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|Proletarian issue 65 (April 2015)
|‘Least worst’ vs ‘don’t bother’. Should workers vote?
|Caught between the polar positions of ‘Don’t waste your vote, people died to give it to you’ and ‘Why vote, it never changes anything’, what are class-conscious workers supposed to do at election time?
|One would have to be living in a cardboard box (without wifi) not to be aware that a general election is approaching in Britain. Certainly, our beloved media pundits are very keen to remind us of the fact at 30-second intervals.
The introduction of fixed-term parliaments has led to a situation where the usual pre-election circus has kicked off even earlier than usual, and the result has been endless US-style electioneering and endless reporting of and commentating on that electioneering by the press corps.
So much so that it is that it is increasingly difficult not to get swept along by all the hyperbole into believing that every important political matter of interest to the working class is going to be decided on 7 May, when ‘the country goes to the polls’.
But how much do elections really matter? For those of us who are workers, not capitalists, then the answer is: not nearly as much as the media would have us believe. And not nearly so much as the representatives of what passes for a labour movement in this country would have us believe either.
The prejudice that parliament is the place where all the important decisions are taken and from which the country is run goes very deep. Our rulers have, after all, had several centuries in which to inculcate that belief amongst the people. We have all been taught from a very young age that Britain’s democracy is the ‘oldest in the world’ (and, it goes almost without saying, the ‘best’).
But, as was revealed long ago by the founders of scientific socialism Marx and Engels, and later reiterated by Lenin in his seminal work TheState and Revolution, ‘democracy’ is not an abstract or neutral concept; there is no such thing as ‘pure democracy’. Democracy is inseparable from its class context – so the question one has always to ask is: ‘Democracy for whom?’
The capitalist state is democratic only for the large property-owning capitalists; for the rest of us, despite the various institutions aimed at hiding this fact, and at tempering its severity, the capitalist state is in fact simply the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie – the means by which the working class is forcibly held down by, and in the interests of, the exploiters.
All true Marxists make it their business to bring this vital knowledge to the working class, and to show our co-workers that the real business of running the country takes place not in parliament but in the boardrooms, back rooms and private members’ clubs of the capitalist super-rich. Parliament, meanwhile, is little more than a toothless talking shop, whose primary aim is to rubber-stamp the dictates of the ruling class in such a way as to make them appear to be independent ideas dreamt up by ‘our elected representatives’. It is a sideshow and a distraction; a hall of smoke and mirrors.
Moreover, anyone who understands the workings of the bourgeois state also knows that no change of personnel could effect a serious change in the system, since the levers of power – the army, police, judiciary, media, school system and so on – would all remain in the hands of the ruling class. And that class has never worried about rules or ‘fair play’ when its interests are threatened!
So why do so many on the ‘left’ insist on constantly reinforcing the myth that elections can change things in the favour of the workers?
Engels wrote that “‘parliamentary cretinism’ is an incurable disease, an ailment whose unfortunate victims are permeated by the lofty conviction that the whole world, its history and its future are directed and determined by a majority of votes of just that very representative institution that has the honour of having them in the capacity of its members”. That description applies perfectly to all the supposed representatives of the left who peddle the belief amongst the working classes that a change in parliamentary personnel will result in a meaningful change in the way our country is governed.
But bourgeois politicians are not ‘our’ representatives, carrying out ‘our’ wishes in parliament; they are hired hands of the ruling class who have sold themselves to our rulers in return for cushy careers. That is why Marx wrote that, under British parliamentary democracy, the workers merely get “to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament”.
The history of civilisation is the history of classes. And the history of classes is a history of class struggle. Ever since societies emerged that were divided into rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited, there has been a constant struggle going on between those who control society’s wealth (a small minority) and those who work to maintain and expand that wealth (the vast majority).
As each previous class-based social system (first slavery and then feudalism) reached the end of its useful life, a struggle also arose between the old oppressors and a new minority class who wished to rule in a new way. In the name of liberty, new would-be rulers were able to mobilise the masses to their side for these titanic struggles.
