Ian Bullock on Socialism and Democracy in Britain
CHAPTER 1. Introduction – changing meanings of 'soviet' – 'It is the argument of this book, that the myth of Soviet democracy – the belief that Russia was embarking on a brave experiment in a form of popular government more genuine and more advanced than even the best forms of parliamentarism – played a key role in full or partial acceptance by much of the British Left. It was part of a complex of perceptions that included also the belief that social and economic equality was being advanced simultaneously with this higher form of political equality. Justifications of the 'vanguard role of the party 'and the redefinition of democracy to mean socio-economic rather than political equality were key shifts at a later stage. Pankhurst as exemplifying 'pure' soviet democracy. Contrast between Murphy's statement illustrates the change and part of what has to be explained.
CHAPTER 2. A well-prepared Ground: the British Left on the Eve of the Russian Revolution.
Distinguishing 3 broad groups that helped to prepare the ground.
The radical plebeian tradition of democracy and British Socialism. The inadequacies of representative government.
Syndicalism recognised as preparing the way – but tradition was much broader and dated back further. Distrust of leadership and commitment to 'real' democracy.
Shop Stewards and Syndicalism. Preparing the ground for 'Sovietism'
Notions of how soviets work might well have been derived as much, if not more, from Murphy's Workers' Committee and other syndicalist sources than from accounts of how soviets functioned.
The breadth of influence of GS – including Russell, MacDonald, and Snowden.
De Leonism and the SLP
Correctives to usual view of SLP. The wide influence of the SLP's publishing. Stress on importance of party – and early identification with Bolsheviks
The persistence of the referendum and initiative in the 'early soviet' era.
Examples from Justice, Dreadnought, Labour Leader, The Call
The 'old' radical tradition and the 'new' syndicalism; similarities and differences
CHAPTER 3. The initial responses to the Russian Revolution and the Leeds Convention – the British Left in 1917
The 'marvellous revolution'
The widespread support especially on the Left for the revolution. Democratic credentials of soviets.
The origins of the Leeds Convention: Anticipations and Preparations
The conference becomes a 'convention'.
Representativeness of the 'convention'. Snowden's 'explaining away'. Williams and the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'.
The 'Soviet' Resolution
Possible interpretations. Pankhurst on nomenclature.
Reactions to Leeds
Most later commentators tended to play down the significance of the convention. At the time the Leader was very enthusiastic, even the Guild Socialist's saw it as important but Socialist ignored it. Justice hostile.
Trying to make British Soviets work
Difficulties. Analysis of problems.
CHAPTER 4. The Bolsheviks appear, seize power, and suppress the Constituent Assembly
The unknowness of Lenin and the Bolsheviks
The 'Unknown' Bolsheviks begin to register
Something of the situation in Russia begins to come into focus.
The Bolsheviks Take Power.
Predictions – supportive and hostile of the 'coup' Note The Call's inclusion of Constituent Assembly as one of the objectives of the Bolsheviks.
How the British Left reacted
Snowden and others anticipate coalition govt etc. Not as cut and dried as it was soon to be presented as,
The Crucial Turning Point – the Dissolution of the Constituent Assembly
Its significance. Analysis.
The Constituent Assembly before 'October'
Provisional govt criticised for delays. Pankhurst and BSP demanding CA. No suggestion that it is bourgeois.
Anticipations of the Constituent Assembly after 'October'
Both P and BSP encouraged by Bolshevik performance on CA elections, Less sanguine view of Julius West
Explaining the Suppression of the Assembly - Immediate Reactions.
Non-condemnation from Snowden and the ILP. Support from Pankhurst but how to explain Bolsheviks inconsistency in going ahead with the elections? Confident support from BSP – 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' SLP programme being carried out according to the Socialist.
The Labour Party Conferences of 1918 – Litvinov and Kerensky Contrasting accounts of Litvinov's reception at the January conference. Polarisation at the summer conference.
Snowden's Early Optimism For S Peace was the priority. But surprising support or at least tolerance of the Bolsheviks even after the war ended – for over a year.
