The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter VIII: Britain and the Russian Revolution

The February Revolution, which deposed Tsar Nicholas II, won almost universal approval among British politicians. On 22 March 1917, Parliament sent fraternal greetings to the new Provisional Government. The motion was moved by Bonar Law, a prominent Conservative and Leader of the House. Members from all sides echoed his sentiments. And the Prime Minister, speaking a few days earlier, welcomed what was described as ‘one of the landmarks in the history of the world’. Lloyd George regarded the revolution as ‘the first great triumph of the principle for which we entered the war... the cause of human freedom’. [1]

British politicians did not express such praise without good reason. They expected great things from the Russian Provisional Government. The old Tsarist regime — corrupt, inefficient and unpopular — failed to fight the German army effectively. Inept Russian generals squandered millions of lives in pointless battles. It was thought that the new government, having much greater mass support, would be able to mobilise effective resources for the war effort. The new regime would be an asset politically, too. The Tsarist government had been an embarrassment to Allies striving to depict themselves as struggling for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, while having the most grotesque despot in Europe on their side. Now Russia appeared to be moving in the direction of a Western-style democracy. Allied propaganda would be more credible.

There were economic grounds, too, for welcoming the political changes in Petrograd. British businessmen and financiers had invested large sums of money in Russia and vast mineral wealth and productive resources still remained to be tapped. The big obstacle to further profitable investment had been the old regime, which did little to promote economic growth. Now Tsarism had been swept aside, the door seemed open to foreign capitalists bent on lucrative opportunities. As Brigadier-General GC Poole, writing from Russia, told the Foreign Office:

The great advantage of works in Russia is that there is a home market which would take up all the output. I am of the opinion that many large manufacturers in Great Britain would be only too glad to expand their businesses into Russia, if only they could have the active support of the government. [2]

Optimism in London’s official circles waned as it became clear that the Provisional Government was losing command of the situation. The February Revolution, a re-shuffle of the top echelons of society, had done nothing to alter harsh reality. Backward Russia continued the unequal battle with the sophisticated German war machine. Tensions within Russia mounted, and the people, denied the basic necessities of life, clamoured for peace, land and bread. With this agitation, the Bolsheviks grew in influence — and the Provisional Government became increasingly unpopular.

Whitehall did what it could to arrest this process. The material aid that could be spared for Russia was strictly limited. The main form of help was ideological. Speakers and publications went to Russia, and forged copies of Pravda were printed in London for use against the Bolsheviks. [3] In July 1917, it was proposed that the British government should step up this kind of intervention. Two million pounds were to be spent in the first three months, with an extra half million every month after that, in the attempt to shore up the Provisional Government. [4] But these efforts proved to be of no avail: they did not halt the Provisional Government’s fall from popularity, the erosion of the centre and the polarisation of political forces. Confronted with the alternative of military dictatorship or Soviet power, British officials favoured the army. A desperate communication sent from Lord Milner, visiting Russia, to the Prime Minister on 8 September 1917, told Lloyd George:

General Knox is here, greatly perturbed about Russia. He thinks the situation almost desperate, the last chance being Kornilov... Time is short if anything is to be done to help him. [5]

The Times editorial took the same line, favouring the destruction, by Kornilov’s ‘savage divisions’, of the Soviets:

A self-constituted organisation of idealists, theorists, anarchists, syndicalists, who are largely of the international Jew-type, who have hardly any working men or soldiers among them, and some of whom are known to be in the German pay. [6]

If the Soviets were such a collection of oddities, it is difficult to explain how they had enough cohesion and unity of purpose to seize power. Conservative-minded readers, however, did not worry themselves unduly with this problem: newspapers assured them that the Bolshevik Revolution was like a freak summer storm, unexpected and unpleasant but not likely to last. On the day after the revolution, the Morning Post reported: ‘The followers of Lenin have usurped power in Petrograd, but they have given no evidence that they represent Russia as a whole, and it is questionable if they will survive.’ [7]

As it became clear that Bolshevik control was more firm than had been thought, the press changed its tone to one of alarm. The Manchester Guardian feared that Bolshevik propaganda for peace could spread the virus of revolutionary ideas among the combatants of both sides. [8] The Times expressed disquiet about the expropriation of wealth:

The new government, or, as it is styled, the Council of Commissioners of the People, gave the world a sample of the legislation with which it proposes to regenerate Russia. The main features of the series of enactments are the spoilation of one class and the transference of its property to another. [9]

Between February and October 1917, the British government’s attitude to events in Russia was transformed from euphoria to dismay. A similar change occurred in the Parliamentary Labour Party, which had long acquired the habit of agreeing with the government on questions of fundamental principle. The feeling that the representatives of British workers could best speak to the representatives of Russian workers led the Labour Party to resolve, in March 1917, on a delegation to Russia. Lloyd George and his colleagues welcomed the news. [10] It would help to inspire the Russian Provisional Government’s war effort and perhaps banish thoughts of a separate peace. As a gesture of goodwill, FE Smith, the Attorney-General, gave one of the delegation, Will Thorne, his magnificent fur coat so he might better withstand the rigours of the Russian climate. This caused a storm of disapproval in left-wing circles. For some time, Smith had spearheaded the government’s repressive policy against militants and had recently put the prosecution case at the notorious trial of Mrs Wheeldon (see Chapter VI). On many factory floors, it was suggested that Smith and Thorne had much more in common than the sharing of an expensive coat. [11]

In Russia, some folk held the same view. Thorne and his two companions were once accused of being British government spies. But they were able to tour Russia extensively, and probably, on balance, helped the Allied cause. When they returned to Britain, both the Prime Minister and the King were anxious for reports. [12] Lloyd George must have considered the expedition worthwhile for he decided to seek Labour Party assistance on another mission to Russia. Over the years, the British ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, had become well known for his close and friendly relations with the Tsarist regime. In the changed circumstances, this made him ‘no longer the ideal British representative’. The Cabinet, therefore, asked Arthur Henderson ‘to make a personal sacrifice and go to Petrograd’. [13]

