Ahead lies – what?

R.W. Johnson

  • Paradigms Lost: The Post Cold War Era edited by Chester Hartman and Pedro Vilanova
    Pluto, 205 pp, £10.95, November 1991, ISBN 0 7453 0638 1
  • The Crisis of Socialism in Europe edited by Christiane Lemke and Gary Marks
    Duke, 253 pp, £37.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 8223 1197 6

As Peter the Great, Tsar of All the Russias, lay dying in 1725, the future of the Imperial dynasty hung on his choice of successor. Peter, the first to take the title of emperor, had issued a law granting to himself the power to appoint whoever he liked as successor, but had continued to ponder the question, having had his own eldest son condemned and executed for serving as a rallying-point for opposition. The end was cinematic. As he expired, he scrawled ‘Leave all to ...’ But his fingers failed him and the name was illegible. The result was chaos: seven emperors followed in rapid succession – four women, a baby, a drunkard and a boy.

The story has a certain symbolism today, with the ex-USSR apparently on the point of collapsing back into its pre-Romanov state. The moral seems to be that change is controllable only up to a point. Sometimes a given order is frozen into a system for decades on end, as at Vienna, Versailles, Yalta or Bretton Woods, but there comes a time when the logic of the system fails to hold. This is pretty much where we are now.

In the early Eighties I used to give talks to the middle managers of a major oil company about the changing international environment. It was my custom to flash up on the projector a map of Orwell’s world in 1984, with the globe divided into the great blocs of Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia. While there was, I said, little Sign of his predictions of global totalitarianism coming true, his strategic vision had been extremely prescient: those exact three blocs were emerging at some speed. This new three-bloc world, rather than the Cold War, was, I suggested, the new order for which they must plan. This led to heated objections: Oceania and East Asia made sense to most, but, it was pointed out, for Eurasia to exist, Western Europe would have to achieve full economic integration with the eastern lands as far as the Urals. Somewhat half-heartedly I would argue for the natural complementarities of the EC and the Soviet bloc – we were geographic partners and we had the technology, they the raw materials – but my hard-headed middle managers would have none of it. There could, they said, be no Eurasia without the re-unification of Germany and the collapse of Communism, both of which were inconceivable. These were simply fixed points.

Today no one is any longer sure about fixed points – all accept that we live in an era of unprecedented geopolitical change. Gorbachev was, in this, the prime mover. His determination that the Cold War should end was at first the object of furious Western suspicion: this had to be a plot, a trick, a feint by the ever-wily bear. Right-wing ideologues were horrified that at Reykjavik Reagan was so gullible as to come close to believing in Gorbachev’s new agenda. Disbelief gave way as the INF deal was signed, the two superpowers agreed on a solution to the Angola/Namibia problem, and the Cubans were bundled out of Africa.

Until about that point we were still in the era of controllable change. But once the Wall went down in 1989 the dominoes began to fall hither and yon, clearly beyond anyone’s control. In little more than two years since then we have seen the reunification of Germany, revolutions right across Eastern Europe, the end of Communism, the division of the USSR into 15, civil war in Yugoslavia, the collapse of Scandinavian neutralism, a Gadarene rush to join the EC, the end of legal apartheid in South Africa, the Gulf War, a Middle East peace conference attended by both Israel and the Arabs, the collapse of long-standing regimes in Liberia, Somalia and Ethiopia, the ending of guerrilla struggle in Latin America and the coming of multi-partyism to Africa.

Ahead lies – what? Famine and war in the ex-USSR, the subdivision of Russia, the reemergence of the old duchies of Kiev, Muscovy and Novgorod and the de facto collapse of Siberia back into a vast, contested no man’s land? Perhaps. The collapse of Castroism in Cuba, Korean reunification and with it the emergence of a true rival to Japan in the Far East? A return to America Firstism, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism along the North African littoral, political revolution in China? Maybe. What does seem clear, however, is that with the old two-bloc balance gone, it will be some time before a new three-bloc balance is achieved. The proximate new rulers of the world are the G7 states, but their attempt at balance is confined to influencing the terms of trade between the three blocs – supporting the dollar, boosting the yen, and so forth. More ambitious co-ordination will probably require the emergence of a G3 of Germany, Japan and the US, which would, immediately, have either to relegate or replace the permanent membership of the UN Security Council as the principal directorate of the planet.

