Reply to the Communist League of Tampa: Why communists oppose participation in bourgeois elections
We are publishing here a critique of the article ‘Towards a communist electoral strategy’ which recently appeared on the website of the Communist League of Tampa (in Florida, USA). We have already published previous correspondence between ourselves and the CLT, in which we welcomed their recognition of the necessity for a world communist party, while also highlighting some of the key differences between our Current and the CLT regarding the conception of the ‘mass party’, the question of whether the communist party takes power, and the relevance of the old social democratic programmes to the communist project today. With the publication of the article ‘Towards a communist electoral strategy’ by Donald Parkinson, these differences seem to have widened, or at least become clearer. A comparable process seems to be underway in the relationship between the Tampa group and its Miami affiliate, which has now changed its name to the Workers’ Offensive Group and has adopted a statement of positions which are much more in line with those of the communist left. At the same time, the Miami group has declared that it wants to maintain the discussion with the group in Tampa. We support this decision and want the discussion between ourselves and Tampa to continue as well: hence the present contribution, which we hope will stimulate a response from the Tampa group and others.
We think that this debate on elections is particularly important, not least because in the present political climate in the USA, there is a tremendous pressure on all those who see themselves as being opposed to the capitalist system to set their principles to one side and use their vote to keep Donald Trump from getting his hands on the presidency. In this article, we explain why participation in bourgeois elections in general no longer serves the interests of the class struggle, but directly opposes it.
The text by DP begins by asserting that “participation in electoral politics, and therefore an electoral strategy, are essential if communists are going to gain public legitimacy as a serious political force”. The text recognises that electoral cycles are “endlessly nauseating, particularly this year’s in the USA with the obnoxious Trump vs the neo-liberal imperialist Clinton”. But it refers to passages written by Marx and Engels to support the view that, nevertheless, communists should put up their own candidates, as Marx put it in his 1850 address to the Communist League, “in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint”. DP is aware of the existence of communists like Pannekoek and Bordiga who, in the new conditions created by war and revolution after 1914, rejected all parliamentary activity, but his main concern here is to deplore the fact that their views have had an inordinate influence on a contemporary ‘left’ which is to a large degree “purely based on direct action”. He admits that the appeal of such a approach is understandable, given that “the bourgeois state presents itself as a Leviathan of sorts”, but we should not conclude that “anything that touches it is therefore doomed”. The text then outlines the main elements in the revived communist electoral strategy:
“Yet the question of whether we must smash the state and whether we participate in elections are two different questions. The bourgeois state can be smashed, yet we can still participate within its institutions with the purpose of propagandizing and politically training the working class. Election campaigns, even when lost, serve the purpose of forcing Communists to engage the public at large and argue their positions. However what if Communists actually win elections? Would we not just be managing the bourgeois state?
The first clarification to make is that we would not come to power unless we had the mandate to operate our full minimum program and essentially smash the bourgeois state and create the dictatorship of the proletariat. The party would be a party in opposition and would not form coalition governments with bourgeois parties. Unlike other organizations like Syriza, who act as if they cannot accomplish anything until they are in power, a properly Marxist party would remain in opposition and not form a government until conditions for revolution are ripe.
Another clarification is that we are not going to aim for executive powers we can’t realistically win. The extent to which communists are responsible for managing the state is the extent to which they will be forced to make compromises with bourgeois legality. Rather than running for offices like governor or president, we should aim for offices in the legislative branch such as the federal House Representatives, but also state Houses and Assemblies. In these positions we can vote for and against legislation (as well as abstain) and establish our party as a “tribune of the people” that uses its seat of power to propagandize against the bourgeois state and capitalism. By voting against reactionary laws, even if we are outnumbered by the Democrats and Republicans, we can demonstrate that our party stands firmly against the interests of the bourgeois state and develop mass legitimacy for radical positions”.
