More than any by any other contribution to what used to be called 'Labour history' I was inspired, when I began my research, by Walter Kendall's The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-1921, published in 1969. In particular I was profoundly struck by the following statement in the concluding chapter of the book where Walter summed up the character of the British Left before the advent of Communism.
The revolutionary movement, before the transformation took place had been ultra democratic, opposed to leadership on principle, opposed to the professionalization of the Labour movement almost as an article of faith.
So, I began to explore the relationship between socialism and democracy in the British context before the First World War. Was Walter's characterisation correct? After much reading of the sources - especially of newspapers and pamphlets - I came to the conclusion that, broadly, he was. My scope of exploration was wider. Walter's 'revolutionary movement' was basically the SDF/BSP, the SLP and what he called the 'Radical Upsurge' before and during the war much influenced by syndicalism and associated ideas. I was just as interested in the ILP- the attempt of its 'Left Wing' to get the party to affiliate to the Comintern does figure in Walter's book - and the movement centred on The Clarion. and the decidedly and self-consciously not 'ultra-democratic' members of the Fabian Society.. I've always tried to be fair to my various subjects by presenting their ideas as clearly as possible, and to some extent at least in their own words, whether or not I have much sympathy with them. The role of history is to help us understand the past rather than just to take sides in ancient controversies.
As I began my (part-time) research in 1975 I already knew, I think, that there was at least one significant part of the socialist movement in Britain which could reasonably be described as 'ultra democratic.' This was the movement around the independent socialist paper The Clarion and its presiding genius Robert Blatchford which had a great influence for the two decades prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 - though Blatchford's denunciations of the 'German menace' began to lose him support in the last few years of peace. I had read Logie Barrow's thesis on the Clarion movement so I knew about Blatchford's rejection of 'leadership', his own (except significantly in the context of the paper) and anyone else's. I knew something of Clarion support for direct democracy in the shape of the 'initiative and referendum.'
Siân France and I did an article for History Workshop Journal 24 on 'Direct Legislation and Socialism: How British and French Socialists Viewed the Referendum in the 1890s ' in 1987. It was based on her thesis on the French socialist Jean Allemane and my own work. There was some cross-channel influence. In the late 1890s the Clarion's Alex Thompson produced three pamphlets advocating the referendum and initiative. He quoted Allemane, extensively. He knew him well and Allemane had been the commander of the barricade in the street where Thompson had lived as a child during the Paris Commune. Siân was already one of the leading translators from the French, notably for Braudel's most famous work and his final one on the 'identity' of France, but she insisted in adding at the end of the piece that all translations were 'our own.' This is the only time I have ever been included in a translation citation! It shows what a generous friend Siân was and is.
Concentrating on views of democracy I was able, in my thesis, and much later in Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1914 (1996) which was based on my thesis and Logie's work on the equally 'ultra-democratic' trends in the trade unions, to explore these in some detail. But the big surprise came when I got down to looking at the first socialist organisation to emerge in the early 1880s - the Social-Democratic Federation or SDF.
The SDF was often described in writings on early British socialism as 'the Marxist SDF' and, no doubt with 1970s notions of what passed as Marxism at the back of my head, I had, before I began, a vague idea of a rather rigid and dogmatic party which promoted what in those days passed for Marxist orthodoxy. What I found when I really got down to reading the SDF's weekly paper Justice - every issue up to the outbreak of war in 1914 - as well as other SDF sources was very different. Justice did not much resemble the 'Marxist' organs of the 1970s in that, among other differences, Marx himself was mentioned only occasionally. It also had much less propensity for dogma than any soi-disant Marxists I was familiar with.
One can perhaps attribute Hyndman's objections to the 'deification' of Marx and to the tendency, as he put it in 1903, to 'regard his teachings as authoritative' to his wish to have his own 'teachings' so regarded. But it's difficult to imagine any paper labelling itself as 'Marxist' during my lifetime including a denunciation of 'the theory of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat which may be traced to Robespierre and which deluded Marx when he stated that the Paris Commune would "serve as a lever" to overthrow capitalism.' Not a view everyone in the SDF/BSP shared of course but the remarkable thing is that it appeared at all, And it is also worth noting that when the exiled Russian Social-Democrats held their conference in London in 1907 one SDFer denounced the Bolshevik wing of the party as 'saturated with Blanquist tendencies.'
