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Response to Review no. 803

I thank Dr Foote for his thoughtful and generous review of my book.

I accept that a perusal of the daily press in Britain would have been useful. When I was preparing for my PhD study on which my book is based, I did consider looking at the daily press, as serious newspapers of the day covered events in the Soviet Union to some depth. I decided not to, because this would have taken too much time, and would also make the thesis unwieldy. When preparing the thesis for publication, I was at first working in a full-time job, and I have subsequently been stricken with a long-term medical condition that prevents me from any serious work, and so I concentrated what further research I did carry out within the scope of my original study.

Apropos of Dr Foote’s puzzlement in respect of my comments about Sidney Webb and intellectual freedom, I was indeed referring to middle-class intellectuals, and I should have stated that clearly. Dr Foote charges me with eclecticism when considering the existing analyses of fellow-travelling. It is true that I do not take sides between those who considered that it represented the last gasp of romanticism and those who saw fellow-travellers as heirs of the Enlightenment, nevertheless I do attempt to give an explanation for their behaviour, stating (p. 53) (after looking at the authoritarian characteristics of some of them): ‘Self-deception born of both despair and hope, rather than any sadistic streak, was the main force behind their belief in Stalinism’. Having stated that, I accept Dr Foote’s point that I should have made a deeper investigation of left-wing and liberal élitism in Britain. (I wonder if I would have had to reconsider that particular conclusion had I done so.)

I shall concentrate upon two key criticisms in Dr Foote’s review: the Labour Party leaders and the Soviet Union, and the category of the ‘centre ground’.

Dr Foote states that my contention that the Soviet invasion of Finland in late 1939 provoked a conversion on the part of the Labour leaders to Cold War-style anti-communism, ‘underestimates the opposition of the Labour Party to Soviet totalitarianism throughout the 1930s’. I admit that I am amiss in overlooking of the National Council of Labour’s pamphlet Democracy versus Dictatorship of 1933, although in mitigation I do note (p. 129) Clement Attlee’s strong disavowal of Stalinist totalitarianism in his important book The Labour Party in Perspective, which was published by the Left Book Club.

However, I do feel that there was a noticeable change in the attitude towards the Soviet Union in the Labour Party in late 1939. What struck me was the sudden turn in the Labour Party’s leadership towards a consistent use of anti-communist terminology — for example, the use of such terms as ‘the free nations of the world’ in opposition to the Soviet Union — something which had not been the case before. I admit that my wording (p. 194) that the Labour leaders ‘generally eschewed’ the language of anti-communism prior to late 1939 is ambiguous —‘generally’ can mean both completely and to a large degree, and I used it in the second meaning — nevertheless I feel there was a change in emphasis. Moreover, I showed that those in and around the Labour Party who had looked appreciatively to some extent or another towards Moscow started to use terms that they had hitherto eschewed, such as (p. 186) the New Statesman’s equating of Stalinism and Hitlerism as ‘National Bolshevism’. I wrote on page 200:

Although certain aspects of Soviet society could still meet with favour on the part of many commentators, any appreciation of, say, economic planning or welfare measures was now overlaid with stern criticisms of Moscow’s foreign policy directions or political norms. The emphasis had shifted from praising the acceptable sides of the Soviet Union towards condemning the unacceptable.

I agree with Dr Foote that ‘the anger over Finland was quickly forgotten after the German invasion of Russia’ and that ‘the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948 had a more lasting impact on the Labour Left’, but I nonetheless feel that this latter response was adumbrated in the reaction to the Soviet invasion of Finland in late 1939.

There was, as Dr Foote states, continued antagonism between the Labour leaders and the Communist Party in the 1930s. But this was largely over domestic issues; the former, particularly union leaders such as Bevin, didn’t like the Communist Party interfering in what they saw as their own patch. This antipathy would necessarily have been connected with their long-running dislike of Soviet political norms (in particular repressive measures), and the two must have fed into each other. Nevertheless, neither of these manifestations of hostility to official communism prevented them from quite openly appreciating various key aspects of Soviet society, such as planning and welfare measures. Compared to the unmitigated hostility shown by right-wing social democrats towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War period, their attitude towards certain aspects of Soviet society during the 1930s was remarkably appreciative.

To move to the second of Dr Foote’s criticisms, I accept that my definition of the category of the ‘centre ground’ does lack sufficient clarity. I devised the category in order to bring under one roof those people who accepted certain aspects of the Soviet Union, usually economic planning and welfare measures, whilst rejecting the political norms and state repression. This was a peculiarity of the period under discussion in my book, and I intended to describe in detail what has been recognised to varying degrees by a few writers, but not discussed to any great length. I felt that the concentration in many accounts upon what I term the pro-Soviet lobby – the fellow-travellers and those in and around the Communist Party – served to obscure a large number of observers whose attitude towards the Soviet Union was noticeably different not merely to that grouping, but also to the anti-communists who were mostly or wholly dismissive of the Soviet experience.

One of the problems of the category of the ‘centre ground’ is its very diffuseness. At one end, it could shade off into the realm of the fellow-travellers: both Kingsley Martin (and the New Statesman that he edited) and Harold Laski veered between fulsomely praising the Soviet Union and recoiling from some of its more problematic features. At the other end, there were those who for the most part accepted the anti-communist standpoint, but who took an appreciative view of Soviet foreign policy in the late 1930s. Robert Seton-Watson viewed Moscow as a potential ally against the threat posed by Nazi Germany, and this led him into accepting some of the accusations made in the trial of the Soviet military leaders, but otherwise he expressed typical anti-communist opinions. Martin and Laski and (to a lesser extent) Seton-Watson could be considered as being in the centre ground, but could also equally be seen, in respect of the first two, as part of the pro-Soviet lobby or, in respect of the third, as among the anti-communists.

However, I did not include Bernard Pares in the centre ground; I described him (p. 19) as having ‘shifted from a strong anti-communist viewpoint to become for all intents and purposes a fellow-traveller’. Similarly, on I referred (p. 111) to ‘a centre ground of moderate conservatives, liberals and moderate social democrats [who] saw it [the Soviet Union] as a curate’s egg, with good parts from which positive lessons could and should be learnt – and with the corollary that other parts were unacceptable’. This would thus rule out those who criticised the Soviet Union from a Marxist position, and whilst it is true that Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed and the outlook of his followers and some other left-wingers in Britain also held to a sort of dualism that saw both admirable and reprehensible aspects in the Soviet Union, the far left was not part of the centre ground, as it did not sit in any of the three main categories.

Should I, as I hope to, return to studying the topic of my book, I shall keep Dr Foote’s comments in mind.