The myth of 'self-liberation'
An open letter to E. P. Thompson Dear Edward Thompson, Over the last two years I have watch- ed with fascination the successive launches of your personal peace barrage. First, the Spitfire of 'Protest and Survive', looping and rolling over our heads; close behind it your 'Notes on Exterminism', rather a weighty trial balloon; then that powerful, elegant full-blown airship 'Beyond the Cold War' — NOT the Dimbleby Lecture, to the BBC's shame; and in between, to keep us on our toes, the occasional, dazzling little firework in the Guardian or The Times.
I have watched with fascination, but also with growing unease. Each time I returned to this country from Poland or Germany or Hungary I sighted another Thompson soar- ing into the sky; and each time it bore aloft a banner marked 'Eastern Europe' or `Polish Solidarity', like those advertisement trailers for tyres or soap which are sometimes flown over holiday resorts. This was the particular source of my unease. Now that these magnificent flying-machines are conveniently assembled in two paperback hangars* we can examine the advertisement more closely.
Your vision of European-Nuclear Disar- mament (END) extends 'from Poland to Portugal'. 'Europe', you remind us, is more than the EEC, it includes Warsaw as well as Paris, Leningrad as well as Madrid. This our continent, our common culture, is
'I love it — I've been here for years.'
artificially split down the middle — tragically divided by the Cold War. The West European peace movement, You write, 'cannot succeed unless we can break, somehow, across that divide, and call forth reciprocal responses from the East'. And, referring specifically to the Soviet people, `the peace movement in the West, which anxiously awaits their response, cannot guarantee the continued vitality of its presence if that response fails to come Moreover, `. . . the response from Soviet citizens must begin to show itself before the end of 1982'.
I salute that vision: we cannot be remind- ed too often of the other Europe. I salute the rare honesty with which you link the prospects of Western peace movements ex- plicitly, directly, to the fortunes of would- be peace campaigners in the Soviet bloc. I salute the breakneck daring of that last `must': you have five months to go! But then you move on from what 'must' be to what is, from prescription to descrip- tion. The clearest advertisement comes in `Beyond the Cold War': `The Western peace movements . • extend their support to the Polish renewal and to Solidarity, and to movements of libertarian dissent in the Warsaw bloc. And from Eastern Europe also, voice after voice is now reaching us — hesitant, cautious, but with growing confidence — searching for the same alliance: peace and freedom. `Eastern Europe ' has commenced its own self-liberation. In cautious ways, Romania, Hungary and East GermanY have established small areas of autonomy, of foreign policy, economY or culture, while the Polish renewal signals a social transition so swift and far-reaching that speculation upon its outcome is futile.'
To most of your younger Western readers, whose knowledge of Eastern Europe is, as you point out, small, this must suggest that there is some major historical process advancing across the Soviet bloc. The movements of libertarian dissent are spreading (`voice after voice' *Zero Option (Merlin, £3.60) Exterministn and The Cold War, ed. by New Left Review (Verso, £5.50).
• • . 'growing confidence'). In 1944-5 there was the Liberation by the heroic Soviet ar- mies. Now there is the Self-Liberation from
• • . well, yes, from the heroic Soviet armies. I wish with all my heart that Eastern Europe was on a steady course to self- liberation. But my eyes refuse the illusion. I cannot see any meaningful sense in which this is true.
I would argue the case with you on any country in the Soviet bloc. In Romania, Hungary and East Germany, for example, the 'areas of autonomy' to which you refer do not threaten, or even threaten to threaten, the armaments production, Military dispositions or defence posture of the Warsaw Pact. But you will appreciate that a weekly like the Spectator has only limited space. So today I will not ask why the first fruit of East Germany's 'cultural autonomy' was the rehabilitation of those inveterate peacemongers, Frederick the Great, Scharnhorst, and Clausewitz. Nor will I inquire too closely into those `demonstrations in support of a nuclear- free Europe, with slogans critical of the weaponry of both superpowers' (your description) which were so expertly staged In President Ceausescu's neo-Stalinist Romania. Nor will I gibe at those pink- frocked Nordic peace ladies marching through Moscow to the spontaneous ap- plause of balloon-toting KGB men.
Instead, I shall take the country where Your case is strongest, the one country in the Soviet bloc which has seen an authentic, massive, self-organised democratic move- ment with the ultimate goal of national self- liberation. I mean, of course, Poland.
