The Russian Revolution and the British working class

Issue: 156

Pete Jackson

The two Russian Revolutions of 1917 inspired socialists and trade unionists across the world. The February Revolution raised the prospect of the overthrow of dictatorship, October the possibility of workers’ revolution and socialism.1 October ripped up the blueprint for socialism that had decreed that revolution would begin in the industrialised West.

In Britain as elsewhere the Russian Revolution fuelled opposition to the First World War. In every strike and campaign references could be heard to the events in Russia. There were demonstrations in support of the February Revolution and conferences, including the Leeds Convention in June 1917, discussed building support for the provisional government and soviets.2 Leading figures on the left wing of the Labour Party and left wing trade union leaders sought to relate to, mimic and contain the movement. They made incendiary speeches about Russia while restraining the workers at home.

At the beginning of 1919 there was a huge wave of troop mutinies across Britain. Soldiers opposed attempts to send them to fight against the Bolshevik government, demanding to be demobilised. Most impressively there were a number of mutinies by British troops in Russia which helped to end the British attempts to crush the revolution.

The revolution gave direction to the disparate British revolutionary forces in their sometimes faltering attempts to intervene in events and to come together as a single revolutionary party. It led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 which included most of the best revolutionary activists.

This article explores the interplay between the revolutionary events in Russia and the deepening political crisis in Britain. Critically this was not simply about the motivating effect of Russia on British workers; equally the successful efforts of British workers to prevent intervention in Russia in 1919 and 1920 played a crucial role in holding back British imperial goals. I have drawn on documents from the Russian Revolution that Warwick University has digitised. This provides an excellent resource for students of the revolution.3

The overthrow of the Tsar

The February Revolution came as a surprise in Britain and across the world, and was greeted with celebration across the political spectrum. It was first announced in parliament on 15 March 1917 and the press all headlined it the following day. The press, and the Labour Party leadership, viewed the revolution with two goals in mind: primarily winning the war and only secondly the establishment of a parliamentary democracy. The strikes and demonstrations were seen as chaos to be overcome and the soviets barely warranted a mention.

The Morning Post reported: “One result of the revolution in Russia will be to make the Russian Army more formidable to Germany than ever before”.4 The Daily Mail called it a “benign revolution”. The Times editorial ran: “A great revolution has been accomplished in Russia. After nearly a week of chaos in Petrograd something like a parliamentary government controls the situation”.5

On 22 March Prime Minister Lloyd George put a motion to parliament that read:

This House sends to the Duma its fraternal greetings and tenders to the Russian people its heartiest congratulations upon the establishment among them of free institutions in full confidence that they will lead not only to the rapid and happy progress of the Russian nation but to the prosecution with renewed steadfastness and vigour of the war against the stronghold of an autocratic militarism which threatens the liberty of Europe.6

Labour’s spokesman in the debate, George Wardle MP, added: “Two facts stand out with regard to this revolution—it is parliamentary, and it is constitutional. It betokens no weakening of Russia’s will in regard to the war”.

The relief among the liberal warriors was almost tangible. They had gone to war ostensibly to fight the tyrannical Kaiser. The fact that their ally the Russian Tsar was as much of a tyrant had complicated the claim.

Among class conscious workers there was elation at the news of the revolution. Aneurin Bevan reported: “I remember the miners, when they heard that the Tsarist tyranny had been overthrown, rushing to meet each other in the streets with tears streaming down their cheeks, shaking hands and saying: ‘At last it has happened’”.7 Sylvia Pankhurst, writing in the Woman’s Dreadnought, had a clearer view of the importance of the February Revolution than most: “At present there are virtually two governments in Russia—The provisional government appointed by the Duma and the Council of Labour Deputies, which is responsible to the elected representatives of the workers and the soldiers”.8

On 27 March 1917 the British Navy detained Leon Trotsky at Halifax in Canada for a month as he travelled home to Russia from his exile in New York. Here the commanding officer, Colonel Morris, told Trotsky why he had been detained: “you are dangerous to the present Russian government” and “you are dangerous to the allies in general”.9

“Russia Free”, the Royal Albert Hall rally

While the government and the press were celebrating the victory of parliamentary democracy in Russia, there was already a debate beginning in the labour movement about the meaning of the revolution.

On 24 March there was a 7,000 strong rally in the Great Assembly Hall on Mile End Road in East London which heard speeches from representatives of Russian socialist groups, Robert Williams of the Transport Workers’ Union and Edwin C Fairchild and Joseph Fineberg, both of the British Socialist Party (BSP).10

The next weekend a packed meeting at the Royal Albert Hall, hosted by George Lansbury’s Herald, heard speeches from leading left wing figures hailing “Russia Free!” Lansbury wrote:

Every reader of the Herald, everyone who cares for freedom, who lives within walking or riding distance of the Albert Hall, London, must make it a matter of duty to be present at the hall this Saturday, when the people of London will be given the opportunity of sending a resolution of congratulation to our Russian comrades.11

Over 10,000 people attended the meeting and a further 5,000 were turned away at the door.

The speakers included Lansbury, trade union leaders Robert Williams and Robert Smillie, suffragist Maude Royden, Commander Josiah Wedgwood—a Liberal MP who became Assistant Director of Trench Warfare with the rank of Colonel—and Arthur Lynch, an MP for the Irish Parliamentary Party who raised his own private battalion to support the British war effort. Lansbury opened the meeting: “This triumph has come, friends, because for the first time that I know of in history—at least, in modern history—soldiers, working class soldiers, have refused to fire on the workers (Loud and continued cheers)”. While the government were celebrating the victory of democracy in Russia, the meeting highlighted the lack of democracy for women in Britain. In fact the audience was made up mainly of women as many young men were at war.

The Albert Hall meeting was an important early response to the revolution by the British left. The Herald report described the mood: “The meeting at the Albert Hall…marked a turning point in the mood, the spirit, the activities of our country…every seat in the vast hall was taken. People stood three deep in the gallery”.12 But it had weaknesses. There were strong illusions in the democratic powers held by the new Duma government and the influence that the “socialist” ministers would have. There was little discussion about ending the war. The soviets, which were formed at the same time as the provisional government, were barely mentioned. This reflected the parliamentary reformist views held by the organisers of the meeting.

The class struggle in 1917

As table 1 demonstrates, the class struggle in Britain had been rising prior to the outbreak of war in 1914. Union membership had risen from 2.5 million in 1909 to 4.5 million in 1914.13 The war halted this. Overwhelmingly the Labour and trade union leaders joined in with the jingoism of the British ruling class and dampened down industrial unrest. However, the resistance soon began to grow again. Between 1915 and early 1917 a number of significant rent strikes and strikes against dilution saw a revival of militancy.14 During this time the National Shop Stewards’ Movement was born.15 Between 1915 and 1917 the strike levels recovered. More people were involved in strikes in wartime 1917 than in peacetime 1914.

Table 1: Labour disputes annual estimates (1910-21)

Source: Office for National Statistics, 2017.


