The Cold War and Modern Identity

Although the 20th century was a period great trials and tribulations throughout the world, including the two world wars, the anti-colonialist movements throughout Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, and the many massacres and genocides, such as the Turkish massacre of Armenians and the Holocaust carried out in Nazi-occupied Europe, if a single defining event must be pinpointed, the defining feature of the 20th century must undoubtedly be said to be the Cold War. The Cold War, which lasted for nearly half of the 20th century, saw first Europe and then most of the rest of the world divided into two camps, communist and authoritarian on one side and capitalist and democratic on the other. The split between these two groups of powers, the former headed by the Soviet Union and the latter led by the United States, was viewed by both sides as an apocalyptic struggle of good versus evil, liberty versus oppression, and democracy versus tyranny. Both sides of the Cold War, the communistic and authoritarian as well as the capitalistic and democratic, have deep roots in the history of Western civilization; the Cold War, then, represented a kind of coming of age and decision point in Western culture, in which sets of principles which had been at tension with one another nearly since the inception of Western thought finally reached a point at which one idea must triumph over the other. Although, of course, the capitalist and democratic ideas won out over the communist and authoritarian, as with nearly any conflict of such a clearly Hegelian nature, the conflict produced a kind of synthesis in which the representatives of capitalism also absorbed portions of communism and the representatives of democracy also absorbed or made peace with elements of authoritarianism. In the end, the Cold War was not so much a victory for either side as an exercise in Hegelian dialectic, in which the final result was, while dominated by one side, a synthesis of both sides.

Although the birth of communism is most readily associated with the labor movements of the 19th century and especially with the thought of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of the famous, or perhaps infamous, Manifesto of the Communist Party, as even they point out in the Manifesto, the roots of communism are much deeper in history, and extend to the very origins of Western thought in both of its earliest contributors, Greek philosophy and Jewish religion.1 The similarities between Marx’s ideas and the communal utopia expounded upon by Plato in his Republic are glaring and have been noted by many commentators in the past. Desmond Lee, a scholar in classics and ancient philosophy, for instance, has drawn attention to Plato’s injunction that “both private property and the family are to be abolished” in Plato’s utopia.2 The abolition of private property is, of course, a cornerstone of Marxist philosophy. Although the attempt would later be abandoned, especially during and following World War II, during its earlier, more idealistic phase, the leadership of the Soviet Union, in hopes of creating a communist utopia, also made “a sustained effort … to undermine the family,” which included “establish[ing] collective kitchens and day care centers.”3 According to Nicholas V. Riasanovksy and Mark D. Steinberg, both professors of Russian history, “some Bolshevik leaders even spoke of ‘free love,’” a practice and principle which also bears a similarity to the counsel of Plato.4

In regards to the Jewish antecedents of communist thought, the prolific 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell, among many others, has pointed out that the “soteriology” and “eschatology” of Marxism are essentially biblical in character; Russell even provides a handy “dictionary” to Marx’s ideas:

Yahweh=Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah=Marx
The Elect=The Proletariat
The Church=The Communist Party
The Second Coming=The Revolution
Hell=Punishment of the Capitalists
The Millennium=The Communist Commonwealth5

Marxist communism in both the form developed by Marx himself and in its later develops in the Soviet Union represents a combination of these and other similar elements in Western thought.

Similarly, democracy and capitalism in their modern liberal forms, which largely emerged from the thought of the Enlightenment, also have deep roots in Western thought. In the first book of history by the West’s first historian, The History of Herodotus, the wars between the Persians and the Greeks in the 5th century BCE are identified as struggles between “freedom” and “slavery” and consistently portrayed in such terms and ideas throughout.6 The Greek polis of Athens is, of course, generally identified as the world’s first democracy and even Sparta, with its characteristically militaristic and authoritarian society, has traditionally been granted a measure of respect as in some sense embodying the first fundaments of later Western democratic ideals, as, for instance, in its insistence on multiple rulers who must reach unanimous agreement in matters of policy so that no one individual can hold absolute power or unilateral decision-making authority.

Just as with communism, democracy and capitalism also had their antecedents in Jewish thought. Historian Thomas Cahill, for instance, has pointed out that “capitalism, communism, and democracy” are all in some sense

children of the Bible, … modeled on biblical faith and demanding of their adherents that they always hold in their hearts a belief in the future and keep before their eyes the vision of a better tomorrow, whether that tomorrow contains a larger gross domestic product or a workers’ paradise. … Democracy … grows directly out of the Israelite vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny. There is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without the intervention of the Jews.7

While democracy, capitalism, and communism, as well as the measure of authoritarianism which the latter implies, all have roots in the very earliest origins of Western thought and have existed alongside each other in that thought as well as in practice since their inception, they have clearly existed in tension and in competition. With the onset of the Cold War, this tension took on new proportions and finally demanded a resolution.

The American poet Walt Whitman once poignantly wrote that it was on the United States that the “Earth’s résumé entire floats” and, addressing the United States itself, added “the antecedent nations sink or swim with thee.”8 In other words, the United States, in the view of Whitman, acts as the heir and representative of the entirety of the tradition of Western civilization. While there may be those who would debate Whitman’s point, there is undoubtedly a great measure of truth to it. The United States, more than any other nation, enshrined the democratic principles of Western thought in its founding documents and principles. No nation embodies Enlightenment thought on politics and economics, as well as in other areas, more than the United States. The principles of the equality of all men before the law, of popular participation in government and the insistence that the state possess the consent of the governed, of the freedom of the individual human conscience, and other similar principles which are essentially unique to Western thought all entered into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, two documents which might, not inaccurately, be referred to as American scripture.

