Why do socialists participate in elections? Updating an “old debate”*
*This first part of this article is based on a translation of an article by Cipriano Souza, (PSTU-Br.), Opiniao Socialista, (nº 348, August 2008) and has been edited by La Voz de los Trabajadores /Workers’ Voice with alterations and additions, reproducing longer quotes of the selected original ones and adding some subtitles. We have added three additional subsections to complete the article.
Revolutionaries and the elections: From the First to the Third International
This question was and continues to be the center of a number of polemics inside the international revolutionary movement. Trotsky, in the Second Congress of the Communist International, explained the development of this polemic through the history of workers’ Internationals. According to him, the First International’s goal was for revolutionaries to use the bourgeois parliament for permanent agitation: “Participation in parliament was considered from the point of view of the development of class consciousness, i.e. of awakening the class hostility of the proletariat to the ruling class.” (Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism, 1920). With the development of capitalism, the bourgeois regimes across Europe strengthened themselves. The stability of bourgeois States and the fact that they were conceding crumbs to the workers led the Second International, that of Bebel and Bernstein (leaders of the SPD, its German Section) to forget the lessons of the First International. The Second International therefore ended up adapting itself to the bourgeois State: “The adaptation of parliamentary tactics of the socialist parties to the ‘organic’ legislative work of the bourgeois parliament and the ever greater importance of the struggle for reforms in the framework of capitalism, the domination of the so-called minimum program of social democracy, the transformation of the maximum program into a debating formula for an exceedingly distant ‘final goal’. On this basis then developed the phenomena of parliamentary careerism, of corruption and of the open or concealed betrayal of the most elementary interests of the working class.” (Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism, 1920). Within that context occurred the first big betrayal of social-democracy at the international level: it was precisely inside parliaments that the parties affiliated to the Second International rejected the internationalist principle and voted in favor of the interests of their respective bourgeoisies during World War I. After the fall of the Second International, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxembourg, among others, built the Third International. In the opening speech of the First Congress of the Communist International (CI- the other name of the Third International), Lenin described the impact of the Russian Revolution on the workers all over the world: “The people are aware of the greatness and significance of the struggle now going on. All that is needed is to find the practical form to enable the proletariat to establish its rule. Such a form is the Soviet system with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dictatorship of the proletariat—until now these words were Latin to the masses. Thanks to the spread of the Soviets throughout the world this Latin has been translated into all modern languages; a practical form of dictatorship has been found by the working people. The mass of workers now understand it thanks to Soviet power in Russia, thanks to the Spartacus League in Germany and to similar organizations in other countries, such as, for example, the Shop Stewards Committees in Britain. All this shows that a revolutionary form of the dictatorship of the proletariat has been found, that the proletariat is now able to exercise its rule.” (March 2nd 1919, Opening Speech of the First Congress of the CI).
The debate with the German Leftists regarding boycotting bourgeois elections
The fact of having installed the Republic of the Soviets, to have destroyed the bourgeois parliament and inaugurated the possibility of a new epoch for humanity did not lead the Russian revolutionaries to negate the objective reality in other countries. During the Second Congress of the CI in 1920, the debates around the participation or not in the bourgeois parliament were rather intense. Many cadre of the Third International, impressed by the experience of the Russian Revolution, considered that the time to participate in the bourgeois parliament was over, and that therefore the role of communists had to be the preparation for the insurrection to seize power. Lenin debated against these positions and argued that: “Parliament is a product of historical development which one cannot abolish from the world until one is strong enough to scatter the bourgeois parliament. Only if one is a member of parliament can one combat bourgeois society and parliamentarism from the given historical standpoint.” (August 2nd 1920, Minutes of the Second Congress of the CI) And in his later book Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, he explained that while in the propaganda arena it was correct to say that “Parliamentarianism has become “historically obsolete“, “everybody knows that this is still a far cry from overcoming it in practice.” And he went on to explain: “Capitalism could have been declared—and with full justice—to be ‘historically obsolete’ many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism. Parliamentarianism is ‘historically obsolete’ from the standpoint of world history, i.e., the era of bourgeois parliamentarianism is over, and the era of the proletarian dictatorship has begun. That is incontestable. But world history is counted in decades. Ten or twenty years earlier or later makes no difference when measured with the yardstick of world history; from the standpoint of world history it is a trifle that cannot be considered even approximately.” (“Should we participate in bourgeois parliaments?”, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, 1920). Lenin