Commentary Magazine

From Kabul to Managua, by Fred Halliday

Socialism in Retreat

From Kabul to Managual Soviet-American Relations in the 1980’s.
by Fred Halliday.
Pantheon. 198 pp. $22.95.

Addressing the 26th Congress of the Soviet Communist party in 1981, Leonid Brezhnev spoke triumphantly of the USSR’s gains in the Third World, taking special pride in listing the growing number of developing nations which had adopted some form of Soviet-style socialism. At the time, few dismissed Brezhnev’s remarks as unwarranted Communist bluster. Between 1974 and 1980, no fewer than fourteen Third World countries had experienced revolutionary transformation, and almost all—the major exceptions being Iran and Zimbabwe—had adopted repressive variants of socialism and pro-Soviet foreign policies. Indeed, an American presidential election had just been fought in which Soviet advances in the Third World loomed quite large, with Jimmy Carter suffering defeat in part because of the perception that his administration had failed effectively to counter Soviet initiatives in Africa, Central America, and the Middle East.

Eight years later, it seems clear that Ronald Reagan’s promise to reverse America’s global fortunes has largely been fulfilled. During Reagan’s presidency, not a single additional Third World country fell into the Soviet orbit. In a few cases, pro-Soviet regimes were ousted, and there were other cases where revolutionary goals were abandoned. Elsewhere, embattled regimes were forced to modify internal policies due to popular discontent, outside pressure, or a combination of the two.

However controversial Reagan’s roll-back policy may remain in some quarters, Fred Halliday, for one, is prepared to credit him with a crucial role in altering the political landscape of the Third World. Yet Halliday is no Reagan apologist. A professor at the London School of Economics, he is the “engaged scholar” par excellence, capable of writing shrewd analyses of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry in the underdeveloped world while at the same time celebrating the most tyrannical leftist regimes. Halliday’s ideological bias (he is, in fact, an active Trotskyist) is summed up by his complaint that Moscow has been overly timid in handing out aid to revolutionary regimes and movements.



In From Kabul to Managua:, Halliday pessimistically identifies three broad trends as threatening the viability of existing socialist regimes and thwarting the triumph of future revolutions: Soviet retreat from entanglement in regional conflicts; the “mistakes” of the most recent group of revolutionary regimes; and an activist and confrontational American policy designed to contain and, where possible, reverse Soviet influence.

Unlike many American foreign-policy experts who incorrectly minimize the Soviet role in stimulating revolution, Halliday places the various Third World crises directly within the context of the broader geopolitical struggle. He is in surprising agreement with American hardliners on the reasons for the upsurge of revolutionary ferment in the 70’s, identifying the key events as the collapse of the dictatorship in Portugal, which accelerated the pace of change in southern Africa, and, more to the point, the failure of American will in the aftermath of Vietnam. Congress’s refusal to assist the UNITA movement in Angola, the Carter administration’s impotence in the face of an impending Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, and the chattering about human rights during the waning hours of the Shah’s rule in Iran all convinced pro-Communist forces in countries like Grenada and El Salvador that revolutionary war could be prosecuted without fear of “Yankee imperialism.”

American withdrawal was not, however, sufficient to ensure the success of nascent revolutionary movements. As Halliday notes, “external military and economic support was essential.” For a while at least, the Soviets were happy to encourage and subsidize revolutions engineered by politically reliable forces, that is, movements that were likely to institute Marxist-Leninist systems once in power. But the Soviet role was limited by inherent weakness. Moscow could provide arms to help its allies gain power, various forms of aid to enable unpopular regimes to maintain dominance, and a political model uniquely structured for the control of restive populations. Unfortunately, from Halliday’s perspective, the Soviets could not offer economic assistance, sound advice on development, or a global economic system into which the new regimes could be integrated.

The result for Third World revolutionary regimes was an unsatisfying set of alternatives: either withdraw from the international economy, a move guaranteed to induce poverty, or initiate relations with the capitalist world, with all the compromises this implied.