'Replacing' the Constituent Assembly
Leader talks of the soviets 'replacing' the CA. Dreadnought dismisses critics. Likewise Fineberg and The Call
Pauls weariness. But issue kept returning and needing to be explained away. Dreadnought's surprise at Kamenev and Zahkind's suggestion of a future return to CA. Litvinov – Zetkin – The Public – Radek – Phillips Price – Bryant and Beatty – all sweetness and light according to Jackson and Postgate in 1921. Claims that all Russian Socialists had rallied to the cause
Became routine to rubbish British parliamentary system and bourgeois democracy in general and claims democratic superiority for soviets – not just a convenient fiction in the minds of those who said this.
The superiority of the Soviet over any other form of representation is easily demonstrable.'
Direct and bottom up nature stressed.. Importance of delegate system. Attitudes to the soviet franchise and parallels with trades councils etc. Eyewitnesses (Reed, West) stress independence of soviets
Democracy … or Ergatocracy?
Were soviets superior to democracy altogether? Phillips Price ('political soviet' to be explored later) Pauls' eratocracy.
The Reality of Soviets – as seen by supporters and sympathetic observers
John Reed, 'well-informed Russian socialist' Does Russia have a President? Reality of soviet democracy according to Solidarity The 'Constitution of the Russian Soviet Republic' Fair minded observers (?) Ransome and Phillips Price. Statesman support for Ransome's view. Time lag and failure to correct in the light of subsequent developments. The Communist defends soviet democracy against the Catholic Herald
Wider Socialist support. Labour Leader and 'an experiment which mankind truly needs'
Surprising willingness to give Bolsheviks the benefit of the doubt. Sylvia Pankhurst commends the Leader ! Defence of soviet system by the paper and Norman Angell.
Wider Socialist support - the changing attitudes of New Statesman 1918-1921
Paper's insistence that the most democratic system ever in Russia, and democratic in spirit at least.- in 1920. Its interpretation of Lenin's State and Revolution. Guild's 'Hussein' on his Proletarian Revolution. Paper's analysis of defects of soviets but still stress on 'positive features'. Detects signs of democracy in CP in March 1921. but critical of invasion of Georgia in July 1921 By November 'The Communist experiment has failed.' But derision towards British attempts to form a CP
The National Socialist Party, Justice and the 'Anti-Bolshevik campaign'
Neglect of NSP – hardly surprising. Support of war didn't imply lack of criticism of its conduct or acceptance of capitalism. Manifesto and position in Khaki Election. Attacks on the Bolshevik – accusations bound to be seen as hysterical hostility. Hostility from other Left wingers. The 'Anti-Bolshevik campaign' 1919. Positive view of Guild socialism. Failure to convince enough of Left to oppose Bolshevism.
'Parliamentarism and Trade Unionism' The debate in The Call in Summer 1919
Rothstein's articles attack parliamentarism and trade unionism, making usual claims for soviet democracy. Criticisms of Alexander and Fairchild. Support for Rothstein. Fairchild and Alexander nearer to NSP in terms of attitudes to soviets and parliament. But not much support in BSP for their position.
CHAPTER 7. Equivocal Reformists. The ILP, the Guild Socialists, and the reaction to Kautsky.
BSP largest of would-be 'Bolshevik organisations. Core of CPGB but important recruits from Guild Socialism and ILP. Strategic importance of ILP and in light of early reactions prospects for ILP going 'Bolshevik' looked quite promising.
ILP Critics – giving the Bolsheviks some benefit of the doubt. First real criticism in the Leader from Alfred Salter – but with equivocal tone. Defends universal suffrage etc and criticises the soviet system – including radical under-representation of women. – in March 1918. MacDonald semi- excuses Bolsheviks in July 1918. Wallhead's optimistic view of Russia in August 1918 Criticism slowly began to appear after the end of the War. MacDonald puts the Bolsheviks in historical perspective and blames the Allies for creating conditions that pushed them into authoritarian behaviour. Compares Lenin to Rousseau – in summer 1919
'Our Debating Column' in 1920. differences over soviet democracy and the Bolsheviks.
