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Was the Revolution planned in London?

PETER FROST takes us back 110 years to London, where Russian exiles sow the seeds of October 1917

ONE hundred and ten years ago, in 1907, if Nigel Farage had been alive and walking through parts of East London he would have undoubtedly whined about the lack of English being spoken.

He would have heard Russian, German, Yiddish, Latvian, Lithuanian and many other tongues in the streets, cafes and pubs. A glance at the newspapers — just as right-wing and inaccurate as our media is these days — would have explained what this band of dastardly foreigners were up to.

Screaming headlines declared them to be not just revolutionaries, communists, anarchists, terrorists, even nihilists; but also arsonists, bombers and murderers.

Just as today their actions were described as terrorist outrages. But again as today these labels were more insult and abuse rather than accurate political analysis and the instant solution called for was to send all foreigners home.

Yet many of these visitors would become important and well known people in the progressive history of the world. Their inheritance lives on wherever working people of all lands still struggle for peace, freedom and social justice.

Vladimir Lenin was among them as was Leon Trotsky. Rosa Luxemburg fresh from a German jail cell had made it to London to bring fraternal greetings from German communists.

Leading Russian revolutionary Maxim Litvinov, who later became Soviet foreign minister, was here looking after a quiet young comrade. The man with Litvinov was a delegate but apparently played little part in the proceedings. His name was Joseph Stalin.
Kamenev and Zinoviev were there, as well as the writer Maxim Gorky.

So what had brought so many Russian revolutionaries to London? In 1903, 1905 and 1907 the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) held its congresses in exile at the beating heart of the British empire.

The tsar had put pressure on various relatives in royal families across Europe and managed to get these revolutionary assemblies banned from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and assorted other countries.

Instead the comrades smuggled themselves into London. Lenin started to visit the capital in 1902 mainly to use the Reading Room at the British Museum. He had discovered they had works by Marx and Engels in Russian that had been banned in his native St Petersburg libraries. Of course many of those works had been researched and written in that very same London reading room.

In London Lenin would edit the underground Russian revolutionary paper Iskra (Spark) from an office loaned to him by British revolutionary Harry Quelch, the editor of the British Social Democrat weekly, Justice. Quelch made his printing press available, with Iskra just having to provide its own Cyrillic typesetters.

From London copies of Iskra were smuggled into Russia. The office Lenin used can still be seen in what is now the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green and is well worth a visit.

In London, Lenin generally stayed around the Bloomsbury area, so that he had easy access to the museum and was not too far from Clerkenwell, but he loved to walk or take an open top bus or tram all over the capital.

The 1903 Congress

This, the second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), was forced to move from Brussels because of police persecution. It reconvened in London, disguising itself first as an anglers’ club.

The need for secrecy both from British officialdom working hand in hand with the tsar’s secret police meant the congress moved from place to place.

The first session was held on August 11 1903 at the Communist Club in Charlotte Street. Further sessions took place in the Three Johns pub in Islington and brought together about 50 comrades all committed to overthrow the autocratic rule of the tsar.

To avoid arrest the sessions moved from London venue to London venue over a fortnight. They mostly used meeting rooms in pubs recommended by friendly British trade unionists.

The decisions congress delegates made in those various London pubs would ripple out across history and the globe. Some are still being argued about in revolutionary groups and movements to this day.

The biggest debate led to the monumental divide into two rival factions, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

Lenin led the Bolsheviks who argued for a tightly centralised and disciplined communist party. The Mensheviks favoured a softer position of a looser alliance with other sympathetic, if less revolutionary forces.

At the 1903 congress Lenin’s supporters narrowly lost the initial vote on the nature of a revolutionary party. There was uproar. But when seven anti-Lenin delegates walked out in protest over other issues it enabled Lenin’s group to win a crucial vote gaining control of the editorial board for the party’s journal.

This outcome enabled Lenin to take the name Bolsheviks, meaning majority in Russian, for his group. His rivals became the Mensheviks or minority.

The 1905 Congress

In the wake of the 1905 revolution, the third RSDLP congress — the first Bolshevik congress — was held in London, from April 12 to May 10 1905.

Between 40 and 50 delegates represented the various Bolshevik committees and the central committee. Lenin chaired the congress.

The 1907 Congress

This was the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which would bring about the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Three hundred and thirty six delegates took part between April 30 and May 19 1907.

The congress moved to London after being banned in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. This was much bigger than the assemblies in 1903 and 1905 with over 300 delegates. This was to be the last full congress of the party until after the October Revolution had seen soviet power established.

The congress took place in the Brotherhood Socialist Church in Hackney, a Fabian socialist institute which at that time stood on the corner of Southgate Road and Balmes Road.

Maxim Gorky described the building in which the meeting took place. “I can still see vividly before me those bare wooden walls unadorned to the point of absurdity, the lancet windows looking down on a small, narrow hall which might have been a classroom in a poor school.”

The Brotherhood Church had been formed in 1891 when John Bruce Wallace, who preached a mixture of Christianity and Marxism, took over the then-derelict church in Southgate Road. He also opened a food co-op nearby.

All the key figures of 1903 and 1905 were back again.

Secrecy demanded delegates sign in at a Jewish Socialist Club in Fulbourne Street, Whitechapel, before being directed to the actual location of the congress.

Maxim Litvinov and Stalin stayed in a doss house nearby in Fieldgate Street. The building is now luxury flats.

The late Bill Fishman, perhaps the best expert on these events in London, would tell the story of how Stalin chatted up a young Irish woman on an evening walk by the Thames.

The young woman’s male companions took exception to the foreigner’s advances and set upon Stalin with fists and sticks. Only prompt action by Litvinov saved the man who would be Uncle Joe from a severe beating and maybe a death that would have changed world history.

Back in the congress Bolsheviks and Mensheviks continued their arguments. One issue for discussion was whether to approve the use of bank robberies to help fund revolutionary activities.

Congress voted in favour and it would not be long before that policy was put into practice.

Much of the discussions both in formal sessions and in pubs, clubs, and cafes around the event were given over to plotting and planning the revolution, which would come just 10 years later in 1917 with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas and the establishment of the new Soviet Socialist Republic.

The great strike of 1907

ONE aspect of London life that many Russian visitors enjoyed was the Music Hall. Both Lenin and Stalin commented in later writings on how much they had enjoyed this unique aspect of working-class London culture.

In 1906 the Queen of the Halls, Marie Lloyd, had married another top-of-the-bill star, Alec Hurley, and the couple shared strong socialist and trade union political principles.

Marie had helped form The Variety Artistes Federation (VAF) — it still exists as part of the actors’ union Equity.

In 1907 when music hall management attempted to make lesser-known artists do unpaid extra matinee performances and to cut wages and perks the VAF took strike action to resist.

Marie and Alec as top-of-the-bill performers were not directly affected by these worsening conditions, but they threw their weight behind the strike. Meetings were held in their home and they also made major financial contributions to strike funds.

One strike-breaker was Belle Elmore — a decidedly second-rate performer — who was later murdered by her infamous husband Dr Crippen.

When Elmore crossed the picket line Marie shouted: “Let her through, girls, she’ll close the music hall faster than we can.”

As Elmore came on stage, strikers announced that Marie was singing for free on the picket line outside — the theatre emptied.

This and many similar actions ensured the strike was won.

I’m sure Vladimir and Joseph kept a close eye on this strike and later drank a toast to Marie and her working-class victory.


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