should communists stand for parliament?

by Mark Harrison

The general election is only weeks away and the Trotskyist newspapers are once again calling for us to “vote Labour without illusions”, unless we can vote for a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate. TUSC was effectively borne out of the No2EU left-nationalist alliance between the Socialist Party (England and Wales) and the Communist Party of Britain, although this time round without participation from the soft-Stalinists.

Despite the fact that comrades on the ground may believe that this is a step towards ‘left unity’ and perhaps even the shell from which a new political party akin to the French New Anticapitalist Party could arise, nothing of the sort will happen. Both the CPGB and Workers’ Power, who wanted to join, have been excluded and little in the way of ‘unity’ shall last after the elections.

But lacking from the debate thus far is whether it is tactically correct for communists to stand in elections to bourgeois parliament. When confronted with this question, there is little doubt that Trotskyists will point us no farther than the texts of Lenin, who allegedly put ‘infantile’ types such as Sylvia Pankhurst in their place with his infamous critique of the left wing members of the world communist movement.

The Bolsheviks advocated a policy of ‘revolutionary parliamentarianism’, whereby communists would stand with a full communist manifesto and use the election period to agitate for communist ideas. However, the policies of TUSC are left-Labourism. This should come as no surprise, as those who are sponsoring the coalition (trade union bureaucrats, ex-Labour entrists and the Walsall Democratic Labour Party) want to create a new, ‘old Labour’ party. This is plainly also seen in SPEW’s Campaign for a New Workers’ Party.

It demonstrates the staleness of ideas within the British left that the principle of standing for parliament is never questioned. To do so, let us first examine the value of elections from a propaganda point of view: there is no good reason as to why the working class should be more susceptible to communist propaganda during a general election period than at any other time, an orator on Speaker’s Corner or a revolutionary pamphlet contains the same ideas no matter what the bourgeoisie are doing in Parliament.

Moreover, once in parliament if a communist MP is to make a speech how would it be communicated to the working class? Most workers do not read the stuffy Parliamentary record Hansard, and the bourgeois media would surely either ignore or misrepresent their remarks. The way for communists to win support is to demonstrate our courage and sincerity during workers’ struggles, in the workplace: outside of parliament.

Unlike Tsarist Russia, most people in Britain believe that parliament is class neutral and is a democratic institution. By calling on workers to the ballot box one can only reinforce this prejudice: we should not attempt to prove a method is obsolete by taking part in it.

Moreover, voting for another to represent you can only reinforce the idea that the way to improve your position is to leave the job to another who will fight for socialism on your behalf. An artificial division is created between ‘leaders’ in Westminster and their followers, when what we need to realise that it is only workers ourselves who can create socialism by our own self-organisation.

And once communists formed a parliamentary group, would they not be tempted to join with the social-democrats in supporting ‘progressive’ policies? Parliament is the executive of capitalism or, “The debating chamber of the master class” which is why the few MPs who represented the Communist Party did not use parliament to agitate for communism but rather became reformists themselves. For example, Willie Gallacher, once an anti-parliamentarian himself, who during an exchange with Lenin remarked that he would be incorruptible by parliament.

Workers worldwide need to understand that we ourselves hold the power to change the world: communism will come about not through Parliament, but our own organisation, workers’ councils. These would operate on a system of democratically elected and instantly recallable delegates. We need not corrupt our best comrades or misguide anyone as to the source of communism.

13 thoughts on “should communists stand for parliament?

  1. This does seem to dwell on the trivial: is the quality of Hansard’s stuffy reporting really that important? (Wouldn’t a movement that succeeded in getting people elected into parliament be likely to have a good press of its own?)

    And the article does not really take into account recent shifts is attitude towards parliament, which are described as if we were still living in the Cold War era. Is it true to say that most people consider parliament to be ‘class neutral’ ? ‘a den of thieves’ would be closer to the common view.

    There are a lot of pejoratives – ‘Trotskyist’, ‘Stalinist’ – doing the work of chivvying the reader along where good argument would be more use.

    If we are to remain limited to the discussion of whether to vote or not, wouldn’t one wish to address Marx’s essay on Political Indifferentism, first?

    But if one were allowed to progress to the meat of the matter, where is the critique of TUSC’s political programme, or does The Commune share the broad identification with public ownership expressed there?

    Focus, guys, focus…

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  2. Plus its lacking in research. Which Trotskyist newspaper advocates the slogan “vote Labour without illusions”? I can’t think of one.

