The following article was written last year by CS member James Turley and was in response to Mark Harrison of CS and The Commune who wrote an article expressing an abstentionist attitude towards parliament and moved a motion at our conference holding these sentiments.
In the last century, something unprecedented in the whole of human history has taken place. The idea that the mass of the people should exercise some form of sovereignty over the affairs of their countries has inexorably become the norm.
I say the idea deliberately. In practice, particularly outside the imperialist countries, the basic forms of liberal democracy have hardly been an uncontested fact of life. Countless billions have suffered – and continue to suffer – under undisguised tyranny. Many of the 20th century’s most brutal dictators were propped up by nominally democratic regimes, somewhat perversely, as a bulwark for freedom against ‘communist’ totalitarianism. The argument was made most unapologetically by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, one of the first neo-conservatives, who believed that such tin-pot bonapartes, who repressed their own populations out of cynicism and self-interest, were less of a threat to democracy than the ideologically-driven dictatorships of the Stalinist countries (a grave disservice to the cynicism of Stalinist bureaucrats).
The ‘democratic’ countries, meanwhile, are hardly great advertisements for popular sovereignty. From the constitutional monarchies in Britain and elsewhere to the presidential republics of the United States and France, it is an uncontested fact among Marxists that these states have been designed, more or less, to take back with the left hand what has been given with the right. Unelected judges set limits on what the people are allowed to demand; models of the ‘separation of powers’ serve to dilute and obstruct the popular will; the free press is perveted through the concentration of media power in a few establishment-friendly hands; and, if it all goes to pot anyway, the standing army and police force can be relied upon to restore power to where it ‘belongs’ – the capitalist class, a tiny minority of the population.
When communists approach free elections, then, they do so in the knowledge that the cards have been stacked against them from the outset. Our strategy is summed up in the words of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, drafted by Marx and the French Marxist Jules Guesde: “universal suffrage [must] be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”. The indefinite article (an instrument of emancipation) is important here – it is one front among many in the battle for socialism. Marx and Engels, meanwhile, are pretty clear on the question of emancipation: “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves…the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule”
Communists are thus bound to exploit fully the limited forms of democracy which have been, through centuries of determined struggle, wrested from the hands of the ruling class, in order to establish a truly democratic regime, unobstructed by the unaccountable press barons and judges, and unthreatened by the chain of command of the conservative military brass. Such a regime is the most essential condition for the advance towards communist society – not an optional extra.
As such, communists employ a variety of tactics in relation to bourgeois elections. The most obvious is to stand candidates. As is the way of bourgeois rule, this is far more difficult than it should be – particularly for the fragmented and ineffectual left groups that exist today. In Britain, the first-past-the-post voting system makes electoral victory for the far left almost impossible – besides a clutch of councillors and a few ‘official’ Communist MPs down the years (and the three Labour MPs who belonged to the Trotskyist Militant Tendency), electoral success is almost unprecedented. Even standing at all presents serious practical difficulties – a candidate must raise a substantial financial deposit, only refunded if she returns enough votes to impress the authorities.
Yet, even without a serious shot at victory, electoral campaigns can reap rewards. A general election represents a regular moment in social life where the population as a whole is thinking about politics as a whole, about the future and how things should be compared to how they are now. However limited, they represent a cognitive opening, which is there to be used by all political tendencies (if they can raise the deposit). The rigours of the campaign trail will introduce cadres to thousands of people who they may never otherwise have encountered. Many can be recruited to the far left – many of those that cannot will nonetheless have the seeds of a different outlook planted in their thought.
Should a communist be elected to parliament, she will face a whole new round of difficulties – but also further opportunities. Communist MPs act as ‘tribunes of the people’ – though, isolated at first, they will have little power over the concrete matters of state, they can rise above the increasingly hypocritical cat-calling that marks parliamentary ‘debate’ and press hard political lines which expose the cynical manoevrings in the corridors of power. They, of course, get votes the same as any other MP – which, once in a blue moon, may prove crucial to the success of failure of a bill.
The power and influence accorded to a communist MP is nevertheless severely limited. The lesson here is for opportunists. A great many well-meaning individuals have gone into bourgeois politics determined to ‘change the system from the inside’, to ‘make a real difference’. They have watered down their political principles in line with the prejudices of the day (or, more commonly, their perception of those prejudices) in order to get elected; others have sold out their principles in deals with other tendencies. These approaches ultimately get nowhere – communists can never forget that the bourgeois state is not there to serve our purposes, whatever use we may succeed in making of it regardless; the whole point is to spread communist consciousness and convine people to go into active and conscious partisanship for our project.
