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Odd Bed-fellows: British Christians and Communists in the Struggle for Peace

D’étranges compagnons : chrétiens et communistes britanniques dans la lutte pour la paix
Jeremy Tranmer
p. 170-187

Résumé

Au début des années 1950, le doyen de l’archevêché de Cantorbéry œuvra au sein du mouvement pour la paix et participa à des activités organisées par le parti communiste britannique. En 1983, le prêtre catholique Bruce Kent, leader de la Campagne pour le Désarmement Nucléaire, loua l’engagement des communistes britanniques en faveur de la paix. Cet article cherche à examiner pourquoi et comment chrétiens et communistes surmontèrent leurs différences et coopérèrent dans la lutte contre l’arme nucléaire.

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Texte intégral

  • 1  R. H. S. Crossman (ed.), The God That Failed. Six Studies in Communism, London: The Right Book Clu (...)
  • 2  Since the disappearance of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1991 and the subsequent opening (...)
  • 3  The BPC is only mentioned in passing by historians of British Communism and hardly at all by histo (...)

1Much discussion of religion and politics today tends to focus on Islam or on the links between various evangelical Christian groups and the Right in the United States. It is often forgotten that Christians have at various times been actively involved with the Left. A great deal has been written about Communism and Christianity, from the philosophical similarities between them to interpretations of Communism as a secular religion not dissimilar to Catholicism in its hierarchical, centralized structures. It is not for nothing that one of the most famous books denouncing Communism is entitled The God That Failed.1 Practical cooperation between Communists and Christians has been less well documented. This article intends to examine their work together in the British peace movement, particularly in organizations opposing nuclear weapons, an area which has received very little academic attention.2 Two particular examples will be concentrated on. The first is the activities of the British Peace Committee (BPC), the British section of the World Peace Council, in the early 1950s.3 Collaboration between Christians and Communists was embodied by the Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, who was a leading figure in the BPC. The second case concerns the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) at the beginning of the 1980s. Here the Catholic priest Bruce Kent epitomized joint work. The periods under study represent the most significant phases of mass mobilization against nuclear weapons in Britain.

  • 4  Darren Lilleker, Against The Cold War.The History and Political Tradition of Pro-Sovietism in the (...)
  • 5  Lilleker’s assertion that Communists “infiltrated” CND is therefore inappropriate, Ibid., 26.
  • 6  Consequently, terms such as “cooperation” and “joint activity” have been used in this article.

2This article aims to go beyond stereotypes of naïve Christians and devious Communists. For opponents of the peace movement, Christians who worked with Communists were simply “fellow-travellers” who were being manipulated. In his recent work on pro-Sovietism in the Labour Party, the historian Darren Lilleker has questioned the usefulness of the term, stating that the people put in this category did not have the same point of departure or of arrival.4 The same insight could be applied to Christians in the BPC and in CND. To describe them simply as fellow-travellers over-emphasizes their homogeneousness, whereas they belonged to various denominations and had ideological differences. Furthermore, it is rather simplistic to claim that Christians were manipulated since Communists were quite open about their affiliations.5 It could even be argued that Christians were using Communists who were valuable to them because of their trade union-connections and access to activist networks.6 Having examined these two examples of cooperation, it will then be suggested that, although they may seem surprising at first sight, they can be explained by the combination of several factors such as the historical specificity of relations between sections of the Left and organized religion in Britain, the importance of the issue of nuclear weapons, and the pragmatism of both sides.

The British Peace Committee

  • 7  For example, two of the British representatives were Reverend T. E. Nicholas and Reverend Alexande (...)
  • 8  The CPGB had always been a small organization compared to other Western European communist parties (...)
  • 9  This could perhaps help to explain why so little work has been conducted on it.
  • 10  For example, the BPC issued a statement on August 3, 1961 about Soviet nuclear tests in which it d (...)
  • 11  Following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the BPC issued a statement calling for an immedi (...)

3The British Peace Committee (BPC) was founded in 1949 as the British section of the World Peace Council. The latter had been created the previous year to promote peaceful coexistence and nuclear disarmament and received financial as well as material assistance from the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe. The main specificities of the BPC were that it was part of an international movement with organizations on both sides of the Iron Curtain and that, in an increasingly bipolar world, it sided with the Soviet Union, openly criticizing American defence policy. Communists and representatives of various Christian denominations figured prominently in the activities of the World Peace Council.7 The main driving force behind the foundation of the BPC was the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).8 Communists occupied prominent positions in the national leadership as well as in local groups. Given its national and international connections, the BPC was denounced by many of its opponents at the time as a Communist front.9 This Cold War vision is a little simplistic for two reasons. Firstly, although the BPC’s positions tended to be very similar to those of the CPGB and the Soviet Union,10 there were at times differences of analysis and emphasis.11 Secondly, Communists did not dominate the national BPC leadership numerically. Its first chairman, J. G. Crowther, was not a party member (although the secretary Bill Wainwright was a member of the CPGB’s Executive Committee). It would be more appropriate to say Communists were hegemonic, in the Gramscian sense of the word, as they exercised intellectual, moral and political leadership within the BPC.

  • 12  C.P./CENT/PEA/01/01.
  • 13  This was particularly important for the BPC In 1953, for example, the appeal raised £785. Newslett (...)
  • 14 Bulletin of the British Peace Committee, August 1950, 16.
  • 15  The All Britain Peace Conference organized in 1950 brought together 830 delegates claiming to repr (...)

