Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

3: Parliamentarianism and Revolution

The playwright George Bernard Shaw, in his play Man and Superman, wrote: ‘Every general election is a revolution.’ He was expressing the widespread assumption that, under capitalism, power lies in the hands of elected parliaments or presidents. We commonly hear that a politician has ‘taken power’ following an election. Yet this is mistaken.

The origins of the British state go back to the Middle Ages, with its modern form shaped to suit the needs of capitalism in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. There was no democracy in Britain in the early 19th century. Parliament was chosen by a tiny minority – 95 per cent of the male population was excluded from voting until 1832, 80 per cent remained excluded after the reform of that date, and women did not get the vote until the following century. Democracy was anathema to those who ran the British state at the time. They denounced it as ‘mob rule’ and the masses as ‘the swinish multitude’. The British historian Macaulay wrote in the early 19th century, ‘Universal suffrage would be fatal for all purposes for which government exists’ and ‘utterly incompatible with the existence of civilisation’.

Mass pressure forced extensions of the franchise, but it was not until after the First World War that something approaching universal suffrage was conceded in Britain – and even then some women had no vote and some upper class men more than one. However, the extension of the vote did not change the fundamental character of the state. In his book Capitalist Democracy in Britain (Oxford 1982), Ralph Miliband wrote:

The politicians’ appropriation of ‘democracy’ did not signify their conversion to it: it was rather an attempt to exorcise its effects ... A carefully limited and suitably controlled measure of democracy was acceptable, and even from some aspect desirable. But anything that went beyond that was not. The whole political system was geared to such sentiments.

Where Power Remains

The army, courts, security agencies and civil service were run very much as before, with the same hierarchies in control. At the top were the relatives and friends of those with great economic wealth – and the situation has not changed. Studies of the officer class in the armed forces, the judiciary and the top ranks in the civil service show 80 per cent of their members attended the top fee-paying schools. The occasional police chief from a lower middle class or working class background can expect to be honoured with a lucrative position upon retirement.

The rank and file of the state machine must obey these people unquestioningly. A Whitehall civil servant or prison officer who refuses to toe the line will lose their job. A soldier who disobeys an order faces military prison. They are trained to obey orders and face punishment if they forget that training – and it is those above them in the hierarchy they are trained to obey, not MPs voting in parliament.

What is true of Britain is true of every other country in the world. If most of the officers of the armed forces come from the middle rather than the ruling class, as sometimes happens they are still organised as a caste apart from rank and file soldiers. They live in special accommodation, eat special food, have rank and file soldiers as servants, and enjoy a career that promises most to those who stick closest to the rules. Such people might sometimes fall out with sections of the ruling class, but they rarely forget what divides them from the mass of people.

At elections, voters do not get to choose who will hold economic power. That does not change. So there is no democracy when it comes to economic decisions – about what to produce, how high to fix wages and who has a job. Elections do not alter the character of the state. Even if a left-wing president or a majority of left MPs are elected, the generals, police chiefs and judges remain in place, along with the industrialists and bankers, and society continues running along capitalist lines. Those at the top may go through the formality of implementing decisions by elected bodies, but they do their best to sabotage such measures they dislike, using every excuse not to damage the interests of the capitalist class while that class uses its economic power to force the government to cave in to its demands.

It Has Happened Here

In 1974 a Labour government was elected in Britain that promised to reduce inequality by ‘squeezing the rich until the pips squeak’. The phrase was that of a leading Labour right-winger, Denis Healy. The capitalist class reacted with fury. A top industrialist, Sir Frederick Catherwood, announced an ‘investment strike’. Lord Watkinson boasted of the ‘industrial muscle’ of big business and its ability to confront the government. Major firms and banks began to move money abroad. The Sunday Times described the resulting sterling crisis as the ‘logical climax of the mood of hysteria necessary to produce an agreed incomes policy’ that would cut wages. A follower of the markets told the newspaper: ‘It looks as if they [industrialists] are putting the frighteners on.’

Those in the hierarchies of state did their best to aid big business in its battle. Joe Haines, press secretary to the prime minister of the day – Harold Wilson – later described the behaviour of the heads of the civil service:

From 1974, Defence fought to spend more against Labour’s commitment to spend less; Environment waged war against the railway system when Labour was pro-railway; and the Treasury persuaded the government to retreat from its commitment to a wealth tax. The determination of the Treasury to tell the government to accept policies is ruthless, even to the point where it seeks to create conditions which make it impossible for the Cabinet to spurn its advice.

Journalist Peter Jenkins described in the Guardian how he had been told by ‘an authoritative foreign source’ that the Treasury was using the sterling crisis to pressurise the government. ‘They are constantly in touch with our people saying, “Don’t bail these bastards out”.’

There was no way the Labour government could address the crisis through the exercise of its parliamentary majority alone. It did not control the state machine, and the state machine did not control big business. Harold Wilson was like a weakling in the ring with a champion heavyweight boxer. The only way to stop being pummelled was to surrender. A Labour government that had come to power promising reforms to improve the lives of working class people ended up pushing through the biggest cuts in real wages for half a century.

This has not just happened once. It was the experience of Labour in Britain in 1929–31 and 1964–70 as well as 1974–79, the Socialist-led Popular Front government in France in 1936, the coalition governments of France and Italy at the end of the Second World War, and of the Mitterrand and Jospin governments in France in the 1980s and late-1990s. On each occasion, high hopes of reform gave way to bitter disillusion and discredited right-wing parties seized the opportunity to make a comeback.