The notion that several major states – the USSR, the DDR and Yugoslavia – have simply disappeared will take some getting used to. Literally: our airborne nuclear weapons now have no targets and our nuclear submarines cruise with Tridents targeted at silos and cities that pose no threat in a country that no longer exists. The only power we really worry about is that of a united Germany and the military threat from Berlin is approximately the same as that from Heligoland: yet we are in the midst of an election campaign in which both major parties are frantically pretending that we need our nukes as much as ever.

Such absurdities are merely eddies in the whirlpool, for the vast strategic changes have left intellectual confusion in their wake. Not only has Communism all but disappeared but so, too, has anti-Communism. More exactly, both hang on in pockets or, in the latter case, in the triumphalist pursuit of the remaining stragglers; but nothing can disguise the fact that the Cold Warriors of the Right are now as redundant as those of the Left. With this the Republicans in the US and conservative parties around the world have lost their great rallying cry, and with it much of their traditional raison d’être. The end of polarisation has also removed the underpinnings of many a foreign policy: France looks lost now that Gaullism no longer makes any sense, and the Chinese have reacted with outright dismay (and growing anti-Americanism) to their similar loss of leverage.

Throughout the Third World the ending of the Cold War is a diplomatic disaster. Now that they are no longer pawns in a global struggle, nobody much cares if many of these states fall off the chessboard altogether. I remember being in Conakry in 1968, there to find the USSR, the USA, the East and West Germans and the Chinese all competing fiercely via their rival aid programmes for the allegiance of the fragile young Guinean state. West German diplomats, burly and sweating in their Mercedes, muttered imprecations at the sight of the blue-uniformed Free German Youth marching off to ‘build peace and socialism’ on this or that community project, while the Russians and Americans both grimaced as they passed the gigantic People’s Palace of Congresses, built at a truly frantic rate by the Chinese, who ran 24-hour shifts, working all day in the pitiless heat and then all night by floodlight. The Guineans gawped at such efforts (which they would never have dreamt of making themselves), but took the fact of competition in their stride. There was even a period when Mongolia entered the fray, claiming their country to be the perfect model of how to modernise a nomadic, non-Christian, cattle-based society. Similar bizarre competitions flowered in other parts of the Third World. Those were, in their way, golden days: who cares for Conakry’s favour now?

A less obvious intellectual casualty – apparent in many of the contributions to Paradigms Lost – is anti-Cold Warriorism: the anti-anti-Communism and romantic Third Worldism of the Western Left. This school – a mind-set rather than a theory – was not the simple fellow-travelling that many mistook it for. Indeed, it extended far beyond strictly left milieux into impeccably liberal circles. Its proponents took a naturally manichean view of the world and tended to feel, guiltily, that the Western capitalism which nourished them was also the source, directly or indirectly, of most of the world’s evils. According to this view, most of the excesses of Communism were comprehensible essentially as defensive reactions to capitalism, and whatever went wrong in the Third World was generally attributable to the heritage of Western colonialism. True, civil rights were a bit iffy under many of these regimes, but this was offset by the important ‘gains’ being made for socialism.

