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Lenin in London: A Reply to Helen Rappaport

I recently received a comment from Helen Rappaport, responding to the criticisms I made of of her book Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (New York: Perseus, 2010) in my post on Lenin in London. You can read her comments on my Contact Me page, but I have decided to reply here rather than there, as I have realized that some of the things I said were unfair and I owe her an apology. I described the book as ‘having numerous inaccuracies and a rather relaxed approach to citing sources’, which is unjust. I did find some inaccuracies, for example the assertion that Kropotkin lived ‘in a tiny house in Highgate’ (p. 70). Actually it was Hampstead, although that could be my mistake in my notes, but the real problem is that Kropotkin only lived there briefly in 1893 (at 55 Frognal, according to S. K. Romaniuk’s Russkii London (Moscow: Astrel, 2009), p. 158 – a very useful guidebook I’ve only just got hold of). By the time Rappaport is referring to, 1907, he had lived at 6 Crescent Road, Bromley, for more than a dozen years. Nevertheless, such problems are hardly on the scale I suggested, and it was certainly not my intention to imply that other references I made to the book were inaccurate – in particular, on the question of Lenin’s teacher Henry Rayment, and the name of the building in which Stalin stayed, she has provided the correct version.

On the question of citing sources, again I was too harsh, although there were a couple of occasions when I looked in the notes for references and was surprised to find nothing, and one text that was particularly relevant to me does not seem to get a full citation anywhere in the notes or bibliography. The real problem here is actually the form the notes take. There are no endnote indicators in the text, and instead the notes just cite a page number, a short phrase from the text, and then the reference. I don’t know why this system was chosen – it may have been a decision by the publisher – but I think it is remarkably unhelpful, and almost seems to suggest that the references are unimportant. When reading the text, you have no idea what is going to be referenced and what isn’t, and when you look at the notes, you have to keep going back and forth to the text to find the bits you want. For anybody who is interested in the sources, this is frustrating and time-consuming, and I have to admit this was the main reason why I got annoyed with the book.

So, although I do have some criticisms, I withdraw my previous comments. However, in relation to Rappaport’s claim that Kropotkin knew Lenin and attended sessions of the 1907 RSDLP congress in London, I stand by what I wrote. In her comment, Rappaport says, ‘I find it perfectly plausible that Kropotkin as a major Russian exile and political celebrity would have been invited to the congress.’ It is, of course, difficult to prove that something did not happen, but I think the evidence at least casts serious doubts on this idea. In the Protocols of the 5th Congress of the RSDLP (available in the Archives of the CPSU), the list of delegates and visitors to the congress (pp. 651-58) does not contain Kropotkin’s name, and the search function (which is pretty reliable – I did test it) reveals no references to Kropotkin in the entire 900-page document. Moreover, this Reminiscence of Lenin by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, which describes a meeting between Lenin and Kropotkin in 1919, does not suggest that they had any previous acquaintance. I would also contend that if a congress meeting had been held at the Jubilee Street Club, as Rappaport suggests (p. 156), it would have been mentioned in Rudolf Rocker’s The London Years or another work on Jewish socialist London, but I have come across no such references.

I think countering this sort of evidence requires more reliable sources than Rappaport provides. In her book, she cites E. T. Woodhall’s Secrets of Scotland Yard, a policeman’s memoir published in 1936 (this, incidentally, is the book that does not appear to have a full reference). Woodhall’s story that Kropotkin introduced him to Lenin outside the Jubilee Street Club before a session of the congress (Rappaport, p. 157) is a good one, but on its own it hardly constitutes firm evidence. To me it rather smacks of an embellishment, the author succumbing to the temptation to present himself as a witness to history in the making, instead of sticking to the mundane reality. Rappaport’s statement that ‘reports of the congress [in the British press] all had focussed on Gorky, as well as Plekhanov, Trotsky, and Kropotkin’ (p. 168) does not seem to be backed up with a specific reference, although the following sentence cites a newspaper article about Gorky. I might be persuaded by multiple articles referring to Kropotkin’s presence, but if he is just a name on a list (even on more than one list), I would suggest it is as likely to be an indication of sloppy reporting as anything else. Can we assume that the average journalist knew enough about the nuances of Russian revolutionary politics to be able to distinguish between different factions? Or did they just throw in names their readers were likely to recognize? I can’t prove this, obviously, but I think there is room for scepticism.