Changing historical conditions and the real history of the communist movement
What is immediately striking about this passage is that it appears to exist outside of history. There is a complete absence of any idea of the profound changes that have taken place in the life of capitalism and the working class since the days of the Second International when such dilemmas about how workers’ representatives should conduct themselves in parliamentary bodies had a real significance. But with DP’s text, we are taken to a universe where there has been no tendency for the mass parties and unions of the working class to be absorbed into the capitalist state; no qualitative growth of the totalitarian state Leviathan in response to the new epoch of wars and revolutions; no traumatic decades of Stalinist, fascist and democratic counter-revolution which corrupted or exterminated a whole generation of revolutionaries, leaving only a few small internationalist groups fighting against the tide; no tendency, in the generations that emerged after the receding of this counter-revolution, towards a deep suspicion of politics and political organisation of any kind. The result of this real historical process has been palpable: the communists, who by definition must always remain a minority in the confines of capitalist society, have become a miniscule force, even if you are fairly wide-ranging in your definition of what constitutes the political forces of the working class today. In this actual universe, there is no party of the working class, let alone a mass one.
The CLT don’t, of course claim to be a party and don’t think the communist party is close to being formed; neither do they envisage “running any candidates anytime soon, as we are a small sect with little support and limited resources”. But the divorce from reality we saw in relation to the past also applies to a possible electoral strategy in the future, because there is no attempt whatever to consider what changes would have to take place that would make it possible for today’s “small sects with little support and limited resources” to form themselves into a formidable communist party capable of winning a respectable number of seats in Congress or similar parliaments, and even, possibly “winning a mandate to smash the bourgeois state and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat”. Such a transformation could only be the result of a massive upsurge in the class struggle on a world-wide scale, of a movement that would give rise not only a whole new generation of revolutionaries and a serious strengthening of the communist minority, but also engender new forms of mass organisation based on the principles of general assemblies and workers’ councils. This perspective has been validated not only by the soviets of the first international revolutionary wave, but in more recent mass movements – for example the inter-factory strike committees that emerged in Poland in 1980, or the general assemblies that were the focus of discussion and decision-making in the struggle against the CPE in France in 2006 or the Indignados movement in Spain 2011.
Two antagonistic poles: bourgeois parliaments vs. workers’ councils
It is already significant that the text says nothing at all about the question of the councils, and even appears to hold out the prospect of the communist party coming to power via bourgeois elections. But what is even more significant is that the text doesn’t examine the role of parliament and elections in cases where workers’ councils were being formed and the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat was being directly posed, such as in Germany in 1918, where democratic elections were used as a weapon against the councils, a means of trapping workers in the idea that parliamentary democracy and workers’ councils could in some way co-exist (providing the latter were reduced to tame trade unionist type bodies limited to the individual workplace…). In sum: communists will only be able to act as a party, an organisation which has a real impact on the development of the class struggle, in a pre-revolutionary upsurge, and then it will be more evident than ever that their energies should be directed towards the strengthening of the councils or council-type organisations against the deadly mystifications of bourgeois democracy.
And we should be aware of just how deeply these mystifications have implanted themselves in the minds of the working class, including its revolutionary minorities. The idea that the triumph of democracy and the political victory of the working class amount to the same thing is already present in the 1848 Communist Manifesto. The experience of the Commune enabled Marx and Engels to understand that the working class could not use the existing parliamentary bodies to come to power…and yet how fragile this understanding was, when shortly after writing The Civil War in France, which drew out the lessons of the Commune with magnificent clarity, Marx could still envisage the working class coming to power ‘peacefully’ in certain democratic bourgeois countries like Britain or Holland. And when, in the phase of social democracy which made it seem that the working class could step by step build up its parties and its unions inside the framework of bourgeois society, theoreticians like Kautsky could see no other ‘road to power’ except the parliamentary road. Those within the marxist movement who began to challenge the Kautskyite orthodoxy had a hard battle trying to develop the implications of the new forms of struggle appearing as capitalism’s ascendant epoch drew to a close: the mass strikes in Russia, the appearance of the soviets, the development of wildcat strikes in western Europe. It was through examining these new forms and methods of struggle that Pannekoek, Bukharin and eventually Lenin were able to break through the social democratic consensus and base their programme on the most lucid insights of Marx and Engels – on the recognition that the bourgeois state had to be dismantled, and not by parliamentary decree, but by the new organs of proletarian political power created by the revolution itself. These theoretical developments took place alongside, and in the case of Pannekoek were deeply influenced by, Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis of the mass strike, which put into question the old social democratic (and, by extension, anarcho-syndicalist) practice of step by step forming the mass organisations that will eventually take over the running of society; in the new conception of Luxemburg and Pannekoek, the revolutionary mass organisation of the working class is a product of the mass movement, and cannot be fabricated by the communist minority in the absence of such a movement.
