WHAT ATTITUDE do Marxists take to elections and representative government? In the history of the socialist movement, there have developed or co-existed two principal and, in the end, quite different and opposing views of the question.
One, reformism, argues that modern representative government affords the working class the opportunity to achieve socialism by electing a socialist majority into office. This view emphasizes the peaceful, gradual transition to socialism, and sees campaigns around elections and the work of socialist elected officials as the most important aspect of socialists’ activity.
The other trend, first outlined by Marx and Engels, and then elaborated by Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, argues for a revolutionary overthrow of the state, based upon the mass struggle of the working class, and its replacement by new organs of workers’ power.
The reformist trend flourished in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, expressed most fully by a former collaborator of Engels, Eduard Bernstein, who wrote in his reformist bombshell Evolutionary Socialism,
The task of social democracy is to organize the working classes politically and develop them as a democracy and to fight for all reforms in the State which are adapted to raise the working classes and transform the State in the direction of democracy.
But even Karl Kautsky, the foremost theoretical leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and a critic of Bernstein’s views, saw “the conquest of political power” as essentially the conquest of parliament. He wrote, for example, in 1912,
The objective of our political struggle remains what it has always been up to now: the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state. Certainly not the destruction of state power. 
Kautsky considered mass action–street protests and strikes–to be abnormal methods of struggle, denouncing an emphasis on them as being “one-sided” and reflecting a “cretinism of mass action.”
In the early socialist tradition, these two tendencies were often blurred by the fact that both reformists and revolutionaries used the term “conquest of political power” by the working class to describe two very different sets of aims.
Marx and Engels on the state, parliament and elections
Throughout their political lives, Marx and Engels always argued that the working class–whatever its size and state of development–must organize itself independently as a class “and consequently into a political party,” as they wrote in the Communist Manifesto.
Just months later, during the revolutions of 1848 that swept across Europe, Marx and Engels, as leading members of a small group of socialists in the Communist League, participated in the revolution in Germany as the far left wing of the radical bourgeois-democratic movement.
With only a few hundred members across Europe, the League was simply not big enough to assert itself as an independent force. But in the course of the revolution, it became clear to Marx that, due to the cowardly and tentative nature of the radical middle-class elements, it would be necessary for the working class to organize independently to safeguard its own class interests.
In his March 1850 “Address to the Communist League,” Marx recommended that in the future course of the revolution, the workers’ party “‘march with’ the petty-bourgeois democrats against the faction which it aims at overthrowing,” but that it oppose “them in everything whereby they seek to consolidate their position in their own interests.”
In addition to arming themselves and organizing centralized and independent clubs, the workers’ party should put candidates up for elections in Germany in the event of the creation of a national assembly as a result of revolutionary upheaval:
Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is indefinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.
The argument for voting against left-wing or socialist candidates on the grounds that they can’t win and are therefore helping the right wing into power has, of course, been a time-worn argument in the U.S. against bucking the two-party system. Engels, in an 1893 letter to an American colleague, pointed out that in the U.S., the formation of a workers’ party is hindered by the “Constitution…which makes it appear as though every vote were lost that is cast for a candidate not put up by one of the two governing parties.”
Marx’s March circular was shelved after revolutionary upsurge ebbed. But Marx and Engels lived to see the formation of the first mass socialist workers’ party in Germany that was able to use the German parliament, the Reichstag, to advance their cause.
The SPD in Germany was formed in 1875 out of a merger between two different parties–one influenced by Marxism, the other based on “winning reforms through a compromise with the Prussian state.” But as much as they came to consider this their party, Marx and Engels were from the start critical of what they considered its political shortcomings and always fought any attempt to dilute its working-class character.
As early as 1879, Marx and Engels wrote a circular letter to party leaders in which they asked if the party had not been “infected with the parliamentary diseases, believing that, with the popular vote, the Holy Ghost is poured upon those elected.” The circular letter also attacked an article written by, among others, Eduard Bernstein. The article applauded the idea of a socialist movement led by “all men imbued with a true love of mankind,” and attacked those who “trivialized” the movement into a “one-sided struggle of the industrial workers to promote their own interests.”
The article called upon the party to be “calm, sober and considered” in order not to scare “the bourgeoisie out of their wits by holding up the red spectre.” It also called for “educated” men to represent the party in the Reichstag.
