Romancing the Revolution. The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left

Paper given to the History Work in Progress Seminar at the University of Sussex 8 December 2011

I must start with an apology. This isn't really 'work in progress' - the only progress remaining is if anyone actually reads the book, My excuse is that near the start of the extremely long gestation of it, back in 2002 I gave a paper to this seminar in which I tried out the idea - and picked up some valuable suggestions. So, today's offering is, sort of, in the nature of a - long delayed - report back. True, I did do another paper in 2005 but that concentrated only on the ILP paper Labour Leader and its response to the notion of soviet democracy.

Perhaps I ought also to apologise for the absence of powerpoint and other visual aids - which may be a disappointment to some, a relief to others, - but, I suspect - a great surprise to no-one - at least not to anyone that knows me. I could plead that my paper being about ideas doesn't lend itself to visual illustration, but the truth is I was defeated technologically by my Meccano beginners kit - and have never caught up.

It would be tediously pedantic to keep giving precise references during the seminar, but in case anyone would like to check out the most important of my sources I have a few copies of a handout giving details of, the books and newspapers I will be mentioning. Anyone who'd like one please ask me afterwards.

One of my few claims to fame - or perhaps notoriety - is that today's effort will mean that I have given at least one paper to this seminar for each of the five decades from the 1970s onwards; - with advancing years I now try and get in early on each new decade - just in case. All of my work has revolved round the tricky - oddly tricky when you think about it - or at least when I do - relationship between socialism and the various notions of democracy, in the UK context. In Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement I explored this theme in relation to the pre-First World War years from the 1880s onwards, together with some fascinating work by my co-author Logie Barrow on the associated parallel attempt in the 1890s to "ultra-democratise" the trade union movement.

Romancing the Revolution moves on from there to look at the reactions to the idea of soviet democracy in and after 1917. My starting point was to notice that by the time I became aware of the word "soviet" in the 1950s it had become simply a way of indicating what was usually otherwise simply known as "Russia" or "Russian" - as in "Soviet tanks are now in Budapest" But that wasn't how the word began and I wondered just how the original idea soviets or workers' councils had been seen by people on Left in this country and where this had led them. I've tried to follow their trail for the first few years after the Russian Revolution in the book.

So I'll begin with the briefest summary of some of my overall conclusions. Then I'll look more closely at how two parts of the far Left that were initially expected to help form a communist party in Britain reacted - the " Left Communists" in Sylvia Pankhurst's variously named organisations and the British followers of Daniel De Leon - the American revolutionary socialist - in the Socialist Labour Party I'll follow this by considering briefly the effects on the British Left of the emergence of a Communist Party and, finally, I will suggest an answer to the question of how British supporters of the Communist regime in Russia - both in the CPGB and in the wider Left - managed to reconcile - to their own satisfaction at least - a commitment to democracy - soviet democracy - with the increasingly undeniable dictatorial nature of the regime in the Soviet Union. I will focus particularly on things that I found surprising - aspects I had not anticipated when I began the research.

First some general conclusions. The question of how important the idea of soviet democracy was to the response of the British Left to the Bolshevik revolution was not difficult to answer. One only has to imagine the likely response of the Left, in Britain and elsewhere, had the Bolsheviks seized power and suppressed the newly-elected Constituent Assembly not under the slogan of "All power to the soviets" but in their own name. And it is significant that when the USSR was created a few years later its title included the word "Soviet" as well as "Socialist" What I call the myth of soviet democracy is the notion that so many had in the years after 1917 that what was being established in Russia was a much higher form of democracy with power genuinely exercised from the grass roots upwards - something that constituted "real" democracy in contrast to the phoney "bourgeois" democracy on offer in capitalist countries. Or at least some of them.

To call this a myth is not to suggest that the soviets - or workers', soldiers' and peasants' councils - that sprang up in 1917 and before that during the 1905 revolution were devoid of democratic legitimacy But my concern is with the effects of what was going on - or seemed to be going on - in Russia on the Left in Britain.

