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Before the deluge: Anglo-Russian working-class solidarity, 1890-1917
Throughout the nineteenth century, hostility to Russia’s autocratic rulers formed an integral part of British working-class internationalism.
In the 1830s, the Chartists forged close links with Polish émigrés, and the insurgents of 1848 crushed by Nicholas I’s ‘Holy Alliance’ were welcomed with open arms by British radicals. As Russia’s own revolutionary drama began to unfold from the 1870s onwards, its political prisoners and exiles were eulogised by Britain’s liberal and radical newspapers as martyrs to the cause. In London, Russian revolutionary émigrés associated with socialists such as Keir Hardie, William Morris and Sylvia Pankhurst, and were regularly invited to address working-class meetings across Britain. By the turn of the century, Russians formed an integral part of London’s cosmopolitan political milieu, frequenting Whitechapel’s International Workingmen’s Educational Club and participating in the theoretical debates that surrounded the rise of the Labour movement. Such contacts set the tone for British socialist responses to the coming revolution.
Collapse of the ancien régime: 1917 as seen from Britain
In February 1917, with Russia exhausted by three years of war, a series of strikes and bread riots in Petrograd led to the collapse of autocratic rule and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.
In Britain, the socialist movement greeted the fall of the Romanov dynasty with unanimous enthusiasm, but found itself divided on the way forward and on questions of war and peace. Across the country, meetings passed resolutions conveying fraternal greetings to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (one of two competing centres of revolutionary power) and calling for peace in Europe. Others supported the internationally-recognised Provisional Government and shared its determination to pursue the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion.
In August, a TUC delegation visited Petrograd in an attempt to reassure the Provisional Government of Britain’s continued support for Russia.
Hands Off Russia 1919-1924
In October 1917, the communist Bolshevik faction overthrew the Provisional Government.
The following year, fearing the collapse of the Eastern Front, Allied troops intervened in Russia’s nascent civil war in support of the anti-Bolshevik forces. In response, British socialists founded the Hands Off Russia campaign in 1919. By declaring British workers’ solidarity with their Russian counterparts and portraying the Allied intervention as part of the international struggle between labour and capital, Hands Off Russia spread like wildfire across Britain.
In August 1919, Sylvia Pankhurst reported that ‘a deeply felt sense of solidarity with Communist Russia has been growing steadily amongst the workers. For months past, Hands Off Russia has found its way into the resolution of every labour and Socialist
propaganda meeting.’ The campaign continued its activities until Britain’s diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union in 1924, when its executive committee was superseded by the Anglo-Russian Parliamentary Committee.
Hands Off Russia 1919-1924
Throughout its five-year history, Hands Off Russia reflected British socialists’ fluid geopolitical loyalties and evolving conception of internationalism.
Half a century earlier, the worldview of working-class radicalism had been largely defined by hostility to Russia and support for the Polish national cause. During the 1863 uprising in Warsaw, former Chartists had openly called for war with Russia in defence of Poland. Yet by the summer of 1920, when the prospect of British military intervention in the ongoing Russo-Polish War seemed imminent, the Labour Party and the TUC threatened a general strike. Campaign literature broke from traditional depictions of
Russia as an oppressive empire, instead portraying the Soviets as liberators of the former imperial borderlands.
The 1920 delegation visit
In the spring of 1920, against the backdrop of a war scare and an ongoing British trade embargo, TUC and Labour delegates visited Soviet Russia for the second time.
Comprised of steadfast internationalists such as Arthur Purcell and Margaret Bondfield, the 1920 delegation reflected the spirit of the Hands Off Russia campaign. Travelling from Petrograd to the Volga basin via Moscow and Nizhnii Novgorod, the party met with both representatives of the Bolshevik government and a wide variety of opposition figures, including members of the SocialistRevolutionary Party and the anarchist theoretician Peter Kropotkin (formerly a well-known political émigré in London). The delegation’s published findings touched upon political and economic questions, public health, women’s issues and material conditions in Russia. Although reserved in its praise for the Bolsheviks, their report unequivocally condemned the Allied intervention and blockade as ‘criminal folly’.
