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Even Marxists like Peter Taafe and Tony Mulhearn were taken in by the legend of the wartime radicalisation of the working class. They claimed that ‘the revolutionary wave that swept Western Europe at the end of World War II was, if anything greater than that which followed the First World War’. 35 But such radicalisation that did take place was the sporadic collective opposition to the war effort. In the end it was obedience to the war effort, the phoney collectivism of ‘we’re all in this together’ that won out. Militant resistance fighters were persuaded to hand in their weapons to allied Military Policemen, trade union militants were persuaded to put their all into the ‘battle for production’, and the Forces Parliament in Egypt went into recess to ‘take the war to Hitler’. Militant resistance to the militarised war economy was defeated in favour of acquiescence to the Allied War Effort and the post-war reconstruction that followed. The popular opposition handed over its collective power to the authorities.
‘Collectivity’ came to mean government reforms that were an extension of the Military Industrial Complex in new conditions. The ‘Cold War’ is often painted as a deus ex machina that was somehow brought in from elsewhere to derail the radical spirit of popular frontism.
But in truth the ascendance of Cold War conformity and obedience was all predicated on the tutelage that the experience Second World War gave to the populace in submitting to a greater authority.
Though the West European social contract seems to give off a warm and nostalgic glow, seen in retrospect, few understand that the promotion of a kind of tame Socialism was the goal of the US exponents of the Marshall Plan. They called it the Third Way. The idea was to build up moderate socialists as a bulwark against the Communists and the far left. Up to a point, the US was willing for Marshall Aid to be used to promote social programmes where these helped stabilisation (though Britain did not receive Marshall Aid). On the whole, though, the case that the post-war regimes in Europe were all that left wing is hard to sustain. Though the mobilisation of labour in wartime did lead to a greater sense of working class self-confidence that was conditional. The working class had been rallied in a production drive in which it sacrificed all and got little back. As much as they were encouraged by war, the workers were also tutored in obedience to output and production.
The end of the war was an anti-climax for most, as it was followed by years of austerity, and fear. According to Pulzer ‘what Germans longed for was a return to privacy, family, inner peace and public morality’.36 As Mark Mazower says, by 1948 ‘the radicalisation of the war years had vanished’.37 How left-wing the post-war reforms were depends on how one sees the expansion of the state into wider social spheres. Socialised education in Britain was less revolutionary than it sounded. Working class children were sent to underperforming Secondary Modern schools, while the Middle Classes were given places at academic Grammar Schools. The nationalised industries in the UK: coal, railways, electricity, gas and the Bank of England were all bankrupt and backward, ‘the unprofitable 20 per cent of British industry’. In the new National Health Service it was the consultants whose ‘mouths were choked with gold’, by Health Secretary Aneurin Bevan, in his push to win support for the scheme, while the nurses stayed among the worst-paid. Former owners were handsomely compensated for the state takeover of their failing companies, and generally sat on the boards of the new nationalised industries. The editor of the Economist, Geoffrey Crowther told an American audience in 1949 that ‘the ordinary resident in England, unless he happens to have been a shareholder in any of the expropriated companies, is unable to detect any difference whatever as a result of nationalisation’.38 In general the claim that west European society swung to the left after the war is hard to sustain. Indigenous European recovery was funded by holding down consumption, to redirect those resources towards investment. ‘The share of personal consumption has generally fallen’, while production output continued to rise, recorded the United Nations Department of Economic Affairs.39 In Britain, the labour movement had been extensively coopted into making sacrifices for wartime production, and continued to support rationing of consumption goods up till 1949. In France, Mendes-France, inheriting Vichy-level wages argued they should be held down ‘until production recovered’.40 For German workers, forced labour under the allies anticipated a decade of sacrifice under Erhard, as it built upon the suppression of wages under Hitler. Elmar Altvater argues that: ‘the higher level of the rate of exploitation which had been brought about by force was maintained for ten years after the period of fascism’, and: ‘the “West German economic miracle” was pre-programmed in the course of the “thousand year Reich”.’ 41 Italian wages, too, were held down right through until the 1960s, largely through the downward pressure of surplus agrarian labour migrating from the south into northern cities, which depressed the domestic market.
Behind the Iron Curtain
Marshall Aid was offered to the East European states but the conditions could never have been acceptable to the Soviet Union, since they stipulated free market insitutions while his allies rested securely on nationalised industries and command economies. In any event the US offer of Marshall Aid to East European countries was propagandistic not sincere. The US set about consolidating market economies and elite political administrations in the west.
It was not about to subsidise Soviet-influenced regimes in the east. Without open economies they would not be a market for US exports – even if the supplies of Marshall Aid were large enough to extend across Eastern Europe. As it was the US put most of its funds into West Europe and Japan to kindle the flames of capitalism there. It was unlikely that spreading them any thinner would have the desired effect. As west Europe soaked up all available investment funds, much of the rest of the world, in particular East Europe, Africa and East Asia, was starved of capital.
The eastern bloc was called communist, but these were not the conditions in which to build a new society. The Soviet sphere of influence was defined not by its industrial maturity, as Marx had imagined the basis of socialism would be. Instead the defining feature of the USSR’s buffer states was that they were the ruins of Germany’s failed Eastern Empire. The prospects of building a New Jerusalem in an area scarred by war, genocide and plunder were close to nil – even if that was what Moscow wanted. In the event, all that Moscow wanted was pliant neighbours, who would honour Stalin.
