Wales and the Russian Revolution
This week, Colin Thomas examines the Welsh Labour movement’s response to the Russian Revolution.
“I remember the miners when they heard that the Tsarist tyranny had been overthrown” recalled Aneurin Bevan, “rushing to meet each other in the streets with tears streaming down their cheeks, shaking hands.”[i] Public meetings were held throughout south Wales to mark the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the formation of Kerensky’s provisional government and, after the Leeds Convention of Labour, Socialist and Democratic organisations on 3 June 1917, a similar gathering was planned for 29 July in Swansea.
Even before the Russian Revolution, the British government were concerned about the activities of those who were opposed to the war and to the introduction of conscription in 1916. In February of that year, David Lloyd George, then the Minister for Munitions, agreed to the creation of an intelligence service within the Ministry, and three officers of the Parliamentary Military Secretary Department number 2 (PMS2) were based in the Cardiff area.[ii]
The authorities would have been aware of the enthusiastic response in Wales to events in Russia. The Pembrokeshire Baptist Association conference regarded the Russian Revolution as “God’s answer to his people’s prayer”,[iii] the Llanelly Star said that “since the fall of the Bastille, there has been no such wonderful event in human history as the Russian Revolution”[iv] and Harry Davies in Cwmafon told an audience of four to five hundred that it was “the greatest event of modern times.”[v]
More disturbing for the government, some were making direct connections to Britain. “Congratulations to Russian Proletariat” read the headline of the Pioneer paper which recorded that an audience of between 2,500 and 3,000 people had heard a speech by a Mr Brobyn, engine driver, member of the ILP and a strong opponent of the war. In it he spoke “of the hypocracy [sic] of the British Government congratulating the Russian Revolutionary Party upon the establishment of freedom when here we may have been curbed and robbed of those very freedoms and liberties for which the Russians had fought so magnificently.”[vi]
But even at this early stage of the revolution Llais Llafur/Labour Voice, a socialist weekly based in the Swansea valleys, had some far-sighted anxieties. “Mr Lenin and his followers are not to be despised” said the paper on 5 May 1917, “but must be regarded as the Jacobins of the Russian Revolution, at present not very numerous, but exceedingly powerful and likely to grow. The Jacobins made a sorry mess of things in the French Revolution, and their failures, coupled with the effect of the onslaught of the beleaguered Kings of Europe, led to dictatorship, Napoleon and downfall.”[vii]
These were not the main concerns of the organisers of the South Wales Workers and Soldiers Council planned for 29 July 1917 at the Elysium Hall in Swansea. They would have been aware that a meeting against conscription at the Cory Hall in Cardiff on 11 November of the previous year had been disrupted by servicemen – Dr Aled Eirug suggests that government agents had a hand in that disruption.[viii] An item in Cambria Daily Leader of 16 June indicated that local ex-servicemen were now targeting the Swansea meeting, arguing that “steps should be taken immediately by our government to suppress such meeting being held.”[ix]
The meeting went ahead but over 500 pro war demonstrators broke in on it “and ejected the hundred or so remaining delegates with considerable violence.”[x] Two days later the Western Mail newspaper described the Swansea delegates as “a gang of sedition-mongers which has for some time been engaged in poisoning the minds of the workers in the South Wales coalfield.”[xi]
The label did not deter Bob Williams, the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, who at an Independent Labour Party meeting in Cwmafon on 1 September 1917 “used the Russian Revolution as a symbol of what might be expected in this country, and of Lloyd George’s recent admission that there is a great deal of ‘inflammable material’ in the country.”[xii]
It seems that few Welsh supporters of the Russian Revolution were disillusioned by the Bolsheviks coup d’etat of October 1917 and there were protests against the British military expedition to Russia in 1918. The Rhondda No. 1 District of the South Wales Miners Federation proclaimed “that the overthrow of the Soviet Administration would be a disaster to the organised labour movement throughout the world.”[xiii] An Estonian violinist, Eduard Soermus (or Sõrmus) based in Merthyr, ended his concert in Bargoed on 26 January 1919 by speaking against British Army intervention and this led a soldier in the audience to object. An ex-servicemen’s meeting in Treherbert then weighed in, protesting “against the Government’s toleration of Soermus preaching revolution in South Wales while camouflaged as a Russian violinist and calling for his immediate arrest and deportation.”[xiv]
Morgan Jones, who had chaired the Bargoed concert for the Independent Labour Party (ILP), attempted to come to Soermus’ defence, arguing that he had been wrongly accused “of urging that our streets should be made to run with blood” and had simply objected to “our Russian campaign.[xv] But it is clear that the ILP now had misgivings about the direction that the revolution is taking – Jones’ letter continued “We sympathise naturally with their desire to establish a Socialist state but that is not to say that we by any means agree with the method of achieving that end.”[xvi]
This qualified support for Soermus was of no help to what one letter writer called “that insolent Russian Bolshevist violinist from Merthyr.”[xvii] On 14 February 1919 the Abergavenny Chronicle reported that he had been arrested under the Aliens Restriction Act and deported.
In July 1921 the South Wales Miners Federation voted to join the Red International of Labour Unions created by the new Soviet government[xviii] but it soon became possible for Welsh miners to hear a critical view from an anarchist eye witness of the revolution. On 25 May 1925, the Amman Valley Chronicle recorded that, after a speech in Gwaun-cae-gurwen by Emma Goldman, a motion was passed registering an “emphatic protest against the conspiracy of silence and boycott of Emma Goldman’s exposure of the Russian dictatorship.” It was the beginning of a long argument in the Labour movement in Wales on whether the Russian Revolution represented liberation or the replacement of one autocracy by another.
[i] Quoted by Adam Hochschild in To End All Wars published by Pan Books 2012 p265 Originally in Labour Party Annual Conference Report 1951 p194
[ii] Aled Eirug “Spies and Troublemakers in South Wales” article in Llafur, 12.1, 2016, p103
[iii] Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph, 11 April 1917
[iv] Llanelly Star, 14 March 1917
[v] Neath Notes, 16 June 1917
[vi] Pioneer, 12 May 1917
[vii] Llais Llafur, 5 May 1917
[viii] Dr Aled Eirug paper at Llafur day school on the Anti War Movement in Wales, 10 December 2016
[ix] Cambria Daily Leader, 26 July 1917
[x] Robert Griffiths “S.O.Davies A Socialist Faith” published by Gomer Press 1983, p 40
[xi] Ibid., quoted by Robert Griffiths
[xii] Pioneer, 1 September 1917
[xiii] Quoted by David Egan in Llafur article Vol.1 No.4 1975 p33
[xiv] Cambria Daily Leader, 6 February 1919
[xv] Monmouth Guardian and Bargoed and Caerphilly Observer, 7 February 1919
[xvii] Cambria Daily Leader, 6 February 1919
[xviii] Hwyel Francis and David Smith “The Fed” published by Lawrence and Wishart 1980 p30
Colin Thomas is a television producer/director of history programmes and the author of the book/DVD “Dreaming a City – the story of Hughesovka/Stalino/Donetsk” and the app “The Dragon and the Eagle/Y Ddraig a’r Eryr”.