"A Very Present Menace"? Attlee, Communism and the Cold War(1)

By Deery, Phillip | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 1998 | Go to article overview

"A Very Present Menace"? Attlee, Communism and the Cold War(1)


Deery, Phillip, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


With the end of the Cold War and the further opening of archives, the role of Western communist parties and their relationship with the former Soviet Union has been the subject of fresh scrutiny. This article examines the conviction of the British Labour Government and its security services that the Communist Party of Great Britain represented, at least in the early Cold War period, a "very present menace". The article discusses the policies of the Soviet Union in Europe and the Communist Party in Britain and explores how these shaped the perspectives of the Attlee Government, especially during the London dock strike of 1949. When placed against this background, Attlee's anti-communism can no longer be accepted, as most commentators do, as simply a product of Cold War paranoia.

Now that the Cold War, with its capacity for polarising perspectives and distorting judgements, is finished, it is appropriate that the assumptions of the early Cold War period are re-examined and the sites of its ideological battlefields re-visited. One battlefield was on the London docks during a bitter strike in the summer of 1949. This article will use that conflict as a means of prising open one window into "official" Cold War attitudes towards communism. The Attlee Labour Government, in power since 1945, reacted ruthlessly to an industrial dispute by London dock workers: it used military forces, emergency legislation and a wide range of draconian measures. The strike, it claimed, was orchestrated by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) to damage post-war economic recovery and subvert social democracy. But it also, allegedly, had an international dimension, since the Communist Party was an instrument of the Kremlin whose foreign policy was exacerbating Cold War tensions. That this dispute coincided precisely with other strikes in the British Commonwealth was further confirmation of synchronisation in the timing, methods and aims of international communism.(2)

Overwhelmingly, historians and commentators have strongly contested this contemporary view. Generally, the government's response has been explained by the paranoia of the Cold War, which prompted intemperate rhetoric, inflated fears and an excessive readiness to see conspiracies.(3) Kenneth O. Morgan's authoritative Labour in Power 1945-1951 typifies a consensus amongst historians that holds that the government had "become obsessed by the red menace". Morgan argues that the "red scare" mood was responsible for the exaggeration and overplaying of communist influence.(4) When British trade unions in the late 1940s have been discussed, the irrationality of anti-communism has been emphasised: "The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western world", according to Robert Taylor, "unleashed a strong outburst of hysterical anti-communism".(5) A "New Left" analysis of Attlee's strike-breaking referred to Labour's "witch-hunt", which implies paranoia, a word used explicitly in a chapter sub-heading -- "The Post-War Paranoia"-- of an "Old Left" analysis.(6) The focus of another appraisal was the degree to which the Attlee Cabinet was "obsessed" by domestic anti-communism; Richard Thurlow's recent work on Britain's internal security services similarly pointed to the Attlee Government's anti-communist "obsession" and saw in the dock strike a "graphic example" of Cold War "paranoia".(7) Finally, a study of strike-breaking under Attlee referred to "Cabinet-inspired anti-communism" and a "Red scare campaign" during the dock strike.(8)

This article contests these historical judgements. It challenges those accounts that have stripped communism of its explanatory power and it relocates communism at the centre of Attlee's actions. More specifically, it demonstrates how perceptions of communism, which underpinned government behaviour, arose not from hysterical fears but from rational assessments of Cold War developments abroad and clear-headed suspicions of subversion, even espionage, at home. …

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