4In fact, efforts were made to develop an organization that had a broad political and social base. It contained members of the Labour Party such as Gordon Schaffer, although Labour rapidly added the BPC to its list of proscribed bodies and threatened to expel any of its members who became involved with it. It even attracted the occasional Liberal Party member, such as Mrs Verdun Pearl. There were trade unionists as well as members of various Christian churches. Christian sponsors included Reverend O. Fielding Clarke, Reverend C. C. J. Butlin, Reverend Alan Ecclestone and Reverend E. Charles,12 but the most famous was the Anglican Dean of Canterbury, the Very Reverend Hewlett Johnson (known to his detractors – of whom there were many – as the “Red Dean”). As well as being one of the founding members of the BPC, Johnson was a member of its National Council, spoke at its public meetings, wrote in its publications, launched a yearly appeal for funds13 and even conducted a church service after BPC conferences. In 1950 he was refused permission to enter the United States because of his political views and actions, and he later received the Stalin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union. He publicly defended the actions of Communists in the BPC and his joint work with them, stating on one occasion, “I believe that these Communists who are working for peace from day to day are nearer to Christ than those Christians who talk about it but do nothing.”14 Johnson was the most prominent Christian in the BPC, but he was far from being the only one. Eight of the seventy members of its first General Council were ministers of religion, while messages of support were frequently received from others such as the well-known Methodist Donald Soper. At its peak in 1950, it claimed to have the backing of over two million people, but its active membership was a tiny fraction of that figure.15

  • 16  For an example of the extent of the organization’s early activities, see Bulletin of the British P (...)
  • 17  In other words, 2% of British people signed the petition. Nevertheless, it must be borne in mind t (...)
  • 18  For details of the preparations, see Phillip Deery, “The Dove Flies East: Whitehall, Warsaw and th (...)

5Christians and Communists thus worked together to further the aims of the BPC. During the first months of its existence, the organization’s main priority was to collect signatures for the Stockholm appeal in favour of a total ban on nuclear weapons. This involved mainly joint public activity such as distributing leaflets, organizing local meetings, manning stands in main thoroughfares and knocking on doors in residential areas of cities.16 Over a million signatures were collected in three months, making it one of the most successful British petitions of the twentieth century.17 It followed this up by planning to organize the Second Congress of the World Peace Council in Sheffield in September 1950.18 However, its efforts were in vain as some foreign delegates were refused entry to Britain, and consequently the congress was held in Warsaw instead. In the following years the BPC campaigned actively against German rearmament and germ warfare. It was opposed to Britain’s possessing its own nuclear weapons, but it stressed the need for international agreements between the world’s major military powers.

  • 19  C.P./CENT/PEA/01/06.
  • 20  Although there are no membership figures, a brief comparison of its publications in the early and (...)
  • 21  The BPC continued to exist, but by the early 1980s it had become the British Peace Assembly, and r (...)

6The BPC was without doubt the largest and most active British peace organization of the early 1950s. Despite the fact that it was branded Communist by most of the press, significant numbers of Christians did not hesitate to be publicly associated with it and participate in its activities. Christians, including the Dean of Canterbury, Reverend L. J. Bliss and Reverend Alex Reid, even issued a statement in 1953 defending the role of Communists within the BPC: “Any assertion […] that the Council is engaged in furthering ‘Communist plans’ or the plans of any other political party in any way is a plain falsehood without foundation whatsoever.”19 However, as the Cold War set in, the movement began to decline.20 By the late 1950s, a new dynamic organization had been founded with which the ailing BPC had little choice but to cooperate.21 Once again Communists and Christians were thrown together in the struggle for peace.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

  • 22  James Hinton, Protests and Visions, Peace Politics in 20th Century Britain, London: Hutchinson, 19 (...)

7The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was created in 1958. Its founder members included Canon John Collins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Bertrand Russell, the former Communist E. P. Thompson, J. B. Priestley and the Labour MP Michael Foot. Initially, Communists were conspicuous by their absence as a result of a significant difference of perspective. The CPGB was in favour of international agreements between the nuclear powers leading to multilateral nuclear disarmament. CND, on the other hand, advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, believing that Britain should set an example and get rid of its own nuclear weapons, irrespective of other countries’ actions and plans. Communists therefore saw the demand for unilateralism as a potentially divisive diversion from the main task of bringing the superpowers together. However, once the CPGB realized how successful the new movement was in mobilizing young people in particular against nuclear weapons, it reversed its stance and Communists began to join CND. Here they cooperated with the numerous Christians, such as Quakers, active in the organization. In fact, Christians were such an important source of support that a specialist sub-group, Christian CND, was created in 1960. Interestingly, it has been argued that CND’s ability to reach out to a broad audience resulted partly from the fact that the CPGB remained aloof during its foundation, allowing the new movement not to be denounced as Communist-inspired or dominated.22 Nevertheless, in the following years the media constantly portrayed CND as being pro-Soviet since its advocacy of unilateral nuclear disarmament by Britain appeared to favour the Soviet Union, against which Britain’s nuclear weapons were targeted.

  • 23  K. Hudson, op. cit., 56.