Lenin’s dealth 1924
In January 1924, Vladimir Lenin, the Marxist theorist, Bolshevik leader and Soviet head of state, died after a long illness. In Britain, news of his death broke the day after the formation of the first ever Labour government, eliciting tributes from all sections of the socialist movement. Although a controversial and divisive figure in his lifetime, Lenin was nonetheless portrayed as the father of the revolution and a supreme intellectual authority for socialists around the world in the days following his death. Through British socialist literature and Soviet publications aimed at English-speaking audiences overseas, the exalted image of Lenin long familiar to Russians was relayed to the British public.
Fred Bramley and the 1924 TUC delegation visit
In 1924, the All-Russian Council of Trade Unions invited another TUC delegation to visit the USSR to report back on the situation confronting Soviet trade unionists at the time. The delegation arrived in November and returned to Britain in late December. Upon arrival in Moscow, the party were granted access to the Comintern’s archive in order to prove that the notorious ‘Zinoviev letter’, published by the Daily Mail a month earlier, was a forgery. The delegation consisted of several prominent trade unionists of the time, including the dockers’ leader Ben Tillett, Arthur Purcell (a veteran of the 1920 delegation) and the TUC’s General Secretary Fred Bramley. Bramley’s personal papers offer a unique documentary and photographic insight into the delegates’ experiences in the USSR.
In September 1924, the TUC Congress in Hull had hosted a Soviet delegation for the first time. While in Moscow in November, the TUC’s own delegates reciprocated this gesture by attending the Sixth Congress of the AllUnion Central Council of Trade Unions (VTsSPS) at the invitation of its chair, Mikhail Tomsky. Their arrival, Bramley later recorded, ‘aroused great enthusiasm’ amongst the Soviet attendees. Purcell, Bramley and Tillett took turns addressing the audience, each conveying fraternal greetings on behalf of their respective unions. Two days later, they were received by a 100,000-strong demonstration of Moscow trade unionists who ‘gave expression to unreserved enthusiasm and interest in our delegation’,
exhibiting ‘the revolutionary sentiments which now inspire the Russian people’. These contacts played an important role in subsequent development of Anglo-Soviet labour relations, and led directly to the establishment of a ‘unity committee’ the following year.
After leaving Moscow, the delegation visited the industrial heartlands of Eastern Ukraine, the Don river basin and the Caucasian republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia. Along the way, they came into contact with a wide cross-section of Soviet society.
Visiting factories, oilfields and workers’ recreational facilities, the delegates were consistently impressed by the revolutionary government’s provision for its citizens’ material needs. They concluded that Soviet trade unions, freed from the obligation to
protect workers from economic exploitation, were better able to provide for their intellectual and cultural development.Despite conceding that the Soviet Union was undemocratic and illiberal in comparison with Britain, they argued that the state’s
accomplishments had ‘reconciled all but a very small minority to renouncing rights of opposition that are essential to political liberty elsewhere […] This causes no resistance partly because these rights have been replaced by others of greater value
under the Soviet system.’
Gender and revolution: the women’s delegation and representations of Russian female workers 1925
In the spring and summer of 1925, a party of four women trade unionists headed by Mary Quaile (then a member of the TUC’s General Council) visited the Soviet Union. The visit came against the backdrop of both worsening working conditions for women and
declining female union membership in Britain, problems that were to some extent mirrored in the USSR during the state capitalist ‘New Economic Policy’ of the mid1920s. For nearly four months, the TUC delegates travelled between Moscow, Leningrad, Ukraine and the Caucasus, later publishing a wide-ranging report on workplace conditions and social provision for Soviet women. The delegates’ admiration for Soviet innovations in childcare, healthcare and women’s education attests not only to the common struggle of women around the world for gender equality, but to the ways in which the Soviet Union symbolised that struggle for many in the early twentieth century.
