Published in 1982, Exterminism and Cold War collects essays on nuclear weapons and the Second Cold War written in response to E.P. Thompson's landmark essay "Notes on Exterminism."
Mike Davis's contribution, reprinted below, challenges Thompson's emphasis on the irrational and structural factors behind the nuclear build-up, as well as his presentation of a fully reciprocal (and Eurocentric) contest between the US and USSR. Instead, he locates the renewal of US nuclear belligerence within the effort to restructure the world economy following the crises of the 1970s. "In a sentence," Davis writes, "the new Cold War is principally the product of a gigantic and relatively synchronized destabilization of peripheral and semi-industrial capitalism in the wake of the world economic crisis."
Reading Edward Thompson's "Notes on Exterminism," every socialist must unconditionally admire the optimism of his will, and respond to the power of its summons to effective action against the dangers of a new world war. But the pessimism of his intellect, expressed no less powerfully, prompts critical reflection. His essay is not only a political call to resistance, but also a theoretical exploration which polemicizes sharply with much of what it takes to be conventional thinking on the Left. Thompson sets out to challenge what he regards as the debilitating "immobilism" of Marxism towards the imminent danger of nuclear holocaust. In his view this immobilism has several sources. On the one hand he criticizes a misconceived preoccupation of the New Left with the Third World, which has led it to ignore the "central fracture" of East-West confrontation which more than ever cuts through Europe. On the other hand he rebukes those who reify the Bomb as a mere "thing" subordinated to the rationality of an abstract international class struggle, when in fact weapons systems in both blocs have acquired a supervening and terrifying autonomy. Thompson insists on the urgent need to reconceptualize the relationship between the arms race and the Cold War in a situation where the former increasingly commands the latter, and where "imperialism" has become an inadequate category to grasp the deadly symmetry of over-kill on both sides. Instead he proposes the concept of "exterminism" as the fulcrum of his essay. We should take this not just as a new agitational imagery, but as a real attempt to achieve a theoretical breakthrough capable of explaining, where the old Marxist analysis has failed, the origins of the present nuclear peril, and of indicating the immediate priorities of the peace movement.
In the response which follows, I readily accept the pertinence of Thompson's critique of socialist theory for not generating an original analysis of the specificity of the strategic arms race or the transformation which it has wrought in world politics. The absence is a real one, and it has undoubtedly diminished the political appeal and intellectual authority of historical materialism within the peace movement. At the same time, however, I doubt whether the concept of exterminism provides an adequate analytic framework or, what is more important, a sufficiently realistic assessment of the present war danger. Thompson himself stresses that his Notes are "rough," and invites readers to offer their own amendments to them. In that spirit I will try to show some of the difficulties of the notion of exterminism. The burden of my argument will be that any concept which collates all the "inertial," "irrational," "symmetrical" and institutionally "autonomous" aspects of the arms race into a single over-riding process will make it harder to understand the purposeful, strategic function of the current arms build-up within the larger context of the New Cold War. Above all, a focus that is too tightly and exclusively constricted around the arms-complex features of bipolar tension is likely to miss the crucial connection in the present conjuncture (as in past Cold War crises) between the overall nuclear balance and counter-revolutionary initiatives in the Third World. In several steps — beginning first with an immanent critique of the notion of exterminism itself — I will argue that the peace movement in Europe and America must mobilize not only against the general danger of an "inertial thrust," but specifically also against the open US attempt to create a strategic nuclear "umbrella" for new military-and possibly tactical nuclear-interventions in the Third World.
I. Deciphering Exterminism
The concept of "exterminism" is constructed by way of analogy with that of "imperialism," but also as a replacement for it, in Thompson's essay. It may therefore be appropriate to start by recalling the famous debate over the relationship between capitalism and imperialism in the ranks of the Second International. At the end of the era of liberal capitalism Marxists divided into two camps over their interpretation of the relationship between militarism, imperialism, and capital accumulation on a world scale. On the one hand Hilferding, Luxemburg, and Lenin argued that militarism and imperialism were the organic and unavoidable expressions of the contradictions inherent in a new stage of capitalism, characterized by simultaneous crises of over-production in the leading industrial nations. On the other hand Bernstein and Kautsky (as well as, of course, radical liberals like Hobson) maintained that war and colonialism were alien excrescences on the body of capitalism which might be removed by the expansion of domestic demand and the restoration of the peaceful norms of free trade. From the "orthodox" perspective, imperialism was identified with a historically specific stage in the development of capitalism, while for what became the "revisionist" tendency in the last years before 1914 imperialism and militarism were superstructural phenomena tied to particular contingencies and interest-groups rather than the mode of production itself.
Thompson clearly writes in the grain of the "revisionist" view of the "exteriority" of militarism and imperialism to fundamental class antagonisms. Thus exterminism today is a formation common to West and East alike, yet intrinsic to neither. For while it is deeply embedded in the existence of powerful, "isomorphic" networks of interests (industrial, bureaucratic, military), it is not directly grounded in class structure nor is it coextensive with the reproduction or preservation of any mode of production. Exterminism, in other words, is not the "highest stage" of anything else, since that would imply organic development and some connection with a "motor of history"; rather, like a cancer, it is simply a dead end for the whole organism. Acquiring a causal autonomy that is equivalent to a veto-power over the entire social formation, Thompson suggests, the arms race has become its own demiurge. Clearly the relevant theoretical presence here is not Marx, but the ghost of Weber (or his translator in extremis, Kafka).
At the same time, while Thompson presents exterminism as the implicit apotheosis of the power of certain interest groups and bureaucratic strata, it is the unforeseen convergence of their separate "thrusts" that threatens to override class or human interests to the point of universal annihilation. I emphasize "unforeseen" because Thompson also gives a certain Althusserian twist to the concept of an autonomous bureaucratic configuration: that is, he describes exterminism virtually as a "process without a subject." It is this which demarcates "exterminism" from the superficially similar notion of a rampant "military-industrial complex" that has been a traditional theme of much American sociology. Exterminism, in other words, is not conceived as the domination of any single institutional or political instance, but rather as the vector of different "thrusts" and "logics." It arises, as Thompson puts it, out of a "collocation of fragmented forces" whose a priori unity or self-recognition is not assumed.
What ultimately confers cohesion on the different components of exterminism is the bipolar confrontation itself. Thompson clearly hints that if the Cold War did not exist, it would have had to be invented — since it provides the indispensible basis for domestic unity. It is the mirror-image demand of internal hegemony, expressed through ideology, in both the United States and the Soviet Union that sanctions, reproduces, and addicts the social formation to exterminism. "Symmetry," in Thompson's usage, thus has two meanings. First it refers to the situation in which state power in each bloc has become the raison d'être of its opposite via the permanent brandishing of the Bomb. Secondly it indicates an actual homology between the bureaucratic and military structures of Cold War mobilization in the USSR and the United States. Taken as a whole, this portrait of hypermilitarized establishments imposing domestic order by gearing up for an apocalypse is not unlike Daniel Yergin's explanatory scheme of the dialectic between the American "national security state" and the Soviet "total security state." The difference, of course, is that Thompson takes the possibility of the apocalypse far more seriously than Yergin or the Harvard History Department.
Finally, Thompson expects the actual slippage towards exterminism to come not from politics as we might expect — that is, from field of forces that must be analysed in terms of origins, intentions or goals, contradictions or conjunctures" (which he discounts) — but from the "messy inertia" of the weapons systems themselves. Thus he points to "pressures from the laboratories," "impatience amongst the war gamers," "the implacable upwards creep of weapons technology," or the "sudden hot flush of ideological passion" as its most likely immediate triggers. The specific scenarios of exterminism that he evokes tend towards either a Dr Strangelove or a latterday Sarajevo. In the first case, an accident — a computer malfunction, a paranoid airforce general, or perhaps only a low-flying formation of seagulls — trips the wire, disconnects the fail-safe mechanism and vapourizes the Northern hemisphere. In the second scenario — where analytic disputation is more possible — elaborate nuclear threats and linkages between conventional warfare and nuclear warfare have been emplaced as safeguards or signals to intimidate the enemy; the "enemy," however, is not intimidated (perhaps miscalculates) and the mad roulette of deterrence spins to a final halt at mutual assured destruction.
