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International Socialism, September 1997


Judy Cox

A Light in the Darkness


From International Socialism 2:76, September 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Morgan Philips Price
Dispatches from the Revolution: Russia 1916–1918
Pluto Press 1997, £8.99

When revolution swept Russia in 1917, several foreign journalists were there to give inspiring accounts of it. Among these accounts, this volume of writings by Morgan Philips Price deserves a special place. Unlike many others, such as Victor Serge and John Reed, the Harrow and Cambridge educated Price was not a socialist when he went to Russia. His testimony as to the nature of the revolution is perhaps even more valuable than theirs: he did not report as he did because he was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks; he became a Bolshevik sympathiser because of what he saw and reported. As Eric Hobsbawm says in his brief foreword, the book is not just a history of the Russian Revolution, it is ‘a useful corrective to the post-Soviet reaction to it.’ [1]

Like Arthur Ransome, Price defended the Russian Revolution from the propaganda of hostile governments. Yet while Ransome only wanted ‘to see fair play’ done by the Russian government, Price decided to ‘sink or swim with the soviets’, and indeed the more he saw of the revolution, the more he committed himself to it, risking hardship, near starvation and the wrath of the British political establishment. [2] Shortly after the October Revolution he wrote of the miserable physical conditions in Russia, but added:

We are all compelled to provide one warm shirt and jacket for the revolutionary troops as a requisition without payment! We have got the dictatorship of the proletariat with a vengeance this time! But I rub my hands and chuckle with glee. May the day soon come when the proletariat of Western Europe does the same. [3]

Many of the articles collected here, some written for the Manchester Guardian and some personal letters, are published for the first time. They give a perspective on the revolution which is unique in two ways. Firstly, Price travelled very widely in Russia, from Georgia and the Volga, to Turkestan and central Asia, and was able to give an unforgettable picture of the diversity of the revolution. Secondly, Price was a fly on the wall at crucial debates and had a brilliant ability to grasp changes in the consciousness of the masses. His writings are full of what he called the ‘only true voice of Russia’, and give an authentic flavour of the political debates that went on in every town and village across the country.

The furthest reaches of the revolution

After suffering years of bloody war and repression, Price, along with millions of others, celebrated the February Revolution and the Tsar’s abdication. He wrote:

[The] whole country is wild with joy, waving red flags and singing Marseillaise. It has surpassed my wildest dreams and I can hardly believe it is true. After two and a half years of mental suffering and darkness I at last begin to see light. [4]

Two days later, Price noted how deeply the revolution had penetrated the oppressed masses of Russia. He reported from a mass gathering of people from across the Caucasus, called to mark the end of the Tsar’s reign. It was a meeting which gave a glimpse of how the hopes roused by the revolution could unite people across ancient ethnic and religious divides. Price was deeply moved by the transformation he witnessed:

Here had assembled almost every element in the multiracial population of this part of the empire. There were wild mountain tribes, Lesgians, Avars, Chechens and Swanetians in their long black cloaks and sheepskin caps. In the recesses of the Caucasus range, where their homes lie, the eddies of the waves of revolution had swept ... For years they have been sunk in apathy, fatalism and scepticism, and their racial feuds have been purposely fomented by the old government. Now the flood of their combined intellect and energy had burst forth and broken the rotten banks of privilege and oppression. I felt as I looked on that crowd that I was in the presence of a great physical phenomenon. The spirit of Demos had suddenly risen out of a multitude of suppressed personalities, and had appeared in the form of the great concourse of medieval mountaineers and 20th century proletariat, all inspired by one idea – brotherhood and freedom. [5]

In the late summer and autumn of 1917, after a visit to Petrograd, Price was off on his travels again. What he reported in those few months is very important for socialists seeking to defend the legacy of the Russian Revolution. Contrary to the long standing academic fashion for acknowledging that the February Revolution was a legitimate, spontaneous revolution, but then arguing that the October Revolution was a Bolshevik-inspired coup, lacking majority support, Price notes how life in rural Russia during these months was dominated by two great, and at times competing, tendencies. The first was desperation, starvation, and utter war weariness, all resulting from the failure of the post-February Provisional government to bring peace or redistribute land to the peasantry.

