This article first appeared in The Anvil Vol 11 No 2, published 30 April 2022.
On 21 May, voters in Australia will choose which government will oversee exploitation and oppression of the working class by the capitalists for the next three years. We won’t be able to vote for a free society, one where people live lives of equality and co-operation, where racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other toxic phenomena of capitalism don’t exist and where we live in harmony with our environment. Even if the High Court hadn’t ruled in 1948 that socialism was precluded by Section 92 of the Constitution, Parliament isn’t a viable means of creating that society.
The current crisis
This doesn’t mean nothing important is going on, though. Most importantly, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent runaway climate change, which could destroy industrial civilisation and kill at least 80% of the planet’s human population. In addition, the rich are getting phenomenally richer while living standards for the working class go backwards; increasing conflict between the US and China is bringing war closer; State racism continues to torture refugees and lead to horrific Aboriginal deaths in custody; and the political Right are stoking culture wars, providing the perfect environment for the rise of Fascism. The capitalist system is sick and shows no signs of curing itself. So what does the election offer for addressing this?
The major parties
The incumbent government, a coalition of the Liberal and National Parties, is the representative of the capitalist classes. It is the enemy of the working class and its organisations. The coalition has spent 20 of the past 26 years in power so, as far as any government can be held responsible for the mess we’re in, they’re it. It should also be noted that, because of their close links to Big Business, the Coalition parties defend the interests of existing corporations. This is the source of their resistance to acting on climate change. Both parties need to be wiped from the face of the Earth.
The Labor Party is the political representative of the union bureaucracy. It exists to negotiate a compromise between labour and capital and the terms on which it can do that depend on the balance of power in the wider society. A by-product of this is that Labor is usually more capable than the Liberals of acting in the interests of the system as a whole when existing corporations are acting destructively. With the unions shackled by anti-worker laws and eviscerated by 40 years of economic “reforms”, the best Labor can offer is a few crumbs from the tables of the rich. In this election, Labor is using the “small target” strategy. It emphasises complete agreement with the Liberals on most issues and tries to keep political debate confined to a handful of topics on which the leaders think they have the advantage. Labor is promising very little reform and will, if elected, deliver less.
Minor capitalist parties
The most significant of the minor capitalist parties is The Greens. Though their policies are better than Labor’s in most areas, they suffer from a fundamental problem: they have the illusion that a just and sustainable capitalism can exist. But a sustainable society will require sweeping away so much of the existing capitalist class that very little would remain, so we could expect their virtually unanimous opposition. And, even in a fantasy world where a just capitalism could be created, its ordinary operations would immediately start generating injustice and inequality anew.
There is a range of single issue parties, each of them founded on the assumption that, apart from their own pet issue, everything else in this society is at least tolerable. This time round, there is a wave of “climate independents”. They are basically Liberals who realise how insane the current Liberal Party is being by defending fossil fuel corporations and risking the future of humanity. To the extent that they’re serious about actually tackling climate change, they’ll run into the same road block as The Greens.
Finally, there are the Right wing nut jobs who have been proliferating in recent years. They are the toxic by-product of the manifest inability of the major parties, over decades, to deliver a decent life for people in Australia. Since they won’t blame the capitalist system, they find refuge in reactionary prejudices, crackpot schemes and, increasingly, in conspiracy theories that will lead them to anti-Semitism and Fascism if they go down that road far enough. The good news is that, for now, they hate each other almost as much as they hate their enemies on the “woke Left”.
The largest effort being made by groups which call themselves Socialists is the campaign run by the Victorian Socialists. They are running in eleven lower house electorates in Victoria and for the Senate. A smaller campaign is being run by the Socialist Alliance in five electorates across Australia and for the Senate in three States. We haven’t been able to find any other Socialists who are running for seats in the lower house.
So what about these Socialists, then? They’re against the capitalist system that’s causing all our troubles, so that’s a start. They oppose exploitation and oppression, stand up for all the good causes and realise that stopping climate change requires getting rid of capitalism. So they get more points in their favour. Unfortunately, there’s no Parliamentary road to Socialism. Nor is there a parliamentary road right now to significant reforms, as these have only ever been conceded when forced by a militant working class movement outside of parliament. The experience of 150 years across the world proves that Socialists don’t conquer Parliament, but instead Parliament conquers Socialists. The closer they get to power, the more pressure they are under to ditch Socialism. And ditch it they do. We can only get rid of capitalism through the working class organising in the workplace and making a revolution. Not only is that the only way to beat the capitalists, but it’s also the only way for the working class to rid itself of all the reactionary prejudices which the capitalists use to divide us.
