There is a strong tradition of intervention in elections from the revolutionary left. Charlie Kimber learns from the experiences of Marx, Engels and Lenin, while confronting the reality of today.
In six months time Britain will go to the polls for a general election. The Socialist Workers Party believes we need a serious left intervention in the election.
The first question is whether revolutionaries should bother with elections and parliament at all. After all, we understand that real power does not lie in parliament. It exists in the wholly unelected sphere of the ownership and control of the offices, factories, call centres, transport hubs and so on.
The crucial struggle is not voting but the battles in the workplaces and the streets. Far from seeking to take over the state by winning a majority in parliament, revolutionary socialists want to smash this form of state and bring in a far richer, more participatory form of democracy based on social ownership.
It’s well known that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were extremely critical of “parliamentary cretinism”—a phrase that Lenin also loved to use.
The passage where Marx and Engels employ the term and eviscerate those who believe that MPs are the crucial actors in social change is so powerful that it is worth quoting:
“These poor, weak-minded men, during the course of their generally very obscure lives, had been so little accustomed to anything like success that they actually believed their paltry amendments, passed with two or three votes’ majority, would change the face of Europe.
“They had, from the beginning of their legislative career, been more imbued than any other faction of the assembly with that incurable malady, parliamentary cretinism, a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honour to count them among its members.”
But that is by no means the end of the story. Writing in 1850, Marx and Engels insisted that elections could not be left to opposing class forces. If they were, then the workers’ enemies would dominate debate and only their views would be heard. Marx and Engels insisted, “Even when there is no prospect whatever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint.”
This tradition was continued by the Bolsheviks—who took elections very seriously. After the 1917 Revolution Lenin wrote, “It becomes most obvious that in 1908-14 the Bolsheviks could not have preserved (let alone strengthened and developed) the core of the revolutionary party of the proletariat, had they not upheld, in a most strenuous struggle, the viewpoint that it was obligatory to combine legal and illegal forms of struggle, and that it was obligatory to participate even in a most reactionary parliament.”
The Bolsheviks stood for and took seats in a fake-democratic body (the Duma) under Tsarism. And after the Russian Revolution, while insisting on a break with reformism and a revolutionary battle for the smashing of the bourgeois state, Lenin also sharply criticised those in the young communist parties who said elections and parliament were irrelevant to that struggle.
In a polemic with the ultra-left Italian communist Bordiga, Lenin said, “You say that parliament is an instrument with the aid of which the bourgeoisie deceives the masses, but this argument should be turned against you, and it does turn against your thesis. How will you reveal the true character of parliament to the really backward masses, who are deceived by the bourgeoisie? How will you expose the various parliamentary manoeuvres or the positions of the various political parties if you are not in parliament, if you remain outside parliament?”
Lenin also wrote that, “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.”
If socialists don’t stand at election time the only voices heard are varying types of capitalist politicians.
So how does this tradition apply today? Obviously the scale of electoral intervention, and the relative effort put into it, shifts from one period to another. In several general elections the SWP has had slogans such as “Vote Labour, but build a socialist alternative”. The state of the class, its identification with Labour, and the reach of the left made it near-impossible to launch an independent electoral challenge.
At other periods the SWP stood in its own right or as part of the Socialist Alliance, Respect, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). In each case we judged that there was a serious break by sections of workers from Labour and the possibility of focusing this behind a socialist candidate. The results varied from a few hundred votes in a parliamentary seat to the election of an MP for the alliance we were part of (George Galloway).
There are strong grounds for revolutionaries making a serious challenge at the 2015 elections. The long-term decline that saw Labour lose 5 million votes between the 1997 and 2010 elections continues.
Disgust at the Tories and the Lib Dems means Labour is likely to win more than the 29 percent it achieved last time. Labour is far from finished and still has links with the leaders of major trade unions. Many will vote for it in the hope it will protect them from the ravages of the Tories.
But there are millions who do not want to back a party that no longer even claims to stand for workers. There is a deep anger at the corrupt “Westminster elite”. We cannot allow that to be captured by frauds like Ukip.
The election campaign will be dominated by two themes: austerity and racism. All the main parties will agree (with slight shades of enthusiasm) that more cuts are inevitable, that the poor must get poorer and the rich must be allowed to keep very nearly all of their loot. Simultaneously there will be a toxic competition to see who can be the most convincing in attacking immigrants.
In such circumstances it will be essential to have a campaign saying no to austerity, make the rich pay, blame bosses and bankers not immigrants, and put people and the planet before profit.
There is a particular reason to stand in Scotland. The Yes campaign created a great social and political movement. It tore up some traditional loyalties and intensified Labour’s decline.
Labour’s leaders hurled everything into persuading and scaring their supporters to vote No — and they failed with many.
The tumult has not gone away since the referendum. Already a rally initiated by Tommy Sheridan put more than 10,000 in George Square. Some 3,000 people will attend the Radical Independence conference on 22 November. A Scottish Left Project (SLP) has been founded by Jim Sillars and others.
Tens of thousands of people have joined political parties — predominantly the SNP but also parties of the left and the Greens.
The most radical elements in the Yes campaign — along with some of those who voted No — should put forward a left alternative to the pro-business policies of the SNP and Labour.
If the left could put aside the divisions of a decade ago, if the SLP and Sheridan could cooperate, then real gains could be made. A left challenge should not be postponed until 2016’s Scottish parliament elections, as some are now urging.
Finally, electoral cooperation would be a good place to start in forming the much less fragmented left that we need. The SWP has important differences with the Socialist Party. We work together in TUSC because the working class needs a stronger party to stand up against the bosses and capitalism.
We would like others to come together in a united campaign— with Left Unity, the Communist Party, Tower Hamlets First, the National Health Action party and others. It is not too late to do so.
In March this year Left Unity’s policy conference passed a motion that it “should open discussions with other left groups, coalitions and parties to avoid electoral clashes and move towards electoral pacts — with the initial aim of creating the largest ever left challenge in the 2015 general election.” This is a good place to start.
Many socialists in Britain look with envy at Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece and celebrate the idea of unity. Can’t we at least get our act together enough to have a common left challenge at the general election?
We have not yet found a credible and durable electoral vehicle to the left of Labour, but we cannot do nothing while we wait for it to appear. For all these reasons the SWP is going to be part of a major effort by TUSC at the general election and in the simultaneous council elections in most parts of England. We want irreverent, exciting campaigns, not men in suits.
We do not expect stunning success — the pressure to vote Labour to beat the Tories and to keep out Ukip will make it hard for left of Labour candidates. The British voting system ruthlessly imposes the idea that a vote for anyone except the main parties is a wasted vote. But it is still right to stand and good results are possible in some areas.
If we have a Labour government next year it will be urgent to build left electoral alternatives. When Labour imposes austerity, there will be even more opportunity for Ukip and the fascists to hoover up discontent. This is happening in France now and it’s what happened in Britain during the 1974-79 Labour government when the National Front grew.
We hope that others on the left will join us in a united electoral campaign. And we will fight to ensure that, by engaging in the elections, revolutionaries will be better prepared for the battles that are assuredly coming in the most important arenas—the workplaces and the streets.
For more on revolutionaries and elections see August H Nimtz’s two-volume study, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).