October and the British Empire

by C. Desmond Greaves

Labour Monthly, November 1967

No aspect of the October Revolution aroused more fury in western capitals than its total reversal of Tsarist foreign policy, and the publication of the secret treaties in which it was embodied.

The Entente powers had welcomed the February revolution, which the New York Herald (in a reference to the known pro-Germanism of certain court circles) proclaimed was undertaken to “purge Petrograd of traitorous Prussianism”. American big business counted the dollars lent England and France, and hustled into the war to keep the Russians fighting. Throughout the life of the Provisional Government, while military defeat and economic collapse to the point of famine stared it in the face, the British Ambassador concentrated his energies on one object. Russia must bleed on to fulfil the bond – the partition of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires among the mineral-hungry, oil-thirsty imperialists who were opposed to them. Subject nations were to be forcibly transferred from one prison to another.

From the outset the Bolsheviks counterposed the conception of a peoples’ peace, as envisaged by the internationale before it collapsed into contending chauvinisms, a peace “without annexations or indemnities”. Lord Landsdowne, appalled by the spectre in the East, might ring down 1917 with his letter to The Times suggesting “peace and hold what we have” lest “civilisation” collapse. That position was already pre-empted. The people’s peace meant neither that, nor “back to the old frontiers”. Imperialism had sown the wind. Now for the whirlwind. The Bolshevik demand was formulated in mid-May and its terms in relation to the main belligerents make it one of the most remarkable documents:

Germany, by the terms of such a peace must relinquish not only all the territories she has occupied since the beginning of the war, all without exception, but she must also release the peoples forcefully held within the German boundaries, the Danes (Schleswig), the French (part of Alsace and Lorraine), the Poles (Posen), etc. Germany must agree immediately, and simultaneously with Russia, to withdraw her armies from all regions that she had seized, as well as from all the regions enumerated above, and must leave it to each people to determine fully, by universal voting, whether it wishes to live as a separate state or in union with whomsoever it pleases. Germany must unconditionally and unequivocally renounce all her colonies, for colonies are oppressed peoples…

England, by the terms of such a peace must renounce immediately and unconditionally not only the lands that she seized from others (the German colonies in Africa etc., the Turkish lands, Mesopotamia, etc.) but also all her colonies. England like Russia and Germany must immediately withdraw her armies from all the lands she has occupied, from her colonies, and also from Ireland, leaving it to each people to determine by a free vote whether it wishes to live as a separate state or in Union with whomsoever it wishes.

Against uncertainty as to who might cite the principle, a democratic qualification was shortly added. “The theoretical definition of annexation “, Lenin wrote, “involves the conception of an “alien” people, i.e. a people that has preserved its peculiarities and its wish for independent existence.”

This policy was based on the profound reassessment of the movement of modern capitalism which Lenin had recently completed in his pamphlet Imperialism. It implied above all one thing: national liberation had become a part of the world socialist revolution. This was expressed in the decree on peace published on November 10.

The government considers it the greatest of crimes against humanity to continue this war over the issue of how to divide among the strong and rich nations the weak nationalities they have conquered.

And a few days later the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples showed the world that the Bolsheviks intended to practice what they had preached.

The publication of the secret treaties not only showed what had paralysed the Provisional Government. It had stripped from the western powers their last poor pretence to be waging a just war. They were now driven to seek hypocritical shelter in the ambiguities of President Wilson’s fourteen points. Of the exequies of these, history records that at the Paris Peace Conference it was agreed that no delegate from a non-sovereign nation would be received without the unanimous consent of the main colonial powers, and when challenged with his apostasy Wilson replied “that is the supreme metaphysical tragedy of our age”. By this he is believed to have meant that he had aroused hopes that he could not satisfy.

The impact of Bolshevik policy on the peoples of the British Empire was naturally most immediate in the country with the most advanced national liberation movement, namely Ireland. After the unsuccessful uprising of Easter 1916 ensued a period of rapid organisation of workers and small farmers in trade union, political and military fields. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was reorganised and as early as June 1917 judged that the Soviets would shortly assume sole power. The decision to send Dr. McCartan as envoy to Russia seems to have followed the publication in the Nationalist weekly New Ireland of the reply of the ‘Russian Council of Soldiers’ and Workmen’s Delegates’* to a “win the war” appeal from Cecil and Asquith. It contained the words:

What about the historic injustices committed yourselves and your violent suppression of Ireland, India, Egypt, and innumerable people inhabiting all continents? If you are so anxious for ‘justice’ that you are prepared in its name to send millions of people to the grave, then, gentlemen, begin with yourselves.

