1981: An Open Letter to EP Thompson
Why We Need a Revolution to Stop the Bomb
Published in Socialist Worker 24 October 1981, on the occasion of a national CND demonstration in London on that date in which at least a quarter of a million people participated.
This is the version as originally written; it was edited and cut for publication; sections in italics were omitted.
Thompson declined an invitation to reply in the pages of Socialist Worker.
Dear Comrade Thompson,
Over the last couple of years your writings have made a very important contribution to building the movement against nuclear destruction. Your essay “Protest and Survive” (in the Penguin book of the same name) and your article “Notes on Exterminism” (in New Left Review May-June 1980) have helped us all to map out the situation of acute peril that we are living in. Every reader of Socialist Worker, indeed every marcher on this weekend’s mass demonstration, should get hold of these articles and read them. In them you show just how great the threat of extermination has become, how the unthinkable is not only being thought, but is being actively prepared for. You show how the sheer massive bulk of weapons production is so great that it affects every nook and cranny of the system we live in. And you have also shown, in a whole series of articles, how the state in a society geared to nuclear war turns to snooping and spying, to official lies and the suppression of information. In all this there is at least eighty per cent we can all agree on – quite enough to commit us to building a united movement.
And yet, I think, it is also necessary to register some disagreements. This is not done in a sectarian spirit, or out of any desire to divide the movement. But it is no use mobilising our feet against the nuclear threat unless we are also willing to mobilise our political intelligence. To get the understanding we need to win we cannot do without fraternal but open debate.
In “Notes on Exterminism” you write:
‘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 we can do without.’
Now of course in one sense this is obviously true. The bosses and bureaucrats may have their deep shelters; but when they come out, not only will they face a world poisoned by radiation, but, with the rest of us gone, there will be no-one left to exploit. In short, nuclear war is in no-one’s interest.
But the nuclear system is in someone’s interest. As you have shown so vividly in your article, the nuclear arms race is an integral part of the system we live in. The huge, constantly expanding arms budget conditions the whole of the rest of the capitalist economy. Our political life, our whole culture are determined by the production of weapons of mass destruction. And some people have a vested interest in keeping that system going, others have not. Those whose profits, whose positions of power and influence depend on the continuation of the system will accept the risk of the nuclear holocaust and hope it never happens. The workers who see their wages pegged, their jobs at risk, their schools and hospitals closed, are much more likely to be persuaded that, whatever the defence budget may be defending, it isn’t defending their interests. If we are looking for consistent opponents of the Bomb, it will best to look among those who have no stake in the system.
Time and again you suggest in your essays that “we are not dealing here with rational behaviour”. The behaviour of those who make decisions in a nuclear society, you argue, is not rational. I’m not convinced that this is true. To take an example. Last month the Chemstar chemical factory in Manchester blew up. Not a big explosion by the side of an H-bomb, but pretty horrific for those who live around it. Now I don’t believe for one moment that the owners of Chemstar wanted their factory to blow up – though I’m sure they take good care to buy houses at a safe distance. But, like any factory owners, they took a calculated risk. To keep profit levels as high as possible, they accepted less than perfect safety standards. Some get away with it; they didn’t. But the answer is not to reason with them that bosses and workers have a common interest in a safe factory; it is to build a trade union organisation in the factory strong enough to impose adequate safety standards.
This not a nit-picking academic point. It affects our whole strategy for fighting to win. For if the nuclear decision makers are irrational, then presumably we try, either to knock some sense into them, or to replace them by more sensible people. But if they are pursuing rational interests in terms of their vested interests, then the only solution is to smash their system.
And this in turn raises the whole question of what kind of movement we are trying to build. In “Notes on Exterminism” you write:
‘Finally, it should go without saying that exterminism can only be confronted by the broadest possible popular 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. Those voices which pipe, in shrill tones of militancy, that “the Bomb” (which they have not looked behind) is “a class question”; that we must get back to the dramas of confrontation and spurn the contamination of Christians, neutralists, pacifists and other class enemies – these voices are only a false descant in the choir of exterminism. Only an alliance which takes in churches, Eurocommunists, Labourists, East European dissidents (and not only “dissidents”), Soviet citizens unmediated by party structures, trade unionists, ecologists – only this can possibly muster the force and the internationalist élan to throw the cruise missiles and the SS-20s back.’
First of all let’s get rid of some Aunt Sallies. Any vicar, University professor or Liberal councillor who joins the march this weekend can feel quite safe. There will be no squad of SWP heavies trying to throw them off in the interests of proletarian purity. Any individual who wants to fight the nuclear threat is welcome in the ranks of the united front.
