Gulfs, fissures and cracks. Democracy and the British Left in the early 20th Century

I'm going to argue that nothing more divided the early C20 Left than Democracy; its meaning, its importance, and the strategies for achieving it and that in the end this was a vitall factor in explaining the slow progress of democracy in Britain since., and our very own democratic deficit Democracy was a crucial issue for socialists in spite of the fact that many on the Left throughout the period shared Keir Hardie's disdain for what he called the 'merely political.'

A Fabian Society report in February 1906 identified the divisive nature of the issue for the Left. "'Democracy is a word with a double meaning' it asserted. For what the report referred to as 'the bulk of Trade Unionists and labourers' it meant, it said, 'the reduction of both representatives and officials to the position of mere delegates and agents of the majority' and decisions taken by referendum and initiative. Because Fabians opposed this they were, the report complained, 'denounced as undemocratic and even Tory.'

This reinforced the position taken by the Fabians ten years previously in The Report on Fabian Policy - Fabian Tract 70 - which, it had said, 'energetically' repudiated what Sidney Webb in a series of lectures the same year - 1896 - called 'primitive expedients' - that's to say things like the rotation of office, the referendum and initiative, and mandatable delegates subject to recall. The arguments were developed in the Webbs's Industrial Democracy the following year.

For the Fabians -in 1906 'Democracy' really meant 'government by the consent of the people', The report concluded 'Between these two conceptions there is a gulf which unfortunately cuts the Labour movement down the middle.'

So, who were on the other side of the gulf? Certainly the SDF - the Social-Democratic Federation - a persistent opponent of what it called 'Fabianistic Caesarism'. From the 1880s onwards, the first two 'planks' of the SDF programme called for 'All Officers and Administrators to be elected by Equal Adult Suffrage…' and 'Legislation by the people in such wise as no project of law should become binding till accepted by the majority of the people,' while the 3rd point, or plank of the progamme, demanded 'the people to decide on Peace or War.' - a provision we could have done with in 2003.

All this, we should note, was very much in line with the declared policies of the Socialist International and most of its constituent parties, as R C K Ensor's book Modern Socialism demonstrated in 1910. In Britain it was the more radical parts of the socialist movement that insisted on demands for what Robert Blatchford called 'real democracy.' Keir Hardie and most of the other ILP leaders viewed democracy in a broadly similar light to the Fabians - especially the constitutionally very conservative Ramsay MacDonald . For them it implied little change beyond universal suffrage and the abolition or replacement of the House of Lords - aims the more radical elements tended to take - hugely over-optimistically as it has turned out - almost for granted. It was with an air of some confidence that the 1917 ILP conference called for "full Adult Suffrage and Proportional Representation before the next general election."

Long before this, the SDF had not been alone in Britain in demanding direct democracy. It became one of the distinguishing characteristics of Robert Blatchford's Clarion. As well as frequently promoting the referendum and initiative in the paper, it published three pamphlets between 1895 and 1900 by Alex Thompson, Blatchford's editorial colleague, promoting this form of 'direct legislation', the last of which - in 1900 - was entitled The Only Way to Democracy.

Along with this went constant Clarion pressure to deepen internal democracy within the ILP, including its campaign against the office of 'president' of the party along with its opposition to the pretensions of 'leaders', (always put in inverted commas) - above all 'leaders' in the socialist and labour movements, - and its close association with the would-be ultra-democratic but short lived National and International General Federation Trades and Labour Unions that so worried much of the established union leadership of the TUC in the final years of the 19th century.

Even among those suspicious of "real democracy" in the shape of direct legislation, there were smaller, but significant "cracks" between constitutional conservatives like MacDonald and supporters of more radical parliamentary reform. Among the newly elected Labour MPs after the 1906 election there was one at least - Fred Jowett - who, though wary of such devices as the referendum and initiative - was extremely critical of the workings of the British parliamentary system. 'It is not Democracy,' he insisted on the basis of just a few months experience of the House of Commons, 'it is not even representative government - it is something very different from either.' Has that changed, one wonders?