Number of stoppages beginning in year

Total number of workers involved (thousands)

Total working days lost in year (thousands)

















































May Day 1917 was celebrated around the country with demonstrations with support for the Russian Revolution one of the slogans. Some 50,000 marched in London, thousands in Manchester. In Liverpool the demonstration was joined by 150 Russian sailors.16 The Herald reported on the Glasgow demonstration: “The greatest of the Scottish demonstrations was held in Glasgow and was taken part in by…between 70,000 and 80,000 persons…every face in the processions was lit with the new hope for democracy which has come from Russia… A cheering feature was the large number of soldiers who fraternised with processionists”.17

The Labour Party and the war

In 1900 the trade union leaders, feeling the pressure of the Taff Vale judgement (which made unions potentially liable to pay for damages resulting from strike action), formed the Labour Representation Committee (LRC).18 However, the LRC, and the Labour Party which was formed in 1906, were not formed to fight for socialism. They were the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy. Their objective was not class war, but class peace, and the “national interest” was central to their philosophy.

The Labour Party and similar parties across the world were affiliated to the Second International, which initially opposed the looming imperialist war. A resolution passed in 1907 called for: “The working classes and their parliamentary representatives…to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war… In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination”.19

But, tragically, at the outbreak of war most of the Second International, including the British Labour Party, abandoned their opposition to the war and switched to the worst jingoism. When Ramsay MacDonald raised doubts about the war, he was replaced as Labour leader by Arthur Henderson, who, in 1915, was rewarded with a position in Herbert Asquith’s government. Ben Tillett, general secretary of the Dockers’ Union, summed up Labour’s position: “In a strike I am for my class, right or wrong; in a war I am for my country, right or wrong”.20 Throughout the war, despite the impact of the Russian Revolution, the growing clamour for peace and the increasing militancy of the working class, the Labour Party continued to defend the interests of British imperialism.

However, the majority of the 13,000-strong Independent Labour Party (ILP) opposed the war. The ILP was one of the founding organisations of the Labour Party and the only significant individual membership section until 1918. Many of its members became conscientious objectors. Out of 1,191 trials of objectors, 805 were ILP members and 70 died in jail through mistreatment.21 The ILP was by far the largest left wing organisation in Britain, growing to 37,000 members and 787 branches by 1920. It was a broad organisation including people influenced by Marxism and individuals on the right of the movement such as MacDonald, who said: “I reject what seems to be the crude notion of a class war, because class consciousness leads nowhere”.22

Other organisations on the left

There were also several smaller Marxist and socialist groups active at the time but the left was fractured and sectarian. While all the organisations contained talented individuals they each had different sectarian theories and practices that prevented them rising to the revolutionary possibilities of the years after the Russian Revolution.

The biggest explicitly Marxist organisation in Britain was the British Socialist Party (BSP). The BSP was a descendant of the first British Marxist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The BSP was widely seen as an abstract propagandist organisation and was rarely involved in workers’ struggles. Its leader Henry Hyndman reduced Marxism to a dogma, believing that the inevitable collapse of capitalism would leave them to assume power. Nonetheless, its ranks included some prominent revolutionaries such as John Maclean, who finally broke with the BSP in 1919, and Willie Gallacher, who was a leader of the Clyde Workers’ Committee. Hyndman and the BSP initially supported the war, with a significant minority opposing it. But at the BSP conference in 1916 Hyndman was defeated and the party took an anti-war position.

Originating in Scotland, the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) broke away from the SDF in 1903 in opposition to the SDF’s participation in the emerging Labour Party. The SLP rejected any involvement with reformism, whether it be in political parties or craftist or “trade” unions, which limited their demands to the working conditions of their members. Their constitution forbade them from taking union positions. In practice this led to them looking towards industrial unions which they believed could unite the whole working class in a challenge to capitalism. Although the strength of this approach lay in a focus on the power of workers, its weakness was in seeing a political party as an educator, not a leader. Although the SLP was small, its ideas influenced important initiatives such as the syndicalist pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step.23 The SLP opposed the war from the outset and their members participated in anti-war propaganda.24

The Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF) was based almost solely in the East End of London and was led by Sylvia Pankhurst. It grew out of the Women’s Suffrage Federation which Pankhurst formed when the suffragettes split. The catalyst for the split in the suffragettes was the war, with Sylvia opposing it, while the majority supported and actively participated in the war effort. It also reflected the class tensions that ran through a movement that included both working class and middle class women. The WSF were effective agitators and threw themselves into the Hands Off Russia campaign. However, it was a sectarian organisation that preached a pure revolution and was hostile not only to Labour but to any form of parliamentary activity.

The Women’s Peace Crusade (WPC) had started in 1916 in Glasgow and held a national conference in June 1917. It was avowedly socialist with one of its founders, Helen Crawfurd, stating she was “an international socialist with a profound hatred of war with all its ghastly cruelty and waste”.25 The WPC concentrated on organising working class women. In a June 1917 letter to the Labour Leader Crawfurd wrote:

The people of Russia have appealed to the common people of every country to let their voices be heard demanding peace without annexations and without indemnities! They have called to us to subdue our Imperialists as they have vanquished theirs… It is to the common people that the people of Russia have appealed. Shall we remain silent any longer?26

The WPC held demonstrations in most major cities and towns. In June 1917 over 12,000 people marched in Glasgow, passing a resolution congratulating the Russian Revolution and calling for immediate peace negotiations.27 The Glasgow WPC held anti-war meetings at the shipyard gates. In September 1917 the WPC had 33 branches and a year later 123 branches.

The WPC, like the rest of the anti-war movement, met with bitter resistance including a hostile press and police raids on their premises. Demonstrations in Glasgow were attacked by the Patriot League and a WPC demonstration of 1,200 in Nelson, Lancashire, which had banners hailing the Russian Revolution, is reported to have been met by a pro-war demonstration of 50,000.28

Britain had entered 1917 with a Labour Party totally committed to the interests of British capitalism and with the oldest trade union bureaucracy in the world which held deeply entrenched conservative views. British unions, based around a craft or trade rather than across an industry, had grown up during a long period of economic stability and the ruling class had often been able to buy peace. As such, major conflicts could be avoided. Sectionalism—the defence of the vested interests of the craftsman—dominated.29 This was the ideological climate that shaped the Labour Party and the Marxist currents and that would have to be overcome if a mass revolutionary party were to be built.