The implicit refrain which underlies many of the chapters of Paradigms Lost is that OK, their fox has been shot, but it was never entirely their fox anyway, and there are, in any case, many other good animals out in the forest and, taking one thing with another, all you need do is fine-tune the rhetoric and carry on much as before. Thus Mariano Aguirre writes in worried vein about military intervention in the Third World of the Nineties. His assumption is absolute that the West is generally lusting to stage such interventions (‘in January 1991 the USA decided to attack Iraq’), and that their effects are always bad. This rather leaves out of account the fact that Western countries are increasingly tempted to ignore mayhem and massacre in the Third World – who wants to intervene in Liberia, Somalia or East Timor? Who would sacrifice a battalion of troops for, say, Bangladesh, whatever threatened to happen there? And who is really sorry that Western intervention toppled Galtieri, Noriega or the New Jewel Movement in Grenada?

Similar question marks hover over Joel Rocamora’s chapter on Third World revolutions, which happily tots up recent revolutionary ‘gains’ (Zimbabwe, Namibia, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique) on the assumption that the triumph of ‘national liberation movements’ really did result in something called ‘national liberation’. He informs us, by the way, that ‘paradoxically, perestroika could bring the Soviet Union back into Marxist discourse with Third World progressives.’ Wannabet?

A key chapter by Robin Broad, John Cavanagh and Walden Bello on ‘Sustainable Development in the Nineties’ attacks capitalist development strategies in the Third World and details all manner of ecological disasters they have caused. Not many years ago this would have served as prologue to a passionate advocacy of socialist development strategy: now we are told that ‘a new wave of democratic movements across Latin America, Asia and Africa is demanding another kind of development. In citizens’ organisations of workers, farmers, women and environmentalists, millions of people are saying that they want to define and control their own futures.’ So that’s all right then. We trudge from one terrifying environmental disaster to another, discovering each time the silver lining – the wonderful citizens’ movement.

In Thailand, for example, where capitalist interests are responsible for planting the wrong sort of tree, ‘small farmers are standing up to assassination ... marching, rallying; blocking roads; ripping out seedlings; chopping down eucalyptus trees; burning nurseries; planting fruit, rubber and forest trees in order to demonstrate their own conservationist awareness ...’ All this marchin’, rallyin’, rippin’ an’ choppin’ an’ burnin’ is obviously terribly good stuff. Socialism may have disappeared from the agenda but the onward march of the masses seems to be still in full spate, very much as depicted in those giant Socialist Realist murals which the Eastern masses are now, some-what less progressively, tearing down. But the way ahead seems clear: we all have the right to demand to ‘define and control our own futures’, form progressive coalitions and plant the right sort of trees. Oh and, of course, stand up to assassination.

In general, the contributors to Paradigms Lost are at their best when offering a critique of the IMF, the World Bank, US energy policy or the environmental vandalism of large corporations. Beyond that, however, not only has an alternative world-view collapsed but it is clear that the Left is in intellectual disarray as soon as it strays from mere critique. Moreover, a typically shrewd piece from Fred Halliday apart, not even the whole truth about the Third World is being faced. A great deal of environmental damage is due, for example, to simple peasant abuse of the land under the pressure of irresponsible population growth. And it is pointless to castigate the IMF and World Bank for their ‘profoundly undemocratic approach’ to the Third World: bankruptcy courts are not about democracy, nor, indeed, are many of the Third World bankrupts before such courts.

The fact is that romantic tiers mondisme has been an intellectual dead-end for the Left. To a degree that now seems absurd, many Western liberals felt an emotional identification with the Third World spectators of the Cold War which distorted their entire view of international life. Worse, it led to an uncritical sympathy for a long list of ‘charismatic’ Third World leaders and their regimes. The fact that almost none of these would tolerate an Opposition, and that they quite customarily had an appalling civil rights record, was largely glossed over, as was the fact that large numbers of citizens in the societies they ruled were consistently desperate to leave, were indeed willing to go to extreme lengths to escape to the nearest local den of capitalist decadence – whether that was Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Miami or the Gulf monarchies. Similarly, there was an almost uncritical weakness for any and all ‘liberation movements’, which accordingly became expert at gaining the sympathy of liberal audiences even while they behaved in deeply illiberal ways. The result was a whole series of unsurprising ‘surprises’ when these movements came to power and immediately displayed a confident authoritarianism, a practised corruption. In the end anti-colonial guilt had a paradoxical effect: those who felt such guilt most deeply felt compelled to ignore the real sufferings of the ex-colonial peoples at the hands of these successor regimes.

