What was the Cold War about? Present a thorough analysis that makes reference to the differences between countries in the ‘East’ and ‘West’ up to the demise of the Soviet Union.
The Cold War was based upon the ideological differences of the countries of the ‘East’ and those of the ‘West’. The ‘East’ or Eastern Bloc referred to the countries of Eastern Europe; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its satellites in the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia; and the ‘West’ referred to the United States of America (USA), Britain and France in particular who were rebuilding western Europe post world war II. Geographically speaking the references to east and west were more so based upon the notion that the English speaking part of the world had adopted democracy, in particular liberal democracy as the main or ideal political ideology and capitalism as the method of economic development. Almost like references to the ‘north/ south’ divide where there is no strict geographical adherence. In this essay I propose to show how the Cold War of capitalism versus communism played out as well as to explain the fall of communism and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union.
Liberal democracy and capitalism seem to go hand in hand at least that is the ideal put forward by the US and Britain who seem to be basking in the consumerism that followed the Industrial Revolution. Liberalism as an ideology developed quickly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Post World War I (WWI) liberal democracy was identified by the President Woodrow Wilson as the ideology that would maintain peace and stability as long as nation states observed each other’s sovereignty. At the core of liberalism were the freedoms and rights of the individual, respect for private property, representative government, collective will and the minimal role of the state. The rights of the individual in particular were most important. In framing its constitution the United States had taken this into consideration with its Bill of Rights which entitles citizens to life, liberty, justice, toleration and the right to economic prosperity. This paved the way for liberal economics, which encouraged free trade and the use of the ‘market’ to determine supply and demand; Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. This economic policy or capitalism was based on five principles: private ownership, market economy, competition, profit and stable prices. These principles in keeping with the political regime were individualistic in nature. The idea was the private interests (entrepreneurship) would produce goods for mass consumption and the entry or exit of other players would fuel the economy. It is assumed that the consumer is rational, that is, he or she will make choices depending on taste and cost of the product. Production is consumer driven and based on profits.
Communism as a political ideology and economic policy has its groundings in the theoretical precepts of Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx had an economic interpretation of history and war in particular. He saw the basis of any conflict as class related rather than something such as race. The conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or what he viewed as the exploitation of the masses by the elites was the basis for the production and exchange of goods and services. This was the human interaction which influenced the social processes and institutions. Marx believed that those who owned the factors of production: land, labour and capital controlled the social and cultural norms and as such dominated the society. Therefore the ‘superstructure’, laws and government were controlled by these people. Basically those who controlled the economic sphere controlled the political sphere as well. It is to this end that Marx posits that imperialism driven by capitalism has shaped modern history. This knowledge shaped Marx’s view that there was a need for social change, a revolution. He believed in the universal nature of class conflict and suggested that sheer universal identification of the working class everywhere would cause mass revolution and the overturn of elite government, bringing social and economic reforms. The basic tenant of communism was the communal ownership of the means of production; the polar opposite of a liberal democratic society. Andrew Heywood (Politics, 1997:33) defines communism simply as a “communal organisation of socail existence on the basis of collective ownership of property…a classless society in which wealth was owned in common, production was geared to human need and the state had ‘withered away’”.
In its truest sense the Cold War was not an actual outright war which used military but more of a rivalry expressed through military coalitions, strategic conventional force deployments, a nuclear arms race, espionage, proxy wars, propaganda, and technological competition. This ‘war’ was fought mostly in satellite areas. It was about military postering and the expansion of ideology on either side. There is much contestation on when the war started, some believe it was right before the end of WWI in 1918 when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, pushed for socialist revolution and others believe it started after WWII in 1945. Lenin and his Bolshevik party took power in October 1917 and he was the first head of the Soviet Union. His interpretation of Marx’s communism is rivalled by no other. His aim was the modernise Soviet Russia, bringing it from a backward agrarian state into an industrialised nation. He knew building a new state from the bottom up was going to be difficult so he orchestrated a means of keeping the working class disciplined and committed to the cause. His attempt at starting with the working class in the countryside was miscalculated. The working class wanted to be the middle class and the middle class wanted to be the upper class, there was no immediate consolidation of the working class and the middle class to overthrow the upper class. So Lenin would have to take measures into his own hands; the revolution had to come from the top then. The Bolshevik party had to seize power and maintain it in order to keep the proletariat in check and committed, it became less of soviet democracy and more like a dictatorship. The pressure that Marx said would force a revolution and development of the state was not coming from the masses but from the political elites. The vanguard party was in the process of fashioning a regime which eventually let to a civil war. The internal fighting did not help the fact that the Soviet Union had now found it self in a diplomatic wilderness because it had isolated itself from its ‘capitalist’ neighbours. The civil war started to create chinks in the soviet armour, the intense spending on the war meant less money being spent on the social welfare of the masses. According to Martin McCauley’s The Soviet Union 1917-1991 (1993:31), “(M)ore than anything else it was the lack of Bolshevik success in the economic sphere, under the conditions of civil war, which shaped and fashioned the Soviet regime. Shortages, cold, hunger and disease racked the communist body politic…” The Bolshevik party had forgotten about their people, the very people that they were supposed to be serving. The party had lost its way and the Russian economy was dwindling because of it. Money had become useless as the state was encouraging production with out pay, there was little incentive. Lenin’s dream of a mixed economy had died and had ushered in the new socialist economy but soon he became disillusioned again with what seemed to be the non-existence of a proletariat essentially there was no one to lead, the country was far from where he has thought it would be, it was in ruin.
