The Usual Psychological Effects of a Shotgun Wedding’. British Labour and the Social Democratic Parties in Eastern Europe, 1945-1948. Introduction

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Jan de Graaf
The Usual Psychological Effects of a Shotgun Wedding’. British Labour and the Social Democratic Parties in Eastern Europe, 1945-1948.
On the evening of September 26th 1947 Denis Healey, the Labour Party’s International Secretary, hosted a BBC Home Service radio broadcast. In it, he reflected upon the role of the Social Democratic parties in Europe. Democratic Socialism, he argued, was above all a ‘middle of the road doctrine’, it agreed with Conservatives on the significance of political democracy, while it fell in with Communists on the importance of economic planning. Occupying a mediating position between these mutually antagonistic extremes, Social Democratic parties should at all costs avoid throwing in their lots with either one of them. Some might insist that Socialists should always safeguard the interest of the working-class and cooperate with Communists in united fronts. The trouble was that most European Social Democratic parties had ‘found that collaboration with the Communists is rather like going for a ride on a tiger’, more often than not ending up ‘with the lady inside and the smile on the face of the tiger’.1 Within fifteen months, Healey would be proven right by events in Eastern Europe. Across the region, Communist parties had forced their Social Democratic coalition partners into a fusion. The last domino fell in December 1948, when the Polish Socialist Party merged with the Polish Communists. An era of limited freedom in Eastern Europe came to an end with this, as Healey remarked cynically, ‘formal act of hara-kiri’.2

This article seeks to explore the relations between the Labour Party and its Eastern European fraternal bodies during the first years after the Second World War. These parties had been full members of the so-called ‘informal Socialist International’ that emerged in 1946.3 Though it is certainly overstating the case to argue, as the Polish Communists did in late 1946, that Labour was the ‘cock of the Socialist roost’ and that the other Social Democratic parties went to Great Britain ‘for instructions’, the British were indeed the leading force in the post-war international Socialist movement.4 Its heroic wartime record and its landslide victory at the polls in mid-1945 had invested Labour with enormous prestige, not least amongst the Eastern European Social Democrats.5 But the fact that the Socialists were governing Britain was as much a liability as it was an asset to the international Socialist movement. By its very impartial nature, a Government cannot be seen to discriminate between foreign parties in favour of fraternal groupings. As a result, both the Labour Party and the Labour Government were often walking a tightrope in their attempts to encourage and reinforce the Eastern European Social Democrats.

The purposes of this article are fourfold. In the first place, it aims to shed some light upon a largely neglected area of post-war British foreign policy-making. Even fairly recent historiographical accounts describe Eastern Europe as a region that had been written off to Britain under the notorious ‘percentages agreement’ that Stalin and Churchill entered into in October 1944.6 In the second place, it aspires to add one further chapter to those narratives which query whether Labour’s foreign policy was continuous with that of the pre-war Tory Governments.7 In accordance with contemporary publications, it argues that British post-war international politics cannot be understood without an appreciation of its distinct ideological elements.8 Thirdly, it attempts to illustrate that the interplay between the Labour Party and the British Foreign Office was both more intensive and more intricate than has often been supposed. As regards the attitudes towards the Eastern European Social Democrats there were no clear fault lines and positions shifted in keeping with events.9 In the fourth place, it endeavours to demonstrate that the Eastern European Social Democratic parties were nominally independent bodies up to at least late 1947. These parties have all too frequently been portrayed as ‘nothing but front organisations of the Communists’.10 In fact, by early 1947 both Labour Party and Labour Government viewed the Social Democrats as the last stronghold against the full communisation of Eastern Europe.
In the weeks that separated the holding of the July 1945 General Election from the calling of its results Sir Orme Sargent, Deputy Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, contemplated future British foreign policy in his memorandum ‘Stocktaking after VE-Day’. He pointed to the Soviet Union as the major threat to post-war peace. Stalin seemed determined to secure his borders ‘by creating what might be termed an ideological Lebensraum in those countries which he considered strategically important’. Britain was to withstand Soviet pressure in the diplomatic arena. This also applied to most of Eastern Europe, where Sargent aspired to hold on to British influence by keeping ‘our foot firmly in Finland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, even though we may have to abandon perhaps for the moment Rumania and Hungary’.11 By that time it was still widely believed that the General Election would produce a Tory victory, which was expected to pave the way for a swift return to traditional British anti-Soviet attitudes. Much to his distress, however, Sargent was faced with an incoming Labour Government. Full of gloom, he predicted ‘a Communist avalanche over Europe, a weak foreign policy, a private revolution at home and the reduction of England to a second-class power’.12

