Thomas Bell

Reminiscences of Lenin


Source: We Have Met Lenin, pp. 39-47
Publisher: Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, U.S.S.R., 1939
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.



Early in 1921 I received instructions to go to Moscow as the first official representative of the C.P.G.B.

For an English worker to get a passport to leave the country at that time was extremely difficult. Having got the passport, as I did after some delay, I came up against another serious obstacle, that of visas to travel to another capitalist country. Judging from the difficulties I encountered there seemed to be an understanding or agreement among the Consulates as to certain applications from people going to the land of the Soviets. As a result I found it necessary to make arrangements to travel without papers, bag or baggage, which I did, and arrived in Moscow in the month of March, 1921, after a journey which took several weeks.

The apparatus of the Comintern in those days was confined to a small house in the Denezhney, off the Arbat, with a modest staff. In the intervals between meetings the delegates’ time was occupied in studying the events of the Revolution, in international propaganda, and, of course, attending all manner of meetings of the Party and the Soviets.

It was at one of those Party meetings I first saw Lenin and heard him speak. The occasion was, I believe, a meeting of Party workers following the Tenth Party Congress held in the month of May, 1921, at which Lenin was expounding his views on the tax in kind. I had been a little late in arriving, due to no fault of mine, and was immediately conducted to the door leading to the platform.

When I got inside, the platform, like the hall, was crowded almost to suffocation. People were craning their necks in the side wings and at the back of the platform to hear every word or catch a glimpse of the speaker. The speaker was Lenin. So interested and keen was everyone that comrades literally crowded round the rostrum, some leaning up against it.

It is always a difficult situation for a translator when meetings of such importance take place. The translator becomes so engrossed in the proceedings as to forget, at times, his charge. I am afraid this was the case on this occasion. The New Economic Policy had just been adopted, and the times were serious; in connection with which, deviations were discovered in the Party prior to the congress. Lenin had been triumphant at the Tenth Congress. Now the chief task was to get the whole Party to work, but before it could get down to work the opposition to this policy had to be overcome. Here was Lenin, dealing in Bolshevik fashion with the opposition, severely criticizing them and explaining the politically mistaken character of the assertions of the opposition and the harm done by them, as to provoke repeated bursts of laughter at their expense.

On the eve of the Third Congress of the C.I. a number of extended executive meetings of the E.C.C.I. were held in the hall directly opposite the Dom Soyuzov at the corner of Sverdlov Square. Serious discussions took place at those meetings on the Italian situation and the March uprising in Germany, as well as a number of problems connected with the Centrists who were knocking then at the doors of the C.I. Throughout these discussions I followed with intense interest how Lenin was able in his speeches to brilliantly combine an irreconcilable adherence to principle and firmness with a surprising flexibility and tact, and could reach out the hand of comradeship and correct the wavering elements (the Italians behind Serrati at that time) and at the same time restrain the impetuosity o those ultra-lefts (Bordiga’s followers) who tried to utilize the opportunist mistakes made by their Party to advance their own sectarian line.

Every student of Lenin’s life and work knows how he loved to have conversations with simple workers and his habit of closely questioning them. This practice of ascertaining the feelings of the masses he invariably carried out in the workers’ circles he attended and led in Petersburg. After the proletariat seized power nothing delighted Lenin more than to have conversations, put questions and listen eagerly for every scrap of information from comrades coming from abroad concerning the living and working conditions of the toilers and their moods. This was one of the channels which linked Lenin’s life and policy with the lives and struggles of the working masses, enabling him to better sense every mood and to formulate the correct Party tactics and slogans that finally brought victory.

Lenin knew England and the working class movement there very well. In his study of imperialism he gave a profound analysis of the role of the English bourgeoisie in the period of imperialist expansion and of parasitic, decaying and moribund capitalism. Again and again in articles and speeches he returns to the strategy and tactics of the English bourgeoisie in corrupting the upper strata of the workers’ movement, the labour aristocracy, and through them exerting pressure on the wider mass of the proletariat.