With the succession of Leon Trotsky the economy did not fare any better. Trotsky did not under stand the political principles as his rival for leadership Stalin did. Slowly and surely Stalin was undermining Trotsky’s, at first with minor disagreements and then replacing Trotsky supporters with his own friends especially in the key areas around the country. Even through all of this, Lenin was observing and had found that Joseph Stalin was a brilliantly skilful man but he had become too ambitious and opportunistic. Lenin saw this as huge fault and that is why he continued to support Trotsky as his successor because Trotsky was willing to see Lenin’s dream through to the end. Stalin however, eventually stepped into the shoes of Lenin by sabotaging Trotsky’s attempts to let the words and ideas of Lenin live in his memory. Lenin was the only Soviet leader who was even remotely close to what was Marxism and Marx’s ideal. Stalin stated that he viewed international politics as a bipolar world in which the Soviet Union would attract countries gravitating to socialism and capitalist countries would attract states gravitating toward capitalism, while the world was in a period of “temporary stabilization of capitalism” preceding its eventual collapse. Socialism and capitalism came together to fight World War II against Nazi Germany, but the Soviet Union was growing suspicious of the west’s ambitions regarding the resettlement of the war torn European continent. The western Allies desired a security system in which democratic governments were established as widely as possible, permitting countries to peacefully resolve differences through international organizations, such as the League of Nations (United Nations). In order to combat this situation the Soviet Union sought to insert itself into the domestic politics of nations on its borders and so Poland (incorporated into two different SSRs), Latvia (Latvian SSR), Estonia (Estonian SSR), Lithuania (Lithuanian SSR), part of eastern Finland (Karelo-Finnish SSR) and eastern Romania (Moldavian SSR). After annexing several occupied countries as Soviet Socialist Republics at the end of World War II, other occupied states were added to the Eastern Bloc by converting them into puppet Soviet Satellite states, such as East Germany, the People’s Republic of Poland, the People’s Republic of Hungary, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the People’s Republic of Romania and the People’s Republic of Albania.
The Soviet-style regimes that arose in the Bloc not only reproduced Soviet command economies, but also adopted the brutal methods employed by Joseph Stalin and Soviet secret police to suppress real and potential opposition. Stalin began completely shut out the rest of the world. The only thing the people of the Soviet Union knew was the positive propaganda espoused by Stalin. Films, books, art of any kind were forbidden and creativity was stifled. In order to preserve what was left of the communist dream Stalin shut off the world all technology even household appliances were forbidden. Foreign products were contraband and the black market thrived. There was an ideological battle going on within the Soviet Union. Many were executed and exiled. Beginning in 1934, Stalin began murderous purges of the Party through a series of show trials. By January 1947 the Soviet Union had become more and more financially strained. Further more the division of Germany into east and west had created a political nightmare for those living on either side. In Asia, the Red Army had overrun Manchuria in the last month of the war, and went on to occupy the large part of Korean territory. In early 1947, Britain, France and the United States unsuccessfully attempted to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union for a plan envisioning an economically self-sufficient Germany, including a detailed accounting of the industrial plants, goods and infrastructure already removed by the Soviets. In June 1947, in accordance with the Truman Doctrine, the United States enacted the Marshall Plan, a pledge of economic assistance for all European countries willing to participate, including the Soviet Union. The Marshall Plan was to rebuild and democratise Europe and this was contingent on Germany’s recovery. The United States and Britain merged their western German occupation zones into “Bizonia” (later “trizonia” with the addition of France’s zone). As part of the economic rebuilding of Germany, in early 1948, representatives of a number of Western European governments and the United States announced an agreement for a merger of western German areas into a federal governmental system. In addition, in accordance with the Marshall Plan, they began to re-industrialize and rebuild the German economy, including the introduction of a new Deutsche Mark currency to replace the old Reichsmark currency that the Soviets had debased.