started from the Marxist method that we do not do politics according to our own wishes but according to the concrete reality we face. And for this reason he and the Bolsheviks paid so much attention to the stage of consciousness of the working class and workers in general. They did not let themselves get swept away by their own desires; rather, they were anchored in the necessities of the working class to develop its political struggle. Polemicizing with the German Leftists and also with a section of the Italian communists, led by Bordiga, Lenin said of them that they “have mistaken their desire, their politico-ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is a most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries to make.” And he continued: “we must not regard what is obsolete to us as something obsolete to a class, to the masses. Here again we find that the ‘Lefts’ do not know how to reason, do not know how to act as the party of a class, as the party of the masses. You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You are duty bound to call their bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices what they are—prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of the class-consciousness and preparedness of the entire class (not only of its communist vanguard), and of all the working people (not only of their advanced elements).” (“Should we participate in bourgeois parliaments?”, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, 1920). For Lenin, therefore, it was an obligation of revolutionaries to participate in the elections and in the parliament or congress as long as the masses had hopes in the institutions of the bourgeoisie, especially, he said “a section of the proletarianized petty bourgeoisie, the conservative workers, and the small peasants. All these elements really think that their interests are represented in parliament. This idea must be combated by work within parliament and by citing the facts, so as to show the masses the truth. Theory will have no effect on the less conscious masses; they need practical experience.” (Speech On Parliamentarism, August 2nd 1920). Those who claim revolutionary Marxism as their political theory and the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat as their program for the emancipation of all the exploited and oppressed have therefore the obligation to participate in the elections when possible to educate the masses, and to challenge their illusions and prejudices.
What is revolutionary parliamentarism?
Now that we have established with which purpose we participate in the elections and in the parliament, we need to be very clear about what shape our participation has, and how it is fundamentally different from the one of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois candidates. Some basic principles of what we call as socialists “revolutionary parliamentarism” can be found in the Theses on Parliamentarism voted at the Second Congress of the CI from which we will quote lengthy passages. Every time we intervene in Congress, in the Legislative Assembly or in the Senate it is according to the program of revolutionary parliamentarism. We use the space of the bourgeoisie to unmask the undemocratic character of their laws and constitutions, always seeking through concrete experiences to rattle the illusions the exploited and the oppressed have in the “democracy of the rich”: The argument that parliament is a bourgeois state institution cannot at all be used against participation in the parliamentary struggle. The Communist Party does not enter these institutions in order to carry out organic work there, but in order to help the masses from inside parliament to break up the state machine and parliament itself through action (for example the activity of Liebknecht in Germany, of the Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, in the ‘Democratic Conference’, in Kerensky’s ‘Pre-Parliament’, in the ‘Constituent Assembly’ and in the town Dumas, and finally the activity of the Bulgarian Communists).(Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism, 1920). What do we mean by “organic work”? We mean to act inside the bourgeois institutions as the bourgeois and reformist parties do: presupposing their legitimacy as truly democratic institutions, recognizing other elected members as “fellow deputies” instead of addressing the different sectors of the working class as “brothers and sisters”, playing always by the rules of legality, concentrating our political action into proposing bills that “fit” into the proposed “budget” instead of questioning how the budget came to be, etc. As communist revolutionaries put it in 1920: “This activity in parliament, which consists mainly in revolutionary agitation from the parliamentary rostrum, in unmasking opponents, in the ideological unification of the masses who still, particularly in backward areas, are captivated by democratic ideas, look towards the parliamentary rostrum, etc., should be totally and completely subordinated to the aims and tasks of the mass struggle outside parliament. Participation in election campaigns and revolutionary propaganda from the parliamentary rostrum is of particular importance for winning over those layers of the workers who previously, like, say, the rural toiling masses, stood far away from political life.