This deeply pessimistic projection, on the other hand, coexists with a diagnosis that also points in a quite opposite direction. For, as we noted above, in Thompson's account exterminism is not only a fatal inertial thrust towards the end of Northern civilization, it is also, more hopefully, a formation in some sense external to and separable from the rival social systems which confront each other today, even if at present it prevails within both of them. This side of Thompson's analysis enables him to imagine the possible dismantling of the "deep structures of the Cold War" without the simultaneous dismantling of the deep structures of capitalist ownership or, for that matter, of bureaucratic domination. This vision finds its fullest and most generous expression in his recent pamphlet Beyond the Cold War. Its intellectual foundations are also there most clearly exposed. For in this text, the Cold War today — no longer just the arms race — is seen as a literally purposeless mechanism reproducing itself, whose only function is its own self-perpetuation. "What is the Cold War now about? It is about itself."1 No longer in any sense a rationally intelligible conflict, it is compulsive "habit" or "addiction" — if one materially supported by the sectional interests of "the military-industrial and research establishments of both sides, the security services and intelligence operations, and the political servants of these interests," and psychologically sustained by the need for internal bonding within American and Soviet societies, achieved by the mutual exclusion of a paradigmatic Other. Just because of this, "a revolt of reason and conscience," in the name of a common "human ecological imperative," could bring the Cold War to an end. The evidence of this revolt is the growth of the peace movements in Europe. For it was there that the Cold War started, and it is there that it could be overcome. "The Cold War can be brought to an end in only two ways: by the destruction of European civilization, or by the reunification of European political culture."2 Such a reunification would involve a detente of peoples rather than of states, unfreezing the glaciated divide between Western and Eastern Europe. But it would not necessarily abolish the principal economic or social structures of either. "Immense differences in social system would remain." But across them would now move "the flow of political and intellectual discourse, and of human exchange." As their rigid ideological and military guards came down, "the blocs would discover that they had forgotten what their adversary posture was about."3
Thompson's arguments and hypotheses have been developing in the past two years amidst every political urgency; they are not a finished case, but an introduction to a common debate that has long been missing on the Left, in which his own views will surely undergo further evolution, or emendation, of emphasis. I want to start my comments by simply pointing out some of the difficulties and inconsistencies of the concept of exterminism itself, and suggesting ways in which the categories excluded in consequence of it by Thompson can, in fact, be reintegrated into a historically materialist explanation of the Cold War. Thompson begins his account of exterminism by suggesting that the present war danger cannot be analysed in terms of "origins, intentions or goals, contradictions or conjunctures," but rather appears to be "simply the product of a messy inertia." The immediate past, likewise, is described as the "irrational outcome of a collision of wills." An insistence on these two features — the inertial and irrational character of arms race (and then by extension of the Cold War itself) — is central to his argument. In part, this deadened unreason is attributed to the sheer mechanical automatism of modern weaponry itself, as "today's hair-trigger military technology annihilates the very moment of 'politics.'" But its sources actually go deeper than this. They reach, in fact, even beyond the kind of anarchic resultant of mutually contending projects conjured up by the phrase "irrational outcome of a collision of wills." For the Cold War today no longer embodies — if it ever did — the confrontation of any overall projects at all, representing more or less coherent or unitary historical agents. Its inertia has rather "drifted down to us as a collocation of fragmented forces," each bound together by no necessary internal logic, and bearing no necessary intention or goal.
What are these forces, whose interplay generates exterminism in each camp? They appear in Thompson's text themselves pell-mell, scattered in different parts of it. In the case of the West, there are the abstracted ambitions of scientists in the laboratories; inter-service rivalry; profitability of weapons companies; most importantly, perhaps "bureaucratic decisions" (but if these are really decisions, aren't we back with some notion of political purpose?) or elsewhere "inertial thrust." All of this remains relatively sketchy. Causality in the East, however, is even more tentatively marked in. There are the imperatives of "ideology," diffusion of military "patriotism," influence of officers (not yet "decisive"), technical superiority of arms industries. The enumeration in either case is close to the initial description: it amounts to little more than collection of fragments. Yet the paradox is that Thompson, after insisting on the random and disaggregated character of the forces generating exterminism, then presents their summation as a political culture that is literally all-pervasive, seeping inexorably into every cell of society and addicting it to a fatal toxicant. Having dispersed and miniaturized the causes of exterminism, one might say, he magnifies its effects out of all scale, to a point where it becomes coextensive with the social order as a whole, as the ubiquitous sickness of a poisoned civilization. "The USA and the USSR do not have military-industrial complexes: they are such complexes." There is a "cumulative process" in which exterminist "crystallization in culture accelerates crystallization in the economy and thence to politics and thence back again once more." The whole vital surplus of East and West alike is symbolically dedicated to the technology of annihilation. Exterminism, the title suggests, may now be built into the very physiological programme of Northern civilization — as the terminal illness of its last stage.
The contradiction within this account is not hard to see. There is a striking disproportion between Thompson's minimization of the sources of exterminism and his maximization of its spread. The discrepancy between the two parts of the argument is covered by the notion of the "isomorphism" of East and West. Exterminism, from such small beginnings, can be so total and universal because the two sides need it to batten down their own respective social hatches. There is thus a kind of over-arching external causality at work, which can act as a substitute for any more articulated internal explanation. Thompson does not argue that the USSR and USA are identical social formations, or even that their foreign policies are precisely equivalent. Rather it is the reciprocity of their antagonism itself which confers on each their common deadly properties, as ruling groups in Washington and Moscow, the twin citadels of exterminism, come "to need perpetual war crisis, to legitimate their rule." So long as this reciprocal process holds fast, "isomorphic replication is evident at every level: in cultural, political, but, above all, in ideological life."
The effect of the arguments is at variance with its starting-point. For the actual force of the notion of isomorphism is to suggest that despite differences of local derivation, essentially — that is, in all that touches on the fundamental issues of war and peace — everything is the same in East and West, and it is a distraction to dwell on secondary differences or past episodes distinguishing the two. This admonition is applied especially to any attempt to explain the Cold War by looking at its genesis in the post-war epoch, or the respective positions and policies of America and Russia at the time. "To argue from origins is to take refuge from reality in moralism." Just as Thompson curiously inverts the typical emphases of his history-writing — which honours agency — in a "structuralist" conception of exterminism virtually without exterminists, so he casts the reproach of moralism on any effort to reconstruct a political history. But in fact it is not moralistic at all to think that the different histories of the USA and USSR are relevant to our understanding of the Cold War today. The fact that the USA has never been invaded in the 20th century, while Russia has been invaded three times, that during the Second World War the USA lost 1 million dead and prospered in the fastest boom in its history, while the USSR lost 20 million dead and a third to a half of its industrial plant destroyed, is pertinent because it helps us to make certain predictions about the behaviour of these two great powers, where the notion of "isomorphism" does not. The flaws in Thompson's stance here find their way into the contradictions of his imagery. In Beyond the Cold War he writes: "I am addressing the question — not what caused the Cold War, but what is about today? And it is no good trying to answer this by standing at its source and stirring it about with a stick. For a river gathers up many tributaries on its way, and turns into unexpected courses." But on the next page, he unwittingly reverses the metaphor. Here the Cold War, "an abnormal political condition," is "the product of particular contingencies at the end of World War II which struck the flowing rivers of political culture into glaciated stasis, and struck intellectual culture with an ideological permafrost."4
Fixed or fluid? The inconsistency condenses the paradoxes of Thompson's general sketch of exterminism: the supreme humanist become arch structuralist, the moralist turned clinician, the historian rejecting history.
These paradoxes are not unintelligible. Behind Thompson's theoretical construct lies a number of very understandable political motivations. To depict the exterminist contamination as omnipresent is to dramatize the dangers of war with the most urgent and mobilizing of tocsins. To represent the sources of exterminism as a medley of involuntary or atomized forces, on the other hand, is to avoid the great divisive breach of class analysis and social identification of political opponents, and with it the risks of ideological hostilities incompatible with an irenic movement. To refuse investigation into the origins of the Cold War is to forestall the possibility of differential judgement of the two sides to it, that would be internationally even less ecumenical. A benign sleight of hand, of a kind familiar — perhaps inherent — in the discourse of all peace movements, is visible here.
