Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Dick Jones

Debate on Parliamentary Elections: ’As a rope supports a hanging man...’

Dick Jones puts his view

First Published: The Marxist, No. 13, Winter 1970.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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ANYONE with an elementary knowledge of the works of Lenin will recognise the above heading as a summary of the type of support he advised the embryonic British Communist Party to give the Labour Party in an election. He based his judgment on the reasoning that notwithstanding the fact that the Labour Party was incapable of leading the fight for socialism and would inevitably betray its rank and file supporters, it did enjoy the support of vast sections of the working class. He argued that with a Labour Government in office the task of exposing social democracy as a tool of the employing class, and so winning the masses’ support for a revolutionary party would be aided. This, of course assumed that the revolutionary party itself was capable of taking advantage of the position and was equipped to analyse and act in the prevailing conditions. For a full account of the arguments see Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder.

The problem facing Marxist-Leninists, militant class conscious workers, or indeed anyone who accepts the objective character of any Labour Government, is whether Lenin’s analysis was correct in 1920, and if was correct then, is it still correct today? Or have conditions and attitudes in the bulk of the working class so changed as to make his reasoning no longer valid?

I believe that the general position advocated by Lenin in 1920 was abundantly correct, and to state that social democracy is the prime obstacle to the development of a revolutionary consciousness amongst the working class, is an irrefutable fact. The grip that social democracy, and its twin, parliamentarianism, has upon workers in any advanced capitalist country is nowhere better illustrated than in the history of the British working class. This can be seen through the aims of the Chartist movement of the nineteenth Century, all of whose demands were based upon a reform of the parliamentary system (nearly all of which have been achieved) and through the struggles in the trade union movement to create a parliamentary political party. This background federally linked with other’ constitutional political expressions such as – the Fabians and Co-operative movement, led to the formation of the Labour Party in 1906. Any Marxist analysis, even then would have shown that the Labour Party was objectively an agent of the ruling class, implanted ID the working class movement. Yet in spite of this by 1920 it had sufficient support from the masses for it to be a serious contender in the ’Parliamentary Stakes’. (In 1924 in coalition with the Liberals the first Labour Government was formed). This briefly was the background upon which Lenin based his judgment and on which he gave his already mentioned advice to the CPGB.

Many comrades will argue that Lenin was indeed correct in 1920, but that the position in Britain has so changed that it no longer matters whether a Labour or Tory Government is in Westminster. They go on to argue that we have now had the experience of six Labour Governments (in 1924,29, 45,50,64,66) and the records of these Governments is proof enough to demonstrate that the Labour Party is incapable of bringing socialism and will always serve the interests of monopoly capitalism. They will cite examples of the treachery of successive Labour administrations; the sell out to the Liberals by the 1924 Government, the introduction of the Means Test in the early 30’s, the wage freeze policies of the 1945, 64 and 66 Governments, the sell out to US imperialism, highlighted today by the despicable and subservient role of the Wilson Government in its relations to the US and its war in Vietnam. Also of course this present Government has gone further ’than any previous labour legislation in its use of State forces to attack the rights and conditions of organised labour through the various Prices and Incomes Acts. All of these, and many more examples of the class character of any Labour Government, must constantly be used by any Marxist-Leninist organisation in its propaganda work. But to conclude from this that the basic position as seen by Lenin has changed, is to completely misinterpret the arguments he posed. Lenin was under no illusion (and at that time neither was Pankhurst nor Gallacher) about the role of the Labour Party. Apart from its origins, and therefore its inherent inability to provide the leadership of a vanguard party of the working class, it had already provided concrete examples of its real role, by its refusal to give political direction to the tremendous industrial struggles of the 1910-1914 period, and its complete sell out of working class interests in its support for the jingoism of British imperialism in the 1914-1918 war. The position of Lenin was determined by the fact that the Labour Party had the support (expressed electorally) of the large majority of the politically aware British workers.

We would take part in the election campaign, distribute leaflets advocating Communism, and in all constituencies when we have no candidates urge the electors to vote for the Labour candidate against the bourgeois candidate. Comrades Sylvia Pankhurst and Gallacher are mistaken in thinking that this is a betrayal of Communism, the abandonment of the struggle against the social-traitors. On the contrary, the Communist revolution undoubtedly stands to gain by it. (My emphasis). Left Wing Communism.

