The Cold War and the New Imperialism

Henry Heller

The Cold War and the New Imperialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006).

In this book, historian Henry Heller seeks to offer a comprehensive review of the major trends in world history since the end of the Second World War: decolonization, the crisis of state socialism, and the reassertion of the global power of capital. Any one of these by itself would be a challenge to address in all its complexity, and so the fact that the book is offered as an ‘accessible’ review of postwar history means that Heller has set the bar high for himself. He is to be commended for taking on this task, although the book is ultimately unsatisfying for reasons having to do less with his argument than with how it is presented.

The goal of the United States after World War II was “the creation of a new international order based on liberal democracy and open market capitalism” (28). This is the most important, if most understated, point made by Heller. It suggests that the embrace of neoliberalism was not a novelty of the Reagan administration but dates back to US emergence as the dominant world power in 1945. The “new international order” required managing the decolonization process, either by channeling newly independent states in the capitalist periphery into new forms of exploitation (debt, IMF structural adjustment programs, World Bank-sponsored ‘development,’ etc.) or by undermining, through invasion, proxy wars, or covert action, nationalist and socialist-led attempts (Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua, Chile, Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, etc.) to chart a more independent course. It also required constraining the Soviet Union’s ability to defend these attempts.

In contrast to ‘common sense’ understandings of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union imposed an ‘iron curtain’ around Eastern Europe, Heller makes clear that the West initiated the Cold War. The Soviet Union had experienced massive social and economic losses as a result of World War II and so had an interest in securing good relations with the West. Its goal of securing a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe was understandable given its recent experience of invasion; at the same time, however, the Soviet Union sought to avoid antagonizing the West. As a result, communist movements in Western Europe that had been at the center of local resistance to fascism were largely abandoned by the Soviet Union after the war to the needs of ‘socialism in one country.’ The Western powers, however, saw no problem antagonizing the Soviet Union by suspending repatriation payments to the Soviets from their zones of occupation beginning in early 1946; at the same time, the United States sought to impose its own supervision of European recovery and Germany’s revival. Soviet responses to these provocative measures were thus defensive in nature rather than evidence of an aggressive strategy of world communism.

In this light, Heller argues that the Cold War was less a clash of ideologies and strategic interests and more “a means of blocking internal social and political revolutions” (11). Heller highlights the role that core capitalist states, particularly the United States, played in this process, but also examines a parallel process in which efforts to democratize state socialism were undermined by the Soviet Union. While acknowledging that the Soviet Union aided Eastern Europe’s postwar reconstruction, he argues that this limited the forms of economic and social development to those acceptable to the “communist bureaucratic dictatorship” (11). Workers’ uprisings in the German Democratic Republic (1953), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Poland (1980) revealed the economic and political contradictions of the state socialist model, which subordinated workers to a bureaucratic and authoritarian state. Although this model was able to stimulate rapid industrialization, mobilization against fascism, and postwar recovery, it began to show signs of exhaustion in the 1970s due to the costs imposed by the Cold War as well as those associated with a development model emphasizing heavy industry at the expense of other economic sectors. In the resulting crisis the class that was dominant within the state was in the best position to dictate the terms of solving this crisis; this led to the eventual transformation of state property into private property and of state officials into a new bourgeoisie. The demobilization of the working class thus ultimately doomed efforts to transform state socialism into socialist democracy.

Despite what appears to be capitalist triumph over Soviet state socialism and Third World nationalism, Heller argues that the dominance of the United States is increasingly being called into question. He places the US war against Iraq in the context of relative economic decline, including growing national debt, the rise of currencies such as the Euro competing with the dollar as the global unit of exchange, and increasingly severe economic inequality. Thus, rather than reflecting the apotheosis of US power, the use of military force to reassert US hegemony may in fact reflect growing weakness. At the same time, Heller argues that the war, with its essentially unilateral use of power by the United States, may usher in “a new period of interimperialist rivalry marked by war and militarism analogous to the first half of the twentieth century,” suggesting that “[t]he end of history is not in sight” (329).

Unfortunately, the organization of the book detracts from this important argument. The book would have benefited from an introduction and conclusion that presented (in a way consistent with the goal of being ‘accessible’) some kind of analytical structure with which to ground the historical details. The historical narrative seems to move from one set of facts to another with little in the way of organization. Alternatively, each major theme could have had its own chapter, with a conclusion that tied them all together. My concern is that in the absence of this structure, the book’s major thesis, that the ‘new imperialism’ is not so new, will be lost. The book is further weakened by sloppy editing and by the absence of citations (despite an extensive bibliography). Finally, I thought that the picture of the Berlin Wall on the book cover undermines Heller’s argument about the West’s responsibility for initiating the Cold War. A less clichéd image that was more consistent with the argument presented in the book would have been appropriate.

Reviewed by Daniel Egan
University of Massachusetts-Lowell

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