The policy adopted by the Labour and Social-Democratic parties in Europe has generally been described as “parliamentarianism”. By which is meant the idea that a parliament dominated by working-class representatives can, through various types of legislation, control the existing system of society in the interests of the community as a whole. Whilst workers have made some gains this way, more and more people are becoming aware that such a path offers no solution to any of the major problems they face, because it leaves untouched the basic structure of society which is their root cause. (Which is why the Socialist Party of Great Britain has always opposed any policy of social reformism).
In many radical political circles, especially those that have originated in or worked in conjunction with the Labour Party, the failure of this policy has been attributed, as much to the mechanism of parliamentary elections as to the nature of social reformism itself. It has been argued that the experience of Labour and Social-Democratic governments proves the uselessness of parliamentary institutions to the workers. The alternative form of organisation offered has usually been “workers’ councils”, or factory committees along the lines of the early Russian Soviets. These are said to be more democratic and responsive to the needs of workers. Obviously a council made up of revocable delegates is more democratic than one composed of individuals elected for a fixed period of time, but in other ways the typical workers’ council or factory committee is less democratic. It is organised on a narrower base and excludes those not employed such as the unemployed, old and young people, housewives and the disabled.
Despite their shortcomings, elections to a parliament based on universal suffrage are still the best method available for workers to express a majority desire for Socialism. Furthermore, although parliament run by Labour or Tory politicians is incapable of controlling the economic system in a rational and humane way, it is the centre of political control in the advanced industrial countries. The minority of people who now monopolise the ownership of wealth do so through their control of parliament by capitalist parties elected by workers. Control of parliament by representatives of a conscious revolutionary movement will enable the bureaucratic-military apparatus to be dismantled and the oppressive forces of the state to be neutralised, so that Socialism may be introduced with the least possible violence and disruption.
Parliament and local councils, to the extent that their functions are administrative and not governmental, can also be used to co-ordinate the emergency measures when Socialism is established.
We are not saying that workers councils are therefore quite useless. On the contrary; like trade unions they can often play a useful role under capitalism in the struggle of workers to maintain or improve working conditions and wages, and to resist capitalist authority at work. Factory or workplace committees, or something similar, would also play an important part in the democratic management of production inside Socialism.
Representatives elected by workers to parliament have continually compromised to the needs of capitalism, but then so have representatives on the industrial field. The institution is not here at fault; it is just that people’s ideas have not yet developed beyond belief in leaders and dependence on a political elite.