Elections and the Catch-22

C Derick Varn is skeptical of whether elections can play an important role in building a mass party

How can class institutions be rebuilt?

Donald Parkinson’s recent polemic and call for an electoral strategy for communist politics strikes a delicate balance in the abstentionism and social democracy debates, but still leaves many questions for those of us agnostic on the historical value of electoralism in its congressional or parliamentary modes somewhat unsatisfied.  In my response to Parkinson’s call, I wish to highlight some points of concern, skepticism, and differing historical interpretation that should be addressed by anyone seeking a mass party and a minimum program for such a party.

While Parkinson is entirely correct his highlighting that Marx did fully support the tactical participation in elections in 1850 and his provisional support of Erfurt program as late as 1891 indicates that Marx never supported abstentions from elections.  However, it should be noted that the tone of Marx’s writings on parliamentary participation seems to have moderated between 1850’s address to the Communist League and his (originally unpublished) writings in the Critique of the Gotha Program in 1875.  This seems particularly evident in Section IV of the Critique:

“It is by no means the aim of the workers, who have got rid of the narrow mentality of humble subjects, to set the state free. In the German Empire, the ‘state’ is almost as “free” as in Russia. Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the ‘freedom of the state’.”

The German Workers’ party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.

And what of the riotous misuse which the program makes of the words “present-day state”, “present-day society”, and of the still more riotous misconception it creates in regard to the state to which it addresses its demands?

“Present-day society” is capitalist society, which exists in all civilized countries, more or less free from medieval admixture, more or less modified by the particular historical development of each country, more or less developed. On the other hand, the “present-day state” changes with a country’s frontier. It is different in the Prusso-German Empire from what it is in Switzerland, and different in England from what it is in the United States. The “present-day state” is therefore a fiction.

Nevertheless, the different states of the different civilized countries, in spite or their motley diversity of form, all have this in common: that they are based on modern bourgeois society, only one more or less capitalistically developed. They have, therefore, also certain essential characteristics in common. In this sense, it is possible to speak of tthe “present-day state” in contrast with the future, in which its present root, bourgeois society, will have died off.

While by no means advocating the abstentionism one often sees in both “anti-Revisionist” and Left-communist polemics, particularly after the World Wars, there is a skepticism about the scope and limitations of such ones participation in myriad bourgeois democracies would actually encourage.   In many ways, it seems clear that Marx sees the democratic republic as a pre-condition but not an answer to the issue of dictatorship of the proletariat:

Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s Party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands which, insofar as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been realized. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of  “state of the future” is a present-day state, although existing outside the “framework” of the German Empire.

But one thing has been forgotten. Since the German Workers’ party expressly declares that it acts within “the present-day national state”, hence within its own state, the Prusso-German Empire — its demands would indeed be otherwise largely meaningless, since one only demands what one has not got — it should not have forgotten the chief thing, namely, that all those pretty little gewgaws rest on the recognition of the so-called sovereignty of the people and hence are appropriate only in a democratic republic.

Since one has not the courage — and wisely so, for the circumstances demand caution — to demand the democratic republic, as the French workers’ programs under Louis Philippe and under Louis Napoleon did, one should not have resorted, either, to the subterfuge, neither “honest” nor decent, of demanding things which have meaning only in a democratic republic from a state which is nothing but a police-guarded military despotism, embellished with parliamentary forms, alloyed with a feudal admixture, already influenced by the bourgeoisie, and bureaucratically carpentered, and then to assure this state into the bargain that one imagines one will be able to force such things upon it “by legal means”.

Even vulgar democracy, which sees the millennium in the democratic republic, and has no suspicion that it is precisely in this last form of state of bourgeois society that the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion — even it towers mountains above this kind of democratism, which keeps within the limits of what is permitted by the police and not permitted by logic.

Marx’s suspicion of vulgar democracy remains clear even if the exact nature of his tone and critique appear slightly ambivalent to the modern reader.  It is clear that democracy is not the goal of the Marxist struggle, but would such participation in elections would be the basis for it. However, it is also clear, while Marx pragmatically understands the dangers of calling for a properly democratic republic would be, and that this cannot be the limit of a communist vision.

This is to say that Marx seems to be moderating his tone towards electoralism from 1850.  Furthermore, even before such an address, Marx seemed to express similar skepticism about the nature of participation in bourgeois state. In 1843, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he asserts:

As we have seen, the state exists merely as political state. The totality of the political state is the legislature. To participate in the legislature is thus to participate in the political state and to prove and actualise one’s existence as member of the political state, as member of the state. That all as individuals want to participate integrally in the legislature is nothing but the will of all to be actual (active) members of the state, or to give themselves a political existence, or to prove their existence as political and to effect it as such. We have further seen that the Estates are civil society as legislature, that they are its political existence.

The fact, therefore, that civil society invades the sphere of legislative power en masse, and where possible totally, that actual civil society wishes to substitute itself for the fictional civil society of the legislature, is nothing but the drive of civil society to give itself political existence, or to make political existence its actual existence. The drive of civil society to transform itself into political society, or to make political society into the actual society, shows itself as the drive for the most fully possible universal participation in legislative power.

Parkinson not only admits a similar ambivalence but spells out a similar argument about the illegitimacy of contemporary politics. However, Parkinson’s answers still do not engage entirely on what this would mean:

The first clarification to make is that we would not come to power unless we had the mandate to operate our full minimum program and essentially smash the bourgeois state and create the dictatorship of the proletariat. The party would be a party in opposition and would not form coalition governments with bourgeois parties. Unlike other organizations like Syriza, who act as if they cannot accomplish anything until they are in power, a properly Marxist party would remain in opposition and not form a government until conditions for revolution are ripe.

