Notes on electoralism

For the record this article is not an attempt by me to sketch out an all encompassing view on the uses of electoralism in the revolutionary process, as I think that such a view needs to be based upon thorough analysis of long ranging historical processes, something for which I do not have the time nor the willpower at the moment. Nevertheless this article will probably be interpreted in this way anyhow, and will (hopefully) lead to a range of good discussions on the subject of the use of elections by revolutionaries. My intention therefore is to elaborate on some thoughts I have on the subject of elections and provide a useful contribution to the discussion of elections within the radical left.

The first point I would like to make is in regards to a statement that has become very popular in recent times on the limit of direct action and more specifically general strikes, and how apparently this would demonstrate how there is a strong need for election participation by revolutionaries. The statement goes something along the lines of: Greece has had X amount of general strikes and austerity is still continuing. Now besides vastly underestimating the amount of struggle that will be needed to actually defeat austerity, and grossly simplifying necessary tactics in regards to resisting austerity. It ignores the fact that all these general strikes are the usual symbolic 24 to 48 hour strikes that have been used by the unions within social democracy for decades and that have little to do with the indefinite general strikes of earlier times (which have been made illegal in many countries in the meantime) that have yielded the working class many of its concessions. Equating the use of these symbolic general strikes, which are in reality more of a show of power comparable to a demonstration on steroids, to the earlier indefinite general strikes and based on that the out of hand rejection and/or the belittling of direct action is highly reductionist and serves only to limit the potential adoption of potent tactics in the current struggle against austerity.

Secondly, despite most portions of the radical left being very critical of social democracy, the success of any electoral programme by these same groups is in general mostly based around the adoption of social democratic programmes. This is a phenomenon that can be very interestingly observed in a whole range of communist, trotskyist and whatever-ist parties, that when participating in elections they either act as surrogate (radical) social democrats or use their organizational infrastructure in support of social democrats. In both instances basically just adopting social democratic rhetoric and programmes during their participation within the elections while still internally holding onto their more radical ideology, creating a weird sort of friction between those two identities. And even though it is not possible to wholly reduce radical leftist participation within elections to equating it with social democracy, there is a strong core of truth to the argument that electoral participation by revolutionaries necessarily forces them to temporarily adopt social democracy. Which off course raises the question of why according to these groups the most useful thing revolutionaries can do at this moment is act like surrogate social democrats, and what kind of mentality produces this plan of action.

Third and last point I want to make is the one of realism. While many on the electoral left have called for the heavy limitation and curtailing of energy put into already limited street politics (see for example my point on symbolic general strikes) and into the electoral arena, for reasons of realism. Namely that these street politics are supposed to be ineffective (often based on some dodgy reasoning), while in turn strongly overestimating the effectiveness of electoralism. For example as of now, even though the left has been able to achieve unseen election results, they haven’t been able to stop austerity measures at all. And this will most likely continue into the future. As for example even the often hailed success story of SYRIZA probably wouldn’t have been able to even form a coalition government even if it had been able to get the fifty extra seats you get when you become the biggest party in Greece, as it would require a coalition with the KKE and DIMAR (alliance with the KKE being very unlikely and with DIMAR now in the government imposing austerity measures on the Greek population). Not to even mention the basically social democratic/keynesian character of SYRIZA (remembering my earlier point on leftist election gains and social democracy) and last but not least the slim possibility of SYRIZA installing a “more humane” form of austerity under the pressure of European insitutions. In short an accurate analysis of the electoral situation in many countries quite quickly leads to the conclusion that electoralism cannot play the role that many of the radical left hope it will play, yet these kinds of remarks are generally just met by overly enthusiastic cries that it is then necessary to simply start to trying and working even harder, and direct even more attention away from the supposedly “ineffective” street tactics. Thereby revealing one of the double standards held within the electoral left that bases it’s choice of electoral tactics not necessarily upon a thorough analysis of the conditions they are in but more likely upon a desire to feel relevant within the framework of bourgeoisie politics that states that politics are solely limited to the parliamentary arena, significant sections of the radical left at least partly following this logic in their desperate and often unsuccessful attempts of participation in projects that have some parliamentary relevance.

