Predictably Finnish troops put up stiff resistance

Cold war adumbration

Paul Flewers draws links with the current Ukraine conflict and the 1939-40 war between the Soviet Union and Finland. An anti-communist consensus formed then, while now we have the demonisation of Russia as the new evil empire

The fact that Russia’s current war with Ukraine is unjustified and reprehensible does not excuse the daily deluge of propaganda on the subject posing as reporting and commentary in the British media. At a time when factual reportage and sober analysis on all aspects of the war are a vital necessity for any concerned reader, official Ukrainian statements are presented as irrefutable truth, official Russian statements are dismissed as worthless lies, while wishful thinking about impending Ukrainian breakthroughs and Russian retreats takes the place of careful assessment.

This is not the first time that an unjustifiable attack by Moscow on a neighbouring country has led to a veritable flood of propaganda in the British media. This phenomenon occurred in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Finland in late 1939, which, as historian Angus Calder put it, created an atmosphere of “hysteria”, with the press finding “no praise too high for the gallant Finns”,1 and BBC news broadcasts commencing with the opening bars of Sibelius’s ‘Finlandia’.2 Things went way beyond mere words: at a time when both Britain and France were involved in a war with Nazi Germany, their governments were happy to supply considerable quantities of matériel, including fighter and bomber planes, artillery, machine guns and ammunition, to the Finnish government.3 A bureau was set up in London with official approval for the recruitment of volunteers to fight in Finland.

But that was not all. More important for political thinkers and activists is the fact that the Finnish Winter War served as the trigger for a major shift in social democratic politics in respect of the Soviet Union and Stalinism in general - one that laid the basis for the anti-communist consensus in Britain, which underlay mainstream politics throughout the period of the cold war.

Up until the Soviet forces launched their assault upon Finland on November 30 1939, most rightwing social democrats in Britain had, along with many liberals, adhered to a critical, but generally non-antagonistic, stance towards the Soviet Union, despite their rejection of the official ideology of the Soviet regime and their hostility towards the activities of the Communist Party of Great Britain. On the one hand, they applauded the Soviet regime for its five-year plans and social reform programmes, whilst, on the other, they condemned the purges, the idea of a one-party state and the suppression of political dissent.

Although the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the subsequent annexation of eastern Poland had seriously damaged Moscow’s image in Britain amongst ‘progressive opinion’, the attack upon Finland did more than any other act to drive rightwing social democrats and liberals into a strongly hostile stance towards Moscow, and rapidly led to their joining with conservatives in what could genuinely be considered an anti-Soviet popular front.4

There was much disquiet around Moscow’s diplomatic bullying of Finland in the autumn of 1939, as the former called on the Finnish government to move the border in the Karelian Isthmus 50 miles north-westwards away from Leningrad, to cede to it five islands in the Gulf of Finland and some territory near Petsamo in the north, and to permit Soviet forces to be based on Hangö, in exchange for a sizeable chunk of Soviet Karelia. The Finnish government stood firm, and the ensuing Soviet military invasion and air raids provoked a veritable storm of protest - not merely from traditional critics of the Soviet regime, but from many who had seen Moscow as at least a potentially positive force in international affairs.

The previously fellow-travelling Tribune, which until then had loyally supported the twists and turns of Soviet foreign policy, issued a thundering declaration against Stalin’s attack,5 and not merely the Labour Party leadership but even the normally pro-Soviet Harold Laski equated Stalin’s actions with the foreign adventures of Mussolini and Hitler.6 The social democratic leaders of the British labour movement were particularly incensed and, moving with uncharacteristic speed and vigour, hawked the ‘Help Finland’s Fight for Freedom’ campaign around trade union and Labour Party branches, whilst TUC general secretary Sir Walter Citrine and Labour MP Philip Noel-Baker made a fact-finding tour around Finland, whilst the war was in progress.7 Citrine went along with the calls for Britain to give military assistance to Finland,8 although, unlike some commentators,9 the Labour leaders strongly denied that they wanted Britain to become involved in a war with the Soviet Union.10

