STAYING ALIVE IS NOT ENOUGH

Solidarity leader, spring 1983

“0ne, two, three, four, we don’t want a nuclear war!”, chant the CND marchers, expressing a sentiment shared by every sane human being. “Two, three, four, five, we just want to stay alive!”

There is no doubt that being alive is generally better than being dead. But there are limits to the desirability of “just staying alive”. It isn’t necessary to be an admirer of heroic martyrdom to think that death fighting for liberation might have been preferable to submitting to the barbarity of the Nazi concentration camps or Pol Pot’s Cambodia; but if there is a choice between merely “staying alive” and something more, to opt for the former shows a depressing lack of audacity.

Yet just staying alive is the desire of a large part of the CND marchers. For them there is nothing better on the horizon; the horror of nuclear war looms so large in their imaginations that all concern for the content of future life has been eclipsed by fear for the very existence of a future life. Political thought has been replaced by an almost animal lust for self-preservation.

It is of course dangerous to interpret a movement through only one of its slogans. All the same, the blinding effects of fear are all too noticeable in the resurgent peace movement – nowhere more so than in the attitude of much of that movement to the Soviet Union. Here the problem is not so much that of outright pro-Sovietism; the overt Stalinist and Trotskyist defenders of the “workers’ bomb” are a dying breed exercising little direct influence. Many of their excuses for Soviet militarism have, however, survived their decline. The peace movement is riddled with people who claim, more or less sincerely, that the USSR is the innocent, encircled victim of Yankee imperialism, that Russia is justified in arming because of the vast number of Soviet deaths in the second world war, or that the Russians are just keeping pace in the arms race.

Such claims are naive and dangerous. They ignore the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the crushing of the free workers’ movement and dissident opinion inside the USSR, and the tentacles of Soviet military aid in the Third World. They overlook the massive build-up of conventional arms in the last decade. The suffering of the Russian people in the last war is no more valid an excuse for these activities of their rulers than the Holocaust is an excuse for systematic racial discrimination and expansionism by the state of Israel.

Yet much of the peace movement remains soft on the Soviet Union. Last year a quarter of a million people turned out on the spring CND demonstration in Hyde Park; a week later a demonstration called to mark six months of martial law in Poland drew only 2,000 to Trafalgar Square, most of them Polish emigrés. Not that demonstrating is any paradigm of political activity; but the point should be clear.

There are some in the peace movement who are not completely blind to the nature of the USSR. Edward Thompson and others around European Nuclear Disarmament have made a point of emphasising the responsibility of both sides in the arms race, calling for the formation of independent peace movements both sides of the Iron Curtain. But END too have been the victims of wishful thinking – hoping that the political system of the Eastern bloc could allow an independent, reformist, pressure-group type peace movement to exist in competition with the state-run official peace committees. They have not grasped that any admission of pluralism by the Soviet-bloc states undermines the institutional and ideological foundations of those states’ power – that, in short, the eastern-bloc states cannot be politically liberalised.

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