Yet the real history of our time still require its answers. These answers have political consequences, for peace and for socialism. In what follows, I shall argue that the Cold War in its wider sense is not an arbitrary or anachronistic feud staged essentially in Europe, but a rationally explicable and deeply rooted conflict of opposing social formations and political forces, whose principal centre of gravity has been for some thirty years now the Third World. That conflict would have existed and developed into a Cold War, even if nuclear weapons had never been invented. The Bomb has shaped and misshaped its evolution, and may yet put an end to it altogether. But it is not its spring. That lies in the dynamic of class struggle on a world scale. The rationality of the conflict derives from the incompatible interests of the major actors in it. Thompson contests this rationality, on the grounds that a drift towards common extermination cannot be in any side's interest. But, of course, this is not the first time in history that a discrepancy has opened up between rational interest and irrational outcome. What typically lies between the two is the recurrent historical phenomenon of class error, for which Marxists always need to make theoretical allowance. Class interest, as Hamza Alavi has pointed out, should be conceived not as a source of its own objective, correspondent expression, in an a priori adequacy of means to ends, but rather as the social basis of calculation of the agent concerned, that includes in its very definition the possibility of miscalculation in a world of antagonistic action and reaction.5
In the age of the hydrogen bomb, such miscalculation could indeed lead to mutual annihilation. In that sense, Thompson's warnings of the possibility of accidental triggering or faulty escalation need no further justification; the fear of these must haunt any sober peace movement today. The limitation of "Notes on Exterminism," however, is that in concentrating so much moral and mental attention on the irrational and inertial dangers of the arms race, it tends to ignore the deliberate and dynamic calculations of nuclear politics. The result is to sidestep consideration of how the Bomb functions as a central instrument of power in an age of revolution. But to pose the question of nuclear strategy as politics — and not bureaucratic inertias — it is necessary to retrieve all those categories that Thompson sets to one side as "irrelevant": conjuncture and crisis, origin and purpose, classes and modes of production. Indeed, to get at the deep structures of the Cold War we may need to dismantle the concept of exterminism.
II. The Dynamic of the Cold War
To pose an alternative we need to offer different interpretations of the fundamental categories of analysis implicitly bound together in the notion of "exterminism": that is (i) a theory of the dominant level of international politics and the proximate impetus towards nuclear war, and (ii) an explanation of the specific role of the strategic arms race in this decisive arena.
Now for Thompson, as we have seen, the strategic arms race is the dominant level of world politics and everything else flows from this overarching and terrible fact. Another explanation, reflecting what is undoubtedly the common-sense understanding of the majority of this generation's peace campaigners and anti-nuclear activists, would ascribe the present danger to the domination of world politics by the two "superpowers" conceived as Orwellian aggregations of uncontrolled power (although individual opinions would, of course, differ as to the relative onus attached to each bloc). In either case and regardless of whether the two camps are visualized as the antagonistic polities themselves or their specific exterminist complexes — the bipolar contradiction is the constitutive element of the international system, and the only hope for peace (assuming the deadlock of multilateral negotiation) is seen as secession from the dementia of superpower rivalry. Hence the goal of liberating Europe from the Bomb via a 1980s version of the "positive neutralism" espoused by sections of CND in the 1950s.
Although "exterminist" and "superpower" explanations of the Cold War have a certain elegance of simplicity and familiarity, the weakness of both is their inability to elucidate the actual "why and how" of the Cold War's concrete history. Whether we work from the premiss of a symmetrical need by both superpowers for an external threat to reinforce their internal hegemony, or from simply the abstract notion of geo-political power-craving and war-mongering, it remains difficult to explain why Eisenhower brandished the Bomb over Korea, why Kennedy went to the brink — and then almost over it — about Cuba, or why Nixon tried nuclear blackmail against Vietnam. Why those places? A naive question, perhaps, but one which I believe the current commonsense of the peace movement has difficulty answering, and which Thompson's essay does not address.
To begin to answer this question — and thus apprehend the logic of the situations in which the nuclear danger has most often appeared — it is necessary, in my opinion, to reinstate the revolutionary Marxist conception of the modern epoch as an age of violent, protracted transition from capitalism to socialism. From this perspective the Cold War between the USSR and the United States is ultimately the lighting-rod conductor of all the historic tensions between opposing international class forces, but the bipolar confrontation is not itself the dominant level of world politics. The dominant level is the process of permanent revolution arising out of uneven and combined development of global capitalism. This is the true motor of the Cold War. In face of the likely reaction of many readers to what may seem jargon, let me be more precise: I am not talking about what Thompson at times self-consciously caricatures as the "drives of world imperialism" or its "evil will," but rather the inexorable process by which the international expansion of capital, through its simultaneous destruction of traditional modes of production and its multiplication of modern forms of exploitation, reproduces new "weak links" within its own political order and revolutionary explosions against itself. It is not necessary to share an eschatological vision of the World Revolution to recognize that the development of capitalism on a planetary scale has likewise internationalized the forces of revolt against it. True, the emergence of these forces displays no simple, evolutionary tendency, but rather the most baffling pattern of contradiction, retrogression, and sudden rupture. Nor does their movement have a single, privileged pivot — either metropolitan or "peripheral" — since it is the result of the system's continual transformation. As Edward Thompson has in his own way so often pointed out, real history is prodigiously overdetermined by the complexity of the world economy, the innumerable nuances of national class structure, the residues of every traditional social conflict, and the capriciousness of human agency. Yet it seems to me indisputable that the major trend in modern history has been the tectonic action of these elemental class struggles within and upon the international state system.
Before attempting to define the dynamic of the Cold War itself, it may be helpful to briefly recall some of the antecedent phases in this globalization of class struggles against capital. The era of socialist transition was, of course, later in arriving than originally predicted by Marx. This was in part the result of an epic event which neither Marx nor Engels ever theorized (although they were its contemporaries): the political and ideological incorporation of the first modern labour movements in Britain and America by the hegemonic Liberalism of Jackson-Cobden-Lincoln-Gladstone. It was also in part a by-product of the failure of the Revolutions of 1848 which postponed continental industrialization for twenty to thirty years. It was only with the formation of the Second International in 1889 (and, more specifically, with the great international May Day demonstrations of 1890) that it is possible to say that labour became in its own right a participant in world politics. Significantly the political centre of gravity of Social Democracy did not coincide with the areas of the greatest development of trade unionism per se (Britain, the United States, Australia), but rather where extensive recent proletarianization collided with the persistence of absolutism (Central and Eastern Europe). The International impinged upon the European balance of power as a great, unknown variable. From the standpoint of our exterminist era, it is interesting to recall how, in their fin de siècle divinations, both revolutionaries and reactionaries were awed by a vision of what was widely believed would be the apocalyptic weapon of the new century, more mighty than the coming dreadnought or zeppelin: the General Strike. Yet an internationalism built around militant resolutions and fine-spirited slogans proved incapable in 1914 of actually mobilizing that weapon against capitalism and war. Nor did that related harbinger of the final conflict, international trade-union solidarity (whether envisaged as the One Big Union or a World Confederation of Labour) ever become the material force that classical Marxism has assumed would be the natural concomitant of the internationalization of capitalist forces of production.
The twentieth century was to take another turn. Class struggles never acquired a "pure" international form, but remained compressed inside the pre-existing state system, with all the charge of nationalism and militarism it inevitably transmitted to those revolutions that successfully acquired power within it. Here lay the paradox of October. On the one hand the Russian Revolution changed world history by creating a territorial base of support, with increasing industrial and martial resources, for socialist revolutions abroad, for anti-colonialism, and even, during 1941-44, for the salvation of bourgeois democracy in Western Europe itself. On the other hand, the defeat of revolution in the West forced the USSR at home to resort to a strategy of "primitive socialist accumulation" (as Preobrazhenski called it) on the basis of its own backwardness and underdevelopment, with all the terrible consequences that flowed from this. For a long period the future extension of socialist revolution became dependent upon material aid or political recognition by the Soviet Union (even true in the case of Yugoslavia in 1944-47). Yet the bureaucratic despotism consolidated in the Soviet Union became a virtual dystopia for the Western working class and a huge fetter on the reconstruction of a real internationalism. Thus the vicious circle which commenced with the original isolation of the October Revolution has continued as a reciprocal parochialization of the labour movement in the West and bureaucratic devaluation of socialism in the USSR (and later, Eastern Europe).
