»Cut Through the Flesh of Politics Down to the Human Bone« – Some Lessons Learnt from the Peace Movement

12 Minutes
Movement Histories, Transnationalist Theories, Contemporary Struggles
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Everyone has their own explanation for the 1989 revolutions. It was the economic failure of centrally planned economies. It was Gorbachev. It was Reagan’s decision to introduce a new generation of nuclear weapons. All of these explanations, no doubt, had something to do with what happened, although I am less persuaded by the Reagan argument. But the most important explanation is transnational activism. It was popular pressure across Europe, including the West European peace movement and the East European human rights movement, that resulted in the 1989 revolutions.

History tends to be written from above and the role of transnational activism is often neglected. The role of the West European peace movement is almost never included in accounts of the 1989 revolutions. I was active in European Nuclear Disarmament (END) along with E.P. Thompson, Robin Cook and others. We saw ourselves as an anti-Cold War movement and not just an anti-nuclear movement. We wanted to end the division of Europe. When we issued the END Appeal in 1980, we explicitly made a link between disarmament and democracy and between peace and human rights and we called for a transcontinental movement of citizens.

Blockade by British Peace Activists


The West European peace movements and the 1989 revolutions

There are two main ways in which the West European peace movements contributed to the 1989 revolutions. First of all, it was peace movement pressure that led to the Intermediate -range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1987. The West European peace movements had sprung up in response to the American decision to deploy cruise and Pershing missiles in five countries across Western Europe. The theory was that Europeans would feel ‘reassured’ by their presence, which was supposed to demonstrate the American willingness to come to the defence of Western Europe in the event of a Soviet attack. Because the weapons were based in Europe and not the US and because they were more ‘useable’, the theory went, their use might not invite retaliation against US territory and therefore, I kid you not, the Americans would be more willing to use them thereby strengthening the credibility of nuclear deterrence.

The reaction in Western Europe was, of course, the opposite – a genuine fear that these missiles would make nuclear war more likely. Millions demonstrated across Western Europe. Peace camps were set up at the proposed missile sites, of which the most famous was Greenham Common. END called for a European nuclear free zone from Poland to Portugal and the elimination of all intermediate range nuclear weapons -cruise and Pershing missiles and also the Soviet SS-20 missiles.

In response, the Reagan Administration proposed the so-called zero option – the elimination of all intermediate range nuclear weapons. ‘We got the idea from your banners’ I was told by Reagan’s nuclear advisor Richard Burt. The Americans assumed that the Soviet Union would never accept their proposal because they possessed, in numerical terms, many more SS 20s than the proposed cruise and Pershing missiles. However, Gorbachev explicitly accepted the peace movement argument that it is not necessary to have the capability to destroy the world several times over in order to deter a war. He adopted the concept of ‘reasonable sufficiency’ that allowed him to make the breakthrough of accepting the zero option and signing the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (the zero option) in 1987. The Treaty paved the way for the strategic disarmament talks and ushered in a new era of détente that made it very difficult for the Soviet Union to crack down on Eastern Europe as it had done in previous revolutions such as Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968.


‘Détente from below’ and the dialogue with Eastern European human rights groups

Secondly, parts of the West European movement, including END, the Inter-Church Peace Council (IKV) in the Netherlands, the Greens in West Germany and the Italian peace movement initiated a dialogue with East European human rights groups, described as ‘détente from below’ or ‘citizens detente’. This was the period of emerging opposition groups in East-Central Europe, often a consequence of the Helsinki Agreement of 1975, the outcome of the Conference  on Security and Co-operation in Europe, in which East European governments signed up to what were at the time paper commitments to human rights in exchange for Western commitments to the territorial status quo in Europe and for economic and social co-operation across the Cold War divide. These new groups  included Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland, Swords into Ploughshares, a peace movement that sprung up under the auspices of the East German churches, and the Hungarian democratic opposition.

Mary Kaldor speaking about the concept of 'Cosmopolitan Democracy' at the School of Palermo on the occasion of the Transeuropa Festival 2020 

Initially the dialogue was difficult. East Europeans were suspicious of  peace activists because the Soviet Union talked about peace, because western peace activists were often linked to Communist parties, because some western peace activists still perceived Eastern Europe as socialist even if socialism had gone a bit wrong and some believed in making peace with enemies, and because official peace committees in Eastern Europe were established to infiltrate the West European peace movement. These suspicions were eloquently articulated by Vaclav Havel, the Charta 77 playwright who became President after 1989, in an essay addressed to the 1985 END Convention entitled ‘The Anatomy of Reticence’. For their part, many in the Western peace movement were suspicious of human rights because it was part of the Cold War rhetoric and they feared that talk of human rights would play into justifications for the arms race.

But attitudes were changed as a consequence of the intense dialogue and discussion that took place during the decade of the 1980s. Many Western peace activists travelled to Eastern Europe to meet with their Easter counterparts. Many were arrested and deported. Groups like END campaigned for the release of political prisoners, in Turkey as well as Eastern Europe, they published articles and ideas that came out of Eastern Europe, they put pressure on official peace committees to tolerate independent groups, and they provided material help like making badges and smuggling zerox machines. The annual END Conventions were moments when the difficulties of inviting East European activists led to intense debates with officials that both put pressure on East European regimes and illustrated to Western peace activists the nature of those regimes.

