A review of I Saw Democracy Murdered: The Memoir of Sam Russell, Journalist, Colin Chambers and Sam Russell (Routledge, 2022), £34.99
On 14 September 1937, the Daily Worker published an article in which Frank Frankford, a renegade member of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM; Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) militia in Catalonia, revealed that the POUM were effectively collaborating with the forces of General Francisco Franco.1 When he had been at the front, night after night the fascists had provided the POUM with a cart load of weapons in preparation for the May insurrection in Barcelona. According to the article, Georges Kopp, an elected POUM commander, was personally involved in organising this and had been seen coming back from a meeting behind enemy lines. Indeed, the POUM was actually “working for fascism”, and the May insurrection, far from being an anarchist-inspired attempt to stop the Stalinists rolling back the revolutionary gains of the Spanish working class, was, in fact, an “armed rising of fascists”. Frankford’s allegations provoked a furious response from other British volunteers who had served with the POUM during the Spanish Civil War. One of them, George Orwell, wrote a detailed repudiation of his allegations that was signed by another fourteen of his comrades and appeared in the newspaper of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the New Leader, on 24 September.
The Frankford smear was just one part of an orchestrated Stalinist campaign against the POUM and their ILP allies. The POUM was routinely slandered by the likes of Communist journalist Claud Cockburn as being in league with the fascists, and much of the British left apparently fell for the scam. The Communist Party even published a 6d pamphlet, George Soria’s Trotskyism in the Service of Franco: A Documented Record of Treachery by the POUM in Spain. In Britain, the campaign was just a matter of lies, slander and intimidation; in Spain, however, it was a matter of life and death. For Kopp, the POUM commander named by Frankford, the allegation was potentially a death sentence. Kopp was arrested when the organisation was banned and was not released until December 1938, lucky to survive months of starvation, brutality and torture. The leader of the POUM, Andreu Nin, was not so lucky. He was tortured to death by the Russian secret police—a fact that was strenuously denied by Communists at the time but is admitted today.
The man responsible for the Frankford smear was a certain Sam Lesser, a British CP member who had fought in the International Brigades before being wounded. He subsequently went on to become a journalist for the Daily Worker. Lesser is the real name of Sam Russell. For some reason, there is no mention of this journalistic scoop in his memoir. One can only suppose that this is because the intention of his memoir is to portray himself as an unwitting dupe, as someone who generally believed the lies told by and on behalf of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, rather than as someone who was actively involved in manufacturing them, in slandering its critics. He wants us to see him as some sort of victim rather than one of the victimisers. In 1998, author Jeffrey Meyers, who was writing a biography of Orwell at the time, got in touch with Lesser. He became “extremely hostile” at the very mention of Orwell and left Meyers convinced that hard-liners like him “still believe it’s ethical to lie in the service of Communism”.2
His memoir conveniently suppresses his Frankford story, but what does it have to say about Spain? Incredibly, Lesser, or Russell as we shall refer to him from now on, can still write, “Stalin was right when he said that the cause of Spain was the cause of all progressive people”.3 At this time, Stalin’s regime was the most murderous and repressive police state in the world, carrying out mass executions, brutally oppressing the working class and reintroducing slave labour on a massive scale. Yet, as far as Russell is concerned, “The Soviet Union was the only state that had broken from the capitalist world and was trying to build a socialist alternative”.4 As for the war in Spain, it was in defence of “the popular unity government”; he completely rejected “those whose only answer to any situation seemed to be to demand an immediate and complete revolution”.5 He complains that the anarchists and the POUM in Barcelona were hoarding medical supplies and military equipment that were urgently needed on the Madrid front; this lie seems to have now become his justification for the suppression of the revolutionary left, rather than their supposed collaboration with the fascists. Indeed, he is now even prepared to admit that the POUM leader Nin was murdered, “probably under torture”, and that the allegations of the POUM collaborating with the fascists are “suspect”.6 Nevertheless, he was still against them, “not because I thought they were agents of fascism”, but because they were keeping hold of the ambulances and the artillery needed by those fighting at the front. This is just so much contemptible lying sophistry.
Russell piously concludes by regretting that the “unpardonable behaviour of Soviet agents in Spain has overshadowed the vital and unique contribution” that the Soviets made to the fight to save democracy and prevent a second world war. Of course, he was personally “not aware of any activity in Spain by the Soviet secret police”.7 Naturally, the execution of dissident members of the International Brigades goes completely unmentioned. Moreover, he has not a bad word to say about the man most responsible for this, the International Brigades’ political commissar, André Marty. Indeed, he regrets Marty’s eventual expulsion from the French Communist Party in December 1952 on the “ludicrous charge” of having always been a police spy.8 If Marty’s ambition of seeing a Stalinist regime established in France had been realised, he would certainly have been forced to confess and been shot rather than being expelled. One can only wonder if he appreciated the irony.