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  3. Hi Mark,

    There is no reason why people should be more susceptible to communist politics specifically, but I think it’s hard to deny that around a general election there is a more political mood and communists can certainly use this to agitate for our ideas.

    As for the use of communist MPs in terms of agitation, it’s not just Hansard but all the newspapers (including, as Heartfield points out, a mass left press) which cover parliamentary goings on and this could be used to some effect. It is also an indication of your level of support, e.g. the elections at University of Manchester Student’s Union, where Communist Students candidates received 17% of the vote, showed an impressive level of support and interest. Obviously trade / student union elections are different to parliament but both can fulfil the functions of propagandising and gauging your support.

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  4. Which Trotskyist newspaper advocates the slogan “vote Labour without illusions”? I can’t think of one.

    AWL and SWP. They may not use those words. But that is what their words amount to.

    James – Marx’s essay on Political Indifferentism has nothing to do with the matter at hand – as a glance over it will show: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1873/01/indifferentism.htm

    does The Commune share the broad identification with public ownership expressed there?

    No. Or not with nationalisation as ideology, no.

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  5. In assessing the worth of the electoral initiatives I would not start with the exclusion of some spouting gossip sheet but the actual politics and relationship to the working class of the projects concerned. Though on surveying the recent history of traditional left electoral interventions one can understand why comrade Mark had drawn the conclusions on electoral abstention he has done. Though it is nevertheless wrong in my opinion to take what is a question of tactics and turn it into a principle

    It may well be the case that our own left starts with Lenin’s valuable polemic Left-Wing Communism and Infantile Disorder but that is more a symptom of their own failure to develop a perspective for the next English Revolution for to do so would require not only a knowledge of the international communist movement but some knowledge of the history of the class struggle in the country they want to make a revolution. The first English Revolution saw a combination of splits in the existing Parliamentary institutions and new forces such as the Soldiers Councils. The Chartist movement, the most revolutionary workers movement we have known here, is instructive. Whilst seeking the working class franchise of the existing ‘rotten House of Commons’ through the election of their own representative who could not take up their seats anyway, they posed their assembly in a counter-Parliament of the working class.

    Indeed Sylvia Pankhurst was not always an abstentionist as regards Parliamentary elections. In the December 1918 general election she advocated Vote Labour and endorsed the fact that the revolutionary Socialist Labour Party was using standing in the election as a platform for revolutionary ideas. What she rightly opposed was not participation in election but electoralism and all the opportunism that went with it. Which more often than not sees industrial struggle and all other considerations being subordinated to electoralism.

    Pankhurst criticised the old reformist British Socialist Party which made up the core of the CPGB for its rotten role in local government. Instead she argued they should adopt a position similar to Sin Fein in Ireland at the time, of capturing and setting up their own illegal administration. She bemoaned ‘Where, indeed, are to be found Communist Party representatives on local bodies using their positions in a revolutionary way?’ Her criticism of the conduct of some communists of the CPGB in elections and in positions was valid, but her conclusions were wrong.

    Mark makes similar errors. The SWP used to make the same argument, that by the very act of participation in Parliament it is enough to make you a reformist. It is simply flying I the face of historical fact. If you enter an institution as a reformist then you certainly will remain one. This does not explain the Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, Karl Liebknecht who opposed the World War One in the old Reichstag. Or what about more recently Bernadette Devlin the Irish independent socialist MP, who punched a Tory Minister over Bloody Sunday in the House of Commons.

    Participating in elections does not mean endorsing the institution you are standing for at all. However abstention as a principle hands over a terrain of class struggle to our class enemies. The bourgeoisies does not simply rule by brute force, we need to win a battle of ideas across the board of society for the working class to gain hegemony over bourgeoisie and abstentionism of this manner actually undermines our ability to do so.

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  6. In general, it is true that elections are a tactical question. However, I don’t know if Mark is saying we should never stand for parliament. He seems at one point to say it depends on the attitudes of workers to parliament, contrasting Britain now to Russia a century ago.

    I see the article as basicaly an argument against the particular idea that elections are a very good propaganda opportunity, and I’d probably agree with Mark about that.

    I disagree with the thrust of what Chris says here:

    The SWP used to make the same argument, that by the very act of participation in Parliament it is enough to make you a reformist. It is simply flying I the face of historical fact. If you enter an institution as a reformist then you certainly will remain one. This does not explain the Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, Karl Liebknecht who opposed the World War One in the old Reichstag. Or what about more recently Bernadette Devlin the Irish independent socialist MP, who punched a Tory Minister over Bloody Sunday in the House of Commons.

