The Guardian’s Bolshevist Scoop, November 1917

Few correspondents witnessed [the] momentous events [of the Bolshevik Revolution], and even fewer understood enough of what was happening to appreciate their significance. High among these few stand the American journalist and poet John Reed, correspondent for The Masses, a radical liberal publication in the United States, who had been in Petrograd since August, and Morgan Philips Price, the Manchester Guardian’s correspondent. Reed later became a founder of the Communist Party of America, and his sympathies from the beginning were with the Bolsheviks. But he saw the Revolution with the clear eye of a good and conscientious reporter, and his description of the events in Petrograd in November 1917 is unequalled. Reed, Philips Price, and Arthur Ransome of the London Daily News were the only Western correspondents allowed into the Bolshevik headquarters in the Smolny Institute* ….

The Bolshevik Revolution might have taken newspapers by surprise, but they recovered quickly. Since they lacked the knowledge that Reed, Philips Price, and Ransome had acquired, they were able to state categorically that the Bolsheviks would not survive. This–and abuse of the Bolshevik leaders–was the theme of all the dispatches and comment in the days following the Revolution. David Soskice, the man the Manchester Guardian had sent to check on Philips Price’s accuracy, had fled from the Winter Palace across the frontier to Finland. The Guardian ran his dispatches, even though they directly contradicted those from his colleague. “The Bolsheviks must fall,” Soskice wrote from Oslo on November 24. The Times as early as November 12 had Lenin losing control. The Observer was certain that Bolshevism would soon perish, and the Daily News felt that all Bolsheviks were doomed, thus ignoring the opinion of its man-on-the-spot, Arthur Ransome, one of the few voices of accuracy and reason in the hysteria, who wrote: “It is folly to deny the actual fact that the Bolsheviks do hold a majority of the politically-active population.”

The newspaper reader in the United States, like his counterpart in Britain, could have been forgiven for believing that it was only a matter of days before the Bolsheviks were overthrown. The insistent theme of Russian news in the New York Times was that the Bolsheviks could last for only a moment. In the next two years this belief was faithfully fostered. Four times Lenin and Trotsky were planning flight, three times they had already fled; twice Lenin was planning retirement, once he had been killed, and three times he was in prison.

One of the main reasons for the gross misinformation that these reports spread was a growing apprehension as to the nature of Bolshevism, which encouraged wishful thinking about its early demise. As details of Lenin’s new social order filtered through to the West, the first signs appeared of the strong anti-Bolshevik sentiment that was soon to become fanatical. It was bad enough for the landed gentry of Britain and France that the Bolsheviks had overthrown their betters in Russia; it was terrifying that they now spoke of spreading this appalling political dogma throughout Europe and perhaps the rest of the world. So when the delegates at the Soviet Congress spoke of “the coming world revolution, of which we are the advance-guard,” The Times responded with an editorial saying, “The remedy for Bolshevism is bullets,” and The Times’ readers began to regard the Bolsheviks as a gang of murderers, thieves, and blasphemers whom it was almost a sacred duty to destroy as vermin.

This was confirmed by the Russian release of all the secret treaties negotiated between the Czarist regime and the Allies. Philips Price scooped the world here by calling on Trotsky and asking if he could print the treaties in the Guardian. Trotsky could not see Philips Price, but sent his secretary [whom Ransome later married] out with a bundle of documents and a message that he could borrow them overnight. A quick look convinced Philips Price that he had the original treaties and that they were political dynamite. There was an agreement giving France a free hand in western Europe on condition that Russia had a similar free hand in Poland; there was a cynical bribe for Rumania, if she would enter the war, by the offer of the Banat with its Yugoslavs, the Bukovina with its Ukrainian population, and Transylvania with its Magyars; there was an agreement splitting Persia between Britain and Russia; and, finally, there was the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, dividing much of the Arab world among the Allies.** Philips Price translated the documents, working through the night, and then telegraphed them in four or five dispatches to the Manchester Guardian, in which they were published in some detail at the end of November.

Compare the Guardian’s treatment of what was without doubt a major story with the attitude of The Times. The Times received a summary of the treaties from J. D. Bourchier, its Balkans man, who had stopped in Petrograd on his way to Japan. It published the summary, but made the amazing decision “not to inconvenience the British, French and Italian Governments, and to maintain silence about the Secret Treaties; also, as far as possible, to curtail its Petrograd correspondent’s despatches on the subject… As the governments themselves were bound by the Treaties to be silent, The Times decided it could only follow their example.”

SOURCE: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, by Phillip Knightley, with an introduction by John Pilger (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000; first published in 1975), pp. 158-161

* Reed “joined a Soviet propaganda bureau” (p. 163); Philips Price worked “as a translator in the Bolshevist Foreign Office” (p. 167).

It is true, as Philips Price has readily admitted, that by now he was no longer completely objective and that Marxist jargon had crept into his writing. “It was a pity, but understandable. I was young and impressionable and it was natural that I should start to write as I heard Lenin and Trotsky speak. If I could have kept the old Manchester Guardian objectivity, then my dispatches would have had more influence.” [p. 168]

Ransome “returned to Britain in April 1918”; authored The Crisis in Russia, “a full defence of the Revolution” (and also wrote numerous children’s stories); “contributed extensively to the Manchester Guardian“; and “married Trotsky’s secretary, Eugenia Shelepin” (pp. 163, 183).

** “The release of the latter agreement caused Britain great embarrassment, since she had already promised the Arabs independence in return for raising the Arab Revolt. T. E. Lawrence had to try to explain to the Arabs why the British had double-crossed them.” (p. 161)

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