Extracts from some correspondence on the question of elections

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We publishing these extracts from a recent exchange of correspondence with a young reader in Arizona, focussing on the question of elections. In the original message sent by this comrade, he said he was in general agreement with our platform, which he considered to be “thorough and detailed”. However, he expressed one major disagreement: against our “rigid anti-parliamentarianism” he argued that communists can use elections “strictly as a platform to gain public attention”. In order to take the discussion forward, we asked him whether he had read some of the works of Bordiga, Gorter and Pannekoek, and some articles published by the ICC on the question, outlining the marxist basis for opposing the use the elections and parliament in the epoch of proletarian revolution. We received the following response, and our own reply follows. Since then we have received a second letter defending the tactical use of elections. We also agreed with the comrade that it would be useful to publish this correspondence. We aim to publish this second reply, and our response to that, in the near future.


1 June
My position regarding parliamentarianism, is for me, a strictly situational stance. I am quite familiar with many, not all of the works you listed, and those which I am not familiar I will make sure to look into quite soon. Just as in comrade Gorter's letter to Lenin, all tactics are relative to the material situations of the time and the place. I think that now, and in America, as that is the only place I can speak for, the American Proletariat at least, or maybe the western proletariat needs to be shown the faults in the system and they need to be shown that the bourgeois state is for the bourgeoisie and not for them. As of this very moment the mass of the Proletariat sides with the bourgeois class and with that the bourgeois state over the Communistic parties, and that's when they acknowledge the Communistic parties as legitimate forces.

I think now more than ever we need to take a strong and serious public platform, against the right populism and social democracy which is in such a great rise in the western countries. I don't see enough success coming from newspapers, which no one reads these days, or from the internet even. I think it would be risky, risking the corruption of the bourgeois state, but the legitimacy of the bourgeois state held in the public opinion these days should not be overlooked as a ripe opportunity. We as communists need to have the mass Proletariat on our sides, or when the next crisis comes they may side with the popular reactionary forces. I don't think participation in the bourgeois state is a sustainable tactic, nor do I see holding political office as a means toward progressing through the revolution. However, I do see it as a possibly vital method toward building the Communistic movement needed to sustain the revolution. If we were to send people to run in elections, just to use as much screen time as possible, not even for trying to get into office, but just using the platform, we may have a great way to spread our message to an audience that would have never otherwise gone out to read Marx themselves, or to open or read the articles on your website, or to go out and picket. 

We can see now the mass distrust in the system that already exists, sadly, most of this distrust has been taken out in the past by voting for far right reactionaries. We need to seize what may be the only opportunity we have, to take control and shape the realm of thinking for the mass proletariat. If on the debate stage you see one conservative party leader, a 'progressive' liberal party leader, and then a third, Communist party leader, who unlike the corrupted communist parties tells you, 'you don't have to vote, it's a sham any ways' and who tells you that there is a reasonable answer to your hard comings, and that if only you could take control of your workplace, and if you could be empowered to enact change, yourself as a worker'. Then, we may have a properly inspired, and a properly revolutionary proletariat waiting to take advantage of the Bourgeoisie's mismanagement of society trigger a mass strike and usher in the revolution. Upon the birth of the Left Communist movement was talk of proper communistic propaganda, to radicalize the masses, today in order to prove ourselves to the masses through propaganda, I believe we ought to legitimize ourselves by undermining the bourgeois mass media, and initiating almost a two front war through the internet and through the television to win over the hearts of disaffected workers. I seem to be repeating myself an awful lot, but I think every word is important. I must make clear, I do not advocate for a communist party to wait around for a ballot every couple years, I advocate for a communist party which may use the Bourgeoisie's own mechanisms against it, not through reform, but strictly for communication, and should a comrade of this party be elected, the must stand so a strict and unrelenting total abstention, as to not legitimize bourgeois policies. I think that if one were to set up just a couple of campaign posters in some place where the working class is at a terrible low, like in Oakland, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit or wherever, that says vote for ___ to fuck that system 2020 people would celebrate the rebellious attitude, not to mention the media attention such a thing would gain, I think even one or two of such candidates would gain enough attention to bring the Communistic forces back to the forefront of the political movement. 

Other than the question of the elections, I see no divergence from myself and the left communist program. Like I said I am familiar with the struggles of our previous comrades who had been at odds with Stalinism, and with bourgeois elements and had been witch-hunted, and who struggled to create an international front. I think they built a foundation that was meant to adapt through the generations, and was able to change to better compliment contradictory situations that have come or may come in the near or far future, and I only hope for the best possible development for our revolutionary struggle to come and to do so in a great dignified fashion.

Dear comrade

Thank you for your rapid reply.  In this letter we want to concentrate more on your arguments in favour of defending the use of revolutionary parliamentarianism.

The first point we would like to make is that participation in parliamentary elections always implies that we look at what the “representatives” say in their “fine” speeches, i.e. workers are encouraged to be passive and listen to what the “representatives” say. But we think, on the contrary, that the working class cannot remain passive, but must take the initiative itself. Instead of encouraging people to “watch the others speak”, we say: take the initiative yourselves, come together and discuss, clarify, discuss proposals for action, examine the roots of our problems and how we can push back the capitalist class… Such an orientation – calls for self-organisation instead of “watching the shows in parliament”, calls for coming together instead of being “atomised” through the ballot boxes, calls to take your destiny into your own hands, to reflect on how to establish contact with combative workers elsewhere, to discuss about the root causes of the crisis, war, ecological destruction – is the only one that will allow the class to develop confidence in itself, to see it does exist as a class and that it is a counter-pole to the capitalist class.

