Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


A Life for Peace and Socialism

Archie Potts
Zilliacus: A Life for Peace and Socialism
Merlin, London, 2002, pp. 227, £14.95

KONNI Zilliacus is one of the lost names of British socialism. The Tyneside labour historian Archie Potts has provided us with the first biography of Zilliacus’ eventful life. Born in 1894, the son of a peripatetic gun-running Finnish nationalist, his contacts during the First World War with Norman Angell and G. Lowes Dickinson of the Union of Democratic Control drew him into politics, and he become very much influenced by the UDC’s ideas, which envisaged the maintenance of world peace through the framework of an international institution. He then became the intelligence and cipher officer for General Alfred Knox in the British expedition in Siberia, and started seriously to question Westminster’s intentions when British forces were kept in Russia after the Central Powers had surrendered in 1918. Although he hardly considered himself a socialist at the time, he joined the Labour Party in December 1918. With a broad knowledge of international affairs and a remarkable ability with languages, he worked in the Secretariat of the League of Nations, and, as a result of the close links between the League and the Labour and Socialist International, he came increasingly into contact with the leaders of the Labour Party to the degree that by the early 1930s he was writing foreign policy documents for them.

Potts states that as the 1930s drew by and the international scene became more threatening, Zilliacus combined his existing outlook with Marxism, and became a leading advocate of collective security, that is to say, a call for an alliance of Britain, France and other bourgeois democracies and the Soviet Union against the threat posed by Nazi Germany. Although collective security was promoted by its supporters as a means of preventing war, its opponents, mainly Trotskyists and anarchists on the left and Conservatives and fascists on the right, insisted that the encirclement of Germany which it inferred was more likely to lead to war. It is interesting that Potts notes that Zilliacus realised that not only could confronting fascist states lead to war, but that such a move might have to be openly contemplated and supported. This, however, was acceptable, as Zilliacus pointed out that ‘the entry of the Soviet Union into the League had transformed it from a purely capitalist organisation’ (p. 42). Not surprisingly, Zilliacus became a leading supporter in the Labour Party of the Popular Front campaign of the late 1930s, and had several books on international affairs published by the Left Book Club. He was adopted as the Labour Party candidate for Gateshead in the summer of 1939, although he was not to become its MP until the general election in 1945.

As a leading advocate of the Popular Front, Zilliacus was on good terms with the Communist Party of Great Britain, but this relationship came under considerable strain after September 1939 once the party, in line with the Communist International’s obeying the logic of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, turned from supporting to opposing the Allies’ war against Germany. The scope of his anger was extended to Moscow itself after the invasion of Finland at the end of 1939, when he more-or-less accused the Soviet regime of using Nazi methods.

The rift between Zilliacus and Stalinism was largely patched up once the Soviet Union joined in the war after the German invasion in June 1941, and although Zilliacus declined the invitation to join the Communist Party as a clandestine member within the Labour Party, on the grounds that he had always been a Labour Party member and that to work within it as an agent of another party would be dishonest (Potts gives no indication that he had any political differences with Stalinism at this point), he remained on good terms with the Stalinists, and his material appeared intermittently in their Labour Monthly. Zilliacus was not a wholly uncritical admirer of the Soviet regime like D.N. Pritt, yet he went much further than most people in giving it the benefit of the doubt. Hence when a court case blew up in France over Viktor Kravchenko’s book I Chose Freedom, he went to Paris in early 1949 and publicly defended the Soviet regime against the charges made by the defector. Potts shows that he claimed that the purges ‘had rooted out a potential fifth column in the Soviet Union’, and that the period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact ‘had been used by Stalin to strengthen Soviet defences’, and he also notes that Zilliacus declared that another three decades would have to pass before the Soviet Union could enjoy the sort of civil liberties that existed in Britain (pp. 131–2). Zilliacus’ widow added that he deplored the existence of labour camps in the Soviet Union and looked forward to the day when they no longer existed, although one cannot ascertain from this book whether these sentiments were publicly expressed. Zilliacus’ pro-Soviet outlook and his sharp – and very much justified – criticisms of Labour’s increasingly fervid anti-communist foreign policy led to his expulsion from the Labour Party in 1948. Parenthetically, it is rather droll to see the citing of a certain T.G. Healey [sic] of Streatham CLP imploring the Labour Party conference in 1949 about ‘the right’ of party members ‘to speak, to differ, and to have their opinions democratically discussed without fear of expulsion and fear of threats’ (p. 140). Somewhat strangely, Potts misses the opportunity to point to the stark contrast between Gerry Healy’s plea for tolerance in the Labour Party and the tyrannical internal regime of any group that he controlled.

