In Britain, the electoral season is upon us once again. And the ruling class is a bit worried that a growing number of people aren’t that interested. That’s why, along with the usual arguments about the personalities of this or that political leader, followed (usually in order of importance) by arguments about the policies of the different parties, we are hearing a great deal about voter apathy and even the threat to democracy that it poses. The scandal caused by Russell Brand in his interview with Jeremy Paxman in October 2013 summed it up quite well: after Brand’s shocking admission that he has never voted and never will, because he is sick of the lies and dishonesty of the entire ‘political class’, Paxman came back with the classic response: if you don’t vote, you have no right to say anything about the political system. And he was backed up in particular by various celebrities and commentators on the left, who sometimes threw in further arguments about the vote being something that workers and oppressed women fought for to make sure they would have a voice in society. So either you vote and take part in electoral politics, or you are shamefully advocating political indifference and apathy, and even betraying the memory of the fighters of the past.
The workers’ movement and bourgeois democracy
Electoralism, the parliamentary system, is a central plank of bourgeois politics. We know of course that the capitalist class has frequently dispensed with it in times of crisis - fascism being an obvious example - or where it is congenitally weak, as in the stalinist regimes or various military dictatorships in the peripheral countries. But brute repression is not the most effective form of class rule, and in the most developed countries democracy is favoured because it upholds the illusion among the exploited that they really do have a say in how they are ruled. The democratic state is the more subtle mask of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the best framework for preventing class conflict from getting out of control.
But didn’t the working class fight for the vote in the nineteenth century, and didn’t support for this struggle distinguish the marxists from the anarchists in the workers’ movement? And what about the heroic struggle of the suffragettes? Surely we should honour their struggle by exercising the right they secured for us?
It’s true that Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg and others argued that the working class, as well as forming trade unions to defend its interests at the economic level, should organise political parties whose programme would include the right to vote and the fight, inside bourgeois parliaments, for laws that would back up the improvements won through the economic struggle. And when the anarchists attacked them for being reformists and demanded an all-out and immediate fight for revolution, they replied by arguing that capitalist society was still in the ascendant and that the working class was therefore faced with the necessity to develop its class identity and its historical programme inside the confines of bourgeois society.
It’s also true that this perspective contained serious pitfalls. If the workers’ movement got too attached to the struggle for immediate gains, it would lose sight of the long-term goals of revolution and communism, and thus ran the risk that its painfully created organisations would become a functioning part of bourgeois society. And this indeed is what happened – the trade unions and the mass social democratic parties were gradually integrated into capitalism, and a whole new current of thought emerged from within them, justifying this process by revising the fundamentals of marxism, which had always been based on the prediction that capitalism would sooner or later enter into a historical crisis which would make revolution a necessity.
The culminating point of this revisionist or opportunist trend was reached in 1914, when the epoch of crisis dawned and the workers’ organisations were faced with the choice: hold onto to what you have achieved inside capitalism by selling yourself to the bourgeoisie and supporting the war, or hold onto your principles by defending the international interests of the working class and opposing the war. In 1917-21, the choice was posed just as starkly: support the ruling class against the threat of revolution, or join the revolutionary struggle.
Revolution, by definition, demands a radical break with the past, and in the first great wave of revolutions provoked by the imperialist war of 1914-18, those who remained loyal to the working class were faced with the necessity to break with the old organisations – trade unions and political parties – that had become part of the capitalist war effort. They were obliged to reject the tactics of the previous period, focused on the fight for reforms, and to participate in the new forms of organisation created by the need for revolution.
Soviets versus parliament
The question of the vote and of parliament was a key element in this debate about the tactics appropriate to the epoch of revolution. After three years of futile slaughter, the working class had responded with truly revolutionary methods: mutinies and mass strikes. These movements gave rise to forms of organisation that would allow the working class to unite its forces and pose the question of political power: the soviets or workers’ councils, based on elected and revocable delegates from general assemblies of workers or soldiers. These organs were directly opposed to bourgeois parliaments, founded on the atomised citizen who votes for a party that can now assume the reins of state and oppress and defraud the population for the next four or five years. And everywhere the councils emerged – especially in Germany – the ruling class did everything it could to get them to hand over power to parliament, above all via the influence of the social democratic parties which still had the majority in the councils.
It was no accident that the right to vote was granted to the majority of the working class precisely when it had gone beyond the parliamentary form and affirmed in practice the possibility of a new form of political power, directly controlled from below and aimed at the complete transformation of society. In Britain, it was also symbolic that the vote was given to women (though still not all of them) in 1918, after the majority of the suffragette movement had pledged its loyalty to capitalism by supporting the war. Having initially opposed granting the vote to the exploited and the oppressed majority for fear that it would result in the overthrow of class rule, the bourgeoisie now rushed to grant universal suffrage as the best way of preserving its threatened system. This deception was denounced at the time by Sylvia Pankhurst, still often presented to us as a famous suffragette, but who in fact broke politically with the suffragette movement, including her mother Emmeline, for supporting the war; identifying herself with the workers’ revolution, Sylvia and her paper The Workers’ Dreadnought entered the battle for soviets against parliament and bourgeois elections.
Need for a proletarian perspective
Of course, this all happened a long time ago. The working class may have come close to revolution then, but today the working class hardly recognises itself as a class at all. For decades now it has been told that the attempt to build ‘communism’ in the USSR and the eastern countries was a total failure, that marxism has been refuted, that the working class doesn’t really exist anymore. Certainly the main parties contesting the next election no longer refer to class – including the ‘Labour’ party; and the ones that pretend to be a radical alternative to the established parties, such as UKIP on the right and the Greens on the left, call on us to vote on the basis of Britishness or as concerned citizens.
But capitalism is even more decrepit than in was in 1914 and the longer it continues, the more it threatens the very survival of humanity. In a world facing economic crisis, war and barbarism from all sides, the national solutions and reforms promised in bourgeois elections are more fraudulent than ever. And despite all the changes in its structure on a global scale since the first revolutionary wave, the working class is still the class that creates the wealth in this system, still the exploited class, and still the only force that can change society from top to bottom. What the working class lacks, above all, is a perspective, a sense not only of what it is today but of what it can become. And this perspective can only be a political one, because it is centred round the question of who will hold power - a minority of exploiters, or the majority made up of the exploited and the oppressed – and what they will do with power – defend their privileges even at the expense of the destruction of society and the natural environment, or create a new society based on solidarity and the satisfaction of human need.
All forms of bourgeois politics are a barrier to the self-organised, self-conscious movement we need if we are to challenge this social order. We are against participating in capitalist elections not because we favour apathy and withdrawal from political engagement, but because we are for proletarian politics and the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state. Amos 5/3/15