Labour and the Gulag: the Labour Party’s record of support for Totalitarian Socialism

BY PHILIP VANDER ELST

In 1910, Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie, declared that “[Marx’s] memory is a consecrated treasure in the heart of millions of the best men and women of all lands.” A generation later, in 1948, Harold Laski, Labour’s leading political theorist of the 1930s and ‘40s, wrote: “The Labour Party acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two of the men who have been the inspiration of the whole working class movement.”

This reverential attitude towards Communism’s founding fathers, widely shared within the Labour Movement, has been such a familiar part of British political culture over the past century that its shocking nature escapes most casual observers and commentators. Yet in both their 1848 Communist Manifesto and in their private correspondence, Marx and Engels openly advocated violent revolution, the confiscation of private property, the destruction of traditional morality and the family, a State owned and controlled economy based on forced labour, and the physical elimination of their political opponents.

Not surprisingly, the insouciance of so many on the British Left in regard to such matters resulted, quite logically, in a warm welcome for the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, despite its violent overthrow of Russia’s fledgling post-Tsarist democracy, and the Red Terror subsequently unleashed by its leaders – principally Lenin and Trotsky – during the civil war provoked by the Communist seizure of power. 

Labour leaders’ admiration and praise for Lenin

“I have met all the men and women of my time considered great in the world of religion, literature, and politics; none compares with Lenin. He was a great man in every sense of the word,” gushed George Lansbury, Labour’s leader during the 1930s, in his autobiography published in 1928. In his chairman’s address to the Labour Party conference later that same year, Lansbury declared: “It was Charles James Fox, 130 years ago, who said of the French Revolution: ‘How much is it, by far, the greatest and best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world?’ I would repeat those words today in reference to the great Russian Revolution which every one of us hailed with great enthusiasm.”

One of those who hailed this event with ‘great enthusiasm’ was Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. In his book, Parliament and Revolution, published in 1919, he wrote: “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…Labour is drawn to Lenin…”

Even in 1947, with Stalin in power and the Iron Curtain coming down over Europe, Harold Laski still believed that “The Russian Revolution is the greatest and the most beneficent event in modern history since the French Revolution.”

To understand the perversity of these attitudes and judgments, forensically exposed in Giles Udy’s copiously documented and scholarly 2017 study, Labour and the Gulag: Russia and the seduction of the British Left (Biteback Publishing, London, 2017), meditate on this sobering passage from his book in which he summarises the eventual cost of the ‘great socialist experiment’ so widely admired and defended by most  British Labour politicians, intellectuals and activists between 1917 and the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s:

The human cost of the ‘great socialist experiment’ in Russia

“Between 1917 and 1922, in the Revolution and its aftermath, nine million Russians died from violence or famine provoked by the Civil War, about the same number as total military fatalities on all sides in the ‘Imperialist’ Great War. During the years covered by the main portion of this book, 1929-31, when the second [minority] Labour Government [led by Ramsay MacDonald] was in power, another quarter of a million Russians were shot or died as a result of their imprisonment. Through the 1930s, the numbers would climb still further. At the height of [Stalin’s] Great Terror, in 1937-38, executions ran at over 10,000 each week. By 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, Soviet Communism had been responsible for over twenty million deaths, almost three million of them in the gulag. Many of the fourteen million who survived the camps were so emotionally or physically damaged that they never fully recovered. The impact of major trauma travels through generations of a family. Hundreds of thousands were left with nightmare memories that did not lose their power – a parent or sibling taken, never to return, a sudden arrest in the night which changed lives for ever, children left behind and dispatched to barbaric state orphanages. Sometimes a survivor came home from the camps so scarred that life was never the same for the family to whom they returned. Psychologically disturbed parents raise damaged children who then become dysfunctional parents themselves. There are thousands alive today, in Russia and the other countries of the former USSR, who never knew the gulag era but have inherited its scars and still live with its wounds.”

Against this background, the unwavering support for Soviet Communism expressed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, G.D.H. Cole, and Bernard Shaw, the Labour Party’s most prominent 20th century intellectuals apart from Laski, is both astonishing and revolting, and is meticulously documented by Giles Udy. 

In July 1935, for instance, Beatrice Webb boasted in her diary:“The Fabian Society is the oldest and the most continuous and effective British centre of socialist thought and propaganda. Today it is from among its members that Soviet Communism finds its most effective exponents and defenders: Shaw and Webb, Laski and Cole. We have all been very comfortable and even honoured in the old civilisation of profit-making capitalism: we welcome and are welcomed to the new civilisation of revolutionary Communism.”

