'Real Democracy' and the British Left in the early C20

Paper given to Manchester University 'Writing in Opposition' conference May 2007

'Real Democracy' which is in quotation marks is borrowed from Robert Blatchford. He first used it in an article in Joseph Burgess's Workman's Times in 1891. This was a little before he began the socialist weekly the Clarion, which was soon to make the cause of 'Real Democracy' its own,. In 1891 he asserted that all that was needed to secure 'real democracy' was 'some few democratic measures' and he went on to name the chief of these as universal suffrage, payment of MPs and the second ballot'. Nothing terribly radical about that even in 1891. But this was very soon to change.

I'd like to start by quoting from a report of a special Fabian Society committee in February 1906. '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 statement repeated and reinforced the position on democracy taken by the Fabians ten years previously in The Report on Fabian Policy – Fabian Tract 70 – which, it 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.

The 1906 Fabian statement insisted, that, in contrast to the notion that it required such 'primitive expedients, 'Democracy really meant 'government by the consent of the people', and it concluded 'Between these two conceptions there is a gulf which unfortunately cuts the Labour movement down the middle.'

So, who were, from the Fabian point of view, the guilty men and women in the wider movement who were reinforcing the prejudices of 'trade unionists and labourers', leading them astray and helping to maintain if not actually creating this gulf?

Clearly, one definite candidate for the dock was 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.' a demand reinforced in the 3rd point of the programme by the statement 'the people to decide on Peace or War.'

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 what were seen as the more radical parts of the socialist movement that insisted on such demands for 'real democracy.' On the more 'moderate' Left in Britain , Keir Hardie and most of the other leaders of the Independent Labour Party, seem to have viewed democracy in a broadly similar light to the Fabians For them it appears to have implied little change, in the British context, beyond universal suffrage and the abolition or replacement of the House of Lords – aims the more radical elements of course shared, but whose rapid achievement they tended to take – over optimistically – almost for granted.

But there was a great deal of internal dissent in the ILP – which would eventually lead to some of its branches breaking away and merging with the Social-Democrats to form the British Socialist Party in 1911. Such ILP dissidents found an outlet, in the '90s and subsequently in the Clarion. And they nearly always found support for their for their views there too.

In spite of Blatchord's initially rather modest notion of what was necessary to secure 'Real Democracy , by the mid-'90s the Clarion took a similar radical view of democracy to that of the SDF. It shared the latter's support for the idea that the elected should be delegates rather than Edmund Burke style representatives. And 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.

Summing up the paper's contribution during the 1890s, Blatchford wrote at the end of that decade 'Before everything we were Democrats and believed most thoroughly in popular government.' He would surely have had in mind the Clarion's constant advocacy of 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 italicised) – 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 C19, as well as, as already mentioned, the promotion of the idea of 'direct legislation' by means of the referendum and initiative.

At the beginning of the C20th , a major source of inspiration for supporters of 'Real Democracy' was the adoption of the referendum and initiative by a number of American states, particularly Western ones. The visit to Britain of Eltweed Pomeroy, President of the Direct Legislation League in the States in 1901 led to spate of articles by him given great prominence in the Clarion.

Even 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.'

For the rest of the pre-war period he 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 believed to be 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 analogous to that practised in local authorities. This was the ultimate aim of what came to be called the 'Bradford Resolution' and it's interesting that in 1920, at a time when support for affiliation of the ILP to the new Third International was reaching its strongest point, fuelled largely by a belief in the democratic authenticity of the Russian soviets, and endorsed, for example, by the Scottish ILP conference– one of the ILP areas most hostile to such a link was the Yorkshire Division. At its a conference the affiliation motion was lost by 43 votes to 10. In contrast what was described in the Labour Leader report as 'a long resolution from Bradford in favour of the Committee System', to replace Cabinet government, moved as ever by Fred Jowett, which was passed unanimously without discussion. At the previous year's conference a similar motion had triggered an amendment – subsequently withdrawn – calling for the adoption of a soviet system – with the monarchy and House of Lords abolished 'in the meantime.'

But to return to the years immediately before the War. By the second decade of the new century, the influence of Syndicalist ideas was leading to great deal of debate throughout the Left. Among the effects of syndicalism was the promotion of the idea that only workplace-based democracy could be regarded as truly authentic. It was also more definitely class oriented, with 'the workers' replacing the seemingly vaguer notion of 'the people'.

When in 1917 British socialists learned about the soviets in Russia, this seemed to very 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' which was lauded in a great many pro- soviet contributions to the socialist press.

One of the most consistent and fervent supporters of 'soviet democracy' in Britain – arguably the most consistent and fervent – was Sylvia Pankhurst. Not only were articles in a single issue of her paper, The Workers' Dreadnought, the main basis for the British chapter of Lenin's attack on 'Left-Wing' Communism in his famous 'Infantile Disorder' pamphlet, but the final years of the publication were devoted to the promotion of what's sometimes called 'council Communism' and the miniscule Communist Workers' Party which stood for 'real' soviet democracy and was part of an original Fourth International of like-minded groups that long predated any Trotskyist grouping.

One of the fascinating, and I think significant, things about Pankhurst is the way in which her enthusiasm for the older forms of 'real democracy' overlapped with her newer commitment to the soviet form. In February 1917, when the Speaker's Conference report on electoral reform was published, 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 'such innovations as the Initiative, Referendum and Recall'.

A fortnight later, at a conference called by the London Council for Adult Suffrage, she seconded a motion moved by J A Hobson demanding the insertion in the forthcoming Reform Bill of precisely those 'innovations' – the Referendum, Initiative and Recall.

At the beginning of June, the day before the opening of the famous Leeds 'Soviet' Convention' , at which Pankhurst played a quite prominent part, the Dreadnought reported the support by the annual conference of her organisation for the Referendum, Initiative, Recall and 'the election of Ministers and Judges by referendum vote.' And after the Leeds meeting had set up the short-lived British Workers' and Soldiers' Council' the Dreadnought announced a number of amendments to be moved to what it called the 'official resolutions'. 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.'

Then, 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' (retrospectively proclaimed) break with 'bourgeois democracy' with the 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.

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 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 year, after all, that the British Communist Party was formed, the New Statesman – hardly a supporter of the Bolsheviks – 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. A little less well-known, 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 the apparent reality of at least an embryonic form of it in the shape of 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' was now at very least narrower. The distinctions 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.

One does not necessarily have to be a fan of any of the particular devices favoured by the proponents of 'real democracy' – old or new – to believe that the socialist movement – in Britain as elsewhere – lost something vital when the underlying aim of all advocates and supporters of 'real democracy' – to secure the most genuinely democratic set of institutions, and the most democractic society possible – was, if not totally lost, at least relegated from being a central aim to something usually pushed into the background if not completely abandoned for the rest of the 20th century.

The common theme of all forms of 'real democracy' advocated by – predominantly – the Left of the British socialist movement in the early years of that century was, to quote Stefan Berger, to enable people 'to step out of the shadow of a spectator's democracy and get involved.'

This was certainly what Blatchford had in mind in the 1899 statement I quoted earlier which went on to conclude that ' without Democracy there is no Socialism, and without popular government there is no democracy.'

We might not share his rather simplistic notion of what might constitute 'popular government', so perhaps I'll end instead with an even more general statement of principle from a less well-known socialist of the period. Writing in Justice, the SDF paper, in 1902 , Fred Knee wrote 'Socialism without democracy is unthinkable. But democracy means the most perfect political equality attainable between human beings.' Absolutely!

Ian Bullock