British Labour Movement Responses to the Russian Revolution



In defiance of the leadership of the British labour movement who supported WW1 and supported the government’s ban on strikes, rank-and-file trade unionists elected shop stewards who played an increasingly important role during the war. A national network of shop stewards’ committees was formed on the model of the inaugural and most militant one – the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC), in which Willie Gallacher and John Mclean played prominent roles. The CWC was strongly anti-war and enthusiastically supported the Russian Revolution. In fact, Mclean’s agitational and educational role led to his being appointed by Soviet Russia as the Bolshevik Consul for Scotland.

1919 witnessed the broadest and most serious strike wave yet seen. Thirty-five million working days were lost in strike action – six times as many as in the previous year. This included strikes of those normally relied upon to carry out the repressive functions of the state – the police and the armed forces. Miners, transport workers, printers joined those who had been taking action throughout the war. Their mood was influenced by the news of the workers’ risings in Germany and Hungary and their strong support for the fledgling Soviet Russia. At the forefront was, once again, the CWC which organised the mass strike in January 1919, accompanied by mass picketing, for the forty-hour working week. Unlike the wartime strikes, this one was not defensive – it was a political offensive against the power of capital. It was all the stronger for its well-established links with discharged soldiers and sailors. Women too were fully involved in the action and on the picket lines. The huge demonstration in George Square, Glasgow, resulted in a battle with the forces of law and order, supported by young troops sent there by a panic-stricken government anxious to nip the Bolshevik spirit in the bud. Strike leaders were arrested and Glasgow fell under virtual military occupation. That is not to say that the CWC was not a highly political organisation, but its limitations were inherent in the fact that it remained a loose federation of workplace organisations which, while having a clear line on the daily struggles, had little in the way of a clear revolutionary perspective beyond a general support for socialist principles. This point was later expressed thus by Gallacher: ‘We were carrying on a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution.’ (W. Gallacher Revolt on the Clyde)


One of the first organisations in Britain to support the Russian Revolution was the Peoples’ Russia Information Bureau established in September 1918 by the veteran women’s suffrage campaigner and socialist feminist, Sylvia Pankhurst. As early as 1917, the weekly paper she edited ‘The Workers’ Dreadnought’ carried articles wholeheartedly supporting the October Revolution. The purpose of the PRIB was to publish reliable and supportive information about Soviet Russia. In fact it was the only body in Britain to do so. Much of the information it published came from Soviet Russia and was translated into English. Weekly newsletters and at least a hundred (possibly more) pamphlets were published on different aspects of Soviet politics, economics and ideology including a unique first; a smuggled edition of an English translation of the Russian Socialist Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) inaugural Constitution. The PRIB was a broad left organisation which included affiliates from a range of labour movement organisations.


The founding conference of Hands off Russia (HoR) was held on January 18th 1919 at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, London, attended by 350 delegates from various socialist organisations. Its purpose was to call a General Strike to oppose continued military and economic intervention by Britain and other allied countries against Soviet Russia, in order to topple the Bolshevik government. Although HoR attracted widespread support, this did not include the leaderships of either the Labour Party or the TUC which both ardently supported World War One and thus opposed Russia’s withdrawal from it. In fact, the Labour Party even invited Kerensky, the former head of the Russian Provisional Government, deposed by the October Revolution, to address their 1918 conference. As a consequence, the TUC and the Labour Party held aloof at this stage from either supporting the revolution or opposing Allied Intervention. It took them some while to change their minds on intervention but when they did it was owing to pressure from below.


Pressure from below was the critical factor in inducing a change of attitude by labour movement leaders. The most important trigger for this was the refusal of the London dockers and coal heavers to load the Jolly George, a munitions ship bound for Poland for use against the Red Army. Harry Pollitt, one of the leaders along with Sylvia Pankhurst, of the ‘Hands off Russia’ movement, led the dockers in their action. Pollitt (in his autobiography Serving My Time) notes that up to this point it had proved difficult to persuade trade unionists to take strike action but:

‘The strike on the Jolly George had won its greatest victory. It was the action which completely changed the international situation- a change that was forced on the British Government’.


The consequence of the Jolly George success was an intensification of the anti-intervention campaign which ultimately, by August 1920, drew in official Labour Party and TUC support. The reason for the ‘volte face’ was the increasing strength of the Hands off Russia movement. But it was also due, ironically, to the success of the Red Army which by July 1920 had driven the Poles out of Russia. The British and French governments, alarmed by this Soviet success, announced that they would declare war on Russia if the latter invaded Poland thus engendering the widespread fear that munitions would be supplemented by sending troops. They warned that the danger of war was ‘extremely menacing’. Therefore the Labour and TUC leaderships were at last prompted to take action. They called upon the industrial power of the labour movement to prevent war. The chosen means for organising such a response was the establishment of Councils of Action in August 1920. The national Council of Action authorised the formation of local bodies and around 400 were formed throughout the country largely on the initiative of local Trades Councils, or sometimes by the Labour Party branch in the area.


Acting in response to a resolution passed at a special Trades Union Congress on 10 December 1919 for “an independent and impartial inquiry into the industrial, political and economic conditions in Russia”, a delegation of representatives from the TUC and Labour Party visited Russia in May 1920. According to Sylvia Pankhurst, the labour delegation did not leave ‘a good impression in Russia’. Not only did they demand to go where they wanted ‘and to see what and whom they chose without interference’ but one of them ‘bolstered up her prejudices by visits to counter-revolutionaries and anti-communists’. (Sylvia Pankhurst Soviet Russia as I Saw It, 1921)