The materials collected by the TUC women’s delegation reflected a fascination with Soviet female workers, who were seen as embodying the ideal of emancipated socialist womanhood. These depictions of women from across the Soviet Union showed the revolutionary government transforming the timeless Russian krest’ianka – the peasant woman – into the modern rabotnitsa, the archetypal proletarian hero. By emphasising the dignity of socialist labour and the enlightening power of the Leninist gospel,
representations of Soviet women during the 1920s challenged contemporary gender norms. For many Britons, such images would have recalled the wartime realities of the Home Front, when women began to take on numerous occupations formerly reserved for men.
Translating the revolution: Soviet literature in 1920s Britain
The early twentieth century witnessed a fascination with Russian politics, society and culture amongst British intellectuals. The socialist movement was not exempt from this.
In the years after 1917, interest in both Lenin’s writings and those of other leading Bolsheviks increased dramatically in Britain. A wide variety of leftwing organisations worked with Russian speakers such as Andrew Rothstein, the son of a Tsaristera revolutionary, to translate and publish a variety of Marxist-Leninist tracts. The Soviet authorities likewise endeavoured to satisfy British readers’ curiosity. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Moscow-based ‘Cooperative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the USSR’produced English renditions of Soviet literature aimed at British and American migrants to the Soviet Union, and the Comintern’s International Lenin School provided revolutionary training for foreign communists from 1926 onwards.
British writers on Soviet Russia
By the early 1920s, the Russian Revolution had become a subject of immense public interest and a staple of British literary culture, with journalists, polemicists, political activists and travel writers regularly visiting Russia to see the new socialist state for themselves. While many were highly critical, depicting the Bolsheviks as bloodthirsty opportunists, others found much to admire in the organisation of socialist society and in the militant idealism of those they encountered. As they passed judgement on Russia’s revolutionary experiment for a British audience, these writers engaged in series of broader debates on the merits of revolution, prospects for political change at home, and Britain’s place in the world.
Anti-Bolshevik Russian émigrés in Britain
In the years following the October Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Russians opposed to the Bolsheviks fled Russia for Western Europe. Although the majority settled in France, Germany and across Central Europe, many others came to Britain, where – like their pre-revolutionary counterparts – they sought to enlist public support for their cause. In June 1918, Alexander Kerensky, the head of the second Provisional Government, addressed the Labour Party conference in London and called for Western military intervention against the Soviets. Both socialist émigrés and more conservative groups such as the Russian Liberation Committee published newspapers and pamphlets that detailed instances of political oppression and drew interested Britons’ attention
to deteriorating conditions in Russia.
The information war: Rosta-Wien, Soviet Russia Pictorial and the People’s Russia
Intent upon securing diplomatic recognition and fostering working-class solidarity, Russia’s revolutionary government also made extensive use of overseas propaganda. In the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, sympathetic British organisations such as the People’s Russian Information Bureau attempted to influence press coverage of Russian affairs in the Bolsheviks’ favour. From 1920 onwards, the Moscow-funded Viennese news agency Rosta-Wien published information favourable to the Russian government in several European languages, including English. Later on, Soviet organisations such as the Comintern and the Society for Cultural Relations produced Englishlanguage literature that helped disseminate positive, inspiring images of Soviet socialism.
The Red Scare: from the Zinoviev letter to the ARCOS raid, 1924-1927
In January 1924, the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government for the first time, quickly recognising the Soviet Union and beginning negotiations on a second Anglo-Soviet trade agreement. Under intense political pressure, MacDonald’s government collapsed in October the same year. In the midst of the ensuing election campaign, the Daily Mail published a letter purportedly from Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern, calling on Labour to bring about a revolutionary situation in Britain. Although the Conservative Party won the election decisively, the extent to which the Zinoviev letter actually influenced the vote is unclear. The letter nonetheless became a touchstone for anti-communist sentiment in Britain, and was not conclusively shown to have been a forgery until 1999.
