Dr Ben Phillips, curator of our new exhibition, starts a short series of posts based on our new Russian Revolution exhibition and his research in the TUC Library.
As its title implies, our exhibition examines the ways in which the Russian Revolution shaped the politics of the British left during the decade following 1917. Our chosen chronology covers the period from the revolutionary events of that year to the aftermath of the 1926 General Strike, and the anti-communist turn in the British trade union movement that followed shortly thereafter. We treat the subject both chronologically and thematically, moving between the major labour history events of the period and, along the way, considering some important issues in contemporary socialist politics – for instance, internationalism, solidarity, gender, class-consciousness, and the extent to which the Russian Revolution challenged contemporary understandings of these issues.
In essence, we aimed to do two things with this exhibition.
Firstly, we wanted to explore the revolution as the global event that it was, and still is. We wanted to explore not only how the matter of the revolution – its language, imagery and so forth – was trans-nationalised in the early twentieth century, but what it meant to people in Britain at the time, how they engaged with it, appropriated it and contested its meanings.
Secondly, we wanted to take a fresh look at one of the big historical debates about the British labour movement – whether, as is often claimed, it has traditionally been ‘more Methodist than Marxist’. As is well known, the subject of external socialist influences on the labour movement, and the extent to which such influences are out of kilter with the movement’s origins in the alleged cultural conservatism of the nineteenth-century working class, remains highly contested today. And so our whole exploration of the limits of working-class internationalism has a certain contemporary relevance. That isn’t the only point of contemporary relevance, of course. Things like the Zinoviev letter and the ARCOS raid of 1927 remind us that the spectre of Russia subverting western democracy, in ways both real and imagined, has a much longer history than some today might realise.
Anyway, with those two objectives in mind, I’m going to talk a little about some of the most interesting documents and artefacts I came across when working on this project and, briefly, why I think this sort of transnational history is an important part of studying the revolution. Two of the most illuminating, not to say voluminous, bodies of material we were able to draw on were the TUC Library’s collections related to the anti-interventionist Hands Off Russia campaign, which ran from 1919 to 1924, and those related to the various TUC delegation visits to Soviet Russia between 1917 and 1925. It’s these that I’ll be focusing on in this talk.
Hands Off Russia was a campaign founded by British socialists in 1919 to oppose British involvement in the then-ongoing Russian Civil War – Allied forces having intervened in support of the White armies the previous year. The campaign continued until 1924, when it was superseded by the Anglo-Russian Parliamentary Committee after Britain’s diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union that year. Hands Off Russia drew support from both the Labour Party and Independent Labour Party, and later from the Communist Party of Great Britain, which was founded in 1920. It generated a vast quantity of literature in the way of handbills, pamphlets, newspapers, proclamations and manifestos, much of which can be found in the TUC Library.
I think one of the really fascinating things about Hands Off Russia is what it tells us about the evolution of working-class internationalism in Britain. During the nineteenth century, hostility towards the Tsarist autocracy – perhaps expressed most vociferously during the Crimean War and after the failed Polish insurrections of 1830 and 1863 – was commonplace among the Chartists and other radicals. And yet, a little over half a century on from those events, in the summer of 1920, one finds workers threatening a general strike in opposition to proposed British military involvement in the Russo-Polish War. Note the pamphlet (above) here published by Labour’s Council of Action that year – ‘the workers of this country have nothing to gain by the contemplated attack on Russia…’.And it isn’t just that the determinants of British foreign policy were seen differently by this point. Russia itself was perceived differently by the British left. It was no longer seen as the repressive empire of the Tsars, but rather as a willing alliance of liberated nations. For instance, this Labour Party leaflet refers to the old imperial borderlands being ‘set free by the Bolshevik revolution’. The Russian specialists here will of course recognise this as the familiar Soviet mantra of druzhba narodov – the friendship of peoples, the formula typically used by Marxist-Leninist writers in later decades to distinguish the Soviet Union from Tsarist imperialism. It’s striking to see this reflected in British discourse on Soviet Russia quite so early on.
What’s also really interesting about Hands Off Russia is the diversity of support attracted by the campaign, and the various forms which that support took. Several months after the campaign’s foundation early in 1919, Sylvia Pankhurst said that expressions of support for Soviet Russia were commonplace in virtually all socialist and trade union meetings in Britain. By 1923, British trade unionists were apparently investing in a ‘Workers’ Loan’ to Soviet Russia (above) – although unfortunately I’m not sure how many did this. The Workers’ Loan evidently had something to do with the Comintern – the advert for it here appeared in Soviet Russia Pictorial, an English-language monthly of the early 1920s that was edited from Moscow. However, such overseas support for Hands Off Russia wasn’t limited to that orchestrated by the Soviet authorities. One of the most unexpected documents ( I found in my research was this open letter to British working men written by Vladimir Chertkov, Leo Tolstoy’s former secretary and a key figure in the short-lived Tolstoyan colony at Purleigh in Essex. In his letter, Chertkov invokes the Tolstoyan principle of non-violence in calling upon the British to oppose further conflict with Russia.