Duncan Hallas

Marx, Engels and the vote

(June 1983)

From Socialist Review, 1983:5, No.55, June 1983, pp.20-1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

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.

The key idea of this well known 1884 statement by Engels, which may have been written with the German Social Democratic Party in mind, is that parliamentary elections, in and of themselves, are never of decisive importance in the class struggle.

There is a myth, put about by some academic Marxologists, that as young men Marx and Engels were revolutionaries but, with advancing age and ripening experience, they came to see the virtues of electoral politics.

Actually the political evaluation, although always in the revolutionary camp, was rather in the opposite direction. In 1852 Marx wrote, concerning the Chartists

But universal suffrage is the equivalent of political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population, where, in a long though underground civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class and where even the rural districts know no longer any peasants, but only landlords, industrial capitalists (farmers) and hired labourers. The carrying of universal suffrage in England would, therefore be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the continent. Its inevitable result, here is the political supremacy of the working class. (emphasis in original)

The plain meaning of Marx’s words is that, in a ‘constitutional’ state – what is now erroneously called a democracy, a working class majority in the legislature, backed by a majority of the population, can bring about a real transfer of power, without the destruction of the existing state machine.

That view is compatible with the statement of the Communist Manifesto, written four and a half years earlier,

that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.

There can be no reasonable doubt that this was indeed Marx’s position at the tirfle. Twenty years later, in a speech at Amsterdam, he said:

We know that heed must be paid to the institutions, customs and traditions of the various countries, and we do not deny that there are countries, such as America and England and if I was familiar with its institutions, I might include Holland, where the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means. That being the case, we must recognise that in most continental countries the lever of revolution will have to be force; a resort to force will be necessary one day in order to set up the rule of labour.

“Peaceful means” meant electoral means to Marx.

The experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 changed the attitude of Marx and Engels quite fundamentally. Marx had already, in 1852, concluded “the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another but to smash it, and this is the preliminary condition for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.”

Now this was generalised. Not only is the bureaucratic-military machine an obstacle, it is inherently unusable by the working class.

One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.

says the new 1872 preface which Marx and Engels wrote for the Communist Manifesto.

The famous picture of the Commune-state painted by Marx in The Civil War in France, the suppression of the standing army, the armed people, all officials paid the average worker’s wage, all important ones elected and subject to recall at any time, represents the considered view of Marx and Engels, in their later years, of the essential instrument for the transition to socialism. All subsequent genuine Marxism is anti-statist.

It is only necessary to cite Engels’ 1891 introduction to The Civil War in France, written for the twentieth anniversary of the Commune.

In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation raised in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap ... Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

In this context, Engels’ remark that universal suffrage within the framework of the bourgeois state “cannot and never will be” more than a “gauge of the maturity of the working class” becomes perfectly clear.

Thus, the European socialist parties of the next generation, insofar as they accepted the Marxist tradition – as they mostly did, at least nominally – inherited a dual attitude to electoral contests. One the one hand, they contested elections within the framework of bourgeois legality so far as they were allowed to. On the other hand they were, in theory, committed to the socialist revolution.

The rise of reformism

By 1912 The German Social-Democratic Party was a legal mass organisation which, that year, won 34 percent of the total pci1 in the Reichstag elections and returned 110 deputies. Its Austro-Hungarian counterpart had 82 deputies. The French party elected 102 in the spring of 1914. The Italian party returned 78 in 1913.

Theoretically, and to some extent even in practice, these deputies were committed to intransigent opposition, not merely to the government but to official society. Grouped in the Second International, the European socialist parties had rejected participation in bourgeois government and also collaboration with ‘progressive’ bourgeois parties.

Of course, to a great degree, this apparent virtue was the result of lack of serious temptation. By and large, bourgeois governments did not want socialist participation in office prior to 1914.

When the great crisis came in August 1914 most of the socialist parties in the main belligerent countries collapsed into support for ‘their own’ governments and ‘their own’ states; states that were considerably more militarised and bureaucratised than the French state of the seventies which Marx had called “a monstrous parasitic growth.” In short, they abandoned the struggle for socialism.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute this simply to electoralism. Certainly, the parliamentarians and municipal councillors became, as a group, a conservatising influence, as they were to a degree ‘assimilated’ into the milieu of official bourgeois politics. But it is easy to overestimate this effect by seeing it in the light of later events.

More fundamental factors were at work. For Lenin, the explanation was the development of a labour aristocracy:

the comparatively cultured and peaceful life of a stratum of privileged working men "bourgeoisified them, gave them crumbs from the table of their national capitalists.

Again, it is easy to exaggerate this factor. As a matter of fact, the anti-war movements of 1916-18 in many cases drew substantial support from skilled and highly paid workers, most notably in Germany.

Something else was happening in the decades before 1914. The growth of relatively stable mass working class organisations gave rise to a labour bureaucracy. A host of functionaries in the unions, the parties, the co-operatives – a much broader layer than the parliamentary deputies. The core of this layer, the trade union officialdom, is by the very nature of its function committed to negotiation and compromise within the framework of capitalism and to preserving the often very considerable assets of its organisations – by 1914 the German SPD and its associated unions owned property worth the then very considerable sum of 90 million marks. The pressure of the bureaucracy, dominant in the big parties, was and is, for legality at all costs.

Thus Kautsky, the theoretician of the SPD, proclaimed that it was “a revolutionary party but not a revolution-making party”. The thesis was that the party confined itself to legal political work, and the revolution would happen anyway as a result of ‘great historic forces’. But what was the nature of this legal activity? Not supporting workers in struggle in the work places – that is for the unions. Therefore elections become central, not as a “gauge of the maturity of the working class”, but as a prime end.

Not surprisingly, by 1918, Kautsky had come to the position that: “By the dictatorship of the proletariat we can mean nothing other than the rule of the proletariat on the basis of democracy,” i.e. on the basis of the existing military-bureaucratic state. Only the fact that his intellectual capital had been invested in ‘Marxism’ prevented him from disavowing the whole concept outright. His successors, of course, did precisely that. Electoral activity then came to mean seeking to win a parliamentary majority to administer capitalism, of course more ‘humanely’, ‘efficiently’ or whatever.

‘Democracy’ became the flag under which the social-democrats fought against workers’ power, against socialism. It still is. Yet we are for democracy. The working class cannot possibly rule on any other basis. How is the contradiction resolved?

Our Tradition: The Communist International

The First Congress of the Communist International declared:

Democracy assumed different forms and was applied in different degrees in the ancient republics of Greece, the medieval cities and the advanced capitalist countries. It would be sheer nonsense to think that the most profound revolution in history, the first case in the history of the world of power being transferred from the exploiting minority to the exploited majority, could take place within the time-worn framework of the old, bourgeois parliamentary democracy, without drastic changes, without the creation of new forms of democracy, new institutions that embody the new conditions for applying democracy.

That is our position. The ‘new forms’ can only be organs of direct working class rule.

We are for the defence of bourgeois democracy – more precisely the defence of democratic rights – against attacks from the right.

We are, in principle, in favour of electoral activity but only as a subordinate form of activity, only as an auxiliary to direct working class action, never as an end in itself

We are for workers’ power on the basis of the direct rule of working class organisations, whatever specific form this may take. This involves far, far more elections but on a new basis.

“The abolition of state power is the goal of all socialists, including and above all Marx”, declared the resolution cited above. “Unless this goal is reached, true democracy, that is equality and freedom is not attainable.” And the road to the abolition of state power is the road of revolution and the commune-state, not the road of reformist electoralism.


Last updated on 9.11.2003