The Soviet Union's role in world politics as the material and military cornerstone of further subtractions from the empire of capital has been largely involuntary. Stalin, in particular, made a sustained effort between 1936 and 1947 to disengage the USSR from the dynamic of permanent revolution. Believing that the survival of the Soviet state was strictly dependent upon its manipulation of the violent divisions between the imperialist powers and its own breakneck industrialization, he essentially sought to reclaim Russia's old position as a legitimate great power with its traditional spheres of influence. To this end, he orchestrated the Popular Fronts, traded away (not always successfully) the fates of popular revolutions — Spain, Greece, Vietnam and China — and manoeuvred incessantly for durable ententes with the "democratic" sections of Western capital. Yalta was the meridian of Soviet efforts to achieve a reestablishment of a traditional international state system based on the recognition of stable balances of power; and Yalta has remained, in the quarter of a century since Stalin's death, the point of reference for continuing initiatives by Soviet diplomacy. No state in modern history has been more consistent and, in a sense, more open in pursuit of its major geopolitical aims than the USSR since 1936 in its quest for some mode of detente with the West.
Two factors, however, have combined to make any lasting stabilization of the relations between the USSR and the capitalist states impossible. First was the post-war restructuring of the world market under American hegemony, which for the first time created a basis for peaceful coexistence between the advanced segments of imperialist capital that allowed them to concentrate their immense economic and military resources against the USSR and international revolutionary movements. Although differences between American and European imperialism were still occasionally to provide space for Soviet diplomatic manoeuvre — notably in the rifts between Eden and Dulles, De Gaulle and Kennedy or Johnson, Brandt and Nixon — there has been no room (at least in the absence of a truly unified and supra-national European capitalist state) for the restoration of a traditional balance of power. Moreover there is a grain of truth in the primarily instrumentalist and "internalist" theories of the Cold War, to the extent that the Soviet threat was indeed an indispensible condition for the imposition of US hegemony on its allies and the American reorganization of the world economy and Western political system. The Cold War was in this sense "functionalized" as a forcing-house of inter-capitalist unity and systemic restructuration.
But as I have argued above, it would be a profound mistake to see the origins of the Cold War as primarily an internal or instrumentalist regulation of American (or Soviet) societies. Its driving force, and the second factor mitigating against permanent detente, has been the alloy of socialism and nationalism in the dependent and semi-colonial countries (together with the auxiliary insurgencies of more traditional nationalist movements under often atavistic social leaderships). Between the failure of the German Communist putsch of March 1921 and the liberation of Yugoslavia by Tito's "proletarian brigades" in 1945 (the second successful socialist revolution in world history), and discounting several ephemeral episodes in Latin America (Chile in 1932 and Cuba in 1933), there were only the historic defeats of the Second Chinese Revolution (1926-28) and the Spanish Civil War. Since 1945, however, there has been, as the American far right never ceases to point out, a socialist revolution on the average of every four years. While none of these postwar revolutions has had the universalistic aspiration or resonance of October ("patria o muerte" would have been anathema as a slogan to the Bolsheviks), nor have they been simply national events. In the first place anti-capitalist revolutions, whatever their national epicentre, have always had a seismic impact on distinctive regional substructures of the world economy. This is the rational kernel of the "domino" theory. To extend the geological simile, the most important "tectonic plates" of postwar revolution have been, respectively, the Balkans (1944-48), East Asia (1946-today) and Latin America (1959-today). These are the regions where (unlike the Arab world) socialist vanguards of workers and intellectuals were able to win the leadership of mass upheavals of peasants and semi-proletarian rural poor. Secondly, these revolutionary waves have had two, successively different geopolitical orientations. The 1944-54 revolutions in the Balkans and Far East were centred in the historically contested borderlands (especially the Lower Danube Valley and Manchuria) where Russia since the Tsars had confronted and battled German and Japanese expansion — indeed, all these revolutions germinated as national resistance movements against German and Japanese fascist occupation. In contrast the post-1959 revolutions have been centred in the strategic areas of the traditional European colonial empires or in the very backyard of American imperialism. This distinction between the "Eurasian" and "Third World" phases of postwar revolution, along with a recognition of the regional dynamic of each national revolution, is indispensible for an understanding of the development of the Cold War.
Within this pattern, however, there was one special area. In the more developed regions of Central and North-Eastern Europe, the post-war upheavals would not have led to the overthrow of capitalism without the decisive presence of the Red Army. The communization of this zone, which included the more important nations of Eastern Europe — Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania — was a process apart, dictated essentially by Stalin's determination to create a protective glacis round the USSR. The creation of these buffer states was totally unwelcome to the USA, which had looked forward to profitable opportunities for trade and investment in them after 1945. But in the last resort it could and did accept them, for two reasons which hold good to this day. Firstly, it knew that the USSR was likely on the most traditional of strategic grounds to want a security belt on its Western frontiers, and would claim a "moral" right to one after the Nazi attack and its consequences: it was well aware that this aim did not involve any principle of messianic revolutionary expansionism. Secondly, Eastern Europe was far the poorer half, and its forcible sovietization by an even poorer USSR logically implied a corresponding US sphere of interest in the far richer Western half of the continent; more, it actually consolidated capitalism in the latter by the spectre of authoritarian austerity it henceforward presented. Thus although there were seismic waves in the Balkans, which threatened capitalism in Greece, once the socialist revolutions of the Lower Danube were integrated into the Soviet bloc as such (or expelled from it, precisely because of their autonomy, as in the case of Yugoslavia), there was thereafter never any "spread-effect" to be feared from the People's Democracies. On the contrary, their very existence contained its own dual — ideological and strategic — self-limitation, the two assisting Washington to clinch the lion's share of the Old World. For just as "artificial" socialism was introduced into Budapest, Prague, or Warsaw, so capitalism was the "natural" tendency of growth in Paris, Hamburg, or Turin, given the balance of political forces in the West. The USA was working with the spontaneous socio-historical grain there, as much as the USSR was working against it beyond the Elbe. The result, of course, was the triumphant consolidation of bourgeois democracy in Western Europe, with the aid of the Marshall Plan, and the repression of any vestige of proletarian democracy in Eastern Europe, with the inquisitions against Titoism.
Ever since, the official history and ideology of the West has always magnified Europe as the central Kampfplatz of the Cold War, because it was there that political and economic contrasts worked in its favour, that capitalism enjoyed a moral and cultural superiority, and that the USSR could be portrayed as a national oppressor. The Europeanism of Thompson's own vision of the Cold War is itself partially a victim of this orthodox Western construal of the conflict to its own advantage. In reality, however, the first act of the Cold War was to provide a completely misleading image of the structure of the drama as a whole, as it has unfolded to date. For the European theatre had been stabilized by 1950. Capitalism had nothing to fear from an impoverished and "satellite" socialism in the East, once it had contained the labour movement in the West. Thus it is striking that though the USSR has had to intervene militarily three times to keep control in Eastern Europe, the deployments of Soviet troops in the DDR, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia have never seriously disturbed the international peace. The West has each time exploited the occasion to the full ideologically, while remaining essentially passive diplomatically and militarily. There has never been a major war crisis in Europe since the Berlin airlift. This pattern would be inexplicable if the Cold War really pivoted on Europe. By contrast, first "Asia" and then the "Third World" have been active arenas of Cold War conflict in the past thirty years, because there the USA and its allies have faced spontaneously generated, uncontrollable outbreaks of revolution, which — from China to Nicaragua — have had an ideological and political spread-effect rather than counter-effect, and which could not be fitted into any division of spheres of interest of the European type. In other words, the greater vulnerability of capitalism in the "periphery" (so far) has dictated the greater importance of this zone for the permanence of the Cold War.