Henderson’s main task was to counteract Bolshevik propaganda. He addressed meetings in Russia, telling his audiences that British workers thoroughly backed their government’s resolve to fight the war until final victory was achieved. He did score some successes. At Petrograd, he told a crowd of 5000 that he had lost his son at the front. The meeting was so moved that the entire audience rose to its feet to sing the Russian Requiem. Proceedings ended, according to The Times’ report, with ‘a scene of indescribable enthusiasm. Men and women, moved to tears, demanded a general mobilisation, and cries of: “We all are ready to march against the foe."’ [14] Elsewhere, Henderson’s call to arms did not strike such a responsive chord. One reason was that Russians were becoming increasingly suspicious of the role both he and his French counterpart, Albert Thomas, were playing in the Russian Revolution. In a speech reported in Pravda, Lenin sought to expose their activities. He described them as:

... partisans of the ‘union sacrée’, a principle forged by the enemies of the working class who have ensnared to their side the labour aristocracy. Whoever extends his hand to Henderson or Thomas extends it as well to Lloyd George and Ribot, to the English and French bankers. [15]

Lenin called them ‘bourgeois-trained socialists’.

A hostile reception greeted Henderson when he addressed the Moscow Workers and Soldiers Council. Critics pointed out that his political opinions bore a close resemblance to those of the Russian workers’ class enemies. In reply, Henderson said ‘that if the Russian bourgeoisie held the same point of view as the English workers the latter were not to blame’. [16] It appears that the Workers and Soldiers Council remained unconvinced.

One reason why Henderson had visited Russia was to persuade Russian socialists not to send representatives to a conference to be held in Stockholm. It was being organised by the Dutch Social Democrats. Delegations from belligerent countries on both sides would, it was hoped, attend. But this was anathema to the Labour Party: to fraternise with the enemy was wrong, even if the enemy were fellow social democrats. The Labour Party suggested that a conference should be held in London, which only social democrats from Allied countries would be permitted to attend. At first, Henderson put forward this line. But when he saw the quickening process of military and political disintegration, he changed his mind. To attend the Stockholm conference might, he thought, help to bolster the dwindling fortunes of the Provisional Government. Kerensky and his fellow ministers had to appear to be desirous of peace if they were to retain sufficient popular support for continuing the war.

In the deteriorating political situation, Henderson experienced an increasing estrangement. Admittedly, in the upper section of Russian society his message still was well-received. He was able to report to the Prime Minister: ‘I have noticed a distinctly more reasonable tone appearing in conversation with business men since I have been here.’ [17] Yet, this was poor compensation for the widening gulf between himself and the Russian masses. Henderson found himself in a state of complete non-comprehension. As Bruce Lockhart, the acting British Consul-General in Moscow, wrote: ‘The comrades in the Soviets bewildered him. He did not understand their language. He did not like their manners.’ [18] So unreasonable were the Bolsheviks that they broke into his hotel and stole his papers to investigate his links with the British government. His humiliation was complete when they ‘liberated’ his clothes! Without doubt, Bruce Lockhart was right when he said that the Russian assignment ‘had the advantage of curing Mr Henderson of any revolutionary tendencies for the rest of his life’. [19]

Of course, it is doubtful whether Henderson — or the Labour Party — were ever even warmed by the spark of revolution. To the majority of the official leaders of British working-class organisations, the October Revolution in Russia was a complete disaster. Ramsay MacDonald told his Leicester constituents that Lenin led a party of ‘thoughtless anarchists... whose minds were filled with violence and hatred’. [20] Philip Snowden described the October Revolution as ‘tragic indeed’, and the Independent Labour Party was at pains to explain it did not accept Bolshevik methods. [21] Henry M Hyndman, still considering himself a Marxist, wrote an article, ‘Why We Must Repudiate the Bolsheviks’, for the Sunday Pictorial:

I am proud to state that I can reckon most of the leading revolutionaries of Europe and Asia among my friends. But they, in all their uprisings against abominable tyranny were never guilty of such crimes as those which Lenin and Trotsky and the Bolsheviks generally are committing... Democracy and Socialism are now endangered by their conduct. [22]

Probably the most outspoken condemnation came from Jimmy Thomas, the railwaymen’s leader. He thought that the Bolsheviks’ tyranny was more terrible than the Tsar’s; the Kaiser was morally superior to Lenin. [23]

Support for the Bolsheviks in Britain was sparse. Only the Workers Socialist Federation and the Socialist Labour Party gave the October Revolution a complete and unreserved blessing, and tried to assist the Bolsheviks by their own revolutionary activities in this country. Although news from Russia was fragmentary and sometimes false, their journals sought to sift through the information and arrive at a Marxist analysis. While this was wrong on some points, limited in others, it nevertheless remains a remarkable testimony to the acuity with which British revolutionaries were able to judge developments in another land.

In April 1917, The Socialist included a special supplement on the Russian Revolution. The main article attempted to assess the significance of what had happened:

Insofar as the Russian Revolution has cleared away the paraphernalia of medieval feudalism, it is a glorious step in social evolution and as such all socialists welcome it: but across the triumph of Russian capitalism there looms the spectre of International Socialism.

It went on to cite what it considered the main needs to be learnt from the Russian Revolution: (i) for industrial organisation to secure the control of industry, (ii) for political action to wrench the state from the capitalists’ grasp, (iii) for the press to be controlled by the workers, and (iv) for educational classes to equip comrades for agitational work.

The same issue of The Socialist contained a report from George Chicherin, a Russian refugee living in London, who was later to join the Soviet government and become its Foreign Minister. He described what happened at a mass meeting in the Great Assembly Hall, Mile End Road, which, attended by Russian refugees and others, celebrated the downfall of Tsarism:

It was an unforgettable demonstration of enthusiasm, unbounded joy and revolutionary feeling. Over 7000 persons were present, and many thousands were unable to get in and had to go away... again and again delirious outbursts of boundless enthusiasm filled the immense hall.

