Friday, 8 November 2013

"No Peace In Our Time"

Poul Anderson's Thermonuclear Warfare (Derby, Connecticut, 1963), Chapter 9, "No Peace In Our Time," is the core of the book, assessing not the technology but the philosophy of the Cold War. In fact, Anderson uses the term "religion" rather than "philosophy":

"[Communism] is a universalist missionary religion." (p. 104)

He defines "...a religion as an emotionally charged system of beliefs, including the conclusions drawn from the basic premises. We say 'emotionally charged' to distinguish religions from philosophies." (p. 105)

I use the term religion differently but Anderson's usage is clear enough for present purposes. (In fact, he later refers to "...supernatural religion..." as one kind of religion (p. 115).)

It follows from this that the Cold War was not just about politics or economics:

"...what is the conflict all about?

"Americans tend to speak of a clash between 'capitalism' and 'collectivism', as if two economic systems were contending. But this is simply not true..." (p. 102)

Possible Meanings of "Collectivism"
(i) a group of people whose temperament and culture is such that they voluntarily and spontaneously work together towards common aims;
(ii) a group of people who, against their natural inclinations, are forced to work together by an entrenched bureaucracy controlling a powerful state apparatus - thus the idea, not the reality, of a collective.

I think that (i), where it exists, is unobjectionable but that (ii) is clearly what is meant here! Anderson does not deny bureaucratic control in the USSR but points out that:

European Socialists and Social Democrats are anti-Communists;
some mixed-economy countries are on the Western side;
"...socialistic Israel is friendly to us..." (p. 103);
some Arab states are on the Russian side;
many Western businessmen want to do business with the Eastern bloc;
tariffs etc prevent the US from being a free enterprise economy.

Thus, as he rightly argues, "capitalism versus collectivism" is an over-simplification. Nevertheless, I am going to propose a similar formula that does identify the conflict as economic and political and not as "religious." My formula is "market capitalism versus state capitalism."

Capitalism involves competitive production of wealth but markets are not the only form of competition. In Russia, the bureaucracy accumulated collective wealth in order to compete militarily against the Western powers. Stalin and others rose through the bureaucracy during civil war after a revolution. Their siege mentality made them crush opposition and increase production not for social aims but for military competition and they used Marxist language to justify this, thus generating the sickeningly bland propaganda that Anderson quotes:

"The social sciences must continue to struggle with determination against bourgeois ideology, against right Socialist theory and practice and against revisionism and dogmatism. They must uphold the purity of the principles of Marxism-Leninism." (pp. 109-110)

Orwell parodied this well! Meanwhile, social scientists must try to understand society, testing received ideas and developing new ones. I know some contemporary British Marxists who analyze the economy and society intelligently but their link back to Marx is through Trotsky, not through Stalin, and on some issues they disagree with Trotsky.

Meanwhile, back to Anderson's "religious" Communists. They existed and he tells us how he met some of them. At the top of the Russian Communist Party were cynical wielders of power whereas European Communist Parties had many devoted members including heroic fighters against Naziism. I honestly do not know where, within the Party hierarchies, devotion ended and cynicism began or how so many well-intentioned people were able to stay in those Parties for so long. But it was a day for rejoicing when the Soviet Union, bankrupted by its pointless military competition, finally collapsed in 1989.

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