A tactic defending the counterproductive character of attempting today an electoral participation similar to that of the social democratic parties during the rising phase of capitalism.
During rising capitalism the proletariat is, in a large part of Europe, a recognized political subject within bourgeois society. The latter accepts that the workers be “represented” within its institutions of government, conscious that there is a margin, within its own domination, for the achievement by the workers of advantages and opportunities for their own organization and constitution as a class (legal recognition of strikes, of universal suffrage, etc.). The effort to obtain this recognition is part of the process of the political constitution of the class and the development of its organization as such (centralism).
The first great service that the German workers rendered to their cause consisted in the mere fact of their existence as a Socialist Party that surpassed all others in strength, discipline and speed of growth. But they also did another: they provided their comrades in all countries with a new weapon, one of the sharpest, by making them see how universal suffrage is used.
Universal suffrage had long existed in France, but it had been discredited by the Bonapartist government’s abuse of it. And after the Commune there was no workers’ party to use it. In Spain this right also existed since the Republic, but in Spain all the serious opposition parties had always had as a rule the abstention from voting. The experiences that had been made in Switzerland with universal suffrage also served to encourage a workers’ party. Revolutionary workers in Latin countries had become accustomed to seeing the right to vote as a trick, an instrument of deception in the hands of the government. In Germany this was not the case. Already the “Communist Manifesto” had proclaimed the struggle for universal suffrage, for democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat, and Lassalle had taken up this point again. And when Bismarck was forced to introduce universal suffrage as the only means of interesting the masses of people in his plans, our workers immediately took the matter seriously and sent August Bebel to the first Constituent Reichstag. And, from that day on, they have used the right of suffrage in such a way that it has brought them countless benefits and has served as a model for the workers of all countries. To put it in the words of the French Marxist programme, they have transformed universal suffrage from “moyen de duperie qu’il a été jusqu’ici en instrument d’émancipation” – from a means of deception, which it had been until now, into an instrument of emancipation. And even if universal suffrage had not brought any other advantage than that of allowing us to count our forces every three years; that of increasing in equal measure, with the periodically verified and unexpectedly rapid increase in the number of votes, the certainty of the triumph of the workers and the terror of their adversaries, thus becoming our best means of propaganda; that of informing ourselves accurately about our own strength and that of all the opposing parties, thus providing us with the best possible instrument for calculating the proportions of our action and guarding us equally against untimely shyness and untimely temerity; even if we did not obtain from universal suffrage more advantage than this, it would be enough and more than enough. But it has given us much more. With the electoral turmoil, it has provided us with a unique means of contacting the masses of people where they are still far from us, of forcing all parties to defend before the people, in the face of our attacks, their ideas and their actions; and, moreover, it has opened up to our representatives in parliament a tribune from which they can speak to their adversaries in the House and to the masses outside it with an authority and a freedom quite different from that of the press and the rallies. What use was the government and the bourgeoisie’s law against the socialists, if the campaigns of electoral agitation and socialist speeches in parliament constantly opened up gaps in it?
But with this effective use of universal suffrage, a totally new method of struggle of the proletariat came into action, a method of struggle that continued to develop rapidly. It became clear that the state institutions in which the bourgeoisie’s domination was organized offered new possibilities to the working class to fight against these same institutions. And the elections to provincial councils, to municipal bodies, to craftsmen’s courts, were contested by the bourgeoisie for every position, in the provision of which a sufficient part of the proletariat mixed its voice. And so it was that the bourgeoisie and the government came to fear much more legal action than illegal action by the workers’ party, to fear more electoral successes rather than insurrectionary successes.
Frederick Engels. Introduction to “The Class Struggle in France from 1848 to 1850,” 1895.
The “parliamentarism” of the Second International
The parliamentary activity of the workers’ parties before World War I, has as its model the German social democrats and their slogan “neither a coin nor a man for this system”, which implies always voting against all government budgets at all levels of government.
The result is contradictory and interesting because it reveals the period: in general terms, the electoral and parliamentary activity helped, in that intransigent framework, to strengthen the organization and constitution of the class. The democratic program of the bourgeoisie was pushed forward and legal reforms were obtained that were favorable to the possibility of workers’ organization and long term economic conquests such as the reduction of the workday. But opportunist and conciliatory tendencies were also brought into the parties, which ended up expressing themselves openly as “revisionism” and undermining the social democratic parties from within, incorporating them into the “national union” with the bourgeoisie and making them a fundamental part of the workers’ mobilization for war.
The impossibility of a working class parliamentarianism during capitalist decadence
In capitalist decadence, everything that makes the activity and parliamentary representation of the workers possible vanishes when the organized class structure disappears: the space of “workers’ democracy” formed by the innumerable organizations -from the party to the cultural organizations, including the cooperatives. Faced with the revolution and riding on a system without the capacity for expansion, the bourgeoisie no longer has room for workers’ parties in its institutions.
