Impressions of New York

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

My first impressions of New York are enormously to enhance the effect of this Progress, this material progress, that is to say, as something inevitable and inhuman, as a blindly furious energy of growth that must go on. Against the broad and level gray contours of Liverpool one found the ocean liner portentously tall, but here one steams into the middle of a town that dwarfs the ocean liner. The sky-scrapers that are the New-Yorker’s perpertual boast and pride rise up to greet one as one comes through, the Narrows into the Upper Bay, stand out, in a clustering group of tall irregu­lar crenellations, the strangest crown that ever a city wore. They have an effect of immense incompleteness; each one seems to await some needed terminal,-to be, by virtue of its wooly jets of steam, still as it were in pro­cess of eruption. One thinks of St. Peter’s great blue dome, finished and done as one saw it from a vine-shaded wine-booth above the Milvian Bridge, one thinks of the sudden ascendency of St. Paul’s dark grace, as it soars out over any one who comes up by the Thames towards it. These are efforts that have accomplished their ends, and even Paris illuminated un­der the tall stem of the Eiffel Tower looked completed and defined. But New York’s achievement is a threatening promise, growth going on under a pressure that increases, and amidst a hungry uproar of effort.

One gets a measure of the quality of this force of mechanical, of inhu­man, growth as one marks the great statue of Liberty on our larboard, which is meant to dominate and fails absolutely to dominate the scene. It gets to three hundred feet about, by standing on a pedestal of a hundred and fifty; and the uplifted torch, seen against the sky, suggests an arm si raining upward, straining in hopeless competition with the fierce com­mercial altitudes ahead. Poor liberating Lady of the American ideal! One passes her and forgets.

Noise and human hurry and a vastness of means and collective result, rather than any vastness of achievement, is the pervading quality of New York. The great thing is the mechanical thing, the unintentional thing which is speeding up all these people, driving them in headlong hurry this way and that, exhorting them by the voice of every car conductor to “step lively”, aggregating them into shoving and elbowing masses, making them stand clinging to straps, jerking them up elevator shafts and pouring them on to the ferry-boats. But this accidental great thing is at times a very great thing. Much more impressive than the sky-scrapers to my mind is the large Brooklyn suspension-bridge. I have never troubled to ask who built that; its greatness is not in its design, but in the quality of necessity one perceives in its inanimate immensity. It tells, as one goes under it up the East River, but it is far more impressive to the stranger to come upon it by glimpses, wandering down to it through the ill-paved van-infested streets from Chatham Square. One sees parts of Cyclopean stone arches, one gets sug­gestive glimpses through the jungle growth of business now of the back, now of the flanks, of the monster; then, as one comes out on the river, one discovers far up in one’s sky the long sweep of the bridge itself, foreshort­ened and with a maximum of perspective effect; the streams of pedestrians and the long line of carts and vans, quaintly microscopic against the blue, the creeping progress of the little cars on the lower edge of the long chain of netting; all these things dwindling indistinguishably before Brooklyn is reached. Thence, if it is late afternoon, one may walk back to City Hall Park and encounter and experience the convergent stream of clerks and workers making for the bridge, mark it grow denser and denser, until at last they come near choking even the broad approaches of the giant duct, until the congested multitudes jostle and fight for a way. They arrive marching afoot by every street in endless procession; crammed trolley-cars disgorge them; the Subway pours them out... The individuals count for nothing, they are clerks and stenographers, shop-men, shop-girls, workers of innumerable types, black-coated men, hat-and-blouse girls, shabby and cheaply clad persons, such as one sees in London, in Berlin, anywhere. Perhaps they hurry more, perhaps they seem more eager. But the distinc­tive effect is the mass, the black torrent, rippled with unmeaning faces, the great, the unprecedented multitudiousness of the thing, the inhuman force of it all.

I made no efforts to present any of my letters, or to find anyone to talk lo on my first day in New York. I landed, got a casual lunch, and wan­dered alone until New York’s peculiar effect of inhuman noise and pres­sure and growth became overwhelming, touched me with a sense of soli­tude, and drove me into the hospitable companionship of the Century С 'lub. Oh, no doubt of New York’s immensity! The sense of soulless gigan­tic forces, that took no heed of men, became stronger and stronger all that day. The pavements were often almost incredibly out of repair, when I lie came footweary the street-cars would not wait for me, and I had to learn ities have also sought to expose the lie of the “Soviet threat”, and to show that the fight for peace is not only an issue of national politics but demands also a change in Britain’s foreign policy.

To conclude, some points on the impact of the peace question on the general political situation in Britain.

Firstly, it has created a powerful and sustained mass pressure on the subject of nuclear weapons and disarmament, which has involved most diverse sections of the population. This is particularly marked amongst the young and amongst women, and has involved the trade union and labour movement in a big way. Mass demonstrations of a traditional nature are combined with new forms of activity. There is scarcely a democratic organisation that has not been touched by this debate and these activities. The government and the media response has largely failed in its attempts to denigrate the peace movement. The broad base of the peace movement is also shown in the involvement of such as Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, the Medical Campaign Against Weapons, and Architects for Peace.

