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August 100 years ago: attacks on the Bolshevik revolution and transport workers’ strikes

AS the fifth year of the world war replaced the fourth in August 1918, socialists in Britain were much alive to the danger to the Bolshevik revolution posed by British troops in Russia’s north.

The Labour Leader declared on the 1st that the Independent Labour Party’s national council was appealing for “the strongest condemnation of the participation of the British government in an act which constitutes a crime against national independence and against the Russian revolution.”

The British Socialist Party’s weekly, The Call, printed a letter from Workers Socialist Federation leader Sylvia Pankhurst and others headed: “SAVE THE REVOLUTION,” calling for action to help Russian comrades.  

The paper also reported an open-air meeting in Wigan which had, with “great enthusiasm,” called for the Labour Party to take decisive action to ensure withdrawal of allied forces.

On the 2nd, the British presence in Murmansk, established quietly in early March, was supplemented by a landing at Archangel, further into the Kola inlet and some 25 miles up the river Dvina.  

Two British ships and one French unloaded there around 1,500 men, including 50 US sailors. Fighting, killing, advancing inland followed.

The next day a British battalion from Hong Kong arrived at Vladivostok, in eastern Siberia, where the US had now agreed that Japanese troops could land and engage in anti-Bolshevik operations.

Weeks later was reported the arrival of a British detachment at Baku on the Caspian Sea, another counter-revolutionary move.

The George Lansbury-edited Herald, in wartime a weekly, stated truly on the 10th: “The allies have no more right to occupy Archangel and Vladivostok than have the Germans to occupy Holland.”

A letter dated August 1 from leading British Socialist Party member Joe Fineberg, now in Russia, was on its way to Britain, to be printed in The Call in September.   

Fineberg was a Jewish London tailor of Russian origin, recently and briefly secretary to Bolshevik “ambassador” Maxim Litvinov — who was still at large in Britain.  

Having arrived in Russia to join the Bolsheviks, Fineberg was to live and work there as a translator until his death in 1957.

His letter included: “It may be that we shall go down, but if we do, we shall go down fighting. Preparations are being made to defend Petrograd and Moscow, and the task is left to the members of the party, all of whom have to take a course of military instruction. I have made application to join. The correct title of the party, by the way, is the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). We call ourselves communists here…”

The broader anti-war movement remained uncowed, despite sustained Home Office-directed police attacks on printing machinery and arrests, which seriously hampered continuing effective publicity.   

The Glasgow-based Socialist Labour Party’s monthly The Socialist, which had suffered dismantling and removal of its printing machinery in early July, nevertheless managed to bring out its August issue.   

The No Conscription Fellowship’s weekly Tribunal also continued to appear, although its secretariat was under sustained prosecutor assault.   

General secretary Violet Tillard (“Tilly”) was imprisoned from August 6 in Holloway Prison for refusal to pay a fine for not disclosing the identity of the Tribunal’s editor to police.  

Later in the month the paper’s “publisher” Joan Beauchamp faced several summonses for bringing out the paper, for which she received a punitive fine of £200 — with another jail sentence ready, failing payment.

On August 8 the Tribunal expressed delight that imprisoned conscription refuser and former Labour Leader editor Fenner Brockway (much later a Labour MP and prominent in anti-colonial work), together with other prisoners, had been victorious in breaking “the silence rule” in Liverpool jail.  

He had been in consequence transferred to Lincoln Prison, where, though in a punishment cell, his isolation was reduced by secret provision of newspapers via a “trusty” from interned Sinn Fein prisoners.  

Scottish socialist John Maclean, whose five-year jail sentence for anti-war agitation reflected his influence in Scotland, was in Peterhead prison.  

He had been earlier on hunger strike, then allowed food from outside. It was on August 22 reported by The Call that this privilege had been withdrawn. He was being force-fed.

The long and bloody line of the Western Front was, following a British tank-led offensive on August 8, moving eastwards, assisted by hundreds of thousands of US troops now in the line.  

On August 12 British secretary of state for war Lord Milner told the war cabinet that the probable casualty figure since the allied attack began — involving around 150,000 soldiers — was around 20,000.

He stated that this was “not generally considered a heavy casualty list by comparison with previous attacks.”   

It was still a devastating total in a war between rival imperialisms, and which Maclean’s speech from the dock on May 9 had pointed out would lead, whichever side lost, to another war of revenge.

Weeks later, the reactionary proprietor of the Times, Lord Northcliffe, publicly gave his personal estimate of British military deaths since August 1914  as 900,000 — higher than the post-war official total estimate of 743,000. He added the comment that the war could last three years more.   

By August’s end, after further attacks, the British were across the Somme and the German forces were in organised retreat.

July’s industrial strikes in Britain were still being discussed in the press when a London transport strike came seemingly out of the blue. This was “the bus girls’ strike.”

Female bus and tram conductors were now demanding the same war bonus — five shillings — recently granted to male conductors, and denied to their female counterparts. 

The press had been silent about the simmering issue, so the walkout began on Saturday August 17 without public warning — and immediately supported by the men. It began in central London. 

“During the day,” reported the Times next day, “the strike extended to outer London districts … and there are reports of strikes and threats to strike from the country.”

On the Sunday, London’s streets were uncannily empty and silent. In the war cabinet on the 22nd, Labour’s reactionary representative George Barnes rejected the women’s claim, stating that the formula “Equal Pay for Equal Work” was “as useless” as that of “No Annexations and Indemnities.” 

But the war cabinet, no doubt with him in spirit, overruled his objection to the concession, deciding that a five shilling advance should be granted, followed by a committee of inquiry.

The next day, over 1,000 women and men workers on London’s Underground Tube railway resolved at a meeting in a Walworth hall to cease work at once, returning to work three days later with the expectation that their case for an increase would be given serious consideration.  

“This is merely an armistice,” stated the strike committee.
Then, extraordinary, unprecedented, came London’s police strike.
Low levels of pay and refusal to negotiate with the police union were issues suddenly supplemented by the provocative dismissal of PC Thiel, union provincial organiser, on August 25.   

On the 27th the police union executive prepared an ultimatum which included demands for an increase of the present police wage, the reinstatement of Thiel and official recognition of the police union — and a strike after two days if demands were not met.   

None of this was broadcast until constables had left their beats. On the 30th, said The Times a day later, “with very few exceptions, the entire Metropolitan Police Force, numbering something over 12,000 men, was on strike,” and in the evening they were “joined by virtually all the men of the City Police Force.”  

On the 31st, the Daily News observed: “The unseen policeman still held sway, and taxis and bus drivers automatically ‘controlled’ the traffic,” while “fruit vendors were careful to keep moving on, although there was no-one to make them do so.”

That day the government backed down, reinstating Thiel (whom the madly reactionary Morning Post had dubbed a German agent), and granting a minimum wage uplift to 23 shillings a week, but refusing union recognition.  

Home secretary Sir George Cave, called back from his summer holiday, told reporters that “he would not have a repetition in this country of what had happened in Russia…”

 

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