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Nick Howard


The big chill

(January 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

[Politics of Continuity:] British Foreign Policy and the Labour Government 1945–46 [1]
John Saville
Verso £34.95

How did Britain in 1945 under a Labour government get involved in a Cold War for nearly 40 years? John Saville shows how little it had to do with the ‘Soviet Menace’ and how much it was the responsibility of the ruling class.

When Labour’s Prime Minister Attlee put Ernest Bevin in charge of foreign policy, he omitted to throw out the public school trained first division civil servants who administered Britain’s foreign and colonial policies. Sir Alexander Cadogan, head of the Foreign Office under the Tory Anthony Eden, was kept on the team in the same job under Bevin, and wrote of another Labour minister, the left winger Aneurin Bevan, ‘He and his kidney are mere barnacles on the bottom of the “ship of state”. In any decent country they’d be bumped off. To that extent am I “Fascist” and proud of it!’ Cadogan and others like him maintained great influence over the direction of the Labour government’s foreign policy.

Bevin’s stupidity comes across clearly in Saville’s book. Only seven weeks after the war Bevin told the Russians that their policies resembled Hitler’s. Millionaire imperialists had worked on Bevin before the war, taking him on world cruises and convincing him of the need for Britain to continue to extract cheap raw materials and oil from its colonies. After the war, Bevin agreed with his Tory advisers that the Arab Countries threatened to cut the empire in half, and Britain should continue to keep bases in Egypt, Iran and Iraq. Bevin and his advisers thus set in motion the policies whose failure resulted in the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland, helping to create Israel as the only state that would protect Britain’s claim to cheap oil and a safe route to the empire east of Suez.

From Saville’s history, it is clear that Britain’s ruling class was able, under Bevin and Attlee, to extend its claim to a position as a world power. British imperialism continued even more successfully than before the war to bleed the wealth of the Third World into the banks of the City of London.

Saville graphically describes one outcome of Labour’s anti-Communist strategy. British intervention on behalf of French imperialism sparked off the bloody 28 year long struggle of the Vietnamese for their independence. In the final days of the Japanese occupation, the Vietnamese leaders under Ho Chi Minh thought that in Japan they had gained an Asian ally against the return of French control of the region. However after the defeat of Japan, a united force was set up under British control of French, Japanese and Indian forces to suppress the people’s struggle for independence in Laos, Kampuchea and Vietnam. Japanese troops, at that time being reviled in Britain for war crimes, fought a short and bloody war, alongside the British and the French, to put a corrupt and racist group of colonialists back into power.

As a series of essays in the exposure of British hypocrisy about the aims of the Second World War and on the origins of the Cold War, Saville’s book is excellent. However, he doesn’t make clear that it was the policy of the Communist Party that led to the failure of the working class to support Vietnamese liberation in 1945. The right of self-determination, clearly advocated by Lenin during the First World War, was abandoned by the parties loyal to Stalin after the Second World War.

Thus the French Communist Party supported the resumption of French power in Vietnam after the defeat of the Japanese invaders. The movement for Vietnamese independence was led in Saigon by Trotskyists and was under way before the British landed in September 1945, to take over power from the Japanese. The Vietminh, led by the Communists, crushed the Saigon workers’ uprising, arrested and killed the Trotskyists and imposed order with the help of the Japanese occupation forces until the British arrived.

Saville argues correctly that Britain’s policy under Labour was strongly determined by its economic dependence upon the United States. Labour sought to rebuild trade with the empire on terms that would favour the sale of its raw materials to the US in order to pay off the debt Britain incurred during the war. The US made this policy unavoidable for British capitalism when it withdrew Lease-Lend aid to Britain on the very day that Japan surrendered. In 1944, Churchill’s war time coalition accepted the US demand that all British overseas trade should be conducted in pounds freely convertible to dollars. Thus the US was well on the way to opening up the British empire to US capital, even before the war was concluded. In return, British capitalists were able to convince the Americans that any insurrection in the British colonies would open up the way to Communist expansion.

The origins of the Cold War lay in the great global crisis that came at the end of the Second World War. In the US in 1946, war production dropped suddenly from 41 percent of the nation’s output to 9 percent. The effect on living standards was dramatic. Workers’ wages fell by 10 percent as employers tried to save their profits by inflating prices by 16 percent. A huge wave of strikes broke out, which the employers attacked as a Communist plot. But far from being in a position to take power, the Communist Party in the US faced an overwhelming onslaught headed by mass sackings and witch-hunts.

The Stalinist rulers in Eastern Europe meanwhile were faced with the outbreak of massive opposition. Stalin forcibly moved hundreds of thousands to Central Asia, and sent equal numbers of ethnic Russians into the areas demanding self-determination. In all the East European countries later to be incorporated into the Warsaw Pact by the force of Russian tanks, measures were taken under pressure from Moscow to incorporate the workers’ parties into coalitions with the remnants of the bourgeois parties, many of whose members had collaborated with the Nazis during the war. Stalin’s occupation forces denied workers the right to independent unions or to the use of the strike weapon in their own interests.

Saville, despite the breadth of his analysis, ignores the totality of this global attack on workers and peasants, east and west, during which the Labour government acted to advance the oncoming Cold War. Even in countries like Italy and Greece, Stalin helped the British and American armies to crush workers’ power, or by directing the powerful Communist led movements into accepting ministerial offices in coalition governments.

American capitalism’s greed for an open door to world markets forced its Russian competitors to set up an iron curtain to keep American goods out and the refugees in. But the view of the Americans as the most powerful initiators of the Cold War was used, not to build working class resistance east and west to US expansion, but to justify the building of the Berlin Wall with all the exploitation and oppression that went on behind it. The Cold War was the product of the vicious competition inherent within capitalism and state capitalism worldwide.

Though he unrealistically suggests that patient negotiation with Moscow might have created a different outcome to the Cold War, and does not extend his analysis to the causes of the crises that forced all the contending powers into 40 years of wasteful military competition, John Saville has given us valuable insights into the realities of history that created the disastrous state of today’s world.

Footnote by ETOL

1. Due to a sub-editing error the title of the book (within the square brackets) was omitted and only the subtitle was given in the print version of the magazine.

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