Trump’s election has raised the specter of nuclear war in a way unseen since the 1980s, the last time a global mass movement pushed back against the threat of nuclear catastrophe. One of the major intellectual forces behind that mass movement was E.P. Thompson. With the utopian hopes surrounding the ban treaty now meeting the actually existing dystopia of US policy, it is high time for an update to Thompson’s seminal concept of “exterminism.”
Historical materialism at its strongest has always been defined by its supersession of the antithesis between Romanticism and Utilitarianism which News from Nowhere, for all its splendour, reiterates. Marx wrote in the Grundrisse: "It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to an original fullness as it is to believe that with this present emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and the romantic viewpoint and therefore the latter will accompany it as its legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end." This sense of the dialectical complementarity of Utilitarianism and Romanticism is what distinguishes classical Marxism from the many attempts by socialists at one time or another to construct an opposition to capitalism from either standpoint: denunciation of its irrationality or inhumanity alone. For each is capable of either progressive or reactionary "derivations" — Mill or Zola can be set against Carlyle or Barres, just as much as Shelley or Ruskin can be set against Ure or Spencer. There is no one "logic" of either tradition, each of which has proved capable of a rainbow of political metamorphoses. The duty of socialists today is not to pit one against the other yet again, but to set both intellectually in their changing historical settings and to prepare practically the conditions for the long-awaited blessing of their mutual end.