The Leeds Convention

In May 1917 the United Socialist Council (USC),30 made up primarily of the ILP and BSP, called for a national convention on 3 June in Leeds with the snappy title “Great Labour, Socialist and Democratic Convention to hail the Russian Revolution and to Organise the British Democracy To Follow Russia”. Some 1,150 delegates from Trades Councils, Trade Unions, the Labour Party, ILP and BSP gathered alongside at least 2,000 others to discuss the impact of the February Revolution and what could be done in Britain.31

From the outset those organising the event were harassed by the media, the establishment and right wing groups like the British Workers’ League. Their hire of the Leeds Albert Hall was cancelled and they met instead at the Leeds Coliseum. The local authority refused to allow an evening open air assembly in Victoria Square after the convention had ended and hotels refused to accept bookings from delegates. Lady Constance Malleson, who attended the convention, reported the response some delegates received in Leeds: “The crowd hissed as we went through the streets to the conference. Some of the children threw stones. There were a lot of police about”.32

The convention opened to a message of support from the Petrograd Soviet expressing its “salutations and fraternal greetings”.33 Miners’ leader Robert Smillie chaired the convention. In his opening remarks he congratulated the Russian people for winning their freedom and said it must be right for British people to desire their freedom as well. But he said: “Now, we have not come here to talk treason. We have come here to talk reason”.34

The wide spectrum of participants in the convention reflected all the strands of the socialist movement in Britain. It heard contributions from Sylvia Pankhurst, Tom Mann, Bertrand Russell and many of the leaders of the Shop Stewards Movement. Pankhurst described the mood of the meeting: “It…voiced a growing deeply felt revolt against things as they are: the war with its hideous carnage, and the capitalist system, which perpetuates the war of exploitation and wage slavery”.35

Labour politicians made left wing speeches. Ramsay MacDonald MP said: “Today we congratulate the Russians on the revolution without any reservation whatever”.36 Philip Snowden MP attacked British peace plans which included annexations. Four motions were passed at the conference:

1. Congratulating the Russian Revolution.

2. On Foreign Policy.

3. On Civil Liberties.

4. On Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils.

No amendments were accepted to the motions.

The foreign policy motion was a rambling text that attempted to reflect the different opinions in the room. It hailed “with the greatest satisfaction the declaration of the foreign policy and the war aims of the Russian provisional government”.37 It called for the British government to announce its agreement with the provisional government’s war aims. But at no point did the motion call for an immediate peace, or for Britain to withdraw from the war. Under the cover of the Russian Revolution, the conference organisers effectively supported the temporary continuance of the war, as this was the position of the provisional government. But the motion pledged to work for “an agreement with the international democracies for the re-establishment of a general peace”. More radically, the motion also called for “a peace without annexations or indemnities and based on the rights of nations to decide their own affairs”.38

This motion caused a debate that reflected the ongoing tensions over the war. It was opposed by Edward Tupper, a pro-war seafarers’ union leader who insisted that there should be indemnities at the end of the war.39 He argued that seafarers’ widows should be reimbursed by the “enemy”, to uproar from delegates who heckled that it should be the ship owners who paid. Ernest Bevin, leader of the dockers’ union, spoke on the motion and suggested that if Germany did not take similar steps to the Leeds Convention, the convention should support a “vigorous prosecution of the war”.40

The motion and speeches on civil liberties pointed out the inconsistencies between Russia and Britain, with Russia now having far more civil liberties than Britain.

The motion declaring Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, proposed by ILP MP William Crawford Anderson, stated:

The Conference calls upon the constituent bodies at once to establish in every town, urban, and rural district, Councils of Workmen and Soldiers’ Delegates for initiating and coordinating working class activity in support of the policy set out in the foregoing resolution, and to work strenuously for a peace made by the peoples of the various countries, and for the complete political and economic emancipation of international labour.41

The motion is full of excellent sentiment and referred to all the key issues of the moment. As the platform of a political campaign group it would be one to be proud of. But it claimed to be more than this, it claimed to be the formation of a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, a soviet. As one delegate pointed out, the soviet was formed out of the revolution in Russia, not in a predetermining conference. The soviet was the discovery of the Russian working class at war with the autocracy and capitalist class. Yet in Britain Labour politicians who were wedded to capitalism were attempting to pre-empt further struggle and call their own soviet into existence. This led to a sharp debate, with Willie Gallacher pointing out: “This conference seems to be agreed that the Russian Revolution is settled, but is it?”42

The conference passed the motion and elected 13 people, 12 men and just one woman, the suffragette Charlotte Despard, to the Provisional Committee which included MacDonald, Snowden and two other MPs. These 13 were to be supplemented by 13 others elected by local conventions.

The convention created a wide debate in the Labour movement. In a report in the Dockers’ Record, Ben Tillett condemned the conference, complaining of the presence of young people (under 26!), and some people of “alien origin”. He condemned MacDonald’s “revolutionary speech” and accused the conference of being pro-German.43 The Leeds Mercury quoted Tillett complaining: “There were also on the floor as many as a hundred men calling themselves Russians, but they were in fact German Jews”.44 The editorial of the Railway Review, produced by the National Union of Railwaymen, complained about: “an attempt to supersede parliamentary methods…this outside organisation will try to control government from the outside on the model of the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Committee in Russia”.45

The convention also caused a stir in government. A letter to Lloyd George from Lord Milner in the aftermath suggested they would “have to take some strong steps to stop the ‘rot’ in this country, unless we wish to ‘follow Russia’ into impotence and dissolution”.46

In July local district conferences of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council were called. In Birmingham 140 organisations elected 220 delegates to the meeting, an indication of the support the Leeds Convention and the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils (WSC) had generated.47

Conferences were also held in Norwich, Bristol and Leicester but in Swansea and Newcastle the meetings were broken up by jingoistic mobs. Hall bookings in Leeds, Manchester and Southampton were cancelled; the meeting planned for Manchester was finally held over 40 miles away in Southport and a hostile crowd tried to rush the meeting. The planned meeting of the WSC in Glasgow was discussed in the cabinet and the secretary of state was authorised to prohibit the meeting. Instead a march was organised and, to protect the marchers from attack, a barrier of shop stewards four deep surrounded them.48 The meeting in London had its first venue in Hackney cancelled and the Daily Express publicised the second location. Leaflets were distributed in local pubs suggesting the delegates were directing German bombing: “Shortly before the meeting was due to begin, two or three hundred men, led by overseas soldiers, entered the church singing Rule Britannia”.49 The government concluded that it “regarded the objects of such meetings as illegal, and would not permit them to be held”.50

Four months after the Leeds Convention, the National Council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council held its only meeting. MacDonald concluded in his report on the event to the ILP’s national executive that there “did not appear to be much prospect of activity on the part of the council”.51

Will Thorne was a longstanding leading figure in the British labour movement, a founder of the National Union of Gas Workers, a friend of Eleanor Marx and a participant in New Unionism. But by 1917 he was a pro-war Labour MP and was invited to go to Russia by the coalition government. On his return, Thorne was invited to meet George V and enthusiastically rushed to the palace. The king was concerned about the Leeds Convention:

“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 before many times in days gone by, and in my humble judgement there will never be a physical violent revolution in this country”… This seemed to relieve his mind, and he spoke to me in a most homely and pleasant way.52

The Leeds Convention was an important event for the British labour movement. It brought together trade unionists, reformists and revolutionaries to celebrate the Russian Revolution. Even without calling for an immediate peace, the convention raised expectations about the end of the war. Some Labour MPs could sense that society was now fed up with the war, although the official position of the Labour Party was that it had “nothing to do with the Leeds Convention”.53 But the convention also highlighted the confusion in the British labour movement about the significance and limitations of the February Revolution, and showed how far Labour politicians would go to try to contain the growing politicisation in the working class. Although the revolution had wrong-footed Labour, they were working hard to take back control.

