Communism and the peace movement in the early Cold War era, 1949-1953

This week, the economist Paul Mason argued a ‘left-wing’ case for nuclear weapons for The Guardian, which was rebutted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Kate Hudson and Stop the War’s Lindsey German. Since the advent of nuclear weapons, the left in Britain has generally opposed nuclear weapons – although the Labour Party has fluctuated on this issue since the 1950s. One common misconception is that the Communist Party opposed nuclear disarmament until the emergence of the CND in the late 1960s, but research by myself and Nick Barnett demonstrates that the CPGB was committed to a multilateral peace since the late 1940s. This post, based on our forthcoming article in Labour History Review, argues that the opposite of this misconception seems to be the case, that the peace movement was so closely linked in the mainstream press and by anti-communist politicians to communism, it was difficult to mobilise around the issue of peace in Britain in the early Cold War era.

BPC

Scholars looking at the British left have long contended that the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was hostile towards the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) because it threatened the dominance of the British Peace Committee (BPC) over the peace movement in Britain.[1] As Willie Thompson explained:

In the first place it had seen the new movement as a distraction from what was really important, namely disarmament negotiations between the Great Powers… The second reason for the party’s suspicion was that the Campaign was seen as a potential rival to its own front peace organisation, the British Peace Committee…[2]

On the other hand, some scholars have argued that the attitude of the Communist Party towards the CND (and the peace movement more generally) was more ambivalent. As Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley point out in their biography of CPGB Industrial Organiser Bert Ramelson, the ‘main efforts [of the Party] were directed toward the peace campaign’ in the 1950s, but always on the multilateral platform of banning all nuclear weapons.[3] Richard Taylor has also stated, ‘Contrary to popular opinion both inside and outside CND, the Daily Worker had given considerable coverage to Peace Movement activities prior to the formation of CND.’[4]

The Communist Party of Great Britain, although initially supportive of the limited use of the atomic bomb in 1945,[5] had, since the Cold War began, been pushing for ‘peace’ amongst the Soviet and Western blocs. However peace had a particularly meaning for the CPGB and was tied to the prospects of multilateral disarmament, the dismantling of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the continued disarmament of West Germany, as well as non-interference by the West in places such as Greece, Malaya, China and Korea. Bob Darke, an ex-CPGB member who wrote an expose of the Party in 1952, described the Party’s position on peace in the new Cold War era:

the call for Peace, which had been more or less dormant on the Party’s cluttered platform, suddenly bounded into life… It began to appear more and more in Party propaganda. The Daily Worker began to print it with a capital P. It was top priority in all propaganda.[6]

The British Peace Committee was formed in 1949, with its chairman being Ivor Montagu, who was also a member of the Communist Party. An article in the Party’s weekly journal World News and Views on the foundation of the BPC alleged that ‘active propaganda for a Third World War is being carried out by a handful of powerful privileged interests in America and Western Europe’ and that ‘[m]alice, fear and hatred are being roused against the Soviet Union’.[7] While calling for ‘[f]riendship between peoples of all countries and particularly of Britain, China, France, the U.S.A., and the U.S.S.R.’ and that the BPC ‘treat[ed] none as enemies except the instigators of war’,[8] the BPC had an underlying pro-Soviet outloo

The Peace Pledge Union, on the other hand, had been established by ‘progressive’ sections of the Church of England in the mid-1930s after war in Europe seemed more likely after the accession of Nazi Germany. While a pacifist organisation, the PPU also pursued a line of appeasement towards Germany and although historians have debated whether this crossed the line from appeasement to some more active form of support, the CPGB in the 1930s saw the PPU as pro-fascist. In 1938, a Central Committee report at the Party’s 15th National Congress announced, ‘we have found it necessary to carry on a sharp ideological struggle against those tendencies in the Peace Movement who oppose collective security and seek reconciliation with Fascist countries, specially shown in the leadership of the Peace Pledge Union’.[9] This animosity between the CPGB and the PPU lasted into the Cold War era, where the PPU zealously indulged in anti-communism.

