Marxism and Elections

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By Christopher C.

P A R T   O N E

There has been much debate about how radical political actors should engage with electoral politics. Some, like anarchists, argue that the correct tactic is to ignore electoral politics entirely, focusing on what they see as the more useful path of direct action or “propaganda by the deed” [1].

Among those who identify as Marxists, thought on this topic is generally more varied. Some parties have chosen to confine themselves entirely to the electoral sphere, attempting to win socialism through the ballot box. Others have boycotted elections and embarked upon a “people’s war” of armed struggle with the state and capital. The point here is that there is no one Marxist theory of elections. This is partly because elections themselves are a vastly different from place to place.

The electoral system in Britain, for example, is quite different from the one in Peru. As such, it is impossible to approach elections in a vacuum. Marxists understand that tactics must be based on the material conditions of the struggle, so attempting to craft a platonic plan of action in the electoral sphere is useless. In the essay that follows, I will not attempt to craft such a theory. This is not a manual or a blueprint for Marxist organizations. What I want to do here is sketch out, in broad terms, an analysis of electoral politics from a Marxist perspective. This is simply my opinion of the topic, and I caution readers not to trust in it blindly. It is important to conduct concrete social investigation of every issue rather than simply reading about it. We must, in the words of Mao, “oppose book worship” [2].

In this first section, I want to refute the idea of “voting our way to socialism.” This strategy has been a failure nearly everywhere it has been attempted. I am firmly in favor of a revolutionary road to socialism, based on smashing the existing state and building new organs of worker’s power where it once stood.

It is important to note that the social democratic parties-that is, parties whose main goal is to win socialism through elections rather than revolution – have failed to abolish capitalism even once. This is especially egregious in the context of Western Europe, where many of these parties have enjoyed media backing and majorities in parliament. These parties have not only failed in their aims to bring about socialism peacefully, however. In many cases, they have actually become parties of the bourgeois elite or the labor aristocracy.

Across the region, social democratic parties have implemented dramatic cuts in social spending, as well as a host of reforms designed to boost the position of capital at the expense of workers. In Greece and Italy, proposed or recently passed budgets will reduce spending over the coming years by about 29 billion dollars [3]. In Germany, this number is as high as $96 billion. This figure constitutes the largest collection of spending cuts in this country since World War Two [4]. Cuts will also total as much as one billion dollars in France [5]. Planned or approved reforms in this region include a host of anti-worker measures. This involves a three-year increase in the age at which French workers can retire [6], the elimination of payments into the pensions of the unemployed in Germany [7], and changes to Spain’s labor laws which will make it cheaper and easier for employers to lay off workers [8]. These attacks have, predictably, been met by a great deal of militancy from workers. Many will have heard of the mass strikes and violent protests opposing catastrophic austerity plans in Greece [9].

I bring all of this up because they tell us quite a bit about the nature of social democracy, or “socialism through the ballot box.” As I said above, Western Europe has traditionally been a hotbed of reformist socialism. Many of these parties still exist across the continent. At one point, they hoped to slowly implement reforms culminating in the transition to socialism. This view stood opposed to that of revolutionaries, who sought a sharp, rapid overthrow of the system [10]. After the Second World War, however, many of these parties gave up even this goal. They instead settled on a program of slow progressive alterations to capitalism, offering piecemeal improvements in the lot of workers within the bounds of a “managed capitalism” [11].

These parties focused on creating welfare institutions, extensive public sector employment, and government support for unions. All of these measures, meager though they are, have been or are being destroyed. In many cases, this destruction is being spearheaded by the same parties that instituted them in the first place. This gets at the real problem with reformism. Because reformist socialist parties want to work within states designed to uphold the rule of capital, they will forever be bound by the laws of capitalism. This means that any reforms they win will be subject to market forces and cut back at the first opportunity.

We can never hope to win socialism by passing one reform after another, because these reforms will always be fragile. The capitalist class will seek to cut public services and benefits so that they can better exploit their workers. A socialist party working within a capitalist state will also find themselves subjected to this pressure. This is why social democratic parties have, in many places, become a vehicle for the set of pro-free-market, anti-worker policies often grouped under the banner of neoliberalism. In Greece, Germany, and elsewhere, it is social democratic governments or coalitions pushing these measures [12]. Even outside of government, reformist socialists have led no sustained or comprehensive attempts to resist the neoliberal order.

How has it happened that in Europe, where the power and influence of social democratic parties has been greater than anywhere else, social democrats have not only failed in their original mission of abolishing capitalism in the electoral sphere, but have largely come to serve the interests of capital against labor? Perry Anderson, editor of the New Left Review, explained the trajectory this way in 1994: “Once, in the founding years of the Second International, social democracy was dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. Then it pursued partial reforms as gradual steps towards socialism. Finally it settled for welfare and full employment within capitalism….[I]t now accepts the scaling-down of one and the giving-up of the other…” [13].

I want to make some theoretical points about why this shift has occurred. Firstly, socialism is not just state ownership of the economy, as many social democrats believe. In many cases, efforts to bring about socialism in the electoral process failed because the “socialism” these parties were working towards did not actually challenge capitalism. It is entirely possible that an economy could be majority state-owned and still be controlled by capitalists. The state is an instrument of class power, so a transition to state ownership does not automatically correlate to worker’s power. For Marxists, the question is not whether the state owns the economy, but who owns the state.

