The Guardian • Current Issue

Electoral participation: tactic or sell-out?

“Yes, friends, governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class.”

James Connolly

The earliest recorded form of government is said to have been that of the Sumerians in fourth-century Mesopotamia (Iraq). This development led, in the fifth century in Athens, to the long journey of what we euphemistically refer to as democracy. From that time until the present day it has gone through many iterations, and it continues to evolve. Many tens of millions have died in its name.

Ireland has had its own unique battles with governments and democracy. From the twelfth to the nineteenth century, what passed for democracy and government was totally beholden to the colonialism of a London parliament. There was no universal franchise, and every form of gerrymander, to ensure that the powerful and wealthy controlled the majority in Ireland. Violence, death, poverty and insurrection was a constant theme.

There was certainly no such thing as “one man, one vote” in that time or indeed right up to the 1970s, highlighted as one of the central demands in the North by the civil rights campaign. After 1918, in the still not partitioned Ireland, universal suffrage was in operation. However, it was not until 1973 that all those over eighteen could vote in the South.

None of this has made government any more democratic or a bastion of the working class – on the contrary.

In the partitioned six north-eastern counties, under British and unionist rule since the 1920s, government and democracy took a serious backward turn. Discrimination, gerrymandering, state violence and the use of “property ownership and their values” were used to allow more than one vote per person, designed to exclude or to rig voting to ensure a Protestant majority, at all times, even where numerically there could be none.

So-called parliamentary democracy, in the North in particular, has left a foul taste in the mouths of the people, of political activists, especially republicans and progressives, to the present day.

So where are we when it comes to using elections and parliaments to further the aims of radical revolutionary struggle? Are we with it or against it? This, of course, is a worldwide issue and a part of human evolution since we stood up. It is also an area that Connolly, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, Trotsky and many others have expounded upon.

Enormous tracts have been written on this point, but we can only deal with a tiny fraction of it here. We will also have to focus on Ireland and the struggle for a 32-county socialist republic as the starting-point. To use or even talk about participating in electoralism or parliamentarianism has caused all kinds of rows, splits, boycotts, and abstentions. And yet we cannot ignore the fact that governments, of sorts, operate in the North and South of Ireland.

But more importantly, that’s where the majority of the population identify where power resides and where they get some things granted to them, even if it is only the crumbs. Even those who oppose and know that neither government is anything close to a “democracy of the people” but are certainly the “committees of the rich and powerful” are dependent upon its hand-outs, in some shape or form. Both governments also have the power of force to impose their will, along with all the strands of soft power, laws and coercion, which cannot be underestimated.

The common refrain is that “once you get into bed with the government you are finished,” you become “part of the system,” or, as Ruairí Ó Brádaigh once famously said, “When you lie down with the dogs you get up with fleas.” Lenin referred to this as “opportunism.” And, to our horror, this has largely been the case in Ireland over the centuries.

The opposite refrain is that “you need to be in there to change the system,” or “if you’re not in you can’t win.”

For this writer, neither of these absolute positions does justice to the tactical use of electoral or parliamentary politics. What’s more, I do not believe that individuals, small groups or even massive groups will get into parliament and suddenly overturn the capitalist system. That’s equally simplistic and is not the basis for a radical revolutionary strategy to usurp the power of those who exploit us.

James Connolly was under no illusions about what was necessary. He viewed politics as “war by other means.” He was clear too about the state and what it represented. “The political institutions of today are simply the coercive forces of capitalist society, they have grown up out of and are based upon territorial divisions of power in the hands of the ruling class in past ages, and were carried over into capitalist society to suit the needs of the capitalist class when that class overthrew the dominion of its predecessors.”

Connolly viewed elections to such parliaments from the viewpoint of radical revolutionary democracy. Nor was he averse to armed action, as we know. He was clear too that the democracy of Parliament is in short the democracy of Capitalism. Capitalism gives to the worker the right to choose his master, but insists that the fact of Master-ship shall remain unquestioned; Parliamentary Democracy gives to the worker the right to a voice in the selection of his rulers but insists that he shall bend as a subject to be ruled. The fundamental feature of both in their relation to the worker is that they imply his continued subjection to a ruling class once his choice of the personnel of the rulers is made.

Connolly set up the Irish Socialist Republican Party to contest council elections and stated that “our candidate will, therefore, take his stand unflinchingly upon the basic principles of Socialism, and the fact of his stand thereon will be the pledge of his fidelity to the interests of the working class.”

Marx too supported the notion of parliamentary intervention by revolutionaries. He wrote: “Implacable opposition to the state does not always rule out orientation towards elections […].” based on “flexible tactics and firm principles […]” – not “rigid tactics and flexible principles.”

He went on to reiterate that the working class “need to prepare for power.” This would make sense, as the working class generally are excluded from and know little about how the machinations of power actually work on and in their lives, daily. The trick, of course, is not only to be able to take power but, most of all, to ensure that power is retained in the face of the sure-to-arrive counter-revolutions.

Engels and Marx were forthright in saying that “elections and parliament […] used […] alongside illegal means […] for the purpose of building support and raising Socialist consciousness among the working class” were necessary, but that “electoral victories were subordinate to independent working class political action.”

Engels on elections said that “it accurately informed us of our own strength and that of the opposing […] parties […] a means second to none of getting in touch with the mass of the people where they still stand aloof from us […]” He also warned against opportunism (reformism) and in particular “honest opportunism,” or short-termism, as the most dangerous of all.

Gramsci had this to say about revolutionaries entering parliaments: “Not for a democratic illusion, not for a reformist tenderness: to create the conditions for the triumph of the proletariat, to ensure the right outcome of the revolutionary effort which is directed towards installing the proletarian dictatorship incarnate in the system of councils, inside and outside Parliament.”

Lenin used the term “critical support” to justify supporting pro-system parties in a parliament. He framed the support in the context of being “the rope [that] supports a hanged man.” It was tactical, and not strategic, and to expose reformism, at the very least. Once electoral intervention becomes a strategy, then that means being a full participant in and acceptance that capitalist parliamentary system is the goal. Electoralism can only ever be a tactic in the armoury of the revolutionary struggle – “a platform for our principles,” as Marx said.

Crucially, on compromises, Lenin had this to say: “It would be absurd to formulate a recipe or general rule (No compromises!!) to suit all cases. One must use one’s own brains and be able to find one’s bearings in each particular instance.” The concrete analysis, I suspect.

Civil society and political society link people and parliaments whether we want it to or not. It would appear that there are no simple answers for whether the use of elections as a tactic is right or wrong in every case. Sometimes it clearly is not. But the understanding of political economy and historical materialism, including the dialectics of all of this, has to be central to the process of any concrete analyses. Decisions on using elections (or not) tactically to advance, where possible, the battle for socialism in Ireland, based on the dictum of “no compromises” or the failures of former comrades who “took the soup,” would not be a sound basis for decision-making of such a magnitude.

Today Connolly might rework his enduring statement to say that we have “to build a socialist society supported and directed by committees of the people to govern their own affairs, that of the working class.” Otherwise tactical involvement in elections or parliaments would be futile and delusional.

This is the only method by which true freedom, sovereignty and independence can be achieved.

Socialist Voice

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More