Class struggle fills the pages of our history books and it is all around us today. Class struggle characterised the rebellions of the slaves on Roman estates and in the peasant wars of Europe. Class struggle led to the chopping off of Charles I’s head in England and to the ‘terror’ of the guillotine in France. And class struggle is present in every strike by factory workers for better pay, every struggle by tenants to save a council estate from privatisation and every action whereby working people try to protect themselves from the constant onslaught against pay and conditions and the incessant drive to war by our capitalist imperialist rulers.
The state is the institution that arose to try to keep control of the contradictions within humanity’s divided societies, but, while it may sometimes take the appearance of a ‘mediating’ and ‘neutral’ force, it is actually anything but. The state in its essence is first and foremost a weapon in the hands of the rulers; it is the machinery by which the ruling class keeps those it rules under control.
As Marxists, we recognise this reality and understand that the interests of the vast masses of the people lie in destroying the existing capitalist machinery of control, which is designed to keep a tiny elite in control over vast masses, and to replace it with our own state, which will require entirely different institutions, since, for the first time, a state of the workers (the majority) will be aimed at expanding democracy and participation whilst keeping the masses in power over the resistance of the displaced capitalists (a small minority).
That is why we Marxists take the position that, while the capitalist system remains, it is not elections, but the class struggle that will decide the fate of the working class. Elections come and elections go, but the class struggle carries on regardless.
After all, there is one outcome we can be assured of: we had an anti-worker government in Westminster before the election and we will have another anti-worker government in Westminster after the election.
Apathy vsclass consciousness
Having grasped this fact, there is another trend of left-wing thought which then declares avoidance of bourgeois elections to be a point of principle, and even that the widespread political apathy that characterises much of the British working class today constitutes some kind of great victory.
But apathy is not the same as class consciousness. Far from it, in fact.
Why are so many people so apathetic and uninterested in the political process? Is it that they have been thoroughly awakened to the nature of the bourgeois state and the need for the working class to replace it with something else?
Not at all. Many workers do indeed have a healthy distrust of all the institutions of the state, and the poorest sections are very well aware that it is neither neutral nor fair. But these instincts have been transformed not into class-conscious action, but into a far more palatable (to the ruling class) resignation. Essentially, many of those who should be the most angry and active in preparing the overthrow of the system have allowed themselves to be duped into the belief that ‘politicians are all the same’ – no matter what their class allegiance.
This is a victory for the ruling class, since the workers concerned are often as suspicious of communist activists as they are of bourgeois politicians. And certainly as disbelieving of the idea that any of their actions might actually be capable of bringing about the changes that are so badly needed.
It would be quite wrong, however, to attribute the demoralisation and confusion that reigns among the members of our own class to the all-seeing manipulations and machinations of the British ruling class.
Those of us who know a little of our own history cannot but be aware that Britain once had a vibrant communist movement, whose influence extended deep into the working class. We had our own communist press and daily paper, communist MPs and active branches and affiliated organisations in every part of the country. Such a machinery for the propagation of class-conscious understanding is not easily dismantled. So what happened?
After the second world war, having witnessed first the astonishing gains of the October revolution and subsequently the immortal victories of the USSR against the Nazi war machine, and having endured the privations of the great depression of the 1920s and 30s, theclass-conscious and revolutionary-minded workers of war-torn Europe posed such a threat to the continuedrule of the imperialists that they made the unprecedented concession of the ‘welfare state’ – a system of universal benefits aimed at buying social peace by convincing the masses that their needs could be met without the need for a socialist revolution. This safety net was installed in all the European imperialist countries, including Britain, and was agreed upon as being a necessary expense by all the bourgeois parties – Tory, Liberal and Labour.
How did our good communists react to this new situation? Did they continue to agitate among the workers, reminding of the need for vigilance in protecting what they had gained and explaining that such concessions could only ever be temporary ones while the capitalist system and state machinery was left intact?