Many Socialists who consider themselves revolutionaries agree with us on the above but still see a point to running in elections. The Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group is prepared to concede that it is possible to enter a capitalist Parliament on a principled basis. You need to advocate Socialism and oppose capitalism; support working class struggles; oppose all oppression and exploitation; and refuse confidence to all capitalist governments. Crucially, because Socialists running for Parliament implicitly create the illusion that it can be achieved through Parliament, principled Socialists need to explain that this is not the case and we still need a revolution.
The MACG’s problem with this is that it’s not worth the effort. It also engages workers as ‘voters’ deferring to candidates, rather than as individuals capable of exercising power where they are exploited and dominated. The time and resources required to get elected would be far better put into building working class struggles at the grassroots. Recruit people to your union and organise against the boss. Fight against police violence. Organise tenants against their landlords. Struggle against sexism, heterosexism and transphobia. Organise solidarity for Indigenous struggles. And so forth. The immense effort these Socialists are putting into this election campaign would get much better results if put into grassroots struggle.
We don’t support running in elections or campaigning for them, but some Socialists are wasting their resources doing just that. Because none of them are in any danger of being elected this time around, the MACG considers that it’s possible to give them a principled vote (though it would be different if any might win – they would have to pass the test above). Such a vote is symbolic: you’re putting up your hand for Socialism and against capitalism. It’s a small gesture which you can make without compromising yourself. But we still think it was a mistake for honest Socialists to run.
Reblogged this on The Free.
It has been well argued (long ago) that it’s impossible “…to give [anyone] a principled vote”. See Elisée Reclus, who said intelligently, “To vote is to abdicate. To name one or several masters for a short or long period means renouncing one’s own sovereignty” (On Voting, http://libraryqxxiqakubqv3dc2bend2koqsndbwox2johfywcatxie26bsad.onion/library/elisee-reclus-on-voting) So, I strongly disagree that even the word “principled” can be used in any relation to authoritarian (state) marxist so0called socialists (see Makhno on that topic).
I see where you’re coming from, but we disagree. That’s not because we are willing to name masters for any period, no matter how short. It’s because there are other uses for a vote:
1. To signify a political position, in circumstances where there is no possibility of the person to whom you are attaching your vote winning election. This is the circumstance that applies in the current election.
2. To send someone into Parliament as an oppositionist, someone who has no intention of participating in the government and who instead would be a blockage in the system. These people would have to meet the test we set out in the article. Basically, it’s what Lenin said socialists should do in Parliament. Our criticism of Lenin’s position on Parliament is not over what he said principled MPs should do, but over the massive diversion of the movement’s resources into an arena where very little can be achieved. While we agree that some things can be achieved, the opportunity cost is huge. The same effort directed to grassroots struggle would reap much greater dividends.
In addition, the people attempting to justify getting into Parliament by using Lenin’s argument are walking a very slippery path. There is a constant temptation to elide the hard questions and play up the prospects of Parliament delivering progress, just to get votes. The Bolsheviks managed to avoid falling into the trap of Parliamentarism, but it must be remembered that the Russian Duma was only an advisory body, not a fully fledged legislature. I’m not aware of any group of socialists since then who have gained members of Parliament & successfully adhered to Lenin’s rules on how to behave in a principled manner for any sustained length of time.
For the record, the Victorian Socialists won’t meet our test for how a principled socialist should behave in Parliament, principally because they don’t explain that there is no Parliamentary road to socialism. In this case, your criticism would apply to their candidacy. And we wouldn’t recognise any vote for them as principled if they have a chance, no matter how remote, of victory (something that they might have in the Victorian election later this year).
Thank you for the detailed response to my comment! To me, its form and content indicate a serious and responsible tone worthy of respect. Since you were so kind as to engage in dialogue, I shall try to reply in kind, as this is an important question to me as an anarchist.
