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Historical Actuality of the Socialist Offensive – Parliament’s problems go deeper than duck houses

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Mark L Thomas reviews Istvan Meszaros’ new book on the problems with parliamentary democracy
Issue 2188
The book
The book’s cover

British politics is increasingly being dominated by the looming general election. Yet, paradoxically, parliament is viewed with widespread and growing contempt.

The MPs’ expenses scandal and the Chilcot inquiry have laid bare MPs’ corruption.

Yet as leading Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros shows in his new book, Historical Actuality of the Socialist Offensive: Alternative to Parliamentarism, the problem with parliament goes far deeper than duck houses and dirty moats.

Meszaros launches a sustained attack on the very notion that parliament could ever provide a means of ending capitalism.

The belief that there is a “parliamentary road to socialism” has been the dominant idea of the British working class for over a century.

It rests on an illusion that everyone has the same amount of political power because every citizen has one vote in elections.

Supposedly the winner then implements the wishes of the majority, until the next election gives voters a new chance to express their will.

If this were accurate then the task of socialists would simply be to persuade workers to vote for a socialist party – which could then use parliament to pass laws abolishing capitalism.


Sounds easy enough. So why wouldn’t it work? As Meszaros explains, we have formal political equality but not economic equality.

There is a vast gulf in the economic power we possess – between those who hold the “exclusive proprietorship” over the means of production and the majority forced to work for them to earn a living.

None of this is taken into account when it comes to the voting booth.

Yet this separation of formal political equality from real economic inequality means parliament offers no way of fundamentally challenging the power of big business.

As Meszaros puts it, “Capital is the extraparliamentary force par excellence of our social order.”

Vast unelected centres of power surround parliament, from the military to judges and senior civil servants. They act to safeguard capitalism.

If the power of capitalism lies outside parliament, then the power to defeat capitalism must also be found outside parliament.

The separation of politics and economics in capitalist society is mirrored in the labour movement. It is split into a “political arm”, the Labour Party, and an “economic arm”, unions bargaining over wages and conditions.

In both cases workers are assigned only a limited role. In “politics” they are occasional voters and in “economics” they are paid-up union members, perhaps asked to take limited industrial action every now and again.

Meszaros insists that this separation must be overcome, with workers using their economic power as the real producers of the society’s wealth.

Crucially, this involves workers no longer acting as passive voting fodder or as a stage army for a trade union bureaucracy, but fully participating in their own liberation.

Meszaros believes that parliament can sometimes be a useful platform to rally support for socialists. But he rightly insists that real power lies elsewhere.


His book is a call for a new type of labour movement – “A revolutionary mass movement capable of fully utilising the parliamentary opportunities when available, limited though they might be under the present circumstances, and above all not shirking back from asserting the necessary demands of defiant extra-parliamentary action.”

Today, New Labour no longer even pretends to challenge capitalism.

Its open celebration of capitalists as “wealth-creators” has cultivated a desire among its MPs to emulate the luxurious lifestyles of the rich.

As Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, once observed, “power corrupts, but powerlessness corrupts absolutely”.

Meszaros’ language is often demanding and the book is no easy read, but it repays the effort.

His sustained fire at the ideas that have dominated the labour movement for over a century is a welcome and valuable weapon in our armoury.

The challenge for the 21st century is to create a working class movement able to match, and overcome, the extra-parliamentary power of capitalism.

Historical Actuality of the Socialist Offensive: Alternative to Parliamentarism by Istvan Meszaros is published by Bookmarks.
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