Much more importantly, from my standpoint, it quickly became clear that the SDF was - like Blatchford's lot - very 'ultra-democratic.' This was evident in the programme adopted in 1884 when what had been started - significantly, - as the Democratic Federation - became the SDF. The new programme's first point demanded election 'by Equal Adult Suffrage' of 'all Officers and Administrators'. The second one read '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 third, as well as calling for the replacement of 'Standing Armies' by a 'National Citizen Force' declared 'the people to decide on Peace and War.' All this seemed, and still seems, truly 'ultra democratic.' There is no need to accept either the practicality or the desirability of these demands to recognise that the intention was to work for the most genuinely democratic of goals.
The first chapter in my thesis had the title 'The SDF: A Chartist Revival?' and the first in Democratic Ideas 'The Survival of Chartist Assumptions.' Since then I've become more and more convinced that the SDF - and above all its leading figure Henry Hyndman - should be seen as at least as much as latter-day Chartists as Marxists. I did not know this at the time when I was writing about the continuing influence of Chartism on the SDF but as late as June 1921 - he would die that November - Hyndman had an article in The Nineteenth Century and After, which seems to me to illustrate and reinforce this. It was the second of two pieces with the overall title 'Are We Constitutionally Governed? ' This second one was called 'An Antiquated Assembly' and concerned Hyndman's view of what was necessary to make the parliamentary system truly democratic. It began with a demand for proportional representation and then continued with a list of another five numbered points covering the initiative, confirmation by referendum of all laws passed by parliament, general elections every two years, any replacement of the House of Lords to be on the basis of 'senators directly nominated and elected by the whole Electorate,' an end to secret diplomacy with any treaties to be confirmed 'by the whole Electorate', and ministers to be elected by 'the House of Commons or Constituent Assembly.'
This seems to me both an example of 'ultra democracy' and to echo the concerns of the original Chartist programme - or what it might well have become more than 70 years later. Similarly, in his final book The Evolution of Revolution he gave the Chartists much credit.
It was the Chartists who worked, with the then small and feeble trade unions, to secure full rights of combination and of strikes for the workers of all grades. It was the Chartists who never ceased to demand a free, unlicensed Press, free speech and freedom of the vote for all male adults.
He went on to assert that Chartist views 'were more advanced in genuine economics and sociology than any which were widely accepted at that time on the Continent of Europe. They were preached by the Chartists long before Karl Marx was heard of, and at least twenty years before the Communist Manifesto was published.' This is a very ambitious claim for Chartist influence, probably a lot too ambitious, but whether Hyndman is right or wrong it does show the extent to which he saw his politics as in a line of descent from Chartism.
Hyndman always attributed the idea of social-democracy to Bronterre O'Brian, the prominent Chartist. But more even more important, I think, is what the term 'social-democracy' - always with a hyphen, by the way - meant to him and, presumably, to other members of the SDF. In an article in 1897 Hyndman defended the use of 'social-democrat' maintaining that "socialist" was too vague a term and didn't 'necessarily carry with it the notion of a democrat.' Though most socialists were democrats 'nobody can truly say that State or Bureaucratic Socialism is not a danger of the immediate future in more than one country.' Then came the O'Brienite definition.
O'Brien took and used the term Social-Democrat to express the views of those who wished to bring about a complete social reconstruction under democratic forms.
The other main constituent of the British Left before 1914 was the Independent Labour Party (ILP) whose main claim to fame is that it was the main instigator, via Keir Hardie's idea of a 'Labour Alliance' with the unions, of the Labour Party. My 2017 book, Under Siege deals with its fortunes between the world wars, so I will save most of what I have to say about the ILP until later. For SDFers the ILP calling itself 'Labour' was indicative of its reluctance to take a real socialist - or social-democratic - position. Certainly, it was less rigid in its commitments than the SDF. I'll just give one, I think significant, example. In the early 20th century both the 'constitutional' National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the very much smaller Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) - usually referred to as the Suffragettes - campaigned for votes for women on the same terms as for men.