Unfortunately not. In their majority, and despite some principled exceptions, they gradually gave up on revolution and promised the workers that everything would keep getting better for so long as they continued to vote in Labour governments. Moreover, from 1956 onwards, they accepted, albeit reluctantly and grudgingly in many cases, the lies put out by Khrushchev and started to distance themselves from and ‘apologise’ for the ‘crimes’ of Stalin’s era – that wonderful time from which the workers and oppressed peoples of the world had taken such inspiration as they finally saw what they could be capable of if only the deadening hand of capitalist exploitation were lifted from their necks.
If those were the teachings of the communist party, then it is fairly unsurprising that most workers came to the conclusion that the communist party was not really needed. They put their faith in capitalist reforms and in the Labour party as the deliverer of said reforms, and, as that party was gradually revealed for what it was – an anti-worker, pro-imperialist Tory-alike – they increasingly abandoned Labour too.
Into this open goal our rulers were not slow in kicking the twin balls of racist scapegoating (blame the immigrants) and the consolation of general powerlessness (there’s nothing you can do, so don’t bother thinking about it – just take care of yourself and your family as best you can, and hope for a pint and a movie on a Friday night).
Meanwhile, the corporate media, having carefully nurtured this apathetic indifference in one section of the working class, has been busy dividing the better-off workers from their less fortunate brethren on this question, as on so many others. Instead of feeling empathy for the attitude and fate of those at the bottom of the social heap, which is widening as the welfare state is dismantled, the better-off workers are encouraged to believe that those who do not work ‘deserve what they get’. After all, if they want representation and a better life, they should turn off the telly, get off the sofa and go out and vote, shouldn’t they?
And yet this upper stratum of workers, many of whom do vote, wringing their hands over picking what seems to be the ‘least worst’ option at each election, are just as lacking in class consciousness as their disillusioned compatriots – and they have just as little awareness of how thoroughly they have been duped.
Neither ‘least worst’ nor ‘all the same’
It is time and past time for British workers to grasp the simple truth that the question of voting is not a debate between ‘least worst’ and ‘all the same’.
It is time and past time for all of us who want to see a better, saner world, which is fit for our children to raise their children in, to drop forever our illusions in the ability of the capitalist ruling class to deliver the changes we need if humanity is to survive, and to take our fate into our own hands.
Even while capitalism remains, every gain for working people will have to be won by fighting for it. Given the depth and severity of the capitalist crisis, it is only by putting the fear of god and revolution into the hearts of our rulers that we will be able to force them to reduce their profit margins in the interests of making or retaining even the most basic universal provisions for the wellbeing of the working class.
If we want to save our NHS and our schools; if we want to improve pay and conditions for workers and to raise benefits for the unemployed and incapacitated; if we want to end homelessness and rent racketeering, we need to create fighting organisations that will harness the strength of the working class to achieve these concrete aims.
If we want to stop imperialist wars being waged in our name; to stop our rulers using the wealth and weapons created by us and sending the sons and daughters brought up by us to butcher our brothers and sisters abroad and facilitate the looting of their resources, we need to get ourselves organised to disrupt and sabotage the imperialist war machines.
If we don’t want foreign workers to be used to undercut our pay, we need to insist that every worker joins a union, make sure our unions are fit for the job of protecting our rights, and make it impossible for the bosses to keep playing us off against each other.
If we want to free ourselves from the confusion and suffocation of bourgeois ideology, daily thrust down our throats from all sides by the imperialist corporate media, we need to pay for and support the building of a truly independent, working-class press and break the information stranglehold of the ruling class.
Class consciousness does not lead to apathy but to activity. A class-conscious working class would be organising itself by the thousand, and then by the hundred thousand to build a movement that represents its true interests. Such an organisation would be capable of putting up its own candidates in elections, should it feel the time was right, and of using that and every other opportunity presented by the current system to advance the workers’ cause of building for a revolutionary change in society.
