For over seventy years the major world powers have had the capacity to wipe out humanity in a nuclear conflagration. So what were the factors that held them back from nuclear war in the past? And do they still apply in the new period in world relations that has opened up with the Russian invasion of Ukraine? CLIVE HEEMSKERK contributes to the debate.
The tenth five-yearly review conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), held in New York this August, opened to a sombre warning from the secretary general of the United Nations (UN), António Guterres.
Speaking of the most perilous situation since the cold war, he told the assembled representatives of the 191 UN member states who are signatories to the NPT that the world could be “just one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”.
“We have been extraordinarily lucky so far”, Guterres went on, but “luck is not a strategy. Nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict”.
Such comments will deepen the understandable fears about the future of the planet, of young people in particular. To the threat of catastrophic climate change is added the risk of nuclear accidents – dramatized by the recent events around the Zaporizhzhia power plant in Ukraine – and premonitions of nuclear war.
Guterres’ speech followed an equally bleak address given days earlier by the UK’s national security advisor, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, who argued that what is happening is not a return to the relative stability of the cold war conflict but something different.
“The cold war’s two monolithic blocs of the Soviet Union and NATO – although not without alarming bumps – were able to reach a shared understanding” of each other’s military doctrines of deterrence, containment and the avoidance of first nuclear weapon use, he said. (The Guardian, 28 July)
“This gave us both a higher level of confidence that we would not miscalculate our way into a nuclear war”, which is absent today.
The existing international architecture of treaty organisations and diplomatic conventions remains “vital” to contain conflicts, Lovegrove opined, including those institutions inherited from the cold war such as the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty, opened for signature in 1968. (Only five states are not parties to the NPT, India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan, with nuclear weapons, and the non-nuclear South Sudan).
But the “current structures alone will not deliver what we need a modern arms control system to achieve”.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine certainly epitomises the new era of world relations that began with the collapse of the Stalinist states of Russia and Eastern Europe from the late 1980s.
It illustrates the reality of the multi-polar world that is developing from the period of barely-challenged US hegemony that characterised the initial post-Stalinist international order.
For the first time since the cold war a still significant world power, not least for its possession of nuclear weapons, is attempting to impose its proclaimed territorial-strategic interests against a nation state militarily supplied by US imperialism and under its declared protection, not by diplomacy but by force of arms.
Perspectives for how world relations will develop – and most importantly, what is to be done – must be attentively assessed by the workers’ movement. But the starting point for both tasks has to be that there is no ‘we’ or ‘us’ involved.
Instead there are the interests, on one side, of the working class and poor peoples of the world, and the middle classes too; and, on the other, the representatives of capitalism, the globally dominant economic and social system of organising human relations.
These include the political leaders like US president Joe Biden, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky, Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or Britain’s new premier Liz Truss.
But they also include allegedly ‘neutral’ figures like Lovegrove and Guterres, who play their own part in the system.
Lovegrove sits at the apex of the defence and security establishment of British capitalism; still with the fifth or sixth biggest economy in the world, the fourth largest military expenditure, and one of the five powers designated as ‘recognised nuclear-weapon states’ by the NPT.
Guterres was previously the leader of the misnamed Portuguese Socialist Party and prime minister from 1995 to 2002 (during which time his privatisation programme halved Portugal’s public sector’s share of GDP).
He was also president of the ‘Socialist International’ of social democratic parties (including then Tony Blair’s New Labour) as it acquiesced to the criminal US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.
If humanity is now facing new threats in a world with an estimated 12,700 nuclear warheads still operative thirty years after the end of the cold war and the claimed ‘victory’ of capitalism in that conflict, it is they and all of their ilk who defend the capitalist system who are responsible, not us. Our fate cannot be left in their hands.
That is the key lesson that must be drawn for the inevitable mass struggles that will develop against the various unfolding crises of capitalism – economic, environmental, social and political – that it faces in the turbulent times ahead.
Including wars, inherent in a system based on competition between rival capitalists and their organisation into contending nation states, and the renewed threat of nuclear terror.
The cold war balance of terror
International relations in the period after world war two were set by the underlying clash of systems between the capitalist countries of the West, under the domination of US imperialism, and the non-capitalist Stalinist states of the East – the cold war.
