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The Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 heralded the prospect of the first communist state and with it a direct challenge to the established international political order. The Bolsheviks soon set about marshaling the two principal weapons at their disposal: firstly, the material resources of the Russian land-mass, soon to be extended with the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1923; secondly, the universal ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which was to be projected and promoted throughout the world via newly organized communist parties and allied organizations in civil society. In the face of this challenge across several fronts, anticommunists represented a broad church involving a whole array of positions from left to right across the political spectrum. Disagreement over how much of a threat the communist movement actually represented, and whether communist ideology offered useful insights or should be rejected in to to, split anticommunist forces into distinguishable groups, which can be typified as the Socialists, the Liberals/Social Democrats, the Conservatives, the far Right, and the Left opposition.


Prior to 1917 the perception that some form of collective action—involving concerted state intervention in the running of the national economy to ensure greater material equality and social justice—was essential (if not inevitable) was already prevalent within European politics. Even those who disagreed with its premises recognized socialism, as a kind of secular religion of modernity, to be the movement of the future. Its supporters occupied several different positions. In Germany and Austria the Social Democrats rejected revolution in favor of the reform of capitalism through legislation. To their left were the Democratic Socialists such as Jean Jaurès (1859–1914) in France and the Labour Party in Britain, who agreed with the democratic means but who remained committed to the end goal of a fully socialist socioeconomic system. In Britain the Liberal government of 1906–1910 also moved with this tide, introducing wide-ranging social legislation, though within the framework of private control of the economy. Conservatives too, recognizing the danger socialist-inspired reforms represented for traditional values and hierarchies, searched for ways to diffuse this movement through limited, controlled change. The Bolshevik seizure of power therefore added a new phase to an already long-running debate.

Among the Socialists, Social Democrats, and Liberals, hopes that bolshevism indicated another positive step in the general trend toward collectivism and social emancipation soon began to fade. Apologists for the Soviet regime—the so-called Fellow Travellers—would always remain, their belief in the inherent progressiveness of social revolution preventing them from rejecting completely the Soviet experiment. The British Fabian socialists Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, who published Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? in 1935, were typical of this circle. Yet from the beginning the revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov; 1870–1924) and Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) were vociferous in their critique of the failure of leftist parties to oppose World War I, and already in March 1919 the launch of the Comintern marked an assault on the Second International (later called the Socialist International). Throughout Europe and elsewhere, during 1920–1921 the Socialists and Social Democrats were deliberately split by revolutionary factions dividing off to form communist parties loyal to Moscow. In Germany and France these factions initially represented the majority, but in Italy, another country where hopes for insurrection were high, the Communists proved to be in the minority. The Socialists responded by reviving the Socialist International in 1923, but they were now politically on the defensive. These developments caused much long-term bitterness, and the fault line between Socialists and Communists was not helped by the latter referring to the former as class traitors. The rise of fascism did eventually cause a tactical rapprochement in the form of the Popular Front from 1934 onward, but the purges of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), the ruthless tactics employed by Moscow during the Spanish civil war (1936–1939), and the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939 ensured a complete break in trust between the two sides prior to World War II. The experience of Stalinism ensured that Socialist and Social Democratic parties and trade unions (pace Fellow Travellers) would prove to be a strongly anticommunist bulwark in West European politics up to the 1970s.

For conservatives, bolshevism was a major challenge to the established socioeconomic and moral order of the ruling classes. For the British and French the initial fear was that Germany would profit from the Russian withdrawal from World War I, and this strategic concern had far-reaching consequences. Firstly it justified the military intervention in Russia in 1918, which involved up to thirteen thousand French and forty-four thousand British soldiers fighting on the side of the White Russians against the Red Army. However, the failure to destroy bolshevism abroad militarily led to a determination to restore the forces of order by opposing further collectivism domestically. The result was an anti-communism that tended to indiscriminately gather all the forces of the Left under the same banner as a threat to the socioeconomic and moral order. Conservatives also recognized the need to oppose the leftist, modernist secular religion on the ideological plain with an alternative set of ideas. Communism was seen as an evil set of ideas that challenged all cultural hierarchies and moral values, and these, as the central framework of civilization, had to be defended at all costs. One of the main sources for this view was a revived interest in Christianity after 1917 and again after World War II as a form of "moral rearmament." The Catholic Church, aside from being a principal source of ideological inspiration, also became an important player within anticommunist politics. In 1919 the Vatican authorized the founding of the Popular Party in Italy as a means of channeling social discontent, especially in the countryside, away from the radical Left. Following the seizure of power by Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) and the settling of differences with the Vatican through the Lateran treaties, the church turned its attention abroad. Most notably this led to the formation of Pro Deo, established by the Belgian Father Felix Morlion as a transnational network dedicated to opposing the worldwide influence of communism and a close partner of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Cold War (1945–1989).

