In the seventies writings on the crisis of imperialism proliferated in leftist social science.footnote1 Their focus of attention was the revolutions in the Third World, the relations between North and South, the incipient economic crisis in the centre, and the sharpening of economic rivalry among the main capitalist nations. For some writers it was precisely the simultaneous sharpening of these contradictions in the capitalist system which constituted the essence of the crisis of imperialism. Today, roughly a decade later, these topics are still being studied, written about, and discussed. But for reasons that are both obvious and impeccable, a new subject seems to have come to centre-stage: the East–West conflict and the Second Cold War.footnote2 These two trends within Marxist analysis deal to some extent with the same subject, and the crucial inter-relationship between the crisis of imperialism and the Second Cold War has been examined by a number of writers. In this article I intend to take a critical look at how this question is tackled in one of the major new works on East–West relations: Fred Halliday’s The Making of the Second Cold War.footnote3 footnote

In one important way Halliday’s work resembles some of the writings on the crisis of imperialism. It, too, provides an analysis of a global conjuncture, and shows how the various contradictions in the world system in a certain period are condensed in a unique situation, characterized by a main contradiction. Whereas the main contradiction in the earlier conjuncture was termed the crisis of imperialism, it is now the Second Cold War. Indeed, one of the great merits of Halliday’s work is that he insists on viewing the world system as a whole—which must be a fundamental requirement for Marxist analysis of international politics. Another of Halliday’s merits is that in disentangling the constituent parts of this whole, he reinstates the East–West conflict to a much more central role than it had in the earlier analyses, where it was often largely ignored. Furthermore, in contrast to Immanuel Wallersteinfootnote4 he demonstrates that it is possible to take the world system as the unit of analysis without falling into the trap of seeing the whole world as capitalist. The world can be conceived as an integrated economic, political and ideological system, but a system with diverse coexisting structures that are pre-capitalist, capitalist and post-capitalist.

In the analysis of this complex whole it is important to examine how the various contradictions tend to reinforce or weaken one other. This is how we must put the question of the connection between imperialism’s crisis and the new cold war. As already indicated, the crisis-of-imperialism literature pointed to more than one contradiction in the international system, some of them mainly economic and some also political in nature. Therefore, put this way, the question is too complex to handle in one article. But a central theme in the crisis analyses was the sharpening of the contradictions between centre and periphery in the capitalist system. How does this more limited but extremely important aspect of the crisis of imperialism relate to the Second Cold War? What are the interconnections between evolutions in the Third World and the heightened tensions between East and West? This is one of the questions Halliday analyses in The Making of the Second Cold War.

A central theme in Halliday’s answer is that the latter half of the 1970s witnessed a new revolutionary wave in the Third World. In this view the years before 1974 were characterized by a ‘blocking’ of the anti-imperialist revolutionary movement. By 1974 ‘the dam had burst. The third wave of Third World revolutions had commenced’ (p. 86). As evidence Halliday lists fourteen revolutionary victories that took place between 1974 and 1980. This ‘increased level of revolutionary activity’ is connected to the Second Cold War in a rather direct manner, as one of its driving forces: ‘it is social revolution itself and the response to it which has triggered the counter-revolutionary drive that is so central to the Second Cold War’ (p. 82). The argument is seductive: revolutionary victories in the Third World produce a strong counter-revolutionary response, which in turn produces Cold War mentalities and policies. However, the reader cannot help feeling a little uncomfortable. After all, the Vietnam War—and especially the Tet Offensive in 1968—does not quite fit into the picture of a relatively tranquil period between 1962 and 1974, in which the revolutionary movement was supposedly blocked (p. 85). It seems that this incongruence makes Halliday himself a little uneasy: he admits that the struggles in Indo-China were ‘a backdrop of insurgency throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s’ (p. 89). But Halliday does not tell us how this backdrop relates to détente and Cold War.

Another reason to hesitate over Halliday’s argument is his list of fourteen revolutionary victories. Much depends here upon precisely where the dividing line is drawn between the two phases in recent world history. Thus, if it is moved from 1974 to 1976 only five revolutionary victories remain in the period of Cold War (Afghanistan, Iran, Grenada, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe). Furthermore, as Halliday concedes elsewhere, these revolutions represented struggles against a type of domination that is disappearing in the Third World (p. 93). The very least we must conclude is that the recent revolutionary wave in the Third World is far from being as strong as Halliday suggests. Before we go further into this question, let us just mention another aspect of the centre-periphery relation: the rise of capitalism and bourgeois economic nationalism in the Third World. Halliday considers these phenomena as constituent elements of world politics, and discusses their impact on the Cold War. The argument is not quite as straightforward here, but the essence seems to be that the rise of opec and newly industrialized competitors in the Third World, together with the scare over Western dependence on strategic raw materials in the Third World, helped to create a general feeling of vulnerability in the West and especially a sense of eroded global power in the usa. These sentiments in turn contributed to the Cold War mood. Although it is less rigidly posed, the second argument has a strong similarity to the first. In both cases Halliday’s point of view is that increased tension and strengthened opposition to the capitalist centre have marked recent developments in the Third World, and that this has contributed more or less directly to the onset of the Second Cold War.

It has already been indicated that this argument deserves a certain scepticism. I shall now present some arguments to support the opposite of Halliday’s view: that the late 1970s actually saw a weakening of anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World, and that this is what contributed to the Second Cold War. The core argument is that the Third World struggle against imperialism reached a high point in the late 1960s and early seventies. More precisely—although inevitably there is still a somewhat arbitrary element—we could say that in relation to the Third World the crisis of imperialism lasted from 1968 to 1975: that is, from the Tet Offensive to the signing of the Sinai agreement between Egypt and Israel.

To substantiate this claim, let us take a closer look at the various aspects of the anti-imperialist struggle. But first a brief definition is in order. The imperialist system is the complex of economic, political and ideological structures that express and maintain the dominance within the capitalist world of the bourgeoisies of the centre nations. There are contradictions within this system—but a basic common interest in the existing world order binds together the capitalist classes of the centre nations into quite a firm alliance.footnote5 The most important political structures in this system are the centre-states themselves, but military alliances and international organizations, be they governmental or non-governmental, are important too. Peripheral states, especially in countries with weak national bourgeoisies, also have a role to play in the reproduction of the imperialist system. Within the capitalist world the main potential opponents to this system are the working class and other popular classes in centre and periphery, and the national bourgeoisies of the periphery.footnote6