Anti-electoralism as an “eternal principle”?
DP wants us to drop the idea of “anti-electoralism as an eternal principle”. But none of the militants of the social democratic, and then the communist, left fractions considered anti-electoralism as an eternal principle. They were marxists, not anarchists, and they recognised that, in a previous epoch, the period that included the Communist League and the first two Internationals, the strategy of standing workers’ candidates in bourgeois elections could indeed serve what is an “eternal principle” for revolutionaries: the necessity to develop the autonomy of the working class from all other classes. Thus in the mid to late 19th century, marxists advocated participation in bourgeois elections and parliaments because they considered that parliament could still be a field of battle between parties which were tied to an outmoded feudal order, and those which expressed the forward movement of capital, and could thus be critically supported by the workers’ organisations. In this period, it was possible to consider that such alliances could be in the interests of the working class and even a moment in the development of its political class independence. As capitalism reached its limits as a factor of progress, the distinction between progressive and reactionary bourgeois parties became increasingly meaningless, so that the role of revolutionaries in bourgeois parliaments had to be focused more and more on opposing all the different bourgeois factions – on playing the ‘tribune’ role as a lone voice in a purely bourgeois arena. But it was precisely during this phase, the phase of mature social democracy, that the leading currents within many of the workers’ parties were drawn into all kinds of compromises with the capitalist class, even up to the point of accepting posts in government cabinets.
For the left communists, the advent of a period of open revolutionary struggle, and the concomitant triumph of opportunism within the parties of the old International – definitely completed by their role in the war of 1914 and the ensuing revolutionary wave – meant that all the old tactics, even the limited use of elections and parliament as a tribune, had to be thoroughly reassessed. Pannekoek, writing in 1920 when he was still firmly convinced of the necessity for a communist party, accepted that participation in parliament and elections had been a valid strategy in the previous era, but pointed to its pernicious effects in the new conditions:
“Matters change when the struggle of the proletariat enters a revolutionary phase. We are not here concerned with the question of why the parliamentary system is inadequate as a system of government for the masses and why it must give way to the soviet system, but with the utilisation of parliament as a means of struggle by the proletariat. As such, parliamentary activity is the paradigm of struggles in which only the leaders are actively involved and in which the masses themselves play a subordinate role. It consists in individual deputies carrying on the main battle; this is bound to arouse the illusion among the masses that others can do their fighting for them. People used to believe that leaders could obtain important reforms for the workers in parliament; and the illusion even arose that parliamentarians could carry out the transformation to socialism by acts of parliament. Now that parliamentarianism has grown more modest in its claims, one hears the argument that deputies in parliament could make an important contribution to communist propaganda. But this always means that the main emphasis falls on the leaders, and it is taken for granted that specialists will determine policy – even if this is done under the democratic veil of debates and resolutions by congresses; the history of social democracy is a series of unsuccessful attempts to induce the members themselves to determine policy. This is all inevitable while the proletariat is carrying on a parliamentary struggle, while the masses have yet to create organs of self-action, while the revolution has still to be made, that is; and as soon as the masses start to intervene, act and take decisions on their own behalf, the disadvantages of parliamentary struggle become overwhelming.
