Toward a Communist Electoral Strategy

Donald Parkinson argues for the left to take a serious, long-term approach to electoral policy

Building a revolutionary opposition

(Originally published by the Communist League of Tampa)

Participation in electoral politics, and therefore an electoral strategy, are essential if communists are going to gain public legitimacy as a serious political force. Election cycles are of course endlessly nauseating, particularly this years in the USA with the obnoxious Trump vs. the neo-liberal imperialist Clinton. It is indeed sad that the majority of the public only seems somewhat politically active once every 4 years. Dominated by bourgeois parties that are neither democratic nor republican in the true meaning of those words, electoral politics becomes more and more cynical and corrupt. Yet it would be mistaken to believe that if a communist party simply played the field it would catch this disease.

At one point it was essentially leftist common sense that socialists would take on the electoral realm (excepting anarchists). For the Marxist left, the general view on elections differed little from his classic 1850 Address to the Communist League:

“Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is indefinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”

After the fracture of Social-Democracy in 1914 and then the October Revolution in Russia this would change. Theorists such as Anton Pannekoek (associated with the German KAPD) and Otto Ruhle (also associated with the KAPD) would take the betrayal of social democracy as a sign that it was necessary to abandon parliament and even the party form itself. Amadeo Bordiga, though forced to reconcile his view to remain within the Comintern, would argue for a stance of abstention toward all bourgeois elections. The early Communist Party in the USA also had a majority that rejected elections and argued for illegal work. While Lenin would chastise these political tendencies as infantile and a regression in marxist strategy, the New Left would rediscover these along with anarchist critiques of electoralism to argue for a left purely based on direct action that held no stance toward the electoral sphere. To this day these arguments influence large sections of the left. Yet these arguments have appeal for a reason; the bourgeois state presents itself as a leviathan of sorts, and anything that touches it is therefore doomed.

The ‘leviathan’ nature of the state is due to its level of subsumption to the needs of capital accumulation. While having pre-capitalist roots in class society itself, the state must be outfitted to meet the needs of a capitalist class, and thus will act in the end to assure the reproduction of a society based on class domination. While it may balance the needs of various classes, the state is the protection racket of the ruling class because it is committed to the rule of law, the rule of property, and therefore the rule of the propertied. It is clear that the bourgeois state must be crushed, its armies and police disbanded and new systems of governance established that allow for the rule of the proletariat.

Yet the question of whether we must smash the state and whether we participate in elections are two different questions. The bourgeois state can be smashed, yet we can still participate within its institutions with the purpose of propagandizing and politically training the working class. Election campaigns, even when lost, serve the purpose of forcing Communists to engage the public at large and argue their positions. However what if Communists actually win elections? Would we not just be managing the bourgeois state?

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.

Another clarification is that we are not going to aim for executive powers we can’t realistically win. The extent to which communists are responsible for managing the state is the extent to which they will be forced to make compromises with bourgeois legality. Rather than running for offices like governor or president, we should aim for offices in the legislative branch such as the federal House Representatives, but also state Houses and Assemblies. In these positions we can vote for and against legislation (as well as abstain) and establish our party as a “tribune of the people” that uses its seat of power to propagandize against the bourgeois state and capitalism. By voting against reactionary laws, even if we are outnumbered by the Democrats and Republicans, we can demonstrate that our party stands firmly against the interests of the bourgeois state and develop mass legitimacy for radical positions.

Many would object to even this level of participation. One argument is the idea is that party representatives will develop interests independent from the working class. There of course is merit to this criticism, the German Social-Democrats voting for war credits in WWI being the most infamous example. The issue of why the SPD went social-chauvinist is another question, one I plan to address in depth elsewhere. However the phenomenon that electoral representatives will tend to develop class interests antagonistic to the proletariat can be addressed without having to abstain from electoral activities. 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.

Another argument against electoral participation as such is that it’s a waste of time and diverts from the real type of struggle; direct action, which is what supposedly really makes history. Usually what this translates to is that energy is better spent engaging in the labor movement – that we should be building our capacity to wage mass strikes for example. This argument makes a false distinction between direct action and voting, the ballot or the bullet. 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. A critique one could make of Bebel and Kautsky is that they did focus on the parliamentary movement to exclusion of mass actions and strikes.

Gains in the electoral sphere can also translate to “on the ground” victories through a feedback loop of sorts. Getting anti-worker and anti-democratic laws revoked can help the mass movement in the streets organize more effectively. It puts elected representatives in a position where they may be forced to defend the extra-legal and sometimes violent mass actions of the proletariat, thereby exposing to a mass audience revolutionary arguments.

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. Yet at the same time no true Marxist would think one could abolish waged labor through passing a law. No one would deny that a social revolution involving the participation of mass of proletarians reorganizing the fabric of social life is required to transcend the capitalist system and achieve communism. Civil War will have to be waged against the forces of reaction in some instances. To deny these things is to be either deceptive or foolish.

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. When the left does break with this, it is in presidential election cycles. Most far leftists either don’t vote, vote for the most left-wing candidate on the ballot (Greens?) or vote for their sect’s marginal candidate. Worse, some talk a radical game but end up succumbing to the pragmatic lesser-evilism of the Democrats. The truth is that until we can build a mass party that has a successful electoral strategy, bourgeois politics will dominate the political discourse. This fact is not some “inevitable logic of capital” but a product of the general weakness of the left and the working class. Without a mass working class party, politics will remain the business of the two bourgeois cartels, each selling its brand of ‘rule-of-law’ constitutionalism. This weakens the direct action-oriented left as well, as the general level of militancy the masses is determined by how legitimate they see the state’s authority. A powerful communist party undermining business as usual within the state not only challenges the authority of the state but it expands what the public overall think is politically possible.

In order to take power and enact the full minimum program without launching a coup or delusional military adventure, the party needs to have enough of the politically active working class on their side as possible. If there is not adequate support, the regime will either be overthrown or suppress revolutionary democracy to stay in power. 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. For Engels, measuring support alone was enough to utilize the benefits of suffrage:

“And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in the number of votes it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion for our actions second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness—if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, then it would still have been more than enough. But it has done much more than this. In election agitation it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people, where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it opened to our representatives in the Reichstag a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in Parliament and to the masses without, with quite other authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings. Of what avail to the government and the bourgeoisie was their Anti-Socialist Law when election agitation and socialist speeches in the Reichstag continually broke through it?” (1895 introduction to the Class Struggle in France)

So what do we make of these conclusions? First of all, CLT won’t be running any candidates anytime soon, as we are a small sect with little support and limited resources. Our energy right now is being put into making ourselves a more effective organization and helping get a General Membership Branch of the IWW started. We are obviously not saying communists should just run for office hoping it will kickstart a revolutionary movement. But in the long-term, if we are committed to building a world-wide party of the proletariat, the question of electoral strategy must be taken seriously. If we abstain from elections, it should be done on the basis of what is tactically best for the situation, not on the basis of anti-electoralism as an eternal principle.