Questions Asked and Answered: Municipal Politics



How would a candidate of the S.P.G.B. conduct himself if returned to a council chamber? would he vote for higher wages for Council employees and better housing of the people, etc., and what course would he pursue while in a minority?
J. T. Tyson (Stoke-on-Trent).


The answer to this question was given in essence by the election address upon which S.P.G.B. candidates ran at local elections in London. This election address, the first in this country to lay down the Socialist position on municipal elections, was also printed in the October, 1906 Socialist Standard and should be referred to.


Broadly speaking, the attitude of a Socialist member of a municipal today only becomes doubtful when the object for which such a candidate stands, together with the essential fact of the class antagonism and the narrow limits of municipal action, are lost sight of, and in so far as the electors are not at one with their representative regarding these important facts. Hence at this stage how the representative is elected is of the greatest importance in determining his attitude.


It must, therefore, be clearly understood, 1st, that any reform worthy the name from a working-class standpoint involves the conscious taking from the capitalist class of, at least, part of the proceeds and power of robbery, and thus even genuine reform is conditional upon working-class supremacy, (2nd) That to wield in the workers’ interest even the limited and paltry powers allowed by the central government to the local bodies, it is first necessary to control the local bodies by a Socialist majority.


Consequently to promise immediate reforms that cannot be granted until the revolutionary step has been taken leads to confusion, disappointment and apathy, while it means a vote worthless for Socialism followed by desertion. But to insist upon the futility of reform, and the primary necessity of capturing political power means a sound vote, a solid backing, and a sure and steady growth of the class-conscious and revolutionary army.


That these facts are recognised elsewhere although in the rush for jobs they are not acted upon may be made clear by one or two quotations.


In Guesde’s new journal, “Le Socialisme” an editorial on “The Party and Municipal Elections,” states:—

  “The freeing of Society by emancipated labour, which is by nature national and international, is necessarily out of the power of that organised powerlessness of which the municipality consists at present, dominated as this is at the same time by economic necessities and by the arbitrary politics of the bourgeois state and its agents, but if the government—the central power—having passed into the hands of the proletarian class and remaining therein, is the indispensable instrument of the social revolution, if the municipal ground cannot in any way be anything but a field of manoeuvres and training for the Socialist army, the duty of the class-conscious workers is none the less to dislodge the industrial, landed, and financial feudalism from the town halls, and, turning these against the enemy, to use these as so many bases of operations in our march, forward.”

In the “Social Revolution,” Kautsky also states :—


  “In the same way, municipal Socialism finds its limits in the existing order of State and Society, even where universal suffrage prevails in the communes. The commune is always tied down to the general economic and political conditions, and cannot extricate itself from them singly. Certainly, in municipalities in industrial districts the workers may get the administration into their own hands before they are strong enough to capture the political power in the State, and they are then in a position to eliminate from this administration at least the most objectionable features of hostility to labour, and to introduce reforms which cannot be expected from a bourgeois regime. But these municipalities soon find their limits, not simply in the power of the State, but also in their own economic helplessness. It is for the most part poor districts, almost exclusively inhabited by the proletariat, which are first won by the Social-Democrats. Whence can they obtain the means for carrying out their greater reforms? As a rule they are limited in the levying of rates by the laws of the State, and even where this is not the case they cannot go beyond a certain limit in the taxation of the rich and well-to-do, without driving these, the only inhabitants from whom anything is to be obtained, away.”

In the face of these recognised and undeniable facts the long reform programmes of “palliatives” and “immediate demands” of so-called Socialist organisations can only be characterised as fraudulent. Upon all counts the first and essential step to secure genuine working-class amelioration is the control by the workers nationally and locally, and this must be made plain; and when the workers are the ruling class, lists of reforms suited to the continuance of capitalism become stupid, and entirely different revolutionary measures of transition become the order of the day. Thus reform programmes not only scatter and render mutually antagonistic the workers’ efforts, but they obscure and prevent concentration upon the essential step.


Once the Socialist position is grasped, the rest becomes plain sailing. The Socialist candidate is only the advance guard of the revolutionary working-class army and his attitude must be consistent thereto. He will, of course, work to wrest from the master class in open struggle any possible present ameliorations, but he did not seek suffrages for this but for Socialism, whilst neither he nor his electors are under any illusions on this head, for he has made plain how little is to be hoped from the enemy while entrenched in power.


Whilst in a minority the only effective political weapon of the Socialist in the obtaining of concessions is the relentless opposition, criticism and exposure of capitalist rascality, educating and organising the workers for Socialism and so striking fear into the exploiters, and causing them to throw out sops in order to maintain their position.


It would be the educational duty of the Socialist members even while in a minority to also propose measures embodying what should be done on any particular question in the interests of the working class. True, since a minority is a minority, he will be voted down, and any measure passed will surely be one which supports and strengthens capitalist interests, whether as working-class soporific or an aid to greater exploitation. Nevertheless, the work will tell, and therefore the consistent opposition of the Socialists to capitalist parties must be kept perfectly plain. Indeed, as Marx has said, the master class acting in its own immediate interests cannot avoid at the same time helping to dig its own grave.


And when as the result of this education and organisation among the electors, and training in administration, the majority are Socialist on the council, then—and then only—can such very limited powers as the local bodies possess be used as far as can be done to help strikers, children, and the workers generally, not alone by increasing the pay of municipal employees and housing the people, but even more important in the use of the power, funds, and organisation of the municipality, as far as is locally possible, in helping to complete the task of the workers in the capture of the central powers for Socialism. Indeed, the sound capture of a municipality by the Socialist workers can hardly occur without—owing to the similarity of capitalist development elsewhere— many other localities being also more or less ripe. While the continued financial and legal conflicts between such municipalities and the agents of the capitalist Government on the L.G.B., etc. can only help to make clearer and more pressing the only solution of the antagonism, and to hasten the day, as they make ever plainer the necessity, of completing the capture of the governmental powers in order to use them against the recalcitrant exploiters, and, backed by the whole of the organised workers, to transform Society by a series of transitional acts from industrial despotism into industrial democracy.