Th. Rothstein, under his pseudonym John Bryan 1919

Parliamentarism and Trade Unionism

Source: The Call, 5 June 1919, p.4 & 5, (1,865 words);
Transcribed: Ted Crawford,
HTML Markup: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

We are passing through very serious times. Revolution and counter-revolution are coming to close grips in Eastern and Central Europe, while in the West, in France and Italy, the position is far from being stable. Only in this country everything seems to be quiet, the masses thank­fully accepting unemployed donations, Sankey reports, and Whitley-Councils, and the leaders carrying on the old game of betrayal and bluff with as much impunity as before the war. Hence the ruling class of this country is able to assist, without let or hin­drance, the counter-revolutionary bour­geoisie all over Europe, to put down by force the revolutionary spirit in India, to browbeat Ireland, to pick up a quarrel with Afghanistan with a view to its ultimate con­quest and subjection, and at the same time insidiously to undermine all liberties at home, including freedom of the printed word, liberty of meeting, and so forth.

This moral stagnation of our working class, however, is more apparent than real, and is at any rate only temporary. There is a good deal more germination going on in the brains of our industrial proletariat than breaks out on the surface, and the growing reaction, together with the eco­nomic difficulties which the unemployed donation can only mask for a time, will, sooner or later, set the masses in motion. It is our business to accelerate this process by clearing the minds of the workers of what still remains in them of the old and obsolete economic and political notions and by formulating for them clearly and distinctly the new ideas generated by the European revolutions, and, to some extent, already assimilated by the more intelligent sections of our working class.

There is, for instance, in the mind of the workers a growing consciousness that Par­liament is neither an effective or even will­ing check upon the Government, nor itself a source of political and social progress. It is necessary to explain to them that this is neither accidental nor temporary, but is inherent in the parliamentary system as the system of the rule of the capitalist class. The individual voter at election time, who is isolated from his class-fellows, who stands under the combined influence of the press, the platform, the party machine, and the thousand and one influences, gross as well as subtle, of money, of employment, of social and domestic pressure, and who is confronted, singly, with the person of the candidate and with his promises, is, for the most part, quite unable to recall his and the candidate’s class-interests and votes us one detached individual for another. This alone is a powerful factor which is calculated to secure the political predominance of the capitalist class whose members dispose of greater means of propaganda, of influence, and of personal persuasiveness than those of the working class. It is this factor which is responsible for the often un­satisfactory composition of national assem­blies or the reactionary results of a referen­dum. A worker detached from his class, as he is under the prevailing system of in­dividual (as distinguished from corporate) voting, is just as helpless a victim of the master class politically as he is economically.

But the same factor operates in Parlia­ment itself in cases when a sufficient number of class-conscious workers combine to re­turn one of their own class at the time of elections. These solitary individuals, de­tached as they necessarily become from their class, and even from their electors, soon catch the corporate spirit of the institution in which they find themselves members, succumb to the subtle propaganda and genial persuasiveness, if not personal charm, of their bourgeois colleagues, and end by either losing all virility, or by walking over to the enemy side. Even such a large Socialist party as the German or the French were before the war in their respective Parliaments did not possess sufficient corporate strength to resist the insidious influence of the institution, and the overwhelming majority of them, as proved by the war, col­lapsed politically at the first serious test. To this extent the anarchist criticism of Par­liamentarism as a corrupting influence con­tained a large measure of truth.

Of course, if one fine day the whole of the workers became suddenly aware of their class interests and returned a large batch or a majority of men of their own to Parlia­ment, the position might become different, but even so one can only say might, not would. The reason is that, although these men would find themselves in Parliament in their own company, as it were, they would collectively still be detached from their class, and would confront, not only a bourgeois minority strong in influence and in knowledge of Parliamentary procedure, but a whole bourgeois world outside, with its enormous power of criticism, propa­ganda, influence of all sorts, not to speak of possible, or even likely, resistance, pas­sive or active, with or without arms, on its part, as we see it now in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere. How easily such a Labour or even Socialist majority may fail, can be seen from the experience, not only of the various Labour Governments in Australia, but also from that of the Kerensky regime in Russia, and of the first combined Socialist Government in Germany.

