HEAD OF HISTORY
British Public School
All of your talks and discussions were of superb quality and the boys gained hugely from being able to listen to and speak with you. A number of my lessons today have started with conversations and reflections based on the talks you delivered yesterday.
Many thanks once again for a tremendous day - a personal highlight of the term so far.
Labour and the Gulag: Russia and the Seduction of the British Left by Giles Udy
The Labour Party’s collusion with Soviet crimes is revealed, says Edward Lucas
The Times, 20 May 2017
Mass murder and slave labour are bad enough. Wilful complacency and collusion — from people who should know better — make particularly painful reading. In Giles Udy’s meticulous account of the British left’s attitude to Bolshevik terror in Russia and elsewhere, villains abound, and not just among the murderous zealots in Moscow. He leaves the interwar Labour movement, and its latter-day defenders, sizzling on a skewer.
The premise of his book should not need stating. The communist experiment was indefensible; forged out of misery, lies and hatred, and at the cost of millions of lives. Udy describes succinctly but vividly the cruel, arbitrary regime that the Bolsheviks and their secret police inflicted on Russia, Ukraine and other places, and the price paid by the humble, poor and powerless, as well as by religious believers and those designated as “class enemies”.
Far from being a brief spasm, the left’s wrong-headedness spanned the whole period.
Yet most British leftwingers at the time saw only a bold and brave socialist experiment, struggling to survive against imperialists and wreckers. Any shortcomings were exaggerated and forgivable. George Bernard Shaw — in those days a notable socialist polemicist as well as a playwright — justified mass executions as merely “weeding the garden”. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who were among the founders of the Fabian Society and the London School of Economics, ignored and distorted evidence of terror and famine. All they saw were entirely understandable costs of creating a real-life Utopia — a “new civilisation”, as they termed it in their infamous account of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The staunchly anti-communist postwar Labour Party of Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin took a commendably different approach.
Udy, an expert on religious persecution in Russia, initially assumed that the story of the prewar sycophancy and special pleading must have been told already. Other, similarly shameful episodes, such as the British upper classes’ flirtation with fascism, and the appeasement of Hitler under the Conservative government of Neville Chamberlain, are among modern history’s most well-trodden paths.
However, the counterpart scandal on the British left has been airbrushed. Excuses abound. The era of apologias wasn’t very long. It wasn’t very bad. Nobody knew the real story. It wasn’t the actual Labour Party. Others made similar mistakes. Standards were different then. Protests would have been useless.
Writing with a controlled but icy fury, and with documentation and quotations that would be numbing if they were not so shocking, Udy demolishes every one of these arguments. Information was abundant. So were protests. The Kremlin was highly sensitive to outside criticism. Labour would have been a crucial ally. Far from being a brief spasm, the left’s wrong-headedness spanned the entire period from the Bolshevik Revolution to (at least) the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. As late as 1947 Harold Laski praised the Bolshevik seizure of power as the “greatest” and “most beneficent” event since the French Revolution.
Udy begins by highlighting the sympathy that the Labour movement’s founders, notably Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, felt towards revolutionary Marxism, which they celebrated in Russia and hoped to replicate here. GDH Cole and Stafford Cripps — both Labour luminaries — advocated parliament’s replacement by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Cole stated that Stalin would be preferable as the ruler of the United Kingdom. This was not because he was ignorant about Soviet repression, which he freely acknowledged. He just thought it a price worth paying.
The left did not just turn an indulgent or gullible eye to events in Russia. It actively connived in fending off criticism, in particular blocking attempts to ban trade in Soviet timber, which was produced in abominable conditions by slave labourers — 20,000 children died in the labour camps in 1930-31 alone. A boycott would have ended the foul business, Udy argues.
Udy also shows, using diplomatic dispatches, cabinet minutes and Hansard, how socialist sympathisers in Westminster and Whitehall, notably in the Foreign Office, helped to obfuscate the abundant first-hand accounts of oppression and misery.
The interwar Labour Party is often described as “more Methodism than Marx”. Udy shows that the truth was the other way round, exemplified in the callous disregard that the party, and politicians such as MacDonald, showed for the plight of persecuted religious believers in Russia.
The book also unearths some long-forgotten heroes. Prebendary Alfred Gough, for example, of Holy Trinity Brompton, then as now a leading Anglican parish church in London, led a formidable national campaign, the Christian Protest Movement, against the Soviet gulag. He was joined, after some initial hesitation, by Cosmo Gordon Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1930 more than a million British Christians joined an international, ecumenical day of prayer for persecuted Soviet believers.
