The Enemy Within?

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Hewlett Johnson with Gandhi outside the Deanery, 1931.

Review of Dominic Sandbrook’s Strange Days: Cold War Britain. 1: Red Dawn.

First broadcast on BBC2, 12th November, 2013.

In this, the first section of this review, I will look at the idea that there was a Communist “enemy within” in Britain in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War.   Subsequent posts will look at other issues highlighted in the series.

There is a strong hypothesis in Dominic Sandbrook’s new BBC history series, Strange Days: Cold War Britain: that the Cold War has an effect on everyday life in Britain in the years after the Second World War.  This is a worthwhile hypothesis to pursue.  So while I have been critical of Sandbrook’s book on the 1974-1979 Labour governments, Seasons in the Sun, here I will attempt more to build on and develop (although not necessarily uncritically) the points that he makes.

Of course, there is plenty which is off-putting here.  As John Crace puts it in his review in The Guardian, there is something of Ray Winstone of Sandbrook’s delivery.[1]  There is a palpable leer in the pronunciation of ‘Marxism’, the use of ‘we’ to mean the people of Britain sixty years ago and generally much wearing of a liberal-democratic heart on an anti-totalitarian sleeve that suggests (never stated) underlying political assumptions.

Nonetheless, there is value in the programme in its attempt to uncover the cultural impact of the Cold War on Britain.  I am reminded of an instance a few years ago when I marked a student’s essay on this topic.  It was not very good, scrabbling around for decent secondaries on the issue and struggling to build up a coherent picture.  Asked how to make it better, the only advice that I could give him was to be more careful about which essays he chose to write.  In short the sources are not there.

There are many historians who think that there is nothing to examine.  This point of view was expressed recently by Donald Sassoon speaking at the Southbank’s Rest is Noise season.[2]  He averred that the anxieties of the Cold War were largely absent from post-war English-language culture, dominated by films such as Gone With the Wind and Mary Poppins.  There is clear truth in Sassoon’s point, that the Cold War did not dominate culture (at least not obviously) and the Cold War itself was only the occasional settings for films.

The rejection of this idea is an element of what Sandbrook is attempting to achieve in his programme, arguing that there was a reaction to a Communist presence within British society.  He approaches this in three ways

1.  The most obvious presence of Communists in British society were spies, Maclean being mentioned in this programme for his defection in 1951.  I will not deal with the issue of spying here, but rather concentrate on the other form of Communism’ influence highlighted by Sandbrook here, the “Red Dean” of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, who argued that Soviet Russia and Communist China were the embodiment of Christian values.  Sandbrook states that Johnson was “absolutely typical of a whole generation of high minded and well meaning intellectuals who in the 1930s….”.

2.  Under this, the bleak post-war austerity Britain was thought by some to be a potent breeding ground for communism.  This was part of the reason why the Attlee government introduced the welfare state.

3.  This Cold War anxiety was reflected in the popular culture of the time, the example Sandbrook giving being of films.

In this post I will particularly look at the first and third points in this post, and skirt round the second point which will be developed in a further post about Cold War policy making under the 1945-1951 Labour governments.

Sandbrook is probably right to suggest that the now largely forgotten Rt. Rev. Hewlett Johnson, who served as the Dean of Canterbury from 1931 to 1963, was at that time the single best known apologist for Soviet communism in the Western World.[3]  In 1931 Johnson had a growing reputation as a radical socialist clergyman interested in a variety of social issues, which perhaps explains why a Labour prime minster, Ramsay MacDonald, should appoint him as the Dean of Canterbury in 1931.  Whereas in the 1920s Johnson had been aligned with a range of social measures, for example Major CH Douglas’s plan for “social credit”,[4] in the 1930s he began increasingly to see the USSR (and later China) as the fulfilment of Christian ideals.  He was the most uncritical of supporters of Stalin and did not waver at the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact, continuing to revere Stalin even after Khrushchev denounced him in 1956.

