Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Zilliacus: A Life for Peace and Socialism (2003)

Archie Potts, Zilliacus: A Life for Peace and Socialism (Merlin Press, 2002)
Written By: Ian Birchall
Date: April 2003
Published In LSHG Newsletter  Issue 18: Summer 2003  

If Konni Zilliacus is remembered today it is as what Orwell described as an ‘“underground” Communist’ MP. After 1945 he was one of the most hard-line sympathisers with the Eastern bloc, one of only eight MPs who voted against the formation of NATO. He was expelled and later again suspended from the Labour Party.

Yet things were not quite so simple. Archie Potts has produced a lively and readable account of Zilliacus’ life; though short by the standards of political biographies it is honest and well-researched, and will interest all concerned to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the British left.

In the 1920s and 1930s Zilliacus worked for the League of Nations. He maintained close links with the Labour Party and had no particular sympathies with its left-wing currents. He wrote speeches for Attlee and was a friend of Herbert Morrison and Hugh Dalton. After the war he kept his distance from the Keep Left group (Foot-Crossman-Mikardo) and later from the Bevanites, being more pro-Communist than the mainstream Labour left on foreign policy, with little interest in domestic issues.

Nor was he, as Orwell claimed, controlled by the Communist Party. He regarded the CPGB with justifiable contempt, believing it should dissolve into the Labour Party; the CP gave him no support when he stood as an independent candidate in 1950. He annoyed both Russia and the CPGB with his fulsome support for Tito’s Yugoslavia, and was refused a visa to visit Russia. During the 1952 Slansky Trial in Prague he was named as a member of the British secret service.

Zilliacus had considerable talent, and a vast knowledge of international affairs; he was a prolific writer and pamphleteer, fluent in several languages. He represents a vanished age of the parliamentary left, a sharp contrast to the semi-literate zombies who now trudge through the lobbies to back Blair.

Potts is a warm admirer of his hero, and apart from a few passing asides he makes no attempt to develop a critique of Zilliacus’ political judgement. At most he suggests that Zilliacus was possessed of a certain ‘innocence’, an unawareness of the consequences of his actions.

But Potts provides the raw material for the critique he does not offer. Despite his long love affair with Eastern-bloc Communism, Zilliacus was never a Marxist. Even his claim to be “an empirical pragmatic self-made semi-Marxist” is an exaggeration. His political grounding was in the tradition of the Union of Democratic Control and in particular the work of Norman Angell. If he added certain Marxist insights, he never abandoned his initial inspiration. As AJP Taylor noted, his books might have been written by a partnership of Ramsay MacDonald and Lenin.

Indeed Bernard Shaw was shrewd when he hailed Zilliacus as a Fabian, for he shared the Fabian distaste for any hint of socialism from below. Certainly he was no revolutionary. He was in Russia in 1918-19, but his main response was outrage at foreign intervention rather than enthusiasm for soviet democracy. While he recognised - at least in private - the shortcomings of the Eastern bloc, his hope was for slow progress to liberalisation; he had little sympathy with Hungarian workers when they tried to accelerate the process.

Zilliacus represented two industrial constituencies, Gateshead and Gorton in Manchester; apparently a conscientious constituency MP, he was well respected by local LP members. Yet Potts never notes involvement in an industrial dispute, though it is inconceivable that there were none in such constituencies over seventeen years.

But for Zilliacus the working class existed only in states where it was allegedly in power or in parties which allegedly represented it. Socialism was defined by nationalisation and economic planning. The whole notion of working-class self-emancipation was foreign to him.

Hence if he was, as Tony Benn claims in his Foreword, “an internationalist above all else”, it was only in the sense that he aspired to friendly co-operative relations between nations. The Marxist notion of class unity transcending nation states was not part of his world-view.

Stalinism has had a profound influence on the Labour Party, and not just its left wing, from the Webbs through Harold Wilson to the ex-Communists in Blair’s apparatus. To misquote an old slogan, Stalinism and social democracy are not antipodes but twins. This study of Zilliacus is a useful contribution to demystification.

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