not even conservative politics, would survive a nuclear holocaust. But it would be unwise to assume that he has forgotten the scenario so deftly sketched in his 1960 essay, “Revolution.” There, as we have seen, he formulated the linkage explicitly: the severing of the Atlantic alliance would tilt the political balance in Britain from “parliamentary fetishism” toward a “revolutionary conclusion.” Nor is this scenario absurd. But thirty years in the political wilderness have taught Thompson that advertising his revolutionary beliefs is a poor recipe for mobilizing broad numbers of followers.

Some writers on the Left of END have questioned the need for this dissimulation of the movement’s ultimate political goals. Raymond Williams, in a perceptive response to Thompson in the New Left Review, has pointed out that many in the disarmament movement consciously utilize the legitimate fear of nuclear war to weaken the defense system of “imperialism”—i.e., the Western democracies—in order to tilt the strategic balance in favor of the Soviet Union. He writes that “intellectual honesty” would be better served if those who have adopted this position would say so.

The position to which Raymond Williams himself adheres is less explicitly pro-Soviet but only marginally different in political content. He proposes that the peace movement be directed to the “inseparable processes of weakening the imperialist offensive and strengthening the forces of socialism against those formations which now distort it.” He suggests that the true potential of revolutionary socialism would blossom if the soil around it were more hospitable. He argues that the peace movement would be more likely to elicit real responses from the Soviet bloc if its socialist intent were stipulated.

Williams’s views largely conform to what Thompson himself has written on the subject since 1956. They differ, however, on whether the peace movement should make its intention explicit. In other words, they differ on the issue of “intellectual honesty.” I agree with Williams. The people of Western Europe should confront the disarmament question for what it really is—a question about whether they wish to tilt the balance of forces in favor of “revolutionary socialism,” or whether they wish to remain free.


1 Reviewed by Patrick Glynn in the January 1983 COMMENTARY.

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