Socialism is the collective rule of a class: the working class. It thus cannot be handed down from above, but must won through the self-activity of the class guided by a Party which is deeply imbedded in it. Reformist socialism ignores the fact that socialism can only be a collective project, instead trusting the will of a group of politicians rather than the advanced workers. This is one reason why efforts to vote in socialism have continually failed.

Further, the electoral system is rigged in favor of capital. However, this is not a new development, as social democrats like Bernie Sanders say [14]. The American state was not “taken away” from the people, but instead was designed from the beginning to subjugate them. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, admitted as much in a 1787 debate on the constitution. He wrote:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevailed lent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, — when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability” [15].

In other words, wealth (“landed interests”) will be increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands through markets (“various means of trade and manufactures”).  The wealthy, therefore, would be outvoted in a democratic system and government would be overrun by the majority of working people.  To prevent the working class from attaining political power and expropriating the property and wealth of the rich (“an agrarian law”), we have to “wisely” ensure that government “protect the minority” of the rich against the majority of the poor.

What this means is that the very institutions socialist parties engage with in the electoral arena-the senate, the congress, and even city councils-are designed to hamstring worker’s parties. The American electoral system is explicitly engineered so that socialists-or those opposed to the rule of capital-can never take power within it. Thus, we should not see electoral engagement as the primary means of struggle. We cannot put all our eggs in that basket, as it were. It is vital that, in our engagement with elections, we do not neglect other kinds of mass organizing, such as strikes. Elections, I want to stress, are a tool in our arsenal, one tactic among many.

The capitalist state is, whether “democratic” or otherwise, is constructed to serve the interests of a class that exists for and through the exploitation of workers. As Engels, Marx’s longtime friend and collaborator, once put it, ”the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage labor by capital” [16]. This function is expressed not simply in the parliament itself, but also in the civil services sector, the courts, and-crucially-the fundamental bodies of the state: the “bodies of armed men,” as Lenin put it [17]. These institutions-the army, the police, and so on-cannot simply be redirected towards defending worker’s power. Workers “cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” [18]. Rather, workers must smash the existing state and build their own worker’s state.

Where reformist socialists take power, the institutions of the state-army, police, courts, etc-will revolt. This was seen in General Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, backed by the United States, of the reformist socialist government in Chile [19]. The army and police were created in the interests of capital. This purpose is baked into their very DNA. Attempts to build socialism without fundamentally altering these institutions will inevitably be, to quote Marx in a different context, “drowned in blood” [20].

A word should be said here of Venezuela and Hugo Chavez, arguably one of the most successful “reformist” leaders of all time. While it is true that Chavez could be described as a reformist, in the sense that he took power in an election, the Bolivarian Revolution itself is just that: a revolution. The rank and file working class of Venezuela rejects the idea that socialism was given to them from above. They have instead called for a “radicalization” of the revolution, a “truly communal state” [21]. In a certain sense, this has already taken place. Unlike the social-democratic reformists in Western Europe, the Venezuelan government did not leave the existing state institutions untouched.  The Venezuelan government has dedicated its forces to reconstructing the state on a communal basis.  According to the Commune Law established in 2006, the Communal Parliament envisions integrating the communes into a regional and national federation, to construct “a system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption rooted in social property” [22]. The Venezuelan people understand the need to create a new state, rather than using the existing state to legislate socialism into being. In this sense, the characterization of Venezuela as “reformist” in the sense I have defined it is overly simplistic. Although Chavez did attempt to “legislate socialism,” he did so in a framework characterized by popular participation and a connection with the masses. The PSUV has not used its position in government to divorce itself from struggle.

The reality, however, is that there have been very few Chiles, and only one Venezuela. Despite a long-held rhetorical commitment to socialism, reformists have rarely, in practice, done things that threaten the power of capital in a significant way. To explain that failure, revolutionaries often point to the character flaws of reformist politicians. The reformists have historically been bourgeois, and this explains why they did not build socialism. This is an incorrect tactic. Our objection is not to reformists as people, but to reformism as a strategy. No matter their background, social democrats, by virtue of their position, eventually become members of a class distinct from the workers they supposedly represent. Well-paid and freed from the daily insults of normal working-class existence, reformist leaders come to occupy a privileged position. This condition is dependent upon their ability not to fight for the emancipation of workers, but to balance the competing interests of capital and labor. They grow conservative and become the out-and-out representatives of capital. We might also add that the importance of campaign contributions and positive media coverage in modern elections mean that electorally-oriented politicians of all stripes must gain support from those who own the money and the media: the capitalist class [21].

Despite the power of this argument, there are deeper reasons for the failure of reformism. Even if the social democratic parties were run by a collection of true proletarians who spent their free time laboring in factories, and even if such parties have media backing and a majority in parliament (which, to reiterate, they often have), they still would not legislate socialism into being. Reformism is definitionally contradictory, and it is these contradictions that are to blame for its continued failure.

Reformism posits that socialists can win elections and use their control over the state to legislate the destruction of capitalism, but the nature of electoral competition itself prevents socialists from forging the kind of solidarity necessary to create majority support for socialism. Elections are static and passive forms of political action encouraging compromises on important principles and the formation of alliances based on lowest-common-denominator politics. Prioritizing elections leads socialists to adapt to, rather than challenge, popular but conservative ideas. The point of elections, for reformists, is not to advance ideas (that comes later, once they are in power) but to win elections. Because reformists believe that the parliament is the site of liberation, they cannot actually begin liberating the people until they are in parliament. In service to this goal, reformists must learn to avoid radical positions or actions that might threaten short-term vote totals. Pursuing a reformist strategy inevitably leads to missing the forest for the trees. Social democrats cannot lead politically, which is what the masses require, but are instead doomed to tail the most backward elements in the movement.

