How should revolutionaries view parliamentary elections?

25 April 2022
Jerome Small

The federal election has sparked some discussion around what position the radical left in this country should take on electoral activity. The anarchist publication Red & Black Notes recently carried a contribution from Tommy Lawson, arguing for a principle of abstention from parliamentary elections.

Tommy spends much of his article arguing that workers’ struggle at the point of production is the key to any transformation of society. There is significant common ground here between revolutionary socialists and class-struggle anarchists. The role of workers in production gives struggles centred in the workplace an enormous potential power—which can transform society and, in the process of struggle, transform the workers themselves.

Tommy counterposes this class-struggle perspective to the approach of a socialist party winning office through elections and then dispensing socialism, or at least incremental reform, from above—which he presents as the only perspective informing engagement in electoral projects.

Tommy attempts to locate the origins of this top-down, reformist perspective in the writings of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, stating that “many revolutionaries took serious issue” with the lines in The Communist Manifesto “about the concentration of production into the hands of the state. The state of course, being an institution of class domination”. Anarchists also “took issue with ... the idea of ‘winning the battle of democracy’, which was interpreted to mean conquering the capitalist state by electoral means”.

Tommy acknowledges that the accuracy of these interpretations of the views of Marx and Engels is “open to debate”. Actually quoting the passage that he refers to from The Communist Manifesto would have shown that these “interpretations” are in fact gross misrepresentations:

“[The] first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy. The working class will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the workers organised as the ruling class.”

So indeed, the state is an institution of class domination. But Marx and Engels’ point was that an entire class, the working class, could constitute itself as the ruling class—thus becoming a new form of state—and then proceed to make “despotic inroads” on private ownership of the vast productive forces of society. This is a very different sort of state from the severely limited “democracy” experienced under capitalism, in which any serious challenge to the economic power of capital is ruled out.

Marx and Engels re-emphasised this point following the world historic events of 1871. For 70 days, the working class of Paris “won the battle of democracy” by “organising itself as the ruling class”, constituting itself as a revolutionary state. The experience of the Paris Commune proved (in Marx and Engels’ words) that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”.

The false picture of Marx and Engels’ politics as inherently reformist rather than revolutionary is common among both anarchists and social democrats. Both of these political tendencies claim that participation in electoral projects, or in parliament, must lead to accepting the power of capitalism and its institutions, including the capitalist state.

This fiction is politically convenient for both of these tendencies, but even a cursory knowledge of the history of the socialist movement tells us it is false. To use one famous example, the extensive work of the Bolshevik party within the tsarist regime’s Duma (parliament) didn’t prevent them from leading the successful workers’ revolution in 1917.

Tommy might disagree with the contention that the revolutionary state that emerged from 1917 was a clear example, like the Paris Commune, of workers constituting themselves as a new form of state to “win the battle of democracy”. But the revolutionary insurrection itself would surely have been impossible if the schema that Tommy presents is correct—that “as parliament is utilised by socialists, their everyday practice becomes more and more based upon the impossibility of an insurrection”.

Perhaps the most notorious counter-example to the Bolsheviks is the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which betrayed its supporters and every socialist principle by voting for war credits at the outset of the great imperialist world slaughter of World War One. Parliamentary cretinism (to use a term of abuse employed often by Engels) certainly played a role in the SPD’s political degeneration—though arguably the trade union and party bureaucracy were at least as crucial in this process. So Rudolph Rocker’s assertion, quoted by Tommy, that “Socialism has almost been completely crushed and condemned to insignificance” thanks to “participation in the politics of the bourgeois states” is one-sided, and makes a shibboleth out of participation in electoral or parliamentary projects as the source of all political problems.

Tommy spends a large part of his article on the issue of the party program. He states that Victorian Socialists’ policy platform is “barely to the left of the Greens” and is “typical of social democratic parties the world over”. He’s unhappy that Victorian Socialists’ federal election platform mentions capitalism only three times and doesn’t argue for revolution, thus “falling at the first hurdle” of this “minimum task”.

“If socialists are serious about overthrowing capitalism”, he asserts, “this is what they should be actively arguing for, rather than covering it up with palatable reformist projects”. He pulls a quote from a recent article in Red Flag in which I mention that “you don’t have to be a revolutionary in order to be a member of Victorian Socialists”. “Fair enough”, comments Tommy, but “why would you build a political party which is not revolutionary?”

Perhaps I can start to solve this mystery by pointing out that revolutionaries build non-revolutionary organisations of many different varieties as a matter of course. Any comrade who has invited someone to join a union, or who has built a campaign group of any sort, has done exactly this. Tommy, presumably, has recruited people to the Electrical Trades Union despite it being very far from a revolutionary organisation.

Second, if we’re covering anything up, we’re doing a pretty bad job of it. If Tommy had used the full sentence of mine that he quotes from, it’d be obvious that I was explaining precisely that I am a revolutionary socialist, though you don’t have to be a revolutionary to be part of Victorian Socialists.