The wave of communist agitation following the end of World War I, which involved major industrial unrest in France, Germany, and Italy, and the successful (albeit brief) seizure of power in Hungary and Munich, posed a serious threat to corporate interests across Europe. As a result, industrialists mobilized their resources and channeled them into the most aggressive anticommunist force: fascism. In Italy the Confederation of Industry (Confindustria) was revitalized and reorganized to meet the new threat and was soon lending its considerable support to Mussolini. Major German industrialists such as Hugo Stinnes, Gustav Krupp, Fritz Thyssen, and Albert Voegler were all contributing to the National Socialists under Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) by the mid-1920s. The rise of the Right was caused by many factors, but a central reason was the perceived weakness of liberal democracy in the face of the communist challenge. Economic stagnation, acute following the Wall Street crash of 1929, confirmed the inability of parliamentarianism to deal with these structural difficulties. Between 1929 and 1936 France was run by fifteen different premiers in charge of twenty-two different cabinets. The European middle classes, seeking a counterrevolutionary force to stave off revolution and offer security, were attracted in many countries to the discourse of nationalist revival offered by the Right. Conservative authoritarian and autocratic governments, often centered around the monarchy and the nobility and strongly anticommunist, dominated the political scene in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia during the 1920s and 1930s. By 1938 Czechoslovakia was the only remaining democratic regime in eastern Europe. In the contest between the major ideologies, democracy could not compete.


The brutalities of Stalinism had alienated many on the left, who as a result sought alternative paths to the socialist utopia. One pole was offered by Trotsky, whose opposition to Stalin forced him into exile and who founded the Fourth International in 1938 to promote the further development of "permanent revolution" through the strategy of the vanguard party. Trotskyites represented the Left opposition because of their contention that the Soviet Union was not the communist state it claimed to be. Others turned to anarchism. Originally supporters of the emancipatory potential offered by the Bolshevik Revolution, the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion (1921) by Trotsky and Lenin, and the development of an oppressive Soviet bureaucratic state by Stalin confirmed for anarchists the original criticism of the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) against "the dictatorship of the proletariat." Although a minority view, the anarchist belief in an individual freedom bereft of the hypocrisies of liberalism did find resonance with many on the democratic left. Typical of this tendency was the British writer George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair; 1903–1950), whose bitter rejection of both Stalinism and fascismled him to hope for the advancement of individual liberty via a revitalized democratic socialism. Thus the excesses of the 1930s led Orwell and others of a progressive bent to adopt a position of antitotalitarianism.

Yet as Hannah Arendt argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and elsewhere, the challenge for modernity was to establish a politics that would avoid the complete subordination of the individual to the mass as expressed in extremity by communism, fascism, and Nazism. As a result antitotalitarianism was a label that could fit an array of political positions, from conservatism to democratic socialism. In 1944 the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, a call to revive classical libertarian liberalism that regarded all attempts to institute collectivism and state planning of the economy as inimical to personal freedom. Hayek also attacked the perversion of language through communist hijacking of terms such as "freedom" and "democracy," and emphasized the need to reclaim their original meaning. Although Keynesianism, which regarded state intervention in the economy as essential for stability, remained the norm in Western Europe up to the 1980s, Hayek laid the ground for a neoliberal revival that would ultimately succeed in placing the free market and individual choice as the natural antithesis to communism.


From 1941 to 1945 the grand alliance of the Soviet Union with the Western Allies placed the forces of communism and democratic anticommunism on the same side. Stalin even abandoned the Comintern in 1943 in the interests of wartime solidarity. The activities of communists in the wartime Resistance also raised the credibility and prestige of their cause after the debacles of the previous decade. Nevertheless, the adherence of communist parties to directives from Moscow was always going to be a political weak point in peacetime. The solidification of Soviet control over Eastern Europe during 1945–1948, and fears over how expansionist Stalin might actually be, created widespread apprehension and mistrust in the West. Developing a harder line toward Moscow therefore required controlling its proxy forces in domestic politics as well. The declaration of the Dutch Communist Party in the wake of the communist coup in Czechoslovakia (1948) that it would fight on the side of an invading Red Army placed post-war loyalties in stark relief. Responses from the state toward the communist parties varied according to national conditions. In the Netherlands the party remained legal, but "loyalty checks" were instituted for public service employees. In West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG) anticommunism became one of the central pillars of the divided country's identity, a position that translated in some quarters into right-wing sentiments that regarded the FGR as a bulwark against the atheist, Slavic "hordes" to the east. The Kommunistische Partei Deutschland was eventually made illegal in the FRG in 1956. In France and Italy the strength of the parties, polling around 25 percent of the vote and investing in a whole "countersociety" superstructure, made them more of a potent threat. But even here (as also in Belgium) the communist parties were excluded from government in 1947, and as support for them declined they were not to return as serious governing partners until the mid-1970s.