“(Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism, 1920). Maybe we can say that the role of revolutionaries in parliament was never better seized than by Luxemburg two years early, in 1918. It was then when the contradiction between the two strategies (reforming the bourgeois State from within or overthrowing the government to establish a worker’s one) became more acute than ever: it was in the wake of the German Revolution in which the SPD not only could not play a revolutionary role but became a great obstacle, precisely because of its adaptation to parliamentarism and the “organic life” of parliamentary democracy: “For real advocates of the revolution and of socialism, participation in the National Assembly today can have nothing in common with the customary traditional method of ‘exploiting parliament’ for so-called ‘positive gains’. We will not participate in the National Assembly in order to fall back into the old rut of parliamentarism, nor to apply minor corrective patches and cosmetics to the legislative bills, nor to ‘match forces’, nor to hold a review of our supporters… The elections, the tribune of the National Assembly, must be utilized to mobilize the masses against the National Assembly and to rally them to the most exacting struggle. Our participation in the elections is necessary not in order to collaborate with the bourgeoisie and its shield-bearers in making laws, but to cast out the bourgeoisie and its shield-bearers from the temple, to storm the fortress of the counter-revolution, and to raise above it the victorious banner of the proletarian revolution.” (Luxemburg, “The Elections to the National Assembly” December 1918)
On Tactics and Our Goals in the Election Campaigns
Despite this long debate, for us revolutionaries it is not a matter of principle to participate in elections. Rather, for us the participation in the elections and in the parliament is important, but it is secondary, it is a tactic, not our strategy. We could not repeat enough that we have only two long term strategies, in relation to which the other forms of political action are subordinated: taking political power with the working class to destroy capitalism and building the necessary instrument to reach that goal, the world revolutionary party. We are Leninists and this is why we think that “action by the masses, a big strike, for instance, is more important than parliamentary activity at all times, and not only during a revolution or in a revolutionary situation.” (“Should we participate in bourgeois parliaments?“, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, 1920). We need to be very clear though that we do not believe that socialist transformation will occur through an electoral process or bourgeois parliamentarian institutions. It can only happen as the outcome of a very deep process of organization and struggle of the workers and the toiling masses and through the seizure of power and the creation of a classless society. Why then do we participate in elections? To extend and deepen socialist education. It is absolutely indispensable for a revolutionary party to spread and defend a socialist program in the electoral processes to be able to discuss it with millions of workers and so fight against the influence of the bourgeoisie to transform their consciousness. Because every worker that has been won over for this program is a step forward in the perspective of a more strategic struggle. And we can broadly say that our socialist program during elections, regardless of which country we intervene in as an international party, has three main political axis:
1) Present a socialist program with concrete transitional measures to address workers needs
But while spreading the socialist program, our parties like PSTU in Brazil, Corriente Roja in Spain, or the FIT in Argentina (Left-wing electoral front where our comrades participate) are trying to link their program to the everyday reality of the workers in the country where they are. And in what consists our socialist program or the kind of transformation of consciousness we want to foster? On the one hand, we try to explain as simply and clearly as we can how the measures we propose are related to the real solution of the most concrete needs of our class, such as wages, jobs, health, education, housing, ending oppression and inequality, the environmental crisis, etc. The measures we propose are a combination of transitional measures, that is to say that our socialist program aims to link the solution of each concrete need of working people to the dismantling of the capitalist system. We want to show not only the inner and often hidden contradictions of the current capitalist regime but also that the only way to reach our goals is to pursue these measures.
2) Support and develop workers struggle and explain the limitations of “parliamentary change”
On the other hand, we have to support and develop the concrete struggles the workers or other sectors are waging against the policies of the ruling class during the electoral period, not because we think of this support as a “symbolic” gesture, but because “we want to show to the working class that the solution for our problems will come through struggle and mobilization and not as an outcome of our possible electoral or parliamentary activity.” (“Our electoral campaign”, PST Argentina- 1972) During elections is also when the bourgeoisie put forward their way to solve, or rather to dilute and co-opt, social and political conflicts: the ballot box. We must therefore oppose the conception that elections are going to solve the problem by concretely developing the struggles through our active intervention. During elections we have to hold therefore a seemingly contradictory position: while we participate in the elections with our socialist program, we are also very clear that bourgeois democracy is not going to solve the problems, that we cannot reform capitalism from within its institutions, even when they are presented to us as “democratic”. This last part is also part of our socialist program: we socialists we do not believe that our program could be carried through normally through parliamentary means, we believe this program can only be carried out by the working class organized to seize power by revolutionary means because our program is an attack on the foundations of capitalism to address workers needs. We know we are preparing for a social fight, and we need to be very open about it. This second part of our work during elections has to do with combating the illusions workers have in bourgeois democracy or to call-out what Luxemburg called “parliamentary cretinism”: “The illusion held by a bourgeoisie struggling for power (and even more by a bourgeoisie in power), namely that its parliament is the central axis of social life and the driving force of world history, is not only historically explicable but also necessary. This is a notion which naturally flowers in the splendid ‘parliamentary cretinism’ which cannot see beyond the complacent speechification of a few hundred parliamentary deputies in a bourgeois legislative chamber, to the gigantic forces of world history, forces which are at work on the outside, in the bosom of social development, and which are quite unconcerned with their parliamentary law-making.” (Luxemburg, “Social Democracy and Parliamentarism”, 1904)
