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For or Against Parliament?

 People who come into contact with the Socialist Party and learn that we advocate revolution are often surprised that the revolution we urge is one that can be brought about by parliamentary means. They are used to associating revolution with the violent overthrow of governments, not with peaceful democratic elections. This is understandable given that, historically, revolutions of whatever kind have tended to be accompanied by bloodshed and violence and most organisations or political parties calling for revolution still envisage, whether explicitly or otherwise, violent means.

But the latest Socialist Party pamphlet, What’s Wrong With Using Parliament? The Cases For and Against the Revolutionary Use of Parliament, makes it clear that, for the establishment of the wageless, moneyless free access society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life that defines socialism, it is essential for the revolution to be brought about by a majority using democratic means. And since such means are available in most countries in the form of elections by universal suffrage, there is no reason why these should not be used in order for that majority to take control of governments and establish a worldwide socialist society.

While this is the basic premise of the pamphlet, most of it is actually taken up explaining why the common objections to the use of parliament to carry out revolutionary action do not hold water. These are objections often put by those such as anarchists who may broadly agree with the kind of society we want to establish but believe that any attempt to do so by parliamentary means is doomed to failure. There are two main arguments along these lines.

The first argument is that socialists elected to a capitalist parliament will not be able to withstand the ‘system’ and either will find that it forces them into complying with the status quo or will be seduced by being part of the ‘power structure’ and will voluntarily fall in with it ignoring their roots and the mandate on which they were elected.

The pamphlet answers this argument firstly by showing that the capitalist form of democracy, though seriously flawed, has in fact no formal means of preventing sufficiently determined individuals representing a politically conscious majority from using the political system it has developed in order to overthrow it. It deals with the ‘power corrupts’ idea by arguing that the delegates in question would be operating in a different social framework from the one that currently exists, one that would be shot through with the notion of participation and democratic accountability at all levels. It expresses the idea in the following way:

“With the spread of socialist ideas all organisations will change and take on a participatory democratic and socialist character, so that the majority’s organisation for socialism will not be just political and economic, but will also embrace schools and universities, television, film-making, plays and the like as well as inter-personal relationships. We’re talking about a radical social revolution involving all aspects of social life.”

A far more advanced form of democracy therefore than offered to us by capitalism today, where once every few years we are asked to put an X on a ballot paper to choose the best capitalist-management team from amongst competing groups of politicians, who then go away and take all the decisions that influence our lives without consulting us. Yet weak democracy is better then none and, as the pamphlet makes clear, it still provides a means for the majority to take political power once a socialist majority has emerged.

The second argument against the use of parliament is that the powers-that-be would never tolerate a democratic takeover by a socialist majority because of the loss of authority and privilege this would mean for them. They would therefore, if necessary, prevent it by force. There are many suppositions underlying such an argument but the main one is that there is somehow a power behind or beyond elected governments that in reality controls them (some kind of shadowy group or committee or boardroom that is really in control) and that, therefore, if its position is seriously threatened it has the means at its disposal to clamp down on those threatening it and will not hesitate to use violence to do so, perhaps in the form of a coup or a military takeover.

The pamphlet confronts this position by challenging the ‘conspiracy theorists’ to provide evidence that there is a conspiracy behind government and the way the system is organised and argues that, while capitalism with its inbuilt rivalries and vested interests may provide a fertile breeding ground for many individual conspiracies, no evidence exists or has ever been presented that there is an overall conspiracy running capitalism and its governments. That being the case, any attempt to use violence to prevent socialism being brought about by a majority in parliament with undisputed democratic legitimacy would have to be made not by people in the ‘background’ but by non-socialist politicians, yet how would they go about using violence against a majority that included workers from all walks of life and occupations, including the police and armed forces? Is it conceivable that they would obey orders from politicians to suppress the majority of their fellow-socialists and, even if there were enough elements from those quarters who would be prepared to take such action, would they not be overwhelmed by the majority who would oppose them in self-defence?

The essence of the socialist position on the use of parliament is summed up in the following way towards the end of the pamphlet: “Once there is an organised, determined majority, the success of the socialist revolution is assured, one way or the other. It is then a question of the best tactic to pursue to try to ensure that this takes place as rapidly and as smoothly as possible. In our view, the best way to proceed is to start by obtaining a democratic mandate via the ballot box for the changeover to socialism. The tactical advantage is that, when obtained, it deprives the supporters of capitalism of any legitimacy for the continuation of their rule.”

The other, related point made is that the organisation of the socialist majority that develops within capitalist society will reflect – will have to reflect – the essentially democratic nature of the future society it will establish. It will in fact have to prefigure that society and so be entirely democratic, and without a leadership which can impose decisions on the rest. All important decisions, in fact, will come from the majority via referendums or meetings of mandated, wholly accountable and recallable delegates. In this light, it is not surprising, as the pamphlet points out, that those groups who support left-wing, Leninist-style ‘revolution’, with its ideas of leadership and decision-taking by a vanguard, dismiss socialism by the ballot box as ‘utopian’. Not that the ‘socialism’ those groups say they stand for amounts to anything more than some form of tightly organised state control of capitalism. Not either that the ‘socialism’ they endorse is any closer to a society of free access and democratic control than the aims of supporters of established parties such as the Labour Party who wish to press their parties into somehow overcoming the economic realities of the profit system and bringing in reforms that will allow it to be governed more humanely.

So this pamphlet puts the case for a revolutionary use of the ballot box to establish socialism and in so doing provides powerful arguments against those who advocate a more benign form of capitalism via parliamentary reforms, against those who want to bring in forms of rigid state control over the capitalist system, if necessary by minority action, and, more specifically, against those who seem to share the socialist aims of a stateless, free access society but still think that parliament cannot be the route to achieve it because the ruling class will never give up power without the use of armed force.