By John Newsinger
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1920—when workers said ‘Hands off Russia’

This article is over 1 years, 5 months old
A mass movement to support Russian workers brought Britain to a halt
Issue 2823
Dozens of young people hold a sign saying 'Hands of workers' Russia', illustrating a story about workers' solidarity with the Russian Revolution in 1920

Young activists organised solidarity with the Russian Revolution

On 10 May 1920, dockers working on the East India Docks in east London refused to load munitions destined to be used against the Bolsheviks onto the Jolly George ship.

Dockers threatened to walk out if bosses brought in troops to load the ship. The Jolly George sailed without its deadly cargo on 15 May.

This well-known episode of international working class solidarity was not a spontaneous gesture. It was the result of the revolutionary left and others spending months carrying out propaganda work and street agitation.

Leading the way was the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF) based in London’s East End. The WSF was led by the former suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst and had thrown itself into the “Hands Off Russia” solidarity campaign.

The campaign was organised to oppose British government intervention against the Bolsheviks in Russia. They were determined to crush the Russian workers before their revolution could inspire others to rise up.

But as far as the WSF were concerned Britain and the other capitalist powers were waging bloody murderous war against the Russian working class. The person running the campaign on the ground in the East End was Harry Pollitt. He had worked on the docks for a while, handing out revolutionary literature to his colleagues before being sacked.

Melvina Walker was one of the most important WSF activists working round the docks. A former maid who married a docker, Pollitt described Walker as “toiling like a Trojan” for the cause. And Pankhurst said this forgotten revolutionary, was “one of the most popular open air speakers in London”.

Walker always reminded her “of the French Revolution. I could imagine her on the barricades”.

David Lloyd George’s Liberal-Tory coalition government was divided on how to help the counter‑revolutionary White army. Winston Churchill favoured all-out war to smash the workers’ state. But others, including Lloyd George himself, were fearful that full scale war might provoke revolution in Britain, rather than help prevent it.

The British committed considerable resources to aiding the White armies at the cost of some £100 million. Workers blocking the Jolly George gave the Hands off Russia campaign a great boost. Activists organised mass meetings opposing intervention in city after city.

This came just at the right time, because when the revolutionary Red Army began to gain ground, the British government considered stepping up its counter-revolutionary efforts. This would mean a massive increase in munitions shipped over. And the government was seriously considering sending troops to assist its Polish allies who had invaded Ukraine.

On 5 August, Lloyd George made clear in public that sending troops was very much on the cards, provoking massive protests across Britain. Inspired by the Jolly George episode, activists set up 350 local Councils of Action, ready to organise a general strike.

Some 1,000 delegates attended a national conference of these Councils of Action just eight days later. The conference, organised by the TUC and Labour Party leaderships, made it clear a general strike would be organised if troops were dispatched.

The TUC and Labour leaderships wanted to prevent the mass movement from being led by the revolutionary left. They also feared the general strike might actually lead to revolution.

Such was the militancy of the workers that the government also had no doubt that the threat was real. Lloyd George backed down.

“Hands Off Russia” was the greatest demonstration of international solidarity in the history of the British working class.

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