First Published: FORUM for Marxist-Leninist Inner-Party Struggle, Supplement, October 1964.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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In the past year or more a large amount has been written on the sheer idiocy of “parliamentarism” as a prospective revolutionary method, by the C.P.C. and many other Marxist-Leninists. Lenin has been quoted and re-quoted. Experience has been pointed at again and again in showing the impossibility of achieving working class political power via a parliament. These are important contributions to the exposure of revisionists. But in Britain Gollan and company have evolved their own special variety of nonsense and in fact they claim (and rightly so) to being the pioneers of the “parliamentary Road”.
It is topical, and one contribution Marxists can make to the forthcoming General Election, for an analysis to be made of views of revisionists of electioneering in the light of the facts of the British electoral system.
Let us take a conception of central importance to the parliamentary road put forward in the Communist Party Syllabus for New Members, Our Aim is Socialism, in 1962.
Parliament is rooted in British History. Through it the British people have expressed their aspirations for social advance for centuries (English Revolution 1640; Chartism 1840; General Election 1945), parliament could play a key role in the development of socialism in Britain. (Page 15).
This is indeed “new thinking”. Many modern bourgeois historians would be amazed to hear that Cromwell’s Parliaments were a means whereby “the British people expressed their aspirations”, although bourgeois historians of last century, at the height of British capitalism, like Macaulay, were quite convinced that the bourgeoisie were the people and that parliament therefore was a popular tribute. It would appear that the revisionists, going one better than contemporary bourgeois historians are travelling back to Good Queen Victoria’s days.
Similar historical contortions have been made regarding the Chartists and the 1945 General Election, Gollan and company have conveniently forgotten the Chartist involvement failed.
Engels wrote of the Charter itself, “as regards the workers it must be stated, to begin with, that no separate working class party has existed in England since the downfall of the Chartist Party in the 50’s...Nor could it have been otherwise...In a country where the ruling classes have set themselves the task of carrying out, parallel with other concessions, one point of the Chartists programme, the Peoples Charter, after another.” “The English Elections” published in Der Volkstaat, March 4, 1874). “The manufacturing capitalists form the Chartist opposition .... had learned and were learning more and more that the middle class can never obtain power over the nation except by the help of the working class.” (Preface to the English Edition of The Working Class in England 1893 (Writers emphasis)
This last point of Engels is particularly appropriate to the 1945 General Election, described, ludicrously, by Dutt at the time as, “the counterpart of the sweep to the left throughout Europe, following the victory over fascism, the alliance with the Soviet Union, the tremendous role of the Soviet Union and the Resistance movements in the struggle, the triumph of the Left in the French Municipal Elections, and the formation of new democratic Governments with Communist representation in the majority of European countries” (Labour Monthly, August 1945) The anti-fascist war had indeed awakened the British working class to the need to challenge capitalism. A large percentage of them voted Labour in 1945 because there was nothing else at that point they could do to express their desire.)
But what did they vote in? They voted in a political party which had been hypocritically posing as working class since its foundation while working hand in glove with the ruling class. They voted in a Party whose programme, “Let us face the future”, proposed nationalisation on behalf of monopoly, social welfare on behalf of monopoly, and inevitably, because of the last two, increased productivity on behalf of the monopoly.
This Party, once in, commenced immediately to dismember the hopes of the war worn working class. Attlee in his speech of August 15th 1945, prepared the ground for the cold war with the demand to “meet our (military) commitments in Europe”, and began to shore-up imperialism with the call to “restore order” in those colonial possessions over-run in the war. This Party ”nationalised” The, Bank of England on the 14th February 1946, by confirming in office all the monopolists and financiers already controlling it and adding one Trade Unionist (right wing)! This Party by 1947 had clamped on a wage freeze; by 1948 it had begun a war of extermination in Malaya (following up its record in Greece in 1946), and on July 17th of that year opened up Britain to U.S. military occupation. In 1949 this Party signed up with NATO am in August 1950 increased the arms bill as the behest of the U.S. to three thousand four hundred million pounds in the following three years.