So that concludes my intellectual wanderings into the field of electoral politics, may this article bring alot of the usual knee-jerking comments and claims of incorrectness that are usually associated with the discussions on this subject.

About yeksmesh

Yeksmesh has quite an eclectic range of political influences, it is therefore pretty much certain that he will be put against the wall for petty-bourgeoisie infantile deviationist intransigence after the revolution has come.
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6 Responses to Notes on electoralism

  1. Henry Silke says:

    Hopefully avoiding the author’s ‘knee jerk’ reaction I would question the assumption made about the role of electoral work. There seems to be an assumption the only reason to take part in elections is to win state power. It ignores for example the Socialist Party’s long avowed platformist policy (that is too use elected positions as a platform for socialist positions and support struggle in the ‘real’ world). What we could call the ideological role. I agree with the issue of the contradiction of self styled revolutionaries adopting neo-kensyian policies in public, which is interesting. I think the dichotomy offered between electoral ism and street politics is false. I think electoral politics forms one part of the ideological/material dialectic and cannot be considered in isolation.

  2. I have to chime in and agree with Henry in what he says above. There are several points which I think need to be looked at more closely.

    First, the question of the dichotomy of street politics and electoral participation is manifestly false. We can see this in many of the parties which take part in elections and are also quite involved in mass movementism, including Syriza (a large contingent of which came out of the alter-globalisation movement), Die Linke, which is currently involved in the bloccupation movement and even here in Ireland with the SP and SWP who have never stopped direct active involvement at the grass roots level.

    Secondly, the “platform” argument seems to me to be fairly well documented in terms of its practical outcomes. The fact of the matter is that the parties which participate in elections have more profile, more media attention and a generally greater voice which leads to greater general public identification with the ideas. I simply do not feel that this ground can be ceded without serious consequence.

    I myself had in the past debated whether the outcome was worth the potential demerits which come with involvement in elections but I don’t think anyone can feasibly claim that the “platform” argument is not a merit. An argument against the use has to show more clearly that the demerits outweigh this merit. I’ve changed my mind and now believe that the merits grossly outweigh the demerits.

    Thirdly, the question of policies when coming to state power I find intensely interesting. There is no doubt that the revolutionary socialist groups will continually take positions with respect to Keynesianism etc. which are essentially “social democratic” in the sense of Labour Party type politics of a more gentle capitalism. However, I think this failure goes far beyond electoralism and needs to be levied against the left as a whole. The failure to answer the question of how to go beyond capitalism can not be left as a bludgeon to beat the left which participates in elections when it can not be answered by those who are not even in a position to offer the possibility of state power. How is it that we will transition out of capitalism realistically? It is this central question that all sections of the left have been mute upon. In the current period it seems to me that Syriza is actually doing a better job thinking seriously about this than virtually anyone in the anti-electoralist left.

  3. yeksmesh says:

    I also dont think there is a necesary distinction between street politics and electoralism and I dont actually advance this position in my article, my point is that large parts of the electoral left at least implicitly seem to advance this position by constantly saying things like street politics are important (which generally means they still want to do them not that they actually think they are anywhere near the importance of elections) but what we really need is to enter in elections (a recent example that is used much is the greek general strike quote I pointed to in my article). Thereby revealing at least an implicit distinction that is made within these parties, whether or not they actually overtly accept this point. Not to mention the practical policy within these parties where elections receive dramatically more attention in regards of manhours and funds than any other activity, and the fact that any of these parties are still involved in street politics doesnt mean that this tendency doesnt occur within them.

    And yes the platform argument is theoretically speaking a pretty solid argument, the point is that pretty much none of the parties that advocate this line internally also advocate it towards the rest of the world, instead just adopting standard social democratic positions and rhetoric without any reference to their platform position. So in the best case this leads to you lying and/or misguiding your support base and in the worst case it makes you social democrats who like to talk about revolutionary ideology in their spare time.

