1920s >> 1928 >> no-285-may-1928

Correspondence: The Ballot or the Barricade?

A correspondent writes asking questions as to the need for the Socialist movement to make use of methods of violence. Here is his letter :—

East Street, S.E.

To the Editor, Socialist Standard.

I wish to put some questions to the S.P.G.B., and hope you will answer them in an early issue of the S.S., as there are several sympathisers of the S.P.G.B. resident in Bermondsey who await your reply with considerable interest. Now, for my questions.

1. You say in your “Declaration of Principles” that the S.P.G.B. is out to conquer Political Power, etc. Now, as the Party disavows “Violent methods,” how are you going to do it?

It seems to me, that by this disavowal the Party cannot claim to be “Revolutionary” in any sense of the word, nor Marxian, either. Marx, in his “Address to the Communist League,” insists that the workers “must pre pare for the bloody struggles that lie ahead of them.” Engels also says much the same in his “Revolutionary Tactics.” Lenin, in his “State and Revolution,” page 25, says, “We have already said above, and shall show more fully at a later stage that the teaching of Marx and Engels regarding the inevitability of a violent revolution refers to the Capitalist State—it can not be replaced by the Proletarian State (the Dictatorship of the Proletariat) through mere withering away, but, in accordance with the general rule, can only be brought about by a violent revolution.” See also “Hymn of Praise” sung in its honour by Engels, and fully corresponding to the repeated declarations of Marx, in the concluding passages of the “Poverty of Philosophy” and the “Communist Manifesto” with its proud and open declarations of the in evitability of a violent revolution. Lenin, him self, said, “The substitution of a Proletarian State for the Capitalist State is impossible with out a violent revolution.” (Page 26 Ibid.)

2. My own point of view is as follows : Assuming that the whole of the working-class voted the Socialists into “Office” or “Power,” it is in the power of the oligarchy to refuse to let the workers’ Socialist representatives take their “seats,” and declare their election to have been gained by fraud, etc. Assuming this to have taken place, the Socialists could only contest the legality of the election in the Courts. The Courts being dominated by capitalists the result would be a “foregone conclusion,” the workers would then have to appeal to force of arms.

3. As the S.P.G.B. has opened an Election Fund, with all that is implied by Election Funds, how is this going to bring about a speedy termination to the present system of exploitation? I have written this under the impression that although anti-Socialist papers like the “Herald,”“Sunday Worker,” and “The Communist,” etc., often ignore letters and criticisms, the Socialist Standard always gives a straight forward reply to relevant questions, etc. I remain, Yours faithfully,

Robert Chapman.


It will be seen that our correspondent starts off by assuming that revolution implies violence, and that since we do not advocate violence, therefore we are not revolutionary. This is an assumption which will not bear examination. The Socialist Party aims at changing the foundation of society, at replacing the private ownership of the means of production by common ownership. It is therefore a revolutionary party. Conversely, the use of violent methods to secure minor reforms does not turn a reformist party into a revolutionary one. The use of violence by the suffragettes in pre-war days did not entitle them to be described as revolutionary ; they were not seeking to revolutionise society. The American miners on strike at Herring, Illinois, a few years ago, who used machine guns against the employers’ armed strike breakers, were only resisting a wage decrease; they did not want to overthrow Capitalism, and were not revolutionary.


On looking closely into our correspondent’s statements and quotations, we see that he has himself not troubled over much to define precisely what is the object of the methods of violence advocated by him. The Socialist Party lays it down that Socialism pre-supposes the conquest of the powers of government and the conversion of the machinery of government, including the armed forces, from “an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation.” We lay it down, further, that the vote is the only means open to the workers in developed Capitalist countries to conquer the powers of government. Mr. Chapman (see paragraph 2 of his letter) says that the workers “have to appeal to force of arms,” but he does not explain what would be the purpose of the appeal to arms. This is a very important point, because, having rejected the possibility of conquering the powers of government by means of the vote, he is forced into the position taken up by the Communists, and illustrated by his quotation from Lenin. That position is the setting up of a “Workers’ State,” based on Soviets, in opposition to the existing State at present under Capitalist control, and the destruction of the latter by the former.