This was at a time when about a third of men still didn't have a vote. As critics often pointed out, 'same terms' would have excluded most married women and working class women. One estimate in 1904 by Philip Snowden, the future Chancellor of the Exchequer and already a leading ILP figure, was that of about 12 million adult women only half a million would be enfranchised on 'same terms.' Others claimed that the majority gaining the vote would be 'working women.' From a different part of the political spectrum were even claims that the whole campaign was a conspiracy to boost the Conservative vote by adding to the electoral register a large tranche of affluent women who were Tory supporters.
The SDF would give no support to the 'limited suffrage.' The right demand, it insisted, was for Adult Suffrage - the right to vote for every adult. Justice often poured scorn on what it called the 'Fine Lady suffrage.' The ILP - and above all Hardie - supported the 'limited' demand as a staging post to full adult suffrage. SDFers thought the 'same terms' demand was inconsistent with democratic principles. Others argued that it was important that women as women were enfranchised even if initially this affected only a minority. This was the position of most of the ILP. It's not difficult to sympathise to some extent with both points of view and it illustrates the way the SDF could be more rigid or uncompromising, especially on issues of democracy.
Another important constituent of the British Left before 1914 was the Fabian Society. They were certainly not 'ultra-democrats' and were often suspected by their Left-wing critics of being proponents of what Hyndman called ' State or Bureaucratic' socialism which they were intent on imposing by whatever means seemed possible. In the 1890s the SDF attacked what they called 'Fabianistic Caesarism' and in 1901 a prominent member of the SDF's 'Old Guard,' Belfort Bax, insisted that 'Fabianism is the special movement of the Government official just as militarism is the special movement of the soldier and clericalism of the priest.'
In Democratic Ideas we were not the first to point to G B Shaw as a critic of democracy but we may well have been in the case of the regular columnist 'Marxian' in the ILP's Labour Leader's who believed that socialism was an 'essentially aristocratic creed.' So, not everyone in the pre-1914, or pre-1917, British socialist movement was a firm supporter of 'democratic forms' let alone a SDF or Clarion style 'ultra democrat. Hardie thought - according to his 1909 book My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance - that 'the truest and purist form of democracy' was founded on the instinct to follow 'the older and stronger member of the herd or pack' and he defended his statement when criticised by ILP critic Leonard Hall.
The history of the 20th century would amply demonstrate the prescience of Hyndman's warning about the dangers of 'State or Bureaucratic Socialism.' To some extent it is easy to understand why so much of the Left, in Britain and elsewhere, became enthusiastic supporters of Lenin's regime in Russia. In part it was because the outbreak of revolution there came as such a hopeful ray of light in the middle of an otherwise horrible war which the Bolsheviks were determined to get out of. Add to that the wish to believe that the establishment of real socialism was underway in Russia, when few really expected to see it happen in their lifetimes. It helps us understand why the majority of the old SDF, since 1911 operating as the British Socialist Party (BSP), who had broken with Hyndman and the 'Old Guard' over the war, went on to form the initial main component of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1920.
In Democratic Ideas we also pointed out in a Coda on Irish Home Rule - as I had done in my thesis - that Chushichi Tsuzuki was wrong to state that Hyndman's view was 'totally different' during the 1914 crisis than it had been earlier. In fact back in the 1880s he had insisted his support for Home Rule included the possibility of a separate arrangement for Ulster if the majority there insisted on it.
In Romancing the Revolution (2011) I explored the way in which what I called 'the myth of soviet democracy' played a large part in the uncritical acceptance of the Leninist state by a much larger segment of the Left than actually ever joined the CP . We have to remember that the UK fell well short of any definition of democracy that included equal adult suffrage at this time -and it was not alone in this respect among the states that had parliamentary or similar representative forms of government. But already in the early 20th century, before the outbreak of war, the notion that any kind of representative democracy was remotely like the 'real thing' was under continual challenge from various forms of what I've called 'radical plebeian democracy.' Some who came to be enthusiastic supporters of soviets had been advocates of the referendum and initiative. Sometimes, as in the case of Sylvia Pankhurst, both forms of 'real democracy' were advocated simultaneously. Syndicalism in a number of varieties saw 'real' democracy as workplace based. Democracy based on geographical constituencies was 'abstract'; workplace-based democracy was 'real' it was claimed. When it appeared that the new Russia was being ruled by workers' councils, or soviets, much of the Left was prepared to believe that this was a superior form of democracy, or indeed that parliamentary-style democracy was not democracy at all.
