Book Review: Lenin’s London – The Spark That Lit the Revolution

One hundred and fifty years after his birth, some within Labour are returning to Lenin as a source of inspiration. The London Young Labour group – who last week eulogised the death of Bobby Sands – recently stoked online debate when it marked the birth of Lenin with a celebratory tweet.

Kyle Orton on Twitter: "Radical changes in the Labour party, huh ...

Accompanied by an image of Marx and Lenin on a NUM mineworkers flag, the group tweeted that ‘Lenin’s legacy and the legacy of the Russian revolution still inspires millions around the world to fight. For peace and socialism!’

For every supportive tweet however, there is a furious backlash at Labour’s perceived romanticism for the Soviet regime. One book exploring this controversial relationship is Giles Udy’s brilliant. Labour and the Gulag, which outlines how many prominent academics on the left – The Webbs, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Harold Laski and G. D. H. Cole – wilfully ignored – and in certain cases justified – the scale of Soviet crimes.

Cole once remarked that it was ‘much better to be ruled by Stalin than by a pack of half-hearted and half-witted Social Democrats’.

Robert Henderson’s new book The Spark That Lit the Revolution, adds another dimension to this debate. As a former curator of the British Library’s Russian collection, Henderson examines Lenin’s six visits to London between 1902 and 1911.

As the book shows, London’s East End became a hotbed for revolutionary thinking. Lenin was in London for the 1902 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and it is viewed as a key phase in the development of the RSDLP as a divide emerged between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

The figure that will perhaps be of greatest interest to Labour historians is that of Ramsay MacDonald – the party’s first Prime Minister.

In the 1930s, MacDonald committed the ultimate sin, when, overwhelmed by the Great Depression, he formed a national government with leading Conservative and Liberal politicians at the King’s request. He was denounced as a traitor to his class becoming a hate figure in Labour mythology that still endures to this day.

The History of the Labour Party | History Today

As Prime Minister – MacDonald, also acting as Foreign Secretary,  – granted full legal recognition of the Soviet government. It stoked accusations that the Labour Party had ‘reds under the bed’ and would contribute to the downfall of the minority administration.

Shortly before the 1924 election, the Daily Mail published a letter alleged to be from Grigory Zinoviev, head of the Communist International, arguing that there was ‘a great Bolshevik plot to paralyse the British Army and Navy and to plunge the country into civil war’ and that the Communist Party were ‘masters of Mr Ramsay MacDonald’s Government’.

Henderson’s book explores the earlier side of MacDonald, the one who met with Russian activists to ensure ‘the distribution of monies received amongst the Russian Social Democratic organisations’ for the benefit of ‘those who had suffered but also in support of the revolutionary movement in Russia’.

As the author notes, ‘such discussions were an early indication of McDonald’s sympathetic attitude towards the Russian revolutionary movement’. Indeed, by 1919, MacDonald noted in his diary that he was ‘getting more and more struck with the work of Lenin as an administrator and his views of revolution’.

This later manifested itself in Parliament and Revolution(1919) were in a much-quoted passage, MacDonald argued:

‘The Russian Revolution has been one of the greatest events in the history of the world, and the attacks that have been made upon it by frightened ruling classes and hostile capitalism should rally to its defence everyone who cares for political liberty and freedom of thought’

Robert Henderson’s book should be of interest to Labour historians of the early 20th century.

It reveals many of Lenin’s London based political networks and the roots of the politics that continue to influence the party’s left-wing.

Henderson’s book is published by I.B Tauris and is available here:

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