The second tendency was a growing spirit of hope and solidarity generated by the revolution which was deepening and spreading to the remotest areas of Russia. Price’s stories demonstrate how the movement for change continued to intensify among the masses long after February. In Samara, for example, Price met some most unlikely rebels:

The revolution had penetrated into the sacred precincts of the monastery; the monks had gone on strike and had turned out the abbot, who had gone off whining to the Holy Synod ... On enquiry into the ideas entertained by the monks for developing their little revolution, I found that they had already entered into an arrangement with the local peasantry. They were to keep enough land for themselves to work, and the rest was to go into the local commune. [6]

Price has a brilliant eye for the kind of details which demonstrate how profoundly the revolution touched every area of life. Visiting the Volga River, he noted the changes among the Muslim Tartar women. He points out that the women’s movement started after the 1905 Revolution, which led to women abandoning their veils. After the February Revolution, the women elected their own delegates to the first All-Russian Muslim Conference, where they passed a motion condemning polygamy and inheritance laws. To Price it appears that the ‘Muslim women are socially the equals of men and have at last shaken off from themselves the shackles of sex tyranny’. [7]

October: how the Bolsheviks gained ascendency

Price’s account of Russia provides more than inspiring examples of the potential of revolution to overcome oppression. His sharp observations of key figures and events in the revolution, and the dynamics of the revolutionary process itself, flatly contradict right wing interpretations of the Russian Revolution. First, Price sheds light on the demise of the Provisional government, which some historians claim was the legitimate government of Russia, overthrown by the unrepresentative Bolsheviks. The Provisional government was dominated by the bourgeois Cadet Party and supported by the Petrograd Soviet, on the understanding that both shared a policy that peace should be made on the basis of no annexations and of respecting the rights of nations to self determination. But when Price interviewed the Provisional government’s minister of foreign affairs, the Cadet Miliukov, he insisted that Russia would not accept peace unless it was granted the annexation of Constantinople, which meant the hated war dragging on. When the content of Price’s interview became known there was a tremendous outcry, with demonstrations and riots against the war. Price recognised that far from having broad-based support, ‘The bourgeois Provisional government, left high and dry, had nothing to rest upon. The old regime was gone; the vast masses of workers, soldiers and peasants had no confidence in them and were organising themselves and working out their own programmes’. [8]

Miliukov was forced to resign, but the government itself was saved by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) who agreed to enter into a coalition with the Cadets. The Mensheviks and SRs argued that because Russia was so undeveloped it would only be possible to have a bourgeois revolution. On that basis, they sought to compromise with the bourgeoisie to limit the scope of the revolution. At first Price had some sympathy with the Mensheviks and SRs. He showed great admiration for Kerensky, a Socialist Revolutionary who became president of the Provisional government, and approved of his tactics: ‘Seeing the danger of a full proletariat revolution in an economically undeveloped and unorganised country, they had stood for a policy of temporary conciliation between the masses and the capitalists.’

During the next few months, however, it became increasingly obvious to everyone that such a compromise was unacceptable both to the masses, who nearly made an insurrection in July, and to the capitalists, who supported General Kornilov’s attempt to overthrow the government. Price did not witness these events at first hand because he was touring Russia, but he grasped the shift in consciousness that Kornilov’s attempted coup generated among the workers and peasants. The Kornilov coup exposed both the right wing’s plans to overthrow the revolution, and exposed Kerensky, who was ‘either unwilling or unable to stand courageously against these counter-revolutionary plots’. Price realised that the attempted military coup undermined all the Provisional government’s efforts at effecting a compromise between the bourgeoisie and the working classes. He wrote, ‘The masses in the country won’t endure a coalition government which betrays the revolution behind their backs any longer.’ He also noted how support was shifting quickly in favour of the Bolsheviks who had proved that they could defend the revolution: ‘Lack of confidence in the Provisional government is everywhere expressed even among the moderate members of the revolutionary democracy. The councils are becoming more and more Maximalist [Bolshevik] in their composition. Since the Kornilov rebellion they have demanded that all power should go into their hands ...’ [9]