Then came more trouble. Zilliacus had become very enamoured with Tito, and he was rash enough to continue with his political and personal friendship with the Yugoslav leader after he had been excommunicated by Stalin. The lack of gratitude of the Stalinists for all Zilliacus’ enthusiastic work for them was shown when, in a particularly splenetic attack upon the Wall Street Glamour Boy in Belgrade, Ivor Montagu accused Zilliacus of ‘frantically treading water in an ocean of lies’ (Labour Monthly, December 1949). Yet even after being so cruelly knifed by his former Stalinist allies, his big book I Choose Peace, published in late 1949, was largely uncritical of the Soviet Union, and even softened some of his previous criticisms of Moscow’s actions during the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, including heavily revising his assessment of the invasion of Finland. And then his name – along with those of Labour MPs Richard Crossman and George Wigg, Noël Coward (!) and the former Stalinist hack Claud Cockburn (who must have fallen out with Moscow over something or another) – appeared in the accusations uttered by the defendants in the show-trial of Slánský and other Czech leaders in 1952. Although he was greatly upset by all this, one gets the feeling that his criticisms of Stalinism were more often in a tone of regret and bewilderment than of anger, as if the Stalinists’ actions were more a matter of individual transgressions and accidental excesses than being systemic iniquities.

Zilliacus was permitted to rejoin the Labour Party in February 1952, and he became the MP for Gorton in Manchester in 1955. He continued to stand on the left of the party to the end of his life in 1967, and although he was seen as too pro-Soviet by many Labour left-wingers, he worked with them in the Victory for Socialism campaign. He continued to oppose the Cold War orientation of the Labour leadership, was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, opposed the Vietnam War, and re-established friendly relations with Stalinism as the post-Stalin thaw took hold.

There are quite a few minor slips in the text. Some are simple spelling errors. The appalling Russia correspondent of The Times at the time of the revolution was Robert Wilton, not ‘Wilson’; Stalin’s cultural ideologue was Andrei Zhdanov, not ‘Zhadanov’, the socialist historian was Julius Braunthal, not ‘Brauthal’; the Conservative friend of Tito was Fitzroy Maclean, not ‘McClean’; the Conservative leader was Alec Douglas-Home, not ‘Douglas-Hume’; the Trotskyist leader was Gerry Healy, not ‘Healey’, and the Japanese protectorate in Manchuria was Manchukuo, not ‘Manchukao’. Others are a result of the commonplace British disease of ignoring diacriticals that can be applied these days with modern computerised typesetting. The Spanish Republican Premier was Negrín, not ‘Negrin’; the Czech President was Eduard Beneš, not ‘Benes’, and other Czechs mentioned were Rudolf Slánský, not ‘Slansky’, Antonín Novotný, not ‘Novotny’, and Alexander Dubček, not ‘Dubcek’; the Polish Stalinist leader was Władisław Gomułka, not ‘Wladislaw Gomulka’, and the Yugoslav writer whom Zilliacus helped was Jovan Običan, not ‘Obican’ or ‘Orbican’.

More important, however, is that our author accepts without question many of Zilliacus’ assumptions. Potts makes no criticism of the analysis promoted by Zilliacus that the majority of the Tories opposed collective security because they were putting their class interests before the interests of the nation. This idea, also subscribed to by the Stalinists – in 1938, Harry Pollitt condemned Chamberlain for ‘betraying the national interests of the British people’ (For Peace and Plenty, p. 26) – is bizarre, as it assumes that in a capitalist country there is a national interest standing above the class interests of either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Elements within the bourgeoisie can make incorrect judgements of how their class interests are to be defended, but as it is their nation, it is hard to see how they could have a class interest separate from a ‘national’ interest.

It was not purely anti-communist prejudice that dissuaded many British bourgeois politicians, commentators and analysts from advocating a collective security agreement with the Soviet Union. There was a feeling, noted by Potts, although he refrains from expanding upon it, that an Anglo-Franco-Soviet bloc aimed at containing Germany would rapidly lead to an armed confrontation. There was also a widespread feeling, one which Potts does not mention, that the purges and trials indicated that there was much amiss in the Soviet Union, and that a regime which exterminated its most talented military officers was not exactly a reliable military ally. What is called ‘appeasement’ was not a case of surreptitiously backing Hitler, nor of putting class interests before those of ‘the nation’, but an attempt to play for time, to gain a couple of years so that Britain’s in-depth rearmament scheme could get going before war came. The process which led to the coining of the biggest political insult in the British political lexicon was an attempt by Chamberlain and his colleagues to defend the interests of British capitalism, which, after all, was what their job was all about.

Ultimately, Potts fails to make a critical appraisal of Zilliacus’ career. Whilst readers of this journal would appreciate the manner in which Zilliacus maintained a critique of the pro-US, pro-Cold War and pro-capitalist Labour Party right-wingers, it is essential to point out that defending the interests of the working class both in Britain and in the wider world also required establishing a healthy distance from Stalinism. Zilliacus was an intelligent man. He was not afraid of standing out against the stream of orthodoxy, and we have seen that he faced sharp attacks from both right-wing Labourites and Stalinists. Yet his conception of socialism was essentially élitist. Looking at his two major works, I Choose Peace and A New Birth of Freedom?: World Communism After Stalin of 1957, one can find precious little indication of any recognition on his part of the idea of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. We should not be too surprised at this, as the ‘Marxism’ to which he was attracted in the 1930s was the Stalinised distortion popularised by the likes of John Strachey that both paralleled and reflected the consolidation of the Soviet bureaucracy into a self-conscious ruling élite. It is telling that this, the most crucial factor of Zilliacus’ political approach for three long and eventful decades, gets not one word of criticism in this book.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 21.10.2011