Even at the outset, however, Asia intervened directly in the emergence of the Cold War in Europe. For it is not difficult to identify the two events which totally undermined the Soviet effort to establish a durable accommodation with the United States: these were the Chinese Revolution and the integration of West Germany into the American alliance (an act prior to the establishment of the DDR, at a time when Stalin sought the neutralization of Germany). The two arenas were inextricably interlinked, and it was precisely the crisis over Germany that forced Stalin reluctantly to provide arms and support to the revolution in East Asia which he had tried to barter away in 1945-46. A fundamental pattern was thus established in the development of the Cold War: first the principle of linkage between the European and Asian spheres of Soviet security (recently demonstrated by the compensatory intervention in Afghanistan following NATO's nuclear escalation in Europe); and secondly, the implacable strategic constraint on the USSR, in the face of American pressure, to support and arm at least certain revolutions. In other words, the Soviet Union has attempted to blunt the ceaseless attempts of the USA to enforce its geopolitical and military paramountcy by strategically "annexing" appropriate socio-economic upheavals in the dependent capitalist countries. Thus in the case of the first great Cold War crisis the USSR, faced with an American nuclear monopoly and a new ring of hostile encirclement, tried to safeguard Soviet cities and Russian interests in Central Europe by transforming the mass peasant armies of Red Asia into instruments of its own conservative national diplomacy (a design made dramatically clear by the Geneva conferences of 1954). In contrast to the American imperium, the "Soviet Bloc" emerged, not out of a grand design for a world order, but as the accretion of battered and besieged "socialisms in one country" huddled together for sheer survival round the preponderance of the first-comer.
The alternative to the Soviet bloc model of bureaucratic and nationalistic socialism — in the absence of a revolutionary wave in post war Western Europe — would have been the crystallization of a new pole of socialist internationalism around a regional federation of revolutionary states. "Regional," because only such a supra-national entity in the Third World could command the economic and military resources to defend its dependence from imperialism and to negotiate a fully autonomous alliance with the USSR. During the sixties and early seventies both Cuba and Indochina temporarily appeared as the potential nuclei of regional revolutions with strong internationalist outlooks independent of the Sino-Soviet conflict. For this very reason, together with the important geopolitical shift which they represented in the axis of world revolution, they threatened to transform the Cold War qualitatively by challenging any bi-polar management of revolutionary crises. In the event, however, the Cold War was "triangulated," but not by the emergence of the new Tricontinental International, but by the formation of Mao's unholy alliance with Nixon and the Chinese lead in containing the shock waves of the historic triumph of the Indochinese Revolution in 1975. Simultaneously the renewed pressures of United States — with the overthrow of Allende in Chile and the continuing blockade of Vietnam by "other means" — as well as severe internal economic problems, forced both Cuba and the Indochinese states into closer dependence upon the USSR.
It would be illusory to imagine that the Indian Summer of detente in 1972-75 was forced upon the United States by its defeat in Indochina, as some sections of the left have maintained. The conjuncture was more complex. On the one hand, the USSR was for the first time approaching parity with the United States in the strategic balance of nuclear power; on the other hand, the China Card represented a major shift in the global balance of power against the USSR. Simultaneously the USSR had managed to bring both Cuba and Vietnam within its bloc, while the Nixon administration was confident that global "Vietnamization" — the strategy of substituting sub-imperialist police powers for conventional US forces — would guarantee stability in the main sectors of the American Empire. As the Soviet academician Trofimenko has explained in an exceedingly frank and revealing essay in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the essence of the Nixon and Ford administration's approach to the USSR at the summit meetings of the seventies was a trade-off between nuclear parity and the containment of Third World revolution.6 "Linkage" in the jargon of Kissinger meant the US codification of the strategic arms status quo in exchange for Soviet ratification of the socio-political status quo in the Third World. The contradiction, of course, in Kissinger's grand design for a neo-Bismarckian settlement of the Cold War was that the Soviet Union, even with Cuba and Vietnam now under tow, could no more prevent the outbreak of new revolutions in the 1970s than it could in the late 1940s (when international communist discipline was incomparably stronger).
I have no disagreement with Edward Thompson's assessment of the importance of the armourers' lobby in Washington in promoting its vested interests in MX missiles, Trident submarines, and B-1 bombers. But again I do not think that a primarily "internalist" analysis enables us to understand why, at the mid-point of the Carter administration's brief career, the Brzezinskis and Browns suddenly carried the day against the proponents of detente like Vance and Young. An analysis of the shift in the international conjuncture becomes absolutely necessary. I think the origins of the new Cold War in that sense are not hard to seek. In a sentence, the new Cold War is principally the product of a gigantic and relatively synchronized destabilization of peripheral and semi-industrial capitalism in the wake of the world economic crisis. I will argue the particulars of the Third World crisis in a moment; suffice it to say that growing real immiseration and super-exploitation combined with militarization, industrialization-by-debt and extensive proletarianization have created explosive situations on three continents. Without any new initiative by the USSR, the walls of containment began to crumble simultaneously in Africa, Central America, the Middle East, with temporary tremors in the Iberian Peninsula and new cracks in East Asia. Some of the weak links which have recently broken — the Portuguese colonies, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nicaragua — were amongst the poorest and least well-fortified bastions of the world market; Iran, in contrast, was a crucial imperial relay with the most advanced military machine in the Third World apart from Israel. From Washington's point of view, these ruptures had a distinctly "wild" and unpredictable character; particularly because the ability of the USSR to modulate or take "responsibility" for the level of revolutionary activity in the Third World has decreased with the weakening of the traditional communist movement and the disappearance of most of the USSR's old "non-capitalist" allies. Another distressing development has, of course, been the emergence of an atavistic religious populism in the Middle East and Sahel which confounds regular Cold War categories.
If these revolutions and popular anti-imperialist upheavals have been unprecendently autonomous in their origins from the orthodox Communist movement — or its febrile opponents in Peking — the very success of the United States in playing the China Card and in exploiting its renewed technological-military lead (since 1974) over the USSR, has forced the latter to assume a more militant stance in arming and providing a logistical backstop to the new revolutionary regimes. While prudently cultivating Ostpolitik in Western Europe, the Soviet Union in concert with Cuba undertook in the second half of the last decade bold new military interventions in Africa. It is important to note, however, that this does not so much indicate a Brezhnevite return to neo-Cominternism as it expresses a defensive geo-political response by Moscow to the growth of the Washington–Peking axis. Meanwhile on the American side, the collapse of the Nixon Doctrine and its strategy of sub-imperialism has brought US strategy (via the so-called Carter Doctrine) almost full circle back to the impossible project of maintaining a universal American military presence. This time, however, there is a new and more ominous nuclear twist.
III. The Quest for "Extended Deterrence"
It is at those moments when the institutional mechanisms stabilizing the Cold War give way under the full assault of the logic of permanent revolution that the time of the Bomb arrives. As Daniel Ellsberg has chronicled, this moment has recurred repeatedly in the course of the Cold War: during the retreat from Chosin Reservoir in 1950, in the last days of Dien Bien Phu in 1953, during the Formosa Straits crisis of 1959, during the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, at the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968, and, most recently, during Nixon's "nuclear alert" after the encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.7 On each occasion it was the United States that moved to the brink — usually without consulting its European allies — and in virtually every case the arena of crisis was in the Third World.
To understand why the present danger of nuclear brinkmanship is again so grave, we need to analyse the specific role of the nuclear arms race in the dynamic of the new Cold War. Such an analysis, however, begs an answer to Edward Thompson's original question: what — first of all — is the Bomb? This apparently naive question is really the Sphinx's riddle which has long barred the way to adequate Marxist explanations of contemporary world politics. For understandable reasons most left-wing commentary on the arms race has traditionally concentrated on demystifying the arcane fallacies and pure disinformation of official military spokesmen and their think-tank shadows, rather than specifically theorizing the role of nuclear build-up as a political plane in its own right.
As a first approximation let me propose that the strategic arms race must be conceived as a complex, regulative instance of the global class struggle. As I have tried to argue, every modern revolution has taken place within an organized system of international constraints and counter-revolutionary violence. With the pacification of inter-imperialist military rivalries, permanent mobilization for "total war" acts as a force-field which defines the terms of contestation between capitalist and post-capitalist social systems. Within the Cold War's aggregate balance of economic, geo-political, ideological and military power, the nuclear build-up plays the double role of preserving the structural cohesion of each bloc and of regulating the conflict between them.