8The high point of CND’s early activities was its participation in the annual Easter marches from London to Aldermaston in Berkshire, where an atomic research centre was situated. Before the first march in 1958 set off, over 10,000 protesters had gathered in Trafalgar Square. The BPC took part in the organization, giving practical support and advice and contributing to its success.23 After the heady days of the late 1950s, CND experienced a lean period in the late 1960s and 1970s. Membership fell to just over 2,000 as fear of nuclear war became less widespread as a result of the more favourable international context symbolized by the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the two superpowers. In addition, other issues such as the war in Vietnam caught the public’s attention. However, the worsening international climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s and Britain’s decision to accept American Cruise missiles on its territory led to a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes. For the first time since the 1950s nuclear weapons became a major political issue.

  • 24  A die-in consists of people lying on the ground in a public place in order to symbolize the effect (...)
  • 25  The best-known peace camp, which attracted media attention because only women stayed there, was or (...)

9National membership of CND rose rapidly, peaking at 100,000, while local groups claimed a total of 200,000 members. Members and supporters engaged in traditional activities such as leafleting and demonstrating, but on a scale not seen before in the history of the peace movement in Britain. For instance, national demonstrations regularly involved tens of thousands of protesters, the largest being the one held on October 22nd 1983 in London, which attracted between 200,000 and 400,000 people. CND activists also acted to influence the policy of the Labour Party. Despite the misgivings of its senior figures, Labour adopted unilateral nuclear disarmament as part of its defence policy in 1980. New forms of action were experimented with. Vigils, die-ins,24 human chains and peace camps outside military bases all became regular occurrences.25

  • 26  For further headlines and articles, see Communist Focus, December 1983, 22–23.
  • 27  Membership of the CPGB had fallen to just under 20,000 by 1981, but its remaining members were sti (...)
  • 28  K. Hudson, op. cit., 141.

10It was in this context of Cold War tension and peace movement mobilization that the General Secretary of CND, the Catholic priest Bruce Kent, gave a speech at the 1983 congress of the CPGB. He said how proud he was to be there and thanked Communists for their involvement in CND, stating that the organization had only survived in the 1970s thanks to the efforts of Quakers and Communists. Kent’s speech led to a media outcry as the tabloids stressed the perceived incongruity of a Catholic priest praising Communists. The following day’s headlines included “CND priest pays tribute to reds” (Sun), “Kent praises reds” (DailyMirror), “My debt to the reds” (DailyMail) and “Storm erupts as CND priest praises reds” (DailyExpress).26 In fact, Kent’s speech was merely further proof that Christians and Communists cooperated closely in CND and had done so for many years. In the early 1980s, several Communists, such as John Cox, Jon Bloomfield, Vic Allen, Sally Davison and Gary Lefley, held positions of national responsibility and were household names in the organization. Communists also had a strong presence in local groups.27 Given the composition of CND they inevitably had to work closely with Christians. A survey carried out in the early 1980s showed that 23% of CND supporters were active churchgoers.28

  • 29  It continues to this day in CND, which still contains an exceptionally large number of Christians, (...)

11CND in the early 1980s was thus an extremely diverse organization. However, as in the BPC, Christians and Communists made up two significant minorities at all levels. Their cooperation enabled CND to function coherently and to become one of the most powerful, social movements of the 1980s. Joint activity involving Christians and Communists was therefore not limited to the early 1950s and can be seen as a structural element of the peace movement.29

Overcoming Differences

  • 30  In 1991 it changed its name, structures and ideology and became the Democratic Left.

12At first sight, cooperation between Christian and Communists may seem rather surprising, especially when seen from the point of view of a post-Communist and increasingly secular Western society. In Britain the official Communist Party no longer exists,30 and practising Christians have become a small minority. Even in the 1950s and 1980s such cohabitation seemed unusual or even unnatural to some.

  • 31 Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm>,accessed April 2007.

13Communism and Christianity had several fundamental differences. Karl Marx had famously written: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”31 Religion was therefore seen primarily as a means of allowing people to cope with life in a capitalist society. Elsewhere Marx wrote that religion had been created by man and that the struggle against religious beliefs was the starting point for the fight for complete emancipation. Christians obviously had a completely different vision of their faith, and their potential antipathy was compounded by the fact that the Soviet Union was officially atheist and that it and its satellites had used repressive measures against religious institutions as well as individual Christians.

  • 32  Douglas Hyde, I Believed, London: William Heinemann, 1951.

14Moreover, Christians were seen by some on the left as middle-class, woolly-minded liberals at best and irresponsible pacifists at worst, while the Catholic Church was pilloried for its links with repressive right-wing regimes, such as Franco’s Spain following his coup d’état against the elected government in 1936. British Communists’ opinions of Catholics worsened when, in 1950, Douglas Hyde, a full-time party worker, left the CPGB, joined the Catholic Church and wrote a book (entitled I Believed) which was highly critical of his previous commitments.32

  • 33  For instance, on the eve of CND congresses, Communists met to decide on a joint approach in order (...)

15Finally, the context was hardly favourable. The early 1950s were the height of Stalinism and a period of extreme international tension, while the late 1970s and early 1980s marked the beginning of what some historians have termed the “Second Cold War” with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the introduction of martial law in Poland in 1981. The situation in Poland was of great concern to many Christians since the government’s crackdown on the independent trade union Solidarity resulted in the arrest of many Catholics. Moreover, in 1984 the Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko was murdered by the Polish secret police. In both periods, anti-Communist rhetoric was very common in Britain. Some religious organizations refused to work with the BPC because of its links with Communism, while other Christians criticized Communists for coordinating their activities in order to exert greater influence over CND (“caucusing” as it is known in left-wing parlance).33

16It should therefore be clear that there was nothing inevitable about the cooperation between Christians and Communists in Britain. It can, however, be seen as the consequence of three basic factors: the existence of a strong Christian Socialist tradition, the specificity of the issue of nuclear weapons, and the pragmatism of two activist minorities.

