First in France, and then the Netherlands, the vote against the European constitution was presented as a popular movement against politicians and bureaucrats. A typical left wing claim was that “Above all this is a victory for workers, employees, youth, the unemployed who have rallied to the ballot box to reject this neo-liberal straitjacket”. A leading social democrat insisted that “This is a triumph for a citizens’ Europe”, while another saw “a victory against the politico-media elite”, and one Trotskyist saw a “movement of social revenge”.
The left is at the front line of those presenting the No vote as “a great victory for the working class”. That’s a lie! A pure ideological fraud! The working class has gained nothing. On the contrary, it has been trapped, drawn from its class terrain into an impasse. The bourgeoisie has used its elections to attack workers’ consciousness by fomenting illusions in democracy and the electoral circus.
Workers should remember that their worst defeats are always presented as great victories. For example, in France in 1936 the advent of the Popular Front government was presented as a ‘great victory’ for the working class - which allowed the bourgeoisie to recruit under the flag of anti-fascism and dragoon workers into the horrors and massacres of the Second World War. Or, take the example of the Stalinist counter-revolution which used the lie of ‘socialism in one country’ and the ‘socialist fatherland’ for the sacrifices, exploitation, massacres, deportation and imprisonment of the working class. Or, to take a more banal recent example from Britain, who can forget the lies about the new 1997 Labour government and how things were going to change after eighteen years of the Tories.
In the Netherlands they prided themselves on their ‘intelligent debate’, in France we were supposed to be witnessing the re-awakening of the Gallic ‘spirit of rebellion’. The referendum campaigns had only one goal: to convince the working class that the most effective way to express its discontent and make the ruling class listen, even retreat, is not through the development of the class struggle but by marking your ballot paper.
Campaign of lies
For months the French bourgeoisie succeeded in turning workers’ attention to the electoral terrain, sowing the most harmful illusions. The referendums were omnipresent in all the media. It wasn’t possible to escape the intensity of the debate, the impassioned arguments on what was supposed to be at stake. This ideological furore tried to persuade every ‘citizen’, above all every worker, that this ‘consultation’ was absolutely crucial and fundamental. Every section of the ruling class played its part in the ‘great democratic debate’, to create the maximum confusion in the minds of the working class. All the media, and many politicians were insistent on the need to ‘vote Yes or vote No – but vote!’
The principal ideological poison in the French campaign was that the rise in the No vote, caused by social discontent towards the government, had forced the bourgeoisie to put social preoccupations at the centre of its campaign. This was partly true, but the only intention of this manoeuvre was to push workers into the democratic trap when previously they’d shown a complete disinterest in the campaign. This turn showed the bourgeoisie’s attempt at channelling social discontent on to the electoral arena.
After the French referendum the bourgeoisie wanted to give the impression that it still had social concerns. This is another lie. More than ever the only future prospect that capitalism offers is the intensification of attacks on the working class. The propaganda of the ruling class tries to convince us that the reaction of ‘citizens’ can change capitalism’s direction, influence the bourgeoisie and bar the way to neo-liberalism and globalisation. In reality, government policy is not going to change by an iota.
The principal objective of the bourgeoisie towards the working class is to convince it to abandon the collective terrain of the class struggle and express itself as so many atomised citizens with no class interests - when in fact the isolation of individuals is absolutely in the interests of the ruling class. For the working class the electoral terrain is an ideological trap that creates the most harmful of illusions and holds back the development of class consciousness.
Elections are just a mystification
This wasn’t always the case. In the nineteenth century workers struggled and died for universal suffrage. Today it’s governments who use very means at their disposal to get the maximum number of citizens to vote.
During the ascendant period of capitalism the different factions of the bourgeoisie confronted each other in parliament – or united to defend their shared interests. In a period when the proletarian revolution was not on the agenda workers had an interest in intervening in these confrontations between bourgeois fractions, and even sometimes supporting some fractions against others in so far as it meant improvements in the system. That was how the working class in Britain got the reduction of the working day to 10 hours in 1848, or how union rights were recognised in France in 1884.
But the situation has been totally changed since the early 20th century. Capitalist society entered into its period of permanent crisis and irreversible decline. Capitalism has conquered the planet and the carving up of the world by the big powers has finished. Each imperialist power can only gain new markets at the expense of others. This is a new “epoch of wars and revolutions” as the Communist International declared in 1919, an epoch of economic collapses like the crash of 1929, two world wars and the revolutionary eruption of the proletariat in 1905 in Russia and from 1917-23 in Russia, Germany, Hungary, Italy. To face its growing difficulties capital is constantly forced to strengthen the power of its state. More and more the state tends to take over the whole of social life, above all at the economic level. This evolution of the role of the state is accompanied by a weakening of the legislative in favour of the executive. As the Second Congress of the Communist International put it “The centre of gravity of political life has now completely and definitively left parliament”.
For workers it is no longer a question of fitting in with capitalism but of overturning it, because this system is no longer capable of lasting reforms or improvements.
For the bourgeoisie parliament has become a chamber for ratifying decisions taken elsewhere.
But electoralism retains an important ideological role. The mystificatory function of parliamentary institutions already existed in the 19th century, but that was secondary to their political function. Today mystification is the only function that remains for the bourgeoisie: it wants us to think that democracy is the most precious thing, that it is the expression of the sovereignty of the people. The mystification of democracy is the best means to poison workers’ consciousness and the most dangerous and effective ideological weapon to subjugate the working class.
Attacks on the living and working conditions of the working class didn’t stop during the referendum campaigns. As with the recent general election in Britain the bourgeoisie tried to convince workers that the capitalist system can be reformed. But the attacks on the working class are the products of the permanent economic crisis and a demonstration of the bankruptcy of the capitalist system world-wide. The ruling class wants to hide this from workers. For the working class its response can not be at the level of elections and democracy but only in the development of the class struggle. It’s the only way to respond to the attacks of capitalism.
Adapted from an article in RI 358. In a future article we will look at how the current crisis over the European constitution effects the policies of the bourgeoisie at the level of economics and imperialist rivalries.