Lenin’s articles never were nor could be of a character which set problems formally and theoretically; he always directed the revolutionary workers to the political tasks of the current revolutionary struggle. He loved, when he was in London, to visit the workers’ quarters, go to Socialist meetings and study the English workers’ movement.

This practice of conversations, of listening to what workers had to say, continued up to his untimely death.

In 1921, despite his responsible duties as Chairman of the, Council of People’s Commissars, as leader of the Party and the Revolution, whenever a workers’ delegate arrived from a brother party abroad he insisted on having a personal conversation at the earliest opportunity.

An iron-moulder by occupation, of Scotland, I had been active in the workers’ movement since 1900, as propagandist, instructing workers’ circles, strike leader, trade union and Party worker, and assisted to form the C.P.G.B. I had known and met most of the labour leaders and had come almost. straight from the foundry floor. I mention these details because in my conversation with Lenin I was free not only to speak of our Party, of the labour leaders, the various streams in the workers’ movement, but also about the living conditions and moods of the workers, which made up the substance of our talk.

It was on or about the 3rd of August, 1921 that I had a real comradely talk with Lenin. Our conversation took place in his room in the far corner of the building formerly used as the High Courts of Moscow situated in the Kremlin. Up the narrow unpretentious stairs we entered a room occupied by a staff of stenographers and typists. After announcement of our arrival we were invited to Lenin’s room. No fuss or bureaucratic formalities, and punctual to the minute. The furniture consisted of a heavy writing desk against the wall and two bookshelves, one immediately behind the chair used when working, so that he had only to turn and reach for any book desired.

Rising to greet us with a hearty handshake, Lenin assisted in drawing a couple of chairs near the corner of his desk, inviting us to be comfortable, and we settled down to a real comradely talk. His first enquiry was as to our welfare. How we were in health, where did we live, had we a good room, did we have enough to eat, etc. To all of which enquiries we were able to give him satisfactory assurances.

He was very interested to know how I had travelled, legally or illegally, and chuckled with amusement at some incidents I had to relate about my journey. Formalities over, he begged to be excused for not having been able to give much attention to the English situation since his illness. Drawing his chair closer he rested his right elbow on his desk and with his right hand shading his right eye he proceeded to listen to me intently as if not to lose anything this new comrade might have to say.

Our conversation turned on the situation in England, particularly the labour leaders; who they were; their characteristics and the support they had amongst the workers; of the Whiteguard Russians abroad and their counter-revolutionary role.

Notwithstanding his assertion that he had not been able to follow events closely in England, he astonished me by taking down from his bookshelf some of the recent publications from England which he certainly had been reading, for example, Bertrand Russell’s Practice and Theory of Bolshevism and R.W. Postgate’s Revolution and Bolshevik Theory.

He enquired about Postgate, who he was, if a Party comrade, etc. (Postgate was then in our Party and sub-editor of our Party organ, The Communist. Subsequently, in 1923, he left the C.P.G.B. to collaborate with his father-in-law, George Lansbury, in the new Lansbury’s Weekly.)

With regard to Postgate’s book, Revolution, Lenin classed this as a mere catalogue of documents, important in themselves, but how much better, he thought, it would have been if the author had given us the material events of the respective periods, treating each period from the standpoint of the class struggle and knitting all the documents together.

We talked about the Trade Unions and the Labour Party and their relative strength and influence in the working-class movement; about our Communist Party, who was who, and its influence among the workers. Lenin was extremely interested in the miners’ movement, particularly in South Wales, and I promised to give him more information from time to time. On returning to my room I jotted down in detail everything that had transpired during our talk.

A few days afterwards (on August 7th) I sent Lenin a letter in keeping with my promise. In this letter I informed him about the Annual Conference of the South Wales Miners’ Federation and its decision to affiliate to the Third International.

