Albert Rhys Williams (Sept 28, 1883-Feb 27, 1962), a labor organizer and journalist, was a witness to and a participant in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. He was a friend of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and American Communist writer John Reed. He traveled through the Russian countryside studying Communism in the villages and farms. When in the United States he was an apologist for the Communist regime, writing books based upon his experiences in the Soviet Union, and making speeches calling for American support of the revolution.
The son of David Thomas Williams, a Congregationalist minister, and Esther Rees (Rhys), both of them immigrants from Wales, Albert was born in Greenwich, Ohio. He was the second of four brothers, all of whom became ministers. His younger brother David Rhys Williams had a long and distinguished career in the Unitarian ministry. At around the age of six, in the New York State resort community where his father was settled, Albert witnessed the beating of a poor, drunken man, and his rescue by his agonized wife. This was a formative incident in his early life. “The woman’s scream like an arrow shot through my soul,” he later wrote, “and for the first time I became conscious of feeling a wild anguish and wild indignation. A bleeding sorrow for the body-bruised man and the soul-bruised woman, blazing anger against the hardness of humanity.”
Albert graduated from high school in Hancock, New York in 1897, then worked in a lumber yard in Apex, New York and a clothing store in Ohio until he was old enough to enter college. While at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio, 1900-04, he edited the college newspaper and helped organize a union for retail clerks. At the Hartford Theological Seminary, 1904-07, he edited a labor column for the Hartford Evening Post.
Having graduated with a license to preach, in the summer of 1907 Williams worked at the Settlement House of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church in New York City. Here, with Norman Thomas (then a Presbyterian seminarian, later the Socialist Party presidential candidate) he organized men’s club debates. While studying on a fellowship at Cambridge University and the University of Marburg, 1907-08, he met members of the British Labour Party and other socialists. Back in the United States he worked for the Socialist Eugene Debs’s 1908 campaign for the presidency. In 1913 he and his brother David, then also a Socialist, pledged to each other that they would remain constant to the values of “the welfare of the many” and “the human rights of the few—and even of the lowliest citizen against the encroachments of the many.”
Williams’s first and only settlement as a minister was at the Maverick Congregational Church in east Boston, 1908-14. He encouraged his working-class parishioners to struggle to improve their condition in the present world, and not merely to wait patiently for recompense in the next. During the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, he raised money and spoke up for the workers. In Lawrence he first met fellow labor-organizer John Reed, whose acquaintance he later cultivated in radical social circles in New York City.
On the eve of the First World War Williams obtained a leave of absence from his church and traveled to Europe. After hostilities broke out, he enlisted as a reporter for the magazine, Outlook. He was arrested in Belgium and briefly detained by Germans who suspected him of being a British spy. He published his account of this, and other wartime experiences, as In the Claws of the German Eagle, 1917. After the success of the book, he told his church that he did not mean to return, but was going to pursue a career as a journalist and writer.
Working for the New York Post, in 1917 Williams went to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to report on the ongoing Russian Revolution. In the summer of that year, during the administration of the Provisional Government of Aleksandr Kerensky, he traveled widely and studied the revolutionary attitudes and activities of peasants, workers, and soldiers throughout Russia. He was joined by John Reed in the autumn and together they witnessed the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks into power. Reed recorded these events as Ten Days That Shook the World, 1919; Williams’s account was Through the Russian Revolution, 1921.
Both Williams and Reed became enthusiastic supporters of the Communists, though Williams never joined the party. They worked for Leon Trotsky, composing propaganda which was distributed to German troops facing the Russians. Williams’s job was to edit the illustrated newspaper, Die Russiche Revolution in Bildern (The Russian Revolution in Pictures). A German general later credited this effort with so undermining the morale of the troops on the eastern front, that, after the separate peace signed with Russia, these soldiers were unusable in the final campaigns in the West.
Lenin befriended Williams. He encouraged Williams to improve his Russian and offered to include him in a special seminar on Marxist theory. “He was the most thoroughly civilized and humane man I ever have known,” Williams later wrote, “as nice a one as I ever knew, in addition to being a great man.” Williams never modified his admiration of Lenin. He seemed unaware, even in his later writing, of the extent to which the “Red Terror”—the execution and internment of hundreds of thousands of alleged enemies of the Bolshevik government—was approved by Lenin. When the German army approached Petrograd, Williams volunteered to enlist in the Red Army. Lenin had him organize an International Legion instead.
In 1918 Williams took the train across Siberia to Vladivostok. While waiting for an opportunity to take a ship to the United States, he wrote for the local Communist press and witnessed the capture of Vladivostok by international counter-revolutionary forces. He was several times arrested by the Whites, and narrowly escaped with his life. “At any moment you may lose your life,” the American vice-consul told him. “Two parties have sworn to shoot you down at sight.” With money loaned him by local Communist workers, he was able to escape on a Chinese ship. Upon his return to the United States, Williams was greeted by American Naval Intelligence, who confiscated his papers and interrogated him about his political beliefs.
Williams was distressed that his own country not only failed to support the Russian Revolution, but, while he was in Vladivostok, sent troops to the Far East to oppose it. “I never ceased to feel shame for the role my country played in this joint effort to strangle bolshevism in its cradle and socialism for good and all,” he later wrote. “If I helped in some small way to mitigate the guilt of being an American, I am satisfied.”
