A‘Tolkien view of the world’, an image of two empires alone on the map ‘engaged in a global military, economic and ideological struggle for control over all the rest of the world’,footnote1 seems to reign supreme in the West. On the political Right this view is deliberately cultivated and adroitly utilized for the very practical purpose of legitimizing otherwise questionable military alliances and a dangerous arms race. The lunatic fringe and even some overexcited spokesmen for the establishment sometimes sharpen the image to the extent of proclaiming, as does Alexander Haig, that World War Three is already in progress and has been raging since 1948, ‘in a ceaseless testing of wills and exchange of blood to decide whether the future of mankind will be Marxist-Leninist or otherwise’. ‘The Greek civil war, Korea, the Berlin blockade, the Hungarian uprising, East Berlin, the Cuban revolution, Vietnam, Prague, Afghanistan, and, more recently, the rise of international terrorism and the bloody insurgency in El Salvador, are among the hundreds of skirmishes and battles in this unnamed and unrecognized war.’footnote2 This view of the world is not, however, confined to the Right. Without the simplistic and apocalyptic vision of Alexander Haig, the Left in the West has produced its own version of a world necessarily polarized into antagonistic camps. ‘The central axis of international conflict lies in the conflictual relations between the usa and the ussr,’ concludes Fred Halliday,footnote3 for example, on the strength of an analysis of the world situation and the cold war seen as ‘the response of the major world 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.’footnote4 Proponents of so-called ‘North–South’ theories, although situating the dynamics of world politics in the conflict ‘between rich and poor nations, between imperial and colonial, dominant and dominated states’,footnote5 also fail to break out of the framework of usussr bipolarity as far as the threat of global war is concerned. The conflicts central to their perception of world politics can transcend peripheral bounds and develop into a world war only if and when they are submerged by the major conflict of the superpowers. As to the theory of exterminism, its ‘plague on both your houses’ is, consciously or not, simply a variation on the ‘Tolkien’ theme.

Whether blame is apportioned to one side or the other or both, a consensus of sorts seems thus to have formed on the proposition that the sources of war in the world today lie in the antagonism between systems, or more particularly between the Soviet Union and the United States. One of the two principals in this presumed confrontation, however, refuses to take up the assigned battle station. The Soviet leadership in its programmatic statements, while recognizing that ‘the historical contest of the two world socio-political systems’ constitutes ‘the basic contents of the present epoch’,footnote6 in the same breath emphatically rejects the idea of a causal relation between this opposition and the ever-present threat of war. ‘Differences of social systems, of ideologies, are not the reason for tense relations’, affirms the new text of the cpsu programme, speaking of problems which the Soviet Union experiences in relations with capitalist countries, and particularly with the usa.footnote7 The tenaciously affirmed thesis that the Soviet–American conflict is not a state of nature, that, in Gorbachev’s words, ‘confrontation is not an innate defect in our relations, it is an anomaly’,footnote8 can be sustained by Soviet doctrine only if it locates sources of war in contradictions other than those separating socio-economic systems.

It will be argued in what follows that this Soviet position indeed stems from a continued adherence to the original Leninist thesis that war in our era is generated within the capitalist system itself, by the imperatives of the uneven development of capitalism, which constantly upsets the equilibrium of capitalist–imperialist forces and, as they push and shove in pursuit of hegemony, produces ‘alternating forms of peaceful and non-peaceful struggle’ for the division and redivision of the world.footnote9 This essay will trace the development of Soviet perceptions of war-generating forces in the capitalist world, and the evolution of policies shaped by these perceptions. Whether or not the Soviet view at any particular moment is judged to be an accurate reflection of reality, the contention here will be that it represents in itself an important datum in world politics, one which the West, and more particularly the Western Left, would do well to consider. At the very least, our understanding of Soviet policy may be enhanced if we acknowledge the extent to which it has been shaped by the perception that, since the sources of world war lie essentially in the capitalist world, Soviet policy has no real access to its root causes; it can only operate to situate the Soviet Union more or less advantageously in relation to the imperatives of capitalism and to the consequences of intra-capitalist turbulence.

