Arthur Ransome and the Bolshevik Revolution
28 June 2011
This is the conclusion of a three-part consideration of the English author Arthur Ransome, particularly as regards his relationship to the October 1917 revolution in Russia. Part one was published June 25 and Part two on June 27.
Roland Chambers (in his book The Last Englishman) quotes liberally from Arthur Ransome’s Six Weeks, but only in order to immediately undermine what Ransome had written. For instance, he quotes Ransome’s moving statement on the revolution:
“These men, who have made the Soviet government in Russia, if they must fail, will fail with clean shields and clean hearts, having striven for an ideal which will live beyond them. Even if they fail, they will nonetheless have written a page in history more daring than any other which I can remember in the history of humanity. They are writing it amid the slinging of mud from all the meaner spirits, in their country, in yours and in my own. But when the thing is over, and their enemies have triumphed, the mud will vanish like black magic at noon, and that page will be as white as the snows of Russia, and the writing on it as bright as a gold domes I used to see glittering in the sun when I looked from my window in Petrograd”. (Chambers, 2009, p. 220).
But Chambers follows the fine ideals expressed in this passage with the cynical aside:
“Ransome abandoned his dark, chilly room at the Elite Hotel and moved into a luxurious apartment which he shared with Evgenia, Iraida and the Radeks. As an example of the methods by which the Bolsheviks removed ‘the conditions of parasitism, privilege and exploitation’ in Russia, the passage makes illuminating reading.” (ibid, p. 221).
This attempt to make it appear that not only Ransome, but also the Bolshevik leaders already enjoyed bureaucratic privileges is another lie. The whole of Russia was blockaded, resulting in extremely low rations with everybody receiving the same portions, a bowl of soup and a piece of meat each.
This paragraph from the end of the book is Chambers’ desperately weak last attempt to prove that Ransome was motivated primarily by personal ambition that led him to become a double agent:
“There was also Ransome’s long standing commitment to the Anglo-Russian friendship, which he had defended ever since the Tsar first declared war on Germany. But his most powerful motive for ingratiating himself with the Cheka [the Soviet security service] was almost certainly personal advancement, a straightforward self-interest, which Ransome never owned t0, but which explains his dealings with the British and Soviet intelligence services far more comprehensively than any other. As an agent of MI6, his recruitment had benefited nobody as materially as himself, while his admiration for the Bolsheviks was measured against no consistent ideal.” (ibid, p. 308).
Chambers can only offer the following to support his claim that Ransome was a double-agent: “papers declassified in 2005 prove Ransome worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service and that he was suspected at the highest level of working for the Bolsheviks.”
But Ransome himself was very open about the fact he sympathised and worked for the Bolsheviks—not as a double agent, but as an intermediary between the British and Russian governments and enthusiastic publicist for what he saw as a new experimental and progressive state system. Chambers fails to present a shred of any real evidence to the contrary. Chambers is always asserting, but never delivering.
On the very last page of his book, he states that “in recent years historians have benefited from the work of Professor Christopher Andrew, and two former high-ranking FSB [Russian Federal Security Service] officers, Oleg Gordievsky and Vaslai Mitrokhin. The resulting books, KGB, The Inside Story and the Sword and Shield, afford the most comprehensive histories of Soviet intelligence yet published, with Ransome emerging as one of [Felix] Dzerzhinsky’s [head of the Cheka] earliest inside sources on British foreign policy. In a letter to me, Professor Andrew warned against overestimating Ransome’s impact on Anglo Soviet affairs as an informant of the Cheka (he had no sensitive secrets to betray) but emphasised how unusual his position had been. ‘It is difficult to think of any British writer who has ever been acquainted with quite so much of the leadership of the major, hostile intelligence agency, including Dzerzhinsky, two deputies and the first resident in London (Nicholas Klishko).” (ibid, p. 369).
This passage actually serves to undermine Chambers’ case, rather than to confirm it. Ransome’s was a completely unique case that had arisen out of an extraordinary set of unprecedented circumstances: The first stage in the breakdown of world imperialism that signified a new epoch of wars and revolutions had begun.
Ransome had explained his position in print many times. “Not one of my Bolshevik friends, and I had many, ever tried to convert me to Bolshevism. It was clear enough for them to know that I hope to write a history of the revolution and was collecting material for that purpose. There was no pretence on either-side; I did indeed want to write such a history. I felt that it was almost a miracle I should without effort have found myself so placed. And I should have indeed settled down to write such a history if the Bolshevik secret police in Petrograd had not been as ignorant as our own, and taken the heart out of me by destroying the immense store of material I had collected.” (Ransome, 1985, pp. 259-60)
Rather than “personal advancement”, Ransome’s life in Russia was very difficult and dangerous. He suffered from severe haemorrhoids that threatened his life on more than one occasion, and were obviously made worse by the poor social and medical conditions. He was continuously dodging bullets and bombs as he kept close to the action and reported the news.
Chambers, however, is incapable of understanding the profound impact that something like a proletarian revolution can have on a man of Ransome’s upper middle class background, or for that matter anybody doing anything other than for straightforward self-interest. But it is conveyed very well by Ransome’s report for the Daily News, January 28, 1918, to cite just one example. This was during the peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, which were intended by the Bolsheviks as a holding operation until such time as the German working class intervened by overthrowing their own ruling class.