Similar arguments as those above, are used by comrades to justify a total dismissal of any participation in campaigns that revolve around parliament. Again it is stated that the last fifty years have demonstrated that parliament is the creation and tool of the ruling class and irrelevant to any struggles involving workers in the fight for socialism. Again I would answer that the role of parliament was as clear to Lenin and other Marxists of that era, as it is today, but he was extremely clear about the absolute necessity for a revolutionary party to participate in parliamentary struggles.

It is true that activities in and around the parliamentary system will not bring socialism to Britain. This is accepted by anyone With a rudimentary understanding of Marxism, but unfortunately the vast majority of the British working class have ’not achieved this elementary political position, and the job of Marxist-Leninists is to lead and develop struggles that will help to bring about this necessary understanding. . .

But we shall break with the opportunists; and. the entire class-conscious proletariat will be with us in the fight – not to – “shift the relation of forces”, ’but to overthrow the bourgeoisie, to destroy bourgeois parliamentarianism, for a democratic republic after the type of the Commune, or a republic of Soviets of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies, for the revolutionary’ dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin, State and Revolution. Kautsky’s controversy with Pannekoek

. . . If you are a Marxist you must admit that there is a close connection between the relations of classes in capitalist society and the relations of parties. I repeat: how will you prove all this if you are not members of Parliament, if you repudiate parliamentary action? The history of the Russian revolution has proved that the broad masses of the working class, of the peasantry, and of the minor office employees, cannot be convinced by arguments if they are not convinced by their own experience. Lenin. Speech on Parliamentarianism 2nd Congress Communist International 1920.

Surely any comrade who repudiates parliamentary activity completely, and at the same time claims to be a Marxist-Leninist, must consider that Lenin was guilty of great inconsistencies.

The struggles to expose parliament and social democracy are one and the same fight. Parliamentarianism and the Labour Party are synonymous. Through all the twists and turns of the Labour Party’s progress in Britain, its complete adherence to parliament and the parliamentary system has been its only consistent feature. Extra parliamentary activities and the linking of industrial and political actions have always been vehemently opposed by the controlling sections of the Labour Party. The roles of parliament and the Labour Party have not altered in any fundamental way since Lenin’s day. Yet fifty years later, it is a fact no matter how unpalatable to some comrades, that the vast majority of the British working class still do not accept that the ’October Road’ is the way forward, still do not accept the revolutionary path to socialism. This vast section will demonstrate its faith in parliament and the Labour Party, no matter how cynically some may do it, by turning out in their millions in the coming general election.

Based on the historical experiences of workers’ and peasants’ revolutionary struggles throughout the world and particularly on the experiences of the Russian Bolsheviks and the Chinese Communist Party, Marxist-Leninists can have no doubts about their strategic position in regard to the taking of power by the British working class. It is imperative that the infant Marxist-Leninist movement in Britain consistently and clearly explains that the working class will have to develop its own organisations and methods of work to overthrow monopoly capitalism and its institutions. It will have to explain the necessity of developing a vanguard party of the working class to lead forward the struggles of the present era and to develop the dictatorship of the proletariat in Britain. The acceptance and understanding of this perspective by large sections of the working class will not be achieved unless it is placed in the forefront of all propaganda, and is related to all struggles of workers in opposition to monopoly capital. However this conception will not be achieved until bourgeois democracy and all of its aspects have been thoroughly exposed in a practical and demonstrative way.