These anxieties might well have been fuelled by signs of increasing radicalism amongst the Labour Party’s rank-and-file in the run-up to the General Election. During its May 1945 Annual Conference Major Denis Healey, who was on a three-month leave from military service in the Italian peninsula, insisted that Labour ought to adopt a foreign policy that was ‘completely distinct’ from that of the Tories. He had witnessed Socialist revolution emerging in continental Europe; it had already been ‘firmly established’ in most of Eastern and Southern Europe. The central tenet of the Labour Party’s foreign policy should be to bolster nascent Socialist revolutions across the continent. Most of those who had spent the war in Britain failed to grasp just how merciless the struggle for Socialism in Europe had been. It was perfectly understandable that the victors of that struggle were determined to hold on to the fruits of their success. Therefore, Healey concluded, ‘if the Labour Movement in Europe finds it necessary to introduce a greater degree of police supervision and more immediate and drastic punishment for their opponents than we in this country would be prepared to tolerate, we must be prepared to understand their point of view’.13

Over the course of the following months, both Sargent and Healey would come to occupy prominent positions in the British foreign political machinery. Sargent took over the post of Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs in early 1946, thus becoming the effective head of the Foreign Office. Roughly at the same time, Healey was asked to apply for the vacancy at the top of the Labour Party’s International Department, which he was awarded in due course. Formally, the Foreign Office and the Labour Party operated at entirely separate levels. The conduct of international politics at state level was presided over by the Foreign Office, while the Labour Party’s international latitude was strictly confined to the party level. Hence, when Healey began his duties as International Secretary, his foremost tasks were to rebuild the relationships between Labour and foreign Socialist parties and to assist drawing up designs for a future Socialist International. But, as Healey asserted in his memoirs, since Socialist parties were coalition partners in almost all post-war European Governments, his contacts with Socialists abroad plunged him ‘into the centre of British foreign policy’.14 As a consequence, clear lines of demarcation between a state and a party sphere in British international politics were often blurred.

Right from the beginning of its tenure, the Labour Government interfered in Labour Party affairs where it deemed its interests at stake. For example, in the autumn of 1945 it effectively vetoed a proposed visit of a Labour delegation to Bulgaria. In late September Morgan Philips had informed Secretary of State Ernest Bevin that the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) had accepted an invitation from the governing Bulgarian Social Democratic Party (BSDP) to visit the country. He requested that the necessary facilities would be put in place. Philips was, however, rebuffed by both Bevin and Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton. Bevin wrote that there were ‘certain political difficulties’ with regard to Bulgaria and maintained that only all-party delegations should visit the country: ‘otherwise I fear chaos will ensue’. He urged that the NEC should henceforth consult with the Foreign Office before deciding on foreign invitations so as to avoid embarrassment. Dalton was more elaborate. He argued that the Soviet Union was in complete control in Bulgaria, and that no delegation would be able to get a clear view of the political situation. Furthermore, there was no significant Socialist party in this peasant country. Above all, Dalton pointed to the great risk that a visiting Labour delegation would be ‘construed as an anti-Soviet move’. Bevin was having a hard enough time as it was and it was to be feared that this visit ‘will be, if not quite useless, positively harmful to Anglo-Russian relations’.15

