The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left

Paper given to the History Work in Progress Seminar at the University of Sussex
14 February 2002

This paper arises out of my long interest in the attitudes towards democracy found in the British Left. The subject of my thesis twenty years ago was the democratic ideas of British socialists in the 1880-1914 period, the substance of which was eventually published in 1996 in a book co-authored with Logie Barrow Ideas of Democracy and the British Labour Movement. Since, in that period, conflicting ideas of democracy played a large part in the thinking of British socialists and in their factional debates, it is surprising that so little exploration of the post 1914 and especially post 1917 period has been undertaken taking these central concerns into account. I did make a start on this in a very small way ten or so years ago with my contribution to the Sylvia Pankhurst. From Artist to Anti-Fascist which I edited with Richard Pankhurst. I traced Pankhurst's political trajectory in the years immediately following the Russian Revolution and the Great War towards what Lenin famously attacked as '"Left Wing" Communism' showing that her beliefs about democracy were a key ingredient.

Now, my hope is to be able to complete a much larger study of socialist ideas about and attitudes towards democracy during this period. This paper reflects something of what I have been able to do so far. Completing the project will I hope keep me out of too much mischief when I retire sometime in the next few years.

When I first became properly aware of it in the 1950s, the word 'Soviet' always had a capital S, and was used as in 'Soviet troops have suppressed the Hungarian uprising' or simply as the name of the state – 'Soviet Union' – the alternative to which was the handy, if inaccurate, 'Russia'.

In the mid 1960s C B Macpherson of the University of Toronto broadcast 6 lectures on democracy for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation published in Britain in 1966 as The Real World of Democracy. He considered what he regarded as 3 legitimate forms of democracy; Western liberal democracy, the democracy of the then Soviet bloc, and the mass democracy of the newly independent states of Africa and Asia.

In the lecture, on 'Non-Liberal Democracy: the Communist Variant', Macpherson argued that democracy in its original meaning had been 'a class affair'. Marx's 'humanistic vision' implied the need to abolish capitalism and that 'the Dictatorship of the Proletariat would replace dictatorship of the capitalists.' Lenin's contribution, Macpherson went on, was to argue that the proletarian revolution would be the work of 'what he called a vanguard, a fully class-conscious minority' When the opportunity came in 1917, Lenin seized it. 'So the first communist revolution was made by a vanguard in the name of a whole class. And the Soviet state was from the beginning run by the vanguard, that is, the tightly-knit centrally-controlled Communist Party.'

Macpherson then considered the democratic credentials of the 'vanguard state' concluding that though it could not be called a democratic system of government, it might still legitimately be seen as democratic in 'the broader sense' of aiming to eliminate class rule and establish equality. What is significant for my argument is that, though Macpherson uses the terms 'the Soviet state' and 'the Soviet system' he makes not even a passing mention of the original meaning of Soviet – workers' council. Long before the collapse of the USSR, then, the word soviet had lost all such associations for most people – even for those like Macpherson who accepted the broadly democratic legitimacy of the USSR.

Yet the soviets constitute the only clear example during the 20th century of a claim to have established – in opposition to Macpherson's liberal democracy – a functioning alternative form of democratic government. By the myth of soviet democracy I mean the naïve – or more charitably, over-optimistic – beliefs about its reality that were prominent in the thinking of early supporters of the Bolshevik revolution. Belief in and enthusiasm for this alternative soviet system played an important role in generating support for the Bolsheviks in Britain – and , of course, elsewhere. Lenin and Co. themselves clearly believed that at least the appearance of a functioning system of soviets operated and controlled from the 'grass roots' was vital. The Bolshevik seizure of power was, after all, made under the slogan of 'All Power to the Soviets' and at the end of 1922 it was a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that was set up. Yet we rarely now pause to consider the significance of this.

