Th. Rothstein 1919

Parliamentarism and Trade Unionism

John Bryan Sums up the Debate

Source: The Call, 11 September 1919, p. 2-3 (Originally written under his pseudonym John Bryan)
Transcribed: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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.

I should have been, at a loss to account for the passion and acerbity which comrade Fairchild—otherwise a gentle-mannered and courteous opponent—introduced into the present discussion were it not for the fact, established in the course of the discussion itself and apparently known to him before, that he and comrade Alexander are, on the question at issue, in a hopeless minority in the party. I regret very much his position, because I should have preferred him and Alexander to be on our side; but as it is, I rejoice to see that the bulk of the party is advancing, with the time and is now where all really revolutionary Socialists are and ought to be.

Fairchild and Alexander simply do not understand my—may I say, the party majority’s?—standpoint. Neither, of them, so far as I am aware, have ever belonged to the Revisionist school, and both of them used to class themselves as Marxists and Social Democrats, adherents of class war tactics, etc. A such, they always opposed the shallow view that Labour could gain possession of political power gradually, that is, by building up a majority in Parliament and on local bodies, or that the socialist revolution could be accomplished by a simple act of parliament. What has happened to upset this attitude and to turn our two comrades into Revisionists? Is it that we have since had a number of revolutions on the continent which have strikingly borne out the old Marxist contention? Alexander, in his zeal, goes so far as to adduce “facts and figures” after the manner of Bernstein or Mallock, which tend to deny not that any but a “parliamentary” revolution is possible, but that a Socialist revolution in any shape or form is conceivable at present or within reasonable future.

Fairchild is more cautious in treating his subject. He remains on the common Socialist ground, but thinks that in this country, at any rate, a revolution is only possible through a “Socialist-Labour” parliament. If he had said (as Engels once thought it possible) that a revolution need not in this country assume the form of an open rebellion of the masses, but might conceivably take place through parliament, his view might have been right or wrong, but need not have been shallow or opportunist. But when he discards in advance all but the so-called “constitutional” method, he simply proves that he has succumbed to the vulgar teachings of our bourgeois press and bourgeois professors and that he has forgotten the revolutionary past of this country. Does he really wish us to believe that the modern bourgeois rule in England through an all-powerful parliament dates only from the peaceful event of 1688, which bourgeois historians like to call “glorious,” because they do not want us to remember the period immediately preceding it? Does he really himself believe that the passing of the Reform Act in 1832, which was brought about “only” by a run on the Bank accompanied by a threat of armed rebellion, can at all be compared with the socialist revolution in method? I ask him (as I already did in my first articles) to imagine what would the capitalist class of this country (disposing, as he himself admits, of much more effective weapons than parliamentary resolutions and acts, viz., of an army and a bureaucracy) do, if and when it saw Labour returning a revolutionary Socialist majority (for only such a majority, and not a majority after the Australian Labour type, would count in this connection) to parliament? He knows the kind of brute which is awakened in the capitalist soul by any attempt against capitalist property. Does he believe that the capitalist class would tamely watch and ultimately submit to its fate if the impossible should ever happen, namely, that a revolutionary-minded working class would patiently go on building up a parliamentary majority at intervals of five or so years? He says: Any disobedience on the part of the members of the bureaucracy (does it apply also to the army?) would have to be answered by “compulsion from above”—for instance, by stoppage of salary. Again, does he really believe—especially after the Russian and German instances of bureaucratic sabotage and boycott—that this method of “compulsion” would prove effective? I never really thought Fairchild capable of such infantile illusion. It may be—and if Fairchild had based his argument on such a possibility, I should not have quarrelled with him—that if the capitalist class sees itself confronted with a united and determined working class, on the one hand, and with a wavering army and police on the other, it will choose the better part of valour and peacefully abdicate, as the Tsar or the Kaiser abdicated in similar circumstances. But whether violent action does take place or not is immaterial: the decisive factor is the presence of a force, and not any act of parliament.