The `solidarno§e' logo is the brightest of your trailers. Your movement urges the nnPortance of direct exchanges between unofficial persons' in East and West. I therefore looked eagerly for your account of what Solidarity had to say to END, for the views of Polish working people on this vital subject. In vain! Nowhere in your Whole peace opus do I find a single voice, a single quotation even, from Solidarity.
The primary aim' of Exterminism and the Cold War, says the foreword by New Left Review, . . has been to promote a ge- nuinely international debate on the issue of thermonuclear war and peace.' There follow 'contributions from each of the main European countries'. But to my astonishment I find there is not a single contribution from an East European coun- try (Rudolf Bahro is an ex-East German liv- mg in West Germany; the Medvedevs are Russians). The Polish flag is waved by most contributors to support their arguments, but are the Poles allowed to speak for themselves? Certainly not.
Was this for 'technical reasons'? Was it really not possible for a single 'unofficial Person' from END to travel to Warsaw in the 16 months of Solidarity's overground existence, when Poland's borders were °Pen to most Western visitors? Did you never think to ask your fellow historians among Solidarity's advisers, Bronislaw
Geremek or Karol Modzelewski or Adam Michnik, for their opinions? (If you want to write to them now their address is: Bialoleka Internment Camp, c/o General Kiszczak, Ministry of the Interior, Warsaw.) Or was it that they declined, because to write about these subjects anywhere, even for END, even in a socialist context, would further provoke the Rus- sians and endanger the self-limiting Polish revolution?
Or could it just be that you did not desperately want to hear what-they had to say, for fear that they would say the wrong thing? After all, they might start declaring their support for Reagan Or Mrs Thatcher — and that would rather disfigure your argument. Now, although I was in Poland during the Solidarity period, I cannot match your confidence in generalising about what other people think. But I must say that I have met more supporters of Reagan in Warsaw than in West Berlin. Most of the Solidarity members I talked to were, to say the least, sceptical about your movement. And I am not alone in this im- pression. Neal Ascherson, for example, writes in the March/April issue of New Socialist: 'Most young Poles . . . appear to regard the peace movement in the West as something negative, because they suppose it will weaken NATO without corresponding- ly weakening the Warsaw Pact . . This is no doubt regrettable. It is really too backward of the Poles: like their Catholicism, their patriotism (what you call their `nationalism'), or the predominance of men in Solidarity — 'features', you write, 'which might wrinkle the nose of a purist'. The purists of New Left Review would presumably dismiss it all as 'false consciousness'. You say merely that Solidarity's 'internationalist perspectives were confined and confused'. Or again, wrinkling your nose, 'too many of its leaders and advisers, and many of its young members, looked to the wrong friends in the West' (my italics). And who will decide who are the right friends? Yourself presumably.
Many Solidarity members, poor
benighted simpletons that they were, thought the dramatic warnings addressed to the Kremlin by NATO and Western leaders were designed to help them at a time when half a million Warsaw Pact troops were mobilised on Poland's frontiers. Some of them even believed that these warnings did help to deter the Soviet leadership from armed intervention. You know better. 'Are the threatening pronouncements of NATO councils helping the Polish Solidarity?' you ask, rhetorically, in your letter of March 1981 to Vaclav Racek. 'On the contrary: these enable Rude Pravo and Isvestia to de- nounce trade unionists and KOR advisers as "counter-revolutionary elements", and to advance the arguments of military expe- diency to counter human rights.' As if Rude Provo needed NATO warnings before they denounced KOR as 'anti-socialist' and `counter-revolutionary'! . . the bluster of NATO spokesmen', you wrote in The Times in December 1981, 'led always direct- ly into the strong suit of the security- minded authorities of the other side'. I challenge you to produce a shred of evidence for this assertion. On the contrary, the little evidence we have (and it is mostly circumstantial) suggests that NATO warn- ings were, indeed, a factor against the use of force on the balance sheets drawn up by Soviet and Polish leaders. But this, if true, is very inconvenient, and therefore has to be stood on its head. For NATO spokesmen are obviously the wrong friends.
No, you cannot honestly say that Solidarity was consciously (subjective- ly) an ally of END. You are therefore reduced to saying, as M. Etienne Balibar puts it in Exterminism and the Cold War, that 'the Polish people ... objectively con- tributed' (my italics) to the movement for progressive disarmament and the dissolu- tion of military blocs. 0, that weasel word `objectively', how it comes in useful when you're in a corner! (You know, Walesa is `objectively' an agent of imperialism, Michnik is 'objectively' anti-socialist ...) But let us examine this claim more closely.