Consequently, there is now a danger that all but specialist historians may lose any sense that there ever was a perception of anything called the soviet system that was different - if only in the minds of its supporters – from Macpherson's vanguardism. And without this sense it is very difficult to understand the enthusiastic support that the Bolshevik Revolution generated across much of the Left – particularly in countries like Britain where opposition to dictatorial rule, suspicion of 'leadership' both within the movement and in general, and commitment to the most apparently 'real' forms of democracy had become deeply embedded in the culture of socialism The part played by the myth of soviet democracy in the early appeal of the Russian Revolution needs re-emphasising.

Even sympathetic accounts of the beginnings of British Communism tend to be deficient in this respect. Francis Beckett's 1995 history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, for example, gives a lively account of the founding conference, but little hint of what motivated the 160 delegates. We are told that they were against inequalities and social injustices (as, of course, were others including on the entire Left); that they believed capitalism near collapse and that they were against intervention in Russia - again positions that were much more widely held.

It is of course true, as Beckett says, that 'The defence of the Soviet Union was clearly to be the Party's first task. It was largely for this that Lenin put so much time and money into bringing together the warring socialist groups in one united Communist Party.' But this gives us little understanding of why these socialist groups - and indeed others – in 1920 were so anxious to defend what was to become the Soviet Union and why it was such a priority. As time goes on it will become increasingly difficult to 'take as read' the motivations of the early Communists in this fashion.

When British socialists first became aware of the spread of soviets in the spring and early summer of 1917 there was something close to unanimous support. Exactly what was going on was far from clear in any detail or with any certainty. We have to remember that all this was happening in wartime conditions. But a revolution that was taking place in Russia in which the soviets seemed to be making the running in asserting working-class interests and developing popular socialist politics.

Compared to the provisional governments based on Duma parties whose deputies had been elected pre-war on a restrictive franchise, the soviets could credibly be seen as a democratically legitimate source of authority. This was especially true of the many on the Left who had come under the influence of syndicalist or Guild Socialist ideas during the previous decade with their emphasis on the workplace rather than territorial or citizen representation. The soviets seemed to exemplify their beliefs and values.

The best indication of the initial, pre - October Revolution, appeal of the soviets and the breadth of their British support is the Leeds Soviet Convention at the beginning of June 1917. 1,300 attended, of whom 580 came from trade union and Labour Party organisations, 294 from the Independent Labour Party [ILP] and 88 from the British Socialist Party [BSP]. The figures are from Walter Kendall's 1969 The Revolutionary Movement in Britain. He commented that 'The level of popular support was so high that even such orthodox leaders as MacDonald and Snowden, neither of whom were supporters of Soviet democracy, felt compelled to attend'

MacDonald actually moved one of the motions passed at the Convention, though not the one the leading British advocate of workers' councils in Britain at the time, J T Murphy, whom we shall meet again later, was to call 'the remarkable resolution proposing the formation of "Workers' and Soldiers Councils".' This called on 'the constituent bodies at once to establish in every town, urban and rural district, Councils of Workmen and Soldiers' Delegates for initiating and co-ordinating working-class activity… and to work strenuously for a peace made by the peoples of the various countries, and for the complete political and economic emancipation of international labour'. Though as Kendall says 'there was nothing either in the speeches or the resolutions to suggest that the that the councils were intended, like their Russian counterparts, to become an alternative source of authority, a rival government challenging that already in power' the Leeds Convention does give us an indication of the initial appeal of soviets in the British socialist and labour movement.

At this stage, arguably, it was possible to support the idea of creating soviets – which came to nothing in Britain, anyway – without seeing them as an irreconcilable alternative to Parliament. Soviets could be seen as complementing representative government by giving a distinctive voice to the working classes – as is suggested by the terms of the resolution just quoted – rather than replacing it.

What happened to this support and to the perception of the soviets after the Bolsheviks seized power at the end of 1917 and more crucially, after their dissolution of the Constituent Assembly – elected by universal suffrage – in January 1918? I want to look at how two very different socialist weekly papers – both as it happens edited at the time by women – The Workers' Dreadnought and Labour Leader. Between them they represent a wide spectrum of Left wing opinion – in conventional terms to the immediate Left and Right respectively of what was to become orthodox Communism.

