The Anti-Parliamentary Debate

Anarchists and others tend to argue that all “parliamentary” parties have in the past, and in the present, betrayed the working class; that Parliament is not the real seat of power but a “talking-shop” that the World Socialist Movement (WSM) contests elections, aims at parliamentary majorities and so on; and that therefore will be no different from all other parties.

Our reply is that these critics fail to distinguish between the different content of the term “parliamentary” as applied to orthodox parties and to the World Socialist Movement. They do not see that we insist on the necessity of majority understanding behind socialist delegates with a mandate for socialism, merely using the state and parliament for one revolutionary act, after which the WSM has no further existence, subsequent action being the responsibility of society. We hold it to be absolutely 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 World Socialist Movement does not intend playing into the hands of the global ruling class and their political mouthpieces, whether dictatorial or democratic. We don’t intend making it easy for them to treat world socialism as an “undemocratic” threat. 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. An attempt to establish an anarchist society by ignoring the democratic process thereby gives any recalcitrant minority, possibly violent, the excuse for anti-libertarian direct action itself. They could claim that the assumed majority did not in fact exist or that the assumed majority was not likely to be a consistent or decisive one. In any event there would be no secure justification for a radical change. There might well be unnecessary setbacks and disruptions of the revolutionary movement—possibly involving hardship or loss of life among the working class. The denigration in a sweeping fashion of Parliament and so on makes it easier for authoritarian movements of all kinds to lay the blame for social problems on democratic institutions instead of on capitalism—as, for instance, did the Nazis and so-called Communists in the Weimar Republic.

Some of our critics do not share our argument for a majoritarian revolution, one involving the active and democratic participation of a majority of the population. They envisage only a minority-led revolution, with an active minority leading a mass of merely discontented but not socialist-minded workers. It is quite true that, faced with such an attempted revolution, the ruling class is likely to resist violently, with a reasonable chance of success. Anarchists and others propose to ignore the state saying, paradoxically, that it does not reflect real social power and that in the desired transformation of society its controllers would be corrupted. Socialists 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. Finally, to ignore the state is short-sighted in so far as the formal establishment of the socialist majority’s control of the state does avoid the possibility of effective use of its forces against the revolutionary movement. For too long now our class has been lied to, tricked, beaten, tortured and murdered by the ruling class through the agency of the state.

Universal suffrage has not failed. What has failed is the reformist (Labour and Social Democrat) use of universal suffrage. Capitalism simply cannot be reformed. It is constitutionally incapable of being made to do this. Therefore any government which tries, whether elected by universal suffrage or not, is bound to fail. To reject universal suffrage because reformist electoral action has failed is to throw out the baby with the bath water. Political parties calling themselves “socialist” have always seen the working class as playing a subordinate, following role, either as passive electors but how can this be held against our (and Marx’s) position of working class democratic self-organisation into a political party based on socialist understanding, with a view to taking political, including electoral, action to abolish capitalism? Workers, once they had come to want and understand socialism could organise in workers councils; but they would be ill-advised to do so without at the same time organising politically, since this would be to invite a violent head-on clash with a state machine still controlled by the supporters of capitalism. Why take this risk when the existence of universal suffrage and limited political democracy make it unnecessary? Why not organise, democratically and without leaders, with a view to using the potential weapon that is the vote to win control of the state, so neutralising it? This is our policy. With regard to the attempt to establish a libertarian society by direct action without the ballot-box a number of points can be made.

A non-violent movement that takes on a well-entrenched dictatorship must be prepared for a long struggle, with setbacks and numerous casualties, after all, only one side is committed to non-violence. Violent resistance entails even larger casualties and has even poorer prospects of success. That is because it strikes at the strongest point of a dictatorship – its capacity for violent coercion. Non-violent defiance aims at a dictatorship’s weakest point or Achilles heel – its need for the cooperation of the people it rules. A dictatorship can manage without broad active support, but its functioning does depend on a certain minimum of passive toleration and compliance with its demands. Beyond some point, the withdrawal of cooperation undermines the effectiveness and cohesion of a regime and the reliability of its armed forces to such an extent that it just falls apart. Non-violent popular action can play an important role in moving forward from limited political democracy to full social democracy, which is what we mean by socialism. Not as a substitute for electoral and constitutional action, but as an additional guarantee that the socialist majority will achieve its goal under any conceivable circumstances.

