The Labour Movement and the Cold War: Unfinished Business?


Miners' StrikeBy Carl Rowlands

A recent article in the Guardian has vividly illustrated the extent that the British workers movement became entwined in Cold War machinations during the post-war period. We’re talking about millions of dollars, much of which would have gone to the families of striking miners. The Thatcher government desperately wanted to stop the money arriving in the UK. Both they and the NUM knew that in the final analysis, only the Soviets could provide this kind of financial backing to enable the organisation and continuation of the miners strike.

In this specific instance, the government had of course already frozen the NUM’s funds and sequestrated its assets. The miners’ resulting dependence on external help reflects that they had been effectively outmanoeuvred at every stage, by a government determined to wage a fight to the bitter end. It also illustrates that when thrown back on its own resources, the labour movement was not as strong, or as well-resourced, as appearances might suggest.

Yet questions still linger in the air. To what extent had mainstream labour organisations, such as the NUM, been effectively penetrated by the Soviet security service? The recent book ‘The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5’ by Christopher Andrew named a number of unlikely people, mainstream Labour MPs and trade unionists, who were regarded as potentially compromised by association with KGB agents. Of course, the NUM also contained openly communist officials.

To put this into context, we now know that by the late 1960s, the British security services had been almost totally compromised, leading to the widespread dissemination of UK military information and other top secret material. Only gradually recovering a degree of integrity during the 1970s, it was barely surprising that the intelligence agencies were suspicious of links between the labour movement and Soviet agents.

The Communist Party of Great Britain had already been sidelined as an active parliamentary force, in no small part to the divisions resulting from the Soviet actions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It appears that the trade unions may have represented the last links between the Bolsheviks and the British workers movement, which had originally been so enthusiastic back in 1919. In practice, the Communist Party often acted as a bulwark, providing people and resources to help strikers and those engaged in workplace disputes.

In his seminal essay, ‘The Lost World of Communism’, Raphael Samuel charts the disintegration of the Communist Party, a process which accelerated after the collapse of the miners strike. Samuel highlighted that communists continued their activism, beyond the point where a Revolution was considered either possible or desirable. In many ways, this activism took on its own relevance, independent of Moscow, as individual communists increasingly identified themselves with the more prosaic and practical demands of solidarity.

I expect many of you reading this may be wondering why this is relevant now, in the strange summer of 2010. There are two aspects of this which are directly relevant. Firstly, since the collapse of communism, the labour movement in the UK, at a grassroots level, has not looked anything other than a busted flush, incapable of mounting a defence of workers increasingly casualised conditions and rights, and unable to reverse the Thatcher settlement which shifted the balance decisively in favour of capital over labour. The rank-and-file labour movement has had very little influence over the party that bears its name, the Labour Party. It might now be possible to find more socialists outside the Labour Party than within.

It makes one wonder whether those battles which were fought in the post-war decades, and won, such as 1972’s ‘Battle of Saltley Gate,’ were all underpinned by the presence of communists – not so much the Muscovites which caused the security services so many headaches, but rank-and-file activists who were prepared to dedicate their time selflessly organising and agitating, at no personal gain to themselves. Maybe these communist activists were always the real heart and soul of the labour movement. With the destruction of the Communist Party, democratic socialism was left to the meek and timid bureaucrats, and beleaguered, scattered handfuls of Labour members meeting in draughty church halls on Tuesday evenings. I admit, it’s a historicist argument, only apparent after the passing of time. But it appears that in many ways, nothing has yet replaced communism’s ability to motivate and organise the British labour movement.

The other significant aspect, and far more positive, is that the political generation which emerged from this period of the late Cold War is now moving off the stage. Peter Mandelson is in many ways the embodiment of a Cold War approach, having spent his youth as a member of the Young Communist League. John Reid, an ex-communist and notably illiberal minister in the late Blair era, has retired from politics. Of the ex-Trotskyists, Alan Milburn is near the completion of his political journey, by working with a Conservative government, whilst Stephen Byers is in disgrace as one of those named and shamed by the ‘lobbygate’ investigation. The era that defined the careers and perspectives of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both terrified of any association with the word ‘socialism’, is drawing to a close.

Not only does this provide an opportunity for a new generation of politicians, unencumbered by the baggage – and rejected baggage – of the past. It also allows academics to begin a re-assessment of the ideas of Marxism, maybe even to move these interpretations of Marxism into the public domain, as David Harvey has done. The last few years have seemed to further illustrate capitalism’s weaknesses and the need for radical solutions to what are often global problems. Maybe for the first time, the conditions for a genuine social revival exist. It remains to be seen whether a leadership emerges which can step up and offer an appealing and substantial version of socialism for the 21st century.

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