Thus we have the Workers’ Weekly (official organ of the Communist Party) stating that, “The power of the Capitalists must be wrested from them. The workers must set up their own State” (February 24th, 1923); and again, “The workers must destroy the Capitalist State, and set up their own Workers’ State, before they can make any real change” (March 17th, 1923).

Now this doctrine, shared by our correspondent and the Communists, is a piece of impractical and dangerous romanticism. It is not revolutionary. It leads not to Socialism, but to the shambles.

 That it is impractical will be obvious to those who will give it serious consideration, and remember that the conduct of warfare has developed and is developing even faster than industry itself. The Capitalist State has a strongly disciplined regular army, possessed of all the latest, most costly and most highly technical means of destruction. Mr. Chapman talks lightly of the workers “appealing to force of arms.” What arms? Where can the workers get and keep and manoeuvre tanks, bombing planes, poison gas and liquid fire plant? Where is the money with which to buy them ? How could they learn to use them even if they had them? And, above all, will the Capitalist class permit this concentration of hostile forces and implements? It is too fantastic for words. Mr. Chapman himself exposes its colossal unreality. He says the workers would have to appeal to force of arms against the hostile decision of Capitalist courts : does he imagine that these same hostile Capitalist courts would have turned a blind eye on the rebels during the years of preparation for the appeal to force of arms?


But Lenin on occasion contradicted his own Communist doctrine. Writing in 1916 (reprinted in the Class Struggle, May, 1919), he said :—

Socialists are willing to utilise the present Government and its institutions in the struggle for the liberation of the working class, and also insist on the necessity of so using the Government in the creation of a suitable transition form from Capitalism to Socialism.

Lenin’s claim that Marx’s and Engels’ writings give him support in his other doctrine is fantastic. Throughout their works both of them emphasise the necessity of obtaining possession of the State machinery, and point the way to that end through the use of the vote. It is implicit in the Marxian theory.


Our correspondent refers to certain writings of Marx and Engels. A significant point about the quotations is the dates at which the various passages were written. “The Address to the Communist League” was written by Marx in 1850; “The Poverty of Philosophy” was written by Marx in 1846; and the ‘”Communist Manifesto” in 1847. Of the works referred to, the only one written late in life is “Revolutionary Tactics,” by Engels. This is a preface to Marx’s “Civil War in France,” and was written by Engels in 1895. We will return later to this question of the dates of these works.

Mr. Chapman says that Engels in this preface (Revolutionary Tactics) gives support to the advocacy of violence, but curiously enough our correspondent does not quote any passage to support his claim. This is all the more curious when it is remembered that Engels devotes a large part of his space precisely to this question.

The simple fact is that Engels draws exactly the opposite conclusion, and unhesitatingly condemns armed revolt. It is impossible to avoid the belief that our correspondent made his statement without troubling to verify it from Engels’ writings. Let us see what Engels says in 1895 :—


The Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed that the conquest of universal suffrage, of democracy, was one of the first and most important tasks of the fighting proletariat, and Lassalle had raised the issue again. When Bismarck now found it necessary to introduce universal suffrage as the only means of interesting the masses of the people in his designs, our workers were not slow to make a serious use of the opportunity, and they sent August Bebel to the first constituent Reichstag, From that day to this they have utilised the suffrage in a manner which has rewarded them a thousandfold, and been an example to the workers of all other lands. The result of all this was that the bourgeoisie and the Government grew far more afraid of the constitutional than of the unconstitutional activities of the working-class party, and came to dread the results of an election far more than they dreaded the results of a rebellion. For here also the conditions of the struggle had been notably modified. Rebellion in the old style, street fighting and barricades, the methods that had proved universally decisive, down to the year 1848, had in effect become obsolete. (Translation by E. & C. Paul in the Plebs, January to April, 1921.)