In 1917, with the Bolshevik Revolution and the transformation of the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union, an, in a sense, equal-and-opposite of the United States was established. If the United States can be considered the representative of the democratic and capitalist principles of Western thought, the Soviet Union can be seen as the embodiment of the authoritarian and communist principles. The Soviet government nearly immediately set about trying to build an ostensibly more egalitarian society, “a new realm of freedom and equality, free of conflict.”9

This age-old dream of such a utopia was alluring even to those who lived in the capitalist democracies and republics of the United States and Western Europe. This is particularly true of Marxism’s claim that “the proletarian revolution marks the end of … [the] historic process.”10 David Gress, a historian whose work has focused on Western identity, has pointed out that this view of communism as replacing and surpassing, perhaps in some sense fulfilling, capitalist democracies drew the admiration of Western intellectuals for the Soviet Union. Following World War II and the collapse of European fascism as well as the witness of worldwide atrocities, the conscience of the West was piqued. According to Gress, “what they needed was the secularized religious impulse that impelled political and intellectual leaders to continue the search for the perfect society, for the revolutionary transformation of all existing conditions, for the place and the moment of the leap into the kingdom of freedom.”11 It was this that allowed the Soviet Union to attain the “moral high ground of anticapitalism” both in the minds of its own leaders as well as in the minds of many Westerners.12

Although the two had been rather cordial allies during World War II and had defeated Nazi Germany with its fascist ideals through their combined efforts, the United States and the Soviet Union were doomed to a wide split from one another. Almost immediately after their mutual victory over Germany, the two sides of the ideological split retreated from each other and entrenched themselves into their ideological camps. As early as 5 March 1946, less than a full year after the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied powers, Winston Churchill, who had served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the majority of World War II, referred to this ideological split, using the phrase “iron curtain,” which would later become popular parlance in describing the situation of the Cold War:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.13

On the other side of that “iron curtain,” of course, were the United States and its democratic and capitalistic allies in Europe, including Churchill’s own United Kingdom. A line had been drawn in the proverbial sand. In the words of Louis J. Halle, a political scientist who worked in the U.S. State Department during the Cold War:

In ideological terms, the Cold War presented itself as a worldwide contest between liberal democracy and Communism. Each side looked forward to the eventual supremacy of its system all over the earth. The official Communist goal was the liberation of mankind from capitalist oppression. Ideologically minded Westerners interpreted this as signifying that Moscow was trying to impose its own authoritarian system on a world it meant to rule. Americans, for their part, had traditionally looked forward to the liberation of mankind from the oppression of autocracy, and to the consequent establishment of their own liberal system throughout the world. To the ideologists in Moscow this meant that “the imperialist ruling circles” in America were trying to enslave all mankind under the yoke of Wall Street.14

This ideological split and the consequent perceptions on either side of it would lead to one of the world’s most protracted and widespread conflicts, which played itself out on nearly every continent of the world in wars both “hot” and “cold.”

The Cold War would, of course, end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This collapse is popularly viewed as the final triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism over communism and authoritarianism. Some commentators, such as Francis Fukuyama, a former deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff, have even went as far as declaring the end of the Cold War to be “the end of history,” in an ironic use of the same Hegelian ideas Marx made use of in declaring communism to be the final result of the historical dialectic.15

The truth of the situation, however, is that, in a far more Hegelian fashion, the result of the dialectic of the two antitheses was a synthesis. The United States, even while expounding on the virtues of democracy, supported autocratic regimes throughout the world, such as that of Shah Mohammad Pahlavi in Persia, on the condition that they opposed communism. While it could be argued that such support was hypocritical, it may also, more positively, be portrayed as an acknowledgement of the value of authoritarian rule in some cultural contexts. In addition, throughout the Cold War, the United States and, to an arguably greater extent, its European allies adopted a number of reforms which reflected the social ideals of communism, including protection for workers’ rights, social welfare systems, universalized healthcare, and others. In the end, these concessions to communism are a large part of what brought down the Soviet Union; in granting that the communists had a point in regards to their criticisms of wealth and poverty in the Western world and the exploitation of the laboring class, the capitalistic democratic nations regained the moral high ground and won the war of ideas. The West became the synthesis, rendering the antithesis obsolete.

Notes 1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Robert Maynard Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 50: Marx (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 419.

2 Desmond Lee, “Translator’s Introduction” in Plato, The Republic (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), xliv.

3 Nicholas V. Riasanovksy and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, Eighth Edition (New York: Oxford Unversity Press, 2011), 595.

4 Ibid.

5 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 364.

6 Herodotus, The History, Book IX, 45, in Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 6: Herodotus and Thucydides (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 298.

7 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 249.

8 Walt Whitman, “Thou Mother With Thy Equal Brood,” 4, Leaves of Grass (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 564.

9 Riasanovksy and Steinberg, History of Russia, 482.

10 Ibid., 481.

11 David Gress, From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 404.

12 Ibid.

13 Winston Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace,” (accessed 30 December 2012).

14 Louis J. Halle, “The Cold War as History,” in Kevin Reilly, Readings in World Civilizations, Volume 2: The Development of the Modern World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 265.

15 Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” in Marc A. Genest, ed., Conflict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations, Second Edition (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2004), 393. Widgets


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