If anything, Sandbrook underestimates his impact.  He suggests that MI5 “kept a vague eye on” Johnson, but it is likely that they took a far keener interest.  When he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1951, the security services tracked the associated prize money to his bank account, and the matter was discussed in Churchill’s Cabinet.[5]

Similarly,  Sandbrook’s claim that Johnson was “tolerated” or even “cherished” by the Church of England hierarchy probably underestimates how many feathers, clerical and otherwise, he ruffled.  At least two Archbishops of Canterbury, Cosmo Land and William Temple, demanded he abjure from politics or resign, but were powerless to make him do either.  At the time of his publication of accusations that the USA and their British allies had used bacterial weapons in North Korea (a claim that was probably groundless) the then Archbishop spoke in the House of Lords debate this triggered calling Johnson ‘stupid’ and ‘a fanatic’.  The Cabinet discussed whether he should be sacked, but there was no legal way of doing this, made the best of allowing him freedom of speech.  If Sandbrook is trying to paint a picture of a tolerant British establishment in the face of a Soviet apologist, this is a little distorted.  The truth is that they did what they could, but they had little choice but to tolerate an obdurate man.

There is the question of why people like Johnson turned to Communism.  Sandbrook suggests that there was a turn towards Communist ideas in the 1930, although “it might sound odd to us now … Britain’s democratic parties had palpably failed to deal with the economic trauma of the Great Depression.”  There is an element of truth in this, the root of Johnson’s pro-Soviet view were the inequalities of capitalism as such, with or without unemployment.  There is an important distinction to be made here, between people who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and those intellectuals in the 1930s who were drawn to the ideas of planning as exemplified by the Soviet Union.  Johnson, for example, did not join the CPGB (and as far as I can gather never saw it as the agency of change in Britain), rather held up the USSR up as a model.  There was no surge of intellectuals or professionals joining the CPGB in the 1930s, rather, like Johnson, many looked at the USSR as a template for action that should be followed by their own governments.  Thus the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb published an uncritical account Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? in 1935.  The 1937 second edition both dropping the question mark and dismissing the Moscow show trials that were well known in the West by then as a “tragic hangover” from the civil war and projecting the USSR as a new kind of democracy.[6]

The majority of these views based on the economic benefit of planning and varying degrees of collective action, and the classic presentation of the Soviet case relied entirely on economic growth  For example, HG Wells wrote in 1932 that:”Dogmatic, resentful and struggling sorely, crazy with suspicion and persecution mania, ruled by a permanent Terror, Russia nevertheless upholds the tattered banner of world collectively and remains something splendid and hopeful in the spectacle of mankind”[7]  It is thus probably an exaggeration to say, as Sandbrook does that in the 1930 a layer of intellectuals ‘had convinced themselves the Soviet Union represented not just economic but spiritual salvation’.  There was a wide intellectual milieu that accepted greater state planning at this time, which certainly did not accept the entirety of the whole Soviet economic system, let alone its ‘spiritual’ values.  One might cast doubt on the degree to which even Hewlett Johnson would have accepted this, he insisted that ‘Jesus was a materialist’, that is people must be fed, clothed and housed.  It is this material good that Johnson looked to the Soviet model to supply.

Those people who chose to join the CPGB may not have been so centrally inspired by economic planning, and it was not the economic slump that started in 1929 that caused its growth.  Throughout the 1920s and first half of the 1930s, the party had little appeal and struggled to hold a membership of more than 5,000.  The exception to this was at the time of the 1926 General Strike and the miners’ lockout that followed when membership grew to over 12,000.  At the time of the slump in 1929 this membership had dissipated.  Andrew Thorpe’s close study of the figures suggest that this was mainly due to the defeat of the miners after 1927.  Through the worst of the slump, the party continued to lose members, falling to a low point of only 2,500 in 1931.

It was the CPGB’s promotion of itself as the bulwark against fascism that probably better explains its growth in the 1930s.  As early as 1931 the CPGB were clashing with Oswald Mosley’s New Party, but its membership only grew strongly with the onset of the Spanish civil war in 1936.  Thus the CPGB’s membership passed 10,000 in late 1936, and reached 18,000 in 1938.  Surprisingly, it continued to grow through the years of the Hitler-Stalin pact 1939-1941, but grew more strongly with the opening of the Eastern front against Germany in 1941, peaking at 55,000 in 1943.[8]

Again, it is worth noting, that through all of this there was no influx of intellectuals and professionals into the party.  According to Thorpe, such middle-class members remained at around 5% of the party membership, and the CPGB remained a resolutely working class party.  There is no evidence that large sections of the intelligentsia, or more broadly the middle class, were attracted to communism.

