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 situation has not been adequately continued in recent decades: local or national focuses, and specific theoretical issues, have obscured the need for, and possibility of, such global conjunctural analyses. The two terms, contradictory unity, suggest their own indications as to what constitutes the direction of historical materialist analysis. The contradiction is one of social forces and social systems. These include but relativize states. Within the overall clash, and its sub-divisions, states play an important role, as the institutionalized expression and instrument of class rule. States are not, however, seen as the sole or ultimately determinant factors in this conflict, since they are themselves the objects upon which the determinant social forces act. Nor can they be ignored, as mere epiphenomena or obstacles to an underlying universal, irrelevant to the conflicts of world politics. Hence a conception of the contradictions within world politics has to maintain a balanced picture of how the fundamental conflicts within the world interlock with the conflicts of states. The currently relevant question, of the role of the usa or ussr within a broader skein of social conflicts, underlines the importance of this issue. The geographical and temporal unity of the world involves parallel precision: this unity is achieved through the spread of capitalism, through the growth of modern trade and communications, and through the collaboration of social and political forces, both organized, through alliances and international bodies, and through the spontaneous imitation and encouragement which events in one country give to those in another.

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 the specific alarm of the late 1970s. This last point is worth repeating since it goes to the heart of the argument: the reason why the Soviet attainment of ‘rough parity’ in the nuclear field was so disturbing to the usa was not so much, or not uniquely, for the military significance of what it marked in terms of bilateral relations between the usa and the ussr, but rather for the fact that it reduced the ability of the usa to intervene in and manage the Third World, and to contain social revolution there. It was the political significance of the arms race that stimulated the us response. At the same time, the spread of successful revolution, from 1974 onwards, and the inability of the usa to check it threw light on the military balance itself. The incidence of revolution undermined what constitutes an essential part of any military posture and especially of a nuclear one, namely ‘credibility’ or ‘prestige’, the belief that the possessors of the weapons will use them. And this linkage of Third World revolution and military balance was made all the sharper because, however much these changes were in origin independent of the ussr, something I argue is true for all of them including Afghanistan, they nevertheless brought benefits and opportunities to it: opportunities to use military power in support of allies (Angola, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Afghanistan) and to develop friendlier relations with states that were of strategic interest to the usa—Nicaragua most obviously. At the risk of being too neat, it is worth recalling the dates: the last time the usa ordered a mobilization of nuclear forces in what it argued was a Third World crisis was during the Arab–Israeli war of October 1973; the first successful challenge to a us-backed government in the Third World for fifteen years erupted in Ethiopia in February 1974. One does not have to over-totalize to draw conclusions, evident enough to the likes of Kissinger, that these two issues compounded each other.footnote1

This overview of our common position, and of the theses of my book, can help to introduce the other disagreements between Ougaard and myself, both theoretical and empirical. Our theoretical disagreements concern three issues. First, if the unity of the world systems is given by modes of production and their contradiction, then it is essential to distinguish between, and attribute differential importance to, those contradictions that are within one mode, capitalism, between different bourgeoisies, and those that are between capitalism and its foes. In my view, the dominant contradiction in world politics is not, as Ougaard writes, between the major capitalist countries and the rest of the world, the bourgeoisies of the south in the lead, but between the capitalist ruling classes as a whole, ‘north’ and ‘south’, and their opponents. That these opponents can benefit from the conflicts within capitalism, and form alliances with sectors of capital, as they did in World War II, does not alter the issue. In Chapter Seven of my book I discuss contradictions among advanced capitalist states and between more or less developed ones. While these played a contributory part in the onset of the Cold War, their role was subordinate to the deeper tensions between social systems and the forces and states embodying that tension. The challenge of opec was of a quite distinct, subaltern, character to that of the Vietnamese revolution.

Secondly, it is not the alternation of threats and contradictions, but their combination that so determines world conjuncture: this was true of the crisis of imperialist states in 1914, and of the challenge that so affected the usa and its allies in the late 1970s. Ougaard proffers a dialectic of alternatives: I would counter with one of constellation and reinforcement. On their own, each of the two major changes of the 1970s would have been more manageable: taken together they required a drastic shift in policy and orientation. Indeed the period of détente, from 1969 to the mid-1970s, offers precisely an illustration of such an easier option. In this phase the usa sought to relieve pressure in the Third World, especially Vietnam, by a process of ‘linkage’, in which it offered arms control, embodied in salt-1, in exchange for what it thought would be Soviet assistance in extricating itself from Vietnam. It was the failure of precisely this policy of easing up in one direction to solve a problem in another that led to the comprehensive offensive of Cold War II.