Illustrative of the first function has been the "alliance-building" role of nuclear weapons deployment in Western Europe. As Thompson's essay makes clear, "exterminism" has always been an implicit cornerstone of Atlantic unity, and devotion to the Bomb and NATO has been a fundamental precondition for a party's admission to governmental power in the major Western parliamentary states. Thompson exaggerates, however, in imputing a neo-colonial or captive-nation status to Britain or other NATO countries. The "American yoke" has been worn willingly by European capitalism precisely because it has served its needs so well. American hegemony is exactly that — not mere usurpation or dictation: and the NATO states have derived major benefits from its maintenance. The availability of the American strategic deterrent, together with the stationing of a large American garrison to act as "tripwire," has allowed the European allies to devote a minimum of their budgets to support of conventional armies; although, with a population equal to that of the USSR and GNP more than twice as large, they are clearly capable of "balancing" Soviet conventional forces if they so wished. This has greatly redounded to the competitive advantage of European capital. It has also allowed significantly higher levels of welfare expenditure to contain its more combative working class. At the same time, European and Japanese capital have been able to participate as virtual "free riders" in the hi-tech spinoffs of the mammoth American military research programme — the primary engine for the generation of applied science in the postwar world. All in all, Atlanticism — as a kind of contemporary Concert of the Powers — has made possible an unprecedented concentration of military might against both international revolution and any potential surge by a domestic far left, while at the same time allowing a more flexible and rational international division of labour amongst the advanced countries, based on the relatively unhindered diffusion of advanced technologies. It has, thus, been the precondition, not just for the survival of European capitalism, but specifically for the reconstruction of European imperialism, with its major interests in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East.
The situation on the other side of the Cold War divide is far from symmetrical. The Soviet Union, unlike the United States, has stubbornly refused to permit any proliferation of its nuclear capability amongst other members of the "Socialist Commonwealth" — a position which played no small part in precipitating the original Sino-Soviet split of 1959-60. At the same time, however, the survival of every revolutionary regime since October has depended at some critical stage upon the countervailing military and economic support of the USSR and its industrial allies. The primary, although by no means exclusive, function of the Bomb, therefore, has been to regulate the parameters of Soviet intervention in and support for global class struggles, anti-colonial revolts and nationalist movements. Since 1945 the United States has attempted to exert this extended deterrence against the USSR in at least four different ways:
First, by maintaining the strategic arms race as a form of economic siege warfare against the social system of the USSR and the Comecon bloc. Although this aspect of the bipolar conflict has all too often been ignored or underestimated, it has increasingly become the focus of long-range American hopes for "rolling back" or internally disrupting Soviet and allied regimes. Arms competition, grain exports, and strict control of Western technological patents all form components of a grand strategy. The projected one-and-a-half-trillion dollar Carter/Reagan defence budget for 1981-85 is ominously the first military build-up in American history to have economic warfare as an overt objective. In a sarcastic but serious play upon the words of Khrushchev's famous 'We Will Bury You" speech, Reagan has recently warned the Russians: "We Will Bust You."
Secondly, by forestalling any possibility of Soviet actions in Western Europe comparable to those in the Third World through NATO's strategy of responding to a Soviet conventional campaign with a nuclear blitz. It should be remembered that first use of nuclear weapons has been the pillar of NATO's strategy since the formation of the Alliance in 1949, and that the European allies have been its most zealous guardians. (Thus the French and Germans, believing that the Kennedy Administration's commitment to nuclear first use might be weakening, forced it to deploy an extravagant number of new, "tactical" nukes in Europe as additional collateral.) Furthermore, the current US campaign to make Europeans "think the unthinkable" in accepting the strategy of "limited" nuclear war is not so much a sudden descent into the "theatre of the apocalypse" as a return to the status quo ante. From 1949 (when the USSR first acquired the atomic bomb) until 1965-68 (when it first acquired a credible capability to strike the continental United States with solid-fuel ICBMs), the United States enjoyed sanctuary while Western Europe was mortgaged against the USSR's medium-range bombers and missiles.
Thirdly, by threatening nuclear retaliation against all Soviet attempts to achieve "forward basing" — either as an attempt to redress the American strategic advantage or to extend a regional shield to new revolutionary regimes. (Soviet motives in installing missiles in Cuba in 1962 undoubtedly involved both goals.) In the endless debate about the nuclear numbers game, the Russians have always insisted that it is essential to take into account the unequal geo-military positions of the USSR and the United States. What underlies the claim is the fundamentally assymmetrical character of the overall balance of military power. The United States has immense forward-based nuclear striking capacity, the Soviet Union has none. The USSR is surrounded by thousands of miles of hostile borderlands, from Turkey to Japan, while the United States enjoys the security of three oceans and the largest of all satellite blocs, the Western hemisphere. Finally the United States has twice attempted to bomb "established" socialist states — Korea and Vietnam — "back into the stone age," while virtually every important American ally is defended against Soviet intervention not only by forward-based US nuclear weapons, but also by the tripwire of American soldiery directly connected to the so-called "ladder of escalation" and the strategic arsenal.
Fourthly, by constantly buttressing its qualitative strategic-nuclear superiority to limit conventional Soviet military and economic aid to Third World struggles, and to prevent a Soviet response to the potential usage of tactical American nuclear weapons against a Third World foe. Ideally, as Arms Control and Disarmament Agency head Eugene Rostow (a leading war criminal of early Vietnam days) recently testified, American strategic nuclear superiority should "permit us to use military force in defence of our interests with comparative freedom if it should become necessary."8 The concept of extended deterrence that can be seen at work here is something of a rosetta stone for understanding the underlying logic of the complex of weapons systems and their deployment in a range of modes. For example, the ceaseless accumulation of nuclear overkill has entirely different implications if we conceive "deterrence" in a defensive or offensive sense. In the first case — understanding deterrence as simply the most effective disincentive to an enemy first-strike — the growth of the nuclear arsenal beyond the "counter-society" threshold appears absurdly redundant, and Thompson seems more than justified in seeking irrationalist forces and autonomous drives within the weapons systems themselves. In the second case, however — when the strategic systems (ICBM, submarine, bomber) are conceived as the basis of extended deterrence in support of conventional or tactical-nuclear engagement in a subsidiary theatre — the acquisition of "counter-force" and first-strike capacities assumes quite a different meaning: for what are now projected are disincentives against interference in the "dominant" side's offensive actions. Limited Nuclear War, "Flexible Response" or "Ladder of Escalation" can then become functional deterrents in their very obscurity or absurdity. As a leading New Right strategist has emphasized, "Much of the deterrent effect of our nuclear force is, in the final analysis, the result of forcing the Soviet Union to live with uncertainty. . . . Ultimately the Soviet Union will see the wisdom of accepting serious constraints in their military efforts, both in force deployments (nuclear and conventional) and in geopolitical expansion.”9
The problem, of course, is that all this is easier (and more safely) theorized than done. The actual implementation of "extended deterrence" — that is, the translation of US strategic superiority into effective, "on-the-ground" supremacy — has been the elusive will-o-the-wisp of every post-war administration and the hub of every major debate on nuclear strategy. For nearly forty years the American deterrent has chased the World Revolution largely in vain, as Pentagon policy has alternated back and forth between nuclear brinkmanship and on balance unsuccessful attempts at direct counterrevolutionary intervention. Thus Truman's bid for global containment did win the Civil War in Greece, but it was totally stalemated by a million Chinese volunteers in Korea. In face of the huge human reserves of the revolution in East Asia, the Eisenhower Administration, dominated by budget-conscious Midwestern Republicans, attempted to retreat from conventional warfare behind the shelter of "massive retaliation." Although this strategic "New Look," with its reliance on the H-Bomb and the Strategic Air Command, managed to forestall the liberation of Taiwan and extorted the division of Vietnam at Geneva, it failed to prevent a handful of guerrillas from growing into a revolutionary army a mere ninety miles from Florida. The Kennedy doctrine of "flexible response" was the answer to the prayers of the strategic revisionists of the 1950s (including General Maxwell Taylor, Nelson Rockefeller, and all the hungry young PhDs of the Rand Institute) who had been demanding a more aggressive global posture. The fiscal conservatism of the Republican years was replaced by the military-Keynesianism of the "New Frontier"; with unlimited largesse, MacNamara's Defence Department systematically staked out its targets-special warfare, a fifty per cent increase in ICBM "throw-weight," a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons, and the enunciation of the "counterforce" doctrine (yes, Virginia, in 1962, not 1978). While this escalation in strategic arms held the Soviets at bay, the Green Berets and B-25s were supposed to be able to finish off the Viet Cong in an efficient climax of technocratic genocide. Instead the Vietnamese finished off Lyndon Johnson, the doctrine of "flexible response" and the myth that the American economy could finance both welfare at home and a major counter-revolutionary war abroad. It is possible that the Soviet Union's approach towards strategic nuclear parity in 1970-73 (the first Russian ICBMs were MIRVed in 1972) stayed Nixon's hand from the final, nuclear escalation as much, or more, than the fears of domestic explosions at home. At all events, the deus ex machina of entente with China temporarily created the illusion of a costless US withdrawal from Indochina, as like Eisenhower before him, Nixon attempted to find way out of the Democratic morass of an Asian war. The solution was the Nixon–Kissinger doctrine of using the rapidly industrializing dictatorships of the periphery as regional military surrogates for the United States, while securing the neutralization of the Soviet Union in the Third World in exchange for the SALT treaties and the recognition of the Eastern European status quo. But at the same time as Nixon and Brezhnev were discussing quantitative ceilings on strategic arms, Washington was making every effort to widen the qualitative US superiority in missile accuracy and undersea warfare.