Tommy would be well aware that the argument for revolution in Australia today is not one of practical politics but of propaganda and political argument, of winning people to a world view. The point of Victorian Socialists is to supplement that by being a vehicle for making a concrete political contest on the issues of the day, in the context of electoral politics, on the basis of socialist politics.

Our platform documents have always been forthright about fighting for socialism. Our federal election platform states:

“Our policies are about taking on the political and economic elite and fighting to unite the rest of us in the struggle for a different society—a socialist society defined by genuine democratic control of the economy, equality, and social justice—where we can organise together to save our planet and reclaim our future.”

Tommy asserts that the politics of Socialist Alternative “shifted”, presumably to the right, since the inception of Victorian Socialists. However, the only concrete evidence he points to is that we haven’t organised a conference focused mainly on union struggles for a while.

If the implication is that we have dropped our industrial work in favour of electoralism, I’d like to take this opportunity to put his mind at ease. Since the inception of Victorian Socialists, our members have played an absolutely central role in the biggest rank-and-file revolt in an Australian union for many years, when NTEU Fightback helped kill a national 15 percent pay cut being pushed by the union’s leaders. Our comrades have made (and continue to make) a contest over COVID in workplaces ranging from Victorian schools to Sydney Bunnings, have done at least our share of workplace agitation to push the public sector strikes in New South Wales forward and played a creditable role in the recent, unprecedented revolt over an insulting sub-inflation pay deal in the Victorian AEU.

Tommy criticises the tens of thousands of dollars and hours spent on electoral campaigns over the years, with very little to show for it. We’ve made the same criticism of many electoral projects, where a vote as low as 0.45 percent is talked up as a “very credible” result. In contrast, part of the appeal of the Victorian Socialists project is that it actually has a credible prospect of making a breakthrough that no other party in Australia has managed for many decades, by getting a socialist elected to parliament.

The structure of the Victorian upper house is part of this—five-member electoral districts give a variety of smaller parties a credible chance of winning the fifth seat, as the current very motley crew of upper house crossbenchers demonstrates. The years of work put in to building Socialist Alternative, and the enormous amount of work that Socialist Alternative members contribute to Victorian Socialists campaigns, is another. So is the contribution of those socialists and supporters outside our ranks who have been an active part of Victorian Socialists campaigns.

Victorian Socialists won 4 percent of the vote in the Northern Metropolitan upper house district in 2018. This placed us ahead of the Reason Party, the eventual winners of the seat, as well as 13 other parties (out of 18 on the ballot paper). If we’d won that same percentage in the Western Metropolitan district, Victorian Socialists would very likely have a member of parliament now. For the first time in over 70 years, a socialist outside of the straitjacket of the Labor Party would be in an Australian parliament.

We maintained 2018’s vote in the 2019 federal election and in the 2020 local council campaign. The ambitious scale of Victorian Socialists’ current federal election campaign will tell us what sort of vote a small but hard-working campaign can win across the vast expanses of Melbourne’s working-class west and north. We’re hoping this can lay the basis for a breakthrough in the state election later in the year.

A socialist in parliament would provide a platform and organising resources for a whole variety of struggles in workplaces and the streets. They would push publicly and stridently for the radical measures needed to tackle climate, racism and every other crisis, rather than letting the political debate be dominated by shades of drab pro-capitalist politics. And they would propagandise relentlessly, helping to bring socialism off the margins of Australian political life.

When our forces were smaller, there was really no option but abstention from electoral campaigning (or hailing under-one-per-cent results as “very credible”). In Victoria, there is now another option—a vigorous, people-powered, explicitly socialist campaign on electoral terrain.

A large part of the terrain of politics is political positions, and this is the terrain we’re fighting on. We talk about the fact that it’s always politicians and the rich who start the wars and workers who pay, in lives and war spending. That racism is not just a moral obscenity but a class question, letting politicians and the media avoid blame for the problems facing ordinary people by running racist scare campaigns. That dramatic action is needed to confront the climate crisis, including putting crucial industries under social control.

We’re putting 300,000 leaflets in people’s letterboxes saying we want “a transformation of our society so that it looks after everyone”, by “taking the money and the power out of the hands of the billionaires”. We’re up front about supporting unions fighting for higher wages, “people power” versus toxic capitalism, and community campaigns (in part funded by using money left over from cutting the obscene salaries of members of parliament).

We’re putting forward these ideas as an explicitly socialist political force, in hundreds of thousands of letterboxed leaflets, and tens of thousands of conversations on doorsteps and outside polling booths.

It’s in the nature of experiments that they can succeed or fail. But we don’t intend to be left wondering what could have happened if we’d worked a bit harder—we’ll be busting a gut from now to when the final votes are cast on 21 May, and then repeating the operation, hopefully on an even larger scale, in the state election at the end of the year.

In other words, we’ll be fighting like fury to expand the reach of socialist politics in this country. This is a project worthy of active support, not abstention.

Jerome Small is the Victorian Socialists' federal election candidate for Calwell in Melbourne's northern suburbs.

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