E P Thompson on the nuclear nightmare
'We must protest if we are to survive', urged the great Marxist historian E.P. Thompson in 1980, stopping his own research work to throw himself into campaigning for peace and nuclear disarmament. He spoke frequently for years on end, from local public meetings to huge Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rallies. Even his British Library card lapsed. As opposed to many of his former comrades in the dwindling Communist Party of Great Britain, for whom the right of the Soviet Union to nuclear weapons for self defence was sacrosanct and it was only the Western imperialists who needed to disarm, Thompson stood for a 'double exposure' of East and West.
In 'Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilisation' in New Left Review 121, (1980), Thompson addressed 'the immobilism of the Marxist Left' in the face of 'exterminism', which was the irrational product of Cold War inter-imperialist rivalry but now took on a chilling dynamic and momentum of its own. 'For, increasingly, what is being produced by both the United States and the USSR is the means of war, just as, increasingly, what is being exported, with competitive rivalry, by both powers to the Third World are war materials and attendant militarist systems, infrastructures and technologies. There is an internal dynamic and reciprocal logic here which requires a new category for analysis. If "the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist", what are we given by those Satanic mills which are now at work, grinding out the means of human extermination?'
If there was a strand of millenarian apocalypticism about the future in Thompson's writings (he once began a speech at a peace rally in Trafalgar Square with William Blake - "Against the Kingdom of the beast, we witnesses shall rise"), he conceded it. 'To my generation, which had witnesses the first annunciation of exterminist technology at Hiroshima, its perfection in the hydrogen bomb, and the inconcievably-absolute ideological fracture of the first Cold War...we had become, at a very deep place in our consciousness, habituated to the expectation that the very continuation of civilisation was problematic...I would only too gladly read the arguments which show, conclusively, that my analysis of the gathering determinism of exterminist process is wrong'.
'Yet the arguments have substance, and the technology of the apocalypse exists. Nor have all apocalyptic visions in this century always been wrong. Few of those who prophesied World War I prophesied the devastating sum total of the event; no-one envisaged the full ferocity of World War II. And the apocalyptic prophets of World War III do not match the kind of persons we encounter in our social history: eccentric vicars, zealous artisan sectarians conning Revelation, trance-struck serving-maids. Some emerge, with strategic war-plans in their hands, from the weapons-system complex itself...It was not Joanna Southcott who summoned the first Pugwash Conference, but Einstein and Russell. It was not Thomas Tany but Robert Oppenheimer who said, in 1947, "the world is moving in the direction of hell with a high velocity, a positive acceleration and probably a postive rate of change of acceleration."'
Thompson concluded with this thought: 'If one has come to live with this expectation, then it must modify, in profound and subtle ways, one's whole stance. Class struggle continues, in many forms, accross the globe. But exterminism itself is not a "class issue": it is a human issue. Certain kinds of "revolutionary" posturing and rhetoric, which inflame exterminist ideology and which carry divisions into the necessary alliances of human resistance, are luxuries which we can do without...exterminism can only be confronted by the broadest possible alliance: that is, by every affirmative resource in our culture. Secondary differences must be subordinated to the human ecological imperative. The immobilism sometimes found on the Marxist Left is founded on a great error: that theoretical rigour, or throwing oneself into a "revolutionary" posture, is the end of politics. The end of politics is to act, and to act with effect.'
Six years after that article was written, in 1986 we saw Chernobyl. Now twenty years on, Blair hopes we have forgotten the nuclear nightmare, and wants to embark on building a new generation of nuclear reactors as well as replacing Britain's 'nuclear deterrent' in the form of Trident submarines (at the cost of £20 billion). Can we still save the planet? If we can, then it seems Thompson's insistance that we must 'act, and to act with effect' is even more critical today than it was twenty five years ago. Fortunately, December 3rd sees an international day of protest against climate change - the first of its kind but almost certainly the first of many such protests in the future. The iron logic of exterminism may still yet be broken.