One thing that needs emphasising because it is easy to lose sight of, is that the soviets were an inspiration to a very large segment of the British Left long before the Bolsheviks took over. The most obvious proof of this is the once famous Leeds Soviet Convention which took place at the beginning of June 1917 - about five months before Lenin and Co seized power.. It was attended by well over a thousand people from a wide range of organisations about a third of which were trade union bodies. Another third of the delegates came from the main socialist parties; the Independent Labour Party ( ILP) and to a lesser extent the British Socialist Party (BSP). Both were still affiliated to the Labour Party. The BSP was later to form the core of the Communist Party when it was founded in 1920 The remainder of those who attended the conference at Leeds came from women's organisations and a variety of bodies such as the Union of Democratic Control, peace societies and co-operatives, Rather like the events of 1968 for people of around my age - and perhaps 2011 for younger people in the future - the Convention left a lasting impression on those who attended. One of the people the convention tried to send to Russia to voice their support for the revolution and for peace was the ILP's Fred Jowett, later briefly a Labour cabinet minister. According to his biographer, Fenner Brockway, Jowett "used to refer to the Leeds Congress as the highest point of revolutionary fervour he had seen in this country" And, rather remarkably, Phillip Snowden claimed it in his autobiography as "the most democratically constituted Labour Convention ever held in this country" And that was after Snowden had followed Ramsay MacDonald into alliance with the Conservatives in the National government in 1931.

The Leeds convention was certainly a response to the Russian soviets but it was largely also about trying to bring the increasingly horrific war to an end. Of the four resolutions adopted at the conference, the first hailed the Russian revolution, the second called for peace on the basis of "no indemnities or annexations" and the third demanded a "Charter of Liberties " emphasising freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom for trade unions. But the resolution that caused the most stir called for the setting up of local Councils of Workers' and Soldiers' Delegates "for initiating and co-ordinating working-class activity in support of the policy set out in the foregoing resolutions."

It's important to note that this enthusiasm for soviet democracy manifested itself some time before Lenin and the Bolsheviks began even to be mentioned in the British socialist press, let alone to be identified in any more or less accurate way in terms of their politics. About the only exception to this seems to have been the old SDF paper Justice which mentioned Lenin in April 1917 - but Justice was firmly anti-Bolshevik as well as pro-war- and of course completely hostile to the Leeds event. It represented the self-described "Old Guard" who saw the war as justified in terms of the principle of national defence and who broke with the rest of the BSP the previous year -1916

The claim that the soviet system was a more genuine form of democracy, received a surprisingly wide degree of support. in the years immediately following 1917. In May 1918, a few months after the Constituent Assembly elected by universal franchise had been suppressed by the Bolsheviks, Labour Leader, the weekly paper of the ILP, defended soviet democracy. Was not, it asked, "a system of indirect elections" from workshop to local Soviets and from local Soviet onwards also "a form of representative government?". In the same paper a year later no less than Norman Angell, famous as the author of The Great Illusion, wrote that "the attempt to give democracy a new meaning by grafting onto its political forms some methods of industrial self-government, however blunderingly that attempt may be made, is an experiment which mankind truly needs."

Both Snowden and MacDonald, still the leading figures in the ILP, and of course the Labour Party as a whole, seemed prepared to extend a benefit of the doubt about the democratic credentials of the Russian regime at least until 1920 when they were faced with the - unsuccessful - attempt begun by its self-described "Left-Wing" to bring about the affiliation of the ILP to the new Communist Third International.

And at that time, 1920, Clifford Sharp, the editor of the New Statesman, while accepting its authoritarian nature, was insisting that the Bolshevik rule was, as he put it "democratic in essence" while the same journal characterised the soviet system as "the only practical democratic alternative to Parliamentary government which has yet appeared."

So, I was able to confirm, as I expected, that the "myth of soviet democracy" had a huge impact on the Left in Britain - as elsewhere - but was a bit surprised to find that the suppression of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 and the Bolsheviks' claim that it had been replaced by a higher, more authentic, form of democracy in the shape of the soviets, did not - or at least not for a significantly long time - generate more questioning and protest in quarters usually thought of as stalwart supporters of parliamentary democracy. As I've illustrated, a cautious welcome to soviet democracy or at least a determination to extend some benefit of the doubt to it - was to be found in areas as conventionally un-radical in Left wing terms as the future first Labour prime minister and chancellor and the largely Fabian-orientated New Statesman But it was the organisations of the far Left - particularly those of the Pankhurst group and the SLP - that most unequivocally and completely embraced the notion of a higher form of democracy taking shape in Russia. Though, as we'll see it led them in very different directions from the Communist Party of Great Britain that eventually emerged in 1920.