All this is so stale and so little, in reality, affected by recent events on the continent that I am surprised that Fairchild and Alexander should become so excited over my thesis. Recent events have only made it clearer than before that Parliament, that is, the system of government through representatives elected for a number of years and standing under no control of the people, a system under which the people, except in its capitalist sections who are able to direct and to order the executive power about by most direct, albeit private, methods, has absolutely nothing to do with the government of the country even under most pronounced “democracies,”—that Parliament, I say, is a wonderful invention of the bourgeoisie and is utterly incompatible with the requirements either of a socialist revolution or a socialist, i.e., really popular regime. It seems to me that anyone who wants to abolish the dictatorship of the capitalist class and to establish the rule of the working class must repudiate the parliamentary form of government both as a permanent system and as a means of bringing about the socialist revolution. It is, of course, in the interests of the ruling capitalist classes to surround that system with a halo and to assure the working class of the wonderful efficacy of parliamentary government and so-called constitutional methods; but I should have thought a man like Fairchild ought to have long freed, himself from this pernicious spell. Is it really too late?

To state once again my opinion bluntly, the socialist revolution will not be brought about by an act of parliament nor through the trade unions—the last for reasons set out in my first articles and since borne out by the ludicrous behaviour of the Triple Alliance, the miners, and the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress—but by the “direct action,” in one form or another, of the masses themselves, outside Parliament, outside the trade unions and, probably also, outside the Socialist parties. How and when this will come about, is not within human competency to forecast; but one thing is certain: the moment of the revolution will be brought nearer and its methods will be more efficacious in proportion as we succeed in making it clear to the masses that present class and must be replaced by the dictatorship—or call it, undivided rule—of the workers, and that the specific form under which the rule of the workers can be realised is the Soviet form. I am not going to restate again what that form is; I shall only remark that Fairchild, who is comparing it with the present local governing bodies, has evidently failed to grasp even its elementals.

Considerations of space prevent me from dealing with the numerous other interesting points raised by Alexander and Fairchild in their articles, and compel me to confine myself to my supposed contradiction on the question of parliamentary warfare. This contradiction has been discovered both by Fairchild who wittily compares me with the Russians in the days of St. Vladimir, on the one end of the pole, and by comrade Adshead, who brutally withdraws from me the intellectual leadership of the party (to which, alas! I never aspired), on the other. I think they would have done well if they had, on this point also, recalled the Marxist teachings in the past. Did we not always fight the Revisionists, on the one hand, for what we used to call “parliamentary cretinism,” and the Anarchists, on the other, for their rejection of parliamentary warfare, and go to parliament, not, indeed, to make the socialist revolution there, but to make use of its opportunities for agitation, for the exposure of the capitalist class and its political parties?

The contradiction between the opposition to parliament as a fig-leaf of capitalist dictatorship and the participation in parliamentary elections and even in the fight on the floor of the House of Commons is not in my head, but in those of my esteemed opponents, who are apparently unable to think “dialectically,” that is, in process, and really imagine that yea is yea, no is no, and what is above it is from the Evil One. So long; as the masses are still interested in parliament and attach importance to its proceedings, we should be fools, if not criminals, if we abstained from making use of its opportunities. To my mind, it was a grievous and cruel mistake, which has, indeed, terribly avenged itself, on the part of the German Spartacists that they, against the advice of their best leaders, like Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht, did not take part in the elections to the National Assembly. It is to this mistake that their own misfortunes as well as the successes of the Independent “Socialist” windbags are due. The same mistake, as they afterwards found out, was made by the Bolsheviks in the elections to the first Duma of 1906. Every Communist party at present, including the “Narrow” Bulgarian, the Italian and the Serbian parties, is taking part in elections, and so did the Bolsheviks in 1917. They did not and do not see any such contradiction as Fairchild and Adshead have discovered in my case, but they rightly judge that the recognised bourgeois nature of parliamentarism ought not to prevent them from making the outmost use of it so long as it exists and continues to enjoy popularity among the masses. We only ought to know clearly the purpose for which we are using it, and do not allow ourselves to be deflected from it.

I cannot deal with the subject here in greater detail, but I shall quote what Lenin—certainly a great revolutionary and a clear thinker—says on it, by way of a reply both to Adshead and Fairchild in answering Kautsky’s contentions on the subject of so-called democracy Lenin says: “Can it be possible that the learned Kautsky has never heard that the stock exchange and the bankers are lording over the bourgeois parliamets the more democracy is developed? It does not, of course, follow from this that we must not make use of bourgeois parliamentarism (and the Bolsheviks have so successfully made use of it as, perhaps, no other party in the world, since in 1912-14 we won the entire electoral working-class college in the fourth Duma). But it does follow that only a mere Liberal can forget the historical limitations and relativeness of bourgeois parliamentarian, as Kautsky does.” Perhaps comrades Fairchild and Adshead will reflect upon these words.