For the rest of the pre-1914 period Jowett kept up a regular series of articles - first in the Clarion and later in the ILP's own Labour Leader criticising many aspects of the workings of parliament and government he saw as undemocratic. In 1909 he published What is the Use of Parliament? as a Clarion pamphlet. In that paper, Blatchford summarised Jowett's position as the belief that parliament needed 'to be taken to pieces and rebuilt on wholly different lines.'

The main long term aim for Jowett - what some of his colleagues dismissed as 'Fred's obsession' - was to replace the Cabinet system and single ministerial control of government departments by a committee system similar to that practised in local authorities. This was the ultimate aim of what came to be called the 'Bradford Resolution'.

In 1917 an ILP pamphlet, clearly inspired by if not drafted by Jowett, on "Democratic Control" ended as follows:

"The Independent Labour Party seeks to make the system of representative government real and effective by the establishment of Committee Control, not only over foreign affairs but over all departments of State. Only then will there be a system of Parliamentary Government representative of the will of the people secured by democratic control."

Jowett's advocacy of such radical parliamentary reform continued throughout the inter-war period.

But to return to the second decade of the 20th century. By then the influence of syndicalist ideas was leading many to the conclusion that only workplace-based democracy could be regarded as truly authentic. It had a more definite class appeal , with 'the workers' replacing the vaguer notion of 'the people'. In 1917 when British socialists learned about the Russian soviets, this seemed to many to confirm all this and to supply a model for a newer sort of radical democracy - one which emphasised a grass roots occupational basis, delegate as distinct from representative, democracy and the 'right of recall'

There was an overlap between support for the old and new versions of radical democracy - the referendum and initiative and the soviets Take that most consistent and fervent supporters of 'soviet democracy', Sylvia Pankhurst during the crucial year of 1917. In February, at the time of the Speaker's Conference report on electoral reform, she argued that Britain should 'take rank with the new democracies Australia, New Zealand, Canada and many of the states of the USA " by adopting "the Initiative, Referendum and Recall'. And a fortnight later, at a conference called by the London Council for Adult Suffrage, she was seconding a motion moved by J A Hobson which demanded their inclusion in the forthcoming Reform Bill of

By the beginning of June, Pankhurst's paper, just renamed as Workers' - rather than the Woman's - Dreadnought reported the support by the Workers' Suffrage Federation's annual conference for the Referendum, Initiative, Recall and 'the election of Ministers and Judges by referendum vote.' It also announced a number of amendments to be moved to what it called the 'official resolutions' at forthcoming Leeds Convention. To the one demanding peace without annexations or indemnities 'based on the right of nations to decide their own affairs' it wanted to add the words 'by an adult suffrage referendum vote.'

To the call for the British Government, to bring in 'a charter of liberties establishing complete political and social rights for all men and women ' Pankhurst's group wished to append a long list of reforms which included both the Initiative, Referendum and Recall and, as it put it 'On the industrial side', 'The creation of an industrial Parliament.'

Already a keen supporter of the Bolsheviks, in September 1917 Pankhurst's editorial on 'The Franchise Situation' again included the demand for 'The Initiative and Referendum and Recall' And just a few weeks later after the Bolsheviks seized power, her leader welcoming 'The Lenin Revolution' as she headlined it, included an approving reference to 'such essential democratic institutions as the Initiative, Referendum and Recall, institutions which are all actually in being in the Western States of the USA, and which are partially established elsewhere.'

Even after the Bolsheviks' suppression of the Constituent Assembly at the beginning of 1918 - which Pankhurst steadfastly defended - advocacy of the referendum continued in the pages of the Dreadnought, though 'soviet democracy' was now very much centre stage.