Some on the Left were consistent supporters of soviet democracy who really believed in both its desirability and practicality and remained consistent in their opposition to any form of dictatorial behaviour. The best example is, again, Sylvia Pankhurst who created her own Communist Party before the CPGB was formed and as a 'Left Communist' was one of the main targets of Lenin's diatribe 'Left-Wing' Communism: An Infantile Disorder. I first wrote about her in my contribution to the book I edited with Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst: from Artist to Antifascist published in 1992 and later in two chapters of Romancing the Revolution . In her paper The Workers' Dreadnought in 1923, she insisted that 'Liberty is an essential part of the Communist revolution. We must not sacrifice it to the ambitions of would-be dictators.' One thing I think I can claim is that I have drawn attention not just to Pankhurst early versions of the Communist Party and her expulsion from the CPGB but also her involvement during the years that followed - in the original ( 'Left communist' or 'council communist') Fourth International and her Communist Workers Party/Movement.
Her version of soviet democracy was, to put it mildly, extraordinarily ambitious. 'A Constitution for British Soviets' published in the paper in June 1920 proposed household soviets of about two hundred and fifty people meeting weekly - women members of families who were mothers and housekeepers - to deal with issues such as housing repairs and decoration, food and clothing, water supply and sanitation, and 'Co-operative housekeeping.' These would elect delegates to district household soviets, and these in turn would be represented on regional and national bodies. There would be similar structures in industry with workshop, factory, district, regional and national soviets and also public health soviets and educational soviets in schools including pupil delegates . All would have similar structures from the most local to the national levels. One can certainly be more than sceptical about the practicality of such a scheme but clearly Sylvia Pankhurst and her comrades intended them to be genuinely democratic rather than the smokescreens for dictatorship as the Russian soviets quickly became.
Pankhurst soon became a critic of the Soviet Union. But the myth that soviet democracy was alive and well in the USSR continued. It now seems astonishing that as late as 1937, Gollancz, with Stalin's terror in full swing, would publish Pat Sloan's Soviet Democracy which as it title suggests treated the myth as a contemporary reality. Sloan began his book with the claim that Òwell-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 these were the famous Fabians Beatrice and Sidney Webb, from whose Soviet Communism Sloan quoted to the effect that the USSR did not 'consist of a Government and people confronting each other,' like all previous societies 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 the democracy was enjoyed by the vast majority of the population, and the dictatorship was over a small minority' ' Readers were asked to believe, as presumably Sloan himself did, that an essentially a-political 'real democracy' was flourishing in all social institutions such as schools, trade unions and co-operatives and in the soviets themselves at the same time as Stalin's opponents, real and imaginary, were subject to show trials and executions. That quite of few - apart from the Webbs - took this nonsense on board is baffling and discouraging but, sadly, only too real.
The BSP split in 1916 over the war. A minority of 'Hyndmanites' or as they tended to call themselves, 'the Old Guard of the SDF' - reluctantly - supported British participation in the conflict. They were for the most part -like Hyndman himself who died in 1921 - older people. After Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power in Russia they were among the most critical of the latter's opponents, but had little influence on the Left of the post-1917 years. They tend to be ignored in accounts of the Left's response to the Bolsheviks but they do get a proportionate consideration in Romancing. The bulk of the BSP became the main constituent of the new Communist Party in 1920. This left the ILP as the main British socialist organisation that was both radical in a Left-wing sense and committed to democracy.
One of the smaller, but still influential at crucial times, constituents of the Left during the years covered by Romancing was the Socialist Labour Party (SLP). For Raymond Challinor the SLP was at least one of The Origins of British Bolshevism. But I showed that it was not quite as straightforward as that. The SLP was inspired by the idea of creating the 'Industrial Republic' advocated by the American Marxist Daniel De Leon. The SLP did claim initially that the Bolsheviks were carrying out their De Leonist programme, but I showed that after the defections via the Communist Unity Group the SLP revised its position radically. Among their more 'unBolshevik' characteristics were a belief that the notion of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' was nonsensical as applied to countries like the UK, a disdain for what they called the 'hush, hush. Here comes the policeman. Hide the plans' approach to politics and an insistence of free speech and 'civilised' methods.
