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Marx and Engels on the power of the vote


It's often pointed out that our political system is completely corrupted by money yet history teaches that people's influence on their governments is much more powerful than we usually imagine. It's weakened primarily by people's failure to do anything and the mistaken belief that we don't have the power to shape the world as we wish it to be.


Marx and Engels strongly supported political action in the sense of participating in elections. They stressed the importance of the vote. Engels explains that universal suffrage "in an England two-thirds of whose inhabitants are industrial proletarians means the exclusive political rule of the working class with all the revolutionary changes in social conditions which are inseparable from it." Marx argued along the same lines, for example, in 1855, he stated that "universal suffrage . . . implies the assumption of political power as means of satisfying [the workers'] social means" and, in Britain, "revolution is the direct content of universal suffrage."

In 1852 Marx wrote, concerning the Chartists:

“But universal suffrage is the equivalent of political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population, where, in a long though underground civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class and where even the rural districts know no longer any peasants, but only landlords, industrial capitalists (farmers) and hired labourers. The carrying of universal suffrage in England would, therefore be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the continent. Its inevitable result, here is the political supremacy of the working class.” [Marx emphasis]
His meaning is clear - a working class majority in Parliament, backed by a majority of the population, can bring about the real transfer of power.


If there is any remaining doubt that this was indeed Marx’s position twenty years later, in a speech at Amsterdam, he said:

“We know that heed must be paid to the institutions, customs and traditions of the various countries, and we do not deny that there are countries, such as America and England and if I was familiar with its institutions, I might include Holland, where the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means. That being the case, we must recognise that in most continental countries the lever of revolution will have to be force; a resort to force will be necessary one day in order to set up the rule of labour.”

Peaceful means meant electoral means to Marx. He reaffirms “the way to show political power [in Britain] lies open to the working class. Insurrection would be madness where peaceful agitation would more swiftly and surely do the work.”

Engels in 1891 argued in his critique of the draft of the Erfurt program of the German Social Democrats:"If one thing is certain it is that our Party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown."

Later Engels in 1887 comments that in the USA the workers "next step towards their deliverance" was "the formation of a political workingmen's party, with a platform of its own, and the conquest of the Capitol and the White House for its goal." This new party "like all political parties everywhere . . . aspires to the conquest of political power."

As regards Britain in 1881 he observes, "where the industrial and agricultural working class forms the immense majority of the people, democracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less. Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it - the ruling of this great Empire . . . And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess . . . to send to Parliament men of their own order." In case this was not clear enough, he lamented that "...everywhere the labourer struggles for political power, for direct representation of his class in the legislature - everywhere but in Great Britain."

The 1st of May, 1893, saw Engels argue that the task of the British working class was not only to pursue economic struggles "but above all in winning political rights, parliament, through the working class organised into an independent party" (significantly, the original manuscript stated "but in winning parliament, the political power").

Some so-called Marxists insist that Marx and Engels opinion about capturing the State changed with the Paris Commune and will quote “The Paris Commune... had shown that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’ but Engels points out specifically that “[This quote from The Civil War in France] is simply a question of showing that the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administrative centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes.”

Elsewhere Engels writes “[In Holland] only a few changes will have to be made to establish that free self-government by the working class”

And
“...the only organisation the victorious working class finds ready-made for use, is that of the State. It may require adaptation to the new functions. But to destroy that at such a moment, would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the working class can exert its newly conquered power” (Engels)

And

“the republic... is the ready-for-use form for the future rule of the proletariat.”
In his introduction to Marx's The Class Struggles in France. Engels proposes the use of the ballot box as the ideal way, if not the only way, for the party to take power. He noted that "[w]e, the 'revolutionists', the 'overthrowers'" were "thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and overthrow" and the bourgeoisie "cry despairingly . . . legality is the death of us" and were "much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers' party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion." He argued that it was essential "not to fitter away this daily increasing shock force [of party voters] in vanguard skirmishes, but to keep it intact until the decisive day."

Engels was very critical of those suggesting the general strike was the means. Engels had argued in the 1870s against the Bakuninists for thinking that "a general strike is the lever employed by which the social revolution is started." He accusing them of imagining that "one fine morning, all the workers in all the industries of a country, or even of the whole world, stop work, thus forcing the propertied classes either humbly to submit within four weeks at most, or to attack the workers, who would then have the right to defend themselves and use the opportunity to pull down the entire old society." He stated that at the it was universally admitted that to carry out the general strike strategy, there had to be a perfect organisation of the working class and a plentiful funds. He noted that that was "the rub" as no government would stand by and "allow the organisation or funds of the workers to reach such a level." Moreover, the revolution would happen long before "such an ideal organisation" was set up and if they had been "there would be no need to use the roundabout way of a general strike" to achieve it.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain are in favour of using the vote to introduce socialism in accord with Marx and Engels who argued in April 1883 he and Marx “... have always held that . . . the proletarian class will first have to possess itself of the organised political force of the State and with its aid stamp out the resistance of the Capitalist class and re-organise society."

As Engels put it in 1886, Marx had drawn "the conclusion that, at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means. He certainly never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a 'pro-slavery rebellion,' to this peaceful and legal revolution." ["Preface to the English edition" in Marx, Capital]

The Socialist Party differ from those who wish to “smash the state” . As Engels said "the only organisation the victorious working class finds ready-made for use, is that of the State. It may require adaptation to the new functions. But to destroy that at such a moment, would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the working class can exert its newly conquered power." and that the state "is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another" and "at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible."

When Engels wrote "Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseam that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalised and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.", the Socialist Party can only add that since its formation in 1904 this to has been its object.

Universal suffrage was, to quote Engels, "a splendid weapon" which, while "slower and more boring than the call to revolution", was "ten times more sure and what is even better, it indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made." This was because it was "even ten to one that universal suffrage, intelligently used by the workers, will drive the rulers to overthrow legality, that is, to put us in the most favourable position to make revolution."

"The big mistake", Engels said was "to think that the revolution is something that can be made overnight. As a matter of fact it is a process of development of the masses that takes several years even under conditions accelerating this process." Thus it was a case of, "as a revolutionary, any means which leads to the goal is suitable, including the most violent and the most pacific." However as he elaborated from experience since writing in The Communist Manifesto calling for "violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie") Engels now judged "the conditions of struggle had essentially changed. Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades . . . , was to a considerable extent obsolete."

The closest that Marx or Engels came to advocating workers councils was in 1850 when Marx suggested that the German workers "establish their own revolutionary workers' governments" alongside of the "new official governments". These could be of two forms, either of "municipal committees and municipal councils" or "workers' clubs or workers' committees."

 The Socialist Party remains true to Marx and Engels for using the ballot box to achieve the socialist revolution although this does not preclude utilising such other organs as seen as necessary once political power is seized by those means.

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