Friday, November 19, 2010

Hands Off Russia 1919-1920

Hands Off Russia 1919-1920

In early May 1920, in London's East India Dock a ship called the Jolly George was found to be loading munitions for Poland which with the connivance of the British and French Governments, had invaded Russia and captured Kiev. 

On May 10th 1920 the dockers stopped work. they declared they would not load the Jolly George until the arms were removed. the coalheavers likewise refused to load coal for the ships engines until the munitions were unloaded which they were on the 15th May

 Harry Pollitt leader of the "Hands Off  Russia" campaign and worked to build support amongst the dockers

"The strike on the Jolly George has given a new inspiration to the whole working class movement. On May 15th 1920 the munitions were unloaded back on the dockside, and on the side of one ofcase is a very familiar sticky-back: "Hands Off Russia". It was only very small but that day it was big enough to be read all over the world"  


Before the end of July 1918 the German forces invading northern France had begun their retreat across the Marne. In the first week of August 1918 British troops were landed both at Arch-angel in the north and in the south at Baku.

On August 6 the British government issued a 'Declaration to Russian Peoples' stating that they had 'no intention of interfering in Russian polities'.
The actions of the British military authorities and their support of anti-Soviet forces spoke otherwise.

It is doubtful if the statement was anywhere swallowed. It was not readily accepted by the workers, perhaps least of all by the miners of South Wales who had experienced the inveterate duplicity of their rulers. The Rhondda Monthly Meeting, composed of delegates from thirty-two trade union branches, in October 1918 carried a resolution both in Welsh and in English:

"That this Meeting strongly protests against the Armed Intervention in Russia in opposition to the declared wishes of the Soviet Government, and indirect contradiction to the Allies' pronouncement in favour of the self determination of all Nations. This Meeting believes that the overthrow of the Soviet Administration would be a disaster to the Organised Labour Movement throughout the world, and could only be construed as evidence of the intention of the Government to make War on the Working Classes."

Similar protests were made elsewhere up to the armistice on November 11, 1918, which afforded an opportunity for the cabal within the British government to push forward their sinister schemes. Britain and France and a dozen other powers were to send their armies against the territories of their war-time ally.

Nineteen days after the armistice, on December 1, 1918, a meeting of the London Workers' Committee and the Socialist Labour Party adopted an appeal for a national conference to campaign for a general strike against intervention. This circular, headed 'Hands off Russia!', was on show at the Marx Memorial Library exhibition in October 1977.

The month of January 1919 opened a two year period of strikes,riots, mutinies and insurrection, both in Britain and throughout the world. In the British army at home there were over fifty strikes in the month of January. Commander-in-Chief (Sir Douglas Haig informed the Secretary of State for War (Winston Churchill) of a whole army camp at Calais in mutiny; that he had surrounded it with Guards troops heavily armoured; that he would find a dozen 'ring-leaders' to have them court-martialled and shot. Churchill, while in general agreement with the sentiments of Haig, was considerably more cunning and advised less drastic penalties.

As industrial acting-editor. Page Arnot interviewed in the Herald office a group of the fully armed strikers and took a note of their grievances, while Andrew Rothstein was responsible for another unit refusing to volunteer for Archangel.

The further progress of the 'Hands off Russia' campaign may now be summarised as follows:

January 18,1919: The London Workers' Committee conference, in association with the BSP, SLP WSF and IWW at the Memorial Hall, with 350 delegates, including Arthur McManus and Sylvia Pankhurst, and Harry Pollitt (Openshaw BSP) who spoke as a delegate, adopted a resolution launching the movement thereafter known as the 'Hands off Russia!' Campaign. A committee of 16 was formed. Pollitt was already know to the River Thames Shop Stewards Movement.

January to September 1919: Local 'Hands off Russia!' bodies formed in many places, including one at Oxford of workers and students, of whom Andrew Rothstein was one, in February.

February 8, 1919: British Socialist Party 'Hands off Russia!' meeting filling the Albert Hall where both of us were present—as also at subsequent such gatherings.

March 31,1919: First number of revived Daily Herald reinforcing campaign.

April 3,1919: Joint Conference of Trades Union Congress and Labour Party called for immediate withdrawal of troops from Russia and decided 'to take such action as may be necessary to induce Allied Governments to do likewise.'

