In his most recent work, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction, Bernard Crick opines that “Revolutions as often take place because the old regime simply collapses out of economic inefficiency and bureaucratic rigidity rather than for the reasons given out by their successors taking too much credit.” In this article I wish to elaborate a little more on this idea with the intention of re-invigorating the debate over the validity (or redundancy) of left-wing politics in contemporary society.
When looking back upon this particular era of modern history it is tempting – and often encouraged by the victors – to think of it as a standoff between two ideologically opposed superstructures that were symmetrical in both military and economic strength thus far unprecedented in the history of humankind, competing with each other on a level playing field for world hegemony. I propose an analysis of the commonly held conception that capitalism emerged victorious from a contest between equal opponents, and more importantly, this peculiar notion that Washington, as the principle proponent of capitalism, embodied not just free-market economics but also ‘liberty’, whilst communist Moscow came to personify totalitarian despotism.
One ought to adopt a sceptical stance when dealing with the concept of ‘liberty’; the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy puts it that “the value of liberty is dependent upon that of rational self-legislation… and dependent upon the nature of the social context.” In other words, ‘liberty’ in the context advocated by NATO during the Cold War should not be thought of as a universally understood or appreciated concept, for “protection of the liberties of the subject is one of the main aims (and boasts) of almost all constitutions” and, therefore, not exclusively defined and championed by NATO. Some, argues Crick, “complacently believe that liberty and democracy are inseparable twins. They should be but they are not.” What is being suggested here is that NATO, as the self-proclaimed defender of liberty during the Cold War, did not always act in the interests of liberty loving peoples, whether they were suffering under the rule of communist totalitarianism or otherwise.
Whilst it is impossible to excuse the barbarity and moral bankruptcy of the Stalinist regime before, during and after World War Two, “many Party officials” writes one eminent historian on this era of modern history, “certainly thought that both dictatorship and Stalin were an unavoidable consequence of danger from without.” Whilst America (and thus NATO) reasoned that it acted either pre-emptively or in response to Soviet expansion into territories and nations beyond the ‘natural’ borders of the USSR, Stalin himself, according to Alec Nove, felt that:
“American blackmail attempts and the formation of a Western bloc’ forced him to exert pressure on the ‘people’s democratic’ transformation process of the countries [under the Soviet sphere] of influence, in order to coerce their governments into unified courses of action and to secure its own dominance in [Eastern Europe] by the use of police-state methods.”
In this sense, then, whilst NATO could and did claim to be contesting totalitarian regimes such as those installed by Stalin in Eastern Europe, we must remind ourselves of the debate (encouraged and informed by Loth and other Cold War commentators) over which side could, if at all, legitimately claim to be acting in ‘self-defence’.
Proxy wars were considered by spectators and commentators alike during the Cold War not merely as military engagements between the two competing socio-economic models of capitalism and communism, but more as a great struggle between two competing ideologies, democracy and socialism; the former often being conflated, in the West at least, for ‘liberty’ and the latter with ‘totalitarianism’. These proxy wars were common occurrences because the two nuclear-armed superpowers did not wish to fight each other directly since doing so would have risked escalation to a nuclear war. Proxy wars were fought in Afghanistan, Angola, Korea, Vietnam and many other states… certainly for many peoples this war was rather more warm than for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere.
In the Korean War the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China aided the communists in North Korea against the United Nations forces led by America, but the Soviet Union did not enter the war directly whilst China, which sent millions of troops in 1950 to successfully prevent the U.N. coalition from defeating the communist government of the north, did. In the Vietnam War the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China supplied North Vietnam and the Viet Minh with training, logistics and materiel, but unlike the United States they fought the war through their Vietnamese proxies and did not enter the conflict directly .
It is important to consider exactly who and what NATO was fighting throughout the Cold War, as doing so compels us to reconsider the motives that drove this international body towards military engagement with self-styled communist regimes such as those that took power in Korea and Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh is described by another prominent commentator, J.A.S. Grenville, as a ‘legendary leader’ who established “a small Vietnamese Communist Party inspired by the Russian Revolution… in 1929″ as, in his own words, Minh “came to realise that socialism and communism alone are capable of emancipating workers and downtrodden people all over the world.”
In this sense the totalitarianism that the forces of liberty contested during the Cold War was to many such as Minh and his supporters a liberating force; managing in time to successfully defy oppressive colonialists like the French that had been extorting Vietnam et al since the mid-nineteenth century. Crick adds that “They [the Vanguard] believed that the working class should be emancipated, should rule over other classes in a time of revolutionary transition until a classless society was achieved, the rule of the people — democracy.” So we can see how even democracy cannot be defined and championed exclusively by America and the Western powers, as totalitarian leaders such as Minh, with popular support, claimed to be acting on behalf of the Vietnamese people’s will in much the same way that successive US administrations did on behalf of the US people Throughout the Cold War.
In scrutinising NATO’s policy of containment we can deduce that it too denied the ambiguous values of liberty and democracy both to the majority of its member-state citizens and those peoples living under its sphere of influence. Whilst drawing attention to the dangers of Soviet hegemonic consolidation and expansion into Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, the US administration was engaged (and had been for a considerably longer period of time than the Soviets) in the very same process of “informal empire” building via its proxies in bankrupt post-war Europe and oil rich Arab nations. Loth argues that “the USA had from its very beginnings been orientated towards a perpetual opening-up of new trade and sales markets, and thus indirectly towards the extension of its political sphere of influence.” When thought of in this light, the liberty that America upholds domestically and exports abroad serves as a pseudonym for capitalism; an economic system practiced in a variety of forms throughout Western nations since the bourgeoisie took power from the aristocracy in late eighteenth century Europe. Writing in mid to late nineteenth century Europe, Karl Marx (among other political economists) elaborated upon capitalism’s overwhelming reliance upon a working class that constitutes society’s vast majority, which would someday come to realise the injustices committed against it by the bourgeoisie and smash the capitalist economic system in favour of one that better supplies the needs, wants and desires of society’s majority.
The contest between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union during the Cold War should not be thought of as the decisive battle between liberty and totalitarianism because the upholding of liberty was not the primary objective of NATO. Furthermore, as Grenville puts it “The Soviet and American strategies involved building a sound pro-Soviet or pro-Western political base in each of their zones… which could then be expected to conform to their views.”
It is possible, in my opinion, to analyse the American Cold War strategy independent of the Soviet one based on Grenville’s assertion alone; as NATO was actively involved in establishing authoritarian regimes such as the government of Dr. Syngman Rhee in South Korea, who was “not only violently anti-communist” according to Grenville, “but also an ardent nationalist determined… to defeat, if necessary by force, the communists in the North.” Which is evidence enough of the contradictions that plague American conceptualisations as they force themselves upon the alienable civilisations and societies of the world.