This leads reformists to hold back mass movements at moments of radicalization, to channel mass grievances into elections and parliamentary maneuvering, and to limit demands to those that do not threaten the power of elites to a degree that those elites would be forced to engage in open struggle against the popular movement, and thus reveal their true character to the masses. In this respect, reformism blinds the masses and makes them incapable of understanding society as it actually exists. Unless one understands society, one cannot hope to change it. Reformism, therefore, actively prevents the transition to socialism from taking place. It confuses the masses so that they become distracted, unable to carry the struggle forward.

Reformists might move left when faced with pressure from the masses, but always within very strict limits. They will attempt to re-stabilize capitalism at those moments of social, economic, and political crisis: precisely the moments at which very large numbers of people could come to understand that there is something deeply wrong with the system. A perfect example of this is Syriza in Greece which, at the moment of crisis, chose to ignore the issues really facing the masses and embrace austerity [23].

Finally, profits are the lifeblood of the capitalist system. As long as capitalism exists, profits are what will keep it afloat. If the state is to have resources to distribute to workers and the poor, as reformists claim to want, they must collect enough taxes to do so. That will only happen if the economy is growing. If workers are to win ever greater wage and benefit increases, the firms in which they are employed must stay in business. Not only that, they must be profitable enough relative to their competitor capitalists to afford concessions. As one Swedish social democratic leader put it, “because social democracy works for a more equal distribution of property and incomes, it must never forget that one must produce before one has something to distribute” [24]. This raises a dilemma. The reality is that large-scale structural reforms, such as wage increases or social welfare, can drive capitalists to reduce investment in a given country. This happens because capitalists want to punish governments that implement policies antithetical to their interests. Pro-worker reforms mean that capitalists can invest their money more profitably elsewhere, and those who choose not to do this will go out of business. When capitalists stop investing or lack the capital to invest, the result is economic crisis, declining tax revenue, and inflation. This leads to a sharp drop in support for the government, resulting in its fall from power. Social democrats must, by necessity, balance their desire to reform the country towards socialism with their need to keep capitalists profitable and investing. When there is a contradiction between these two impulses, there are structural pressures built into the state, described above, that push them to side with capital over labor. This can be seen happening right now in Norway, the supposed liberal utopia [25].

It should be noted, by virtue of Western social democracy’s need to accommodate the interests of capital, it has failed to provide an alternative to imperialism. Scandinavia, for example, largely maintains itself through violent imperialist policies just like other Western nations.

In 2008, Norwegian communications multinational, Telenor was exposed in a documentary as partnering with a Bangladeshi supplier that employed child labor in horrendous conditions. The report also uncovered that the children were made to handle chemical substances without any protection and one of the workers even died after falling into a pool of acid. Not only was the treatment of workers unacceptable, they also ruined the crops of farmers in the surrounding areas with the waste from the plant. Like other Western multinationals that deliberately go to the developing world looking to save money on labor and operations costs, the company washed its hands of the accusations, denying knowledge about their partner’s inhumane practices [26].

Similarly, Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil, has been involved in multiple corruption cases around the world-especially in underdeveloped countries-where they have bribed state companies and government officials in order to obtain licenses for extraction. Their involvement is not only limited to these aggressive economic practices, they are also deeply involved in the West’s military exploits. Norway dropped 588 bombs on Libya but scarcely is mentioned as being part of these imperialist operations. Statoil has since started joint extractions operations worth millions in the ruined country [27].

Both of these companies, it is crucial to note, are partly owned by the state. This furthers the above argument that state ownership does not automatically translate to a more equitable system of production or distribution. By working within the capitalist state, reformist socialists will be forced to make concessions to that state. This will always mean exploiting workers at home and abroad.

The Swedish clothing giant H&M can retail affordable products in rich nations and make huge profits only because they exploit and underpay workers in impoverished nations such as Bangladesh. As John Smith points out in his book Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century , only 0.95 euros of the final sale price of an H&M T-shirt remains in Bangladesh to cover the cost of the factory, the workers, the suppliers, and the government. The remaining 3.54 euros goes for taxes and transportation in the market country, with the bulk going to the retailer. In other words, Western nations capture most of the profit although it is the poor workers and nations that have put most of the input in terms of labor and resources [28].

The ‘Nordic Model’, as it has come to be known, is hardly a system that we should look to for inspiration. No model, system, or structure that depends on the exploitation and domination of others can be ethical. Western nations and their people—if they are to be taken seriously by the rest of the struggling world—must begin to think about developing socialist political and economic structures that are internationalist and, crucially, anti-imperialist at their foundations. This can never be done by working within the capitalist state. Imperialism is, as Lenin put it, “the highest stage of capitalism” [29]. It is a phenomenon that is bound up with capitalist production. Once a capitalist economy becomes sufficiently developed, imperialism must arise in order to keep it afloat. Social democratic parties, because they are working within the capitalist state, must bow to the pressures of capitalist markets. As such, they must engage in imperialism and rank exploitation.

This is the crux of the matter: the state under capitalism is an organ of capitalist power. In light of this, attempts to build socialism by winning seats in parliament or similar political bodies will always result in failure. Treating the electoral arena as the primary space in which socialism will be won is a recipe for disaster. In order to achieve victory, we must organize workers in a militant communist party capable of smashing the existing state and running society in the interests of all.