These are only a few highlights of a sordid and treacherous history in which this “working class” Party, under a hypocritical mask of “progressiveness”, gave monopoly once more, in Engels words, “full social and political power over the nation”. In what way did parliament after 1945 express the “aspirations for social advance” of the British working class? It is more true to say that Labour using parliament, thwarted, rent asunder and destroyed these aspirations which millions felt after the war and did so, moreover, with the consent, assistance and benediction of the revisionist led Communist Party.
Is “parliament rooted in British history”? Indeed it is in British bourgeois history. More than this, parliament is the instrumental thereby the British bourgeoisie took power (the true version of the English Civil War of 1640-45) and the instrument whereby it maintained power (from 1688 onwards). Gollan and company should have learned by now that no aspect of the State can be separated from the interests of the ruling class which it guards. Neither Parliament nor anything else can simply be “rooted in history”, this is bourgeois idealist twaddle. And if so-called Communists cannot free themselves of such clap-trap the working class is going to continue to be bamboozled into “helping” bourgeoisie – until, that is, the, bourgeoisie drops its mask and shows its teeth. By then we shall already be in the midst of a blood bath.
A transition to Socialism, says the British Road to Socialism is particularly possible in Britain without armed conflict because of the “powerful Labour movement (which) embodies the British workers fighting ability and experience of struggle” and because of “a strong tradition of democratic institutions”. An extraordinary confusion of ideas, indeed! Who has the arms in capitalist Britain? The ruling class. What is the mechanism which will prevent them using; these arms? Moral pressure? Strike action? Let’s face facts. We do not have to go outside Britain to see how stupid this proposition is. In every major struggle in the history of the British working class, the bigger the unity, the bigger the challenge, the more ready was the ruling class to use force.
In 1848, when the Chartists mobilised on Kennington Common to march with the Petition to Westminster, John Russell had troops posted at all stages along the route including Cannon.
In 1926 troops were at the ready everywhere and directly participated, as in thousands of other cases, in strike breaking, a lesser known episode in the General Strike was when a number of battleships were brought to Sunderland where the strike was particularly strong, and their guns were trained at the ready on the town. They were not used because the strike was betrayed, not because the working class was victorious.
Countless times in working class struggle in this country the police have engaged in violence which, unless we are going to be academic about the difference between truncheons and rifles, is armed repression. What is perfectly clear is that the strength of working class unity and organisation is not a guarantee against armed conflict but a guarantee of it if the working class remains unarmed and unprepared to be armed. On the other hand a strongly organised working class t prepared for all forms of struggle, is a guarantee of a minimum of blood shed in the final struggle for power.
So far so good. But when we face facts in Britain today, the assumption of the revisionists that there already is a “powerful Labour movement” is revealed as a piece of pure deception. For years one of the main planks of the Gollan platform has been this strength without which the whole parliamentary structure falls to the ground. Yet at the present time only eight to nine million out of the twenty three million workers in this country belong to a Trade Union, i.e. just over a third. Two-thirds of the proletariat are not even organised at the most elementary level of struggle. Of the eight to nine million the vast percentage hold union cards as a compulsory obligation (i.e. the card goes with the job), not because they are militant Trade Unionists. The percentage of activity taken at the lowest level, i.e. attending branch meetings, is at generous estimate, five percent of union membership.
And of this five percent a lot less than half can possibly be regarded as “Left” or “progressive” (which is a long way yet from challenging capitalism as a system). At the very best this would give a “powerful Labour movement” of less than one percent of the working population of this country.
This whole argument on armed conflict is academic logic chopping on the part of the revisionists which they do not believe themselves. They are fully aware that conditions where armed struggles are a possibility are exceedingly remote as far as Britain is concerned at the present time. But they nevertheless, use this prospect unscrupulously to bolster the line which is put forward as “The Road” in Britain.
At a time of mounting class struggle, when the entire working class is brought into action and is supported by other sections of the population, a General Election fought on the issue of a socialist solution to Britain’s problems could bring decisive results. It could return to parliament a Socialist Labour and Communist majority and establish a socialist Government which, with the backing of the people, would begin to carry through a fundamental social change. In this way, using our traditional institutions and rights, we can transform parliament into the effective instrument of the peoples will, though which the major legislative measures of the change to socialism will be carried. Using the rights already won in the Labour movements historic struggle for democracy we can change capitalist democracy, dominated by wealth and privilege, into socialist democracy, where only the interests of the people count” (British Road to Socialism, 1958, page 10).
