‘For years, elements in the Communist apparatus sought to interfere in the affairs of the Western peace movement, while some Western politicians sought to turn “dissidents” in Communist countries into their fellow-travellers. Then suddenly the psychodrama entered a different phase. The antagonists relaxed; new speech-writers were hired. To our considerable surprise, they broke into the peace movement’s files, carried off our speeches and demands, and presented some of them as if they were their own. Of course we were not given any credits. We did not even get any percentage on the Grand Reykjavik Production, which plagiarized the end Appeal and the Platform of the US “Freeze” but went further than us both—to announce the imminent abolition of all nuclear weapons from planet earth. Very good—very fine. We do not mind if we are overlooked in the credits. We shall be very happy if the powers can get rid of all nuclear weapons without our help. But nothing has actually been done. To be fair, one thing was done: the Soviet Union, over a long period, sustained a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, for which it deserves our congratulations—just as the United States, Britain and France deserve our condemnation for their total lack of response. But otherwise nothing. The superpowers and their allies and clients have achieved less in any true peace process than have the tiny Pacific island of Palau and nuclear-free New Zealand. In this last year, however, it sometimes seems as if the Cold War has walked through a mirror. Antagonists change places and swap each other’s lines. Communist economic reformers (we are told) admire the rigour of Western monetarism, while Mrs Thatcher—the Iron Lady and the inheritor of Churchill’s’ mantle—prepared for her General Election by rushing off to the Soviet Union for a series of photo-opportunities with Mr and Mrs Gorbachev. Mr Gorbachev is awaited with an expectant hush in Central Europe as the agent of possible liberation from regimes once put in place by Soviet tanks.’

Such was Edward Thompson’s vivid evocation of the new conjuncture in his speech to the final session of the Sixth Annual Convention of Peace Movements at Coventry. The most immediate problem confronting the Convention was, of course, how to exert a direct popular influence on the Geneva arms negotiations. Its response was a solemn appeal for an international mobilization during the coming un session on disarmament, in the week beginning on 24 October, to ensure the implementation of the first, limited step of removing all intermediate-range missiles from Europe; and beyond that to press for the elimination of all nuclear weapons—not just land-based systems—from the continent. At the same time, peace campaigners were put on the alert against the danger of an escalation of conventional armaments to offset the pullout of Cruise and Pershing, in which the European nato powers would steadily build up their military potential (with the possibility of a ‘West European bomb’ on the far horizon), while releasing the usa to intervene more actively elsewhere in the globe.

This Convention was dominated, more than its predecessors, by an insistence that new and different foreign policies are necessary to make moves towards disarmament meaningful. Fritz Eppler of West Germany, a leading member of the spd, gave forceful expression to this theme in a plenary session: ‘Each of the two great powers has long claimed that it would never attack the other. But if these protestations are to be credible, neither must be in a position to launch such an attack. So long as Europe is divided it will never be a tranquil continent. We cannot hope to dissolve the two blocs overnight, but we can strive progressively to render them obsolete. To that end we need to free ourselves not only from nuclear and conventional armaments, but first of all from conventional thinking. In that regard I confess my shame that leaders in the East appear to have understood Olof Palme’s concept of common security better than many in the West.’ Visibly moved, Eppler was addressing his audience in a Coventry Cathedral once razed by Nazi bombs, now serving as the meeting-place of the Convention. A local minister opened its work by remarking that ‘a conference in a church—even if political rather than religious in character—that is devoted to peace, is the best of all expressions of the Christian message.’ For Eppler ‘the fact that a German is speaking in Coventry Cathedral is symbolic of our purpose in itself.’