Engels then goes on to show how the development of the instruments of war and the organisation of the armies had themselves, apart from other factors, utterly destroyed the possibility of armed workers overpowering or demoralising the regular armed forces.

In face of this, our correspondent’s claim is astounding.


Now for the earlier works. Our correspondent refers to “repeated declarations of Marx in the concluding passages of the ‘Poverty of Philosophy’ and the ‘Communist Manifesto.’ It is surprising and regrettable that he did not give us some of these “repeated declarations.” The “Poverty of Philosophy” does, it is true, end up with the quotation of two flamboyant lines from a poem by George Sand, in which she referred to the choice between “Combat or death; bloody struggle or extinction.” Our correspondent surely does not ask us to read into the selection of a purple passage of this kind to round off a peroration, the intention of Marx to convey a serious general lesson to the workers?

But our correspondent, in selecting these early works, has overlooked the essential point that Liberal and National movements in Europe in 1848 are not a model for a Socialist movement in a fundamentally different Europe in 1928, and, moreover, neither Marx nor Engels, then or thereafter, drew such a conclusion as he fastens on them ; they never omitted to stress the importance of gaining control of the machinery of government, as distinct from destroying it.

Except France and the Rhine Provinces and England, Europe in 1848 was still predominantly feudal. The capitalist class had not yet won their way to political supremacy, and the modern centralised nation-States had not come into being. To the force of Nationalism and Liberalism was added the largely blind discontent of a working-class movement just coming to birth. Marx and Engels thought that it might be possible for the workers to take advantage of the conflict between capitalist Liberals and the absolutist monarchies and their feudal supporters to win away the support of the State troops and rush the revolutionary movements forward to Socialism over the heads of the Capitalist and Nationalist leaders, who, of course, would not want to achieve by their revolt any such a result as that. The justifications for that error of judgment (frankly admitted to be such in later years) were many. Lack of experience led Engels and Marx to underestimate the potentialities of growth and expansion which lay in the Capitalist system. They also counted (not unreasonably at that period) on the possibility of demoralising the State troops by means of barricades and armed street demonstrations. Again, at that time there were not in existence throughout Europe, as there are to-day, either an immense administrative civil service and local government or a stable system of democratic government based on an extended franchise.

Engels, writing in 1895, candidly admits his error (“Revolutionary Tactics“).

Yet upon us, too, time wrought her revenges, proving illusory the views we then entertained. Nay, history went farther than this, for the march of events served not merely to trample down our errors, but served further to bring about a complete transformation of the conditions in which the proletariat has to fight. The campaigning methods of 1848 are utterly obsolete to-day. . . .

Engels particularly points out that even before 1848 victory of the armed workers over regular troops was “among the greatest of rarities,” and that by 1895 “there have been many further changes, all in favour of the regular troops.”

Since 1895, and especially since 1914, the position has changed again almost out of all recognition, and such an armed revolt to-day is ludicrous.


The “Communist Manifesto” (page 21; Reeves’ edition) says : “We have seen above that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”

The “Address to the Communist League,” to which Mr. Chapman also refers, was an address to the German workers dealing with the actual situation facing them in Germany in 1850, and proposing methods of action to be followed before and after the anticipated victory of the German Capitalists over their feudal absolutist enemies. It did not pretend to apply to the working class outside Germany, where different conditions existed, still less to conditions which came into existence during the following 30 or 40 years, and which, as Engels confesses, he and Marx could not, and did not then foresee.

In any event, the phrase which Mr. Chapman claims is a quotation from the Address is not to be found in the text taken from Max Beer’s ”Inquiry into Dictatorship,” and published in the “Labour Monthly” (September, 1922).

Marx urges the workers to obtain arms and organise independently of the capitalist liberals before and during the struggles which were expected to give the capitalists supremacy, but for the period “after those struggles, during the time of their ascendancy over the defeated classes and the proletariat” he lays down definite plans for contesting elections and running workers’ candidates in opposition to the democrats, and “for whose success all must work with every possible means.” He deals further with the policy to be followed by the workers with reference to the budget and other parliamentary work. In this section Marx made no mention whatever of an armed struggle by the workers.