No one in Britain had a stronger claim to have supported the soviets – and the Bolsheviks – from the outset than Sylvia Pankhurst. She edited the Workers' Dreadnought (formally Woman's Dreadnought) for her small socialist organisation. What had started as the East London Federation of Suffragettes before the War became successively – the Workers' Suffrage Federation, the Workers' Socialist Federation (in June 1918), the Communist Party (although the use of the title was suspended to promote 'Communist Unity') in July 1919 and the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) in June 1920 about two months before the foundation of the 'orthodox' Communist Party of Great Britain.

One of her Dreadnought leaders in November 1917 was devoted to welcoming what she called 'The Lenin Revolution'. Significantly the full title was 'The Lenin Revolution. What it means to democracy'. After quoting approvingly the view of Daily News correspondent, Arthur Ransome, that the soviets were 'the broadest elected body in Russia', she went on to conclude that 'the power of the people may maintain the Bolshevik Government or if it should fall, the votes cast in the elections for the Constituent Assembly may re-instate it.'

There was no more hint in the Dreadnought – nor as far as I am aware elsewhere – before the dissolution of the Assembly of the analysis of that event it would soon be offering. On 15 December Pankhurst was still writing 'It is certain that whether the Bolsheviks have a clear majority or not, the various Socialist parties command a vast majority in the Russian Parliament.' But after the Assembly was forcibly dissolved she quickly rose to the challenge of justifying what had occurred.

On 26 January 1918 her leader, an unusually long one, was entitled 'What About Russia Now?' '" There is the democracy of your Socialists", "Substituting one tyranny for another", "Bolshevik autocracy", "What about Russia now?"; such are the cries that assail us.' she began. 'And what have we to answer?' she asked. After warning that 'all Press news and comments must be received with critical caution and reserve' because of censorship and the hostility of the right-wing press, she quoted the decree on the dissolution of the Assembly as transmitted by the Bolshevik Agency, to the effect that the 'old bourgeois parliamentarianism' was outmoded. 'It points out', she went on 'that the Soviets or Councils of Workers' and Soldiers', Sailors' and Peasants' delegates have been from the first the organs of the Revolution. '

The Bolsheviks had 'consistently worked to make the Soviets all-powerful'. The Soviets, said the Bolshevik decree, perceived 'the illusion of an understanding with the bourgeoisie and the deceptive Parliamentary organisations of the democratic bourgeoisie… Therefore the revolution of October arose. All this we watched with interest, observing the strong support which the trend of events in Russia has been lending to those, calling themselves Syndicalists, Industrial Unionists or simply Marxian Socialists who interpret the great teacher's doctrines from the industrial standpoint, who believe that Parliaments as we know them are destined to pass away into the limbo of forgotten things, their places being taken by organisations of the people built on an occupational basis. The failure of the Constituent Assembly, even though decided on an adult suffrage ballot, to return members prepared to support the policy of the Soviets is strong evidence that the industrialists have found the true path.'

So, although she had given no hint of supporting the notion of entirely replacing the 'bourgeois' Constituent Assembly with working-class soviets beforehand, now it could be seen as fitting in with the tendency of several Left-wing currents of the previous decade advocating some form of worker's self-government and/or Industrial Parliament to claim that representation based on the workplace was – or would be – more 'real', more truly democratic – than that based on geographically defined constituencies which they perceived as abstract and largely disconnected from the daily lives of working people.

She was much less sure when it came to explaining why, if it was so self-evident that the Assembly represented the discredited bourgeois past, the Bolsheviks allowed the elections to proceed. She posed the question clearly enough.

But why did the Bolsheviks, desiring the Soviets to be all-powerful, agree to the summoning of the Constituent Assembly; why did they push the elections forward? Would it not have been more logical to refuse to agree to the elections and to declare the Soviets all-sufficient?

