Friend of October

On the 80th anniversary of the Russian Revolution Eddie Ford reviews the work of a commentator who became a partisan. ('Morgan Philips Price Dispatches from the revolution: Russia 1916-18', Pluto Press 1997, pp181)

This book is an invaluable historical document. Through these dispatches - articles, letters, memorandums, etc - we see Russia through a completely different light. Morgan Philips Price, who was special correspondent in Russia for the Manchester Guardian from 1914 to 1919, provides a refreshingly non-dogmatic account of the events leading up to the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent imperialist invasion and civil war.

One of the many fascinations of Dispatches from the revolution is to see the rapid evolution of Price’s political sympathies and thought. From a liberal radical who opposed World War I on fundamentally pragmatic grounds and stood as a Liberal parliamentary candidate for Gloucester in 1911, to a socialist revolutionary who defended the October Revolution from imperialist warmongering and decided - in his own words - to “sink or swim with the soviets”.

This made him markedly different from, say, Arthur Ransome - the famous journalist and writer from this same period whom Price knew well. Ransome, the Russian correspondent of the liberal Daily News, was motivated more by a sense of “fair play”, as he straightforwardly put it, than any sort of political radicalism or revolutionism. Indeed, his writings eclipsed those of Morgan Philips Price, with Ransome ending up returning to Russia in 1919 as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian.

Conversely, Price’s ‘left’ liberal starting point - and hence his initial hostility to the “Social Democratic Maximalists” (ie, the Bolsheviks) - marks him out also from the legendary American journalist, John Reed, an avowedly leftwing revolutionary long before 1917, who went on to set up the Communist Labour Party in the United States.

This ‘transformation’ factor is highlighted by Eric Hobsbawm, in his foreword to the text:

“In his pages we can recover something of the excitement and the harshness and hunger of the times, of the Russian people’s sense of liberation and hope, and something of what made a British country gentleman of progressive, but far from Bolshevik, views commit himself to the October Revolution” (pxii).

Price’s subsequent lifelong commitment to the October Revolution shines through all his writings. His most outstanding work, Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution, written in 1921 - and now, criminally, out of print - opens with the famous words, “The Russian Revolution came like a thief in the night. How often had its possibility been discussed in Russia during the two-and-a-half years that followed the outbreak of the Great War!” (quoted in the introduction, p1). In 1973 - only a few weeks before he died - he was asked to write a new preface for a Russian translation of Reminiscences. In this preface, he wrote: “Naturally I see things more in perspective today [but] I do not in the least belittle what I saw and wrote then. I still regard the Russian Revolution as the most important thing that had happened at that period of time” (quoted in the epilogue, p155). Unfortunately this translation was never published.

Price’s ardent support for the Revolution therefore makes his early comments on the Bolsheviks very revealing. Like many sympathisers and ‘fellow travellers’ of the Russian revolutionary movement at the time, he thought that the leader of the “Social Democratic Maximalists”, Lenin, was a dangerous doctrinaire. Price first saw him at the First All-Russia Congress of Peasants’ Deputies in May 1917, where Lenin tried to persuade the peasants that the interests of the urban and rural proletariat were linked. All this did was convince Price that Lenin was ‘unrealistic’.

Come June 26, the occasion of the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets in Petrograd - which saw the famous clash between Lenin and Kerensky - Price’s opinion on the matter had not changed. He comments that the Bolshevik grouping in the soviet was a fanatic’s haven to “which all irreconcilable Marxists, syndicalists and even communist-anarchists came for shelter and comfort” (p43). After listening to Lenin’s trenchant speech denouncing the provisional government of Kerensky, Price wrote for the Manchester Guardian:

“The words poured from his mouth, overwhelming all in a flood of oratory. One sat spellbound at his command of language and the passion of his denunciation. But when it was all over one felt inclined to scratch one’s head and ask what it was all about” (p45-46).

But within six months, Price had come round to the view that the Bolsheviks were the only people who could hold Russia together and end the imperialist war. Price’s humanity was outraged by the cynicism and barbarism of the imperialist powers - particularly the Allies, who “apparently want to complete the iron circle which is enclosing this unhappy land and reduce it to a state of misery indescribable in the history of man” (p137). To compound the outrage, “after butchering their people in a cruel four-year war ... all the technical apparatus of the capitalist states of western Europe is set in motion” in trying to present the October Revolution as the work of a criminal gang, in order to “find convenient scapegoats on which to vent their wrath” (p141). Price saw for himself the near unimaginable human misery unleashed by the Allied and White armies as they sought to reclaim ‘real’ Russia from the ‘criminal’ Bolsheviks.

As Price came to realise the perfidious nature of the imperialist powers, so in equal measure he came to appreciate Lenin’s political genius. Writing in July 1918, Price said of Lenin:

“He is able to play off one of the great Alliances against the other, knowing their hatred for each other and the fact that they are slowly bleeding each other to death ... He is the most courageous statesman in Europe at present and history will, I believe, put him as one of the greatest brains of the period” (p137).

