Hands off Russia - The Russian Revolution and The British Labour Movement

russian revolution
Red Guards defending the Smolny during the Revolution

In 2017 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the beginning of the most important struggle for socialism, peace and progress in history. Throughout the year, FRFI has carried articles analysing the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution. In FRFI 260 we concluded a series of articles on the history of the Russian Revolution by looking at the momentous events of October. Below, we republish a further article, first published in FRFI 73 in December 1987, which looks at the response of the British labour movement to the revolution – the solidarity and militant organisation of the revolutionary left, and the opportunism, hostility and betrayal by the leaders of the Labour Party and trade union movement.

The full series of articles, as well as others looking at revolutionary Russia, can be found on our website at: revolutionarycommunist.org/1917

Hands off Russia - The Russian Revolution and The British Labour Movement

In March 1917 a British Labour delegation was allowed to travel to Russia in an effort to shore up the determination of the Provisional government to stay in the war.

One of the Labour delegation was Will Thorne, formerly militant Gas Workers leader taught to read and write by Eleanor Marx, proudly wearing an expensive fur coat given to him for the journey by Attorney-General FE Smith who was leading court actions against left-wing militants at the time. As The Socialist (newspaper of the Socialist Labour Party) commented Thorne and FE Smith had more than a fur coat in common. The February Revolution was hailed both by the leadership of the British labour movement and the Coalition government. The Parliamentary motion to send a telegram of greetings was moved by Bonar Law, Conservative Leader of the House. The massive Leeds Convention, 3 June 1917, revealed the enthusiasm of the labour leaders and the left.

The Leeds Convention was organised by the British Socialist Party and the Independent Labour Party. Be-tween 1,150 and 1,300 delegates, including 580 delegates of trade union and Labour Party organisations, attended. Both Ramsay MacDonald MP and Philip Snowden MP took part. A motion to set up Councils of Workmens’ and Soldiers’ Delegates in every area was carried without opposition. The bourgeois press condemned the resolution as ‘a violation of the law’.

However, the Convention was not quite as revolutionary as it seemed. The motion was proposed by WC Anderson MP. He said: ‘I wish to say emphatically that this resolution was not intended to be subversive, not unconstitutional ...’. The Convention also voted to support the war aims of the Provisional government. Ramsay MacDonald had told his constituents a month before the Convention, that the Bolsheviks were a party ‘of thoughtless anarchists ... whose minds were filled with violence and hatred.’

When King George V expressed fears about the Convention, up popped our friend in the fur coat, Will Thorne, to mop the Royal brow: ‘“I’ve seen these things happen many times before in days gone by, and in my humble judgment there will never be a physical violent revolution in this country ...” This seemed to relieve his mind, and he spoke to me in a most homely and pleasant way. I was very pleased.’ (Will Thorne’s account of his conversation with the King, cited in Raymond Challinor, The origins of British Bolshevism, p182).

No Councils were set up. Meetings organised to implement the Leeds resolution were violently broken up by soldiers and right-wing mobs. Sylvia Pankhurst, John Maclean and others struggled to give some life to the Leeds motion but failed.

Some of the people who had taken part in the Leeds Convention were later to denounce the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks. We already know the real attitude of Ramsay MacDonald, who was to become the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924. Philip Snowden, who, in 1913, had been a vicious opponent of Larkin and Connolly, thought that the October Revolution was ‘tragic indeed’.

In The Herald, later The Daily Herald, the Bolsheviks were denounced by HN Brailsford as ‘fanatics who have carried the Socialist view of the class war to its logical but exaggerated conclusion’. In June 1918 the Labour Party Conference had a special guest speaker: Kerensky. The attitude of official labour to the Bolsheviks was aptly summarised in British agent Bruce Lockhart’s description of Labour MP Arthur Henderson’s reaction to the Soviets: ‘He did not understand their language. He did not like their manners.’

There was, however, another view. The small forces of the revolutionary left hailed the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks. The Call (British Socialist Party), The Socialist and the Workers’ Dreadnought (Workers Socialist Federation) supported the Bolsheviks. The Socialist’s headline on the fall of the Provisional government was ‘Hail Revolutionary Socialist Russia’. The 17 January 1918 issue of The Call was confiscated under new censorship regulations for carrying a manifesto on Russia, entitled ‘Russia’s appeal: Will British Workers remain Silent’.

All three papers carried material from Russia including reports and translated articles and appeals. They were subject to frequent harassment for this. The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was still in force. The Call was raided under DORA. The 1918 Mayday march was banned under Regulation 9a of DORA. These small forces of the revolutionary left were to take up the fight to defend the Soviet Republic against the official labour movement.

