Socialist International June 1917
Source: Report on “Socialist Convention On The War” in the Manchester Guardian 4 June 1917, “From our Special Correspondent,” p.5.
LEEDS, SUNDAY NIGHT.
The Labour, Socialist, and Democratic Convention to hail the Russian revolution and organise a British democracy, was held in Leeds to-day. The meetings were to have taken place in the Albert Hall, as stated in the columns yesterday, but the engagement was broken off by the owners. The Coliseum, however, a larger building with accommodation for about 3,500 persons, was placed at the service of the Convention after the Watch Committee had intimated its readiness to extend the six days’ licence attached to the building.
In this the Watch Committee showed more tolerance than owners of most of the large hotels in the city, who apparently had agreed among themselves not to give accommodation to the delegates. Many of the delegates had “booked” in advance at hotels where, on other occasions, they had been personally welcomed, but in every case, as far as I have been able to ascertain, such bookings were cancelled upon an affirmative answer being given to the question; “Are you attending the Labour Convention?” As the private accommodation found by local Socialists was far from adequate in such an emergency, 200 or 300 were provided for by a lodging bureau opened by the Socialists of Bradford, and a considerable number had to be billeted in improvised dormitories at the great hall of the Engineers’ Club.
The Convention was presided over by Mr. Robert Smillie, president of the Miners’ Federation, who was supported on the platform by many of the well-known leaders of the Independent Labour party and the Socialist party, and by Mr. Roden Buxton and Mrs. Despard. Mr. Tom Mann, Mr. Bertrand Russell, and Miss Sylvia Pankhurst sat among the general body of delegates, who numbered nearly 1,200, and represented trades councils and unions, local Labour and Socialist parties, women’s organisations, and various democratic bodies.
On the whole the conference was of an orderly character. A “breeze,” started by a decision of the Standing Orders Committee to accept certain amendments and reject others – which position was overthrown by the conference determining to confine itself to the resolutions on the agenda, – developed into a storm later on, when Mr. Tupper protested against consideration not having been given to the amendment sent in by his union, and demanded to know, in the event of no indemnities being given, who would recompense the widows and orphans of merchant seamen who had lost their lives while bringing food to the country. At this time the hour for adjournment had passed, and after about ten minutes of excitement, in which an appeal was made to the conference “to have some dignity;” the Chairman adjourned the meeting.
Among a number of messages read was one from the Executive Committee of the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ delegates in Petrograd, sending fraternal greetings, and expressing the hope of meeting representatives from the Convention between July 15 and 30, and mentioning Stockholm as the most convenient meeting place.
Six soldiers at Blackpool wrote saying they would like to see “the establishment of a society on lines similar to those of the Council of Workmen and Soldiers in Russia, for we are quite convinced that the great majority of men in the army are in sympathy with Russian aims.”
The Chairman, in opening the conference, said that but for the Russian revolution he did not think it would have been possible for the convention to have been held. We in this country were gradually reaching the position in which we could not call our souls our own. The right to call our bodies our own went a considerable time ago. It was strange indeed that the light should have come from the down-trodden people of Russia. If it was right that the Russian people should be congratulated on securing freedom, surely it could not be wrong for Britain to desire freedom also.
After remarking, with respect to the attempts to prevent the meeting by mob law, “we have not come here to talk treason; we have come here to talk reason,” Mr. Smillie contended that there was real need for linking together the civil and military populations of this country by means of an organisation such as the Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Delegates in Russia. At the present time, he said, our soldiers were inarticulate. They had no organisation, no right to have an organisation, to defend their claims and to call attention to their grievances.
