Next week in our branch meeting in Harlow socialist party the topic for discussion will be why do we stand for elections? I will do this lead off as branch secretary and open up for debate and discussion.
With our meeting coming the night before the 3rd may elections I thought it was very appropriate to schedule this discussion in for our branch and what attitude we take to elections.
By PAUL D'AMATO
WHAT ATTITUDE do Marxists take to elections and representative government? In the history of the socialist movement there have developed or coexisted two principal and, in the end, quite different and opposing views of the question. One, reformism, argues that modern representative government affords the working class the opportunity to achieve socialism by electing a socialist majority into office. This view emphasizes the peaceful, gradual transition to socialism, and sees campaigns around elections and the work of socialist elected officials as the most important aspect of socialists’ activity. The other trend, first outlined by Marx and Engels, and then elaborated by Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, argues for a revolutionary overthrow of the state, based upon the mass struggle of the working class, and its replacement by new organs of workers’ power.
The reformist trend flourished in Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, expressed most fully by a former collaborator of Engels, Eduard Bernstein, who wrote in his reformist bombshell Evolutionary Socialism,
The task of social democracy is to organize the working classes politically and develop them as a democracy and to fight for all reforms in the State which are adapted to raise the working classes and transform the State in the direction of democracy.1
But even Karl Kautsky, the foremost theoretical leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and a critic of Bernstein’s views, saw "the conquest of political power" as essentially the conquest of parliament. He wrote, for example, in 1912,
The objective of our political struggle remains what it has always been up to now: the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state. Certainly not the destruction of state power. 2
Kautsky considered mass action–street protests and strikes–to be abnormal methods of struggle, denouncing an emphasis on them as being "one-sided" and reflecting a "cretinism of mass action."3
In the early socialist tradition, these two tendencies were often blurred by the fact that both reformists and revolutionaries used the term "conquest of political power" by the working class to describe two very different sets of aims.
Marx and Engels on the state, parliament and elections
Throughout their political lives, Marx and Engels always argued that the working class–whatever its size and state of development–must organize itself independently as a class "and consequently into a political party,"4 as they wrote in The Communist Manifesto.
Just months later, during the revolutions of 1848 that swept across Europe, Marx and Engels, as leading members of a small group of socialists in the Communist League, participated in the revolution in Germany as the far left wing of the radical bourgeois-democratic movement. With only a few hundred members across Europe, the League was simply not big enough to assert itself as an independent force. But in the course of the revolution, it became clear to Marx that, due to the cowardly and tentative nature of the radical middle-class elements, it would be necessary for the working class to organize independently to safeguard its own class interests.
In his March 1850 "Address to the Communist League," Marx recommended that in the future course of the revolution, the workers’ party "‘march with’ the petty-bourgeois democrats against the faction whom it aims at overthrowing," but that it oppose "them in everything whereby they seek to consolidate their position in their own interests."5
In addition to arming themselves and organizing centralized and independent clubs, the workers’ party should put candidates up for elections in Germany in the event of the creation of a national assembly as a result of revolutionary upheaval:
Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the Democratic Party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is indefinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.6
The argument for voting against left-wing or socialist candidates on the grounds that they can’t win and are therefore helping the right wing into power has, of course, been a time-worn argument in the U.S. against bucking the two-party system. Engels, in an 1893 letter to an American colleague, pointed out that in the U.S., the formation of a workers’ party is hindered by the "Constitution…which makes it appear as though every vote were lost that is cast for a candidate not put up by one of the two governing parties."7
Marx’s March circular was shelved after revolutionary upsurge ebbed. But Marx and Engels lived to see the formation of the first mass socialist workers’ party in Germany that was able to use the German parliament, the Reichstag, to advance their cause. The SPD in Germany was formed in 1875 out of a merger between two different parties–one influenced by Marxism, the other based on "winning reforms through a compromise with the Prussian state."8 But as much as they came to consider this their party, Marx and Engels were from the start critical of what they considered its political shortcomings and always fought any attempt to dilute its working-class character.
As early as 1879, Marx and Engels wrote a circular letter to party leaders in which they asked if the party had not been "infected with the parliamentary diseases, believing that, with the popular vote, the Holy Ghost is poured upon those elected."9 The circular letter also attacked an article written by, among others, Eduard Bernstein. The article applauded the idea of a socialist movement led by "all men imbued with a true love of mankind," and attacked those who "trivialized" the movement into a "one-sided struggle of the industrial workers to promote their own interests." The article called upon the party to be "calm, sober and considered" in order not to scare "the bourgeoisie out of their wits by holding up the red spectre." It also called for "educated" men to represent the party in the Reichstag.10
Marx and Engels attacked the authors, arguing that they should leave the party if they intended to "use their official position to combat the party’s proletarian character."11 For Bernstein and the others:
As Marxists we often say that standing for elections and trying to win votes is the lowest form of class struggle. As the socialist party standing as TUSC of late we have not made big breakthroughs this is true and we do not expect to see them this year either but what we do do is have that opportunity to talk to people and get our ides to a wider audience.