Ransome sets out the scene of Trotsky explaining the necessity of the policy to the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets:
“My position was immediately behind and above the praesidium, looking down on Trotsky’s muscular shoulders and great head and the occasional gestures of his curiously small hands. Beyond him was that sea of men, soldiers in green and grey shirts, workers in collarless shirts, or jerseys, others dressed very much like British workmen, peasants in belted redshirts and high top boots, all picked men, not elected for this assembly alone but proved and tested in the local Soviets that had chosen them as delegates. And as I watched that amazing crowd, that filled the huge hall and packed the galleries, following point by point, Trotsky’s exposition of the international and inter-class situation and the policy of the revolution I felt I would willingly give the rest of my life if it could be divided into minutes and given to men in England and France so that those of little faith who say that the Russian Revolution is discredited could share for one minute each that wonderful experience”. (Brogan, 1984, pp. 172-173).
Chamber’s is even contrived in his choice of title, when claiming that Ransome’s correspondence for the Daily News never mentioned the other expatriates in the city at the time, as “if he were the last Englishmen in Moscow, as though all the other Englishmen had gone home for the holidays, leaving him alone.”
It was hardly beholden on Ransome to mention other journalists in his column as they held diametrically opposing views to him, and most were involved in plotting espionage against the Bolshevik government. The historical record confirms that Ransome was the only English non-Bolshevik trusted by the Bolshevik leadership.
Brogan, for example, explains, “On 14th January, in London, [British diplomat Bruce] Lockhart, had given a lecture on Russian affairs, defending the Government’s policy. Somebody brought-up Arthur’s views: Lockhart replied that as Ransome had been out of Russia for six months he had no right to speak of the conditions there. A lady in the audience (it was Mrs Maurice Macmillan, the mother of Daniel and Harold) protested strongly at this, and the meeting broke-up in confusion. Providently, the Morning Post carried a full report, which reached Stockholm. Litvinov, who was by now a firm friend (he had found Arthur’s Daily News reports invaluable during his imprisonment in Brixton), used the article to make the point to Moscow that only if Arthur was admitted to Russia could he maintain his usefulness as a corrective to the interventionists. The argument was accepted; and so on 30 January 1919 Arthur was one of the party which left Stockholm by sea to Finland; from which in turn they crossed into Russia on 3 February. (Brogan, 1984, p. 230).
We know that Lockhart, a friend of Ransome’s, led an Anglo-French espionage team that was plotting against the revolution—planning to bribe Russian soldiers in preparation for the overthrow of the Bolshevik government and the setting-up of a military dictatorship. This group was exposed and did not include Ransome in its conspiracy because they couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t tell the Bolshevik leaders.
One is entitled to ask why Chambers is prepared to go to such lengths to denigrate Ransome?
The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism in the early 1990s led to a period of triumphalism for the bourgeoisie internationally. They insisted that it proved the Bolshevik revolution had no basis in the objective material world, but had simply been, in an assertion repeated by Chambers, a putsch carried out by Lenin. This was used to claim that liberal democracy represented the highest stage of man’s social order and “The end of history”.
This bold claim is now being shown to be the myth that it always was. World capitalism has been shaken to its very core and for the last three years has staggered around like a man with a catastrophic drinking problem. It has already affected the lives of millions, if not billions, of workers and youth throughout the world, which in turn is creating a new generation that want to know more about the history of revolutionary politics. They are seeking out writings on the Russian Revolution and its Bolshevik leadership and this will bring many at some point to the eye-witness accounts of Arthur Ransome.
In response a new clique of historical falsifiers is being encouraged, with the single aim of assaulting objective historical truth.
It was in order to challenge this deeply right-wing political phenomenon that the International Committee of the Fourth International launched its campaign in defence of Historical Truth. To this end, David North, chairman of the World Socialist Web Site, gave his important public lecture in Oxford University on May 4, 2010 entitled “Political biography and the historical lie: An examination of Robert Service’s Trotsky”.
In it North exposed the method and politics that lay behind Robert Service’s attempted personal and political denigration of the great Bolshevik leader.
Chambers’ book should be placed in the same category of political biography as that produced by Service. It forms part of an assault on the Russian revolution by forces deeply hostile to the international working class and Marxist revolutionary politics.
Ransome’s reputation deserves defending. The forces that promoted Chambers’ book in their newspaper columns and voted for it to become Best First Time Biography of the Year represent the same cynical, well-heeled social forces that have promoted Service.
They have made their money over the last 25 years through their role in the super-exploitation of the international working class, which takes place at various levels—from the privatisation of public facilities through to the cutting of wages and mass unemployment. Now, under mounting signs of revolutionary upheavals throughout the world, they feel the floor moving beneath their feet. They are terrified and hate the working class, along with all those figures ever associated with revolutionary struggle. This includes Ransome, who, while never a communist, made available to the outside world an honest account of the struggles of the Russian proletariat.
Ransome never retracted the part he played in explaining their revolution, or his admiration of the Bolshevik leaders. Decades later, he was to write of Six Weeks and the subsequent silencing—by murder or repression—of almost all the revolutionary leaders of October 1917:
“To look back on that journey now is, for me, to fill the room with ghosts. But I am glad I wrote that little book and I think it will remain of interest, as would, if we had it, the book of any Englishmen who in 1789 been able to meet and talk of what they were doing with Robespierre, Danton, Marat, and Desmoulins. In the eyes of history the names of Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky and Radek will surely rank with these.” (Ransome, 1976, p. 265)
With his writings on the Russian Revolution, Ransome reached his literary peak. He must have felt life had been preparing him as the recorder of this one great historic event. He later visited China and Egypt as a political news reporter, but his heart was no longer in it. After the usurpation of the Soviet state by the Stalinist bureaucracy, Ransome turned once again to writing children’s adventure stories, with the Swallows and Amazons series. He never returned to Russia again. His children’s books made him a famous and rich man. Nevertheless, the workers’ movement internationally continues to owe him a debt of gratitude for the critical role he played on behalf of the Bolsheviks.