An honest observer of a popular revolution

November 12, 2010

The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome
Faber & Faber, 2010,
390 pages, (pb)

Arthur Ransome was a popular children's author in England who counted the offspring of A. A. Milne and J. R. R. Tolkien among his millions of devoted young readers.

Roland Chambers' biography of Ransome reports, however, that this decorated, "model Englishman" was also a friend of leading Bolsheviks, the lover of Leon Trotsky's personal secretary and a campaigning reporter on behalf of the Russian Revolution who earned the close attentions of Scotland Yard and the Home Office.

Born in Leeds in 1884, Ransome became a reporter on Russia for liberal British newspapers. A patriotic Englishman, he was at first keen to propagandise for the First World War and was politically aligned with the liberal counter-revolutionaries (the Kadets) in Russia. However, the revolution in 1917 sparked his political conscience.

Though not a socialist, Ransome was excited by the democratic soviets of workers', peasants', soldiers' and sailors' representatives (“the first proletariat parliament in the world and by Jove it was tremendous”, he wrote), where the revolutionary socialists, the Bolsheviks, commanded a large majority because only they gave political expression to the deep, popular roots of the revolution and offered an end to war, to hunger, to rule by the rich.

The Bolsheviks welcomed Ransome as an honest observer who was also in a position to influence the British authorities who were set on strangling the revolution. Publicly, Ransome cultivated a journalistic impartiality, the better to balance his closeness to the Bolshevik leadership with his unofficial role as liaison for the Foreign Office and analyst for the British Secret Intelligence Service (the forerunner of MI6).

But, as the British ambassador to Soviet Russia, Bruce Lockhart, noted, Ransome was “a visionary whose imagination had been fired by the revolution” and he was prepared to act in accordance with his new-found political values.

A pamphlet by Ransome, On Behalf of Russia, was circulated among the Western soldiers who had invaded Soviet Russia. Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 tried to counter the injustices done to the Bolsheviks by the Western press: “The absurd rumours circulated by those whose ignorance of the Revolution was matched only by their hypocrisy.”

Ransome's campaigning journalism did not survive the Stalinisation of the revolution, which took place in response to the stresses of isolation, backwardness, foreign blockade and invasion and Western-supported civil war.

The victory of “Stalin's Sheep” and the growing list of murdered Old Bolsheviks (“those who rewrite history must see to it that no contradictory witnesses survive”) depressed Ransome while tiredness with the life of a foreign correspondent overtook him — “I am all for slippers and a pipe, a glass of hot rum and the quiet life”.

With relief, he turned to his other passions: fishing, sailing and children's literature. Ransome died in 1967, his double life as revolutionary, eyewitness journalist barely known.

Chambers' book poses the question of whether this “double life” had extended to Ransome being a "double agent" who worked for MI6 "while serving the interests of a hostile power”. Most of the evidence, he concludes, is circumstantial and he finds it "hard to say if [Ransome] was a conscious agent".

Chambers seems disappointed by his own finding, ruing the missed opportunity to mortally skewer Ransome as an agent of the KGB's predecessors. Chambers is full of anti-Bolshevik bile (they were tyrants, torturers, a "gang of cut-throats") and he has to settle for accusing Ransome of being an ideological apologist for, rather than active accomplice of, Bolshevik dictatorship and murder.

Ransome did not think that the Bolsheviks were saints, or that they did not make political, or moral, mistakes.

What he did do, however, was to report a popular, Bolshevik-led revolution whose prospects for human liberation opened his heart and mind to “the creative effort of the revolution” in the re-making of humanity. This prospect terrified Ransome's establishment colleagues into venomous journalistic slander and military and economic aggression.

The idyllic and adventuresome world of Ransome's children's literature still has its young followers. Grown-ups, too, can find the same spirit in Ransome's eyewitness reporting on the socialist idealism and drama of the Russian Revolution.

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