Nearly all comrades would accept that British imperialism is in a state of ever deepening crisis, and that in spite of all its efforts it will not be able to extricate itself before its inevitable crash. This crisis is reflecting itself in the economic base and is shown by the accelerates development of larger monopolies accompanied by the resulting effect upon the working class in the forms of sackings, speed ups and legislation against organised workers. However this crisis has not yet reached the pitch where it is reflected in the necessary parliamentary crisis required for large scale advances in the revolutionary understanding of the working class. This is not to ignore, or underestimate the importance of the recent struggles of the miners, dustmen, dockers, car workers, teachers and steel workers, nor is it to denigrate the importance of the involvement of thousands of people in the Vietnam, Springbok and anti-racialist demonstrations. All of these things are very heartening and should act as a spur to Marxist-Leninists, but to interpret these events as a pre-revolutionary situation or as an expression by large sections of the working class of their rejection of parliament and the Labour Party would be both naive and opportunist. The task of Marxist-Leninists is to hasten the reflection of the economic crisis in its political superstructure. This will not be achieved by ignoring the existence of parliament and the Labour Party, but only by diligently using every opportunity to pressurise and expose them.

Comrade Bordiga admitted that historical experience is not created artificially. He has only just told us that the struggles must be carried to other spheres. Does he not know that every revolutionary crisis was accompanied by a parliamentary crisis? True he said that the struggle must be carried into other spheres, into the Soviets; but he himself has admitted that the Soviets cannot be created artificially. Lenin. Speech on Parliamentarianism 1920.

Throughout its history the revolutionary movement in Britain has been faced with the dilemma of how to combat social democracy. The problem is accentuated during the period of a general election, and once again in Britain attitudes are being taken that because of over simplified expressions are grossly misunderstood. The art of producing slogans that can be easily understood by the masses and yet are politically correct, is not one that is easily learned. However the task of Marxist-Leninists is not confined to themselves achieving a correct political perspective, but is also of translating that perspective into a form that can be understood, and into a form that is capable of developing struggles in a coherent political fashion.

If it is accepted that the prime tasks of the Marxist-Leninist movement are the exposure and smashing of social democracy in order to achieve a revolutionary understanding amongst the masses, then the question has to be posed, and answered in the parliamentary aspect of the exposure; can it best be achieved with a Labour or Tory Government in Westminster? Similarly in the parallel struggle against social democracy in the trade union movement the question is whether it is easier to demonstrate the character of this ruling class implant in the workers’ movement, when social democrats of the ’Left’ or ’Right’ variety are in positions of leadership? The answers to these questions must surely be that the most advantageous situation for revolutionaries to demonstrate the inadequacies and consequences of social-democratic class collaboration is when the Labour Government is in office and when the ’Lefts’, such as Jones, Scanlon and Daly are in the leadership of the trade unions.

It was more difficult to demonstrate the role of the Labour Party during the ’thirteen years of Tory rule’ than it has been since 1964. Opportunities exist with a Labour Government in office to demonstrate both the role of social democracy and of parliament in every major strike, in a much more clearly defined way, than when the simple slogan and all it implies of “Kick the Tories Out” was the dominant political theme.

So the position today for Marxist-Leninists is to advocate the return of a Labour Government, in order that the process of exposure and destruction can continue. This does not mean that we satisfy ourselves with the slogan of ’Vote Labour’. That would indeed be an act of criminal opportunism. It will be necessary for us to fully explain our perspective for socialist revolution, and within the confines of that, explain why we would advocate the return of a Labour Government. That task will not be simple, and will tax the full resources of the movement to demonstrate our stand in a non-ambiguous way. The job of Marxist-Leninist organisations has never been easy, whether they have been large or small, but the feeling of inadequacy that we may have regarding the complexity of the task, cannot be a reason for ignoring the fact that over 25 million British workers are going to vote in the election and will be making a political decision, no matter at what level we may think it to be. Where else but from the Marxist-Leninist movement will a political analysis of the election come? And surely it would be extreme folly having made the analysis and having presented it to the masses, either to ignore the question of how to vote or call for an abstention. The only result of this would be, if we were successful, the certain return of a Tory Government and for this result we would be rightly judged by history and the working class of the world, as being left opportunist and ’infantile.. . . but – and this is the whole point – we must not regard that which is obsolete for us as obsolete for the class, as obsolete for the masses. It is precisely here that we see that the ’Lefts’ do not know how to reason, do not know how to conduct themselves as a party of the class as a party of the masses. You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You must call their bourgeois democratic and parliamentary prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly observe the actual state of class consciousness and preparedness of the whole class (not only of the Communist vanguard), of all the toiling masses (not only of its advanced elements).’ Lenin. Left Wing Communism

Comrades who argue that to follow the tactic of ’Voting Labour to Smash Labour’ is too sophisticated, too subtle and too devious, are really expressing their own fears about their abilities to express themselves. But these modest feelings, no matter how laudable in some aspects of our work, can be no excuse for not attempting to project a correct mass line. Confidence in the masses and confidence in ourselves has been the method of all revolutionary movements that have made positive strides. Surely this is what is meant by Mao Tse-tung when he states ’From the masses and to the masses’.

