Marriage of Inconvenience

The United Front: The TUC and the Russians 1923-1928

by Daniel F. Calhoun
Cambridge University Press, 450 pp., $27.50

Let me begin by declaring my interest. When the author of this book was pursuing his researches in England two or three years ago, he discovered that I was probably the only person in the British academic world who had much knowledge of, or interest in, his rather esoteric theme. At that time I was deeply immersed in Soviet relations with the Western world, including Great Britain, in the later 1920s. He was making himself a specialist in an episode which was not only colorful in itself, but shed a beam of light over a wide surrounding area.

Professor Calhoun and I had several meetings to discuss matters of common concern, of which he expresses his appreciation in his preface. He does not say—and I welcome the opportunity of saying it here—that my debt to him was at least as great as his to me. He worked extensively in the unpublished archives of the British Trade Union Congress which I had not penetrated, and gave me many fresh details and further insights into the curious history of relations between the British and Russian trade unions. The story seems to me very well told in this volume, with a certain raciness, not to say jauntiness, of style, which does not come amiss in a record of so many undignified, and so many merely comic, exchanges.

The episode of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Joint Advisory Council or Committee, founded in 1925 and dissolved after a tempestuous career in 1927, brings out vividly, by pointing up the contrast, aspects of the mentality both of the Russian and of the British trade unions which commonly remain in the background. More significantly, it illustrates the besetting problem of Soviet relations with the Western world for almost sixty years, when formulas of agreement mask underlying discords, and what look like the same words are used with more or less subtly different shades of meaning.

The troubles begin with the conception of the “united front,” which goes back to 1921. It is better not to be too censorious about this policy; the Russians are not the only politicians responsible for the framing of policy who do not always know exactly where they are going, and pursue mutually incompatible aims. When the Bolsheviks seized power in the autumn of 1917, they had their own picture of what was going to happen. The Russian revolution would touch off revolutions elsewhere in the more advanced European countries; and these would be their salvation. It seemed inconceivable to them that they could survive for long alone in a capitalist world. A year later, and for some time after, it was still plausible to believe that the prospect of revolution would be realized in Germany and central Europe; and their own survival in the turmoil of the civil war hung in the balance.

By 1921 all this was over. Stabilization and recovery were in the air. The Soviet regime in Russia had survived the strain. But so had capitalist society …

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