Nonetheless, it should not be thought that labour movement commentators as a whole went along with the newly-emerged anti-Soviet consensus. Within the context of condemning Stalin’s actions, some of them warned against Britain becoming too embroiled in Finland, as this might finally cement the Soviet-German relationship into a full-blown alliance,11 or, in the case of Aneurin Bevan, asked if matériel was being sent to Finland because the British government preferred to fight the Soviet Union rather than Germany.12 Others considered that Moscow’s concerns over its defensive requirements, particularly the need to protect the approaches to Leningrad, could not be gainsaid.13 The Labour Party leadership, however, declared that on Moscow’s logic, Britain would have to cede the Isle of Wight, Southampton and parts of east Kent to Germany, and allow Berlin to control the Orkney, Shetland and Channel Islands.14

Stalin’s attorney

The pro-Soviet lobby attempted to justify Moscow’s case, but it showed signs of bending under the pressure of the broad chorus of disapproval - even Hewlett Johnson, the normally reliable ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury, found the invasion of Finland “indefensible” from a “moral standpoint”.15 As if implicitly acknowledging that the justification of Soviet foreign policy now required the employment of a legal mind skilled in arguing in favour of dodgy defendants, Britain’s would-be Vyshinsky, Denis Pritt, came to the fore to explain Moscow’s actions. Pritt’s exegesis spent much of its bulk explaining that the British ruling class had been aiming to overthrow the Soviet regime ever since 1917, that it and its counterparts in other countries had “developed and brought near to fruition a plan for forming a common front of capitalist nations against the USSR”, and that they now aimed at “switching” the war with Germany into a conflict between the capitalist world and the Soviet Union.16

The Stalinists claimed that Finland had never shaken off the legacy of the Civil War of 1918, in which the victory of the rightwing forces had resulted in the deaths of several thousand leftwingers and the imprisonment of many thousands more. Pritt claimed that since then Finland had veered between, on the one hand, an ineffectual parliamentary regime that was a mere façade, covering the machinations of reactionary state officials and the fascistic Lappo movement and White Guards, and, on the other, an outright fascist regime that openly suppressed working class organisations.17 When the glowing pictures presented by social democrats and liberals of Finland’s democratic political life and national solidarity18 were compared with the fascistic and class-ridden hell-hole portrayed by the Stalinists, the unsuspecting reader could have felt that two entirely different countries were being described.19

Pritt considered that the Finnish ruling class was irredeemably anti-Soviet, but he was sufficiently astute to reckon that few would buy the idea that the rulers of this little state would declare war on its huge eastern neighbour purely on their own volition, so he proffered the notion that the Finns were encouraged to do so by the major anti-Soviet powers as part of their general drive against the Soviet Union. Pritt was often reduced to special pleading. His lengthy digressions on the lack of ethical standards in international relations, the predilection of the big capitalist powers to dominate and interfere in the affairs of smaller ones, and the deathbed revival of the League of Nations to censure and expel the Soviet Union, echoed the complaints in one of his earlier books that the western critics of Moscow’s actions were guilty of the very crimes which they accused it of committing. The implication was clear: if the imperialists could play dirty, then why not Moscow?20 The cynical attitude of the domestic Stalinists towards the Finnish War could only serve to deepen the growing hostility to Moscow.

The Finns mounted a determined defence, but after a few weeks, in which they suffered heavy losses, the Soviet forces gained the upper hand, and the Finnish government surrendered on March 12 1940, acceding to the Soviet demands without receiving any compensation. Although the war led to only limited Soviet gains, it was a crucial episode in Britain, in that it greatly popularised the image of the Soviet Union as both an expansionist force and a threat to western civilisation, to the degree that it was taken up by people who would have rejected it but a few months previously. Diehard anti-communists had customarily seen the Soviet Union as wishing to expand and dominate as many countries as it could, on the basis that it was a world revolutionary force, or represented a revival of tsarist imperialism (or was a combination of both) and thus posed a dire threat to the west. The assault upon Finland was seen in these circles in this light, and Soviet designs were sometimes portrayed in the most lurid terms.21

Nonetheless, the fact that Finland, unlike most of eastern Europe, was a parliamentary democracy encouraged others to adopt this way of thinking. The main statement issued by Britain’s Labour leaders called upon “the free nations of the world to give every practicable aid to the Finnish nation in its struggle to preserve its own institutions of civilisation and democracy”,22 and the Labour Party national executive committee added that the “extinction of the free Finnish democracy” would be “an intolerable disaster for civilisation”.23 The New Statesman now saw the Soviet Union as an expansionist force, with Stalin not merely aiming at “reinstating the tsarist empire”, but hoping to drive a corridor through to Narvik on the Norwegian coast.24 The adoption by social democrats of the vocabulary of traditional anti-communism represented a significant change of feeling on their part towards the Soviet Union and ‘official communism’.