Price reiterates this theme in an article which was prevented from reaching the pages of the Manchester Guardian by the zealous and very sensitive British censors, who disapproved strongly of Price’s work. Writing on July 8 1918, just after the Left Socialist Revolutionaries attempted a coup against the Bolsheviks - which saw Lenin wounded in an assassination attempt - Price came to the none too cheerful conclusion: “Now the Bolsheviks are quite alone, and upon them rests the superhuman task of bearing the cross of the Revolution against the armed camps of Europe” (p136). Price also noted two days later: “After the liquidation of the attempted coup d’état by the Left Socialist Revolutionaries last weekend Moscow resumed its normal life. Perfect order prevails in the city. The Soviet government’s troops prevailed in the crisis with great cool. There were no excesses and civilians were treated with courtesy which exceeds anything known in the days of tsarism” (p136). Needless to say, these words fell foul of the British censor.

Price was motivated by a burning, and often angry, urge to tell the truth about the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war - to cut through the choking fog of lies generated by the bourgeois press. “After reading the English papers which have arrived here, I am at a loss to decide whether the persons giving information on Russia are deliberately fabricating events for political ends or whether they are merely the victims of chronic nervous breakdowns,” wrote Price in October 1918 (p150) - though I certainly know which interpretation I favour. So did the British censors by the look of it, who spiked the dispatch containing this comment.

As early as August 1914, an official press bureau had been set up by the British government. Its formidable aim was to vet and control all news about the war. By a system of ‘instructions to censors’, ‘D’ notices and letters to editors, the bureau ensured that such news as was available should not question government policy. Specifically, ‘D’ notices told editors that certain subjects, even if news on them had filtered through, were to be avoided.

During the war 747 ‘D’ notices were issued. Of these there was a “small but significant concentration” (as Tania Rose says in the introduction) on anything to do with strikes or Russia. In February 1916 the censors were told to refer to their directors for instructions on “any reports of Russian atrocities against Jews” - some of which Price himself had witnessed but had not been allowed to report by the Russian censors. It is worth noting in passing that Price frequently refers to the widespread nature of anti-Semitism in Russia, commenting just before the October Revolution on how he found “the revolutionary militia, under the joint control of the councils and local municipal authorities, patrolling the bazaars to prevent pogroms and attacks upon the Jewish shops by the dark forces of the old regime” (p80).

Nothing that Morgan Philips Price wrote after June 25 1918 was ever actually seen in print - it is still in the foreign office archives.

Not surprisingly, Price gave up on ‘official’ channels. He became a translator in the Soviet foreign office, working on leaflet appeals by Lenin and Georgii Chicherin - the Soviet Minister for Foreign Affairs - to the Allied forces to lay down their arms and return home. These leaflets were scattered by aeroplane over the trenches and battlefields. The first and most famous of these leaflets was written by Price, entitled ‘The truth about the allied intervention in Russia’ (August 1918).

In this leaflet he damned the Allied powers and their scheme-mongering: “The ‘financial capital’ of London and Paris is trying to save the ‘real’ Russia but it is really forging its new chains. By a Judas kiss it is trying to hide the shekels of silver for which it has sold the Russian people. But let the workers of England know the truth about this great crime; let them say to the British government, ‘Hands off! Let none dare to touch the Russian Revolution, the noblest product of these four years of blood and tears’” (p149). He was never forgiven for this act and for the rest of his life he was never quite free of the accusation that he had behaved ‘treasonably’.

In Dispatches from the revolution Price rescues the masses from the impersonal stride of ‘History’ - he lets us hear them, see them, touch them. He should be remembered for that, if nothing else.

For instance, in an article called ‘The Russian Tartars and the revolution’ (written October 15 1917), Price talks about changes among the Tartar women of the Middle Volga:

“The women’s movement here started in the Revolution of 1905, as a result of which women began to go about unveiled. By 1910 a veiled muslim woman was unknown in Kazan ... One only has to walk down the streets in Kazan and go to muslim theatre in the evening to see that here, at least, muslim women are socially the equals of men and have at last shaken off from themselves the shackles of sex tyranny” (p74).

In another place he observes:

“In every provincial town the political societies that centre round the Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates have libraries where books on politics, history, literature and economics are lent out to the smaller centres in the surrounding rural districts. There is an immense sale of pamphlets, and the demand is such that it cannot be supplied on account of paper shortage. The recently elected town councils and zemstvos are organising lectures everywhere to educate the people in the duty of citizenship and the meaning of the Constituent Assembly” (p78).

In these and countless other places, Price gives us a real feel for the Revolution and the now nameless people who made it - along with many acute and profound observations. His passion for “revolutionary democracy”, as he constantly puts it, was unquenched and undiminished - once he saw it acted out in front of his own eyes.

On October 19 1918 he talked to Lenin in the Kremlin. Far from being a ‘fanatic’ with an “inelastic mind”, Price now found a different Lenin.

“He was becoming a world statesman. He had to compromise and to force his followers to do likewise in order to save the Revolution in Russia. It was not what he wanted, but he had the wisdom to realise what was possible and what was not” (p153).

Price reminds us: “His whole life had been devoted to the idea of the world revolution. It was like a religion to him” (ibid). For Lenin, compromise and principle were not mutually exclusive opposites - they represented a unified whole.

Morgan Price joined the CPGB in 1922. But he left in 1924 and eventually became the Labour MP for the Forest of Dean in 1935 - a position he held until he retired in 1959. But he always considered himself a Marxist and friend of the October Revolution. “When I am at my last gasp and can do no more work for the Manchester Guardian I shall enter the Red Army as a volunteer and be killed fighting for the Revolution” (p137) - so wrote Price on July 18 1918.

Let us hope that with the publication of this book, Morgan Philips Price is remembered again.

Eddie Ford