Despite the evident disagreements between us, and a certain measure of misunderstanding, I find Edward Thompson’s comment welcome and stimulating. The overriding issues that confront us all concern the future, on which, as he himself makes clear, there is far more that unites than divides us. There are, however, a number of points he raises where some dissenting reply may be in order. These are: the interpretation of his argument on exterminism; the evaluation of European events over the last few months; the role of the peace movement; the plausibility of a ‘third way’.
Thompson disputes my division of theories of cold war into four broad schools and in particular my inclusion of his ‘exterminism’ thesis in what I term the internalist school, that is one which sees the Cold War as a product of comparable forces operating within the two blocs, forces for whom the Cold War is in varying respects functional. As I argued in nlr 180 and in The Making of the Second Cold War, no one can deny the force of internal factors within the two blocs, but on its own such an argument is misleading in two respects: (1) it under-states the degree of contestation and rivalry between the blocs—that is, the degree to which each remained committed to prevailing over the other; (2) it overstates how similar the structures were within each bloc, and in so doing failed to see how far Cold War was a product of the very difference, the heterogeneity of socio-economic systems, between them. I do not think, as he seems to do, that the ideological element in East–West relations was separate from the material interests involved.
Thompson may not like the word ‘homology’ but it is in meaning very similar to the equally un-Anglo-Saxon term ‘isomorphism’ which appears liberally in his exterminism essay. Both denote a similarity or identity of structure. ‘Homology’ is the best I can do to denote the argument that the sources of the Cold War are similar within the two blocs, and that, in his case, these sources are to be found in a military–social dynamic which he terms ‘exterminism’. The category ‘reciprocity’ as he explains it in his comment seems to bear this interpretation out: that the Cold War was driven by forces within each bloc that, through reciprocal interaction, more and more came to resemble each other. After all, the central argument of that text is that whatever differences in social system may have underlain the Cold War in its inception, the predominance of the arms race and arms manufacture has produced a similarity: his stress on ‘isomorphism’ was in part designed to rebut traditional and apologetic left arguments about the differences between the capitalist and non-capitalist systems.
Thompson repeats his view that the Cold War is ‘about itself’, and it is this that seems to me to lie at the heart of our disagreement. It was precisely on this point that a number of us, myself and Mike Davis included, sought to provide an alternative interpretation of cold war
My argument about the events of the past few months is that what has happened is what inter-systemic conflict theory would have suggested: namely that rivalry of the blocs will end once systemic heterogeneity is drastically reduced or disappears. What we have seen is not just a reduction in military tension but a prevailing of one socio-economic system over the other. The collapse of the Communist regimes constitutes precisely such a process, which is still in train, in so far as the West, under the rubric of ‘conditionality’, is making financial and commercial assistance dependent upon the introduction of capitalist reforms in these countries. It should not be surprising that this is the way things are going. This is the way the capitalist system works.
Here I would argue that Thompson’s account of these events retains an element of wishful thinking, although the tone of his comment printed here is rather at variance with his, in my view, more accurate and sober assessment published in The Guardian on 3 July. On the one hand, he suggests that the victory of the West may not turn out to be such a victory after all, and compares it to a wrestler who is thrown off balance when his opponent slips. But the real analogy is in Clausewitz’s use of wrestling to describe the goal of strategy, which is not to annihilate but niederwerfen, to ‘throw down’ the opponent: the capital ist West has not lost its antagonist, it has subjugated it, nowhere more so than in the takeover of the gdr by Bonn. There has not been reciprocal interaction, but a victory of one side over the other. On the other hand, he suggests that what the peace movement proposed was ‘new systems of inter-national relations’: this is what the peace movement proposed, but it is not what it got. What we have is a strengthening of the institutions of one side in the face of the collapse of those on the other. nato and the ec have become more accommodating, but as a function of their new strength. The Warsaw Pact, for all current piety, is as dead as the League of Nations, and Comecon may follow suit. Of course, assessment of what the outcome is depends on what one is looking at: if inter-bloc military tension is the
Thompson chides me for ignoring the role of the peace movement, and he is, in one sense, right to do so: much as it pains me to say it, I do not think that the peace movement played a major role in bringing about the end of the Cold War. Here I can only quote the telling sentence from the end of Thompson’s own exterminism essay: ‘The end of politics is to act, and to act with effect’ (ept’s italics). The question is what the effect was. In the conclusion to The Making of the Second Cold War, written in early 1983, I argued that, for all the mass mobilizations and appeals across party lines involved, the goal of a peace movement had to be to influence political processes: this meant elected or established governments. Beyond generic statements of influence, one has to look at what actually happened in Western Europe in this period. In no country within nato was a government elected that opposed the deployment of cruise and Pershing, let alone opposed continued membership of nato: the nearest was in the German elections of March 1983, but Kohl was returned, the spd retreated, and the Greens later lost their momentum. Later, in Holland, the peace movement almost got a majority against cruise deployment, but in the end that failed too. These were close-run things, but the reality is that nato proceeded with its policies on inf deployment, there was no concerted opposition to sdi, and few even seriously raised the key issue, that of leaving nato. Thompson’s interpretation of the British possibilities had there not been a Falklands War may or may not be valid—I doubt it. What was most striking throughout the height of the peace movement was that while many in Britain expressed doubts about cruise deployment, this happened, the Thatcher government that carried it through was re-elected and even regarded this issue as a vote winner, and there was never more than a small minority in favour of leaving nato—hence the equivocations of cnd on this issue. The fate of the freeze movement and of sane in the usa was little different.