Firstly, I want to clarify that I see this discussion not as just some obscure theoretical exercise, but of concrete tactical significance in the struggle for social revolution (without which, I’m sure you’ll agree, anarchism is meaningless). Secondly, I also want to clarify that I agree with the main argument and bulk of what you said. It is only a couple of points (not all) in your last two sections that concern me. Those are (a) your assessment of “socialist parties” and (b) what you called “other uses for a vote” in your reply.
(a) Looking, for example, at the main aims set out in Socialist Alternative’s “Statement of Principles” at face value, your assessment seems justified. Yet, consider for a minute the underlying implications of their “fight… to reclaim the… politics of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky”. This “fight” is mutually exclusive with their stated objective of a “society… democratically controlled by the working class”. As anarchists, we know that their “politics of Marx” (et al.) inevitably leads not to ‘socialism’, but “the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and elitist of all regimes” (Bakunin, On the IWA and Karl Marx, 1872). They therefore do not actually advocate socialism, but despotic state capitalism. Never forget, among the heros of Socialist Alternative’s “politics” are the ones who shot anarchist (and other) revolutionaries in cold blood. History has shown that to support such “socialists” is to endorse counter-revolution.
(b) (1) The very act of voting for a candidate to parliament “to signify a political position” undermines the (potential) political independence of workers, which is based on experience of direct action in “the struggle for full economic rights against oppressive exploitation”. It is only this that “places the proletariat outside the activity and political conniving of political parties within the State… placing itself outside all bourgeois politics, the proletariat necessarily turns against it” (ibid). In other words, social revolution requires the opposite of what you recommend because engagement with ‘political conniving’ (i.e., the process of State and Authority) will “kill the spirit of creation and free activity, and cultivates in [the masses] the servile psychology of submission” (Dielo Truda, The Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, 1926). [Much more can be said, but that’s the point in sum]
(2) That you cite Lenin of all people as an authoritative source for an anarchist position is frankly astounding. This is the treaturous “crafty-Lenin” , who, on their face-to-face meeting, Makhno said had “a degree of guile and hypocracy… rarely encountered in a master-politician” (Makhno N., “On the 10th Anniversary of the Insurgent Movement in Ukraine”, Dielo Truda, 1928). Further, the Bolsheviks did actually fall “into the trap of Parliamentarism”, not in the Duma, but by participating in Constituent Assembly elections (see Yartchuk, Kronstadt in the Russian Revolution, 1921). They were out and out political opportunists, straddling the fence. So, Lenin himself didn’t “successfully adhere to Lenin’s rules”. Finally, apart from Lenin’s lack of credibility on this matter, evidence of any (bourgois) socialist (such as Socialist Alternative) “oppositionists” ever being a “blockage in the system” in terms of undermining its power appears nil in fact. As you yourself said accurately, “I’m not aware of any group of socialists… [who behaved] in a principled manner for any sustained length of time”.
That’s enough from me I’m sure, but I hope it’s food for thought for someone.
Thank you very much, Comrade, for your thoughtful contribution. Once again, I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t agree with all of it. In part, it’s because there’s a subtle distinction you’ve missed. Another part is because of the unstated reasons behind the structure of our article.
1. Firstly, we’re not advocating a vote for anyone, let alone campaigning for them. If we were advocating a vote for the Victorian Socialists, it would be in the headline. Instead, we’re engaged in analytical argument, attempting to draw a distinction between principled & unprincipled actions. We’re perfectly happy for Anarchists & other workers to abstain from casting a formal vote, even when there is the opportunity to vote for the Victorian Socialists. What we’re saying is that using one’s vote to send a particular political signal to the rest of the working class is a principled thing to do, if you’re considering it. It is very different from nominating someone to run the capitalist State, even if they’re the lesser of two evils.
In addition, your argument about voting “undermining the political independence of workers” would only apply if we were advocating voting as a strategy. The article as a whole makes it clear, I hope, that we don’t. Our priority, like yours, is building the class struggle, so if helping out at a picket line or going to a political meeting would interfere with someone getting to the polling booth, we’d say to miss out on voting. The political signal we talk about is minor and symbolic. It should give way to practical activity when there’s a choice.