The only exceptions to this pattern of blackmail and betrayal came in the 25 years after World War Two. The 1945–51 Labour government in Britain and similar governments in Scandinavia were responsible for some reforms of considerable benefit. However, this was an extraordinary period for capitalism – what some refer to as its golden age. Massive spending on arms, especially by the US, fuelled a world economic boom and governments were able to work with big business to ensure more-or-less continual growth. Profits rose to such an extent under these conditions that employers could afford to give way to pressure for improved wages and welfare services. This was not just true of countries with Labour-type governments – it happened in conservative run countries like France, Italy and West Germany, and in the Tory Britain of the 1950s and early 1960s.

That era is long past. Capitalism today is dominated more than ever before by giant multinationals that reach out from their national bases to manufacture and trade around the world. Governments cannot control the tempo of individual economies under such conditions, however much they collaborate with big business. All they do is dance to the rhythm of the wider system as it gyrates wildly from booms to sudden slumps. But keeping up with the dance involves telling workers to accept reforms of a very different kind – signifying longer working hours, less secure jobs, lower unemployment benefit and reduced pensions.

The word neoliberalism signifies the rebirth of what used to be called ‘liberal capitalism’ in continental Europe and ‘free market’ or ‘laissez faire’ capitalism in Britain and the US. It culminated in the great economic crisis of the inter-war years.

Governments run by those who claimed to be able to reform capitalism proved helpless in the face of that crisis. In Britain, Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald told his party’s conference in 1930 there was little his government could do. ‘So my friends, we are not on trial. The system under which we live has broken down, not only in this little island; it has broken down in Europe, in Asia, in America; it has broken down everywhere as it was bound to break down.’ In Germany, the former social democratic finance minister Rudolf Hilferding admitted, ‘We are unable to tell the people in a concrete manner how we will eliminate the crisis.’ Too much was ‘out of the hands of German social democracy, out of the hands of anybody’, he said.

Instead of running capitalism, they found capitalism was running them and leading to disaster. A year later MacDonald abandoned the party to run a Tory government. Ten years later Hilferding committed suicide to avoid torture and murder at the hands of the Nazis. There is no reason to believe governments operating today under the re-born, free market capitalism can be any more successful.

Bitter Lessons

There are those who argue popular pressure can stop left governments caving in so easily – and mass pressure can certainly have an impact. It can be so great that not only governments, but the state and big business give ground before it. Members of the ruling class can feel similar to the Tory Quentin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham), who told his party conference in the middle of World War Two: ‘If we do not give reform, we will get revolution.’

Faced with mass strikes in 1936, the French ruling class allowed the Popular Front government to push through reforms. So did the Chilean ruling class when faced with the huge upsurge of agitation that followed the election of Salvador Allende as president in 1970. A US-backed attempt at a coup failed miserably late in that year. But on both these occasions, the ruling classes and their state gave ground only temporarily, to play for time. By 1937–38 the French ruling class was compelling the Popular Front’s parliamentary majority to undo the reforms passed in 1936 – and in 1940, parliament voted for collaboration with the Nazi occupation under Marshall Petain. In Chile, the ruling class went further and took armed action to impose its will. After a year or more of economic sabotage designed to turn a section of the population against the government, there was a military coup. In September 1973 General Pinochet moved tanks into the major cities, bombarded the presidential palace – killing Allende – and arrested and murdered thousands of government supporters. Allende had appointed Pinochet head of the army only two months earlier.

In the aftermath of that coup, many of those who supported changing society by working through the existing state – including the leaders of the Italian Communist Party and the British historian Eric Hobsbawm – drew a strange conclusion. They argued the mistake in Chile had been to go too far, too fast, and concluded the only way a reformist government could stay in office was by abstaining from implementing the reforms people wanted. It was an admission that you cannot bring the kind of changes we need to society through the existing state. If another world is possible, we will not reach it through such methods.

This does not mean we should simply ignore parliaments. They are the focus for what most people see as politics and provide the terrain on which arguments about the direction of society take place. When people want to tackle a social ill, they usually look to parliament to do it. So although election results cannot, in themselves, produce serious social change, they can be a measure of people’s desire for change – and make individuals aware of the degree to which others share their desire.

An election campaign can help pull together those who want to change society and offer a chance for them to present their ideas. Success in electing even a single MP or deputy can give a platform for a radical position that can influence the opinions of millions. This was the case in Germany at the beginning of World War One when the revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht used the parliamentary chamber to make a stand against the war, breaking the wall of silence imposed by state censorship. It was also what happened in Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a young socialist from Northern Ireland, Bernadette Devlin, used her election to parliament to denounce repression by the British state.

Most recently, in 2005, the election of George Galloway as Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow provided an opportunity to take the argument against imperialist war to the heart of the US government – the Senate. Parliament is a debating chamber in which, at its best, representatives of different classes, with different notions of what society should be like, can air their views in public. A debating chamber cannot overturn the hierarchies of power embodied in the state, but it can provide a means for mobilising people against those hierarchies.

However, even when there is a left-wing majority in parliament or a left-wing president, such a mobilisation depends on what happens in the streets and workplaces. This was shown in a negative sense in Chile in the early 1970s. It was shown in a much more positive sense in Venezuela in April 2002 after a group of generals staged a coup, kidnapped the twice-elected president, Hugo Chavez, and installed the head of the employers’ federation in his place. Millions of the poor of Caracas surrounded the presidential palace two days later, leading a section of the armed forces to turn against the generals and restore Chavez. Six months later, mass action by the country’s workers stopped a second attempt to overthrow the president during a management shutdown of industry.

Had it been left simply to those in parliament, Chavez would not have survived and Venezuela would have gone the way of Chile. The country’s poor would not have gained the subsequent reforms paid for from booming oil revenues, and there would be no talk in Venezuela of ‘socialism in the 21st century’. As it is, the country’s rich are forced to tolerate reforms out of fear of a renewed mass movement, while biding their time in the hope that the workers and the poor forget how the coup was thwarted.

Last updated on 5 October 2016