What is particularly ironic about this quote is the contrast between Beatrice Webb’s telling admission that whereas British capitalist society allowed its socialist opponents full freedom to campaign for its overthrow, the ‘new civilisation of revolutionary Communism’ she and her fellow socialists so admired, was quite explicit about its absolute and brutal intolerance of all dissent.

Trotsky, admired to this day by 21st century British Marxists both inside and outside the Labour Party, justified the use of terror and mass murder in the Soviet Union in these chilling words written in 1922: “As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life’” – a view shared by other Soviet leaders and explicitly restated in official Soviet Communist publications whose excerpts were reprinted in the West. 

To quote, for example, from a pamphlet of the Young Communist League, The Young Guard: the Life of the Komsomol, published in 1927: “The murder of an incorrigible enemy of the revolution is a legal ethical murder, a legal death sentence, for Communism does not recognise the metaphysical value of human existence.”

These dreadful sentiments were not an aberration but merely a logical and faithful reflection of the amoral inhumanity of Communism’s founding fathers, Marx and Engels, whose 1848 Communist Manifesto bluntly stated: “Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality.” 

Why, then, did so many prominent Labour figures persist in their support for the Russian Revolution given all these damning facts about Communist ideology and the true nature of the Soviet dictatorship to which it had given birth? 

The truth about Communist rule was available but ignored

It was not due to any lack of evidence about what was really happening in Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union. As Giles Udy demonstrates at exhaustive length in Labour and the Gulag, plenty of information was coming out of Russia during the 1920s and ‘30s through a whole variety of credible sources, including locally based British and other foreign diplomats, businessmen and sailors importing Russian timber, political and religious refugees, escaped prisoners, and last but by no means least, official Soviet decrees and documents, including the brutal speeches and pronouncements of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.

And what this mass of evidence clearly showed, was that this brave new world of socialism was a land of cruel oppression and death. The establishment of a vast archipelago of forced labour camps, mass executions of political prisoners, the savage persecution of religious believers, and the dispossession, imprisonment and extermination of the ‘kulaks’ – Russia’s entire class of independent peasant proprietors – were not things that remained hidden from view, but provoked outrage and campaigns of mass protest throughout the non-Communist world. 

The terrible human cost of agricultural collectivisation, to mention only one of these crimes against humanity committed by the Soviet State, is spelt out at length and in unsparing detail in Giles Udy’s book, from which I quote the following summary: 

“Between twenty-five and thirty-five million people (including women, children and old people) were forced to join collective farms and surrender their homes and land to the State. A further 1.8 million were deported, hundreds of thousands of whom died over the next few years or in the purges of the Great Terror in 1937-38. A few years later, the resulting disaster in agricultural production brought famine, which led to a further three to five million deaths from starvation. For these, Stalin and the Politburo bear direct responsibility…not least because the Soviet Union was earning foreign currency by exporting ‘surplus’ grain even as millions of peasants were dying of starvation in Southern Russia and Ukraine.”

Unfortunately, the minority Labour Governments (1924 and 1929-31) led by Ramsay MacDonald, and their intellectual supporters, refused by and large to acknowledge the truth about Soviet Communism or condemn the Soviet Government. They were quick to find excuses for any crimes or failings whose existence they did eventually acknowledge, and in general, took the view that since the Communist goal of creating a collectivised, and therefore supposedly just and classless society was such a noble one, the end justified the means.

Shameful statements by Labour’s leading intellectuals

An entry in Beatrice Webb’s diary for 18 August 1931 encapsulates the mentality of these Labour fellow travellers. Describing a visit to their home of Philip Snowden, the increasingly disillusioned anti-Marxist Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour Government, Beatrice Webb wrote: “The Snowdens, who lunched here yesterday, were full of GBS’speech [referring to a recent pro-Soviet speech of Bernard Shaw’s]…’It was a wickedly mischievous speech,’ Philip muttered, whereupon they and we had a hot dispute over Sovietism, and they denouncing it as a cruel slave state and we upholding it as a beneficial experiment in organising production and consumption for the common good. It was significant of our completely different outlook on life.”

