Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Tribune’s Alternative to the Cold War

During the tumultuous years after the end of World War Two, Tribune’s editorial team advocated an alternative to both American and Soviet domination: a democratic socialist ‘third force’.

The Labour Movement is committed to the destruction of Fascism in Europe, to the revival of democratic liberties, and to international cooperation between these, leading as it must to be successful to an ever closer integration…. In the absence of this Socialist alternative, Western Europe in particular will become a ground of contention between Russia on the one side and American and British capitalism on the other, with inevitable inflammatory consequences.

Nye Bevan, wartime editor of Tribune, predicted in April 1944 the political stakes that would confront European socialists in the wake of the defeat of the Third Reich. Bevan warned that the liberated continent would be faced with a choice between democratic, socialist, and integrated postwar renewal on the one side and on the other the hostile division of Europe among the mutually suspicious victorious powers, which would bury this internationalist vision for European reconstruction, unless progressive forces across the continent buried it first.

While the division of Europe into Soviet and Anglo-American spheres of influence might have seemed inevitable, that wasn’t the view of Tribune. In the wake of the war, this magazine pioneered support for an independent ‘Third Force’ in international relations, intervening between the two powers to promote European unity and cooperation. This, it hoped, might salvage the popular democratic vision of the ‘European revolution’ against Hitler from the deleterious onset of the Cold War.

War and Revolution

The invasion of Normandy marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War. It was clear that, with colossal upheavals ongoing across the continent, the following months and years would be crucial for determining the political shape of post-war Europe. Bevan’s magazine aligned itself with the ‘revolutionary’ popular uprisings against the Nazis across occupied Europe, seeing in the independent national struggles of anti-fascist partisans the germ of a united, democratic, and socialist future for the ‘New Europe’.

‘In our age,’ Tribune argued, ‘war and revolution are intimately linked.’ Allied military success had created the conditions for the possibility of successful anti-Nazi uprisings, raising the spectre of armed popular power throughout many European countries. The liberation of Paris, in large part won on the barricades of the French maquisards, had produced ‘A Second Paris Commune’. The magazine celebrated these uprisings as offering the prospect of a socialist renaissance in Europe, led by labour movements ‘steeled … in the fire of underground struggle’.

However, these victories over Nazism already contained the seeds of further conflict. The popular resistance movements had ranged themselves not only against Axis occupation, but, Tribune argued, against their countries’ often reactionary and anti-democratic, if not explicitly fascist, pre-war governments. The ‘revolutionary overthrow’ of these countries’ ‘anti-democratic’ ancien regimes was, for Tribune, a necessary condition of the new democracy. The restoration of those regimes against the resistance movements and the defeat of ‘the ghost of Revolution’, had become ‘the first preoccupation of the possessing classes’ across Europe.

Of particular concern to Tribune were the interventions of different Allied powers, including Britain, to suppress these popular movements within European territories newly under their control. Britain’s National Government maintained a fundamentally ‘Tory Foreign Policy’ of active defence of both capitalism and ‘traditional privilege’ abroad. With ‘the danger arising from a Socialist Europe’ after the defeat of Nazism, it sponsored the reinstallation of reactionary rulers and, where possible, the forceful disarmament of left-wing resistance. The British military suppression of the popular Greek resistance movement EAM-ELAS in order to return King Peter to power and the massacring of an EAM civilian demonstration in Athens in December 1944 epitomised ‘the tragedy of Europe as a whole’. Greek events horrified the British labour movement, whose ‘support and sympathy for EAM’ was ‘unmistakable’.

Tribune also criticised the Soviet establishment of ‘artificial regimes’ favourable to Moscow throughout Eastern Europe, which were ‘nowhere truly representative’. At the Tehran Conference, Britain and the USSR had been assigned zones of influence within which each power suppressed independent opposition. As well as the risk posed by the consolidation of these blocs to the maintenance of peace, the zoning policy posed a serious threat to the envisaged popular democratic Europe Revolution, whose ‘social battles’ were ‘bound to cut across the zones of influence mapped out at Tehran’. Tribune condemned the ‘present road taken by Churchill in Greece and Belgium, and by Stalin in Poland’ as leading ‘to disaster’.

The ‘abandonment of the vision of Europe into spheres of influence between the Great Powers’ was, Tribune argued, ‘the most important international aim’ for socialists in Britain and on the continent. ‘Unless the forces of democracy kill the zoning agreement, the zoning agreement will kill the forces of democracy all over Europe.’

Post-War Optimism

Tribune saw the election of a Labour government in Britain as of paramount importance for reversing this trend, offering a rallying point for progressive forces across Europe. There was concern, however, that the anti-communism of certain Labour figures, including those who, like Ernest Bevin, were implicit in coalition actions in Greece, was ‘so deeply ingrained … that they allow their thinking about foreign policy to be guided by it’, and therefore ‘find themselves unable to develop a policy of contradistinction to the Tories’. Tribune’s editors entertained no illusions about Stalinism; but they resisted bourgeois anti-communism, recognising that communist parties were ‘the only active and influential organising centres of the Left’ in much of Europe, with a part to play in the New Europe.

