The Vote as Weapon
People who come into contact with the World Socialist Movement and learn that we advocate revolution are often surprised that the revolution we urge is one that can be brought about by parliamentary means. To many, the word “revolution” conjures up images of barricades and street fighting. People associate revolution with the violent overthrow of governments, not with peaceful democratic elections. This is understandable given that, historically, revolutions of whatever kind have tended to be accompanied by bloodshed and violence and most organisations or political parties calling for revolution still envisage, whether explicitly or otherwise, violent means.
The Socialist Party pamphlet, “What’s Wrong With Using Parliament? The Cases For and Against the Revolutionary Use of Parliament“, makes it clear that, for the establishment of class-free society, it is essential for the revolution to be brought about by a majority using democratic means. And since such means are available in most countries there is no reason why these should not be used in order for that majority to take control of governments and establish a worldwide socialist society. This pamphlet puts the case for a revolutionary use of the ballot box to establish socialism and in so doing provides arguments against those who seem to share the socialist aims of a stateless society but believe that parliament cannot achieve it because the ruling class will never yield power unless workers apply armed force.
Such organisations may share with the WSM a real understanding of what socialism means. However, it is not enough to agree upon the objective. It is also necessary to agree with the method of obtaining this object. Thus we cannot hold a sympathetic view towards those who adhere to the socialist goal, but insist it cannot be gained through political action in Parliament.
For the WSM, elections are a means not an end. We have never been interested in winning elections to get socialist backsides onto the benches of the House of Commons at any price. Socialists will enter Parliament when enough workers want to send delegates there, mandated to formally wind up capitalism. But this situation has not yet arisen. But, of course, success and non-success is not the crux of our opponents’ critique since their own success has remained rather minimal.
Our critics assert that the State has to be destroyed in the course of the majority taking over, not via a parliamentary majority and that waiting for such a majority will allow counter-revolution.
We are also challenged on what a minority MPs going to do pending a majority to vote abolish capitalism. We are told that the people who elected the socialist candidates will expect some results in parliament, having arrived in Parliament.
The World Socialist Movement certainly stand for democratic revolutionary political action and the two futile policies of insurrection and reformism can be avoided by building up a socialist party composed of and supported by convinced socialists only. When a majority of workers are socialist-minded and organised, they can use their votes to elect Parliament delegates pledged to use political power for the one revolutionary act of dispossessing the capitalist class by converting the means of production and distribution into the property of the whole community.
The first moves towards control of parliament by means of elected representation emerged in England in the 17th century. The control exerted over parliament became a reflection of the property relations in society; a role that parliament has successfully fulfilled, largely unchallenged, to the present day. As capitalism emerged as the dominant social system, competition and the misery of working people intensified, so worker organisations struggled against laws that hampered their ability to defend themselves and improve their conditions. The ‘Anti-Combination Laws’ that made unions illegal were repealed in 1824, although it wasn’t until the depression of the 1870s and the Trade Union Act of 1871 that legal protection was granted to union funds. Later, peaceful picketing was allowed. Likewise, the struggle to achieve universal suffrage was slow, driven by overcrowding, excessive hours, child labour, dangerous working conditions and dire poverty. It took the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 to expand the franchise, but even by 1900 only 27 percent of the male population had the vote and it would take a further 30 years before full adult suffrage would be conceded to working people. This summary raises two important issues. The first is that whilst parliamentary government still operates to protect property, the concessions and the elbow room that have been won in capitalist democracy are important and of value to working people. Rights to organise politically, express dissension and combine in trade unions, for example, are valuable not only as a defence against capitalism but from a socialist viewpoint are a platform from which socialist understanding can spread, while the right to vote is the means by which socialism will be achieved. 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 choose between representatives of political parties every five years.