A major factor in explaining this spectrum from enthusiastic support to willingness to give soviet democracy the benefit of the doubt is, of course, as has often been pointed out, the influence in the decade before 1917 of ideas founded on the belief that workplace-based democracy was infinitely more authentic than the "geographic" or "citizen" variety which was condemned as inescapably bourgeois. The influence of syndicalism - particularly through the wartime shop-stewards' movement - of the De Leonist ideas of the SLP which via their press, had more influence on the Left than the party itself and - as a sort of half-way house in many people's view - of guild socialism, all contributed as did, in a more indirect way, the notions of radical democracy that had been so widespread and influential in the pre-war socialist movement which I looked at in some detail in the "Democratic Ideas" book.

Explicitly citing such earlier influences, the most fervent supporters of soviet democracy in Britain were to be found in the organisations of Sylvia Pankhurst. The Workers Socialist Federation declared itself to be the Communist Party in June 1919 only quickly to be persuaded by the Third International not to use the title in order to promote unity among the various organisations of the Left which the Comintern hoped would combine to form a communist party. Pankhurst and the WSF saw the promotion of soviet democracy as ruling out participation in "bourgeois" parliamentary and local elections. That would only confuse and mislead the workers. The task was to build soviets that would prefigure both the coming revolution and the post-revolutionary society.

Because of this refusal to participate in parliamentary politics, Pankhurst was singled out for attack by Lenin in his pamphlet Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder in the Spring of 1920. Most of the section on Britain was based on a single issue of her paper The Workers' Dreadnought - which had started life in Pankhurst's suffragette days as the Woman's Dreadnought. Undeterred by Lenin's condemnation, the WSF declared itself the Communist Party [British Section of the Third International] in June 1920 some weeks before the CPGB was formed. But, by the following January, this body with such a grandiose title, was persuaded - though not very thoroughly convinced - to unite with what it called the "Right Wing Communists" of the CPGB. Not too long after this Pankhurst was expelled - for refusing to hand over her paper the to the Communist party executive - and spent the next few years until the Dreadnought finally collapsed in June 1924, promoting the "Left Communism" of the Communist Workers' Party as the British section of a new Fourth International that included - in particular - similarly-minded groups in Germany and the Netherlands.

By this time Pankhurst's position was close to the anarchist groups whose ongoing campaigns for their version of "soviet democracy" through the interwar, wartime and post-war periods- campaigns in which Guy Aldred was the best known figure - are traced in Mark Shipway's Anti-Parliamentary Communism. Having already followed Pankhurst's journey to "Left-Wing Communism" in my chapter in the book I edited with her son, Richard Pankhurst, back in 1992 I cannot pretend that I have reached any further conclusions in the current book about her and her comrades that surprised me.

The conclusions I came to about the Socialist Labour Party, on the other hand, were not ones I anticipated at all. Like Pankhurst's outfit, the SLP was a tiny organisation and from the point of view of practical politics pretty insignificant. It is, nevertheless, another interesting case. The SLP had not weakened in its resolve not to join with the BSP to form a united communist party, though some of its members set up a Communist Unity Group which took part in the formation of the CPGB, and went on, in several cases, to play prominent roles within that party. For the SLP mainstream the sticking point was Labour Party affiliation - rather ironic since despite continued attempts over decades the CP's requests for affiliation were always turned down by the larger party.

The SLP's version of soviet democracy was the Industrial Republic that its inspirer, Daniel De Leon, had confidently predicted. Raymond Challinor - who, sadly, died fairly recently- wrote a book about the SLP called The Origins of British Bolshevism, Both he, and before him, Walter Kendall in The Revolutionary Movement in Britain tell how - initially - the SLP identified itself very closely with the Bolsheviks.

