1920s >> 1927 >> no-277-september-1927

Is the vote a weapon? Some questions and our reply

Comrades,—I am prompted to ask the following questions after having read article “Backward Race ” in August S.S,
First of all, I had better state that I am not an “Industrial Unionist” or an “Anti-Parliamentarian.” I agree with the words of Marx that “the workers must first of all acquire political supremacy” in order to control the State machinery for the sole purpose of establishing Socialism.
(1) Yet how are our black comrades to get hold of the State forces if they are “disfranchised” and “legally barred from effective participation in most political activities in South Africa” ? Would the S.P.G.B. oppose the agitation of “disfranchised” workers, such as our black fellow workers for the vote, because it was not Socialism?
(2) Does the S.P.G.B. lay it down that the workers can only “acquire political supremacy” through Parliament? I fully agree that this is the only method known at the present time in Great Britain, or in any other country where the workers have the majority of the votes !
(3) Would Socialism be impossible to establish if the workers are without votes? I am not suggesting that the Capitalists have only to disenfranchise the workers whereby making Socialism impossible. That would, I think, not be possible under a highly industrialised country. Am I correct?
(4) When South Africa becomes industrialised, will our fellow black workers be enfranchised by the Capitalists? I am not wanting you to be prophets, but it is a historical fact that, in countries that begin industralism, the franchise is a necessity for the carrying on of the Capitalist system?
Has the Franchise ever been granted to the workers in any country without agitation?
Yours fraternally,
T. W. C.


For convenience I have numbered “T. W. C.’s” questions.

(1) It is obvious that the black workers cannot unaided gain political control in South Africa against the might of those who govern, backed up, as the latter are, by the full strength of capitalist Britain. We would strongly urge them to agitate for the franchise, although it is plain that workers who have only just begun to organise, and have had no political experience, are not yet possessed of the knowledge and confidence necessary for the establishment of Socialism.

(2) The S.P.G.B. is concerned primarily and directly with conditions in this country, and our Declaration of Principles is framed accordingly. Speaking generally, however, we may say that the centralised political machinery of the Capitalist State (whatever its name and its peculiarities in different countries) must be controlled by a working class seeking to establish Socialism.

In passing, it is interesting to see how the Irish Republicans, in spite of all their brave words and threats of civil war, have been compelled to enter the Southern Irish Parliament as the only alternative to political extinction.

De Valera says :—

“The alternatives with which the new Free State legislation confronted them were to resign their responsibilities, to dissolve their organisation, sacrifice everything they had built up, or to take the step they took”. (“Manchester Guardian,” 23 August.)

Here we have a striking illustration of the power of Parliament, in spite of the fact that the Free State Parliament is still in its infancy, and that the Government has only a bare majority of votes. (Of course, the Republicans are as Capitalist as their opponents.)

(3) In the long run, the Capitalist State, in its modern developed form, needs representative government as a means of maintaining stability and carrying on the increasingly complex work of administration. In spite of the post-war fascist movement, there has been no general tendency to limit the franchise. Here and elsewhere the tendency is to extend it still further.

(4) The black workers (in Cape Colony only) did possess a limited franchise, which, owing to their own backward condition, has not been of any particular value to them. Under the recent “Colour Bar” legislation, a new and more limited form of representation is to be given to black workers throughout the South African Federation.

We can fairly confidently predict that, in due course, the backward workers drawn into the realm of capitalist production will be given the vote. It must not be forgotten that the Capitalists are themselves divided into groups with sectional interests. While there remains in existence a body of disfranchised workers, there is always the inducement to the competing Capitalist groups to add to their influence by a campaign for the extension of the franchise. Instances are numerous. In this country, after the mainly working class Chartist movement had failed to secure votes for the workers, the Radical movement, under John Bright, rallied them. The objects of the Radicals were entirely capitalist, and their working-class supporters were regarded, and were, in effect, simply so many potential “voting cattle,” to be thrown into the struggle against rival propertied interests.

In Chicago this year the new Mayor, Thompson, appealed directly to the negro vote (hitherto left severely alone). Thompson won, and it is certain that the bosses of other political groups in America will in due course be compelled to bring the negro into the political arena, however little they may like doing so.

In Kenya Colony, during the heated struggle between the Indian trading class and the British landowners (who were in political control), the Indians threatened to start an agitation among the millions of blacks, intending to use them simply as a weapon against the whites.

In South Africa there has always been acute bitterness between the mineowners, who want to employ more cheap black labour and less white, and the white workers, who thought to resist a lowered standard of living by laws preventing the introduction of blacks into white men’s jobs. The Boer farmers, who resented the loss of their cheap black labour by migration to the mining areas, support the white trade unionists. In the great strike and riots of 1922 the mine owners already talked of supporting the claims of the blacks to political equality as a means of outvoting the white workers and Boer farmers, and it is inevitable that one or other of the political parties will sooner or later seek to gain kudos and votes by advocating an extended black franchise.

The franchise has certainly been extended without the existence of any strong agitation on the part of those who received it. (So far as can be seen, there is no strong demand for the vote among women under 30 years of age, who are promised the vote.) Clearly, however, there must be some degree of political knowledge and interest before it would be worth while giving votes. There must, for instance, be sufficient interest to make the newly enfranchised take the trouble to record their votes. What has usually happened in the past is that the struggles of the rising Capitalists for a place in the political sun has communicated some of its enthusiasm to the ranks of the workers underneath, and served to create interest.

(Socialist Standard, September 1927)

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