But we do not hold illusions in bourgeois democracy as Rosa Luxemburg was clear that even if socialists were able to achieve a majority in parliament in a given country, this would not signal the victory of socialism. The ruling class would rally around its most trusted state institutions–the police, the army, the state bureaucracy and corrupted party politicians–against parliament if necessary:
In this society, the representative institutions, democratic in form, are in content the instruments of the interests of the ruling class. This manifests itself in a tangible fashion in the fact that as soon as democracy shows the tendency to negate its class character and become transformed into an instrument of the real interests of the population, the democratic forms are sacrificed by the bourgeoisie and by its state representatives
This is not some theoretical debating point, but has often been the bitter historical experience of the workers’ movement internationally. In Chile, for example, Salvador Allende’s reformist socialist government was overturned in a bloody military coup in 1973. Moreover, in many countries, such as China, Saudi Arabia and many others, capitalism and the market go hand in hand with military, monarchic or one-party rule. Democracy–even bourgeois democracy–is in some cases seen as a luxury that those who rule cannot afford.
The Bolshevik Party was the first to utilize elections in a really revolutionary way. The fact that the Bolsheviks organized independently of the reformists, the Mensheviks, freed them to follow the course outlined by Luxemburg, to utilize the rostrum of parliament to conduct revolutionary propaganda and agitation.
Like Germany, Russia had not undergone a bourgeois revolution and was still under the heel of a semi feudal autocracy. Revolutionaries were driven underground, forced to operate clandestinely in order to escape persecution, arrest, exile and even execution.
In the mass upheaval of the 1905 revolution, the Tzar issued a manifesto announcing the creation of a parliament (Duma) as a sop to the revolutionary movement. This was not to be a real legislative body but a consultative council to the Tzar that the latter could dissolve at will. Moreover, the Duma election system was weighted to give more representation to big landlords. The Bolshevik Party advocated an "active" boycott of the first Duma. But once the revolution began to ebb, Lenin changed his position and argued that socialists should participate in the Duma.
We were obliged to do–and did–everything in our power to prevent the convocation of a sham representative body. That is so. But since it has been convened in spite of all our efforts, we cannot shirk the task of utilizing it.
Lenin had to wage a determined fight against party members who argued that on principle Marxists should boycott the Duma. He argued that under changed, no revolutionary conditions, the boycott was meaningless:
The boycott is a means of struggle aimed directly at overthrowing the old regime, or, at the worst, i.e., when the assault is not strong enough for overthrow, at weakening it to such an extent that it would be unable to set up that institution, unable to make it operate. Consequently, to be successful the boycott requires a direct struggle against the old regime, an uprising against it and mass disobedience to it in a large number of cases.
Lenin therefore attacked the idea of a "passive" boycott–that is, simply abstaining from elections or parliament, a refusal to "recognize" existing institutions even if the movement cannot destroy them. He did not glorify the work, but said, "Since the accursed counter-revolution has driven us into this accursed pig-sty, we shall work there too for the benefit of the revolution, without whining, but also without boasting."
Even so, Lenin was clear that revolutionaries considered participation in elections as only a small part of their activity, and that the struggle in the workplaces and streets was far more important.
We shall not refuse to go into the Second Duma when (or "if") it is convened. We shall not refuse to utilize this arena, but we shall not exaggerate its modest importance; on the contrary, guided by the experience already provided by history, we shall entirely subordinate the struggle we wage in the Duma to another form of struggle, namely strikes, uprisings, etc.
What did that work consist of? For party work, it meant using the election campaigns to conduct propaganda among masses it normally did or could not reach. And, for the party members who were elected as deputies, it meant using the Duma as a platform to disseminate propaganda, to expose the right wing and the liberal bourgeoisie and to assist in the organization of struggles outside the Duma. Socialist deputies could use their parliamentary immunity to conduct propaganda that outside the Duma would normally be considered illegal. They could make Duma speeches that reprinted in the party and non-party press could reach a wider audience than other types of party propaganda, and they could use the Duma rostrum to expose, in the form of "interpolations," the various abuses of the system against peasants and workers. Unlike in the German SPD, where parliamentary representatives were the stars in the party crown, the Bolshevik Party subordinated their Duma deputies to party control and saw them as servants of the working-class struggle.
