The Leeds Convention of 1917

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The February Revolution in Russia in 1917 was received enthusiastically by the British working class movement. Within weeks there were massive meetings held across Britain to celebrate the revolution.

The Labour Party, having supported the First World War uncritically since its outbreak in 1914, saw the Russian Provisional Government as an opportunity to reinvigorate the Russian war effort. Meanwhile the left wing of Labour saw in the revolution the hope for the end of the war.

In June the United Socialist Council organised a convention in Leeds entitled “To Follow Russia”. Its purpose was to build support for the Russian Revolution. To celebrate the centenary of the Leeds Convention Janet Douglas and Christian Høgsbjerg have brought together the calling notices, reports from the convention and responses to its motions.

The pamphlet allows an insight into the excitement caused by the Russian Revolution and the debates that it created inside the British working class. The pamphlet also draws on the excellent new resource that Warwick University has created with its digitalisation of many documents from the period.

The convention was harried at every step — the press attacked it, the initial venue cancelled, the hoteliers refused to take the delegates and the evening open air rally was banned. Despite this 3,500 people attended. There were just four motions: Congratulating the Russian Revolution; Foreign Policy; Civil Liberties; and the creation of a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council.

The Foreign Policy motion called for a peace without annexations or indemnities. In other words, the war should end without any country taking new land, or any country expected to pay debts to others. There was dissent in the convention when the Sailors Union leader Edward Tupper demanded that the Germans should have to pay indemnities to the families of sailors lost in the war and he was heckled by people saying it was the ship owners who should pay. This debate ran on after the convention, with debates in union journals that are reproduced in the pamphlet.

The Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils motion caused angst in the government, as it echoed the Russian soviets. The motion’s author, W C Anderson, felt that it would be “best to obtain the government’s consent to the formation of the councils”!

The motion also distressed the right wing in the labour movement who feared their influence was slipping into the hands of revolutionists, but politicians such as Ramsay MacDonald recognised the need to talk left in order to contain the movement. This pamphlet is a reminder that the idea of soviets is not alien to British working class democracy — but also that reformist politicians are capable of displays of radicalism in order to remain in control.