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History points the way

The idea of organising independently of the state in order to challenge the established political order, which we put forward in the shape of People’s Assemblies, is not new or foreign to British social history.

From the Levellers in the English Revolution of the 17th century, to the Chartists of the 19th century, through to the trade unions in the period following World War One, ordinary people have combined to confront the state.

The Levellers were the left-wing of the New Model Army in the civil war between parliament and Charles I. Regiments elected representatives or “agitators” to the Army Council and these were recognised by the commanders. Levellers took many of these positions.

In the famous Putney Debates held in October 1647, the Levellers challenged Cromwell with a draft Agreement of the People, which gave everyone the vote and insisted that Parliament should pass no laws “evidently destructive to the safety and well-being of the people”.

The Chartists, who campaigned for the vote for working men, held various Conventions during their struggle which began in the late 1830s when an estimated 300,000 people assembled at Kersal Moor near Manchester. Typical slogans on the day were “For Children and Wife we’ll War to the Knife” and “Bread and Revolution”.

In 1839, the Convention of the Industrious Classes met first in London and then Birmingham. It considered what to do in the event that Parliament rejected the Chartist petition signed by 1.2 million people. Delegates adopted the formula of “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must”. A manifesto of “ulterior measures” included a month’s general strike, a resort to arms and a trade boycott.

In 1848, galvanised by a revolution in France, the Chartist movement made a final attempt to achieve its demands through a petition backed by a demonstration of over 200,000 at Kennington. The government feared a revolution and blocked the bridges across the Thames.

The Chartists then convened a National Assembly for May 1 as a would-be rival seat of power to Parliament. Its aim was to continue sitting until the Charter was law. The Assembly took on policies way beyond the Charter, including the severing of the connection between church and state, the repeal of the union between Britain and Ireland, the employment of poor on public works and even a recommendation of arming the people. An insurrection launched in August 1848 was defeated.

After the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, which overthrew the Tsar, the idea of Soviets or Workers’ Councils, which had spearheaded the movement against autocracy, spread through Europe. The Labour and Socialist Convention held at Leeds on 3 June 1917 was held expressly “to follow Russia”.

The conference attended by 1,600 delegates adopted a resolution that called on the labour movement to establish councils of workers and soldiers' delegates to work for, among other things, the complete political and economic emancipation of international labour. During the brief General Strike of 1926, workers’ council were established in some towns and became the effective power in the area.

Now that the right to vote has been neutered by an undemocratic Parliamentary system in serious decay, the conditions are emerging to reassert more fundamental rights to do with power and control over our lives. That is why we not only say “Hang on to your vote” at the election but also urge the building of People’s Assemblies as a possible mechanism for carrying through revolutionary change in the traditions of the Levellers, Chartists and trade unionists of earlier eras.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
19 March 2010

Your Say

Ray says:

It is an oversimplification to venerate the 'peoples democracy of soviets' in the manner that libertarian/anarchists do, whilst apportioning blame to the Bolsheviks for their demise and dissolution. The class nature of the 'workers, soldiers and peasant soviets' were initially a defensive but decisively offensive collective of those that were disenfranchised by both Czarist autocracy (up until February 1917) and the bourgeois provisional government (March til October 1917). To extol the 'purity of the soviets' whilst ignoring the onerous situation of Russia on all fronts i.e., economic and political amidst civil and imperialist interventionist wars simultaneously, is to deny the real world as it was unfolding. We can discuss this only in its historical context in much the same way that the role of the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters can be understood as in the English Civil War 1644-49. We welcome discussion on these historical formations.

Fiona says:

While the Russian 'soviets' or workers committees should indeed be acknowledged, it should also be acknowledged that the fate of those same soviets was sealed not by the Whites, the war, or the civil war, but by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. Between 1917 and 1921 the factory committees, workers councils and the peasant soviets too, lost all power as one man managment was imposed. Thereupon the slogan 'All Power to the Soviets' which previously signalled essentially workers self-management (not just workers control) and meant exactly what it said, was taken to mean power to the by now emasculated soviets, under centralised, authoritarian government control. By June 1917 workers and libertarian socialists and syndicalists would certainly have been keen to "follow Russia," but after the October Revolution and all that was shortly to flow from it, as far as they were able to follow events there at least, not so keen! So "All Power to the Soviets" did materialise for a while but was smothered too soon after birth. And the rest is history!

Charles says:

A valuable summary. I think you may have put the Levellers more to the left than they actually were and I don't think you mentioned the Diggers who were more revolutionary, if prematurely - but the same could be said for most of the Levellers' objectives. Another difficulty was the pervasiveness of religious ideas in all of the politics of the time (still a problem!) as well drawn out in David Caute's novel about Gerald Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers (Comrade Jacob, Quartet Books,1973).

I was glad to see the Russian soviets properly acknowledged. If only "All Power to the Soviets!" had materialised we would have a different sort of history to talk about. Tragically, there were all those Whites and the dastardly military interventions of the West, added to all the devastation and demoralisation of the war with Germany. The soviets or any other sort of People's Assemblies didn't have much of a chance really. Equally tragic, in the present day any attempts along these lines to seize real power will have to contend with well armed and ruthless capitalist totalitarian states, with their ever growing surveillance technology and backed up by the lying corporate media. I think we have to hope for mutinies in the armed forces and police forces. A general strike might not come amiss either. We certainly live in intereting times.

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