As far as communists are concerned, whether to vote or not to vote, and whether or not to put up communist candidates for election, are not questions of principle, but of tactics – to be decided according to the situation in which we find ourselves and by the general level of engagement of the workers.
There may well come a time when the correct thing to do would be to abstain, and to call for a general boycott. The Bolsheviks in 1906, for example, when the revolutionary tide was rising, called for an active boycott of the state Duma, not just refusing to stand or vote for candidates, but using every possible mediumto put forward their views and participate in electoral meetings so as to make the workers aware of their programme and to expose the utter fraud of the tsarist regime’s sham democracy, demanding instead a constituent assembly (ie, a bourgeois parliament, which would have been a great advance on what the Russian people had at the time).
Active boycott is a long way from abstention, however, and a party would need to command a meaningful force in order to call for one. For tiny left-wing parties to advocate a boycott in a few leaflets and then claim a great victory when half the working class doesn’t bother to vote is as much a fraud as the electoral system itself, since 999,999 of every million workers has never heard of the parties in question and was unaware of their boycott call!
Still, it is worth noting the horror with which the corporate media’s pundits have recoiled at comedian Russell Brand’s vocal support for those who do not vote – and of his open statements that such a position is entirely to be understood when all the main parties represent essentially the same politics. If such statements from a single, high-profile individual, who has no party or organisation to back him up, are deemed to be threatening enough to justify an avalanche of vilification and ridicule, just imagine how terrified the ruling class would be to see a disciplined, organised and active election boycott!
Given the fact that so many people still have great illusions in the system of bourgeois parliamentary democracy in Britain, however, our party would at the present time be in favour of the principle of putting up communist candidates for election.
In the first instance, just as in the case of an active boycott, standing candidates gives an opportunity to bring communist politics into the wider debate and to spread the influence of a revolutionary understanding. In the second place, any candidates who were actually elected would be able to use the opportunity given to them to expose the system’s inner logic and to make clear to workers how it functions against them and why.
The job of communist MPs is, first and foremost, to prove to workers through their own experience just how unfitted the current parliamentary system is to meeting their demands. Communists use parliament to expose parliament, rather than to foster new illusions in it.
Therefore, in our view, given all that has been said above, it adds little to the prestige of communism or the interests of the working class to take part in elections before our party and our class have amassed the necessary forces required to wage a serious campaign and make a meaningful mark on the political landscape. Until such a time, electioneering simply takes up huge resources (many thousands of pounds for each seat contested) that would be better spent on building the party. At present, the simple fact is that our party is too small to either stand candidates in a general election [a name="_GoBack"][/a]or to advocate an active boycott in any meaningful way.
As workers move along the spectrum from apathetic to class conscious, they often feel a desire to take part in elections and to find a ‘least worst’ option for which to vote. Such a feeling is to be understood. We all wish the task of building a revolutionary movement could be sped up, so that we could jump over the tortuous years and move straight to the end goal!
Still, even in our current weak state, there are things we can do at election time to take advantage of the general atmosphere of political debate. For example, comrades and militant workers can make it their business to get along to local election hustings with leaflets, and to take the opportunity to ask questions that force the candidates to make it clear where their parties stand on the most important issues affecting workers today.
These presently include: austerity (cuts, privatisation etc); war (Syria, Ukraine, and the moves to war against Russia and China in particular); immigration (dividing the working class by scapegoating ‘foreigners’ for the ills that are built into the capitalist system); and the environment (putting profits before the urgent tasks that confront humanity in saving our natural habitat).
In the conditions in which we find ourselves, any vote made by a worker can only really be a protest at the system; it will not do anything to change the foundations of that system. It will not abolish capitalist economic crisis or imperialist war.
That being the case, the best we can do with our protest vote is to cast it in favour of any party that stands on a platform of being anti-austerity and anti-war, and which does not seek to blame immigrants for the problems faced by working people under capitalism.