Marx and Engels attacked the authors, arguing that they should leave the party if they intended to “use their official position to combat the party’s proletarian character.” For Bernstein and the others:
The program is not to be relinquished, but merely postponed–for some unspecified period. They accept it–not for themselves in their own lifetime but posthumously, as an heirloom for their children and for their children’s children. Meanwhile they devote their “whole strength and energies” to all sorts of trifles, tinkering away at the capitalist social order so that at least something should appear to be done without at the same time alarming the bourgeoisie…
For almost 40 years we have emphasized that the class struggle is the immediate motive force of history and, in particular, that the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is the great lever of modern social revolution; hence we cannot possibly cooperate with men who seek to eliminate that class struggle from the movement. At the founding of the International we expressly formulated the battle-cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot cooperate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes.
Engels lived long enough to witness the growing electoral votes of the German party. In 1884, the year after Marx’s death, the party got more than a half a million votes. By 1890, their vote doubled, doubled again in 1898, and again by 1912 to more than four million votes. The Anti-Socialist Laws, in effect between 1878 and 1891 and aimed at curbing socialist influence, actually enhanced social democracy’s reputation as the opposition party.
Engels was effusive over the party’s successes, seeing in parliamentary elections a brilliant means for the party to extend its political influence and membership. In his 1895 introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, Engels summed up the significance of the use of the Reichstag elections by German social democracy:
If universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in our vote it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us of our own strength and that of all opposing parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion second to none for our actions, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness–if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, it would still have been much more than enough. But it did more than this by far. In election propaganda it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it provided our representatives in the Reichstag with a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in parliament, and to the masses outside, with quite a different authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings. Of what avail was their Anti-Socialist Law to the government and the bourgeoisie when election campaigning and socialist speeches in the Reichstag continually broke through it?
But Engels could also see that electoral success was engendering a tendency for party leaders to jettison long-term goals for immediate gains. The more or less smooth growth of electoral support from year to year, the expansion of the German economy, combined with many years where the class struggle remained at a low ebb, tended to reinforce reformist tendencies inside the party. This was particularly true among the upper strata of trade union leaders, parliamentary representatives and party administrators, who saw in “precipitate” action the possibility of state repression that might jeopardize the organizations they had so painstakingly built.
The German party leadership, in their desire to bolster their own opportunism, censored Engel’s “Introduction” cited above, removing, for example, a paragraph that argued, in place of the old revolutionary tactics of street fighting around barricades, the need for “the open attack.”
In his Critique of the Draft Program of 1891, Engels criticizes the Erfurt program of the German SPD for thinking that in Germany the Reichstag–which was, after all, a powerless body answerable to the Kaiser–could be anything more than a fig leaf for Prussian absolutism. Engels warns of the
opportunism, which is gaining ground in a large section of the Social-Democratic press. Fearing a renewal of the Anti-Socialist Law, or recalling all manner of over-hasty pronouncements made during the reign of that law, they now want the party to find the present legal order in Germany adequate for putting through all party demands by peaceful means. These are attempts to convince oneself and the party that “present-day society is developing towards socialism” without asking oneself whether it does not thereby just as necessarily outgrow the old social order and whether it will not have to burst this old shell by force, as a crab breaks its shell…
This forgetting of the great, the principal considerations for the momentary interests of the day, this struggling and striving for the success of the moment regardless of later consequences, this sacrifice of the future of the movement for its present, may be ‘honestly’ meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and ‘honest’ opportunism is perhaps the most dangerous of all!
The two positions–one that the shell of the old society must be burst by force; the other, that the existing state can be taken over peacefully by gaining control of bourgeois representative institutions–reflect different views of the state under capitalism.
The only change Marx and Engels made to the Communist Manifesto came after the Paris Commune of 1871–when for a brief moment the armed workers of Paris seized control of the city and formed their own institutions of direct democracy. The Commune taught Marx that the working class cannot “lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” That is, a state designed to enforce the rule of the most economically powerful class cannot be simply taken over and used by workers to create a new, socialist society.
‘”From the very outset,” says Engels in his 1891 introduction to Marx’s Civil War in France,
the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not go on managing with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, the working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.
In his famous Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels argues that because the state is the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, suffrage cannot be a tool to bring workers to power, but can only be a gauge of socialist influence inside the working class.
“The modern representative state,” Engels argues, “is an instrument for exploiting wage labor by capital.”