Her answer was a good deal less clear. She suggested that perhaps the Bolsheviks wished 'demonstrate that the capitalist parties have no following in Russia' If so, she went on, 'they have done so very effectively, for, as the Manchester Guardian testifies, the Cadets.. [the Constitutional Democrats - the most clearly bourgeois of the larger Russian political groupings of the time] .have secured only 14 seats in the Assembly, and but for proportional representation might have had not one single one. Or perhaps…' the Bolsheviks desired… to divide definitely and clearly in the popular mind, the politicians who are in favour of Socialism, but do not want to have it in their time, from those who are, like themselves, striving for its immediate establishment.'

Alternatively, 'It may be that the Bolsheviks have been disappointed in the elections, that having faith in the desire of the Russian people to secure peace and the enactment of the maximum Socialist programme, they believed that a majority of those prepared to carry out this programme would be elected.'

She warmed to this idea seeing it 'borne out by the statement in the decree that: the people who voted for the Revolutionary Socialists [the Social Revolutionaries or SRs. IB] were unable to distinguish between the Revolutionary Socialists of the Right, partisans of the bourgeoisie, and the Revolutionary Socialists of the Left, partisans of Socialism.'

Whatever the explanation, all was well because As a representative body, an organisation such as the All-Russia Workers', Soldiers' Sailors' and Peasants' Council is more closely in touch with and more directly represents its constituents than the Constituent Assembly or any existing parliament. The delegates to the All-Russia and local Soviets are constantly reporting back to and getting instructions from their constituents; whilst the Members of the Parliament are elected for a term of years and only receive anything approaching instructions at election times. Even then it is the candidate who, in the main, sets forth the programme, the electors merely assenting to or dissenting from the programme as a whole. When the Revolution began and the Soviets arose, the Bolsheviks formed the minority. Even up to the early days of Kerensky's premiership they held but one-third of the voting strength, but opinion has been moving fast in Russia, and some time before the October Revolution the Bolsheviks became the majority party in the Soviets. Those who actively promote the work of the Soviets may comprise the more advanced sections of the workers, but it is probably true that what the Soviet says today the mass of the Russian people will say to- morrow, and , as is the case with representative bodies of workers here, the Soviet committees, no doubt, are often pushed on by the rank and file . The Soviets, as delegate bodies, are able to respond swiftly to the changing feeling of those they represent.

She then turned to the objection that 'the Soviets only represent the working classes; if they are to rule, the opinion of other classes will be ignored. 'Yes, that is so; 'she agreed 'and that is what the Bolsheviks desire. To those who object, we need ask but one question; Are you a Socialist? If you are not a Socialist, of course you will object to a system that gives all power to the workers; we understand the ground of your objection and realise that until you are converted to Socialism your objection cannot be overcome.

But, if you are a Socialist, you must recognise that under Socialism everyone will be a worker, and there will be no class save the working class to consider or represent. Under Socialism no one will live on profits and dividends drawn from the labour of others; there will be no leisured classes.

This seems to me a very clear statement of what I am calling the myth of soviet democracy' and it established the general line of Sylvia Pankhurst and the Dreadnought from then on. Accounts of the soviets and the way they worked – or were supposed to work – election results for important bodies like the Moscow Soviet, theoretical justifications for the soviet system along similar lines the ones just quoted appeared regularly in the paper particularly between the summer of 1918 and the summer of 1920.

As samples of some of the sorts of material carried please glance at my handout on "Left Communism" and the soviets'. Surely, no-one who did not take soviets seriously as a superior form of democracy could possibly have written 'A Constitution for British Soviets. Points for a Communist Programme' published in June 1920? The extract from Edgar Whitehead's report on the provisional programme of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) gives the key beliefs of 'Left Communism' succinctly.

'Left Communists' – or 'council Communists' as they are sometimes called, belonged, like Sylvia Pankhurst, to what Gwyn Williams once called 'a lost tradition of European Communism'. They were to found the original 'Fourth International' more than a decade before the earliest Trotsky-inspired networks of that name. Before we leave them, we should note that the sticking points of their dispute with Lenin – for which Sylvia Pankhurst was singled out for criticism by him in 'Left- Wing Communism; An Infantile Disorder rested precisely on the seriousness with which the idea of soviet democracy should be taken. Lenin wanted British Communists to affiliate to the Labour Party and to run candidates in parliamentary elections. Pankhurst and Co. argued passionately that to do either or both was to surrender to bourgeois notions of democracy, abandon the ideal of soviet democracy and confuse and demoralise the working-class.