This is exactly the same approach we take today we do not sow false illusions in parliament but we do fight for every reform for workers we can and be that beacon on the inside to expose the right wing and the system from within.
As Lenin rightly points out there are some workers who still look towards parliament as bodies of power and we need to be there winning them over and turning them towards our point of view if we can. Lenin said Participation in parliamentary elections and in the struggle on the platform of parliament is obligatory for the party of the revolutionary proletariat…As long as you are unable to disperse the bourgeois parliament and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work inside them, precisely because there you will still find workers who are stupefied by the priests and by the dreariness of rural life; otherwise you risk becoming mere babblers.
We do not take a ultra left view of totally against elections like the anarchists do we look to be the best working class fighters possible while pointing to the fact that reforms will never be enough for workers.
We are faced with the fact that Parliament exists and that the mass of the population, despite their criticisms, look to it for change. In 1940 Trotsky, while discussing the question of war, explained how Marxists must make use of bourgeois institutions like parliament. “The courts are bourgeois but we don’t boycott them as the anarchists. We try to use them and fight within them. Likewise with parliaments. We are enemies of the bourgeoisie and its institutions, but we utilise them.”
Trotsky carried the argument forward – to the question of war: “War is a bourgeois institution a thousand times more powerful than all the other bourgeois institutions. We accept it as a fact like the bourgeois schools and try to utilise it.” He continues:
“In the union I can say I am for the Fourth International. I am against war. But I am with you. I will not sabotage the war. I will be the best soldier just as I was the best and most skilled worker in the factory. At the same time I will try to convince you too that we should change society.” (Writings, 1939-40, p. 256).
So with parliament. There is no contradiction between understanding, from a revolutionary point of view, the true nature of a bourgeois parliament and at the same time fighting for every crumb, every concession we can gain from it. In the same sense as Trotsky in 1940 advocated that the members of the Fourth International, while opposing the war; in the case of that particular war should be the “best soldiers,” we must be the “best parliamentary representatives,” the most effective in squeezing every possible concession and, at the same time, the most resolute in revealing its limitations. If we are to expose the limits of change through parliament we have to struggle within it to reach those limits and thereby bring them into the view of the working class.
Instead of such sterile ultra-leftism we explain that we are fighting to become the majority in parliament and go on to spell out what we would do if we had that majority. We say we would pass legislation to take the wealth out of the hands of the ruling class. But, as the bitter experience of Chile showed, the ruling class will not peaceably surrender their wealth and power. They would use their control of the armed machinery of the state to resist. Under those circumstances we would mobilise the working class to confront them, just as the Bolsheviks did in August 1917. Part of this resistance would be the formation of workers’ councils, of committees in the army, in short of the emergence of an alternative state based on the independent power of the working class. In this way the real question of power would be posed.
Only a sectarian divorced from reality could reduce this explanation to holding open “the possibility that socialism can be achieved by a mass movement ‘backing up’ its parliamentary representatives.” The ability to go from abstract theoretical understanding to a day-to-day programme and explanation, put forward in a manner and language which can be understood, is one of the factors which distinguish Marxism from doctrinaire sectarianism.
The revolutionary line which avoids the opposite but twin pitfalls of ultra-leftism and opportunism is a difficult and often narrow line which cannot be traced out in advance or from the sidelines of the class struggle. It is not formed through declarations of revolutionary intent, nor is it made deeper by revolutionary phrase mongering. It can only be traced out in practice in the course of the struggle itself.
We are often told by others on the left oh you’ll just end up turning into a reformist and just the same as all those other polititians we refute this as our first elected TD in Ireland has shown Joe Higgins. Like Terry Fields, Pat Wall and Dave Nellist, Joe Higgins has not adopted the lifestyle or adapted to the customs and norms of bourgeois politics. He lives on a workers wage and provides the Dublin West electorate with an account of where the rest of his salary and all his allowances go. He has used the Dáil chamber to challenge the establishment. He has brought the scent of the class struggle into the otherwise rarefied atmosphere of the Dáil, as with his handcuffed gesture in solidarity with jailed building workers. He has used his position to promote working class struggle outside the Dáil, speaking at countless meetings, protests and pickets. He has intervened in debates on legislation, with opposition proposals and amendments. On top of this he has carried a huge constituency case load, trying to use his influence to help working class people in Dublin West with day-to-day problems.
So it is clear going into these coming elections as TUSC where we stand and how we hope to gain from standing. As we say its not just about standing for us at all it’s about having a broad outlook to winning over workers to your cause to change society.
With extracts from the late Peter Haddon from th CWI on Marxists in elections and extracts from ISR