New Pamphlet: The Road to Socialism
Our Companion Party in India has just published a new pamphlet, History of Universal Suffrage: The case for turning universal suffrage into human emancipation.
These days it would be difficult to find any intelligent person in the developed world opposed to universal suffrage. However in nineteenth century Britain, universal suffrage (the right for all adults to vote in elections) did not exist. Extending the franchise (those allowed to vote) was opposed by notable Tory politicians including both Prime Ministers William Pitt the Younger and the Duke of Wellington (who quelled the Chartist rebellion), Edmund Burke, but also erstwhile Liberal Lord Palmerston.
This pamphlet is a wide-ranging overview of both the history of this and a socialist polemic making the case in favour of universal suffrage. There is a focus on Britain, but there are also chapters on universal suffrage in America and India and reference to suffrage in other countries around the world. Marx and Engels’ writings on the subject are excerpted too.
In 1831, out of a population in Britain of 24 million, only 478,000 were allowed to vote. Mainly these were landowners with property worth at least forty shillings rent a year, a law dating back four hundred years. Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester had no MPs, and electoral corruption was rife. Women could not vote on the same terms as men until 1928.
What prompted the franchise to be extended was not a benevolent change of heart, but rather the legacy of the French Revolution, events such as the Peterloo massacre and the popularity of the Chartist movement for electoral reform.
It is fair to say movement towards universal suffrage was welcomed by Friedrich Engels. Engels called it ‘one of the most powerful weapons, particularly in the sphere of organization and propaganda. Universal suffrage provides us with an excellent means of struggle’.
Engels however was careful to add a cautionary caveat ‘universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state; but that is sufficient. On the day the thermometer of universal suffrage registers boiling point among the workers, both they and the capitalists will know where they stand.’
Karl Marx regarded participation in parliamentary elections as imperative for socialist parties. He helped draft the programme adopted by the predecessor of, and retained by, the French Workers Party which included the statement: ‘such organization must be pursued by all the means which the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, thus transformed from the instrument of trickery which it has been up till now into an instrument of emancipation.’
It is also worth mentioning that in the US women did not achieve equal suffrage until 1920 and the experience of discrimination faced by African-Americans in relation to voting until 1965. In what is now the world’s biggest democracy, India, new property restrictions to voting were introduced in 1935 and universal suffrage achieved only in 1948. The pamphlet correctly observes that ‘our ruling class did not gift universal suffrage to us.’
The pamphlet is broad in scope and liberally peppered with useful quotes and references. Suffragettes were lightly covered and one Socialist Standard article that was not quoted was ‘Suffragette Humbug’ (June 1908, also appearing in Socialism or Your Money Back). It contained the excellent quote ‘The Socialist is in no quandary as to why the many are poor … Democracy is not an end in itself, but a means to an end; and for us that end is Socialism. And were the workers to understand rightly their position and their policy, the political freedom they now possess would enable them to achieve their emancipation irrespective of sex.’
(To order a copy send a cheque for £4, postage included, made out to ‘The Socialist Party of Great Britain’ to Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN; or by Paypal to firstname.lastname@example.org).