The Stalinist regimes that imploded from 1989 were not examples of genuine socialism but a grotesque caricature of it.
Socialism means, not totalitarian rule by a privileged bureaucratic caste, but the democratic control of the economy and society by the working class.
Through elected committees of workers and peasants – the soviets – such a system of workers’ democracy existed in the first period of the Russian revolution from October 1917 under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
But the Russian revolution took place in a relatively underdeveloped country, mainly a peasant economy, and with mass illiteracy.
It withstood the armed intervention of 21 different countries, including Britain, despite the legacy of Tsarist Russia’s military-technical backwardness.
But because the revolution did not spread to the West, particularly to the more economically advanced Germany where a series of revolutionary opportunities were lost from 1918 to 1923, mass participation in running society was under constant pressure and increasingly replaced by the diktats of the administering officialdom, a bureaucracy which emerged as a caste and then consolidated itself as a system of rule in the 1920s around the figure of Joseph Stalin.
By 1945, along with the elimination of workers’ democracy and the brutal suppression of its defenders in the Left Opposition – including the assassination of Trotsky in 1940 by Stalin’s agent – the leadership of the CPSU around Stalin had long since abandoned the perspective of 1917 being the first step in a world revolution, which had guided the Bolshevik party then.
While preserving, in their own interests, nationalised property forms, a monopoly of foreign trade and other levers of state direction in a planned economy – blocking the untrammelled access of the world capitalist market – the bureaucracy at the same time sought an accommodation with the capitalist powers.
This infamously led Stalin and the then UK prime minister Winston Churchill, at a meeting in Moscow in October 1944, to literally divide post-war Europe into spheres of influence on ‘a scrap of paper’.
They allotted to the Russian orbit countries where the Red Army had already pushed back the Nazis, while giving Greece to the West; which Stalin signed off – with a blue pencil tick – even as Greek Communist Party-led resistance fighters held power in their hands.
But the conflict of class interests in a world that had been turned upside down by the terrible ravages of war could not be so casually settled (not least in Greece, where a vicious civil war ensued).
The strategists of US imperialism, which had avoided military operations on its mainland and massively enhanced its world economic position – more than half of global manufacturing capacity was located in the USA by 1945 – were haunted by the prospect of socialist revolution in Europe following the end of the war.
The peoples of Europe “have suffered so much”, the future Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned the US ruling class in testimony to Senate hearings in March 1945, “and they believe so deeply that governments can take some action which will alleviate their sufferings, that they will demand that the whole business of state control and state interference shall be pushed further and further”.
Meanwhile the aspirations for independence and national self-determination encouraged by the wartime collapse of the European empires in South East Asia intertwined with burgeoning demands for land reform in all the countries that had been exploited and underdeveloped by imperialism. This came into conflict with the interests of the indigenous feudal-capitalist ruling classes who had held sway under the colonial overlords.
This was the context in which US imperialism began the nuclear age, with the dropping of an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and another on Nagasaki, three days later, on 9 August.
Days before, Britain, which had collaborated with the US ‘Manhattan Project’ industrial-scientific effort to develop nuclear weapons, had approved the bombings under the terms of the secret US-UK Quebec agreement signed in 1943.
Contrary to propaganda at the time and subsequently, there was no military requirement to use the weapons, with sections of the Japanese regime already exploring surrender terms.
But, as the Red Army was shifting its forces from the European theatre to join the war against Japan, entering the puppet state of Manchukuo on 9 August with sweeping military success, the US was determined to demonstrate its terrible new power to the Stalinist bureaucracy.
As the eminent physicist Joseph Rotblat later recounted, explaining why he left the Manhattan Project in 1944, he had been personally told then by the project’s director “that the real point was not to pre-empt the Nazis… but to intimidate the Soviets”. (Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience, by Andrew Brown)
Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain as examples of the horrendous destructive potential of capitalism and the inhumane ruthlessness of its political and military leaders – ‘qualities’ which certainly still apply today.
But the US atomic monopoly was short-lived, with the Soviet Union developing its own nuclear weapon in 1949.
