The following is a lightly edited version of a talk given by an IBT comrade on a Platypus-sponsored panel in Chicago in April 2015.
The Second Congress of the Communist International passed a resolution that included the following rather angular assessment of capitalist electoralism:
“6. Consequently communism denies parliamentarism as a form of the society of the future. It denies it as a form of the class dictatorship of the proletariat. It denies the possibility of taking over parliament in the long run; it sets itself the aim of destroying parliamentarism. Therefore there can only be a question of utilising the bourgeois state institutions for the purpose of their destruction.…
“11. … The Communist Party does not enter these institutions in order to carry out organic work there, but in order to help the masses from inside parliament to break up the state machine and parliament itself through action.…”
—“Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism,” 2 August 1920
This makes clear the fundamentally negative attitude of Marxists to capitalist elections. As the anarchists aptly observe, “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Under imperialist “democracy” you generally have a choice between two or more nearly identical sets of policies differentiated chiefly by packaging, not content. The rightwing party talks about how “tough love” and harsh medicine are good for people. If you don’t like that you can vote for the “kinder, gentler” brand of capitalist who pretends to be concerned about your problems but ends up implementing similar policies. The illusion of choice helps stabilize the system, but for the vast mass of the population there is no real difference.
Working people in the past had to fight hard to win the franchise, and Marxists defend this right. In Spain in the 1930s, for example, when Franco and the military overturned the elected government and did away with elections, revolutionary socialists had a side in the civil war that resulted. We might see something similar in Greece in the next few years.
The whole bourgeois democratic ritual has sometimes been denounced by confused leftists who fear that participation in elections automatically amounts to a betrayal. The Spartacist League decided a few years ago that it is a violation of principle for Marxists to ever consider running for president. We disagree and feel there is no need to revise the attitude of Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of our revolutionary forerunners on this question.
To the extent that electoral politics allows for competing social interests, Lenin argued, running socialist candidates provides another potential arena in which to pursue the class struggle. Sometimes it may make sense to stand candidates in a given election; other times it does not. It is largely a question of resources and tactics – the issue is always how best to promote revolutionary political consciousness in the working class.
Marxists participate in bourgeois elections fully aware of the limits of “democracy” and its function for the ruling class. Under capitalism, most important decisions are made outside formal political channels. Elections serve chiefly as a means of legitimating the rule of a tiny minority with a certificate of popular approval. The right to cast a ballot every few years (a right increasingly under attack in the U.S. under the guise of preventing “voter fraud”) is used by the capitalist media as evidence that state policy reflects the will of the people.
In theory the voters are supreme, but in reality the choices are limited to what capital permits. This is why it is not possible to use the bourgeois state to pursue workers’ interests – that requires smashing up the existing state apparatus and replacing it with new “armed bodies” committed to defending a different social order.
While Marxists have no faith in bourgeois democracy, we cannot simply ignore electoral politics as long as the majority of the population still takes it seriously. Election periods are often characterized by heightened popular attention to political debate and can provide opportunities to pose questions and raise issues that the capitalist parties would prefer to ignore.
Participation in bourgeois elections is always a tactical, rather than a strategic, question. In periods of revolutionary upheaval the capitalists will sometimes call elections in an attempt to neutralize or at least divert the course of mass radicalization. This occurred in Russia in October 1905 when a general strike led by Moscow rail workers sparked the first proletarian mass revolt against the Tsarist regime. Tsar Nicholas II wanted to crush the uprising with massive bloodletting, but was convinced by his advisers that it would be a lot wiser to introduce a parliament, or Duma, to nominally share power. Both wings of Russia’s socialist party – Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – responded by advocating an electoral boycott because the new parliament was clearly designed to derail a developing social revolution. When the crisis abated, first the Mensheviks, and then the Bolsheviks, changed their attitude and stood candidates in the elections.
There is one other aspect of electoral tactics I want to touch on, that of “critical support.” This is normally posed in situations where reformist or centrist parties are running but where the revolutionaries are too weak to stand their own candidates. If reformist workers’ parties (like the British Labour Party or the Canadian New Democratic Party, which have an organic connection to the trade-union bureaucracy) are campaigning as the representatives of workers’ interests against the bosses, and a section of the working class has illusions in them, Lenin proposed calling for a vote to them – while clearly pointing out their political deficiencies and that they will betray if elected. The idea is to put them into office to expose them – a form of “support” that Lenin compared to that provided by a rope to a hanged man. This tactic is only applicable in cases where a party represents an independent expression of workers’ interests at least in organizational terms. In situations where they are in a bloc with bourgeois or petty-bourgeois formations, or clearly express a willingness to form such a bloc (see “Managing the Greek Crisis: Syriza & the Dangers of Popular Frontism”), there is no basis for any kind of electoral support.
The whole question of electoral tactics for Marxists has come into focus in the U.S. recently due to the success of Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative (U.S. section of the Committee for a Workers' International [CWI]) in defeating a sitting Democrat and getting elected to Seattle’s City Council. This got a lot of attention, and the fact that she focused on the demand to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour helped put it on the national agenda.
Socialist Alternative runs a statement of “What We Stand For” in every issue of their paper, which, under the heading “Break with the Two Parties of Big Business,” clearly states: “Unions and other social movement organizations should stop funding and supporting the Democratic and Republican Parties.…” Yet a few weeks ago Sawant was caught entering a fundraiser for Democratic Party council member Larry Gosset (a “leftwing” Democrat of course).
Electoral politics can be a two-way street – as it seems that Socialist Alternative is well on its way to discovering. Their evolution into an auxiliary of the Democrats is evident in their coverage of “Chuy” Garcia’s campaign for mayor of Chicago. In the 8 March 2015 issue of their paper they described him as a “longstanding Democratic Party representative” who nonetheless struck “a strong anti-establishment tone.” Socialist Alternative said that “Chuy has to put many more concrete details of his platform on the table before working people can truly believe his words.” They noted that he proposed to cut county workers’ pensions and hire 1,000 new cops, but still concluded that he “put forth policies that inspire unions and communities,” and then helpfully attached a list of petty reforms they would like him to adopt.
Workers hate Chicago’s current Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel, and no doubt many have illusions in the left Democrat Garcia. The job of socialists is to break these illusions – not to reinforce them by spinning fantasies of pressuring Democratic Party politicians to turn into people prepared to “take on big business.”
Sawant may be the best known “socialist” in America, but the policy of supporting candidates from the “lesser evil” party of racism and imperialist war has been around since Stalin introduced the Popular Front turn in the 1930s. The result was the Communist Party giving political support to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was the wrong policy for socialists then, and it is just as wrong today.