The image of Stalinism as a threat to western civilisation became a regular part of the vocabulary of mainstream social democracy during the period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as did the equation of Stalinism with fascism. Hence in early 1941, Francis Williams, a prominent Labour Party journalist, warned of the “implacable and dangerous challenge” that the “altogether alien philosophies” of “Russian communism, fascism and National Socialism” posed to “the conscience of the civilised world”, which was represented by “the people of the British Commonwealth and America”. The “standards of conduct” of ‘official communism’, he added, were “set apart from those of humanity”.25 The New Statesman, whose sympathy for Moscow had been waning somewhat prior to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Stalin’s benevolence was a bit hard to accept after three Moscow Trials!), now concluded that there was little to choose between Stalinism and Nazism:

By the inexorable laws of its dialectic, Bolshevism brought into being its antithesis, National Socialism. Today the question being asked is whether the ugly thing that now reigns from Vladivostok to Cologne is turning into the inevitable synthesis: National Bolshevism.26

A week later, the magazine returned to the topic:

They [Germany and the Soviet Union] stand for a new totalitarian idea, which is to be fulfilled at the expense of the western empires and of countries whose security has depended on these empires … The struggle at the moment is most accurately seen as a joint challenge to the old civilised and conservative empires by totalitarian powers, which care nothing for the old order or the moral system that supported it; they may differ in the systems they wish to substitute, but agree in the joyous prospect of destroying established power with fire and bayonet, and trampling into the dust the tradition of liberty, law and morality, which has been handed down in the west from Greece, Rome and Judea.27

Whatever their criticisms of both Bolshevism and the developments in the Soviet Union under Stalin, most social democrats, including those of the rightwing variety, had eschewed this kind of language, which had customarily been the property of the right.

A clue to understanding its adoption can be found in a major work of this period by Evan Durbin, a leading rightwing British social democratic theoretician. Durbin went to some length to demonstrate two propositions: firstly, that Marxists and fascists shared a fanatical disposition towards violence in the quest for their political goal: and, secondly, that those whose political outlook rejected bourgeois democracy placed themselves outwith the bounds of civilised society.28 Durbin’s fanatical insistence upon the centrality of liberal democracy showed that he saw this institutional framework as the foundation of a civilised society, and - particularly in the aftershock of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact - the seemingly convergent courses of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, not least in their suppression of parliamentary institutions, encouraged social democrats who shared Durbin’s passionate regard for parliamentary democracy to place Stalinism alongside fascism as a dire threat to western civilisation.


One of the most significant developments in the political arena in Britain and other countries after August 1939, and particularly after the Soviet attack upon Finland, was the adumbration of the anti-communist consensus that became the leitmotiv of mainstream western politics during the cold war. Many of the ideas that were commonplace and which often went unchallenged in the West during the post-war period were first widely articulated during this time.

Of course, they did not spring from a void in the latter months of 1939, and many of them had been in circulation since the October Revolution itself. But they had largely been the property of the anti-communist right, or had been subscribed to only partially or implicitly. The months following the pact saw for the first time the popular acceptance of an all-embracing totalitarian theory, one which viewed the Soviet Union as a society that was immanently totalitarian and expansionist and - in the construct soon to become almost axiomatic - expansionist, because it was totalitarian.

For the first time, a wide political consensus, drawing in social democrats, liberals and conservatives, coalesced around the idea that the Soviet Union constituted a deadly threat to people of all classes in Britain, and indeed to western civilisation as a whole, and that the ‘official communist’ movement and the fellow-travellers were Moscow’s fifth column - an enemy within the besieged fortress. At the time of the Finnish surrender in March 1940, the British and French governments were but days away from despatching an expeditionary force to Finland, which would almost certainly have led to (amongst other things, bringing German forces even earlier into Scandinavia) a clash with the Soviet Union. Although the labour movement leaders said that they did not want a war with Moscow, it is pertinent to ask whether they would have actually opposed such a conflict, had it broken out.