You will recall that Solidarity deliberately
did not challenge Poland's role in the War- saw Pact. The Soviet Union's strategic lines of communication to East Germany were carefully excluded from any strike which Solidarity controlled. In the nationwide four-hour warning strike on 27 March 1981, the largest and best organised labour action in the post-war history of Eastern Europe, all armaments factories were kept working. There were, it is true, speeches criticising the Warsaw Pact at Solidarity's congress. The most radical (i.e. market-oriented) of the three alternative economic strategies ap- pended to its programme did suggest that `some production factors should be tem- porarily shifted from the armaments in- dustry to meet the urgent needs of the con- version of our economy'.
But otherwise the `self-limiting revolu- tion' to the end scrupulously refrained from attacking any aspect of Poland's defence policy. Solidarity recognised this as perhaps the crucial Soviet vital interest in Poland. Non-interference with defence was a sine qua non for that 'historic compromise' with the communist authorities which Solidarity so earnestly sought. Its leaders knew that if they protested on this score, their move- ment could not survive.
Nonetheless, I agree that if that 'historic compromise' had been found then Europe might now be a safer as well as a freer place. The Polish revolution was the best hope for the peaceful evolution of the Soviet empire: Polish communist authorities cooperating with Solidarity might gradually have regain- ed some legitimacy; an economy working partly through the market, under social control, might have been able to satisfy more than the basic material needs of the Polish people; Mr Brezhnev's successors might slowly have realised that elements of institutional pluralism in East European states could make it easier and cheaper to maintain their expensive, friable western strategic glacis. In this sense, yes, Solidarity might have 'objectively' contributed to the cause of peace.
But it has not happened that way. `A
defeat for freedom in Poland,' you wrote five days after General Jaruzelski's military takeover, 'will be a devastating defeat for peace.' Nearly eight months later, I think we must acknowledge that, whatever con- cessions the courage of underground Solidarity may yet extract from the regime, and whatever reforms economic collapse may force the generals to initiate, the freedom of the Solidarity period will not be restored this year or the next.
Your presentation of the 'devastating defeat for peace' is startling in one respect. `General Jaruzelski' you write, 'is a Polish patriot: he has pledged himself to avoid bloodshed.' So for you General Jaruzelski is a 'patriot' while Solidarity activists were `nationalists'. No need to wrinkle our noses at him. And again, in a postscript to the Ex- terminism volume dated April 1982, 'this was a Polish solution arising from Polish conditions ... ' Perhaps (as you also say) the General's subjective intentions are not so important. I suppose most generals would prefer to make bloodless coups, even in Chile. Yet I once again stand abashed before your omniscience. How do you know Jaruzelski is a Polish patriot? How do you know this is 'a Polish solution'? I find myself asking why these apologists' phrases slip from your pen. I recall your stirring slogan, 'Let Poland be Polish and let Greece be Greek.' Yet I cannot imagine you writing, five days after a military takeover in Greece, 'Colonel X is a Greek patriot: he had pledged himself to avoid bloodshed' — and making no mention of the Americans' responsibility for the coup.
A s a historian, you must know that we ra.cannot yet know, with certainty, the full story of Soviet responsibility for Poland's descent into a 'state of war'. But the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. Have you forgotten that fraternal letter from the Soviet Central Committee which finally scotched hopes of a real democratisation of the Polish Communist Party? And the `Soyuz 81' Warsaw Pact manoeuvres on Polish soil, extended day by day while Solidarity was preparing a general strike? And the fictitious TASS reports? And Marshal Kulikov's visits to Warsaw? Do you seriously imagine that Jaruzelski could have prepared his coup without the knowledge, authority and direct support of Soviet leaders? Perhaps you never studied the high command structure of a Warsaw Pact army.
No. Soviet leaders, rather than sacrifice the Leninist structures of a ruling com- munist party, rather than allow genuine pluralism in an East European state, rather than allow the truth to be spoken, have obliged the Polish military to step into the front line of the politbureaucratic dictator- ship. In Poland, they have played their next-to-last card. The country is officially in a 'state of war'. This advance of the military sets, as you say, an extremely dan- gerous precedent for the whole Soviet bloc.