Then came Luanda, Managua, and Teheran. As mentioned earlier, the collapse of the Shah and the new wave of Southern revolutions brought the Ford and Carter Administrations back to the same problem of combining nuclear and conventional weapons in an effective system of "extended deterrence" that Kennedy had faced in 1960. The Carter Administration agonized, hesitated, and then plunged into the New Cold War without ever quite being aware of the massive domestic retrenchment that would be necessary to sustain it. Then the New Right came to town and liberated the US war budgets from the incubus of residual New Deal claims for welfare or human rights.
Americal global strategy, as we have seen, passed through four distinct stages on the road from Potsdam to Vladivostock: the Truman Doctrine or "Containment" (1947-52); "Massive Retaliation" (1953-1960); "Flexible Response" (1961-70); the Nixon Doctrine (1970-75). All were different solutions to the common quest for extended deterrance. What is the emergent doctrine of the fifth strategic epoch that has now opened? In particular, what is the relationship between the strategic nuclear build-up and renewed US military intervention in the Third World? To some analysts the Carter–Reagan New Cold War has looked like a hasty and impromptu resurrection of the Kennedy Administration's pretence of a "two-and-half war" capability, dovetailing strategic, theatre and special-war forces. In contrast, other observers have doubted whether any coherent plan underlies the current arms mania beyond the appetites of the military-industrial complex for the Congressional pork barrel, covered by Pentagon propaganda diverting the public with a re-fabricated red menace. A closer reading of New Right defense theorists, however, suggests that there are indeed deeply reasoned and very alarming elements of a strategic new departure in the Administration's actions. The distinctive features of the Reagan strategy seem to be these:
First, the Administration is intransigently opposed to any new "multilaterization" of international politics. It has opposed the so-called "North-South dialogue," not only because of a frozen heart, but also because it fears the emergence of any new axes of diplomacy or political-economic cooperation that might increase the autonomy of the EEC vis-a-vis the United States. With the failure of a voluntarist Trilateralism, and as inter-imperialist economic competition reaches a post-war height, the New Cold War provides an invaluable framework for reimposing Western "unity" and American hegemony.
Secondly, the New Right and its hawkish allies in the Democratic Party (including most of the AFL-CIO executive) have made the restoration of American strategic superiority their central and overriding objective. "Superiority" for them, however, has little to do with any quest for a fail-safe protective deterrent around the United States itself. Rather it consists of acquiring the means of projecting US nuclear strength as a global umbrella, especially over the Third World. The New Right has been adamant in its opposition to proposals to put the US deterrent out to sea (the idea of a so-called "strategic dyad") because it would lack — at least at this point in technological development — the precision accuracy to be a credible "counter-force" deterrent. The virtues of the $30 billion dollar MX system, in tandem with MARVed Trident-2s, Cruise missiles, Stealth Bombers, is that it would supposedly provide the Pentagon with a selective ability to knock out any or all levels of Soviet conventional and "theatre" forces. The dangerous implication here is not so much the likelihood of an all-out American first-strike, as a US ability to impose on the USSR a de facto recognition of "limited nuclear war." The deployment of strategic superiority to attain what Haig calls "escalation dominance" — i.e. the ability to confront the other side with the choice between acceptance of a limited nuclear fait accompli or total escalation to societal suicide — is what links counter-force to counter-insurgency.
Thirdly, the Rapid Deployment Force is radically different from the Kennedy-era special warfare forces in one outstanding regard: its deployment openly integrates a tactical nuclear backstop. As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, the RDF is in many respects a kind of portable Dien Bien Phu waiting to enmired and besieged. The difference, of course, is that the Pentagon is now expressly prepared to rescue the RDF with tactical nuclear weapons.
Fourthly, in face of the potential vulnerability of key semi-developed relay states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, and perhaps even Brazil, the US is moving towards a more intimate embrace with the bunker regimes in Israel and South Africa. One of the gambits of the new Administration has been its exploration of a possible "South Atlantic Alliance" between the Southern Cone dictatorships and South Africa which would be closely linked to NATO-Atlantic and US-Indian Ocean war plans. Such an alliance would be an implicitly nuclear one and clearly emphasizes the growing danger that Israel and South Africa (as well potentially of Brazil, Argentina, and Pakistan) might in the future become nuclear surrogates for the United States in regional Third World arenas.
The Reagan strategy, in other words, appears to be based on an extremely dangerous widening of "flexibile response" to include limited nuclear war in Third World theatres, under the umbrella of a buttressed counter-force superiority, in a general context of increased bipolar tension and a tightened American command structure over NATO. In one sense the goal of this strategy is actually deterrent — i.e. to constrain the Soviet Union in "force deployments" and in "geopolitical expansion." On the other hand, actual scenarios of nuclear warfare are all too grimly imaginable. As I have said earlier, one of my chief criticisms of any unilateral emphasis on the "irrational" dimensions of the exterminist thrust, is precisely its elision of the purposeful escalations and strategically contrived confrontations of the Cold War. Perhaps the maximum exterminist danger in the present period would concentrate in one or both of the following Third World centred scenarios: (I) The employment of tactical nuclear weapons by American Rapid Deployment Forces or one of the US's rogue allies against a Third World revolutionary or nationalist regime that itself possesses relatively sophisticated conventional armaments: e.g. Libya, Iran, or North Korea. (II) The Reagan Administration's persistent threats to take military action against Cuba (in violation of the 1962 agreement that was the cornerstone of detente), or its support for military infiltration (via a Savimbi or Pol Pot) against African and Indochinese allies of the USSR, might prompt the Soviet leadership to again consider the forward basing of nuclear weapons, leading to a rerun — or much worse — of October 1962.
The possibility or otherwise of nuclear crises breaking out in the next year in the Third World, however, will be inextricably bound up with the tempo of the class struggle and the emergence or absence of new prerevolutionary situations in the South. Thus today the danger to Cuba is acute because of the growth of people's war throughout Central America, while the extension of Libyan influence in Africa has been based on the disintegration of the traditional economy in the Sudanic belt. It is necessary, therefore, to make some brief, final remarks on the general causes of the deepening crisis of capitalism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
IV. The "Collapse" of Dependent Capitalism?
It has become conventional wisdom that the last decade has witnessed a major transfer of economic power from the OECD nations to the new petro-chemical and industrial boom economies of the Third World. The press has been awash with glowing-or glowering-accounts of the economic miracles of Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and even the Ivory Coast and Sri Lanka (only yesterday, of course, it was singing the praises of the Shah and his accomplishments). More alarmingly, the conviction appears to be growing in the ranks of the metropolitan labour movements that much of the current high unemployment in the West has been caused by a process of "de-industrialization" which has literally scooped up capital, jobs and even machinery from the West Midlands, Youngstown, or the Ruhr, and transferred them en masse to the sweated factories of Sao Paulo or Seoul. This perception, combined with the widespread belief that OPEC has caused the last two recessions, has created a congenial climate for the thunderings of the Anglo-American New Right against the "menace" from the Third World. Business Week openly came out for the seizure of Middle East oilfields, while bumperstickers on thousands of American cars urged Carter to "Nuke Iran." Meanwhile even relatively progressive currents of opinion, including trade unions and social democratic politicians, have rushed to combat the foreign threat in more "responsible ways" by urging the revival of protectionism or selective import controls.