Conflicts in the National Guilds League Divisions in the Guild – the issue of the title of the journal. Bechhofer and Reckitt oppose Bolshevism – Bolsheviks as destroyers of soviet democracy. Margaret Postgate (Cole) supports Bolsheviks – the servile state . Guild's support for shop stewards' movement. Conflict at 1920 conference sand aftermath Cole sees positive side of soviets
The 'Aunt Sally of the Third International' ILP publishes Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Scurr's supportive review in Leader. Compared unfavourably to Lenin in Statesman. The Left on Kautsky.
Everyday and 'Bolshevik' meanings of Dictatorship. Only if dictatorship of the proletariat was another way of describing soviet democracy was it easy to reconcile.
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Soviet Democracy
Early usage by Newbold. Soviet democracy as a medium and other possible media of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The doctrine of 'voluntary exclusion'. Comparisons with the 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie'. Harder versions of dictatorship – Lenin favours violence. Lukewarm support for Bolsheviks from the Left in Britain Montefiore on the authoritarian rule of bourgeois governments; the case of Britain. Lenin on democracy in the service of the masses. CPGB identifies DoP with the Soviets.
The temporary nature of the 'Dictatorship.'
Pauls unusual in foreseeing a fairly lengthy 'transitional stage' of dictatorship. 'A friend' in Russia plays down the dictatorial features of the regime. Dictatorship already disappearing.
The Revolutionary Party and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Charles Roden Buxton, sees necessity of minority dictatorship. Comintern on privileged position of the proletariat. Guild socialist 'Hussein' contrasts Postgate's with the Pauls' conception. Gradual identification of 'class conscious minority' with the CP 1920 reference to the 'leadership' of the CP. Leslie in CP(BSTI) demands CP control T A Jackson in 1922 A A Watts in 1920 rejects the idea that CP should 'melt into the soviets' It remained vital to stress mass support for CP. Dutt and Reckitt debate DoP
Defenders of dictatorship
From start anti-Bolsheviks in Justice saw Bolshevik rule as dictatorship. More significant was defence of authoritarian rule and violence by Bolshevik supporters. Early examples from the Dreadnought and The Call in 1919. Became more explicit in 1920 – though usually blamed on opponents of Bolsheviks. Dreadnought on press limitations. Violent language if Lenin's 'Democracy and the Proletarian Dictatorship' in the Dreadnought in 1920 – the revolution 'too mild'. But Left reluctant to acknowledge dictatorial nature of Bolsheviks. Only in 1921 did the New Statesman recognise that it was the CP that ran Russia. The previous year had seen Russell's famous comment on the way British Left wingers interpreted the DoP.
'Soviet democracy' and Bolshevik Revolution generally were very divisive for ILP. The conflict would help to kill off the Labour Leader. Importance of ILP in relation to Labour Party; its relatively large size. Early equivocal attitudes to Bolsheviks – even of Snowden. Allied intervention then mutes criticism.
A crucial issue by summer 1919. MacDonald see signs of infiltration in ILP. His Parliament and Revolution with its proposal for a 'soviet second chamber' addresses would-be Third Internationalists His 'Open Letter No 1' associates Bolsheviks with both primitive 'cataclysmic' socialism and Fabian elitism. Support for united international and the 'Vienna Union'
Wallhead now less enthusiastic in support of the Bolsheviks. Allen criticises ILP leadership for failing to keep members informed about Soviet Russia and instead publishing Kautsky.
Third International support in the ILP in early 1920
Support for TI affiliation from Scottish ILP and other divisions. Opposition to affiliation from Yorkshire. Leach criticises indirect nature of soviets which invalidated the right of recall. The Socialist detects SLP influence on the ILP. ILP leadership urge branches not to mandate delegates on the affiliation issue. Snowden picks up the point with reference to reported Bolshevik practice. Allen's 3 questions for the Third International.