During the period from the First World War to the Spanish Revolution, state capitalism became universal and with it the totalitarian organization of the bourgeoisie around a new type of “interventionist” state merged with big capital and the monopolies. The same as it happened with steel or coal, happened with labor power: the trade union passed from wholesaler to monopolist and was integrated in the state economic apparatus. In this process, the space of “workers’ democracy” formed by the innumerable organizations -from the party to the cultural organizations to the cooperatives- will be destroyed by the two main forms of counterrevolution: fascism and stalinism.
Free from the counterweight of “workers’ democracy”, the organized bourgeois “civil society” (parties, associations, etc.) is absorbed by the state machinery: from representing the fractions of capital and the petty bourgeoisie in front of the political apparatus, it becomes the representative of the state in front of the different sectors of society.
As a consequence, the same political apparatus is transformed from head to toe: liberal democracy disappears as such – in the most fragile capitalisms not even the forms are maintained – and the representative system ceases to pivot on a Parliament functioning as a metaphor of the market – the “market of ideas” which clash and find equilibria between particular interests – to become the representation of an “opinion” industrially manufactured by a new monopoly: the mass media.
These mass media reproduce and amplify the totalitarianism of the state: they occupy the entire space of “opinion” by filling the entire physical space – from the living room to the car, from the train to, in many places, the elevator – and the virtual space – the cell phone, the social networks – with news and “debates” whose diversity emphasizes the “non-existence” and “impossibility” of an alternative to capitalist commodification. In the end, what happens is that far from being able to “open your hand” to a parliamentarian framework that would allow the constitution as a class, you need to deny the mere existence of the class as a political subject and even, at the height of discursive delirium, deny its existence even as a sociological class. The whole media and propaganda apparatus, infinitely multiplied, will be dedicated to fabricate denialist and class-divisionist ideologies: nationalism, racism, pacifism, feminism… always presented as false “realistic” dichotomies between “the worst and the worst”.
“Revolutionary parliamentarism” and counter-revolution
The process of transition to state capitalism, which begins with imperialism, leaves the parties of the Second International shattered, opportunism -which has become strong in the parliamentary groups of the workers parties- does not only translate occasionally into revisionism, but the reformist right wing, led by the trade union leaderships, will turn the giant machine of the workers’ organization into a war recruitment apparatus at the outbreak of the war, dissolving it into the nation and leading a central part of the proletariat into imperialist slaughter.
Aware of the role of parliamentarism in the process, which has put the centre of the socialist parties in the electoral machine, the Third International will propose the tactic of “revolutionary parliamentarism” as a way of updating the original tactic of the days of Engels, Liebknecht senior and Bebel. It is a question of participating in parliaments precisely in order to break the monopoly of opinion, to represent the class opposition between the ongoing reactionary arrangements and “reforms” and the workers, whose deputies in the bourgeois countries will vote against or abstain from all votes. However, “revolutionary parliamentarism”, in the absence of an organised class structure capable of counteracting and resisting the “opinion industry” is an illusion. It soon became clear that even the conditions that initially made this possible as a tactic had already disappeared in most countries during the war. In the remaining countries, counter-revolution will sweep them away.
Would a “revolutionary parliamentarism” be possible today?
The workers’ press, the basis of socialist agitation in the 19th century, was able to compete in the market under rising capitalism because there were mass workers’ organizations such as the trade union, but also workers’ cultural and educational associations of all kinds in every corner of the industrialized territory. They were faced with a capitalism that, although it did not exactly encourage class organization, was not yet totalitarian either. Moreover, there was still a certain free market. Only in some countries had the bourgeoisie created by-products to confront the workers’ press: the first British “tabloids”. In the world of hyper-concentrated capital articulated around the state, newspapers have become gigantic multimedia conglomerates unreachable by any party or group of workers. To attempt at competing with them in the battle for everyday “opinion” is as utopian as to claim that we should own a Google or an Amazon in every militant group. And, it should be obvious, there is no such thing as an organized and massive class structure in neighborhoods and companies.
Once you’re in the game you accept what the game claims to measure… even if you know it measures something else. “Opinion” is still enemy terrain, another product of the monopolies. Mobilizing to achieve nothing more than the frustration of failure is precisely what the left of capital loves to do, always intent on destroying the self-confidence of the class.
Even if there were an electoral “victory”, a parliamentary group of “representatives” of the workers would not be able to obtain tangible results for the workers as a whole. There are no sustainable improvements possible for work in a capital in permanent crisis. Only revolutionary parliamentarism, the refusal of any compromise and the denunciation of all false “reforms” would be possible. But could it withstand the media industry without mass organizations supporting it?
The very existence of “representatives” of the workers not emerging from the struggles, not revocable by the organized proletariat itself, but elected through the state, would be counterproductive. The constitution of the class as a political subject, the development of class consciousness, no longer passes through the state held by an enemy class. The emancipation of the workers, that is, their affirmation outside of the bourgeoisie, is incompatible with representation in state capitalism.