That is why, I think, you do not want to admit that it is precisely the weakness of very many of the new Communist Parties that compels them to repudiate parliamentary action. Lenin, Speech on Parliamentarianism 1920.

The Marxist-Leninist movement in Britain is not at the stage where it can influence millions or even thousands of workers, but again recognition of this fact cannot be used as an excuse for not projecting a mass line. This is true whether we are involved in trade union: work, tenants’ movements, solidarity with national liberation struggles or in the fight to smash parliamentarianism ’and social democracy. The correctness of our analysis and style of work can only be determined by injecting them into the melting pot of the working class. Without submitting our programme and tactics to the test of action and struggle, we will never know if we are working correctly, and we will never be in a position of influencing thousands and millions of workers.

Some comrades appear to shy away from parliamentary work because of the examples and style adopted by the CPGB, whose founders were after all the recipients of Lenin’s advice. An examination of the ’British Road to Socialism’ and the specific activities of the CPGB around elections will quickly show that the failure of the CPGB to capitalise upon a Labour Government in Westminster, does not lay at Lenin’s door but is the responsibility of the social democratic programme and methods of work adopted. Lenin never advocated the ’Transforming of Parliament into an instrument of the peoples ’will’, neither did he envisage an alliance of Communist and Left Labour MP’s bringing in Socialism. Nor of course should the Marxist-Leninist movement. When we advocate that people should vote Labour we do so in a Communist way and take time to explain that a Labour vote is in fact a vote against social democracy and is a vote against parliamentarianism.

The Communists of Great Britain should constantly, unremittingly and undeviatingly utilize parliamentary elections and all the vicissitudes of the Irish Colonial and World Imperialist policy of the British Government, and all other fields, spheres and facets of public life, and work in all of them in a new way, in a Communist way, in the spirit of the Third, and not of the Second, International. Lenin. Left Wing Communism

If only the CPGB had adopted that advice, then perhaps the argument that it is no longer valid would have some merit because the task might have been completed!

It would be incorrect in an article of this sort however not to stress the point that parliamentary activity should never be considered as the only, or even the main plank of the Marxist-Leninist movement. The movement has to ensure that it is ’shod on all four feet’. The involvement of workers in strikes and demonstrations, which, if we work correctly; will demonstrate the nature of our society, the role of the arms of the state and the methods that workers will have to adopt if they are to advance, will in practically every instance, be of more value than any Parliamentary activity. Comrades will be aware of the frantic efforts of social democrats and revisionists to divert struggles against anti-trade union legislation, away from the point of production, and into the sterile path leading to Westminster and Downing Street. We must always remember that the ruling class is most afraid of an attack at the point of production, because when production stops, profits stop.

I feel that if we do ’shoe all feet’ and constantly remember, that which is most important in our work, and at the same time develop a flexibility in our tactics without deviating from our perspective, then the twin problem of social democracy and parliamentarianism will not prove the insurmountable obstacle that it has in the past.

Day-to-day propaganda and agitation must be of a genuinely Communist character. All press organs controlled by the parties must be edited by reliable Communists who have demonstrated their fidelity to the cause of proletarian revolution. Dictatorship of the proletariat should be discussed not simply as a set formula, but popularized in a way that will bring home its necessity to every rank and file working man and working woman, soldier and peasant. It should follow from the practical facts systematically publicized in our press. Third International supporters must use every available medium – the press, public meetings, Trade Unions, Co-operative Societies -systematically and relentlessly to expose not only the bourgeoisie, but also its abettors, the reformists of every stripe and hue.’ Conditions for affiliation to the Third International 1920