After the death of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev presented himself as a down-to-earth activist prepared to take up any challenge. Khrushchev arranged for the Kremlin grounds to be opened to the public, an act with “great public resonance”. Khrushchev sought reforms to agriculture; in fact he started to de-Stalinise the state. To the shock and dismay of his party members he was openly criticising Stalin whom he had seemed so faithful to. He openly discussed Stalin’s brutish behaviour and all his crimes. Essentially assassinating what little was left behind of Stalin.
Nationalist movements in some countries and regions, notably Guatemala, Iran, the Philippines, and Indochina were often allied with communist groups—or at least were perceived in the West to be allied with communists. In this context, the US and the Soviet Union increasingly competed for influence by proxy in the Third World as decolonization gained momentum in the 1950s and early 1960s; additionally, the Soviets saw continuing losses by imperial powers as presaging the eventual victory of their ideology. The US government utilized the CIA in order to remove a string of unfriendly Third World governments and to support allied ones. The US used the CIA to overthrow governments suspected by Washington of turning pro-Soviet Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. Between 1954 and 1961, the US sent economic aid and military advisers to stem the collapse of South Vietnam’s pro-Western regime. Many emerging nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America rejected the pressure to choose sides in the East-West competition. In 1955, at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, dozens of Third World governments resolved to stay out of the Cold War. The consensus reached at Bandung culminated with the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. Meanwhile, Khrushchev broadened Moscow’s policy to establish ties with India and other key neutral states. Independence movements in the Third World transformed the post-war order into a more pluralistic world of decolonized African and Middle Eastern nations and of rising nationalism in Asia and Latin America.
The Soviet Union formed an alliance with Fidel Castro-led Cuba after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy responded to the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba with a naval blockade. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than ever before. It further demonstrated the concept of mutually assured destruction, that neither nuclear power was prepared to use nuclear weapons fearing total destruction via nuclear retaliation. The aftermath of the crisis led to the first efforts in the nuclear arms race at nuclear disarmament and improving relations, although the Cold War’s first arms control agreement, the Antarctic Treaty, had come into force in 1961.
In 1964, Khrushchev’s Kremlin colleagues managed to oust him, but allowed him a peaceful retirement. Accused of rudeness and incompetence, he was also credited with ruining Soviet agriculture and bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. Khrushchev had become an international embarrassment when he authorised construction of the Berlin Wall, a public humiliation for Marxism-Leninism. From the beginning of the post-war period, Western Europe and Japan rapidly recovered from the destruction of World War II and sustained strong economic growth through the 1950s and ’60s, with per capita Gross Domestic Products approaching those of the United States, while Eastern Bloc economies stagnated.
A succession of leaders followed and failed to correct or reform the failing USSR’s bid for a social revolution. By the time the comparatively youthful Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985; the Soviet economy was stagnant and faced a sharp fall in foreign currency earnings as a result of the downward slide in oil prices in the 1980s. These issues prompted Gorbachev to investigate measures to revive the ailing state. An ineffectual start led to the conclusion that deeper structural changes were necessary and in June 1987 Gorbachev announced an agenda of economic reform called perestroika, or restructuring. Perestroika relaxed the production quota system, allowed private ownership of businesses and paved the way for foreign investment. These measures were intended to redirect the country’s resources from costly Cold War military commitments to more profitable areas in the civilian sector. There were many contradictions within the party and the execution of the communist reality.
1. The first contradiction is that collectivization and heavy-handed bureaucracy kept productivity and efficiency in agriculture and industry low.
2. The second contradiction is that the Soviet Union was trying to encourage communism by providing significant monies in aid to countries in its socialist sphere of influence, especially Cuba, and engaging in revolutionary activities e.g.: Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, etc…, but was experiencing severe economic difficulties. Overstretch.
3. Marx and Lenin postulated that people would unite base on class but underestimated thee power of nationalism.
4. The Vanguard Party was to be temporary but its top level bureaucrats “the nomenklatura” became an entrenched class. It was to represent the people but the needs of ordinary people were ignored.
5. The command economy meant that while the USSR was occupied with the space race and arms race, it also had an additional burden not carried by the US, that is, a large welfare system to maintain, as well as satellites to look after.