Pankhurst was exceptional in that her commitment to 'soviet democracy' in that it eventually to her transformation from one of the first British supporters of Lenin and the Bolsheviks to being one of their earliest critics from the far Left. But the belief that the Russian soviets exemplified - at least potentially - a new and better form of 'Real Democracy' was very widespread on the Left, and was a crucial factor in the initial support - whether total or partial - that was given to the regime in power in what was to become - and the adjective is significant - the Soviet Union. To many it justified the suppression of the Constituent Assembly, which would otherwise have seemed an act all socialists were bound to oppose.

Pankhurst was not alone in showing the influence of different strands of radical leftwing thinking on democracy. Have a look for example at the Partick Branch's motion to the 1921 Scottish Divisional Conference of the ILP which called for both a workplace basis for a future Scottish parliament with an electorate of " persons employed in useful productive work or social service" with the elected enjoying "delegate powers only" and for the referendum and initiative.

Before looking at the issue of soviet democracy, let's retrace our steps a little to the Leeds Soviet Convention in the summer of 1917. Attempting to follow this up and capitalise on the enthusiasm it had generated, Lansbury's Herald - not at that stage Daily - published, with, it said "no dogmatic finality a 'Plan for the People's Party' which along with "Conscription of Wealth and Equality of Income" and three other sections included one intended to secure "A Complete Democracy." As well as the usual demands for full adult suffrage and proportional representation, this called for the replacement of the House of Lords with a "Chamber based on the representation not of geographical areas, but of occupations, industrial, professional and domestic", and "Democratisation of the Army and Navy (as long as they exist)" as well as abolition of titles and "state-granted" honours. The influences of several strands of Left-wing radical ideas of democracy are again evident here.

But to return to soviet democracy. For many - though by no means all - on the Left, the argument that the soviets excluded 'non-workers' was not the objection many might expect it to have been. Broadly the argument ran like this. Socialism was being built in Russia. Under socialism, classes would disappear - with everyone in effect becoming a worker. Exclusion from participation in occupationally-based soviet democracy was, therefore, in effect, voluntary. All willing to make a contribution to society were able to gain the franchise. There was, therefore, nothing the least bit undemocratic about it.

Taking 'soviet democracy' at its face value - or at least being prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt went far beyond that part of the Left that was even prepared to consider joining the new Communist movement. As late as 1920, the New Statesman - hardly a supporter of the Bolsheviks and certainly not of the CPGB formed the same year - concluded, that soviet voting rights were 'far wider than many franchises commonly regarded as democratic' and described the soviet system as 'the only practical democratic alternative to Parliamentary government which has yet appeared.' It was not until the Bolshevik invasion of Georgia in the summer of 1921 that the Statesman came out really strongly against the Russian regime and its claim to some sort of democratic legitimacy.

The idea that workplace or occupationally-based democracy was vital and more authentically democratic than any parliamentary system helps to explain the attraction of the soviets. But its influence went far wider in the years following the Great War. Its role in relation to Guild Socialism is well-known. I've already mentioned the Herald's plan for the "People's Party which is, I think, a lot less well-known. Somewhere in between, perhaps, are the ways in which even the formerly sternest critics of such ideas modified their views in these years. In 1919 Ramsay MacDonald's book Parliament and Revolution surprised Bruce Glasier, reviewing the book in the ILP's Labour Leader, with what he described as MacDonald's 'proposal for a sort of Soviet Second Chamber of Parliament.' He went on, 'Coming from one who has implacably opposed all devices calculated to lessen the responsibility of the popularly elected House of Commons, this is a piquant innovation' Even more piquant - arguably - is the fact that A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain by the Webbs included a proposal - broadly similar to MacDonald's - for a 'social parliament' additional to the existing 'political parliament'.

The newer versions of 'real democracy' inspired by its apparent reality in at least an embryonic form in the Russian soviets, were now no longer being rejected out of hand even by those like MacDonald and the Fabians who previously had seemed to confine their conception of democracy to the existing British constitution plus universal suffrage. Something of a consensus about change in the direction of some form of 'real democracy' already seemed to be emerging on the Left in 1914. In the years after the end of the War broad agreement that radical change was essential seemed to be even wider.

