What is Wrong With Using Parliament?
The anarchist paper Black Flag recently reviewed our pamphlet on this under the title “We use it as a Dung Market”. We reply.
It seems ironic that the review should start with a romantic nod in the direction of William Morris when one of the things that Morris is well known for was his passion for “making Socialists”, something that the Socialist Party is rightly or wrongly often simplistically ridiculed for.
In essence, Morris’s socialist “propagandising” was about making sure that there was a strong body of socialists who had a good understanding of the workings of capitalism and a clear understanding of the components of a society in contrast to it. He happened to call this socialism, as we do, and it rested on the view that there needed to be a mass of opinion in favour of it as a classless, stateless, moneyless society.
If people start to believe in the possibility of a future society beyond the market and the state then it seems sensible that they should cover all bases and rob any ounce of legitimacy that the capitalist class (including leftist would-be managers with their own statist dreams) will try to bestow upon themselves. The icing on the cake is that we don’t allow them that privilege and that we should go into in parliament as rebels. Of course this implies a mass of anti-capitalist opinion outside parliament of which those elected would be the mandated delegates.
The anarcho-communist Alexander Berkman once pointed out that:
‘Our social institutions are founded on certain ideas and as long as these are generally believed, the institutions built on them are safe. Government remains strong because people think political authority and legal compulsion necessary. Capitalism will continue as long as such an economic system is considered adequate and just. The weakening of the ideas which support the evil and oppressive present-day conditions means the ultimate breakdown of government and capitalism.’
In other words, the big holding power that capitalism in more “developed” countries has over many is in people’s heads in that the majority believe that there is no alternative or/and that they are “free” and living in a “democratic” society. It is precisely in the countries that have a semblance of democracy that seem to be the most stable in capitalist terms, for the reasons stated by Berkman above. So if that’s the case, what’s wrong with using the platform offered by parliament to call their bluff about being democratic?
The common objection to this raised by anarchists is the “corrupting effects of politics”. If that’s a problem then anarchists wouldn’t be able to trust their own mandated recallable delegates either, since such delegates is what we propose when we seek the platform of parliament to further articulate that desire for a society free from capital and the state and ultimately capture those powers that could be used against us. And if who controls the state is not important then why are so many anarchists concerned about the BNP getting hold of it?
The Socialist Party doesn’t have a blueprint for how a future society may come about but isn’t it wise to minimise as much as possible the risk of violence that states which, if left at the disposal of those who currently control them via their own “delegates”, could more easily deploy against the development of a new society?
Any process that has as its aim the revolutionary transformation of society has to have a future vision as a realisable possibility. This has to increasingly gain ground by being articulated in workplaces, the community, shops, pubs, in the arts and culture in general. As that future society gains ground as a tangible possibility then the conversation, discussion and plans will be increasingly enthused about how best to organise and adapt in all areas to meet society’s needs.
What’s the best way to help this process? Should we go down the route of fetishising every struggle going as, according to many on the left, struggle in itself is going to magically transform the consciousness of those involved into hardened revolutionaries? But if struggle alone is supposed to incrementally revolutionise us all then what’s the reason why so many workers who’ve gone through a lot of struggle, the miners, construction workers and others, have not reached radical conclusions but sometimes very reactionary ones such as “British jobs for British workers”?
To focus on explaining the root cause of society’s problems rather than tinker around with the edges (symptoms) is one of the most important reasons for an organisation like the Socialist Party to exist. That’s why we think it important not to spend endless amounts of time campaigning as a party to try to deal with the inevitable aspects of what capitalism throws at us as workers.
Anyone would think from reading the review that all our members do is campaign to persuade people to resort to the ballot box .The conception that the review has of the Socialist Party supposedly thinking that strikes are a “diversion” is a complete red herring. What fairy tale was that whisked up from? Strikes are an inevitable part of the class war that workers can sometimes utilise to defend or improve their working conditions or rates of pay. Our members are involved in these as workers. What’s wrong thinking that all these things don’t necessarily lead to revolution? Surely if they did then, with all the struggles on the economic front that the working class is forced to engage in every day since it came into existence, we should already be there in the review’s (for want of a better term) “councillist utopia”?
This rosy view of the working class doesn’t accord with reality. Most workplaces in the developed world are not one big “comradely experience” although most people are pretty decent despite the competitive environments they find themselves in. In the UK for example it’s the “Service Sector” that accounts for 73 per cent of GDP. I have worked in it and wonder why the reviewer has not been able to see what I see. Low pay, poorly unionised, competitive and non-stop, target-driven bullshit for many. Hierarchies built-in all over the place, where managers believe they’ve got a better deal than other workers who they generally view as their subordinates, and where often in return the other workers have respect or/and fear of the “higher ups”. In many cases the view is that the way to improve one’s position is done not as a class but as a rat in the rat race up the ladder. The effect is that the higher up the worker goes, the more they are forced to compromise and conform and get those beneath them to do the same.
Try openly putting across revolutionary or even militant ideas in workplaces like this (and many typically are) and you will be seen as “different” by your fellow workers who generally have very reactionary ideas in their heads. There’s also the problem of all the informal hierarchies that are there as well as the real ones. Ever seen The Office? It’s a brilliant example of this kind of behaviour. Once the bosses get an idea that there may be a “real revolutionary” in their midst, one that can’t easily be compromised that is, then they’ll soon “come up” with a “plausible” reason to get rid of them.
In addition, the figures for part-time work, temporary contracts and self-employment pose severe problems with the various “down tools” scenarios. And what about the unemployed, those on benefits, the retired or those dependent on partners or parents who may well go along with the way things are?
Those pushing papers around in the world of academia or those working out how to push some product onto the “consumer”? What clout do they or will they have if just tied down to a concept of revolution as a purely economic struggle?
What was probably most offensive about the review is the final paragraph where the reviewer sites the Socialist Party “slap bang in the middle of the Marxist vanguard groups whose characteristics it shares – authoritarian structure, party chauvinism and so on”. One of the reasons I joined the Socialist Party was because I didn’t like the de facto personality-dominated politics that often crept into groups that deemed themselves to be “anarchist”, with little or no structure to get the “personalities” to come down from their privileged positions. In this respect at least, I felt that the Socialist Party was actually more “anarchist” than the anarchists! An important part of my “anarchism” meant allowing for the widest conception of democracy possible to suit the needs of society.
The Socialist Party is merely a tool to be used by those who want socialism and who think that organising democratically is more important than seeing yourself as bigger than the society that you want to inhabit and think it important to have a voice for the possibility of a future that is so often buried.
Ultimately, what socialist conscious workers decide to do will be for them to decide. If they decide that parliament is an irrelevance then they will ignore it. On the other hand, if they see that to ignore it could be dangerous and also that it has potential, then they will make use of that potential.