During the early years of the Cold War, the BPC and PPU dominated the small peace movement that existed in Britain. While the mainstream media and politicians were wary about the PPU because the Union’s stance in the lead up to the Second World War, they were more concerned about those who campaigned for peace or disarmament being covert communist agents and shared the anti-communism of the PPU. The BPC, as the British representative of the World Peace Council, established principally by the Soviet Union, allowed the media to portray the peace movement as communist and because of the WPC’s association with Soviet communism, Gunter Wernicke has written, a number of other peace groups across Western Europe refused to co-operate with the WPC,[10] which was the case in Britain.

For many politicians and those in the mainstream media, there was the assumption that peace was analogous with communism and throughout this period, the word ‘peace’ was regularly placed by many media outlets in inverted commas, suggesting a change in its meaning in the Cold War era. One of the key promoters of this idea was Christopher Mayhew, Labour Cabinet minister and founder of Labour’s Information Research Department (IRD), who stated in a Sheffield Telegraph article that ‘“peace”… meant a communist victory’.[11] Reiterating Mayhew’s suspicion of the term ‘peace’, Prime Minister Clement Atlee referred to the BPC in Parliament in November 1950 as the ‘so-called British Peace Committee’.[12] Tony Shaw has argued that Britain’s popular mainstream press followed this concept and was staunchly anti-communist throughout the early 1950s,[13] finding much to criticise the peace movement about.

In 1950, the BPC was involved in two initiatives that saw the mainstream media and politicians from both the Labour Party and the Conservatives claim that the BPC was not working for ‘peace’, but for Soviet-styled communism. Firstly, the BPC campaigned on behalf of the Stockholm Appeal, a call made by the World Peace Council for an end to all nuclear weapons. Launched in March 1950, the BPC was involved in collecting signatures from the British public in support of this appeal. The text of the appeal was brief, yet very broad, but was taken by many anti-communists in Britain as a pledge for support of communism. The conservative historian Max Beloff stated in The Listener:

The Stockholm appeal was not simply an appeal for peace; it was an appeal for peace on the Soviet terms; it was an appeal to accept the Soviet pattern of life for ourselves; because if we resist its imposition, force will be used, as it is being used elsewhere.[14]

Secondly, the WPC announced that it would hold its annual congress in Sheffield, which agitated many anti-communists in Britain. This caused considerable anxiety for the Labour government and sections of the mainstream press. The Atlee government attempted to disrupt the planning of the Sheffield Congress by denying entry into the country of many foreign delegates.[15] Whilst some in the press thought that banning the entry of these foreign delegates was anti-democratic and moved into the realm of authoritarianism, some of the tabloid newspapers, such as Daily Mail, criticised the government for not going far enough. The newspaper continued its long-held narrative that Labour was ‘too soft’ on communism or was a crypto-communist government and that its usual ‘controlling’ nature was reserved in circumstances when dealing with supposed communist fellow travellers. The newspaper rhetorically asked, ‘odd is it not that a government who propose to control the British people hand and foot cannot stop a lot of subversive aliens coming in’.[16] The editorial continued:

No one wants to see our liberties infringed, but it may be necessary to take something from them to preserve them. That happened in the last war – and we are at war again, though they call it a Cold War now.[17]

The criticism of the non-communist peace organisations being naïve and misled by the communists in the BPC/WPC became widespread. The PPU, as the longest established peace group, was particularly concerned about this and was aware that association with the communist-led peace organisations could inflict damage upon their cause. Douglas Hyde, a Catholic journalist who defected from the CPGB, criticised the pacifist movement in the Catholic Herald, stating that the campaign of the BPC, led by the British Communist Party, had ‘puzzled, and in some cases deceived, many genuine peace lovers’, but warned that it was actually ‘timed and designed to aid the USSR, which stands to benefit so much by the disarmament of the West.’[18]

The PPU tried to engage with the mainstream to undo this association with the communist slant of the BPC. In late 1951, Peace News, with the broad support of the PPU’s leadership, launched ‘Operation Ghandi’ and called for direct action against nuclear weapons and Britain’s Civil Defence programme.[19] In January 1952, they organised a sit-in protest at the War Office in Westminster, which resulted in 11 arrests. The leaflet distributed to by the protestors at this demonstration emphasised the non-communist stance of the PPU, stating:

We owe you an explanation. We are not crackpots and we are not communists.