  4. Maximilien Robespierre says:

    I happen to like this article and more or less agree with what you have said so far, although I’d like to comment on both the nature of parliament as a ‘platform’ and the use of ‘social democratic’ arguments by ostensibly revolutionary socialists.

    The argument regarding the use of parliament as a platform is an old one, and I agree that it is one that is theoretically sound and worth looking at. I don’t think, however, that it can be appraised in an unqualified way. The argument essentially arose within the modern socialist movement in Germany when the SPD was still an illegal party under the Anti-Socialist Laws in the late-1870s to early 1880s. The SPD press and organization was banned, but it managed to field candidates anyway by running them as independents. As the Anti-Socialist Laws did not censor parliamentary speech, Social Democratic politicians — notably Liebknicht — could agitate from parliament quite effectively, because the press could then legally print Liebknicht’s speeches. Obviously this condition does not apply any longer to our modern world insofar as we are offered far more opportunities to agitate legally than merely though parliament. This does not mean that the uses for parliament as a means of agitation are nil; indeed, so long, as Lenin said, as millions of people still look to parliament it is necessary to work within it (although as an party which opposes it in a revolutionary manner and therefore one that works within parliament to agitate against it). However, I think the importance of parliament as a platform is somewhat overrated insofar as (1) many people have begun to lose their faith in parliament as an agent of any meaningful change (although not in any number sufficient to justify abandoning work parliament) and (2) the possibility for extra-parliamentary agitation is great. Therefore, I think the author’s skepticism towards placing so much importance on electoral work vis-a-vis “street politics” is justified.

    As far as ‘social democratic’ demands go: communists are still a part of the proletarian movement, and must defend not only the ultimate interests of the class as a whole, but also the immediate interests of the class; to this end communists work with the rest of the politically conscious and other leading elements of the proletariat, even if programmatically these are on a lower level for the time being (“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.” — that is, provided they are really expressions of working-class political consciousness, albeit on a lower level of development, and not actually capitalist parties, e.g. modern social democracy, which is not a workers’ movement of any kind), and defend the more immediate and medium-term interests of the proletariat. At the same time, communists must use this opportunity to work within the class to push the rest of the proletariat further (that is, to further radicalize it) and push them more and more towards support for the communist program, which itself has come into being as a result of this constant radicalization of the proletarian movement, of the evolution of the proletariat in its struggle against the bourgeoisie. It seems to me that it is perfectly possible to advance ‘social democratic’ positions that are being advanced by the wider class insofar as one also acknowledges and publicly declares that they are insufficient to solve the problems arising from capitalism.

  5. Dan says:

    Interesting post, thanks. A few points I’d make in response:

    1) I wouldn’t phrase the argument the way you’ve done here (‘the Greeks have tried general strikes, that didn’t work, they need to try something new’). I’d put it this way: the Greek working class have already been struggling for a long time, 2 or 3 years now. They can’t go on struggling indefinitely without there being some kind of breakthrough that brings the struggle onto a higher level. Arguably, the election of a SYRIZA-led government would have the potential to do that.

    If things stay the way they are at the moment, instead of a continuous struggle, we may see things start to slip backwards, as people become demoralised. You might have seen a recent report by Paul Mason from Athens (it was passed around quite a bit on Facebook), making comparisons with Weimar; he was suggesting that demoralisation has already started to take hold, at least with some people. If that becomes more widespread, there may be a shift to the right rather than to the left.

    2) What you seem to be proposing as an alternative is an open-ended general strike against the Troika’s agenda, like the ones in France in 1936 or 1968. Now, first of all, that won’t be easy to pull off; I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but it’ll be very difficult. The 1968 strike in France happened during an economic boom. Greece now has 25% unemployment (over 50% among young workers); general strikes are much harder to organise against that backdrop (when there was a far-right coup against the Weimar Republic in 1920, it was defeated by a general strike; in 1930-33, when unemployment was around 30%, there was no strike action against the rise of the Nazis, and it wasn’t just because the left-wing parties were divided).