Chicherin also published a resolution which had been passed by the Russian Socialist Group on 17 March 1917. This warned of misrepresentation in the British press, which depicted the Russian revolutionaries as wanting the war to continue. It castigated the British Labour leaders for trying ‘to utilise the revolutionary movement in Russia for the interests of the Entente’. It also said that ‘the establishment of the bourgeois parliamentary regime in Russia demands from the class-conscious proletariat of Russia the more urgent straining of all its forces... against capitalism, against war and for Socialism’.

The June 1917 edition of The Socialist contained an article, ‘Socialism or Jingoism’, by Lenin, ‘the famous Russian socialist leader of the revolutionary section in the Council of Workmen and Soldiers’ Delegates’. Translated by Alexander Sirnis, it attacked the social patriots, citing as examples MacDonald in Britain, Millerand in France, and the majority of the SPD in Germany. In the same issue, the editor commented on the famous ‘sealed train’ journey made by Lenin and other Bolshevik exiles from Switzerland through Germany and on to Russia. He pointed out that the Allies had done everything within their power to see that Plekhanov and the social patriots living abroad could quickly return to Russia while, at the same time, they impeded revolutionaries wanting to return. Lenin, Zinoviev and the rest were correct in seizing their opportunity, said The Socialist.

The August editorial warned that the Russian people’s newly-won freedom was being threatened by ‘Russian and Allied Capital... playing a sinister game’. It went on to say:

If the Soldiers’ and Workmen’s Councils are to be a success, they must be revolutionary, not reformist. They must breathe freedom, not stale politics and futile palliatives. They must be live revolutionary organisations of the rank and file, not wire-pulling things of officials and would-be leaders.

The September issue of The Socialist contained another article by Lenin, this time ‘The Progress of the Russian Revolution’. The following month the SLP made its assessment on the position, trying as well to relate events in Russia to politics in Britain. The salient points made were as follows:

1. The forces that were united in the struggle against Tsarism were not united on other issues.

2. ‘The bourgeoisie in Russia are weak. Most of the capital in Russia is of Franco-British origin. This is why the imperialist aims of Miliukov — the incarnation of the bourgeoisie — are identical with the aims of the Allies.’

3. ‘The peasants, who form the right wing of the Russian labour movement, desire the break-up of the feudal land and its collective redistribution.’

4. It was no accident that the Provisional Government linked its military offensive against the German army with hurling slanders at Lenin and the industrial workers: ‘The greatest obstacle in the way of the capitalist class was the uncompromising attitude taken up by the Maximalists led by Lenin. This movement, the real socialist group, realised the true international working-class position. It does not aim at the immediate establishment of Socialism, which at present is impossible in such an economically backward country as Russia; but it sought to use its power to strike a blow for international peace and to win the maximum concessions possible for the Russian workers.’

6. Capitalists both in Russia and abroad thought the Maximalists could easily be strangled. But not so: ‘The Maximalists struck terror into the hearts of imperialists: Lenin and the Maximalists had to be crushed.’

7. ‘True to its universal character of subtle hypocrisy, the capitalist class charged Lenin with being a recipient of German gold and in league with the Kaiser. In the conspiracy every renegade of the labour movement, from the editor of Clarion upwards, had a hand.’

8. Kornilov attempted to capture the state ‘in order to restore order and subdue the workers. Here we observe the historic function of the state — a point we recommend to Mr Ramsay MacDonald and his middle-class friends.’ (This is a reference to a recent ILP policy statement which declared the state was not an instrument of class rule; it represented ‘the well-being of the community’.)

9. ‘The reason why the capitalist press of the Allies has so fiercely attacked the regimental and army committees of the soldiers is because those committees pledge the soldiers not to give up either their arms or ammunition to any other bodies than the workers’ own committees!’ (Order No 1, Section 5 of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Committee) This order anticipated and prevented the possibility of the troops being disarmed in the Petrograd area and being left helpless before the much-vaunted ‘savage divisions’ of Kornilov and his propertied supporters.

10. General Lukovsky, threatened with insurrection by his soldiers, says he will let in the enemy: ‘Let there be no mistake about it, the Russian and Allied propertied interests would much rather see the minions of the Kaiser safely entrenched in Petrograd than the property-less workers of Russia. Yet, in the face of these facts, there are independent Labour pacifists in this country, spoon-fed with middle-class sap, who deny the existence of the class struggle.’ It was President Thiers, of France, who sought the aid of Bismarck to crush the Parisian workers in 1871.

11: ‘The press of this country praised Kornilov in his attempt to establish a dictatorship of property owners upon the massacre of the workers. Did not The Times — the echo of the government and high finance in this country — say that “ruthlessness would be better than weakness"? Let the British workers ponder over these words. They reveal to what depths British capitalism will descend in the struggle against labour. They prove that those sentimental and independent labourists who declaim against the class war are dangerously stupid regarding the intentions of capital.’

In the opinion of The Socialist, the events in Russia ‘vindicated the policy and tactics of the SLP’. Often it referred to Lenin and the Bolsheviks as ‘our Russian comrades’, and there was no attempt to conceal the fact that the SLP agreed with what they were doing. When the Provisional Government was overthrown, The Socialist expressed its jubilation under the heading ‘Hail Revolutionary Socialist Russia’, and went on to analyse this momentous event:

The affairs in Russia have proved mysterious to many people. This is due to the fact that, while Russia has carried through a revolution, it has been accomplished in a country at a low stage of capitalist development. The great driving force in the revolution was the clear-sighted working class. But the Russian workers were educated by the International Socialist Movement. That is to say that the social theories of the Maximalists have been furnished by close examination of history and of the higher developed capitalist countries. Clear-sighted students of history like Lenin are aware what the Cromwellian revolution did for English workers. They know that the moment the middle-class revolutionaries destroyed the monarchy they sought to stamp out the only movement in that revolution which had any bona fide democratic pretensions — the Levellers. Likewise in France, when the French middle class triumphed over the feudal regime, it next directed its attention to crushing the modest demands of the working class. History clearly shows that when any propertied class accomplishes a revolution, it becomes conservative from the moment it gains the reins of government.