It is perhaps worth adding that the Soviet refusal to equate the contest between systems with a ‘war of the worlds’ shields us, as long as it lasts, from the immediate impact of confrontation. In the setting of a Manichean superpower opposition, which virtually by definition could be resolved only by the demise or surrender of one of the protagonists, the expectation of the inevitable clash would cut the ground from under every anti-war, anti-armament, non-aligned force—indeed any independent force—clinging to a foothold in the no-man’s-land between the contestants. If there exists a space for such an independent force, it is perhaps in large part because this definition of the ‘Great Contest’ and its identification with the principal causes of war have so far been denied by one of the contestants. Proponents of an independent Left may, therefore, have better reason than most to hope that the Soviet adaptation of Lenin’s doctrine on war proves warranted in its application to the dialectic of late capitalism.

Lenin’s theses arose out of the circumstances of the First World War. This bid for redivision of the world by an aspiring capitalist power challenging the more sluggish but well-entrenched hegemonists, was a veritable text-book case of a war generated by the uneven development of capitalism; but it produced an unexpected side-effect in the form of the Russian revolution, which severed one sixth of the world from the capitalist orbit. This development did not, however, alter the fact that in the remaining five-sixths the outcome of the war was entirely in keeping with Lenin’s formula: the upstart challenger defeated; the old hegemonic imperialist powers victorious but faced with a new challenge, the unexpected rise of the United States to the position of a world power and Europe’s creditor. Post-war settlements and subsequent intrigues among capitalist powers, victors and vanquished alike, were concerned with, and primarily determined by, inter-capitalist and inter-imperialist interactions, even if awareness of communist Russia’s presence was constantly there in the background, imposing certain restraints and sometimes producing temporary common endeavours, but more often than not introduced simply as the ‘joker’ in self-serving imperialist manoeuvres. Versailles; the Washington conference; interactions in the reparations issue between Germany, Britain, France and the United States; the Dawes Plan; Locarno; the Kellogg–Briand Pact—all these are cases in point.

The Soviet Union, for its part, after a brief initial moment of panic caused by the belief that an isolated ‘Russian Commune’ was doomed unless revolutions in Western Europe came to the rescue, very early set its course on the principle that intra-capitalist contradictions had not been superseded by some ‘ultra-imperialism’ directed against the lone communist state, and that these contradictions remained determinant in world politics. This did not relieve Soviet Russia of the mortal danger of war, but the danger was now perceived as generated not so much by the spectre of an anti-communist crusade as by the endemic disequilibrium in the capitalist camp. This offered the possibility of survival for a more or less protracted period, but only at the price of incessant footwork to dodge the recurring danger of being swamped by capitalist turbulence. Sudden shifts of policy ensued in an effort to respond to changes in the alignment of capitalist forces. Hence Brest–Litovsk; the quest for recognitions and concessioners; Rapallo; entry into the ‘status quo’ club of the League; the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact; and, finally, the tripartite alliance of World War Two. Throughout all these seemingly contradictory stages it is possible, on closer scrutiny, to discern a common thread: tensions and war were consistently treated as originating, and ending, in the capitalist world, leaving the Soviet Union invariably in the position of an outsider, however much endangered by the events or even directly involved in them.

The outsider status of the Soviet Union was clearly noticeable throughout the gestation period of World War Two. All Stalin’s moves suggested the intention not of playing a role in the outcome of a war, but rather of avoiding war altogether. Collective security and anti-Hitler coalition plans were envisaged not as arrangements to wage war, but as a means of deterring Germany with the prospect of warfare on several fronts, which had proved her undoing in the war of 1914–18. This gave rise to a peculiar blend of bold advocacy for collective security with the utmost caution in all critical situations. On such occasions as the preliminary episodes of World War Two in Spain, Austria and Czechoslovakia, Soviet diplomacy insisted on sanctions, clamoured for concerted measures, but constantly refused to be caught in a situation which might develop into an encounter between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.