3) Put forward the necessary perspective for a workers government and the need to build the Party
Therefore, in our electoral propaganda we need to have a third message, and that is to “show the necessity of a workers socialist revolution, that the only way to overcome the crisis and the situation where the workers find themselves is for the working class to seize power.” (“Our electoral campaign”, PST Argentina- 1972) And, combined with this, the need to build a political organization of the most conscious and more active workers to reach our goals. It might very well happen that in most of the national sphere we participate in national or local elections but we do not have a revolutionary situation where there is an actual possibility for the working class to seize power, but that does not mean we need to hide our strategy and entertain the illusion that getting us elected will be enough to implement our program. We must have this discussion with the activists and organizers with whom we usually work to convince them of our strategy and to build the party. So, if we summarize: “through our participation in elections, our main goal is not to obtain a big number of votes, but to educate the workers and the vanguard and through that process to build and strengthen our party.” (“Our electoral campaign”, PST Argentina- 1972) Or as the CI put it earlier in history: “Election campaigns should not be carried out in the spirit of the hunt for the maximum number of parliamentary seats, but in the spirit of the revolutionary mobilization of the masses for the slogans of the proletarian revolution. Election campaigns should be carried out by the whole mass of the Party members and not only by the elite of the Party. It is necessary to utilize all mass actions (strikes, demonstrations, ferment among the soldiers and sailors, etc.) that are taking place at the time, and to come into close touch with them. It is necessary to draw all the proletarian mass organizations into active work.” (Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism, 1920).
The effect of the restoration of capitalism and the neo-liberal offensive on the Left
The fact that this issue has torn apart revolutionaries for the last century does not mean that the political question is old or “depassé”. To the contrary, we believe than more than ever we need to be clear on the relation between our revolutionary project and bourgeois democracy because in the last period we have seen what we have called an “opportunist upswing” within the world organized Left and among the best layers of committed activists. For us. it is not only a matter of denouncing it, but of explain what we believe to be the causes of that change to do something about it. The causes of that “pro-democracy” turn – where the Left bought into the rhetoric of the bourgeoisie – has to do with the deep demoralization caused by the restoration of capitalism first in China and then in Russia, the Eastern Bloc and finally Cuba and the collapse of what many still defended as a “qualitative” alternative to capitalism. The destruction of the Workers’ States was paralleled by a neo-liberal offensive of austerity, attacks on the working class, beginning of the recolonization of semi-colonial countries, and all of that framed within the rhetoric of “democracy” and the “triumph of the free world”. The ideology of liberalism, that economic freedom brings naturally political freedom, became triumphant from the 1990´s on. In an article in 2004, Martin Hernández from the IWL defined very clearly the situation: “The restoration of capitalism, in the majority of the cases, did not come about through a coup, but through the institutions of the bourgeois democracy. And this was the objective base for the ideological campaign of imperialism to show the superiority of capitalism over socialism or as they put it of the “democracy as a universal value” over “dictatorships”, be these bourgeois or proletarian. And these ideas thrilled the reformist, and also many revolutionaries, who suddenly discovered that these differences between the class character of a regime were something of the past, and that now we should build new parties with “honest reformists””. And he went on to remind us of the basics of Marxist politics: “Lenin new how to show that each State has a class nature, that any capitalist State, even with a bourgeois democratic form, is a dictatorship of a class, and that the Workers’ States were also a dictatorship of the broadest majority against a privileged minority. (…) And that the bourgeoisie always tried to show that their form of “democracy” was of course not a democracy, but “the government of the people”.” (Martín Hernández, “An opportunist upswing swipes the world”, Marxism Alive nº9, July 2009) What happened then concretely to the leadership of many working class movements and the Left in general? They changed their gears to “adapt” to the new situation and tried to put forward a more “realistic” policy: “that of reforming the bourgeois State and its institutions through an electoral path“. This “neo-reformism” had the paradox of not really bringing about any real reform, contrary to the one of the traditional social-democracy that instituted elements of the so-called “welfare State” in many countries. This new variant of reformism emerged in the very period where the conquests of the “Welfare State”, that were conquests of the class struggle through strikes and mass mobilizations, were taken away by the neo-liberal offensive, when privatizations were rising and wages