The 1920 ILP Conference
The pre-conference meeting of the 'Left Wing'. The debate; Allen's appearance; decision to leave Socialist International but leave TI decision to a future special conference. Jowett's anti-Cabinet motion passed by large majority. Snowden's response in the Leader – relief rather than satisfaction. TI supporters misleading themselves.
Reports from Russia
Less reliant now on Ransome and Phillips Price as travel to Russia became easier. Snowden criticises Lansbury's enthusiastic articles and book. Wallhead and Allen attached to TUC/LP delegation. Allen can't recommend affiliation. Turner's report and the Albert Hall meeting. Ethel Snowden and Guest v Purcell and Williams Wallhead's earlier enthusiasm diminished as he notes disappearance of 'soviet democracy' Hostility towards Ethel Snowden
The 'Left Wing of the ILP' and the 1921 Conference
The term 'Left Wing of the ILP' only appears in the Leader regularly from end of 1920. Complaints about 'wrecking tactics' MacDonald's defeat in the Woolwich by-election. 'Left Wing blamed – demands for them to leave ILP. Affiliation cause already lost before the 1921 conference began. Reversal of Scottish ILP position.. Wallhead'd chair's speech supports democracy and says 'Left Wing should leave the Party. Refuses offer to address conference on TI from MacManus. Attacks on both Newbold and Ethel Snowden. The affiliation debate – huge majority against TI. Secession to CP –but relatively small. Marquand on the significance of TI failure and legacy for the Labour Party.
By time ILP reached decision not to affiliate to TI 2 versions of the CP had come into existence which were about to amalgamate after long complex process. For SP et al key issue was 'soviet democracy'
The 'Khaki Election' 1918
Issue emerged when Dreadnought criticised SLP candidatures - the Pauls; Watson take anti-parliamentarian position. Dreadnought headline on the The SLP Candidates. 'The British Bolsheviks and the Parliamentary Election.'
'Soviet Democracy' and the Search for Communist Unity
The previous history of socialism in Britain had been marked both by 'splits' and unity campaigns. The formation of the CPGB resembled that of the BSP a decade previously.
The search for 'Communist Unity' changed after the formation of the Third International which put its prestige and resources behind it. Even so, unity proved elusive with some of the earliest and most fervent supporters of the Bolsheviks still left outside the ranks of the 'official' party – mainly due to their commitment to 'soviet democracy' which, as they interpreted it, ruled out participation in parliamentary elections and/or affiliation to a Labour Party that was now an integral part of the 'bourgeois' parliamentary system
Waiting for the Soviets; the true believers of the WSF.– Even allowing for the wider than generally realised appeal of 'soviet democracy' there was no more sustained and enthusiastic supporter of it than Sylvia Pankhurst's Dreadnought. Belief in the total inevitability of a soviet future was reinforced by the detection of signs of the spread of soviets – in Hungary, Bavaria, Austria, Italy, while at home Pankhurst urged the formation of 'soviets of the street' and 'household soviets and the paper published A Constitution for British Soviets' in June 1920. And by this time the WSF had proclaimed itself the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International).1
'Left' and 'Right' Communists
Pankhurst's organisation had proclaimed itself to be the 'Communist Party' a year previously but had 'suspended' the use of the name as a gesture towards unity and under pressure from Comintern. From the SWF's point of view the main problem was the 'Right wing Communists' of the BSP who were, at best on probation pending a clear indication of their true revolutionary commitment. For the WSF the Labour Party link of the WSF was part of the wider problem of its commitment to parliamentarism. Pankhurst's active international involvement in Bologna, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Her association with Gorter and Pannekoek and their status in the Netherlands. At the beginning of 1920 Pankhurst was confident that she and the WSF represented the 'real' international Communist movement rather than the 'Right Wing Communists' of the the BSP.
The 'Leading English Communist'
Pankhurst's correspondence as 'a leading English Communist' in Communist International. Unexpectedly, at least by Pankhurst herself, Lenin fails to support her 'Left Wing' position. Attacked by Tom Quelch, and Fred Willis in The Call. Support for Pankhurst's anti-parliamentarism from Eden and Cedar Paul, Solindarity, Gallacher, and the Amsterdam Sub-Bureau of the Third International though the Sub-Bureau was soon repudiated by Comintern. Pankhurst's then pre-empts the BSP lead unity process by setting up the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) in June 1920.