An arms race developed, with ever more barbarous weaponry – the hydrogen bomb tested by the US in 1952 was 450 times more powerful than that dropped on Nagasaki – but with the balance of nuclear terror effectively ruling out a decisive first strike that would knock out the other side’s retaliatory capacity.
A mutual recognition did develop, that using nuclear weapons in this context would not only potentially threaten the destruction of the two antagonistic social systems but also the very existence of humanity. There could be no winners from an all-out nuclear conflict and no certainty that an initially limited strike would not lead to all-out war.
This “shared understanding”, as Lovegrove puts it, did not prevent an almost continual series of ‘small wars’ in the ex-colonial world which, between 1950 and 1989, claimed the lives of between 20-30 million people.
But the nuclear threshold was not crossed again.
The social roots of nuclear peace too
The shared fear of mutual destruction was indisputably a factor in preserving nuclear peace during the cold war, reaching deep even within the state apparatus of the contending powers.
It is significant that many of the “alarming bumps” of the period that Lovegrove alludes to, some of the details of which have been revealed years later, actually showed the safeguards in place against the ‘accidental’ deployment of nuclear weapons or their use on the say-so of one individual.
War in general is the product of specific social and historical conditions, pursued not for the sake of it but for definite interests – “the continuation of policy with other means” in the still relevant words of the 19th century Prussian military theorist, General Von Clausewitz.
So too would be the use of nuclear weapons. And in the context of the relationship of social forces in the post-war era, so heavily in favour of the working class and the masses in the ex-colonial countries, the conditions were not there. The nuclear threshold had – and still has – social roots too.
Although a significant layer of workers and activists in many countries looked sympathetically to the USSR as an alternative to the capitalist West, particularly so during the war and in its initial aftermath, the unattractiveness of the totalitarian regime to the working class in the advanced capitalist countries – organised in free trade unions and parties and experienced in the exercise of democratic rights – limited the success of Stalinism in the West.
This was combined with the abandonment of a revolutionary programme by the Communist parties where they were mass organisations as in France and Italy.
But, particularly under the impetus of the victorious Chinese revolution in 1949, driven by the land hunger of the peasants in a country where before the overturn just ten percent of the population owned 70% of arable land, Stalinism grew as a threat to landlordism and capitalism across the ex-colonial world.
The Stalinist regimes became a point of reference as an alternative model of economic development despite their top-down bureaucratic characteristics.
These features of Stalinism were not so alien to sections of the peasantry, itself stratified by differential access to land and capital, as they were generally speaking to urban workers.
And these regimes were in fact positively viewed by a layer of disaffected intellectuals, lawyers, radicalised army officers and so on, striving to modernise their country and oppose Western imperialism.
Against this background there were occasions when US leaders discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons in a limited ‘tactical’ strike to attempt to turn back the ‘red tide’.
During the Korean war, which began in June 1950, General Douglas MacArthur called for an all-out offensive against China, which in November had intervened decisively on the side of North Korea – and in confidential counsels advocated the use of nuclear weapons to ‘roll back communism’.
But president Harry Truman recoiled and, in April 1951, relieved MacArthur of his command.
Famously, during the 1962 crisis that followed the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba (in response to the US siting of its Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey and the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion against the Cuban revolution), president John F Kennedy resisted the call from the US air force chief Curtis LeMay to bomb the missile sites and escalate the conflict. (LeMay called this the “greatest defeat in our history”).
Later in the decade, in 1969, the newly-elected Republican president Richard Nixon and his advisors considered a limited nuclear strike on the North Vietnamese capital Hanoi but quickly dismissed the plan.
As McGeorge Bundy, the US national security advisor from 1961-1966 and then the president of the Ford Foundation argued, Nixon concluded the use of nuclear weapons “would have totally unacceptable results inside the US” – this is the key – “enraging the opponents of the war and setting general opinion against the new administration with such force as to make it doubtful that the government could keep up the American end of the war”.
This shows the critical social factor staying the hand of even the most belligerent strata of capitalist political and military leaders.
A counter-vailing power
The cold war balance of class forces did not reveal itself exclusively – by any measure – through mobilisations against nuclear weapons, which waxed and waned throughout the period.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain, for example, was formed in 1958 with a series of mass demonstrations, the biggest to that point since the war.