‘A completely different outlook on life’ to that of normal and sane people perfectly characterised Bernard Shaw’s political views because his total and unquestioning support for Soviet Communism included a clear-eyed and shockingly frank acceptance of the inherently totalitarian character of socialism. Shaw not only recognised that the Communist goal of total collectivisation inevitably involved the suppression of personal and political liberty, and the end of liberal parliamentary democracy; he openly advocated this, insisting in the process on the prior necessity of mentally reconditioning the population into accepting the overthrow of traditional Judaeo-Christian morality, with its concern for the individual and belief in freedom of conscience and speech, and the right to own property.

Shaw’s nakedly totalitarian outlook was most clearly revealed in his lengthy twenty- page article on ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ published in 1921 in Labour Monthly, and analysed and quoted from at length in Labour and the Gulag. At a time when Shaw “was a Labour hero to thousands of young socialist admirers,” writes Udy, “Shaw’s Socialism, for which this article is a manifesto, endorses compulsory labour, the execution of political opponents and the suppression of parliamentary democracy.”

To quote, by way of example, two relevant passages from Shaw’s ‘manifesto’: “…to take a man and kill him for something a man has never been killed for before: nay, for which he has been honoured and idolised before, or to fire on a body of men for exercising rights which have for centuries been regarded as the most sacred guarantees of popular liberty: that is a new departure that calls for iron nerve and fanatical conviction. As a matter of fact it cannot become a permanently established and unquestioned part of public order unless and until the conscience of the people has been so changed that the conduct they formally admired seems criminal, and the rights they formerly exercised seem monstrous.”

Shaw was equally blunt in his description of the coercive economic model that must always form the bedrock of any truly socialist society: “Compulsory labour, with death as the final penalty, is the keystone of Socialism…A Socialist State would make a million now work without the slightest regard to his money exactly as late war tribunals made him fight…With compulsory social service [forced labour] imposed on everyone, the resistance to the other measures involved with Socialism would not only become pointless but injurious to the resisters…”

Bernard Shaw supported execution of political dissidents

Ten years later, in a radio broadcast to the United States in October 1931, Shaw openly defended the Soviet extermination of private capitalists and political dissidents in equally shocking language: “In this they [the Russians] are merely carrying out a proposal made by me many years ago. I urged that every person who owes his life to civilised society, and who has enjoyed since his childhood all its very costly protections and advantages, should appear at reasonable intervals before a properly qualified jury to justify his existence, which should be summarily and painlessly terminated if he fails to justify it…A great part of the secret of the success of Russian Communism is that every Russian knows that unless he makes his life a paying proposition for his country then he will probably lose it. I am proud to have been the first to advocate this most necessary reform. A well-kept garden must be weeded.”

Whilst Bernard Shaw was the most prominent and extreme left-wing supporter of Soviet totalitarianism, some of the Labour Movement’s other leading intellectuals were equally unapologetic about their admiration for Soviet Communism and their willingness to accept the need to suppress liberty and parliamentary democracy in order to build socialism in Britain.

G.D.H. Cole (1889-1959), for instance, was one of Oxford’s most famous and prominent academics of the first half of the 20th century, and Chairman of the Fabian Society during most of the 1940s. In his pamphlet, The Intelligent Man’s Review of Europe To-Day, co-authored with his wife, Margaret, and published in 1933, Cole declared: “Socialism…must create for itself a [new] political instrument [model of government]…actively in opposition to capitalist notions of property and individual rights. In seeking for a basis for this new instrument of socialisation Communists repudiate not only the capitalist conception of the rights of property but also the capitalist conception of individual liberty.”

Not surprisingly, given such views, Cole experienced no difficulty in defending and whitewashing Communist tyranny within the Soviet Union: “though the Soviet system in its present working does undoubtedly restrict individual liberty very seriously in certain directions, above all in the expression of political views hostile to the system itself, it has resulted in other directions in an enormous extension of the liberties of the great mass of the Russian people. Observers who come back from Russia, unless they are too prejudiced to notice what they see, practically all report that there exists among the Russian people of to-day, in non-political matters, a sense of freedom and of self-expression quite unknown among the mass of the people in any capitalist country.”

With the advent of the Cold War, preceded by the forcible Soviet occupation and subjugation of Eastern Europe after 1945, the leadership of the Labour Party, and most of its MPs and activists, lost their previous illusions about Communism and maintained a commitment to peaceful change and debate, and parliamentary democracy, but this never prevented a sizeable minority of them from expressing their sympathy and support for new totalitarian Communist ‘liberation movements’ and dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam and Africa during subsequent decades. 

