For weeks, the European proletariat has been subjected to a frenzied media onslaught over a series of elections. With its usual cynicism, the bourgeoisie, which controls the media, leaped on the opportunity to push the horrors of its system into the background. News from Iraq, as it descends into ever bloodier savagery, or from Niger, where a third of the population is threatened with famine, from so many other disasters around the world, all gave way to the display of endless talk about the coming elections.
All the forces of the bourgeoisie, the left, the right, the far right and the extreme left, not to mention the trades unions, all came together in the grand electoral orchestra, whether in France and Holland for the referendums on the European constitution, for the parliamentary elections in Britain, or the Länder elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany's most heavily-populated region).
By dramatising what was at stake in the constitution referendums (in particular by pretending that Europe's future would be determined by the "people's vote"), by calling for a vote for or against the Schröder government's austerity programme, or for or against the government of Tony Blair, who had "lied" about the aims of the war in Iraq, the ruling class offered the workers an outlet for social anxiety.
Thanks to these campaigns of electoral mystification, the ruling class has been able to hide the bankruptcy of its mode of production. The working class today is anxious about the future, afraid of unemployment, fed up with austerity and precarious jobs. Confronted with this situation, the ruling class uses its electoral circus to divert workers' thinking about these issues into dead-ends, by using their still vigorous illusions in democracy and the electoral process.
It is not surprising that it is far from obvious to workers that they would do better to refuse to take part in the electoral circus: this mystification is intimately linked to the illusion of democracy, which lies at the heart of bourgeois ideology. All of social life under capitalism is organised by the ruling class around the myth of the "democratic" state. This myth is based on the deception according to which all citizens are equally free to "choose", through the ballot-box, the political representatives that they want, and that parliament is the reflection of the "popular will". This ideological swindle is difficult for the working class to see through, because the electoral mystification is based on certain historical facts which make it hard to pose the question as to whether the vote is useful or not. For example, the bourgeoisie uses the history of the workers' movement itself to remind us of its heroic struggles to win the right to vote, and the right to develop its own propaganda. And in doing so, it does not hesitate to lie and to falsify events. The left wing parties and the unions never stop reminding us of past workers' struggles to win universal suffrage. The Trotskyists, while they relativise the importance of elections for the proletariat, never miss an opportunity to take part in them, justifying this by the Communist International's "tactic" of "revolutionary parliamentarism", or by the use of parliament as a tribune supposedly to make the workers' voice heard and to defend a left wing and so-called "anti-capitalist" policy. As for the anarchists, some take part while others call for abstention. Confronted with all this ideological rubbish, especially when it claims to be based on the experience and traditions of the working class, it is necessary to return to the real positions on the electoral question, as they were defended by the workers' movement and its revolutionary organisations. Positions which were defended not in and of themselves, but according to the different periods in the evolution of capitalism and the demands of the proletariat's revolutionary struggle.
The electoral question during capitalism's ascendant period in the 19th century
The 19th century was the period of capitalism's development, during which the bourgeoisie used the struggle for universal suffrage and action in parliament to struggle against both the aristocracy and its own backward fractions. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, in her 1904 article "Social Democracy and parliamentarism": "Parliamentarism is far from being an absolute product of democratic development, of the progress of the human species, and of such nice things. It is, rather, the historically determined form of the class rule of the bourgeoisie and - what is only the reverse of this rule - of its struggle against feudalism. Bourgeois parliamentarism will stay alive only so long as the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the feudalism lasts". As the capitalist mode of production developed, the bourgeoisie abolished serfdom and extended wage labour to satisfy the demands of its own economy. Parliament was the arena for the struggle between different parties, cliques, and representatives of the bourgeoisie, to decide on the composition and direction of the government. The workers often had neither free speech, nor the right to organise. Thanks to the impetus given by the First, and then by the Second International, the workers undertook large scale struggles, often at the cost of their lives, to win improvements in their living conditions (working day reduced from 12 or 14 to 10 hours, banning of child labour, or of dangerous work for women). Inasmuch as capitalism was still a vigorously expanding system, its revolutionary overthrow was not yet on the agenda. This is why the struggle for economic demands through the trades unions, or the struggle of the political parties in parliament, made it possible for the workers to win reforms to their advantage, within the system. "Participation in parliament allowed the class to use it to press for reforms, to use electoral campaigns as a means for propaganda and agitation for the proletarian programme, and to use parliament as a tribune for denouncing the ignominy of bourgeois politics. This is why the struggle for universal suffrage was throughout the nineteenth century in many countries one of the most important issues around which the proletariat organised". These were the positions that Marx and Engels defended throughout capitalism's ascendant period to explain their support for the proletariat's participation in elections.