April 9,1919: The above resolution presented to Chancellor of the Exchequer (Bonar Law) by a deputation from Parliamentary Committee of Trades Union Congress, whose chairman (Stuart-Bunning) told Bonar Law that if the answer was unsatisfactory, there would be the likelihood of a general strike.

May 15, 1919: Meeting of Parliamentary Committee of Trades Union Congress (on conscription), with Triple Alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers. 

June 3, 1919: Triple Alliance conference on conscription threatens strike if troops are not withdrawn from Soviet Russia. Conference in Manchester sets up national 'Hands off Russia!' Committee including trade union leaders and members of parliament.

June 1919 The Labour Party conference, against the will of the leadership denounced the intervention as "war in the interests of financial capitalism, which aims at the destruction of the Russian Socialist Republic and as a denial of the right to self-determination"

June 1919 The national committee elected in January gave way to a more representative National "Hands off Russia Committee, set up by a conference in Manchester. Its President was A.A. Purcell and included C.T. Cramp (NUR Rail union), Tom Mann (ASE Engineering Union ), George Peet National shop Stewards Committee, John Bromley (Locomotives and Firemen union ), Fred Shaw (ASE) David Kirkwood (ASE) John Hill (Boilermakers union), W, Straker (Miners union), Alex Gossip (Furniture maker union), William Gallacher (Clyde). Secretary W.P. "Pat" Coates (BSP) and during 1919 its organiser was Harry Pollitt with headquarter at Margaret Street Hall, Openshaw, Manchester, from which the great industrial centres of the North and midlands could be more easily be reached.

July 20,1919: International strikes against intervention in Russia.

August 18,1919: British naval attack on Russian fleet.

September 8, 1919: General Ironside's interview on his plans for offensive in Russia divulged in Daily Express. Ironside replaced by General Rawlinson. 

September 11, 1919: Churchill issues statement that evacuation would be carried out, but subject to 'General Rawlinson's fullest discretionary power as to time and method'. Scottish TUC resolved (with one dissentient) that, failing withdrawal of British troops, 'a special TUC be called immediately to decide what action shall be taken.'

October 11, 1919: Daily Herald demonstration on Peace with Russia (and nationalisation of mines) fills Albert Hall.

October 16,1919: Kronstadt reported to be under bombardment from British navy. Finnish Diet (parliament) next day decides against peace negotiations with Soviet Russia.

November 8,1919: Lloyd George's Guildhall speech hints at peace with Russia.

November 1919 Leaflet circulated to unions quoted Principal W.T. Goode M A Russian correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and Lt Col Malone MP who had just visited Russia who gave factual eye witness accounts.

December 10, 1919: Special Trades Union Congress resolved: 'That this Congress, having heard the report of the deputation which waited upon the Prime Minister on the Question of Russia, expresses its profound dissatisfaction; it calls upon the Government immediately to consider the peace overtures made by the Soviet Government.' Congress also decided that a delegation be appointed to visit Russia.

January 16,1920: Allied Supreme Council decide to 'permit' trade with Russia, if through co-operative bodies; and, six weeks later, to forbid diplomatic relations.

February 27, 1920: Big demonstration in Albert Hall called by National 'Hands off Russia!' Committee chaired by Tom Mann and addressed by Colonel Malone and Commander Harold Grenfell RN., John MacLean from the Clyde, Robert Williams Transport Workers Union, Israel Zangwill, Professor Goode and Commander Grenfell.
March 24,1920: Vast Albert Hall meeting, Tom Mann in the Chair, welcomes home George Lansbury who reports on his visit to Russia and his talks with Lenin.

March 1920 Red Army drives counter revolutionary troops into the Crimea.

April 4, 1920 Daily Herald states " The marionettes are in Warsaw, but the strings are pulled from London and Paris".

April 24,1920: Marshal Pilsudski of Poland invades Soviet Russia..

April 1920 Rumours of two Belgian barges at Blackwell shipyard being fitted to carry war material to Poland, A few weeks later news came that the towing rope attached to the barges had broken while crossing the North Sea and the barges had sunk.

May 1, 1920 May day march to Hyde Park, Danish steamer Neptune sailed with Munitions, brave attempts to stop her fail. However two Communist firemen amongst the crew, when she neared Gravesend called all the hands together, explained that the cargo was munitions to be used against Russia and while the Captain argueed the ship hit an oncomming ship forcing it to return to dock.