My book on the interwar ILP is called Under Siege. This title seemed to me to reflect the position the party found itself in from the final year of the war. Prior to 1918 the Labour Party was made up entirely of affiliated organisation - trade unions and 'socialist societies.' If you were committed to Labour politics the main way you participated in the party, other than as a union activist, was via the ILP. But the new Labour constitution of 1918 introduced local constituency parties. This deprived the ILP of its main function up to that point and meant that its future was in doubt. The party was also 'under siege' from the new Communist Party with organised efforts by some members in 1920/21 and again in the early 1930s after the ILP had left the Labour Party to get it to affiliate to the Communist International and throw in its lot with the Communists.
From the point of view of the raising of issues that still seem to me to be relevant the years from 1922 to the 1926 seem the most significant. They account for 2 of the 3 that I mention in the book's conclusion as being still of some relevance in the 21st century. It is not the specific details that still seem to be worth considering today, but the issues that they attempted to address. The answers might not be worth considering now - but the questions are, I believe.
1922 saw the ILP adopt a programme (or constitution) much influenced by guild socialism. The not very inspiring history of centralised and bureaucratic 'Morrisonian' nationalisation is not an attractive precedent for the future. I think it's significant how little public outcry there was about Thatcherite privatisations. So the issue of how to create more genuinely democratic forms of public ownership with adequate inputs from workers, consumers and the general public is still as relevant as it was in 1922 when the ILP attempted to offer a solution, albeit an overcomplicated and too formulaic one.
In 1926 the ILP adopted a detailed policy called The Living Wage. It was the result of many months work by a ' commission'. Its members were the economist , J.A.Hobson, E. F Wise and A Creech Jones who between them had significant experience in the senior ranks of the civil service, and the trade union and co-operative movements, and H.N. Brailsford who is certainly a leading contender for the title of best and most significant political writer on the British Left of the early 20th century. Brailsford took the lead in publicising the 'Living Wage' policy both in the ILP's weekly The New Leader which he edited and in a book Socialism for To-day which is still worth reading.
The demand for a living wage was not new - and was of course revived to some degree of success in the early 21st century. What was really significant was the strategic approach. Here's Brailsford's version from the book just mentioned.
To begin by demanding a genuine "Living Wage" would, I believe, be sound strategy. Hitherto Socialists have argued in their propaganda that if industry and the land were nationalised, the consequence would be an increase in our national wealth, and a fairer, distribution of the national income. The happy result looked to the average man rather remote, and preliminary processes did not grip his attention. There is much to be said for reversing the order of thought and action. Let us rather begin by demanding the fairer division of wealth; let us insist, first of all, on the elementary human claim to a living wage and then enforce the wide economic changes by which alone it can be realised and secured. The fixing, whether by combined Trade Union action, or by a Royal Commission, of any adequate figure, would drive us at once into big political changes. The demand is a battering-ram levelled at the present system.
My third candidate for 21st century relevance goes back to before the first world war, though it was regularly supported by ILP conferences throughout the '20s and '30s. It is particularly associated with Fred Jowett, who, as a Labour MP before, during, and after the war campaigned to make parliamentary democracy work in a way that brought the executive firmly under the control of the elected representatives and made those elected fully accountable to their constituents. His initial demand was for the replacement of the cabinet by a committee system similar to that then standard in local government. In the 1920s he modified his proposal to still allow for a cabinet - but one still more accountable to MPs and with a greater role for committees. His long-time colleague and biographer, Fenner Brockway later described this as 'Fred's obsession.' Once again, as with my other two contenders for 21st century relevance, the point is not the answers he came up with but the question of how we might make representative democracy more 'real'.
The story of the ILP after it left the Labour Party seems to me to illustrate the problems of pursuing a 'revolutionary policy' in anywhere like the UK. Such a policy was the declared aim of those who supported leaving the 'gradualist' (at best!) Labour Party. The problem was that while many supported the need for a Òrevolutionary policy, relatively few were agreed on what that actually meant. In particular, there was no way to bridge the gulf between the Revolutionary Policy Committee, which sought eventual merger with the Communist Party, and those like Paton, the ILP secretary at the time of disaffiliation, who aspired to replace it completely.
In the conclusion to Under Siege I reached the following judgement.