It was pretty well agreed now, he continued, that peace could not be brought about by what was called the “knock-out” blow. (Cheers) There was no doubt that when peace did come it would be peace by negotiation. (Renewed cheers.) Was there any use, therefore, in murdering a few million more of our sons? He had no desire to see Russia enter into a separate peace with Germany. (Cheers.) That would be a calamity not only to Russia itself, but to the democratic peoples of the world. But he thought the Russian people were entitled to say they were ready and anxious to make peace and to ask us to state our position. If we and our other allies had the courage to do so – and ultimately we should have to do it – and if, instead of aiming at Imperialism and spread-eagleism, we aimed at giving liberty to the peoples of Europe to govern themselves in their own way, he believed the German Government would be forced by public opinion in Germany to negotiate on moral terms, or the German people would take the steps taken by Russia.
The first resolution congratulated the Russian people upon their revolution. It was moved by Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, M.P., seconded by Mrs. Montefiore (British Socialist Party), and carried without discussion.
Mr. Macdonald, M.P., said that when the war broke out organised labour in this country, owing to a great lack of oversight and political intelligence, lost the initiative; instead of seeing that it took the initiative into its own hands and did not become a mere echo of the opinions of the governing classes. Those classes were never yet able to make anything but a patched-up peace or a military truee, and had never yet done anything but extend the bounds of militarism every time that militarism proved itself a failure. The Russian revolution had given them chance to take hold again of the initiative, and while the war was on was their chance. Let them make their own proclamations, establish their on diplomacy and see to it that they had their own international meetings. The call of the Russian democracy had made it impossible for any Government to deny the right of the people to meet together and make up their minds as to what they wanted and ask the Government to carry out their mandate.
Mr. Philip Snowden, M.P., moved a resolution in favour of “peace without annexation or indemnities and based on the rights of nations to decide their own affairs,” and calling upon the British Government “immediately to announce its agreement with the declared foreign policy and war aims of the democratic Government of Russia.” They had been told, he said, that millions of the manhood of Europe had already been killed or maimed, yet the only talk of statesmen to-day was about preparations for the continuance of the war into next year or the following year. Their only concern seemed to be to get more men to feed the cannons’ mouth.
“For three years,” he continued, “we have been appealing to the Government to state its peace terms. The time has come for us to tell the Government what our peace terms are.” (Cheers.) Commenting on the debate in the House of Commons and the speeches of Lord Robert Cecil and Mr. Asquith, Mr. Snowden contended that it was useless and absurd to accept the formula “no annexation” and a the same time to contemplate the retention of 400,000 square miles of territory held by Germany before the war, even on the conditions laid down by Mr. Asquith that this was no militarism, but part of the fulfilment of the divine mission laid on the British people to relieve the oppressed wherever they might be found. (Laughter.) He counselled the democracy to see that the statesmen of this country did not accept the formula “no annexation” before obtaining from them definite statement as to what they meant by it. It would be delusion and a mockery so long as those statesmen stood by the terms and conditions of the Allied Note to President Wilson. That Note must be repudiated. As understood by the Russian democracy, “no annexation” did not mean there should be no change of territorial boundaries after the war. If a permanent peace was to be established there would have to be readjustment of territory. The Russian declaration provided that there should be no transfer of territory against the will of the people concerned.
Mr. Roden Buxton said that Russia had caused a great wave of feeling in favour of democratic diplomacy to pass all over the world. Russia was going to work no longer under th old-fashioned methods of secret diplomacy, and had entered into open and free communication with the peoples of the world. In this matter Governments must be the servants, not the masters, of the people. The English people must see to it that in future they were not left in the dark by secret treaties, made in their name but behind their backs.
The resolution was carried with only two dissentients.
The third resolution called upon the Government to proclaim its determination to carry into immediate effect a charter of liberty establishing complete political rights for all men and women, freedom of speech and of the press, an a general amnesty for all political and religious prisoners. This was moved by Mr. C.E Ammon (British Socialist party), seconded b Mrs. Despard, supported by Mr. Pethick Lawrence and Mr. Bertram Russell, and adopted.
