For a few brief months after the Soviet Union’s peaceful collapse, streams of vacuous babble about the “end of history” flooded the media. The cold war ended so swiftly and effortlessly that simple minds were filled with dreams of unchallengeable power and eternal American world domination. According to the promoters of this idea, American-style capitalism fulfills human needs so well that a century of struggle against capitalism’s underlying social principles had ended, and a future of imperturbable American hegemony lay ahead. But History was not impressed. As events in the Middle East have made all too clear, history’s end is nowhere in sight.

In fact, it was the cold war that in retrospect seems more like an end, or rather a detour, from history–a time when the left was disoriented and the political life of the nation became one-dimensional. Promoted by our nation’s leaders and the media as a period of historical contestation–a fight to the death between capitalism and Communism–the Soviet threat (and its identity with socialism) now appears to have been grossly exaggerated. Now, the cold war itself can be seen as a historical hiatus–a ritually choreographed standoff that afforded the American ruling class protection from dissent and an organizing principle for its retrograde foreign and domestic policies. Similarly, the cold war provided the Soviet Union with a rationale for the Communist Party’s unquestioned rule at home and in Eastern Europe. In short, the fear and conformity of the cold war was a godsend to the rulers on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

True, at times the threat of war seemed real enough, and at times military confrontations were devastating. The war against Vietnamese independence alone cost several million Indochinese lives, as well as the death of more than 58,000 American youth. But even in that situation, underlying priorities were never challenged. Indeed, cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation were the health of the state on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And while the Vietnam War did create an ephemeral left, it did so only after Americans became aware of the toll it was taking on both sides. When the war was over, things went back to business as usual.

All that has now changed. The difference between ritual cold war tensions and the terrors of the new era–real and faux–is all too clear. Now we confront a true enemy, an unpredictable, amorphous, almost intangible seething mass of freelancers, many of them highly educated and civilized, others feral, but all acting out of rage against the enhanced American Empire. These popular forces confront American-style capitalism spontaneously, through nongovernmental forms that ignore national boundaries and operate with little institutional control. Unlike the old enemy, the new ones mount deadly terrorist attacks on symbols of American military and commercial power, are secretly and informally organized, and are widely dispersed. As such they offer few clear targets for political or military engagement.

This represents a real threat to the social stability that postindustrial capitalism requires to function smoothly. And it offers the opportunity for megalomaniacal right-wingers to promote their militarist policies and dreams of perpetual world domination–as the Bush Administration’s actions show all too well. For all of democratic society, and especially for the left, this new (and certainly transitory) stage of history is costly and frightening. It is the price we pay for fifty years of political and intellectual stagnation, a time when the political dynamic of capitalism was detoured and frozen onto a cold war sidetrack.

A century and a half ago, Marx wrote that capitalists, “fanatically bent on making value expand itself,” were “ruthlessly forc[ing] the human race to produce for production’s sake.” He saw this “blind process” driving the development of industry to create the material conditions that alone can form the real basis of a higher form of society, one in which “the full and free development of every individual” would form the ruling principle. The good news is that thanks to the genius of capitalist development, a society based on that principle is now technically within our grasp. The bad news is that leftists continue to operate within the parameters of the trap set for them by the defenders of contemporary corporate capitalism. The events of September 11 strongly suggest that the time for the left to examine the social possibilities inherent in our material achievement has arrived. But they can do so only by breaking out of the straitjacket imposed by those frozen in the habits of thought and practice that dominate thinking in the world’s last remaining empire.