There were also problems inherent in the nature of the regimes themselves. According to Halliday, the crux of the matter lay in the absence of a developmental blueprint. The societies of Eastern Europe were already struggling to cope with slow growth and popular discontent. Once-promising Third World models were in even worse disarray: Tanzania’s scheme of “African socialism” was a shambles while China was moving steadily down the capitalist road. Furthermore, the once-popular view that Third World revolutions were driven by indigenous, and therefore culturally superior, values became increasingly untenable in the wake of Pol Pot and Khomeini.

The final, and by Halliday’s reckoning most significant, element in the decline of Third World revolution was the Reagan administration’s policy of pressuring or overthrowing pro-Soviet regimes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Halliday traces Reagan’s success to his administration’s strategic flexibility. Thus, on a few occasions—Grenada, Libya-direct—military action was taken, important for the cautionary message to other regimes which challenged American interests. Where U.S. involvement proved impossible, the administration implicitly encouraged other countries (like Israel, South Africa, or China) to exert pressure on Soviet allies. The U.S. was also highly successful in preempting revolutionary triumphs by either assisting beleaguered governments, as in El Salvador, or promoting the departure of unpopular leaders, as in the Philippines and South Korea.



The U.S. was not always able to dislodge entrenched Communist leaderships: witness Nicaragua and Angola. Yet even in cases where the desired goal proved beyond the capability of U.S. “imperialism,” Halliday credits American policies with forcing, if not the abandonment of socialism, then certainly major internal shifts toward market economies and, to a lesser degree, political freedom.

Perhaps more significantly, the U.S. decision to exploit each and every weak point in the Soviet Third World empire eventually contributed to Moscow’s gradual disengagement from regional crises. While the Soviets retained a military capacity to prevent the actual reversal of socialism in their allied regimes, the cost, both financial and diplomatic, was high. The billions of rubles funneled to regimes as diverse as South Yemen, Cuba, and Ethiopa constituted a seemingly endless drain. Interestingly, even Gorbachev seemed willing to pay the price, at least at first: the early months of his rule were marked by a massive flow of arms and proxy troops to Soviet allies bogged down in civil wars. Yet as quick triumphs failed to materialize, Gorbachev saw the necessity of removing impediments to improved diplomatic relations with Europe, China, and the United States. Thus the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, accept less-than-satisfactory agreements to resolve other conflicts, and tacitly forswear new adventures in the Third World.



Halliday’s analysis, though often provocative, is also at various points extremely weak, in ways both minor and fundamental. In the former category is his sneering attitude toward charges of Communist involvement in the international narcotics trade. That Halliday’s study was completed before official Cuban revelations of drug trafficking by figures in the military and security services is no excuse, since he certainly had access to an impressive body of evidence linking Cubans, Bulgarians, and Sandinistas to the drug business.

A more basic problem flows from Halliday’s refusal to acknowledge the criminal character of Third World Communism. Here Halliday faced a dilemma, for in past writings he has championed practically every anti-American revolution, including Iran’s. He is obviously displeased that, for example, South Korea instituted reforms which, while significantly altering the political system, left the economic system intact. Despite his veneer of critical dispassion, Halliday remains at heart the most irresponsible kind of leftist, preferring the poverty and regimentation of Vietnam to the relative prosperity and freedom of South Korea.

The same radical prejudice causes Halliday to misinterpret the importance of the Soviet Union’s caution toward Third World entanglement. A tone of bitterness creeps into his discussion of Soviet attitudes; Halliday writes of “lassitude” and a regrettable erosion of enthusiasm for stimulating socialism around the globe. As evidence, he cites a 1988 poll which showed fully 77 percent of Soviet diplomats and international-affairs specialists evincing the belief that spreading socialism was an anachronistic goal.

On this score, the Soviets are on far firmer ground than Western radicals like Halliday. The Soviets actually participated in the process of “building socialism” in societies like Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, and recent Soviet writings on the subject suggest that they found the enterprise a dismal one. Halliday concludes with the assertion that, even today, the core of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry entails “two competing general ideas about how individual societies and the world as a whole should be organized.” On this point most surely he is dead wrong. At the level of ideas at least, capitalist democracy has clearly won out over statist socialism. Those remaining few Western leftists who doubt this are in serious need of a strong dose of new thinking.



About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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