If further evidence is needed of the value placed by Marx upon the use of the vote for the conquest of power, we have only to remember how he worked for the winning and the extension of the franchise. The following two letters to Dr. Kugelmann illustrate this :—

K. Marx to Dr. Kugelmann. January 10th, 1866.

We have been very busy organising a large meeting in favour of universal suffrage, and at this meeting only working men spoke. The effect was very great and “The Times” in two consecutive numbers discussed the question in a leader. (Printed in “Social Democrat,” May, 1902.)

K. Marx to Kugelmann. October 6th, 1866.

The agitation for universal suffrage here, in which I have had a large share, is growing more and more. (Social Democrat, May, 1902.)


Then Mr. Chapman asks us to consider the situation which might arise if the capitalists destroy their own constitution in order to prevent the workers coming into control after the winning of an election. He omits, however, to consider the effect of such a move on the capitalist system and on the capitalist class themselves. Democratic, representative government is essential to the stable and continued working of the capitalist system. It is the foundation on which rests the political machinery and its enormous and complex administrative departments. If the ruling class destroy this basis by repudiating the very means by which they themselves gained their control, they not only risk early administrative chaos, they also commit eventual political suicide, even although the move may serve their immediate purpose. It is the imperative pressure of the needs and developments of the capitalist social system which has compelled and is still compelling the capitalists to broaden the electoral basis of their control. If they cannot resist this pressure now, what chance have they of putting back the clock after further years of representative government during which ever-increasing numbers of the workers learn to use and to value the vote? The capitalist parties everywhere exploit the electioneering value of being “constitutionalists.” Even the so-called dictators invariably parade the fact that they are constitutional in origin and practice ; they all know the value of preserving certain legal forms and formulas. Mussolini, who came into power through the deliberate action of governments elected by popular vote on a wide franchise, so far from repudiating the elective basis of his position, has added millions to the number of electors. In January, 1925, the voting age was reduced to 25, and is now to be reduced to 21, and even to 18 for married men.

The capitalist class could not prevent this development in its infancy; they cannot now stay its growth. Every year it becomes more difficult and the consequences more dangerous to them to narrow the franchise.

But let us suppose that at the eleventh hour the minority of capitalist “die-hards” does succeed in rushing the more timid and more circumspect majority into a rash venture of this kind. The possibility is small and remote, but were it big and imminent, that would only add weight to the Socialist policy as against the policy of armed revolt. If the final struggle takes on non-parliamentary forms, then it is of the utmost importance that the Socialist working class should have on its side the powerful plea that its position is constitutional. Once the working class are predominantly Socialist it is a simple matter, involving; no sacrifice or material delay for them to record by means of the vote that they are the majority. Mr. Chapman wants the workers to throw away a card of so great value. If the workers are compelled to make use of their economic organisation to bring industry to a standstill, and to appeal to the armed forces to support the constitutional majority against the usurping minority, nothing at such a time could exceed in importance the possession of the backing of constitutionalism. This will strengthen them and serve to undermine and split the backing of the capitalist parties and armed forces.

In his final question, our correspondent talks vaguely about “all that is implied by election funds,” but gives no inkling whatever of his meaning. If Mr. Chapman thinks that he has read in these columns or elsewhere a statement by the Socialist Party that we believe that the opening of an election fund will “bring about a speedy termination” to capitalism, I can only suggest that here again he is criticising without taking the trouble to read and understand. If he will consult our Declaration of Principles, he will see that we claim that the political organisation of a Socialist working class and their use of the vote to capture the machinery of government, and thus control the armed forces, will put them in a position to bring about a speedy termination of this system of society. If Mr. Chapman has further objections to this position, or any feasible alternative, we shall be pleased to hear it.


(Socialist Standard, May 1928)

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