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Vol 2, No 39
13 November 2000
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Détente from Below
A commentary on Seán Hanley's
"Spectres of Anti-Capitalism"

Patrick Burke

(Read Seán Hanley's "Spectres of Anti-Capitalism")

Seán Hanley devotes most of "Spectres of Anti-Capitalism" to the three books he is reviewing.[1] These deal, he writes, with "capitalism as a 'problem' in the new Central Europe from a left-wing or loosely centre-left perspective," and he concludes that they have "surprisingly little" to say about left-wing "alternatives" for the region and "almost nothing that is truly innovative."

His starting point, however, is a critique of the Western Left's view of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. He does this, it seems, to point up the continuities between this view and current left-wing writing about Central and Eastern Europe: leftists misunderstood Soviet-style socialism then and, partly as a consequence, they've got nothing very interesting to say about the post-Communist East today.

Hanley's picture of the Western Left's approach to the East in the 1970s and 1980s is partial. But he may be right about the authors he's reviewing. There were those on the Left who still hoped that the "socialist project" could be rescued; many more simply did not think seriously about the sort of political change that might—and should—take place in Central and Eastern Europe. But many is not all: there were currents on the Left that, contrary to Hanley's claims, paid increasingly close attention to the "realities" of Eastern Europe, saw the need for political change in the region and did not champion "Democratic Socialism" or a "Social Democratic Third Way" for the East.

The peace movement

One such current was in the peace movement of the 1980s—that massive upsurge of anti-nuclear weapons campaigning that swept through almost every Western state.

In the early 1980s, most Western peace activists, while wanting to keep the movement unaligned with either superpower, saw the principal threat to peace as coming from the United States, and the main task of the movement as, above all, preventing the deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles by NATO. Not many activists thought about political change in Central-Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Above all, peace activists focused their energy and attention on their own governments.

The "pan-European" approach

But some campaigners were less fixated on the unilateralist agenda. They certainly believed that the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles should be refused, but they embedded this belief, and the campaigning that issued from it, in a different worldview.

In this view, which one might call the "pan-European" approach, peace was threatened not just by the nuclear arms race, but also, and more fundamentally, by the Cold War itself: the confrontation—military, political, economic and cultural—between East and West. Both sides shared responsibility for the Cold War and its consequences. In the words of the 1980 European Nuclear Disarmament (END) Appeal (drafted by E P Thompson with help from, among others, the independent French leftist Claude Bourdet and the exiled Soviet scientist Zhores Medvedev), "Guilt lies squarely upon both parties."

A European peace movement had, therefore, to have two goals: an anti-nuclear one: ridding "the entire territory of Europe [of] nuclear weapons" and all related facilities, and a political one: "free[ing] Europe from confrontation...
enforc[ing] détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, and ultimately... dissolv[ing] both great power alliances"[2]—in short, ending the Cold War.

Détente from below

The means to these ends would be a pan-European network of linked local, regional and national campaigns: "a trans-continental movement in which every kind of exchange takes place." Some "pan-Europeanists," mainly those who were political party activists and trade unionists, emphasized the renewal of an SPD-style Ostpolitik and hoped that left-wing Western political parties (Social Democratic, Socialist, Communist), "progressive" reform forces in the Eastern Communist Parties and the Western peace movements would be the agents of change.

Peace groups, by contrast, stressed the need to create an alliance of independent citizens' initiatives in East and West, an alliance that would create a Europe "beyond the blocs." The END Appeal, with its vision of people in East and West working together against the Cold War elites on both sides, inspired many peace activists. One paragraph was particularly important for them: "We must commence to act as if a united, neutral and pacific Europe already exists. We must learn to be loyal, not to 'East' or 'West,' but to each other, and we must disregard the prohibitions and limitations imposed by any national state."

The pursuit of this alliance—by, among others, the British group END, the West German Greens, Codéne in France (Comité pour le désarmement nucléaire en Europe) and the Inter-Church Peace Council in Holland—came to be known as "détente from below." This détente would, at the very least, provide an essential complement to the necessary but limited "détente from above" pursued by governments. (This approach did not preclude talking with "officials" in the East, peace councils and think tanks, for example, but these latter contacts were, for most campaigners, significantly less important than the links with independent groups.)

A bloc-free Europe

For these peace activists, Hanley's distinction between thinking about Central and Eastern Europe in terms of either "international politics and the 'exterminism' of the nuclear arms race"—the mistake of the Left, in his view—or the political change that the region needed would have made no sense: they did both. They understood that the goal of creating a bloc-free Europe meant that there would have to be, among other things, political change in the East.

But these activists did not only talk and write about "détente from below." They also acted. In 1980, when the Western peace movement took off, a "people's détente" (E P Thompson) was just a hope. But in the same year, the first peace activists visited Eastern Europe and opened a dialogue with independent activists there, which lasted ten years (and beyond).

Amongst the East European and Soviet groups to respond to the Western peace movement was Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia: its spokespeople—and its individual signatories—met visiting Western peace activists, issued statements or wrote articles on peace in response to Western peace movement approaches and exchanged letters with Western peace groups. Seán Hanley cites Václav Havel's "Anatomy of a Reticence," which Havel sent to the 1985 END Convention in Amsterdam (in response to an invitation to attend the meeting), but there was also Jaroslav Šabata's "Letter to E P Thompson" and Jirí Dienstbier's "We need a pan-European peace movement," written for the 1983 END Convention, among others.