May 3, 1920: Pilsudski receives telegram of congratulations from King George V.

May 10, 1920: The Times wrote that the capture of Kiev by the poles "is a great triumph for them and their Ukrainian allies and a heavy blow for the Bolsheviks"
May 10th 1920 London dockers, on an appeal from Harry Pollitt, strike against loading the Jolly George with munitions for Poland: and then receive full backing from Fred Thompson, District Secretary of the Dockers' Union.

There followed a three month period in which at first the Polish armies made great inroads and captured Kiev the capital of the Ukraine. But within four weeks the Poles were driven backwards.

Whereupon the British government which, Churchill had admitted on May 11, had 'helped to strengthen and equip the Polish army', came once more to its aid. The danger of the British and French people being plunged into war was greater from week to week.

Throughout May, June and July the agitation for peace and for 'Hands off Russia!' increased correspondingly.

June 1920 Labour party conference at Scarborough, Hodgson of the BSP moves amendment calling for Peace with Russia. moved an addendum to the official resolution (which called for peace with Russia) proposing the immediate summoning of a national conference.

"having for its object the organisation of a general strike that shall put an end once and for all to the open and covert participation of the British Government in attacks on the Soviet Republic . . ."and which, moreover, recommended: "that unions should support their members in refusing to do work which directly or indirectly assists hostilities against Russia."

This addendum, opposed, amongst others, by Ernest Bevin, was heavily defeated at the time, but had its effect.

The Polish armies at first rapidly advanced. On June 12 they took Kiev. But at the end of the month they were in headlong retreat from the Ukraine, pursued by Budienny's First Cavalry and other Soviet forces right to the gates of Warsaw, a remarkable military feat which aroused tremendous enthusiasm in the international working-class movement.

Friday, August 5, 1920: Arthur Henderson, 'from his sick-bed' as his son Willie told Arnot, sends telegrams to every local Labour Party calling for immediate citizen demonstration against intervention and possible extension of war.

Saturday, August 6, 1920: Communist Party of Great Britain (formed five days earlier) sends telegram (drafted by Andrew Rothstein) to branches in thirty main industrial centres, urging participation in these demonstrations with demand for five points: (see below)
—Immediate withdrawal of warships.
—Immediate withdrawal of British troops in Poland.
—Withdrawal of any support for Poland.
—Immediate Agreement on Peace with Soviet Russia.
—Formation of Central Labour Action Council to watch over fulfillment.
The Communist in the next four weeks has many reports of the '5 points' being adopted by trade union and labour demonstrations.

Sunday, August 8, 1920: Special issue of Daily Herald under the headline "Not a man, Not a Gun, Not a Sou" , with CP manifesto embodying the five points.

Tuesday, August 9,1920: The Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress and the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party decide to call national conference in London and to lay before it resolutions for a general strike if war were made on Soviet Russia.

Saturday, August 13, 1920: Above Conference (over a thousand delegates in Central Hall, Westminster) sets up a National Council of Action to stop the war, The Committee had 15 members of whom only two were Communist Party members A.A. Purcell and Robert Williams): and 350 local Councils of Action formed in the next few days. National Council of Action then deputed two of its members (Chairman of the TUC Parliamentary Committee and Chairman of the Labour MPs) to cross to France (where they were arrested) to concert common action with the French Labour movement; and on the same day set up Publicity and Propaganda Committee to be organised by the Assistant Secretary of the Labour Party (J. S. Middleton) and by R. Page Amot, Secretary of the Labour Research Department. This Committee, meeting daily, issued a stream of manifestos and articles to the trade union and labour press.

The Conference passed the following resolution

(1) An absolute guarantee that the armed forces of Great Britain shall not be used in support of Poland, Baron Wrangel, or any other military or naval effort against the Soviet Government.

(2) The withdrawal of all British naval forces operating directly or indirectly as a blockading influence against Russia.

(3) The recognition of the Russian Soviet Government and the establishment of unrestricted trading and commercial relation ships between Great Britain and Russia.
The effect of all this was immediate: and within three days (on 10th August 1920) Lloyd George hastily beat a retreat. It was announced that war preparations were to be cancelled and a deputation of MPs and other Council of Action delegates were told by the Prime Minister on August 16 that there would be no war and that 'Labour is hammering at an open door.'

