Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Socialism Against Washington and Moscow

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As tensions rise between the West and China and Russia, Chris Bambery looks at how socialists sought to understand big power rivalry in the 20th century. This series will go on to examine what we can learn from this history for our own time.

This short series will address renewed imperial tensions between the United States, NATO and Japan on one side and Russia and China on the other. Here, I want to discuss the obvious parallels with the Cold War which began between the victorious war time allies in 1947/1948 and ended with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR). Faced with the polarising pressures of imperial conflict, it is more important than ever to remember those traditions that rejected both camps in favour of the slogan, “neither Washington nor Moscow”.

During that Cold War there was enormous pressure, including within the working-class movement, to side with one or other rival camp.

The leaders of Western European social democratic and Labour Parties were supporters of the US and what would become NATO. Much of this Atlanticism was driven by simple anti-communism, but many social democrats also saw the US as being more democratic than the old superpowers, Britain and France, especially in its apparent ambition to put an end to the European empires. That was an illusion. 

But it was counter-posed to another allegiance with its own worldview. For the Communists and their allies, the Soviet Union had been the major force in the defeat of the Nazi dictatorship; the Communist Parties had been the mainstays in the resistance forces in Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece and France; and the war had ended with “socialism” being extended to the countries of Eastern Europe. Moreover, the USSR was supposedly the champion of those fighting for national liberation in the colonial world.

In France and Italy, the pro-Moscow Communist Parties dominated. Even in Britain, where the Communist Party was relatively small, it influenced many on the left of Labour and had a significant presence in the trade union movement. For the mainstream leadership, this polarisation only served to strengthen allegiances to NATO and the emergent American Empire. Thus, virtually everyone on the left was marshalled into one of two camps formed of illusions.

Alternatives had been consigned to the margins. In the 1930s the revolutionary tradition had been upheld by the exiled Leon Trotsky, eventually assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1940. He had tried to build opposition to the mass terror in Stalin’s Russia which devoured the leaders and cadre of Bolshevism. But faced with the threat of Nazism few wanted to listen. Early Trotskyism was primarily a movement of scattered intellectuals.

Russia gained new legitimacy amid the rise of fascism. It was, after all, the only power to arm the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Its halo was only temporarily diminished by the August 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, the Russo-German partition of Poland and Russian occupation of the Baltic States and a portion of Romania. From June 1941 Russia was facing the might of the Third Reich virtually alone. It won new friends and admirers.

Emerging from World War II, the forces of Trotskyism internationally were marginalised and divided. Trotsky had described the 1930’s Soviet Union under Stalin as a degenerated workers’ state, where a powerful bureaucracy controlled matters but the nationalised economy was still socialist. But he concluded that Stalinism could not survive World War II.

On this Trotsky was proved decisively wrong. Stalinism not only survived; it was buttressed by new satellite states in Eastern Europe. Many of Trotsky’s followers responded by retreating from reality. One American Trotskyist claimed that, since the great Bolshevik had said Stalinism could not outlast the war, the war must be continuing, at some subterranean level, long after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Trotskyists of the time also claimed that the Eastern Europe satellites were “deformed workers’ states”, even if their origins lay less in working class self-activity than in Red Army occupation. 

In Britain a tiny minority around Tony Cliff and the Socialist Review Group rallied to the argument that these states, mini replicas of the Soviet Union, were, like it, state capitalist. The state capitalist thesis suggested that the Soviet Union’s mode of production was formed of state-directed accumulation at the expense of working class living standards. 

If workers’ control did not exist, then these societies could not be socialist in Marx’s terms, insofar as they were not founded on the self-emancipation of the working class. The practice of state capitalism belied Marx’s dictum that the emancipation of the working class was the act of the working class. As the old joke had it: “The Soviet Union: no soviets and no unions.”

With the onset of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was drawn into direct competition with the US and its allies in a global arms race. The USA developed the atomic bomb; Stalin responded with his own. The USA developed the nuclear bomb; Stalin responded in kind.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Americans did not believe they could stop the Red Army advancing to the English Channel. Their response was characteristically brutal. They brought Spain and its fascist dictatorship into the fold of “Western democracy”, gaining bases there, in the belief they could stop the Russians at the Pyrenees and hold the Iberian Peninsula as a continental redoubt.

In truth Stalin had got what he wanted in Eastern Europe – a buffer zone to protect Russia from any future invasion. For all the bluster, Moscow could do what it liked in its satellite states while Washington held sway over Western Europe. In the stalemate, diplomacy worked on the principle of reciprocity: the West sold-out it’s supporters in Eastern Europe, and Stalin turned a blind eye as Britain repressed anti-fascist partisans in Greece.

The stage for the Cold War was set by this mix of real competition and detente. Both sides sought advantage, and claims of genuine internationalism from both blocs were frequently exposed as brutal realpolitik. It was against this backdrop that some sought an engagement with radical politics that went beyond the foreign policy designs of either side.

In the follow-up article, we will explore how the New Left sought to negotiate this difficult new departure, and how the collapse of the USSR and rise of the ‘uni-polar’ world order re-defined anti-imperialism at the end of the 20th century.

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