Above all, the anticommunist struggle after World War II was bound up with the ultimate struggle to reestablish and maintain both liberal democracy as a viable political model and capitalism as a stable economic system. In these circumstances, with fascism and Nazism a recent reality and communism a real threat, the European Recovery Program (Marshall Plan) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), founded April 1949, were pivotal events in terms of confidence-building. These developments, which marked a direct involvement in and commitment to West European affairs by the United States, strengthened the forces of anticommunism and legitimized the (re)structuring of social, political, economic, and cultural life. Containment became the goal, both of Soviet expansionism abroad and communist advances at home. Once again, within this field different gradations of anticommunism existed, from the Social Democrats who argued that radical social reform was the best way to undermine support for the radical Left to conservatives who totally rejected the legitimacy of communism and sought to wipe it (and all its political kin) from the map.

During the Cold War, the anticommunist forces of the Left and the Right were often as opposed to each other as they were opposed to communism itself. Within domestic politics, however, the dominance of Keynesianism led to the further development of the welfare state and a consensus among Social and Christian Democrats toward managed collectivism and state intervention in the economy to ensure social equality and justice. Within society as a whole, the determination to ensure political and economic stability and the establishment of anticommunism as the norm led to a large-scale mobilization of material and intellectual forces. In some fields the methods of the Soviet Union were deliberately mimicked. In 1925 the All Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, or VOKS, had been created by Moscow to build and coordinate links between Soviet civil organizations and their counterparts abroad. A series of "fronts" had been developed, such as the International Union of Students, the World Federation of Democratic Youth, and the International Union of Journalists, to organize and utilize these groups for the benefit of Soviet foreign policy. After World War II similar anticommunist "fronts" were established to attract members away from the communist-dominated organizations. Examples are the World Assembly of Youth (WAY, founded in London, 1948), the International Federation of Journalists (Brussels, 1952), and the International Commission of Jurists (West Berlin, 1952). The trade unions were a crucial battleground for this approach. Thus the anticommunist Force Ouvrière was established in France to oppose the powerful left-wing General Confederation of Labour (CGT), and in 1949 the communist-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions was undermined when Western nations split off to form the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. In all these developments European and American anticommunists worked side by side, identifying themselves with the "Free West" against the totalitarian East.

In this battle of ideas the most interesting development was the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), in West Berlin in June 1950, which aimed to establish a high-profile intellectual-cultural network opposed to the restrictions on freedom of thought and expression as proclaimed by Stalinism. The CCF was mainly a Euro-American coalition of conservatives, Social Democrats, and, crucially, former communists such as the British-Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) and the Italian writer and politician Ignazio Silone (Secondo Tranquilli; 1900–1978). Not coincidentally, the CCF appeared in the same year as the publication The God That Failed, which collected the ruminations of six former communists (including Koestler and Silone) on their former "faith" and why they abandoned it. Apostates of communism such as Koestler were important figures in the anticommunist cause, their first-hand knowledge of the communist movement giving them a high-profile moral superiority and prestige. They also exuded intolerance of any who continued to profess respect for Marxism and its progeny, causing them naturally to gravitate to the conservative camp and to attack Fellow Travelers as much as they attacked the communists themselves. The CCF went on to refine a sociopolitical position known as the "End of Ideology," of which the foremost European proponent was Raymond Aron in L'opium des intellectuels (1955; The Opium of the Intellectuals, 1957). This was based on the claim that ideological thinking was passé, because a broad welfare state consensus within Western politics had opened up new possibilities for the improved technocratic management of modern society. In this way the advocates of the End of Ideology sought to reclaim the mantle of progress for democratic capitalism, symbolically leaving communism behind in the "dustbin of history."

