Parliamentary Participation

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Parliamentary Participation
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For a while I have been developing some reservations on the question of parliament, so I thought I'd start a thread to discuss this in the hopes that you can help me clear up these issues. As I understand it, the position of the ICC is that during the phase of capitalist ascendance parliament provided an arena to fight for reforms, within which it was also possible to use parliament as a tribune to denounce the capitalist system. However, in the current period the task of the proletariat is no longer to win minor reforms but to overthrow the whole of the old society. In this situation, participation in parliament takes on two major negatives which mark it out as definitively bourgeois - on the one hand it serves as a mystification, to lull the class into believing in the possibility of peaceful reform of the existing system from within, on the other hand it tends towards an overreliance on the parliamentary delegates rather than the self-activity of the masses themselves.

To begin with, I don't believe that parliamentary participation was originally justified by Marxists on the basis that it could be used to win reforms. It seems to me that Marx and Engels view was that the putting forward of workers' candidates in opposition to bourgeois candidates would aid proletarian autonomy and the formation of the class into a class-for-itself. This is evident in, for example, the March 1850 address of the Central Committee to the Communist League:

Here the proletariat must take care... that workers’ candidates are nominated everywhere in opposition to bourgeois-democratic candidates... 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. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.

It also seems to be evident in Engels' critique of the Bakuninist's abstentionist position in The Bakuninists at Work. He attempts to show how the refusal of the Spanish sections of the IWMA to participate in the Spanish elections meant that the workers failed to act as an independent party, but instead gave their individual support to sections of the bourgeoisie. The Bakuninists phrases about abstaining turned into the idea that they would not as an organisation put forward candidates, but that they would not make it a compulsion on the members as individuals.

This relates back somewhat to my own concerns. I have found that when arguing with other socialists over the issue of who to vote for, a lot of those who reject elections as a way of achieving socialism seem to fall back into the idea that they have to do something, so they will vote for a 'lesser evil' bourgeois candidate in current conditions. This is quite frustrating, and it seems to me that having proper workers' candidates would remove such excuses.

Now as for the mystification and denigration of self-activity inherent in participation within parliamentary bodies, I agree this is a real danger. My concern is that although the rejection of the idea of a 'peaceful' or 'gradual' transition to socialism is technically correct, it does not seem like it would be a good idea to pursue the opposite cause. That is, like the Chartists, our slogan should be "peacefully when we may, forcibly if we must". Marx certainly bore no illusions that the bourgeoisie would simply allow itself to be voted out of power. For example, when asked whether he thought that the British system of campaigning on issues presented the possibility of peaceful development he replies:

I am not so sanguine on that point as you. The English middle class has always shown itself willing enough to accept the verdict of the majority, so long as it enjoyed the monopoly of the voting power. But, mark me, as soon as it finds itself outvoted on what it considers vital questions, we shall see here a new slaveowners's war.

David Adam quotes the following quite interesting remark in his piece on Marx and the State:

An historical development can remain ‘peaceful’ only so long as no forcible hindrances are put in its way by the existing rulers of a society. If, for example, in England or the United States, the working class were to win a majority in Parliament or Congress, it could legally put an end to laws and institutions standing in the way of its development, although even here only so far as societal development permitted. For the ‘peaceful’ movement could still be turned into a ‘violent’ one by the revolt of those whose interests were bound up with the old order. If such people were then put down by force (as in the American Civil War and the French Revolution), it would be rebels against the ‘lawful’ power.

It seems that here parliamentary activity is simply regarded as a way of disarming the state apparatus while replacing it with the institutions of mass-democracy. Further, the development would not necessarily be 'peaceful', however as far as possible it would be necessary to attempt to win influence by peaceful means and only resort to violence when provoked by the violence of the opressors.

On the other hand I suppose the question arises whether we can keep members of parliament under the thumb of party discipline, or whether although not necessarily opposed to mass action, parliament tends to become a distraction from it.

I am genuinely stumped here, so I eagerly await what others have to say on the subject.

Zanthorus wrote:This relates

Zanthorus wrote:
This relates back somewhat to my own concerns. I have found that when arguing with other socialists over the issue of who to vote for, a lot of those who reject elections as a way of achieving socialism seem to fall back into the idea that they have to do something, so they will vote for a 'lesser evil' bourgeois candidate in current conditions. This is quite frustrating, and it seems to me that having proper workers' candidates would remove such excuses.

Personally I don't spend a lot of time arguing over elections, but I don't think that there is a 'lesser evil'. I don't think that the British Labour Party attacks the working class, or pursues the UK's imperialist agenda any less than the Tory party. The whole reason that I don't vote is that I don't believe it will change anything.




on participation in parliament

 Zanthorus, it's good that you raise your concerns about this. You are right that in the 19th century an important element in taking part in bourgeois elections was the whole process of developing a labour movement which was aware of itself and was not indifferent to the political sphere. I would say that this was possible for a certain period, when the working class was beginning to form parties as well as trade unions, but well before the system entered its decadent phase the negative effects of this began to accumulate, even to the point where revolutionaries like Engels were beginning to see the growth of the social democratic vote in Germany  as a real indicator of the approach of the revolution; and generally within the movement the idea of smashing the existing state was increasingly 'forgotten' or dismissed as an anarchist deviation: hence the necessity for Pannekoek, Bukharin, Lenin etc to restore this aspect of the communist programme around the time of the first world war. 

The key question here, however, is whether taking part in parliament would do anything positive towards developing working class political self-consciousness in the present period, and whether the huge amount of energy (and money) involved in putting up parliamentary candidates would do anything but waste the resources of what is a very small communist movement. On both counts I think we have to answer in the negative. The democratic mystification is an absolutely central pillar of bourgeois ideology and communists need to expose it consistently and at every level - a task that would be undermined by playing the election game. Whatever we said about the necessity for self-organisation, putting communists up as candidates would reinforce the idea that workers only have to vote for us to solve their problems. At the same time, can you really argue that the small communist groups that exists today should put their resources into electioneering when there are a thousand more important things for us to do? And if we were a real communist party, that would mean that the revolution would already be approaching, implying a direct confrontation between the workers' own organisations and the democratic machinery. There would be even less justification for being inside parliament then.  


Thankyou for your helpful response Alf  

And following on from Alf,

And following on from Alf, even if communist 'candidates' could counter the attacks of bourgeois media, the state has shown that it could just change its ground rules to exclude them - viz the way it rushed through the Representation of the People Act 1981 to keep out IRA hunger strikers, bourgeois though they were. And this even for election to an institution that has precious little to do with the operation of bourgeois rule anyway.