The highest form of the state, the democratic republic, which in our modern social conditions becomes more and more an unavoidable necessity and is the form of state in which alone the last decisive battle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie can be fought out.
But while Engels argues that “in the measure in which [the working class] matures towards its self-emancipation…it constitutes itself as its own party and votes for its own representatives, not those of the capitalists.” He also argues that universal suffrage is not the key to working-class emancipation. That will require a clash that votes cannot decide:
Universal suffrage is thus the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the modern state, but that is enough. On the day when the thermometer of universal suffrage shows boiling point among the workers, they as well as the capitalists will know where they stand.
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Engels on the United States
But what of countries, unlike Germany, where workers’ parties have not even been formed and the working-class movement is in its infancy? This was certainly the case in the U.S. in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, which witnessed a nationwide wave of struggle in which U.S. workers took the first steps to organize themselves economically and politically.
In his advice to socialists in the U.S., Engels emphasized the importance of them supporting, and participating in, any movement of the working class that, whatever its limitations, would help it to develop its own independent political party. In 1886, the Central Labor Union in New York formed the Independent Labor Party of New York and Vicinity in order to participate in New York City’s mayoral race. The new party chose single-tax advocate Henry George as its candidate. George himself was not from the labor movement. Indeed, he was a middle-class populist. He had recently written a popular book, Progress and Poverty, which attacked poverty and inequality. In it he advocated a single tax on landed property as a panacea to solve most of society’s ills. In a hotly contested race in which the local ruling class pulled out all the stops to prevent a labor-party victory, George came in second in a three-way race with 31 percent of the vote.
Engels was positive about the election in spite of its shortcomings:
In a country that has newly entered the movement, the first really crucial step is the formation by the workers of an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is distinguishable as a labor party. And this step has been taken far sooner than we might have expected, and that’s the main thing. That the first program of this party should still be muddle-headed and extremely inadequate, that it should have picked Henry George for its figurehead, are unavoidable if merely transitory evils. The masses must have time and opportunity to evolve; and they will not get that opportunity unless they have a movement of their own–no matter what its form, providing it is their own movement–in which they are impelled onwards by their own mistakes and learn by bitter experience.
Engels reserved special criticism for the German socialists in the U.S. for counterposing their “pure” doctrine to the shortcomings of the American labor movement. He argued that they should work inside organizations like the Knights of Labor–the first truly mass labor organization in the U.S. that reached its height of popularity in the great labor upsurge of the mid-1880s–in spite of the fact that its leader Terence Powderly, for example, opposed strikes. The movement, he argued, “ought not to be pooh-poohed from without but to be revolutionized from within.”
This was possible, Engels argued, without the socialists simply dissolving themselves in the movement.
I think all our practice has shown that it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organization.
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Luxemburg and Lenin
Though Lenin was not aware of it until the outbreak of the First World War, the Bolshevik Party was being constructed on a fundamentally different basis than German social democracy. Whereas the German party, as a party that aimed to represent the German working class, embraced all shades of politics in the movement, from reformist to revolutionary, Lenin fought to create a party independent from any reformist trend in the Russian socialist movement. Lenin attributed the differences between Russia and Western European socialists to the conditions of illegality faced by socialists in Russia. But in practice, the Bolsheviks were building not an organization of the whole working class, but only of its most advanced, revolutionary elements.
Hence Lenin engaged in unrelenting polemics against the reformist Mensheviks, who argued for a broad, legal party (in conditions under which a legal party could be nothing but a reformist party), and who argued that Russian workers must not “frighten” the bourgeoisie. More than that, he also argued that the revolutionary Bolsheviks should have their own, distinctly organized fraction, and, by 1912, that they should be a separate party that excluded reformists from its ranks.
In Germany, Rosa Luxemburg was far more critical than Lenin of the opportunist character of the German party–its ossification, bureaucratism and parliamentary “cretinism.”
The kind of parliamentarism we now have in France, Italy and Germany provide the soil for such illusions of current opportunism as overvaluation of social reforms, class and party collaboration, the hope of pacific development toward socialism, etc.
Luxemburg could write clearly about the proper way in which revolutionaries should approach the state and the use of parliament:
In order to be effective, Social Democracy must take all the positions she can in the present State and invade everywhere. However, the prerequisite for this is that these positions make it possible to wage the class struggle from them, the struggle against the bourgeoisie and its state.