When, therefore, the socialist workmen of Russia threw in their lot and assisted in destroying Tsarism, it was not with the intention of placing the capitalist and landlord class — the Milyukovs and Kornilovs — in power unconditionally. Our Russian comrades know their history, and they know what capitalism means. They therefore formulated a series of demands which they insisted upon being put into operation. First and foremost among these demands was the stopping of the war. To that end, they repudiated the undoubted imperialist aims of the Allies. [24]

The October Revolution clarified British politics, just as the February Revolution had blurred political differences. It took courage to back the Bolsheviks with words and deeds, whereas almost everyone could, with comfortable conscience, applaud the downfall of Tsarism. The wide diversity of people who supported the February Revolution was shown in Britain on a number of occasions, but never more vividly than at the Leeds Convention of June 1917. This convention has become part of the mythology of the Labour Left and of the Communist Party. Veteran CPGB historian Robin Page Arnot wrote a few years ago: ‘The convention was a great success.’ [25] Many other historians have endorsed this verdict.

A closer examination leads to a different conclusion. Called to express the support of the British working class for the Russian Revolution, the convention had a key resolution moved by Ramsay MacDonald. The second resolution, declaring the convention’s support for ‘the foreign policy and the war aims of the Russian Provisional Government’, was proposed by Philip Snowden and seconded by EC Fairchild of the British Socialist Party. A further motion, calling for the creation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Britain, was moved by WC Anderson, an ILP Member of Parliament.

In essence, most of the leading spokesmen of the Leeds Convention were right-wing politicians on holiday, indulging in the rare luxury of revolutionary speechifying. From their standpoint, this fitted the needs of the times. By adopting a left posture, they hoped to increase their own credibility among British workers, who were becoming more and more disgruntled. With an extremist stance they aimed to steal the thunder of the real militants, retain control of working-class organisations, and steer the movement into harmless channels. In fact, Anderson had already given the game away. More significant than his speech to the Leeds Convention was the warning he had given to Parliament three weeks earlier:

I have been very much astonished indeed, in visiting various places recently, at seeing a feeling springing up in this country which I did not believe possible — that is, a deep revolutionary feeling springing up among many of the workmen of this country... I do assure you that you will be astonished and, unless you are very careful, you will bring the country to the very verge of revolution. Only a week ago, I saw 70,000 people — the estimate was made not by any Labour people, but by one of the local newspapers — march through the streets of Glasgow with bands and banners, every one of the members of that procession wearing the revolutionary colours. [26]

In moving the motion calling for workers’ and soldiers’ councils, WC Anderson MP was not hoping to create the basis for Soviet power — far from it: Anderson’s aim was to nip in the bud any movement in that direction.

In foreign as well as home affairs, right-wing politicians believed that it could be possible to make tangible gains from a few leftish phrases. By sending congratulations to the Russians and by appearing to be genuine revolutionaries themselves, MacDonald and his friends thought it might give them greater influence with the Russians. They hoped it would make the task of Henderson, Thorne and the other Labour politicians who journeyed to Russia, just that bit more easy. But this did not occur: the Russians, aware that it was merely left posturing, became even more suspicious.

The SLP and WSF also understood the role of these parliamentary gentlemen: that they wanted the Leeds Convention to be a first-rate theatrical performance, full of socialist sound and fury but signifying nothing. Nevertheless, this did not mean revolutionaries ought to dismiss the convention out of hand. Sylvia Pankhurst realised that the 1150 delegates included many who were seeking the left alternative; to adopt an abstentionist attitude would leave them at the mercy of MacDonald and his colleagues. [27] So the revolutionaries not only participated in the proceedings at Leeds, but followed up by using what pressure they had to call for the setting up of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Perhaps, they reasoned, revolutionary life might yet be breathed into what would otherwise be a still-born project.

Significantly, the fear that something capable of threatening the existence of the capitalist social order might arise as a result of the Leeds Convention troubled even His Majesty King George V. And, ironically, it was Will Thorne, an ex-militant gas worker, taught to read and write by the daughter of Karl Marx, who performed the role of King’s Comforter:

The King seemed greatly disturbed about the famous Leeds conference and asked me if I knew anything about it. I said, ‘Yes, I know all about it. I've read all the proceedings.’ I also told him about the telegram that had been sent from the conference that made the Russians think we were spies, and he was amused at my story of some of the incidents that had happened over the message.

‘Do you think any ill will come from this conference at Leeds and the decisions that were made there?’, the King asked me. ‘No’, I said; ‘I've seen these things happen many times before in days gone by, and in my humble judgement there will never be a physical violent revolution in this country. But there will have to be many political and industrial changes within the course of the next few years.’

This seemed to relieve his mind, and he spoke to me in a most homely and pleasant way. I was very pleased. [28]

Not only the King, but others in the top echelons of society, had misgivings about the Leeds Convention: even shadow-boxing sometimes develops into the real thing. By accident, a peaceful demonstration in Petrograd led by the police agent Father Gapon sparked off the 1905 Russian Revolution. How could one be sure that similar untoward events might not arise from even playing around with the notion of workers’ and soldiers’ councils? Was there not a danger that the leadership, at present in the hands of innocuous ‘moderates’ like MacDonald and Snowden, might slip into other, revolutionary, claws? The authorities resolved to act.

The committee appointed by the Leeds Convention made plans for further meetings. Six regional conferences were to be held, as well as a national conference in London’s Memorial Hall, Farringdon Road. The police had other ideas. They persuaded the owners of the public halls to cancel the bookings at short notice. Where this could not be done — in Glasgow, for example — they invoked the Defence of the Realm Act and simply forbade the conference. The meetings of the Lancashire, Cheshire and North Wales committee were to have been held in the Milton Hall, Manchester. When the ban was imposed, it took place in the Stockport Labour Church. Similarly, when the London committee was denied the Memorial Hall, it switched to the Brotherhood Hall in the East End. But Sir Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch, arranged for a reception party to meet the delegates. Leaflets announcing that a pro-German meeting was taking place were issued, and they urged East Enders to: ‘Remember the last air raid and roll up.’ [29]

The police seem to have gained the cooperation of the Army, which sent along loyally patriotic soldiers. Gleefully, Sir Basil wrote in his diary on 27 July: ‘They will have a rude awakening tomorrow, as I have arranged with the Daily Express to publish the place of their meeting and a strong opposition may be expected.’ [30]

The Whitehall-sponsored violence and vandalism was a total success. A mob of 8000 surrounded the building, and, according to The Observer, one of the rioters had a real tomahawk. The Daily News had a picture of the hall being wrecked while the police looked on. When John Maclean arrived, half-an-hour after the conference was supposed to have started, he was confronted by ‘a howling mob of male and female Dervishes’. The conference completely broke up. [31]

Most of the organisers of the regional conferences were respectable, middle-class citizens who did not expect violence. With the exception of Tom Quelch, none of them seem to have been associated with left-wing organisations. Faced with such determined opposition, they capitulated and nothing further was heard of workers’ and soldiers’ councils.

