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New Left Review I/121, May-June 1980


Edward Thompson

Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization

Comrades, we need a cogent theoretical and class analysis of the present war crisis. [*] Thanks to Ken Coates, Mary Kaldor, Dan Smith, Dorothy Thompson and the editors of this review, for comments and criticisms: none are responsible for my conclusions. Yes. But to structure an analysis in a consecutive rational manner may be, at the same time, to impose a consequential rationality [1] I am using ‘rationality’ in these notes to denote the rational pursuit of self-interest, as attributed to a nation, class, political élite, etc. In a different perspective none of these pursuits may appear as rational. upon the object of analysis. What if the object is irrational? What if events are being willed by no single causative historical logic (‘the increasingly aggressive military posture of world imperialism’, etc.)—a logic which then may be analysed in terms of origins, intentions or goals, contradictions or conjunctures—but are simply the product of a messy inertia? This inertia may have drifted down to us as a collocation of fragmented forces (political and military formations, ideological imperatives, weapons technologies): or, rather, as two antagonistic collocations of such fragments, interlocked by their oppositions? What we endure in the present is historically-formed, and to that degree subject to rational analysis: but it exists now as a critical mass on the point of irrational detonation. Detonation might be triggered by accident, miscalculation, by the implacable upwards creep of weapons technology, or by a sudden hot flush of ideological passion. [2] I take the British adventure at Suez (1956), the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia (1968), and the United States helicopter operation in Iran (1980) to be examples of such hot flushes. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan is a militarypolitical act of a more calculated order: perhaps a cold flush. If we drill all this in too tidy a logical formation we will be unprepared for the irrationality of the event. Twenty-one years ago, in the forerunner to this journal, Peter Sedgwick (addressing the arguments of a different moment) alerted us to this irrationality: ‘A conspiracy theory was implicit in all analysis produced from within the Stalinist orbit. “The ruling circles of the United States” were “bending all their efforts to prepare a new war”, “fresh plans of aggression” being constantly prepared by these very circles. A criminal foresight was thus ascribed to the enemy, in a manner both implausible and alien to Marxist categories. What Wright Mills calls “the drift and thrust towards World War Three” is indeed to be ascribed to the existence of oligarchic and military ruling classes (whose distribution over the continents of the globe is, incidentally, somewhat more widespread than the Partisans of Peace ever hinted). But the danger of war arises, not from conscious planning on the part of the élites . . . If this were so, we could all sleep safely, for the “ruling circles” would hardly be likely to plot their own annihilation . . . War is possible as the outcome of policies initiated by these irresponsible minorities, as the final unforeseen link in a causal chain forged at each stage by the previous choice of some ruling class. World War Three could burst out as “something that no one willed”; the resultant of competing configurations of social forces . . . If Man is ever obliterated from the earth by means of his own armaments, there will be no simple answer to the question: Did he fall, or was he pushed?’ [3] Peter Sedgwick, ‘nato, the Bomb and Socialism’, Universities & Left Review, 7, Autumn 1959. (My italics).

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