by Christopher Draper
HISTORY's most remarkable social experiment began one hundred years ago. As the Russian war effort disintegrated, autocratic Czarism was abolished and a revolutionary SOVIET system substituted. Soviets were collectives of workers and soldiers organised to end the war and radically democratise Russia. In March 1917 (February in the old Russian calendar) the PETROGRAD SOVIET led the revolution and despatched a four-man delegation to England to encourage British workers to follow their lead. On 3 June 1917, over a thousand workers’ representatives met at LEEDS COLISEUM, Cookridge Street to emulate their Russian comrades and organise a British network of ”extra-parliamentary Soviets with sovereign powers”.
Powder KegThe War Cabinet was worried. A strike started at a Rochdale engineering company already affected 48 towns and involved over 200,000 workers. Colonial Secretary Edward Milner confided fears about the Leeds Soviet to the PM, 'this Convention will begin to do for this country what the Russian Revolution has accomplished in Russia…and I fear the time is very nearly at home when we shall have to take some strong steps to stop the rot in this country unless we wish to follow Russia into impotence and dissolution.'
Breaking the MouldConvened by the “United Socialist Council”, the Leeds gathering included delegates from Trades Councils and Unions, local Labour Parties, the British Socialist Party and the Independent Labour Party as well as independent Socialist Societies, Women’s organisations, local Co-ops and assorted Peace Groups.
The Yorkshire Evening Post more colourfully described the congregation as, 'a heterogenous crowd of Pacifists, republicans, Pro-Germans, Socialists, Industrial Unionists, Syndicalists and Anarchists.'
With the anarchist movement divided over Kropotkin’s support for the war, both factions nevertheless welcomed the Russian Revolution. Despite issuing no formal invitations to anarchists, libertarian ideas received full expression from delegates disenchanted by the compromising, careerism of professional Labour Party politicians and Trade Union Officials.
Four Steps to Heaven…There were just four resolutions to be voted upon at Leeds, with no amendments permitted. After speeches and debate, all resolutions were enthusiastically supported. They were (in abbreviated form);
a) 'This Conference of Labour, Socialist and Democratic organisations of Great Britain hails the Russian Revolution'
b) 'This Conference...shares with the Provisional Russian Government…the pledge to work for an agreement with the international democracies for a re-establishment of a general peace…a peace without annexations or indemnities'
c) 'This Conference calls…for full political rights for all men and women, unrestricted freedom of the Press, freedom of speech, a general amnesty for all political and religious prisoners…'
d) 'The Conference calls upon the constituent bodies at once to establish in every town, urban and rural district, Councils of Workmen and Soldiers…'
Delegates, Messages and SpeechesAn opening message was read to the delegates from an army unit recently returned from France:
'We should very much like to see the establishment of a society on lines similar to those of the Council of Soldiers and Workmen in Russia for we are quite convinced that the great majority of men in the Army are in sympathy with the Russian aims (Cheers).'
Ramsay MacDonald, Noah Ablett, Ernest Bevin, Charlotte Despard, Bertrand Russell and Tom Mann all made stirring platform speeches but the pithiest comments came from Willie Gallacher, Sylvia Pankhurst and Fred Shaw of Huddersfield.
Gallagher presciently advised delegates that the Russian Revolution was far from settled. Their Russian comrades, 'have the biggest fight on, not against the capitalists of Russia but against the capitalists of other countries who have determined that the Socialists of Russia have to be beaten back. Give your own capitalist class in this country so much to do that it will not have time to attend to it.'
Sylvia Pankhurst underlined the inspirational importance of solidarity amidst the senseless carnage, 'I am very glad to feel that at last we shall come out of this slough of despond and that the workers will be united in common action'. She saw Soviets as, 'a straight cut for the Socialist Commonwealth we all want to see'.
Fred Shaw expressed shop floor enthusiasm for 'WORKERS AND SOLDIERS COUNCILS' - 'As one of the rank and file I support this resolution because of its revolutionary possibilities. The time is ripe for the working classes to take things into their own hands and follow Russia. This war has driven out of the minds of the workers many of the old middle-class ideas about the State.'
The Next StepThe Leeds Convention set dates and venues for regional follow-up meetings to create a national network of a dozen 'SOVIETS' or 'WORKERS AND SOLDIERS COUNCILS (WSC)'.
The NORTH comprised 3 SOVIETS or WSC, based respectively at Newcastle (“North East Coast”), Leeds (“Yorkshire”) and Manchester (“Lancashire, Cheshire & North Wales”).
As soon as dates and locations were advertised for these founding meetings there were serious problems. Leeds Council had already created difficulties for the June Convention by cancelling the organisers’ original booking of Leeds’ Albert Hall. Delegates were also turned away from Leeds hotels despite having reservations and many had been forced to sleep overnight in railway carriages. When the Government learned of the outcome of the Leeds Convention they determined, in Milner’s memorable phrase, “to take strong steps to stop the rot”. As a result only 3 of the 12 WSC Districts were able to successfully organise meetings without suffering cancellations, bans, violence or arrests and none of these were in the North.
