SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 229 June 2019

Facing the end of the world

Protect and Survive: Britain’s cold war revealed

National Archives, Kew, until 9 November. Free

Reviewed by Alison Hill

I was born in the year that Britain tested its first nuclear bomb. I remember being worried about nuclear war during my school days and that some children at primary school had older siblings who were involved in some sort of junior civil defence organisation. I think they learned how to hide under tables and whitewash the windows in the event of a nuclear bomb being dropped. Then in the 1960s came the ‘War Game’, made for the BBC about a nuclear war. It wasn’t televised until the 1980s, deemed to be too frightening, but it provoked controversy at the time.

That kind of atmosphere was one by-product of the cold war – the idea that ‘we’ were at permanent risk of being attacked from the USSR. That helped to justify the millions being spent on nuclear weapons, ‘unity’ against a common enemy, the need for a secret service and the alliance with US imperialism.

This exhibition gives a flavour of that mood. It shows a cupboard under the stairs, equipped with tins of food and a bucket, where you were supposed to shelter. There are civil defence posters along the ‘careless talk costs lives’ lines, and a mock-up of a 1950s sitting room with historian and Daily Mail columnist Dominic Sandbrook on TV. ‘Protect and Survive’ was a pamphlet that – alongside other civil defence ‘advice’ produced into the 1970s and even later – attempted to explain how to survive a nuclear war. This was a direct adaptation of the type of material produced during the second world war.

The cold war was much more than just a military standoff between two sets of superpowers, of course. It dominated most of the post-war 20th century, and the collapse of the Stalinist Soviet Union in the early 1990s has resulted in the complex political situation we are living through now.

The existence of the Soviet Union and the whole eastern bloc was an indication that capitalism was not the only system possible. It showed – in a flawed and distorted way – that a different type of economy could exist and that resources could be planned to provide housing, education and health services, etc, which were scarce or unobtainable to workers in the west and much of the ex-colonial world. In spite of the authoritarian, bureaucratic regimes in Russia and its satellites, the nationalised planned economy on which they were based represented an existential threat to profit-driven capitalism.

The exhibition gives a flavour of the fear that was encouraged by the protect-and-survive message. But it also shows, quite briefly, the proxy wars that continued throughout this period, in many cases, where peasants, workers, and sometimes sections of the liberal elite and even armed forces, were attracted to the idea of a planned economy, rather than the impoverishment of capitalism,

It mentions China, Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Aden, Malaya and many other places. But they are lumped onto one map, with a paragraph on each, which hardly does them justice. It does make the central point that all these wars were a result of the existence of mutually incompatible political and economic systems but leaves the analysis there.

The exhibition refers to Angola, but not to Portugal’s other African colonies, such as Mozambique. These national liberation struggles had a radicalising effect on a layer of the armed forces sent to fight against them, and culminated in a coup that triggered the Portuguese revolution in 1974. The revolution ended the military dictatorship, led to the withdrawal from former colonies, and saw three-quarters of the economy nationalised once the working class stormed onto the historical stage.

The Vietnam war showed how first France and then the mighty US superpower were defeated by a largely peasant army. A gradually unravelling defeat exposed the racist nature of the US state, where the anti-war movement began to explode into the civil rights movement in many US cities.

The exhibition mentions some notorious British spies, for example, Kim Philby. He was a double agent in the British Secret Service who managed, probably uniquely, to receive both the Order of Lenin and the Order of the British Empire. Philby was part of the Cambridge Five, a group including Guy Burgess sympathetic to the ideas of Marxism from the 1930s.

These mostly middle-class intellectuals passed information to the KGB and its predecessors, Russian state intelligence forces, but were probably never completely trusted. Stalin even suspected Philby was a triple agent. He eventually defected in 1963 amid much scandal about the incapacity of the British secret services to spot him, although they could have been happy enough to let him go to avoid an embarrassing trial.

This is a John le Carré world which probably allowed the secret services to expand their operations. Nonetheless, they were more interested in spying on trade unionists and socialists than Philby, Burgess, Blunt and Maclean and so on. The exhibition has a slightly strange interview with Stella Rimington, the director of MI5 from 1992-96. All this seems to do is to normalise the idea that it’s OK to spy on people who are ‘enemies’.

When we come to the end of the cold war, the coverage is again fairly cursory. The exhibition states that the Berlin wall came down in 1989, Germany was reunified in 1990, and the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. And that was the end of that!

When you look at the comments on a wall at the end of the exhibition, however, you get a different story. People were asked whether they feel any safer now than during the cold war. Most of the cards I read said, no – citing terrorism, climate change, Brexit, Trump and cyberwars, among others. They seemed to be confused and apprehensive about the future.

And that is the biggest thing missing from the exhibition: the effect of the end of the cold war and the collapse of Stalinism – not that you could necessarily expect National Archives historians to analyse this.

What came with the collapse was an economic boost in the advanced capitalist countries, freeing up new markets and cheap labour in central and eastern Europe. The propaganda from people like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was that the ‘soviet system’ had decayed and only capitalism works, the cold war was over and the capitalists had won.

Stalinism collapsed because of the lack of democracy and the weight of the bureaucracy. But this did not pave the way for some sort of social-democratic paradise. In fact, it opened the door to gangster capitalism, poverty and an absolute drop in life expectancy. The ideological campaign of capitalist triumphalism accelerated the disorientation of the leaders of trade unions and political parties linked to the working class. It also saw the political and class consciousness of workers drop.

The idea that there was another way of running society faded, leaving a layer of activists somewhat despairing that there is any way out of this mess. Time has not stood still, however, and a new wave of struggle is renewing the challenge to capitalism, raising the ever more urgent need for new mass workers’ parties with a socialist programme.

This exhibition is worth seeing but it provokes more questions than answers. It is supplemented by other events listed on the National Archives website.

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