  1. John Most, “Action as Propaganda” Freiheit, July 25, 1885
  2. Mao Zedong, Oppose Book Worship, 1930.
  3. Beirne, John, and Marcel Fratzscher. “The pricing of sovereign risk and contagion during the European sovereign debt crisis.” Journal of International Money and Finance 34 (2013): 60-82.
  4. Tomasson, Richard F. “Government old age pensions under affluence and austerity: West Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States.” Research in Social Problems and Public Policy 3 (1984): 217-72.
  5. Levy, Jonah D. “Partisan politics and welfare adjustment: the case of France.” Journal of European Public Policy 8.2 (2001): 265-285.
  6. Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Kreitler. “The retirement test: An international study.” Soc. Sec. Bull. 37 (1974): 3.
  7. Börsch-Supan, Axel. “Incentive effects of social security on labor force participation: evidence in Germany and across Europe.” Journal of public economics 78.1 (2000): 25-49.
  8. Bentolila, Samuel, and Juan J. Dolado. “Labour flexibility and wages: lessons from Spain.” Economic policy 9.18 (1994): 53-99.
  9. Rüdig, Wolfgang, and Georgios Karyotis. “Who protests in Greece? Mass opposition to austerity.” British Journal of Political Science 44.03 (2014): 487-513.
  10. Paul Blackledge (2013). “Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today and Jesus followers”. International Socialist Journal.
  11. Stan Parker (March 2002). “Reformism – or socialism?”. Socialist Standard.
  12. Puetter, Uwe. “Europe’s deliberative intergovernmentalism: the role of the Council and European Council in EU economic governance.” Journal of European Public Policy 19.2 (2012): 161-178.
  13. Giddens, Anthony. The third way: The renewal of social democracy. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
  14. “Bernie Sanders: The Democracy Now Interview.” Democracy Now, 2016.
  15. Madison, James. “Federalist no. 39.” The Federalist Papers (2007): 246.
  16. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The communist manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
  17. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, and Todd Chretien. State and revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Petras, James F., and Morris H. Morley. The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government. Monthly Review Pr, 1975.
  20. Marx, Karl, and Céline Surprenant. The class struggle in France. 2000.
  21. Epstein, David, and Peter Zemsky. “Money talks: Deterring quality challengers in congressional elections.” American Political Science Review 89.02 (1995): 295-308.
  22. Hawkins, Kirk Andrew, and David R. Hansen. “Dependent Civil Society: The Círculos Bolivarianos in Venezuela.” Latin American Research Review 41.1 (2006): 102-132.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Kouvelakis, Stathis. “SYRIZA’S RISE AND FALL.” (2016): 45-70.
  25. Quoted in John Hall, The State: Critical Concepts. 1993. p. 325.
  26. Bayulgen, Oksan. Foreign Investment and political regimes: The oil sector in Azerbaijan, Russia, and Norway. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  27. Falkenberg, Andreas W., and Joyce Falkenberg. “Ethics in international value chain networks: The case of telenor in bangladesh.” Journal of business ethics 90 (2009): 355-369.
  28. Ask, Alf Ole (2003-09-12). “Statoil’s international director resigns”. Aftenposten.
  29. Foster, John Bellamy, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna. “The global reserve army of labor and the new imperialism.” Monthly Review 63.6 (2011): 1.
  30. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism. Resistance Books, 1999.

P A R T   T W O

Above, I argued that Marxists cannot hope to win socialism solely through the electoral system. The capitalist state is rigged against the interests of workers. Sacrificing other kinds of organizing in favor of intervention in the electoral sphere can only result in the defeat of the socialist movement. However, this does not mean that socialist parties should abstain from elections entirely. There are a variety of benefits to standing in elections, In this section, I hope to outline them from a Marxist perspective.

I think the best place to begin is with The Communist Manifesto. This document was drafted at the founding of the Communist League, a revolutionary organization that Marx and Engels helped to organize. The Manifesto was meant to serve as a set of perspectives that could guide the League in its revolutionary struggle. In it, Marx and Engels pointed to three strategic tasks for the Communists. The first was that they needed to build working class organizations at the primary site of worker’s power: the workplace. Secondly, they had to build social movements to fight against all forms of oppression in society more broadly. Finally, struggle necessitated the construction of an independent political party of and for the working class to, as they put it, “win the battle of democracy” [1].  This battle broke out in a very serious way in 1848, before the ink on the Manifesto had even dried. The 1848 revolutions, by way of background, essentially constituted mass uprisings against the reactionary feudal order and replace it with a representative, democratic one. During this period, the workers were the most militant and dedicated fighters. They were prepared to carry the revolution through to its democratic end. The capitalists, although they mouthed support for democracy and revolution, betrayed the struggle by forming alliances with the feudal oligarchy [2].

The Communist League was far too small to determine the course of these events, but by relating to the wave of revolutions that broke out across Europe in this period, Marx and Engels could better articulate what they meant when they called for an independent working class political party. Marx wrote a document entitled “The March 1850 Address to the Communist League.” In it, he put forward a strategy to prevent another 1848-style betrayal of the working class. He wanted to ensure that the next democratic revolution would be completed to its fullest extent. This strategy grants insights into the ideas of Marx and Engels concerning the relationship between revolutionary socialism and electoral politics. This document was of such great importance that Lenin supposedly committed it to memory [3].