Luxemburg was clear that even if socialists were able to achieve a majority in parliament in a given country, this would not signal the victory of socialism. The ruling class would rally around its most trusted state institutions–the police, the army, the state bureaucracy and corrupted party politicians–against parliament if necessary:
In this society, the representative institutions, democratic in form, are in content the instruments of the interests of the ruling class. This manifests itself in a tangible fashion in the fact that as soon as democracy shows the tendency to negate its class character and become transformed into an instrument of the real interests of the population, the democratic forms are sacrificed by the bourgeoisie and by its state representatives.
This is not some theoretical debating point, but has often been the bitter historical experience of the workers’ movement internationally. In Chile, for example, Salvador Allende’s reformist socialist government was overturned in a bloody military coup in 1973. Moreover, in many countries, such as China, Saudi Arabia and many others, capitalism and the market go hand in hand with military, monarchic or one-party rule. Democracy–even bourgeois democracy–is in some cases seen as a luxury that those who rule cannot afford.
Luxemburg belonged to a party the majority of whose leaders viewed the state and parliament along the same lines as Kautsky did. They wanted to “take all positions” in “the present state” not as a means to destroy that state but as an end in itself. Without a revolutionary party rather than the hodge-podge that was German social democracy, a revolutionary line in parliament could not be, and was not, carried out by the majority of delegates–though Karl Liebknecht and a handful of other revolutionary delegates did play that role.
The Bolshevik Party was the first to utilize elections in a really revolutionary way. The fact that the Bolsheviks organized independently of the reformists, the Mensheviks, freed them to follow the course outlined by Luxemburg, to utilize the rostrum of parliament to conduct revolutionary propaganda and agitation.
Like Germany, Russia had not undergone a bourgeois revolution and was still under the heel of a semifeudal autocracy. Revolutionaries were driven underground, forced to operate clandestinely in order to escape persecution, arrest, exile and even execution.
In the mass upheaval of the 1905 revolution, the Tsar issued a manifesto announcing the creation of a parliament (Duma) as a sop to the revolutionary movement. This was not to be a real legislative body but a consultative council to the Tsar that the latter could dissolve at will. Moreover, the Duma election system was weighted to give more representation to big landlords. The Bolshevik Party advocated an “active” boycott of the first Duma. But once the revolution began to ebb, Lenin changed his position and argued that socialists should participate in the Duma.
We were obliged to do–and did–everything in our power to prevent the convocation of a sham representative body. That is so. But since it has been convened in spite of all our efforts, we cannot shirk the task of utilizing it.
Lenin had to wage a determined fight against party members who argued that on principle Marxists should boycott the Duma. He argued that under changed, nonrevolutionary conditions, the boycott was meaningless:
The boycott is a means of struggle aimed directly at overthrowing the old regime, or, at the worst, i.e., when the assault is not strong enough for overthrow, at weakening it to such an extent that it would be unable to set up that institution, unable to make it operate. Consequently, to be successful the boycott requires a direct struggle against the old regime, an uprising against it and mass disobedience to it in a large number of cases.
Lenin therefore attacked the idea of a “passive” boycott–that is, simply abstaining from elections or parliament, a refusal to “recognize” existing institutions even if the movement cannot destroy them. He did not glorify the work, but said, “since the accursed counter-revolution has driven us into this accursed pig-sty, we shall work there too for the benefit of the revolution, without whining, but also without boasting.”
Even so, Lenin was clear that revolutionaries considered participation in elections as only a small part of their activity, and that the struggle in the workplaces and streets was far more important.
We shall not refuse to go into the Second Duma when (or “if”) it is convened. We shall not refuse to utilize this arena, but we shall not exaggerate its modest importance; on the contrary, guided by the experience already provided by history, we shall entirely subordinate the struggle we wage in the Duma to another form of struggle, namely strikes, uprisings, etc.
What did that work consist of? For party work, it meant using the election campaigns to conduct propaganda among masses it normally did or could not reach. And, for the party members who were elected as deputies, it meant using the Duma as a platform to disseminate propaganda, to expose the right wing and the liberal bourgeoisie and to assist in the organization of struggles outside the Duma.