First Encounters
Anglo-Soviet relations also took centre stage when Labour had to decide between ‘Molotov-Socialists’ and ‘Independent Socialists’ in Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, Poland and Rumania the Social Democrats had split over the issue of Communist-Socialist collaboration. Dissident factions in those parties protesting against the police methods used by the Communist-dominated popular front Governments had broken away from their main bodies and entered into opposition. It was up to the Labour Party to determine which of these groupings to invite to the first full-fledged post-war International Socialist Conference that was scheduled for May 1946 in seaside resort of Clacton.16 The question of the invitations was discussed by the NEC in the spring. While it resolved to invite neither Socialist faction from Bulgaria and Rumania, it decided to issue the PPS Government with an invitation barring both the opposition Polish Social Democrats and the London-based exiled PPS from the international Socialist movement. It appears that this verdict was predominantly influenced by reluctance to put Anglo-Soviet relations on the line. Official support for overtly anti-Soviet political currents in Eastern Europe would provoke the Soviet Union, with all its dire consequences for the future of Socialism on that side of the European divide. As Healey noted after the Clacton Conference, the Social Democratic parties in Central and Eastern Europe were ‘a barometer of relations between Britain and the Soviet Union […], their survival depends wholly on Anglo-Soviet friendship’.17

In addition to concerns about repercussions for the bonds between Britain and the Soviet Union, prognoses on the political potential of the opposition Social Democratic parties in Eastern Europe seem to have been a major factor in Labour’s decision to favour their governing counterparts. Whereas all opposition parties were subjected to severe persecution, the governing Social Democrats found themselves in a position to exert real influence upon the state machine and to gather a mass following around them. Reflecting upon Eastern European Socialism in mid-1947, Healey maintained that the anti-Communist attitudes of the opposition Social Democrats had left them with no choice but to struggle alongside their ‘class enemies’ against the popular front Governments with no chance of success whatsoever. On the other hand, the Government Social Democratic parties had followed the right tactics. By joining the popular fronts, they had been able to build up a strong party organisation and widespread support amongst the population. This had enabled the governing Social Democrats to ‘blackmail the Communists into giving them a larger share of power’ and made them a force ‘to be reckoned with’.18

In Clacton, the Hungarian, Polish and Rumanian Social Democrats defended the Communist-Socialist cooperation and the methods used by the popular front Governments.19 It was contended that there were anti-democratic majorities in each of these countries and that the popular fronts had to arm themselves against these currents. A split between Communists and Socialists would be utilized by the forces of Fascism to rebuild dictatorships in Eastern Europe. At the same time the Hungarians and Rumanians indicated that they were suspicious of Communist objectives, while the Czechoslovakian Social Democrats argued that ‘democracy was preserved’ in the first months after the liberation only as a result of the fact that they had convinced the Communists to enter a united front. For that reason, the Eastern European delegations urged that the contacts between Western European and Eastern European Social Democrats would be upheld on the basis of mutual understanding. The ‘dangerous dispute of Western and Eastern Socialism’ ought to be avoided at all costs, as Polish representative Ludwik Grosfeld insisted. Instead, ‘a bridge of understanding’ should be erected across differences of opinion and diverging tactics.20

The extent of Communist interference in continental Social Democratic parties witnessed at Clacton alarmed Healey. A week after the Conference he noted that of the nineteen parties represented in Clacton ‘more than twelve found Communist intrigue a major or minor nuisance, while even some of the Parties which collaborate on particular issues with the Communists showed the usual psychological effects of a shotgun wedding’.21 The forceful merger of Communists and Social Democrats in the Soviet Zone of Germany in April had already shattered any illusions about Communist intentions in the regions occupied by the Red Army. Therefore, from the Clacton Conference onwards, the attitude of the Labour Party towards the Eastern European Social Democrats was marked by two central motives. In the first place, Labour showed sympathy for the difficulties with which the Eastern European Social Democratic parties were faced. It was argued that these parties would find themselves in a critical position at least until the tensions between the Great Powers abated. Consequently, the relations with the Government Social Democratic parties were to be kept intact and the Eastern European Socialists were not to be caused embarrassment at home.22 In the second place, Labour tried all in its power to encourage the Eastern European Social Democratic parties to sustain their organisational independence from the Communists. Over the course of the next year and a half it would develop various initiatives to this end.