By the end of the decade, many in Eastern Europe began to make the point that détente and disarmament could provide a context for opening up Eastern Europe, while many in the Western peace movement came to the view that the best way to end the arms race would be democracy in Eastern Europe. At the END Convention in a church in Lund in 1987, E.P. Thompson publicly embraced Jacek Kuron, one of the key democratic thinkers in Poland, in a symbolic coming together of peace and human rights. By the late 1980’s a new generation of activists formed new groups as a direct outcome of the dialogue with Western Europe. These included Frieden und Menschenrechte (Peace and Human Rights) in the GDR, Wolnosc I Pokoj (Freedom and Peace) in Poland, several small peace groups in Czechoslovakia such as the Independent Peace Association or the John Lennon Society, and the Danube Circle (environmentalists) and FIDESZ (the young democrats) in Hungary. The spread of these groups, however small, began to undermine the sustainability of the regimes, which depended on total control – small autonomous spaces were multiplying. And it was these groups who helped to organise the mass demonstrations and who participated, along with the earlier generation, in the Round Table talks that produced the peaceful transitions.


'Civil Society' during the 1990s

It is often said that the 1989 revolutions produced no new ideas, that the revolutionaries just wanted to be like the West. But what was new came out of the dialogue. Before, 1989, peace was understood as something external, between nations, while human rights was something that happened internally and there was a strong taboo against interference in internal affairs. Likewise. The term ‘civil society’ was hardly used except among Italian Communists influenced by Gramsci. The revival of the term on a transnational basis, the understanding that international peace cannot be disentangled from the rule of law and respect for citizens’ rights domestically, and the idea of a Europe as a peace and human rights project all came out of the dialogue. These ideas were to propel forward European integration, as well as new ways of thinking about foreign policy such as Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy or the human security based external policy of the European Union. They also helped to inform the dramatic growth of multilateral peace operations during the 1990s.

Of course, this has all been side-lined by the War on Terror, the return of geo-politics, the rise of Putin and Trump and other right-wing populists. Those engaged in the dialogue had hoped that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would be replaced by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the institutionalisation of the Helsinki process, but NATO expanded instead. Moreover, the hopes for democracy were greatly weakened by the wave of market fundamentalism that engulfed both halves of Europe. Nevertheless, the legacy still persists in multilateral institutions, especially the European Union, and saving that legacy is an important reason for supporting and reforming the EU.


Lessons learned through transnational peace activism

What are the lessons we can take from this experience for transnational activists today? First of all, there is a symbiotic relation between transnational institutions and transnational activists. The Helsinki Agreement provided a legal framework that provided both a platform and a set of demands for activists. Historically, in western countries, the state and civil society were co-constitutive. The rule of law, political and civil rights, provided a basis for legitimate activism but by the same token, activism was and is necessary to call the state to account and to ensure the proper functioning of a rights-based rule of law. The term civil society expressed that duality. In much the same way, the fact that Governments had signed mutual agreements in Helsinki to codify peace in Europe and respect for human rights, enabled activists to demand that governments abide by those commitments, thereby giving those commitments much greater substance. Today, the existence of mechanisms for citizens participation in the European Union like the European Citizens Initiative, or participation in the Committee of the Regions, or even European elections, offer instruments that can be used by activists and that can be thus made more meaningful.

Secondly, transnational activism was a source of mutual support both in political and concrete terms. Links with East European dissidents helped to demonstrate the integrity of demands for nuclear disarmament; in the past, the peace movement had been marginalised by accusations of being fellow-travellers of the Soviet Union. The same was true for human rights activists in Eastern Europe, who were regularly accused of being Western agents. Peace movements were able to put pressure on official peace committees and publicise human rights violations. They were also able to help in material ways, making badges and posters, publishing appeals and articles, and indeed facilitating communication across different East European countries. In the current period, international solidarity across Europe, with democracy protests in  Belarus, anti-war struggles in Ukraine, anti-populist activism in Hungary or Poland, or anti-Brexit campaigns in the UK, not to mention Extinction Rebellion or Black Lives Matter or the network of supporters of migrant rights, can offer similar kinds of mutual support and amplify the effectiveness of these different forms of activism.

Thirdly and above all, what happened in this period was a learning process that changed the way we thought about Europe and the world. Through intense debates and discussions, the process produced the new ideas of 1989, about civil society and globalisation, about peace and human rights that are now part of our consciousness. For me personally, it was the decisive moment in my intellectual formation. Contemporary struggles including different perspectives in the centre and periphery of Europe could augment those ideas with new thinking about the link between justice (social, climate, racial, ethnic or gender) and civic participation, new analyses of authoritarianism, oligarchy,  and market fundamentalism,  and the huge importance of nature.


What can we learn from the peace movement for post-Pandemic times?

We are living through a grim moment, with Covid-19, deepening inequality, climate crisis, and the spread of far-right authoritarian populism. The 1980s were a similar moment when the fear of nuclear war and the dominance of super powers was overwhelming. Yet just as then, there are stirrings from below that could have a long-term impact – a point that was made by E.P. Thompson as early as 1982:

‘What we can glimpse now … is a détente of peoples rather states – a movement of peoples which sometimes dislodges states from their blocs and brings them into a new diplomacy of conciliation, which sometimes runs beneath state structures, and which sometimes defies the ideological and security structures of particular states … The Cold War roadshow, which each year enlarges, is now lurching towards its terminus. But in this moment changes have arisen in our continent, of scarcely more than one year’s growth, which signify a challenge to the Cold War itself. These are not ‘political’ changes in the usual sense. They cut through the flesh of politics down to the human bone.’

  • 1.E.P. Thompson, Beyond The Cold War, London 1982.
  • About the contributor

    Mary Kaldor
    Research Director at the London School of Economics

    Mary Kaldor is an Emeritus Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit in the London School of Economics Department of International Development. Professor Kaldor also directs the unit’s largest research project, the Conflict Research Programme (CRP), an international DFID-funded partnership investigating public authority, through a theoretical lens of the political marketplace and the concept of civicness, across a range of countries in Africa and the Middle East.