British Establishment Anti-Bolshevik Attitudes – explanatory text

In general, there was widespread support from European governments and their labour movements for the February Revolution of 1917. The British and French governments, whilst not supporting revolutionary activity, welcomed the new government’s determination to remain in the war. The labour movement, despite being divided on the issue of WW1, nonetheless welcomed the overthrow of Tsarist autocracy. However, all this was to change with the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the second revolution of 1917. Immediately after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks kept to their pledge of peace by opening negotiations at Brest-Litovsk with Germany to secure Russian withdrawal from WW1. As early as December 23rd 1917, the Allied Supreme War Council suggested that anti-Bolshevik troops, should be fully supported. The British War Cabinet decided to provide the White General Kaledin, and other successive white forces with financial support. Strangely enough, for their own reasons, the Germans agreed with this anti-Bolshevik policy and participated fully in it until November 1918; the end of WW1.

Thus, surprisingly, during the first six months of the intervention, the two opposing sides although still locked in conflict in WW1, were nonetheless united in their desire to crush Bolshevism. The Germans, having gained vast swathes of Russian territory (including the Baltic States and Ukraine) as a result of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, were anxious to capitalise on their territorial advantages by exploiting Russian weakness.

The aim of these interventionist powers in assisting the Whites was three-fold. Initially, it was predicated on the assumption that ousting the Bolsheviks would mean that Russia would re-enter WW1 and thus ensure that, once again, German troops would be forced to fight on two fronts. Secondly, and more importantly, after WW1 ended, the interventionist capitalist countries were motived by the desire to prevent the spread of communist ideology and practice, which was becoming popular and influential within sections of the labour movement in their own countries. Churchill (then Secretary of State for War) typified this attitude which viewed communism as a dangerous threat to Western society. He stated (infamously) in 1919 that the Bolsheviks

have driven man from the civilization of the 20th century into a condition of barbarism worse than the Stone Age, and left him the most awful and pitiable spectacle in human experience, devoured by vermin, racked by pestilence, and deprived of hope.’

Finally, those capitalist countries which had invested heavily in the industrialisation of Russia during the Tsarist years were anxious to recoup their massive financial speculation. This explains why manufacturers and financial speculators were hostile to the Soviet Russia.

But what of the Labour Movement and the women’s movement? The division which had already split both movements on support or opposition to WW1. The First World War accentuated the divisions between the left and right in the labour and women’s movement. The militancy of labour’s rank and file continued unabated, whilst the exigencies of war gave labour’s leaders the chance to become fully enmeshed within the State itself. The gulf between the two widened to such an extent that it was difficult for both to co-exist within the same organisations. The ‘unofficial’ opposition, reflecting the chasm between leaders and led, generated its own structures in the form of the Shop Stewards’ Movement and Workers’ Committees. The same political split resonated within the women’s movement where, under instructions from Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) abandoned the fight for the vote and instead ardently campaigned to support the war effort.

The leaderships of both movements, alongside the British Government did not find it difficult to support the February revolution. The Leeds convention of 3rd June 1917 clearly showed this. It was attended by 1,150 delegates from very broad range of organisations from centrist liberals, pro-war labourites (for example, Ben Tillett and Ernest Bevin), leftists, pacifists, shop stewards and feminists (including Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard). Clearly this was an indication that it was possible to win broad unity to oppose autocracy and to support replacing it with bourgeois democracy.

However, it was a different matter when it came to the October Bolshevik Revolution. Unsurprisingly, the official Labour Movement leadership line was to oppose Soviet Russia’s withdrawal from the war and its separate peace negotiations with Germany, culminating in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918). 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. Thus, it was not unexpected that the TUC and the Labour Party held aloof from either supporting the revolution or opposing Allied Intervention. It took them until summer 1920 to change their minds on intervention, and this was because of growing pressure from the anti-war, pro-Soviet mass movement.