But if 'Left Communists' had clearly bought heavily into the myth of soviet democracy, they were very few – even by the standards of the Left. The largest membership organisation on the Left was still the Independent Labour Party – the ILP. It still functioned – until the new constitution of 1918 came into force and introduced constituency Labour Parties – as the main means by which individual socialists participated in the Labour Party. Its weekly paper Labour Leader is in some ways a much more interesting source for my present purposes then the Dreadnought in that its contributors and correspondents covered a wider spectrum of opinion ranging from those who in later years would be among the most fierce opponents of Communism to those who were later to style themselves the 'Left Wing of the ILP' and eventually – in some cases – secede to join the Communist Party of Great Britain including two who subsequently became Communist MPs. The paper was edited at this time by Katherine Bruce Glasier .

The front page of Labour Leader was regularly given over to a 'Review of the Week' by the ILP chairman, Philip Snowden – the future Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ramsay MacDonald's governments. On the 15 November, a couple of days before Pankhurst was enthusiastically endorsing the 'Lenin revolution' , Snowden wrote that the situation was unclear but that it appeared that what he called 'Extremists' had captured the Government. But he went on to blame the Allies for provoking the seizure of power by failing to respond to pleas for peace negotiations to bring the war with Germany to an end made by 'the Russian Government and the Soviet.' By the following week [22 November] Edward Bernard writing the Leader's International Notes – the other main source at this point in that paper of news and comment on developments in Russia – as yet given no very great prominence in the paper – was, rather like Pankhurst, foreseeing the emergence of 'a coalition Socialist Government' following negotiations between other left-wing parties and what he called 'the Lenin- Trotzky group.' which, he predicted, would be supported 'by large organisations which will undoubtedly have a majority in the Constituent Assembly' As with the Workers' Dreadnought, what could be gleaned about the early results of the Assembly elections was analysed and by 6 December Snowden thought that they showed that the 'Bolshevists' – as he now called them – were 'far more representative of the Russian people than we have been led to believe'. They would be the single largest party in the Assembly 'and together with the 'Peasants' Social Revolutionary Party' would be able to 'form a responsible and representative government.'

Given the position of the ILP, Snowden's initial characterisation of the Bolsheviks as 'extremists' and the language of 'coalition', 'responsible and representative government', you might well anticipate from the Leader, a definitely hostile response to the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in. My initial expectation was that any justification of what the Bolsheviks had done in January 1918 would be confined to dissident voices in the correspondence column. But not so.

The first issue of the Leader following the dissolution of the Assembly on 19 January appeared on 24th. Snowden's regular 'Review of the Week' was cautious. 'The situation in Russia still continues to be chaotic. The Bolsheviks hold power because they appear to be the only large party who have sufficient cohesion to do so' he wrote. He regretted that 'the Bolsheviks and the Social Revolutionaries cannot make some working arrangement, for there appears to be no difference in their economic ideas and programme.' He feared that internal divisions would weaken the Bolsheviks in the peace negotiations with Germany.

'With the limited knowledge we have of the actual state of affairs in Russia.' he continued ' it would be foolish to dogmatise or take sides definitely in a temporary conflict. We are naturally prone to look at what is happening from our British point of view and to come to conclusions, or at least to be inclined to do so, influenced by our tradition and training in constitutional methods.'

Well short of a ringing endorsement of the Bolsheviks' action – but hardly the blistering condemnation we might have expected from such a quarter. And would indeed have got just a few years later.

