E. P. Thompson, the British social historian and writer, is said to be the guru of the European peace movement, and, having read his latest cry from the heart, I have some hope that he is. For he does something very rare among his crowd on both sides of the Atlantic: he starts to grapple with the fact that the Soviet Union attempts to manipulate and exploit the movement for purposes not of peace but of power.

Read the Thompson article published, bravely, by The Nation in its issue of Feb. 26: "The aim of Soviet diplomacy is to encourage Western European nations to edge from beneath American hegemony, while reinforcing Soviet hegemony over Poland and the rest of the Eastern bloc . . . (The Kremlin) envisions that in 1983, Soviet diplomacy, aided by the Western peace movement, will succeed in dramatically reversing the postwar balance of power. The Russians count on public opinion, direct action and elections blocking or dislodging cruise and Pershing missiles from one Western state after another, and uncoupling Europe from U.S. strategies."

But for "American hegemony," of which more later, the speaker could have been Ronald Reagan, who has repeatedly voiced his suspicions of Soviet designs on the Western peace movement, and worse. Only last Tuesday he said, in virtually Thompsonian tones, "The Soviets' fundamental foreign policy is to break the link that binds us to our NATO allies."

The Soviet peace offensive, Thompson goes on, "is strictly for export. It has been accompanied by a stepped-up cold war at home" against the small Soviet peace movement, whose members have been hounded, sacked and thrown into insane asylums. "It dismays and astounds me that there should be any hesitation in the Western peace movement about coming to (the Eastern movement's) defense."

It dismays and astounds him because to him the point of the movement has never been simply disarmament but a special sort of peace: "impatience at the domination of Europe by both superpowers; an overwhelming desire to break up the state of cold war, to set nations free from their client status, to open frontiers and to increase the flow of ideas and people between East and West."

So far so good. Thompson's alertness to Soviet manipulation and repression is in a splendid humanistic vein. He even has the courage to say that the deep feeling for "peace" that many good-hearted Westerners attribute to the Soviet people is phony, a product of manipulation--"I am sorry to rehearse these plain truths, which I will be told are 'anti-Soviet'."

Thompson may not speak for the many peace people in Europe and the United States who avert their gaze from these crusty facts and attribute any invocation of them to the cold war, but he speaks to those people, and I hope they are listening.

At this point, unfortunately, he turns squishy. He is a unilateralist: "I am not proposing some cold war 'linkage' between disarmament and human rights. Our refusal of nuclear weapons has always been unconditional." Thus does he surrender the leverage he wishes to bring to bear for his noble aims. The peace movement, he warns, is in danger of "being sold down the river by our (Soviet) partner." All he can suggest is to "press, in the same moment as we refuse weapons, for an opening of frontiers and prisons." Lots of luck.

There is a deeper contradiction--in his glib tendency to regard the democratic United States and the totalitarian Soviet Union as two peas in a superpower pod: "ideological look-alikes . . . thinking in the same terms of 'balance' and security through 'strength.'"

To his credit, however, Thompson gives away his own argument: "It is futile for the peace movement to place its trust in any heavily armed state, and especially in one where the information available to its citizens is strictly controlled and where public opinion can scarcely influence the rulers."

Precisely so. Thompson represents an extravagant flowering of the availability of information to citizens and of the capacity of public opinion to influence rulers. He glimpses the void on the other side and it troubles him. It should. No one has a good idea how to deal with it.