The affair did, however, have a footnote in the form of a parliamentary question. Arthur Ponsonby, a dissident Liberal MP, asked if the King’s Regulations regarding the Army were being ‘strictly and impartially enforced’. I Macpherson, for the War Office, replied that soldiers were not permitted to join soldiers’ and workers’ councils. This provoked another query from Ponsonby: if they were denied the right to attend, would they also be denied the right to break up soldiers’ and workers’ councils? There was no answer forthcoming.

That the plans formulated at the Leeds Convention were abortive did not mean the government’s troubles were over, that it had no need to worry further about the Russian Revolution. The triumph of the Bolsheviks acted as a great stimulus to revolutionary groups in Britain, whose influence was expanded in any case as a result of the growing industrial unrest. Another threat faced the government: the large number of Russian émigrés, many of them supporters of Lenin, who lived in Britain and who would do everything in their power to transmit Bolshevik ideas.

Britain’s nineteenth-century policy of an ‘open door’ to victims of overseas persecution had, naturally, greatly increased the foreign population. A Royal Commission on alien immigration reported that the figure in 1881 of 135,000 had become 286,000 by 1901. Many of the new entrants had been refugees from Tsarist tyranny — Russians, Poles and, of course, Jews. It was officially estimated in 1917 that in London alone there were 30,000 Russian political refugees. [32] Like a seismograph, they reacted to every convulsion in their homeland... and that created problems for the British government.

The first brush between the authorities and the Russian émigrés had occurred early in the war, when His Majesty’s Government had decided to assist its ally the Tsar by dealing with some of the undesirables. The (Russian) Seamen and Firemen’s Union, outlawed in Russia itself, had its headquarters first in Istanbul and then in Egypt. In both places, the Russian government exerted its influence and succeeded in getting the union offices closed down. They were then moved to Antwerp and, following the German invasion of Belgium, were transferred to London. In December 1915, British police raided the offices of the union, seizing all the papers and documents there. The house of the union’s leader, Anitchkine, was searched and he was taken to Scotland Yard. Told that the police had nothing against him and he could go home, he refused to leave until all the papers and documents were returned.

Meanwhile, other Russian émigrés were being harassed. Trotsky’s journal Nashe Slovo, published in Paris, circulated widely. Indeed, according to Trotsky’s friend, Alfred Rosmer, its circulation in Britain was as big as it was in France. [33] After its suppression on 15 September 1916, the work was continued by other bodies. By 1916, the Lettish Social Democratic Party claimed to have issued 40 appeals against the war, with a total circulation of half-a-million copies. Some of these had found their way to émigrés in Britain, as did other items of subversive literature. As a consequence, a large number of refugees held and expressed anti-war views. This fact began to have an impact outside émigré circles. For example, The Socialist, with severely limited space, still carried a lot of material from these sources. To illustrate this point, examination of four months’ issues (October 1915 to January 1916) shows that the paper carried ‘A Revolutionary Manifesto from Russian Poland’ (October 1915); ‘An Open Letter to German Social Democracy by Lettish Social Democracy’ (October 1915); ‘Russian Political Prisoners and Exiles Relief Committee’ — report (December 1915); and ‘Resolution on Zimmerwald Conference from Russian Social Democratic Party, London Group’ (January 1916).

The British authorities decided to curtail these activities, and this could only be done by repression. Harassment, arrest and the smashing of organisations was used. A particularly sinister weapon augmented these measures: refugees were threatened with being sent back to Russia where, like Petroff, they would be murdered.

Almost immediately, the émigrés took counter-measures. They formed the Political Prisoners and Exiles Relief Committee. This body contained representatives of the Russian Social Democratic Party, the Jewish Alliance of Lithuania, Poland and Russia, the Polish Socialist Party and the Lithuanian Socialist Federation. Mrs Bridges Adams acted as Secretary of the Committee, with George Chicherin as her assistant. Their choice of secretary was wise: Mrs Bridges Adams, a tireless and courageous woman, for a long while had taught English to foreigners and her activities had given her extensive contacts among the émigré population. Many refugees in difficulties had acquired the habit of turning to her for advice and assistance. At the same time, Mrs Bridges Adams was a Marxist. Almost from its inception, she had belonged to the Plebs League and had striven to spread socialist ideas among working women. [34] Simultaneously, she had fought for equality of opportunity in the state-run educational system. As a result of her prodigious efforts, extending over several decades, she had acquired a wide range of contacts among Suffragettes, trade unionists and socialists as well as émigrés.

Under her guidance, the Political Prisoners and Exiles Relief Committee concentrated on influencing the labour movement. It produced an ‘Open Letter to Organised Workers of Britain’. The police immediately raided Mrs Bridges Adams’ house, confiscating 600 copies of the letter. She was again raided when the committee prepared a leaflet on the right of political asylum for distribution at the 1916 TUC Congress in Birmingham. Mrs Bridges Adams was detained for 30 hours. She returned home to find her home ransacked. Such visits by the police and Special Branch soon became a frequent happening. Her house, 96 Lexham Gardens, off Earls Court Road — known as Bebel House after the German socialist leader — was the headquarters of the Relief Committee and the centre for a lot of socialist activity.

