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Reflections on elections

Murray Bookchin is one contemporary thinker and writer who comes close to us on a number of key points. He stands for a democratic society of common ownership where there'd be no production for profit, no working for wages and no money and where the principle “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” would apply, even if he doesn't call this socialism (though he might if you got him into a corner).

There are differences of course. For instance, whereas we still see the working class (in the broad sense of everyone obliged by economic necessity to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary) as the agent of the revolutionary change from capitalism to such a society, Bookchin has come to the conclusion that the agent is the municipality or rather a federation of municipalities that have come to practise direct democracy (town meetings, citizens' assemblies, etc).

Bookchin himself is a wordy writer, but fortunately his views have been well summarised by Janet Biehl in The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism. Although he now prefers to call himself a “social ecologist” or a “libertarian municipalist” he still regards himself as an anarchist. Despite this – and this of course brings him closer to us than to classical anarchists – he envisages both participating in local elections and a future society having a written constitution that would provide for, among other things, majority decision-making:

“It is highly unlikely, when libertarian municipalists demand that existing municipal governments surrender their powers to citizens' assemblies, that those governments will accede. Libertarian municipalists should therefore run for local elective office themselves, so that ultimately they can change the city charter to create fully empowered citizens' assemblies at the expense of the State.”

An anarchist who believes in contesting elections is indeed a rarity. In fact, many anarchists would regard this as a contradiction in terms and would, on this ground, deny that Bookchin really is an anarchist.

The standard anarchist argument against the revolutionary movement contesting elections, local as well as national, is that this inevitably leads to it becoming reformist; revolutionary MPs and local councillors, whatever may have been their original intention, end up merely administering capitalism at local or national level. This, they claim, can be seen from the history of, first, the European Social Democratic parties which once claimed to be Marxist and, more recently, of Green parties which said, as in Germany, that they were only going into parliament to use it as a tribune from which to proclaim the need for an ecological society. When, however, it comes to explaining why this happens they fall back on the lame explanation of “power corrupts”.

We can agree that this is what happened to these parties but offer an alternative explanation: that such parties went off the rails because they advocated reforms of capitalism and not just its abolition. The originally Marxist Social Democratic parties had in addition to the “maximum” programme of socialism what they called a “minimum programme” of immediate reforms to capitalism. What happened, we contend, is that they attracted votes on the basis of their miniumum, not their maximum, programme, i.e. reformist votes, and so became the prisoners of these voters. In parliament, and later in office, they found themselves with no freedom of action other than to compromise with capitalism. Had they been the mandated delegates of those who voted for them (rather than leaders) this could be expressed by saying that they had no mandate for socialism, only to try to reform capitalism. It was not a case of being corrupted by the mere fact of going into national parliaments but was due to the basis on which they went there and how this restricted what they could do. In short, it is not power as such that corrupts. It is power obtained on the basis of followers voting for leaders to implement reforms that, if you want to put it that way, “corrupts”.

Bookchin accepts the classic anarchist argument as far as participating in national elections is concerned. As Biehl argues for him:

“If history, from ancient times to the present, has demonstrated anything, it is the implacable fact that State power is corruptive: that an individual who takes State office is inexorably refashioned by that office into a creature of the State, regardless of his or her idealistic intentions.”

His answer, as to how to prevent a revolutionary movement that contests elections going reformist, is that it should not contest national elections but should restrict itself to contesting local ones. Apparently power only corrupts beyond the local level. The trouble is that his mistaken explanation as to why the old European Social Democratic parties went off the rails – corruption through mere participation in state institutions – leads him to propose the same tactics, even if at local level only, that in our view led to these parties becoming openly reformist.

In his view, at this stage contesting elections can essentially only be an exercise in political education, of getting ideas across. We can go along with that. In fact it is why we contest elections today knowing perfectly well that we have no chance of getting elected. But then Bookchin and Biehl say:

“The electoral platform should consist of a series of demands that represent the aims for which the group is fighting – above all the radical democratization of the municipal government through the creation of citizens' assemblies. But it is not enough merely to call for direct democracy; the platform should offer the steps by which that goal can be met. Indeed, it should make a series of clearly specified immediate demands, then place them in a radical context by tying them to the longer-term goal of fundamentally transforming society. For libertarian municipalism is a revolutionary movement, not a reformist movement, and it aims not to reform the existing system but to replace it with a liberatory one. In programmatic terms these immediate and long-term goals can be called respectively minimum and maximum demands. Minimum demands are those that are immediately realizable within the existing system; they are specific and concrete. Maximum demands, by contrast, are more general; they comprise the rational society that the group hopes ultimately to achieve.”