What in 1896 and 1906 seemed like a 'gulf' seemed now ,at very least, narrower. Positions on either side were more blurred with, seemingly, a consensus across the entire Left that radical change in some form was needed if 'real democracy' was to be achieved. But this wasn't to last - a new gulf - and several fissures or cracks - were opening up.

As another huge gulf opened between those who saw the Bolsheviks establishing a "higher" form of democracy and those who rejected their rule - at least as having any sort of relevance for Britain - fissures and cracks opened among the advocates of 'soviet democracy' itself. There was the "Left Communism" of the (original) Fourth International supported by Sylvia Pankhurst and Co which was divided from that other small group the Socialist Labour Party - the majority that hadn't defected to the CPGB - by the Pankhurst group's complete rejection of electoral politics. For its part, the SLP -the self-proclaimed "British Bolsheviks" clung to its De Leonist heritage and denounced the idea of proletarian dictatorship as "nonsensical" in the context of Britain and advanced capitalist countries while defending what was happening in Russia. As a regular contributor to the SLP weekly The Socialist put it in October 1922: "If the proletariat is a majority, its rule is majority rule and majority rule is not dictatorship; it is one of the principles of democracy."

In another part of the Left spectrum the interwar ILP took on guild socialism in 1922 and "workers' councils" for a time in the '30s, while a conception of parliamentary democracy very different from that of the Labour Right - one that owed much to Jowett - partially underlay the rift that led to its ill-fated disaffiliation from Labour in 1932

And in the 1930s even the most ardent supporters of Stalin's regime were keen to show that "soviet democracy" was alive and well in the USSR, Pat Sloan wrote, and Gollancz published, Soviet Democracy in 1937. In it Sloan invoked the testimony of the Webbs - in their New Civilisation book - and other "well-known people of different political views" in support of the conclusion that in the Soviet Union of today, there exists a system of government which possesses all the essential features of democracy." Sloan insisted that democracy and dictatorship were not mutually exclusive - both existed in the USSR. But "democracy was enjoyed by the vast majority of the population, and the dictatorship was over a small minority."

Sloan painted a picture of an essentially a-political "soviet democracy" flourishing both in social institutions such as schools, trade unions and co-operatives and in the soviets themselves under the benign protection of the dictatorship "of the party, as the organised leadership of the mass of the people."

So, what should we conclude from all this? Nearly all sections of the Left - in the broadest definition - claimed to be in favour of achieving "real" democracy But there was very little agreement about how this might be done, and rather little real critical examination of the favourite devices and procedures - whether radical parliamentary reform of the Jowett type, direct democracy via the referendum and initiative, or the various varieties of "soviet democracy."

The "gulf" detected by the Fabians in 1906 was real enough. But on both sides there was pretty well universal support for the immediate democratic issues of the day - especially full adult suffrage and abolition of the Lords. Most supported some form of proportional representation. The post 1917 gulf was less easy to bridge even on such basic issues. Much of the Left adopted an attitude not too different from the reviewer of a book on electoral reform in the Socialist Labour Party's paper The Socialist, in 1922 who conceded that "In political democracy proportional representation is certainly the ideal method of voting and is undoubtedly the most democratic," but went on to say that in view of the imminence of the infinitely more democratic "industrial republic" there was no point in tinkering with the current electoral system.

Well before the advent of the modern socialist movement - even before the Chartists - democracy had relied on the Left for the majority of its support. The divisions on the Left cannot have helped to propel moves towards greater and more meaningful democracy. At least in the early part of the 20th century the issues were debated - if often only very superficially. Was there a decline in this after the Second World War and above all when the Cold War was at its height? I think there probably was. Do the gulfs, cracks and fissures on the Left explain the slow progress of democracy in 20th - and 21st - century Britain both in terms of widening participation and pushing out the boundaries of the scope of democracy? Not entirely, of course - but surely they've made a major contribution. Should socialists give ideas about democracy their serious attention in the early 21st century. I would say that definitely we should.

Ian Bullock