At Easter 1918 Tom Bell, in the chair at the SLP Conference. claimed Bolshevism as the 'Russian wing of the SLP" And as late as March 1921, after having rejected two opportunities to merge with the CPGB, the SLP was still insisting that "We belong to the Third International, and we are Bolsheviks." They were soon to be disabused as far as the Comintern was concerned. When a few months later they sent James Clunie to the Comintern third congress he was not allowed to attend even as a "fraternal delegate" but only as a guest. But the SLP remained supporters of the Bolsheviks in Russia. That the situation there fell so far short of the revolution the SLP stood for in Britain they attributed to the economic and social backwardness of that country.

What kept the SLP from uniting with orthodox Communism wasn't just its opposition to seeking Labour Party affiliation. It is questionable whether - apart from the Unity Group - it should be considered to be a party of "British Bolsheviks" at all. The SLP certainly saw itself as a vanguard party - but not one on the Bolshevik model. It was not an organisation that acted in the place of the proletariat - a position that backwardness had forced the Bolsheviks to adopt as the SLP saw it. As the one authentic revolutionary party in Britain, in its own estimation, the SLP was always to put "correctness" of doctrine before membership numbers and it had always policed this doctrinal purity rigorously. The party's function was to be available as a vanguard when the working class turned to it for guidance. Daniel De Leon in 1905 in his Social Reconstruction of Society had been quite clear about it. He wrote, "The party, by achieving victory at the ballot box would legitimise the conquest of power by the working class. The industrial union, which included the whole of the working class within its ranks ... would back up the party's victory at the polls by the threat of a general strike or the "General Lockout of the Capitalist Class." Once elected "to office in all the supreme positions of the state" the party's representatives would "adjourn themselves on the spot sine die". And then, according to the SLP's paper, the Socialist in 1908 - as quoted by Challinor - "having overthrown the class state, the united Industrial Unions will furnish the administrative machinery for directing industry in the Socialist Commonwealth." The SLP's task was to prepare the way, John the Baptist style, not to direct the revolutionary process. As a Socialist editorial put it in June 1922. "Our work is to Agitate, Educate and Organise for Socialism - nothing else,

In the pages of the Socialist a resurgence of De Leonism is evident from 1921 onwards until the paper folded in February 1924. One frequent contributor in 1922 after noting the "decision of the Bolshevik Government to revert to a Capitalistic form of industry", the so-called New Economic Policy - went on to criticise the "parroting of Russian phraseology, and attempts to popularise the Soviet form of government in a country which has long passed the stage when this political form was either possible or desirable" By that time the divergence between the soviets and the SLP's Industrial Republic was evident.

The same year De Leonist vocabulary began to appear again more frequently in the paper. You find such expressions as "taking and holding" "Labour Fakirs "-(probably often pronounced "fakers") and the variant used to characterise Communists and their sympathisers "Marxian Labour Fakirs"- "boring from within" and "pure and simple trades unions" in several issues in the early weeks of 1922 alone. And it was not just Bolshevik phraseology that was rejected. The whole notion of the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" as applied to developed capitalist countries like Britain was ridiculed."In this country the proletariat constitutes a majority of the population. When they assume power it is the rule of the majority. Dictatorship of the Proletariat is a nonsensical term in relation to conditions here."said the Socialist in December 1921.

Some time before this, in September 1921, the paper had explained that building "Socialist Industrial Unionism" might be difficult but it was the correct way forward rather than what it called the "Civil War stunt" advocated by the Communists. "We live in a Political society, in a Civilised Society" insisted The Socialist. And it using bold upper-case letters to emphasise its conclusions it laid down its position unequivocally.


The latter was, it said, "a historical and social impossibility in these days."

If being "British Bolsheviks" meant applying the same approach as the Russian originals were pursuing and insisting on Communists adopting everywhere - then clearly the SLP was not Bolshevik at all. That said, it did invoke Lenin in support of its ridicule of the Third International's famous "21 Conditions" which would-be affiliates were required to accept. They too were nonsense and The Socialist reported that Lenin had said, "Should some exceptional foreigner master the meaning of our resolution he would find himself incapable of carrying it out." Earlier the Socialist had mocked those who, it said, "'got 'drunk' with revolutionary romanticism after having waded through many fine but altogether unnecessary Russian pamphlets on theses and statutes which are now reckoned by Lenin as being useless and unfitting for the people of the western part of the world."

