History

‘At last it has happened’: Bevan, the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union

“I remember so well what happened when the Russian revolution occurred. I remember the miners, when they heard that the Czarist 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.’ Let us remember in 1951 that the revolution of 1917 came to the working class of Great Britain, not as social disaster, but as one of the most emancipating events in the history of mankind. Let us also remember that the Soviet revolution would not have been so distorted, would not have ended in a tyranny, would not have resulted in a dictatorship, would not now be threatening the peace of mankind, had it not been for the behaviour of Churchill, and the Tories at that time”[1].

Bevan, speaking in 1951 (rather dewy-eyed and romantically), remembered the feeling that overcame him and the miners when news reached them of the Russian Revolution. The impact of the revolutions of February and October 1917 were felt far and wide. In Wales, it inspired hopes in some of socialist upheaval and had a profound impact on the political outlook of people like Aneurin Bevan.

To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution and as part of my research into the political thought of Aneurin Bevan, I wanted to explore the impact of the revolution on his thinking and his attitudes towards the Soviet Union throughout his life. An analysis of these attitudes will assist in elucidating important aspects of Bevan’s thought.

It will be argued here that while Bevan was a harsh critic of many of the practices of the Soviet Union, his critique of capitalism and his conception of power led him to hold out hope that the Soviet Union would develop into a country of democracy, liberty and freedom.

He believed state power could be used as an instrument for the working class therefore continually stressed the positive aspects of economic and technical development in the Soviet Union but he did not like what he viewed as the repressive apparatus of the Soviet state. Militarily, Bevan did not see Russian aggression in the same terms as western powers did, but acknowledged the overreach of the Soviet Union. Most importantly, Bevan wanted expansion of liberty in Soviet Russia, stressing his ideology of Democratic Socialism. He believed that as productive forces developed amidst high levels of industrialisation, there would be an expansion of liberty in Russian society.

This post will provide an analysis of the economic, political, military and ideological aspects of his outlook on the Soviet Union.

Revolution to evolution

Bevan’s attitude towards the Soviet Union was favourable in relation to its economic development. During a debate in 1932 on shortening the working day, he praised the state-led drive towards industrialisation and economic development, arguing that in terms of “the total use of productive forces, Russia stands at the head of the nations of the world”. When questioned by Captain William Strickland, Conservative MP for Coventry, on whether Bevan was arguing for Britain to reverse to “the Russia type”, Bevan answered “If the hon. and gallant Gentleman asks me whether I am in favour of adopting in this country the methods of planned economy that exist in Russia, the answer is most certainly “Yes.””[2].

Bevan thought that the revolution could not lead to a full development of economic and industrial forces due to the agrarian nature of Russian society. He argued that the “philosophy applied to Russia after the 1914-18 war was a product of the Industrial Revolution”.  He believed that the leaders of the revolution had to “adopt practices that brought about a progressive distortion of their original principles” due to the agrarian nature of Russian society. He maintained that “The history of the last thirty years would have been different if the advanced industrial techniques of the West could have been joined to the agrarian hinterland of Russia. But it was not to be, and in the meantime the original impetus of the Russian Revolution has been polluted and maimed beyond recognition”[3].

Despite this view, Bevan was impressed by the rapid economic development that had taken place in the years following the revolution. Even writing over 40 years after the Revolution, Bevan perceived the weight of the argument between capitalism and communism beginning to go towards communism. After the Russians successfully orbited a rocket around the sun, Bevan thought people would begin to see the merits of the communist system more clearly than capitalism.

“The old Marxist argument that the relations of private property and the social stratifications that come within them tend to stultify and even inhibit technical progress and maximum production of wealth, is receiving fresh reinforcement”[4].

This technological development, Bevan argued, was not confined to the space race, but was evident in many areas of society. However, it did not necessarily lead to improvements in society – “Speaking for myself, I think the weight of the argument still lies with the defenders of Western Democracy” – but the Soviet Union had demonstrated what state-led economic development could achieve.

State and political power

This brings us to a fundamental aspect of Bevan’s political thought – his conception of state power. Bevan conceptualised the state as an instrument that could be wielded by/on behalf of the working class in order to change society. He advocated nationalisation and state control over the ‘commanding heights of the economy’, the element of the Soviet Union which Bevan praised.

Although Bevan’s conception of state power led him to see the state-led economic planning of the Soviet system as something to be applauded, he was very critical of what he saw as a repressive state apparatus. In 1957, he referred to the Soviet Union as a “new kind of dictatorship” where there was “no recognized way of passing on power. Property, class, dynasty, and political democracy did not exist”[5].

