Many have noticed that whoever gets elected, nothing much really changes. This is because politicians usually have no intention of changing anything. It has been borne out by hard and painful experience that for even the most starry-eyed of us that the politicians we have voted for are not only unable to make good on promises but have actually carried out unwelcome and unwanted policies. Why should we believe that another would be any more successful? The working class persist in choosing between different versions of the same tedious, discredited political leaders. This is masochism. The electorate hasn’t had the true experience of having had their voices heard at any significant level in their so-called democracy. Rather than an expectation of involvement in decision-making, there is apathy, cynicism or a complaining mantra heard far and wide that governments don’t listen to the people, or pretend to listen pre-election, to then later make excuses for the broken pledges and not fulfilling manifesto promises.
Decisions have long been made for the people but not by the people, with electorates distanced from their representatives and decisions made with no consultation process. It’s taken for granted that once elected the politician decides on behalf of the electors. There is scant reference to the public in times of major decisions – whether to embark upon an invasion or how to deal with the effects of a harsh economic downturn. Even mass demonstrations against unpopular decisions leave the elected unmoved and intransigent. As a result, there has long been a culture of complaint, a collective feeling of impotence with no expectation of being heard, much less listened to. The capitalist system may have nominally democratic institutions, but it relies upon working-class compliance, passivity and lack of involvement in the process to carry out its worst work.
Ordinary working people are to be targeted with public relations exercises to create acceptance of things that are contrary to our interests. The effectiveness of this propaganda is illustrated by the widening gap between people’s preferences and government policy which often result in the acceptance of unpopular cuts in social spending.
It is hardly surprising that working people become increasingly disillusioned with democracy and politics and register their frustration by declining participation in elections. We start to believe that if our vote is so ineffective in changing things there can be little point in casting it. We become exactly what our master class wants us to be, obedient and silent.
Do the trappings of democracy really guarantee a truly democratic way of life? Do they ensure rule by the people?
The World Socialist Movement argue that the answer to these questions is a resounding “No!” and that real democracy involves far more.
It is true that the vote, together with other hard-won rights such as the rights of assembly, political organisation and freedom of speech, are most important.
At the same time, we must recognise that genuine democracy is more than these freedoms and the right to vote. Whilst ‘one person one vote’ is an essential ingredient of a democratic society, democracy implies much more than the simple right to periodically choose between representatives of political parties. We are not under any illusion about the nature of democracy inside capitalism. Can the act of electing a government result in a democratic society? To govern is to direct, control and rule with authority. Operating as the state is what governments do. But to say that democracy is merely the act of electing a government to rule over us cannot be correct because democracy should include all people in deciding how we live and what we do as a community. Democracy means the absence of privilege, making our decisions from a position of equality.
Democracy means that we should live in a completely open society with unrestricted access to information relevant to social issues. It means that we should have the powers to act on our decisions because without such powers decisions are useless.
As socialists, we do not regard political democracy in itself as sufficient to emancipate humanity. But we do recognise that it provides by far the best conditions for the development of the socialist movement. The realisation that genuine democracy cannot exist in capitalist society does not alter the fact that the elbow room already secured by past struggles can be turned against our masters. The right to vote, for instance, can become a powerful instrument to end our servitude and to achieve genuine democracy and freedom. The World Socialist Movement want a social revolution, sweeping and fundamental change in political and economical organisation.
Marx said that you cannot carry on socialism with capitalist governmental machinery; that you must transform the government where the worst features must be lopped off immediately the working-class obtains supremacy in the state. The vote is revolutionary when on the basis of class it organises labour against capital. Parliamentary action is revolutionary when on the floor of parliament it raises the call of the discontented; and when it reveals the capitalist system’s impotence and powerlessness to satisfy the workers wants. The duty of the socialist parties of the WSM is to use parliament in order to complete and to bring to a conclusion the revolution. Parliament is to be valued not for the petty piecemeal reforms obtainable through it, but because through the control of the machinery of government, the socialist majority will be in a position to establish socialism. Where it is available to workers we take the view that capitalist democracy can and should be used.