Attempting to justify the attentions paid to her by the authorities, Lord Derby told Parliament that Mrs Bridges Adams was secretary of a society of ‘a dangerous character’. He went on to say that ‘she was closely connected with two men named Petroff and Maclean’. Another of her companions was Anitchkine, the Russian seamen’s leader, who was suspected of passing information to the enemy. ‘If people like to keep the company that this Mrs Bridges Adams does’, Lord Derby continued, ‘they must expect to come under suspicion.’ [35]

The Political Prisoners and Exiles Relief Committee did not succeed in forcing the authorities to stop their repressive measures. After three raids, the Russian Seamen and Firemen’s Union ceased to function. Peter Petroff and his wife were arrested, and other refugees were imprisoned. On 1 December 1916, that customary haunt of the left, the Communist Club in Fitzroy Square, was raided without a search warrant. Twenty arrests were made, and considerable brutality used. The club’s secretary reported: ‘The soldiers broke into the wine cellars and liberally helped themselves to the content. They also appeared to be badly in need of playing cards, fountain pens, walking sticks, watches, etc. [36] Over-enthusiastic and wanting to set an example, the intruders destroyed a lot of property belonging to the Garment Workers Union, which happened to use the same premises. This kind of conduct could not fail to arouse disquiet in trade-union circles and tended to arouse sympathy for the refugees. Almost definitely, Lord Sheffield was right when he said in the House of Lords: ‘Scotland Yard became a little uneasy when they found their action was not merely against isolated groups of Russians but attracting the attention of active labour societies in Britain.’ [37] Union journals often printed articles sympathetic to the refugees. The authorities realised that this was very difficult to stop: it was one thing to suppress an émigré fringe organisation; it was quite another to have a direct confrontation with British trade unions. So, reluctantly, they overlooked the matter. Yet, as Mrs Bridges Adams wrote in 1922:

During the past year I have spent much time in rearranging, for future use, newspaper cuttings from the chaos they were left in after various police raids on my house, and I have been amazed at the daring and outspoken character of anti-Tsarist propaganda I was able to carry on in trade-union journals. [38]

Additional trouble faced the British authorities as the Russian Revolution unfolded in 1917. Refugees in this country were becoming politically more active. Whereas the authorities had been able to rely hitherto upon the Tsarist censor to stop seditious communications, Britain now had to introduce its own censorship. Some news still percolated through and refugees, more outspoken than previously, sought to spread the information. At the May Day rally in his Leicester constituency, when Ramsay MacDonald attacked Lenin as a ‘thoughtless anarchist’, a Russian in the audience led the opposition. [39] Similarly, when Thorne, on his return from Russia, made anti-Semitic references to Lenin and Trotsky, Russian refugees in London issued a reply. [40] While Labour leaders like Henderson and Thorne had been treated with a suspicion verging on hostility when visiting Russia, a much different attitude was adopted to individuals whom the British government regarded as dangerous extremists: in June 1917, the All-Russian Congress of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Councils passed a resolution sending fraternal greetings ‘to Comrade John Maclean, now sitting in gaol for preaching internationalism’. In the same month, 200 Russian seamen left their warship anchored in the Clyde to join a demonstration on Glasgow Green protesting against the imprisonment of Maclean and Petroff, who was a hero of the 1905 Revolution, in which he was twice wounded. [41]

Much more serious from the British government’s standpoint were the internal consequences which threatened a large portion of its surveillance of subversives in this country. What is well known is that the Soviet Foreign Ministry published secret treaties concluded by the Tsarist government, revealing imperialist deals with France, Britain and others. What is less well known is that the Soviet Foreign Ministry also revealed the archives of the Tsarist secret police. The names of agents working undercover among Russian refugees in Britain were divulged. Similarly, much to the embarrassment of His Majesty’s Government, these archives showed that Scotland Yard and the Special Branch had collaborated closely with the Russian secret service in its persecution of refugees. The entire network of agents, both British and Russian, as well as the painstaking work of surveillance of revolutionaries, were in jeopardy. [42] To minimise the threat, the Home Office ordered that George Chicherin, probably the individual most closely in communication with the Soviet government, should be interned in January 1918.

Persons could be imprisoned; ideas could not. Yet every attempt was made to do so. The Home Office issued new regulations that stated that all material had to be submitted to the censor before being circulated. This led to the BSP journal, The Call, of 17 January 1918, being confiscated. It carried a manifesto on Russia. The SLP criticised the BSP for submitting to the government’s new procedures — ‘We disagree with it for placing its manifesto on Russia before the censor; a thing neither Lenin nor Trotsky would do.’ — but this did not stop the SLP from offering its own printing press for the BSP to use. [43]

Threat of suppression did not deter The Socialist. In February 1918, the issue that commented on the confiscation of The Call carried an article by Litvinov on the life of Lenin as well as an article by Lenin himself, ‘The Aims of the Bolsheviks’. The following issue carried a translation by Sirnis of the Control of Factories decrees passed by the Soviets. At the same time, it had a letter from ‘our Russian Comrade Chicherin’ in which he briefly explained how Bolshevik ideas originated. Lenin, he said, developed his ideas well before the revolution: ‘He expressed his ideas in numerous newspapers and reviews, freely sold in London bookshops.’ Trotsky’s Nashe Slovo had also been easily obtainable, he said.

The SLP saw itself as possessing the same outlook and policies as the Bolsheviks. It explained: ‘The theories of Lenin as put into operation by the Russian Maximalists are similar to those advocated by the SLP.’ Later, in a piece headlined ‘Triumph of the SLP Tactics in Russia’, it tried to indicate, in terms of practical politics, what was necessary:

The SLP is the only party in this country which has compelled the ILP and BSP to realise that socialist tactics do not mean how to juggle men into Parliament. Socialist tactics mean the education of the proletariat and the organisation of the political weapon to destroy capitalism, backed by the industrial unions taking over the means of production.