The Labour government was horrified and tried to ban members of the armed services from taking part. MacDonald wrote a furious, lengthy rebuke to Lang for meddling in politics — while admitting, in passing, that persecution was indeed taking place. Lang replied with an adamantine sentence: “When I asked for a day of prayer in the convocation of Canterbury and the bishops concurred with my request it did not occur to me that on such a matter it was necessary to discuss the matter with the government.”
Although all those involved are long dead, many of Udy’s culprits still adorn the liberal left’s literary and political pantheon. Perhaps LSE students could start by expressing the same ire towards the Webbs — apologists for imperialism and mass murder — that their radical counterparts in Oxford do towards Cecil Rhodes.
“Giles Udy has written a compelling work of history"
“Giles Udy has written a compelling work of history– at once scrupulous, angry and humane. He tells the story of Soviet barbarism and the British Labour Party’s compromised response to Stalin’s outrages with a masterly eye for detail and an unflinching commitment to the truth. This history reminds us all of the vital need to maintain a clear-eyed and robust approach towards regimes which deny their people liberty and it underlines how much the Labour Party has depended on sensible working-class voices such as Ernest Bevin to stay on the side of progress.”
Book Review: Labour and the Gulag: Russia and the Seduction of the British Left, by Giles Udy
Christopher Snowden, Institute of Economic Affairs
When was the date of guilty knowledge for defenders of Soviet communism? At what point did western supporters of the regime cease to be merely naive and became knowingly complicit? Commenting on the ‘pyramid of corpses’ that the Bolsheviks had built, George Orwell remarked in 1941 that ‘[a]ll people who are morally sound have known since about 1931 that the Russian regime stinks.’ Reading Giles Udy’s excellent new book ‘Labour and the Gulag’, it is difficult to put the date of guilty knowledge any later than that.
In January 1930, the New Statesman reported that dekulakisation was a ‘cruel experiment’ involving ‘imprisonment and execution’. Over the next two years, 1.8 million kulaks were arrested and deported North. 240,000 died. By 1931, 60,000 Russians had been arrested on religious grounds and 5,000 shot. The exact numbers may not have been known in the West but the basic facts of Soviet mass murder, disenfranchisement and slave labour were available to any literate Briton by the end of the 1920s.
More than a million people in Europe took part in Prayers for the Persecuted in 1930, effectively a mass protest again Russian barbarism towards the clergy. The Soviets’ use of unpaid prison labour to produce timber in the unbearable conditions of northern Russia was well documented and led many countries to boycott Russian timber in the 1920s. British sailors travelling to northern Russia saw the conditions with their own eyes and numerous stowaways and escapees were able to provide the grim details. The evidence was there for those who had eyes to see.
Not everybody did. Timber made in gulags was illegal under the Foreign Prison-Made Goods Act of 1897 and the Labour party had taken a strong stand against ‘sweated goods’ when they were in opposition in the mid-1920s. And yet the Labour party did not ban it once they were in power (the Conservatives finally did so in 1933) and many on the British left refused to accept the evidence of brutality, starvation and mass shootings long after the evidence was overwhelming.
Desperate to believe in the success of what Labour leader George Lansbury called the ‘wonderful experiment’, large numbers of British socialists were suckers for Soviet propaganda. After one stage-managed visit to the USSR, George Strauss MP declared that conditions for prisoners in the gulags were ‘very much more favourable than in our English prisons’. Ben Tillett MP described Russian prisons as being ‘more like a hospital than a place of detention’. Another sympathetic observer concluded that prisoners’ living standards were ‘as good as those of first-class misdemeanants in England’. His only complaint was that Muscovite inmates could only get ‘bourgeois’ foreign newspapers rather than good international Labour ones. The Soviet regime agreed to rectify the situation.
Those who were prepared to admit that the USSR was not quite – or not yet – a fully fledged workers’ paradise consoled themselves with the knowledge that omelettes couldn’t be made without breaking eggs. ‘Freedom is, in reality, rigidly subordinated to the State purpose’, admitted the Guardian in 1931, before adding: ‘So long as the people submit to be disciplined and regimented in the name of Socialism, or any other name, it is not for us to interfere, only to watch this amazing triumph of human endurance.’ In fact, it is doubtful whether the Guardian would have been so sanguine if freedom had been curtailed in ‘any other name’ than socialism. British socialists would not have lived under such conditions themselves, nor would they have tolerated the British working class being so ‘disciplined and regimented’ in the name of capitalism.
