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the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

Book cover: Against the Cold War

Author's response


Against the Cold War. The History and Political Traditions of Pro-Sovietism in the British Labour Party, 1945–89

Darren G. Lilleker
IB Tauris
ISBN 1850434719; pp.294, 2004

Jon Davis

Anglia Polytechnic University

I welcome Jon Davis's review of Against the Cold War, a monograph based on my doctoral research undertaken 1997–2001. Davis makes some very interesting comments and observations as well as pointing out a number of deficiencies of which I was aware.

In commenting on the review I will start by recapitulating my interest in these individuals. The British Labour party appears to have a tradition of containing idealistic radicals who are in reality on the fringes of the party yet who feel they should have greater influence on the party's direction and political programme. One can look across many eras of the party's history to find such characters, and many of them feature heavily in my work. Interestingly, however, they are even a feature of Blair's term of leadership, thus a key question was why these people exist within that party and what is it that they aim to achieve by maintaining their insurgence within the party. There are many broader questions that could be asked, although this was the one that underpinned my research.

While dissent is a feature of every political party and is often related to the context of one or another issue, the politicians that are the focus of this work maintained a consistent opposition on many fronts, and linked their opposition to a critique of Labour's commitment to the creation of a socialist society. This was not founded on an intellectual understanding of socialism but was, as I argue in chapter 7, more of a pragmatic opposition due to a feeling of estrangement from the party. What needs to be recognised is that the Soviet Union played on this estrangement and dissatisfaction in order to encourage this type of non-intellectual but conviction-led political activist to promote the Soviet cause. Thus any in-depth discussion of ideological attachment cannot go beyond the superficial, as few of these individuals could articulate either how a socialist state should organise itself or its economy, or how ideology underpinned the organisation of Soviet societies; instead there was a latent belief that communist societies were organised 'for the workers' or 'the people', whereas, it was argued, capitalism in the US and UK protected the interests of plutocrats. Even Konni Zilliacus, the most well-read scholar within this political strand, concentrated on developing critiques of Labour policy but not its ideological foundations. (1) This book is, therefore, a study of the individuals who strove to develop a practical set of political arguments, not the ones shrouded in higher intellectualism; hence they shunned, and were shunned by, Marxist political groupings within the Labour party.

Davis finds the lack of any integration of a discussion of ideology, and in particular the absence of a discussion of the nature of pro-Sovietism, confusing. Perhaps that is the problem with this strand of political activism, as opposed to political thought: there is no single pro-Soviet outlook! This study took a deliberate constructivist approach to understanding these individuals; the analysis then contextualised their arguments within political eras and their events. So the book focused on studies of key individuals in order to develop an understanding of the similarities and differences between their arguments and positions. However, chapter 7 and the conclusion are intended to offer ways of understanding what elements of groupthink existed, and to determine the way in which the Soviet Union figured in their thinking, developed out of the earlier semi-biographical pieces. This approach may not be one that suits every reader; however, the intention was to ensure that new labels were not attached to the individuals prior to fully understanding what it was that motivated them personally.

An interesting point which Davis raises, and which is worthy of further exploration, is the concept of normalisation of the Soviet state. While other studies have dealt with the collapse in ideology after the death of Lenin, the notion that the Soviet Union was 'repackaging' itself through these change agents is wholly accurate. The concept of marketing is one that has been thrust to the heart of studies of politics and political communication in recent years. Much has been said regarding the use of marketing in order for parties to gain election within a state, (2) but less is said about the way in which nations market themselves on the world stage. There is perhaps a lot more that could be said regarding the Soviet Union's attempts to manage its reputation, enhance its credentials among the global left and refute its image as 'the evil empire'. While Against the Cold War focused on the individuals and their particular motivations, the extent to which they were part of a marketing strategy is an area that demands further revisionist study; a challenge I may well be interested in taking up in the future.

An equally important point is the extent to which detail of pro-Sovietism in the 1930s needed to be included. Davis rightly highlights Ramsay MacDonald's pragmatic approach to Anglo-Soviet relations, a story fully covered in the Coates 1945 study. (3) However what are important for this study are the events and arguments that would influence post-war relations. The 1924 general election saw the adoption of a far more cautious approach toward the Soviet Union, one which Bevin would follow on entering government. This led to the mistrust that meant that the British government would not consider allying with the Soviet Union until 1942, and still then with reservations. This had a far greater effect on the post-war relations than MacDonald's trading policies, though his diplomatic advances are given some mention (p. 51). The pre-war and WWII period encouraged interest in the Soviet Union, and therefore provides an important backdrop. However the study focuses on the previously neglected Cold War era, and thus detailed exploration of Labour's relations would be incongruous and largely irrelevant. A plethora of studies of the 1920s and 30s exist, not least among Jon Davis's own work; in contrast, scant attention is awarded to the minutiae of Cold War politics

My final point is one in defence of the grammar and spelling errors noted by Davis. Sadly in the current climate, while books on the Labour Party and on the Soviet Union have a market, there is little incentive for publishers to take on studies of what Davis rightly calls the 'smaller details'. I. B. Tauris offer authors the opportunity to publish monographs of academic value and interest, but on the basis of the author producing camera ready copy. While I will not bore readers with the problems of converting files into Adobe Pagemaker, I feel it is true to say that those who do it as a profession are vastly under-recognised, as are the professional copy-editors who support our production of books. I hope that the minor inaccuracies do not detract readers from the story the book attempts to convey – that is, one that allows individuals who have been written off due to one aspect of their political activism to explain themselves. I feel their stories provide fascinating insights into the political culture surrounding the politics of the Cold War and the way in which individuals who felt strongly about the issues became embroiled in a propaganda war forced upon them by the superpowers. It allows us to understand the nature of dissidence within nations and political parties, the motivations of the dissidents, and the difficulties and challenges faced by those who feel that they have no choice but to right the system. As I conclude in the book, they may have been misguided, although they at least stuck to their principles; equally, on one point they have been proven correct: that a US unfettered by a counterweight superpower could be more dangerous than one that must remain cautious and consider how the opposing superpower will react.

July 2005

  1. A. Potts, Zilliacus: a Life for Peace and Socialism (2002). Back to (1).
  2. D. G. Lilleker and J. Lees-Marshment, Political Marketing: a Comparative Perspective (2005). Back to (2).
  3. W. P. and Z. K. Coates, A History of Anglo-Soviet Relations (1945). Back to (3).

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