All these circumstances combine to make Parliament a real bulwark of bourgeois domination, a mere veil disguising the dic­tatorship of the capitalist classes. It is the specific form of the political rule of Capi­talism, which condemns all efforts to change it from inside, by the employment of Parliamentary means, to futility. It is simply surprising how Socialism has hitherto been unable to realise this essential nature of parliamentarism. But then, one ounce of real experience is proverbially worth more than a pound of theory. It is in the light of the new institution, the Soviets, that we have come to perceive the true failure of parliamentarism. In this manner does day­light reveal the faded and bedraggled ugli­ness of stage scenery which looks so en­chanting in the artificial light of the theatre.

But one more feature of parliamentarism must be mentioned to complete its analysis. Parliament comes from the Latin parlare to talk — and is really a talking shop. It cannot help this, for it is due to the tradi­tional, but quite inevitable, division between legislative and executive functions. One must not forget that Parliament was origi­nally a body intended to control and to check the authority of the King. The King retained his executive functions, but Parlia­ment was called upon to control him by lay­ing down the law and checking its adminis­tration by the King and his agents. This division was retained even after the virtual abolition of the prerogatives of the Crown, because the ruling classes, the landed aris­tocracy and the capitalist middle class, found in it a useful expedient against the lower orders. But this, at a time when Governments became mere “executive committees” of those classes, formed from among “right trusty” and “well-beloved” class representatives, was bound further to reduce the scope of Parliament’s activity by making its controlling function perfunctory, and very often illusory, and by constituting the Government an all-powerful directory. To all intents and purposes the Parliaments, in all modern bourgeois countries have now abdicated their powers, including even legis­lative initiative, in favour of the Governments, partly because they can rely upon their protecting and furthering the capitalist class interests even without parliamentary assistance, and chiefly because a strung and unhampered executive authority is of great use in periods of acute class-strife. Should it come to a revolutionary situation, Parliament will not hesitate to abdicate en­tirely — that is, to adjourn indefinitely — leaving the Government in full possession of dictatorial powers. It is this essential feature of Parliament which makes it a mere talking shop, bereft of all capacity and will for action, and which must necessarily sterilise all reforming or revolutionary effort on the part of its Labour or Socialist members. It is also for this reason that Parliament has ceased to care much about its own prerogatives, being ready to adjourn at any moment for any length of time, and thus to give the Government an opportunity for taking important decisions in the interval. It is, lastly, characteristic that modern Parliaments are never over-anxious to have frequent elections and prefer long periods of legislature to short ones.

The growing distrust of the workers of this (as of every other) country in Parlia­mentary government as a capitalist arrange­ment is therefore well-founded, and it ought to be our business to deepen and to spread this distrust in such a way as to turn it into an opposition. To that end, however, we must also bring forward posi­tive arguments by explaining the advantages of the Soviet system. Under this system the class-sense of the workers is constantly kept alive and maintained in active operation by: (1) the system of corporate (as dis­tinguished from individual) voting in work­shops and various Labour organisations, in which the individual is no longer a detached atom, but feels himself part of the working; class, inaccessible to any influence or allure­ments; (2) by the right of instantaneous re­call of inefficient or disloyal delegates; (3) by the natural and quite inevitable obliga­tion of the delegates to report their doings on the Soviet to their electors in the same manner as any delegate to a trades council or any shop steward does at present; (4) by the concentration of legislative and executive functions in one and the same body — a circumstance which prevents that body, the Soviet, from degenerating into an empty talking shop, or from abdicating its functions — and (5) by this body, the Soviet sitting in permanence. Above all, under the Soviet system there is not one institution only to legislate and to execute the laws, leaving the people outside in the role of passive onlookers, but the Soviets in every area, from a village to a county or terri­torial division, are the State authorities for that area, legislating and administering it to the full extent compatible with the unity of legislation and administration throughout the country. In other words, the people itself, in its actual collectivity, and not merely a chosen handful, carries on the government of the country, legislating, imposing taxes, appointing and controlling officials, electing judges and dismissing them, and so forth. Of course, in the present circumstances, they are frankly class institutions. They embody the rule of the working class. But Parliaments are also class institutions, embodying the rule of the capitalist classes; and when society is split up into two camps which, in times of revolu­tionary transition, are openly at war, it is idle to reproach the Soviets for being “one-sided.” Nevertheless, the Soviets have this advantage, even from the point of view of abstract justice, that when classes are finally abolished through the abolition of Capitalism, they can open their doors to every citizen of the country without alter­ing their fundamental character as instru­ments of real, and not merely nominal, government by the people, and through the people.

(The above is the first of two articles by John Bryan on a subject now universally discussed among Socialists. The Editorial Committee will welcome contributions to this discussion from other comrades.)