“Direct action” is meant to convey the idea that any action that any group of people take to try to improve their lot should be under their direct control. We don’t have any objection to this idea—in fact, it’s the form of organisation we have always urged workers to adopt for waging the struggle against employers for better wages and working conditions—only we call it “democratic self-organisation” and don’t see why it can’t, and shouldn’t, be extended to embrace organisation on the political field to win control of the state with a view to dismantling it. Some anarchists (or autonomists) don’t mean the same thing as people like us, namely, structured, democratic organisation, certainly without leaders, but not without some central decision-making unit such as a conference of mandated delegates nor without elected committees to plan and co-ordinate particular spheres of activity. We insist that, on the contrary, “self-organisation” is only possible as democratic self-organisation, involving formal rules and structures to prevent the emergence of unaccountable elites. We are talking about structures that place decision-making power in the hands of the group as a whole, along the lines of the seven “principles of democratic structuring” listed by Jo Freeman:

Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures.
Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to all those who selected them.
Distribution of authority among as many people as reasonably possible.
Rotation of tasks among individuals.
Allocation of tasks along rational criteria.
Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible.
Equal access to resources needed by the group.

We cannot reject the idea of organising on a permanent basis with decision-making conferences, accountable delegates, voting, reporting back and, yes, with binding decisions. We state that a free society can only be one in which people can directly and actively take part in politics, and concretely have their minds known through democratic voting on the ideas, rather than for representatives, to talk in their place. The important point must be that debate on issues is two way, with the full and active involvement of all parties concerned, not a one-way monologue to reflect off the enforcedly passive audience.

A genuine, participatory democracy is part of the solution but is not the solution on its own. Capitalism is a class-based society which can only operate for the benefit of the minority who own and control productive resources, as rich individuals or through private corporations or the state. This is the reason for the failure of all reformists politicians and governments in all countries. Things would not be any different if members of parliament were elected by and were responsible to democratic assemblies. They would doomed to failure and disillusionment.

Democracy cannot be left to mature on its own like a good wine but needs to breathe out of the bottle, kept fresh by continual practice. We assert that a stateless society is a viable proposition and recognise democracy as essential to its function, so we are obliged to pursue it now to better understand its complexities and the difficulties that can arise. Unquestionably, even in the most enlightened community, because it would depend upon the co-operation of free (and potentially awkward) individuals, minorities would sometimes experience dissatisfaction and frustration. Giving rise to what most anarchists darkly refer to as “the tyranny of the majority”. To deny the possibility, indeed, probably the likelihood of this problem, would be absurdly complacent and socialists do not do so. But when free, un-coerced human beings voluntarily enter into a process where inclusive, open and (if necessary) prolonged debate concludes with a majority decision – to describe it as tyranny, a word with suggestive connotations of oppression and cruelty, makes a mockery of language. In pursuing our own freedom we would feel obliged to consider the effect of our actions upon the freedom of others. Such an acknowledgement clearly recognises that it is not sufficient to regard democracy as a purely administrative, decision making, regulatory mechanism. Crucially, its very essence of principled and graceful conciliation needs to pervade the everyday interaction between members of any community aspiring to live co-operatively. Democracy, far from being an impossible concept, is something – unconsciously – we frequently exercise. In the relationship we have with our families, friends and colleagues; in the common courtesies we regularly show to one another; in the underlying decency of the behaviour of most human beings. We will still quarrel and new problems will confront us every day – we will have learned to accept that, just occasionally, we may be wrong but rejoice in the fact that tomorrow we retain the incontrovertible right to be wrong again.

In their absence from effective participation in the revolution gradually the leaders of a minority-led revolution become a new bureaucracy, a new class of ruler. In the absence of a revolutionary working class the revolution rules in their name, but they do not rule. Perhaps the leader of a minority revolution is not himself irrevocably lost, but his revolution is. No government can continue to govern in the face of active opposition from those they govern. Faced with the hostility of a majority of workers (including, of course, workers in the civil 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 be divided. Not all of them would be disposed to provoke chaotic conditions in an heroic last-ditch struggle. Even if a pro-capitalist minority somewhere were to try to prevent a change of political control via the ballot box, the socialist majority will still be able to impose its will by other means, such as street demonstrations and strikes. But we doubt that it will come to that. But if it did, it wouldn’t stop socialism being eventually established, one way or another.

