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Socialist Education: Revolutionaries and Elections

Attitudes on the Left towards elections follow two basic approaches: The reformist approach which sees working class power as being achieved simply through the election of socialists to parliament and their voting through of reforms, and the revolutionary approach which Lenin explains as seeking to develop electoral opportunities by taking “… every step beyond reformism in propaganda, agitation, mass economic struggle…” and which sees elections to parliament as an opportunity to build the workers movement in the streets, the communities and in the workplace. The reformist approach sees the possibility of legal changes made by a socialist dominated government as being binding on the owners of the means of production and they   naively believe that the armed wing of the state, the police and military, will then quietly concur with, and carry out, socialist demands for the suppression of the bourgeoisie’s property rights. 

This view means the independent action of the working masses is replaced by the actions of the state. It also flies in the face of the revolutionary socialist view of the state expounded by Marx and Engels who revealed parliament’s essential characteristic as a façade for a state which ultimately relied upon “special bodies of armed men” to protect the property rights of the ruling class. This understanding was gained from the materialist understanding of class society and enhanced by their participation in the revolutionary events of 1848 and published in the Communist Manifesto. This understanding was later strengthened by the experience of the Paris Commune leading Marx and Engels to conclude that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” but had to suppress the bourgeois state and replace it with “ the armed people”.

This does not mean that Marxists, because they understand the role played by parliament, can dispense with it and egotistically choose to completely abstain from elections. Lenin wrote that revolutionaries

“.. must not regard what is obsolete to us as something obsolete to a class, to the masses”, and that “…Marxists recognise struggle for reforms, i.e., for measures that improve the conditions of the working people without destroying the power of the ruling class. At the same time, however, the Marxists wage a most resolute struggle against the reformists, who, directly or indirectly, restrict the aims and activities of the working class to the winning of reforms”.
Reformists, who sometimes consider themselves ‘revolutionary’, routinely make the decision that they should allow revolutionary criticisms of capitalism to slip from view and to “restrict” their demands to ‘sensible’ or ‘realistic’       reforms, moralistically calling on the state to act in the best   interests of the working class it exists to suppress. This approach perpetuates illusions in the capitalist state, sees the class struggle in moralistic terms rather than being driven by objective       capitalist economic imperatives, and imprisons the most class conscious layers of workers within an understanding of the bourgeois state as a vehicle for progressive change. Lenin describes this reformism as ; “…bourgeois deception of the workers, who, despite individual improvements, will always  remain wage-slaves, as long as there is the domination of  capital.” 

Parliamentary elections, used by reformists as a way to measure their own progress towards their holy grail of a parliamentary majority, are only a measure of the level of political awareness among the working class. It is because workers have illusions in bourgeois parliaments that revolutionary socialists participate in these elections, but only with the express intention of dispelling those illusions. Adaptation to those illusions means a failure to address and to lead the working class. Lenin wrote, “You must tell them the bitter truth. You are duty bound to call their bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices what they are - prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of the class consciousness and preparedness of the entire class… and of all the working people.” Revolutionaries must participate in order to gain leadership of the workers but must unrelentingly expose parliament as a method of class rule while mobilising workers to build a direct workers democracy outside of the bourgeois parliamentary system. 

This must be socialists’ explicit position from the outset, to “tell the bitter truth” and by broadening and deepening the working class movement undermine illusions in the façade presented by capitalist parliaments. Socialists must never foster illusions in parliamentary democracy but must build workers’ democracy and resistance to the rule of the bourgeoisie and to ultimately develop the organs of dual power, when the working class are increasingly in conflict with the capitalist class at the coalface of production, when they have at a heightened stage of the struggle gained control of key parts of the means of production and   distribution there then comes the time to transfer all power to the working class and its new basis of self governance. This was the reason the Bolsheviks called for “all power to the Soviets” and not for further reforms of the Russian parliament.

Gaining a place in parliament means nothing if it amounts to little more than a loyal opposition and does not openly undermine capitalist rule by building the working class movement in the streets against the state and in the workplaces against the employers and trade union bureaucracy. Even worse, if it ‘restricts’ workers criticism of parliamentarism, obscures and confuses the real role played by the capitalist state and adapts to the parliamentary ‘game’ it becomes a conscious part of the “bourgeois deception”. Left organisations which lose sight of the fact that the object is to build working class power by   building the working class movement and instead try to build campaigns in working class communities in order to gain a seat in parliament have stood the Marxist view on elections on its head. Members of those organisations, if they are truly committed to the idea of revolution must rethink their approach and gravitate towards building a movement rather than the fleeting kudos of gaining a Dail seat. 


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