The vivid flash of anger in response to the Soviet attack upon Finland was soon submerged within the drama of the fall of France and the Blitz, and the Soviet Union’s entry into the war in June 1941 not merely rehabilitated Moscow’s reputation, but produced a great wave of pro-Soviet sympathy. Nevertheless, the seeds of a broad anti-communist consensus, centred upon the notion of the Soviet Union as a threatening, totalitarian force in global affairs, had indubitably taken root.

The sheer intensity of the anger expressed, particularly by rightwing social democrats, over Moscow’s assault upon Finland - a response that was deeper and more heartfelt than that towards, say, the German invasion of Poland - and the suddenness with which it flared up, shows that something profound was occurring within the confines of British political discourse.

Once Germany had been dealt with, and once tensions between the Soviet Union and the western countries started to rise, as the 1940s drew by, the anti-communist consensus that had suddenly emerged after August 1939 was to revive into a full-blown fury in Britain and the western world in general during the cold war. The Soviet Union became almost universally accepted as a deadly military and political threat to the west, and anyone holding favourable attitudes towards it was considered at best a fool, and at worst a traitor.

The brief furore over Finland showed that, whatever their previous statements in favour of certain aspects of Soviet policies, when it came to any confrontation between liberal democracy (capitalism, in other words) and Stalinism, rightwing social democrats, liberals and conservatives would now stand four-square together in defence of the former, sharing the vernacular - and the intention - of defending the ‘free world’ against ‘totalitarian communism’.

Although the Finnish Winter War was a relatively minor episode in World War II, it was to be of great significance to the general political discourse in Britain and the capitalist world as a whole. The cold war division between east and west had been laid down for the first time within the labour movement. The problem facing genuine socialists of how to defend the interests of the working class without making any concessions to the equally anti-working class and anti-communist, yet mutually opposed, forces of Stalinism and social democracy, was soon to present itself in a new and more direct form.

  1. A Calder The people’s war: Britain 1939–1945 London 1992, p75.↩︎

  2. E Trory Imperialist war: further recollections of a communist organiser Brighton 1977, p 68.↩︎

  3. On March 19 1940, prime minister Neville Chamberlain informed the House of Commons of the British supplies to Finland:

    Aeroplanes promised - 152; actually sent - 101. Guns of all kinds promised - 223; sent - 114. Shells promised - 297,000; actually sent - 185,000. Vickers guns promised - 100; all sent. Marine mines promised - 500; sent - 400. Hand grenades promised - 50,000; all sent. Aircraft bombs promised - 20,700; sent - 15,700. Signalling equipment promised - 1,300 sets; sent - 800. Anti-tank rifles promised - 200; all sent. Respirators promised - 60,000; all sent. Greatcoats promised - 100,000; all sent. Battledress suits promised - 100,000; all sent. Anti-tank mines promised - 20,000; sent - 10,000. Ambulances promised - 48; all sent. The list also includes many minor items, such as medical stores, tents, equipment, sandbags, steel helmets, sand, etc, and also large quantities of small arms ammunition, and I may add, in fact, that arrangements were made here for the manufacture of very large supplies of ammunition. This is all cited in WP and ZK Coates A history of Anglo-Soviet relations (London 1945), pp 633-34.↩︎

  4. See P Flewers The new civilisation? Understanding Stalin’s Soviet Union, 1929-1941 London 2008, chapters 3 and 4.↩︎

  5. A statement by the paper’s editorial board and the foreign affairs writer, Konni Zilliacus, was uncompromising: “It is useless to conceal from ourselves that this action of the Soviet Union has profoundly shocked socialist opinion throughout the world. The diplomatic preparation for the invasion smelt more of Mein Kampf than of The communist manifesto … Socialism, if it is to be won at all, must be won by the workers themselves in struggle with their own ruling class, and cannot be conferred upon them from outside. Certainly it cannot be expected to take root if its seeds are sown by means of bombing raids … ‘Socialism means war’ is hardly a slogan which will endear socialism to the workers” - editorial board and Vigilans [Konni Zilliacus], ‘Russia - and Finland’ Tribune December 8 1939.↩︎