While leading figures in the unions and the Labour Party such as MacDonald played a prominent role in the Leeds Convention, as Thorne’s comments show, for the right wing Labour leaders it was only ever about supporting a bourgeois democratic government that would wage the war more successfully, not fighting for peace or socialism.

The convention and the attempt to build Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils highlight both the highly politicised level reached by a significant minority of workers but also the unevenness in the class; the councils didn’t have a broad enough base and were easily dispersed.

The Stockholm Conference

In late July 1917 a delegation from the All-Russia Conference of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies visited London for three days.54 Their aim was to organise a conference in Stockholm made up of socialist organisations from all the warring countries to discuss a peace without annexations or indemnities and to persuade socialist parties to renounce the war aims of their own governments.55

This proposal raised sharp political problems for the Labour Party. A report in the Railway Review detailed the party’s key objection to the proposed Stockholm conference:

We are sure that no British Party would allow itself to enter a conference in which Germans were present a cardinal condition of which was that it was to accept the decision whatever it might entail… Fancy allowing enemies and neutrals deciding whether the British Labour Party should participate in the government of its own country.56

The Russian delegates were invited to participate in a conference of the socialist parties in the “allied countries” but the delegates rejected this as it sanctioned the breach in the socialist ranks caused by the war.57

A special conference of the Labour Party was held and agreed by 1,800,000 to 550,000 to send representatives to the Stockholm conference on the condition that the conference was merely consultative. Lenin opposed the Stockholm conference for precisely the reason that the Labour leaders eventually favoured it—it had no teeth, but would allow the reformists who had promoted the war for the previous three years to pretend they were fighting for peace.58

An important dispute then broke out in the war cabinet. Henderson had gone to Russia to represent the British government. He had encouraged Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government to continue the war and had addressed the soviet with the same proposal. But the British government felt that the Labour Party’s participation in Stockholm would not be in their interests as it would expose divisions between participants in the government. Henderson was locked out of the War Cabinet for over an hour while they debated Stockholm before they announced that they would not issue passports to any participants in the conference. In response he resigned from the government and shortly after resigned as Labour Party leader. This was a serious breach, although Labour replaced Henderson in the war cabinet. Sylvia Pankhurst described the role of the Labour Party in the war cabinet: “Mr Henderson was welcome in the cabinet, as his successor will be welcome, so long as he was content merely to play the part of keeping Labour quiet. He has served the capitalists well”.59

The Stockholm Conference never took place, but the very idea of an international peace conference involving socialists from the belligerent countries caused a political crisis across the establishment.

Union refuses to transport peace delegates to Petrograd

The National Sailors’ and Firemens’ Union had sent two delegates to the Leeds Conference, Captain Edward Tupper, who spoke in favour of indemnities, and Councillor Peter Wright, who wasn’t called to speak.

In June MacDonald and Bradford West MP Fred Jowett were due to visit Petrograd as British representatives on the SS Vulture. In a seven-page document entitled “The Seamen’s Action in Refusing to Carry Peace Delegates to Petrograd” the NSFU explained that they would refuse to take them, complaining about the response their delegates had received at the Leeds Convention:

On the 4th of June there were assembled in London representatives of the Seamen from every district in the United Kingdom. On that morning they read the reports from the papers of what had transpired at the Leeds Convention…and were naturally very indignant. They resolved to…refuse to carry peace delegates on the mission they had undertaken until such delegates apologised for the treatment meted out to the sailors’ representatives…

On the 10th of June Mr Ramsay MacDonald arrived at the port of sailing; he offered no apology, but proceeded to the vessel. On his arrival there the men immediately informed the Master that if Messrs. Ramsay MacDonald and Jowett went on board they, the members of the crew, would be reluctantly compelled to leave the vessel.60

MacDonald and Jowett were unable find a vessel to take them to Russia and the journey was abandoned.

Three years into the war, with growing working class resistance, these debates exposed both the possibilities of political generalisation and the incredible unevenness in the working class movement which would hamper future developments. While important sections of the movement were breaking with the war and capitalism, nationalism ran deep and the failure of the Labour and trade union leaders to oppose the war from its outset had left a lasting weakness.

The October Revolution

The October Revolution saw the soviets, under the leadership of the Bolshevik majority, seize power. As soon as the soviets came to power they issued a declaration calling for an immediate end to the war.61 This was a political masterstroke. The call was circulated around a European working class that was tired of the death toll and deprivations of war and was widely taken up.

In Britain, October deepened the polarisation between those who wanted to overthrow capitalism, and those who wanted to save and reform it. The socialist press reflected this split: The Workers’ Dreadnought welcomed the revolution: “Our eager hopes are for the speedy success of the Bolsheviks of Russia: may they open the door which leads to freedom for the people of all lands”.62 In December the Dreadnought published a special issue on Russia that explained and defended Soviet power.63

But in the Herald, H N Brailsford was scathing:

On any reading of sane democracy, the Maximalists [Bolsheviks] have acted ill…their real crime against Russia is that they have followed Kornilov in perpetuating an epoch of violence… The best thing to hope for Russia in this crisis is the recognition…of a provisional government which will instantly set to work to get the constituent assembly elected.64

At the beginning of 1918 MacLean was appointed Bolshevik Consul in Glasgow. A monster demonstration was organised to celebrate his appointment. It pledged solidarity with the Bolshevik government.65

The National Administrative Council of the Shop Stewards’ Movement also met to discuss food and manpower. It urged the movement to take strike action for peace, advising them to “demand that the government shall at once accept the invitation of the Russian government to consider peace terms”.66 At a huge meeting in Glasgow at the end of January the call was taken up with enthusiasm.67 Unfortunately this was not echoed elsewhere. The February issue of Solidarity, the paper of the English stewards, ran this comment:

If we could only be certain that the German workers would follow suit, we would have no hesitation in calling for an immediate policy of “down tools and damn the consequences”. But we are not in touch with our fellow workers in Germany… It may be that the German workers would be willing to do the bidding of their warlords by attempting to invade these islands. In which case, they would get the surprise of their lives.68

The tragedy was that at this very time half a million German workers were striking for peace.69 Where they were consulted some stewards groups opposed a strike against the war, but had the stewards’ National Advisory Council fought for the strike it could have significantly altered future events.

British intervention in Russia

After the victory of the soviets in October the British government was immediately involved in preparations to overthrow the Soviet government.

A memorandum adopted by the cabinet on 21 December 1917 stated “we should represent to the Bolsheviks that we have no desire to take part in any way in the internal politics of Russia, and that any idea that we favour a counter-revolution is a profound mistake”. But the document went on to discuss how such a counter-revolution could be funded.70 The government expected that Soviet rule would be temporary and that any public opposition to the new Russian government would benefit Germany. The British therefore quietly sought anti-Soviet allies within Russia.

Significant British arms dumps had been built up in the ports of Murmansk and Archangel in Northern Russia. These were considered to be attractive to the German army as they swept into Russia following the treaty of Brest-Litovsk.71 In April 1918 a detachment of Royal Marines landed at Murmansk purportedly to protect the arms dumps. They were soon joined by reinforcements. By December there were 40,000 Allied troops in the area, including 12,000 British troops, expanding the areas that they controlled beyond Murmansk and Archangel. These British controlled areas became the focus for anti-Bolshevik forces to gather and reorganise.

