Marxists and elections: a weapon against capital

04 May 2015

By Dave Stockton

To understand how classical Marxists developed their tactics towards elections, we need to understand their analysis of the class nature of the state and of its political forms and how these effect the working class struggle for power.

Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, stated the goal of the working class very generally:
‘The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.’


‘…the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.’

‘Winning democracy’, as Hal Draper pointed out in The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto, was no simple matter of winning elections but the revolutionary conquest of universal suffrage, the abolition of monarchies, aristocracies, police, military and bureaucratic states. etc.

As for existing parliaments Marx was, however, aware of the need to participate in elections no matter how unlikely they were to win seats in them:

‘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.’

At the end of the revolutionary period of 1848-51 and even more so during the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx developed a more radical view of seizing power:

‘If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another but to smash it…’

Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State explained the bureaucratic machine as the inevitable consequence of a society split into social classes, into exploiters and exploited:

‘This special, public power is necessary because a self-acting armed organisation of the population has become impossible since the split into classes… This public power exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds…’

In 1875, when he asserted bluntly that the Paris Commune ‘was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word’ because the working class was armed in the National Guard, the Commune acted both as legislature and executive, and the former state bureaucrats and church authorities had fled.

What Marx and Engels were discovering—learning from the revolutionary activities of the Paris workers themselves—was that the bourgeois state, the instrument of force that protected capitalist private ownership of the means of production, had to be demolished in the course of a revolution, and that elections to a National Assembly or parliament could never transfer real power to the exploited.

Moreover in order to enact and enforce a programme of transition from capitalism to a socialist society, a radically different type of democracy—a democracy of recallable delegates, non-permanent officials paid the wage of an average worker and a people’s militia, not a standing army was required.

This unparalleled degree of democracy for the workers and poor farmers would at the same time have to be a dictatorship over the formerly ruling and exploiting classes. It would be, as both Marx and Engels said many times, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

However the great lessons of the Commune began to fade in the era of the Second International (1889-1914) as universal (male) suffrage was won in a number of European and North American states. But, despite the growth of mass workers’ parties, most notably the German Social Democracy (SPD), rather than becoming immediately an instrument of class emancipation, parliamentarianism evolved into a means of ‘spiritual enslavement’ of the lower middle class and sections of the working class too.
Later in 1919, in Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky well described this apparatus of ideological enslavement—putting the following words into the mouth of the bourgeoisie:

‘While I have in my hands lands, factories, workshops, banks; while I possess newspapers, universities, schools; while—and this most important of all—I retain control of the army: the apparatus of democracy, however, you reconstruct it, will remain obedient to my will. I subordinate to my interests spiritually the stupid, conservative, characterless lower middle class, just as it is subjected to me materially. I oppress, and will oppress, its imagination by the gigantic scale of my buildings, my transactions, my plans, and my crimes.

‘For moments when it is dissatisfied and murmurs, I have created scores of safety-valves and lightning-conductors. At the right moment I will bring into existence opposition parties, which will disappear tomorrow, but which today accomplish their mission by affording the possibility of the lower middle class expressing their indignation without hurt therefrom for capitalism. I shall hold the masses of the people, under cover of compulsory general education, on the verge of complete ignorance, giving them no opportunity of rising above the level which my experts in spiritual slavery consider safe.

‘I will corrupt, deceive, and terrorise the more privileged or the more backward of the proletariat itself. By means of these measures I shall not allow the vanguard of the working class to gain the ear of the majority of the working class, while the necessary weapons of mastery and terrorism remain in my hands.’

In the years that followed the death of Marx (1883) and Engels (1895) a debate broke out amongst the followers of the two founders. This saw Karl Kautsky, the principle theoretician of the SPD, and Rosa Luxemburg ranged against Eduard Bernstein, who argued that once universal (male) suffrage had been won, as in Germany, socialism could be achieved on the road of a peaceful incremental reform, not by a revolution, that would destroy the state.

Bernstein, who lived in Britain for two decades, came under the influence of the Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and others, whose slogan was ‘the inevitability of gradualness’. They argued that gradual series of reforms, won via parliament, local councils, cooperative stores and trade union collective bargaining, would inevitably replace capitalism with a socialised world.

But for this purpose it was enough to ‘permeate’ existing bourgeois parties with socialist reforms (municipal housing, libraries, hospitals, state insurance, old age pensions, etc.). Logically they were at first opposed to the formation of an independent Labour Party.

These ideas logically led Bernstein to the view that the final goal (socialism) meant nothing whereas the movement (Social Democracy and the trade unions) was everything.

Rosa Luxemburg replied to this in her unsurpassed critique of such views, Reform or Revolution:

‘People who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modification of the old society.’

In the years 1899-1909 Karl Kautsky was at the height of his authority as ‘the Pope of Marxism’, the champion of orthodoxy against revisionism. Indeed in the period of the 1905 revolution he found himself in close collaboration with Rosa Luxemburg, often supporting Lenin against the Mensheviks.

But by 1912 he had already begun his retreat, approaching Bernstein’s views. He was now arguing that the proletariat could not set as its goal ‘the destruction of state power but only a shift in the relation of forces within state power’.

He continued:

‘The objective of our political struggle remains what it has always been up to now: the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state. Certainly not the destruction of state power.’

After the catastrophe of the outbreak of the First World War and the collapse of the Second International, Lenin re-excavated Marx’s views on the state.

Eventually published as State and Revolution after the Russian revolution, Lenin revived Marx’s emphasis on the necessity of smashing the state:

‘The words, “to smash the bureaucratic-military machine”, briefly express the principal lesson of Marxism regarding the tasks of the proletariat during a revolution in relation to state. And it is precisely this lesson that has been not only completely forgotten, but positively distorted by the prevailing, Kautskyite “interpretation” of Marxism!’

He went on, ‘it is natural for a liberal to speak of “democracy” in general; but a Marxist will never forget to ask: “for what class?”‘

Tags:  •   • 

Class struggle bulletin

Stay up to date with our weekly newsletter