It is difficult to see the SLP - those who remained in the party - as any sort of "British Bolsheviks" though those who left to join the CP clearly had a claim to this title. I had not expected to find anything like such a vehement rejection of the Bolsheviks' "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" and other notions associated with them. It was a real surprise.

The effect of the establishment of the British Communist Party on the wider spectrum of the Left is, however, far from surprising. "Moscow gold" seems to have initially, in 1918 and 1919 and much of 1920 helped to subsidise quite a wide range of left-wing organisations - something not seen at the time by its recipients as remotely like being financed by a foreign government. In September 1920 when the Daily Herald asked its readers 'Shall We Take £75,000 of Russian Money?' it described the offer as 'a magnificent demonstration of real working-class solidarity', and many readers wrote in to urge acceptance though the directors of the paper finally decided to refuse the offer a few days later. And that was a paper that aspired to be mainstream Labour - though certainly radical mainstream Labour. Three years earlier the Herald had made its aspirations known; "what the Manchester Guardian is to the Liberal Party," it said," so will be the Daily Herald to the Parliamentary Labour Party".

But after August 1920 the "Moscow Gold" available was concentrated on the Communist Party. One crucial result was that all varieties of more radical Left wing alternatives to post-1917 Leninism were increasingly marginalized within the British Left. Those left wing groups that had received some financial support were now back to managing without it as best they could and all found themselves competing with a relatively well-financed and secure Communist Party with all the prestige of association with an apparently successful revolution. Most alternatives on the Left found themselves pushed to the sidelines. This is true of the syndicalism of the shop-stewards movement, guild socialism, and the SDF tradition of radical social-democracy. It is also true of the proponents of "Left Communism" - or "council communism" as it's sometimes called - and the movement for a De Leonist "industrial republic" advocated by the SLP.

One thing all of these had in common was a rejection of dictatorship - including the supposedly proletarian kind - and an unequivocal commitment - in terms of principle at least- of some form of democracy - be it "worker democracy" or "citizen democracy" - representative and supposedly "bourgeois" democracy or delegate and supposedly "proletarian" democracy. To some extent the ILP, which was able to resist these pressures more easily because of its size and Labour Party link, became a residuary legatee of much of these currents - adopting for example a programme influenced by guild socialism in 1922. This is the area I have been working on since I finished Romancing the Revolution; the precarious survival of a Left in Britain in the ILP that was both radical and democratic.

The ILP still had more than five times the membership of the Communist Party at the time of its ill-fated disaffiliation from the Labour Party ten years later - but it too was to be pushed towards the margins. Nothing surprising there. But I think the way that supporters of orthodox communism managed - to their own satisfaction at least - to reconcile dictatorship with democracy is more unexpected - at least to me.

How are we to understand the position of the CPGB and a wider range of sympathisers with the USSR -notably the Webbs in their New Civilisation book in the 1930s? And, given what was going on under Stalin in 1937, how could Pat Sloan write, and Gollancz publish that year - with a straight face - a book with the title Soviet Democracy? The answer is that a way had been found of reconciling dictatorship with democracy - in the minds of its proponents at least. At first sight this would seem to have been impossible to achieve - and as I've already said it was a surprise to me to discover how it was done.

Crucial to bringing off this reconciliation was a well-established feature of the socialist movement, which went much wider than Communists or Communist sympathisers; - its distaste for, even rejection of, politics. Conventional "bourgeois" politics, seemed to be characterized by empty rhetoric, unscrupulous manipulation, and self-seeking egotism- it was all ineffectual hot air and deliberate deception. We've all felt that, at least occasionally, I suspect.

Then again, political parties reflected socio-economic classes. But in the classless society that socialists were striving for, would not the divisions represented by these parties have disappeared?

