Saull’s Cold War: not such hot stuff

Issue: 116

Adrian Budd

Richard Saull, The Cold War and After: Capitalism, Revolution and Superpower Politics (Pluto, 2007), £22.50

Richard Saull’s new book provides a comprehensive analysis of the history and dynamics of the Cold War and of the world order that emerged after its end. Unlike many mainstream accounts Saull explores the Cold War as a global rather than primarily European phenomenon. This global perspective flows from his definition of the Cold War, which embraced the superpower conflict but was a wider “form of global social conflict associated with the revolutionary and communist consequences….of a shifting, contradictory and uneven capitalist development” (p1).

Informed by the ideas of the Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher and one-time Maoist Fred Halliday, Saull regards the Cold War as an inter-systemic conflict between capitalism and communism which began with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and intensified after 1945 with the establishment of a number of what Saull, following Halliday, calls “revolutionary states” (China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc). In his conclusion Saull reflects, extremely pessimistically, on what he sees as the key conflicts in the international system since the demise of the “revolutionary states” and of the challenge of “historical communism” to global capitalism.

Saull rejects the tradition of this journal, which argues that Stalinist counter_revolution in the late 1920s established state capitalism in the USSR, which, after its rise to superpower status during the Second World War, engaged in a form of imperialist rivalry with the Western capitalist states. Instead, following Deutscher, he argues state planning and public ownership, and the “significant improvement” (p6) in Soviet workers’ living standards they secured, gave the USSR a socialist and revolutionary character. Yet, in words that could have come from Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia, Saull notes that the Soviet economy was “not primarily concerned with the economic well-being of the Soviet people” but with the state’s military security, which demanded that Soviet workers “were treated as instruments…[and] exploited and sacrificed for the good of the plan” (p23).

This contradiction reflects an absence of theory in Saull’s book. In particular, he provides neither a systematic Marxist theory of global capitalism that can explain the relationship between the national and international, nor a theory of historical and revolutionary change that recognises the interplay of subjective and objective factors. Without this theoretical grounding Saull is prone to arbitrary and shifting judgements. Thus, when confronted with evidence challenging his view of the USSR as a supporter of international revolution, he lamely blames Soviet foreign policy shifts on Stalin’s “short-sightedness and gross miscalculation” (p33). Elsewhere he avoids concrete analysis of awkward failures by recourse to fatalism, arguing that the workers’ revolution that appeared possible in mid-1930s France “was not to be, as the objective/structural circumstances for social revolution were not in place” (p38).

On the Spanish Revolution, Saull reproduces tired Stalinist formulae, blaming the Trotskyists and anarchists who sought to defend the Spanish Republic by deepening the revolution for “splitting the anti-fascist coalition and assisting fascist military victory” (p34). Meanwhile, the “revolutionary” USSR did not “want to be associated with a social revolution…that would only serve to further the cause of anti-communism and counter_revolution in Europe” (p34). The reader will search in vain for either theoretical reflection on why counter-revolution is best undermined by hindering an unfolding revolutionary process or any acknowledgment that fascism’s victory strengthened the counter_revolutionary right in Europe.

Saull is on firmer ground dealing with US strategy and behaviour after 1945. He recognises that the superpower rivalry of the Cold War facilitated the US’s growing economic, financial and military leadership of the “free world” and its political intervention in Western Europe, including against the parties of the left and the Communist_influenced union federations, which were split along Cold War lines. He also recognises the importance of the long boom in cementing US power over its allies.

But without an explicit theory of imperialism Saull cannot offer any clues to the nature of intra-Western relations. Was Karl Kautsky’s ultra-imperialist thesis belatedly correct or was Lenin and Bukharin’s concept of inter-imperialist rivalry still applicable to the West, albeit within the limiting framework of US superpower imperialism? Nevertheless, Saull rightly highlights how the US’s growing economic difficulties, reinforced by the reappearance of economic crisis in the 1970s, impelled it towards a greater unilateralism in dealing with friends and enemies alike. In locating Cold War developments within the wider political-economy, Saull usefully challenges the preoccupation with military strategy and security of many mainstream approaches.

Serious problems re-emerge, however, in Saull’s analysis of the Cold War in the Third World. He rightly argues that the concept of a bipolar division of the world between the superpowers obscures the global dynamic of uneven development, which produced a series of revolutionary crises and national revolutions that challenged Western interests. But to argue that, by delinking from the West’s sphere of economic interest, states such as North Korea, China, North Vietnam and Cuba became “communist revolutionary”, evacuates communism of its revolutionary class content. And claiming that these regimes brought about “social liberation” (p127), as Saull claims Vietnam’s defeat of the US achieved, is hopelessly fanciful. From the perspective of the working class, these were state capitalist regimes that perpetuated the essential features of capitalism’s exploitative class relations.

The stark consequences of Saull’s idealised view of “revolutionary states” become apparent when he discusses the end of the Cold War in various parts of the world. The end of Communism was accompanied by a near total absence of working class activity in its defence. Faced with this disconcerting fact, Saull argues that East European Communism was overthrown by “’popular revolution’ carried through by a re-emergent liberal civil society which provided the seeds for a successful transplanting of liberal democracy and capitalism” (p181). Similarly, in the Third World, revolutionary forces were defeated by “highly illiberal, reactionary social and political forces…” (p181). In both cases Saull rightly emphasises US sponsorship of anti-Soviet and conservative forces, including the mujahadeen’s struggle against Afghanistan’s “revolutionary government” (p197). But this merely shifts the problem sideways and fails to explain either mass participation in the “popular revolution” or reluctance to defend “revolutionary states”.

Although this can’t be developed here, the solution to this apparent conundrum is to be found in analysis of the class nature of the Stalinist regimes, and the political failures of Stalinist opposition parties. Unfortunately, Saull’s fixed conception of “revolutionary states”, his failure to recognise the contribution of Stalinism to the left’s weakness at the end of the Cold War, and lack of attention to Marxist theories of historical change prevent such concrete analysis. Ultimately Saull is forced towards the fatalistic conclusion that by the 1980s “the social dynamic that sustained the historical communist challenge to Western capitalism”, as well as the “revolutionary states”, had been extinguished (p179). By this reasoning revolution is a thing of the past, and global capitalism has successfully overcome, or at least marginalised, the class antagonisms that Marxists generally place at the centre of their analysis.

Saull’s pessimism flows from his mistaken assumptions about the revolutionary nature of Stalinism. It also fuels Saull’s obsession, shared by some others on the left, with the rise of “reactionary Islam”, its “terrorist menace”, and “fanatical Islamist terrorists”. The consequence of this obsession is that it dominates his conclusion (apparently devoted to “contemporary conflict in world politics”) and encourages blindness to some of the key contradictions of the world order that followed the Cold War. Thus issues such as neoliberal globalisation, the rise of China, US relations with the EU, the politics of climate change, the end of the post-9/11 Russia-US honeymoon, the rise of the anti_globalisation and anti_capitalist movements, and the war in Iraq are either ignored or glossed over.

On the Iraq war, Saull merely notes persistent US military intervention since 1991 (p192) and informs us that “elements on the left have adopted a warped anti-imperialism by giving legitimacy to the reactionary and terrorist resistance to the projection of US power in the Middle East and Iraq in particular” (p188). One does not have to be the object of Saull’s criticism to recognise these comments, on what is a key determinant of the shape and dynamics of world order for the foreseeable future, as hopelessly inadequate. Unfortunately, they capture both the tenor and focus of Saull’s conclusion, which provides an unsatisfactory end to an uninspiring book.