What are the facts about this “electoral” prospect?
With the growth of the proletariat in Britain and its increasing militancy before the first World War, the bourgeoisie made certain important structural changes in the parliamentary system. In 1885 the Liberal Governments Re-distribution Bill introduced the single member constituency. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act introduced the £150 deposit. What is the effect of these measures?
The single member constituency insures two things, (1) The possibility of a high majority in parliament on the bases of a minority total vote in the country, (2) the possibility of a complete control of the ruling class of the composition of any parliament.
Here are some examples. In 1924 the Conservative Party polled seven million four hundred and fifty thousand votes out of sixteen million and sixty five thousand, yet a substantial majority was won in parliament and they stayed in for five years. In 1950 the Conservatives polled 12.5 million votes and got 298 seats in parliament; the Liberals polled 2.6 millions and polled only nine seats. In 1951 the Conservatives polled two hundred and twenty thousand fewer than Labour and yet obtained 320 seats as against Labours 293 and the Liberals 6. In 1945 the system worked the other way. Out of twenty-five million eighteen thousand three hundred and ninety thee votes, Labour got only eleven million nine hundred and eighty five thousand seven hundred and thirty three, but they won a majority of 186 seats in parliament over all other parties.
Why does this happen? Quite simply, in a single member constituency system, if more than two candidates stand, whoever tops the poll is bound to represent only a minority. So far this system has operated to benefit two major parties, Conservative and Liberal before the first World War, Conservative and Labour after. On the basis of this system the parliamentary side of the Government boils down to an alternation between two parties, both of which represent monopoly. Before 1918 the difference between them was clearly a difference only between two sets of capitalist. Since the first World War the situation has become more complex. One of the parties representing monopoly must wear the face of the working class – “appear” to be progressive. This has been achieved with the Labour Party over the years of careful adaptation via the activity of the McDonalds, Snowdens, Morrisons, Attlees, Bevins and Cripps. “Left” splits producing new figures such as Aneurin Bevan, are simply a perpetuation of the same trick in modern times.
Apart however from this system, whereby a one Party State “appears” to be two Party, its important long term insurance is that at any time monopoly can control by either winning or losing elections whoever is actually in parliament. If the manipulation of election candidates does not insure this one hundred percent, the periodic alteration of constituency boundaries to keep the constituencies “equal” will. In the electoral rat-race small parties have no chance whatever, and they do not become big parties except on the terms of the ruling class (and the £150 deposit is a second insurance of this).
Labour replaced Liberal after 1918 primarily because the ruling class had to change one of the faces of the one party state to “suit” the militant mood and size of the proletariat, deeply “infected” by the Russian Revolution unemployment, hunger and war wounds. The Labour Party co-operated with this change via the activities of the rats mentioned above, and many hundreds of smaller rats un-named and unsung.
Gollan, Dutt and co. have taken the same road, although whether they will be “successful” is another matter.
These “guarantees” of the continuation of monopoly rule via parliament were brought in at the onset of the crisis of imperialism. Since the first World War, however, the bourgeoisie, have not been idle. If the control of who enters parliament is the first line of defence, the second line is the sterilization of the legislative powers of parliament itself. This has been progressing steadily and quietly over the past thirty years or so. Today “delegated legislation” is more general than not. This means that by a general vote in the House of Commons powers of legislation are handed over to Government departments. This is the form of regulation that most people face today. The regulations of the various Ministries do not directly come from parliament but from the Ministries themselves composed overwhelmingly of permanent civil servants. The Ministers are nominal heads of their departments, but as Harold Wilson revealed in a recent press interview, his experience as a minister proved conclusively that he was entirely dependant upon this civil service (the high levels of which are recruited entirely from the ruling class).
Even within the House of Commons itself, the Cabinet or collection of Ministers, dominates with the Prime Minister as the overall father figure. Voting within the Commons is entirely stereotyped, no member being free to vote as he wishes for fear of having the party whip removed (i.e. equivalent to being expelled from your Party whilst still an M.P.). More and more since 1918 the Commons has become a collection of critics before who actions by the Government (and behind the scenes, the permanent civil service) are simply announced. Increasing cases of action being taken before and without parliamentary approval appeal the nearer the present time we come.
