At his second appearance at the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war on January 21st, Tony Blair once again defended his decision to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with George W. Bush. Not to have done so, he said, would have damaged Britain’s ‘special’ relationship with the United States. He as good as admitted that for him this commitment took precedence over any question of legality raised by the failure to secure a second U.N. resolution to legitimize the invasion. Although Blair pursued the Atlanticist policy more enthusiastically than any of his predecessors, New Labour’s subservience to the government of the U.S. was no new departure. It goes back at least to the early 1950s.

Conspiracy theories are often no more than the concoctions of cranks. But that is not to say that there are no conspiracies. Things are not always as they appear to be. For example, in Britain we are encouraged to believe that the police forces are to be trusted and that they operate transparently within the law. In recent weeks ample evidence has emerged to show that such beliefs are naïve: peaceful protest and environmental movements have been infiltrated by police spies who act as agents provocateur. The Metropolitan Police has almost certainly colluded with powerful corporate interests to withhold information from victims of illegal mobile phone hacking by tabloid journalists. The ramifications of the latter case go to the very top of government.

The rightward trajectory of the Labour Party over several decades, culminating the abandonment by New Labour of the last vestiges of the party’s social democratic heritage, has been dealt with in earlier Letters from the UK. Explaining this rightward passage does not require resort to conspiracies or conspirators. The shift to the right was accomplished by leaders who, for the most part, believed that what they were doing was in the best interests of the party and the country. But an important element in the story was missed, although the facts at the heart of it have been known for more than forty years. The triumph of a right-wing leadership in the Labour Party in the early 1960s was made possible by a well-organized and financed CIA conspiracy. 

From the late 1940s, with the onset of the cold war, the U.S. vigorously pursued the crusade against what was described as the ‘international communist conspiracy’ to subvert and destroy the ‘free world’. In some respects this resembled the Third Reich’s crusade against ‘bolshevism’ in defence of ‘western civilization’, and it is not particularly surprising that in pursuit of the anti-communist campaign the US sometimes engaged the services of former Nazis who had valuable experience in these activities. But the defence of the free world required a far-reaching global vision. During the second world war Allen W Dulles, head of the Office for Strategic Services had run a network of effective agents many of whom were to become engaged with the OSS’s successor organization, the Central Intelligence Agency. Dulles set about organizing a range of spying activities to combat the Soviet influence over the international communist movement – a movement regarded by Dulles as a conspiracy. Important targets of CIA operations were the left-wing parties in Western Europe, including particularly the British Labour Party.

In 1945 the newly elected Labour government embarked upon a programme of wide-ranging social reform which involved the establishment of a national health service and the nationalization of many of Britain’s biggest industries. Despite divisions between left and right in the Labour Party and government there was a general commitment to the establishment of a ‘mixed economy’ in which the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy would remain under state control and a progressive taxation system would ensure a fairer distribution of wealth. In the years 1945 – 1951, the left wing of the party, although not in control of policy making, remained a strong influence. After its defeat in 1951, Labour was out of office for the next thirteen years.

It was during these years that the CIA devoted its attention to destroying the influence of the left in the Labour Party and ensuring that its leadership became firmly committed to an Atlanticist policy. Interesting to note is that from the late 1940s through the 1950s there was a ceaseless flow of anti-communist propaganda circulating in Western Europe. Whatever the intention of their authors and however valid their critique of the Stalinist system in the Soviet Union, books such as Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, and compendiums such as The God that Failed, played an essential part in the campaign to present all forms of socialism and state control of the economy as the harbingers of totalitarian tyranny – the slippery slope of what Hayek called ‘The Road to Serfdom’. The CIA, with limitless funds and a well-trained army of skilled agents began the task of breaking the influence of the left and the power of the trade union movement in Britain. It was taken for granted that the Communist Party – never very influential in Britain despite its base in some trade unions – was little more than an agent of Soviet Russia. The real target of CIA operations was the non-communist left in the Labour Party and the wider labour movement. It was against such people that the term ‘fellow traveler’ was leveled. Those labeled fellow travelers were said to be either secret communists or ‘useful idiots’ – unwitting tools of communism.