It followed the 1957 Labour Party conference where 66 constituency parties had tabled a resolution calling for the unilateral renunciation of the hydrogen bomb. (Britain had developed its first nuclear weapon in 1952, followed by France in 1960).
The motion was defeated but support for nuclear disarmament grew and a resolution proposed by the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) was agreed at the 1960 conference, provoking the right-wing leader Hugh Gaitskell to declare in opposition that he would “fight, fight, and fight again to save the party we love”.
The 1962 Cuban missile crisis initially further increased mass fear of and opposition to nuclear weapons (although Fidel Castro had privately urged Khrushchev to risk a nuclear ‘first strike’ if Cuba was attacked!).
But this result also pushed US imperialism and the Russian bureaucracy into establishing a ‘nuclear hotline’ and, in 1963, signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty to end nuclear testing in the atmosphere, reducing somewhat the sense of urgency about nuclear disarmament.
CND went into the background, superseded by the class struggle more generally and the developing mass movement against the Vietnam war; which, in Britain, was powerful enough to force the 1964-1970 Labour prime minister Harold Wilson to refuse to commit UK troops alongside British capitalism’s American ‘ally’.
It was not until the early 1980s that CND re-emerged as a mass movement, following the development of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons and the US decision to site over 460 cruise missiles in Europe, including 160 in Britain – although the first national demonstration against the missiles was organised by the Labour Party itself in summer 1980.
By reducing the time it would take to hit Russian cities compared to Russian missiles reaching the US, these developments raised the possibility of a ‘limited nuclear war’ in Europe, with the missiles explicitly presented in a Ministry of Defence information booklet, Cruise Missiles: A Vital Part of the West’s Life Insurance, as a middle option between “surrender or all-out nuclear war”.
CND’s national membership rose from 4,267 in 1979 to 90,000 in 1984, with an additional 250,000 locally-administered. In October 1983 up to three million people marched across Europe, including 300,000 in London; 28 national trade unions were affiliated to CND by 1985. The social roots of the nuclear threshold were still very much in place.
The social weight and potential power of the working class is enshrined in capitalist democracy in trade union organisation and the rights of political parties.
These are the embryo of an alternative society within the womb of the old – playing the role of cohering the consciousness of the working class in itself as a class and as a potential governmental alternative – and their existence acts as a check on the ruling class.
The most important precondition for the outbreak of the second world war – after the impact the horrors of world war one had left on mass consciousness – had been the crushing defeats of the working class and its trade union and political organisations in a series of countries in the 1920s and 1930s: in Hungary, Finland, Italy, Bulgaria, Portugal, Poland and Austria and, above all, the failure of the revolutions in Spain and France and the disaster of the Nazi victory in Germany.
In stark contrast, by 1980 trade union membership in the OECD advanced capitalist countries had reached 96 million, with union density standing at over 50% of the workforce in 13 of the then 23 member states – an exceptional position, before and since, in the history of capitalism.
The brief US imperium
The collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe was a turning point of world historic importance. It ideologically disarmed the workers’ organisations – both the trade unions and the workers’ traditional parties – consolidating the idea that there was no alternative possible to capitalism.
Even though it was Stalinism that had failed not socialism, it undermined the confidence of even the most active, politically conscious workers in the possibility of building a new society.
Formerly bourgeois workers’ parties internationally were transformed into capitalist formations, exemplified in Britain as the leader of the trend with Labour becoming Tony Blair’s New Labour. And after 30 years trade union density within the OECD advanced capitalist countries only remains at over 50% in four Nordic nations.
The working class in this era has not suffered the same shattering reverses as in the inter-war period but the collapse of Stalinism was an ideological defeat, with organisational consequences, an objective setback for the workers’ movement.
In the sphere of international relations, a new global order had been created, which left the US, initially, as the world’s remaining superpower – a hyperpower – proceeding as the 1990s progressed to remould the post-1945 multilateral institutions under its direction.
GATT, set up in 1947, was re-launched as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995, for example, and under presidents George HW Bush and then Bill Clinton a ‘Washington Consensus’ was inaugurated of unrestrained access for US capital to world markets under the banner of ‘globalisation’; so that over 85% of the global capital stock (in real terms) of the world’s multinational corporations has been generated after 1990.