One of the earliest examples was the military preparations which went on between 1906 and 1914 between the high commands of Britain and France. Nothing whatever was known of these even by the Cabinet, until 1912. In 1943 collaboration on Atom bomb research, and decisions on its use, were agreed between Churchill and Roosevelt. Morrison subsequently revealed that not even the War Cabinet knew of these decisions. The full text of the agreement was not known until 1951. The Labour Governments agreement to the establishment of U.S. military bases in this country has already been mentioned and so has NATO. Both were entered into “behind the back” of parliament. Increasingly in domestic affairs, agreements and decisions “behind the Speakers Chair” are a normal part of Government. Key appointments, like heads of the armed Forces. Chiefs of civil service, Chairmen of boards of nationalised industry, Ambassadors, Colonial Governors and, Judges are all made without House of Commons approval.
What does this add up to? For years the bourgeoisie has been preparing this second line of defence precisely against a possible “constitutional coup” by a genuine working class political party. Even if Gollan makes it into parliament (and it is clear he won’t unless he toes the bourgeois line), what “traditional institutions and rights” is he going to ’use to “transform” parliament? Is he going to ask the bourgeoisie politely to vacate their various positions of strength? How does one pull the trigger of a ballot paper or explode an Act of Parliament when faced with guns of steel and high explosive bombs?
As a strategist Gollan rivals Haig in the sheer idiocy of this proposed assault on the ruling class at its strongest points, backed by an army of bare hands and pens instead of rifles. And should the House of Commons be “stormed” the revisionists are likely to find themselves in possession of an empty shell which the enemy has long withdrawn from.
And this leads le a consideration of the third line of defence of monopoly against the masses. With the rise to power of the bourgeoisie in Britain certain specific bourgeois “freedoms” were established. These “freedoms” (e.g. speech, assembly, the press) are in fact geared entirely to the needs of the ruling class. Freedom of speech is closely qualified so as to exclude any serious challenge to the state as the sentence on Saklatvala of two months imprisonment for a May Day speech at Hyde Park in 1926 shows (in fact the restrictions on speakers in Hyde Park repay looking at. They are discreetly displayed on an official board near Speakers Corner). Libel laws and other restrictions insure that “Freedom” of the press is freedom for the bourgeois press.
With the growth of the twin threat of the decline of imperialism and an expanding and potentially revolutionary working class in the twentieth century, these “freedoms” have become increasingly qualified by the steady expansion of the arbitrary powers of the state. One of the earliest, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) introduced in 1914 on the plea of wartime emergency, was used extensively against the working class generally in the First World War and in particular against the revolutionary Clyde Workers Committee in 1916. This Act gave the government free rein to legislate against anything deemed harmful to the state. D.O.R.A. was repealed after the War but the state was set for the steady expansion of similar powers.
The Police Act of 1919 and the Official Secrets Act of 1920 made it illegal for Police to belong to a trade union, thus isolating them from any working class influence whatever, and in the second Act the government was given powers to declare almost anything it desired an official secret. The Incitement to Disaffection Act (1934) was designed to do the same with the Army as with the Police. The Public Order Act of 1936, ostensibly directed at Moseley’s Black Shirts was in reality aimed at working class militancy making it possible to arrest anyone for it using insulting words and behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace”. It is significant that this Act was used by the Labour Government to ban May Day processions in 1950 and 1951. During the 1930’s the powers of the Police to ban any meeting in advance which they suspected might cause a “breach of the peace” were greatly extended. Since 1945 despite conditions of “social peace” the subterranean preparations for tougher times ahead has been going on in the form of witch hunts against communists and militants (e.g. the Radcliffe Report on the Civi1 Service), “security measures” of various sorts and a steady behind the scenes campaign to reduce and eliminate what limited militancy exists in the trade unions.
Worst of all in this saga of growing naked dictatorship is the Emergency Powers Act of 1920. Under this Act the government can institute open dictatorship if it deems the situation requires it (as defined, if any group of people is likely to act in a way which will interfere with the distribution of food, water, ’power, transport or any other “essential”). The fact that these powers have to be confirmed by Parliament after seven days is trivial considering the complete control of Parliament already outlined. It is significant of the awareness of the ruling class of the potential power of the workers at the present time that in the recent postal strike the use of the Emergency Powers Act was being “considered”.