The Power of the Vote
Fewer people are bothering to vote in elections correctly realising that it will have little effect on their everyday lives. Attempts to reform capitalism have failed. Many activists accept that voting in elections is a waste of time? After all, as anarchists say, if voting changed anything it would be illegal. Many militants argue against contesting elections on the grounds that this inevitably leads to sincere politicians ending up merely administering capitalism because “power corrupts” and have in the past, and in the present, and in the future, too. It is also claimed that that Parliament is not the real seat of power but a mere “talking-shop” charade.
Certainly, political democracy under capitalism is not all that it is purported to be by many supporters of the system and it is severely limited, from the point of view of democratic theory, by the very nature of capitalism as an unequal, class-divided society. Certainly, democracy has become an ideology used to give the capitalist rule a spurious legitimacy. But it is still sufficient to allow the working class to organise politically and economically without too much state interference and also, we would argue, to allow a future socialist majority to gain control of political power. It is the quality of the voters behind the vote that, in the revolutionary struggle, is important.
The capitalist class are the dominant class today because they control the state (the machinery of government’s political power). And they control the State because a majority of the population allow them to, by, apart from their everyday attitudes, vote for pro-capitalist parties at election times, so returning a pro-capitalist majority to Parliament, so ensuring that any government emerging from Parliament will be pro-capitalism. If the workers (the vast majority of the population) are to establish socialism they must first take this control of the State (importantly including the armed forces) out of the hands of the capitalist class, so that it can be used to uproot capitalism and usher in socialism.
Workers should not turn their back on the electoral system as such. The electoral system can be utilised to effect the revolutionary act of abolishing capitalism by signalling that a majority of ordinary people fully understand and want to effect that change. Critics of the World Socialist Movement’s position fail to appreciate the different content of the term “parliamentary” as applied to orthodox parties and to ourselves. We indeed hold it essential that the transformation to a new society be started by formal democratic methods—that is, by persuasion and the secret ballot. For there is no other way of ascertaining accurately the views of the population. The result of a properly conducted ballot will make it clear, in the event of an overwhelming socialist vote, to any minority that they are the minority and that any attempt to oppose the desires of the majority by violence would be futile. The formal establishment of the socialist majority’s control of the state avoids the possibility of effective use of its forces against the revolutionary movement. An attempt to establish a socialist society by ignoring the democratic process gives any recalcitrant minority, the excuse for possibly violent anti-socialist action justified by the claim that the alleged majority did not in fact exist or that the assumed majority was not likely to be a consistent or decisive one. Ultimately, force is on the side of the numerical superiority of ordinary working people and will make their demands unstoppable
Despite its shortcomings, elections to a parliament based on universal suffrage are still the best method available for workers to express a majority desire for socialism. The ruling class who 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.
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. When enough of us join together determined to end inequality and deprivation we can transform elections into a means of doing away with a society of minority rule in favour of real democracy and equality. The vote will merely be the legitimate stamp that will allow for the dismantling of the repressive apparatus of the state, heralding the end of bourgeois democracy and the establishment of real democracy. It is the Achilles heel of capitalism that makes a non-violent revolution possible. Using the vote workers will neutralise the state and its repressive forces.
The World Socialist Movement adopted the policy of trying to gain control of the machinery of government through the ballot box by campaigning on an exclusive socialist programme without seeking support on a policy of reforms, and while supporting parliamentary action they refused to advocate reforms. This has remained its policy to this day. Mandating delegates, voting on resolutions and membership ballots are democratic practices for ensuring that the members of an organisation control that organisation – and as such key procedures in any organisation genuinely seeking socialism. Socialism can only be a fully democratic society in which everybody will have an equal say in the ways things are run. This means that it can only come about democratically, both in the sense of being the expressed will of the working class and in the sense of the working class being organised democratically – without leaders, but with mandated delegates – to achieve it. The socialist movement must stand firmly by democracy, by the methods of socialist education and political organisation, and the method of gaining control of the machinery of government and the armed forces through the vote where possible and only with the backing of a majority of convinced socialists.
The WSM has never held that a merely formal majority at the polls will give the workers power to achieve socialism. We have always emphasised that such a majority must be educated in the essentials of socialist principles. We do not propose to form a government and so does not call for people to “vote us into office”. Socialist candidates stand as recallable mandated delegates at elections to act as little more than messenger boys and girls sent to formally take over and dismantle the State, not as leaders or would-be government ministers.