He did not see this as a reason to shun Russia – in fact he urged western democracies to help countries that were going through revolutions. If social revolutions were left to themselves “to produce from their own surpluses sufficient to build the capital equipment of a modem industrial community” then they would “attempt it under the ruthless repressive instrument of Police States”[6]. Bevan insisted that this was the way in which Russia had gone. Open hostility towards the Russian revolution from external forces should have been substituted for assistance and aid.

An aggressive Russia?

Those who saw the Soviet system as a repressive state apparatus also held the view that it was bent on world domination and the spreading of communism through aggressive means. The Cold War was driven by anti-communist hysteria as much as a rational analysis of Soviet intentions.

A central theme of Bevan’s analysis of the Soviet Union is that it was wrong to think that Russia had aggressive intentions. He argued that there was “no evidence to show that the Soviet Union wants a trial of strength”[7]. He was critical of previous Soviet expansion – commenting on Russian influence in Czechoslovakia Bevan wrote that “in coming so far to the West she [Russia] overran her sociological frontiers. She could occupy but she has not been able to digest”[8] – but felt a hostile reaction to the Soviet Union was unwarranted and unhelpful in striving for world peace.

This analysis at times led him to be weary of criticising Russia too much, and he was certainly not willing to let criticism overshadow the advantages of associating the Labour Party with the Soviet Union. When Russia entered World War Two Bevan and his colleagues at Tribune dedicated an entire issue to the Soviet Union. It was alleged that in 1945, Bevan was concerned about the publication of Animal Farm, worrying that it would be too critical of the Soviet Union: he wanted the Labour Party to take advantage of the good feeling towards Russia after their heroics during the war. It is alleged that Bevan even asked Orwell to stop writing in Tribune until the election was finished[9].

Bevan’s solution to tensions between the great superpowers was for Britain to act as a ‘third force’ between the USA and the Soviet Union. Britain needed to perform the role of counter to the hostility between the USA and Russia, but it needed to have its own foreign policy and not base its foreign policy on what the US demanded.

Power of ideas

Bill Jones writing in The Russia Complex: The British Labour Party and the Soviet Union noted the contradiction present in the third force idea: the internationalist notions of the third force advocates were against balance-of-power politics yet, as Jones observed, “the Third Force idea was regional and advocated a third focus of power as a counter to the two super-powers”. However, in the third force strategy there was an emphasis on the power of ideas rather than military strength[10] (although it must be said that Bevan’s denunciation of unilateral disarmament as an “emotional spasm” did not do much for perceptions of his foreign policy outlook from those on the left).

The centrality of the power of ideas was an essential element to Bevan’s own outlook towards the Soviet Union. In relations with Russia, Bevan wanted the emphasis to be on spreading his idea of Democratic Socialism and the need to develop ‘liberty’.

The development of liberty is where Bevan saw hope for Russian society. Throughout his life, he saw signs that this was happening in Russia. There was no need to act aggressively towards Russia – Russian people did not need to be saved or liberated. Bevan maintained that only “a small section of the Russian people felt suppressed; young people, teachers, scientists, and technicians believed they had already been liberated – liberated from illiteracy”[11].

In In Place of Fear Bevan wrote that in the Soviet Union “it must be accepted that the vast mass of workers are conscious of emancipation and not of slavery”. He continued that a workers’ support of the Soviet regime “rests on his knowledge that all around him the framework of a modern industrial community is being built, that he is helping to build it, and that in the meantime his life is substantially, if slowly, improving”.

Bevan stressed that this was not an apology for repressive aspects of the Soviet regime. However, he believed that industrialisation would eventually lead to an ever greater level of political and economic enfranchisement. His belief that this would happen was due to it having happened in Britain. It came down to his analysis of the development of political liberty throughout world history:

“Mankind is not born with an insatiable appetite for political liberty. This is the coping stone on the structure of progress, not its base. If political liberty and the institutions which enshrine it were the spontaneous imperatives of the human spirit, our task would be much easier. But they are earth-bound and time bound. The pulse of progress beats differently for different parts of the world, and if we are to understand what is happening around us and act intelligently about it, we must recognise that fact and realise that once we stood where they now stand”[12].

Towards liberty?

This overview of Bevan’s outlook on the Soviet Union has displayed Bevan’s hopes towards the development of a Russia which fits with his image of Democratic Socialism. His view of the revolution was that of an agrarian nation being propelled forward at a rapid rate of industrial and technological change due to the central economic planning undertaken. Bevan was impressed with the rapid rate of economic development that Russia had achieved, but was highly critical of what he saw as the repressive apparatus inherent in the Soviet state. This criticism extended to Russian foreign policy, but he always cautioned against an hysterical attitude and an overreaction towards Soviet intentions.

