Can We Get Socialism Through Parliament?
When the Communist Party was formed some ten years ago, it absorbed elements which changed their names without thereby abandoning their illusions. One of the most obstinate of these was the notion that because the machinery of government is controlled now by those who use it to maintain capitalist domination, an attempt on the part of the workers to capture Parliament and use it for revolutionary ends is foredoomed to failure. In support of this view, we are frequently offered the phrase of Marx, “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” (“Civil War in France,” p. 28. Labour Publishing Co.’s Edn.)
In the volume in question, Marx was dealing with a particular experience of the working class of Paris, the memorable Commune of 1871.
“Paris,” said Marx, “had risen in arms against the attempt of Thiers and the Rurals to restore and perpetuate that old governmental power bequeathed to them by the Empire. Paris could resist only because in consequence of the siege it had got rid of the army and replaced it by a National Guard, the bulk of whom consisted of working men. This fact was now to be transformed into an institution. The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.” (p. 30.)
This same standing army forms, along with the State police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature, one of the principal pillars of the State handed down by absolute monarchy to its Republican successors. Marx uses quite a lot of space in showing that the reason why these same Republicans required an instrument of oppression was that they represented an exploiting class, the modern capitalist class; while the working class, having no class beneath it to oppress, could but rid itself of this part of the State machinery as of a burden.
It is curious to note, in view of all this, that the Communist Party claims Russia as an example of how to achieve working-class emancipation; a country, that is, where these pillars of the State (standing army, political police, bureaucracy, law officers, etc.) still exist in full vigour. One would imagine, if one took the declamations of “ Communists” seriously, that Socialism consists of the domination of the workers over the capitalists; as though the former could “exploit” or in some other way make use of the latter. The fact that Russian society cannot at present dispense with the capitalists is the clearest possible proof of the economical, political and mental backwardness of that country, and the limited scope for working-class activity. The last thing that Marx intended to imply by his oft-quoted statement was that Socialism could be imposed upon a nation of peasants by means of a “Red Army”!
The Socialist Party of Great Britain has pointed out from its foundation in its declared principles that the existing State is “an instrument of oppression” which only the conscious political action of the organised working-class could “convert into an agent of emancipation.” In other words, we have always advocated revolutionary political action. The latter-day “Communists,” however, do not understand the meaning of this term. They do not appreciate the fact that revolution necessitates gaining control of the existing political machinery, not its mere destruction and the creation of something new out of nothing. Marx says, for instance, on page 32 : “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society; instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to represent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business . . . Nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to supersede universal suffrage by hierarchic investiture.”
Marx, above all people, had none of the anarchists’ contempt for “counting noses.” Nor did he share the delusion that the revolution could be achieved merely by punching noses (!) at the command of self-appointed leaders. In their desperate scramble to remain within the shelter of Lenin’s mantle the “Communists” of this and other countries have poured scorn upon voting, as a mere capitalist snare, without putting forward any alternative which would bear five minutes’ intelligent scrutiny.
Society can no more dispense with administrative machinery than it can do without the material means of living. It is quite easy and quite correct, at present, to describe a factory as a capitalist instrument, seeing that it is an institution for extracting profit from the labour of the workers therein. Those who advocate organisation by factory committees overlook this; but even they would hesitate to say, “Let us smash the factories of the employers and set up factories of our own.”
Yet such a proposal would be quite as sane as the suggestion that we should destroy the State by means of “workers’ councils” responsible to nobody but themselves. The publicly-elected administrative bodies are capitalist machines only so long as the workers regard capitalism as the necessary form of society. They can be converted into means of establishing Socialism so soon as the workers (i.e., the majority of the electors) realise its necessity.
This does not mean that every detail of industrial activity will be regulated by bureaucrats in Whitehall; but it does mean that the social revolution will be an organic development, not a mere chaotic breakdown. The class-conscious organisation of the workers has everything to gain and nothing to lose by democratic methods. Its development is in fact unthinkable without them, and when we are told that representative institutions, such as the ballot-box, are merely barometers, we smile.
Can one alter the political atmosphere by smashing the barometer?
The “Communists” take revenge for their rejection at the polls by denouncing polling as “a bourgeois device for deluding the workers,” and then call on the latter to try conclusions with police-baton, and the only things that get smashed are the workers’ heads.
We of the Socialist Party suggest that these latter can be put to better use. We have sufficient confidence in their contents to believe that they are capable of assimilating the Socialist message, and our whole policy is shaped accordingly.