The moral debating points can, however, be skipped: what matters is that such attitudes merely provided cover for regimes which just didn’t work: thirty and forty years on, it is all too evident that African nationalism, Arab socialism and Indochinese Communism (to take only three obvious cases) were all roads to nowhere. Of the sixty-odd countries to be found under those rubrics the only one to combine democracy and economic growth is Botswana – a desert monarchy whose lifeblood flows from the De Beers diamond monopoly. The brutal truth is that it is quite easy to find, for example, Sudanese, Mozambiquans or Lebanese who will tell you with passion that things were better under the British, Portuguese or French. Black Zimbabweans who think life was better under Smith are already common.

The crisis of tiers mondisme is part of the broader crisis of the Left to which, as Christiane Lemke and Gary Marks point out in their edited volume. The Crisis of Socialism in Europe, West European social democracy is certainly not immune. The sight of Russians and East Europeans angrily dispensing with economic advisers to the left of Milton Friedman has a profoundly demoralising impact on those used to finding their role models in the East. But in addition, socialists now find their traditional working-class base shrunken and shrinking, the old sub-cultures of the Left in steep decline, and a host of competitors in dissent (greens, feminists, gays and single-issue partisans) jostling them uncomfortably in what now seems to be a contracting political space. Like the Marx brothers, the Left finds itself plunged into reverie: do you remember when we used to talk about the means of production? The commanding heights? I remember when this was all dance-floor, sighs Groucho.

The beginning of a new beginning has to be found in realism, not the warmed-over wishfulness of so many on the Left. Several points might be made.

Reagan’s arms build-up, dangerous, venal and irresponsible as it was, did actually win the Cold War. The already overstretched Soviet system could not keep up without going under economically; in effect, sued for peace; found this necessitated a general internal relaxation; and then discovered it could not survive that either. To this limited extent the Right’s triumphalism is justified. But the extra gloss – that this was a triumph for Thatcher-Reagan free-marketry – is unjustified. Indeed, both the US and UK are now paying a high price for the disastrous economic and social policies followed in the Thatcher-Reagan years.

Socialism has ceased to be a world-wide movement and now exists primarily in its original redoubt of Western Europe. It is the 1917-89 period which will soon seem deviant, a period when, briefly, socialism spread to Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The world’s leading social democratic party in 1992 is the same as in 1892, the German SPD. The lasting monument of this movement is a successful European tradition of mixed economies and extensive welfare nets which give concrete expression to the notion of a comprehensive citizenship in communities which, for all their faults, are closer to the Rawlsian ideal than any others on earth. The preservation, advancement and integration of these communities is, perhaps, the true vocation of Western socialists. In this they have large consensual majorities on their side, despite their current ragged state as parties.

Outside the Cold War the greatest single force structuring international relations in the post-war period has been the trends of the commodity markets. In the immediate postwar period prices for most primary commodities were high and went higher thanks to the Korean War and the long boom of the Fifties and Sixties. The resulting capital flows to primary producers helped to stoke the fires of nationalism across the Third World and to create a feeling of political buoyancy amongst the new élites who rose to power there. It was an era of proud assertion and confident political innovation, which reached its climax with the great commodity price spiral of 1971-73, the formation of OPEC and the forceful demand for a New International Economic Order. As commodity prices fell across the board, all this came crashing down. There was another price spiral in 1979-80 in the wake of the Iranian revolution, but thereafter prices fell right across the next decade. The result was utter ruination in the Third World, especially since lower commodity prices rendered quite unpayable debts taken out when prices were higher, threatening the collapse of the entire international financial system.