Thus, there is something a little ‘odd’ about the attraction of communism in the 1930s.  The example of Soviet planning appealed to many intellectuals looking for an alternative to free-market capitalism, and most of these were satisfied with the Keynesian demand managements and limited nationalisations that emerged in the war years and under the 1945 Labour government.  The CPGB, on the other hand, appealed to a minority of workers looking for a force that would physically oppose fascism (however misguided their belief in the efficacy of this force might have been).

The CPGB membership hit its high point in 1943.  By 1945 it had already lost 10,000 members.  Although it won two seats in 1945, it lost both in 1950.  By 1955 its membership had fallen further to 33,000, and the other side of the Hungarian crisis of 1956 it had fallen to 25,000.  CPGB membership remained between 25,000 and 30,000 for the next 20 years.[9]  There is little to suggest that the Attlee government saw this declining force as a threat, although in some industries it was an industrial problem for the government (but more of this in a later post).  So there is little sense in which there was an internal Communist threat to the established order on the scale of, for example, Italy or Greece.

Thus, it is unlikely that a Cold War anxiety about such an internal Communist threat would be reflected in films (again, whether there was anxiety about an external threat is an entirely different matter).  The first example of such Cold War anxiety given by Sandbrook is a poor one.  The Conspirator (1949) was not a British film, but an American produced film made in Britain with a British (but by then Hollywood based) director and with Hollywood stars (Robert Powell, Elizabeth Taylor).  The film concerns an officer in the Grenadier Guards who is a Communist and Soviet agent (although the film does not explicitly state this).  When he marries, his young wife discovers his secret, his handlers demand that he should kill her (no further spoilers here).  The film does not appear to have struck a note with the fears of the British public.  Dilys Powell in The Sunday Times described the story as ‘not without tension but quite without verisimilitude’.[10]

Rather than showing anything about the mindset of the UK, the film was part of a short-lived and unsuccessful genre of American Cold War films identifying a Communist plot seeking to undermine the American way of life that includes (and may entirely consist of) The Iron Curtain (1948), The Red Menace (1949), I Married a Communist (1949), I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), The Whip Hand (1951) and Invasion U.S.A. (1952). (The Whip Hand is notable since the bad guys were originally escaped Nazi criminals, including Hitler making a guest appearance at the end of the film.  Howards Hughes of RKO declared the Nazis were no longer adequate screen baddies and the film should be reshot with Communists in their place.)

Arguably, the US film industry’s more successful response to Cold War anxiety was via allegorical films.  Some of these science fiction films suggesting Communist invasion (The Thing (1951), where Howard Hawkes moved on from real Communists to an allegorical red menace), infiltration (The Invasion from Mars (1953) developed this idea some time before the more ambiguous Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956)) or nuclear war (Five (1951)).  It is interesting to note that the themes of I Married a Communist are directly reflected in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958).[11]  (Notably, in his history of the 1950s, Never Had It So Good, Sandbrook suggests that some British science fiction films can be read as Cold War allegories, but overstates the case, for example with The Quatermass Experiment.[12])

In American film the threat came not only from the red-planet but “red skins” in post-war westerns.  It has been argued persuasively that films from Fort Apache (1948) onwards emphasised what was considered individualist in American culture against an enemy, sometimes external and sometimes in their midst.[13]

For me, the most interesting point about Conspirator and the developing British reaction to the Cold War is the book on which it is based, Humphrey Slater’s The Conspirator (1948). [14]  Slater was a Slade-trained artist who had joined the CPGB in the 1930s and was Chief of Operations for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.  By 1945, however, he was disillusioned with Communism, and he ran a short lived journal Polemic that included a number of articles by his friend, George Orwell,[15] along with a whole raft of similar non-Stalinist progressive thinkers.  The journal was not dissimilar to Cyril Connolly’s Horizon.  This background made The Conspirator a more interesting book than the film (although I reserve judgement on this until I have seen the film).  The book certainly has some interesting material on the self-interest of various levels of the Soviet state apparatus (unlike the film the book is explicit in it identification of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union).  This material rings true, and has some interesting suggestions as to how pro-Communist spies might have been run at the time.