  • 34  Hugh McLeod, Religion and Society in England, 1850-1914, London: Macmillan, 1996, 121.
  • 35  Although the cliché that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx overstates the role (...)
  • 36  It must also be borne in mind that the Labour movement drew its support from the skilled working c (...)
  • 37  H. McLeod, op.cit., 200.
  • 38  Donald Soper, Christian Socialism. Questions and Answers, London: Christian Socialist Movement, n. (...)
  • 39  This tradition still exists today. The Christian Socialist Movement was created in 1960 and is aff (...)

17One of the defining features of the British Left is the close links between Christianity and Socialism. Christian Socialism, which is far from being a unified body of thought or doctrine, is usually traced back to the activities of Charles Kingsley in the middle of the 19th century. For Kingsley, religious conviction and social reform were intrinsically linked. Socialism was seen as the application of the social teaching of Christianity, and the aim of many on the nascent Socialist Left was the creation of a “New Jerusalem”.34 Meanwhile, Non-conformism, particularly Methodism, had a major impact on the thinking of one of the first left-wing parties in Britain, the Independent Labour Party. Keir Hardie, one of its founders (and later a founding member of the Labour Party) and first representatives in parliament, began meetings with prayers and frequently referred to the Bible. The weakness and marginality of Marxism in Britain enabled Christian Socialism to spread relatively unchallenged. Consequently, when the Labour Party was created in 1900, it was a major trend within the new organization, and leading figures such as George Lansbury were quite open about their intention to marry Christianity and Socialism.35 As a result, anti-clericalism was never able to get a foothold, and relations between the Left and Christianity in Britain remained much less conflictual than in other countries.36 In fact, Labour deliberately played down religious issues so as not to divide its supporters.37 Members of the clergy also saw themselves as being within this broad trend. Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple was an important figure for many years, particularly in the early 1940s following the publication of his book Christianity and Social Order. The Methodist Donald Soper was another leading Christian Socialist. He even went as far as stating that a true Christian could not be a member of the Conservative Party and therefore joined Labour.38 Christian Socialism was thus an organic link between religion and significant sections of the Left.39 Moreover, it contributed to shaping British political culture in such a way that a close relationship between Christians and left-wingers was seen as quite natural.

  • 40  Quoted in Jim Fyrth (ed.), Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 198 (...)
  • 41  In the 1970s, a former Catholic nun, Irene Brennan, was elected to the Party’s Executive Committee
  • 42  This approach was reviled by other sections of the extreme left. For Trotskyists, Christians belon (...)
  • 43  Jack Putterill, The Church and Common Ownership, Birmingham: Magnificat, 1944, 16.

18To a certain extent, the creation of the Communist Party was a clear break with the Christian Socialist tradition. In accordance with Marxist theory and the actions of the Bolsheviks in Russia, it was openly hostile to religion. For example, a poem printed by a review within the CPGB’s orbit contained the following lines: “Any honest prostitute is better than a priest, / Any decent cannibal would shudder at his feast.”40 However, from the early to mid-1930s onwards, Communists began to drop aggressive rhetoric as they attempted to break out of isolation and create a united front, then a popular front against domestic and international fascism. They accepted that it was possible for a believer in God to be a member of the Party41 and sought to systematically involve Christians in their campaigning, the so-called “bishops to brickies” strategy.42 Cooperation with Communists was welcomed enthusiastically by certain left-wing Christians, some of whom defined themselves as Christian Communists. According to Jack Putterill, the author of a pamphlet about Christianity and Communism, the aims of the latter corresponded to those of Christ’s teaching and of the early Christian church: “The Communist solution outlined by Marx is but the extension to society of those Christian principles of brotherhood and sharing practised so successfully at Jerusalem 1,900 years ago.”43 The Dean of Canterbury shared this view and admired the Soviet Union for having put an end to capitalism and created a new society where:

  • 44 <http://www.marxists.org/archive/johnson-hewlett/socialistsixth/preface.htm>, accessed October 2010.

A new attitude towards human life is the natural counterpart of the new economic morality. Individuals, all individuals, become ends as well as means. The development of the human potentialities of each individual receives fullest opportunity and encouragement, and leads to a new humanism. The mass of the people are inspired to play a creative role in life, and culture receives a fresh stimulation.44

  • 45  John Lewis, Socialism and the Churches, London: Victor Gollancz, 1937, 21.
  • 46  Chris Bryant, Possible Dreams. A Personal History of the British Christian Socialists, London: Hod (...)
  • 47  CP/CENT/PEA/03/08.

19Johnson justified the opposition of Marx, Lenin and Stalin to religion by the tendency of organized Christianity to side with oppressive regimes. Faced with the threat of Nazism and fascism in the 1930s and the need to create a mass movement against it, Reverend John Lewis came to the conclusion that Communism was, “sufficiently compatible with Christianity to make a working alliance for limited ends a very welcome step.”45 The mid to late 1930s saw the first real cooperation between some Christians and Communists.46 In some parts of the country Peace Councils were created, bringing together representatives of various denominations and left-wing activists. For example, in Hendon, London the president of the local Peace Council was Reverend A. G. Hardie. Two of the seven vice-presidents were Anglican ministers, while the others were drawn from the Labour Party, the Liberal Party or the CPGB.47

  • 48  It was, however, very much a minority, albeit a vocal one, and it was challenged by other Christia (...)
  • 49  C.P./CENT/SUBJ/01.

