1980s >> 1986 >> no-977-january-1986

Some facts of life at the top

Facing each other across the table at Geneva last November. Reagan and Gorbachev underlined the fact that America and Russia are the two powers which count in world capitalism in the 1980s. As recently as Macmillan. a British prime minister could expect to have been involved in negotiations at this level. Now states like Britain are reduced to being satellites, bases where one or other of the super powers sites their missiles. The sun has finally set on the British Empire; imperialism now wears a different face and calls it human progress.


It was to be expected that some of the media would do their best to cloud the reality of the summit at Geneva by concentrating on the ballyhoo which always obscures such events. So we saw much of Reagan — who is unusually skilled at reducing desperately frightening issues to a few folksy, vacuous words — musing on whether Gorbachev would accept some fatherly advice from him. Gorbachev is a son for a father to be proud of — smooth and intensively educated, not at all like those aged Kremlin manipulators who preceded him. And of course he has a dazzling wife, who almost upstaged Nancy Reagan. Mrs Gorbachev’s dress designer (in a country where class privilege is supposed to have died in the Revolution) works “almost exclusively” for her and she seemed to be on a personal mission to erode the stereotype of Russian women as lumpy bundles of quilting and head scarves. If Reagan ever gets to press the button, it will no doubt be to the accompaniment of some banal homily, while Gorbachev will do it with an economic urbanity.


But beneath the ballyhoo there is the matter of the relationships between Russia and America and what these mean to the people of the world. Reagan is always liable to describe the conflict as a matter of ideology — “we don’t like your system and you don’t like ours”. For millions of Americans, the “system” means an unrelenting round of slums, disease and impoverishment; who can understand what interests they feel they have in the “American way of life” ? They suffer poverty because the ideology of capitalism, in Russia as well as in America, is that of the commodity, of wealth which is turned out for sale and profit as opposed to satisfying the needs of people. Capitalism is a society in which minority interests prevail.


That ensures that international negotiations are not about clashes of principle, nor about differences between father and son; on the basic principle of class monopoly of the means of life both sides are at one. They are concerned with the continuous capitalist conflict over economic supremacy, about which ruling class will dominate and plunder which parts of the world. The supposed ideological clash did not prevent a steady growth of trade between Russia and America during the 1970s. until Carter reacted to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. “We used to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment to the Soviets”, ruefully said James Griffin, president of the US/USSR Trade and Economic Council. “We won’t see those figures again for a long time”. Some American companies are doing their best on this score — Caterpillar Tractors recently agreed a contract to export $90m worth of equipment to Russia and Pepsi Cola are hopeful that their 14 plants there will triple sales over the next six years. But time is pressing, as the gap left by the American withdrawal is being filled by trading rivals, notably Japan — another country which should be prevented on ideological grounds from trading with Russia. But the blood of profitable trade is thicker than any water of supposed principles; as Nikolai Zinovyev, boss of Russo/American trade affairs in Moscow, put it: “Let us sincerely hope that whatever results from the conference. they will produce favourable effects on our bilateral trade”.


So what about that other issue the nuclear arms race? Reagan is said to be anxious to persuade the Russian government that the Strategic Defence Initiative — Star Wars — is a purely defensive project. Only the very gullible would believe that a powerful capitalist state would place such an expensive priority on defending human beings, who at other times are treated as coldly dispensable. The Russian government, who have participated wholeheartedly in the nuclear arms race, are not gullible; they see Star Wars as a shield from behind which America could launch the first, knock-out blow. Star Wars is really just another episode in the arms race, a typical defensive move which the Russian military will have to try to overcome. with the end result of intensifying the power and sophistication of the armaments concerned. Gorbachev put this clearly to the Supreme Soviet, on his return from Geneva:


We will find a response, just as we did in the past . . .  To restore the balance the Soviet Union will have to enhance the efficiency, accuracy and strike power of its arms, in order to neutralise, if we must, the electronic space machine of Star Wars.

It is perfectly normal, under this social system, for states to develop these enormously destructive weapons and then, on the pretence of promoting a more peaceful world, to talk to each other about controlling them. This stagnant ritual has been experienced many times in the past, while the development of ever more horrifying weapons has continued. The summits of 1955, 1959 and 1960. when Eisenhower was American president, were largely concerned with tensions in Europe, particularly over the division of Germany and Berlin. This area is not now of such immediate concern; others have taken its place as potential flashpoints in an uneasy world. In 1961 Kennedy met Khrushchev and the effectiveness of that meeting can be gauged by the fact that soon afterwards there was yet another crisis over Berlin and then the confrontation over Cuba. In 1962. Nixon and Brezhnev signed the Salt I treaty, which caused a lot of excitement: “the first step on the road to peace” declared a jubilant Nixon, adding himself to the long line of politicians who have made such a claim. It is nearer the truth to say that that summit and that treaty signalled American resignation to the fact that Russia must be dealt with as a super power, to carve up the world with and to act with to try to restrict the number of nuclear powers. Salt I opened the age of detente, when Russo/ American trade began to expand, but it did little to slow the pace of the arms race and it certainly did not make nuclear war less likely.


The same two leaders met again in 1973 and 1974 (when Nixon was in the throes of Watergate) and Nixon’s successor. Gerald Ford, met Brezhnev in 1974 and 1975. One outcome was the projected Salt II treaty, which was eventually signed four years later, by Brezhnev and Carter (both of whose time was running out). So there has been no lack of contact between the leaders of Russian and American capitalism — no lack of talk about “disarmament” and about “peace”. And what has been the result? The two super powers have enormous nuclear arsenals — about ten thousand warheads each, more than enough to lay each other waste, as well as most of the rest of the world. With “peace” talks like those, what arms manufacturer needs a war?.


Each summit has taken place on the assumption that it would lead to greater “understanding”. It is almost as if the opposing ruling classes exist in deep ignorance of what goes on behind their frontiers and need the occasional friendly chat to enlighten themselves. But of course the ruling classes of the world understand perfectly well. They understand that they are in deadly rivalry over access to raw materials like oil, over the boundaries of their respective spheres of control, over the strategic dispositions of their imperialism. They understand that this rivalry must first be carried on through negotiation, with the negotiators backed by force which will be applied if the talks break down. Finally, they understand that all of this, which in a rational society based on human interests will be seen as an insane waste, is normal and sane under capitalism.


Summit talks are barren because capitalism’s leaders are powerless to eradicate problems which are rooted in the system. Perhaps some of them even understand that and try to cover their impotence under such ballyhoo as Reagan’s jokes and Mrs Gorbachev’s clothes. If at present this seems to work for the leaders, it can only be because the world’s people are dazzled by their distant view of the summit and ignore what is going on all around them on the ground.