In 1907 the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was held in a church on the corner of Southgate Road and Balmes Road in the De Beauvoir area of Hackney.
Attendees included Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Rosa Luxemburg.
In Hackney, That Rose Red Empire, Iain Sinclair notes:
“RUSSIAN REVOLUTIONISTS AFRAID OF THE CAMERA
Block headline. Daily Mirror, 1907. Southgate Road. Procession of men in bourgeois-workers’ funeral outfits, umbrellas, removed bowlers disguising beards. Iron railings. Lumpy ecclesiastical bricks. Churches like prisons. Journalists are spooks, double agents, narks. Pigment is metaphor: blood red. Not til the red fog rises. Afraid of the camera’s cyclopean eye, as they walk heads bowed towards it.”
According to Victor Sebestyen, the Mirror also took issue with a particular female delegate:
“a Princess… who has assassinated several provincial governors in Russia and always carries a bomb in her muff.”
Robert Henderson elborates:
“These woman delegates held a particular fascination for the English press pack which reported, with some amazement, the intelligence received that, just like the men, these ‘suffragists’ would also be entitled to vote at the Congress. The Mirror would later describe the rousing speech delivered by one young girl delegate, who called for ‘war at any price’. This firebrand, they reported, ‘spoke of barricades and bombs much as the average English girl will chatter about bridge and lawn tennis’.”
Here is Stella Rimington (former Director General of MI5) and Professor William J Fisham to tell us more about the event and its background:
The Congress was a turning point for the RSDLP, with the revolutionary Bolshevik faction winning out against their moderate Menshevik rivals:
“the Party will henceforth pursue the strictly class policy of the socialist proletariat. The red flag of the proletariat will no longer be hauled down before the spell-binders of liberalism. A mortal blow has been struck at the vacillation characteristic of intellectuals, which is unbecoming to the proletariat.”
J.V. Stalin – Notes of a Delegate
One of the other discussions was about whether or not armed robberies were an OK way of securing funds for revolutionary activity. Somehow the Mensheviks managed to get a resolution passed which condemned that sort of thing. Weeks later a group of Bolsheviks made off with 341,000 rubles (over 2 million quid in today’s money) in the Tiflis Bank Robbery in Georgia.
Trotsky provides some fascinating insights into the social and financial aspects of the Congress:
“The party congress of 1907 held its meetings in a socialist church in London. It was a protracted, crowded, stormy, and chaotic congress. The second Duma was still alive in St. Petersburg.
The revolution was subsiding, but it was still arousing great interest, even in English political circles. Prominent liberals invited the better-known delegates to their houses to show them off to their guests.
The ebbing tide of the revolution was already evident in the lessening of the party funds. There was not enough money for the return journey, or even to carry the congress to its conclusion. When this sad news re-echoed under the arches of the church, cutting into the discussion on armed uprisings as it did, the delegates looked at one another in alarm and amazement.
What was to be done? We could not stay in the church, of course. But a way out was found, and in quite an unexpected form. An English liberal agreed to lend the Russian revolution three thousand pounds, as nearly as I can remember the figure. He demanded, however, that the revolutionary promissory note be signed by all the delegates at the congress, and so the Englishman received a document bearing several hundred signatures, in the characteristic signs of all the races of Russia. He had to wait a long time, however, for the payment of the note.
During the years of the reaction and the war, the party could not even dream of such huge sums. It was the Soviet government that bought back the promissory note of the London congress. Revolution carries out its obligations, although usually not without delay.”
Leon Trotsky – My Life, Chapter XVI
An article in the capitalist lapdog Evening Standard notes that:
Most participants at the congress lodged in Stepney. But not all of them. The individuals who then headed the Marxist movement – Lenin, Georgii Plekhanov and Yuli Martov – preferred to stay in bourgeois Bloomsbury.
They admired its cleanliness and orderliness. With the British Museum in the vicinity they obtained readers tickets under pseudonyms. Among the egalitarian Marxists, some were more equal than others.
Robert Henderson has also identified a Hackney accomodation site:
“Much to the indignity of one commentator, the only alternative offered by the English authorities was some disused army barracks, the exact location of which has remained a mystery. It is more than likely, however, that the accommodation in question was located to the north of Whitechapel on the western side of London Fields in Shrubland Road, Dalston.