The other film that Sandbrook refers to as an example of Cold War culture thus looks rather isolated.  However, High Treason (1952) is interesting in that it is a sequel.   I think that Sandbrook has missed a trick here since the first film is the considerably better known Seven Days to Noon (1950), which concerns a British nuclear scientist eloping with a nuclear bomb and threatening to blow up London if there is not an international agreement on disarmament, showing another aspect of Cold War anxiety.  Thus, High Treason with its Communist plot to blow up Britain’s power stations was continuing a trend.  It is notable that these are both Boulting brothers films and they produced the most notable anti-communist films of 1950s British cinema, I’m All Right Jack (1958).

High Treason is in part based on the destruction of munitions bound for the British forces in Korea in a fire at the docks in Portsmouth in 1950.  At the time, some thought this to be an act of sabotage although there is no evidence to support this view.  Nonetheless, Attlee broadcast to the nation that ‘I would ask you all to be on your guard against the enemy within’[16]  It also incorporated the paranoia of Walter Citrine, previously the General Secretary of the TUC but at this point chair of the nationalised British Electricity Authority that the Soviets might target Britain’s electricity generation, an idea reflected exactly in the plot of the film where a hardly disguised group of Communists do exactly that.  But, as in the USA, this genre of films hardly adds up to much.  High Treason was not a commercial success.  Other than this, there are few British films of the early 1950s that reflect similar concerns, Rough Shot (1952) being the only example, concerning an Eastern European spy ring in Britain without much further ideological edge.  Rather, it is akin to an 1930 espionage thriller. [17]

Thus, there is little evidence that there was a current in British cinema that reflected anxiety about an internal Communist threat.  Generally, if there was, in Attlee’s phrase, ‘an enemy within’, it was a very small and weak one.  The major impact of Communism would thus be external.  It is the British response to this, and its impact on Britain, that I will turn to next.


[1] John Crace, ‘Last Night’s TV’, The Guardian, 13/11/2013, http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2013/nov/13/strange-days-cold-war-britain-tv-review.

[2] The Rest is Noise, 5th October, 2013, Southbank Centre, London.

[3] Information in this section from, Ayers, David,  ‘Hewlett Johnson: Britain’s “Red Dean” and the Cold War’ in Phil Muehlenbeck (ed), Religion and the Cold War (Vanderbilt University, 2012); John Butler, The Red Dean of Canterbury: The Public and Private Faces of Hewlett Johnson (London: Scala, 2011).

[4] Ayres, p68.

[5] Butler, pp189-191.

[6] Richard Overy, The Morbid Age: Britain between the Wars (London:  Allen Lane, 2009), pp290. 295.

[7] Overy p284.

[8] Thorpe, Andrew, ‘The Membership Of The Communist Party Of Great Britain, 1920-1945’, The Historical Journal 43 (3), 2000.

[9] Carter, Harold and Silkstone-Carter, Gabriel, ‘Regional Membership Figures for the Communist Party of Great Britain, from 1945 to 1989’, Communist History Network Newsletter, 22     (2008).

[10] The Sunday Times 31/7/1949.  The Observer was also lukewarm at best. C A Lejeune ‘Physical Jerks’, The Observer 13/6/1949.

[11] See, for example, Victoria O’Donnell, ‘Science Fiction Films and Cold War Anxiety’ in Peter Lev, Transforming the Screen 1950-1959 (Berkley CA: University of California Press, 2003).

[12] Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (London: Little Brown, 2005), p240.  Notably, the source he uses for this suggests the opposite, Tony Shaw arguing that the film ‘had more to say about the alien-as-outsider than alien-as-invader’ (British Cinema and the Cold War: The state, Propaganda and Consensus (London: IB Tauris, 2001), p129.