World trade as a percentage of GDP grew from 39% in 1990 to 61% by 2008, with two-thirds of the profits growth (to 2013) being captured by Western companies, as the global labour force now integrated within the world capitalist market expanded by 1.2 billion. This included the opening up of China which was admitted to the WTO in 2001 – on stricter terms, on paper at least, than the ex-Stalinist states of Eastern Europe.
It was a period of ‘capitalism unleashed’ – and of US capitalism in particular – backed up militarily: between 1989 and 2001 the US intervened abroad once every 16 months, more frequently than in any previous period in its history.
But its nuclear arsenal was excessive for the function it served of preserving the preponderant prestige of US imperialism. So global nuclear weapons stockpiles were reduced (from over 50,000 in 1990 to 12,700 presently), although the US kept a military-technological ‘offset advantage’ amongst the nuclear powers.
South Africa, which had developed six nuclear weapons in the 1980s, decommissioned them in the early 1990s; the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons located in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania were removed by 1996 (on the basis of ‘non-expansionary’ assurances given by both the US and Russia).
The UN under US direction gave the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) enhanced short-notice inspection powers over NPT-designated non-nuclear weapons states and, from 1992-1995, it took control of 157kg of highly-enriched uranium stocks in 30 countries.
Iraq, which had begun a nuclear programme from the 1970s with French and British aid, was forbidden from developing nuclear weapons in the ceasefire resolution agreed by the UN after the 1991 Gulf war.
But the new world order also produced its own new contradictions. The cold war had created a common interest between the different national capitalist powers, a ‘glue’ to patch-over their conflicting interests.
Tensions certainly persisted – erupting openly on occasions – but a lid was kept on them by the check made on world capitalism by the very existence of the non-capitalist Stalinist states.
Without this overriding system clash pushing the capitalist nation states together inter-imperialist rivalries resurfaced and deepened.
An increasingly multi-polar world
The 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq was a key moment. Determined to restore the prestige of US imperialism after the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11 – the first assault on the American mainland since 1846 and with more fatalities than at Pearl Harbour in 1941 – president George W Bush launched the invasion of Afghanistan, overthrowing the Taliban by December 2001.
He then turned to Iraq, seen since the 1991 Gulf war as a source of instability in the strategically significant oil-rich Middle East, brushing aside opposition within the UN.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq Richard Perle, Bush’s defence advisor, agreed that the war was “probably illegal” but “in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing” for the USA. (The Guardian, 20 November 2003)
At the time this was a brazen public admission of what had always been known behind diplomatic closed doors. Namely, that treaties, multilateral institutions, and ‘international law’ generally, could never override the fundamental interests of the property, profits and prestige of the ruling classes of the most powerful capitalist nation states. (The NPT includes the solemn but, 54 years later, unfulfilled pledge by the nuclear powers to “pursue negotiations in good faith” for “general and complete disarmament”).
But Perle’s cynical assertion of power in defence of national interests has since become the rhetorical norm with the rise of right-populist regimes, even as those like Guterres and Lovegrove seek to bolster the ‘international rules-based order’ and its institutions like the UN, the NPT and the like, and sound the alarm about their undermining.
In the three years following 9/11 to 2004 US defence spending rose by over 50%, including the budgets for Afghanistan and Iraq, the biggest military build-up since the Korean war. But the brief US imperium was over, replaced by an increasingly multi-polar world, with the USA’s economic power and prestige also damaged by the financial crisis of 2007-08.
There were new tensions, not least between the US and the rising world power of China – which had brought capitalist relations into its economy but under the direction of the state, and which therefore continues to be officially classified by the WTO as a ‘non-market economy’ still not compliant with its 2001 entry terms.
Forty years after Deng Xiaoping launched the regime’s ‘reform and opening up’ programme, China’s GDP had grown from $149 billion in 1978 to $13.6 trillion in 2018, compared to India’s rise from $137 billion to $2.7 trillion and the USA from $2.35 trillion to $20.5 trillion.
In 1989 the Soviet Union’s GDP had been twice that of China’s but by 2018, after the restoration of capitalism and the break-up of the USSR, Russia’s GDP was six times smaller than China’s (at purchasing power parity rates).
