The British left hailed the Russian revolution in 1917.
On 18 January 1919 in London, a mass meeting launched the ‘Hands Off Russia’ campaign to oppose British military intervention in support of the White armies’ attack on Bolshevik Russia. The campaign’s National Committee brought together the scattered sections of the British left: the British Socialist Party, Independent Labour Party, Workers’ Socialist Federation and Socialist Labour Party.
On 8 February, Hands Off Russia held an even larger mass meeting, at the Royal Albert Hall. Shows of support took place beyond London too, with a large protest in Wigan on 20 July.
Sylvia Pankhurst wrote in August that, ‘‘Hands Off Russia’ has found its way into the resolution of every labour and Socialist propaganda meeting and literature about Russia has been the more eagerly read than any other’. The Daily Herald exposed the blockade of Soviet Russia and the government’s intervention plans.
The Red Army started 1919 with the Northern Caucuses campaign against the Whites. Throughout the year, Russia faced military assault. In April, Poland attacked Vilnius, trying to capture it from the Red Army, and in June, Finland declared war on Bolshevik Russia.
Russia’s enemies pursued murderous antisemitism. On 15 February, Cossacks killed over fifteen hundred Jews in the Proskurov pogrom in Ukraine, and on 23 June, forty-five Jews were massacred in Skvira, Ukraine. In Minsk on 8 August, Polish troops massacred Jews, suspecting them of supporting the Bolsheviks. Two days later in Podolia, the Ukrainian National Army killed twenty-five Jews. In October, a three-day pogrom in Ivankiv, Ukraine, saw fourteen Jews killed and fifteen Jewish women and girls raped.
On 2 March, meetings around Britain had protested against continuing military conscription, but war against Russia carried on. In August, the British navy and air force attacked the Russian naval base at Kronstadt, and at the end of that month, British forces used chemical weapons against Bolshevik-held villages south of Archangel.
British troops were unhappy. In June, troops refused to advance against the Bolsheviks at the Dvina River. At the end of August, Marines were ordered to attack the Red Army at Koikori village, but on 5 September, members of the 6th Battalion British Royal Marines refused to continue the attack. In October, 150 sailors broke out of their ships at Port Edgar, West Lothian, refusing to sail to the Baltic. In mid-October, British and other troops withdrew from their base at Murmansk, north Russia.
On 2 March, Bolshevik supporters from around the world founded the Third International. Two months later, it began publishing its journal, The Communist International.
Encouraged, revolutionaries in the USA stepped up their organising. John Reed, the journalist who had been in Russia at the time of the 1917 revolution and the author of Ten Days That Shook The World, appeared before the Overman Committee investigating Bolshevik propaganda, and also in court, where he was acquitted on charges of inciting riot. From April to June, Reed edited the ten published issues of the New York Communist.
Expelled from the Socialist Party, American left-wingers formed the Communist Labor Party on 30 August. Just two days later, another body, the Communist Party of America was formed by the language federations also expelled from the Socialist Party. The two would eventually merge in 1921.
In May 1919, Antonio Gramsci and other Italian socialists began publishing the pro-soviet newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo (the New Order) and two months later, Italian workers took strike action in solidarity with soviets in Russia and Hungary.
Elsewhere, workers established soviet rule but sadly were defeated, usually very bloodily, by surrounding capitalist states. On 27 May, Bolsheviks and their allies tried to establish soviet power in the Romanian city of Bendery, but were beaten on the same day by Romanian and French troops. The Slovak Socialist Republic was created on 16 June with the help of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, but was defeated on 7 July by Czech and Romanian armies.
In Britain, though, the communists had still not organised themselves into a party.
In October, The Guardian published an interview with Russian leader Vladimir Lenin, in which he pointed out that, ‘Russia has no laws against propaganda by British people. England has such laws; therefore Russia is the more liberal-minded’.
Lenin advised that ‘the British Communists should unite their four parties and groups (all very weak, and some of them very, very weak) into a single Communist Party on the basis of the principles of the Third International and of obligatory participation in parliament. At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them.’
The groups which supported the revolution and wanted to form a Communist Party were negotiating among themselves but moving slowly. One of the main sticking points was disagreement about participation in Parliament and affiliation to the Labour Party.
The foundation in 1920 of the Communist Party (CPGB) would be a leap forward for class politics in Great Britain. But while the working class struggled in 1919, that party did not yet even exist.
To read more about working-class struggle in 1919, buy this pamphlet.