Despite initial scepticism in the West, the new Soviet leader proved to be committed to reversing the Soviet Union’s deteriorating economic condition instead of continuing the arms race with the West. Partly as a way to fight off internal opposition from party cliques to his reforms, Gorbachev simultaneously introduced glasnost, or openness, which increased freedom of the press and the transparency of state institutions. Glasnost was intended to reduce the corruption at the top of the Communist Party and moderate the abuse of power in the Central Committee. Glasnost also enabled increased contact between Soviet citizens and the western world, particularly with the United States, contributing to the accelerating détente between the two nations. Gorbachev spent his first two years consolidating his power by purging the party of dissidents and continuing the policies of previous presidents. It is however, the reform era (1987-1989) in which perestroika took place. Gorbachev was not the first USSR leader to make amendments; Yuri Andropov had called for increased discipline and decentralization. But these were initially minimalist and so was Gorbachev at first. However, by 1987 it became apparent to him that more widespread changes needed to be made. In his book Perestroika, he noted that his immediate priorities were: to put the economy in order tighten up discipline rise the level of organization and responsibility Catch up in areas where they were behind.
And by 1987, Gorbachev had formulated a theory and plan known as perestroika, Russian for restructuring. Gorbachev saw quality control as a means to achieve this. He created a new bureaucracy and introduced evaluators and controllers in factories to reject faulty products (Kenez 249). He sought to implement greater incentives for workers to produce. Kenez notes that these made him unpopular with the working class, diminishing his support.
He also cut back on aid and reduced USSR involvement in proxy wars (e.g: Afghanistan), Cuba.
He also called for the need for acceleration of scientific and technological progress and modernisation of industry. He gave power to factory workers to determine their own product mix and wage scales (Kenez). These changes undermined the existing centrally planned and centrally controlled economy. Not only this, manager would bid up wages because they knew the state wouldn’t allow the factories to go bankrupt and would bail them up and this further contributed to inflation. It should be noted that Gorbachev made it clear that he was conducting all the reforms in accordance with socialism. His initial domestic and foreign goal was to make the existing soviet system work better. He initially spoke of perfecting the economy, rather than reforming it and was sceptical about free market experiments. Perestroika can only come through democracy. Unless the interests of people and social groups were taken into account, it was impossible to accomplish any of these tasks.
Glasnost, or “openness” it should be noted was one of the first reforms he implemented even before this whole reform package which later became known as “Perestroika”. Glasnost was initially a slight opening of expression to facilitate fuller discussion of economic issues (Ebenstein and Fogelman). Eventually it came to include a wide range of freedoms. But can democratic freedoms be implemented on a political structure held together by force ad expect the structure to maintain its integrity? So what exactly were these reforms and what were the consequences?
Foreign radio broadcast beamed at the USSR were no longer jammed. This meant that citizens had access to alternative sources of information about this own country and weakened the position of the party whose power was based on its secrecy and control of info.
Openness led to an outpouring of information to Soviet citizens and to the world concerning current Soviet political, economic and social problems, e.g: Chernobyl. The USSR’s dirty laundry was being aired. It showed that the seemingly powerful USSR had problems.
Formerly banned works of writers were allowed Glasnost was seen as a threat by party members because it threatened the bureaucratic structure and positions of privilege and affluence they once enjoyed. This weakened Gorbachev’s support among party officials and hence his legitimacy. “By opening the door to public criticism of the regime’s failures and inequities and perestroika, by decentralizing the economy, threaten the monopoly of party power.” Along with criticism of Stalin, etc.…Gorbachev also found himself being openly criticized. This weakened his aura of power and this was decisive because what does this mean for a system predicated on a leader who rules with an iron fist? If the leader is weakened, so is the system.
Anti-alcohol campaign was to “improve the health of the family and enhance its role in society” and stopped serving alcohol at state functions, raised the price of vodka, limited distributions, among other things. The anti-alcohol campaign reduced alcohol consumption to an extent but was largely unpopular. People were hospitalized for drinking poison. Production of home brews increased. More importantly, vodka was one of the mainstays of the USSR economy and revenues dropped (Kenez).
To sum it all up, perestroika by itself did not lead to the fall of the USSR, neither did Reagan. The collapse of the USSR was as a result of a combination of factors. Including growing contradictions within the USSR which Perestroika unwittingly helped to exacerbate. Gorbachev sought to bring about democratic practices on a system which had been founded upon and maintained through force. The revelation about the increasing political and socio-economic problems of a military overstretched and overburdened USSR helped to show up the chinks in the USSR armor. A relentless West and a more conciliatory USSR and Gorbachev’s weakening position within his own country were the final nails in the coffin, which allowed a coup to occur and Yeltsin to declare independence for Russia and ultimately the fall of the USSR.
Ebenstein, A. et al (2000) Today’s ISMs : Socialism, Capitalism, Fascism, Communism and Libertarianism. New Jersey: Prentice Hall
McCauley, M. (1993) The Soviet Union 1917-1991. New York: Longman
Pipes, R. (1994) Russia Under The Bolshevik Regime. New York: Vintage Books
Kenez, P. (1999) A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. New York: Cambridge University Press
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