The anarchist current opposed this policy, based on a historical vision and a materialist conception of history. Anarchism developed during the second half of the 19th century as a product of the resistance of petty bourgeois strata (artisans, shopkeepers, small farmers) to the process of proletarianisation which was depriving them of their previous social "independence". The anarchist vision of "revolt" against capitalism remained purely idealist and abstract. It is thus no accident that many anarchists, including this current's legendary figure Bakunin, did not consider the proletariat as revolutionary, but tended to replace it with the bourgeois notion of "the people", encompassing all those who suffer irrespective of their role in the relations of production, and no matter what their ability to organise and to become aware of themselves as a social force. According to this logic, for anarchism the revolution is possible at any moment, and consequently any struggle for reforms can fundamentally be nothing but a barrier to the revolutionary perspective. For marxism, this superficial radicalism cannot stand up, inasmuch as it expresses "the anarchists' inability to grasp that proletarian revolution, the direct struggle for communism, was not yet on the agenda because the capitalist system had not yet exhausted its progressive mission, and that the proletariat was faced with the necessity to consolidate itself as a class, to wrest whatever reforms it could from the bourgeoisie in order, above all, to strengthen itself for the future revolutionary struggle. In a period in which parliament was a real arena of struggle between fractions of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat could afford to enter this arena without subordinating itself to the ruling class; this strategy only became impossible once capitalism had entered its decadent, totalitarian phase".
The electoral question during capitalism's decadent phase, since 1914
At the dawn of the 20th century, capitalism had conquered the world and come up against the limit to its geographical expansion. In doing so, it also came up against the objective limit to the expansion of the market, and of outlets for its own production. Capitalist production relations were transformed into a barrier to the development of the productive forces. Capitalism as a whole entered a period of world crises and world wars.
This unprecedented upheaval in the life of capitalist society led to a profound modification in the political life of the bourgeoisie, the functioning of its state apparatus and the conditions and means of the proletarian struggle. The state takes on a dominant role because it alone can maintain the "order" and cohesion of a capitalist society torn apart by its own contradictions. It becomes increasingly obvious that the bourgeois parties are instruments of the capitalist state, whose role is to make its policies acceptable. The imperatives of World War I and the national interest made democratic debate in Parliament impossible, and imposed a rigid discipline on all the fractions of the national bourgeoisie. This state of affairs became permanent and more pronounced after the war ended. Political power thus tended to shift from the legislative to the executive branch, and the bourgeois parliament became an empty shell bereft of any powers of decision. This reality was clearly described by the Communist International in 1920 at its 2nd Congress: “The attitude of the Communist International towards parliamentarism is determined, not by a new doctrine, but by the change in the role of parliament itself. In the previous epoch parliament performed to a certain degree a historically progressive task as a tool of developing capitalism. Under the present conditions of unbridled imperialism, however, parliament has been transformed into a tool for lies, deception, violence and ennervating chatter…At present parliament, for communists, can in no way become the arena for the struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the position of the working class, as was the case at certain times in the previous period. The centre of gravity of political life has at present been removed finally and completely beyond the bounds of parliament.”