The merit of the post-disaffiliation ILP lies in the fact that it tested the notion of a "revolutionary policy" to destruction. Whether or not "gradualism" was inevitable it became clear that there would be no serious support for a Lenin-style revolutionary party in Britain - even one detached from the edicts and the embrace of "Moscow" - at any time that could be foreseen.
I remain convinced that this is true.
My - as yet - unpublished book The Drums of Armageddon deals with the response of the British Left to the outbreak of war in 1914. It does this by following the 3 long-established weeklies Justice, The Clarion and Labour Leader from the Sarajevo assassination in June 1914 till the end of the year. The war divided the Left and set the scene to some extent for the divisions that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power at the end of 1917.
A large number of interesting things, - at least things that interest me - emerge but probably the three most important ones are as follows. 1. That prior to the war the socialist movement was - not before time - coming together. The BSP had resolved to join the Labour Party and joint ILP/BSP candidates were run in several local elections. The final chapter of Democratic Ideas, '1914: an emerging consensus on the eve of Armageddon' had already explored this as far as the outbreak of war. This unity was quickly blasted apart by the war. 2. In spite of these deep divisions there were demands which 'anti-war' people as well as 'pro-war' ones supported for decent treatment, pay and conditions for soldiers and sailors. 3. There was also a wide degree of agreement among both opponents and -reluctant - supporters of the war that the peace settlement that followed it should not be in any way vindictive but fair to all sides and that part of the way to avoid any repetition of the conflict was to create a 'United States of Europe.'
My political understanding has, inevitably, been greatly influenced by my research and writings and to some extent this has interacted with the events of my own lifetime. I have been in the Labour Party since the 1960s - apart from a gap in the '70s when, dismayed at the lack of radicalism of the Wilson government I left - though without joining any other formal political campaign, though I remained involved with, especially, Walter Kendall's Voice of the Unions. I am now far less critical of Wilson than I was at the time. I did not in those days, as I certainly do now, give him enough credit for keeping us out of the Vietnam war. And I have come to see more clearly that it is a lot easier to be a critic on the sidelines - who no-one is likely to blame when things go wrong - than one of those actually responsible for making political decisions.
Over the years I have become very aware of the hostility to politics on the Left. I described this in Romancing as the 'Achilles heel' of the Left. Many will say 'surely, nobody one meets is more 'political' than the most committed Leftists?' But are we confusing politics with ideology? I believe that a strain of socialist hostility to politics goes back to the very beginning of what we usually think of as the modern socialist movement. Take the chorus of the Internationale by the former Communard Eugène Pottier -C'est la lute finale. But will there be - can there ever be - a 'final struggle?' William Morris fell into the same anti-political trap several decades later in News from Nowhere where the traveller in the future is told that they are now well off for politics -because they have none.
The assumption is that 'come the revolution' all conflicts of interest and all differences of opinion - serious ones - will simply disappear. The history of revolutions demonstrates rather convincingly that this just doesn't happened. If - as is usually the case - dissenters are not allowed to organise politically they sooner or later resort to violence. If they haven't already begun to stamp out dissent, the revolutionaries then respond in kind and a horrific tale of civil war, dictatorship and repression ensues. The revolutionaries rarely intend this to happen - but all too often they find themselves trying to justify the suppression of opponents in the name of the ideals, as they see it, of the revolution.
Marx and Engels gave a brilliant sketch in the Communist Manifesto of the development of societies through different socio-economic stages in the past and, they predicted, the future. This was often interpreted not as a sequence of ideal types revealing the essence of feudalism, capitalism, and socialism but as something close to an actual historical account. The French revolution could be trimmed and moulded into an unambiguous bourgeois revolution while Britain's industrial revolution of the eighteenth century could become something close not just the beginning of modern industrial capitalism but of capitalism tout court. The achievement of socialism would be a similar quite sudden and once-and-for all transition.
But, as every serious historical account has conclusively shown, the actual transition from one sort of society/economy to another usually took centuries and was more often than not incomplete - even assuming agreement could be achieved on exactly which characteristics comprised feudalism or capitalism. Britain in the 21st century is no doubt what we call a capitalist country. Yet hangovers from feudalism still persist; the monarchy and the House of Lords, even in its much 'reformed' state, being the most obvious ones. So, while sudden change of more limited varieties is by no means that unusual, the notion of a rapid and complete revolutionary transformation gets little support from actual history. If we consider Putin's Russia or contemporary China, it is hardly clear that Lenin-style revolutions have delivered anything like what their proponents confidently expected of them.