Nevertheless, Tribune was highly optimistic about Labour’s victory in July 1945, which it felt symbolised popular repudiation of ‘Churchill’s foreign policy … along with the rule of private property at home’. The magazine was ‘certain’ that Attlee’s government would ‘break with the Churchillian policy of support for decrepit kings and miniature dictators against popular movements’, though it counselled that it was ‘vital that the break … be swift and visible’. However, with Bevin’s Foreign Office ultimately maintaining much of the conservative, anti-communist thrust as before, Tribune became a voice for restoring Labour’s envisaged progressive foreign policy.

By mid-1946, the international situation had deteriorated; Tribune lamented that ‘the broad highway to democratic renewal’ that had ‘seemed to lie open before the eager young men of the Resistance movements’ had been foreclosed by Europe’s division ‘into an Eastern zone of Communist domination and a Western zone which is rapidly turning to anti-Communist reaction’. ‘The revolutionary spring of European liberation is over,’ it said.

The year after Victory in Europe had seen significant developments for Tribune. Entering government as minister of health, Bevan had stepped aside as editor, to be succeeded by Michael Foot. The newly elected socialist MP, who would shape Tribune’s editorial line from then until 1952, had given a maiden speech lambasting the repressive record in international affairs of both Churchill and the USSR, and entreating Britain to use its new position as a ‘democratic and … Socialist power’ to positively shape Europe’s recovery.

Foot’s Tribune was confronted with new geopolitical developments: the solidification of Soviet one-party rule in Eastern Europe and the rise of the USA as the supreme power within the capitalist camp. His unromantic view of the former shone through in Tribune’s reporting: the USSR’s ‘policy of expansion’ employed methods for determining political life in its subject territories that were ‘brutal, totalitarian, and an affront to every principle for which the name of Socialism ought to stand’. Soviet ‘unilateral action’ in its new sphere of influence, another piece said, had played an active role in ‘the permanent zoning of Europe’.

Meanwhile, with Britain facing bankruptcy, the US increasingly appeared as the hegemonic force sponsoring bourgeois restoration in Western Europe. Bevan had warned of ‘American imperialism’ in 1944, and US power in Europe had only grown since. Jack Lindsay warned that with its military presences around the world, there was the prospect of the US ‘bursting out into world-imperialism of terrific violence’. Tribune’s first issue in 1947 argued that US opposition to socialism in Europe owed to its dedication to ‘keeping Europe … safe’ for ‘business profits and that American export drive’ so ‘essential’ to future ‘American capitalist prosperity’.

With Britain firmly outside the Soviet orbit, Tribune was concerned to prevent its total drift into the American camp. Responding to Churchill’s advocacy at Fulton in 1946 of ‘an Anglo-American military alliance … effectively organised’ for war against the USSR, Tribune warned that to accept ‘the role of junior partner in the great capitalist alliance of an Anglo-American Co. Ltd’ would have the ‘effect of strangling all attempts to build Socialism in Britain’. The magazine condemned these proposals:

No, Mr Churchill! The people of Britain will not sell out to American capitalism. Whatever their objection to Soviet policy, they do not want a military alliance against the Soviet Union at the price of their independence.

Through this period of entrenchment of Great Power divisions across Europe, British Labour foreign policy under Bevin had, Tribune regretted, failed to ‘break this vicious circle with a clear democratic socialist policy within its own sphere’. Bevin, with his ‘emotional preference for traditional — and often Tory — Foreign Office policy and prejudices’, had ‘successfully resisted’ initiatives to pursue an independent, socialist course in Europe — instead alienating the continental ‘democratic Left’ by pursuing an ardently anti-communist policy and backing arch-reactionary regimes from Portugal to Greece.

The Labour government’s Atlanticist bent increasingly fastened Britain to US world policy. Tribune criticised the government’s ‘double standard of judgement … for American and Russian imperialism’, with its ‘backing for American intervention in Iceland, China, and Panama’ contrasting with its ‘vigorous opposition to Russian imperialism in Eastern Europe’. The year 1947 deepened Tribune’s fear of ‘The Washington Trap’, which threatened to transmute ‘Britain and Western Europe … into a permanently dependent annexe of the American bloc’.

Decline of the Third Force

Recognising that Labour’s post-war foreign policy of support for anti-communism and US influence in Europe, and imperialist reconsolidation elsewhere, needed to be urgently ‘transformed’, Tribune became a vehicle to push a ‘foreign policy in conformity with Socialist aims’. In 1946 there had been growing expressions of discontent among Labour MPs about the leadership’s Atlanticist drive, culminating in an amendment to the King’s Address signed by 57 MPs, imploring for Britain to help ‘provide a democratic and socialist alternative to an otherwise inevitable conflict between American capitalism and Soviet communism’. This display of disapproval with the government’s course was, Foot wrote, a ‘Rebellion with A Difference’, anticipating the coalescence of a pro–Third Force caucus.

