The Ballot as a Weapon (Pt 1)
“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers' candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled.” Karl Marx
“I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don't want, and get it.” Eugene V. Debs
Socialists want a revolution but one involving much more than a change of political control. We want a social revolution, a revolution in the basis of society, a sweeping, fundamental change in political and economical organisation. No-one can be exactly sure which form the revolutionary process will take but many socialists hold that the potential use of parliament as part of a revolutionary process may prove vitally important in neutralising the ruling class's hold on state power. It is the most effective way of abolishing the state and ushering in the revolutionary society.
The vote is a potential class weapon, a potential "instrument of emancipation" as Marx put it. He and Engels always held that the bourgeois democratic republic was the best political framework for the development and triumph of the socialist movement. For Marx the key task of the working class was to win "the battle of democracy". This was to capture control of the political machinery of society for the majority so that production could be socialised. Then the coercive powers of the state could be dismantled as a consequence of the abolition of class society. Marx said that you cannot carry on socialism with capitalist governmental machinery; that you must transform the government of one class by another into the administration of social affairs; that between the capitalist society and socialist society lies a period of transformation during which one after another the political forms of to-day will disappear, but the worst features must be lopped off immediately the working class obtains supremacy in the state.
The vote is revolutionary when on the basis of class it organises labour against capital. Parliamentary action is revolutionary when on the floor of parliament it raises the call of the discontented; and when it reveals the capitalist system's impotence and powerlessness to satisfy the workers wants. The duty of a socialist party is to use parliament in order to complete the proletarian education and organisation, and to bring to a conclusion the revolution. Parliament, is to be valued not for the petty reforms obtainable through it, but because through the control of the machinery of government will the socialist majority be in a position to establish socialism.
The working class is the key political class, whoever wins its support wins the day, hence why the factions of the capitalist party vie for working class votes. Socialists recognise parliament as an institution geared to the needs of capitalism, and therefore inappropriate as the vehicle for a fundamental transformation of society, but regard certain electoral practices as coinciding, to some extent, with the principles governing that transformation, adding the possibility of a peaceful transition. There need be no straight-forward, exclusive and exhaustive choice between constitutionalism and violent seizure of power. Certain elements within existing institutions may be valued, and action taken in conformity with them, while others may not. It serves to limit violence to the role of self-defence in the event of resistance when a clear majority for revolutionary change is apparent, rather than the use of violence as the primary means of change. Rights to organise politically, express dissension and combine in trade unions, for example, are valuable not only as a defence against capitalism, but from a socialist viewpoint are a platform from which socialist understanding can spread, while the right to vote can be the means by which socialism will be achieved. At the same time, we recognise that genuine democracy is more than these freedoms.
If there were a working class committed to socialism the correct method of achieving political power would be to fight the general election on a revolutionary programme, without any reforms to attract support from non-socialists. In fact, the first stage in a socialist revolution is for the vast majority of the working class to use their votes as class weapons. This would represent the transfer of political power to the working class. We adopt this position not because we are fixated by legality, nor because we overlook the cynical two-faced double-dealing which the capitalists will no doubt resort to. We say, however, that a majority of socialist delegates voted into the national assembly or parliament would use political power to coordinate the measures needed to overthrow the capitalist system. Any minority which was inclined to waver would have second thoughts about taking on such a socialist majority which was in a position to wield the state power.
The capitalist class are the dominant class today because they control the State (machinery of government/political power). And they control the State because a majority of the population allow them to, by, apart from their everyday attitudes, voting for pro-capitalism parties at election times, so returning a pro-capitalism majority to Parliament, so ensuring that any government emerging from Parliament will be pro-capitalism. If the people are to establish socialism they must first take this control of the State (including the armed forces) out of the hands of the capitalist class, so that it can be used to uproot capitalism and usher in socialism. In countries where there exist more or less free elections to a central law-making body to which the executive, or government, is responsible, the working class can do this by sending a majority of mandated delegates to the elected, central legislative body. Just as today a pro-capitalism majority in Parliament reflects the fact that the overwhelming majority of the population wants or accepts capitalism, so a socialist majority in Parliament would reflect the fact that a majority outside Parliament wanted socialism. Socialists contesting elections should make no promises and offering no reforms except for using parliament as a tool for the abolition of capitalism .