These notes gave interesting details o the communal kitchens in Fifeshire among the miners, the manner in which the funds were raised by the workers; the support given by the local Co-operative movement, and the part played by the marines drafted into the colliery districts to quell strikes. I gave several particulars of how the workers fraternized with the sailors and expressed the hope that he would find them interesting. Lenin found such details sufficiently interesting as to write a reply almost by return. To this letter I sent another giving my views and some new information I had received. Almost immediately I left for England and our correspondence was interrupted. When. I returned in 1922 he was already ill. Here is the letter I received in full:—


“To Comrade Thomas Bell (Lux 154.)

Dear Comrade,

I thank you very much for your letter (dated 718)I have read nothing concerning the english movement last months because of my illness and overwork.

It is extremely interesting what you communicate. Perhaps it is the beginning of a real proletarian mass movement in Great Britain in the communist sense. I am afraid we have till now in England few very feeble propagandist societies for communism (inclusive the British Communist Party) but no really mass communist movement.

If the South Wales Miners’ Federation has decided on 24/VII to affiliate to the III. Int. [ernational] by a majority of 120 to 63—perhaps it is the beginning of a new era. (How much miners there are in England? More than 500,000?—25,000? How much in South Wales? How much miners were really represented in Cardiff, 24/VII, 1921?

If these miners are not too small minority, if they fraternize with soldiers and begin a real “class war,”—we must do all our possible to develop this movement and strengthen it.

Economic measures (like communal kitchens) are good but are not much important now, before the victory of the proletarian revolution in England. Now the political struggle is the most important.

English capitalists are shrewd, clever, astute. They will support (directly and indirectly) communal kitchens in order to divert the attention from political aims.

What is important,—is (if I am not mistaken)

1) To create a very good, really proletarian, really mass communist party in this part of England,—that is such party which will really be the leading force in all labour movement in this part of the country. (Apply the resolution on organization and work of the party adopted by the 3 congress to this part of your country).

2) To start a daily paper of the working class, for the working class in this part of the country.

To start it not as a business (as usually newspapers are started in capitalist countries), not with big sum of money, not in ordinary and usual manner,—but as an economic and political tool of the masses in their struggle.

Either the miners of this district are capable to pay halfpenny daily (for the beginning weekly, if you like) for their own daily (or weekly) newspaper (be it very small, it is not important)—or there is no beginning of the really communist mass movement in this part of your country.

If the Communist Party of this district cannot collect few in order to publish small leaflets daily as a beginning of the really proletarian communist newspaper—if it so, if every miner will not pay a penny for it, then there is not serious not genuine affiliation to the III. Int. [ernational].

English government will apply the shrewdest means in order to suppress every beginning of this kind. Therefore we must be (in the beginning) very prudent. The paper must be not too revolutionary in the beginning. If you will have three editors, at least one must be non-Communist x) (x) at least two genuine workers). If 9/10 of the workers do not buy this paper, if 2/3 workers (120/120 63) do not pay special contributions f. [or] i. [instance] 1 penny weekly) for their paper, it will be no workers’ newspaper.

I should be very glad to have few lines from you concerning this theme and beg to apologise for my bad English.

with communist greetings,

Lenin.”


As a matter of fact the C.P. was extremely weak then in South Wales. Amongst the miners there was a radical movement. Many trade union workers at that time were following the Russian Revolution with deep proletarian sympathy, but still not Communist. Lenin understood this. That is why he proposed the elementary step, though exceptionally important as far as the whole work of the Party was concerned, of starting a small paper to be published and maintained by those who were for support to the Third International. That this was not done was due primarily to the fact that this vote was not the result of a sustained Communist influence, to the feeble condition of the Party and its failure to grasp the political significance of such a measure. Indeed, it was not till nine years after, in 1930, that the Party was able to launch a national daily paper.

As for applying the organizational theses of the Third Congress of the C.I., it was not till the autumn of 1922 that a beginning was made to apply these theses. This work has still to be completed.

Lenin has left us a rich heritage in economic and political science, and in revolutionary literature, from which the English workers, and especially the Communists, should with great advantage study today and draw the necessary conclusions in the struggle for a Soviet Britain.