The part in world relations of the now capitalist Russian Federation, the legal successor to the Soviet Union in the UN, was that of a ‘petro-power’ – but still with the second largest spending programme on nuclear weapons until the 2010s (when it was overtaken by China).
Russia became a significant commodity producer within the world economy particularly of hydrocarbons and food and agricultural products – hydrocarbons in 2021 still accounted for 60% of its exports and 40% of government revenues – but not initially a disrupter of the US-shaped order.
But the Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had come to power in 2000, opposed the invasion of Iraq – not least for its possible consequences for oil revenues – joining with France against the US and UK on the UN security council in the build-up to the war.
Subsequently, as the still newly-established Russian capitalist class consolidated its position, it moved to assert its own imperialist interests, intervening in Russia’s ‘near-abroad’ of Georgia, Transdniestria in Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine; and, in 2015, in Syria in its first such ‘out-of-region’ foray since the cold war.
By 2018 the Pentagon’s quadrennial national defence strategy had, as The Economist magazine summarised it, restored “China and Russia above jihadism as the main threat”; because they sought to establish regional hegemonies – in respectively East Asia, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia – as first steps to unfreezing “a Western-devised, US-policed international order” of which America is a “prime beneficiary”. (27 January 2018)
Now a new phase has opened up with the Russian invasion of a regime under the declared protection of US imperialism. This is the new era in which the nuclear threshold that has held since 1945 is being tested once again.
Crossing the nuclear threshold
As the Russian military rolled into Ukraine on February 24 Putin threatened “outside parties” thinking of intervening with consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history”, and three days later put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert.
In August Russia suspended visits by US inspectors to its nuclear weapons sites, one of the safeguards under the 2010 New Start arms control treaty between the US and Russia, which limits each country’s deployed strategic missiles to 1,550 per side and which had been extended for another five years in February 2021.
But the posturing is calibrated. While mutual inspections have stopped, suspended anyway since the start of the Covid pandemic, notifications to the US under the New Start terms have been scrupulously maintained, with the Russian nuclear forces command at least – even as the political leaders fulminate – intent on signalling that the ‘usual channels’ still hold.
There has been no discernible shift from the ‘shared understanding’ that an all-out nuclear war is unwinnable, a form of suicide.
But in an era of heightened global tensions, with unstable regimes less subject to the checks and balances of the past – domestically and internationally – what about the possibility of a limited, less cataclysmic ‘non-strategic’ or ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon strike?
Russia, for example, possesses ‘small bombs’ about a fifteenth of the size of the one used at Hiroshima. The prospects for their use are greater now than before.
Since 1945 over 2,000 nuclear weapons have been detonated, around a quarter of them in the atmosphere, before the US, the Soviet Union and Britain agreed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 (France ended atmospheric tests in 1974, China in 1980), which puts the issue in macabre perspective.
The global ‘fingerprint’ left by the widespread bomb testing in the 1950s is so great that it has been viewed by some climate scientists as marking the start of an Anthropocene age, a new geological epoch caused by human activity.
But that also shows, however horrific it is to contemplate, and while they would be enormously damaging to the planet, a limited use of tactical nuclear weapons would not make the planet unable to support human life.
And a ‘mini-nuke’ strike would not lead to all-out nuclear war unless, again, as during the cold war, all the social and political conditions were there.
But the use of a single nuclear weapon in a conflict situation would unquestionably cross the political nuclear threshold, a new terrible development in human history.
It would provoke a colossal reaction, of mixed consciousness but dominated by revulsion and the fear of escalation, which would by the very fact of mobilising millions into action, add to the instability of capitalism across the globe.
The mass anti-war movement in the run-up to the US-UK invasion of Iraq also developed under the shadow of hyped fears of weapons of mass destruction, most infamously the Blair government’s ‘dodgy dossier’ about Iraqi capabilities including nuclear.
In Russia itself, the fate of the Putin regime would be put in question (whatever the character of its initial replacement might be), with all the consequences for its camp-followers domestically and internationally.
Dissatisfaction with the war is already growing in Russia, fusing with the underlying resentment at the economic situation.