Irish Opinion, the deliberately innocuously named organ of the labour movement, was revived by L.P. Byrne. Its support for the revolution was enthusiastic, and no effort was spared to popularise it among the Irish people. The Irish TUC passed a resolution appreciating the Bolshevik’s insistence on universal self-determination of nations, and sent a delegate to England to present a congratulatory address to Mr. Litvinov. Nor was solidarity confined to the working class. The Bolshevik example affected the outlook of the entire national movement, and undoubtedly encouraged alike the great movement against conscription in April 1918, and the Sinn Fein delegates who, meeting in Dublin on January 21, 1919, issued not a list of demands but a Declaration of Independence.

When in protest against the imposition of a system of military permits by the British authorities, the workers seized Limerick and ran the town for a week, the event was called the Limerick Soviet. The following year the ‘Soviet Creameries” were taken over by the workers, some gaily flaunting red flags and the banner “we make butter not profits”. They made contacts with the Belfast Co-operative Society and ultimately handed back the concerns in a better financial shape than when they took them. The Irish workers, so far from God and so near to Holyhead, with their best leaders in the grave or the United States, understood the substance of the October Revolution and tried to emulate it in their own way.

Military intervention against the Soviet Republic was answered in England by the ‘Hands off Russia Movement’. Intervention in Ireland stimulated the ‘Hands off Ireland Movement’. In the United States the campaign for the recognition of the two Republics went hand in hand, the Russian and Irish exiles forming two important national groupings in the pre-history and early days of the Communist Party of the United States. It was in the USA that the Irish-Soviet draft treaty was drawn up by McCartan and Martins, and Irish republican funds were loaned to the Soviet Government against the security of part of the Tsar’s crown jewels. The alliance broke down when Griffith and Collins capitulated to Lloyd George’s ultimatum and dissolved the Republic. What if it had been preserved?

The war in Ireland continued until the summer of 1921. Meanwhile other subject peoples were stirring. Almost simultaneously with the Irish the French Canadians revolted against the conscription that was to facilitate intervention in Siberia. There was fierce street fighting in Quebec. When the Central Powers capitulated the meaning of an imperialist peace became clear. It was the continuation of the war by other means. No scheme was too grandiose, megalomaniac or fantastic for the victors to consider. Repeatedly they came to grief because the Soviet Republic survived and drove out its attackers; one people had stormed heaven – and taken it.

The plan for the dismemberment of Turkey aroused fierce indignation in western Asia and India. The revolution which numbered the days of the Sublime Porte created equal enthusiasm. Despite efforts to seal it off, India was rapidly entering the international movement. The All-India TUC was founded in 1919. A wave of industrial unrest was sweeping the country, in which Moslem and Hindu forged their unity. British imperialism had replied with repression, which included the notorious massacre at Amritsar. The aim of independence was declared by the national movement and a campaign of non-cooperation inaugurated with the object of winning it. The Communist Party of India was established. It is widely believed that but for Gandhi’s retreat at the crucial moment, freedom might have been won. Even imperialism was compelled to pay lip-service to it.

In Egypt there was an armed insurrection in 1919, with the Republic declared in March of that year. There, as in Ireland, the outcome was a form of ‘neo-colonialism’.

Trans-Saharan Africa entered the world movement. The first Pan-African congress was held in 1919, as trade unionism surged forward in South Africa. The West African National Congress was established in 1920. Perhaps most spectacular was the great upheaval in Kenya in 1921 when Thuku led a united nation in a struggle against land-seizures, wage reductions, poll tax and forced labour. That year the Communist Party of South Africa was founded. Tribute should be paid to the Irish, Chinese and other seamen who risked their liberty carrying dispatches for national liberation movements other than their own, and to the communist and socialist workers of Britain who adopted the slogan of world national self-determination and acted upon it.

Today the grandiose schemes of imperialism are no more. The strongest of the camp is bogged down for years by a peasant people. Constitutional independence is the rule; colonial administration the exception. Imperialism must pursue its aims with new methods, but still seeks to destroy in the name of super-profits those internal relations which the peoples have established through ages and which constitute a community each with its own democracy. The best guarantee of its ultimate defeat is the development and intensification of the policy which was proclaimed with the October revolution, the establishment of a world united front of workers and oppressed peoples against imperialism, knowing no other enemy. The world is ready for a new, international order. This is what the peoples demand, not the breaking up of the world into disconnected monads. Fifty years ago that new democracy was first placed on the order of the day. It will surely not be another fifty before the internationale becomes the human race.

* Presumably the Petrograd Soviet.