Labour’s current pro-Communist leaders and attitudes

Today, tragically, the pro-Communist Left has regained control of the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. And one symbolic and significant result of this is that both of them, together with some of their leading advisers, have expressed their admiration and support for the failed 21st century Marxist revolution and dictatorship in Venezuela.

Thus, despite their destruction of Venezuela’s oil-rich economy through extensive nationalisation and price controls, their suppression of economic and political liberty, and the enormous exodus of poverty-stricken refugees provoked by their ruinous socialist policies, the late Hugo Chavez and his ideologically faithful successor, President Maduro, earned these plaudits from Labour’s leading duo.

In March 2013, Jeremy Corbyn tweeted on Hugo Chavez’s death: “Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela and a very wide world.”

In a 2014 documentary entitled ‘Hugo Chavez: A Portrait from Europe’, John McDonnell had these words of praise for Chavez’s socialist regime in Venezuela: “Here you had the contrast between capitalism in crisis and socialism in action.”

And a year earlier, Labour frontbencher, Richard Burgon, tweeted: “Victory for the Labour Movement in Venezuela: bus driver, trade unionist and socialist elected as President of Venezuela.”

Corbyn and McDonnell’s support for Venezuela’s totalitarian socialist revolution is, of course, totally consistent with their distorted Marxist vision of the world. 

Following the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016, for instance, Corbyn, a long-time supporter of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, said that despite his “flaws,” he was a “huge figure of modern history, national independence and 20th century socialism…Castro’s achievements were many.” 

That is the tribute paid by the Leader of the Labour Party to a Communist dictator responsible for the deaths of around 100,000 Cubans, the flight of well over a million refugees to the USA since 1959, and the imprisonment of 500,000 others over the same period.

As for John McDonnell, in reply to the question ‘who has been most significant in terms of your thinking?’ put to him over a decade ago during an interview with the ultra left-wing group, Alliance for Workers Liberty, he replied: “The fundamental Marxist writers: Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.”

Labour’s threat to economic and political freedom

The resurrection and current dominance of Marxist thinking within the Labour Party should concern us all because it poses a long-term threat to both our democracy and liberties. It does so, in the first place, because economic freedoms, such as the right to own property, run a business, choose one’s employment, or leave money to one’s children, are in themselves vital components of personal liberty. And that includes the right to buy private health care and education rather than having to submit entirely to monopolistic ‘public services’ controlled by politicians and bureaucrats wielding the coercive power of the State, and able to impose their potentially intrusive and damaging political and ideological agendas on an effectively captive population.

Such economic freedoms are not only the most important ones in the lives of ordinary people, and all too easily taken for granted; they are also the bedrock of all other freedoms – of conscience, speech, association and assembly, since these require the safeguard of economic independence from the State. As Trotsky himself admitted in 1937: “In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.”

Labour’s 2019 election manifesto, by contrast, with its ruinously expensive proposals for massive renationalisation, its hostility to private landlords and second home owners, and its desire to clobber the ‘rich’, raise taxes, rob shareholders, and undermine the economic position of independent schools, ignores these truths, exploits the politics of resentment and envy, and reveals a total inability or unwillingness to heed the lessons of history. 


Copyright © 2019 Philip Vander Elst


Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Philip Vander Elst, is a British freelance writer, lecturer and C.S. Lewis scholar. After graduating from Oxford in 1973, with a degree in politics and philosophy, he spent more than 30 years in politics and journalism, serving in free market think-tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs, and writing for conservative and libertarian papers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator, Human Events, the American Spectator, and the Freeman. Since 2003 he has become increasingly engaged in Christian apologetics, having made his own journey from atheism to faith during the 1970s. He is the author of many and varied publications including: C.S. Lewis: a short introduction (Continuum 2005), Is There No God? the improbability of atheism (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, bethinking.org 2010), Can we be free without God? (bethinking.org 2010), From atheism to Christianity: a personal journey (bethinking,org 2011), Power Against People: a Christian critique of the State (Self-Educated American 2012), and The Principles of British Foreign Policy (Bruges Group 2008). An experienced speaker and former officer of the prestigious Oxford Union Debating Society, Philip has completed nine lecture tours of the United States since 1975, speaking in many American universities and colleges, including Mary Baldwin, the University of Richmond, the University of Colorado, Washington and Lee, Georgetown University, the University of Alabama, George Mason University, the University of Virginia, West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.