The British Left today presents itself as the defender of minorities and the vulnerable. Not so long ago, though, the British Labor Government’s enthusiasm for Soviet Communism led it to support the regime’s persecution of peasants and religious believers. When hundreds of thousands died in the Gulag, or ended up slave laborers in the camps, they preferred to turn a blind eye to their Russian comrades’ crimes.
The Labor Party welcomed the Russian Revolution of October 1917: C.T. Cramp, the railwaymen’s leader and Labor Chairman, proclaimed in 1924, ‘Capitalism has got to be smashed as it is smashed in Russia. Those of us who are revolutionaries are determined to do it.’
Throughout the 1920s a succession of squabbles and disagreements between Labor and British and Soviet Communists failed to dim Labor enthusiasm for what Fenner Brockway, soon to be a Labor Member of Parliament (MP) and a future peer, called the ‘heroic achievements in building up the Workers’ State’.
In May 1927 a police raid on the Soviet trade mission in London uncovered stolen military documents, and the Conservative Government expelled the entire Soviet trade and diplomatic missions. Labor MPs were outraged. In the House Commons, James Maxton MP, a leading Labor MP, left the House in no doubt about where his allegiance lay: ‘My sympathies are absolutely with the ultimate aims and objects of the Russian Soviet Government.’
A.J. Cook, the miners’ leader, whose union had received over £250,000 ($11m today) from the Soviets during the General Strike, expressed similar sentiments, this time adding a hint of menace: ‘I am proud of Russia, and I owe more allegiance to Russian workers than to Mr Baldwin (the Conservative Prime Minister) and his government. The Labor Party and the trade union movement is out to do what Russia has done. It is not for me to say just how it will be accomplished, for the necessities of the moment will decide what action we shall take to achieve that end, but undoubtedly it will be accomplished.’
Labor MPs responded to the expulsions by hosting a lunch in the Soviets’ honor in the House of Commons, presided over the President of the British trade union movement. A few days later an official Labor delegation went to Victoria Railway Station to bid them farewell. At its head was Arthur Henderson, twice party leader, who would be in office two years later as Foreign Secretary (minister) in a new Labor Government.
By 1929, the year that Labor won the British general election, Stalin was setting about formalizing the Soviet penal system into what has now become known as the Gulag and brought in punitive new measures to eradicate religion, nationalize agriculture and neutralize the countryside as a base for future counter-revolution.
Over the next two years 1.5 million peasant smallholders (the kulaks) were turned out of their homes at just a few hours’ notice, loaded onto cattle trucks and deported to the Far North and Siberia. Forty thousand, a quota determined before the operation began, never made it to the trains and were shot out of hand.
Hundreds of thousands of kulaks – men, women, and children – were dumped in the isolated forests of North West Russia, under military guard, where they were forced to cut timber for the export market. A significant proportion of it (worth $500m annually at today’s prices) went to Britain.
Horrifying accounts first began to surface of the persecution of Russian religious believers – shootings, arrests, and the dynamiting of religious buildings. In Britain, a national campaign quickly sprang up to persuade the Government to put pressure on the Soviets to halt the persecution. Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called a day of prayer which was observed by millions around the world and became the single biggest protest against Soviet Communism in history. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald wrote angrily to Lang complaining that the church was meddling in politics. Lang merely replied that he had not thought of consulting the Prime Minister before calling his church to prayer.
The Left fought back. Agitators constantly disrupted the many protest meetings taking place up and down the country. In the Commons Labor MPs kept up a stream of counter-allegations and denials. George Bernard Shaw, the famous playwright and staunch Socialist, wrote to a leading newspaper with eleven other Socialist leaders, insisting that the stories of religious persecution in Russia were ‘malicious inventions’ driven by ‘class hostility.’
In the summer of 1930 the first British timber ships returned from Russia, bearing eyewitness accounts of the plight of the persecuted believers and kulaks. Over the next few months British diplomats confirmed that the north west of Russia had become little short of a vast prison camp. In the port of Archangel alone there were 10,000 prisoners loading timber.
But these dispatches went unknown outside government circles. Conservative MPs could not get the story into the public domain until January 1931 when sworn statements from escaped prisoners began to appear in the press. Labor MPs insisted they were forged. Ramsay Macdonald said the evidence was inadequate to halt the trade. In the Commons, Foreign Secretary Henderson maintained that an existing law prohibiting the import of the products of prison labour could not be used because Soviet labor camps could not be classed as ‘prisons.’ Opposition offers of co-operation to redraft the legislation were ignored.