Victor Serge describes how the British consulate in Petrograd was also actively involved in trying to disrupt the Soviet government.72 Some £300,000 had been allocated for a plot by the British naval attaché Francis Cromie to attempt to destroy the Russian fleet. Cromie was killed in a gunfight when the Cheka raided the consulate.73 The British chargé d’affaires in Moscow, Bruce Lockhart, was caught when the Cheka raided a clandestine meeting planning sabotage in August 1918. A British lieutenant, Sidney Reilly, was charged with organising a coup in Moscow in September 1918 which aimed to arrest Lenin and Trotsky and “shoot them on the spot”. Lockhart was also involved in creating the counter-revolutionary units that wanted the British to intervene in Archangel.74

When the First World War came to an end in November 1918, British troops remained in northern Russia. In the spring of 1919 two British aircraft carriers were sent with reinforcements. The British weapons included poison gas. Winston Churchill, then minister of munitions, was obsessed with overthrowing the Bolsheviks and commented on the poison gas: “I should very much like the Bolsheviks to have it”.75

There were mutinies across Britain during the spring of 1919.76 While these were mostly about the speed of demobilisation and the terrible conditions the soldiers endured, many also demanded not to be sent to fight in Russia. On
8 January 1919 4,000 members of the Army Service Corps based in west London elected a committee and raised ten demands including later starts, earlier finishes and no draft to Russia. Having marched to Downing Street they won their demands.

One of the largest mutinies, in Calais in January 1919, involved 20,000 soldiers who formed a network of committees. One group of these soldiers demanded to be allowed to attend a BSP initiated “Hands Off Russia” meeting in the Royal Albert Hall.78 Churchill issued a circular to the military which asked if their troops were under the influence of trade unionists, whether they would break strikes, and if they would go to Russia.79 Andrew Rothstein, author of The Soldiers’ Strikes of 1919, was a member of the BSP. Rothstein was transferred from a Yeomanry regiment to the Meteorological Section of the Royal Engineers. When they heard that they would be invited to volunteer for the North Russian Expeditionary Force, Rothstein addressed a crowded recreation room and argued why he supported the revolution and why they should refuse to intervene. Despite being offered 24 shillings per day, compared to the current 15 per week, only one person volunteered.80

The soldiers’ protests continued through 1919, in August:

Somewhere between 200 and 500 soldiers of the 2/7th Warwicks and the 2/5th Gloucesters mutinied, in a rather peaceful fashion, at Southampton… Somehow they had come under the impression that they were going to be sent from France to partake in the British military action taking place in Russia… Instead of heading for the docks, the soldiers assembled in a park and lounged around on the grass. They were very orderly and gave no trouble to the civil authorities. They posted the following notices on the railings: “We are being sent to Russia without being asked”. “War Office said ‘volunteers only’. Why should we go?” “Shall we go to the Black Sea? No”.81

The next day the soldiers refused to surrender so they were arrested by three companies of the Royal Sussex Regiment with fixed bayonets and machine guns.

British soldiers revolt in Russia

On 11 January 1919 Churchill was appointed War Minister. Throughout January cabinet meetings discussed the mutinies and the intervention in Russia with Churchill calling for more troops. It was estimated that 500,000 troops would be needed for Russia, far in excess of the 15,000 currently there. By 19 February Churchill reported that the British intervention was crumbling. The high command were terrified of the troops rebelling.

In the freezing conditions of a Russian winter, occupying troops from France refused to engage in battle. American troops also refused to fight. In January 1919 the Americans decided to withdraw their troops, leading to further demoralisation among the British and French. The troops began questioning why, if they had enlisted to fight the Germans, they were now fighting Russians, who they were not at war with.

The Bolsheviks exploited these problems with leaflets pinned to trees and dropped from planes. Their literature called out to working class consciousness, entreating the “English worker soldiers” to recognise “all the lies, all the hypocrisy of their Lloyd Georges, Northcliffes, Masseys and other Lords and capitalists”.82 A weekly four-page paper called The Call, the same title as the BSP newspaper, was distributed to British troops.83 It encouraged demands for demobilisation and spread information among British troops in Russia about revolts among the troops at home. A leaflet entitled “Why have you come to Mourmansk?” signed by Lenin, was widely distributed to British troops:

For the first time in history the working people have got control of their country. The workers of all countries are striving to achieve this objective. We in Russia have succeeded. We have thrown off the rule of the Tsar, of landlords and of capitalists. But we still have tremendous difficulties to overcome. We cannot build a new society in a day. We ask you, are you going to crush us? To help give Russia back to the landlords, the capitalists and the Tsar?84

The British troops endured freezing conditions and paltry rations. One soldier reported disembarking at Murmansk thus:

On coming alongside the landing stage, we met a party of British soldiers, and in all my life I never ran across such miserable objects. The first thing they shouted at us was, “Have you any bread?” That didn’t make us feel very comfortable, I can assure you. However, I went below and begged a bowl of hot rice, and handed it up to them. The sight I shall never forget. The man in possession soon found himself surrounded by the hungry boys, who, without standing upon ceremony, simply snatched it away from him in handfuls and ate it just like wild beasts.85

In February 1919 Bolshevik forces launched an attack on British positions near Shred and extra British troops were ordered to reinforce them. Instead they struck. On Saturday 22 February Private Riley Rudd recorded the following: “All have gone on strike—held meeting in IM hut last night and passed resolutions that they must be withdrawn from Russia immediately. Others to the effect that censorship be removed from letters in order that the people in England may get to know the true state of affairs out here”.86 A White Russian general, V V Maruchevsky, reported that in response to this mutiny his troops were asked to “position machine guns on the road in case of open riot by the British”.87 Two sergeants and 30 other soldiers were arrested and sentenced to be shot, although the sentence was commuted to imprisonment. The soldiers were informed that they would return to Britain after the thaw and that there would be no more fighting.

The revolts by troops in Britain were never described as mutinies at the time, and, for fear of the troops linking up with the workers, no soldier was ever shot for mutiny in Russia, under secret orders issued after the Armistice.

There was a revolt aboard the river gunboat HMS Cicala in northern Russia in June 1919 and in September there was a further revolt by the 6th Battalion of the Royal Marine Light Infantry.

Churchill had planned to evacuate the British troops and replace them with a volunteer force. They were to work with the White Russian armies that the British had been training, organising and leading. A major assault was planned to force the Bolsheviks back, to create space for the British withdrawal. News of this plan created instability in the Russo-British units. White Russian soldiers feared for their survival without the British troops. A series of revolts and mutinies in the White Russian armies, some the result of Bolshevik agitation, paralysed the British plans and the units had to be disarmed. On 15 October 1919 the last of 18,000 British troops were evacuated from Russia. Churchill’s plans had been defeated by the resistance of local workers and peasants, fierce fighting by the Red Army, revolt among the White Armies, and mutiny by British troops who didn’t know why they were fighting and wanted to go home. Lloyd George commented: “If demobilisation had been stopped in order to divert the troops from France to Odessa or Archangel there would have been a mutiny. The attempt to raise a force of volunteers for the purpose of waging war against the Bolsheviks was a miserable failure”.88

Mutinies are not simply strikes in the armed forces. When soldiers refuse orders a key element of the state is beginning to crumble. The ruling class has to decide whether it can crush it, or whether this would spread and deepen the resistance. That so few punishments were meted out, and that no mutineers were executed, is a sign of the fear the ruling class felt. Had they completely lost control the notion of workers’ and soldiers’ councils could have taken on real meaning at home, and they could have faced humiliating defeat in Russia.