Secondly, the peace movement has opened up for unparalleled public debate an area of policy that hitherto has remained a subject for “experts”. There is now much discussion on defence policy.

This debate also brings into question British foreign policy and role in the world.

A number of democratic questions have also been raised in a new way, starting with the question of the control of Cruise missiles, a concern much heightened by the considerable anxiety about American policy.

The mass peace movement will continue to grow, and to have a pro­found and lasting influence on political developments in Britain.

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Peace sentiment is growing among the people of the United States. Polls show that the majority of the population stands for talks with the Soviet Union. It has serious reservations about the huge military build-up and has begun to question the advisability of the bid for military superiority.

Petition drives, referenda and public meetings, all calling for a reduc­tion in military spending and a revision of the official attitude to disarma­ment, occur with increasing frequency across the country. Coupled with the recent anti-war demonstrations unprecedented in scale and intensity, they indicate that there is a peace majority in the United States. A massive peace movement has emerged, a movement in which the Communists are an accepted part of the leadership.

More than ever before, war preparations were carried on amid talk of defending the country and the free world against “Soviet expansion”. This brought home to the more dedicated, more concerned peace advocates that they could no longer ignore arguments based on lies. The founding in 1979 of the United States Peace Council (USPC), affiliated with the World Peace Council, was an historically significant event. The growth of the USPC in so short a time to over 40 local chapters testifies to the fact that people are ready for action to maintain and consolidate peace and want to know how they should go about it. What adds significance to the Council’s activity is the example it sets for other peace organisations.

The USPC sees one of its key tasks in telling the public the truth about the real source of the war danger. The USPC is distinguished among the peace organisations of the United States for the fact that by forthrightly exposing the lie of a “Soviet menance”, it is able to clearly and convinc­ingly show who is responsible for the arms race and who has brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. Indeed, without doing this, how can the struggle for peace be won?

However, the Peace Council is by no means the only organisation pur­suing this goal. Friendship societies have a long and honorable history in the struggle against anti-Sovietism. The National Council for American- Soviet Friendship and the US Committee for Friendship with the German Democratic Republic are two of them. Committees of solidarity with the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua have gained wide influence and enjoy massive support.

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), founded in 1915, has been particularly active in the recent period. It shows that the initiator of disarmament proposals is Moscow while Washington rejects them, on the ground that they are “ploys” to weaken the United States. It insists on an unbiased exploration of the disarmament proposals made by the Soviet Union to reverse the suicidal arms race.

The Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, which has affil­iation of over 40 organisations, has been playing a growing role on the national scene. It publishes books, brochures and leaflets refuting the Pen­tagon assertion that the Soviet Union has pulled ahead of the United States in military might.

Thus both organisations put the focus on Washington’s responsibility for the worsening international situation and want it respond to the Soviet disarmament proposals. On liberating themselves from the intimidating in­fluence of anti-Sovietism, they have developed an independent position based on the realities. The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (SANE), founded in 1957, likewise plays a positive role. It refutes Wash­ington’s arguments that the Soviet Union has won military superiority.

The reality of the threat of nuclear catastrophe has drawn into the peace movement new forces which until recently were not active in public affairs. They include the Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Centre for Defence Information and the Council for a Liveable World. These and other groups conducted effective campaigns.

Visible changes are occurring in the trade unions’ attitude to the issue of war and peace. The AFL-CIO Executive Council has issued a statement questioning the expediency of the massive increases in military spending. It lias created a special committee to study the effect of these expenditures on the economy.

To be sure, these are limited first steps. Even so, they reflect a move- away of certain union leaders from the former policies.

The people of the United States, like the people of any other country, want their country to be a strong and respected member of the family of nations. Many studies by peace organisations and research committees prove that peace production - civilian production-provides more jobs by far than military production and that militarisation accelerates the erosion of the social, economic and financial positions of the United States.

Many peace organisations called for effort to make the administration stop the massive arms build-up going on at the cost of cutting appropria­tions for social needs.

The Communists make indispensable contributions to the struggle for peace. Fighting against the lie of a “Soviet threat” they do their best to strengthen the unity of the anti-war movement. It is beyond question that the new level of the peace movement cannot be separated from the years- long ideological activity of the CPUSA.

The stark contrast between the rhetoric of Washington and the realistic steps taken by the Soviet Union to put an end to the arms race is becoming more pronounced than ever. Americans received with great satisfaction the Soviet pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. It is indispensable to preserve peace and ensure that a ruinous arms race endangering humanity gives way to fruitful coexistence between states with different social systems in a climate of peace. This calls for still more vigorous effort to lay bare militarism in the USA and show the peaceful nature of social­ism still more clearly.

Based on: World Marxist Review, 1982, No. 11, 1983, No. 8, 1984, No. 6