It is now fairly common to refer to the rapidly escalating geopolitical conflict between the United States/NATO, on the one hand, and China and Russia, on the other, as the New Cold War. Monthly Review Press, in fact, has just published Washington’s New Cold War: A Socialist Perspective by John Bellamy Foster, John Ross, and Deborah Veneziala (with an introduction by Vijay Prashad). Nevertheless, use of the terms Cold War and New Cold War today, though unavoidable, can, if not properly understood, give rise to dangerous illusions. To speak of the Cold War from 1945–1991 should not be seen as denying that this conflict frequently took the form of hot wars. Millions of people died by military means in the Cold War, the vast majority at the hands of U.S. imperialism.
Rather than the elimination of war itself, the term Cold War from the beginning reflected the fact that the global geopolitical struggle was being pursued in such a way as to avoid a direct war between the two nuclear superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War was thus “cold” only in the sense that it stopped short of outright war between the superpowers and thus nuclear annihilation on both sides. At the same time, the very existence of the Cold War, including the nuclear arms race, meant that critical red lines might be crossed by accident or design, and by one side or the other, at virtually any point, leading to a Third World War and nuclear holocaust.
By the same token, to speak of a New Cold War today means that the world is now once again on the verge of a Third World War. Moreover, as distinct from the earlier Cold War, the U.S./NATO proxy war in Ukraine, and Washington’s political-military moves with respect to China, centered on Taiwan, are both occurring on what are essentially the national borders of the rival superpowers (Taiwan is, in fact, part of China)—something that was virtually unknown in the earlier Cold War. (Although Washington threatened nuclear war over Taiwan in the 1950s, this occurred before Beijing developed nuclear weapons.) The result is that the dangers of a Third World War arising out of the New Cold War are greatly magnified at present.
One of the foremost attempts on the left to sort out the complex issues of the early Cold War era was C. Wright Mills’s The Causes of World War III (M. E. Sharpe, 1958, 1960). Mills’s book is remembered principally for a number of powerful observations, including his famous statement that “the immediate causes of World War III are the preparations for it,” and his critique of “the crackpot realism” associated with the nuclear arms race and its algorithms for Armageddon. What he called “the permanent war economy” in the United States first arose during the Second World War, when two-thirds of the state military spending went to a hundred corporations, and one-third to just ten. This was to be institutionalized after the war in the military-industrial complex.
Today, with the advent of the New Cold War, this military-industrial complex is booming, with official military spending rising by over 4 percent per year in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last two years. In its budget for the current fiscal year, the U.S. Army is seeing a 55 percent increase in its allocation for the procurement of new missiles, while the U.S. Navy’s budget for weapons purchases has risen by 47 percent. Raytheon Technologies has been awarded $2 billion in contracts to deliver missile systems to be used in Ukraine (“Military Spending Surges, Creating New Boom for Arms Makers,” New York Times, December 18, 2022).
Drawing on an argument of MR editor Paul Sweezy (later developed further in Paul Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital [Monthly Review Press, 1966]), Mills in The Causes of World War III explained that military spending was, from the corporate standpoint, the most acceptable form of public spending, accounting for most of federal expenditures on goods and services, since it did not compete with any part of the private economy while promising guaranteed high profits. It was the main basis of “pump priming,” that is, expanding effective demand, employed by the United States to ward off economic crisis. The result was to create a more developed “imperialism” in which several hundred members of the corporate rich and their corporate executives, a political directorate centered in the White House (today, in the National Security Council), and Pentagon warlords with the attendant “intelligence” services constituted the command structure pushing the United States in the direction of a Third World War. (The Soviets on their side were propelled toward a Third World War by their own centralized command structure.)
