In 1980, confronting a new upsurge of militarism, a number of us joined forces to launch an appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament. This began with a warning: ‘We are entering the most dangerous decade in history’, it said. There is a good deal of new evidence to show that this appreciation was exact, containing not a milligram of exaggeration. But there is now also confirmation that challenges call forth responses, and indeed that people are nowadays more ingenious and inventive than they used to be. The European Peace Movement, which has become a plain fact, has not only assembled its millions of adherents, but it has also unlocked the most remarkable talents and set loose a vast nuclear fusion of human energies. In the early days, New Left Review gave impetus to this process, when it published Edward Thompson’s powerful paper on ‘exterminism’, which subsequently provoked an important discussion in several major countries at once. Now again, NLR has sought to bring this argument to a new level by opening the question of the relation between socialism and nuclear war, and that of the interaction between socialist and peace movements.

Ernest Mandel’s article addresses a crucial theme, and that is why I think it right to take issue with him on a whole series of contingent matters.footnote1 What follows is not intended as a polemic response: I have a deep respect for Ernest Mandel, who has enriched my world for nearly thirty years of argumentative friendship. Rather I seek to worry at some of the issues which, both of us agree, matter, and to share my worries. So impenetrable is the territory of present travails that I doubt whether any individual can map it entire, leave alone point the way across it. That is why we must talk to one another, and also learn to listen.

In what follows I seek to discuss Mandel’s view of imperialism, his assessment of the interactions between labour movements and war in general, and his assessment of the threat of nuclear war and the use of nuclear weapons. In turn, this task involves us in looking at the degree of social control over nuclear choices in the military field, the extent of accountability within national nuclear forces, and the linkages within alliances. Only within such a framework, I think, can we appreciate the tasks of the socialist movement and the peace campaign in their true convergence, which I believe needs careful exploration and development.

That the earliest socialists were originally themselves a peace movement ought not to be in dispute: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.’footnote2

Over one hundred years after the death of Karl Marx, these opening words of The Communist Manifesto sound to many people more like a premonition of doom than the hopeful exhortation they were intended to be. ‘The common ruin of the contending classes’ no longer presents itself as a distant prospect, but must appear as a distinct probability as we peer at one another between the nuclear emplacements which sprout all over Europe in the middle of the 1980s.

In the early months of the First World War, writing in the prison to which she was confined for defending Marx’s internationalism, Rosa Luxemburg composed her pamphlet The Crisis in German Social Democracy, which subsequently became better known as The Junius Pamphlet.footnote3 In this tract, she harked back to Engels’ statement ‘Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism’. For Luxemburg: ‘This world war means a reversion to barbarism . . . either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, . . . de-population, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or the victory of socialism.’ Those who drew the human balance-sheet of that first World War could not fail to confirm Luxemburg’s appreciation of it. While her pamphlet was being clandestinely printed, the battle of Verdun was raging over a twenty-mile front. A five-mile movement along this front cost 281,000 German lives and 315,000 French lives. On the 10th of July 1916, Luxemburg was re-arrested, so that she was again in prison during the battle of the Somme, which was continued until the 14th of November, costing 419,604 British and 194,451 French casualties. German losses were estimated at half a million.footnote4 Over four dreadful years, the unimaginable carnage cost an estimated $272,970 million. ‘Barbarism’ is, in common parlance, a mild description for such universal mayhem: although it is grossly unfair to real barbarians, for whom slaughter was a heavy physical labour, unameliorated by the mechanical arts. Today, the process of slaughter is more efficient than ever. Vastly increased military expenditures bring within reach casualty lists beside which the first World War seems almost a benevolent event. Luxemburg did not believe that the barbarism she denounced would amount to ‘the common ruin of the contending classes’: ‘we are not lost,’ she said, ‘and we will be victorious if we have not forgotten how to learn.’ In 1918 there were still generations left with time to learn.footnote5

But only twenty years later most of these lessons had been forgotten. During the six years from September 1939, seventy million men were enrolled in the combatant armed forces, and seventeen million of these were killed. A sure mark of the advance of the barbarians is that ‘more civilians were killed than soldiers—some by aerial bombardment, others murdered by the Germans as partisans or hostages, many more murdered gratuitously in execution of Nazi racial doctrine, many perishing from hardship and starvation, while carrying out forced labour in Germany or when besieged at Leningrad and elsewhere.’footnote6