How socialists view elections
By Alex Callinicos
ELECTIONS SEEM to have become the focus of left wing politics in Britain. After the Scottish and Welsh elections we now have the launch of the London Socialist Alliance (the LSA) and the continuing turmoil over the London mayoral elections. For those brought up in the Labour Party tradition this is how things should be.
Labourism in all its versions, including the most radical, has been parliamentary socialism, central to which is the struggle to win a socialist majority in parliament. Socialist Worker, by contrast, stands in the revolutionary socialist tradition. For us the electoral struggle is not the crux of any strategy to transform society.
The genuine centres of power in Britain are not bodies of elected politicians such as the House of Commons or even the cabinet. The state is actually run by the senior civil servants, and by the chiefs of the military and the intelligence services (who, we learned last week, deceived even Margaret Thatcher about the costs of their fancy new headquarters buildings).
The really decisive power is elsewhere still, in the hands of the senior executives of multinational corporations, investment bankers and managers of pension funds. None of these are remotely accountable democratically for what they do. This is why we have always argued that changing society depends on mass struggles in which the organised working class mobilises its collective strength.
Elections at best merely register the subterranean movements of the major social forces. So why then is the Socialist Workers Party actively involved in the London Socialist Alliance, and why are we calling on Ken Livingstone to stand on a socialist programme for mayor of London? The answer is that elections, and indeed participation in parliament itself, can serve as a useful platform on which to put forward socialist ideas.
The most powerful case for this was put forward by the great Russian revolutionary leader Lenin in a famous pamphlet called Left Wing Communism, first published in 1920. Lenin showed that even under the tsarist autocracy the Russian revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, were able to use elections to extremely tame bodies as an opportunity to put forward socialist propaganda. He also argued that it was particularly important that socialists in the Western capitalist democracies like Britain and France, where the mass of workers believe that change can come through parliament, should not be afraid of using the electoral tactic.
Standing in elections is, however, exactly that-a tactic. It is not, as Labour Party reformists tend to think, an end in itself, but rather one particular means to a much more important end-the socialist transformation of society. This means that it is a matter of careful judgement when socialists should use the electoral tactic. We should stand candidates, not as a matter of principle, but when favourable circumstances arise. We think that such circumstances exist now.
Even Tony Blair has woken up to the fact that working class discontent with New Labour is growing. Hence the concessions to core Labour supporters that have been either made-for example, the decision to up-rate the minimum wage-or hinted at. So far the discontent has not been manifested in big strikes and demonstrations. But it is being reflected in elections.
Socialists did well in the Scottish elections, with Tommy Sheridan even winning a seat in the Edinburgh parliament. Bitterness in Wales produced a successful socialist campaign in the assembly elections and a massive swing to Plaid Cymru in the south Wales valleys. Livingstone's popular support in London is yet another sign of the same mood. But it would be a mistake to tie the left's hopes in the Greater London elections to one individual-particularly one with as erratic a record as Livingstone's. That is why the London Socialist Alliance slate is so important. It brings together activists from different political backgrounds with outstanding histories of involvement in various struggles on a clearly stated socialist platform.
The elections to the Greater London Authority are thus an excellent opportunity to put the case for a left wing alternative to New Labour to a mass audience. To recognise this does not require us to overstate the real significance of elections. As Lenin put it, "Action by the masses, a big strike for instance, is more important than parliamentary activity at all times." But mass action depends for its long term success on organised socialist politics. This is a moment when participating in elections can strengthen those politics.