Parliament and Political Power
It is necessary to capture political power to install Socialism and to do this, workers must organize themselves as a political party having Socialism as its sole aim and send elected delegates to Parliament or its equivalent. However it is important to bear in mind that the objective to obtain a socialist majority in Parliament is totally subordinate to the need for a majority of workers to want and understand Socialism.
If it can be shown that political power must be captured and that Parliament is the seat of this power and can only be captured through parliamentary activity, one is bound to concur with the socialist, that Parliament must be legally captured to consummate the socialist revolution.
What is power?
Firstly, what is power? It is the capacity to coerce. The exercise of political power is ultimately dependant on the extent to which people, consciously or otherwise, permit themselves to be coerced. This willingness is sustained by the ideology of the ruling class which permeates all levels of society. Thus for socialists to capture political power entails supplanting the prevailing capitalist ideology with socialist consciousness among workers who, at present, place their trust in leaders and governments to administer capitalism. The apparent powerlessness of workers derives from the fact that they place their trust in others to do their political thinking for them — the very idea that “great men” determine history or how society is run, is itself an obstacle to the realization of the political power the working class can wield through class unity based on class-consciousness, whereby they can capture the state and install Socialism.
So the power that governments and leaders appear to possess is social; it is a product of social forces and how it is used is conditioned by the social environment. The social process of legitimizing power is formalized through the franchise which makes explicit the dependence of rulers on the consent of their subjects for them to rule. But even in dictatorships this dependence on the active or passive consent of people obtains. The power hierarchy pyramidal structure of ascending layers with each “layer” exercising power within the limitations placed on it.
The state is an organic expression of the fundamental class conflict within property society. It will not “wither away” as long as the class basis of society exists and conversely the class basis of society will not disappear as long as the state exists to prop it up. The state cannot be abolished without first abolishing property relations of which it is a product — and to abolish them, as the political act of establishing Socialism will do, it is thus necessary to capture the public power of coercion vested in the state which is at present geared to the protection of these property relations.
Marx hailed universal suffrage as a “socialistic measure” in England and claimed that, “Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class” (The Chartists 1852). Yet many so called “marxists” repudiate the “parliamentary road” to “socialism” even where such a road is open to them. Some of these critics indulge in flagrant hypocrisy in damning Parliament as a “farce” whilst exhorting workers to “vote Labour” or even contesting elections themselves! Socialists would be the last to deny that the Palace of Westminster reverberates with farce and hypocrisy but these qualities are inevitably bound up with running capitalism and are no less prevalent in dictatorships.
Thus it is necessary to distinguish between Parliament as a political institution as such and how it is used, which depends on who has control of it. Governments exist to administer capitalism, for which they have massive electoral support, by passing legislation through Parliament. Legislation is necessary for the same reason that it is bound to fail to solve the many problems attendant upon capitalism which it tries to ameliorate, because it is concerned basically with protecting and efficiently perpetuating the class structure of society whereas it is precisely due to the existence of class relationships that these problems arise in the first place. Socialists have never asserted that Parliament controls capitalism — indeed it is part of the socialist case that capitalism controls Parliaments and dictatorships alike. Parliament does however control the state. It would be very wrong to attribute political impotence to Parliament, as many “leftists” confusedly do, on the basis of its inability to solve the problems built into the capitalist economy. The political machinations of capitalist parties which involve attempting to solve these insoluble problems while conveying to a non-socialist electorate the illusion that they can be solved, are inevitably farcical.
The charge that Parliament does not control the state may best be answered by considering other alternatives. Certainly, the monarch does not. The civil service, police and army are all under the ultimate control of cabinet which itself operates within the framework of Parliament. Some argue that Big Business is the power behind the state but this overlooks the fact that Big Business is not some homogenous abstract entity but represents many diverse, clashing interests between which the state must mediate. Certainly, political representatives in Parliament are heavily influenced by pressures from all quarters but the very fact that it is felt necessary by these various interest groups to exert influence on Parliament confirms the power vested in Parliament: in the final analysis, Parliament is the crucible in which legislation is forged. Finally, the very fact that capitalists subsidize political parties heavily, underlines the view that the capitalist class most certainly considers Parliament to be the seat of supreme political power.
For socialists the end and the means are in harmony. If political power relies on mass consent then likewise the methods to capture political power must be socially recognized and that means contesting elections — anything other than this would mean the forcible imposition of the will of a minority on the majority. The creation of alternative structures like workers’ councils, does not constitute a positive rejection by the majority of the rule of the capitalist class through its state machine and leaves state power intact in the hands of a capitalist Parliament. Any attempt to appropriate this state power would constitute a direct threat to the state and would inevitably founder.
The attainment of a majority of socialists in Parliament is the only practical way to unambiguously and democratically signal the existence of a mass socialist consciousness which is an absolute prerequisite for what can only be a clean-cut, change-over to a new social system, a “radical rupture with traditional property relations” (Communist Manifesto). The formation of a single revolutionary party to contest elections with a built-in anti-reformist democratic constitution is the only practical way to clearly demonstrate the extent of socialist consciousness in isolation from reform- mindedness and to unite and coordinate socialists, thereby welding them into a political force to capture the state.
There is a view which holds that parliamentary activity would “turn the majority of the working class into passive spectators of an active minority” (Libertarian Communism No. 6). But in what sense would the minority be active and the majority passive? The fundamental function of the minority (socialist delegates) would be the single political act of declaring capitalism abolished. Indeed, as delegates (as opposed to representatives) their actions would be wholly subordinate to the active control of the whole working class. Besides, the very nature of the socialist revolution requires that the majority understand and want Socialism and to this extent involves every socialist in active propaganda. For socialists what matters is not the activity of a few delegates but majority understanding.
Engels, in the introduction to Class Struggles in France, recognized the value of parliamentary activity:
Everywhere . . . the German example of utilizing the suffrage, of winning all posts accessible to us, has been imitated . . . Slow propaganda work and parliamentary activity are being recognized here, too, as the immediate tasks of the party. The irony of history turns everything upside down. We, the “revolutionaries” . . . are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and revolts. The parties of order as they call themselves, are perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves.
Not only would attempts to “smash” or undermine the state, or to illegally dispossess capitalists of their property, result in, at best, providing governments with handy scapegoats to toy with or at worst suicidal folly, they would also necessitate leadership — an idea which is wholly incompatible with Socialism — and would detract from the all-important task of convincing people of Socialism.
When the emergent capitalist class, spearheaded by the industrialists, was challenging the feudal aristocracy for political supremacy, they were compelled to seek assistance from the proletariat. Once the new capitalist class were enfranchised with the 1832 Reform Act, workers were able to obtain the franchise with the Second Reform act of 1867 (for male town workers) and an 1884 act (for male rural workers) and further acts in 1918 and 1928, by playing sectional capitalist interests, represented by Whigs and Tories, off against each other. The capitalist class has come to recognize the crucial importance of democracy (or the illusion of it) as the most stable and effective method to govern and contain the resentment of workers in a number of countries, particularly those with relatively high educational and living standards. The enfranchisement of the working class is the Achilles Heel of capitalist supremacy. Workers must not squander, or sneer at, this historically significant gain, but must follow through by using their votes to establish Socialism.