Exactly the same division of their programme into a maximum and miniumum one as the old Social Democratic parties, and which led to their downfall.

On at least one occasion Bookchin has put his money where his mouth is and put up candidates at local level – in Burlington, Vermont, in the US in 1989. The electoral programme of the “Burlington Greens” is reproduced as an appendix to Biehl's book. The programme begins by denouncing the grow-or-die nature of capitalism (referred to as the market economy) but, without even stating the full alternative (the so-called “maximum programme”), rapidly moves on listing some “stepping stones” to where they want to go:

“A community-controlled municipal financial resources and low-interest loans for the purchase and repair of homes and for the initiation of innovative ecological housing projects for low-income groups.
Bond issues and changes in local tax structures to provide for as much housing for the need and elderly as is necessary. A direct network between farmers and consumers to foster local agriculture. Municipal acquisition of open land to be held in public trust for recreation, gardening, and parks. Municipally controlled cooperatives to develop and implement alternative technologies and to produce quality goods in accord with Vermont's reputation for craftmanship.”

We can only describe this as a common-or-garden reformist programme.

So, although we share with Bookchin the view that revolutionaries should contest elections, we part company very rapidly when it comes to the programme on which to do so. While we advocate only socialism and nothing but (the so-called “maximum programme”, if you like) Bookchin wants to seek a mandate on the basis of a programme of reforms of capitalism. In our view, this would lead to pure and simple reformism. People would vote for the immediate reforms of capitalism not the maximum programme of replacing it, and any “libertarian municipalist” elected to office would find themselves the prisoners of their reform-minded voters and would end up participating in the government of capitalism at local level, just like the other Greens Bookchin and Biehl criticise.

In any event, Bookchin is being inconsistent in advocating contesting local elections but not national ones and has provided no explanation as to why power at national level corrupts while power at local level doesn't, especially as local councils are part of the state's administrative structure and local councillors and mayors are little more than elected state functionnaries.

Actually, we agree with Bookchin that power at local level doesn't have to corrupt. It is possible to envisage a movement at local level (as he does) that would be based on delegate democracy, where those elected to the local council would be the mandated delegates of those who voted for them, being accountable to them and subject to recall if they failed to carry out their mandate. But we go further. We can't see anything to prevent this applying to elected representatives of the revolutionary movement above local level too: why couldn't (in the US context) State congress members also be subject to such democratic control? And why not federal congress members too?

Because Bookchin does not believe this to be possible he proposes an unnecessarily dangerous strategy for getting rid of capitalism: confrontation with the state. He envisages that when sufficient municipalities have been won over to the cause of “libertarian municipalism” they should take on the capitalist state, defying it, refusing to implement its decrees and even forming local citizens' militias to defend themselves if necessary (decidely, Bookchin's Trotskyist past is coming back to haunt him in his old age). Given that for such a scenario to succeed a majority of the population would have to support “liberatarian municipalism”, all this would be unnecessary. Being a majority they could use their votes not just to win control of municipalities but of States, regions and provinces and the national state itself.

At the very minimum this would prevent the forces at the disposal of the central state from being used against the local councils. But, more positively – since there is no reason to suppose that power necessarily corrupts – it would provide a framework for a less disruptive, more orderly transition from capitalism to a classless, stateless, moneyless, wageless society of common ownership and democratic control.

Bookchin's attempted distinction between local and central state level does not hold water. If power doesn't corrupt at local level – as it doesn't have to, if organised on the basis of mandated and recallable delegates – then it won't automatically at state level either. On the other hand, if, as we contend, “a reform programme corrupts” it will do so just as much at local as at central state level.

Bookchin's formula of only contesting local, but not national, elections on a reform programme is not the right one for avoiding reformism. The correct formula is contesting elections at national and local level but only on the basis of delegates being given an imperative mandate for the sole purpose of carrying through the formalities involved in winding up capitalism.