Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


European activist. A voice from the peace movement

By Judith Chettle / May 2, 1986



The Heavy Dancers: Writings on War, Past and Future, by E. P. Thompson. New York: Pantheon Books. 361 pp. $12.95, paper. $22.95, cloth. No one wants nuclear war, but peace is more than the absence of nuclear warheads.

Skip to next paragraph

Nothing illustrates so aptly the dilemma of those antinuclear activists who prefer to think of the United States and the Soviet Union as equals in perfidy as the recent Nobel Peace Prize award to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Finding it difficult to ignore Dr. Yevgeny I. Chazov's role in the anti-Sakharov campaign, spokesmen for IPPNW proclaimed the future of mankind to be a more compelling issue than human rights.

This is also the argument of E. P. Thompson, the British historian and leading spokesman for the European peace movement. In ``The Heavy Dancers,'' Mr. Thompson's aim is to give an account of the nonaligned peace movement in the past five years -- its origins, ``the increasingly sharp attacks (and calumnies) visited upon it by orthodox Western critics; the difficulties in attempting direct citizen communications between West and East; and the response to those attempts which has come from the official Communist apparatus.''

This is not an entirely convincing description of the movement. Thompson is an earnest, obviously well-intentioned man, but he is also part of that uncompromising group that wishes for absolute and immediate solutions to complex problems. Like the doctors of the IPPNW, his vision of the future is so bleak and apocalyptic that he is impatient with those who would debate the issue of nuclear disarmament in the wider context of differences in perceptions, national objectives, human rights, and fundamental beliefs about the nature of society. It is easier for Thompson to resolve the nuclear question by simply declaring the two superpowers equally culpable, and dismissing the matter of human rights as an irrelevant consideration.

One habit to be kicked, he writes, ``is that of using Human Rights as the coin of propaganda, as if a debit on one side can be scored as a credit to the other. This habit, which is widespread on both sides of the Atlantic, reveals how far we are from truly endorsing the consciousness of nonalignment. We remain in bondage to the schema of the Cold War, exchanging one ideology for its mirror image.''

These collected pieces reflect Thompson's fear of imminent nuclear war; his anti-Americanism (``It lays arrogant claim to a universalism of virtues''); his dislike and distrust of the Thatcher government; his concern about the divisions within the peace movement fueled by Soviet fronts like the World Peace Council; and a deep yearning for a new order, a new world, with new relations between nations and blocs, founded upon ``the human ecological imperative'' and transcending ``the ritualized and long-inert categories of `Communism' and `Social Democracy.' ''

He is highly critical of ``star wars,'' or the Strategic Defense Initiative, which he sees as an ``ideological delirium'' which ``massages the American ego by intoning homilies about `saving humanity,' while drawing humanity within new dimensions of danger.''

Much of Thompson's anti-Americanism is, one suspects, part of that fashionable British intellectual attitude based mainly on envy of the success of the younger sibling. His prescriptions for peace require closer scrutiny. Though castigating the Soviet Union for its treatment of unauthorized peace organizers, his sympathies are with the left, and his idealism, however admirable, reflects this bias.

Like those developers who raze areas of decaying but livable neighborhoods to replace them with gleaming, sterile high-rises, Thompson is not a follower of the ``patch, mend, and painstakingly rebuild'' school of politician. Distrusting the compromise, the patient, gradualist approach, he advocates solutions brought about by confrontation, by non-negotiation.

We can all sympathize with his fears: Nuclear war should be unthinkable. But while it might help in the short term to describe the United States and the Soviet Union as equally culpable, in the long run such sloppy analysis encourages more, rather than less, discord. ``The Heavy Dancers,'' paradoxically, needs more weight as well as agility and finesse if it is to be respected on the dance floor.