20There was thus a radical minority strand within the Christian Socialist tradition which identified with Communism and sought closer links with its followers.48 In the post-war period, there was still some residual support for the USSR dating back to the 1930s, when it was viewed by many on the left as being a bulwark against fascism, and from the Second World War, which had seen heroic Soviet resistance against Nazi Germany. Some left-wing Christians also shared with Communists an abhorrence of American popular culture and consumer capitalism, which were seen as potential threats to British culture and attempts to introduce socialism in Britain. The partnership between Christians and Communists in the BPC must therefore be seen in the general framework of the Christian Socialist tradition in Britain and also a result of latent support for the Soviet Union and opposition to the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, the radical strand of Christian Socialism weakened and sympathy for the Soviet Union declined, but interaction between Christians and Communists continued in some parts of the country. In the late 1960s, CPGB members tried to create a dialogue with Catholics, organizing joint meetings in Liverpool, for example.49 The first of these, held at the Liverpool University Catholic Chaplaincy in 1967, attracted three hundred people, the second at Crosby two hundred people. Discussion groups also sprang up in other parts of the country.

  • 50  Gerald Parsons, The Growth of Religious Diversity. Britain from 1945, London: Routledge, 1993, 75.
  • 51  The best known example of this is the report entitled Faith in the City. A Call to Action by Churc (...)

21At the same time, organized groupings were appearing in all the Christian churches which wanted to make social and political issues central concerns.50 Some were influenced by Catholic liberation theology, while others were involved in campaigns around social issues such as poverty. The late 1970s and 1980s, however, saw a qualitative and quantitative change. Many Christians were radicalized by what they saw as the immorality of Margaret Thatcher’s values, based on aggressive individualism, and the negative effects of her policies on vast swathes of the population – unemployment and poverty rose dramatically during her first term in office.51 The CPGB was also changing. The more dogmatic, sectarian elements within the party had been marginalized, and the new version of the party’s programme, the British Road to Socialism, stressed the importance of reaching out beyond the Labour movement to potential allies in other sections of the community. In addition, most of the party was less slavishly pro-Soviet and prepared to accept criticism of the Soviet Union. Consequently, by the time the campaigning against Cruise missiles began in earnest in the early 1980s, the tradition of friendly relations between some Christians and Communists as well as the political evolution of significant sections of both groups combined to create the necessary conditions for joint activity.

  • 52  Donald Soper, “We must end this atomic lunacy,” Newsletter of the British Peace Committee,    Marc (...)
  • 53  See for example, Willie Gallacher, The Case for Communism, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949.

22The cement to their relationship was provided by the importance of the issue of nuclear weapons, which they framed in terms of peace and which they both saw as the supreme issue which transcended all others. The two groups were genuinely afraid of nuclear weapons and of the prospect of a nuclear war. Britain, a founder member of NATO, one of the closest allies of the United States and a nuclear power herself, was in the front line of the Cold War and would no doubt have been involved in any nuclear confrontation. Communists also feared for the safety of the Soviet Union. Although the USSR no longer had the same political attraction in the 1980s as in the 1940s and 1950s, Communists were still emotionally attached to it simply because it was the first country to have abandoned capitalism. Their fears had led them to break with the cross-party consensus on nuclear weapons which existed for most of the post-war period. Some Christians saw not just war but also the huge sums spent on weapons as being a sign of “fatal immorality and our fatal insanity.”52 Significantly, CND’s monthly magazine was entitled Sanity. Because of their capacity to kill millions of people, nuclear weapons were viewed as evil. Moreover, many believed that the United States had been responsible for the arms race by refusing to share information about nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union and had perpetuated it ever since. Communists came to the same conclusion, also mentioning the waste of resources involved. But they stated that capitalism as a system had led to the arms race, adding that Socialism was not based on the profit motive and needed peace to thrive.53 However, in their collaboration with Christians they were prepared to accept moral opposition to nuclear weapons and to the arms race and downgrade their Marxist analysis. The ability to come to a compromise allowed the two sides to overcome their differences of analysis and resulted from their respective status within the social groups of which they were part.

  • 54  For example, although supporters of CND had a significant presence within the Church of England, t (...)
  • 55  Tony Benn, “Peace, Politics and Power,” in David Martin & Peter Mullen (eds.), Unholy Warfare. The (...)

23Communists and left-wing Christians were essentially two activist minorities – the former within the Labour movement and the latter among Christians in general.54 They both believed individuals acting collectively could make a difference and have an impact on the course of events. In their opinion, it was not enough to vote every few years and to leave matters in the hands of the government. People had the right to take action to improve the world on an everyday basis and get involved in extra-parliamentary activity. For much of its history the CPGB was the largest group to the left of Labour. Given that the Labour Party stressed parliamentary rather than extra-parliamentary activities, the CPGB tended to play an important role in organizing demonstrations and campaigns. Consequently, although it was a small party, its presence among the activist Left was disproportionately large. To a certain extent, if Communists and Christians did not want to weaken the peace movement, they had to be able to overcome their differences and work together. In fact, each group had potential qualities or advantages in the eyes of the other. The presence of Christians allowed the peace movement to broaden, diversify and increase its support. According to Tony Benn, a leading figure on the left wing of the Labour Party, “it cannot reasonably be maintained that the peace movement is a communist plot” given the number of Christians in its ranks55 for their part, Communists frequently had highly developed organizational skills and were prepared to carry out mundane day-to-day tasks, which helped them to gain the confidence of others and rise to positions of responsibility.