An important player in this battle for supremacy and legitimacy between competing civil society organizations was the secret state. Because free institutions such as the CCF should be seen to arise spontaneously through the free will of active citizens, it was important to conceal any state involvement in their financing and management. The CIA was most closely involved with this strategy, providing most of the funding for the CCF, paying American trade unions to support their counterparts in Europe, and supporting a whole network of anticommunist institutions. Against the Soviet Union itself it funded guerrilla units in the Ukraine and the Baltic States (all penetrated by Soviet intelligence) and funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to broadcast across the Iron Curtain. But West European intelligence services also played a role, for instance with British support for WAY. Covert support (probably CIA) is also strongly suspected in the case of Paix et Liberté, a transnational anticommunist propaganda network based in Paris and with affiliates across Western Europe during the 1950s. By the early 1960s the need for a better understanding of communist theory and practice led the French, Dutch, and German intelligence services to create Interdoc, another transnational network that aimed to raise awareness of the dangers for the West of the "peaceful coexistence" strategy of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971). This determination of the intelligence services to remove the communist threat at all costs also led to more extreme activities, such as the "Gladio" network of irregular forces prepared to resist an invasion of the Red Army behind the lines, and the "Strategy of Tension" in Italy, which involved elements of the security service in acts of terrorism that were then blamed on the Left.


At the end of the 1960s the anticommunist consensus was shattered by a new generation who saw it as no more than another method for sociopolitical control, and who saw the war in Vietnam as evidence that the anticommunist cause was unnecessarily violent and morally bankrupt. Significantly, the New Left movements that sprang up around 1968 rejected the monolithic power structures of both American-style corporate capitalism and Soviet-style centralized communism in equal measure, instead choosing a cross between the dissident Left (Che Guevara, Maoism, Trotskyism) and a radical libertarianism. The upheavals surrounding 1968 had two longer-term consequences. The first concerned the political forces released by these disparate groups, with their unorthodox take on the Cold War struggle. At the end of the 1970s, in the context of rising tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, they coalesced around the antinuclear/peace movements and in transnational coalitions such as European Nuclear Disarmament (END). The second concerned the viability of the communist parties themselves. The 1968 phenomenon challenged the established order in both Western and Eastern Europe, as the movement for "Socialism with a Human Face" took hold in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Détente between the superpowers also loosened the international framework in which these parties could operate. The result was Eurocommunism, a reformist program of the largest communist parties in the West (France, Italy, Spain after 1975) that aimed both to connect with the new emancipatory movements and the expanding middle classes, and to create a strategic distance from Moscow.

Yet Eurocommunism's hoped-for breakthrough did not happen. Instead, the leftist dominance of West European politics during the 1970s and the rise of the antinuclear/peace movements triggered a reaction from the hard-line conservative Right. The high point for this reaction was the highly suspect assassination of the Italian premier Aldo Moro in 1978, at the moment when he was leading the Christian Democrats into a political "historic compromise" with the Communists. The electoral victory of Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979 (and the election of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States in 1980) was a significant moment in the polarization of Left and Right in Western European politics. The strength of the peace movement was enough to unsettle domestic politics in the Netherlands and West Germany and to challenge the defense strategy of NATO itself (which relied on the placement of medium-range nuclear missiles in these countries). Once again, as during the early Cold War, the Right used the excuse of a threatening Soviet Union to attack all of its actual or potential allies on the left in the same way. The claim of the Right, that a united stand against the Soviet Union based on the common security interests of NATO ultimately won the superpower contest, has some degree of merit. However, the anticommunist force in Europe that actually brought about the unraveling of the Eastern bloc regimes was the citizens of those regimes themselves, first through the Solidarity union in Poland from 1980 onward and then during 1988–1989 in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. The attempt of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) to reform the communist system from within met toomuch opposition from those who wanted to benefit from its fall, and anti-communism effectively came to an end as a meaningful concept with the dissolution of both the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet Union itself in 1991. The parties across Europe either transformed themselves into Social Democratic–type movements as in Italy, joined forces with the Greens as in the Netherlands, or aimed for acceptance as part of the post–Cold War political landscape as in Hungary (and with some success). Forms of authoritarianism continue to be successful, as in Russia, and may well return elsewhere on the Continent. Anticollectivist and collectivist arguments, now couched in terms of neoliberalism and its discontents, will continue to dominate political discourse. Nevertheless, twenty-first-century Europe has lost the haunting specter of communism that defined its sociopolitical divisions for the previous hundred years.

See alsoAntifascism; Cold War; Communism; Eurocommunism; Totalitarianism.


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Giles Scott-Smith