Since then, it has been impossible for the bourgeoisie to accord real and lasting reforms to the working class in any domain whatever, whether it be political or economic. On the contrary, the proletariat is subjected to ever greater sacrifices, poverty, exploitation and barbarism. Revolutionaries recognised at this point that capitalism had reached its historical limits, and that it had entered into its period of decline and decadence, as was demonstrated by the outbreak of World War I. Henceforth, there is only one alternative: socialism or barbarism. The era of reforms has been definitively closed, and the workers no longer have anything to gain on the electoral terrain.
Nonetheless, a crucial debate was to develop within the Communist International during the 1920s, over the possibility of using the "tactic" of "revolutionary parliamentarism"; this was the line defended by Lenin and the Bolshevik party. The experience of the past continued to weigh on the working class and its organisations as they confronted the plethora of questions raised by capitalism's entry into its decadent period.
The imperialist war, the proletarian revolution in Russia, then the reflux of the wave of proletarian struggle world wide in the 1920s, all led Lenin and his comrades to the idea that it would be possible to destroy parliament from within, or use parliament as a revolutionary tribune, as Karl Liebknecht had used the tribune of the German Reichstag to denounce the imperialist First World War. In fact, this "tactic" was to lead the Third International further and further into compromises with ruling class ideology. Moreover, the isolation of the Russian revolution, the impossibility of spreading the revolution to the rest of Europe after the crushing of the German workers, were to lead the Bolsheviks and the International, then the other Communist parties, towards an unbridled opportunism. This in turn led the Communist parties to abandon the revolutionary positions of the first two congresses of the International, to plunge into the degeneration of the congresses that followed and to end up in betrayal and the emergence of Stalinism, the spearhead of the triumphant counter-revolution.
The most left-wing fractions in the Communist parties reacted against this process of degeneration. First among them was the Italian Left led by Bordiga, which was already arguing against participation in elections in 1918. Known at first as the "abstentionist communist fraction", it was formally constituted after the Bologna Congress of October 1919, and, in a letter sent to Moscow from Naples, declared that a true party aiming at membership of the Communist International could only be formed on an anti-parliamentarian basis. The German and Dutch lefts were in turn to develop their own critique of parliamentarism and render it more systematic. Anton Pannekoek clearly rejected any possibility of making revolutionary use of parliament, since doing so could only lead revolutionaries into compromises and concessions to the dominant ideology. It could only breathe a semblance of life into these already moribund institutions, and encourage the passivity of the workers, when the revolution demands on the contrary the active and conscious participation of the whole proletariat in the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a communist society.
During the 1930s, the Italian Left in its review Bilan was to show concretely how the struggles of the French and Spanish workers had been derailed onto the electoral terrain. Bilan declared, rightly, that the "tactic" of the Popular Front in 1936 had made it possible to enrol the proletariat as cannon-fodder in World War II. At the end of this awful holocaust, it was the French Communist Left, which published the review Internationalisme (and from which the ICC is descended), which was to denounce most clearly the "tactic" of revolutionary parliamentarism": "The policy of revolutionary parliamentarism played a large part in corrupting the parties of the 3rd International, and the parliamentary fractions served as bastions of opportunism, as much in the 3rd International as previously in the 2nd. The truth is that the proletariat, in its struggle for freedom, cannot use a 'means of political struggle' which is specific to the ruling class and destined to its own enslavement (...) As a real activity, revolutionary parliamentarism has never existed, for the simple reason that when the proletariat undertakes revolutionary action, this presupposes its mobilisation as a class outside capitalism, not the taking of positions within capitalist society". Henceforth, anti-parliamentarism, the non-participation in elections, has become a class frontier separating proletarian from bourgeois organisations. In these conditions, for more than 80 years, elections have been used all over the world and whatever the government's political colour, to mislead the workers' discontent onto a sterile terrain and to lend credibility to the myth of "democracy". It is no accident that, unlike the 19th century, the "democratic" states undertake widespread campaigns against electoral abstention and the disgust with political parties, since the workers' participation in elections is vital if the democratic illusion is to be upheld. The recent elections in Europe are a concrete example of this.