Even before the war, in 2020, average income was 10% lower than in 2013. The GDP growth rate of 1% between 2012 and 2019 was less than half the rate in the Soviet Union from 1977 to 1985, notorious as the ‘time of stagnation’ before the chaos of the Gorbachev years.
Using a nuclear weapon would starkly reveal the dysfunctional self-interest of Russia’s ‘gangster capitalist’ leaders – a 2014 estimate had 110 individuals controlling 35% of Russia’s wealth – risking everything to cling to their riches and power.
It is not inconceivable that sections of the state could stage a ‘palace coup’ if Putin moved from nuclear rhetoric to real preparations and catastrophically jeopardised the interests of the Russian capitalist class.
Elite, loyal units in the state machine would undoubtedly be charged with deploying even smaller tactical nuclear weapons. It is possible however that even these forces under certain conditions could prove to be unreliable, especially if ordered to carry out further, escalatory ‘suicide orders’.
The rottenness of the regime was indicated by the charging, even before the war (in 2019), of 2,800 officers – not conscripts, but officers – with embezzling $90m of military assets.
The working class, however, cannot rely on such possibilities but must develop its own movement for ‘regime change’.
It’s still socialism or barbarism
It is true that the global movement of opposition to the Iraq war, which at its height saw possibly 30 million demonstrating in over 600 cities in February 2003, did not ultimately stay the hand of Bush and Blair.
Having built up an invasion force and with their authority and prestige at stake, their rule, and the capitalists’ wider interests, had to be put at greater risk from a movement at home than they would have been by not going ahead with war.
Fear of a mass movement, even of a revolution, does not permanently resolve anything if its result leaves the ruling class in power.
But still it was a turning point in the development of mass consciousness in the post-Stalinist era, with ‘Iraq’ becoming a shorthand for an underlying broad discontent with the results of the US-led new world order: economically, with soaring inequality; socially, with growing mistrust of the institutions underpinning capitalist society; and with a developing fear of the growing climate crisis.
The New York Times analysed the movement as showing that after the cold war there “may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion”.
The anti-war movement then was largely an elemental tide of protest rather than a developed systemic alternative.
The ‘potential superpower of the street’ lacked organised form and clear political aims with, crucially, the working class participating but not leading the struggle through its own organisations, including its own mass parties. Building such parties with a programme for the socialist transformation is the key task for the future.
But nevertheless, while the mass anti-war movement showed that the effects of the collapse of Stalinism had still not yet been fully overcome, it also gave a glimpse of how they could be.
The 2007-08 financial crash was a further turning point in shifting mass consciousness in the post-Stalinist era, increasing the questioning of the capitalists’ control of society, and responsible for the revival of basic socialist ideas – as shown in the Corbyn waves, the support for the Bernie Sanders’ US presidential campaigns particularly in 2016, the initial Syriza victory in Greece in 2015, the rise in just a matter of years of Podemos in Spain, and so on.
Even if those movements did not realise their potential this time because of the weakness of their programmes, they show that ‘capitalism unleashed’ will generate mass opposition that looks to ‘socialism’ – because socialism is not just an idea but the reflection of the common, collective interests of the working class.
A new global mass anti-war movement against the threat of nuclear escalation would unfold against a very different background than that of 2002-03. Overthrowing capitalism in our time, the source of war, is possible.
Joseph Rotblat, who after his experience on the Manhattan Project went on to become a founder of both the ‘Pugwash conferences’ of scientists opposed to nuclear weapons and CND, totally rejected the idea that mutually assured nuclear destruction could guarantee peace.
As an example of the falseness of the idea of ‘nuclear deterrence’ he argued that had Hitler had the bomb, “his last order from the bunker in April 1945 would have been to use it on London”.
That might well have been Hitler’s intention in such a situation – Rotblat was probably right on that. But actually it might be a debatable point as to whether even the Nazi military officials who Hitler could reach in his last days would have obeyed the order, desperate as many were to find an escape route from the collapsing regime.
It would be even more so for a modern-day dictator attempting to deploy weapons in a scenario that was leading to escalating nuclear conflict and the potential annihilation of humanity.
But with socialism a realisable prospect, and the only alternative that can offer hope that the threat of nuclear war can be permanently lifted, who wants to stick with capitalism to find out what the answer to that question might be?