Capitalism, militarism, and the Cold War

This week in our class ‘Russia and the West’, we are examining the Cold War. From the West’s point of view, the Cold War was the fault of the evil, aggressive Soviets. The Soviets, of course, saw it rather differently. To give something of the Soviet perspective, I offer you this little pamphlet I bought in Minsk in 1987 while studying at the Minsk Institute of Foreign Languages. At the time, I regarded it as propagandistic nonsense.

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Entitled Capitalism: How it is; Militarism – threat to mankind, and published in Moscow in 1986, the pamphlet starts with the compulsory quote from Lenin, then defines militarism as ‘a system of state-administrative, political, economic, and ideological resources and undertakings, which in the hands of the exploiting classes serves to create and exploit military power with the aim of strengthening their class domination, suppressing the popular masses within the country and achieving aggressive external political objectives.’

I don’t have much sympathy with this class-based socialist analysis of the roots of militarism, but the view that capitalist states use their military power for ‘aggressive external political objectives’ is one I can agree with these days. Similarly, the criticism that the military-industrial complex serves the interests of narrow groups within society at the expense of society as a whole is one that rings true.

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On page 7, the pamphlet outlines the growth of the military expenditure of the ‘imperialistic bloc’ NATO, whose policies are ‘directed against the peaceful socialist communities and peoples, who are fighting for national independence and social progress’. The graph shows that between 1975 and 1984, NATO’s annual military expenditure rose from $153 billion to $427.1 billion.

Sadly, despite the end of the Cold War, this spending has not diminished but more than doubled. In 2013, NATO countries spent $1,023.3 billion on defence. This is a trillion dollars which could have been spent on something else. Page 11 of the pamphlet shows that in 1986 an F-16 fighter cost as much as 9 schools, an F-16 was equivalent to the salaries of 1,000 teachers, a Trident submarine could cover the cost of educating 16,000,000 school children for a year, and for the price of a Leopard-2 tank you could build 36 three-room apartments. As Dwight Eisenhower said in his famous address about the military-industrial complex, ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.’

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Of course, the pamphlet does not mention what the Soviet Union was spending on defence. Had it done so, it would have had to admit that the Soviet Union was every bit as militaristic, if not more so, than the West. Militarism is not a product solely of capitalism. Still, while the Soviets were hypocritical, their criticisms of the West were not completely unjustified. Although we think that our military spending and actions are defensive, they don’t always look that way to other people.

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