The theory of the Third World as culprit of the current crisis is of course factually absurd. On the one hand it ignores the central fact that most of the job loss in the OECD bloc has been the direct result of internal restructuring: i.e. the massive shift of capital from secondary to tertiary sectors, job flight from older to newer "sunbelt" regions of the United States and Europe (e.g. Spain), and deliberate under-consumptionism (via monetarist belt-tightening). On the other hand, it obscures the real phenomenon of a dramatic expansion of a restricted number of industries in a restricted number of non-OECD countries, amidst a generalized and entirely illusory impression that major resources have been transferred from North to South. In fact the opposite has been happening.
First of all, absolute immiseration is expanding at an unprecedented rate in the history of the world economy, and the economic infrastructures of some societies are literally collapsing. It is necessary to insist on the horrifying specificity of this process. There has never been a "subsistence crisis" of the ferocity or global dimension of the current, unfolding catastrophe. The Great Depression, by contrast, had a relatively benign impact upon large parts of the colonial world: a paradox explained by the fact that the collapse of cereal prices allowed millions of Asian and African peasants to consume their own crops or buy cheap wheat. The present crisis is entirely different because of the well-nigh universal impingements of the market on former subsistence farming, the marginalization of domestic foodstuff cultivation by export agriculture, the gigantic displacement of peasant tillers from the land, and expansion of socially parasitic layers (soldiers, bureaucrats). The worst-hit countries are the so-called Fourth World of non-oil producing, primary-product economies which have been afflicted by the triple curse of stagnant or falling prices for their exports, huge oil (and weapons) bills, and astronomical interest rates. In the words of one recent survey, these "countries are forced to bear a major part of the adjustment required by instabilities in the world economy over which they have no control." Declining real income, combined with the greater share extracted by American bankers and Arabian oil feudatories, has squeezed the reproduction fund of local oligarchies and military elites precisely at a moment when their appetites for luxury goods, retainers and, above all, weapons are exponentially increasing. The result has often been a terroristic strategy of super-exploitation that has, in turn, evoked desperate resistance. The logic of what is happening to societies like El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Bolivia, Upper Volta, Niger, Chad, Zaire, or the Sudan is in some ways reminiscent of the disasters that overtook European society in the fourteenth century, compounded of exploitation, famine, and revolt (but this time with a nuclear plague?). Absolute pauperization is what is fuelling the flames of Islamic revivalism across the Sahel (where nomadic society has collapsed after 2,500 years) and providing the will-power for the incredible revolutionary ordeal in Central America.
A different set of structural conditions threatens crisis in the so-called "newly industrialized countries" of Latin America and East Asia. While it remains true that the semi-industrialized countries of Latin America contain their own "fourth worlds" in the form of vast and severely underdeveloped rural regions (Southern Mexico, North-East Brazil), the real focal point of social revolution in these societies is more likely to be their gigantic, hypertrophic cities. Despite an irresistible rise in popular expectations amongst the enlarged working classes of these countries, none has yet made a real transition to the "Fordist" unification of mass production and mass consumption that characterizes the economies of the OECD bloc. Moreover there is little sign that any of the political conditions could be mobilized which would allow a restructuring of production away from export markets or middle-class consumer durables towards truly mass domestic goods. The increasing addiction of these countries to "debt-led" growth reinforces their need to preserve or expand their international competitive capacity, while it simultaneously increases the invigilation of OECD banks over their domestic policies. The resulting pressures to force wages down and reduce social expenditure — radically more severe than under even the most right-wing of the current OECD regimes — are likely to close the space for reform or partial democratization. In the short-run the enormous indebtedness of these countries could bring the international financial system itself into jeopardy, and provoke new forms of US intervention. But in the longer-run the greatest danger to Western capitalism is the emergence of autonomous, self-organized labour movements in these countries. If the centre of gravity of the international class struggle were to shift to them in the 1980s, it would have immense repercussions for the entire system of world politics. The United States would not resign itself lightly to the loss of any of the major semi-industrial countries; here might lie the seeds of another casus belli for World War Three, if a powerful movement for peace and solidarity with the people of the South is not built within American society today.
The two-fold crisis of dependent capitalism in the Fourth World and the semi-industrialized world, while creating broad new opportunities for socialist advance, also creates new dilemmas. The Soviet bloc now offers diminishing resources to accommodate or sustain anti-capitalist revolution in the poorer countries, or to inspire emulation in the more advanced. Together with the Sino-Soviet split, the failure of Comecon to organize any real international division of labour or integrated trading system amongst the post-capitalist states reduces the relief available to new revolutionary regimes of the Third World. Furthermore any inclination by the USSR to counter-balance American (or American–Chinese) initiatives with its own manoeuvres in the Third World is certain to be tempered by wariness of the United States and by fear of too much instability in the South. While new social explosions are inevitable, the further consolidation and extension of socialism may have to rely on alternative bases of international aid as well as upon greater regional self-help.
Meanwhile for the United States, the political-economic resources for keeping a velvet glove over the iron fist are dwindling. Brandtian schemes for reflating North European capitalism by pump-priming Third World demand look utopian beside the enormous exposure of American banks in the Southern hemisphere. The Carter Doctrine, with its wild brandishing of six-shooters over the Persian Gulf, has for the moment played taps over neo-Wilsonian pretensions to a "reformist" American foreign policy. Whether the New Right stays in Washington or not, the consequences of the reaction and recession of the turn of the decade will be with us for years
V. Actually Existing Exterminism
As future megadeaths multiply to incomprehensibility in their underground crypts, present slaughters are dulled in our conscience and made matter-of-fact by repetition and sheer enormity. Twenty years of "revolution in the counter-revolution" — to borrow Debray's still apt phrase — have produced a penultimate apparatus of "conventional" terror. The old-fashioned technicians of human extermination that yesterday organized "Operation Phoenix" in Vietnam or ran a clandestine mission or two over the border in Cambodia, are now rendering their crew-cut (but slightly grey) service in the barracks of San Salvador or Guatemala City. No bastion of the free world is too poor or humble not to possess the ultimate status symbol of America's trust, the airborne weaponry for rural fusillades. Meanwhile in the cities — many cities — torture is not only routinized, it is now computerized. Counter-revolution no longer simply hunts down revolutionaries, it preemptively destroys families, villages, whole social strata. The costs of making revolution in these lands would be unbearable if the costs of not making it were not higher. This is the actually existing exterminism.
I wish not to be misunderstod. Edward Thompson's passionate call to protest and survive should not be deflected by radical platitudes or appeals to Marxist orthodoxy. But it can be sharpened by a more acute attention to the interlinkages of the actual struggles unfolding across five continents. Whatever the errors of its immaturity, the "New Left" should not be disparaged for having emphasized the dependence of the hopes of socialism in the Northern hemisphere upon the desperate and courageous battles being waged on the other side of the world. It will not weaken the resolve of peace campaigners in Western Europe and North America to understand more accurately and realistically why the struggle against the Pershing and Cruise missiles, the MX and B-1, will lessen the dangers of a holocaust in the Third World, as well as the First. The new movements for peace must mobilize the deepest levels of human solidarity, rather than pine nostalgically for the restoration of a lost European or Northern civilization. And within these new movements, the Marxist left must continue to honour the injunction of the Communist Manifesto to "point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality."
1. Beyond the Cold War, Merlin Press, London 1982, p. 17.
2. Beyond the Cold War, p. 30.
3. Beyond the Cold War, p. 34.
4. Beyond the Cold War, pp. 9-10.
5. Hamza Alavi, "State and Class Under Peripheral Capitalism," Alavi and Teodor Shanin, eds., Introduction to the Sociology of the Developing Countries, London 1982.
6. Henry Trofimenko "The Third World and US-Soviet Competition: A Soviet View," Foreign Affairs, summer 1981.
7. Daniel Ellsberg "A Call to Mutiny," in E. P. Thompson and Dan Smith, Protest and Survive (US edition), New York 1981.
8. Senate Confirmation Hearings, 1981.
9. Jan M. Lodal, "Deterrence and Nuclear Strategy," Daedalus, Fall 1980. See also Kenneth Adelman, "Beyond MAD-ness," Policy Review, No 17, Summer 1981.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]