In 1906 the site had been purchased for use as a bus garage and, two years later under the ownership of the London General Omnibus Company, had come into service as Dalston Garage. The garage was demolished and replaced by housing in 1981.”
Henderson also believes that the several hundred delegates who bunked in Dalston would have walked to and from the Congress venue each day, along the Regents Canal…
I can still see the bare walls of the ridiculously shabby wooden church in the suburbs of London, the lancet windows of a small narrow hall much like the classroom of a poor school. It was only from the outside that the building resembled a church. Inside there was a total absence of any religious attributes and even the low pulpit stood not in the back of the hall but squarely between the two doors.
I had never met Lenin until that year, nor even read him as much as I should have done. I was strongly drawn to him, how-ever, by what I had read of his writings, and particularly by the enthusiastic accounts of people who were personally acquainted with him. When we were introduced he gripped my hand firmly, probed me with his penetrating eyes, and said in the humorous tone of an old friend:
“I’m glad, you came. You like a fight, don’t you? Well, there’s going to be a big scrap here.”
Attentive readers of this blog will have seen the Brotherhood Church being mentioned here before, in Hackney Propaganda: Working Class Club Life and Politics in Hackney 1870-1900:
It should not be thought that all religious thinking and church movements were unanimously hostile to the ideas of socialism. There was in this period a movement of Labour Churches.
One of the more ‘utopian’ religious projects which found itself a home in Hackney was the Brotherhood Church which was established in Southgate Road in 1891. It was set up by the Reverend Bruce Wallace – whose name later appears as a speaker at the Kingsland branch of the Socialist Democratic Federation – when he took over an almost derelict church and re-opened it as a centre for a long-term religious and political project.
The following account comes from a book on English utopian experiments, Heavens Below:
“With J.C. Kenworthy he (Wallace) propagated Tolstoyan ideals. A grocery and vegetable co-operative was opened on the 20th Jan. 1894 in Nos. 1 and 5 Downham Road, Kingsland. They aimed to pay Trade Union wages and provide sickness benefits and old age pensions. Unlike other contemporary co-ops the capital subscribed by the Brotherhood to the store earned no interest and the customer’s profit was not paid to them but saved for the purpose of land for new communities. (24)”
The Brotherhood Church survived into the 20th century, preaching and advocating a mixture of Marxism and Christianity so that services would combine readings from the Bible with hymns sung from the Labour Hymn Book.
I’m hoping to write more about The Brotherhood Church soon, but I think it’s clear from the above that it wasn’t such a strange choice to host the Congress – especially as 338 delegates attended – a few more than you can fit into a room above a pub.
So, Hackney played a minor role in the build up to the Russian Revolution! Part of me is quite chuffed with that, but another part wishes that the Irish Dockers mentioned in the Youtube clip had given Stalin a much bigger beating whilst they had the chance…
Lenin in Clapton, too!
The Wikipedia entry on Clapton Square also mentions Lenin visiting his comrade Theodore Rothstein there a couple of years earlier in 1905. Rothstein was a Russian emigre, forced to leave the country of his birth in 1890 “for political reasons”.
Rothstein wrote numerous articles for the British left-wing press at the time. He was a member of various British political groups also (the Social Democratic Federation, British Socialist Party, etc) as well as the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. He worked as a journalist, going on to become a Russian translator for the Foreign Office and War Office (although he opposed the First World War).
He lived in England for thirty years, returning to post-revolutionary Russia in 1920, where he served as a diplomat and academic. Theodore Rothstein died in Moscow in 1953. His son, Andrew was also a life-long communist who remained in the UK until his death in 1994.
Sources and further reading
With thanks to the commenters below for their help. And thanks to
Iain Sinclair – Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report (Penguin, 2010)
Dr Sarah J. Young – Russians in London: Lenin – includes a raging debate in the comments about whether the anarchist Peter Kropotkin attended the Congress.
Victor Sebestyen – Lenin The Dictator (Pantheon Books, 2017)
Robert Henderson – The Spark That Lit The Revolution: Lenin in London and the politics that changed the world (I.B.Taurius 2020)
Robert Henderson – The Little Russian Island: Lenin in London (Talk for Anglo-Russian Research Network on Youtube uploaded 26th April 2021)