Price explains how it was that the polarisation in Russian society undermined the Provisional government, not Bolshevik plots. The Mensheviks and SRs in the Provisional government espoused the politics of compromise and were therefore doomed to vacillate and dither while those they sought to reconcile grew further and further apart. In an article printed on 20 November 1917, he explained how the second Provisional government, involving the Mensheviks and SRs, fell because it stood between two increasingly divided class and could meet the aspirations of the neither:

The government of M. Kerensky fell before the Bolsheviks insurgents because it had no supporters in the country. The bourgeois parties and the generals of the Staff dislike it because it would not establish a military dictatorship. The revolutionary democracy lost faith in it because after eight months it had neither given land to the peasants nor established state control of industries nor advanced the cause of the Russian peace programme ... The Bolsheviks acquired great support all over the country. In my journey in the provinces in September and October I noticed that every local soviet had been captured by them. [10]

It is equally mistaken to think that the October Revolution involved only a small number of workers capturing a few military positions and nothing more. In chapter six of Dispatches, which is taken from his Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution, Price gives a memorable account of the days of the October Revolution. He shows the paralysis and depression of the Mensheviks and the contrastingly resolute plans executed by the Bolsheviks. He gives a sense of the atmosphere, the rumours of counter-revolutionary plots, the debates at the Second Soviet Congress and the first long-awaited decrees granting land to the peasants, control of industry to the workers and the immediate armistice. Price’s experiences reveal time and time again that this was above all a revolution from below, a revolution carried through by the majority, not through the military prowess or duplicity of a minority. He recalled:

It was already clear to me that the Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee was not in control of an army in the ordinary sense of the word. The Red Guard detachments were very largely independent of one another, electing their own commanders and removing them whenever the rank and file saw fit ... Hunger and hatred of wage slavery alone bound them together with a band of iron. [11]

Nor was the revolutionary activity limited to the great metropolitan centres. Price writes of how, in the first few days after the October Revolution, news trickled in to Petrograd from the length and breadth of the great Russian plain. Far from being aloof from the insurrection, Price discovered that in some areas of central Russia local soviets anticipated events in Petrograd. He concluded that what the Bolsheviks did in Petrograd was only a reflection of similar actions taking place in different forms and situations across Russia.

Contemporary commentators frequently criticise the Bolsheviks for weakening support for the revolution by attempting to rule without the other working class parties. This argument was raised in the days immediately following the revolution, when few thought the Soviet government could survive. Price recalls meeting a Menshevik in the street:

’The Bolsheviks have made a great mistake in seizing power by these methods,’ he said, ‘They cannot possibly hold it unless the moderate democratic parties come to their aid.’ This view of a Russian progressive intellectual was very similar to those of outside observers at this time ... On the following day, however, there was a different feeling in the air. It seemed as if there was, for the first time for many months, a political force in the country that knew what it wanted. This was clearly reflected in the common talk in the streets. Outside the Circus Modern a large crowd had assembled for a meeting at which delegates from the Soviet Congress were going to speak ... No word was said about the violent methods by which the Bolsheviks had come into power. The deeds which shocked the tender feelings of the intellectual did not trouble the realist politician of the street. Would they be able to bring food to the towns and bring an end to the war? That was the question being asked. The Tsar’s government could not do it, nor could Kerensky’s. ‘Give these people a chance,’ were the words I heard coming from all sides ... [12]

This account of the political atmosphere in Petrograd during the October Revolution shows how the failure of alternatives based on compromise and parliamentary institutions led to people choosing the Bolsheviks, as opposed to the Bolsheviks eliminating all possible alternatives. Neither did the Bolsheviks choose their isolation. The Bolsheviks did join a coalition with Left SRs, until the Left SRs resorted to terrorism to try and block the Brest-Litovsk treaty. Price points out that this was much regretted by the Bolsheviks: ‘Now the Bolsheviks are quite alone, and upon them rests the superhuman task of bearing the cross of the revolution against the armed camps of Europe until the democracies of other lands awake’. [13]

