Cold War Origins - The soviet way




The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 ushered in a regime that, in its initial stages, assumed that it could only be a transitory moment in a world-historical process of socialist revolution. Existing state arrangements constituted a mask, falsely legitimizing class rule. What mattered was the relations and struggle between the international working class and its counterpart, the bourgeoisie. Peace in this context was merely an appearance, a veil behind which an always present class struggle was taking place. Real peace could only arrive with the global victory of rational socialism. The premise of class relations as a systemic condition of antagonism across state borders was traditional Marxism. Lenin's Russian appropriation, however, added a strongly militarized concept of politics as a field of alliances, battles, and positions, necessarily ordered around the analysis of a complex of contradictions that served in turn to identify a "main enemy," either tactical or strategic. Everything must be arranged in relation to the all-important task of winning the struggle against that enemy. State sovereignty as a principle, consequently, had no fundamental sanctity within this frame. Indeed, by resurrecting the moral right to revolution on a global scale, the early Soviet regime formed as formidable a challenge to the traditional European world order as one could imagine.

What followed instead was the uneven integration of the Soviet Union into the existing system. By 1923 the insurrectionary wave in the wake of the First World War had expired. In this (by definition) temporary lull, and having finally established its rule, Moscow settled down to constructing socialism at home while establishing formal diplomatic relations with the capitalist outside. Eventually but not inevitably, the anomaly of a revolutionary state in such circumstances was resolved by Lenin's successor, Joseph Stalin. In the first place, Stalin territorialized Lenin's militarized concept of politics by turning the defining "fundamental contradiction" from the vertical, deterritorialized antagonism between capital and labor to a "horizontal" one between the capitalist outside and the Soviet Union. From then on, what was in Moscow's immediate interest was by definition also in the interest of the international working class. Because this new and territorialized interest happened to be lodged on an immense Eurasian landmass, it was possible as well to freeze in part the dialectical interaction constitutive of the previously pivotal contradiction: whereas capital and labor presumably exist and act upon each other in the same space, the Soviet Union and its outside capitalist state enemies were physically separated in space. The concept of dialectical contradiction remained, but once territorialized on a horizontal plane, its two sides featured only one readily identifiable pole and actor, namely, the Soviet Union. Where "the main enemy" of the Soviet state was to be found on the capitalist outside was a matter of tactical and strategic assessment by the Kremlin. The terrain was thus open for realist statecraft of the most traditional and cynical kind.

The tendency to subjective maneuvering for Moscow's narrowly conceived objectives in foreign policy was reinforced by the manner in which Lenin's stage theory of capitalist development was applied to the novel phenomenon of fascism. Around 1900, according to Lenin's erstwhile concept, capitalism had reached its classical limits and mutated into monopoly capitalism, a qualitatively new form expressed in imperialism, presumably the final stage of the system as such. Overripe and on the verge of stagnation, the system had to find new spaces of exploitation abroad and more intense levels of exploitation at home. The propensity to resolve the periodic and intensifying crises by aggression and violence thus typified the new epoch, a feature demonstrated with the greatest clarity in the advent of the First World War.

From this perspective it was subsequently possible for the Stalinist regime initially to see fascism in the 1920s and 1930s as a sign of capitalist weakness and to locate its objective class basis narrowly in, supposedly, the most rabidly reactionary parts of monopoly capital. Not only was this a remarkably slim social foundation but the analysis left actual identification of who was "the most" reactionary up to the judgment of the Kremlin, a judgment in turn not uninfluenced by which powers and forces happened to fit its geopolitical interests at the moment. Once it became apparent that fascism, especially its Nazi variant, was an immediate threat of appalling potential, the strategic and tactical outlook was thus suitably adjusted. As this was the Great Depression, there was little reason to revise the view that fascism expressed the final, structural crisis of monopoly capitalism; but it became absolutely imperative to prevent such regimes of violence from attacking and endangering the rapid achievements of putatively rational socialism in one country. Fascism consequently became the new main enemy and mobilization against it across the board the all-consuming task. Because the class basis of fascism had been conceived so narrowly, the potential targets for that mobilization were extraordinarily wide in scope, so that they came to include, in theory, capitalist elements and regimes. Antifascism in the name of the broadest possible coalition was not, however, merely a momentary tactic ultimately designed to defend the Soviet Union. It was a strategy for the eventual achievement, again in theory, of the final victory of socialism. For if monopoly capitalism was inherently stagnating, the planned rationality of the Soviet Union was obversely destined historically to win out, provided the danger of fascist aggression could be prevented.

