There are plenty of irrational reasons to be nostalgic for the middle of the twentieth century: who doesn’t love the furniture, the hairdos, the cars with vulva-shaped grilles? But there are plenty of practical reasons, too; it was a time of significant social change, thanks in part to the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Obviously, the Cold War caused plenty of human misery. Repression marred political life while millions died in neocolonial proxy wars and gulags. And the stress of potential nuclear Armageddon wasn’t trivial. But the contest between two superpowers over which system delivered more comfort, freedom, and happiness to its citizens greatly improved the human condition worldwide. University of Pennsylvania ethnographer Kristen Ghodsee writes, “the general scholarly consensus is that ordinary people — whether in the capitalist, Communist, or developing worlds — benefitted from superpower competition. An unintended consequence of American and Soviet grandstanding was often real progress.”
Here are a few benefits that the working class in the West reaped from these tensions.
As many historians have pointed out, political leaders across the ideological spectrum persistently argued that racial segregation undermined the United States’ position in the Cold War, making capitalism look bad at home and abroad. Civil rights activists often advanced such arguments, and the political class embraced them. In Brown v. Board of Education, the historic Supreme Court case that made racial segregation illegal, integrating schools all over the nation, the Truman Administration filed an amicus brief arguing that the color line was detrimental to US foreign policy interests: “The United States is trying to prove to the people of the world of every nationality, race, and color, that a free democracy is the most civilized and secure form of government ever devised by man.” The condition of African Americans posed an obstacle to this ambitious scheme, the administration wrote, as “racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.”
As Ghodsee has chronicled, the superior situation of women in the East Bloc was a constant and effective source of communist propaganda, which often drew interest from women in the capitalist world. (East German sexologists even found — and their government proudly boasted — that communist women had more orgasms than their luckless West German counterparts.) Women in Western countries did not get the vote until after the 1917 Russian Revolution, which gave women and men equal political rights. The savvy feminist use of Cold War tensions led to paid maternity leave in all but four countries (one of which was the United States, natch). Jenny Brown, abortion rights activist and author of Without Apology, recently pointed out in an interview with Jacobin that American women won legal abortion partly because women in most Communist countries enjoyed this fundamental right. It became, she noted, an embarrassment that women in the “free world” had no legal remedies for unwanted pregnancies at home, but could travel to Poland and get an abortion for $10.
Better Wages and Benefits
After 1945, workers in West Germany immediately got the right to join a union, to strike to improve working conditions, and in some cases to be represented on the boards of large companies. German workers recall that during the Cold War, “East Germany was always at the bargaining table,” Jenny Brown observes. In the United States, the Soviets funded the Communist Party, which distinguished itself with effective multiracial labor organizing, winning improvements for workers of all races.
Now that our ruling class doesn’t have a Communist superpower stepping on its toes, things are pretty crummy. In fact, as the United States gained the upper hand in the Cold War and eventually won — with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and revolution on the wane in the Third World — progress on all these issues slowed and eventually ground to a halt. Schools became segregated again. We have in recent decades seen dramatic erosion in abortion rights in the United States, and also in many formerly Communist countries. In Poland, for instance, former host to the $10 destination abortion, the procedure is now illegal. Wages and living standards throughout the West have stagnated.
We can’t, of course, recreate the advantageous historical circumstances of the Cold War. Nor should we harbor illusions that its tensions were wholly good for the working class; in fact, some historians have noted that the anti-communist framing of many of these struggles limited the horizons of social progress. For instance, while racial discrimination was often cast as antithetical to American freedom, poverty and economic inequality were more often understood as part of capitalism, intrinsically unsolvable. Anti-communism also crippled the labor movement internally, enabling red-baiting, division, and easy cooptation by capitalists.
The next major waves of social progress won’t be delivered by geopolitics. There is no comparable socialist rival to United States backing our domestic radicals and giving our social movements both propaganda value and the heft of realpolitik, as the USSR once did. We have to create that credible left threat from within, through our own organizing, ideas, and institutions. When we do, we’ll make progress on material issues like these once more.