On 8 February 1919, thousands packed the Albert Hall for the largest mass meeting in the Hands Off Russia campaign.
The British government, along with French and other western powers, was attempting to invade Russia, to try and overthrow the new Soviet state. British and French troops were already supporting anti-Soviet forces in Russia, and much larger intervention was planned. In resistance to this effort, British soldiers and sailors were already in revolt and mutiny against being forced to continue in arms (World War 1 having recently ended, partly as a result of mass refusal to fight any more). And workers in Britain were erupting in protest. The ‘allies’ campaign to destroy the Russian Revolution was destined to be irretrievably sabotaged by mutinies, strikes, and refusal to load arms and supplies by dockers in UK ports. The Revolution itself, of course, was also in the process of being sabotaged by the Bolshevik dictatorship…
The Hands Off Russia movement included members of the main left groups of the time – the Independent Labour Party, the British Socialist Party, Workers Socialist Federation, and the Herald League, who all wanted to show international workers’ solidarity with their Russian comrades. Unlike several other attempts at cross-factional unity, the Hands Off Russia! campaign served to unite British left-wing sympathisers. It really got going in January 1919 when a National Committee for the Hands off Russia! campaign was elected at a conference in London. Many of the groups and individuals who congregated under the umbrella of Hands Off Russia! later went on to form the Communist Party of Great Britain in August 1920.
Speakers at this, the largest of the Hands off Russia meetings, included Cathal O’Shannon (Irish TUC), left Labour MP George Lansbury, Israel Zangwill (author), WF Watson and Lady Warwick (a long-time left associate). Scottish socialist John Maclean, the ‘Bolshevik Consul in Glasgow’, was the star turn: “The climax…was reached when EC Fairchild announced John Maclean. Round on round of applause greeted his rising, the whole vast gathering breaking into song.” (The Call). The meeting was the end for the very active Billy Watson, a syndicalist, leading light of the London Workers Committee, an attempt to organise factory councils in London (similar to the Clyde Workers Committee). Watson was arrested for sedition under the DORA as a result of his speech. While serving his six month sentence it was revealed he was a paid informer. Although he seems to have been exploiting police gullibility rather than shopping his comrades (would they jail a really useful informer?) his left career was largely at an end.
This has to be seen in the context of the massive strike wave and social struggles erupting in the UK at this time. In 1919, 2.4 million workers went on strike, after weathering four years without trade union rights. Both the Labour Party and official trade unions had accepted the Munitions Act of 1915; ‘a system that was military-like in its restrictions and enforcement’. It made strikes illegal, controlled wages and made it impossible to leave a job without permission. Union membership grew during the war years, when the labour system was seen as undemocratic and damaging to working class interests. Then in 1919 and 1920, as Lloyd George’s promise of a land fit for heroes failed to materialise, industrial unrest grew. Those industries still largely under government control such as mining and railways were especially militant, while workers on Red Clydeside fought for a 40-hour week.
The Hands Off Russia! Movement gained rapid support amongst the rank and file in 1920, partly because many workers were angered at the prospect of another imperial intervention, and the possible extension of unjust policies disguised as emergency war measures.
“The coal heavers have refused to coal the SS Jolly George on May 10th 1920. They struck better than they knew!…The strike on the SS Jolly George has given a new inspiration to the whole working class movement. On May 15th, the munitions are unloaded back onto the dock side, and on the side of one case is a very familiar sticky-back, ‘Hands Off Russia!’ It is very small, but that day it was big enough to be read all over the world.”
The London Dockers’ May 1920 refusal to load armaments onto the ship the SS Jolly George, destined to support the invasion, was the most tangible success of Hands Off Russia! – a campaign that had held meetings and demonstrations for many months. They resisted orders, and significantly, the District Secretary of the official Dockers’ Union, led by Fred Thompson, backed their action.
The Dockers’ powerful show of solidarity was not just a spontaneous act – Harry Pollitt, Sylvia Pankhurst and other East End socialists had done a lot of hard work among the dockers. Pankhurst was a prominent communist and led the Workers’ Socialist Federation of which Pollitt was a member. In the months before the SS Jolly George incident they undertook a campaign of relentless agitation: handing out pro-soviet literature, making links with unions, and radicalising the dock workers. Pankhurst reportedly handed out thousands of copies of Lenin’s Appeal to the Toiling Masses around the docklands for several months beforehand, at the risk of arrest, as the text was on the Home Office blacklist. A year later, in 1921, Pankhurst was arrested and imprisoned for stirring up anti-establishment feeling amongst the Dockers.
Defence of Soviet Russia began to be identified with defence of the trade unions against Lloyd George.’ Although it was highly unlikely that any allied intervention in Russia would have led to a full scale war, Pollitt really believed they had stopped a war, and so did many of his rank and file supporters. This illustrates the state of fear and mistrust of British military decision making at the time. The massive strike wave in the UK, though, was also inspiring fear of possible revolution here at home…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online