Running through Price’s anecdotes and descriptions is a growing awareness that the deep polarisation in Russian society created a crisis which the old political institutions were incapable of resolving. He briefly develops this point in relation to the Bolsheviks’ controversial disbanding of the long-awaited Constituent Assembly. While Price is dubious about some of the Bolsheviks’s tactics, he does explain that the deep class divisions would inevitably undermine the authority of the Constituent Assembly, which would, ‘reflect these bitter divisions in a concentrated form’. In addition, Price gives further evidence of the point made before in International Socialism, namely that the Constituent Assembly had no popular support among the majority of Russian society who knew that the soviets were far more effective. [14] Price notes, ‘The soldiers, sailors, and workers regard their syndicates or soviets as the sole authority which they will respect’. [15]

Finally, Price is very interesting in his assessment of the role Lenin and the Bolsheviks played during the revolution. Initially Price, like many since, thought them fanatical demagogues, and reported their growing support only grudgingly. In the autumn of 1917 he noted, ‘The Maximalist fanatics, who still dream of the social revolution throughout all Europe, have, according to my observations in the provinces, recently acquired an immense, if amorphous following’. [16] Yet within months, Price had a glimpse of the power of the Soviet government to solve problems, to create new methods of organising new institutions, as well as overthrowing the old ones. His growing recognition of the role that the Bolsheviks played was strengthened when Lenin supported signing the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty despite its punitive terms, in a desperate attempt to buy time for rebuilding Russia. Price recognised that Lenin could take responsibility for hard decisions if the future of the revolution was at stake.

Price asserted time and time again that the hardship and near starvation experienced by the Russians was a result of the savagery of the Allied blockade and the disruption of the civil war, not the policies of the Soviet government. He became so involved in the revolution that he was employed by the Soviet government to produce revolutionary paper in English, The Call. His first job was to translate an appeal by Lenin to Allied troops landing in Russia, to be distributed by aeroplane. By July 1918 Price had decided that Lenin was the ‘most courageous statesman in Europe at present and history will, I believe, put him as one of the greatest brains of the period’. [17]

This book is a brilliant supplement to other histories of the Russian Revolution. It illustrates the experiences of revolution, which transformed Morgan Philips Price the English country gentleman, into Morgan Philips Price the passionate advocate of the socialist revolution. When he left Russia, he went with the approval of the Soviet government to report on the focus of Russia’s hopes, the German Revolution. Price joined the British Communist Party in 1922, but became disillusioned with the policies of the Comintern and left in 1924. Although Price eventually became a Labour MP, he never repudiated the experiences that had so moved him as a young man – he never lost sight of the significance of the Russian Revolution and the great hopes for peace and liberation that it inspired. A few weeks before his death in 1973 he wrote, ‘Naturally I see things more in perspective today but I do not in the least belittle what I saw and wrote then. I still regard the Russian Revolution as the most important thing that had happened at that period of time’. [18]


1. M. Philips Price, Dispatches from the Revolution: Russia 1916–18 (Pluto Press 1917), p. xii.

2. The hardship was very real. A visiting journalist who met Price in 1917 described him as ‘emaciated’. Price’s reports were heavily censored by the British establishment, firstly because they were critical of conditions and anti-Semitism in Tsarist Russia, and later because they were so critical of Allied intervention. He was threatened with arrest under the Defence of the Realm Act several times and was actually imprisoned for a few days in Germany.

3. M. Philips Price, op. cit., p. 110.

4. Ibid., p. 30.

5. Ibid., pp. 31–32.

6. Ibid., p. 61.

7. Ibid., p. 74.

8. Ibid., p. 44.

9. Ibid., p. 55.

10. Ibid., p. 88.

11. Ibid., pp. 97–98.

12. Ibid., p. 94.

13. Ibid., p. 136.

14. See J. Rees, In Defence of October, International Socialism 52, p. 24. Now reprinted in book form (Bookmarks 1997).

15. M. Philips Price, op. cit., p. 107.

16. Ibid., p. 108.

17. Ibid., p. 137.

18. Ibid., p. 155.

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