As we argued above, the tactical problem is how we are to eradicate the traditional bourgeois mentality which paralyses the strength of the proletarian masses; everything which lends new power to the received conceptions is harmful. The most tenacious and intractable element in this mentality is dependence upon leaders, whom the masses leave to determine general questions and to manage their class affairs. Parliamentarianism inevitably tends to inhibit the autonomous activity by the masses that is necessary for revolution. Fine speeches may be made in parliament exhorting the proletariat to revolutionary action; it is not in such words that the latter has its origins, however, but in the hard necessity of there being no other alternative.
Revolution also demands something more than the massive assault that topples a government and which, as we know, cannot be summoned up by leaders, but can only spring from the profound impulse of the masses. Revolution requires social reconstruction to be undertaken, difficult decisions made, the whole proletariat involved in creative action – and this is only possible if first the vanguard, then a greater and greater number take matters in hand themselves, know their own responsibilities, investigate, agitate, wrestle, strive, reflect, assess, seize chances and act upon them. But all this is difficult and laborious; thus, so long as the working class thinks it sees an easier way out through others acting on its behalf leading agitation from a high platform, taking decisions, giving signals for action, making laws – the old habits of thought and the old weaknesses will make it hesitate and remain passive”.
Here Pannekoek gets to the root of why the fight for the councils is diametrically opposed to parliamentary activity in all its forms. To make a revolution, the proletariat has to make a fundamental break with old habits of thinking and acting, with the very idea of alienating its own forces through the election of representatives in bourgeois parliaments. For him, the tactic of ‘revolutionary parliamentarism’ adopted by the parties of the Communist International (which is very similar to the electoral strategy advocated by DP) could only serve to reinforce the prevailing and paralysing illusions in bourgeois democracy. And we can add that, even though the statutes of the Communist Parties contained a number of precautions against corruption by parliamentary politics, these rules did not prevent the official parties from transforming themselves rather rapidly into vote-chasing machines.
For Pannekoek and other left communists, the same problematic applied to the trade union form, which, while originally emerging as a form of working class self-organisation, had become hopelessly enmeshed in the bourgeois state and its bureaucracy. The counter-revolutionary role played by the old parties and unions in the imperialist war and the proletarian revolution that followed made it clear that the new forms of organisation would develop not inside the shell of the old society, but through an eruption that would shatter the shell itself. In a sense, this was a return to Marx’s observation that the working class is a class of civil society that is not a class of civil society, an outlaw class that by definition can never gain “public legitimacy” in the normal operations of capitalist society. The idea of seeking public legitimacy, of looking for ‘popularity’ and the biggest possible share of the vote, is a gross deformation of the role of communists, whose task is always to defend the future goals in the movement of the present, to speak the truth however unpalatable it may sound, even when this means going against the stream, as revolutionaries like Lenin and Luxemburg did in the face of the wave of nationalist hysteria which temporarily swept over the working class in 1914. Bordiga, who in the debates in the Third International actually considered the question of abstentionism to be a tactic, nevertheless further illuminates the reasons why the ‘electoral’ mentality ties us to bourgeois society. In The Democratic Principle, for example, he shows that the principle of bourgeois democracy, the principle of one citizen one vote, is rooted in the very operation of commodity relations, of a society founded on equivalent exchange. A movement for communism is by definition a movement that overcomes the notion of the atomised citizen exercising his rights through the polling booth, as part of a wider struggle against the reified social relationships imposed by the commodity form.
We think that the comrades of the CLT should go back to these theoretical contributions and engage much more deeply with the reasons why these militants rejected all forms of electoral participation. It’s true that DP’s text accepts that there is a danger, confirmed by the German SPD’s vote for war credits in 1914, that party representatives will develop interests independent from the working class. But his answer is that this problem “can be addressed without having to abstain from electoral activities. For example, electoral reps can be required to donate a certain percentage of their salary to the party and be subject to recall by popular vote”. Leaving aside the speculative, even fantastic nature of this whole scenario, this remains a purely formal response which does not get to the heart of the criticisms raised by the likes of Pannekoek and Bordiga.