The document warned against workers entering into tight alliances with capitalists. Marx again argued for the formation of an independent worker’s party, in which the working class could realize its potential to lead the revolution through to the end. This political party was described as “the coming together or coordination of various communes and worker’s associations” [4]. The communes referred to local branches of the Communist League, while worker’s associations meant unions, clubs, and the like. Each of the local worker’s groups formed by this coordination was to act as a nucleus or center in which “the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence” [5]. Here, Marx is arguing not merely for the organizational independence of the working class, but also its political independence, which would be formed from the ground up.

Marx points out that this organization formed again by the merger of the advanced communist organizations and the worker’s movement as a whole must be capable of functioning both in secret and in the open. Further, this organization must arm itself to create a military force independent of the existing state. Then, as a product of the revolutionary creation of a representative democracy, this organization must “run its own candidates within the new electoral system and take every opportunity to put forward [its] own demands so that the bourgeois democratic government not only immediately loses the support of the workers but finds themselves, from the beginning, supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers” [6].

Here, we see one of the key reasons why standing in elections can be a useful tool. Seeing a worker’s party on the ballot threatens the bourgeoisie’s stranglehold over the status quo. It shows them that they are being watched, that we are working to overthrow them. This may help reign them in and push them further left. Although running in elections can never bring about socialism on its own, our mere presence on the ballot may be enough to win workers minimal gains in the short term. When we explain to workers how these gains were won, they will be more likely to rally behind us. It is only at this stage that the Party can really become a force to be reckoned with. Electoral engagement, then, does two things: it keeps the bourgeoisie in check and shows workers that there is an organization fighting for their interests.

The second element is the most important. Even when there was no potential at all of getting a candidate elected to government, Marx and Engels argued that the worker’s party must still put forward their own candidates. This helped to preserve the independence of the working class, project working class politics into public life, and assess the audience for such politics and count the forces behind the workers. Standing for elections, even when we know we cannot win them, is an important ideological and organizational tool. It shows workers that someone is standing with them, someone really does represent their interests. Socialist candidates give us a rallying point. They give us a face. Standing in elections turns us into a legitimate, visible political movement capable of making public gains.  It also provides us a point to refer people who have questions about politics. In effect, socialist intervention in the electoral sphere makes working class politics visible, and thus helps to radicalize those sectors of society most willing and able to bring about socialism.

Further, standing in elections can help us gain key information about the strength of our movement. We will know how many votes the worker’s party received, and thus understand the kind of manpower we have at our disposal. We can measure the strength of our movement against the strength of our opponents, and use this data to ascertain what kind of action is possible in the streets. In this sense, standing in elections is not only advantageous for the masses, but for the Party itself.

It is often claimed that standing in elections is counterproductive, because socialist candidates will split the vote between themselves and the mainstream “center left” party. It is argued that instead of running our own candidates, we should accept the lesser of two evils. Marx and Engels took a firm stance against this, writing,

“All such talk means, in the final analysis, is that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantage resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in representative bodies. If the forces of democracy [meaning the liberals] take decisive action against the reactionaries from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed” [7].

Essentially, what Marx and Engels mean is that if the liberals lose elections, it is not because a proletarian party has split the vote. Rather, it is because the liberals themselves have failed to put forward a program that the masses can rally around, and in so doing neutralize the reactionaries.

The purpose of running in elections, in Marx and Engels’ view, was this: win the masses over politically, challenge the political hegemony of the capitalist class, pose a real alternative to its agenda, and to defend that alternative by force. The electoral strategy, then, was to be part of a process of self-activity, leading to the self-emancipation of the working class.

Marx and Engels, therefore, saw the fight for representative democracy as crucial. It opened up important political space, as well as a range of tactics and tools that workers could integrate into the revolutionary struggle. This did not, however, mean that radical change could be won by electing socialists to office and legislating it into being. Elections were seen as a tool, one component part of a wider revolutionary strategy that included an armed and militant working class. Elections were not to be a substitute for this militant organization.

Twenty-five years after the March Address was written, the German Socialist Party (SDP) came into being. Within ten years, they had already won half a million votes for their candidates running for seats in parliament. By 1912, they had built up an impressive membership and exercised a considerable degree of political influence in working class life [8]. This shows that elections can be a kind of “broadcasting station” for the Party and its platform. Elections cannot bring about socialism, but they can help galvanize workers to do so.

The experience of the SDP, although it does prove that standing in elections has some benefit, also shows the dangers of treating the electoral area as the primary site of struggle. Given the aforementioned success in this area, it is perhaps understandable that a significant faction within the Party argued that a socialist society could be voted into being. The left wing of the SDP, led by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Paul Levey, understood that this was a pipe dream. The real power in society, they argued, does not lie with the elected officials. It lies with the board members of corporations and the heads of the major financial institutions in society. These people are not elected, but the government is really set up to serve them [9]. Of course, this fact must remain a secret. This is why politicians make promises they can never hope to keep: they need to win over the majority and convince voters that the state is looking out for their own best interests. When these politicians enter office, however, they do little more than serve the interests of capital. A recent example of this can be found with Barack Obama, who campaigned on a slogan of hope and change. He was the “people’s candidate,” ready and willing to take the government back from the greedy corporate parasites who had taken it over [10]. Once in office, he immediately rescinded this vision of a new egalitarian order, making ninety percent (90%) of the Bush tax cuts permanent [11].

