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Elections, government, and the movement: two comments

June 3, 2012

Here are two comments to this website that bear on Pham Binh’s article, “Change the World Without Taking Power, Marxist Edition.” The first, by Australian socialist Peter Boyle, takes up how socialists view engagement in parliamentary elections. The second comment, by Panagiotis Sotiris of the Greek anti-capitalist left front ANTARSYA, takes up a statement that I made in a March 12 presentation on workers’ governments, a video of which has just been published online. My comment on ANTARSYA was based on its April election statement.

Engagement in elections is not alternative to building the movement

By Peter Boyle. I agree with Pham Binh’s argument here. Leftist nitpickers might seize on his use of the phrase “taking power” here to claim that he has conflated winning elections with really taking power, even though that is not his intent I am sure. John Riddell’s work on the Comintern discussions about workers governments and workers and farmers governments is apt here.

Engagement in elections to win (not just to make propaganda) is not alternative to building the movement in the streets, workplaces, campuses and neighbourhoods for serious revolutionary socialists. It should go hand in hand.

Hopefully the discussion in the left around the world on the challenge for the Greek left to unite put up a serious challenge to austerity in the coming elections will bury some of the abstentionist madness that is a part of the sectarian heritage that the socialist movement desperately needs to break from.

You only have to watch the frustration and demoralisation of Egytian socialists and other revolutionaries at the recent elections to understand how important is the opening that Syriza’s anti-austerity platform and public support offers.

The other thing that is laughable is the superstitious faith that some people place in the paper programs of tiny outfits which are untested in struggle. Put those people in under the pressure of real political responsibilty and I bet most of them would go to water faster than some of the so-called “reformists” in Syriza, who (unlike the armchair socialists who would stay out of the political fray and hang on to their pure paper programs) will in due course be put to the test.

We continue to distribute from Resistance Books (Australia) a very useful pamphlet by Maurice Sibelle called Revolutionaries and Parliament, which surveys the attitude of Marx, Engels and later the Russian Bolsheviks to parliamentary elections. A small excerpt follows:

Engels on revolutionaries and parliament

In his 1895 introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, Engels noted that “The Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage, of democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat.”

Frederick Engels

When universal male suffrage was granted in Prussia by Bismarck’s government in 1866, “our workers immediately took it in earnest and sent August Bebel to the first, constituent Reichstag.” Through such socialist election campaigns, the German Marxists had been able to transform the parliamentary franchise “from a means of deception, which it was before, into an instrument of emancipation.” Engels continued:

“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, unexpected rapid rise in the number of our 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 untimely foolhardiness — if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, it would have still been much more than enough.

“But it did more than this by far. In election agitation it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the masses 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 provided our representatives in the parliament with 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.”

Engels went on to say that electoral propaganda was a more effective means of struggle than “revolutionary” adventures “carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses” — referring to various ultraleft attempts by small groups to seize power through street fighting. He viewed the participation of socialists in elections as “one of the sharpest weapons” to fight the state institutions and expose the other parties to the masses; as an effective method of reaching the masses of people with the ideas of the party; as a useful platform to express the ideas of the party and attack its opponents if the party succeeded in winning seats; as a gauge of strength and support of the party among the masses; as a means of legitimising the party before the masses and putting the party in a position where attempts to outlaw the party could be fought more easily. This was particularly important in Germany in light of the Anti-Socialist Law. The party’s legal activities — its election campaigns — were powerful weapons enabling it to fight for the right of the party to exist.

More here: Revolutionaries and Parliament

Letter from a Greek socialist

Dear John,

I watched your presentation on workers’ governments (Historical Materialism Toronto 2012) at Leftstreamed. It was really interesting. A small comment on how you describe the different positions within the Greek Left. As a member of the coordinating commitee of ANTARSYA, I want to say that it is not sumply suggesting insurrection against SYRIZA’s proposition for a Left government. Mainly we are trying to open the discussion on how a government of the Left can indeed put forward a program of urgent radical measures, especially regarding our relation to the European Union and the Eurozone, and on how any question of governmental power must also be combined with forms of popular power from below. Here are some small comments I’ve written on the subject.


Panagiotis Sotiris

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