From Socialist Appeal, Vol.1 No.1 February 1935 pp.19-21.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
How unnecessary for a Socialist publication to carry an article considering such a closed question, think old-time old-line party members! Why, elections are all-important! And so they almost are. Yet there are reasons for considering the whole question. Especially are there reasons during this time of increasing militancy, of shift to the left, of general condemnation of much that existed in past socialist thought and practice.
In rapid flight from the theories and tactics that led to defeat, confused thought arises on many questions. To flee from the conservative, bureaucracy-ridden A. F. of L. unions, misguided comrades embrace dual unionism. In deadly fear of political alliances with non-socialists, bewildered comrades oppose the formation of a Labor Party. In an effort to block all tendencies toward reformism, unthinking comrades discourage the fight for immediate demands. The tendency of a moving object to continue in a straight line until another force counteracts it is clearly seen hero. The job of the Marxist is to apply the counteracting force at the correct time; to halt the pendulum in the proper place. This must be done without the least regard for labels such as “left” and “right”.
In the matter of elections, the contused reaction to the old outlook and methods manifests itself in two distinct forms, each flowing from its own theoretical criticism of the past. The first group are those who regard the failure of the Socialist movement to grow rapidly and achieve significant victories as the result of the defeatist attitude of old leaders and of mistakes in technique. The defeatist attitude led to inactivity. Inactivity led to dogmatism, sectarianism, isolation. The mistakes in technique were that the Socialist party propaganda did not speak the language of the American worker, the propaganda efforts of the party lacked dramatic appeal, the programs were not simple, direct, and detailed enough, the party submerged the individual leader when it was leaders that the masses follow.
The second group examines more fundamental errors that led to failure in the past. It examines the theoretical basis of the movement. It considers its maneuvers and strategy. It considers the trade union question, the question of degeneration into reformism, the frequent recurrences of outright betrayal by people put into public office, the illusions created by electoral victories. Then it decides the failure was caused by reliance on victory through the ballot, by the development of labor politicians, by the clinging to peaceful methods of struggle, by illusions about democracy and legality.
The first group adhere to all the basic concepts of the road to power held in the past. They seek to make it a road to victory, first by putting at the head of the party a younger, more enthusiastic, active leadership; then by winning more votes for the party by utilizing every technique that will gain additional votes. Forget the class struggle and give the voters a blue print of the road to socialism. Appeal for the support of your candidate on his superior merits. Hide the party if it helps your man get more votes.
Outside the Socialist party the extreme and classic example of this attitude and this sort of, a campaign is seen in Upton Sinclair and his Epic plan. In the Socialist party this attitude is seen in many tendencies working in the direction of Sinclairism and Epicism within the framework of the party.
In our present aldermanic elections the “Waltmire for Alderman Club” and its support of an individual is an example of this tendency. Do not the non-socialists who support Waltmire as a good man know he is a socialist? Sure they do. Then won’t they support him as a member of the Socialist party (and not despite his being a member of the party)? Then why hot direct their Support of an outstanding socialist in the community to a support of the Socialist party in the community. Why not a “Socialist for Alderman Club” and campaign? He would not get as many votes as a socialist, object the supporters of new techniques and more militancy. This objection raises the question, the answer to which must establish the purpose of the Socialist party in going into an election and give the answer to the title of this article, “Of What Importance An Election?”
If the “logic” behind the tactics of concealing everything and of presenting the most alluring platform, in order to get elected, were carried to its logical conclusion, the Socialist party should organize as a secret conspiratorial organization which would run innocent-looking candidates to fool the public until it had control of the government and then could shout, “Surprise!” as it uncovered it-self and the social revolution would have been accomplished. Even the most naive supporter of the “get votes at any cost” school reject the possibility of sneaking up on the capitalist class when it isn’t looking.
The second view of elections that developed as the pendulum swung away from the old tactics, is one that takes an infantile left attitude toward elections as being useless and at best unimportant weapons in the class struggle. This is the reaction to seeing the futility of an electoral struggle in the decisive periods when Capital and Labor lock horns in life-and-death struggle. The old situation which saw party branches remain dead for months until election time made them beehives of activity has been replaced by a situation in which many branches see no increased activity, no increased enthusiasm, no increased interest at election time. This attitude, in its failure to distinguish between the power of the ballot to bring the final victory and the use of the ballot as a tactical weapon, is as pitiful as the attitude of the men of action and new approaches.
The importance of an election to a revolutionary party lies in the fact that it (1) gives the party the opportunity to reach the masses when their political consciousness is at a high level; and (2) servos to measure the political shifts and tendencies caused by changes on the economic and political scene.
We must utilize the election to place before the workers the program and demands of the Socialist party in sharp contrast to those of the capitalist parties.
We must capitalize on the greater readiness of the workers to read political literature, attend political meetings and take part in political discussions to familiarize the worker with the Socialist movement.
We must use the election as the time to rally all our forces, all the support we have built up in constant work on the industrial field, among the unemployed, in the fight against fascism and war, etc.
We must use the election to teach workers the political nature of all their demands, the connection between their employer and the state, the connection between their status and the economic system.
We must direct all the discontent expressed in the outbreak of strikes, the unemployed demonstrations, the anti-war movements, in all the struggles for various demands that we supported, against the political powers and the ruling class they represent.
We must closely analyze election results to read from them the shifts in the moods and sentiments of the masses. The German elections preceding Hitler’s conquest of power should have been gold-mines of information for the leaders of the German working-class.
Are elections important? Need an answer be given after these facts have become clear?
Last updated: 08.2.2009