electoral parties: let’s not put old wine in new bottles

by David Broder

If June’s European election results were disastrous for the traditional social democrat parties like Labour, France’s Parti Socialiste or the German SPD, they were unspectacular for the so-called ‘radical left’, despite the capitalist crisis. Yet recent general election results for Die Linke (‘The Left’) in Germany and Bloco de Esquerda (‘Left Bloc’) in Portugal have bolstered some left groups’ keen-ness to try and create something similar in Britain.


Die Linke won more than 5 million votes; 76 of the 622 seats; and the most votes in two of Germany’s 16 states. The Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal increased its support to over 10%. Certainly these results are the envy of any coalition the British left has managed to put together: from the Socialist Alliance and Socialist Labour Party to Respect and, worst of all, ‘No2EU’, the various unity initiatives have failed to make any impact on the national political scene, despite the size of movements such as Stop the War or the significant rightwards drift of the Labour Party.

However, this very electoral success brings into question the very reason-for-existence of such parties, and therefore raises doubts over why we would want to emulate them. Die Linke and Bloco de Esquerda come from different traditions – Die Linke is largely a merger of the former East German ruling party and a breakaway from the SPD, whereas the Bloco was created by Trotskyist and Maoist groups – but are similar in ambition insofar as both want to form coalitions and enter government as junior partners to the mainstream social democrats. But surely we do not just want to rack up votes, but outline a political alternative so as to build a movement for a different social system.

Socialist Worker of 10th October approvingly quotes a Bloco article about the traditional ruling party’s options to the effect that “As it is now in a minority in parliament, the Socialist Party will be forced to choose between an alliance with the left or the right wing parties. If it opts for the left, we will submit proposals from the Left Bloc, for example the repeal of the Labour Act and to impose a tax on the wealthy to finance improved social security.” Die Linke in Germany has already entered regional governments with the neo-liberal SPD and thus taken responsibility for its budgets, sometimes implementing harsh cuts and indeed opposing the March 2008 Berlin transport strike. It says it would not enter a national coalition with the SPD, who in turn reject the idea of a ‘red-red’ lash-up: but it is hard to see any distinction in political principle, particularly given leading members’ past role in SPD and SED administrations.

Both parties therefore look to repeat exactly the same mistake as made by the once-promising Rifondazione party in Italy, which joined Romano Prodi’s government and so was forced to vote for reactionary legislation, including extra troops being sent to Afghanistan, in order to save Prodi’s neo-liberal ‘centre-left’ administration from collapse. This meant both abandonment of its objectives and the loss of all its MPs.

These parties all think it possible to hedge over the question of joining government, displaying their belief that a left government can manage the capitalist state – its services, bureaucracy and forces of law and order – in a ‘socialist’ manner, when in fact they themselves always end up engulfed by the state and its need to organise a capitalist system prudently. Even if not in the traditional social-democrat party, they are nonetheless constrained by the logic of the infrastructure and budgeting demanded by the profit system.

The political error of revolutionaries trying to fill the political space vacated by the likes of the Labour Party by copying its former policies is not only that they do not break with the idea of electoral viability – in which case voters may as well stick with the more left-wing of the mainstream parties – but that even if successful, their party faces exactly the same obstacles as the original, perhaps well-intentioned, old Labour reformers. Surely, as American socialist Eugene Debs once commented, “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it”.

In the Winter 2009 ISJ, Socialist Workers’ Party theoretician Alex Callinicos sharply criticised France’s Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste for ‘ultimatism’ when it made rejecting coalition with the Parti Socialiste one of its founding principles. Yet taking sides on the question of whether the left’s ambition is simply to help run the capitalist state is surely an absolutely fundamental point of principle and strategy.

To create some new electoral coalition with no proper discussion of such issues – as would undoubtedly be the case for any 2010 General Election initiative – would just lead us down further dead ends. In a sense the SWP’s recent left unity appeal is to be welcomed, but the discussion over its politics having died down in the pages of Socialist Worker, and only an electoral non-aggression pact on the agenda, the left seems as far as ever from building something other than a rehash of  failed state-socialism and Labourism.