The easiest and surest way for a socialist majority to gain control of political power in order to establish socialism is to use the existing electoral machinery to send a majority of mandated socialist delegates to the various parliaments of the world. This is why we advocate using Parliament; not to try to reform capitalism (the only way Parliaments have been used up till now), but for the single revolutionary purpose of abolishing capitalism and establishing socialism by converting the means of production and distribution into the common property of the whole of society. No doubt, at the same time, the working class will also have organised itself, at the various places of work, in order to keep production going, but nothing can be done here until the machinery of coercion which is the state has been taken out of the hands of the capitalist class by political action.
Whilst ‘one person one vote’ is an essential ingredient of democratic society, democracy implies much more than the simple right to choose between representative of political parties every four or five years. The Chartist movement, in the 19th century, saw that gaining the right to vote was meaningless unless it could be used to effect change. But today exercising our democratic right to vote for a conventional political party does not effect change. Ordinary working people are to be targeted with propaganda and public relations exercises to induce acceptance of things that are contrary to our interests. The effectiveness of this propaganda is illustrated by the widening gap between people’s preferences and government policy which often result in the quiet acceptance of, say, unpopular cuts in social spending or policies clearly incompatible with their interests. It is hardly surprising that working people become increasingly disillusioned with "democracy" and politics and register their frustration by declining participation in elections. We start to believe that if our vote is so ineffective in changing things there can be little point in casting it. We become exactly what our master class wants us to be, obedient and docile.
In those countries that have elections, people are asked to select a new government through what is said to be a democratic process. It is true that the vote, together with those other hard-won rights such as the rights of assembly, political organisation and free expression, are most important. But can the act of electing a government result in a democratic society? To govern is to direct, control and to rule with authority. Operating as the state this is what governments do. But to say that democracy is merely the act of electing a government to rule over us cannot be right because democracy should include all people in deciding how we live and what we do as a community. Democracy means the absence of privilege, making our decisions from a position of equality. Democracy means that we should live in a completely open society with unrestricted access to the information relevant to social issues. It means that we should have the powers to act on our decisions, because without such powers decisions are useless.
Democracy is one of those words like freedom or justice that is constantly misused and prone to expedient adaptation. Many people would argue that Britain (or India) and by this, they mean the regular elections to parliament and local government, the freedom to organise political parties, a press which is not beholden to the government, and the rule of law. If people object to the policies of the government they can vote them out of office. If they oppose a specific action by the authorities, they can set up a protest group and hold demonstrations, without the fear of being carted off to prison for voicing their views. In this, comparisons are drawn with dictatorships, where elections may be non-existent or a sham, where independent parties and trade unions are outlawed, where the press just follow the government line, and arbitrary arrest and even torture are commonplace. Do the trappings of democracy really guarantee a truly democratic way of life? Do they ensure "rule by the people"? Socialists argue that the answer to these questions is a resounding "no!", and that real democracy - a social democracy, as it might be called - involves far more.
Under a capitalist system there is a built-in lack of democracy, which cannot be overturned or compensated for by holding elections or permitting protest groups. Our objections are far more basic than any potential constitutional changes to the electoral system. There are at least three reasons, then, why capitalist democracy does not mean that workers are in charge of their own lives.
(1) They are too poor to be able to do what they want to do, being limited by the size of their wage packets.
(2) They are at the beck and call of their employers in particular and of the capitalist class in general.
(3) And they are at the mercy of an economic system that goes its own sweet way without being subject to the control of those who suffer under it.