Independent peace, or peace and human rights, groups were formed in the East (some of which, according to accounts by activists in them, were in part inspired by the Western peace movement): in Hungary, the Peace Group for Dialogue (1982); in the Soviet Union, the Moscow Trust Group (1982); in the GDR, Women for Peace (1982) and the Peace and Human Rights Initiative (1986); in Poland, Freedom and Peace (1985); and in Czechoslovakia, the Independent Peace Association (1988).

These were important interlocutors for Western peace groups, whose members (when they weren't banned from entering Soviet bloc countries) traveled regularly to meet and debate with these activists. Western groups also organized campaigns in support of imprisoned activists: for East German women peace activists in 1983 to 1984; the Czechoslovak Jazz Section in 1986 to 1987 and Freedom and Peace activists in 1986, among others.

Some of the Eastern participants in this dialogue helped form the post-revolutionary political elites in their respective countries: not just Havel, but others who were more actively involved in it. Dienstbier, for example, became Czechoslovakia's foreign minister; Jan Kavan, the current Czech foreign minister, was a crucial link between Western peace activists and the Czechoslovak opposition; and Viktor Orbán (though he might have forgotten this) not only attended the 1987 END Convention in Coventry, but, in the same year, was a key organiser of the independent peace and human rights seminar in Budapest attended by 150 activists from East and West.


This dialogue was complemented by cooperation: for example, in 1985 and 1986, when Western peace activists and Eastern "dissidents" jointly wrote a ten-page document entitled "Giving Real Life to the Helsinki Accords" (the "Helsinki Memorandum"), which they presented to governments participating in the CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) process. This outlined steps that governments and citizens, in East and West, should take to foster genuine, and democratic, détente in Europe.

And in pursuing this dialogue, activists on both sides learned from each other. The leading East German oppositionist Gerd Poppe has written about how, for East German activists, the END Appeal represented a "minimum consensus" for those engaged in dialogue with activists in the West.[3] And from the East, perhaps above all from Charter 77, Western peace activists learned that a "cross-bloc" alliance could only be created if they understood that peace was "indivisible": that is, for moral and practical reasons, peace between states had to be grounded in peace between rulers and ruled—in justice and human rights.

Civil society

Some of the Western peace activists engaged in this work did imagine a kind of "democratic socialist" alternative to the existing system in Eastern Europe. But many—an increasing number as the dialogue progressed—did not. They thought, rather, in radical-liberal or libertarian terms. They came to think more in terms of "civil society" and its opposition to the state: the point was not for "Socialism" in Eastern Europe to be "reformed," but for it to be rendered irrelevant by an ever-expanding sphere of independent activity. Here they were influenced by the writings of Eastern dissenters—Šabata, Dienstbier, Havel, Adam Michnik, Miklós Haraszti, György Konrád, Tomaz Mastnak in Slovenia, to name a few—as well as by the actions and campaigns of the less well-known independent activists.

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But, of course, they were predisposed to think in these terms: that is why they had signed the END Appeal. The "civil society against the state" approach was implicit in "détente from below" campaigning from the outset. Arguably, by the mid- to late-1980s many "détente from below" activists—and now not just in the West but in the East, too—thought explicitly in terms of "civil societies" in East and West working together in joint campaigns, or even on the basis of joint programmes (the "Helsinki Memorandum"), that incorporated the demands of activists from both sides.

Disagreements remained, for example, over the relative culpability of the USA and the Soviet Union for the Cold War. And for activists in Central and Eastern Europe, political change at home would have been more important than visions of ending the Cold War. But a convergence of ideas was unmistakable.

Writing in 1987, Lynne Jones, a leading END campaigner, indicates a new mood amongst Western activists: "We need an autonomous citizens' coalition that crosses the East-West divide, confronting issues of peace, democracy and ecology directly in a co-ordinated manner, and that makes specific, appropriately timed, concrete proposals." A model of this approach is "the recent proposal for a Europe-wide campaign against nuclear-power construction, from Sizewell in England to Zarnowiec in Poland."[4]

"Détente from below" has been forgotten. There are some obvious reasons for this: the Western peace movements of the 1980s were defeated in their primary aim of preventing the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles; the West "won" the Cold War; and, perhaps most importantly, the idea of Western peace activists and Eastern "dissidents" cooperating during the Cold War simply doesn't fit into the established categories of thinking on both Left and Right. But it's a shame that it has been forgotten, as it is part of a number of histories: of the Cold War, of the democratic opposition in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and, yes, of the Western Left.

Patrick Burke, 13 November 2000

Patrick Burke was an activist in END and CND, and a co-editor of East European Reporter. He is currently a PhD Candidate at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. His topic is the Ostpolitik of the British peace movement in the 1980s.

Moving on:


1. Market Failure: A Guide to the East European "Economic Miracle" by László Andor and Martin Summers
Making Capitalism Without Capitalists: Class Formation and Elite Struggle in Post-Communist Central Europe by Gil Eyal, Iván Szelényi and Eleanor Townsley
Not Only the Market: The Role of the Market, Government and Civic Sector in the Development of Postcommunist Central Europe by Martin Potůček

2. For quotations from the END Appeal see "Appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament," in E P Thompson and Dan Smith (eds), Protest and Survive (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980) 223-226.

3. "Zur Entwicklung des grenzueberschreitenden Dialogs," in Gerda Haufe and Karl Bruckmeier (eds), Die Buergerbewegungen in der DDR und in den ostdeutschen Bundeslaendern (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1993) 205.

4. "Time for a Change," END Journal 28/29, Summer 1987, 33.


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