As Winston Churchill later put it, Under these pressures Mr Lloyd George was constrained to advise the Polish Government that... the British Government could not take any action against Russia".

So after eighteen months of unremitting effort the aim of the conference of January 1919 had been achieved; by threat of general strike the capitalist government had been compelled to change policy. No one could dispute the statement in the Labour Party's annual report "There is no doubt whatever that the action of the Labour movement early in August prevented open war with Russia".

The "Hands Off Russia" movement triumphed because it expressed the will of millions who wanted to avoid another war and of thousands of class-conscious workers who knew that the emancipation of their class was bound up with the preservation of the first Socialist Republic. Among many talented and devoted leaders of the movement Harry Pollitt stood out as having been the first to see clearly that success depended on Labour's will to use its industrial power; as the man who realised that the seamen, dockers and shipyard workers were best placed to strike the first blow; and who personally led the months of campaigning in the East London dock areas to convince them to act.

Years later, when the Labour leaders rejected the strike as a weapon of struggle against another war, Pollitt wrote: "To prevent, impede or sabotage a war demands constant and unremitting preparation, agitation, propaganda and organisation. But when the workers are won for direct action, then indeed the results of this action strike decisive blows against the war makers and can on occasion force them to change their whole political line.
Source: R. Page Arnot ,Andrew Rothstein Labour Monthly December 1977
Harry Pollitt by John Mahon, History of CPGB 1919-1924 by James Klugmann

On August 6th (the fourth day of its existence) the Communist Party sent out its first circular to Branch Secretaries1 over the signatures of Arthur MacManus and Albert Inkpin, The Five points of the circular were embodied in a Communist party manifesto, which appeared for the first time ever on a Sunday. The four page edition of the Daily Herald on 8th August 1920 with the slogan "Not a man, Not a Gun, Not a Sou"
"There is no need to remind you of the importance of saving Soviet Russia from the attacks of the capitalist governments. For nearly three years you have worked loyally and well to that end.

Your efforts, according to their own admissions, have paralysed the militarists' attempts to crush our Russian comrades, for they realise how deeply 'Hands Off Russia' propaganda has sunk into the minds of the workers.

"But this is a supreme moment for action. War—definite, open, bloody war—in support of the Polish nationalists, is threatened against Russia. The Polish attack was secretly instigated and secretly prepared; the Polish request for an armistice a trick to gain time....
"Comrades, the Government must be told in plain terms that the workers will not have war against Soviet Russia. It is our duty deliberately to advise the workers not only to refuse all service for that purpose, but to oppose it actively.

"The Communist Party, in the first days of its existence, must be worthy of its mission. Let us rise to the height of a great occasion. "Call meetings in your District to denounce the new war. Wherever meetings have been arranged for the week-end, make them specifically for this object.

"Get into touch with the organised workers in your District, through the Trade Union Branches, Trades Councils, Shop Stewards Committees—everywhere—and urge them immediately to notify the Government that they will not make nor handle munitions, nor volunteer for service, nor be pressed into services, but will actively oppose, by a general strike, the threatened campaign.

"Speak boldly and act quickly. Neglect nothing. On the shoulders of every individual member of the Communist Party rests the fate of Russia at this critical moment. Let every member, therefore, be a missionary for the salvation of Russia, lest we be branded with the infamy of crushing by our apathy the first Socialist Republic, and our own hopes and ideals at the same time."

The first issue of the weekly organ of the Communist Party, the Communist (August 5), called on the workers to fight against the intervention in Russia" ' The Threatened War Against Russia, C.P. circular of August 5, 1920.


Harry Pollitt paid special credit to the role of Melvina Walker (Poplar- East London) in the "Hands off Russia" Campaign, she was an active member of Sylvia Pankhursts - Workers Socialist Federation (W.S.F) and its journal the "Workers Dreadnought" in keeping an eye on Munition ships in the London docks.
Melvina as a docker's wife, and the WSF had strong links with the dockers and seamen and as such were in a position to monitor cargo movements as Pollitt states: "Mrs Walker of Poplar toiled like a Trojan, on a shopping morning you could rely on seeing her in Crisp Street, talking to groups of women about Russia and how we must help, asking them to tell their husbands to keep their eyes skinned to see that no munitions went to those trying to crush the revolution".