Socialist deputies could use their parliamentary immunity to conduct propaganda that outside the Duma would normally be considered illegal. They could make Duma speeches that, reprinted in the party and non-party press, could reach a wider audience than other types of party propaganda, and they could use the Duma rostrum to expose, in the form of “interpolations,” the various abuses of the system against peasants and workers. Unlike in the German SPD, where parliamentary representatives were the stars in the party crown, the Bolshevik Party subordinated their Duma deputies to party control and saw them as servants of the working-class struggle.
The basic approach taken by the Bolsheviks provided the backbone of the position on elections and parliament taken up in the Communist International in 1920.
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The Communist International (Comintern) was formed in 1919 on the initiative of the Bolshevik Party after it successfully seized power in Russia in 1917. Its aim was to reconstitute a new international of workers’ parties founded on revolutionary principles–and practice–that is, on leading the workers’ movement to seize state power. Its politics were based not only on the successful seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, but also on the betrayal of the German Revolution by the reformist SPD leaders, who helped organize the counterrevolutionary forces that murdered Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1918.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks, along with a handful of revolutionaries in other countries, set up the International with the aim of creating new, revolutionary, communist parties that would be independent of the reformist parties and capable of leading the mass upheavals of that period toward victory.
The First Congress in 1919 emphasized the need for socialists to replace parliaments with soviets, or workers’ councils–to replace sham democracy with workers’ power. The Comintern hammered away at the importance of building communist parties that could overthrow bourgeois democracy and replace it by workers’ democracy. Throughout Europe, revolutionary movements were making these ideas not distant dreams but concrete possibilities.
But many militant young revolutionaries in the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD)–impatient and eager for revolutionary change–interpreted this to mean that revolutionaries should reject in principle all participation in parliaments. “They were for workers councils and against parliaments,” writes Duncan Hallas.
Therefore, they must have nothing to do with any parliament. To do so could only confuse the workers: “All reversion to parliamentary forms of struggle, which have become politically and historically obsolete,” a group of the boycottists wrote a little later, “and any policy of maneuvering and compromise must be emphatically rejected.”
Parliamentarism was certainly obsolete from the point of view of the few thousand members of the KPD and even, at that time, for a wider circle of working class militants, perhaps some hundreds of thousands. But it was evidently not at all obsolete from the point of view of the millions of workers who voted for the SPD.
At the Second Congress of the Comintern, held in 1920, Lenin had to carry on a fight against these “ultralefts” in Germany and elsewhere. It was one thing, argued Lenin, to recognize that parliaments were historically outmoded and another to be powerful enough to defeat them in practice.
Parliamentarism has become “historically obsolete.” That is true as regards propaganda. But everyone knows that this is still a long way from overcoming it practically. Capitalism could have been declared, and quite rightly, to be “historically obsolete” many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the soil of capitalism….
Participation in parliamentary elections and in the struggle on the platform of parliament is obligatory for the party of the revolutionary proletariat…As long as you are unable to disperse the bourgeois parliament and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work inside them, precisely because there you will still find workers who are stupefied by the priests and by the dreariness of rural life; otherwise you risk becoming mere babblers.
In the Comintern floor debates on parliament, Lenin’s main adversary was the Italian delegate Bordiga, who argued that “the tactical experience of the Russian revolution cannot be transported to other countries where bourgeois democracy has functioned for many years.” Any participation in parliament, according to Bordiga, contained the “twofold danger” of assigning too much importance to elections and wasting valuable party time that could be spent on mass work. In effect, Bordiga was arguing that the parliamentary cretinism of the pre-war Socialist parties was the only possible experience that socialists could have in the electoral arena–even revolutionary socialists.
“You say that parliament is an instrument with the aid of which the bourgeoisie deceives the masses,” Lenin answered Bordiga,
but this argument should be turned against you, and it does turn against your thesis. How will you reveal the true character of parliament to the really backward masses, who are deceived by the bourgeoisie? How will you expose the various parliamentary maneuvers or the positions of the various political parties if you are not in parliament, if you remain outside parliament?…
If you say, “fellow workers, we are so weak that we cannot form a party disciplined enough to compel its members of parliament to submit to it,” the workers will abandon you, for they will ask themselves, “How can we set up a dictatorship of the proletariat with such weaklings?”