The same issue of Labour Leader's 'International Notes' were, if anything, more supportive – or at least more 'understanding' – of the Bolshevik position, while still expressing reservations. Citing Ransome' Daily News despatches and Phillips Price's 'admirably sincere articles in the Manchester Guardian' the (unsigned) 'Notes' asserted that the SRs having failed 'to show the courage and determination to carry out their own programme' the Bolsheviks decided that 'the whole government of the country, both central and local, should be in the hands of the Workers' Soviets.' It went on 'The Bolsheviks believe – apparently with good reason – that they alone are able to secure a democratic peace. The Bolsheviks were, therefore, faced with the alternative of dissolving the Constituent Assembly or allowing Russia to give way to Germany and to compromise with the capitalist forces. They chose the former knowing that it was a definite breach of the accepted standards of democratic government.' [ Note what I'll call the 'proto-vanguardism' implicit in such statements.] The writer went on to say that events were moving fast and Lenin's actions might retrospectively be 'justified by the support he will now receive.' It was 'unfair' to say that 'he rules by force' since 'The Soviets are assured of support locally, as well as centrally, and are in actual daily contact with the rank and file of the nation.'

Still in the same issue of the paper, the coverage of the Labour Party Conference in Nottingham reported the standing ovation given by delegates to Litvinoff – whose address 'To the Workers of Great Britain' from the 'Plenipotentiary for Great Britain of the Russian People's Government' had appeared in the paper on 10th January. It reported him as telling the Conference that in Russia 'The land has been given to the peasants, the factories are under the supervision of their Shop Steward Committees, a reference – said the report – to the developing British organisation which the conference appreciated.'

The following week (31 January) there was a sympathetic report of the recent Soviet Congress which, it said 'takes the place of the Constituent Assembly'. The Editor's comments introducing a 'statement sent us by the International Bureau of the Council of Workmen's , Soldiers, and Peasants' deputies themselves' was headlined 'The Russian Government's Defence. What the Soviets have done and are doing today.' 'Members of the ILP' she wrote, 'cannot commit themselves to unreserved approbation of all the methods employed… but only future generations can justly sit in judgement upon what has been done' '

If there is such a thing as 'damning with faint praise' this seems to me the exact opposite. Shall we call it 'praising with faint condemnation'? Even when criticisms were made, the overall tone was still supportive and it seems clear that the soviet democracy factor was a key element in producing this. The Labour Leader 'International Notes' of 4 February invited readers to 'ponder the historical fact' that the meeting of the 'All-Russian Congress and hence the executive government will be composed of delegates from provincial Soviets, which will have wide powers for local government. The electorate' it went on in italics 'is to be limited to persons engaged in active labour'. 'The Co-operative movement' it informed readers, ' based in Russia almost wholly upon producers, is helping enormously to the stability of the new organisation.'

Something of the pro-Bolshevik atmosphere on the Left at the time is evident even in an article by the well-known Dr Alfred Salter. Appearing on 7th March this directly contested the claim of Bolsheviks to democratic legitimacy. But it began with a panegyric of them which took up a good third of the article.. 'The Bolsheviks,' he began, ' have captured the imagination of the world.' He the developed this at length. They could '..sympathetically and cordially hold out the hand of fellowship to our comrades who have made in Russia not merely a political but a social revolution.' He continued

We can be grateful for their unflinching courage, their incorruptible devotion to first principles, their uncompromising devotion to the ideal (called fanaticism by the worldly-wise) their openness and frankness… The world can never be the same again because of them , and we should be eternally thankful for it.

Finally Salter turned to his central point ; his 'appeal against Bolshevik suppression'. 'But when we come to methods,' he continued,' I do not think we can identify ourselves with Bolshevism.' Without being censorious or pharasaical, and with full allowance for the dangers and isolated position in which the Bolshevik movement finds itself, we must definitely dissociate ourselves from its violence, its suppression of opposing criticism and its disregard for democracy'… 'It is fashionable in certain Socialist circles. 'he went on' to decry Constituent Assemblies and Parliaments elected by universal suffrage, to sneer at them as 'bourgeois' and to extol the method of Soviet government as 'proletarian'. But except by universal suffrage how can every single citizen make his voice heard and his influence felt?'