Habeas Corpus, the supposed fundamental “right” of British citizens (i.e. the right to a speedy trial after arrest), is itself qualified. The suspension of Habeas Corpus (which means introducing powers of imprisonment without trial or charge) has occurred frequently in Ireland in the 19th century (there is no Habeas Corpus at present in Northern Ireland), and in the present period in Malaya in 1947, Kenya in 1952, in British Guiana in 1953, in Cyprus in 1955. Wherever colonial liberation struggle has developed Habeas Corpus has automatically been suspended. The latest known example is “Malaysia”.
Apart from these better known samples of the existing machinery of naked dictatorship there are numerous other possibilities which in the period of sharpened class struggle the state is ready to use. What is important to note is that all this machinery is ready to be operated long before any general election resents a serious challenge to capitalism, (always supposing it ever could anyway. In some ways this is all the first defence of monopoly not the third.
What plans have Gollan & Co to deal with this situation? Quite clearly none at all. And even if they had a few secret plans, this would not mitigate their outright treachery to the working class in publicising, underlining and adopting all the constitutional claptrap of the bourgeoisie as “Road to Socialism”. If this were their game they would be guilty of the foulest elitism – elitism, moreover, doomed to failure. For the strength of the revolution lies in the preparedness of the masses to undertake any form of struggle whatsoever. Against this strength no machinery or manipulation of the ruling class can stand as has been proved again and again in modern times in all the national liberation struggles. The unpalatable truth is that Gollan & Co are both elitists and constitutionalists. They hope to direct the General Election “victory” of the future from King Street as today they attempt to take over the trade unions from King Street.
They know nothing of the working class in this country. They feel nothing for the working class. They learn nothing from the working class. They think as the bourgeoisie. They act as the bourgeoisie and they have turned the Communist Party into a bourgeois party. They may yet get into Parliament this way but it is of no account to the working class if they do for they will have merged into one of the two faces of this one party state - the party and state of monopoly and imperialism”
It is not surprising that the general revisionist line of the “Road to Socialism” has produced an array over the years of the most miserable practical failures. So completely have they pinned their hopes to “victory” at the polls that since 1947 they have abandoned party organisation and mobilisation of the working class where this is most effective – in the factories, mines and dockyards.
On the other hand “electoral work”, which has now supplanted all other Party work as the main activity of the Communist Party, has yielded nothing but a constant record of failure.
Parliamentary votes (small enough anyway) have steadily declined. Local government elections have yielded smaller and smaller results. Apart from Stepney the “crown jewel” of the Party, where the original eleven Party councillors were reduced to three (by altering the ward boundaries incidentally), Party councillors in the whole country can be counted on the fingers. In areas where Fascists have stood, their vote at council elections have several times been about the same as the Party’s.
Calls from King Street in recent years for all branches to participate in electioneering have had laughable results among the members. How many comrades know at first hand the experience of running an election “campaign” with the Branch Secretary alone, or, if he is lucky, with one other Branch member? How often has “canvassing” involved waiting for nights on end in election “rooms” for nobody could turn up, and in the end, one or two streets only of the ward have been leafleted throughout this “campaign”. These and many other “activities” are the common and widespread experience of comrades.
And it is perfectly logical that it should be so. For the Communist Party, with the whole weight of the bourgeoisie concentrated against it for years, has become an electioneering party a Party of the old type instead of the new type that Lenin showed clearly it must be if it was to be an effective force. And the answer of the revisionists to this constant failure has been and is to take the road more firmly than ever to liberalisation. In short, the British Communist Party, in pursuit of election victories, has begun the process of making itself quite “respectable”, Comrades should note the tone of the Times reporting of the last Congress (just like any other gathering of serious minded British citizens), and the way King Street crowed over this “recognition”.