  • 56  Nina Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-1945, Aldershot: Scholar Pres (...)
  • 57  At the twentieth congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounc (...)
  • 58  Ironically Cox used this document in the run-up to an internal CND election to prove his good fait (...)
  • 59 Ibid., 20.

24Relations between the two groups were simplified from the late 1950s by the emergence among Communists of what the historian Nina Fishman has called “revolutionary pragmatism.”56 According to Fishman, in the aftermath of the events of 1956,57 the links between Communist trade unionists and the party leadership grew weaker and the former became virtually autonomous. Communist trade unionists sought to adapt to the reformist environment in which they found themselves and were prepared to compromise with other groups in the hope that future events would somehow radicalize more moderate workers. The concept of revolutionary pragmatism can also be applied to the work of Communists in other organizations such as the peace movement. Communists hoped that cooperation with others would allow concrete progress in the short term and would help to radicalize their allies in the long term. Revolutionary pragmatism thus enables us to understand why Communists were prepared to come to agreements with Christians and others despite substantial differences of analysis. It also helps explain why Communists in CND acted in an autonomous manner, sometimes giving more importance to their membership of that organization than to their status as Communists. This was shown by a report about John Cox written by Cathie Massiter, a MI5 informer, who resigned and revealed the extent of secret service activity in CND In the report, which was originally intended for her superiors, she stated that Cox acted as a “committed CND member rather than working to further the interests of the Communist Party.”58 Christians in CND were equally pragmatic. Bruce Kent once stated, “My inspiration is Christian but I am only too glad to work with anyone with a similar vision, however they arrived at it.”59

Conclusion

  • 60  For an inside account of the anti-war movement, see Andrew Murray & Lindsey German, Stop the War. (...)

25The political and religious situation in Britain was particularly conducive to cooperation between Communists and some Christians. Christian Socialism provided a general framework within which joint activity involving Christians and sections of the Left was acceptable. Peace, a particularly emotive issue, was capable of bringing together groups which were in many ways very different. However, their mutual dependence was, to a certain extent, a sign of the relative weakness of both groups. Since the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war has been a less potent issue. Yet opposition to war can still transform potential opponents into allies. In the build-up to the war in Iraq, the Stop the War Coalition managed to unite large number of Muslims with parts of the extreme Left, especially the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist organization.60 Despite its success in overcoming the profound mutual suspicion of the main groups involved, the Coalition was no more successful in achieving its objectives than the BPC in the 1950s and CND in the 1980s. Collaboration between religious groups and the left may broaden a movement’s support, but it is not necessarily sufficient to defeat a determined government.

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Bibliographie

BENN Tony, “Peace, politics and power,” in David MARTIN & Peter MULLEN (eds.), Unholy Warfare. The Church and the Bomb, Oxford: Blackwell, 1983, 9-12.

BRANSON Noreen, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1941-1951, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1997.

BROWN Callum G., Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain, Harlow: Longman, 2006.

BRYANT Chris, Possible Dreams. A Personal History of the British Christian Socialists, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997.

BYRNE  Paul, Social Movements in Britain, London: Routledge, 1997.

CALLAGHAN John, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict. The CPGB 1951-1968, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2002.

CHURCH OF ENGLAND BOARD FOR SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY, The Church and the Bomb, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982.

CROSSMAN R. H. S. (ed.), The God That Failed. Six Studies in Communism, London: The Right Book Club, 1950.

DAVIES A. J., To Build A New Jerusalem, London: Michael Joseph, 1992.

DEERY Phillip, “The Dove Flies East: Whitehall, Warsaw and the 1950 World Peace Congress,” Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 48, 2002, 449-469.

EVANS Stanley G., Christians and Communists, Birmingham: Magnificat, 1949.

FISHMAN Nina, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-1945, Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1994.

FYRTH Jim (ed.), Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1985.

GALLACHER Willie, The Case for Communism, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949.

HINTON James, Protests and Visions. Peace Politics in 20th Century Britain, London: Hutchinson, 1989.

HUDSON Kate, CND – Now More Than Ever. The Story of a Peace Movement, London: Vision, 2005.

HYDE Douglas, I Believed, London: William Heinemann, 1951.

JOHNSON Hewlett, The Socialist Sixth of the World, London: International Publications, 1939, <http://www.marxists.org/archive/johnson-hewlett/socialistsixth/contents.htm>, accessed 4 October 2010.

KENT Bruce, Undiscovered Ends. An Autobiography, London: HarperCollins, 1992.

LEWIS John, Socialism and the Churches. A Plea for a United Front, London: Victor Gollancz, 1937

LILLEKER Darren, Against The Cold War. The History and Political Tradition of Pro-Sovietism in the British Labour Party, 1945-89, London: IB Tauris, 2004.

McLEOD Hugh, Religion and Society in England, 1850-1914, London: Macmillan, 1996.

