Dora B. Montefiore 1919

Parliamentarism and Trade Unionism


Source: The Call, 24 July 1919, p. 2
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


I have before me, as I write, comrade John Bryan’s two articles on Parliamentarism and Trade Unionism, and comrades Alexander’s and E.C. Fairchild’s criticisms of those articles. The more I read them and think out the situation, the less I feel that that the two latter comrades have shaken John Bryan’s main argument. That argument is, that as economic and political revolutions have broken down on the Continent the gates and barriers of capitalism, and are dealing shrewd blows at the doors of privilege in our own land, it behoves us, as active members of the B.S.P. to think out clearly and to propagate the ideas which will help to lead the dynamic revolutionary forces seething it present in society and affecting the minds and actions of the exploited into paths conducting most directly and with, the least possible friction to the mass-concerted action that shall wrest governing and administrative power from the hands of the privileged and exploiting minority, and inaugurate on a safe basis the governing and administrative power of the majority. John Bryan, as I understand his argument, holds that neither Parliament nor Trade Unionism (whose origins and complicated procedure were both evolved for other purposes) are the instruments that will bring about and guide successfully in its difficult early days the coming Social Revolution; though he admits that the Trade Unions “will yet have to play an important role in the task of social reconstruction after the Revolution”, and in Article 1 he gives us in outline the five leading points which he holds are the advantages of the Soviet system, as evolved during their revolution by the Russian workers and soldiers, as administrative bodies, to supersede Parliaments and Constituent Assemblies. At the same time he reminds the workers that the Revolution will not come about through the instrumentality either of Parliament or trade unions, but “by the direct action, political and economic, of the rank and file through their politico-economic organisations of the Soviet type.”

This interpretation he has the honour of sharing with our comrade Lenin, who, as reported by Mr, Arthur Ransome in his book, “Six Weeks in Russia in 1919” (chapter on “Notes of conversations with Lenin”) states “In the beginning I thought they were and would remain, purely Russian form; but it, is now quite clear that under various names they must be the instruments of revolution everywhere.”

John Bryan concludes his article by urging increasing encouragement by the B.S.P. “of workers committees, consisting of factory stewards, and suchlike delegates, straight from the works, with representations of our own and other Socialist organisations.” At the same time he points out that we must not at present urge the abandonment of Parliamentary warfare or of trade union organisation. “Any opportunity or place for our propaganda is good for us, whether it be an election platform, or the floor of the House of Commons, or the meeting of our trade union branch.” Personally, I can see no contradiction in this interpretation of the necessary activities of the B.S.P., both now and in the immediate future and hold that events in Russia and Hungary during the last eighteen months entirely support the statements and conclusions in John Bryan’s two articles. Revolutions take months, sometimes years, to accomplish. Slowly and fitfully the actual facts and results of the Russian Revolution are trickling through to us, and we are able to brush aside what is irrelevant and to hold fast what is important. In his “History of the Russian Revolution?” (page 115) Trotsky states: “When we argued that the road to the Constituent Assembly lay not through Tsereteli’s Provisional Parliament but through the seizure of power by the Soviet, we were absolutely sincere”; and we may now add, in the light of subsequent events; absolutely wise. Again he writes, on page 117: “The months preceding the November Revolution were marked by an incessant orientation of the masses towards the Left, and a wholesale flow of the workers, soldiers, and peasants into the ranks of the Bolshevists.” Who that has his finger on the pulse of the workers in Great Britain can fail to detect the same orientation of the masses here towards the Left? Further on Trotsky tells us: “In a society, split into classes the democratic institutions, far from abolishing the class struggle, only lend the class interests a highly imperfect form of expression. The possessing class have always at their disposal thousands of means to pervert and adulterate the will of the labouring masses. In time of revolution democratic institutions form a still less perfect apparatus for the expression of the class struggle.”

Could any interpretation or statement be put more concisely in support of John Bryan’s two contentions that the B.S.P. must now, before the Revolution breaks out, teach the wresting and the using by the masses of every democratic institution for its own ends, but must, at the same time create and organise the new institutions through which the will and power of the people can, during and after the accomplishment of the Revolution, successfully, function? “The open and direct struggle for power,” writes Trotsky “enables the labouring masses to acquire in a short time a wealth of political experience, and thus rapidly to pass from one stage to another in the process of their mental evolution. The ponderous mechanism of democratic institutions cannot keep pace with this evolution.” When explaining why it was necessary finally to dissolve the belated Constituent Assembly, Trotsky remarks: “The elections to the Constituent Assembly took place in the ninth month of the Revolution, and by that time the class struggle had reached such a degree of intensity that it had burst by its internal pressure the formal framework of democracy.” Those of us who have vision, and who from the beginning have consistently supported the Russian revolutionary movement, which is fortunate in having as its interpreters and exponents such men as Lenin and Trotsky, perceive that in time the same movement must inevitably reach our shores, and with its dynamic force break up the old order, and make room for the new. We have not omitted to weigh and balance, any more than have our comrades Alexander and Fairchild, the strength of the inevitable resistance, both from the upper and lower bourgeoisie, of our country; but we do not think it politic to use arguments derived from such a situation to discourage the workers in the organisation of the new forms, of legislative and executive councils, We have made all allowances for the experience and trained cunning in defence of propertied interests of our privileged classes; we have reckoned up the past and the possible future ignorances and treacheries of our own proletarians advanced to the position of leaders, and then captured by “the thousand means possessing classes have to pervert and adulterate the will of the labouring masses.” We know all about the lures to the thrifty worker of the 1 for 15s 6d, just as we know all about the 9d for 4d ; and we know also that Soviets can make mistakes of judgement, and that Workers’ Shop Committees are only as yet in an embryonic state. But at the same time we watch the stealthily approaching footsteps of economic forces engendered by the world war, which will not be denied, and which will in spite of the Sidney Webbs and of Labour Leaders panting for political power under a capitalist regime, are undermining in this country, as in other countries, the formal framework of parliamentary as of other democratic institutions. Comrade Alexander writes: “Without doubt Parliament is in its dotage, but that is not death. Its remaining days will be devoted towards nationalisation.” A very fitting occupation I might suggest for a political institution in its dotage, because nationalisation means continued production for profit; and an attempt to place in power that mentally deficient and bureaucratic offspring of Sydney Webb’s, State Capitalism.

We, for our part, believe that all our best thought and action, as members of the B.S.P., should be bent on changing the attitude of the thought of the masses from their belief in the efficacy of bourgeois democratic institutions to a new and enlarged outlook, when the class struggle, led on one side by the Duke of Northumberland and his ardent followers; and on the other side by Maclean, Gallagher, Smillie, Bryan, and, we trust, those good fighters, Fairchild and Alexander, shall reach such a degree of intensity that it will burst by internal pressure the formal framework of democracy. Then we, who have been for years interpreting, and when necessary acting, shall with help, of the masses, have ready our new revolutionary framework, under whatever name is at present immaterial, through and by which the workers by hand and brain can express their will and use their power for the destruction of capitalism and militarism, with their spawn of yellow journalism, of lawyers, politicians, judges, police, flunkeys, parasites, and bureaucrats. Clear thinking brings clear action, and I am grateful to the Editorial Committee of “The Call” for lending us this forum for the discussion of present and future action.