Towards international unity? The Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Committee, 1925-1927
During the 1920s, the international trade union movement was split between two umbrella organisations: the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU, also known as the ‘Amsterdam International’), and the Soviet-backed Red International of Trade Unions, or Profintern, which was founded in 1921. Unlike the IFTU, which it repeatedly attacked as irredeemably bourgeois, the Profintern promoted communist agitation within the trade union movement. To this end, with help from the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Profintern established a British surrogate – the ‘National Minority Movement’ – in 1924. The National Minority Movement campaigned for unity between the IFTU and Profintern, glossing over the ideological differences between the two and emphasising the fraternal bonds of proletarian internationalism.
Following the success of the 1924 delegation visit, the TUC was also inclined to seek reconciliation between the IFTU and Profintern. In April 1925, a meeting in London between British and Russian trade unionists led to the formation of the Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Committee, a working body intended to coordinate negotiations between Amsterdam and Moscow. Although the TUC’s efforts in this respect ultimately amounted to nothing, the Anglo-Russian Committee itself lasted for over two years, during which it served as a forum for contacts between the TUC and the Soviet trade unions. Ideological and strategic differences, however, made such contacts increasingly problematic, with the two sides quarrelling in public during the 1926 General Strike.
‘Victory to the English miners!’ The 1926 General Strike, ‘Red Money’ and Soviet workers’ solidarity
On 3 May 1926, an escalating crisis in the British coal-mining industry led the TUC to declare a national strike. The strike lasted only ten days, and was afterwards widely regarded as a failure, with most miners returning to longer working hours and reduced wages. In the Soviet Union, however, it attracted widespread attention and generated great enthusiasm. Miners in Ukraine’s Donbass region, the centre of the Soviet coal industry, raised funds for their British counterparts and publicly expressed solidarity with the strikers. Party newspapers such as Izvestiia (The News) devoted extensive coverage to events in Britain, declaring the strike ‘one of the greatest historical events in the fight between capital and labour’.
Such expressions of solidarity could not conceal the serious ramifications of the strike’s failure for relations between the TUC and the Soviet trade unions.
The decision to end the strike before its demands had been accepted led to accusations from Moscow that the TUC had betrayed British workers. The TUC, in turn, accused its Soviet counterparts of meddling and dictating strategy from Moscow – a charge the latter denied on the grounds that the strike, far from merely being an internal British affair, was of concern to the whole international workers’ movement. Mutual resentment was increased by the TUC’s refusal to accept a £26,000 donation from the Soviet trade unions. Funds raised directly by Soviet workers for the strikers were accepted by the Miners’ Federation, leading to accusations of ‘red’ money in the right-wing press and an official protest from Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government.
Walter Citrine and the anti-communist turn
During the summer of 1927, the TUC withdrew from the Anglo-Russian Committee and formally broke off relations with the Soviet trade unions. After the ARCOS raid, the weight of anti-communist sentiment in the country as a whole, and within the leadership of the trade union movement in particular, became irresistible. The TUC’s volte-face was overseen by Walter Citrine, who had succeeded the late Fred Bramley as General Secretary of the TUC in 1925. A convinced anti-communist, Citrine subscribed to a more traditional view of trade unionism as defending the interests of a settled economic class through non-revolutionary means, and later served as President of the IFTU. Relations with the Soviet trade unions were not re-established until 1929, and would never again be as close or cordial.
Through the ‘red-tinted spectacles’ British reflections on the Soviet experiment
The British labour movement’s fascination with the Soviet Union did not come to an end in 1927. Subsequent decades saw further delegation visits, all accompanied by the same admiring reports and fraternal greetings. Yet the ideological stakes were never again so high as in the 1920s. The tensions encapsulated in that decade’s dalliance with Soviet communism – between revolutionary and democratic conceptions of trade unionism; and between the idealistic internationalism of the TUC’s delegates and the traditional vision of a working-class movement hermetically sealed against the excesses of foreign socialist experiments – continue to permeate Labour politics today. Such continuities attest not only to the historical ambiguities of socialist politics in Britain, but to the significance of the Russian Revolution as a global event – one as contentious and contested now as it was a hundred years ago.
Dr Ben Phillips
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