Electors worldwide haven't had the true experience of having had their voices heard, at any significant level in the various processes of so-called democracy. Rather than an expectation of involvement there is passivity, cynicism or the common mantra heard far and wide that governments don't listen to the people. Many so-called democracies tend to breed apathy for a variety of reasons. Decisions have long been made FOR the people, not BY the people, with decisions made with no consultation process and 'leaders' believing they have been selected to take the reins and make all decisions on behalf of the voters and who take it for granted that once elected they decide on behalf of the electors. There is scant referral back to the populace in times of major decisions – how to deal with the effects of a harsh economic downturn, where to cut public spending, or whether to go to war. Even mass demonstrations against unpopular decisions can leave the elected unmoved and intransigent. As a result there has long been a culture of complaint, a collective feeling of impotence with no expectation of being heard, or even seemingly listened to. Socialists are not under any illusion about the nature of democracy under capitalism.
For socialists the rule of government can never be democratic. Governments implement policies for which no one voted, or would vote for. No one voted to cut socia services for the old and the disabled. No one voted to close hospitals. People getting what they DID NOT vote for shows that capitalism is incompatible with democracy as an expression of “the people’s will”. This is not because there are no procedures in place for people to decide what they want, but because the way the capitalist economy works prevents some of these decisions being implemented. Governments work for a privileged section of society. They make the laws which protect the property rights of a minority who own and control natural resources, industry, manufacture and transport. These are the means of life on which we all depend but most of us have no say in how they are used. Behind Parliament governments operate in secret. They are part of the division of the world into rival capitalist states. With the back-up of their armed forces they pursue national capitalist interests. Though the politicians who run it may be elected, the state is the opposite of democracy. Production is owned and controlled by companies, some of them multinational corporations with massive economic power making the decisions on what should be produced for the markets for sale at a profit. Through corporate authority they decide how goods should be produced and the conditions in which work is done. Again, this is the opposite of democracy.
The realisation that genuine democracy cannot exist in capitalist society does not alter the fact that the elbow room already secured by struggle can be turned against our masters. The right to vote, for instance, can become a powerful instrument to end our servitude and to achieve genuine democracy and freedom. Working people with an understanding of socialism can utilise their vote to signify that the overwhelming majority demand change and to bring about social revolution. For while democracy cannot exist outside of socialism, socialism cannot be achieved without the overwhelming majority of working people demanding it. The capitalist form of democracy, though seriously flawed, has in fact no formal means of preventing sufficiently determined individuals representing a politically conscious majority from using the political system it has developed in order to overthrow it, operating in a different social framework from the one that currently exists, one that would be filled with the notion of participation and democratic accountability at all levels.
If you ask “What is a political party?” the likely reply is “A group of people who want to get elected”. If you then ask them why they think these people want to get elected, the charitable response will be “To do things for the country. To help other people”. If they’re less charitable, they’ll answer “To help themselves. They’re just out for what they can get”.
People have also noticed that whoever gets elected, nothing really changes. This is because politicians have no intention of changing anything. The capitalist system may be nominally democratic, but it relies upon working class compliance, passivity and lack of involvement in the process to carry out its worst and most illiberal functionings. It has been borne out by painful experience that for the most starry-eyed of us, politicians are not only unable to make good on promises but have actually carried out unwelcomed policies. Why should we believe that another party would be any more successful? The working class persist in choosing between different versions of the same discredited palliatives for capitalism’s problems. This is masochism.
The biggest myth – that which keeps people voting for political parties to run capitalism – is that it is indeed possible to "run" capitalism. Governments of the world govern by the myth of control. With no steering wheel, capitalism is never short of prospective "drivers" who will do and say anything for a chance to sit up front in the drivers seat. They persuade us that they can control market forces, but only until the next crisis, whereupon they blame market forces or immigrants, or both.