It is of interest that some of the most influential ideologues in harness to this CIA conspiracy were themselves former leftists. Probably the main inspiration for the1950s anti-communist crusade was James Burnham, (author of The Managerial Revolution and The Coming Defeat of Communism), former right-hand man to Leon Trotsky, transformed into a passionate ‘free market’ conservative and enemy of all forms of socialism. Likewise, Jay Lovestone a former member of the US Communist Party, who became a secret spy for the US government, and former Trotskyist Irving Kristol. But most influential of all was another ex-Trotskyist from New York City College – Melvin Lasky.

The CIA conspiracy in Britain followed on the founding in 1950 of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, founded with unlimited funds that year in West Berlin. In 1953 the English language monthly magazine Encounter was launched under the editorship of Irving Kristol. It was aimed at the right-wing of social-democracy and immediately recruited to the ranks of its regular contributors some prominent Labourites, most notably Anthony Crosland. He was one of the party’s leading intellectuals and the author of the influential ‘The Future of Socialism’, which argued that in a reformed capitalism which had achieved full employment, there was no need for traditional policies such as public ownership. The leader of the party, Hugh Gaitskell was an early enthusiastic supporter of Encounter. Another publishing enterprise secretly funded by the CIA was Socialist Commentary, which became the mouthpiece of the right wing of the party. Former communist party member Denis Healy, by now firmly on the right of the Labour Party, wrote about 80 articles for Socialist Commentary and its US counterpart, New Leader (also funded by the CIA) before he became Defence Minister in Harold Wilson’s government in 1964. Crosland, as a member of the International Council of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, worked for many years to re-model the Labour Party on the lines of the U.S. Democratic Party. Others associated with the CIA inspired and funded enterprises were Douglas Jay, Patrick Gordon Walker and Roy Jenklins – all to play important roles in eliminating the influence of the left in the party and making it more like the Democratic Party. In 1960, at the time of the defence debate in the party which resulted in the decision to abandon nuclear weapons, a policy championed by the left, the right launched the campaign group ‘Victory for Sanity’ to oppose the ‘Victory for Socialism’ group on the left. Its CIA –funded campaign, which far outspent the meagre resources available to the rank-and-file of the party, backed Gaitskell’s call to ‘fight, fight and fight again’ to reverse the policy. It succeeded the following year in doing so. With the left seriously weakened, the Labour Party’s commitment to NATO was restored.

It is interesting to note that Melvin Lasky and his fellow CIA conspirators did not object to their protégés continuing to call themselves socialists. Crosland and his colleagues called their enterprise the Campaign for Democratic Socialism. The word could mean whatever they chose it to mean – but it would have nothing in common with the socialism which inspired – and continues to inspire – the left.

The CIA enterprise was blown apart in 1967 when the U.S. magazine Ramparts revealed that 90% of the funding for the Council for Cultural Freedom had come from the CIA. The editors and contributors to the magazine Encounter, were in the pay of the CIA. There followed further exposure in the New York Times. Ex-CIA officer, Richard Bessell, who organized the Bay of Pigs invasion, revealed that ‘The technique is essentially that of penetration. In some countries the CIA representative has served as a close counselor of the chief of state.’

It is true that many of those involved apparently had no idea about the company they had been keeping for so long. Decent, but somewhat naïve liberals such as Encounter editor Stephen Spender, were shocked. Perhaps their fat pay cheques may explain their gullibility. They had been only too keen to dismiss many on the left as ‘fellow travelers.’ Michael Foot, himself so smeared, was led to ask, ‘who were they traveling with?’

They were, of course, fellow travelers of the right. The CIA’s endeavours paid off. The word ‘socialism’ and almost everything it stands for, was expunged from the lexicon of New Labour politics. It remains to be seen whether, faced with the tasks ahead, the Labour Party will be able to shake off this malign encumbrance.