When workers are faced with unemployment, wage cuts and harsher working conditions, the question is posed of how workers' struggles can develop. In the UK, with a general election round the corner, the media tell us that this is an opportunity to use our democratic rights. However, democracy is not an abstract principle that stands above society - it is an integral part of the current order of things. Capitalism is a class society and the democratic circus hides the truth of what parliament and elections really are. As Lenin put it in State and Revolution: "To decide once every few years which members of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament - this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics."
The idea that workers can embrace democracy along with their exploiters is a delusion the ruling class puts a lot of energy into promoting.
How can workers advance their collective struggles?
The real field where the working class can advance their collective struggle is not in elections, but in the class struggle. The class struggle is where the force of the working class lies. It is where it develops its consciousness and discovers the forms of organisation it needs to succeed and the ones it needs to jettison.
In the nineteenth century the main forms of organisation that developed in the workers movement were the trade unions and the mass workers parties. The trade unions were able to win lasting reforms and the workers' political organisations supported democratic demands such as the right to organise in unions and for workers to vote in bourgeois elections. As the electorate expanded, the parties of the Second International sent members to parliament to win political reform. Within certain limits, therefore, workers could meaningfully participate in bourgeois elections through their own parties.
However, the relative success of the struggle of the struggle for reforms led to the development of the ideology of ‘reformism': Marx and Engels' views on the eventual need to overthrow the capitalist state through revolution were gradually sidelined, and the idea that the working class could gradually move towards socialism through democratic reforms became more and more widespread, especially as the ascent of the capitalist economy seemed unstoppable. All that was needed was to win parliament for socialism and turn capitalism's bounty to the needs of everyone. Only a minority, on the left, stood up to this ‘revision' of marxism.
The advent of capitalism's decadence was very loudly announced with the destruction unleashed in the Great War. It was not a ‘war to end all wars', but the beginning of a period of great imperialist rivalries and destruction. The new Communist International summed up the change in period and the change in attitude to elections. In this extract from a report to the Second Congress of 1920, for example:
"The struggle for communism, however, must be based on a theoretical analysis of the character of the present epoch (the culminating point of capitalism, its imperialist self-negation and self-destruction, the uninterrupted spread of civil war etc.) ...The attitude of the Third International to parliament is determined not by new theoretical ideas, but by the change in the role of parliament itself. In the preceding historical epoch parliament was an instrument of the developing capitalist system, and as such played a role that was in a certain sense progressive. In modern conditions of unbridled imperialism parliament has become a weapon of falsehood, deception and violence, a place of enervating chatter. In the face of the devastation, embezzlement, robbery and destruction committed by imperialism, parliamentary reforms which are wholly lacking in consistency, durability and order lose all practical significance for the working masses... At the present time parliament cannot be used by the Communists as the arena in which to struggle for reforms and improvements in working-class living standards as was the case at certain times during the past epoch. The focal point of political life has shifted fully and finally beyond the boundaries of parliament...."
The contributions of the communist left
Although the Third International was able to recognise this shift in focus, the full implications were not drawn out. While the majority followed the contradictory idea of ‘revolutionary parliamentarism', it's in the contributions of the communist left that you see a greater development of understanding.
At the Second Congress, for instance, Amadeo Bordiga put forward theses on parliamentarism that insisted "Parliamentarism is the form of political representation peculiar to the capitalist order [...] Communists deny the possibility that the working class will ever conquer power through a majority of parliamentary seats. The armed revolutionary struggle alone will take it to its goal. The conquest of power by the proletariat, which forms the starting point of communist economic construction, leads to the violent and immediate abolition of the democratic organs and their replacement by organs of proletarian power - by workers' councils. The exploiting class is in this way robbed of all political rights, and the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, a system of class government and representation, will be realised. The abolition of parliamentarism becomes a historical task of the communist movement. [...] In the present historical epoch ... there is no possibility of exploiting parliamentarism for the revolutionary cause of communism. Clarity of propaganda no less than preparation for the final struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat demand that communists carry out propaganda for a boycott of the elections on the part of the workers."
In the same year as the Second Congress Anton Pannekoek published World Revolution and Communist Tactics in which he emphasised the need to leave behind old ideas "How we are to eradicate the traditional bourgeois mentality that paralyses the strength of the proletarian masses ...The most tenacious and intractable element in this mentality is dependence upon leaders, whom the masses leave to determine general questions and to manage their class affairs. Parliamentarianism inevitably tends to inhibit the autonomous activity by the masses that is necessary for revolution. Fine speeches may be made in parliament exhorting the proletariat to revolutionary action; it is not in such words that the latter has its origins, however, but in the hard necessity of there being no other alternative. ... Revolution requires social reconstruction to be undertaken, difficult decisions made, the whole proletariat involved in creative action - and this is only possible if first the vanguard, then a greater and greater number take matters in hand themselves, know their own responsibilities, investigate, agitate, wrestle, strive, reflect, assess, seize chances and act upon them. But all this is difficult and laborious; thus, so long as the working class thinks it sees an easier way out through others acting on its behalf - leading agitation from a high platform, taking decisions, giving signals for action, making laws - the old habits of thought and the old weaknesses will make it hesitate and remain passive."
The development of class consciousness
The movement of the working class requires the development of a consciousness of the need to overthrow the existing capitalist economic and political system. Part of this is the realisation that the existing democratic state is a barrier to creating the new society, not a tool to achieve it.
This requires the working class to understand that its interests are opposed to those of the bourgeoisie. This understanding does not develop through electoral campaigns that encourage individual isolation in the ballot box, followed by passivity and frustration as the realisation dawns that nothing has changed.
Consciousness develops in the class struggle, in the workplaces and the streets, as the working class develops solidarity and confronts the reality of the capitalist state. Instead of seeing themselves as isolated citizens workers can begin to see that the attacks on them are part of wider attacks on the rest of the class, and the attacks on living and working standards are undertaken by all capitalist states, whether monolithic or multi-party.
The greatest obstacles to the development of class consciousness are ideological. Workers are confronted with campaigns about the impossibility of communism/socialism, about there being no alternative to capitalism, about the democratic values that supposedly unite us across the class divide.
Democracy is one of the most powerful ideologies that the bourgeoisie has in its armoury. The bourgeois idea of ‘good citizenship' means it is your duty to vote, even if it's only for a ‘lesser evil'. Millions are cynical and apathetic about elections and don't vote because of the corruption of politicians and the accurate view that ‘they're all the same'. However, in itself this is nothing to celebrate and obviously leaves social relations as they are. The course advocated by revolutionaries is an active one.
When workers begin to take control of their own struggles in the first steps toward self-organisation, when discontent about capitalism begins to turn into reflection on the possibility of a completely different society, when consciousness begins to develop with the class struggle, when we see expressions of solidarity and collective action that point to a future human community, then we are witnessing the movement of the working class rather than the dead weight of bourgeois campaigns and parliamentary charades. Revolutionaries aim to play their part in the forward steps taken by the working class, and in exposing the sham of bourgeois democracy. When capitalism offers another round in the democratic game, revolutionaries try to show that the working class struggle offers the prospect of a society that could begin to satisfy human needs, communism.
This article is based on a presentation given at WR public meetings.