Parliament and Power

Recently the I.L.P. published a pamphlet “The Way To Workers’ Control,” which is a reprint of chapter 6, section II., of the book “Workers’ Councils ” by Anton Pannekoek. In an introduction the I.L.P. states:—” This pamphlet is necessary as an antidote for those who have stressed the importance of the Parliamentary struggle. It is important to remind M.P.s who believe that their power rests on a mathematical majority of seats that real power exists outside Parliament (and the courts, as Sir Hartley Shawcross found when he tried to prosecute the dockers in February, 1951).” They also state:— “We believe that the tasks of a political party today do not preclude Parliamentary action. It is our view and, we believe, that of the author, that Socialist policy should not be determined by Parliamentary expediency …”

There is also a new journal, “Revolt,” published by so-called Marxist Groups, which is putting forward old ideas which have helped to mislead the working class in the past.

We therefore once again have to refute the idea that Socialism can be established before the understanding and acceptance of it by the majority of the workers. Despite all the defeats, hardship and bloodshed experienced by workers in trying to oppose the powers of the State machine by force, these so-called Marxist Groups are once again advocating methods which, if put in effect, could only lead to further defeats. Despite all the experience they have to draw upon, they appear to have learned nothing from the errors of the Anarchists and Communist Parties.

The S.P.G.B. has since its foundation stressed the need for the working class to organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government in order that the machinery of government, including the armed forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation. The importance of Parliament as the centre of power is dealt with in our pamphlet “Questions of the Day.

What does the I.L.P. mean by the statement “That Socialist policy should not be determined by Parliamentary expediency?” Gaining control of Parliament to introduce Socialism is not Parliamentary expediency. When we of the S.P.G.B. have contested an election we have always put the Socialist case. We have always requested the working class not to vote for the Socialist candidate unless they understand and accepted Socialism. It is the I.L.P. whose election campaigns are determined by Parliamentary expediency, it is the I.L.P. which fails to put the Socialist case to the electors, it is the I.L.P. which puts forward what they believe to be vote catching reforms only to find that the majority of the workers believe that the Labour Party is more likely to obtain these reforms. The I.L.P. is wrong in stating that real power exists outside Parliament.

Power and the Law
Clearly the strongest power in the State, wherever it resides, cannot be limited by law or anything else, since otherwise it would not be the strongest. Parliamentary sovereignty in Britain means that the validity of an Act of Parliament cannot be called in question in any court of law. There is no legal limit to the power of Parliament in Great Britain and consequently no court of law can ever declare, as can an American court with an Act of Congress, that an Act of Parliament is unconstitutional and therefore cannot be enforced.

Sir H. Shawcross, as the Attorney General in the last Labour Government, did not fail in his attempt to prosecute the dockers, because the power of the courts was greater than that of Parliament, but because he was in too much of a hurry. The Labour Government could have changed the law, it had a majority in the House of Commons, but it was bound by previous laws which it had not changed. The Labour Government knew that if they did change the law it would have to bear the consequences in the next general election.

E. S. Heffer, writing in issue No. 2 of the paper Revolt, states: “The lessons of the 1926 General Strike must be learned. During that revolutionary upsurge, the workers created their own embryonic State organs, when the Trades Councils were in varying degrees transformed into Councils of Action. Parliament, as such, was powerless, and it was only the reformist spinelessness of the leadership of the T.U.C. and the Labour Party that led to defeat.”


This is nonsense. Parliament was not powerless, it still controlled the posse, it controlled the armed forces and, as many workers found, was prepared to use all the powers of the State to defeat the General Strike. Talk of defeat because of the leaders of the T.U.C. and the Labour Party, is an old, old story. Who elected these leaders? Who supported them after the defeat? The fact that the working class had the need of leaders showed that they did not know what to do but were prepared to follow leaders. It is, too, in odd explanation to give that the all-powerful upsurge of the workers was too weak to overcome a handful of leaders.


Up to the present the mass of the workers have lacked political knowledge and have voted for people instead of principles. The members of the so-called Marxist Group and people with similar ideas on “revolutionary action ” have never grown up, they are like children playing at revolution and no doubt enjoying themselves for a time, then, when things go wrong they blame the leaders.


With regard to Parliamentary action Marx and Engels had no doubt about the position as the two following quotations show.


  “The working classes will have learned by experience that no lasting benefit whatever can be obtained for them by others but that they must obtain it themselves by conquering, first of all. political power. They must see now that under no circumstances have they any guarantee for bettering their social position unless by universal suffrage which would enable them to send a majority of working men in the House of Commons (“The Ten Hours Question” by F. Engels).”
“But universal suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat form the large majority of the population, where, in a long, though underground, civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class, and where even the rural districts know no longer any peasants, but landlords, industrial Capitalists (farmers) and hired labourers. The carrying of universal suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more Socialist measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent.
“Its inevitable result here is the political supremacy of the working class.”


From an article by K. Marx on the Chartists, New York Tribune, August 25th, 1852, Marx was too optimistic as to how the workers would use their votes. Unfortunately the workers had not a clear consciousness of their position as a class. They still have not. But at least Marx and Engels recognised the necessity of capturing the political machinery and the necessity of gaining a majority in the House of Commons. This is something the members of the so-called Marxists Groups have yet to learn. No doubt they recognise that the majority of the workers would not elect their candidates if they contested an election. But the answer is not to belittle the powers of Parliament but to propagate Socialism. This is the method of the S.P.G.B. We know that once the majority understand and accept Socialism the powers of government will soon be conquered by the working class.


D. W. Lock