While the Russians were fighting to defend their revolution, the revolutionaries in Britain were organising to support them.

On 18 January 1919 a “Hands Off Russia” conference, designed to build political opposition to intervention, was held in London with 350 participants. Speakers included dock worker Harry Pollitt, Arthur McManus and Pankhurst. The conference opened to the news that Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had been murdered.89 The campaign involved socialists and trade unionists, but also former senior officers in the army. They organised leafletting and speaking tours, as well as trying to disrupt speeches by pro-intervention ministers.

George Barnsby gives an example of the Hands Off Russia campaign in Birmingham.90 It was formed at a 150 strong conference in November 1919. In January J T Murphy, the National Shop Stewards’ leader, spoke in Small Heath, Tyseley and Aston (all industrial areas at the time). A year later it was reported that Birmingham Hands Off Russia had organised 50 public meetings addressed by leading labour movement figures and three huge demonstrations, two of these in August in response to the threat of war in Poland.

Stopping intervention in Poland

On 24 April 1920 the Polish general Józef Piłsudski launched an invasion of Russia aiming to incorporate Ukraine into the Polish state. The British government denied any involvement in funding or arming the Polish government, but were to be caught out by the workers’ movement.

Hands Off Russia worked hard at the dock gates, distributing their own literature and Lenin’s “Appeal to the Toiling Masses”.91 They were trying to stop the distribution of munitions to crush Russia. While there were many rumours, it was difficult to confirm which vessels were being used.

Pollitt was instructed to work on a barge loading munitions destined for Poland:

I was ordered to work on these barges, and asked point blank, “were they for war purposes—to help Poland against Russia?” I was told “Yes”. So I refused to work on this job, got sacked, and will confess was greatly disappointed that, in spite of my influence with the shipyard workers, I did not succeed in getting strike action on this job.92

While Pollitt was understandably frustrated, during the journey across the North Sea the tow ropes broke and the barges sank, an event that another docker had mysteriously predicted! Another vessel, the Jolly George, was now being prepared for Poland with munitions. Under the headline “Well Done London Dockers” the Workers’ Dreadnought reported:

On Monday May 10th, at one pm, the shipping workers in the East India Dock, who were ordered to load the “Jolly George” which was to carry munitions to Poland, struck work. They had only been working 20 minutes when they saw the guns coming down, and declined to touch them. The coalies heard a great commotion amongst the dockers and asked the cause of the trouble. When they learnt it, they refused to coal the ship.93

The dockers approached Fred Thompson and Ernest Bevin, the London and general secretaries of the Dockers’ Union, who agreed to support the action. On 15 May the munitions were unloaded from the ship.

The impact on the docks, and far beyond, was a sense that it was possible to help the Russian Revolution. The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) executive passed a motion concluding “the action of the dockers in refusing to load the ‘Jolly George’ is worthy of practical support. We, therefore, instruct our members to refuse to handle any material which is intended to assist Poland against the Russian people”.94 Pollitt described the strike on the Jolly George as “the result of two years’ tremendously hard and unremitting work on the part of a devoted band of comrades in east London”.95

In the summer the British army threatened to intervene to support the Polish Army. There was a huge outcry of opposition. The Labour Party felt the need to respond to the angry mood. On 7 August its secretary Henderson sent a telegram to every local Labour Party calling on them to organise “citizens’ demonstrations”. In response there were massive demonstrations around the country. The national Council of Action was formed on 9 August by the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC, the Labour Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party. They called for Councils of Action to be formed around the country and warned the government that “the whole industrial power of the organised workers will be used to defeat this war”.96 A National Labour Conference then met on Friday 13 August with 1,044 delegates and threatened a general strike.97 Some 350 Councils of Action were formed around the country—including a 400 strong meeting in Birmingham—and started organising meetings and protests.

The British government was forced to end its support for Poland. Churchill complained:

The British Labour Party had developed a violent agitation against any British assistance being given to Poland… Lloyd George was constrained to advise the Polish Government that the Russian terms “do no violence to the ethnographical frontiers of Poland as an independent state”, and that if they were rejected the British government could not take any action against Russia.98

The government was caught between a militant working class, an explosion of political opposition to a further war, and troops who were sick of fighting. While it was certainly not the intention of the TUC or Labour leaderships, they were being forced into threatening to use industrial muscle for political means. Some activists drew parallels between the Councils of Action and the Russian soviets. The trade union and Labour leaders were cornered by the militancy in the working class. Their solution was to talk radical, sometimes even revolutionary language, in an effort to lead the class away from its own power. One of the most cynical leaders was rail workers’ leader James Thomas. He made a fiery speech at the meeting of the Council of Action calling for a general strike but: “In 1919 Thomas has stated that he had led the rail strike to maintain control over the rank and file and avert the dangers of revolution”.99 His real attitude towards industrial militancy was summed up by his saying, “Let the motto for the workers of the country be, ‘Settle Down’”.100

Impact on the British Empire

One of the first declarations of the Soviet government was the “Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia” which was signed on 15 November 1917. It declared the right of previously subject nations to self-determination and the right to secede.101 This inevitably had a big impact on the British Empire’s oppressed nations including India and Ireland.

The head of the British Army, General Sir Henry Wilson, “warned the king and the British government that ‘a Bolshevik rising was likely’”, writing “I have not been so nervous about the state of affairs in the British empire since July 1914, and in many ways I am more anxious today than I was even in that fateful month”.102

The Indian National Congress expressed a growing demand for independence. Northern India bordered the Russian Empire and at the 1917 annual conference of Congress its president noted India’s “‘free and self-governing neighbours across the northern frontiers’ and declared that ‘in future unless India wins self-government, she will enviously look at her self-governing neighbours and the contrast will intensify her interests’”.103 The workers’ movement in India was small and unions only began to be formed in 1918. The Communist Party of India was formed in 1920 after its founder M N Roy attended the Second Congress of the Communist International and was put in charge of work in the Eastern countries.

In Ireland the 1916 Easter Rising had been celebrated by Lenin as it weakened the hold of British imperialism. References to Irish freedom run through events in Britain in 1917. In March 1917 Lansbury wrote in The Herald: “The press which today hails the revolution in Russia as the triumph of righteousness is the same press which supported the government in repressing the Irish revolution of a twelve month ago”.104 In February 1918, 10,000 people packed into the Mansion House in Dublin to celebrate the Russian Revolution and between 1919 and 1922 there were waves of strikes and occupations that called themselves soviets. In 1919 there was a general strike in Belfast and a soviet was declared in Limerick that April, where the trades council took control of the water, gas and electricity supplies.105 In 1920, inspired by the British dockers’ refusal to load armaments destined for the Russian intervention, Irish dockers also refused. James Connolly’s son Roddy participated in the Second Congress of the Communist International.106

Britain on the brink: Labour and the Communist Party

In the midst of this crisis for the British state the Labour Party sought to redefine its social programme and to align itself to the radicalising mood.