Based at first in San Francisco, he toured the country lecturing on Russia and appealing for the cessation of American intervention in the Soviet Union. So effective were his speeches that a New York Times editor wrote that “the greatest creation of Bolshevism is not Trotsky’s army, but Albert Rhys Williams, and the singular audiences that applaud him.” He voluntarily spoke before the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, though neither his testimony nor the witness of John Reed and Reed’s wife, journalist Louise Bryant, succeeded in modifying the subcommittee’s anti-Communist opinions. In 1919 Williams published a book, Lenin, the Man and His Work, and two tracts, Russia and Siberia and 76 Questions and Answers on the Bolsheviks and the Soviets. The latter, priced at ten cents, sold two million copies. While staying with Reed at Reed’s cottage at Croton-on-Hudson in 1919, he wrote Through the Russian Revolution.
Williams returned to Russia in 1922 and remained there for six years, traveling throughout the country, visiting villages and assessing the local impact of the revolution. He reported his findings in magazines—the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, Yale Review, and Asia—and in a book, The Russian Land, 1928. “I was less interested in the news of political events, whose sources were in Moscow or Leningrad,” he later wrote, “than in their effects; and Russia was largely a peasant country.”
In 1923 he married Lucita Squier, whom he had first met in 1919. She had come to Russia in 1923 to make a film on famine relief for the Quakers. They traveled together, though they sometimes split up in order to visit more villages. From time to time, when they needed money, she returned to London to write scenarios and screenplays for Hollywood movies. Their son, Rhys Williams, was born in 1929. That year the Williamses moved to Cedar on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. In 1932 they moved to Carmel, California.
When he visited the Soviet Union again in 1930-31, Williams was disturbed by Stalin’s use of force in collectivization. In 1937-38, on another visit, he felt “baffled.” Stalin was purging the Communist Party and holding “show trials” of his political opponents. When he returned Williams did not criticize these disturbing events, which seemed to him quite inconsistent with the high-minded ideals he attributed to Lenin and Reed. Rhys Williams reported that his father “told me once that he could easily give a five-hour speech on what was wrong with the Soviet Union, and tell nothing but the truth; but that he thought this job was pretty well done.” Williams wrote that he did not wish to aid anti-Communist hysteria and that he wished to support the only country that seemed to him to have a “principled” foreign policy. He also believed that American and other foreign intervention during the period of the Russian Civil War led to the deaths of many promising idealistic Bolshevik leaders, leaving the reins of government to the few and the ruthless. He saw Stalinism as a temporary setback in a long train of history in which Communism would lead humankind to a better world.
During the 1940s Williams wrote The Russians: the Land, the People, and Why They Fight, 1943, and promoted Russian War Relief. After he wrote an article in 1957 praising the pioneer Soviet satellite Sputnik, the Soviet Writers’ Union invited the Williamses to visit Moscow. He spent several months in the Kremlin hospital, being treated for leukemia. He thought the Russian doctors prolonged his life by several years. During the last five years of his life he wrote a second memoir of the events of 1917-18, Journey into Revolution, 1969, which was edited and completed by his wife.
Although he began his career as a Congregationalist minister, his this-worldly approach to Christianity gradually evolved into Humanism and his Russian experience gave him a distrust of the authority of churches. In his 1937 book, The Soviets, Williams described the idealism that he thought enabled the Communists to supercede organized religion. “Give man the vision of a new world without poverty or oppression,” he wrote. “Let him lose himself completely in the struggle to achieve it. Let him explore the universe, enriching himself and mankind with the wonders of science and the beauty of art. Let him understand that in humanity his noblest deeds and thoughts and aspirations go on forever. Thus may one find the true meaning of life, the fulfillment and satisfaction of his deepest desires.”
Williams must have discovered that his mature views were not inconsistent with being a Unitarian, since his son, Rhys Williams, a Unitarian minister in Boston, claimed him as such. The elder Williams had friendships with Unitarian ministers, beyond those in his family, including John Haynes Holmes and Dana McLean Greeley. During his last decade of life he was a close friend of the Humanist philosopher and defender of civil liberties, Corliss Lamont.
At the end of his life Williams wrote, “If I have remained true to the Revolution and still look forward to the final triumph of socialism in the world, it is because, like Lenin, I do believe in the essential goodness of man.” At his memorial service, held at the Community Church (Unitarian Universalist) in New York City, his son Rhys said, “My father was faithful to himself and the one essential idea to which he dedicated his whole life: the affirmation of the unity of all mankind, lived out in a gigantic effort to bring greater understanding between the peoples of the East and the West.”
There are short accounts of Williams’s life in The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History (1986) and by Lucita Squier Williams, as the Editor’s Note to Journey into Revolution (1969). His Through the Russian Revolution (1921) and Journey into Revolution contain biographical material pertaining to 1917-18. Corliss Lamont, ed., Albert Rhys Williams: In Memoriam (1962) contains the remarks of those who participated in Williams’s memorial service. See also the Unitarian Universalist Association ministerial record for Rhys Williams. In some biographies of John Reed, including Granville Hicks, John Reed: The Making of a Revolutionary (1936) and Robert A. Rosenstone, Romantic Revolutionary (1975), Williams is a major character.
Article by Peter Hughes
Posted January 25, 2006