The anarchist argue 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 send its ‘armed forces’ to disperse Parliamentary representatives. The real State will show itself. How can the “capitalist class send its armed forces”? Are the capitalists sitting in a room somewhere, issuing orders? The issuing of orders, the appointment and control of officials, and everything else connected with the operation of the armed forces, is in the hands of the group in Parliament that for the time constitutes the Government, i.e, has the majority. The armed force is a part of the governmental machinery. They argue against the use of parliament because 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, if necessary, 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 group or committee or boardroom that is really in control) 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, perhaps in the form of a coup or a military takeover.Some critics pose the question what would happen in the event of socialists obtaining a majority in an election and parliament was suspended by Royal decree or some other constitutional trick? If the capitalists were so obliging as to wait until after the election before making the attempt to suspend Parliament, they would, of course, be weakening their own position and strengthening that of the socialist majority. The less improbable situation is that of the capitalist minority making their attempt before waiting for elections to take place which would demonstrate their (the capitalists’) minority position. Can a capitalist minority which 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 socialists?” 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 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 an heroic last-ditch struggle. Governments in face of a hostile majority 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. Any attempt to use violence to prevent socialism being brought about by a majority in parliament with undisputed democratic legitimacy would have to be made not by people in the ‘background’ but by non-socialist politicians, yet 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?

Another argument is that socialists elected to a capitalist parliament will not be able to withstand the ‘system’ and either will find that it forces them into complying with the status quo or will be seduced by being part of the ‘power structure’ and will voluntarily fall in with it ignoring their roots and the mandate on which they were elected. We answer this argument firstly by showing that 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. We counter the ‘power corrupts’ idea by arguing that the delegates in question would be operating in a different social framework from the one that currently exists, one that would be shot through with the notion of participation and democratic accountability at all levels. It 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, the television, movies, social media and the like as well as inter-personal relationships. We’re talking about a radical social revolution involving all aspects of social life.

 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 then none and, as the WSM makes clear, it still provides a means for the majority to take political power once a socialist majority has emerged.

The economic supremacy of the capitalist class would be an empty phrase without the power to enforce their rule. The capitalist class did not achieve economic freedom in the full sense of the term until they had obtained political control. Before obtaining political power they were subject to King and his nobles. It demonstrates how little economic possession is worth in the absence of the power to control its products. Obviously, then, the working class must obtain control of these forces before they can free themselves from wage-slavery—before they can enjoy economic liberty. It is by controlling Parliament that the working class must get control of the fighting forces so as to use these for their own emancipation. Have the workers this power? The answer is yes. The workers to-day have far more than a shadow of political power. They possess an overwhelming majority of the votes and it is these working-class votes that return the capitalists and their representatives into control of parliament and thereby the continuance of the capitalists’ domination.

For  socialism to be established the majority of the people must understand the nature and purpose of the new society. Such democratically-organised majority action, we would add, need not be violent and can use existing political institutions such as the ballot-box and parliament. Who needs violence when you’re the majority? By constitutional methods the workers can win their freedom; they have no need to go outside the constitution until they finally destroy it. Our view is that control of parliament, secured by the return of a majority of socialists in an election fought simply on the issue of socialism versus capitalism, implying as of course it does that the big majority of the working class understand and want socialism, would give effective control of the political machinery, including the armed forces.

The election of working-class representatives to the parliamentary bodies (local and national), gives the proletariat an opportunity through those representatives, to combat the representatives of capitalism at close range. Those elected representatives of the workers can take advantage of their prominent position to combat and expose the nature of capitalist legislation, and to speak to the proletariat over the heads, as it were, of their political opponents. To ‘elect its own representatives in place of the capitalists’ is also a means of hampering the capitalists in their ‘exclusive political sway’; of contesting every measure they bring forth in their own interests, and proposing measures in parliament that would be a decided advantage to the workers, even while fully realising that the capitalist representatives, in the majority, will not permit their passage When Hitler was not in control of the German Parliament and the machinery of government he was ridiculed and derided having yet having gained possession of the political machine and confirmed in power by the electors, he is able to turn the tables on his former opponents. The organised political majority which controls the political machinery of the modern State is in a position to dominate, and can enforce submission on minorities. There is no road to socialism except through the control of the machinery of government by a politically organised majority of socialists.

Who says “politically” also says “political party”. So we are talking about a “socialist party”. Unfortunately so associated has the word “party” come to be with conventional politics that many people (including our anarchist critics) imagine that we, too, are proposing just another organisation of political leaders for people to follow; that we’re saying “vote for us and we’ll bring in socialism for you”. But we’re not. By “socialist party” we mean a party of people who want socialism, people organised democratically to win control of political power for socialism.

Obviously, a mass socialist party like this does not yet exist, but it is our view that, for socialism to be established, it should. The “socialist party” would be a mass movement of people who wanted socialism, not a party of professional politicians or a party of professional revolutionaries. The same goes for participation in elections since a mass socialist party would contest elections. Its candidates should not seek to be leaders, separate from those who vote for them, but should be standing as delegates to be mandated by those who want socialism.