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Communists and elections

Never mind the ballots?

An adaptation of ‘Alle Jahre wieder – die Qual mit der Wahl’ from Bolschewik, no. 6, September 1994, journal of the IBT’s German section

In times of undisputed bourgeois rule, the capitalist class likes to invite ‘our people’ to make use of the ballot box – a bourgeois democratic ritual often leading to confusion on the left. What is to be done if there is no revolutionary candidate? Can revolutionaries participate in elections to a bourgeois parliament, or does participation itself amount to class betrayal? Revolutionaries cannot simply answer these questions with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Based on the existing objective conditions, it is necessary to develop tactics that take into account the existing level of consciousness of the working class and that can develop proletarian class-consciousness to fight against bourgeois rule. Correct tactics towards bourgeois parliaments, however, first require a clear understanding of the function of these institutions.

Standing for bourgeois parliament = class treason?

Elections are used as a democratic seal of approval for the ruling class. Universal franchise fools voters into thinking that they can express their interests and influence the state by ticking a box on the ballot paper. History has shown, however, that even governments that are loyal defenders of the system but are opposed by the majority of the bourgeoisie, such as the Chilean popular front government of 1973, cannot last long. It is simply not possible to make use of the bourgeois state to transform society in the interests of working people.

Despite this basic opposition, communists cannot simply ignore bourgeois parliaments. During elections the population is often particularly politicised. If there are parliamentary illusions among the exploited, then it is necessary to utilise the time leading up to an election for a struggle against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. If a revolutionary organisation is strong enough it should field its own candidates. The parliamentary task of these candidates is to shatter illusions in parliament itself. The parliamentary platform must be used for communist propaganda and agitation in order to expose the bourgeois function of the institution.

The second congress of the Communist International defined the position of communists in no uncertain terms:

‘Consequently, Communism rejects parliamentarianism as the state form of the future society, or as the form of the class dictatorship of the proletariat. It denies the possibility of parliament being won to the proletarian cause on a long-term basis. It sets itself the task of destroying parliamentarianism. It follows from this that bourgeois state institutions can be used only with the object of destroying them. This is the one and only way the question of their utilization can be posed.…

‘The Communist Party enters this institution not to function within it as an integral part of the parliamentary system, but to take action inside parliament that helps to smash the bourgeois state machine and parliament itself.…’
(‘The Communist Party and Parliament’, 2 August 1920, emphasis in original, Theses, resolutions & manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International, Pluto Press 1983, pp. 100-1)

Boycotts: ultra-left sectarianism or revolutionary tactics?

Some anarchist and ultra-left groups advocate ‘strategic boycott of elections’ as part of the fight against the bourgeois state. The often-lamented ‘political apathy’ of the electorate, ie, low turnout at elections, seems to prove these groups right: Bourgeois parliamentarianism appears to be dead. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that this view is either short-sighted, or excessively far-sighted. Bourgeois parliamentarianism, like capitalism itself, has long lost its historically progressive role, but politically neither has yet been thrown into ‘the dustbin of history’. We still live in a capitalist class society. The majority of those who currently refrain from ticking one of the boxes on the ballot paper have not lost their illusions in parliamentarianism. They simply cannot identify anyone worth voting for.

Supporters of the ‘strategic election boycott’ forget the fact that social democracy still maintains an enormous influence in the working class via the trade unions. Due to the lack of a revolutionary alternative, many workers still see parties such as the Labour Party as their representatives. The simplistic opposition of these anarchists and ultra-leftists towards bourgeois parliaments leads them to abstract and sterile propaganda – with laudable intentions perhaps, but ineffective. Only ‘revolutionary par-liamentarianism’, as advocated by the Comintern, provides a basis for developing electoral tactics able to concretely destroy social-democratic obstacles to revolutionary consciousness.

Naturally, communists are not electoral cretins. Participation in elections is not a strategy but a tactic. In revolutionary periods, for example, when the working class has begun to struggle for power directly and has started to create its own organs of power (soviets), participation in bourgeois elections could act as a brake on these developments. In this situation, a revolutionary boycott aimed at preventing the elections through direct action would be an option.

Critical support: Opportunism or tactic?

In view of the current level of class-consciousness, election campaigns by revolutionary candidates would be desirable, but due to the organisational weakness of revolutionary forces this is not feasible. However, the electoral presence of a bourgeois workers party such as the German Social Democratic Party or the British Labour Party can theoretically provide the possibility of expressing the concept of ‘class against class’. On the other hand, critical support to bourgeois or petty-bourgeois parties is not an option for class-conscious workers. For electoral support it is paramount that there is an independent expression of the needs of the working-class. Any clear indication by a (bourgeois) workers’ party of intent to enter into a coalition with bourgeois or petty-bourgeois parties would obliterate the basis for any critical support.

While class independence is an important prerequisite for possible support, it is not enough in itself. It would be foolish to vote for the Labour Party when it is engaged in an offensive against the working class. On the other hand, it would be equally absurd to make it a condition for electoral support that the Labour Party adopts a revolutionary programme. After all, what we are dealing with here is a question of critical support to social democrats, proven traitors to the working class, not to revolutionaries. In this sense, critical support is only an option in cases where the social democratic party at least pretends to stand for defence of the basic interests of the workers. Only hopeless reformists can currently advocate a vote to New Labour, a party which no longer even creates illusions but openly promises for the future what it has delivered in the past – attacks on the working-class.

When communists give critical support we do not of course put any faith in the election promises of reformists. It is the duty of communists to shatter the trust of the working class in social democratic and reformist organisations. The Labour Party has proven in practice that it acts as an agent of the bourgeoisie within the working class in order to tie workers to capitalism. However, it cannot be denied that the working class, despite all the betrayals carried out by the Labour Party, has not yet broken politically with Labourism. This is sometimes manifested in support to formations which position themselves to the left of Labour, but represent an incomplete break from Labourism.

In order to facilitate and deepen this break, communists use the tactic of critical support when the above conditions apply. We make use of the objective contradiction between the bourgeois leadership on the one hand, and their support by the proletarian rank and file on the other, and declare to the workers: We do not believe the promises of the reformists. They will betray us. You will soon see this for yourself. However, as they are supported by the bulk of the workers and promise to represent your interests we will help to elect them so that their real political character will become clear.

‘To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone.’
(Lenin, ‘“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder’, 12 May 1920, Lenin Selected Works, Progress Publishers, 1968, p.566)