The Labour Party was a conservative reformist organisation. Henderson, its wartime leader, wrote in December 1917: “Revolution is a word of evil omen”.107

In 1918 it launched a new programme, Labour and the New Social Order,108 written by Sidney Webb, a Fabian who in 1918 called any interest in shifting power towards the working class a “shibboleth”. But despite the party’s commitment to gradualism, the new programme reflected the sharpened class tensions of 1917, and the possibilities opened by the Russian Revolution. Most famously, Clause 4 of the new constitution stated that Labour’s aim was “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the common ownership of the means of production”. The new constitution brought the trade unions into the centre of the party and launched local membership Constituency Labour Parties, effectively isolating the more radical ILP.

Clause 4 both reflected the new political reality, and Labour’s attempts to place itself at the head of the movement in order to contain it.

In 1919 there was a massive increase in struggle and Britain looked on the brink of revolution.109 The number of workers involved in strikes was among the highest in British history (see table 1). Although most major industries were in private hands, the government had taken over control of production and most industrial relations. As such the government provided a focus for much of the anger and militancy that developed. In January 100,000 Glasgow engineers struck for a 40-hour week. On 31 January 35,000 people demonstrated in George Square and were attacked by the police. The next day the city was occupied by tanks and soldiers from England. Strike leaders Gallacher and Manny Shinwell were jailed. The miners demanded a 30 percent pay rise, a six-hour day and nationalisation of the industry. Meanwhile strikes were threatened by railway, postal and electrical workers and even the police. The government published weekly reports on “Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom”.

In 1914 the miners, railway workers and transport workers union leaders had formed the Triple Alliance to support each other’s disputes and they all had pay demands in 1919. However, the union leaders squandered the opportunity and retreated from the battle and the alliance collapsed.

The October Revolution forced the British revolutionary left to review their theory and practice, with many activists from beyond the existing parties drawn to revolution and soviet power. The industrial and political struggles in 1919 and 1920 helped propel the revolutionary groups into the formation of a unified communist party on the model created by the Bolsheviks. The Communist International was formed in 1919; in January 1920 the National Shop Stewards’ Movement affiliated to it.

But the propagandist and sectarian histories of the various groups were not to be easily overcome. Between December 1918 and July 1920 there were continual discussions and realignments between the revolutionary groups. In March 1919 the ILP withdrew as they didn’t agree with revolution and soviet power. The SLP split into pro and anti-merger groups. The WSF unilaterally declared itself the Communist Party (CP). The disagreements were focused on differing approaches to standing in elections and affiliating to the Labour Party.110

Finally, on 31 July 1920 the Communist Unity Convention brought together 160 delegates to form the Communist Party of Great Britain. The conference voted 186 to 19 to engage in elections but by just 100 to 85 to affiliate to Labour.

In August 1920 the 2nd Congress of the Communist International met. The British delegates were: John Maclean and Tom Quelch (BSP), Dick Beach (IWW), and Willie Gallacher, JT Murphy, David Ramsay and Jack Tanner (Shop Stewards’ Movement). Sylvia Pankhurst of the WSF and Walton Newbold from the National League of Labour Youth were present as consultative delegates.

There was a crucial debate about the attitude of Communists towards parliamentary work. Recognising the experiences in various countries, including Britain, the Thesis on “The Communist Party and Parliament”111 argued a number of clear points:

The fact that parliament is a bourgeois state institution is no argument at all against participation in the parliamentary struggle. The communist party enters the institution not to function within it as an integral part of the parliamentary system, but to take action inside parliament that helps to smash the bourgeois state machine and parliament itself.112

These theses argued that election campaigns should be directed to assisting and mobilising struggles and that the parliamentary struggle was far less important than the class struggle outside parliament. Lenin and Maclean spoke in support of affiliation to the British Labour Party with Gallacher and Pankhurst against. Here Lenin raised his famous analysis of the Labour Party:

Of course, most of the Labour Party’s members are workingmen. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie.113

Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, published in June 1920, tackled the “left wing” arguments for non-participation in the parliamentary struggle and in the Labour Party in Britain.114

These interventions by Lenin and the Second Congress of the Communist International were crucial in arming and educating the leading figures in the British Communist movement and helped make sure they were forged into a single Communist Party.115

In Scotland elements of the shop stewards had formed themselves into the Communist Labour Party (CLP). In December 1920 there was a further unity conference in which the CLP and CP (previously WSF) now agreed to merge to form one Communist Party in Britain.


A key question raised by these events is whether the revolutionary forces in Britain could have made a bigger breakthrough, leading to the formation of a more sizeable communist party as happened in many European countries. Or was the hold of the union and labour leaders unbreakable?

The tumultuous events of 1917 to 1920 were played out in a Britain undergoing significant change. British capitalism had literally ruled the world. The capitalist class felt secure in its position and there was a relatively stable economic and political climate. This allowed the growth of a strong and conservative union bureaucracy which felt no need for its own political voice, being happy to rely on the Liberals. Just a decade later the trade union bureaucracy found its hold over the working class seriously challenged and they were forced to work hard to hold back the class. The Labour Party, the child of the union bureaucracy, also had to radicalise to remain relevant in this revolutionary climate.

The war heralded the beginning of the end of the British Empire, and it threw millions of workers into battle for the first time, spawning a growth of the unions and a political polarisation that saw the emergence of a mass membership Labour Party and the growth of the revolutionary left. But, while the years 1917 to 1919 produced a significant radicalisation, this remained very uneven. In the 1918 General Election Labour won only one of the 15 seats in Red Clydeside and the first Labour government was not to be formed until 1924. In the second half of 1919 the revolutionary wave passed and the ruling class went on the offensive. Raymond Challinor charts the decline of rank and file leadership during 1919 and the recovery of the hold of the union bureaucracy.116 While working class consciousness had taken great strides forward only a small minority had drawn revolutionary conclusions. Conscious of the threat that they could pose, the state was ruthless in its treatment of the revolutionary forces—arrests were common as were the seizing and banning of their newspapers.

Lenin describes a revolutionary crisis as one where the ruling class can’t go on in the old way, and the working class won’t. British capitalism survived the war and was far less damaged than in Russia and Germany. The ruling class continued more or less in the old way, and the working class had not experienced enough to reject reformism and fight for revolution.

These factors all impacted on the development of the revolutionary left and the creation of the Communist Party which, significant as it was to become, came too late, and was too small. None of this was inevitable. Had the engineers struck against the war, had the Triple Alliance not collapsed, had Britain lost the war, a new chapter of British politics might have been written.

The events from the Russian Revolution to the end of the British intervention in 1921 showed how a revolution on the other side of Europe, despite the slow, limited and censored news, could help shape political events in Britain and inspire working class militants to fight for revolution here. The next revolutionary wave will find the British parliamentary system, the trade union bureaucracy and reformism as determined to hold on to the status quo as they were 100 years ago. A century on, the revolution and its impact in Britain remain an inspiration and a lesson to revolutionaries today.