Protesters managed to force the subject to be raised in just one debate in the House of Commons, on March 25th. George Strauss, a future Labor minister dismissed the humanitarian appeals as a cloak to support an attack on the Soviets ‘put forward on political grounds with political motives.’ Instead, he insisted, ‘the conditions of the prisoners in Russia are very much more favorable than in our English prisons.’
William Graham, the Trade Minister, gave the main speech for the Government. Insisting, contrary to his civil servants’ briefing notes, that ‘no evidence of any kind’ had been tendered to support the Conservatives’ ‘extravagant’ claims, he concluded:
[The Soviets] are engaged in a vast and very remarkable economic experiment, and what we have always said is that they are entitled in their own way to pursue that experiment without outside interference … I say, let the experiment continue. Let us give all the co-operation we can.
The Labor Government fell that summer and was defeated in the autumn in the biggest landslide in British electoral history. The popular story, much repeated by the Left today, is of MacDonald’s ‘betrayal’ of the Left and of his party. While there may be substance to allegations of his vanity and social climbing, the same cannot be said for his austere Chancellor of the Exchequer and fellow ‘deserter’ Philip Snowden. Snowden is similarly demonized today, particularly for his comments that the Labor Manifesto of 1931 (its election program) was little short of ‘Bolshevism run mad.’
But he might have had a point. If Labor had won the 1931 election its support for the ‘Great Experiment’ in Russia and radical Socialist revolution at home would have continued unabashed. Note the words of G.D.H. Cole, one of the most influential British Socialist intellectuals of the 20th Century: ‘It will be best’, he wrote in 1933, ‘as soon as Parliament has conferred on the Government the necessary emergency powers, for it to meet as seldom as possible, leaving the Socialists to carry on.’ British trades unions would also be replaced – by ‘local soviets.’
Most ominous, as Cole sought to explore the shape of a future Socialist Britain, was his tacit support for Communist repression:
In seeking for a basis for [a] new instrument of socialization Communists repudiate not only the capitalist conception of the rights of property but also the capitalist conception of individual liberty … Critics of Russian institutions in capitalist countries are apt to dwell very greatly on the alleged suppression of liberty in Russia to-day, and to base their arguments on the disappearance of the characteristic liberties associated in their minds with the liberal-parliamentary State. But though the Soviet system in its present working does undoubtedly restrict individual liberty very seriously in certain directions … it has resulted in other directions in an enormous extension of the liberties of the great mass of the Russian people.
It amounted to the introduction of a police state.
How far this new society might to go to create its new civilization was explored most starkly by George Bernard Shaw when he proposed the state execution of the politically undesirable:
Every person who owes his life to civilized society… should appear at reasonable intervals before a properly qualified jury to justify his existence, which should be suddenly and painlessly terminated if he fails to justify it, and is either a positive nuisance or more trouble than he is worth … A great part of the secret of the success of Russian Communism is that every Russian knows that unless he makes his life a paying proposition for his country then he will probably lose it. I am proud to have been the first to advocate this most necessary reform.
Shaw repeated the call a number of times between 1921 and 1938 and even appealed for the scientific community to develop a painless poison gas so the exterminations could be carried out ‘humanely.’
In 2006 the Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair dedicated a window in honor of Shaw and his colleagues at the prestigious London School of Economics. ‘A lot of the values they stood for,’ he said, ‘would be very recognizable in today’s Labor party.’
Blair couldn’t have been more mistaken. History has been sanitized. In fact they supported, excused or denied some of the greatest crimes against humanity in the 20th Century, and praised Stalin, one of its worst tyrants. Today they are honored. Meanwhile, P.G. Wodehouse, the author of the Jeeves stories, is still has to be fully rehabilitated for his foolish decision to broadcast a mildly comic piece about life while he was held in Nazi internment. The contrast is a stark one.
Giles Udy is a British historian who has spent the last seven years researching government archives to uncover the full story outlined in this article. He is finishing a book which deals with this subject and the wider topic of the influence of Soviet Communism in the British Labor Party between the wars.
Don’t miss Josh Brewster‘s video interview with Jamie Glazov about the Left’s romance with tyranny and terror:
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