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Can’t we win change through parliament?

This article is over 20 years, 4 months old
Colin Barker continues his series on 'Where We Stand', the Socialist Workers Party's statement of principles printed each week in Socialist Worker
Issue 1883

Why insist on the need for revolution? Surely, there must be a better way? Why not set out to elect socialist MPs who can legally and constitutionally vote in the principles of a new society? Wouldn’t that be more in line with British political traditions? Wouldn’t it save a lot of unnecessary violence?

First, ‘British traditions’ rest on revolution. Parliament’s supremacy over the king was established with all the constitutional moderation that Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army could muster-in other words, by revolutionary force.

How did workers first gain a share in the vote? With mass demonstrations and riots. How did women get the vote? Through the battles of the suffragettes and suffragists. Every small step in the expansion of popular rights and democracy has been won through mass collective action.

Second, the question of violence can’t be discussed in the abstract. What is remarkable about workers’ movements throughout history is how peaceful they have been. It is the ruling classes who have-in defence of their power and privileges-regularly turned to violent means.

To be sure, faced with threats of police and army violence, workers do need to develop means to defend themselves.

But the most important such means-essential in any genuine revolution-is not the brick, the bullet or the barricade. It is the political argument with soldiers and police, that they should abandon the ruling class and come over to the people.

The ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ has a number of fatal weaknesses. Once elected, MPs immediately fall out of the control of those who elect them. There are no rights of recall. MPs are loyal to their party whips, not the wishes of their constituents. A majority of British voters opposed the attack on Iraq, but the government went ahead anyway.

The schedule of parliamentary elections, every four or five years, does not match the real tempo of social and political struggle. A government can be massively unpopular, yet remain in office.

Parliament does not even control the state. Senior civil servants, police and army officers, judges and the like are appointed, not elected. Often they pursue their own anti-democratic agendas. They even control the process of dealing with complaints against themselves.

A large part of the real decisions that matter in our lives are, anyway, made outside the state entirely, in the boardrooms of capitalist corporations, where MPs have no more say than you and me. Parliaments deal with general laws, but the real work of government deals with specific cases: contracts with big companies, arms sales, schemes for privatising hospitals and schools, deporting refugees.

These all involve issues of fundamental importance in people’s lives, yet remain beyond the reach and competence of our ‘elected misrepresentatives’, the MPs.

As the great German socialist Rosa Luxemburg suggested a century ago, those who argue for a parliamentary road to socialism are actually proposing a different goal altogether-nothing more than a slightly modified version of capitalism.

If we don’t think there’s a ‘parliamentary road’ to socialism, are we against using parliament under all circumstances? Not at all.

When Bernadette Devlin became a Northern Ireland MP, she acted as a socialist MP should. She spent much of her time touring the country, urging workers to take strike action against the Tories. The day after Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, the Speaker tried to silence her. So she walked across the floor of the House of Commons and laid her fist into the home secretary of the time, Reginald Maudling.

That way, she made sure she was interviewed on TV. She used her parliamentary position to voice the immense anger of Northern Irish Catholics and all opponents of British rule in Northern Ireland.

The German revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht, an MP in the wartime German parliament, said his job was to ‘speak through the window’-using the parliamentary platform to agitate against the war.

Parliament is a dungheap. But if you stand on top of it, your voice carries further. A socialist who is elected as an MP (or a councillor) wins a megaphone which is useful for socialist agitation. It doesn’t make parliament any less of a dungheap.

In any situation where there is a real possibility of popular revolution, the cry of ‘the parliamentary road’ will be taken up loudly by the forces of reaction. In such a situation, those who want to hold the popular movement back will support parliament, and there will be a real contest between ‘parliamentarism’ and socialism from below.


  • Send your questions about ‘Where We Stand’ to Colin Barker, Socialist Worker, PO Box 82, London E3 3LH, or by email to [email protected]


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