My final point on the meaning of the vote is that I don’t agree that the State Socialist parties (and the Victorian Socialists in particular) are advocating “despotic State capitalism”. I think it’s important to have due respect to their subjectivity and to accept that they advocate a society controlled by the working class and its organisations, engaged in as rapid a transition to communism (a Stateless, classless society) as possible. As Anarchists, we understand that their method will get them nowhere near that, but instead to a most ferocious despotism. The relevance of this distinction is that the vision of Socialism they put forward is fuzzy enough that they aren’t asking workers to endorse the crimes of Lenin & Trotsky and thus the meaning that is communicated by a vote for them is not contaminated. You will note Point 7 of our Statement of Shared Positions:
In it, we set a requirement that:
“the candidate be clearly standing for Socialism and not to have disgraced themselves before the whole working class (as, for instance, the SWP has in Britain with its rape apologism)”.
Candidates of the CPA or the CPA(M-L), if they ran, would be disgracing themselves by standing by the crimes not only of Lenin, but of Stalin, who is comprehensively discredited in the eyes of the working class. A vote for either party would be contaminated by their well-deserved reputation.
2. You’re offended by me citing Lenin because you regard it as me regarding him as “an authoritative source for an Anarchist position”. I’m sorry you have misinterpreted my purpose.
The MACG believes that the traditional Anarchist critique of electoral politics is adequate for most purposes, but it fails when it is used in debates with Leninists, because it doesn’t address the arguments that Lenin put forward for participating in elections. Our movement just talks by them. The section on Socialists in our election article, therefore, takes the Leninist argument seriously and addresses it. In the course of this, we do two things:
(a) We accept that Lenin was correct in stating it is possible to enter a capitalist Parliament on a principled basis and in setting out the conditions under which it is possible. We then argue that, despite that, Lenin was wrong to advocate running for Parliament, because it is a waste of the movement’s resources. A longer article would go into much greater depth about this, demonstrating that principled Socialists in Parliament would achieve very little because they are not prepared to engage in horsetrading of the “I give you this, you give me that” variety. Further, being honest about the need for a workers’ revolution would greatly cut into the vote that Socialists receive. Under current conditions, it would be impossible for them to be elected.
(b) We set out Lenin’s criteria for Socialists being principled in Parliament and point out that candidates with a chance of success must meet it. We didn’t pursue it any further in that article, because no Socialist could possibly hope to succeed in this election. On the other hand, we went a lot further in our article on the 2018 Victorian election:
In this election, the Victorian Socialists had a small but real chance of success in the Northern Metropolitan Province of the Legislative Council, so we applied Lenin’s test. VS failed it, even though we were being generous on a few criteria, because they weren’t being honest about the need for a revolution.
Our citing of Lenin therefore isn’t because we regard him as an authoritative source for Anarchism, but because the Leninists whom we are addressing with that argument regard him as authoritative. Lenin’s position provides a strategic fulcrum for the Anarchist one – groups that meet his criteria won’t be elected, while groups that don’t are acting in an unprincipled manner that won’t advance the cause of Socialism. In either case, honest revolutionaries must accept that running for Parliament isn’t a good idea, even if it’s theoretically possible to behave in a principled manner once you’re there.
Finally, we engage with the Leninist position in order to win arguments with Leninists. Many members of Socialist parties genuinely want a workers’ revolution. This is particularly the case with Cliffite groups, which recruit on the basis of wanting “Socialism from below”. The larger part of winning arguments with them is, of course, demonstrating in practice that Anarchist Communism is nothing like the travesty that Leninists set up as a straw opponent. A secondary aspect, though, is demonstrating where their own arguments fall apart. And, to do that, we need to address those arguments. Without those two things, many Socialists can and do say that “Well yes, there were some ugly things that went on under Lenin, but they were unfortunate necessities, because nothing else will work.”
What makes Lenin dangerous is not that everything he said was wrong, but that he was right about so many things, while being wrong about some absolutely crucial ones. If everything he said was wrong, he would have no current day followers worth mentioning and possibly none at all. However, he does have followers, who take his arguments seriously (though, in my observation, usually far too mechanically) and these followers are active within the working class movement. They are our competition and they need to be bested, not ignored.