The reality was that the Soviet Union was determinedly opposed to socialist revolution in Spain at this time for two reasons. First, Stalin hoped for an alliance with Britain and France against the Nazis, and revolution in Spain would make this impossible. Second, a successful workers’ revolution in Spain led by anarchists and the POUM would inevitably have exposed the Soviet Union for the murderous exploitative dictatorship it was. This would encourage opposition to the Stalinists both at home and throughout the international Communist movement. It had to be put down and, in his own small way, Russell helped accomplish this. As far as Russell was concerned, his experiences in Spain were to remain “the constant theme of my life”.9 What this seems to have actually amounted to in practice is support for the Soviet Union, which always came first, and, after that, support for the politics of the Popular Front whenever the Soviet Union allowed this. In any case, it certainly always meant rejecting revolutionary socialist politics as far as Britain was concerned. By early 1939, however, Stalin had recognised that the war in Spain was lost and was already preparing for an alliance with the Nazis. How does Russell explain this away?
Russell was the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and, according to his own account, one of the things that had recruited him into the CP had been its opposition to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. For many CP members, including many Jewish members, the Hitler-Stalin Pact was a step too far—but not for Russell. He remained a loyal party member and provides a mealy-mouthed account of the Pact that conveniently leaves out the agreement to invade and partition Poland. It does not so much as mention the Russian handover of German exiles, including Jews handed to the Gestapo, as a gesture of goodwill. The Nazis offered to reciprocate by handing over the leader of the German Communist Party, Ernst Thälmann, but the Soviets preferred that he remain in Hitler’s hands and rejected the offer. Thälmann was executed at Buchenwald concentration camp in August 1944. Of course, Russell also had no problem with the Russian invasion of Finland at the end of November 1939; indeed, he had actually hoped to cover the war for the Daily Worker, but this never happened. When the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union, everything changed. The only thing that mattered now was supporting the British war effort in order to assist the Russians, and everything else was subordinated to this imperative.
Once the Second World War was over, Russell eventually became the Daily Worker’s diplomatic correspondent, a position that saw him covering the purges that the Russians carried out throughout Eastern Europe. Tens of thousands of people fell victim to this wave of repression, many of them loyal Communist Party members, but the high point was a series of anti-Titoist show trials. Russell assures his readers that he had “no inkling of the terrifying machinations, torture and cruelty that lay behind the trials”.10 This is interesting because, at the time, many others, particularly on the revolutionary left, had no doubt whatsoever that the confessions made by the victims of these trials were extracted through torture and threats to family members. He somewhat pathetically excuses himself as being both “foolish and wilfully blind to what was going on”, but it has to be said that this is not very convincing.11
Russell was in Czechoslovakia for the trial of 14 leading CP members, including the party general secretary, Rudolf Slánský, in November 1952. After a trial lasting seven days, 11 of the victims (calling them the “accused” does not do justice to their situation) were sentenced to death, including Slánský, and the other three to life imprisonment. Most of the victims were Jewish, and Russell was wheeled out to produce testimony that there was no antisemitic dimension to the trial. He interviewed the chief rabbi of Prague, who very wisely confirmed his denial. His words “went round the world, picked up by the Communist press and reprinted more times than I care to remember”.12 He even spoke in defence—indeed, in praise—of the trial at a number of meetings in Britain. “The penny dropped”, in his words, only much later, and he somewhat belatedly acknowledged that there was indeed an antisemitic dimension, not just to the Slánský trial but to the new wave of terror that Stalin was preparing to unleash in the Soviet Union shortly before his death.13 One interesting revelation is that the leader of the British Communist Party, Harry Pollitt, privately asked him about the Slánský trial and left him with the impression that he thought that the whole thing was a frame-up. However, Pollitt still faithfully toed the line.
Much later, Russell himself was to identify two themes running through the anti-Titoist purges: anti-Semitism and involvement in the International Brigades. He was left wondering whether, had he been East European, he “would have been put on trial and executed”.14 Of course, this would also have been his fate if the British Stalinists had ever been installed in power. Pollitt too would almost certainly have been put on trial, confessed and been executed.