This gained shape in the Keep Left group of MPs, headed by Foot, Richard Crossman, and Ian Mikardo — all associated with Tribune, which provided the grouping with a weekly platform. In its pages, Keep Left articulated its conviction that ‘Labour Britain’ should ‘not subordinate her policies to the American capitalist anti-Soviet trend’, but instead ‘energetically … promote a “Middle Way” for Europe’.

Foot, Crossman, and Mikardo produced the pamphlet Keep Left, co-signed by several MPs, in time for the party’s 1947 conference. Condemning the creation of anti-democratic ‘satellite states’ by both the USSR and the US, the document specifically denounced the notion of a US-dominated anti-Soviet ‘collective security’ alliance as a ‘counsel of despair’. ‘British and European Socialism’ would be just as compromised by accepting ‘American leadership in exchange for dollars’ as by rule from Moscow.

The debate on foreign affairs at Margate, where Tribune-associated MPs including Crossman, Mikardo, Jennie Lee, and others like the idiosyncratic left MP Konni Zilliacus lambasted Bevin’s commitment of Britain to US power politics in Europe, witnessed the most sophisticated elaborations of the broad Third Force position that had been developed in the pages of Tribune since 1944.

The left unity behind the Third Force position was not to last. Disagreements over the correct approach to communism — both Soviet policy and communist politics – in a time of heightening Cold War tensions fractured the socialist left in Britain. The two years after Margate saw Cold War zones solidify, as East–West cooperation completely broke down. The consequent total suppression of independent opposition forces throughout the Soviet bloc, including democratic socialists, bolstered Foot’s long-time hostility to Soviet communism.

Tribune began to move away from the Third Force, increasingly presenting the division between East and West as a straightforward one between anti-democratic and pro-democratic forces. The implications of this shift for Tribune’s position of opposing US anti-communism as much as Soviet communism was clear to many readers; Tribune’s correspondence section frequently expressed the discomfort of long-time contributors with what they saw as a drift to the right and towards America. Zilliacus criticised Tribune as being ‘all over the shop’ in its ‘attempts to find an alternative to Bevinism while remaining as … fanatically anti-Communist as the Foreign Secretary’.

The year 1948 killed the Third Force. With the Soviet-backed communist takeover in Czechoslovakia that February immediately establishing one-party rule, Tribune’s support for anti-communism as an envisaged defensive measure for socialism was catalysed. ‘Communist deeds in Prague’, the magazine wrote, ‘have confronted us with one of the great Rubicons in history’. Michael Foot’s increasingly hard-line anti-communism represented a sharp break with much of Tribune’s readership, and with its own recent post-war past when it had been favourable towards broad socialist alliances involving communist parties.

Tribune announced the culmination of its conversion to Cold War anti-communism when — commenting on the Italian general election in which Pietro Nenni’s Socialists, in an electoral pact with the Communist Party, stood against the right-wing (and CIA-backed) Christian Democrats — the magazine stated that, in voting for the ‘clericalist-dominated’ right against the socialists, the Italian electorate had ‘chosen wisely’. Further, the magazine denounced the ‘Nenni telegram’ — expressing support for the socialists — sent by Labour MPs, including many Tribunites, and it supported the expulsion of the telegram’s organiser, John Platts-Mills.

By 1949, Tribune’s editors acknowledged that the Third Force was over, having much blunted their earlier criticisms of US world policy, and now emphasising the presence of progressive forces in US politics. When the magazine endorsed the formation of NATO as ‘a pact for peace’, its break with Keep Left’s positions appeared complete. Mikardo, having long been discontent, resigned from Tribune’s editorial board in a public rebuke of its final abandonment of the Third Force position.


The years after 1947 were profoundly pessimistic for internationally-minded British socialists. Much of the Tribune left had been overawed by the shock of Cold War intensification; it had succumbed to a misplaced faith that British alignment with US world policy would not compromise the prospects for socialism there or in Western Europe.

The introduction of NHS service charges in 1951 to finance British participation in the Korean War, over which Bevan resigned from the government, typified the contradiction between commitments to socialist reform in Britain and to US-directed ‘anti-communist’ world policy. This conjuncture — in which opposition to the Korean War, massive NATO-mandated military spending, nuclear tests, and the Atlanticist right-wing Gaitskell leadership occasioned the revitalisation of anti-US politics in Tribune — saw a revival of Third Force politics. This time it was under the more reliably US-critical Aneurin Bevan and the Bevanist project.

Tribune’s disillusionment with the essentially pro–US anti-communist politics that it had felt driven to support eventually led to the magazine, and its editors, becoming vocal opponents of NATO. Tribune’s support in the 1950s for nuclear disarmament, as well as for anti-colonial and peace movements, expressed a vision for freedom from spheres of influence that resembled the magazine’s original hopes for a liberated future after the revolution against Nazism.

While Tribune’s post-war Third Force politics succumbed to the bipolar Cold War logic it had sought to resist, in articulating its initial vision of a democratic socialist alternative to domination by Great Powers, it had left foundations for the political outlook of the later New Left, whose pursuit of socialism and democracy looked to independent popular movements across the globe — owned by neither the US nor the USSR.