The Chartist movement, in the 19th century, saw that gaining the right to vote was meaningless unless it could be used to effect “change”. But today exercising our democratic right to vote for a conventional political party does not affect change. It amounts to little more than making a selection between rival representatives of power and class interest whose overarching function is to protect private property and make profits flow. It is a representative government where all the representatives support obedience to the capitalist system. Capitalist democracy is one where the political agenda is dominated by a trivial and often insignificant debate between political parties with the same class-based convictions. Other exponents of capitalist democracy to keep democracy working in the interests of capital, public opinion must be moulded and manipulated to encourage obedience – to “manufacture consent” using Noam Chomsky’s concept. Ordinary working people are to be targeted with propaganda campaigns to bring about an acceptance of things that are contrary to our interests. We become exactly what our masters seek – obedient and acquiescent. It is quickly apparent that in capitalism freedom is an illusion because freedom cannot exist when the conditions for the exercise of free choice do not exist. In a capitalist democracy, freedom has become a commodity strictly limited to the amount that can be purchased by a given wage or salary. In the workplace our ‘work’ organised under a strict division of labour is often tedious and repetitive; we have become an appendage to a machine or computer in the industry organised on a strictly ‘top-down’ chain of authority – more fitting to a tyranny. This is what freedom means under capitalism. Today, we must view with suspicion attempts to further restrict or limit our legal rights by carefully considering the motives that lie behind such moves. For we need to use these rights to organise and spread socialist understanding so a socialist majority can capture political power, end capitalism and establish socialism. Only then will we have genuine freedom and genuine democracy.
The realisation that genuine democracy cannot exist in capitalist society does not alter the fact that the elbow room already secured by struggle 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. Working people with an understanding of socialism can utilise their vote to signify that the overwhelming majority demands change and to bring about social revolution. For while democracy cannot exist outside of socialism, socialism cannot be achieved without the overwhelming majority of working people demanding it. The capitalist form of democracy, though seriously flawed, has in fact no formal means of preventing sufficiently determined individuals representing a politically conscious majority from using the political system it has developed in order to overthrow it.
Operating in a different social framework from the one that currently exists, one that encompasses the notion of participation and democratic accountability at all levels.
Our pamphlet already referred to above expresses the idea in the following way:
“With the spread of socialist ideas, all organisations will change and take on a participatory democratic and socialist character, so that the majority’s organisation for socialism will not be just political and economic, but will also embrace schools and universities, television, film-making, plays and the like as well as interpersonal relationships. We’re talking about a radical social revolution involving all aspects of social life.”
Because its establishment depends upon an understanding of the necessary social changes by a majority of the population, these changes cannot be left to parties acting apart from or above the workers. The workers cannot vote for socialism as they do for reformist parties and then go home or go to work and carry on as usual. A far more advanced form of democracy therefore than offered to us by capitalism today, where once every few years we are asked to put an X on a ballot paper to choose the best capitalist-management team from amongst competing groups of politicians, who then go away and take all the decisions that influence our lives without consulting us. Yet weak democracy is better than none and, as the pamphlet makes clear, it still provides a means for the majority to take political power once a socialist majority has emerged.
The control of society resides in Parliament, the centre of state power. Although we advocate sending delegates to parliaments as the way for the working class to gain control of political power, we are not a “parliamentary” party in the conventional sense. Our argument, in a nutshell, is that, if socialists are in a minority, to attempt an armed uprising would be suicidal folly. If, on the other hand, socialists are in the majority (as they must be before socialism can be established) then an armed insurrection is unnecessary as the majority can use the ballot box to send delegates to parliament to take over political control. In any event, as we’ve always said, “if people won’t vote for socialism, then they’ll certainly not fight for it”.
The World Socialist Movement argue that it does reflect real social power and consciousness; that a majority of society comprising class-conscious socialists would effectively control its mandated delegates.
Yet we are told that getting control of Parliament does not mean that the workers have gained control of the public power of coercion, the State. At such a critical moment the capitalist class will suppress the workers’ movement The real State will show itself. The argument against the use of parliament is that the powers-that-be would never tolerate a democratic takeover by a socialist majority because of the loss of authority and privilege this would mean for them. They would therefore prevent it by force. There are many suppositions underlying such an argument but the main one is that there is somehow a power behind or beyond elected governments that in reality controls them (some kind of shadowy deep state that is really in control and this is why our pamphlet describes it as a type of conspiracy theory) and that, therefore, if its position is seriously threatened it has the means at its disposal to clamp down on those threatening it and will not hesitate to use violence to do so, in the form of a coup or a military takeover. How would they go about using violence against a majority that included workers from all walks of life and occupations, including the police and armed forces? Is it conceivable that they would obey orders from politicians to suppress the majority of their fellow-socialists and, even if there were enough elements from those quarters who would be prepared to take such action, would they not be overwhelmed by the majority who would oppose them in self-defence? Can a capitalist minority that happens to have control of the machinery of Government continue indefinitely to govern and make capitalism function, in the face of the organised opposition of a majority of working people imbued with socialist ideas? If that were possible, then, it would be a sheer waste of time to consider socialism at all or the method of achieving it.