The disappearance of existing types of semi-professionalised politics under socialism was very widely, sometimes it seems almost universally, assumed on the Left. Pankhurst's "Left Communism" proposed a complete abstention from normal politics and the building up a structure of local, regional, national and ultimately international councils that - it was assumed would be down- to- earth bodies free of any kind of political posturing. A similar rejection of politics is present in the SLP's idea of the replacement of the political state with the "Industrial Republic," following the revolutionary takeover.

In 1919 the far Left couple Eden and Cedar Paul had invented the word "ergatocracy" which unsurprisingly has failed to catch on - to designate what they called "the administration of the workers by the workers - with (as a preliminary stage) the dictatorship of the proletariat exercised through workers' committees or soviets".

Rejection of politics went much wider. Kevin Morgan, in The Webbs and Soviet Communism points to what he calls the "aversion to politics and woolly mindedness about the state" that underlay the Webbs' "multiform conception of democracy." He concludes that by the 1930s the Webbs did not regard the Soviet Communist party as a political party at all, but as a "companionship" an "order" a "united confraternity" merely "termed the Communist Party".

But this was something we can trace back further. Less than a week after the formation of the CPGB, Dora Montefiore, who had seconded the resolution moved by Ramsay MacDonald at the Leeds Convention in 1917 and was now the only woman member of the provisional committee of the new CP, praised an Observer article by George Young which had appeared the previous month. In his view the Russian Communist Party was not a political party as usually understood. She quoted his conclusion that "Devotion and discipline are organised into a 'Red Army', or more accurately perhaps into a Religious order - the Communist Party ... They are the First Hundred Thousand - a missionary and militant Lenin as Loyola." Montefiore commented, "Nothing finer could be told of these men and womenÉ"

That socialism would mean the end of both politics and political parties was a widespread belief on the Left. If we need a British "culprit" - if an unwitting one - we need look no further than William Morris. There would have been few people active in the British socialist movement in the 1920s who had not at least a passing acquaintance with his News from Nowhere. In the shortest chapter of that "utopian romance," old Hammond, who guides the time-travelling Morris in the post-revolutionary future, famously dismisses politics completely: "We are very well off as to politics" he tells his visitor from the 19th century-"because we have none." Advocates of vanguard parties might have also found some apparent endorsement in another of Hammond's statements. Asked whether "differences" in the new socialist society are settled by the "will of the majority," Hammond confirms that this is the case but adds: "The majority must have their way; unless the minority were to take up arms and show by force that they were the effective or real majority" He does go on to say that this is unlikely to happen since "the apparent majority is the real majority." But that, of course, was in Morris's ideal "communist" society of the future. How would the notion of a "real majority" legitimating itself by violence have been read by "British Bolsheviks" in the 1920s?

Neither Pankurst's Communist Workers or the SLP , though they shared this rejection of politics, took the step of reconciling democracy with dictatorship. Indeed, as we have already seen, they both rejected - at the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But others - including Sloan and the Webbs - found a way of reconciling these apparently contradictory ideas. Part of the attraction of soviet democracy had always been that the debased distractions of "bourgeois democracy" would give way to the real, practical, concerns of workers. Based on this disdain for the degradations of "politics," a version of the idea of soviet democracy was evolved that saw it as flourishing in Russia -and only able to flourish-beneath a protective carapace provided by the Communist Party's authoritarian rule, which warded off both the dastardly attacks of the worldwide capitalist conspiracy and the equally vicious machinations of the enemy within.

This version of soviet democracy can already be detected in the articles by Morgan Phillips Price, then a Manchester Guardian correspondent, in the Dreadnought in 1919. What he called the "two great social institutions" of revolutionary Russia were "the political soviet and the economic soviet." The former's duty was , I quote, "to protect the Republic from internal and external counter-revolution," while the latter was to "to build up under the protection of the former the new social order once the danger of foreign intervention is removed." It was then possible that "the political soviet will reduce its functions, and that the power in the land will pass to huge economic syndicates working under the Central Council of Public Economy." This was a novel interpretation of the soviet structure. Accounts of soviet democracy had not previously tried to distinguish separate "political" and "economic" soviets.