Crucial to the question of democracy is not just the ability to make decisions about what to do but also the powers of action to carry out those decisions. For many years, in many nations, capitalist politicians seeking office have promised to solve the problems of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, pollution, crime, the health service and many more. They have failed because in fact they seek to run a system driven by profit, which imposes severe economic limitations on what can he done and which as a result cannot be rationally controlled. This makes a mockery of the idea of democracy. Democracy is what the working-class needs, and this can be best achieved, not by compromise, but by struggling for socialism. Socialists to-day content ourselves with the means of struggle and victory which have served others and of which we will serve ourselves in our turn. If anything is particularly idiotic it is the divergence that has been made between the means, divided into legal and illegal, into pacific and violent, in order to admit the one and exclude the other. There is not, and there never will be, other than a single category of means, determined by circumstances: those which conduct to end pursued. And these means are always revolutionary when there is a question of a revolution to be accomplished.
Our position is that politicians, whatever their intentions, are actually retarding the development of the only organisation of the working class that can enter into effective conflict with the forces of capitalism. By association with capitalist representatives in both political and economic affairs they induce the idea (which capitalism does everything possible to foster) that the hostility does not exist. But until that fact is clearly understood there can be no material improvement in the workers' condition. It is unfortunate, of course, that the workers do not understand. It makes the task of those who are concerned with the overthrow of capitalism, and the emancipation of the working class from wage-slavery, very difficult. The results of their work seem so very slow a-coming. And some of them tire and drop out of the movement, and others curse the stupidity of the working class, while others again weary of the work, endeavour to secure some immediate consolation by pandering to the ignorance they once may have thought to dispel, and so simply increase the difficulties in the way. The point of the battle should be to put an end to the dirty job of running capitalism.
Some socialists say that revolution has to be democratic, participative and structured. Where it is available to workers, socialists take the viewpoint that capitalist democracy can and should be used as a critically important instrument available to class-conscious workers for making a genuine and democratic revolution. And in the process of making a revolution starts with reinventing a democracy fit for society on a human scale. The fight for democracy world-wide is an essential part of the struggle for world socialism. After all, if workers are not able to fight for something as basic as the vote, they are unlikely to be able to work for the transformation of society from one based on production for profit to one based on production for human need. A democracy that is free from the patronage, the power games and the profit motive that currently, from Moscow to Mumbai, Washington to Chennai, abuses it. As socialists, we do not regard political democracy in itself as sufficient to emancipate humanity. But we do recognise that it provides by far the best conditions for the development of the socialist movement. it is the heartbeat of every activity of socialists.
Basically, there are only three ways of winning control of the State:
(a) armed insurrection;
(b) more or less peaceful mass demonstrations and strikes;
(c) using the electoral system.
The early members of the World Socialist Movement adopted, in the light of then existing political conditions, for (c), but without ruling out (b) or even (a) should these conditions change (or in other parts of the world where conditions were different).
But this was never understood as simply putting an "X" on a ballot paper and letting the Socialist Party and its MPs establish socialism for workers. The assumption always was that there would be a "conscious" and active socialist majority outside Parliament, democratically organised both in a mass socialist political party and, at work, in labour union type organisations ready to keep production going during and immediately after the winning of political control. Having adopted policy (c), various other options follow. Obviously, if there's a Socialist candidate people who want Socialism are urged to vote for that candidate. But what if there's no Socialist candidate? Voting for any other candidate is against the principles. So what to do? The basic choice is between abstention and spoiling the ballot paper (by writing "Socialism" across it). The policy adopted and confirmed ever since was the latter, ie a sort of write-in vote for Socialism. One or two spoilers/blank voters can be ignored, tens of thousands or even millions could not be - especially if backed by a vocal movement explaining the situation. See the Argentinian example, for instance.
The first step towards taking over the means of production, therefore, must be to take over control of the state, and the easiest way to do this is via elections. But elections are merely a technique, a method. The most important precondition to taking political control out of the hands of the owning class is that the useful majority are no longer prepared to be ruled and exploited by a minority; they must withdraw their consent to capitalism and class rule-they must want and understand a socialist society of common ownership and democratic control.We need to organise politically, into a political party, a socialist party. We don't suffer from delusions of grandeur so we don't necessary claim that we are that party. What we are talking about is not a small educational and propagandist group such as ourselves, but a mass party that has yet to emerge. It is such a party that will take political control via the ballot box, but since it will in effect be the useful majority organised democratically and politically for socialism it is the useful majority, not the party as such as something separate from that majority, that carries out the socialist transformation of society.