This gets at the core problem of reformism, which I discussed at length in the previous section. Representative government, like the military and police, is a component of the state. The state is an organ that functions to protect the interests of a particular class. The capitalist state, then, has been developed and tuned to defend the interests of capital against labor. Marx developed this point in a letter to his German comrades. He wrote,

“A historical development can remain peaceful only for so long as its progress is not forcibly obstructed by those wielding social power. If, in England, for instance, or in the United States, the working class were to gain a majority in parliament or congress, they could, by lawful means, rid themselves of such laws and institutions as impeded their development. However, the peaceful movement might be transformed into a forcible one by resistance on the part of those interested in restoring the former state of affairs. If they are put down by force, it is as rebels against lawful force” [12].

In other words, if the ruling capitalist class feels that its power is threatened, it will not hesitate to use the state to remove that threat. If attempts at cooptation or coercion fail, the military and police will employ brutal force to crush the socialist movement.

This was not abstract speculation on the part of Marx and Engels. Rather, it was arrived at through a rigorous analysis of the 1871 Paris Commune. For a short time, the workers of Paris took control of the city and formed their own institutions of direct democracy. The Commune taught Marx and Engels that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” [13]. A radically different form of worker’s self-government would need to be established and defended against counterrevolution. The Paris Communards were content to establish an island of socialism within the city, but did not defeat the existing bourgeois state of France. As a result, the deposed ruling class was quickly able to regroup and, as Marx put it, “drown the Commune in its own blood” [14].

In analyzing elections, we should always be mindful of the corrosive and destructive effects of capital. Our goal, in this respect, should not necessarily be to win office, but to spread our message and rally the workers behind a concrete political program. Capitalism, as the Paris Commune proves, can never be voted out of existence. Those in power will never let us peacefully take that power from them. There must be a revolution in which the workers and oppressed forcibly defeat the bourgeoisie, break up their state, and create a radically new one in its place.

As I argued above, reformist socialism necessarily entails watering down our political program to appeal to the widest possible audience of voters. Receiving as many votes as possible becomes the goal, instead of winning socialism. This negates the tactical benefit of elections described above: elections no longer show workers that someone is fighting for their actual interests, but merely sow confusion as to what those interests are. In order for elections to benefit the Party, therefore, they must remain subordinate to other forms of struggle. Only in doing so can they actually serve to push workers towards socialism.

This dynamic played itself out disastrously in the SDP at the outbreak of World War One. They turned their backs on their working class comrades around the world and supported their own state in the conflict. They did this in order to win over German voters, who had been temporarily whipped into a pro-war frenzy by the bourgeoisie. This abandonment of international solidarity by the Party-the most advanced detachment of the worker’s movement-caused German workers to believe that international solidarity was not in their interests and set the worldwide struggle for socialism back by decades [15].

In fairness, the SDP took their pro-war position at a time when speaking out against the war would mean imprisonment of leaders and the outlawing of the organization entirely. This, of course, would have eliminated their electoral strategy altogether and jeopardized the progress they had made in that arena. While their actions are understandable, they also reveal the strategic problem with focusing on elections. By engaging exclusively in legal modes of struggle, we subject ourselves to the whims of the law. Since the judicial system is part of the state, this means that we put ourselves at a disadvantage. By acting openly in the electoral sphere, and leaving open no other avenues of struggle, repression of the Party would have meant the complete downfall of the movement. Not diversifying our tactics, as the experience of the SDP shows, can only mean death [16].

Given this experience, it is understandable that some revolutionaries could develop a complete aversion to political elections under capitalism. It is understandable that some would argue that we should not partake in elections under any circumstances. I would, of course, argue against this view. Lenin and the Bolsheviks engaged in a similar debate as a result of the 1905 revolution. In response to mass upheaval, the Russian Tsar granted the creation of a parliament called the Duma. He did not do this because his mind had been changed by the masses, but rather because he knew that the revolutionary movement was most dangerous in the streets. If he could redirect it to legal channels, the pressures of the parliament would render it ineffective. The Duma, because it was stacked with pro-tsarist forces, could easily control and neutralize the revolutionary struggle.

For the Tsar, the establishment of the Duma was not matter of principle. It was a purely tactical consideration based on an actual assessment of a particular situation. It is important to note at this juncture that even our enemies are aware that there is no electoral road to socialism [17]. When standing for elections, we must be ever vigilant and on guard, ensuring that we do not get caught up in the spectacle of anti-worker politics. If our enemies utilize bourgeois democratic institutions in a tactical manner, we must also understand them in this way.

Initially, the Bolsheviks organized an active boycott of the election. They recognized that it was a trap and chose to focus their energy on harnessing the rising struggle in the streets. In this context, this was the correct line. The point that we need to take away from this is that we ought not use elections as a substitute for struggle, but neither should we swear them off completely. Whether we intervene in the electoral sphere at a given moment should be dependent on a rigorous analysis of the concrete material conditions of struggle. This is how the Bolsheviks understood this question as well. In 1906, when it was clear that the struggle was turning towards a period of reaction, the Bolsheviks changed their position on the Duma [18]. This was the result of a long theoretical and practical debate in the Party. The Bolsheviks understood that at that particular point, the forces of reaction had vastly outnumbered the forces of progress. In order to rally the workers behind the Party, it was necessary to unify them around a program and a “face.” Elections here functioned, as I said above, as a “broadcasting unit” capable of carrying the struggle forward.

Lenin also published a pamphlet called “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” in which he put forward another argument for participation in the Duma. He argued that, while revolutionaries understand that the electoral system is set up to serve the people in power, the masses have not necessarily drawn this conclusion. If the electoral arena garners the political attention and focus of the working class, if the masses believe that the government can serve them, then revolutionaries must play an active part in it. This is part of how we relate to the masses, shift their consciousness, and win them to revolution. This theoretical point reflects an understanding of the mass line, which Leninists argue should be the primary method of work of the Party. The mass line begins when we meet the people where they are at. We cannot run ahead of the masses. If we do so, we risk alienating them and dooming the Party to isolation [19].