So here was a critic of the Bolsheviks denouncing their undemocratic methods who, one might now expect, would have gone on unequivocally to reject 'soviet democracy' . But this is not quite what happens. Salter continued' By a development of the Soviet machinery it is possible that every single citizen might acquire a similar power but it would be difficult, and with the Soviets as they are today, less than half the nation is represented. Only a very few women are organised in the Workmen's and Soldiers' Councils, and probably a bare third of the total population of Russia can at present make its protest against, or give its sanction to, the acts of the Bolshevik Government.

'Socialism apart from true democracy' he went on, 'is not only meaningless but valueless.' Faced with the Bolshevik stance in the peace negotiations with Germany, confronting 'the might of the Central Empires with nothing but principles, the whole world stood amazed. Ideas and ideals were suddenly seen to be the most powerful of all high explosives' But the Bolsheviks had now done 'much to frustrate their own appeal… They are ruling by bayonets and they have undermined their moral authority by their acts of violence. ' In the long run, he predicted, this would prove a fatal weakness.

Two things are evident. First, perfectly understandably - especially for such a dedicated pacifist- Salter wanted to separate his approval of Bolshevik aims and above all their attempt to bring about peace, from his unequivocal condemnation of their violent and autocratic means. Secondly, though he had reservations about both the present lack of inclusivity and future viability of the soviets, the latter are seen as something essentially separate from the Bolsheviks that could be supported – if with reservations.

These features are found elsewhere in the response of ILPers to the Bolsheviks at this time. So, on 9 May 1918 the Labour Leader could report that 'The Soviets' power was firm and steadily growing; even the bourgeois opposition was breaking down. The financial problem was greatly lessened by the fact that - the next bit emphasised – the Soviet organisation afforded a voluntary, unpaid organisation of administration.' Readers were invited to compare this popular participation with the Lloyd George Ministry.

It wasn't until August 1918 that the Leader carried the first reader's letter unequivocally condemning the Bolsheviks; actions. Richard Robinson insisted that 'The forcible dissolution of the Constituent Assembly was a crime against Democracy which should be emphatically repudiated by all Socialists…' Surprisingly perhaps, this seemed to generate no further debate and was followed by an ambivalent editorial note.

Events in Russia were recast in Labour Leader as a sort of disinterested experiment in democratic form. Predicting once again the emergence of a wider Socialist coalition government Labour Leader put forward the view (in May 1918) that 'If the moderate Socialist elements will recognise the system of Soviet government … an experiment in solving the theoretical dispute between the industrial and political State, as represented by the Constituent Assembly, might be set on foot.' A fortnight later responding to a call from the Executive of the SR party in Russia to exclude the Bolsheviks from the Socialist International because they had 'violated the most elementary principles of democracy' the ILP paper explained that these were in fact the principles of Western representative government as embodied in the Constituent Assembly.

'But is the Western system really the only possible method of representative government? Is not a system of indirect elections from workshop to local Soviet, from local Soviet also a form of representative government?


'The Soviet system is an experiment ; it does not conflict with the principle of representative government, though at present the idle rich are excluded from political power .' In August, reporting the adoption of a constitution by the All-Russian Congress of Soviets the Leader came close to endorsing the Bolshevik version. 'We have here a new system of government that claims to be as great an advance on what is known as Parliamentary government as the latter was on despotic government and the Soviet system is not the product of Lenin's or Trotsky's mind but is the natural outcome of the revolution.

So the myth of Soviet democracy, and the notion of what was occurring in Russia as 'an experiment' – which sounds benevolent, rational even clinical – though not preventing criticism of the Bolsheviks dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and their dictatorial behaviour generally, in practice softened and confused that response allowing a general de facto support for the Bolsheviks – or at least for the soviets perceived as independent of the Bolsheviks.

If the future 'Left Communists' bought heavily into the myth of soviet democracy and the future ILP opponents of Communism restrained their initial criticisms in part because they shared something of the optimistic belief in the emerging reality of the soviets as an authentic form of democratic working class power, can we not take it that it was a major factor in the attraction of Bolshevism for the Left generally? Other factors contributed greatly. The very fact that the Bolsheviks had, in the midst of an unprecedentedly murderous war seemingly carried out a successful Socialist revolution, that with censorship and Press distortion, charges against them could be discounted as bogus or assumed to be wildly exaggerated, that people on the Left simply wanted to believe the best about events in Russia all helped. And soon with Civil War and Allied military intervention there was every excuse for practice being more authoritarian and less directed from 'below' than theory postulated. The myth of soviet democracy now functioned as sort of post-dated cheque, embodying laudable socialist aims and muting doubts about dubious Bolshevik practice.

