A potential new Cold War is being framed as a good-versus-evil conflict, but it is a rivalry driven by commercial and military competition between heavily-armed superpowers, writes Dr Martin Hirst.
I’VE RECENTLY been reading the late Hungarian Marxist György Lukács on debates about realism versus modernism in literature and art and it may seem odd, but this has led me to ponder the current geopolitical situation.
One of Lukács' key themes is the Cold War and the threat of nuclear conflict; it seems appropriate to revisit his arguments in light of current events.
In the last few weeks, the warmongering rhetoric of the Australian military-ideological complex has geared into overdrive. Lurid and red-tinged graphics exploded onto the front page of the Nine newspapers and hopped-up "strategists" are eagerly fantasising that a war with China is both inevitable and a good idea.
The Albanese Government is also winding up the jingoistic thermostat with its decision to buy a fleet of American nuclear-powered submarines. It feels like a new Cold War.
Albanese has no doubts about where Australia should stand in relation to the new Cold War. He celebrated the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security (ANZUS) alliance on the occasion of its 70th birthday in 2021. Last year he commented that Australia had made a strategic decision during the last Cold War to side with the United States against the Soviet Union and China.
Nine hack Peter Hartcher recently reminded us of this in a piece setting out the "argument" in favour of Australia enthusiastically joining a hot war with China.
Hartcher’s article was a continuation of the Nine newspapers’ recent ramping up of anti-China rhetoric, but in order to make a case for war, it has to paint the Chinese Government as the aggressor and the West (including Australia) as being forced into defensive “containment” strategies. This is the lie that fuels all the bellicose hysteria of the warmongers.
In the 1950s, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed to similarly “contain” westward expansion of the old Soviet Union. Today, it is China that must be “contained”. The truth is that the U.S. and its allies have over 400 military bases surrounding mainland China, including in the Philippines and Japan. China has relatively few overseas military assets. We might be forgiven for thinking that the West is the aggressor in this situation.
There is a link between the old and the new across nearly 60 years of recent history that joins the concerns addressed by Lukács to the present re-imagining of Cold War rhetoric.
The common thread is the capitalist class remains terrified of the spectre of communism 175 years since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto. It doesn’t matter to the Western ruling class that China is not a socialist country and that Russia gave up communism in the 1920s. The fear of a workers’ revolution certainly motivates ruling classes all over the world — ironically, including in Russia and China.
Writing during the first Cold War, Lukács describes the prospect of socialist revolution as the great motivating force of history since the beginning of the 20th Century.
In his introduction to The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, Lukács writes:
'The strategists of the Cold War aimed to divide mankind [sic] into two hostile camps and to mobilise all non-socialist forces against socialism.'
We can put to one side, for a moment, the mistaken belief that the Soviet Union under Stalin (and after 1953, Kruschev) was somehow a socialist state – it wasn’t – or that the 1949 Chinese revolution established a socialist state – it didn’t – and acknowledge that the new Cold War rhetoric (like the original) has both a foreign policy and a domestic purpose.
On the global stage, the first Cold War was about establishing American hegemony as both a military and an economic power – the so-called American Century – and preventing Russian expansion into the Western sphere of influence.
On the domestic front, the first Cold War was about demonising socialists and active communists – think the McCarthyite purges in the U.S. and "Reds under the bed" in Australia – and securing the power of the capitalist state vis-à-vis the class struggle at home. These discredited but still ideologically powerful ideas are now being recycled for the exact same purpose.
In the 1950s, the Cold War chest beating was extended to feed on fear of the Chinese revolution in 1948. It also spread into the Far East via the Korean War and later the war in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos).
This, too, was folded into the Western view of the Cold War and an armed stalemate ensued that lasted well into the 1980s. Today North Korea and China are still miscategorised as communist states that have no greater desire than to act aggressively against the West and our so-called freedoms.
The second aspect of the 1950s that Lukács notes is the threat of nuclear annihilation, which emerged once the United States, Russia – and later China – developed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.
As with the emergence of a new Cold War, it is not an imaginative stretch to recognise that nuclear Armageddon is once again on the near-term horizon. In fact, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – which maintains the famous Doomsday Clock – a potential nuclear catastrophe is a mere 90 seconds away.
In a similar vein, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has said that nuclear annihilation is
“... just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away.”
Like the atomic scientists, Guterres blames Russia for the invasion of Ukraine but seemingly turns a blind eye to the decades-long nuclear threat posed by the United States and other nuclear-armed Western states like the very unstable and aggressive India or Israel.