But the real question is: Who has the power to win? You, more than any other writer, have helped us to see the colossal strength of the modern nuclear state, its ability to deceive, to distort, and where necessary to repress brutally. Against that monster we ned the strongest power we can mobilise.
In “Protest and Survive” you give great importance to the role of university teachers. And of course they have a part to play; they can, for example, influence their students, many of whom will go on to be trade unionists. But last week in the Time Higher Education Supplement I read that “almost one in five university jobs will disappear over the next three years as a result of cuts in public spending.” If university teachers cannot save their own jobs, what chance have they against the nuclear establishment?
The only power that will do the job is the power of the organised working class. That is the power that can stop the trains, make the bread vanish from the shops, cause the lights to go out, bring the whole mechanism of our society to a grinding halt. We glimpsed this power in the French general strike of 1968, in the Portuguese Revolution of 1975, and again over the last year in Poland. That is the power that can stop the arms race.
And how do we mobilise them? Many years ago you warned powerfully against the dangers of reducing everything to economic self-interest:
‘But, on the other hand, I think that those who scoff at the possibility of our people moving forward into a revolutionary situation in pursuit of ideal demands instead of being whipped into it by economic disaster are victims of a similar impoverished economic reductionism. I just do not know where this notion of working people as unresponsive to anything except direct economic motivations came from; it certainly does not come out of the history of the British working class.’
You are right of course. The history of CND, in the sixties and again today, is living testimony to the fact that idealism and moral outrage can mobilise thousands upon thousands of people. But it is also the fact that millions more, trapped by the pressures of work and home, and lulled by the lies of the media, are unable to respond to an appeal to fight the system as a whole. Only when their own reality begins to break down will they begin to move.
And now that reality is beginning to break down. For a quarter of a century after the second world war the preservation of a war economy in peacetime staved off slump, maintained full employment and rising wages. And so, while CND mobilised hundreds of thousands the first time round, millions more distrusted it because they knew their job and their standard of living were based on the Bomb. The trade union bureaucrats who jumped on the CND bandwagon could jump off again because the rank-and-file didn’t link the Bomb to the fight for money and conditions.
Now the situation is different. Recession and inflation together haunt the world. Cut the arms bill, and we plunge deeper into slump; raise it too much, and inflation goes through the roof. Hence the frenzied toing and froing between threats of war and offers of disarmament talks. This is a situation where idealism and economic interest come together, and that combination can be explosive. “Jobs not bombs” is the slogan that can detonate the explosion.
It is of course very tempting to accept the argument that the fight against the bomb is so urgent, so vital, that it must be taken on its own, not weighed down with other issues. But such a separation would be dangerous. Precisely because the crisis is total, our response must be total.
And that means it must be international. It is no good lamenting, as you do in “Protest and Survive”, “the loss of our national sovereignty”. And it is no good voting for an “unambiguous commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament”, as the Labour Party Conference did, if at the same Conference less than one vote in four is cast for withdrawal from NATO. For it is the politics of the NATO nuclear alliance that threatens world peace, and until we destroy that, the threat remains with us.
For the crisis is a world crisis, and today, more than at any point in history, the world we live in is one world, united by economic organisation, multinational companies, trade deals and military alliances. Russia too is part of that one world. Russia may not have so much inflation, but it has shortages instead. The result is pretty much the same – you can’t buy all you want. The fact that Russia, sixty years after the Revolution, still has to import grain is a direct result of the fact that money has been spent on arms instead of on agricultural machinery. And the main threat to the Russian bosses is, as Poland shows, exactly the same as in the West – organised independent and militant trade unionism.
Time and again you point to the parallels between arms build up in Russia and the West. But as long as you cling to some sort of idea that Russia is in some sense socialist, you have to see the arms race as having a strange logic of its own, instead of springing from the horrific logic of world capitalism.
And that whole system is now built around nuclear arms production. You quote with contempt a remark by Bill Rodgers when he was still Labour’s defence spokesperson: “Some three-quarters of a million men and women serve in the forces today or are involved as civilians in support activities and the defence industries … If the Labour Party ceased to care about defence, we should lose their support and never win an election again.” Rodgers is a disgusting opportunist. But there is a certain truth in what he says. To disarm without a massive upheaval in the way our society is organised is quite impossible. Academics may produce interesting schemes for the conversion from arms production to peaceful production. But such schemes all leave aside one vital question – who will actually carry out the conversion? “One solution, revolution” may sound a Utopian slogan, but every day it becomes more realistic.