Those who did sign up to orthodox Communism the 1920s had soon to make a transition from what I'll call 'sovietism' to a more explicit 'vanguardism. The nature and scale of what has to be explained can be illustrated by juxtaposing two quotations. Both are from the writings of J T Murphy and can be taken as examples of attitudes to democracy before and after the Bolshevisation of part of the left – and of Murphy who I shall take as my representative of this strand of British socialism. J T Murphy, the Sheffield engineer who graduated from the pre-war Daily Herald League to the wartime shop-stewards' movement, joined the Socialist Labour Party - one of the precursors of the Communist Party – in the autumn of 1917 later serving as a leading member of the CPGB until his resignation on 1932. He was also for a period a member of the Comintern executive committee. The first quotation is from The Workers' Committee. An Outline of its Principles and Structure, an important landmark in the wartime shop-stewards' movement published in Sheffield in 1917. Real democratic practice demands that every member of an organisation shall participate actively in the conduct of the business of the society. We need, therefore, to reverse the present situation, and instead of leaders and officials being in the forefront of our thoughts the questions of the day which have to be answered should occupy that position. It matters little to us whether leaders be official or unofficial so long as they sway the mass, little thinking is done by the mass. If one man can sway the crowd in one direction, another man can move them in the opposite direction. We desire the mass of men and women to think for themselves, and until they do this no real progress is made, democracy becomes a farce…


The functions of an elected committee, therefore, should be such that instead of arriving at decisions for the rank and file they would provide the means whereby full information relative to any question of policy should receive the attention and consideration of the rank and file, the results to be expressed by ballot. The more responsibility rests upon every member of an organisation the greater is the tendency for thought to be more general, and the more truly will elected officials be able to reflect the thoughts and feelings of the members of the various organisations.

It is not hard to imagine how the Russian soviets looked to Murphy at this time. They would have seemed to exemplify the grassroots, rank and file democracy that he advocated.


My second quotation comes Murphy's Preparing for Power. A Critical Study of the History of the British Working-Class Movement (1934) 'The idea that a spontaneous movement of the masses will 'spontaneously throw up' a leadership and a policy is moonshine. Leaders who come to the front in the hour of crisis have invariably years of preparation behind them however obscure it may be.'

Now he was dismissive of the attitude authors of The Miners' Next Step – a once famous syndicalist-inspired work that had much in common with Murphy's earlier views as expressed in The Workers' Committee It had he now wrote'… created an anti-official outlook of a character which stultified any real organised effort to replace reactionary leaders with revolutionary leaders.' [The conference of Workers' Committees in November 1916 – in which Murphy had in fact played a not insignificant part ] '… did not define its attitude to political parties. This is not peculiar to this conference in that .the shop-stewards' movement throughout its existence never discussed the question until in its closing days, after the formation of the Communist Party in 1920. In this it was really carrying on the traditions of the syndicalist conferences. At the same time it shows how little the revolutionary socialists understood the role of a revolutionary party. Although the leading shop stewards were also leaders of the S.L.P. and the B.S.P. the parties did not discuss their responsibilities for directing the movement.'

One would hardly guess from this that Murphy had ever any sympathy with such attitudes - let alone that he had been one of the main protagonists of the now-heretical position. It is entirely understandable that those – like Murphy – who had invested so much of themselves in the hopes generated by the Revolution including the myth of soviet democracy should find it hard to admit failure and abandon Communism. The key question for me is how did they negotiate the change from seeing themselves as promoters of grass roots working class democracy on an heroic scale to advocates of centralised rule by a self-defining vanguard? That will be part of my future task in continuing my exploration of the implications of the myth of soviet democracy.

Ian Bullock