It would be wrong to suggest, however, that the diverse and immense problems subsumed in the idea of peace today were easily reducible to a single, harmonious consensus. Four thousand delegates from 42 countries—including not only European nations, but also the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, the Philippines, Nicaragua, India and Palau—were gathered, in some 118 working parties and five central sessions. The latter were dedicated respectively to: ‘The Confrontation between the usa and ussr’; ‘Europe and the United States’; ‘Europe and the Soviet Union’; ‘The Peace Movement and South Africa’; and ‘Central America—International Agreements and International Law’. The former varied from the most generic to the most specific of subjects: on the one hand, such issues as ‘What Europe? What World?’, ‘A New Compromise in the Mediterranean’, ‘British Politics and Nuclear Disarmament’, ‘After Chernobyl’, ‘Militarization and Underdevelopment’ (of which the Swede Inge Thornson, a former Social-Democratic Minister and un authority, was rapporteur), ‘Reconversion of the Arms Industry’ (promoted by British trade-unions), ‘The Middle East and Nuclear Weapons’ (among the participants was the brother of Mordechai Vanunu, kidnapped and imprisoned by the Israeli secret police for revealing the existence of some 200 Israeli nuclear bombs)—on the other hand, such topics as ‘Irish Neutrality and the Militarization of the eec’, ‘Secrecy, Democracy and Nuclear Weapons’, ‘The Image of the Enemy in Popular Culture’, ‘Conscientious Objection in Industry’ or ‘Women and Ecology in India’.

The dangers of diffusion and over-extension in such an agenda are sufficiently obvious. In practice, however, the Convention found much of its centre of gravity in debating critical issues of the current Soviet role in world politics. The workshop on Afghanistan naturally attracted a lot of attention. Here the Convention demonstrated the value of ‘detente from below’—the role that movements can play beyond the operations of diplomacy. With Jan Ter Lach of the Dutch Pax Christi and Jonathan Steele of The Guardian as moderators, the same discussiontable had around it Fatima Gailani—representative of the Islamic National Front in the Afghan guerrilla, indeed daughter of its president—and a member of the official Russian delegation. A lively exchange ensued, which produced some unexpected notes. Fatima Gailani, whose presence evoked expressions of sympathy from a Soviet woman delegate, said that—contrary to the view of her own organization—she thought the guerrillas should drop their refusal to negotiate with the Kabul government provided that the Russians were included in the process. On the other hand, when a German Green suggested that one condition of a solution to the Afghan problem might be that ‘Moscow does not lose face’, the Soviet representative told him that this was ‘quite secondary’ and that the important thing was for the Afghans to find a solution themselves. All members of the delegation spoke of the deep and disturbing impact on them of the recent Soviet documentary giving voice to the experience of conscripts in Afghanistan, How Difficult It Is To Be Young.

The major area of contention among the forces represented at Coventry was undoubtedly how to interpret—and react to—the new Russian initiatives in Europe. Jonathan Steele afterwards remarked that ‘the challenge of Gorbachev has created at least as much confusion in the peace movements as it has it nato.’ Yet the current divisions have their origin in long-standing tensions within the movement over how best to relate to the duality in Eastern Europe between official—that is, para-governmental—peace committees, and independent—so perforce ‘dissident’—peace groups. The First Convention at Brussels in 1982 had only West European participants. At that time the movement’s energy was overwhelmingly concentrated on the battle to stop the nato deployment of Pershing-II and Cruise missiles; although the removal of ss–20s was always demanded as well, the formal question of relations with the other part of the continent was not yet a major issue. At the Second Convention in Berlin the following year, however, the Liaison Committee charged with coordinating work received a letter from a group of Hungarian ‘independents’ who had wanted—but been unable—to participate, suggesting the need to open a dialogue with ‘official’ organizations in the East, as a channel of communication that could be of help to them too.

Both official and independent representatives from Eastern Europe were therefore invited to the Third Convention at Perugia in 1984. But with the exception of the Hungarian contingent, all the independents were denied travel permission by the authorities. Exiles in the West did attend and the confrontation between them and the official delegations was of some interest. But the general protest over the absence of those who had been invited, together with the refusal of the Liaison Committee to accept among its ranks—and hence in the Convention’s preparatory work—organizations which had not signed the original manifesto of the movement, the Bertrand Russell Foundation Appeal, soon prompted the ‘official’ representatives to withdraw from engagement. At the next Convention in Amsterdam, in 1985, none were present—nor any independents; only exiles from Eastern Europe. In Paris in 1986, after acrimonious exchanges of correspondence and inconclusive meetings, none were expected either. Yet at the last minute a few representatives of the official Soviet Peace Committee did show up, the first sign of a new attitude under Gorbachev.