    Secondly, if there was to be a strike like that, it would mean posing the question of power. Even if the strike leaders didn’t explicitly say they wanted to bring down the government, in practice, that would be where things were headed towards; if the current Greek government had to surrender to a general strike against the Troika’s policies, it would be dead in the water, it would have no credibility. And if the strike movement is demanding that the Memorandum be scrapped, they have to propose some kind of alternative economic strategy in its place; and they can hardly trust the current government to put that strategy into effect. So the question would be, what do you replace the government with?

    I’ve been reading over some of the documents from ANTARSYA, and they seem to be counting on the traditional model of dual power coming into effect: new political structures of working-class power, developing out of the struggle, becoming the basis for an alternative system (I’ll avoid using the term ‘state’ here for the sake of argument). But what if that doesn’t materialise? It hasn’t materialised so far, and it hasn’t really happened in any West European bourgeois democracy since WWII, even after very big working-class struggles like the ones in Italy in the 70s; that doesn’t mean it could never happen in the future, but it’s still food for thought.

    If it doesn’t happen that way, then the only way you could really hope to take power from ND-PASOK-DIMAR would be to demand that they surrender power to an alternative government, which in the present context would have to be led by SYRIZA. That should definitely be the demand, rather than calling for fresh elections and leaving the incumbents in power in the meantime. You could say that was the key mistake made by the left-wing parties in France in 1968, they ended the strike and took part in elections while de Gaulle was still in power, handing him the advantage; they should have carried on with the strike and demanded that he hand over power to a transitional government which would supervise elections; it makes all the difference if you go into the elections from a position of strength (de Gaulle knew that: when he came back to power in 1958, because of the coup in Algeria, he insisted on being made president and drafting a new constitution before holding elections to endorse him).

    So to get back to Greece, the end result of a successful general strike might well be a SYRIZA-led government, at least in the short term: much the same outcome as the ‘electoralist’ one which you’re wary of (and I can understand why you’re wary of it). Of course, it would be much better for SYRIZA to come to power after a successful general strike, there would be much greater potential then for a real break with the system. There’s also another possibility, which is that a SYRIZA victory at the polls would be followed by mass strikes in support of a break with the Troika. That’s the way it happened in France in 1936, first the Popular Front came to power, then you had mass strikes and factory occupations.

    I guess the gist of what I’m saying is this: I see people in Greece and from the outside questioning the idea that a SYRIZA government is the way out of the crisis. Nothing wrong with a bit of scepticism on that score. But the danger is that if you reject the SYRIZA option because you’re holding out for something better, something more revolutionary, what happens if something better doesn’t materialise? What if the initiative passes to the right? If that proves to be the case, things could get very ugly indeed. I’m not a big fan of that phrase about ‘the best being the enemy of the good’; too often it’s used to justify pretty lousy options. But in this case it might be to the point.

  6. yeksmesh says:

    Two points I want to add here.

    First is that with adopting social democracy I dont necesarily mean that revolutionaries shouldnt fight for daily relevant issues and that every fight for these issues within parliament constitutes social democracy, with adopting social democracy I primarily mean the adoption of the entire whole of social democratic politics for at least a short period of time. Things like this include rhetoric like the glorification of the welfare state and state owned bussinesses, not mentioning the necesity for revolution but just bringing down social change to electing “good” politicians….etc.

    Secondly, yes election of more progressive parliaments can mean an escalation of class struggle, my point in this text is that most of the electoral left doesnt base its push for electoralism on a rational interpretation of the limitations and the possibilities of electoralism but rather upon some liberal conception of politics that is confined to the parliament and a compulsion to feel relevant, and added with this a public conception of politics that is pretty much social democratic (see my first point) whether or not the internal line is more radical.

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