The Parliamentary Road to Socialism

IN 1871 at a conference of the First International in London, resolution IX which had the support of Marx and Engels read: “Against the power of the propertied classes the proletariat can only act as a class by turning itself into a political party”. That is the reason for the existence of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and why we advocate the parliamentary road to socialism.

The “power of the propertied classes” exist by virtue of their control of the state machine. It is putting the cart before the horse to claim as some do that the political power of the capitalist class (and its representatives) derives from its economic ownership of the means of living. On the contrary, capitalism and the rule of the Capitalist class exist because the overwhelming majority of the population support this state of affairs.

One can see how this fallacious belief that class rule is based on economic power may lead to, or is consistent with, an idealist, as opposed to materialist, conception of history or elitist modes of action such as anarcho-syndicalism. It tends to play down or ignore the fact that the immense majority support capitalism by voting for capitalist parties, whatever the fraudulent labels these may flaunt, or by acquiescing in dictatorships. But as Herman Gersom, translator of Martov’s The State and the Socialist Revolution points out:

    “Even the masterminds superintending the Fascist, Nazi and Soviet Communist political superstructures of modern capitalism realise they do not and cannot rule for any length of time against the will of the overwhelming majority of the population”

What lies behind the objection to the parliamentary road to socialism is that should the socialist movement grow to the point when the chance of its delegates forming a parliamentary majority was imminent, then the capitalists would suspend parliament and install a dictatorship. “Democracy”, rather than something which has been struggled for, can, according to this view, be switched on or off as a few leaders see fit, like some electric current. However, the growth of socialist consciousness could not occur in a vacuum and its repercussions will be far-reaching, profoundly influencing social outlook which in turn would determine the nature of existing government.

The tradition of parliamentary democracy is sustained by a general consensus of support for such a tradition which can only be strengthened to the extent that a growing socialist movement will have need of it. Moreover, just as it is impossible to isolate personnel manning the coercive agencies of “bourgeois democracies” so existing dictatorships cannot be isolated from the influence of socialist ideas. The rise of totalitarian regimes such as in Germany before the war was the result of the abysmal, though unavoidable, failure of the social democratic and reformist government of the Weimar republic to deal with the socio-economic problems capitalism presented.

So why do socialists insist on the need to capture parliament? Parliament is the seat of political power through which control of the state apparatus is exercised. Although external influences are exerted upon parliament from big business, unions’ pressure groups and the like, in order to be effective such influence has to be channelled via parliament and realised in the form of legislation.

The basic function of the state, controlled by parliament, is to protect the interests of the capitalist class. The state arose out of the early divisions of society into classes and developed with the development of class conflicts. In this way, class rule through state power originated from class ownership. But private property is a social concept or relationship, the general acceptance of which cannot be separated from the general support given to those who exercise power in the interest of the owning class. The state, through which class rule is exercised 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.

Some would disagree with this. James Guillaume, a nineteenth-century anarchist, declared: “Instead of having recourse to the state which only possesses such strength as the workers give it, the workers will settle their business direct with the bourgeoisie, will pose their own conditions and force them to accept them.” Perhaps it had not occurred to Guillaume that one reason the bourgeoisie has the upper hand in their business with the workers is precisely because they “have recourse to the state”. Behind this recurrent anti-political sentiment is the belief that the political field is tainted with treachery. So it is — but that is the consequence of reformist, not revolutionary, political action and of placing trust in leaders. Furthermore the industrial field — the hunting ground of the militant — is no less “tainted”. The same workers that elect Jones or Murray also vote for Thatcher or Callaghan.

Those who reject political action must explain how a revolutionary transformation can be brought about which would result in a classless moneyless system of free access and common ownership.

Two possible methods have been suggested: 1. The creation of a “completely self sufficient cooperative parallel society” (Peace News 16-30 Dec 1977). 2. The anarcho-syndicalist proposal adopted by the founding conference of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905 that workers should “take and hold that which they produce by their labour through an economic organization of the working class”.

The first of these has had a long history of application: from the attempts of utopian socialists like Fourier and Robert Owen and their followers to set up utopian communities, to the hippy and rural communes of today. Besides the impracticability of droves of workers opting for the “good life” the advanced division of labour and the integrated social nature of production on a world scale has made interdependence, as opposed to self sufficiency, the hallmark of modern production. As for “workers co-operatives”, these are essentially no different from any other capitalist enterprise competing for the market and therefore subject to its laws; to compete effectively, workers in co-operatives may have to cut their own living standards or sack their fellow workers. Some large-scale co-operatives have developed out of workers’ struggles against redundancies and as such have not been very successful — a prime example being the short-lived co-op producing the Scottish Daily News — either in attracting loans to finance production or in staving off redundancies.

The second option of direct action is equally futile. To begin with the proposal that workers should “seize and hold” the factories and “lock out” the owners implies the fatuous belief that capitalists participate in production, or need to. It is the workers, including the “salaried” managers, who run the entire economy from top to bottom.

But supposing workers “successfully” took over a factory — what then? If they recommenced production, they would have to submit to the rules of the game, to seek to gain legal status to operate on a proper financial basis, to buy and sell. Workers in a match factory cannot live on a diet of matches.

Martov remarked on the Proudhonists and anarchists of the 1871 Paris Commune:

    “They did not realise that capitalism has created for the concentration of the means of production and distribution, so huge an apparatus, that in order to lay hold of these means the working class would require effective administrative machinery extending over the entire economic domain that was previously ruled by capital. They had no idea of the immenseness and complexity of the revolution. And only because they did not understand all these things was it possible for them to think of the autonomous “commune” — itself based on “autonomous” productive units — as the lever of such a transformation.” (The State and the Socialist Revolution.) 

Only by capturing the concentrated political power of the state can the necessary coordinated transformation “over the entire economic domain” take place.

As a result of increased state ownership, notably in key industries like transport and energy, the state is increasingly involved in the economy — the most that can be achieved by these means is a change of rulers. Neither can the state be overthrown by insurrection or undermined by social chaos.

There are those, impatient for change, who repudiate the need for “long and persistent work” as Engels put it, to convince workers by persuasion. Rejecting the parliamentary road on the grounds that it stifles the “self-activity” of the masses they turn to the industrial field in the hope of engineering a “social crisis” whereby the consciousness of the masses may be raised. If industrial militancy did turn workers into socialists we might expect to find these militants clamouring for socialism but this is not so. Underlying the mechanistic views of the theorists is an elitist contempt for the intellectual capacity of the working class to grasp the socialist case yet without this working- class understanding, socialism is unattainable.

The parliamentary road does not imply that people hand over their power to others every few years. Parliament is the institution to which the working class shall send their delegates with the purpose of declaring capitalism abolished and to validate this revolutionary act. There has to be some means to effect the necessary transfer of power from the capitalist to the working class, a means which clearly and democratically indicates the will of the socialist majority. The parliamentary road is the answer. It will be within our party, not parliament that the “self-activity” and “self organisation” of the working class will be realised. The alternative to this was bluntly described by Plekhanov: “Every class struggle is a political struggle. Whosoever repudiates the political struggle, by this very act gives up all part and lot in the class struggle” (Anarchism and Socialism).

Robin Cox

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