Culturally, matters were made much worse, Mills explained, by “the default of NATO intellectuals” who eagerly embraced crackpot realism and the higher immorality circulating in the centers of power, thus giving further traction to the genocidal tendencies of the times. The U.S. media system had turned into a propaganda system that dismissed the peaceful-coexistence overtures of the other side out of hand, relying simply on vilification and distortion as the standard response. The restrictive “moral universe” of this new propaganda order thus failed to recognize the moral worth of all human beings, leading to a “moral insensibility” toward anyone considered an official enemy, justifying atrocities. At the root of “capitalist imperialism” lay the systematic underdevelopment of poorer nations, from which the main imperial powers were able to extract vast flows of profits and resources.
Some might draw comfort in the present from the fact that Mills’s work was written nearly seventy years ago, during which time a global thermonuclear exchange has been avoided—or we would not be here. However, Mills based his analysis quite realistically in his time on the existence of the nuclear parity between the United States and the Soviet Union that was reached by 1960. This led to the notion of Mutual Assured Destruction (or MAD), which provided effective deterrence on both sides. Yet, after decades of the U.S. pursuit of a first-strike or counterforces strategy as its main nuclear objective—the goal of which is to decapitate the weapons of the other side before they can be fired (supplemented by anti-ballistic missile systems, designed to pick off what nuclear weapons survive), Washington now believes it has (or that it is on the verge of achieving) the nuclear primacy necessary to neutralize the deterrence on the other side, leading to a new aggressiveness in the pursuit of its geopolitical aims.
There is no doubt that the notion of U.S. first-strike capability is a dangerous illusion, a form of crackpot realism beyond anything ever witnessed before. Yet, it is now central to what Mills called the “military mystique” in Washington. Only the United States has any pretension to having nuclear primacy, thus destabilizing the entire global system of nuclear deterrence between the superpowers previously based on MAD (see Foster, “Notes on Exterminism for the Twenty-First Century Ecology and Peace Movements,” in Foster, Ross, and Veneziale, Washington’s New Cold War). By continuing to pursue its proxy war in Ukraine on Russia’s border, Washington, with the fateful confidence derived from its imagined nuclear prowess, is pushing the entire world to the brink of a Third World War and the extinction of all of humanity. Yet, it sees this as a risk worth taking in its “long game” of consolidating a unipolar world order controlled by the United States/NATO, thus preventing the emergence of a multipolar world, which would spell the end of the U.S. imperium.
Mills concluded his book with the words: “In America and in Russia—in differing ways but often with frightening convergence—we now witness the rise of the cheerful robot, the technological idiot, the crackpot realist. All these types embody a common ethos: rationality without reason.” It is against this that we need to rebel, creating a world anti-imperialist movement as the guarantor of peace in our time.
MR author and leading feminist organizer Meredith Tax died on September 25, 2022, aged 80. She was a founding member of Bread and Roses in Boston in 1969, touching off a lifetime of feminist and working-class activism. She is best known for her book The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880–1917, published by Monthly Review Press in 1980. A classic article of hers is “The United Front of Women,” Monthly Review (October 1980). For more information on her life and work, see Alix Kates Shulman, “Meredith Tax, 1942–2022,” The Nation, October 31, 2022.
The writer, lawyer, organizer, educator, and people’s historian Staughton Lynd, one of the foremost socialist activists in the United States, died on November 17, 2022. Lynd was director of the Freedom Schools in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. He played a major role in the anti-Vietnam War movement and in the Youngstown steel workers’ strike. His classic book, Rank and File, written together with his wife Alice Lynd, was published by Monthly Review Press in 1973. Lynd wrote numerous articles for Monthly Review, including the interview “Our Kind of Marxist” with Jane Slaughter in April 1994. For more on Lynd, see “Staughton Lynd, Presente!,” Zinn Educational Project, November 17, 2022, zinnedproject.org/news/staughton-lynd-presente.
As the February issue was heading to press, we received notice that John J. Simon, editor, publisher, Monthly Review Foundation Board director, and member of the MR editorial committee, died on December 16, 2022. A commemoration of his life and work will be included in a future issue of the magazine.
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