The events of the latter half of 1989 represent an earthquake in world politics.footnote They have restated, in a dramatic form, the most neglected facet of political life, one spurned in east as much as in west, namely the capacity of the mass of the population to take sudden, rapid and novel political action after long periods of what appears to be indifference. In their speed and import and the uncertainties they unleash, they can only be compared to a war, in which all established expectations and plans are swept aside, in the face of novel, and irrefutable, realities. Neither Left nor Right can claim credit for this turn of events, even as both seek to claim vindication from it. The Right began 1989, the year of revolutionary anniversaries, proclaiming that revolutions were a thing of the past. The Left has been confounded by the popular rejection of socialism, and the espousal of nationalism, predominant throughout the eastern bloc states. This is a time not only for major changes in the world situation, but for a re-examination of (often implicit) fundamentals by the socialist movement.

It is in this, comprehensively uncertain and confusing, context that, from both sides of the former divide, voices can be heard saying that the cold war is over and that we are entering an epoch of greater security and, to use a modish term, interdependence. More attention has been focused on Europe where the initially separate processes of integration in the West, leading up to 1992, and disintegration of the Soviet bloc in the East, have now joined, linked by geography, in the search for a new ‘security’ architecture and the bridging issue of German unity. Whatever cold war means, events of the past few months have underlined the fact that, throughout the four frozen decades that have passed, the core issue, the central terrain of rivalry, has been Europe, and the socio-political system prevailing there.

Yet, for all its current European emphasis, this process concerns more than Europe: even in its simplest form, this assertion of an end to cold war results from more than the collapse of the eastern European political system and the expectations generated by perestroika. The European 1989 was preceded by another transitional year of perhaps equal importance, the third world 1988, the year in which, in some dozen conflicts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, processes of negotiation, encouraged by the great powers, began to take effect: in Cambodia, Afghanistan, the Gulf, the Horn of Africa, Angola, the Sahara, Nicaragua and elsewhere. The importance of the third world in this process and in the prospects for East–West relations in the 1990s needs no defence: while Europe has been largely at peace since 1945, over 140 conflicts of an anti-colonial, inter-state, class and ethnic character have raged in the third world. Trieste and Berlin apart, the major East–West crises have been in the third world: beginning with Azerbaijan in 1946, through China, Korea, Indo-China, Suez, the Congo, Cuba, down to the ‘regional conflicts’ of the 1980s. The casualty figures speak for themselves. Over twenty million people are believed to have died in these conflicts. In Europe the only comparably sanguinary encounter was the Greek civil war, in which some eighty thousand lost their lives.

Before examining these changes and their place in modern history, and before approaching the claim that the cold war is over, it may be clarifying to pose two anterior questions, namely what the term cold war means and what its underlying dynamics may have been. Despite its apparently modern, academic and journalistic, provenance, the term actually has a curious prehistory: coined by Don Juan Manuel, a fourteenth-century Spanish writer, to denote the unending rivalry of Christians and Arabs in Spain, it was reinvented by the American financier and diplomat Bernard Baruch, who claimed to have heard it from a vagrant sitting on a bench in Central Park sometime in 1946. This casual origin has not helped precision and has meant that the term ‘cold war’ can be used in at least two ways. One is to refer to particular periods of intense confrontation between the two major postwar blocs, and in particular to the years of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the First Cold War, and those from the very late 1970s through to late 1988, the Second Cold War. The other usage of cold war is to denote the underlying rivalry of ‘communism’ and capitalism itself, which began in 1917 and which, as a result of World War II, became the dominant, constitutive divide in world affairs.

This second usage of the term ‘cold war’ touches upon much broader questions of interpretation and analysis in international relations. In general terms it can be said that in the literature on cold war and East–West conflict there are four broad explanations of why the two blocs have conflicted as they have. For one school, associated with conventional ‘realist’ and strategic thinking, East–West rivalry is but another version of traditional great power conflict, to be explained by balance of power and other considerations. Ideology is seen as only an expression of this strategic interaction, and differences in internal composition of these societies as an analytic irrelevance. A second school, common amongst liberal writers, locates the conflict at the level of policy mistakes, missed opportunities and misperceptions on both sides: in this view, the conflict was avoidable—better communication in the period after 1945 or in the late 1970s could have avoided both Cold War I and Cold War II. A third school argues that what appear to be international rivalries are the product of factors within these societies, i.e. of political and economic factors that push the states in question to compete with each other. Many analyses of Cold War II, in particular, stressed the extent to which political factors within the usa and ussr, and the uncontrolled dynamic of the arms race itself, caused this more recent confrontation to mature. The appearance of inter-bloc or inter-systemic conflict masked a homology, with both sides using and benefiting from the contest within their own domains of domination. This, in variant forms, is an argument common amongst left-wing writers critical of both the usa and ussr, such as E.P. Thompson, Mary Kaldor, Michael Cox, Noam Chomsky and André Gunder Frank. For them cold war itself is a ‘system’, rather than a competition between two systems.

No one can deny that each of the first three of these explanations can cast light on the course of East–West relations: there were elements of traditional great power rivalry, misperception, and domestic determination. The argument of inter-systemic rivalry has been weakened in its own right because it has been espoused as ideology, in anti-communist ‘freedom’ versus ‘totalitarianism’ form on the right, and in dogmatic ‘two camps’ form within the Soviet bloc. One of the powerful incentives for critics of cold war to deny its inter-systemic character has been the desire to break with these competing, but homologous, simplifications. But the argument being suggested here is that on their own the three explanations mentioned are not sufficient to explain the character, duration and depth of the cold war. What gave it its particular strength, beyond these conventional features of international conflict, was its inter-systemic character, the fact that it expressed the rivalry of two different social, economic and political systems. Each hoped to prevail on a world scale, to produce a homogenous order within states, and each denied the legitimacy of the other, even as they were compelled to enter into diplomatic and other relations, not least because of the threat of nuclear weapons.

It need not escape mention that if, in the early 1980s, this argument had to be presented at an abstract or at least immanent level, events of the last few years have vindicated it in practice. What follows is a claim that 1989 has been the test of theories of cold war: the jury is no longer out. The ‘end’ of cold war, in the broader sense, was systemic homogeneity, and the target the socio-economic and political character of the core states of each bloc.