Mr. W.C. Anderson, M.P., moved the last resolution, calling upon the constituent bodies of the convention to establish local councils of workmen’s and soldiers’ delegates on the lines of those in Russia, and proposing that the conveners of the convention should be appointed as a provisional committee to assist in the work of organisation. This, he said, he regarded as the “ugly duckling” of the resolutions. The “Morning Post” had spoken of it as a violation of the law, as an incitement to the subversion of army discipline and military authority. The resolution had no such intention. What they had to say was that soldiers and workmen alike were men, that in the reconstruction of Britain they were alike bound to play a most important part, and that in order to do this they must join hands. It was said that any step on such lines to give expression to the views of soldiers and workmen was in the nature of a revolution. The present Prime Minister had told labour to be audacious – after the war. (Laughter.) If they waited till after the war there would be very little to be audacious about. The peace that would some soon must be a peace made by the people, for the people, and with the stamp of the people upon it. Besides linking together the common interests of soldiers and workmen, such an organisation would strengthen trade unionism and organised labour.
Mr. Robert Williams (Transport Workers), in seconding the resolution, defined its meaning as “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
In supporting the resolution, Mrs. Philip Snowden said that one of the most poisonous lies of a perjured press during this war had been the impression it had endeavoured to convey that the movement which those present at the Convention represented was alien, and antagonistic to the soldiers and their interests.
Almost the only definite note of opposition was sounded by Mr. J.L. Toole (Manchester Branch of the National Union of Clerks), who pointed out that there was sufficient organisation already in existence to deal with the various objects specified in the resolution, and that, as this country was suffering from an entirely different set of circumstances from those in Russia, the formation of a committee to co-ordinate the work of the existing labour organisation would be preferable.
The Convention, however, adopted the resolution almost unanimously, and decided to send the following cablegram to the Workmen and Soldiers’ Council in Russia:-
“The largest and greatest convention of labour, Socialist, and democratic bodies held in Great Britain during this generation has to-day endorsed Russia’s declaration of foreign policy and war aims, and has pledged itself to work through a newly constituted Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Council for an immediate democratic peace. The Convention. received your telegram of congratulation. with gratitude and enthusiasm.”
The conveners of the Convention to constitute the nucleus of the Provisional Committee of the new Council are Messrs. H. Alexander, O.G. Ammon, W.C. Anderson, M.P., Mrs. Despard, Messrs. E.C. Fairchild, J. Fineberg, F.W. Jowett, M.P., G. Lansbury, Ramsay MacDonald, M.P., T. Quelch, R. Smillie, Philip Snowden, M.P., and R. Williams.
A request was made from the body of the Convention that thirteen others should also be selected at once by the Convention, but the meeting adopted a recommendation that the Provisional Committee should call district conferences as soon as possible to appoint other members.
In the evening an open-air demonstration was to have been held in Victoria Square, at which Mr. Robert Smillie was to have been the chief speaker. So much feeling had been aroused in the city against the objects of the Convention, particularly the proposition to set up a Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ delegates on the lines of that in Russia, that on Saturday the Home Secretary sent a telegram specially authorising the Lord Mayor and the Chief Constable to prohibit any open-air meeting in connection with the Convention, if they were satisfied it would cause grave disorder. Posters were at once distributed by the Lord Mayor and the Chief Constable prohibiting the holding of the meeting, and the evening demonstration therefore was also held in the Coliseum, though a small section of the delegates in the afternoon clamoured for the outdoor meeting to be held, in order, as was said, to demonstrate that the Convention was determined “to act as well as talk.”
The evening demonstration, like the Convention meetings, was only open to ticket-holders. In the course of it an attempt was made by a crowd of some thousands outside to burst the doors open, but a strong force of police, intervened and cleared all the pavements around the building. Large numbers of people however, lined up in Cookridge Street, the main thoroughfare in which the Coliseum stands, and as the audience, about 3,000 strong, emerged there was much booing. The presence of the police, however, prevented any trouble.