We know we look silly. We are doing it to appeal to your intelligence and your conscience, although it may lead to arrest and imprisonment…

We who give you this leaflet refuse to take part in war or violent struggle for either West or East.[20]

Against a mainstream media and a bipartisan government commitment to anti-communism, the PPU and other non-communist peace campaigners found it difficult to put forward their own narrative of peace and successfully disassociate themselves from the Communists. The result was that a number of non-communists dropped out of the movement in frustration over the communist involvement in the BPC. J.B. Priestley, who later became central to the organisation of CND, declined offers to join the World Peace Council because of its connections with communism.[21] Andrew Bone suggests that Bertrand Russell refused to back disarmament, during the early 1950s, on the grounds that nuclear weapons would still be manufactured during any war (Instead he advocated a world government which maintained a monopoly of weapons).[22] This refusal by many, who eventually were key proponents of disarmament, reveals the fragmentary nature of the peace movement during the early 1950s. The popularity of the movement achieved under the stewardship of well-known figures such as Russell and Priestley suggests that the communist taint was a chief reason why the movement was unable to make much headway in the early 1950s.

———————————————-

[1] See: David Widgery, The Left in Britain (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976) p. 106; Nigel Young, An Infantile Disorder? The Crisis and Decline of the New Left (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) p. 154; Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict, p. 147; Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004) p. 30.

[2] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992)  p. 116.

[3] Roger Seifert & Tom Sibley, Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2012) p. 47; p. 56.

[4] Richard Taylor, ‘The Marxist Left and the Peace Movement in Britain since 1945’, in Richard Taylor & Nigel Young (eds), Campaigns for Peace: British Peace Movements in the Twentieth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987) p.163.

[5] See: Malcolm MacEwen, The Greening of a Red (London: Pluto Press, 1991) pp. 133-138.

[6] Bob Darke, The Communist Technique in Britain (London: Penguin Books, 1952) p. 143.

[7] ‘Resolution of the British Peace Congress’, World News and Views, 5 Nov., 1959, p. 532.

[8] ‘Resolution of the British Peace Congress’, p. 532.

[9] CPGB Central Committee, Report of the Central Committee to the 15th Party Congress, September 16-19, 1938, http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/britain/central_committee/1938/09/report.htm (accessed 23 January, 2014).

[10] Gunter Wernicke, ‘The Communist Led World Peace Council and the Western Peace Movements: The Fetters of Bipolarity and Some Attempts to Break in the Fifties and Early Sixties’ Peace and Change 23, 3 (1998), p. 270.

[11] Cited in Christopher Mayhew, A War of Words: A Cold War Witness (London: I.B. Taurus, 1998), p. 81.

[12] HC Deb. 9 Nov. 1950, vol 480, col. 1099.

[13] Tony Shaw, ‘The Popular Press and The Early Cold War’, History, 83 (1998), pp. 80-85.

[14] Max Beloff, ‘The Soviet Approach to History’, The Listener, 1134, 23 Nov. 1950, p. 580.

[15] Phillip Deery, ‘The Dove Flies East: Whitehall, Warsaw and the 1950 World Peace Congress’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 48/4 (2002)

[16] ‘Comment: The Red Carpet’, Daily Mail, 10 November, 1950, p. 1.

[17] ‘Comment’, p. 1.

[18] Douglas Hyde, ‘“Peace-War” Chiefs Meet In London’, Catholic Herald, 8 June, 1950, p. 8.

[19] Sean Scalmer, Gandhi in the West: The Mahatma and the Rise of Radical Protest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 135.

[20] Leaflet reproduced in ‘Operation Gandhi: A Call to YOU’, Peace News, 18 Jan 1952, p. 3.

[21] ‘Open Letter to a Russian Colleague’, cited in Wittner One World or None, p. 200.

[22] Andrew G. Bone ‘Russell and the Communist-Aligned Peace Movement in the Mid-1950s’ Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies, 21 (2001) pp. 34-6.

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One comment

  1. Darke’s comment – “the call for Peace, which had been more or less dormant on the Party’s cluttered platform, suddenly bounded into life” – implies spontaneity. Along with every other Western CP, which embraced “the call for Peace” at approximately the same time, the CPGB was responding directly to Moscow’s so-called “peace offensive”, first signaled at the inaugural conference of the Cominform in Oct 1947 but developed throughout 1948.

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