As noted, running candidates is not always possible. Communists may then choose to lend support to candidates of other parties and political tendencies. Again, we must have the same aim in mind – to spread political consciousness among the working class. Support for others is by definition critical support – the conscious overthrow of bourgeois rule by the working class can only be conscious, after all, if the advocates of such a strategy are honest about the political stakes in disputes; and if we were able honestly to offer uncritical support to other parties, then we would be better advised to fuse with them than maintain an independent existence.
The ‘classic’ version of critical support is summed up in Lenin’s phrase – “like the rope supports the hanged man.” If, as has occasionally happened, a social democratic party claims to stand in the interests of the working class, and significant sections of the class conscious proletariat believe them, then the communists are in a position of weakness – after all, it is our word against theirs on the matter. Urging communists and political contacts to vote for the social democrats can have the effect of demonstrating that the latter are in fact incapable, due to their political corruption, to do this in reality. Of course, where a serious mass communist party does not exist, the most likely result of the inevitable betrayal is despondency and cynicism about the political process as a whole rather than mass recruitment of angry social democratic workers to the communists.
We may also use voting tactics to highlight the key strategic questions facing the working class in the given political situation. The CPGB, for example, offered critical support in the 2005 general election to those Labour candidates who were prepared to call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan – it was our judgement that the imperialist occupations represented a burning question for proletarian politics, on which no equivocation could be forgiven. (It is a measure of the degeneration of the Labour Party that only four candidates passed the test.)
It has to be emphasised that this is a matter of setting priorities. It is quite permissible to vote for the most odious creatures in our movement – Stalinists, right-wing Labourites and so forth – provided that a political point is clearly being made by doing so, and that we are unsparing in our accompanying criticisms, which should serve as a kind of health warning about the dangers of opportunism. Refusing to dirty one’s hands with such characters in advance is an index of political unseriousness – maintaining diplomatic silence on their shortcomings betrays an anti-democratic contempt for the intelligence of the masses.
Finally, it is worth dealing with some common objections from the left-communist school of Marxism, which have found advocates in Communist Students. Comrade Mark Harrison, in the run up to the recent general election, wrote an article arguing in many different ways that standing for parliament is a waste of time. He argues first of all that the actions of communists in parliament would either be stonewalled or slandered, thus neutralising their propaganda value “ Most workers do not read the stuffy Parliamentary record Hansard, and the bourgeois media would surely either ignore or misrepresent their remarks. The way for communists to win support is to demonstrate our courage and sincerity during workers’ struggles, in the workplace: outside of parliament.”
The problem in this reasoning is that it is difficult to conceive any arena of struggle where the same would not apply. Striking workers are subject to the most vicious slanders in the bourgeois media as a matter of course – as I write, the RMT have come in for yet another hiding for a stoppage on the London Underground, portrayed as little Stalins ruining the lives of Londoners to fatten their wallets. While this may not have much of an effect on the strikers themselves, what about all the rest of the workers in London? Bob Crow is hardly our fair capital’s best-loved denizen. In the same vein, anti-war protestors are routinely portrayed as apologists for terrorism or anti-Semites, and so forth. Further, if we lack our own apparatus to counter these lies, or the necessary penetration into the working class, we will never get elected anyway.
One more point – implicit in Mark’s article, and in the quote above, is the equation of ‘real’ workers struggles with workplace struggles. This is a dangerous slippage – the bourgeoisie, for its part, has invented (or inherited) innumerable means to prosecute the class struggle, only a few of which take place inside the factory gates. If parliament wasn’t an important part of that struggle, they would not have gone to such great pains to keep us out of it. Put another way – it was not a cartel of factory and shop owners that put in place the anti-union laws, but the government. A significant tranche of communist MPs would have made it more difficult to do so at the very least.
Mark writes: “most people in Britain believe that parliament is class neutral and is a democratic institution. By calling on workers to the ballot box one can only reinforce this prejudice: we should not attempt to prove a method is obsolete by taking part in it.” Again, it falls as soon as it is generalised – why would we fight the labour bureaucracy by calling on workers to join the same unions it dominates? How are we to show up the pernicious impact of the bourgeois media by selling a worker yet another newspaper? Once again when the comrade suggests (quite correctly) that spending so much time ‘in the enemy camp’ has a corrupting influence on communist MPs – what about trade unions? Are there not just as many examples of leftists drifting away from their aims in that nest of vipers?
There is no profit, of course, in downplaying these dangers. Staunchly leftist MPs very often drift steadily to the right, and so forth. This is a war, however, and the other side is prepared to play dirty. Whether or not they are successful depends less on what tactics we choose to use, but on the attitude we bring to their implementation, and the whole way we organise ourselves. Every effort must be made to keep MPs accountable to the communist party – they must operate under the strictest discipline. This is certainly the same in the unions, etc – the only way to keep our elected representatives clean of the corruption endemic to bourgeois society is to organise democratically, so as better to challenge creeping opportunism; and to make sure democratic decisions of the organisation are binding in the strongest possible terms on our representatives.