The danger of falling into leftism
As we have noted, the CLT is not in any immediate danger of plunging into electoral practices. But its reluctance to consider the real historical conditions facing the communist minority today seems to be pushing it towards a kind of syndicalist activism on the one hand (having said they won’t be running any candidates as yet they say that “our energy right now is being put into making ourselves a more effective organisation and helping get a General membership branch of the IWW started”). More dangerously, its ambiguities about the nature of the ‘left’, which can be seen in the early part of the text, seems to be opening doors to alliances with openly left-capitalist organisations like the Red Party, which looks like an American equivalent of the Communist Party of Great Britain/Weekly Worker in the UK, an organisation which has never put into question its historic origins as a faction within Stalinism. Perhaps the CLT sees such alliances as a means of breaking out of its situation as a “small sect without support”, but it is more likely to drown the group in a sea of leftism.
DP’s article, as we have seen, deplores the fact that “large sections of the left” favour direct actionism to the exclusion of a viable electoral strategy. In reality, in a period of considerable difficulty for the working class, where strikes and ‘the movement in the street’ have gone into retreat, many newly politicised elements are being mobilised in support of a ‘new Look’ left in the shape of Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the US. These currents all represent a clear attempt to pull militant energies into the dead end of elections and the ‘long march through the institutions’. Communists can only stand against the false hopes they offer by offering a clear critique of bourgeois democracy and its insidious influence within the revolutionary class.
Amos, October 2016
. http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201510/13503/communist-league-tampa-and-question-party; https://communistleaguetampa.org/2016/01/11/debate-on-the-world-party-a-response-to-the-icc/ http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201604/13893/once-again-party-and-its-relation-class
. https://communistleaguetampa.org/?s=communist+electoral+strategy&submit=Search. We understand that this is a signed article and may not represent the views of all members of the CLT, but posts by CLT member Pennoid on a thread on libcom, broadly agreeing with the article’s approach, and the absence of any counter arguments by CLT members on their website, seems to indicate that DP’s article has wider support within the group. See http://libcom.org/forums/organise/communist-electoral-strategy-22082016
. https://workersoffensivegroup.wordpress.com/points-of-unity/; https://workersoffensivegroup.wordpress.com/category/official-statements/. On elections, the Workers’ Offensive Group says in its points of unity: “All elections are a sham. Political power is fundamentally a question of violence, not votes. The ritual of mass self-delusion that forms part of electoral politics acts as a safe outlet into which the grievances of the exploited class can be harmlessly redirected. Participation in elections helps maintain capitalists’ mental dominion over the working class by reviving the great lie that workers have any voice within this system. Begging pathetically at the feet of the exploiters and entrusting a tiny minority to fight all its battles does not produce independence and assertiveness in the working class, only weakness and submission”.
. The air of unreality also hovers over DP’s view of how the mass party will engage in the field of direct action: “A mass party will have to engage large amounts of workers through “extra-parliamentary” means before it will even stand a chance winning in an electoral campaign. Building class unions, solidarity networks, unemployed councils, mutual aid societies, gun clubs, sports teams, etc. is not to be rejected in favor of electoral action”. This looks very much like more nostalgia for the good old days of social democracy when the working class could maintain its own economic, political and cultural organisms for a lengthy period without them falling into the hands of the bourgeois state.
. See our article on the parliamentarist errors of Engels and Kautsky: http://en.internationalism.org/internationalreview/199701/1619/revolutionary-perspective-obscured-parliamentary-illusions
. ‘World revolution and communist tactics’, https://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/tactics/index.htm
. Again, the Points of Unity published by the Workers’ Offensive Group take a clear position on the union question: “Labor unions, regardless of their internal structure, are not workers’ organizations but organs of the capitalist state that smother and contain the resistance of the working class against the exploitative system through the negotiation and enforcement of contracts with capital. In the heat of the class struggle, the workers must destroy the unions and form their own mass and unitary organizations to direct and carry out their struggle against capitalism”.