Finally, Rappaport provides a reference in her comment to my post to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1979: ‘He supported the Revolution of 1905–07 and spoke out against the punitive policy of the tsarist regime. As one of a small number of Russian émigrés, he was a guest at the Fifth (London) Congress of the RSDLP in 1907.’ I would question whether this is an entirely reliable source, especially as no evidence is provided. One thing I’ve discovered recently is the extent to which prominent revolutionaries from outside the Bolsheviks (not the Mensheviks – they remained beyond the pale) were at various points co-opted into Soviet thinking, both in attempts to conceptualize the revolutionary experience per se, and to bolster the historic legitimacy of the Bolshevism in relation to a period when it was very much a bit-player in the revolutionary movement. James Goodwin’s Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons: Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-Century Russia (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), pp. 1-8 and passim, addresses Bakunin’s legacy, as its title suggests, but I believe a similar thing happened with Kropotkin, as the other major Russian anarchist theoretician. The quotation seems to me to have that legitimizing function – if someone as prominent as Kropotkin was there, it must have been important. Again, I don’t have any proof, but neither does this reference constitute proof.

Everything I’ve ever read about Russian anarchists and socialists prior to the revolution (and even after it) suggests that they operated largely in separate spheres, adhering to different ideologies, and did not make common cause with each other; it was very much not a case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. For this reason as well, I think it unlikely that Kropotkin attended the RSDLP congress. Others may disagree, but I don’t think that the evidence for such a meeting taking place is strong.

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  1. Thank you for your response. I now understand your problem with my book – you have been using the US version! For this edition my US publisher – much to my dismay – did away with the original superscript annotation in the text combined with end notes of the UK edition and used the method you refer to – no superscript and simply quoting a brief phrase and then giving the reference. The problem with this is that this method as I have found in other books that use it doesn not always identify the notes by the right reference, which is why I hate this method and won’t allow it again. I think you will find the UK edition much more accessible in this regard. With regard to the new book by Romaniuk – yes it is useful but by no means infallible.

  2. Indeed – I’ve only had a quick flick through Romaniuk’s book so far, and have already found a few errors…
    Unfortunately for some reason the US version of your book is the one we have in SSEES library.

  3. Alan Sarjeant

     /  August 14, 2018

    As Edwin Woodhall didn’t join the Political or ‘Special’ Branch of Scotland Yard until 1910, it’s unlikely he personally witnessed the encounter at the 5th Congress in London (he only joined as a constable of the Met in 1907, which is borne out by entries in his army service records) That said, the detective would have been active in this part of the East End during Lenin’s last recorded visit in 1911, when Woodhall had moved across to Special Branch (Woodhall’s brother-in-law Albert Saunders was Chief Inspector of the Met at 1st Division, covering military and naval bases at Woolwich and Royal Arsenal). If his story is a first-hand account then he is probably conflating his own encounters with Jubilee Street/Commercial Road post-1911 with earlier accounts recalled by his superiors (or even his brother-in-law).

    Woodall’s claim that Jubilee Street (and later Commercial Road) had become something an ‘International Parliament’ for refugees is backed up by Matthew James Thomas’s ‘Paths To Utopia’ and interviews that Paul Avrich conducted with Naomi Ploschanksky (Nellie Dick) who set-up schools for the young at both locations. At the opening of the Jubilee Street Club, Jonathan Moses, in his ‘The Texture of Politics: London’s Anarchist Clubs,1884 – 1914’ tells us that Kropotkin told those who attended the opening that those ‘fighting so nobly for the cause of Liberty’ now had a place they could call home. Interviews with Ploschanksky corroborate Woodhall’s claim that it was a ‘parliament for refugees’ and she recalls how the elderly Kropotkin would sometimes play with the children himself. It’s too easy to forget the humanitarian/philanthropic dimensions to the Worker’s Circle. You only have to look to Alexandra Kropotkin’s Committee for the Relief of Russian Exiles in Northern Russia to appreciate what was being achieved by both she and her father (which is probably why Conrad based his ‘Secret Agent’ character, Michaelis on Kropotkin). Sitting on the Relief Committee alongside Alexandra was Exeter’s Sir John Kennaway whose Devon Missions had been so central to relief & reform efforts in the Congo State. She was also able to count Lady Arthur Cecil (private secretary to Queen Victoria) among her committee members. As a refugee of some intellectual standing, it’s not implausible that Lenin would have been invited to meet Kropotkin and had his accommodation arranged by those attached to the Club. And the illustrious patrons supporting Kropotkin would likewise have made him more compelling to Lenin. Everyone from the Brotherhood Church to Joseph Fels and George Lansbury were extending their hand to the exiles. And who could blame them?

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