However, as you rightly observe, we are primarily concerned not with causes or
motives but with consequences, and, in Pasternak's fine phrase, 'the consequences of consequences'. These are systemic. Militarism, as you say, is 'deeply enstruc- tured' in Soviet society. 'The Cold War has a bonding function in the Soviet Union also.' The threat of the external enemy, it'll' aginary or real, has become necessary for the survival of the system. I would add that this, spliced into old-fashioned nationalism (yes, I mean nationalism), is almost the only hold on genuine popular support which the leaders of this economically failing system can be certain of. Or can you see any other, fresh sources of legitimacy? Whereas you might perhaps agree that Western leaders, the children of 'that old bitch, consumer capitalism' (your phrase), do still have some other, fresh sources of legitimacy? To put it crudely, Brezhnev needs the bonding effect of militarism and nationalism a great deal more than Mrs Thatcher does. For the leaders of the Soviet bloc to give up their military-security apparatus would be for them to give up power. Therefore I do not see how they can tolerate an authentic, self' organised democratic peace movement within their borders. Unless, of course, you think Brezhnev is weary of power and privilege, and will gladly retire, like Pro- spero to Milan, after witnessing the nuptials of Peace and Freedom ...
Now my charms are all o'erthrown, And what strength I have's mine own, Which is most faint:
In Poland, they have used the army to crush an authentic, self-organised democratic social movement which did everything in its power not to threaten Soviet strategic in' terests; and did not even speak about disar- mament.
Now, since we are living in the West (under the very teats of the old bitch, in- deed) no one will prevent you proclaiming what 'must' be in Eastern Europe, or the Soviet Union, or anywhere else for that matter. There will be no knock on your door one December Sunday morning, no policeman will hustle you off to Slough in- ternment camp, just because you spoke up for human freedom and dignity. Indeed, because your proclamations are so obvious- ly serious, so (erratically) stimulating, and so well-written, I suspect there are few peo- ple who would wish to prevent you — pro- bably fewer than you imagine.
But I do protest at your bombastic con- flation of what 'must' be with what is, of prescription with description, of prophecy with analysis. 'Each success of a unilateral kind', you trail from your Spitfire, `— by Holland in refusing NATO cruise missiles or by Romania and Poland in distancing themselves from Soviet strategies — will he met with an outcry that it serves the advan- tage of one or other bloc.' And with the force of your prophetic 'will' you hurry your supporters across a threshold of men- tal expectation (to use a striking phrase which you hurled from the Spitfire at Pro- fessor Michael Howard). They see Poland already 'distancing' itself from Soviet strategies, just as Holland is already refus-
ing NATO Cruise missiles. 'Voice after voice,' they learn, is reaching you from Eastern Europe, as the blocs unfreeze with the majestic inevitability of a natural pro- cess. Already 'Eastern Europe has com- menced its self-liberation'. Who do you think you are kidding?
I protest in the name of truth. I protest also in the name of thousands who are prevented from speaking publicly for themselves. Unlike you, I do not presume to speak for them. But having talked to a few of them, privately, over a number of Years, I can ask you, publicly, to answer a few of the questions they would ask of you if they could: What if the response from Soviet citizens does not 'begin to show itself before the end of 1982', or for years ahead, because it can- not show itself, any more than a gagged man can sing? What if the political efficacy of END is perforce confined to Western Europe? Will you continue to agitate, in ef- fect, for unilateral disarmament? Will you then call it by its proper name? And, most important of all: how do you imagine Soviet leaders would react if the military threat from Western Europe was unilateral- 1Y removed?
These questions are not rhetorical. I look forward to your replies.
Timothy Garton Ash
P.S. I learn from the Guardian of 3 August that representatives of END have signed a Joint statement in Brussels with Mr Jerzy Milewski, chairman of underground Solidarity's Coordinating Office Abroad: The Brussels meeting was the first official contact with Solidarity ... ' the Guardian reports (After 23 months! Why the delay?) and 'produced a cautious communique call- ing for respect for the Helsinki Agreement's Pledge that every European country must have the right to determine its foreign Policy on its own. Although END stands for a nuclear-free Europe "from Poland to Portugal", Solidarity drew back from en- dorsing this.' But no doubt Solidarity did basically endorse the END stand — er objectively, I mean.
PPS. The Solidarity Co-ordinating Office Abroad have just sent me a copy of the Joint communique, the full sense of which Was not quite given by the Guardian report. For example: '3. The peace movement ex- pressed their convictions that their cam- paign against nuclear weapons can only suc- ceed within the framework of the Helsinki Agreements, according to which "all Peoples always have the right, in full freedom, to determine, when and as they Wish, their internal and external political status, without external interference, and to Pursue as they wish their political,
economic, social and cultural development".' (My italics; Mr Milewski has authorised me to correct the communi- que's misquotation of the Helsinki Agreements.) Precisely. And where peoples do not have that right