They will neutralise the state and its repressive forces and as stated there is no question of forming a government , and then proceed to take over the means of production for which they will also have organised themselves at their places of work. This done, the repressive state is disbanded and its remaining administrative and service features, reorganised on a democratic basis, are merged with the organisations which the useful majority will have formed to take over and run production, to form the democratic administrative structure of the stateless society of common ownership that socialism will be.
This is perhaps a less romantic idea of the socialist revolution but a thousand times more realistic. Which is why we think this is the way it will happen. When the time comes the socialist majority will use the ballot box since it will be the obvious thing to do, and nobody will be able to prevent them or persuade them not to. At that time it will be the anti-electoralists who will be irrelevant. A real democracy is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of leadership. It is about all of us having a direct say in the decisions that affect us. Leadership means handing over the right to make those decisions to someone else. We have at our disposal today the very means, in the form of modern telecommunications, that could enable us to resuscitate the ancient model of Athenian democracy on a truly global level.
The working class unity can be made real through a socialist party if that party becomes, in fact as well as in name, the fighting force of the whole working-class movement. Its avowed aim the reorganisation of the economic and social life on the economic foundation of socialism. It must use not only the weapon of mass organisation on the industrial field, but the weapon of parliamentary democracy, won in the past by working class power. It must set itself, by using the machine of Parliament, by adapting it and changing it to serve new purposes, to win power so that it shall transfer into the hands of the exploited the land and the industries. It must wage the class struggle if class domination is to end. A socialist and working-class movement fighting relentlessly for socialism and in that fight combating the day to day attacks of capitalism is the only way to defeat capitalism.
There is nothing inherently elitist about the electoral approach. It is how you use that approach that makes it elitist. The World Socialist Movement is not asking people to vote for them so they can solve the problems the electorate have to contend with but saying quite clearly that workers need to understand and support socialism themselves in order for it to come about. It cannot be imposed from above. Furthermore, we constantly makes the point to workers in elections that if they don’t understand or support socialism then they should not vote for the WSM. The WSM does not propose to come "into office", ie to form a government and so does not propose "to vote itself into office". Nor to we propose that other people should "vote us into office" either. What we do propose is that people should, amongst other things, use the vote in the course of the social revolution from capitalism to socialism; that they should, if you like, vote capitalism out of office. To do this they will need to stand recallable mandated delegates at elections but these will be just this: messenger boys and girls, not leaders or would-be government ministers, sent to formally take over and dismantle "the central State". The situation we envisage in which a majority vote in socialist delegates is one where the revolution, in respect of socialist ideas has already begun to accelerate. The vote is merely the legitimate stamp which will allow for the dismantling of the repressive apparatus of the States and the end of bourgeois democracy and the establishment of real democracy. It is the Achilles heel of capitalism and makes a non-violent revolution possible. What matters is a conscious socialist majority outside parliament, ready and organised to take over and run industry and society; electing a socialist majority in parliament is essentially just a reflection of this. It is not parliament that establishes socialism, but the socialist working-class majority outside parliament and they do this, not by their votes, but by their active participating beyond this in the transformation of society.
James Connolly explained:
"I am inclined to ask all and sundry amongst our comrades if there is any necessity for this presumption of antagonism between the industrialist and the political advocate of socialism. I cannot see any. I believe that such supposed necessity only exists in the minds of the mere theorists or doctrinaires. The practical fighter in the work-a-day world makes no such distinction. He fights, and he votes; he votes and he fights. He may not always, he does not always, vote right; nor yet does he always fight when and as he should. But I do not see that his failure to vote right is to be construed into a reason for advising him not to vote at all; nor yet why a failure to strike properly should be used as a gibe at the strike weapon, and a reason for advising him to place his whole reliance upon votes."
It is the quality of the voters behind the vote that, in the revolutionary struggle, will be decisive.
Naive reformism, if you wish, but what are the alternative strategies which are in themselves not flawed?