Workers in Britain, sick of war and inspired by the Russian Revolution, met in their thousands in June 1917 at the Leeds Convention to debate how to bring the lessons here, writes author Christian Høgsbjerg.
The Russian Revolution of February 1917 inspired many workers internationally, including in Britain. As Aneurin Bevan, then a young miner, once eloquently recalled:
“I remember so well what happened when the Russian Revolution occurred. I remember the miners, when they heard that the Tsarist tyranny had been overthrown, rushing to meet each other in the streets with tears streaming down their cheeks, shaking hands and saying: ‘At last it has happened’.”
In March 1917 there were huge rallies held in solidarity with the Russian Revolution in Britain, including “The Revolt at the Albert Hall” in London which saw an estimated 12,000 people gather, with 5,000 more unable to get in. On May Day thousands marched in solidarity with the Russian Revolution across Britain, including 70,000 in Glasgow.
It was to give direction to this rising mood of militancy that the newly formed United Socialist Council of the Independent Labour Party and British Socialist Party called for a national delegate conference to be held in Leeds on 3 June.
The members of the organising committee included leading left wing Labour Party figures such as Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden and George Lansbury, who sought to re-form the Labour Party, which had supported the First World War, as a party of peace. Also involved were key left wing trade union leaders such as Robert Williams and Robert Smillie, and other prominent socialists.
Their call noted that “the plans of the imperialists, militarists, and aggressionists throughout Europe can only be thwarted by concerted action on the part of the working class, now rapidly returning to their adherence to the principles of the International Solidarity of Labour”.
In late May the four resolutions to be voted on at Leeds were published. The first three (hailing the Russian Revolution, calling for an end to the war and defending civil liberties) fitted with demands at previous gatherings, but the fourth resolution called for something new — the establishment “in every town, urban, and rural district” of “Councils of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Delegates”.
This radical resolution was clearly inspired by the soviets of revolutionary Russia — and the British ruling class was now deeply worried by the upcoming Leeds Convention. Lloyd George’s cabinet even considered prohibiting it under the Defence of the Realm Act.
On 3 June 1917 some 3,500 people defiantly braved right wing press hysteria about the event to attend the National Labour and Socialist Convention held at the Leeds Coliseum (now Leeds O2 Academy). Ralph Miliband once declared it “perhaps the most remarkable gathering of the period”.
Speakers at the convention included the great and good of the British left and labour movement — Bertrand Russell, Ramsay MacDonald, Sylvia Pankhurst, Tom Mann, Philip Snowden, Charlotte Despard, Ernest Bevin, Dora Montefiore and Willie Gallacher. After some inspiring speeches and a message of fraternal greetings from the Petrograd Soviet itself, the resolutions were all passed almost unanimously.
As Snowden put it afterwards, the convention “was not only the largest Democratic Congress held in Great Britain since the days of the Chartist agitation” but a “spontaneous expression of the spirit and enthusiasm of the Labour and Democratic movement”. Fenner Brockway noted the impact it had on veteran Bradford socialist Fred Jowett: “To the end of his life Fred used to refer to the Leeds Congress as the highest point of revolutionary fervour he had seen in this country.”
Even King George V was “greatly disturbed”, asking pro-war Labour MP Will Thorne, “Do you think that any ill will come from this Conference at Leeds and the decisions that were made there?”
Unfortunately, with the movement safely under the leadership and control of left Labour figures like MacDonald and Snowden, King George V needn’t have worried unduly; little if anything concretely emerged from the Leeds Convention. Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils certainly were never going to be built by the official leaders of the labour movement.
As Snowden later admitted, “It may be, I do not rule it out of theoretical consideration, that Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils or Soviets may come to Britain but I am for Socialism coming through parliament and no other way.”
Yet despite little emerging practically out of it, the Leeds Convention of 1917 still deserves to be remembered as an inspiring moment of internationalism and solidarity in the history of the British working class movement. Indeed, many young militant trade unionists and socialists who attended later helped found the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Reading and re-reading the discussions, resolutions, speeches and arguments from the Leeds Convention today is a timely reminder of the relevance and potential appeal of revolutionary democratic and socialist ideas at a time of crisis, war and tumult.