John Saville


Only half of the truth

(July 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.155, July/August 1992, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

International Labour and the Origins of the Cold War
Denis Macshane
Clarendon Press £37.50

The author has been a fulltime trade union official since 1977, and during the 1980s worked for the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF) based in Geneva. This volume is the product of a wide swathe of reading, and its documentation will be found very useful. International labour in the title refers to trade unionism, and especially to the metal unions, in Britain, Germany and France, and to the American Federation of Labour in the US.

Macshane is mainly concerned with the early years of the Cold War after 1945, and in particular with the short history of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), formed in 1945 and split apart in January 1949. He is concerned to play down the extent of American influence, and to emphasise the importance of national traditions and political attitudes shaped and moulded before 1939.

The establishment of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) in 1920 had led to bitter conflicts during the 1920s and after. Those leaders who developed an undeviating anti-Communist stance before 1939 – Konrad Ilg of the IMF, Citrine and Bevin in Britain, and the AFL leadership in the States – were still in place when the Second World War ended. The Europeans needed no outside advice in their successful efforts to curb and then to break the newly unified trade union international.

Moreover, for Macshane, the underlying reason for the Cold War – although other factors such as inter-state rivalries played their part – was that ‘the practice of Soviet Communism was unacceptable to the working people of Europe for it demanded a price in loss of freedom that they were not prepared to pay.’

Now this is not unreasonable as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. It is certainly true that the steady disillusionment with the Soviet Union exercised a major influence upon political attitudes among working people, especially in Europe, but in countries like Italy and France it was spread over at least two decades and encompassed Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 and the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The major omission in Macshane’s analysis is that the break up of the World Federation of Trade Unions was the result, not of basic anti-Communist attitudes of the union leaderships (although that was a factor) but because the Western union leaders were involved in close collaboration with the Foreign Office in London and the State Department in Washington.

The unions underwrote the national policies of their governments. This is not a new thought. The details were fully set out in the outstanding book by Peter Weiler, British Labour and the Cold War, published in 1988 by Stanford University Press, and which ought to be staple reading for all of us. Macshane gives a big hand to Weiler, but ignores his carefully documented account from the files of Whitehall and Washington.

We are confronted here once again with the importance – the crucial importance – of our understanding of the years after 1945, and in particular with the part which Bevin and the British Foreign Office played in the evolution of Cold War politics. The concentration upon the growing conflict between the major powers after 1945 has resulted in a too narrow history of world politics. It misses, among many other facts and factors, the significance of empire for Britain, and the subordination of Britain to the United States in the latter’s global ambitions.

So Macshane can quote A.S. Milward that the people of Western Europe after 1945 have ‘never known so long a peace nor a life so prosperous and so humane.’ Macshane has minor qualifications to this statement, noting especially the developments of the past ten years, but he is in agreement in general. Ho, ho! one says to Milward. One accepts, of course, rising living standards over the past decades, and the absence of war for the peoples of Western Europe; but analysis of the price that has been paid by the rest of the world for the ‘humane’ life that has been led provides a very different perspective.

We may suppose the statement to exclude Franco’s Spain, but does it take note of the British military intervention in what today is called Vietnam, which began in mid-September, a month after the war finally ended and when Western Europe was beginning to put itself together again? Does it note that the intervention in Vietnam had defeated the Vietminh by December 1945, allowing the French imperialists to return and thereby begin the long agony of the peoples of Vietnam? And does it include the fact that the British in October 1945, two months after the war finished, began using Japanese troops in combat role against the Vietminh, at a time when back home Japanese atrocities were being described in screaming headlines in the British press? No one in Britain at the time seemed to know about Japanese troops; indeed how many people know it now?

And what of increased colonial exploitation by the British – now well documented – to say nothing of the 150 or so wars that have been fought throughout the world between 1950 and the mid-1980s while the peoples of Western Europe continued their prosperous and humane style of living?

If you want to write the post-war history of anywhere in the world, or any institution, begin by assuming that all official statements are lies, or at best half truths, and then work your way through the mountain of records available; and some at least of the truth will begin to emerge. The way is hard.

Last updated on 4 July 2010