Stopping the Rot - LeedsWhen the August date of the follow-up Leeds WSC meeting was announced no specific venue was advertised prompting gleeful press speculation that no-one was prepared to provide a venue for the occasion. Refused once again by the local authority, the press crowed, “the local pacifists must surely have been at their wit’s end to find a hall or they would never have taken the course of asking the Corporation to grant them the use of the Town Hall”.
The Government was even more at its wit’s end that the Council might finally relent so it stepped in and peremptorily banned the meeting under the draconian provisions of DORA (“Defence of the Realm Act”). “His Majesty’s Secretaries of State, in pursuance of Regulation 9a of the Defence of the Realm Regulations…do hereby prohibit the assembly of persons for the holding of a meeting to promote Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils which is proposed to be held in the City of Leeds on Saturday 25th August 1917 or on whatever other date it may be proposed the same.”
Selection of a Yorkshire delegate to the Central WSC had to then be conducted by postal ballot. David Blythe Foster, a founding member of Leeds Tolstoyan Brotherhood Workshop was duly elected.
Stopping the Rot – NewcastleThe Newcastle WSC meeting was one of the first advertised, 'Saturday 28th July, 3pm, Newcastle Town Hall'. Then Newcastle Council stepped in and cancelled the booking. Fortunately the local committee were able to secure an alternative, though smaller venue, Newcastle Central Hall for the same date. As the Daily Mail reported, it was a lively meeting:
'Violent scenes were witnessed at the conference in Newcastle promoted on Saturday afternoon promoted by the Workers and Soldiers Council… The platform party was about to take their seats when several interrupters broke into the meeting and it was found that the doors had been rushed by a crowd of noisy demonstrators following a succession of free fights. Mrs Despard made a successful effort to restore order but by that time a young Navy man and others who had mounted the platform endeavoured to address the meeting. One of the interrupters who wore a gold stripe on his civil uniform divested himself of his coat and baring his arm showed a wound and shouted, That is what I got for fighting for traitors. Colonial soldiers afterwards stormed the platform and a wild scene ensued, during which there were violent altercations and free fights on the platform…It was found impossible to continue the meeting.'
Ashington miner, George Henry Warne, was subsequently selected by postal ballot as the District’s delegate to the Central WSC
Stopping the Rot – ManchesterThe Manchester WSC meeting was scheduled for Saturday 11th August 2.30pm at Milton Hall, Deansgate. By then, violent attacks by soldiers on WSC meetings were commonplace and it was clear this disruption was tolerated if not encouraged by civil authorities who prosecuted the victims rather than the perpetrators. The possibility of such violence was cynically exploited by the authorities as an excuse to cancel WSC bookings.
When Manchester Council banned the Deansgate meeting the booking was quietly transferred to Stockport Labour Church in the hope of avoiding disruption – no such luck! “Lively scenes were witnessed at Stockport on Saturday afternoon at a meeting to elect a delegate to the Workers and soldiers Council. A hostile crowd attempted to rush the hall…Footpaths to the hall were chalked, This way to the traitors’ meeting. On leaving the hall the delegates were set upon on all sides, the women smacking the faces of their pacifist sisters…stalwart men looked most humiliated as they were bowled over and battered on the ground…the rioting continued for over an hour.”
Charlotte Ann Findlay was eventually selected as WSC delegate. She had little political profile but her husband was a well-known lecturer at Manchester University and campaigner for progressive education.
Cracking the ConventionThe State’s determination to prevent the Sovietisation of the British labour movement exacerbated pre-existing cracks in the fragile workers’ coalition. Reservations about the whole SOVIET project were expressed at the Leeds Convention by Joseph Toole, who claimed, “There are already sufficient organisations to do the work which has been outlined – Trades Councils, local Labour Parties, Socialist organisations and various other organisations. Russia and this country suffer from entirely different sets of circumstances”. Toole and his fellow Labour bureaucrats, MP’s and Councillors resented intrusion into their petty fiefdoms. The national Labour Party directed members not to have anything to do with the WSC initiative and the Government piled on the pressure.
In July 1917 the War Cabinet decreed that no soldier must play any part whatsoever in any WSC and to counteract the anti-war appeal of the Soviet initiative the Cabinet agreed to pour government money into building a nominally “independent” national network of pro-war groups under the umbrella of a “National War Aims Committee” directed by the spy and novelist, John Buchan. When Prime Minister Lloyd-George spoke for the NWAC on August 4th he exemplified this anti SWC obsession, assuring listeners : 'The Nation has chosen its own Workmens’ and Soldiers Committee (cheers) and that is the House of Commons. We cannot allow sectional organisations to direct the war or dictate the peace (cheers)'.
According to David French (OUP) “The Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch MI5 and Military Intelligence were directed to watch militant trade unionists, peace and anti-war campaigners and socialist activists and isolate them from the rest of the organised labour movement and armed forces.” “By Spring 1917 MI5 had compiled 250,000 cards and 27,000 personal files, going well beyond the estimated 70,000 adult enemy aliens resident in Britain at the outbreak of war.” (Christopher Wrigley).