Russell’s Stalinist loyalties survived Stalin’s death and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s subsequent revelations regarding the murderous character of his regime. The high point of his career as an apologist for tyranny and oppression came in 1956 with the great workers’ revolt in Hungary. When the Russians invaded Hungary, machine-gunning the workers manning the barricades and shelling working-class flats, the Daily Worker correspondent on the spot had been Peter Fryer.15 He sent accounts back to London describing what was actually going on, only for these reports to be binned in favour of reports from Moscow. As far as the Daily Worker was concerned, far from brutally suppressing a working-class revolution, Russian troops were actually putting down a fascist-inspired uprising in order to save socialism. The man they sent out to replace Peter Fryer was Sam Russell. When he arrived, courtesy of the Russian military, the fighting was over. However, the country was still in the grip of a general strike, the longest in history, and the factories were in the hands of workers’ councils. Russell chronicles the wearing down of this resistance by mass arrests, with the workers being starved back to work as the puppet regime of János Kádár consolidated itself in power. At a time when thousands of British Communists were tearing up their party cards to protest the Russian intervention, Russell faithfully reported the Kádár regime’s lies. He took a stand with Stalinist dictatorship and against workers’ democracy. This so-called Communist regime, it is worth remembering, made it a capital offence to incite strikes. Looking back in his memoir, the best Russell can come up with is, “Hungary was difficult”.16 The contrast between this contemptible apologist and Peter Fryer could not be greater.
One last point is worth making here. Back in 1949, the then Daily Worker correspondent in Hungary, Edith Bone, was arrested on trumped up charges of sabotage and spying and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The Daily Worker promptly abandoned her, and she became a non-person. The Hungarian Revolution freed her after seven years in solitary confinement. Many journalists at the paper were appalled when they finally found out it had deserted her and left her to die in jail. Russell unsurprisingly does not even mention her.17
Russell remained a CP member, sympathetic to the reforming Czechoslovak Communist leader Alexander Dubček, opposing the Soviet occupation of the country in August 1968 and embracing Eurocommunism. Finally, he broke with what was left of the British Communist Party, acknowledging, “Soviet-style socialism shackled the spirit and sullied the vision that inspired the struggle of countless millions the world over”.18 He admits that he had either “helped to obscure or…ignore…terrible crimes carried out in the name of the very cause I was trying to serve”.19 This is to seriously minimise his role as an apologist for Stalinism and its crimes. The Stalinist states he spent his political life defending and urging British socialists to emulate were, he now has the nerve to tell us, “some of the most evil regimes the world has seen”.20 It is worth making the point that if the political cause he spent most of his life championing had actually triumphed in Britain, however unlikely that might have been, it would have involved imposing a brutal murderous tyranny on the British working class. This tyranny would, moreover, have killed or imprisoned a good many Communist Party members as suspected Titoites, perhaps including Russell himself. The damage that Stalinism did to the working-class movement in Britain and even more so across the rest of the world has still not been fully grasped or acknowledged by many on the left and must never be forgotten. This book does not contribute to this in any way.
This belated acknowledgement of Stalinism’s crimes did not lead to any turn to the left on Russell’s part. In the epilogue to his memoir, he criticises the Communist Party for failing “to recognise capitalism’s ability to regenerate” and being “too romantic about the working class” and not critical enough of Arthur Scargill during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.21 He ended his days a Blairite, endorsing the removal of Clause 4 from the Labour’s constitution and the invasion of Iraq.
John Newsinger is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is Chosen by God: Donald Trump, the Christian Right and American Capitalism (Bookmarks, 2020).
1 In his biography of George Orwell, Gordon Bowker claims that Frankford was “imprisoned on some trumped up charge and then induced by Daily Worker correspondent Sam Lesser to sign a document confirming that the POUM were dealing with the fascists and that Kopp in particular was conferring with them regularly”. As a reward for doing so, Frankford was freed from prison and provided with a first-class ticket “back to England”—Bowker 2003, p218.
2 Meyers, 2010, pp77, 80.
3 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p68.
4 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p69.
5 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p73.
6 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p74.
7 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p74.
8 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p72. Marty had returned to France only after the Second World War, during which he worked for the Soviet authorities before moving to Algiers to help coordinate the French Communists’ resistance organisations. He agitated for a revolution to overthrow the provisional government of Charles de Gaulle, but this was vetoed by Stalin.
9 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p68.
10 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p131.
11 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p131.
12 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p134.
13 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p135.
14 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p138.
15 Fryer broke with the Communist Party and published his own account of the Hungarian Revolution, Hungarian Tragedy, in December 1956—see Fryer, 1956. He went on to embrace orthodox Trotskyism, helping establish the Socialist Labour League. The authoritarian character of the leadership of this organisation eventually drove him out, but he remained on the left. He published the ground-breaking volumes Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain in 1984 and Black People in the British Empire in 1988 alongside many other valuable books. Christian Høgsbjerg’s account of Fryer’s contribution to the study of black British history is available in a previous issue of International Socialism—see Høgsbjerg, 2021.
16 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p156.
17 Bone recorded her experiences in Seven Years Solitary—see Bone, 1966.
18 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p243.
19 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p243.
20 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p244.
21 Chambers and Russell, 2022, p244.