[13] See, for example, Corkin, Stanley Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History (Philadelphia PA: Temple University Press, 2003).

[14] Humphrey Slater, The Conspirator (London: John Lehman, 1948).

[15] Bernard Crick, ‘Orwell’ Pursuit of Love’, The Observer, 23/11/1980.

[16] BBC broadcast 30/7/1950, quoted in Tony Shaw, British Cinema and the Cold War: The state, Propaganda and Consensus (London: IB Tauris, 2001), p35.

[17] Shaw, p42, 44, 46. 

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3 Responses to The Enemy Within?

  1. wrinkled weasel says:

    I came upon this site after watching the above programme and having decided to do a little digging about DS.
    My first surprise was his academic credentials. I don’t think he comes across as being particularly academic. I write from a journalistic point of view, not as a historian, but I can only compare him with other media historians like Simon Schama. His way of delivery is impressionistic, which is fine if you are talking about the Swinging Sixties I suppose, but not fine when the subject is as intricate and as recondite as the cold war. I am not sure that his chummy, eye-rolling demeanour helps us to learn, either.

    I think perhaps you are being a little too dismissive in places. For example, you sweep away the 1950 dockyard explosion by saying that “some thought this to be an act of sabotage although there is no evidence to support this view”. That may be true, but the tenor of the time is very clear. Atlee was, I think, somewhat evasive about it, but the Sydney Morning Herald of July 26th reports Atlee as stating that it was “maliciously caused”. I presume the Prime Minister was basing this on evidence. Hansard reports of the period are fascinating. A reading of the relevant papers suggest to me that the whole thing was being swept under the carpet, despite a lot of questions being tabled about the cause. I contend that it was not a lack of proof that was the problem, but a disinclination to either admit to incompetence (one theory) or that (in the light of several other attacks) Britain was under attack by fifth columnists. Plainly, members of the military thought they were, and though this is not evidence as such, it is evidence of the general tenor of the times, which DS was trying to illustrate.

    • Interesting material about the 1950 explosion. You have a point here, and I will have a look to see if anyone has dug around the government papers on this. There is a wider context, that there was a red scare in Britain, a pale reflection of US McCarthyism, but real nonetheless. The Minister of Labour, George Isaacs, suggested that the 1949 dock strike was an ‘old and deliberate’ Communist plot. It is interesting in relation to High Treason that in 1950 Gaitskell at Fuel and Power argued that a strike in electricity generation had been instigated by Communist shop stewards, and it was the Cabinet Secretary Edward Bridges who warned ministers off directly intervening into this industrial dispute.

      I think the point is that High Treason reflects a level of government paranoia (and I accept that I don’t have the evidence to judge whether this was real or pretended). That the film is a one off, and that it did not do good box office, suggests (although my no means proves) that the public did not share this anxiety about an enemy within, at least by 1953 when the film was released. I did not deal with the late 1940s red scare in this piece, and I might return to this, but I am currently writing a piece about this week’s helping of Dominic.

      You may have been a little unfair to Simon Schama in comparing him to Dominic. I certainly don’t agree with everything he has written, but it is original, rigorous and stimulating.

  2. wrinkled weasel says:

    I absolutely had no intention to compare Simon Schama as a peer. Schama is a benchmark for historical television programming. I meant (probably ambiguously) that you have to compare like with like in terms of television people and the way television does history. Schama’s recent series on the Jews was stimulating and honest. It was also a piece that allowed you to evaluate it critically with no mirror flicking. It was essentially as “academic” as you are going to get on the BBC apart from the Open University.

    Anyway, what I appreciate is that your article forced me to do some digging, which I also enjoyed.

    It is interesting that you pick up on the “High Treason” angle. I discovered that, at the time we are discussing, questions were asked in the Commons about the scope of the law of High Treason, the implication being that it needed to be extended.

    I wish we could have a debate about High Treason now. From my point of view it could certainly clear the air about a few things, such as the war in Iraq. (!)

    I really enjoyed reading what you have to say but I am left wishing that you might extend your scope to include other lines of exploration, since I feel there may be a limit to what can be said about Mr Sandbrook.

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