The fight to defend Soviet Russia

Even before the First World War ended capitalist troops were landing in Russia in an effort to strangle the Soviet Republic at birth. In early 1918, following the ratification of the Brest-Litovsk treaty between Russia and Germany in mid-March, British troops landed at Vladivostok. Japanese troops were already operating in Siberia. British forces were then landed at Murmansk in June. Soon there were to be 14 capitalist nations directly involved in the war against Soviet Russia and assisting White Russian reactionary forces. How did British labour respond?

In August 1918 Sylvia Pankhurst and others issued an appeal ‘Save the Revolution’. The opportunist leaders of British labour had no intention of doing so. At the Inter-Allied Conference of Labour and Socialist parties in September 1918 while the ‘deepest sympathy’ was expressed to Russian labour there was no direct reference to intervention. Prime mover in this was Arthur Henderson, Labour MP, member of the Coalition government and the man who, in 1916, had led the applause at the murder of James Connolly by a British firing squad. Henderson had been instructed by the Labour Party executive not to ‘approve or condemn Allied intervention’ but to accept it ‘as an accomplished fact’.

The Call appealed to British workers to act in the face of their leaders’ treachery: ‘Do not let it be said that it was the apathy if not the hostility of the workers of Britain that delayed the complete triumph of the workers of the world’. This appeal was issued just two weeks after The Call had again been raided and copies of Lenin’s Lessons of the Russian Revolution seized. A printer had also had his shop closed down for printing an issue of The Socialist containing the constitution of Soviet Russia and Sylvia Pankhurst had been summonsed for a ‘seditious’ speech in which she called for Soviets in Britain. While the leaders delayed and betrayed, the left were facing state repression in defence of their Russian comrades.

Following the Armistice of November 1918 and faced with a General Election in December, the Labour Party rediscovered some of its left credentials. In its manifesto it called for ‘the immediate withdrawal of Allied forces from Russia’. And it took ‘action’. After the election the Labour Party and the TUC sent a letter to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, calling for withdrawal ‘at the earliest possible moment’. Then they sent some more letters, happily whiling away the time into the middle of 1919 while the Soviets fought for their very lives.

Other forces sought more than correspondence. The Birmingham Trades Council called for a conference to consider action to force withdrawal. In March the Miners Federation unanimously called for action and sent an emergency resolution to the Labour Party executive and the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC. These august bodies agreed to demand withdrawal but rejected any implied call for industrial action.

The call for industrial action grew, promoted by the BSP, SLP and WSF. In January 1919 their agitation had helped to produce a 500 strong delegate meeting representing 350 organisations to found the Hands Off Russia movement. The conference called for a general strike. Pressure mounted on the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC to call a national conference to decide action.

The Committee decided to seek a meeting with the Prime Minister. After the meeting, which achieved nothing, they decided not to call the conference. As John Maclean had pointed out in January ‘... the Government has the majority of the trade union leaders in the hollow of its hand and can easily manipulate them against us ...’.

In May 1919 a proposal had been made for a joint 24-hour general strike in Italy, France and Britain against intervention. The British left groups enthusiastically endorsed it and agitated for support. British Labour representatives succeeded in amending the proposal to a call for demonstrations ‘in the form best adapted to their circumstances’. While Italian and French workers downed tools on Monday 21 July 1919, British workers went on marches on Sunday 20 July.

Italian workers boycotted war supplies and the French Black Sea fleet mutinied. ‘In Britain alone has Labour support confined itself to ineffective verbal protests, which the Government has treated with the contempt they deserve’ (The Call, 12 June 1919). With reason did the left dub the Labour and trade union leaders ‘lackeys of the master class.’ Despite the best efforts of the left and progressive democrats and Liberals in the Hands Off Russia campaign, there was no decisive action by the British working class throughout the long and bloody war of intervention.

The Jolly George incident

It was the heroism and superior military organisation of the Red Army, forged in the heat of battle and led by Trotsky, that defeated the Allied armies and their White Russian allies. After this defeat, the task of attacking the Soviet Republic fell into the willing hands of Polish dictator Marshal Pilsudski. On 25 April 1920 he launched an invasion of Soviet Russia, with the covert support and encouragement of the Allies, particularly Britain. As The Herald put it on 30 April 1920: ‘The marionettes are in Warsaw, but the strings are being pulled from London and Paris.’