This brief exploration of Bevan and the Soviet Union has revealed some key components of his political thought. The emphasis on political liberty and empowerment and his belief in the efficacy of state planning were central to his political thought.

Despite frustration with the development of the Soviet Union post-revolution, Bevan’s initial view of the revolution itself as “one of the most emancipating events in the history of mankind” did not change. The revolution was a significant moment in history – and a significant moment in the development of Bevan’s political consciousness also.

[1] Bevan, Aneurin. 1951. Labour Party Annual Conference Report, p. 121 cited in Vickers, Rhiannon. 2003. The Labour Party and the world Vol.1: The evolution of Labour’s foreign policy, 1900-51. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 64.

[2] Hansard. 09 December 1932. HC Deb, vol. 272, col. 1969.

[3] Bevan, Aneurin. 1952. In Place of Fear. William Heinemann: London, p. 134.

[4] Bevan, Aneurin. 9th January 1959. Private enterprise v. public ownership: The moon and the £. Tribune, p. 5.

[5] The Times. 13th December 1957. “Detachment” for Germany, p. 9.

[6] Bevan, Aneurin. 1952 p. 40.

[7] ibid p. 127.

[8] Bevan, Aneurin. 17th July 1953. In Place of the Cold War. Tribune, p. 4.

[9] Jones, Bill. 1977. The Russia Complex: The British Labour Party and the Soviet Union. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 104.

[10] ibid p. 168.

[11] Bevan, Aneurin. 1953 p. 4.

[12] Bevan, Aneurin. 1952 pp. 138-140.

Comments

  • Edis Bevan

    I would welcome your analysis of the claims made in the new book ‘Labour and the Gulag’ by Giles Udy. I think some of your reference material is assessed in a different light.

    • Nye Davies

      I haven’t had chance to read that yet I’m afraid. Are there any claims relating directly to Bevan?

  • Paul Rees

    I found your article really thought provoking: it inspired to revisit your previous article, dated 11 May 2017. Top Marx:-

    “Would it be fair to assume from the following observations & abstractions from your current and earlier analysis, that, “Bevan agreed with the principals of class conflict inherent in the Marxist critique of power but fundamentally disagreed with the means of achieving that power”.

    If that is true, then would you agree that this adds strength to your argument, which I felt suggested that Bevan experienced a sense of cognitive dissonance, following Lenin’s Machiavellian coup d’état in 1917 and all that ensued thereafter?

    Bevan was a man of vision and compassion and according to your previous article (Top Marx: ref: 5 ) he understood that “Parliament was the most formidable weapon of all in the struggle”.

    De facto, do you think Bevan equated Lenin to either Cromwell or Robespierre’s revolutionary successes or failures?

    What would Bevan have thought about the removal of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Capitalism in Russia and today’s reverence between Putin & Trump?

    • Nye Davies

      Hi Paul,

      Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. Thank you for the feedback!

      I think there’s definitely an element of cognitive dissonance there. I think Bevan saw the Revolution as a significant moment for socialism and would have been very encouraged by it. But as you say, for him Parliament was the route to power. In In Place of Fear he acknowledged the impact of Marxism in his intellectual thinking but ultimately saw democracy as the solution.

      “Quite early in my studies it seemed to me that classic Marxism consistently understated the role of a political democracy with a fully developed franchise. This is the case, both subjectively, as it affects the attitude of the worker to his political responsibilities; and objectively, as it affects the possibilities of his attaining power by using the franchise and parliamentary methods.
      This is especially the case in a country with a fully matured parliamentary democracy like Great Britain. Of course, quotation after quotation can be produced from the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin to show their awareness of the facts of parliamentary democracy.But they never developed this feature of their philosophy to anything like the extent of the rest.” (In Place of Fear, p.19)

      I think Bevan would have been more positive towards someone like Lenin than Cromwell – he saw Cromwell as being opposed to democracy, but I think Bevan held out hope for a democratic Russia and saw Lenin and the revolution as a positive development. But he was ultimately disappointed by its development: the quote in Foot’s biography “if America gives us headaches, Russia gives us heartaches” sums up his frustration with Russia but the affection he had towards the revolution.

      I’m always reluctant to try and interpret what Bevan would believe today, but I think he would have been bitterly disappointed by Russia’s development. I think he always held out hope, even towards the end of his life when he became quite despondent, that socialism would win over capitalism but I don’t think he would ever have predicted the state of the world today.

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