    A punch is totally irrelevant: fisticuffs are not very uncommon in several parliaments, particularly in Asia, between bourgeois party MPs. In any case, being an intransigent nationalist is not as dificult as being an intransigent communist, parliament and the state stands in a different relation to these things.

    Karl Liebknecht did vote against the war in December 1914, but that was something of a formality given that he had voted for war credits in August. That even Liebknecht could be so inconsistent tells us something about the power of parliamentarism to promote bourgeois politics, as does the fact that all other SPD MPs voted solidly pro war.

    And the Duma was a very different thing to a modern parliament, in that it had basically no power, which meant that many of the same presures did not obtain.

    I would agree that corruption is not a cast-iron necessary feature of elected office. But Chris seems to understate the immense presures, and raise example of dubious applicability.

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  7. Well then better to be specific. Generally I agree with elements of Mark’s proposal, the electoral fetish of the left is a diversion. But I think he takes it too far. It doesn’t mean that communists should never stand in elections.

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  8. Communard,

    Are you saying that Bernadette Devlin MP sold out her politics in the House of Commons? Or even Karl Leibnecht?

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  9. Comrades

    I agree with James above, this is a serious subject and the reporting in Hansard is neither here nor there. The bourgeoisie takes it absolutely seriously, no question of it. There are four points I would make for starters;
    1) The capitalist class as you probably know is not particularly democratic, it had to have universal suffrage extracted from it after a struggle of over a century and then only because the Russian Revolution made it clear the writing was on most of the walls. Decision making in most bourgeois administrations and even political parties is still not democratic – it should be the business of revolutionaries to expose this fact at every turn and this can only be aided by having elected political representatives.
    2) Elections are the chance for a political organisation to test its political programme, debate with both its opponents and as many sections of the working class as it can reach and test out its level of support within that working class.
    3) The election of political representatives even to bourgeois institutions gives any working class political organisation standing within the class itself, having demonstrated its level of support and its serious nature it is able to use this to intervene and gain a hearing more widely within the class. At the same time it forces the organisation to concretely address the real issues confronting the class and use the platform provided to put forward its solutions and test these out. I have seen where organisation have failed this test where the likes of councillors have been elected and then the problems they have ignored by their organisation until they make a “wrong” decision on the hoof and get booted out as an embarrassment, but this can be avoided.
    4) Any elected representatives of any half way serious or even slightly revolutionary organisation have the role of heralds of the power of the working class itself. Obviously actual revolutionaries should be able this job properly. The bourgeoisie understands this absolutely even if we do not, the SSP is a classic example. Despite its faults the SSP achieved a vote from the class conscious sections of workers in Scotland. I had the pleasure of being present at the count in 2003 and even in wards where there were a handful of members and very little activity on the ground hundreds of votes came out of the boxes, the look of terror on the faces of new Labour was wonderful.
    Naturally everything the SSP proposed at Holyrood was voted down overwhelmingly not for what it was (mostly very mild reforms which many of the capitalist parties formally agreed) but because of what the SSP represented ie the most advanced section of the working class. If the interests of the working class were put forward properly this would have a far greater effect. If there were a group of elected representatives who said essentially “there is an alternative to this system and we are here to present it” it would transform the debate within the society and particularly within the working class utterly.
    For these reasons among others I think that standing in elections is essential to building a serious revolutionary political movement of the working class.

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  10. Excuse me comrades, but why are you discussing such obsolete issues, like ‘should communists stand for parliament’? Is it something as a burning issue? Who are the communists planning to do so in May elections? Do you consider the ‘TUSC’ bunch communist or what? Starting with weak questions we will never arrive to useful answers. Instead, we should maybe ask better questions between us… for example ‘what is the nature of State in 2010’ or if State is anything else than a different form of Capital?

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  11. Communists need to engage in politics wherever they happen.
    That includes standing for councils, parliaments, union positions and anything else of political significance.

    They should campaign for the removal of financial barriers to elections such as deposits, and also for a representative electoral system whereby if we acheive 1% of the vote we get 1% of the seats.

    If communists cant get people to do something as passive as vote for them, then how can they ever expect people to support their programme for world revolution?

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  12. Are you saying that Bernadette Devlin MP sold out her politics in the House of Commons? Or even Karl Leibnecht?

    I am saying:

    “I would agree that corruption is not a cast-iron necessary feature of elected office. But Chris seems to understate the immense presures, and raise example of dubious applicability.”

    In general, I think Mark is asking the question that needs to be asked, although obviously such a complicated question can’t be dealt with thoroughly in a few paragraphs.

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