Elections are nothing but mystification and "social Europe" is a lie
Contrary to the indigestible propaganda which presents the victory of the "no" vote to the European Constitution in France and Holland as a "victory for the people" through the ballot-box, we say that elections are a pure masquerade. Certainly, there may be disagreements among the different fractions within the bourgeois state on how best to defend the interests of the national capital, but fundamentally the bourgeoisie organises and controls the electoral carnival to ensure a result that suits its needs as a ruling class. This is why the capitalist state plans, manipulates and organises, thanks especially to its hired media. Nonetheless, accidents can happen, and indeed often do happen, especially in France (today with the result of the referendum, in 2002 when the fascist National Front came second in the presidential elections, in 1997 when the left won the early parliamentary elections, or in 1981 when Mitterrand became president); these of course have nothing to do with even the most minimal calling into question of the capitalist order. The difficulty that the French bourgeoisie finds in making the ballot-box give the answer they want, reveals the historical weakness and archaism of its political apparatus, which is quite unlike the situation in Britain and Germany.
But there is no way that the proletariat can take advantage of this weakness to impose an alternative to the policies of the bourgeoisie. As any worker can tell from his own experience in the electoral charade, since the end of the 1920s, whatever the result of the elections, whether they are won by the left or the right, it is always the same anti-working class policy that is imposed by the victorious government.
In other words, the "democratic" state always defends the interests of the ruling class and the national capital, irrespective of the results of increasingly frequent elections.
The campaign orchestrated by the whole European bourgeoisie over the constitutional referendums has succeeded in attracting the workers' attention, and in persuading them that "building Europe" is important for their future and for that of their children. Nothing could be more false! What was at stake in the new Constitution was the attempt by each of Europe's founding members to keep as much influence within the European institutions after the Union's enlargement to 25 members (which of course diluted the influence of each of them), as they had before.
The working class has no interest in taking part in the struggles for influence between different fractions of the ruling class. In fact, the Constitution is doing no more than making official the policies that are already being put into operation today, and which are foreign to the interests of the working class. The working class will be just as exploited with the "No" as it would have been with the "Yes".
Above all, the working class should reject the illusion that it is possible to use the national parliament in its struggle against capitalist exploitation, or that it could do the same thanks to the European parliament.
In this concert of hypocrisy and rascality, the prize goes on the one hand to the forces of the "left" who came together to carry the "No" vote, and who claim that it is possible to build another more "social" Europe, and on the other to the populists who exploit the fear, the despair, and the uncertainty about the future that exists in the population in general and in a part of the working class. As in France and Germany, for example, Holland has just seen a rise in unemployment from 2% in 2003 to 8% today, and attacks on its system of social security.
These attacks have even provoked the beginning of a widespread mobilisation in Holland. The proletariat's return to the social stage inevitably implies that it is developing a reflection in depth on the significance of mass unemployment, the repeated attacks on its living conditions, and the dismantling of the social security and pensions systems. In the end, the bourgeoisie's anti-proletarian policies and the response that these provoke cannot but lead to a growing awareness within the working class of capitalism's historic bankruptcy. And it is precisely to sabotage this growing awareness that the promoters of a "social Europe" are running around in all directions, demanding that the capitalist state should arbitrate the conflicts between social classes, and encouraging the workers to mobilise to reject "liberalism" the better to subject them to the mystification of the "social" state, a new swindle dreamt up in the comfortable drawing-rooms of the specialists of "anti-globalisation". The sole purpose of all this propaganda is to gather up the growing social discontent and dump it into the ballot-box. The referendums have thus been presented as a way to refuse the government's policies, to express one's disgust, and so to provide an outlet for all the social discontent that has been accumulating for years. And indeed, the forces of the "anti-capitalist" left are all crying victory, and urging the workers to remain mobilised for the next elections, in order to "consolidate the victory of the 'No' vote at the referendum, in the next elections". This is the same policy of derailing social discontent that we have already seen at work in Germany, where the workers were called upon to punish the Schroder coalition in the recent regional elections in North-Rhine Westphalia.