To the smaller and still-divided revolutionary movement in Britain, Lenin advanced a somewhat different argument. The Labour Party, which drew its support from the trade unions, was as thoroughly reformist as the SPD in Germany–Lenin in fact called it a “bourgeois workers party.” He encouraged various revolutionary groups in Britain to unite into a single communist party, but he also urged them to affiliate with the Labour Party and, according to Hallas, “carry on the fight for revolutionary politics inside its ranks.”
Lenin argued that in order to move beyond the reformism of the Labour Party, workers would have to experience the Labour Party in power. Revolutionaries, therefore, needed to stand alongside the majority of workers who looked to Labour as “their” party and give Labour critical support in elections, and in this way win workers to communist politics. (Lenin hastened to add that the Communists should only work inside the Labour Party if they were given full freedom to operate as an independent organization with its own publications.)
The fact that the majority of workers in Great Britain still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys or Scheidemanns and that they have not yet had the experience of a government composed of these people…undoubtedly shows that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should from within Parliament help the masses of workers to see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens to defeat Lloyd George and Churchill combined. To act otherwise would mean placing difficulties in the way of the revolution; for revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, and this change is brought about by the political experience of the masses, and never by propaganda alone.
The Comintern’s “Thesis on the Communist Parties and Parliament,” drafted by Leon Trotsky, summing up decades of experience of revolutionary socialists in Russia and elsewhere, outlined the approach taken in general by revolutionaries to the question of parliament and elections:
Communism rejects parliamentarism as a form of the future society…It rejects the possibility of taking over parliament on a permanent basis; its goal is to destroy parliamentarism. Therefore it is possible to speak only of using bourgeois state institutions for the purpose of destroying them. The question can be posed in this sense and in this sense alone.
The Proletariat’s most important method of struggle against the bourgeoisie, that is, against the bourgeoisie’s state power, is first and foremost mass action.
The activity in parliament consists primarily of revolutionary agitation from the parliamentary rostrum, unmasking opponents, and ideological unification of the masses, who, particularly in areas that lag behind, are still prejudiced by democratic illusions and look to the parliamentary rostrum. This work must be completely subordinate to the goals and tasks of the mass struggle outside parliament.
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Revolutionaries in the U.S. and elections
Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in her famous debate with Bernstein,
People who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modification of the old society.
Reformism in modern times has degenerated to an even lower point than that set by Bernstein. Many European social democratic parties who formerly espoused the classic reformist view–so brilliantly skewered by Luxemburg–now argue, in today’s “globalized” economy and since the collapse of Stalinism, that socialism is no longer possible. The best we can do is tinker with the system to make it more humane. Though this has always been the real practice of reformism, it now openly proclaims socialism as an impossible goal.
As Luxemburg points out, the debate is not about whether socialists are for reforms or whether socialists should turn their backs on the electoral system. As socialists we fight for all reforms that improve the conditions of life for workers under capitalism and give workers the confidence to fight for more. But any real fight for reforms requires struggle to achieve them.
Reformists tell workers to sit passively and rely on elected officials. By doing so, they weaken and demobilize the class struggle that makes real reform possible and prepares workers consciously, organizationally and politically to overturn capitalism.
The U.S. has historically been dominated by a bourgeois, two-party system to the exclusion of a third party–let alone labor or social-democratic–alternative. Moreover, organized, revolutionary socialist organization is still far too small to even consider running its own candidates. More often than not, socialists have found themselves–when not sucked into the maelstrom of the Democratic Party–placed in the role of arguing what is essentially a negative position: socialists should have nothing to do with the two capitalist parties. This has often meant, out of sheer necessity, an argument that those who are looking for real change should sit out the presidential election.
But as Engels’ writings on the U.S. in the 1880s show, there have been moments when working-class, third-party alternatives have, if only for a time, been on offer. In those cases socialists could call for at least a protest, class vote against the two major bourgeois parties, in the hope of cracking the two-party system and creating an opening for independent, working-class politics.
Whatever the tasks that lay ahead, when dealing with the question of elections in the U.S., socialists must remember Lenin’s concluding remarks in Left-Wing Communism:
It is far more difficult–and far more useful–to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to defend the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organization) in non-revolutionary bodies and even in downright reactionary bodies, in non-revolutionary circumstances, among the masses who are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for revolutionary methods of action. The main task of contemporary Communism in Western Europe and America is to learn to seek, to find, to correctly determine the specific path or the particular turn of events that will bring the masses right up against the real, last, decisive, and great revolutionary struggle.