ICL Rejects ‘Executive Offices’

Of Presidents & Principles

The Fifth International Conference of the International Communist League (ICL, formerly the international Spartacist tendency) arrived at a momentous conclusion:

The chief pressure operating on our party, especially in this period of post-Soviet reaction, is Menshevik, i.e., social-democratic, opportunism, not ultra-left sectarianism. And the essence of Menshevism in this period is capitulation to bourgeois liberalism.”
—Spartacist, Autumn 2007 (emphasis in original)

To avoid such capitulations, conference delegates unanimously approved a “most significant” decision: henceforth the ICL would “categorically oppose running for executive positions in the capitalist state.” The fact that the Spartacist group managed to exist for forty-odd years without this position had “a lot to do with the state of the party and the prevailing conception, in fact, that the overriding problems were sectarianism and not Menshevism,” according to J. Bride, a member of the group’s International Secretariat. Those familiar with how things work in the Spartacist tendency are unlikely to be surprised that credit for this historic step goes to the Dear Leader, James Robertson.

The new line was introduced during the 2007 French presidential election campaign:

“Communists seek to have deputies in parliament in order to use this as a platform for revolutionary opposition to capitalism, its state, its government, its parties and its social-democratic lackeys.

“However, this is different from a presidential election, in which one is running to become the chief of French imperialism. The president is the head of the army and has enormous powers, in particular in France. He can declare martial law, dissolve parliament, etc. The positions of president, and of mayor on the local level, are not parliamentary offices that can be used as platforms to oppose the system. They are executive offices of the bourgeois state—the mayor and the president execute the decisions taken by the bourgeoisie.”
Workers Vanguard, 13 April 2007

While acknowledging that “Trotskyists did not object to running in such elections—including at the time of Trotsky and Cannon,” the ICL asserts that its new position is simply a more consistent application of Lenin’s teachings:

“As our recent conference document states: ‘The problem with running for executive offices is that it lends legitimacy to prevailing and reformist conceptions of the state.’ Our entire purpose is to bring to workers the understanding that in any socialist revolution the bourgeois state must be destroyed and replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin taught this, and all history has proven it. To run in elections for executive office thus represents an obstacle to our strategic goal.”

The ICL has thus far avoided the question of “executive authority” in a parliamentary system. After all, it is Gordon Brown who will decide how long British troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as it was Tony Blair who sent them there in the first place. Perhaps the ICL comrades will eventually conclude that running for parliament is also “an obstacle” because the winning party ends up exercising executive power.

This is not the first time this question has been raised in the Marxist movement. In 1893 F. Wiesen of Baird, Texas, wrote to Friedrich Engels asking “for a statement against the putting up of candidates ‘for President,’ as we want to abolish the President and that is a denial of revolutionary principle.” Engels, who was not inclined to agree, replied: “I do not see what violation of the social-democratic [i.e., revolutionary] principle is necessarily involved in putting up candidates for any elective political office or in voting for these candidates, even if we are aiming at the abolition of this office itself.”

Engels counseled Baird not to be overly rigid on tactical questions:

“One may be of the opinion that the best way to abolish the Presidency and the Senate in America is to elect men to these offices who are pledged to effect their abolition, and then one will consistently act accordingly. Others may think that this method is inappropriate; that’s a matter of opinion. There may be circumstances under which the former mode of action would also involve a violation of revolutionary principle; I fail to see why that should always and everywhere be the case.”

Of course, the only way to “abolish” the institutions of the bourgeois state is through socialist revolution, but Engels was right to suggest that there is no sense in treating tactical questions as matters of “principle.” In certain situations, a revolutionary boycott of presidential elections might benefit reformists by allowing them to posture as the only “socialist” alternative to the capitalist parties.

Reformists seek office hoping for a chance to administer the capitalist state. Marxists see bourgeois elections as opportunities to present the program of expropriating capitalist property, and replacing the bourgeois state with a workers’ state, to a broad audience. A revolutionary campaign for president no more promotes reformist illusions in the state than running for the legislature gives credence to notions of a “parliamentary road to socialism.”

The Internationalist Group, which aptly described the ICL’s new position as a “novelty,” correctly observed:

“In the unusual case in which a revolutionary candidate had enough influence to be elected, the party would already have begun building workers councils and other organs of a soviet character. And the party would insist that, if elected, its candidates would base themselves on such organs of workers power and not on the institutions of the bourgeois state.”
Internationalist, July 2007

If a genuinely Marxist party appeared to have enough popular support to conceivably win a major national election, elements of the ruling class would certainly prepare an extra-parliamentary response—i.e., a coup led by a Kornilov or a Pinochet. A serious revolutionary organization would take this into account and prepare accordingly. In such circumstances, the electoral result, like the outcome of the election for Russia’s bourgeois Constituent Assembly five days after the Bolshevik-led revolution, would be essentially irrelevant.

Published: 1917 No.30 (April 2008)