  6. Labour Party Finland: the criminal conspiracy of Stalin and Hitler London, 1940, p 15; H Laski Where do we go from here? Harmondsworth 1940, p121. See also ‘The man of steel’ New Statesman December 9 1939, p811.↩︎

  7. See W Citrine My Finnish diary Harmondsworth 1940. As if to highlight the wantonness of the Soviet bombing, Citrine emphasised the damage caused to non-military targets (pp55-56, 78, 139-40, 171-73).↩︎

  8. Ibid p191. See also ‘Help Finland now’ Spectator February 9 1940; ‘Help for Finland’ Economist February 24 1940.↩︎

  9. The Economist averred that, if it was right to fight Germany, it could not be wrong to fight the Soviet Union: ‘Two wars’ The Economist February 24 1940. Others were even more belligerent. The liberal commentator, Frederick Voigt, called for the Allies to blockade Soviet ports and bomb Batum and Baku: The editor, ‘The situation’ Nineteenth century and after March 1940, p267. A rightwing Conservative journal grumbled: “Had we declared war on Russia in September, we should be in a better position than we are at present” (‘Episodes of the month’ National Review January 1940).↩︎

  10. A Greenwood Why we fight: Labour’s case London 1940, pp84-85.↩︎

  11. Vigilans, ‘The war in Finland’ Tribune December 22 1939.↩︎

  12. A Bevan, ‘Stop sending British arms to Finland’ Tribune December 22 1939.↩︎

  13. ‘Russia’s patience’ New Statesman December 2 1939. Geoffrey Cox, a radical journalist who visited Finland during the war, considered that the Soviet territorial demands were legitimate, although he condemned the regime’s means of attaining them: G Cox The Red Army moves London 1941, pp275-76.↩︎

  14. Labour Party Finland p12. The recently disillusioned US fellow-traveller, Louis Fischer, rejected the Soviet rationale that territorial adjustments were justified because Leningrad was in range of Finnish artillery, on the grounds that it made “a case against the existence of every weak and small country”, as every power could claim that its cities were in range of a neighbour’s airforce: L Fischer Stalin and Hitler: the reasons for the results of the Nazi-Bolshevik pact Harmondsworth 1940, pp46-47.↩︎

  15. H Johnson, ‘The invasion of Finland’ New Statesman December 16 1939.↩︎

  16. DN Pritt Must the war spread? Harmondsworth 1940, pp9, 167ff. See also Russia Today Society Finland: The facts London 1939.↩︎

  17. DN Pritt Must the war spread? pp96ff.↩︎

  18. See, for instance, W Citrine, My Finnish diary passim; P Noel-Baker, ‘Just back from Finland’ The Listener February 22 1940; J Langdon-Davis Finland: the first total war London 1940, pp79ff, 162ff.↩︎

  19. The Stalinists’ lurid descriptions of fascist repression in Finland were called into question by the siding of members of the Finnish Communist Party with the Finnish government: see G Cox The Red Army moves London 1941, p256.↩︎

  20. DN Pritt Light on Moscow: Soviet policy analysed Harmondsworth 1939, p132; DN Pritt Must the war spread? Harmondsworth 1940, pp10, 63ff, 221ff.↩︎

  21. See, for example, T Borenius, ‘Finland and Europe’ Free Europe December 15 1939, p42.↩︎

  22. National Council of Labour, ‘Russian invasion of Finland’, December 7 1939, in Report of the 39th annual conference of the Labour Party London 1940, p13.↩︎

  23. Labour Party Labour, the war and the peace London 1940, p7.↩︎

  24. ‘The man of steel’ New Statesman December 9 1939.↩︎

  25. F Williams Democracy’s last battle London 1941, pp13-14, 36.↩︎

  26. ‘The man of steel’ New Statesman December 9 1939. The idea that the Soviet Union under Stalin and Nazi Germany were essentially the same sort of society was popular across the political spectrum during this period. See P Flewers The new civilisation? Understanding Stalin’s Soviet Union, 1929-1941 London 2008, pp184-200.↩︎

  27. ‘Progress and anarchy’ New Statesman December 16 1939, p884.↩︎

  28. EFM Durbin The politics of democratic socialism: an essay in social policy London 1940, pp190, 273-79.↩︎