For years the SLP has been sneered at and jeered at, but now Russia, in the transition towards the Socialist Republic, shows the SLP is right. [44]

The authorities seem to have paid the SLP the compliment of regarding them as the British Bolsheviks, the most dangerous group of revolutionaries in Britain: suddenly, a wave of repression was unleashed. On 13 June 1918, the police raided the SLP headquarters and confiscated 10,000 copies of Trotsky’s pamphlet, War or Revolution. On 6 July 1918, the SLP press was raided. All paper and every drop of ink was seized. Two new linotype machines were dismantled. This did not dishearten the party:

The attempt to wreck our press shall in no way deter us from carrying on our work. Those who understand what the class struggle means also realise that the workers in their march to Socialism must encounter many obstacles and many defeats. These reverses, however, are good things in one sense — they rid our ranks of faint hearts, compromisers and weaklings. [45]

The SLP had anticipated these actions. The party had a number of printers lined up who, in the event of difficulties, had agreed to produce The Socialist. The first was EH Williams, of 232 Devons Road, Bow, who printed the August issue after the ILP press had refused. Then the authorities placed a ban on him, causing considerable financial loss. The next was also a London printer, JF Edwards, who had the task of printing the memorable September 1918 edition, which carried a first-hand account of the British attempt to overthrow the Soviet government.

It seems that Maxim Litvinov received coded wireless messages from Moscow and that the British government had succeeded in breaking the code. Therefore, immediately Litvinov heard of the Bruce Lockhart plot, the police moved in to arrest him. He was only just able to despatch the news to The Socialist before they arrived. It reached the editor when the paper was already half printed and the whole edition had to be reset.

The lead story said that ‘our comrade Litvinov is arrested’, and went on to explain why the paper was appearing late. Then it gave the report Litvinov dictated before his arrest:

On 2 September, a plot organised under the supervision of the Chief of the British Mission Lockhart, the French Consul General Grenard, and the French general Laterne was liquidated.

The plot had for its aim to seize the power of the Soviet of the People’s Commissaries by bribing the chiefs of the Army Corps of the Soviet Army and to proclaim a military dictatorship in Moscow.

In possession of the plotters were found forged secret communications of the Russian government with Germany and a forged treaty with Germany. All with the object of creating a suitable atmosphere after the coup d'état, which would allow the dictatorship to declare war on Germany.

The whole of this organisation, which was a well-thought-out and thoroughly-organised scheme, and which acted by means of bribery, was stopped.

The plotters were protecting themselves with diplomatic immunity.

One of Lockhart’s agents, Lieutenant Reilly, passed 1,200,000 roubles in 10 days.

The September issue of The Socialist, of which an extra 7700 copies were printed, also contained an article by Lenin entitled ‘No Compromise with Opportunists’. Again, the paper found itself in trouble with the authorities and in need of a new printer, and yet again the Workers Dreadnought offered to share its columns with the SLP until fresh arrangements could be made. But it was not necessary. The party, aware of the tightening grip of officialdom on the freedom of the press, had made contingency plans to print The Socialist clandestinely. By the end of 1918, the editor worked from a tent in a field at Heald Green, near Manchester. [46]

Every effort was made to get the maximum protest against the government’s repressive measures. Hundreds of trade-union branches passed resolutions deploring interference with socialist journals and with the jailing of political prisoners. In December 1918, a joint manifesto on the curtailment of civil liberty, entitled ‘A Call to Labour’, was jointly issued by the ILP, BSP and SLP.

But the government was in no mood for compromising. Besides promoting the Bruce Lockhart plot for overthrowing Soviet rule by internal subversion, the United Kingdom had now become involved in more overt efforts. Military intervention began when British troops were landed at Vladivostok, then at Archangel. Large supplies of arms and ammunition were supplied to the White armies fighting against the Bolsheviks. Playing such a leading role in the crusade against communism abroad, the British government saw no reason to relax its vigilance at home.

Equally, revolutionaries saw the fight in a global context. The SLP considered that the government’s campaign of suppression had been directed against it for exactly this reason:

The government realised that its onslaught against socialism in Russia could only be successful by attempting to smash the one press in Britain that dared to stand up for Bolshevism. [47]

In the war of intervention, the SLP thought it had an exceedingly important role to play in helping its Russian comrades:

How can we help Russia? We can best assist the Soviet Republic by extending and intensifying our activities in this country. By attending to our own problems and organising to solve them we can force the government to attend to us instead of seeking to strangle the Soviet Republic.

Many means, sometimes quite ingenious ones, were employed to thwart the authorities. For example, one of the main reasons why the SLP fought three seats at the 1918 general election was to circumvent official restrictions. The party considered that the government would be reluctant to confiscate literature produced under the pretext of being for election purposes, for fear of creating a backlash among the electorate. As a result, a lot of material was printed that otherwise would have been forbidden under the Defence of the Realm Act. The SLP’s election manifesto, A Soviet Republic for Britain — A Plea for the Formation of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, spelt out in detail what would have to happen to bring about a social revolution in this country.

The historian Walter Kendall suggests that the SLP’s three candidates fought their elections with the aid of Russian finance, coming into Britain in the form of diamonds, not gold. Small, compact, highly valuable, diamonds were an ideal commodity for smuggling purposes. [48] One SLPer definitely made the hazardous journey through strife-torn Europe, crossing and re-crossing the lines of opposing armies, to go to Russia and back. Naturally, everything was done to keep secret both his identity and mission. Discreet inquiries suggest, however, that William Stoker, Junior, of Wigan, undertook this difficult, dangerous task. [49]

The most interesting things Stoker returned to England with were five short pieces, none of which contained new ideas or theoretical profundity. Appearing without explanation in a Russian supplement, their origin and purpose still remains quite clear: they were leaflets distributed by the Red Army to British soldiers in the armies of intervention. To quote from a typical leaflet, one of them ends:

Fellow working men, refuse to be suppressors of your own class. Form Soldiers’ Councils in your regiments. Send your representatives to your officers and demand to be sent home. And when you get home, destroy the sham capitalist democracy reigning there and establish a true Republic of Labour, as we have done in Russia.