However, it is not possible for a minority to maintain its hold in those circumstances. Faced with the hostility of a majority of workers (including, of course, workers in the civil service and armed forces, as well as workers in productive and distributive occupations), the capitalist minority would be unable, in the long run, to enforce its commands and the workers would be able to dislocate production and transport. In such circumstances, the capitalists would themselves de divided. Not all of them would be disposed to provoke chaotic conditions in a heroic last-ditch struggle. A look at the way in which governments do behave in face of a hostile majority under existing conditions will show how impossible it is for any minority to retain cohesion and to act decisively when it is conscious of being actively opposed by the majority. How much more clear and certain the outcome would be if the organised and united opposition is composed of convinced socialists who have gained their majority in face of a long-drawn-out struggle with all the defenders of capitalism. So far, of course, such a majority of socialists has not existed at any time or in any country. supposing a majority do vote for it but that the top brass in the armed forces refuse to accept the democratically expressed majority will of the people? That would be suicidal folly on their part, as we can’t imagine that the majority would simply stand by and meekly accept their will being thwarted. We can imagine that there’d be mutinies since the rank and file and even most officers are recruited from the working class and so would be influenced by socialist ideas; that there’d be strikes as workers refused to supply the armed forces with food, electricity and other essentials; that there’d be mass civil disobedience (refusal to obey the rebels’ edicts) and street demonstrations. We leave it up to you to work out how long you think a despot and his cronies could hold out in such circumstances. As someone once said, no force can hold back an idea whose time has come, and the existence of a majority vote for socialism would show that socialism’s time had come. Faced with a massive majority vote for socialism, and a working-class outside parliament organised to back it up, we don’t see the ruling class putting their life and liberty on the line by resorting to violence to try to resist the inevitable. Maybe there’ll be a few isolated acts of violence by fool-hardy individuals, “a pro-slavery rebellion” as Marx termed the possibility, but these could easily be contained and the socialist revolution should be able to pass off essentially peacefully.
We are also taken to task by those who disagree with us that we in the WSM cannot conceive of a “revolution” until 50% plus 1 of the population is ready.
Perhaps the pamphlet could have been more instructive and emphasised that when “we use terms such as “majority” and “majoritarian” this is not because we are obsessed with counting the number of individual socialists, but to show that we reject minority action to try to establish socialism – majority as the opposite of minority….a majority (yes, but in the democratic rather than mere mathematical sense)….”
It is about an effective majority, not simplistic formalism of number counting but a class struggle position (it should be remembered that when the Parties became the WSM, women did not yet possess the vote and many men did not qualify for the franchise).
It may be acknowledging that there is an already established world majority of socialists who have, to some extent, voted with their feet and re-organised their jobs, freely distributed food and goods, refused to go to war, or whatever. We won’t just sit back for the media pundits to declare the success of the revolution. In the fall of the state-capitalist governments of the Eastern Bloc, no one waited around for a massive vote of millions of people since the malaise of state capitalism was plainly evident, allowing individual revolts in each of the countries or individual Soviet republics. (Though they were the subject of competing elite groups as well, in general, they were mass movements.) Legitimacy was established after the fact in the following elections. This of course raises the question if you can have the revolution first, and count the ballots afterwards, what price the parliamentary road to socialism? We argue or imply that parliament is the engine of change, whereas in the reality of circumstances it might be nothing but a rubber-stamping exercise. The WSM position is one that we do not rely on Parliament but that we use it if we can. We think it is the most effective way to get socialism with the minimum of violence. Elections are a useful expedient when the alternative is a bloody failure on some barricade. We are not legalists so if the capitalists withdraw the franchise or change its rules we’ll have to act without it. Being dependent on the capitalist plutocrats and oligarchs offering us a voting opportunity for socialism is not the party case.