The Bolsheviks, based on this understanding, participated in the Duma and eventually won six delegates (which they called Deputies) to it. In the same vein as the Marx-Engels attitude outlined above, the Bolshevik Deputies were used as a tactic in pursuit of a wider strategy of raising the revolutionary consciousness and combativity of the masses. The elections were not an end in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end. For this to be possible, the Deputies had to engage in activity outside the Duma as well as inside it. They needed to have strong, intimate connections with both the workers and the rest of the Bolshevik party. Unlike capitalist politicians, the deputies were not divorced from the real conditions of working people and subject to the totalizing influence of the bourgeoisie and their lackeys. Nor could they be like the German socialist representatives mentioned above. They were not put on a pedestal and divorced from the socialist party from which they came. The Bolshevik deputies were deeply involved with non-electoral Party work as well as the Duma. They made daily contact with the editorial board of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, and were also in close contact with the central leadership of the Party. They also attended the regional and national Party congresses. All the Bolshevik deputies were workers themselves, and Bolshevik trade union work meant that they had already cultivated grassroots connection to the class. The Bolsheviks knew that electoral engagement was merely one tactic among many, not to be used in place of genuine organizing [20].

They also understood, however, that electoral intervention gave them a unique advantage, in that it allowed them to reach sections of the masses they would ordinarily have been cut off from. Having seats in the Duma helped to legitimize the Party and its platform in the eyes of the general public. It gave them an opportunity to meet with labor leaders and other working class organizations within their districts, and thus exercise greater influence on the worker’s movement as a whole. Elections, as this experience makes clear, can help extend the influence of the Party and carry the struggle towards revolution [21].

The Bolshevik deputies made cunning use of the privileges that came with being members of the government. They were able to conduct propaganda among the masses, give radical speeches at strikes and protests without legally being arrested. When the police and the government tried to crack down on the deputies, it only enhanced the ties between the Party and the masses, making it more difficult to follow through with the persecution [22].

The deputies also used the Duma as a platform to concentrate the attention of the masses on crimes committed by the Tsarist government. They found that they could do this effectively in the Duma by using a procedure called an interpolation. This involved the deputies giving a speech on the floor of the Duma and officially asking the government to explain their reasoning behind a particular anti-worker policy or action. Knowing full well that liberal ministers within the Duma wanted to cast themselves as sympathetic to the workers, the Bolshevik deputies would bring them worker concerns, publish a full account of the conversation — including the false promises made by the ministers — and then use the breaking of those promises to appeal to the workers to continue their struggles and not place any hope in the liberal authorities moving forward [23].

The Bolshevik deputies utilized the Duma to expose the workers to the actual nature of the system, to show the workers that they could not rely on liberals who pretended to speak for workers while apologizing for violence against them. They could only rely on themselves and their party to make real, lasting change [24].

This point is key to our understanding of elections. Because the masses are focused on the parliamentary sphere, winning seats in it actually allows the Party to spread its critique of the system to a wider audience. We cannot change the system from within, but we can call it out from within. This, again, reflects an understanding of the mass line. Once we meet the people where they are (in this case in parliament), we must develop their understanding of the issues and move them forward in struggle. Because elections are seen as legitimate by the masses, winning seats in representative bodies is an excellent way to do this.

The Bolshevik deputies were always careful to meet the people where they were, often literally. Upon hearing of any worker incident or protest, the deputies would rush there, provide solidarity, and collect information from the workers on the ground. They would then use this information for the next interpolation. Before long, resolutions began streaming in from the workers to the deputies, requesting that the government be questioned on everything from the persecution of trade unions to the treatment of political prisoners. In this way, the Duma functioned as a rallying point for the workers, showing them that the Party was willing and able to fight for their interests. To quote the Bolshevik deputy A.Y. Badayev, “the worker’s deputies were in the thick of the fight. We were in constant communication with the strikers, helped to formulate their demands, handed over funds collected, negotiated with various government authorities, etc” [25]. The deputies would collect strikes and deliver the money to workers so that they would have an income even when they were on strike. This was a way of providing concrete solidarity with workers and winning them over to the cause of the Party. Badayev continues,

“Workers would call on me to ask all sorts of questions, especially on paydays when money and aid for strikers was brought. I had to arrange supply passports and secret hiding places for those who became illegal, help to find work for those victimized during strikes, petition ministers on behalf of those arrested, [and] organize aid for exiles. Where there were signs that a strike was flagging, it was necessary to instill vigor into the strikers, to lend the aid required, and to print and send leaflets….There was not a single factory or workshop, down to the smallest, with which I was not connected in some way or another. Often, my callers were so numerous that my apartment was not large enough for them, and they had to wait in a queue down the staircase. Every successive stage of the struggle, every new strike, increased these queues, which symbolized the growing unity between the workers and the Bolshevik faction, and at the same time furthered the organization of the masses” [26].

To reiterate, socialism cannot be handed down from above, but must be a product of the self-activity of the workers and their party. Revolutionaries cannot simply win seats in parliament and cloister themselves off from the struggle. They must remain in contact with the masses every step of the way. Elections are merely one path by which to do this.

