As tensions rise between the West and its rivals Chris Bambery argues we are facing a new Cold War, but one in which there is one overwhelmingly powerful actor – the US. You can read the first half of this history of socialism and imperial rivalries here.
The years after World War 2 saw Europe and the world re-divided into rival Western capitalist and Communist camps. Between them, the former allies set about consolidating rule over war-ravaged populations. In the centres of the world system, ‘Peaceful Coexistance’ was Soviet policy, not revolution or war.
But on the periphery of the system (as it then was) things were very different. The decline of Japanese and European colonialism meant a new struggle for power in Asia.
The Red Army had captured the Korean peninsula, but Stalin agreed to partition it with the USA. Both sides created states which functioned in their respective interests. In June 1950 the North invaded the South.
When South Korea seemed set to collapse the US threw in greater forces, backed by Britain and other allies, and drove the North Koreans back to their border with China. The Chinese then intervened, drove the US back to the original border and a stalemate developed. Some six million died before an armistice, that still holds uneasily today, came into place.
Across the world Communist Parties loyally backed the North. Those Trotskyists who regarded it as a deformed workers state did too. The small group of intellectuals around the Socialist Review Group refused to follow and raised the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism.” The slogan was a rejection of the dominant ideology that you had to take sides between the two camps. Rather it reasserted the centrality of working class struggle, at the heart of genuine Marxism. But such voices were rare.
Elsewhere, popular movements struck out for national independence and development. In July 1956 Britain, France and Israel allied to invade Egypt in an attempt to overthrow the rule of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who four years before had overthrown the pro-British monarchy. He then forced the British to give up their massive military bases along the Suez Canal. When he nationalised the Anglo-French owned Canal, a vital trade route, the old European empires contrived to oust him.
The Suez invasion was plain, old fashioned imperialism. The Americans pulled the plug on it by withdrawing its support for Sterling, which fell through the floor. The old lion was put in its place by the new hegemon.
Then in October 1956 the Red Army invaded Hungary to brutally suppress a working class revolution complete with workers councils, a popular expression of democracy the Kremlin abhorred. The Western powers complained, but did nothing that might disrupt European order.
Like its counterparts elsewhere, the British Communist Party (CPGB) defended the Russian invasion, leading many members, including leading party intellectuals, to break from it. They would play a crucial role in the creation of a New Left which was highly critical of Stalinism. Many would play an important role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, launched in 1958.
At first the CPGB did not support CND and its call for unilateral disarmament, counterposing multilateral disarmament, to be agreed by the USA, USSR, UK and France (then the only nuclear powers) because that was the line from Moscow. The rapid growth of CND forced the party to back it in 1960.
The contradiction’s in the party’s position were extreme. It supported the USSR’s right to maintain nuclear weapons – what detractors mockingly called the “workers’ bomb” – against the imperialist bomb of the West. The “Neither Washington nor Moscow” slogan had a real cutting edge in an environment of mounting fear about the dangers of the arms race. The Socialist Review Group also argued for a working class boycott of nuclear weapons based in the UK. A direct action campaign developed through which the group won an audience.
1962 would see the world the threat of nuclear war reach its peak when the USSR countered US nuclear missile deployment in Europe by sending its own weapons to revolutionary Cuba. Moscow blinked first.
A new socialist left was emerging free of Moscow’s control, though many rallied to Mao’s China, which shared many characteristics with its Russian rival, including the subordination of sympathisers to Chinese foreign policy. Crucial to the development of the youthful revolutionary movement was opposition to America’s war in Vietnam. In 1945 the Communist led resistance of Ho Chi Minh had taken over the country as Japan collapsed. British forces entered Saigon, armed Japanese prisoners, and took on the resistance, securing Saigon for the returning colonial power.
Ho Chi Minh’s forces retained control of parts of the north, which the French failed to recover in 1953, leaving the country partitioned.
By the early 1960s Communist guerrillas were operating with some success in South Vietnam, a corrupt and repressive dictatorship bankrolled by Washington. The White House and Pentagon believed in the domino theory – that if South Vietnam fell so would country after country across South East Asia. They poured in troops and used mass aerial bombing, napalm and de-foliates in a brutal war which was shown live on television (something the US would ensure did not happen in future).
By 1968 there was mass support for the Vietnamese in Western Europe, Japan and North America, especially among the young and on the campuses. In Britain the International Socialists, previously the Socialist Review Group, argued this was a genuine national liberation movement. The Vietnamese Communists had considerable affinities with Moscow and Beijing, and were backed by both (though more by the former, foreshadowing the impact of the Sino-Soviet split on the region, which would eventually see a short-lived Chinese invasion of Vietnam). But what mattered was the popular content of the movement in Vietnam.
1968 saw a global explosion in mass movements. In August the Red Army moved into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring. To millions, the choice did indeed seem to be people power and a radically democratic and internationalist socialism beyond Washington and Moscow. From 1968 until 1975 the Cold War receded into the background as working class insurgency spread across Western Europe, culminating in the 1974-1975 Portuguese Revolution.
As we know that global insurgency was contained and from the late 1970s a neo-liberal counter-offensive got underway, exemplified by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The latter reignited the Cold War in an effort to reverse the damage to US prestige from defeat in Vietnam, but also because Washington sensed weakness. The Soviet economy was stagnating and the gamble was Moscow could not afford to keep pace with the costs of a new arms race. Washington wagered well.
The “Neither Washington nor Moscow” slogan saw service once more but there was now an obvious disparity between the two camps. The US began to re-commence military intervention starting with that glorious episode, the 1983 invasion of Grenada, and culminating in the First Gulf War where it established itself as the hegemon.
The Soviet Union was losing its war in Afghanistan. Its grip was weakening in its eastern European satellites as well. The USSR backed a crackdown against the Solidarnosc workers’ movement in Poland, but this failed to give the ruling party much stability. Meanwhile old allies like Egypt were deserting Moscow for Washington. Efforts at internal reform were faltering. When the collapse finally spread from East Germany through to Russia itself, few among the general population were prepared to defend the faltering social order.
For much of the following three decades, the US maintained its position as global superpower without rival. There has never been as powerful or influential and empire in all human history.
Since following the failure of the War on Terror, an act of imperial folly at least partly brought-on by hubris, and the 2008 financial crisis that emerged from the West’s financial houses, there has been a new sense of threat to the US’ primacy. This is often overestimated. The world remains essentially ‘unipolar’. But regional sub-powers like Russia, Iran and particularly China have gained more freedom of action.
As a result, new tensions are have developed between the US and these regional powers. But this is an extremely uneven fight. The US and its allies are more often the aggressors using military action, threats, NATO expansion and sanctions in the global game. A slogan like ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ no longer expresses the global dynamics.
The situation is more like that confronting the revolutionary movement in 1914 when anti-war socialists advanced the slogan “the main enemy is at home.” This doesn’t mean abandoning criticism of all existing states, but recognising that resisting one’s ‘own’ imperialism from within is the effective way to advance an anti-war agenda.
The left today is also very different from that at the height of the old Cold War. Social democracy remains loyal to Washington but across Europe it is a pale reflection of its past strength. The Communist Parties have largely disappeared following the demise of the USSR and its satellite states. Stalinist illusions are peddled by very few. Dissident socialist currents like Trotskyism and Maoism are also in decline, and many of their formal positions on the world are anachronistic.
Any new radical forces will be hampered in their development if they fail to recognise the true nature of global imperialist competition. Old formulas and moral abstractions are no substitute for a reckoning with the real dangers posed by this changing world.