No progressive person could, in all conscience, give a vote to any party that went along with the racist scapegoating of immigrants or with the imperialist war agenda. If no suitable candidate is available in a particular area and people feel the need to take part in the election, a spoilt ballot paper is a far preferable option than a vote for, say, Labour or Ukip, both of which are racist, pro-business and anti-worker to the core, with hardly a cigarette paper to be got between their true aims and objectives.
Similarly, no votes should be given to the parties of bourgeois nationalism in Wales and Scotland. (Ireland, as an oppressed nation, is an entirely different case, and, when speaking of Britain in this article, we are not including the colonised north of that country.)
Plaid Cymru and the Scottish NationalParty may dress themselves in more progressive-seeming colours than Ukip, but their function is the same – to create hostility between different sections of the working class and to seek to blame ‘the English’ rather than the capitalist system for the problems faced by British workers. Both parties have already proved themselves to be as pro-business as all the others.
Nor does ‘tactical’ voting (ie, voting LibDem to keep out the Tories, etc) serve any useful purpose other than fostering the very illusions in the system that we are trying to break. There is nothing of substance to choose between any of the major capitalist parties, which are all parties of austerity, racism and war.
In the conditions of capitalist crisis, even the modest demands put forward by the various left-of-Labour outfits or by the Greens cannot actually be conceded while the system based on imperialist superprofit remains in place. Still, they are workers’ and progressive demands and we support the fact that they are being made.
Despite the fact that the Green Party’s demand for a kinder, smaller-scale, more environmentally-friendly capitalism is completely unattainable, and despite the fact that revolution is not remotely on its agenda, it is worth noting that in expressing some of the workers’ demands the party has come in for a real media drubbing. Clearly, the ruling class would not like to see the Green Party becoming successful at the present time.
Meanwhile, only by doing everything in our power to force the capitalists to make these concessions to the workers under the conditions of capitalism will we ultimately be able to convince the majority of our class brothers and sisters that the system is unfit for purpose and will have to be got rid of.
Our demands most moderate are
So what do the workers – those who create all the wealth in society and who have been systematically separated from that wealth – demand? A short summation of the basic requirements of workers all over the world might look something like this:
- An end to imperialist wars and financial domination
- Decent, secure housing
- Universal cheap access to all essential amenities: water, sanitation, heating, electricity, post, telephone, internet
- Decent, secure jobs with living wages and paid holidays, sick leave, maternity leave, etc
- Decent and free education at all levels
- Free pre-school child care and education
- Free and comprehensive health care
- Easy access to cheap, healthy, nutritious food
- Public, high-quality laundries, crèches and dining facilities that enable women to take part in work and public life without prejudice or physical barriers
- Decent, free provision of all necessary support services for the disabled to allow all workers to live full and meaningful lives
- A decent, secure pension for a dignified old age
- Free, high-quality nursing homes and sheltered accommodation for those in need of support
- Universal access to a cheap or free fully-integrated public transport system
- Open and easy access to all forms of culture
- Open and easy access to the media
- The opportunity to take part in the running of our society, whether locally (schools, hospitals, workplaces, neighbourhoods etc) or at a national level
- A government that prioritises giving resources to the solving of urgent problems such as the need to live sustainably and protect our natural environment
To many, this simple list – of things that should long ago have been provided by right to every human being – seems like pie in the sky, so used are we to the status quo, wherein the vast majority of humanity is being forced ever deeper into the depths of poverty and squalor while a tiny handful amass unimaginable riches and pass their time in gambling with the wealth of the world.
But in fact this list is quite modest and perfectly achievable. We have technology. We have wealth. We have incredible powers of production and innovation and infinite creativity in their application.
Only experience can teach the workers that a revolution will be required before even the most basic of our demands can be met in practice. Meanwhile, we are right to make the demands and expose the utter inability of the capitalists to do anything meaningful towards meeting them – despite the incredible level of wealth at their collective command.
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