One feature of 20th century Leftism was a sort of trahison des clercs whereby intellectuals of many kinds who should have known better came to support and celebrate the wishful thinking of the na•ve supporters of 'the revolution.' Let me give what is for me a significant instance mentioned in Romancing the Revolution. If one looks at the Wikipedia entry on Karl Kautsky, (1854-1938) one is told that he was recognized as 'among the most authoritative promulgators of Orthodox Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895 until the outbreak of World War in 1914.' The entry goes on to describe his criticism of the Bolsheviks in, to begin with, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. This was belatedly published in English by the ILP in 1920.
When it was reviewed in that notable journal of Left-wing intellectuals, the New Statesman, it was considered at the same time as Lenin's State and Revolution. The anonymous reviewer concluded that Lenin's book is immeasurably better argued and has infinitely more life in it then Kautsky's somewhat pedestrian effort. Lenin's book is certainly interesting, though with its author at his most utopian. Notions of the state rapidly 'withering away' have little relationship with what actually happened in the Russia Lenin dominated during the crucial years up to 1924.. Kautsky, on the other hand, is not only a perceptive critic of Leninist Bolshevism but actually begins with a statement about socialism which, in my opinion, is in a different class from the theories of the Communist leader and infinitely more relevant to the 21st century than anything the latter wrote.
"The distinction is sometimes drawn between democracy and Socialism, that is the socialisation of the means of production, by saying that the latter is our goal, the object of our movement, while democracy is merely the means to this end. Which occasionally might become unsuitable. Or even a hindrance.To be exact, however, Socialism as such is not our goal, which is the abolition of every kind of exploitation and oppression, be it directed against a class, a party, a sex, or a race.We seek to achieve this object by supporting the proletarian class struggle, because the proletariat, being the undermost class, cannot free itself without abolishing all the causes of exploitation and oppression, and because the industrial proletariat, of all the oppressed and exploited classes, is the one which constantly grows in strength. Should it be proved to us that we are wrong and the emancipation of the proletariat and of mankind could be achieved solely on the basis of private property, or could be most easily realised in the manner indicated by Proudhon, then we would throw Socialism overboard, without in the least giving up our object, and even in the interests of this object. Socialism and democracy are not therefore distinguished by the one being the means and the other the end. Both are means to the same end. The distinction between them must be sought elsewhere. Socialism, as a means to the emancipation of the proletariat, without democracy, in unthinkable."
This seems to me an excellent statement of the principles of democratic socialism which is as relevant in the present century as when it was written. Of course the record of democratic socialism in, mainly, Western Europe has been disappointing. But when one compares it to the total failure of Leninism everywhere it is still quite impressive. The best, and fairest summary that I know is that of Donald Sassoon in his 1997 book One Hundred Years of Socialism. The West European Left in the Twentieth Century.
Socialists not only played a crucial role in the establishment of the welfare system, but were the true heirs of the European Enlightenment, the champions of civil rights and democracy. They fought for the expansion of the suffrage when it was restricted. They fought for the rights of women more consistently and earlier than other parties, They fought against the entrenched rights and privileges of the old regime. They supported, often decisively, all the struggles against racial discrimination. They played a significant - and sometimes the major - role in the abolition of capital punishment, the legalisation of homosexuality and the decriminalisation of abortion.Notwithstanding these successes, socialists neither abolished capitalism nor directed it through economic planning.
One can only wonder how much more progress might have been achieved by a Left not divided between, often under-ambitious 'reformists' and easily dismissible 'revolutionaries', the latter camp containing many of the most energetic and would-be radical. If most of the Left had been committed to the pursuit of what the late Alec Nove called 'Feasible Socialism' the record, especially as regards abolishing or directing capitalism might have been very different. That many of the most committed and energetic people devoted themselves, sometimes for decades, to sectarian struggles that only sometimes left room for worthwhile campaigning was a 20th century tragedy - if a minor one compared to the other horrors of that period. That there are still those stuck in this mode after nearly 20 years of the 21st century is very worrying.