MURRAY Andrew & Lindsey GERMAN, Stop the War. The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement, London: Bookmarks, 2005.

PARSONS Gerald, The Growth of Religious Diversity. Britain from 1945. London: Routledge, 1993.

PUTTERILL Jack, The Church and Common Ownership, Birmingham: Magnificat, 1944.

SOPER Donald, Christian Socialism. Questions and Answers, London: Christian Socialist Movement, n.d.

STOCKWOOD Mervyn, Christianity and Marxism, London: SPCK, 1949.

TEMPLE William, Christianity and Social Order,  London: Penguin, 1942.

THOMPSON E. P., The Heavy Dancers, London: The Merlin Press, 1985.

THOMPSON Willie, The Good Old Cause. British Communism 1920-1991, London: Pluto Press, 1992.

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Notes

1  R. H. S. Crossman (ed.), The God That Failed. Six Studies in Communism, London: The Right Book Club, 1950.

2  Since the disappearance of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1991 and the subsequent opening of its archives, numerous articles and books have been written about the party. It is, however, quite striking that its role in the peace movement has yet to be studied in any detail. Although work published specifically on the peace movement mentions the presence in its ranks of both Christians and Communists, references tend to be cursory, for example Kate Hudson, CND – Now More Than Ever. The Story of a Peace Movement, London: Vision, 2005, 103-104.

3  The BPC is only mentioned in passing by historians of British Communism and hardly at all by historians of the peace movement. See for example Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause. British Communism 1920-1991, London: Pluto Press, 116; Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1941-1951, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1997, 202-203 and 211-213; and John Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict. The CPGB 1951-1968, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2002, 141-142. Consequently, the section of this article concerning the BPC is largely based on information found in the archives of the Communist Party of Great Britain held at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre, 103 Princess Street, Manchester. References to the elements found in the party archives begin C.P./CENT/PEA. The archives of the BPC are currently held by the London School of Economics.  

4  Darren Lilleker, Against The Cold War.The History and Political Tradition of Pro-Sovietism in the British Labour Party, 1945-89, London: IB Tauris, 2004, 15-16.

5  Lilleker’s assertion that Communists “infiltrated” CND is therefore inappropriate, Ibid., 26.

6  Consequently, terms such as “cooperation” and “joint activity” have been used in this article.

7  For example, two of the British representatives were Reverend T. E. Nicholas and Reverend Alexander Reid.

8  The CPGB had always been a small organization compared to other Western European communist parties. Its membership had risen dramatically after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, but it began to decline with the onset of the Cold War. It had 38,853 members in 1950. For complete membership figures, see W. Thompson, The Good Old Cause, op. cit., 218.

9  This could perhaps help to explain why so little work has been conducted on it.

10  For example, the BPC issued a statement on August 3, 1961 about Soviet nuclear tests in which it declared, “The British Peace Committee deeply regrets the Soviet decision to resume nuclear tests […]. At the same time, it must be understood that the Soviet decision has been taken because it clearly regards the threat by certain Western spokesmen to launch nuclear war over Berlin as involving an infinitely greater peril for mankind.” This is remarkably similar to the Soviet position as expressed in the article “Soviet Government Has Decided to Carry Out Experimental Explosions of Nuclear Weapons,” Soviet News, 31.8.61, 1, C.P./CENT/PEA/03/07.

11  Following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the BPC issued a statement calling for an immediate end to fighting and for the respect of Hungarian sovereignty and independence (C.P./CENT/PEA/01/04). Although the force of the statement was weakened by comparisons with the Anglo-French attempt to regain control of the Suez Canal, it is considerably more critical than the official line of the CPGB.

12  C.P./CENT/PEA/01/01.

13  This was particularly important for the BPC In 1953, for example, the appeal raised £785. Newsletter of the British Peace Committee, December 1953, 3.

14 Bulletin of the British Peace Committee, August 1950, 16.

15  The All Britain Peace Conference organized in 1950 brought together 830 delegates claiming to represent 2,233,080 people. However, it is impossible to give precise membership figures simply because the BPC did not keep any.

16  For an example of the extent of the organization’s early activities, see Bulletin of the British Peace Committee, vol 1, n° 3, March 1950, 5-6.

17  In other words, 2% of British people signed the petition. Nevertheless, it must be borne in mind that the appeal was far more successful in other countries. For instance, 5 million signatures were collected in France and 7 million in Italy.  

18  For details of the preparations, see Phillip Deery, “The Dove Flies East: Whitehall, Warsaw and the 1950 World Peace Congress,” The Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 48, 2002, 449-469.

19  C.P./CENT/PEA/01/06.

20  Although there are no membership figures, a brief comparison of its publications in the early and mid-1950s is instructive. A considerably greater number of public activities are advertised in the early part of the decade. The decline in activity can be put down to a fall in membership.

21  The BPC continued to exist, but by the early 1980s it had become the British Peace Assembly, and representatives of the various Christian churches had been replaced by leading Labour movement figures. Furthermore, the nature of its relationship with the CPGB had changed since the Communists present in its ranks were drawn from the unconditionally pro-Soviet wing of the party, which was in the process of being marginalized in a prolonged internal struggle.