Pete Jackson is a member of the SWP in Birmingham and a PCS activist.


1 Until 1918 the Russians used the Julian calendar which was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West. As such the February Revolution, which ran from 23 to 27 February, dates in the West as 8 to 12 March, and the 25 October Revolution was 7 November. The dates in this article are in the Western Gregorian calendar.

2 The soviets, or workers’ councils, were first formed in the 1905 Revolution and reborn in February 1917. They were formed of delegates from workplaces, army units and eventually peasant communities.

3 “The Russian Revolution and Britain, 1917-1928”, Warwick Digital Collections, go to

4 Page Arnot, 1967, p14. Robert Page Arnot was a leading Communist Party intellectual. He wrote his book on the 50th anniversary of the revolution.

5 Page Arnot, 1967, p12.

6 Hansard, 22 March 1917, volume 91, cc2085-94. Go to The Duma was the Russian parliament.

7 Daily Herald, 1974, p7.

8 Woman’s Dreadnought, 24 March 1917. The paper changed its name to Worker’s Dreadnought in July 1917. All references from British Library archives. Go to

9 Trotsky, 1974, p73.

10 Douglas and Høgsbjerg, 2017.

11 The Herald, 31 March 1917. All references to the Herald from British Library archives. Go to

12 The Herald, 7 April 1917.

13 Newsinger, 2015, p12.

14 Dilution was the process of deskilling the workforce. While this was rightly resisted, it was often from a narrow craftist, sectional and sexist perspective.

15 Newsinger, 2015, and Hinton, 1973.

16 Labour Leader, 10 May 1917, quoted in Clinton and Myers, 1967.

17 The Herald, 12 May 1917.

18 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p25.

19 Manifesto of the International Socialist Congress at Basel, 1912, go to

20 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p55.

21 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p59.

22 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p16.

23 The Miners’ Next Step was published by the Unofficial Reform Committee in 1912 and was widely read across the coalfields and beyond—go to

24 See Challinor, 1977.

25 Leneman, 2000, pp58-61.

28 Liddington, 1989, p125.

29 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, chapter 1

30 The United Socialist Council (USC) was formed in 1913 under the leadership of the Socialist International. It brought together the ILP, BSP and Fabian Society. The tensions caused by the outbreak of the war led the USC to be effectively shelved until the Russian Revolution forced the organisations closer together again.

31 For more on the Convention see Douglas and Høgsbjerg, 2017.

32 Daily Herald, 1974, p9.

33 Daily Herald, 1974, p19.

34 Daily Herald, 1974, p20.

35 Woman’s Dreadnought, 9 June 1917.

36 Daily Herald, 1974, p20.

37 Daily Herald, 1974, p23.

38 Daily Herald, 1974, p23.

39 A central demand of those calling for the end of the war, including the Bolsheviks, was that there should be no indemnities, ie no compensation payments forced on the defeated nations, as this would further impoverish the workers. Those who supported the war tended to support the call for indemnities.

40 Daily Herald, 1974, p26.

41 Daily Herald, 1974, p29.

42 Daily Herald, 1974, p34.

43 Dockers’ Record, 1917, p10.

44 Leeds Mercury, Saturday 16 June, 1917. Go to

45 Railway Review, 1917a.

46 White, 1974, p21.

47 Barnsby, 1998, p257.

48 Gallacher, 1990, p160.

49 White, 1974, p25.

50 White, 1974, p24

51 White, 1974, p27.

52 Thorne, 1925, p195.

53 White, 1974, p28.

54 The delegation were G Erlich, I Goldenberg, E Rousanov, and A Smirnov. Smirnov went on to support Trotsky and the Left Opposition in 1923.

55 Railway Review, 1917b, p4.

56 Railway Review, 1917c.

57 Railway Review, 1917b, p4.

58 Lenin, 1917a.

59 Workers’ Dreadnought, 18 August 1917.

60 Wilson, 1917, pp5-6.

61 Sherry, 2017, p164

62 Workers’ Dreadnought, 17 November 1917.

63 Workers’ Dreadnought, 28 December 1917.

64 The Herald, 17 November 1917.

65 Gallacher, 1990, p195.

66 Hinton, 1973, p256.

67 Sherry, 2014, p148.

68 Gluckstein, 1995, p83.

69 Fuller, 2015.

70 Page Arnot, 1967, p121.

71 Brest-Litovsk was the peace deal between Russia and Germany which ceded significant land mass to Germany.

72 Serge, 1992, pp292-293.

73 The Cheka was the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage.

74 Serge, 1992, p433

75 James, 1987, p127.

76 Rothstein, 1985, details these revolts.

77 Rothstein, 1985, p46.

78 Rothstein, 1985, p70.

79 Rosenberg, 1995, p15.

80 Rothstein, 1985, p54

81 “The Southampton Mutinies of 1919”. Go to;wap2

82 James, 1987, p130.

83 Morgan Philips Price, who had been sent to Russia by the Manchester Guardian contributed to The Call. Philips Price went on to become the Daily Herald reporter in Germany from 1919-1923 and became a Labour MP in 1929.

84 “Why Have you Come to Mourmansk?” Go to

86 James, 1987, p133.

87 James, 1987, p134. White Russian is a reference to counter-revolutionary troops.

88 Rothstein, 1985, p97.

89 Luxemburg and Liebknecht were leaders of the newly formed Communist Party of Germany. During the Spartakist uprising in January 1919, the Social Democratic Party government used right wing Freikorps troops to crush the rising. The Freikorps captured and murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

90 Barnsby, 1998, pp325-326.

91 Lenin, 1918.

92 Pollitt, 1940, p113. Pollitt was a boilermaker who was active in the docks. He was temporarily organiser of Hands Off Russia but felt he would be more use in the docks. He went on to lead the British Communist Party.

93 Workers’ Dreadnought, 15 May 1920.

94 Railway Review, 1920.

95 Pollitt, 1940, p118.

96 Pollitt, 1940, p117.

97 Newsinger, 2015, p93.

98 Pollitt, 1940, p118.

99 Pearce and Woodhouse, 1995, p56.

100 Pearce and Woodhouse, 1995, p56.

101 Lenin, 1917b.

102 Bryce, 2017.

103 Pavier, 1977, pp24-26.

104 The Herald, 24 March 1917.

105 Kostick, 2016.

106 See Bryce, 2017.

107 Henderson, 1918, p67.

108 Webb, 1918.

109 Rosenberg, 1995.

110 The splits and negotiations are described in detail in Klugmann, 1987.

111 Publishing House of the Communist International, 1977.

112 Publishing House of the Communist International, 1977.

113 Lenin, 1920a.

114 Lenin, 1920b.

115 In Scotland elements of the shop stewards had formed themselves into the Communist Labour Party (CLP). In December 1920 there was a further unity conference in which the CLP and CP (previously WSF) now agreed to merge to form one Communist Party in Britain.

116 Challinor, 1977, chapter 9.


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