During the decadent phases of previous modes of production, the ruling classes would deliberately give the exploited masses the opportunity to let off steam in days of carnival, where nothing is forbidden, or in sporting competitions or gladiatorial combats in the arena.
The bourgeoisie has the same aim in mind when it makes systematic use of brain-numbing sporting events, and brings out the electoral circus as an outlet for workers' anger. Not only does the bourgeoisie plunge the proletariat into absolute pauperisation, it humiliates us by offering "games and electoral circuses". The proletariat has no business forging its own chains, it is up to us to break them!
The workers must respond to the attempt to strengthen the capitalist state, with the will to destroy it!
Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the proletariat has no choice. Either it lets itself be drawn onto the electoral terrain, onto the terrain of the bourgeois state which organises its exploitation and oppression and where it can only find itself atomised and powerless to resist the attacks of capitalism in crisis. Or, it develops its struggles, in solidarity and unity, to defend its living conditions. This is the only way the proletariat will recover its strength as a revolutionary class: its unity and its ability to struggle outside and against bourgeois institutions (parliament and elections) in order to overthrow capitalism. Only then will it be able to build a new society freed of exploitation, poverty and wars.
The alternative today is the same as that discovered by the marxist lefts in the 1920s: either electoralism and the mystification of the working class, or the development of class consciousness and the extension of its struggles towards the revolution!
. See our article "The lie of the democratic state" in International Review n°76
. We can quote, as a contribution to the defence of bourgeois democracy, a new "revolutionary" slogan from that radical champion of anti-globalisation, Le Monde Diplomatique: "Another Europe is possible" it cries in jubilation (in its editorial titled "Hope", on the popular mobilisation for the European referendum and the victory of the "No" vote). Supposedly, this victory "is in itself an unhoped for success for democracy" which shows that "the people have made a great comeback...".
. It was the implicit support of the International's 2nd Congress that was to allow the abstentionist fraction to emerge from its status as an isolated minority. See our book on The Italian communist left.
. The congenital weakness of the French right has its roots in the history of French capitalism, marked by the weight of small and medium industry, agriculture, and small-scale commerce. These archaic sectors have always had a disproportionate influence on the political apparatus, which has never succeeded in creating a major right-wing party directly tied to large-scale industry and finance, such as the Conservative Party in Britain or the Christian-Democrats in Germany. On the contrary, the life of the French bourgeoisie in the period following World War II is profoundly marked by the rise of Gaullism, the remnants of which are to be found in today's UMP. For a more detailed explanation of this question, see our article on the referendum in France in Revolution Internationale n°357.
. Blair was re-elected with the approval of the whole political class, including the unions, because he proved capable of putting into operation the economic and imperialist policy decided at the highest level of the British state. The controversy around Blair's "lies" about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq provided a theme for mobilising the "people", offering the illusion that Blair could be forced by the ballot-box to take heed of popular opinion. In reality, it has been perfectly clear ever since hostilities began in Iraq, that capitalist "democracy" is perfectly capable of absorbing the pacifist opposition, while at the same time maintaining whatever level of military commitment it deems necessary to protect its interests. In Germany too, Schroder's defeat in the regional elections of North-Rhine Westphalia (one third of the German population) and the victory of the CDU perfectly suits the requirements of German capitalism. This defeat implies holding early elections in the autumn, so that the new government can be presented as having a "popular mandate" to continue the policy of "reforms" vital to German capital. If, as seems likely at the time of writing, the CDU wins the elections, this will allow the SPD to polish up its tarnished image in opposition. The red/green government coalition has suffered considerable discredit as a result of mass unemployment (more than 5 million), and the draconian austerity measures planned in the "Agenda 2010" programme.
. In May 1946, our comrades of Internationalisme denounced the referendum on the Constitution of the 4th Republic in the following terms: "To divert the attention of the hungry masses from the causes of their poverty, capitalism sets the stage for an electoral comedy, and amuses them with referendums. To stop them thinking of the cramps in their empty bellies, it gives them voting papers to digest. Instead of bread, they are given some 'constitution' to chew on".