What is the answer to all this? Should a revolutionary working class party boycott these election games and rely entirely on industrial action and direct confrontation with the repressive bourgeois state. Sometime has been spent on exposing the farce of parliamentarism and its not so concealed dictatorship of the ruling class. Nevertheless to ignore this activity which has so long beguiled and seduced the working class of this country would be to neglect one aspect of all forms of struggle against the class enemy. True, this would not be as serious as the present revisionist surrender to parliamentarism, but it would nevertheless bear the mark of Leftism with its own retarding effects on the business of mobilising the masses.
The question for revolutionaries is not whether to use the electioneering machine, but how to use it. There is no reason, given the right conditions, why a Communist candidate should not be elected to Parliament precisely because of the defectiveness of the single member constituency system, although the possibility of altering this when it threatens the control of the ruling class is obvious (in France in 1958 proportional representation was abolished in the provinces because it favoured the Communist Party and retained in Paris because it told against the Party). But where this is to be fought for and how it is to be fought for must depend entirely on a correct assessment of the distribution of the most reliable class forces in the country, the character of local conditions and the overall demands of revolutionary (not parliamentary) struggle as a whole.
If the use of elections is revolutionary the number of such parliamentary or Local successes aimed at is entirely determined by the demands of the general situation. A half a dozen successes could be as useful as a hundred. The revisionists, of course, see an election as a majority winning machine. Hence their present policy of pushing up candidates everywhere where they can persuade the membership to do so. Also, if the use of elections is revolutionary, the line pursued by Communists who have gained a foot hold in either local councils or parliament, must be determined by the first priority of the exposure of the fraud of parliamentarism. Modern revolutionaries could learn some lessons from the old radical Charles Bradlaugh, whose reputation for causing disturbances in the Houses of Commons last century, including forcible removal by the police made a wide impact. Revolutionaries could also learn lessons from the use of electoral machinery by the Japanese Communist Party whose co-ordination of exposure with mass mobilision of the working class is daily strengthening the Party in the leadership of the masses.
Has anyone in recent years, for example, heard of a communist candidate in this country, local or national, attacking and exposing the criminal activities of capitalism, whether small or large to the extent of being brought to court and jailed? This is what might be expected if, for example, Communist candidates for local councils attacked and exposed the fiddling of local building contracts by big builders who are on, or have influence on, the councils. On the contrary the polite deceptions of the two-faced system have been regularly conformed with by the Communist Party, and Party election addresses always carefully skirted the possibility of libel actions. When the Labour government of 1945 brought in its phoney Bill for the nationalisation of the Bank of England, Piratin, one of the two Communist M.P.s, deliberately participated in the deception when he described it as “not a full socialist measure” but nevertheless “on the road to socialism”.
Such miserable treachery has subsequently been generalised by the revisionists in the British Road to Socialism. Today they are prepared to sink everything including the existence of a Marxist Party in this country to serve the electoral end.
The removal of the bans and proscriptions directed against the Communist Party (by the Labour Party – writer) is the first step in restoring unity to the movement. This could lead to further steps towards unity including the possibility of affiliation (to the Labour Party –writer) and eventually of a single working class party based on Marxism when the majority of the movement has been won for the marxist outlook.... At every stage in this struggle (against capitalism – writer) a strong Communist Party, working in full association with the Labour Party... is essential (British Road to Socialism, pages 29-30, writers emphasis).
The conclusion is clear. Electoral struggle with revisionist aims, with the aim of winning a majority; with the phoney prospect of legislating capitalism and imperialism out of existence, is a pointless, degrading and politically blinding activity leading to true parliamentary cretinism and the nemesis of revolution.
Electoral struggle governed by revolutionary aims; with the aim of the exposure of the parliamentary fraud in every possible way; with the aim of co-ordinating this exposure with the direct confrontation of the organised working class with capitalism, can be a useful and even valuable flanking attack on the enemy especially in a period before the ruling class has uncovered the guns that are already pointing at the heart of the working class.
Let every Party member at this time of General Election, whose ears are being bombarded from King Street with the fraudulent phrases of parliamentarism bears these things in mind. The enemy is at present among us and around us. We must work so that the position is reversed in a short as time as possible. The working class must surround and penetrate the enemy.
 [EROL Note: Shapurji Saklatvala (1874-1936), a Parsi born in Bombay, became a Member of Parliament in Britain in 1922-1923 and 1924-1929. He was the third Indian person and the second member of the Communist Party to become an MP.]