Socialists and elections
Part of shaping anger with Blair
By Theresa Bennett
OFFICIAL POLITICS in Britain is focused on the parties' manoeuvrings in advance of the next general election. Whenever that election comes, there will be many people who voted Labour last time who will feel at best very uneasy about voting for Labour this time. New Labour's record of betrayals has sickened millions. Socialists will be standing in dozens of constituencies across Britain to offer a positive left wing alternative to New Labour. Many of these candidates will be from the Socialist Alliance.
The London Socialist Alliance stood successfully in the Greater London Assembly elections in May, and Socialist Alliance candidates have stood in a series of parliamentary and council by-elections since. The Socialist Workers Party is fully involved in the Socialist Alliance. We do not believe that capitalism will be defeated and socialism achieved through standing in elections. Power does not lie in parliament, still less the local council.
There are vast areas of life which are cut off from any sort of democratic control. We don't elect the police and army chiefs, the judges or the heads of the bureaucracies that dominate so much of life. Above all, we do not have any say over who runs the factories and the offices, about whether there are job cuts or not, about what gets produced and how much the managers are paid. For us, standing in elections is a tactical question, a way to help build a socialist movement which can fight in every workplace, community and housing estate.
During election periods politics is officially deemed to be "everybody's business" for a brief period. They can therefore be a chance for socialists to offer a left alternative to a much wider audience than is normally open to them. This is not the first time that our organisation or socialists have had to relate to elections.
At the beginning of the 20th century revolutionaries in Russia had sharp arguments about whether or not to stand in the very undemocratic elections to the Duma (parliament) set up by the autocratic Tsar. At the time of the 1905 revolution the Bolshevik leader Lenin was against standing. He said the focus should be on the struggle that was exploding in the factories, on the land and in the streets.
But after the defeat of the revolution he changed his arguments. Now, he said, "we should not refuse to utilise this arena but we shall not exaggerate its importance. We shall entirely subordinate the struggle we wage in the Duma to another form of struggle, namely strikes, uprisings." The Bolsheviks made use of parliament to continue to build future revolutions. The election campaigns involved mass action with strikes and demonstrations. Three key demands of the campaign were "a democratic republic, an eight-hour day, the confiscation of all landlord estates".
In the fourth elections to the Duma in 1912 the Bolsheviks had six deputies elected and the Mensheviks, who were less radical, had seven. This was despite a flawed voting system to reduce workers being represented. Bolshevik deputies in the Duma were required by their party, and by regular meetings with the workers who had elected them, to promote the interests of workers and peasants.
All the Bolshevik deputies in the Duma were workers from the shop floor. They were also elected by workers. The Bolshevik fraction used its position in the Duma to give help to struggles outside parliament. It backed both legal and illegal struggle, and coordinated all forms of struggle and activity.
The outbreak of the First World War saw the majority of the Duma support the Russian ruling class in its battle against other rulers. Bolshevik deputies used the parliamentary platform to oppose the war. The Tsarist regime threw the Bolshevik deputies into prison. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 Lenin wrote Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder to answer "left" communists in Germany who were opposed to socialists contesting elections.
The German left claimed parliament to be "politically obsolete" now that there was a clear example of a successful workers' revolution, and many more workers were supporting revolutionary ideas. Lenin argued that, although a minority now understood that parliament was not truly democratic, the majority of workers still believed it was the only practical way forward.
Therefore revolutionaries had to be part of parliamentary elections in order to build the movement that would go beyond parliament and put workers in charge. Failing to make use of parliament in Western European countries where the institution is widely accepted is a barrier to transforming society, Lenin claimed.
"If some revolutionaries in Germany and Sweden are able, even without mass support from below, to set examples of the truly revolutionary utilisation of reactionary parliaments, why then should a rapidly growing revolutionary mass party, under the condition of post-war disillusionment and exasperation of the masses, be unable to forge for itself a Communist fraction in the worst of parliaments?" asked Lenin.
What lessons does all this have for socialists today? Fifteen years after the 1984-5 miners' strike was betrayed by Labour and the TUC, and defeated, the legacy remains with us. Workers still have not thrown off the demoralisation caused by the series of defeats in the 1980s. The result is a low level of strike action. However, there is widespread and growing bitterness inside the working class, and even sections of the middle class. Long hours, job insecurity, the increasing gulf between rich and poor, and the declining public services are just some of the issues fuelling deep discontent.
Under previous Labour governments right wing forces have been able to gain from disillusion with Labour. This remains a possibility today-but it is not by any means inevitable. However, trade union leaders are too close to New Labour to give any sort of consistent focus to the mood in society. So it remains up for grabs who will shape it and take it forward.
The Socialist Alliance election intervention is an important part of the attempt to offer a home to workers who are fed up with New Labour. It is also a way of developing and broadening the anti-capitalist mood. At present there is a hard minority who feel inspired by the mobilisations in Seattle, Prague and elsewhere. They entirely reject capitalism and all its arguments.
There is a much larger group of people who reject capitalist ideas and arguments over particular issues. There is a battle going on between those of us who want to deepen the anti-capitalist feeling, and the traditional parties who want to snuff it out.
So, for example, after the terrible spate of rail accidents quite a large number of people are pulled towards rejecting private ownership on the rail and the way that profits come before people's lives. Most of the press and politicians try to limit the outrage to small reforms without confronting private ownership. Similarly, the issue of Third World debt has forced hundreds of thousands of people to confront the way bankers and multinationals wreck millions of lives. Some move to a general criticism of the whole of society.
Others believe that a better form of capitalism could do away with the harshness and destruction the present system causes. And some people are caught between believing the present system must go and not being sure what should replace it. The Socialist Alliance is a way of involving many more people than are presently involved in left organisations, and in building the socialist opposition inside society. It is part of building a new left which can be up to the task of creating a socialist alternative to New Labour.