Most revolutions of the past that have succeeded have, it is considered required no more than 25%-30% active support – which would be enough for an election of any capitalist party. If 25-30% of the population actively supporting the revolution outweighs active opposition sufficiently to achieve its goals, the rest of our class either passively support us or just only keep their heads down below the parapets to see what comes out of whatever crisis and comes to pass. That constitutes a sufficient majority of socialists. It should be defined as “functional majority”, or such terms, and also not put in the thrall of the capitalist process. Capitalist politics, when they interact with our class at all, are fraught with ballot-rigging and gerrymandering. The franchise, even when considered “universal”, always excludes large sectors of our class. We should also allow for the large possibility that any transition will not be that orderly – by the time we have succeeded there will be no need for such a ballot because the outcome will be obvious and have been the result of class warfare. It is essential for the revolutionary process that this majority is sufficient to make socialism work as a system of society and the deciding factor on the ‘majority’ is going to be how many of the population will be willing to make socialism actually work.
We cannot assume that all of our class will want to be actively involved – many for purely personal social or health reasons but for whatever reason will not want to stick their heads above the parapet. Also, lots of our class will be in organisations that have interpreted the situation differently, whether, anarchists, even Trotskyists or what-not, and would be as likely to cooperate in many aspects of a revolution. We should have a revolutionary model which refers to socialism being brought about by a sufficient majority of socialists – sufficient in their political willingness and awareness, not a 100% at the polls or even a 51% active support. We said in a 1955 EC Statement, “The overwhelming mass of the people will participate, or fall in line with, the process of reorganisation “[our emphasis].
Class societies only persist because majority support or acquiesce to the social system. Once these start to be withdrawn we can expect a revolution.
Given previous revolutions, 25-30% of the population actively revolutionised is sufficient to overthrow a government. Those in the WSM are not utopian bean-counters. Some members have argued if we have 25-30% support why not be patient and wait a couple or three months more and lessen the possibility of violence, because then the chances are that we would have 40-50% of workers revolutionised, but it will be left up to the revolutionary period to decide.
There are a wide variety of potential scenarios for revolution. We would be fools if we limit ourselves to what is theoretically perfect – and thus highly unlikely – rather than asking the question “what do we actually need to make a revolution?” and proceeding on that basis. The problem is not getting people to think “socialism is a good idea” but also transforming that into mass social action. We need to be able to act in an imperfect world rather than waiting for a perfect one. Revolution is not merely an announcement of a successful ballot, it is a process, and the process itself will draw our fellows into the struggle. The revolution makes the mass party – the actual date that power can be seen to shift to ourselves is not the beginning, but the beginning of a different phase. The revolution has a snowball effect. The more change is imminent, the faster and bigger it grows and rolls, without the conscious direction of leaders, as many vanguardists and social democrats have often found. You cannot stop an idea when its time has come, as is frequently said. The Iron Heel couldn’t maintain Marcos in Manila, the Shah in Tehran nor the party apparatchiks in Moscow, Berlin or Warsaw when people decided to move.
The State is the form taken by the centre of social administration without which modern industrial society couldn’t function. We want the working class to take it over and convert it into an unarmed democratic administration of things. We want to see an end to capitalist class rule not the breakdown of society. The workers en masse don’t need to create a different and more democratic decision-making structure from the ground up. What they need to do is to take over and perfect the existing, historically-evolved structures. we don’t need to construct a socialist society from scratch; this is not the way social evolution works; there will be a degree of continuity between what exists now and what will exist in socialism as there always has been between one system of society and another.
Workers will use both fists to fight for socialism, and will not rely on only a right hook or be just a southpaw boxer. They will recognise it will be both parliament and non-parliamentary means to socialism. It is the democratic result that we want. Our case for Parliament is that it is the most efficacious application of the workers’ will to establish socialism. We seek the least disruptive method of revolution and at this moment in most key nations, parliament is that route. The criticism we have faced fails to convince otherwise.