This one-sided, “us” versus “them” framing of the nuclear threat is another aspect of the mobilisation of class forces that Lukács was writing about 70 years ago.
The best way to separate workers from their own class interests (which are international) is to find ways to adhere them to their own national ruling class. To imbue the working class with patriotism and nationalism is a well-tested method of getting them to hate other workers — in this case, Chinese, North Korean, Iranian, and Russian workers (among others).
In order for this false consciousness to stick, workers have to be tricked into believing that their “side” is morally right, fighting for a just cause (the myth of freedom) and that the enemy is filled with hatred for “our” way of life. It is, therefore, not surprising that patriotism is always tinged with racism. Or perhaps we should say that nationalism is itself a form of racism.
The Cold War – in the 1950s and right now – is framed as a good-versus-evil conflict, and this is part of the ideological appeal of patriotism. However, this framing completely distorts the picture and adds to political confusion on all sides. The real cause of the Cold (soon to be hot) War is not a tussle between good and evil: it is an inter-imperialist rivalry driven by commercial – and therefore, military – competition between heavily-armed superpowers.
In a tripolar world, the drive to war is manufactured by the military-industrial complex (M-I C) and circulated through sympathetic news outlets, as well as what has been called the military-entertainment complex.
This is true in Russia and China, as well as in the West. We can recognise this in the Nine papers' promotion of warmongering from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). In the news coverage, the views of ASPI “experts” are presented as wise, uncontroversial, unbiased and academic analysis — but nothing could be further from the truth.
In reality, ASPI and other supposedly neutral think tanks are heavily influenced by the world’s biggest arms manufacturers and tech companies with strong links – in ideas, personnel and vision – to government and military.
A 2021 report by Michelle Fahy for Declassified Australia revealed that ASPI gets funding from the U.S. Departments of Defense and State ($1.58 million in 2020-21) – over $2 million from the Australian Government – and large donations from Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft among other businesses.
War benefits capital by boosting short-term profits and destroying large swathes of unproductive capital goods. A recent piece in The Atlantic unironically framed the re-emergence of heavy weapons industries in the United States as 'the arsenal of democracy'. The writer, Elliott Ackerman, could not contain his enthusiasm for Lockheed Martin re-opening a shuttered plant to build (HIMAR) High Mobility Artillery Rocket System rocket platforms for Ukraine.
The defence establishment and the M-I C needs to keep up the steady flow of pro-war propaganda because to remain viable and profitable, they need to win over public opinion and it’s not easy.
In opinion polling reported in the first week of March 2023, a clear majority of Australians do not want a war with China. As academic-journalist Peter Cronau reported, the mainstream media has an interest in dissolving this majority and creating a new mood of support for a war with China.
At a time of hysterical pro-war reporting in many of Australia’s major mainstream news outlets, the views of the Australian public against the U.S. alliance and the U.S. push for confrontation with China should gain some higher prominence; if our media was interested in balance. Media’s ignoring the majority view is undemocratic and not in Australia’s national interest.
The media is in a powerful position here. Just think back to the situation in 2003 when the U.S. and its allies wanted to re-invade Iraq. Conveniently, a dossier was leaked to the media alleging that Saddam Hussein had so-called WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). The press pack hungrily lapped up these lies and strongly anti-war public sentiment was overturned within months.
We are being force-fed a similar barrage of lies today about Chinese aggression and Russian expansionism; it’s as if NATO expansionism and American imperialism don’t exist. The military aggression of NATO in Europe, along with Australia’s rash purchase of nuclear-powered submarines and eager support of American military build-up in the Pacific region, signal a mad rush towards war on several fronts.
However, we don’t have to blindly support Russia to oppose NATO expansion; we don’t have to cling to Maoist sentimentality to oppose a build-up of U.S. forces in the Pacific.
So let’s return to Lukács one last time and remind ourselves that Cold War ideologies, old and new, are really about suppressing the idea of socialism and thus suppressing enthusiasm for class struggle:
The opposition to socialism gathered momentum [after WWII] and was soon transformed into an ideological crusade which, though nominally concerned with the preservation of democracy, was really nourished by the growing fear of the threat that mass society poses to the ruling elite.
If we add to this the dark shadow cast by the nuclear bomb, it will easily be understood how the fear thus engendered could be yoked to acquiescence in, or active support for, Cold War policies… in the age of imperialism, of world war and world revolution, no search for a valid perspective can overlook socialism.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Dr Martin Hirst is a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.
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