were losing every year buying power. The organizational expression of this neo-reformism without reforms or concrete gains was the explosion of NGO’s, non-profit organizations and also the unfortunate transformation of revolutionary parties into huge electoral machines. And the new vanguard of this wave was the emergence of the “New Social Forums” whose new idea that “another world was possible” without the need to do a socialist revolution, or that “we can change the world without taking power” as John Holloway formulated very openly. The most open case of this neo-reformist turn is the ex-LCR in France, but we could quote hundred of examples and in all of them we would see the same problem: “most of the organizations who used to be part of revolutionary Marxism have forsaken the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is to say, for socialist revolution, and are either perfectly adapted to the bourgeois democratic regimes of their countries or are shifting in that direction.” (Martín Hernández, “An opportunist upswing swipes the world, II” Marxism Alive nº10, November 2004) What to do? Well, if we want to engage in an honest and fraternal debate, we need first to recognize our own mistakes and then reaffirm our political position. In a follow-up article to Martin’s first one, we made clear that the fact that we were aware of this threat did not mean that we were inoculated against it – that our biggest section in the IWL, the Brazilian PSTU suffers the same threat, and we had to recognize publicly that part of the degeneration of the Argentinian MAS was due to a lack of political leadership to avoid that disaster: “The Argentine MAS, which used to be the most important organization of the IWL and the biggest Trotskyist party in the world, became a huge electoral apparatus, and that led it to devastation. Just an example of that, during the semi-insurrection in the city of Rosario (Rosariazo) the leaders ordered the militants to close the offices so as not to endanger the legality of the party. In the same way, when a guerrilla group raided the army’s headquarters in La Tablada and they were massacred by the military, the leaders of MAS handed flowers to the military men“. (Martín Hernández, “An opportunist upswing swipes the world, II” Marxism Alive nº10, November 2004) And we went as far as saying that: “We never said that this opportunist upswing swept the whole Left except us in the IWL and the PSTU. We could not say that because our own current, the IWL, was destroyed by that upswing and if today we are trying to figure out what were the causes of this collapse it is because we are fighting to rebuild our current.” And we added “we are not saying that this right-wing turn of many revolutionary organizations is an irreversible process. Like always, class struggle will have an impact in these organizations. But we know that it is almost impossible that these organizations, especially those which since years depend materially on the parliament or on official staff positions in the bourgeois governments, will as a whole reorient themselves towards revolution. (…) There are and will be crises, ruptures, unifications and processes of reorganization. The debate we are having it is precisely to serve that task that of course, it is not only ours: the reconstruction of revolutionary Marxism, that for us, (and this is also a debate) entails the reconstruction of the Fourth International” (Martín Hernández, “An opportunist upswing swipes the world, II” Marxism Alive nº10, November 2004) A concrete way to engage this discussion in the ranks of activists and the organized Left is to question the true nature of the democracy we live in and to show as much as we can in a concrete way its class character. We need to insist that for those who live under “bourgeois democratic regimes”, our democracy is a fake one. Or like the Indignados and European youth are now chanting in Spain “Lo llaman democracia y no lo es” (“They call it democracy but it is not!”). At the same time we need to be very careful not to fall into sectarian characterizations: the fact that our democracy has a class character, that it is a cover for the rule of the bourgeoisie, does not mean that the “cover” or the “regime” does not matter, that we are indifferent to the fact of living under a democratic regime or fascism, and that we act the same way under each. One concrete way to have this discussion is precisely during the elections. Because it is not difficult to show that there is neither a freedom for our class to run our candidates for elections nor a real freedom to debate, put forward our ideas without being censored or marginalized. This is even more clear in the “homeland” of “bourgeois democracy”: the United States, where we have more than two parties, a “bi-partisan system” where the capitalist perfectly control any outcome of the elections. But it true of any bourgeois democratic country. As the comrades of the PSTU in Brazil put it two years ago: “The parties supported by the bourgeoisie have qualitatively greater resources to develop their campaigns compared to what workers’ and/or left parties can have. That is due to the contributions received from the corporations and entrepreneurs to their candidates. PSTU rejects point blank any financial contribution from the bourgeoisie as this would actually mean a commitment or a debt, which sooner or later would be collected politically; as they say it in Brazil ‘He who pays the orchestra chooses the music’. PSTU pays for the expenses of the campaign with the contributions coming from workers, its members and sympathizers. This is a token of political independence from employers and governments but it is also a clear limitation to our possibility of developing a great campaign in the media. This is further accentuated by the legislation that discriminates the compulsory free time granted in TV in accordance to the number of representatives each party or coalition has in the Parliament.” (“Elections in Brazil: PSTU is the only proletarian and socialist alternative”, IWL-FI, August 18th 2010)