Hence there was, in principle, nothing in the Soviet position after the shift in the mid-1930s that rendered long-term relations of coexistence possible with capitalist powers. Far from having to do directly with capitalism and socialism, the main contradiction—and main enemy—was now located socially in the division between monopoly capital (strictly speaking, a fraction of it) and the amorphous "people." Geopolitically, the contradiction was between any given anti-Soviet powers and the Soviet Union and its assorted affiliates. Since this latter form of the contradiction was decisive, it is not surprising that Stalin abruptly changed his foreign policy in 1939 when the former strategy of antifascist alliance seemed manifestly to have failed and an opening presented itself to strike a cold-blooded deal with Hitler. Yet the geopolitical shift did not cause any correspondingly radical alteration in the basic ideological outlook, thus facilitating the desperate return to antifascist alliance politics and patriotic defense after the Nazi assault in June 1941 with the largest single military force in history.

At no point on the Soviet trajectory from Leninist internationalism to geopolitical realism did Stalin or his regime cease to be "communist." Given the ideological transmutations since 1917, Soviet foreign policy made sense (of a certain kind) both as Realpolitik and communist strategy. The two postures were eminently compatible, for there could be no contradiction, in theory or practice, between the geopolitical interests of the Soviet Union and the historical interests of communism as a movement. Defense of the regime in Moscow, securing what had been achieved in Stalin's fortress, was always paramount. It was the precondition for future victories, victories that could only be won elsewhere by a strategy of class and state alliances broadly conceived, not by any confrontational policy of socialist revolution. The merits or demerits of this posture are of no direct concern here. What should be borne in mind for future reference, however, is the fact that the doctrine featured no positive conceptual space for conducting a Cold War against capitalist powers after the defeat of fascism. Such a policy would have been theoretically nonsensical. It would also have been politically foolish in the extreme. The United States, after all, was a colossally superior power that produced half of all manufactures in the world at the time, a nation that had not only suffered no physical damage in the war but had actually seen its depressed economy brilliantly revived by the war effort, while the Soviet Union had incurred staggering losses in every domain. Short of another outright assault on the regime, such a Cold War was as nightmarish a scenario as could be imagined: a vast set of anti-Soviet alliances around the periphery led by a ferociously anti-Soviet power with unprecedented, seemingly unlimited resources.

The notion of a Cold War was indeed never contemplated before it became a fact and a system. Given the autarkic inclinations, Stalin's policy may instead be said to have envisaged distant but stable postwar relations with the capitalist ("peace-loving") democracies, based on mutually demarcated spheres of material and strategic interests. When this did not happen and the advent of full-blown Cold War had taken place in the latter part of 1947, the Soviet policy was still recognizably based on the established concept of defensive antifascist alliances: mobilizing against the "reactionary circles" that had now apparently again taken over at the helm of Western capitalism was to be carried out in the interclass name of national independence, not socialism. The U.S. thrust to world leadership was interpreted as an aggressive reaction to the achievements and advances of the Soviet Union and the "democratic" movement everywhere. An authoritative analysis in September 1947 thus found U.S. expansionism "highly reminiscent" of the fascist drive to "world supremacy." The world was divided between the "imperialist and antidemocratic camp" and its "anti-imperialist and democratic" counterpoint. Logically enough, the struggle against the former was everywhere to be based on patriotic support for peace and "national sovereignty." At the same time, the principle of "coexistence for a long period" between capitalism and socialism was reaffirmed, as was the corresponding idea of "cooperation" between the Soviet Union and capitalist powers, provided the principle of "reciprocity" and existing "obligations" were honored. This was uttered right before the Cold War became a political term; when it did, Moscow consequently saw it as a violently anticommunist policy, an aggressive U.S. attempt to prevent peaceful coexistence and indeed prepare for war against the Soviet Union. Signs of a thaw in the late 1950s would be interpreted as a victory for the (Soviet) policy of peace over the Cold War policy of anticommunism.

None of this, to reiterate earlier distinctions, is to say anything about "causes" or actual "origination." One might well argue that Stalin "caused" the Cold War unwittingly by pursuing policies likely to bring about just such an unwanted situation. Stalinism provided few analytical resources for any genuine understanding of Western politics, or for that matter the dynamics of nazism. Extreme materialist determinism reduced such "surface" Western phenomena to transparently clear economic and geostrategic interests, while Soviet society, because the economy had supposedly been socialized and classes largely abolished, was conversely subject to the pure, rational will of the regime. Such an outlook was not conducive to sophisticated evaluation of long-term interests in a highly volatile situation with immense issues at stake.

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