Voice from the TrenchesDespite the best efforts of the authorities some brave soldiers continued to organise WSC. The Midlands’ WSC representative Private Charles James Simmons(CJS), 2nd Worcester Regiment proved most determined. The Government could hardly brand CJS a disloyal coward as he’d volunteered for the army four years before war was declared and had served in uniform ever since. Severely wounded at Vimy Ridge, one of his legs had to be amputated below the knee and he was sent home as unfit for service but “of good character”. As an evangelical Christian and Socialist CJS fearlessly voiced his conscience and back home in England in 1917 Private James tirelessly campaigned for the WSC in the press, on the streets and on repeated tours around the North.
On Saturday 29th September 1917 the Rochdale Observer reported:
'The campaign that Private C J Simmons has been conducting at Rochdale has been brought to an abrupt conclusion. On Tuesday he was warned by the police against speaking on account of the nature of his remarks the previous evening but the soldier paying no regard to the caution addressed a large gathering. Private Simmons should have spoken at a similar meeting at Town Hall Square on Wednesday evening. Mr J W Chadwick, who was in the chair, was in the act of calling on the soldier to speak when two military policemen appeared and arrested him.'
Simmons was held in Rochdale police cells overnight before being taken under military escort to incarceration at Chester Castle. After his case was raised in Parliament he was released and discharged from the army in November 1917. 'Ex-Private Simmons” immediately resumed his anti-war campaigning. Returning to Rochdale the following month, the local Socialist Society advertised his talk in the “Pioneers Assembly Room” with the strap line, “We sang the Red Flag to him last time. Come and sing it with him this time”!
Continuing his tour into the new year, “Ex-Private Simons” got as far as Burnley before in March 1918 the authorities caught up with him again and he was charged under DORA (“Defence of the Real Act”) that, “On the February 21st he did by word of mouth, at the Cooperative Hall, York, make statements likely to prejudice the training, discipline and administration of His Majesty’s Forces”!
Sentenced to three months hard labour at Leeds’ ARMLEY GAOL he was subsequently employed as an ILP organiser and advised conscientious objectors at military tribunals. By then the authorities were confident they had the militants under control.
Wot no Revolution?Lance Corporal Dudley was initially more effective than even Private Simmons in declaring a Soldiers’ Soviet at Tunbridge Wells on 24th June 1917! Representatives of half-a-dozen battalions cooperated with Dudley in approving a Soldiers’ manifesto and declaring a WSC. The Tunbridge WSC proved short lived as an acting Brigadier rigorously enforced military discipline and dispersed the units with Lance Corporal Dudley promptly posted to active service in France.
Despite all these interventions by the end of September 1917, all dozen WSC districts had managed to elect delegates to the central body. At the beginning of October Britain’s formally constituted national “WORKERS’ AND SOLDIERS’ COUNCIL” met for the first time.
The central WSC subsequently published a seven point programme laying out its formal objectives. It’s sufficient to consider the first to realise how far the body had retreated from its initial revolutionary ambitions;
'1. THE WORKERS’ AND SOLDIERS’ COUNCIL has been formed primarily as a propaganda body, not as a rival to, or to supplant, any of the existing working class organisations but to infuse into them a more active spirit of liberty.'
After expressing six more similarly pious hopes the programme added, “A Sub-Committee is preparing a manifesto on A Plea for a People’s Peace and a vigorous campaign is about to be inaugurated”!
The authorities must have been quaking in their boots! “A Plea for Peace” and “A Vigorous Campaign” disturbed no-one. The Grand Old Dukes of the Labour Party and Trade Unions had stifled the movement with bureaucracy whilst the State had exerted its customary range of repressive measures. Militants were conveniently constrained by red-tape and the movement emasculated. The resultant WSC programme so lacked vigour and inspiration that that the delegates never even bothered to reconvene.
Lessons from History?Besides Private Simons only two other WSC delegates fought on for militant socialism, Sylvia Pankhurst in East London and John Maclean on Clydeside. Of the three Northern delegates, both David Foster and George Warne became run-of-the-mill Labour Party MP’s whilst the third, Charlotte Findlay simply returned to political anonymity (her husband made two unsuccessful attempts to become a Labour MP).
Private Charles James Simmons also represented Labour as an MP but as the Oxford ONB records, 'Simmons was considered a firebrand by political opponents and allies alike…critical of the Chamberlain government for its rearmament policy, failure to support Republican Spain and appeasement of Hitler.'
After Lenin’s November 1917 coup-d’etat Russian Soviets were subordinated to the Diktat of the Bolshevik Party and the four delegates of the Petrograd Soviet, Genrikh Erlikh, Iosif Goldenberg, Alexander Smirnov and Nikolair Rousanov sent to Britain became persona non-grata in Russia. Iosif
Goldenberg, an ex-Bolshevik critic of Lenin perished in 1922, Smirnov and Rousanov emigrated and survived whilst Erlikh emigrated to Poland only to be executed on Stalin’s orders in 1948.
The Russian Revolution was an experiment that failed and Lenin no more than a mad scientist. Paul McCartney is right and Sylvia Pankhurst was wrong, there is no “straight cut to the Socialist Commonwealth”, only “a long and winding road”.
Christopher Draper – January 2017