Debates within the Communist International: Theses on Parliamentarism

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We are publishing here the theses on parliamentarism, drawn up by Amadeo Bordiga on behalf of the communist abstentionist fraction of the Socialist Party of Italy, the nucleus of the Communist Party of Italy, formed in 1921.

The theses were submitted for discussion at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920. At this time there was a major debate within the CI about whether communists should take part in parliamentary elections, and work inside parliament if elected. The majority position, defended by Lenin, Trotsky and others, was that of “revolutionary parliamentarism” - the idea that revolutionaries could use the parliamentary forum as a “tribune” from which to denounce capitalism and advocate the communist revolution. The left communists - Bordiga’s fraction in Italy, the KAPD in Germany, Sylvia Pankhurst’s group in Britain among them - argued that the period of working in parliament was over. In the new period, when proletarian revolution was directly on the agenda, the ruling class was using parliamentary “democracy” as a means of opposing the workers’ struggle for the power of the soviets; if the Communist parties took part in the charade of elections and in the parliamentary “talking shop”, it would spread dangerous confusions within the ranks of the working class. In our view, history has amply confirmed this view, but we will look at this debate in more detail in a future article.

Today there are all sorts of groups which claim to be “revolutionary” - such as the various Trotskyist factions inside the Socialist Alliance - who claim that they are following on the tradition of “revolutionary parliamentarism” by standing in the forthcoming elections. This is false. As we show in the article in this issue, these “socialists” do not aim to destroy capitalism at all, but merely propose “radical” alternatives for its management.

Today it is rare to find any genuine communist groups advocating the old tactic of revolutionary parliamentarism. But precisely because the pseudo-revolutionaries of today use the errors of the past workers’ movement to justify their bourgeois politics, the theses of the left communists remain as relevant today as they were in 1920.

1. Parliamentarism is the form of political representation peculiar to the capitalist order. The principled criticism by revolutionary Marxists of parliamentarism and bourgeois democracy leads in general to the conclusion that the franchise granted to all citizens of all social classes in the elections to the representative bodies of the state cannot prevent every government apparatus of the state from becoming the committee for the defence of the interests of the ruling capitalist class, and the state from organising itself as the historical organ of the struggle of the bourgeoisie against the proletarian revolution.

2. 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 careful 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, i.e. a government system with class representation, is set up. The abolition of parliamentarism becomes a historical task of the communist movement. Even more, representative democracy is precisely the first form of bourgeois society that must be brought down, and moreover even before capitalist property.

3. The same must happen with local government institutions, which should not be theoretically posed as an opposite to the state organs. In reality their apparatus is identical with the state mechanism of the bourgeoisie. They must similarly be destroyed by the revolutionary proletariat and replaced by local soviets of workers’ deputies.

4. At the present moment, the task of the communists in mentally and materially driving forward the revolution is to free the proletariat above all from the illusions and prejudices that were spread by the treachery of the old social democratic leaders. In those countries which have been ruled for a longer time by a democratic order which is rooted in the habits and thoughts of the masses, and also in the old socialist parties, this task is of special importance, and assumes the first place among the problems of the preparation of the revolution.

5. Participation in elections and in parliamentary activity at a time when the thought of the conquest of power by the proletariat was still far distant and when there was not yet any question of direct preparation for the revolution and the realisation of the dictatorship of the proletariat could offer great possibilities for propaganda, agitation and criticism. On the other hand, in those countries where a bourgeoisie has at yet only started and is creating new institutions, the entry of communists into the representative bodies, which are still in a formative stage, can have a big influence on the development of events in order to bring about a favourable outcome of the revolution and the final victory of the proletariat.

6. In the present historical epoch, which has opened with the end of the world war and its consequences for the social organisation of the bourgeoisie - with the Russian revolution as the first realisation of the idea of the conquest of power by the working class, and the formation of the new International in opposition to the traitors of the social democracy - and in the countries where the democratic order was introduced a long time ago, 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.

7. Under these historical conditions, under which the revolutionary conquest of power by the proletariat has become the main problem of the movement, every political activity of the Party must be dedicated to this goal. It is necessary to break with the bourgeois lie once and for all, with the lie that tries to make people believe that every clash of the hostile parties, every struggle for the conquest of power, must be played out in the framework of the democratic mechanism, in election campaigns and parliamentary debates. It will not be possible to achieve this goal without renouncing completely the traditional method of calling on workers to participate in the elections, where they work side by side with the bourgeois class, without putting and end to the spectacle of the proletariat appearing on the same parliamentary ground as its exploiters.

8. The ultra-parliamentary practice of the old socialist parties spread the dangerous conception that all political action consists only of election campaigns and parliamentary activity. On the other hand the proletariat’s aversion for this treachery has created a fertile soil for the syndicalist and anarchist tendencies which deny that the political action and activity of the party have any value. Therefore the Communist Parties will never achieve great success in propagating the revolutionary Marxist method if they do not base their work directly on the dictatorship of the proletariat and on the workers’ councils, and abandon any contact with bourgeois democracy.

9. The excessively great importance ascribed in practice to the election campaigns and their results, the fact that the party dedicates to them all its forces and human, press and economic resources for quite a long period of time means on the one hand that all the speeches at meetings and all the theoretical statements to the contrary, the conviction is strengthened that this really is the main action for the achievement of communist goals. On the other hand it leads to an almost complete renunciation of any work of revolutionary organisation and preparation by giving the party organisation a technical character that stands in complete contradiction to the requirements of legal and illegal revolutionary work.

10. As far as those parties are concerned that have affiliated to the Communist International by a majority decision, further participation in election campaigns prevents the required sifting out of the social democratic elements, without whose removal the Communist International will not be able to carry out its historic role.

11. The actual character of the debates that take place in parliament and other democratic organs excludes any possibility of moving on from a criticism of the opposing parties to propaganda against the principle of parliamentarism, to action that exceeds the limits of the parliamentary constitution. In exactly the same way it is impossible to obtain a mandate that gives the right to speak if one refuses to submit to all the formalities of the electoral process.

Success in the parliamentary fight can be achieved merely by skill in the use of the common weapon of the principles on which the institution bases itself and by using the nuances in the rules, just as success in the election campaign will be judged more and more according to the number of votes and seats obtained.

Every attempt by the Communist Parties to lend the practice of parliamentarism a totally different character will simply lead to a bankruptcy of the energies that will have to be sacrificed to this labour of Sisyphus. The cause of the communist revolution calls summarily for direct action against the capitalist system of the exploiters.

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