Michael Kidron

SALT in the Wounds

(February-March 1971)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.46, February-March 1971, pp.6-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The impact on the most recent stage of the arms race on. the American economy has been discussed in previous issues of this journal in IS 40 and 44, as well as in the final chapter of Western Capitalism Since the War (Penguin edition). But what will the impact be on the Russians, and in particular, what do the Russians hope to achieve from the Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) Talks that entered their third round in Helsinki in November?

The Americans proposed a freeze on the total number of strategic weapons and on certain broad categories within that number in Vienna, last summer. They said in effect that both sides should ultimately have about 2,000, made up in the American case of 1,000 Minuteman, land-based, missiles, 54 older Titans, also land-based, 656 submarine-launched missiles and 200 strategic bombers. In the Russian case, the 2,000 would be made up of the numbers already deployed – some 800 Minuteman-equivalents, 200 submarine-launched missiles, 140 strategic bombers and 300 SS-9s, the new land-based super-rocket they have been installing for the last four years – plus some of the missiles now in the pipeline. Both sides would limit their defensive missiles – the ABMs – to one hundred.

The American proposals did not cover the so-called tactical nuclear weapons, 7,100 of which, controlled by the US, are sited in Western Europe within range of Russia. Nor did they cover MIRVing, the clustering of many independently-targeted nuclear warheads on one missile. They were also riot concerned with the ratio of air-borne missiles to aircraft, which promised to get as high as twenty to one in the 1970s generation of American bombers.

The American proposals were clearly aimed at preventing the narrowing quantitative gap between their own and the Russians’ strategic armouries from opening up in the Russians’ favour as the huge bulge of SS-9s and submarine launchers comes off the production lines. They were also clearly aimed at widening the already-huge qualitative gap in the Americans’ favour. For, the Americans are deploying real MIRVs where the Russians have not gone beyond initial tests of multiple, but not yet independently-targeted, warheads, The Americans are building immensely sophisticated long-range missile-carrying aircraft, which the Russians are not. And the Americans still have the geographically strategic edge in any confrontation.

In essence the US was telling the Russians that they would have to recognise the US military hegemony, if they wanted to remain in the relatively cosy world of mutual deterrence, where each power is safe in the knowledge of its ability to inflict untold harm on the other, no matter how hostilities begin.

If the Russians refused to accept, then the US would simply go on with their current program – a minimum of 500 Minutemen-111s, each armed with three independently targeted warheads and protected by anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs); 31 nuclear submarines each with sixteen Poseidon missiles; further refinements of the MIRV to raise the cluster of warheads on each missile from three to twelve; and much more besides.

The US was underlining the obvious. It can now mount an armaments program so colossal that unless matched dollar for dollar by the Russians, it would be able to move from a ‘second strike’ strategy, based on deterring attacks, to a ‘first strike’ strategy, dependent on the ability to destroy the enemy to such an extent as to prevent retaliation. So colossal is this program, that if the Russian bureaucracy were to match it they would break under the strain.

As it is the Russians are spending a fortune: 18 billion dollars on their strategic force, twice the US level, and another 26 million on research, nearly as much as the US.

They are spending out of an economy half the size of the American, two-fifths of which is already committed in one way or another to military production. It is an economy moreover whose rate of growth is declining, and whose rulers find it inordinately difficult to speed up through technical innovation and increases in productivity. Even such a crucial defense-oriented industry as computers is one technological generation behind the competition – ‘in a different era’ to quote Academicians Sakharov, Turchin and Medvedev – while overall productivity is a third to two-fifths. The economic reforms cautiously introduced in 1965 have done little to help.

In an inflexible and tightly-stretched economy such as this, any increase in military spending has an immediate, brutal impact on mass living standards. In the past such increases have led to go-slows, strikes and even bloody ‘hunger riots’, as in Novcherkassk, July 1962, after Khrushchev raised meat and dairy prices to help pay for the relatively mild round of arms build-up at the time of the Cuba crisis. In the future increases on the scale that now seems likely could result in such a frenzy of mass anger and violence throughout Russia, so laced with anti-Russian fervour in the peripheral Republics and satellites, as to question the very survival of the bureaucracy as we know it.