6 thoughts on “electoral parties: let’s not put old wine in new bottles

  1. good. A very good summary of the practical, rather than ideological/theoretical problems with forming an electoral party for the left. Beyond running occasional councillors and maybe a protest MP, electoral politics will not get us to where we want – for the obvious reason that you cannot be a socialist at the helm of a capitalist state. I don’t think you can even be a social democrat anymore – the pressure to liberalise is just too much.

    what i don’t get though is that i thought that this *wasn’t* the position the Commune held on electoral parties? Can you clarify?


  2. Hi Bill,

    The Commune has no official position on electoral parties as such. We are all against the idea that communism can be introduced from above by the state. I think most but not all of us think that electoral participation of some sort could be useful in some ways and in some times and places. i.e. I think most of u hold neither the out and out principled opposition typical of anarchism, nor the view of the ICC that the current historical circumstances absolutely rule out the worth of such activity in all circumstances – including David I believe. In those cases where members of The Commune are in favour of electoral activity, it would be on the basis of the understanding that the state cannot be wielded for communism, and therefore not for the full, united and consistent interests of the class. What the positive reasons may be, that being understood, probably vary…

    I hope I haven’t done anyone a disservice there.


  3. “In the Winter 2009 ISJ, Socialist Workers’ Party theoretician Alex Callinicos sharply criticised France’s Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste for ‘ultimatism’ when it made rejecting coalition with the Parti Socialiste one of its founding principles”.

    This is a ironic position by Callinicos. In the old Second International the question of affiliated parties participating in bourgeois governments became a major controversy when the Parti Socialiste joined a government which included the butcher of the Paris Commune. It became policy of the International not to join such coalitions. Furthermore this became a fundamental dividing line between the left and the revisionists and opportunist wing of international socialism. The latter found their view in full fruition in 1914 when they backed World War One!


  4. really interesting article. agree with the comments too – i think the clearest example of this in recent years has been Sinn Fein; joining the power sharing government has tied them irrevocably to the British state, and has made them the most vehement opponents of dissident Republicans. Although the effective defeat of the irish Republican movement can’t be reduced to getting involved in parliamentary politics, its one aspect of this, and probably well worth some research.


  5. @ rob – yes and no re: sinn fein. Yes, it has taken out any idea that they would be a better voice for Irelands working class than any other socialist party, but no it hasn’t ‘defeated the republican movement’. SF’s aim is to have united ireland – that is its primary appeal, the socialist aspect is mostly abou the working class background and identity of most republicans. And i believe with growing nationalist sentiment and growing support for SF as *the* nationalist party, they stand a very good chance of achieving a united ireland.

    SF’s leadership do not represent a radical socialist or revolutionary departure from Republicanism, but a radical nationalist split. That is their origin, that is their goal. There denunciation of ‘dissident republicans’ is just an outbreak of sanity, from a republican point of view. Support for SF has grown year on year since the *end* of the fighting…


  6. @ c0mmunard – yes that makes sense actually. I think a bit of participation in electoral politics where it really does touch on the class struggle is fair enough, and if there is a mass workers party, a bit of activity in that would be fair enough too – to try and build permanent organisation *outside* of state control.

    I was once told that i shouldn’t overlook the opportunities available in the Labour Representtaion Comittee or some Labour-left thing by a commune member who was attending a conference of such, and assumed they actually meant rolling out a ‘vote xx’ approach.

    By the way, anarchists would take your approach generally – u’d be hard pushed to find a class struggle anarchist who has not done some form of electoral work, even if its just cooperation with electoral parties. Referring to ‘anarchist principle’ is like referring to ‘marxist principle’ – not worth the paper its printed on ;) Anarchists would stress a bit more than most socialists, that out-and-out participation in electoralism is leading people down a blind alley and to turn around after having uncritically called for electoral support and call for socialism from below, is just going to confuse your message.


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