By the Nineties this trend had run so far that not only were regimes collapsing all over the Third World, but the pain was increasingly being felt by more sophisticated countries with a large primary product dependence such as the USSR, Australia, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand. At the same time, falling commodity prices did more than anything else to pull down inflation, thus helping to re-elect conservative governments in much of the developed world. The debt crisis, the North-South divide, and, to a not insignificant degree, the implosion of the USSR, are all traceable to these price trends. The great winners have, of course, been those countries like Japan, Germany and the NICs which have benefited as consumers of low-price commodities while producing high value-added manufactures. It is hard at the moment to see anything which will stop the prices falling.

This trend guarantees growing instability in the Third World, especially since the states most likely to be strengthened by lower commodity prices are the least likely to play an international stabilising role. Already it is clear that the greatest threat to an increasing number of countries is a simple failure to maintain any public order at all. Addis Ababa is now the largest city in the world to have no police force, while next-door Somalia has collapsed into almost randomised clan-warfare. Mad Max-style vehicles cruise the streets of Mogadishu, stripped-down family sedans with rocket-launchers on the back seat. Vast countries like Zaire and Sudan are in a permanent state of war and instability. Indeed, a comparable fate threatens to engulf almost the whole of Africa. The ex-USSR trembles on the brink of a similar descent into disorder (Albania, Romania and Yugoslavia are already there), while rising levels of violence are visible in states as different as Brazil and India. Across more and more of the planet a breakdown into warlordism is now the most likely prospect, with people giving political loyalty to any local strong man who can protect them and assure a food supply.

This situation is not merely making anti-colonial guilt absurdly out of date, but is increasingly calling into question the whole principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states. It was surely always pretty questionable whether it was right to stand by and let Bokassa or Amin or Papa Doc commit pointless atrocities and mass murder against their own people. Would we really let a modern Hitler get away with killing millions of Jews? Are we not ashamed that we watched Saddam Hussein gassing the Kurds, and Pol Pot massacring Cambodians, and did nothing about it? And if it really is the case that Gaddafi was behind the Lockerbie bombing, should he not be brought to justice too? These questions will become increasingly tricky. If we see a country wantonly increasing CFC emissions to the point where it becomes certain that millions of our citizens will contract cancers, will we not be justified in using all means to stop it, including force if necessary? And what of the acquisition of nuclear weapons – or just unsafe nuclear plants – by some of the wackier Third World regimes? As world population continues to soar and we press up harder and harder against sheer ecological limits, such questions will achieve an ever greater prominence.

The problem with this formulation is two-fold. First, while the pressures towards intervention may be increasing, the appetite for it is diminishing. James Baker, the US Secretary of State, has, according to a recent Financial Times interview, disengaged himself ‘from areas such as Africa, Lebanon and Yugoslavia, which he believes are neither pressing nor directly relevant to the national interest’. What this actually means is that intervention is normally left to regional powers – Nigeria (via the OAU) in Liberia, Syria in Lebanon, Germany (via the EC) in Yugoslavia – or that none at all takes place. Already it is hard to imagine another international intervention of the Gulf War variety.

Second, intervention has normally been a matter of strong, rich countries intervening against poor, weak ones, and the greatest ecological villains are generally in the former group, led by the US. This contradiction can only be dealt with by increasing the role of the UN and other international agencies to the point where we begin to dream again of that oldest of dreams, world government. In the shorter term, the headlong integration of the world economy affords constantly increasing scope for the use of trade and financial sanctions – measures which have, after all, been successful even in the (tough) case of South Africa.

Such notions may seem visionary, but one should only remember how unlikely today’s world would have seemed but a few years ago. An English visitor to Russia in 1764 observed that the country ‘appears as one great mass of combustibles with incendiaries placed in every corner’. If the whole world seems that way to us today, it is partly because the Cold War obscured many of the real problems, blotting out more immediate threats with the apocalyptic threat of nuclear war. Now those real problems are coming at us pell-mell and it is urgent that we adjust our thinking to an age in which demography, ecology and commodity prices count for more than any number of nukes.