In order for these policies to be successful, the Labour Party needed Foreign Office backing, but such support was not forthcoming in 1946. Instead, the Foreign Office seems to have viewed the political situation in post-war Eastern Europe from a black-and-white perspective in which all parties that were not overtly anti-Communist were written off as ‘well sold to the Communists’.23 It comes as no surprise, then, that the Foreign Office had pinned its hopes upon those Conservative, Liberal and Peasant parties that it considered most likely to prove a bulwark against Communism in Eastern Europe. For example, in Poland it fostered the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) and its leader Stanislaw Mikolajczyk. In November 1945 he spoke privately with Bevin in London. Mikolajczyk assured the Foreign Secretary that the struggle for democracy was being won in Poland and over the next year the Foreign Office attempted to shore up the PSL.24

The fact that a Labour Government was supporting Conservative forces in Eastern Europe to the neglect of the Socialist parties caused particular distress both at the Labour Party’s headquarters and amongst its rank-and-file. Most often, the diplomatic personnel at Britain’s Eastern European embassies was held to be the culprit. Writing in August 1946, Healey argued that there was ‘a real danger in accepting at face value the evidence of “converted” Tories’ of the ‘Quintin Hogg and Bob Boothby type’ at British embassies. According to Healey, these diplomats were more interested ‘in finding sticks with which to beat the Russians’ than in the future of the democratic order in Eastern Europe. For that reason too, all Eastern European Social Democratic parties were begging the Labour Party ‘to send out labour attachés so that they can have at least one person in each embassy to whom they can talk without fear and with some hope of sympathetic understanding’.25

Similarly, at both the 1946 and 1947 Labour Party Conferences, resolutions were taken calling upon Bevin to modernise and broaden the Foreign Service. It was contended that ‘the men who were brought up in the old narrow ruling circles of Eton and Harrow and Rugby’ were incapable of representing a Labour Government in the upheaval-ridden countries of Eastern Europe and that labour attachés should be appointed to each British embassy.26 In the end, these efforts on the part of the Labour Party met with some success. By 1947, there were labour attachés in the British embassies in Czechoslovakia and Poland. In the same year, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, the British Ambassador to Poland, was re-assigned to Brazil, while William Houstoun Boswall, the British Ambassador to Bulgaria, had been recalled in November 1946. In the latter case there were widespread rumours that the Labour Government had lost confidence in its Bulgarian representative.27

The Eastern European Social Democrats themselves were outraged at the policies of the Foreign Office. Corresponding with Healey in late 1946, Nus Moldovanu, the international representative of the (Government) Rumanian Social Democratic Party (PSDR), criticized Bevin. If the Socialist Foreign Minister of Great Britain sincerely cared about democracy in Rumania, he would have picked the PSDR as his ‘ami naturel’. Instead, he paid lip-service to Rumanian democracy only as a pretext to attack the Soviet Union, while official British support was bestowed upon Liberal, Peasant and (Opposition) Independent Social Democratic Parties. If the Foreign Office persisted in its attitude, ‘on donnera un bel spectacle de la solidarité internationale des socialistes au monde et il réussira a rendre impossible la formation d’un gouvernement à direction socialiste en Roumanie’. In response, Healey indicated that he concurred with Moldovanu’s views and claimed to be ‘in continual argument with the Foreign Office over the question’.28