In other words, the role of communists is not to trust in the parliamentary representatives, but to encourage the class to struggle, to develop its own force. Thus with the appeal for participation in election with the hope of denouncing the system from the parliamentary tribune – you only prevent the class from taking action itself.

Liebknecht, who was a famous representative of Social-Democracy in parliament in Germany could not contribute to the mobilisation of the working class against war from the parliamentary tribune, but he had to speak in public, in the street, on a square in front of thousands of protesters, who in turn felt their own strength there. Hearing speeches in parliament does not allow you to develop any sense of strength, it only contributes to a feeling of helplessness.

What distinguishes communists is their capacity to encourage the class to organise itself, to take its destiny in its hands and not increase its passivity.

This leads us to the second response we want to make. Your arguments for your radically critical support for revolutionary parliamentarianism appears to be based on a vision of the proletariat as a passive mass awaiting the Communist Party to bring it enlightenment:  “We need to seize what may be the only opportunity we have, to take control and shape the realm of thinking for the mass proletariat”

Thus, for you the Communist Party’s role is to control and shape the thinking of the proletariat. As we say above for us the role of communists is to encourage the self-activity of the proletariat. We take this position because we do not see communist consciousness as something that is brought to the proletariat, as your argument would imply, but as a product of the class. Revolutionary organisation is the highest expression of the proletariat’s class consciousness. Thus the relationship of communist organisations to the class is to be an active factor in the development of its class consciousness. Communist organisations do not stand outside the class and bring consciousness from on high but are the clearest manifestation of this consciousness.

For more detailed analysis of our analysis of class consciousness and communist organisation we recommend the following:

- Our pamphlet Communist Organisations and class consciousness[1]

- On the Party and its relationship to the class,[2]

- Reply to the CWO: On the subterranean maturation of consciousness[3]

The relationship between the party or communist organisation to the rest of the proletariat is not a matter of will, which appears to be another part of your argument: if only we can get enough publicity we can win workers to communism. We think this is an erroneous idea. As you say in your letter the proletariat is in a very difficult situation. This is very true, but it cannot not be understood in an empirical manner, or like a photograph. It is in this present situation because of a whole historical process. We will not go into detail but with the end of the counter-revolution with the events of 68 and the waves of struggles that followed in the 60s,70s and 80s the proletariat took centre stage of the social situation. In response to the events of that period the international ruling class carried out a systematic offensive against the proletariat with the specific aim of preventing its politicisation. The whole apparatus of the bourgeoisie state - democracy, parliament, the Left, the unions - were thrown at the proletariat, which made the development of the struggles, above all their politicisation, extremely difficult. Then in 1989 the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the apparent triumph of capitalism and democracy along with the ‘death of communism’ threw the proletariat into a profound retreat, from which it has still not emerged. Thus today’s very real difficulties for the proletariat to even see itself as a class let alone understand the need for revolution has deep roots. The idea that a small minority of communists can simply overcome this by making mass propaganda through the use of elections, no matter how well intentioned, can only contribute to these difficulties by giving a radical gloss to the whole democratic process and reinforcing the atomised isolation of workers in their homes. As we say class consciousness can only develop through the active struggle of the proletariat ie through its economic, political and theoretical struggles. Communist organisations are an essential part of this struggle. The influence of this activity however depends upon the level of mobilisation of the proletariat in its struggle.

The influence of revolutionary organisations within the class at present is extremely limited. Even in the period between 1968 and 1989 their influence was very restricted, but in the context of the development of the open struggles it was possible to intervene in the most important struggles. This restricted influence was not due to lack of trying but because the counter-revolution had left a heavy weight of the proletariat: a strong distrust of political organisations claiming to defend communism. And the ruling class did all they could to reinforce this distrust. This situation was made qualitatively more difficult by the collapse of the old bloc system.

In this situation, it makes no sense to talk about the existence of a communist party, which implies an organisation that has a real influence within the class and which can thus only be formed in periods of heightened class struggle. One of the principal tasks of revolutionary organisations today is not to puff themselves up like a bullfrog and proclaim themselves as the party but to seriously prepare for its formation in the future, on the most solid basis possible.

The idea that the difficulties of the proletariat can be overcome by winning over as many workers as possible through the use of revolutionary parliamentarian has a tragic history. The opportunist fractions within the 3rd International believed that they could overcome the growing problems of the revolutionary wave by “going to the masses” (slogan of the 3rd Congress, 1921) and the “United Front” (4th Congress, 1922). Behind this idea was the vision of class consciousness as something brought to the class from the outside. Thus all the party had to do was gain wide enough influence and it would be able to win ever greater numbers to communism. This desperation meant abandoning ever more of the gains made in the initial period of the Communist International: a serious questioning of the use of parliament and the trade unions and an intransigent denunciation of the role of Social Democracy.

We look forward to your reply with great anticipation

Phil, for the ICC