A few months later, The Socialist admitted what was happening:

Literature does reach the shore of England from Russia, and most of the leaflets and manifestoes printed in England are delivered, by various means, to the British troops on the Russian front. Our government will find out when the troops return to this country. [50]

The British press referred alarmingly to the spread of Bolshevism. In November 1918, the Daily News, talking about the revolution that had just broken out in Germany, attributed it to ‘the flood of Bolshevik agitators’ coming in from Russia. The paper went on to describe these revolutionaries who, ‘made of steel and india-rubber, are absolutely untireable, and have four times the energy of ordinary human politicians’. [51] Commenting on these observations, The Socialist remarked that ‘happily “the boys of the Bolshevik breed” are not entirely unknown in Britain’. The SLP did nothing to disguise its programme. At the 1918 general election it made its position quite clear to the public:

We are denounced as ‘British Bolsheviks’. We do not seek to conceal our views. We are proud of the title. The SLP is the only political organisation that stands wholeheartedly and uncompromisingly for the Soviet idea. Let it be known: We are the British Bolsheviks! [52]

Clearly, by the end of 1918, a struggle of international dimensions existed. It stretched from Moscow to Glasgow, from Leningrad to London. The forces of counter-revolution and the forces of revolution were locked in bitter conflict in every country. With the reciprocal validity of Liebknecht, the British rulers could say: ‘The enemy is at home.’ They had to contend with British Bolshevism as well as the Russian variety.


1. House of Commons, 14 and 17 March 1917.

2. Letter of Brigadier General FC Poole to Lord Milner, 31 July 1917, HO 197 (1917) C.18/21(4).

3. Forward, 12 March 1921.

4. Letter of Brigadier Colonel Poole to Captain Ormsby-Gore, 31 July 1917, HO 197 (1917).

5. Lord Milner to the Prime Minister, 8 September 1917; AF Kerensky, The Catastrophe (New York, 1927), p 315, alleges that General Knox subsidised a Kornilov pamphlet. Lord Milner also told Kerensky to back Kornilov.

6. The Times, 13 September 1917.

7. Morning Post, 9 November 1917.

8. Manchester Guardian, 27 November 1917.

9. The Times, 20 November 1917.

10. CAB 28/2 107(9), 28 March 1917.

11. The Socialist, August 1917, refers to the coat and John S Clarke even wrote a poem about it. Also EA and GH Radice, Will Thorne: Constructive Militant: A Study in New Unionism and New Politics (London, 1974), p 79.

12. Will Thorne, My Life’s Battles (London, 1925), pp 194-95. The Russian Provisional government also wanted MacDonald to visit Russia, but British seamen blacked the ship (Lord Elton, The Life of JR MacDonald, Volume 1 (London, 1939), p 317).

13. CAB 23/2 144(1), 23 May 1917. In his article, ‘Arthur Henderson, the Russian Revolution and the Reconstruction of the Labour Party’, JM Winter deals with the Henderson mission to Russia in detail (The Historical Journal, 1972, pp 753-73).

14. The Times, 18 June 1917.

15. VI Lenin, British Labour and British Imperialism (London, 1941), pp 172-73.

16. Letter of RH Bruce Lockhart to Sir George Buchanan, 23 July 1917, FO 438/10.

17. Letter of Arthur Henderson to Lloyd George, 1 July 1917, FO 371/2997.

18. RH Bruce Lockhart, Memoirs of a British Agent (London, 1934), pp 187-88.

19. The Times, 14 June 1917; RH Bruce Lockhart, Memoirs of a British Agent (London, 1934), pp 187-88.

20. Leicester Post, 7 May 1917.

21. Labour Leader, 15 November 1917 and 7 March 1918.

22. Sunday Pictorial, 21 January 1918. Also Chuchichi Tsuzuki, HM Hyndman and British Socialism (Oxford, 1961), p 240.

23. Hansard, Volume 112 (1918), pp 58-59. It is interesting to note that, on the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution, the London Evening Standard approached a number of prominent Labour leaders and asked them which side they would have backed if they had lived in Russia in 1917. Barbara Castle, RHS Grossman and Roy Jenkins all replied they would have been on the side of the Bolsheviks. What needs to be said is that their historical predecessors certainly were not.

24. The Socialist, December 1917.

25. R Page Arnot, The Impact of the Russian Revolution in Britain (London, 1967), p 64. An assessment by Alan Clinton and George Myers of the Leeds Convention similar to my own is to be found in the Fourth International, Volume 4, no 3, November 1967.

26. House of Commons, 14 May 1917, my emphasis — RC.

27. Workers Dreadnought, 9 June 1917.

28. Will Thorne, My Life’s Battles (London, 1925), p 195.

29. Workers Dreadnought, 4 August 1917.

30. Sir Basil Thomson, The Scene Changes (London, 1939), p 383.

31. Daily News, 30 June 1917; The Observer, 30 June 1917; Nan Milton, John Maclean (Bristol, 1973), p 142.

32. Figures given in House of Commons, 7 February 1917.

33. Letter from A Rosmer to W Kendall, cited in Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), pp 376-77.

34. Information about Mrs Bridges Adams given by Lord Sheffield in the House of Lords, 7 March 1917, and J King MP, in the House of Commons, 8 March 1917. Mrs Bridges Adams was very annoyed by the indifference shown by Labour and ILP Members of Parliament to the plight of Russian refugees. She had to rely on two dissident Liberal politicians to champion her cause. For her Marxist background, see WW Craik, Central Labour College (London, 1964), pp 82, 102-03.

35. House of Lords, 7 March 1917.

36. The Socialist, February 1917.

37. House of Lords, 7 March 1917.

38. The Socialist, 12 January 1922.

39. Leicester Post, 7 May 1917.

40. Workers Dreadnought, 16 June 1917.

41. The Call, 28 June 1917; Nan Milton, John Maclean (Bristol, 1973), p 108.

42. House of Lords, 30 January 1918.

43. The Socialist, February 1918.

44. The Socialist, March 1918.

45. The Socialist, August 1918.

46. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p 176.

47. The Socialist, September 1917.

48. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), p 252, quoting from the Pankhurst Papers.

49. The Socialist, 18 September 1919. Tom Bell briefly mentions reprinting ‘Bolshevik leaflets issued to troops’ (Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p 176).

50. The Socialist, 12 June 1919.

51. Daily News, 15 November 1918.

52. The Socialist, December 1918.