Morten Ougaard’s critique of The Making of the Second Cold War is most welcome: it establishes a common terrain for socialist discussion of contemporary world politics, one that delimits a shared and distinct area of political analysis. At the same time, within that common terrain, it becomes possible to identify the particular disagreements that we do have about the world situation, current and recent.
To begin with the shared ground. Ougaard recognizes and develops the theory of world politics as a contradictory unity. This unity has at least two conventional aspects: an extensive or geographical unity, according to which the politics and events of individual countries are seen within the overriding global context; and a temporal unity, a concept of the conjuncture, according to which periods of history are defined, and distinguished, by the predominance and interrelation within them of specific tendencies. At this level of generality neither of these is specific to historical materialism: conceptualizations of the extensive unity of world politics, be they ethical ones based on concepts of a shared humanity, ecological ones based on resources and pollution, or theorizations based upon conventional systems theory, abound. What is specific about the historical materialist conception of global unity is that it is based upon a materialist conception of the world as having been increasingly unified by the spread of a specific mode of production, namely capitalism, and challenged by its alternatives. This unity is not one of homogenization but of socio-economic, as well as political, contradiction based upon the resistance of pre-capitalist societies and forces and, subsequently, the existence of a post-capitalist sector of the world that is no longer subservient to capital and is, in some measure, in conflict with it. It is this distinctive conception of world politics, comprehensive and differentiated, that gives us both our view of the geographical unity of world politics in a materialist sense, and of the conjuncture, in terms of which any particular period can be analysed.
The classical Marxist tradition of comprehensive analysis of the world
This unity contains within it contradiction and diversity, the very stuff of historical change. Not only are there now two rival social systems in the world, but there are disaggregations and exceptions which qualify global unity and conjunctural trend. Assertion of the geographical and temporal unity of world politics is not an assertion of identity, but an attempt to grasp world events in their dominant trends, and in the constellations of different forces which, at particular moments, combine to produce major changes in world politics. The classic instance of historical materialist work in this area, the debate on imperialism in the first two decades of this century, still remains as the outstanding case within contemporary political thought of such an attempt to analyse the conjuncture of world politics and its dynamic and contradictions.
My own Making of the Second Cold War is an attempt, of limited historical and conceptual range, to indicate such an analysis of the 1970s, taking world politics as an extensive unity and the decade as a conjuncture. Beyond asserting both terms of the contradictory unity of world politics, it suggests three specific historical arguments: (i) that the 1970s saw a sharp change in the politics, domestic and international, of the major capitalist state, the usa, which brought on the Second Cold War; (ii) that this change represented the response of the major capitalist power to a constellation of contradictions, within which the two most important were the change in the military balance vis-`-vis the ussr and the success of fourteen Third World revolutions; (iii) that, while on their own each contradiction would have constituted a problem for the usa, it was their condensation and combination which created