Faced with mounting evidence of oppression, the regime’s admirers resorted to logically fallacious tu quoque (‘you too’) and ad hominem (‘to the man’) attacks. The alleged crimes of the Bolsheviks (the Guardian invariably used the word ‘alleged’ when talking about religious persecution under Stalin) were often compared to the worst historical examples of religious violence in a shameless attempt to downplay them. ‘Pope reminded of Catholic torture and burnings’, reported the Guardian as the Communists starved and shot the priesthood. The New Leader told its readers that ‘if what is written about persecution in Russia is true, it would pale into insignificance before the record of Rome itself.’ Many of these transparent attempts to change the subject were risible. Of the slave-made timber, one Labour MP snarked in 1931: ‘Is the Right Honourable Gentleman aware that the Russian Government are gravely concerned about conditions in the Lancashire cotton industry?’
It was undoubtedly true that many of the ‘allegations’ against the Soviet regime were repeated by socialism’s enemies. In leftist circles, their association with ‘die-hard Tories’ and ‘Tory plotters’ was enough for them to be ignored. As late as April 1931, the Independent Labour Party dismissed ‘the cry of slave labour’ as ‘preliminary propaganda designed to prepare the way for a vast militarist attack on the workers of Russia.’ This was four months after the US Congress had officially acknowledged that Russian timber was produced by ‘convict labour’ under ‘brutal conditions’, and two months after it had been noted in Cabinet minutes that there was ‘little doubt that an investigation would show that Russian timber was handled by forced labour.’
It would not be surprising if the crimes of the Bolsheviks were exploited and amplified by conservatives for political reasons, but this was no more justification for turning a blind eye to human rights abuses than the ‘record of Rome’ justified turning a blind eye to the persecution of Russian churchgoers. It certainly did not justify absurd statements such as that of the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane who insisted that ‘Christianity is no more persecuted in Russia today than was Atheism in England 80 years ago’.
Mere statistics cannot do justice to the suffering under Lenin and Stalin. It is estimated that 2.8 million people died in the gulags. More than 800,000 were shot before they got there. 370,000 kulaks were shot in the purges of 1937-38 and 100,000 Russians had been killed for the crime of practising religion by 1940. Udy argues persuasively that the fellow travellers’ great mistake was to assume that the Soviet leadership shared their respect for justice and the sanctity of life. Bolshevik morality could not be more different to the Judaeo-Christian values that were taken for granted in Britain. The Soviet leadership was violent, cynical and opportunistic, as could be seen by reading the works of Lenin and Trotsky at the time. They felt no sense of kinship with the western leftists who considered them friends.
It is easy to fool somebody who wants to be fooled. It was only when Stalin started killing other leading Communists that the regime’s more deluded apologists woke up and smelt the coffee. Even that was not enough for some. While the Independent Labour Party called on Stalin to ‘end this regime of blood’ in 1938, the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb went to their graves (in 1950 and 1943 respectively) convinced that the Stalinist regime was essentially decent. Even after the purges of the 1930s, which the Soviets’ own archives show killed hundreds of thousands, Webb described the USSR as ‘the most inclusive and equalised democracy in the world’.
In his later life, Tony Benn claimed that the ‘excesses during the Stalinist period’ were ‘not widely known’ until after the dictator’s death in 1953. Similarly, the communist historian Eric Hobsbawm pleaded ignorance when questioned about his unwavering support of the regime in the 1990s. But, as Udy writes, this revisionism is ‘completely untrue. The excesses were widely known; they were simply not accepted by many on the left.’
This is a timely book, not only because it is the centenary of Russian Revolution but because the hard left are back in fashion. The shadow home secretary openly believes that Chairman Mao ‘did more good than harm’. Jeremy Corbyn’s communications director is nostalgic for East Germany. Mention the USSR or Venezuela to a certain type of socialist today and you will see the same tactics of denial, deflection and false equivalences being deployed. What about Pinochet? What about food banks? What about the capitalist saboteurs? What about the Bengal famine? What about the slaughter of native Americans? (For some unfathomable reason, Tankies regard the last two events as being quintessentially capitalist.)
In 1937, as the Stalinist terror reached its peak, Patricia Russell (wife of the philosopher Bertrand) wrote to George Bernard Shaw to tell him that she had always thought him ‘frivolous’ and ‘cruel’ but that ‘if you really believe what you say about Soviet justice you must also be rather stupid.’ Shaw was not a stupid man and yet the promise of true socialism affected him and so many others with a sort of motivated ignorance. Giles Udy’s book is a reminder to the British left of a chapter in its history that it would sooner forget. We must hope that its belief in utopia does not blind it to reality again.