Putting this electoral strategy into action not only increased the self-activity and consciousness of the masses, it also gave the Bolsheviks a thermometer through which they could measure the mood of the masses and tailor their practice to fit that mood. This helped them win the masses over to their program with much greater expediency than if they had abstained from elections entirely.

Ultimately, in 1917, it was by assessing their elections to the soviets that allowed the Bolsheviks to ascertain whether they had enough support to wage an armed revolutionary struggle [27]. If you think back to the strategic perspectives put forward by Marx and Engels in 1848, all of this should sound familiar. Elections were not the be-all and end-all of socialist practice. They were a tool to be utilized as part of a greater strategy of winning the masses over to revolution and organizing them to take power.

Of course, there are some significant differences between where we are as a movement today and where we were in 1848 or 1917. Just like the Bolsheviks debating whether or not to boycott the Duma, all strategy and tactics need to be based on as accurate an assessment as possible of the concrete situation. They must be based on our weaknesses as well as our strengths, on what we think we can accomplish. Above all, however, we must always return back to the central question every revolutionary should ask: what will it take to increase the consciousness, combativity, and organization of the workers and the oppressed? In short, what will it take to win?

Elections ought to be subordinate to this goal, but they can play an important role in catalyzing and sustaining revolutionary struggle. In the United States particularly, one of the major factors holding back the progress of the worker’s movement is the Democratic Party. Unlike in other countries, where workers have their own political Party, the American working class is tied to an organization that, although it claims to support their interests, is actually bound up with the interests of capital. Election law in this country is rigged against third party challenges. Unlike in Europe, where seats in parliament are dictated by the proportion of the vote a party receives, the United States has a winner-take-all system. The American political system offers little in the way of real democracy; workers feel that they only have two choices at the ballot box [28]. Their choice is of the Republican party, which openly supports the rich and powerful, and the Democratic party, which offers a more clandestine form of moneyed repression. Although the Democratic party attempts to hijack the rhetoric of the left, history has shown that they can never be any more than liberal-democratic defenders of the status quo. By dishonestly and hypocritically giving voice to vaguely left politic, a dynamic is created in which the workers, no matter how frustrated they are with the Democrats, feel compelled to vote for the “lesser of two evils.”  Every four years, there is pressure on the worker’s movement to put militant organizing on pause and focus on making sure a Republican is not elected into office. When Democrats feel like the have the working class vote on lock, there is nothing to stop them from shifting further and further to the right once they actually get into office.

This was never clearer than in the Obama presidency. On the 2008 campaign trail, Obama said he was going to “put on his walking shoes” and walk picket lines with workers [29]. He was nowhere to be found when Democrat Rahm Emanuel attempted to smash the teacher’s strike in Obama’s hometown of Chicago [30]. This strike was waged for better working conditions and against racist school closures. It is easy to imagine that, if there was ever a time for a black Chicago native to walk a picket line, this would be it. The Left’s ties to the Democratic Party, as this example illustrates, serves only to demobilize and demoralize the working class and oppressed. Marx’s call for an independent political party of the working class has never been more relevant and vital.

This has such potential to be a boon to the consciousness of the working class and oppressed; having candidates that jump in the opportunity to participate in and support strikes the way the Bolshevik delegates to the Duma did. While the conditions in the United States are very different from the conditions of Russia more than a century ago, we are still faced with the historic task of building an independent political party of the working class and oppressed. In the United States, that means breaking the stranglehold of the Democratic Party on the working class. This is no easy task. It will be a long process, encompassing a wide variety of tactics, strategies, and moments. In this task, we must never cut ourselves off from the tools at our disposal. Standing in elections is just one of such tools. Insofar as we assess that standing in elections would carry the struggle forward, that it would make a real impact on the consciousness of the masses, we should make use of this tactic. We must always remember, though, that the goal of the revolutionary party is to raise and direct the consciousness of the masses. We must stand firmly against the failed reformist roads to socialism; understanding that the route to a better society for everyone is one that is revolutionary and engaging on every level.

  1. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
  2. Marx, Karl, and Céline Surprenant. The Class Struggle in France. 2000.
  3. Nimtz, August. Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both. Springer, 2016.
  4. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League.” Communist League, 1850.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Retallack, Imperial Germany p. 187
  9. O’Kane, Rosemary HT. Rosa Luxemburg in Action: For Revolution and Democracy. Routledge, 2014.
  10. “Candidate Obama,” Francine Orr. Los Angeles Times, 2017.
  11. “Budget Deal Makes Permanent 82 Percent of President Bush’s Tax Cuts.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. N.p., 10 June 2015.
  12. Quoted in Nimtz, August H. Marx and Engels: Their contribution to the democratic breakthrough. SUNY Press, 2000.
  13. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, and Todd Chretien. State and Revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.
  14. Ibid.
  15. See Retallack, Op. Cit.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, et al. Selected Works: The Revolution of (1905-1907). Vol. 3. 1967.
  18. Badaev, Alekseĭ Egorovich. The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma. International Publishers, 1932.
  19. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. ”Left-wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Resistance Books, 1999.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. Lecture on the 1905 Revolution. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1951.
  28. “Problem with US elections: winner-takes-all electoral system.” Consultant’s Mind. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016.
  29. O’Brien, Michael. “Obama in 2007: ‘I’ll walk on that picket line’ if bargaining rights threatened.” The Hill. 03 Feb. 2016.
  30. Layton, Lyndsey, Peter Wallsten, and Bill Turque. “Chicago teachers strike places Obama at odds with key part of political base.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 11 Sep. 2012.

Christopher C is a Marxist-Leninist activist and writer.

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