22  James Hinton, Protests and Visions, Peace Politics in 20th Century Britain, London: Hutchinson, 1989, 158.

23  K. Hudson, op. cit., 56.

24  A die-in consists of people lying on the ground in a public place in order to symbolize the effect of nuclear war.

25  The best-known peace camp, which attracted media attention because only women stayed there, was organized at the American airbase at Greenham Common in Berkshire where Cruise missiles were to be stationed. In fact, camps were organized at British and American military installations throughout the country.

26  For further headlines and articles, see Communist Focus, December 1983, 22–23.

27  Membership of the CPGB had fallen to just under 20,000 by 1981, but its remaining members were still active. W. Thompson, The Good Old Cause, op. cit., 218.

28  K. Hudson, op. cit., 141.

29  It continues to this day in CND, which still contains an exceptionally large number of Christians, while its current secretary is the Communist Kate Hudson.

30  In 1991 it changed its name, structures and ideology and became the Democratic Left.

31 Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm>,accessed April 2007.

32  Douglas Hyde, I Believed, London: William Heinemann, 1951.

33  For instance, on the eve of CND congresses, Communists met to decide on a joint approach in order to maximize their influence (Source: personal interview with Richard Honey and Claire Wignall in Leeds, 11 August 1995). Both were active Communists in the 1970s and 1980s and were involved in the peace movement. This tactic was also used by Communists, and others, in the trade union-movement.

34  Hugh McLeod, Religion and Society in England, 1850-1914, London: Macmillan, 1996, 121.

35  Although the cliché that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx overstates the role of that particular denomination, religion had a huge influence on the development of Labour.

36  It must also be borne in mind that the Labour movement drew its support from the skilled working class, sometimes known as the “aristocracy of labour”, which sought above all to improve its position within the existing social and economic structures and was therefore not a source of opposition to religious institutions. Moreover, most opposition to the established Anglican Church in England came not from secularists but from Non-conformists. This was another factor limiting the scope for anti-clericalism.

37  H. McLeod, op.cit., 200.

38  Donald Soper, Christian Socialism. Questions and Answers, London: Christian Socialist Movement, n.d., 12.

39  This tradition still exists today. The Christian Socialist Movement was created in 1960 and is affiliated with the Labour Party. Its first chair was Donald Soper, while former Labour leaders John Smith and Tony Blair have been members.

40  Quoted in Jim Fyrth (ed.), Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1985, 176.

41  In the 1970s, a former Catholic nun, Irene Brennan, was elected to the Party’s Executive Committee.

42  This approach was reviled by other sections of the extreme left. For Trotskyists, Christians belonged to the middle class and were of little use to the working class and its parties. Militant atheists, including Anarchists, were more interested in fighting the influence of Christians than in forming alliances with them.

43  Jack Putterill, The Church and Common Ownership, Birmingham: Magnificat, 1944, 16.

44 <http://www.marxists.org/archive/johnson-hewlett/socialistsixth/preface.htm>, accessed October 2010.

45  John Lewis, Socialism and the Churches, London: Victor Gollancz, 1937, 21.

46  Chris Bryant, Possible Dreams. A Personal History of the British Christian Socialists, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997 (1996), 211.

47  CP/CENT/PEA/03/08.

48  It was, however, very much a minority, albeit a vocal one, and it was challenged by other Christians. See for example, Mervyn Stockwood, Christianity and Marxism, London: SPCK, 1949.

49  C.P./CENT/SUBJ/01.

50  Gerald Parsons, The Growth of Religious Diversity. Britain from 1945, London: Routledge, 1993, 75.

51  The best known example of this is the report entitled Faith in the City. A Call to Action by Church and Nation produced by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas after unrest in many cities in the early 1980s.

52  Donald Soper, “We must end this atomic lunacy,” Newsletter of the British Peace Committee,    March/April 1957, 4-5.

53  See for example, Willie Gallacher, The Case for Communism, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949.

54  For example, although supporters of CND had a significant presence within the Church of England, they were unable to persuade the Anglican leadership to accept unilateral nuclear disarmament. The report on nuclear weapons commissioned by the Church in the early 1980s condemned their immorality, while stopping short of demanding Britain’s renunciation of them. The Church’s ruling body, the General Synod, accepted the general approach of the report. Church of England Board for Social Responsibility, The Church and the Bomb, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982.

55  Tony Benn, “Peace, Politics and Power,” in David Martin & Peter Mullen (eds.), Unholy Warfare. The Church and the Bomb, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983, 11.

56  Nina Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-1945, Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1994.

57  At the twentieth congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounced aspects of Stalinism. In October 1956 Soviet tanks invaded Hungary to put down a spontaneous uprising. Following these events, the CPGB was engulfed in internal dispute and lost approximately a third of its membership.

58  Ironically Cox used this document in the run-up to an internal CND election to prove his good faith and allay the worries of some CND members. CND, We’ve started something (Congress material 1987), 22.

59 Ibid., 20.

60  For an inside account of the anti-war movement, see Andrew Murray & Lindsey German, Stop the War. The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement, London: Bookmarks, 2005.

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Jeremy Tranmer, « Odd Bed-fellows: British Christians and Communists in the Struggle for Peace », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. IX - n°1 | 2011, document 10, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2011, consulté le 21 octobre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/4167 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.4167

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Jeremy Tranmer

Jeremy Tranmer is a senior lecturer at the University of Nancy, where he teaches contemporary British politics and history. His PhD dissertation dealt with the political and ideological evolution of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. He has published articles about the British Left and contemporary Britain. He is also the director of the CRESAB research group.

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