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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: September 2010

24 - The Cold War and the social and economic history of the twentieth century


The Cold War was not only about power politics, security, and hegemony – it was also a conflict between differing theories of how to organize economies and societies at the various stages of industrial development. Ideologies and belief systems helped define the Cold War’s front lines, but social conflict also largely determined its course and outcome. Beginning with the Marxist challenge to the capitalist system, multiple social concepts emerged during the course of the Cold War without any clear favorite model emerging. In the long run, however, collectivist and centrally planned economies showed some strengths in modernizing less developed societies albeit at great costs, whereas free-market economies showed greater productivity, at least after having accepted state-run systems of social welfare and a certain degree of planning at the national and international levels. That political freedom favored productivity and innovation ought to be one of the major lessons of the twentieth century.

Capitalist system, Marxist movement, and Soviet power

For Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, history was a story of class struggle. From their nineteenth-century perspective, they saw only two classes exercising an influence on history: the bourgeoisie that dominated society, and the proletariat that was exploited by it. The future, Marx and Engels believed, belonged to the proletariat. They predicted that the concentration of capital would continually increase, as would the exploitation and impoverishment of the proletariat. Finally, there would come a point when there would be no one left who could afford to buy the products of the few remaining big capitalists, and when the ever-expanding working class could no longer contain its indignation.