This emerging version is even more clearly visible in the constitution adopted by the Workers' Committee movement of the shop-stewards early in 1921. The previous year there had been no mention of the dictatorship of the proletariat in J T Murphy's report in the movement's paper, Solidarity, prior to its national conference, though soviet democracy had figured prominently: "We fail to see how workers can control industry without the Workers' Committees or Councils." Murphy had proclaimed. The conference report the following month noted the declaration of solidarity with the "Russian Soviet Government" and the decision to affiliate to the Third International but also the movement's commitment to "the Soviet form of organisation for the purpose of independently taking control of the industrial and social machinery.

Then, in 1921, a new element entered the formulation of the movement's "Objective," which was now declared to be the overthrow of capitalism and "the setting up of a Workers' Dictatorship under the protection of which " note that phrase "a system of workers' control and management shall be developed" This followed a national shop stewards' conference the previous month that, as Ralph Darlington puts it in his study of Murphy's "political trajectory" "ratified this alliance with the CPGB by accepting a constitution which subordinated it to the political control of the party."

The reality of soviet democracy in Russia was still insisted upon. In 1922, the CP's weekly The Communist serialized Trotsky's "Between White and Red." In the chapter titled "About Democracy and the Soviets," he rejected claims-attributed to the Mensheviks-about the "decay" of the soviets: This is Trotsky, who, we may observe in passing, doesn't talk of separate "political" and "economic" soviets.

It would take the dullest professor of constitutional law or the most brazen renegade of Socialism, to deny the fact that the Russian toiling masses right now, even amidst so-called "decay" of the soviet system, participate in directing all aspects of social life in a manner which is a hundred times more active, more direct, continuous and decisive than is the case in any parliamentary republic.

Trotsky's phrase "all aspects of social life" is worth noting. It already suggests a kind of "soviet democracy" from which "politics" was implicitly excluded.

It is this notion of a "depoliticized" version of soviet democracy, able to operate-and indeed in Russia actually flourishing-beneath the dictatorship that protected it, that explains some otherwise baffling positions taken by Communists, and by other sympathizers with the USSR, in subsequent years. How else could one still assert the reality of soviet democracy against the undeniable-and frequently undenied-evidence of dictatorship?

Sloan's Soviet Democracy, which, as its title suggests, treated its subject as a contemporary reality, began his book with the claim that, as he put it, "well-known people of different political views make statements which suggest that, in the Soviet Union of today, there exists a system of government which possesses all the essential features of democracy." Chief among such "well-known" people were Beatrice and Sidney Webb, from whose Soviet Communism Sloan quoted to the effect that, unlike all previous societies, the USSR did not "consist of a Government and people confronting each other" but was rather "a Government instrumented by all the adult inhabitants." Sloan complained of the inclination "to treat democracy and dictatorship as two mutually exclusive terms, when in fact they may often represent two aspects of the same system of government." The Soviet state had always had features of both. "But," he insisted, "the democracy was enjoyed by the vast majority of the population, and the dictatorship was over a small minority.

Lenin had realized that "the party, as the organised leadership of the mass of the people, must not be disbanded after the seizure of power, but, on the contrary, must be strengthened, in order to ensure that the real democracy achieved should not be overthrown by the armed forces of the property-owners. Protected by the dictatorship of the party, Sloan saw an essentially apolitical "real democracy" flourishing both in social institutions such as schools, trade unions and co-operatives and in the soviets themselves. This was not new; CPGB had been well on the way to this view in the early 1920s as I think I have demonstrated.

So, what I've called the myth of soviet democracy had a considerable impact on almost all elements of the British Left. It attracted those who believed in various forms of industrial or functional democracy and maintained a degree of credibility for at least some time after 1917 among many who would have hardly been regarded as being on the Left at all by many would-be Bolsheviks - Snowden and MacDonald, the ILP generally, and even the New Statesman. Further to the Left, in conventional terms were those who, reading what they wished to see into what was going on in Russia, were inspired by the notion of a full-blooded system of soviets that would be- it was confidently asserted - more genuine - more "real" - than anything to be found under capitalism. For the SLP it seemed - at first at least - like the birth of their longed for Industrial Republic. And finally - there were those in and around the Communist Party for whom it survived in the strangely depoliticised form that I have outlined.