Of course an organised and savage repressive system such as the Russian would probably ride a first spontaneous upsurge of revolt, however widespread. But it could do so only by military means which would mean that the ruling bureaucracy would see its power slip suddenly and irrevocably to the military.

The army has come a long way since Stalin’s purges. It sits astride the huge, privileged and technically most advanced sector of the Russian economy – the ‘defense sector’; it acts increasingly as the king-maker in the Kremlin, with Khrushchev’s rise to its credit (as against consumer-oriented Malenkov) as well as his fall ( when he tried to resist increasing protection money to the forces). In recent years, it has even begun to crowd out the civilian partymen on the reviewing stand above Lenin’s mausoleum!

Its muscle has fed on the bounding resources diverted to armaments. But not only on that. Its strength also reflects the party bureaucracy’s decline in the wake of many of its major historic functions. The party bureaucracy were once an essential instrument in the bloody restructuring of Russian society. They alone combined a national network with physical and economic force, an ideology of progress and a system of recruitment and social mobility for its growing membership. But that particular job is done. They were also once the only part of the ruling class that could fend off the economic, political and military attacks that were mounted against Russia by the rest of world capitalism. But now it is the military pressure and the military response that are paramount, and here the marshals are as competent if not more so.

Even the party’s role as coercer of last resort has been eroded by the need to pack more punch and a more relevant ideology in any fight with a modern working class. The workers in Hungary 1956 and, to a less extent, Czechoslovakia 1968 were vastly less cowed by party terrorism and less influenced by its ideology than the shocked and newly-urbanized peasantry of the Stalinist thirties.

Sensing as they probably do their fading powers and the military’s growth in strength and relevance, the party bureaucracy’s view of SALT must be terrifying. If they accept the American ultimatum they lay themselves open to a gradual widening of the gap between themselves and the US and to an equal erosion of their capacity to strike back. At home, they open themselves to a coup on the part of a military establishment eager to match the US and willing to grab an even larger hunk of the national loaf than at present whatever the social consequences. But if they do not accept, if they try to match the Americans and satisfy their marshals with outlays like the astronomic 400 billion dollars they quote as the price of an ABM system, they run the risk of provoking rebellion, even revolution, at home and in their dependencies, without any guarantee that they can hold off the army or, indeed, keep up with the US. No wonder the Russian leaders show every sign of indecision. It took eighteen months before they agreed, in June 1968, to enter the Strategic Army Limitation Talks in principle. It took another three months and many changes in direction from November that year to January 1969 before they agreed to actually begin. Meanwhile the press and army papers have been heavy with hooded threats and counterthreats, and with implicit blackmail encoded into debates on history or strategy as the bureaucrats take up positions.

And still nothing has been decided. The bureaucracy has said neither yes or no to the American proposals. They have signalled their willingness to consider an implicit agreement short of a negotiated settlement, by ceasing for eight months (November 1969 to June 1970) to emplace new SS-9s. But the Pentagon ignored that and went on deploying their newly-MIRVed Minuteman-111 missiles, their Safeguard ABM and even went on to harden their Minuteman silos. The Russians have since – December 1970 – signalled again by keeping their open military budget demonstratively flat, but there is no reason to think the Pentagon will be any kinder this time or be less than implacable in exploiting the difficulties.

So too with the Russian marshalls. Nothing short of untrammelled access to the new weapons will satisfy them.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks are stony territory for the party bureaucracy. They are revealing a set of unyielding technological and economic realities behind the worsening military balance ahead, and behind their declining pre-eminence at home. They are pointing to a class confrontation of terrible proportions within the Russian system. Whatever the outcome for the Russian workers, the party bureaucracy as we know it will not survive. No wonder it is still listening at SALT – nothing it can hope to shake out of the talks offers it any comfort.


Last updated on 19.10.2006