'A Wrecking Policy' and the failure of the 'appeal to Caesar.'
The setting up of the CP(BSTI). Condemnation by BSP and A A Watts for her 'wrecking policy' Lenin's endorsement of the parliamentarism position.
Lenin's section on Britain based almost entirely on of 21 February 1920 issue of the Dreadnought. Challinor's suspicions about the timing of the appearance of "Left-Wing" Communism, An Infantile Disorder.'
Wary Shop Stewards remain aloof
Probable first appearance of the term 'ultra Left' and subtle distinction between it and the 'revolutionary shop-stewards.' Solidarity sceptical about the CPGB and urges' a little more intelligent argument and the use of better weapons than that of abuse.' The prospect of the shop stewards movement throwing in its lot with the CPGB seemed, at this stage, still quite remote.
Gorter rejects Lenin's criticism
Herman Gorter's 'Open Letter to Comrade Lenin; his response to 'The Infantile Sickness of Leftism' in the Dreadnought in September 1920. He defends anti-parliamentary position. New Statesman's scepticism about renewed Communist Unity attempts, but it seriously underestimated the strength of the 'strict orders from Moscow'
The Short but Eventful Life of the CP (BSTI)
At the beginning of 1921 the CP (BSTI) had only 600 members. But in the autumn of 1920 it had seemed that a revolutionary situation was imminent with a general strike threatened against British intervention in the Polish War. Edgar Whitehead, Secretary of the CP (BSTI) wanted 'political' organisations – like the 'Maiden Lane Communists' – excluded from the Councils of Action which should, he urged be 'sovietised.' Clear differences were emerging in the interpretation of 'soviet democracy' with the CPGB putting the stress on the leading role of the party while the CP (BSTI) had a 'purer' interpretation of proletarian democracy.
This might have been viable as a long-term strategy but the CP (BSTI) did not believe in the inevitability of gradualism. Whitehead dismissed as 'syndicalist' in The Communist while the 'Conditions' of the Third International required 'democratic centralism' and Communist 'nuclei' operating under Party control in all working class organisations.
Meanwhile, Pankhurst had been persuaded in Moscow to put 'unity' before her anti-parliamentary principles and at the inaugural CP (BSTI) conference in September 1929 it was agreed to participate in the coming Comintern promoted unity conference but to hold a preliminary conference of anti-parliamentary groups. Whitehead insisted that Zinoviev's The Communist Party and Industrial Unionism with its stress on Party control contradicted the CP(BSTI)'s position in the recently circulated Branch Circular No 5 on 'Work through Industrial and Non-Party Mass Organisations of Our Class' but when Pankhurst spoke in favour of the Comintern view the conference fell into line and withdrew Whitehead's branch circular.
Pankhurst held out the prospect of the International being converted to an 'abstentionist' position.. The arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of Pankhurst for sedition followed soon after.
Preparations for the two conferences were made difficult by the scant availability of copies of the 'Theses' delegates were supposed to consider. Whitehead started to argue for the CLP position of agreeing to unity in order to thwart 'the political twisters of Maiden Lane' and 'keep the British Revolutionary Movement sound and clear' at the same time being sceptical of the possibility of carrying on a campaign against 'revolutionary parliamentarism' in a united party without risking immediate expulsion. The Cardiff conference votes for 'unity' – influenced by Leslie's emotional speech. Opposition in CP(BSTI) particularly from Manchester branches.
Oblivious to Whitehead's warning, the jailed Pankhurst insisted that Lenin had advised her to unite and work for her anti-parliamentary position within the new organisation. She announces that the Dreadnought would become 'independent'.
At the end of January 1921 the CP (BSTI) came to an end. Some of its members, at least, looked forward to the 'new party' being run in a grass roots control way – consistent with the idea of 'soviet democracy'.
1 The Workers' Dreadnought, 26 June 1920