These arguments would soon take a turn for the better. In a late December letter, the International Secretary recommended transferring support to the Rumanian Government Social Democrats. It might be ‘repugnant’ to do so, but it was the ‘only policy which will further British interests in Rumania at the present time’. Titel Petrescu, the leader of the Opposition Social Democrats, was but an ‘ineffective old man’, whose following consisted for the most part of the intellectual bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the Government Social Democratic Party, led by Lotar Rădăceanu, had built up a mass following amongst the workers and the peasants. While many of the leading characters within the PSDR might indeed be ‘unsavoury’, they were ‘at least preferable […] to the Maniu and Brătianu gang’.29 Shifting support to the Government Social Democrats might enable them ‘to open a door to the West, increase their popular backing, and to wean themselves away from the Communists’.30 The advice was communicated to Adrian Holman, the British Ambassador in Rumania, who agreed with its general line even though he thought that efforts to make the Opposition and Government Social Democrats cooperate might be worthwhile. One month later the die had been cast, as the Foreign Office had decided ‘to drop their support of the Maniu, Bratiănu and Petrescu Parties and to concentrate on backing the Rădăceanu Socialists’.31 It was to prove a herald of a much more extensive modification of Foreign Office attitudes towards the Eastern European Social Democrats.

Year of Decisions
In December 1946 Bevin had summoned the heads of his Eastern European embassies to London in order to discuss Britain’s future policies in that part of the continent. Meetings between high-ranking Foreign Office bureaucrats and the Ambassadors to Eastern Europe were held on January 13th, 14th and 17th 1947, chaired by Sargent, Bevin and Minister of State Hector McNeil respectively. Opening the first meeting, Sargent explained why Bevin had convened these gatherings. The Secretary of State hoped to make up his mind about Eastern Europe in view of both the new situation that had arisen after elections had been held in each country and the upcoming Moscow round of the Council of Foreign Ministers. Hitherto, Britain’s attitude towards Eastern Europe had been marked first and foremost by an emphasis on the observation of the Yalta provision on organising ‘free and unfettered’ elections in the regions occupied by the Red Army. This policy had been a mixed success at best: while fair elections had been held in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Communists had rigged elections in Bulgaria, Poland and Rumania. Against this background, Sargent presented the Ambassadors with two alternatives. Either the Foreign Office could continue to resist Communist predominance in Eastern Europe or it could acquiesce with Communist political supremacy and resign itself to the further development of cultural and trade relations with Eastern Europe.32

On this question the verdict was unanimously in favour of the former option. It was generally agreed that giving up on political pluralism in Eastern Europe would do great harm to Britain’s moral standing across the region. Moreover, it was likely to shock the American State Department, which had thus far pursued a policy parallel to that of the Foreign Office. Above all, however, it would produce nothing but adverse results in the diplomatic arena. The Soviet Union ‘believed in a foreign policy of friction, they would be amazed if we ceased to oppose them in Eastern Europe, and, if we were to relax our opposition, we should expect increased pressure from the Russians in Western Europe and the Middle East’. The Soviet Union was experiencing major domestic difficulties: industrial output was low and another bad harvest was coming up. Therefore, if Britain kept ‘the ball in the Russian twenty-five’, the situation in Eastern Europe might well alter in its favour in a couple of years. The general objective would be ‘to hold position against the spread of Communism in order that Western concepts of Social Democracy may, if possible, in the course of time be adopted in as many Eastern European countries as possible’.33

But so far the Eastern European Social Democrats had not been great standard-bearers of these concepts. It was pointed out during the London meetings that the Eastern European Social Democratic parties ‘had shown themselves weak and flabby in the past and lacking in courage to oppose the Communists’, in effect they had been ‘in the wrong camp’.34 Yet, as Cavendish-Bentinck noted, the virtual destruction of the PSL in Poland gave cause to suspect that the Socialists would be next on the list. For that reason, he advocated to bestow discreet support upon the PPS. While Holman pleaded for a similar line towards the Rumanian Social Democrats, some of his colleagues pointed to hopeful ‘signs of a growing spirit of Socialist independence’.35 Where possible, Britain should bolster these tendencies and seek to disengage the Eastern European Social Democratic parties from the Communists. Greater collaboration between Social Democratic and Peasant parties was also to be stimulated. Even the possibility of giving financial assistance to the Eastern European Social Democrats was discussed.