The New Statesman revealed, on 8 May, that the Polish army was ‘very well equipped – largely with British aeroplanes, guns and munitions’. Munitions were being loaded onto British ships by British workers. On 1 May, while Mayday was being celebrated, the Neptune quietly slipped out of the East India Dock, London, laden with war supplies. However, this time there was some action.

On 6 May the Daily Herald revealed that the Neptune had been carrying munitions, that another ship had only been stopped because two firemen had refused to work at Gravesend and deckhands had subsequently refused to continue to work. This was the first recorded instance of British workers taking action in defence of Soviet Russia.

The Herald also revealed that the Jolly George, in East India Dock, was being loaded with crates marked ‘OHMS Munitions for Poland’. Immediately left leaders such as Harry Pollitt, a founding member of the soon to be formed British Communist Party, began agitating among the dockers.

The dockers refused to continue loading the ship and declared that the ship would not sail unless the munitions already loaded were taken off. On 13 May the owners, Walford Line Ltd, capitulated and agreed to the removal of the munitions. This was the second and last recorded incident of industrial action against the Allied conspiracy to destroy revolutionary Russia. Harry Pollitt had, himself, earlier failed to stop work on converting two Belgian barges for carrying munitions. At the Dockers’ Union conference held the same month, Ernest Bevin, moving a resolution of support for the dockers’ action, said that this did not imply any view as to ‘the merits or demerits of the theory of government of Russia.’

The Hands Off Russia movement seized on the Jolly George episode to renew the agitation for a general strike. At the Labour Party Conference of June 1920, however, a resolution to this effect, moved by a BSP representative, was heavily defeated.

In August 1920 the situation in the Russian/Polish war changed dramatically. The Polish army had had a series of successes but in August the Red Army stopped the Polish advance and began a counter-attack. This immediately raised the spectre of direct Allied intervention in ‘defence of self-determination’ for Poland.

Councils of Action were formed to meet the threat. The strength of the movement came not from sympathy with Soviet Russia as much as a widespread war-weariness and a fear of extended conscription. The newly-formed British Communist Party (August 1920) threw itself into the Councils of Action. However, some of the Councils rejected affiliation from the Communist Party and other socialist groups.

On 9 August 1920, in response to nationwide pressure, the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Labour Party executive and the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC set up a 15 member National Council of Action empowered to ‘use the movement’s whole industrial power’ to prevent war with Russia. An estimated three or four hundred local Councils were established and where the revolutionaries had influence they quickly took on a radical character. Some 60 Councils added the demand for withdrawal from Ireland to the demand for peace with Russia. Communist Party affiliation to the National Council was refused. The National Council failed to call for a strike and instead organised demonstrations on Sunday 22 August.

Once the threat of direct military intervention by Britain in the Russian/ Polish war faded, the steam went out of the Councils of Action. On 7 October 1920 the Communist (newspaper of the British Communist Party) declared: ‘Frankly the National Council of Action has failed’. Apart from the Jolly George in the previous May, there had been no effective action.

The events of 1918 to 1920 demonstrated that the small forces of the revolutionary left were too small to break the grip of opportunism over the British working class. The same forces that had rallied wholeheartedly to the cause of Soviet Russia had stood with the Irish people in their fight for self-determination. Sylvia Pankhurst, John Maclean, William Paul and others had fought hard and bravely against the leaders of the Labour Party and TUC. They never hid their support for Lenin and for Sinn Fein. They faced raids, arrests, imprisonment in the best traditions of the British working class.

Despite the high level of industrial militancy in 1918 to 1920, the British working class was politically defeated, on Russia and Ireland, by the opportunist leaders. This political defeat paved the way for the failure of the 1926 General Strike. The hold of opportunism over the organised working class, strengthened by imperialism, remains unbroken. From Ramsay MacDonald to Neil Kinnock, from Will Thorne to Norman Willis, the Labour and trade union leadership has ever been anti-Soviet, pro-imperialist and, as Lenin said, better defenders of the bourgeoisie than the bourgeoisie itself.

Terry O’Halloran

Terry O’Halloran was a professional journalist and member of the Revolutionary Communist Group, who wrote extensively on all aspects of domestic and international politics. In particular he played a crucial part in the development of our position in solidarity with the Irish struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, and began the RCG’s longstanding commitment to solidarity with prisoners. From 1974 to 1979 Terry was the editor of our journal Hands off Ireland! and from its first publication in 1979 was a member of the Editorial Board of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!. He died on 23 January 1989 at the age of 36.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 261 December 2017/January 2018


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