What would become the Warsaw Pact countries were narrowly based societies run by a military-bureaucratic elite. The elites were modelled on their Soviet sponsor. As we have seen, the nominally independent parties, Peasants Parties, Christian Democrats and others were not really independent at all, but forced to subordinate to the pro-Moscow ruling cliques. Indigenous communist party members were the source for the original leadership.
But a great many of these older communists whose background was underground agitating against the powers-that-be were temperamentally unsuited to building orderly regimes. Like their Soviet parent, and at its behest, the local east European communist elites were riven with mistrust and marked by purges and factional conflict. In the Cold War paranoia these ruling cliques were apt to see dissent where there was none, and to find western conspiracies where there were none.
Over the summer of 1948 100,000 were expelled from the Czechoslovak Communist Party, and half a million were reduced from full to candidate membership. Later that year 30,000 members of the Polish Communist Party were expelled. Then between 1949 and 1950 nearly 10,000 were expelled from the Bulgarian Communist Party. ‘About two-and-ahalf million people were purged in all between 1948 and 1952, and of those between 125,000 and 250,000 were imprisoned.’ 42 Soviet paranoia quickly undid any lingering claims that the USSR had to represent the future. In 1953 hundreds of thousands of East German workers took to the streets in protest at increased work quotas, and added calls for democracy to their demands. They were fired upon and more than fifty were killed, twenty or so in summary executions. Hundreds more were imprisoned. Still, they were disappointed when Winston Churchill failed to speak up for them. Back in Number Ten Downing Street Churchill asked whether the Soviet Union should have allowed ‘the eastern zone to collapse into anarchy and revolt’, and went on: ‘I had the impression that the unrest was handled with remarkable restraint.’ Britain’s curious indifference is explained in a memo of 22 June 1953 from Selwyn Loyd at the Foreign Office,
saying that the allies felt:
a divided Germany is safer at present. But none of us dare say so in public because of the impact on public opinion in Germany.43 Churchill was willing to propagandise against the Soviet threat behind the Iron Curtain, but not to see the curtain lifted. US strategy, too, was to ‘contain’ the Soviet Union, not to overthrow it. That was explained by George Kennan in an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs published in 1947 that became the mainstay of US policy: ‘the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies’.That is, they were willing to accommodate the Soviet Union for the simple reason that they did not have the means to rule in Eastern Europe in the USSR’s stead.
From World War to Cold War in the Far East
American Senator Joseph McCarthy gave a speech condemning George Marshall for allowing China to fall to Mao’s communists, published in 1951 as America’s Retreat From Victory: The Story Of George Catlett Marshall. The question ‘Who lost China?’ was the start of a hysterical attack by McCarthy against the Truman administration for being soft on communism. Given the anti-communist intent of the Marshall Plan and Truman’s role as architect of the Cold War it was a remarkable attack. For the next four years McCarthy’s campaign pushed America’s Cold War from being an international strategy into a domestic witch hunt that criminalised dissent in the US and was even turned against the administration officials who had organised America’s anti-communist push. McCarthy’s challenge, ‘who lost China?’ was based on a false belief that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists were in a position to secure the market in China. McCarthy was right in one respect, though, and that was that it was US policy that laid the basis for the collapse of Chiang’s nationalists and the eventual victory of Mao Tse Tung.
Throughout the war US strategy in the Far East was based on getting the Chinese to fight Japan, while America aimed to win the war first in Europe. Promoting Chiang’s nationalists had been US policy, but it was undermined by the grotesque corruption of the Nationalist Kuomintang government and its lobbyists in Washington. US doubts about Chiang led some in the Roosevelt administration to talk up the role of the Chinese communists’ fight against Japan.
With the conclusion of the European war, the US once again sought to get the Soviet Union to take on some of the burden of fighting, asking Stalin to declare war on Japan, which he did. Soviet troops invaded China from the north, eventually taking Manchuria, the centre of Japanese power. Stalin’s view at the time was that Mao’s forces were too weak to take China, and he still wanted to build up Chiang as the country’s rightful ruler. In Manchuria, the Soviet army’s main goal was less to promote the communists than to steal as much of the Japanese industrial machinery as they could get onto rail trucks to Siberia.
Throughout the war, Stalin had pushed Mao to work with the nationalists. Mao, on the other hand, hoped that Soviet intervention would tip the balance that would give him the country.
Stalin’s honest belief that Chiang and Mao could be made to cooperate persuaded the US administration.
With the Japanese surrender, though, Washington got more anxious about Soviet inroads into China. US forces airlifted Chiang’s nationalists north to take on the communists, who were ensconcing themselves under the Russian umbrella. Fighting between nationalists and communists became severe, and US president Truman took extraordinary
action to save the Kuomintang:
It was perfectly clear to us that if we told the Japanese to lay down their arms immediately and march to the seaboard, the entire country would be taken over by the Communists. We therefore had to take the unusual step of using the enemy as a garrison until we could airlift Chinese National troops to South China and send marines to guard the seaports.
The Americans transported nearly a half a million Kuomintang troops into Chinese cities, and deployed 50,000 US marines to guard railway lines, coal mines, ports, bridges and other strategic sites. These troops fought with Chinese attacking villages, while US planes strafed and bombed communist forces.44 The US and Stalin sought to push the nationalist leadership and the communists to agree a unification of the army and a government under Chiang with communist representatives in the cabinet. Both Chiang and Mao prevaricated, fearing a loss of position.