The Labour Party was to fulfil a central role in these attempts to encourage the Eastern European Social Democratic parties. According to McNeil, these parties had, after a long period of German and Communist domination, lost their ‘organisational touch’ and were unable to ‘make independent opposition effective’. Above all, they required ‘friendly Socialists from abroad to advise them on how their independence could best be asserted’.36 Sargent also felt that the Labour Party should step up efforts to ‘penetrate and collaborate with’ its Eastern European fraternal bodies. The British Ambassador to Czechoslovakia recommended cultivating the right-wing of the CSSD, which stood close to the Labour Party ideologically. Finally, Knox Helm, the head of the British Political Mission in Hungary, hoped that visits by responsible Labour MPs would ‘open the eyes of the Social Democrats to the dangers of the course pursued by their present leaders’.37

More extensive contacts between Labour and the Eastern European Social Democratic parties were thus much welcomed by the Foreign Office. There were, however, certain difficulties encountered in this context. In the first place, the Labour rank-and-file was often little acquainted with conditions in continental Europe. Accustomed to a democratic order at home, they found it hard to conceive of such things as open terrorisation or police state methods and were more concerned about the improvement of the situation of the working-classes than about the defence of personal freedom. Consequently, so as to avoid embarrassment, Labour MPs visiting Eastern Europe ought to be selected and briefed carefully.38 In addition to that, Bevin was opposed to the dispatching of delegations to Eastern Europe consisting solely of Labour MPs. Both on financial grounds and in order to guarantee political representativeness, Bevin urged the Ambassadors to make increased use of the Inter-Parliamentary Union to send out all-party delegations to Eastern Europe.39 The Foreign Office also explored further options to facilitate contacts between British Socialists and Eastern European Social Democrats, for example through exchanges of visits between Co-Operative Movements.

The most ambitious scheme to strengthen the Eastern European Social Democratic parties vis-à-vis Communism was submitted by Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Christopher Mayhew. The usual stress on the political virtues of Social Democracy against Communism could in his view be linked to potential economic benefits. He argued that it made sense ‘to popularise the idea that the social revolutions in Eastern Europe, which in themselves promise better living conditions for the masses, are being exploited by Russia for her own selfish economic advantage’. To accomplish this, the Soviet Union made use of well-known techniques of Capitalist colonial exploitation: it blockaded the establishment of close economic relations between Eastern Europe and the West and it extracted more wealth from the Eastern European countries than it returned. But without its Communist fifth column in Eastern Europe frustrating attempts to arrive at more profound forms of democracy and to attain higher living standards for the peasants and the working classes, the Soviet Union would be hard-pressed to implement its exploitative measures. So therefore Mayhew hoped to rally the Eastern European masses behind the Social Democratic parties by embarking upon a propaganda campaign against this ‘Soviet Colonial System’. Its pivotal assumption was to be that ‘[o]nly in free Social Democratic countries are the workers safeguarded against both Capitalist and Communist exploitation’.40

Mayhew’s plan was well received by the Ambassadors and the Foreign Office leadership. McNeil argued that the best way to respond to Soviet exploitation was for Britain to offer the Eastern European countries trade agreements on a fairer basis. It was also decided to popularise the phrase ‘Soviet Colonial System’: it should be introduced in a House of Commons speech, to be carried on in newspapers and semi-technical journals such as The Economist. And although the phrase was not to appear in the bulletins of the British embassies in Eastern Europe, its personnel should do everything in its power to advance the campaign amongst independence-minded Eastern European Social Democrats.41

Yet, even before the campaign could be launched, Bevin dismissed the entire scheme. He indicated that he wanted to postpone any anti-Soviet propaganda campaign in Eastern Europe until it became clear how the Eastern European countries would respond to the newly founded Economic Committee for Europe. Foremost on the Foreign Minister’s mind seems, however, to have been his anxiety ‘to avoid being always the “official opposition” in Eastern Europe’.42

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