A young man called Nick came up to me after the recent monthly meeting of Skipton and Ripon Labour Party. He’s a recent history graduate of Leeds University, specialising in Russian politics, but about to begin work in the call centre of the Skipton Building Society. Not much revolution there.
As best I understood him in the Albion pub, he intends going back to uni to do a master’s on the role of the Labour Party in events that followed those Ten Days That Shook The World. A very good subject, about which probably too little has been written.
There is the stuff everyone knows, of Lenin saying that Communists in Britain should support Labour as the rope supports the hanged man. And the naïve fellow-travelling of English intellectuals, who toured the former USSR and wrote glowingly of the workers’ paradise they were shown.
This doesn’t say much about the active involvement of the party that speaks for British workers. To a minor, but telling, degree, that omission is remedied in a new, revisionist history* by American academic Sean McMeekin. Delving into the archives, he has come up with evidence that Labour forced Lloyd George’s hand in early – precipitate, some might say – recognition of the infant Soviet state.
In the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, Britain intervened on the side of the counter-revolutionary Whites. But after the Red Army defeated Lenin’s internal enemies, and in recognition of this emphatic miltary verdict, Lloyd George lifted the Baltic naval blockade that London had imposed on Moscow, “going half-way to accommodating the Bolsheviks”.
Soviet Russia subsequently invaded Poland and the Ukraine, and “under mounting pressure from the Labour Party, he [Loyd George] would now go the other half,” McMeekin continues. In autumn 1919, Britain had promised arms to nationalist Pilsudki’s Poles. But after the fall of Kiev on 7 May, 1920, stevedores at the East India Docks went on strike, refusing to load a consignment of field guns and ammunition destined for Danzig.
“With the Labour Party in an uproar, and believing (correctly) that the British public was weary of the failed intervention in Russia, Lloyd George’s Cabinet spokesman informed the House of Commons on 17 May 1920 that “no assistance has been or is being given to the Polish government”. Although none of the Entente powers had recognised Lenin’s government, the reversal in British policy was nearly complete.
Lloyd George, McMeekin argues, was a political weathervane, who sensed the emerging power of the Labour Party. Hence his de facto recognition of Soviet power. It was not a universally popular policy, as most Liberals and Tories viewed Communism with horror. In Churchill’s words, “One might as well legalise sodomy as recognise the Bolsheviks.” In time, Winston, in time.
McMeekin does not dwell on Labour’s role in the emergence of the Soviet state, but there is enough here to offer a tantalising glimpse of the political forces at work. The party, and its idealistic trade union members, were more influential than I had imagined in the legitimisation of the USSR, which opened the door to trade, diplomacy and the international communist evangelism.
You have to be in your late forties, if not older, to have visited the former Soviet Union as an adult, as I did, in 1973, 1975 and again in 1981, as a journalist on The Times, at the invitation of Novosti, the state news agency.
An entire generation has grown up not knowing the USSR at first hand, even through the newspapers. It is history. And it is a commonplace that history is written by the victors: in this case, the United States. McMeekin is Professor of History at Bard College, New York, and his superbly-researched account of the event that shook the world is as riveting as it is revisionist.
Stripped of romance and propaganda, the Russian revolution of 1917 emerges in this account as just another power-grab by ambitious and ruthless politicians, but freighted with an ideology that can still resonate among the have-nots.
A new generation of British historians like my party colleague Nick has the job of piecing together Labour’s role in this magnificently-failed utopia, with eyes wide open to its worst aspects as well as the dream it offered.
*The Russian Revolution : A New History by Sean McMeekin, Profile Books, £25.