In short, Parkinson advocates for participation in liberal, i.e bourgeois, democracy tactically, but always in opposition and as a pre-cursor for preparing the conditions for revolution.  Yet, it remains unclear what any of this entitles beyond rhetoric echoing Marx’s assertions and skepticism but not entirely updating them historically.  This greatly complicates many of Parkinson’s key points:

“A mass party will have to engage large amounts of workers through “extra parliamentary” means before it will even stand a chance winning in an electoral campaign. Building class unions, solidarity networks, unemployed councils, mutual aid societies, gun clubs, sports teams, etc. is not to be rejected in favor of electoral action.”

Yet many of these activities require changes in law not to be the kind of adventurism that Parkinson is warning us against.  This also, honestly, does not deal with the limitations on class unions, mutual aid societies and the credential and regulatory limitations on creating them within a legal space nor how such illegalism could be reconciled with the necessary requirements to build a mass party through electoral means.  None of these preconditions and social institutions of dual power currently exist, and so seeming working towards a electoral strategy to create them seems, at minimum, highly premature but also leads a myriad of contradictions that did not exist for either pre-1914 social Democrats or Bolsheviks. They actually did operate in an illegal framework but also when the notion of a political party was massively different from what has ever existed in the United States or in Anglosphere in general.  There is little history for such political parties, and thus new meanings for what would do would require massive education and institutional pull on the electorate.

This catch-22 means that the mass party in an electoral system would need mass support before it could tactically use elections to get mass support.  Is abstentionism really such a tactical mistake in such a stage? The discussion of Marx above hardly makes that clear.  If one does accept this: means of preventing careerism, executive focus, and shallow political engagement as encouraged by Anglosphere’s notion of the party system where parties are primarily voter sorting mechanism without much other function than raising money for that purpose, such mechanisms much be more clearly laid out before a communist election strategy could begin in earnest.

When Parkinson asserts…

While it is true aspects of 2nd international Marxism incorrectly comprehended the capitalist state and perhaps overemphasized the importance of electoral action, one could say the opposite plagues the current left which mostly fetishizes direct action. It is only “action in the streets” that vitalizes and gives consciousness to the working class; when it participates in electoral campaigns it is inert and doesn’t recognize the sham nature of the elections.

I remain skeptical here, but I will admit most forms of direct action over-fetishized and even habitual. Protesting can be shows of mass force to build a fighting force more than asking politicians to be moral.  Small scale vandalism was much more disruptive to capital in the past when it sabotaged production, but most massive production is out of the reach of average anarchist.  These are all true, it remains to be seen if these options are the primary ones.  The binary Parkinson posits is seemingly contradicted by the emphasis on building para-state class institutions prior to engaging in democracy and organizational building.  In short, I certainly agree with Parkinson that: “Elections as a tactic have benefits, as does direct action. Today the left acts as if one must pick and choose between the two, yet this was not the case for Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, and Lenin. All saw the need for both the ballot and the bullet to win power.” However, this seems to be focusing on two ends of a progress, neither of which the mass support or the institutional work has been currently done for.  The catch-22 for such work seems to be almost intractable starting from either/or or both to the question of “direct action vs. electoralism” whereas the question of how to build institutions to make such a choice even viable remains unaddressed directly.

Furthermore when Parkinson asserts: “Bourgeois elections are of course not a reliable means of determining legitimacy, but they can give the party an idea of where and how much it garners popular support. So elections can not only serve as way to win support, but also to measure it.” This seems dubious in that large swathes of the electorate are fundamentally depoliticized and abstentionist now without any prompting of a party. There are many ways to determine legitimacy which could be counted by participation in the very para-state institutions that Parkinson’s rightly sees as been essential prior to the creation of the electoral party. There are other means to take note of legitimacy and many which show much more investment in an actual socialist politics.

This is not say that cadre creation or Facebook “Likes” replaces or substitutes for electoralism in taking account of the public and working class view, but that none of them alone answer the problem and the focus, again, seems oddly particular given the current state of the Marxian left.

Hence the focus on electoralism seems premature and binary against “new Left” direct action seems also to exclude a middle that Parkinson has already admitted was necessary in the course of his call for such a strategy.

Furthermore, some of the specifics Parkinson does lay out still seem to require much, much more institutional development to achieve: “For example, electoral reps can be required to donate a certain percentage of their salary to the party and be subject to recall by a popular vote. Electoral reps can also be given party-imposed term limits more strident that those enforced by the bourgeois state.” This can only be effective if both class interests are unified and clear and the party itself has internal institutional mechanism to hold itself accountable in imposing said will. Also direct democracy has historically been subject to the whims of media reaction even within the working class since its experiments in the 1950s with ballot propositions and canton regulation. There is no reason to believe that without significant institutional and educational work, such appeals to direct democracy being a limit on a political class developing would themselves be representative of class will.

The ambivalence towards electoralism seems to have emerged particularly in the Second International but was clear even prior.  While I agree with Parkinson (as well as Engels and Lenin before him) that abstentionism and outright illegal fetishism would probably be counter-productive, I do not see that any Marxist group has begun to address the key para-institutional concerns that would enable us to clarify our understandings of both political processes and the nature of the working class as it currently exists. In such a position, any talk of electoralism risks merely tailing opposition parties willing to form a government in a parliamentary context.