The following article appeared in The Socialist, official organ of the Socialist Labour Party, No.18, May 6, 1920. The SLP was founded by Scots/Irish revolutionary James Connolly, and was influenced by the American Marxist Daniel De Leon. The SLP however was never as doctrinaire as the American SLP and they developed pioneering ideas of ‘communism from below’ and a strong critique of state-socialism that anticipated many of the problems of the 20th century and today. The following article is a contribution to the discussion on communist attitudes to elections and participation in institutions such as local authorities. The issues addressed in this revolutionary period are very much alive today, not least of all the familiar picture of rotten Labour councillors. This article also helps inform our own discussions on these issues in the 21st century.
The “Daily News” has just concluded a series of articles entitled “Can Labour Govern?” In order to answer this question a representative of the paper has been conducting an inquiry into the working of those of the London Borough Councils on which Labour Party majorities were elected in November last. To the “D.N.” [Daily News] writer the question, “Can Labour Govern?” means “Can Labour Councils administer Local Government under present capitalist conditions as successfully (or the reverse) as an ordinary petty bourgeois Council? or “To what extent does a Labour Council approximate to a non- Labour Council ?
His conclusion appears to be that the difference between the two is not considerable, and that the Labour Councils are getting on with their business better than those on which bourgeois elements predominate.
He describes, with a note of admiration the very earnest work that is being put in by many of the Labour Mayors and Councillors to master the intricacies of local administration — weekly meetings of mayors, assiduous attendance at committees, and so on. Even the Bolshevik (B.S.P.) [British Socialist Party] mayor of an East-End borough has settled down to this routine and so wins the approbation of the ” D.N.”
It is true that some of the Councils soon after their election declared that they would not pay the police rate over to the Government unless and until the policemen who were discharged for striking were reinstated. They soon, however, abandoned this attitude, and paid the money over; and the police are still out.
This short-lived effort to use direct action is the only attempt, reported in the Press, to use the Councils for a revolutionary or even semi-revolutionary end; and the hundreds of Socialist and Labour Councillors are working desperately hard and giving up their scanty leisure in order to help make the worn-out capitalist State machinery continue to revolve. By doing so they are immobilising themselves as active soldiers in the revolutionary ranks, and misleading the workers into expecting great results where none, or next to none, are possible. It cannot be too often repeated that local Councils (county, borough or district) are not sovereign bodies; they exist to administer the various statutes and “Orders’ relating to Local Government: outside those they cannot move, and if they attempt to do so all monies so spent are disallowed by the Ministry of Health auditors, and the individual members responsible for voting it must refund it from their own pockets. Perhaps the only real power in the hands of these bodies is that they can regulate the wages of municipal employees; though even here the Government would certainly interfere with any really drastic attempt to carry out Communist principles. The work of a Council may be compared to a road: the bourgeois parties may prefer to walk on the right-hand footpath, the Labour Party may choose the left, but both must keep to the road, and, therefore, travel in the same direction and to the same goal. Inasmuch as the road is made and controlled by a Capitalist Government, we may be sure that whatever that goal may be/it will not be Communism.
There are three possible policies with regard to local councils: —
1. That the workers should try to capture all of them in the same way as the Labour Party has captured various of the London boroughs; and that having won majorities, it should administer the laws and regulations of the Capitalist State with a view to effecting here and there light improvements in working-class conditions. This is the avowed policy of the Labour Party and the I.L.P [Independent Labour Party]. It would appear also that in practice this is the line of action of the B.S.P.
2. That Council elections should be fought, and seats, if won, should be used purely for the purpose of revolutionary propaganda — in the same manner as (to compare small things with great) the Bolsheviks used their seats in the Duma and Liebknecht his in the Reichstag. The man who stood as a candidate under these conditions would have to tell the electors not that he could do wonders for them, but the Councils could do practically nothing for them, and that if he were elected he would not help to administer local government, but would, both inside and outside I the Council Chamber, preach and teach the need for the Communist Revolution as the only way out of the sordid and futile brutalities of the present social system. This is the policy of the S.L.P.
3. To abstain from having anything to do with Council elections. The adherents of this policy regard the attendant risk as out-weighing the advantages (2). They point to the many tire-eating “rebels” who have gone into the House of Commons and there became tamed and furcoated. Among the bodies who are in favour of abstention are the W.S.P., S.W.S.S., and the various Workers’ Committees.
It should be noted that, while between (1) and (2) there is a vital difference of principle, the only question between (2) and (3) is one of expediency. The reason why there is so much debate about it is that it has in Great Britain never yet been fully put to the test of actual experience – the S.L.P. could point to revolutionary propaganda by their representatives or, conversely, others are able to refer to the failure of this experience. Until the S.L.P., however, are able to put their policy to the test of practice its efficacy is likely to be disputed by a section of perfectly good Communists with whom there could, and should, be the fullest co-operation on every other point.
In discussing unity with B.S.P. or I.L.P. (Left Wing) this matter should by no means be left out of account. Affiliation to the Labour Party implies the adoption of policy (1) which is purely reformist and anti-revolutionary. In the opinion of the writer, Communist Unity is possible on the basis of (2) and (3); but we must convert the adherents of (1) before ever we ever fuse with them.