What to say finally? The idea of a "real democracy"; the establishment of genuine political equality is attractive to many people - including me. A great deal of wishful thinking, or projecting onto Bolshevik Russia the fulfilment of hopes for "real democracy" was present in the reactions of the British Left. There was a great deal of romancing of the revolution. But there were no surprises about how profound the impact was -though some of the details - notably the SLP's rejection of "the dictatorship of the proletariat" and the apolitical - or perhaps better the anti-political - character of the reconciliation of dictatorship and democracy by some of the most committed supporters of the USSR were both unexpected.

But then, as we all know, life is full of surprises.


numbers and organisations at Leeds convention The Call, 7 June; The Herald, 9 June; 1917

Jowett on Leeds Brockway, 153

Snowden on Leeds Snowden, 453

Leeds resolutions The Call, 7 June; The Herald, 9 June

Justice early identification of Lenin Justice, 26 April 1917

Labour Leader defends soviet democracy in 1918. Labour Leader, 30 May 1918

Angell "on an experiment which mankind truly needs." Labour Leader, 29 May 1919
New Statesman Bolshevik Russia "democratic in essence" New Statesman, 24 January 1920 Lenin's "Left-Wing Communism" based on single issue of Workers' Dreadnought. 21 February 1920
Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) formed. Workers' Dreadnought 26 June 1920

CP(BSTI) merges with CPGB. Workers' Dreadnought, 5 February 1921

Pankhurst expelled (her account) Workers' Dreadnought ,17 September 1921

Workers' Communist Party/Fourth International (initially) Workers' Dreadnought 8 and 16 October 1921

SLP rep. Clunie allowed only as "guest" at Comintern congress 1921 The Socialist, 18 August to 27 October

SLP "Our work is to Agitate, Educate and Organise for Socialism - nothing else." The Socialist, 18 June 1922

Dictatorship of the Proletariat "nonsensical" The Socialist, 8 December 1921

Herald and "Moscow gold" Daily Herald 10 September 1920

Herald as Labour Party paper. Herald, 27 January 1917.

"Ergatocracy" and the Pauls Workers' Dreadnought 17 May 1919 (and see books overleaf)

Montefiore praises Bolsheviks - more then a party. The Communist, 5 August 1920

Philips Price - two sorts of soviets Workers' Dreadnought 2 August 1919

Workers Committee movement - 1920 and 1921 Solidarity, January 1920; 29 April 1921

Trotsky's "Between White and Red." The Communist, 6 May 1922


Barrow, Logie and Bullock, Ian, Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880 -1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996

Brockway, A. Fenner, Socialism over Sixty Years. The Life of Jowett of Bradford, National Labour Press/Allen and Unwin, 1946

Bullock, Ian and Pankhurst, Richard eds Sylvia Pankhurst: from Artist to Anti-fascist, Macmillan, 1992

Bullock, Ian Romancing the Revolution. The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left, Athabasca University Press, 2011

Challinor, Raymond, The Origins of British Bolshevism, : Croom Helm, 1977

Darlington, Ralph, The Political Trajectory of J.T. Murphy, Liverpool University Press, 1998

Kendall, Walter, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-21. The Origins of British Communism, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969

Morgan, Kevin, The Webbs and Soviet Communism: Bolshevism and the British Left part two, Lawrence & Wishart, 2006

Morris, William, News from Nowhere, or an Epoch of Rest: being some chapters from a Utopian Romance, (1890, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought edition, 1995, CUP, edited by Krishan Kumar)

Paul, Eden and Cedar, Creative Revolution. A Study of Communist Ergatocracy , 1920 Plebs League edition, 1921

Shipway, Mark, Anti-Parliamentary Communism. The Movement for Workers' Councils in Britain, 1917-45 Macmillan, 1988

Sloan, Pat, Soviet Democracy, Gollancz, 1937

Snowden, Philip Viscount, An Autobiography. Volume One 1864-1919, Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1934

Webb, Sidney and Beatrice, Soviet Communism, A New Civilisation, Longmans, 2nd edition, 1937

IB Dec 2011

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