You are what you regularly do: socialists and elections

Earlier this week, the Socialist Alternative publication Red Flag carried a response from Jerome Small to Tommy Lawson’s piece in this publication, ‘Why do anarchists abstain from elections?‘.

Jerome’s response to Tommy’s article was a measured, good-faith response to Tommy’s critique of Victorian Socialists and more specifically Socialist Alternative’s decision to spend so much time on the project. 

Helpfully, the place the article goes wrong and its broader relationship to the folly of electoral projects is clear. Tommy asks ‘why would you build a political party which is not revolutionary’, and Jerome responds that ‘revolutionaries build non-revolutionary organisations of many different varieties as a matter of course’, and uses participation in non-revolutionary trade unions as an example.

But there is a fundamental difference between participation in non-revolutionary unions (or other social movements) and non-revolutionary parliamentary parties. It might help to quickly introduce a distinction between the form of struggle and its content. The form of social struggle is how one goes about winning change, whether that is through formal organisations or informal social groups, writing letters to MPs or rioting, going on strike or campaigning in elections. The content is the politics one advances through these various forms of struggle, whether that be higher taxes on the wealthy and more renewable energy or the abolition of private property and liquidation of class society. 

Ordinary trade unions like the ETU have content disagreeable to revolutionary socialists or anarchists, as they only aim for concessions from the ruling classes and not an end to class rule entirely. But their form of struggle is something we find agreeable: the unification of the class at the point of production to exercise its collective strength and fight the bosses. To the extent that unions pursue other strategies, like lobbying the ALP, we strongly argue against these strategies within our unions. But forms of struggle consistent with revolution are real and present within unions, and this justifies our involvement in them. Further, the form of struggle found in trade unions – workers organising collectively against the boss – helps develop them towards the correct content: a society where workers organise collectively to run everything. It is for this reason that revolutionaries intervene in unions and social movements: we agree with the form of struggle, and intervene to push the struggle forward and encourage our content.

But in Victorian Socialists, there is no form of struggle we can agree with. Electing people to parliament is not only an ineffective way of winning reforms, it fails to build our capacity to fight collectively against capitalism. 

Not only is there no form in Victorian Socialists that aligns with revolutionary politics, there is no content: the propaganda put forward by Victorian Socialists is social democratic in nature. Its social democratic demands, laid alongside calls for a socialist in parliament, imply that a socialist in parliament is capable of winning those demands, which they can not. Only the direct struggle of the working class can achieve real reform under capitalism.

Sometimes revolutionaries can support participation in struggles where the form is wrong, as long as the content is right (although we generally consider this a poor use of time and effort). The Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group note that to participate with principle in elections it is necessary to explain that elections cannot achieve real change, which can only come from direct working class struggle and eventually the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. That is, if you choose to participate in elections, political content must not be diluted. Importantly, this was the practise of the Bolshevik party when they participated in elections for the Duma. They did not water down their politics into a social democratic program and they did not shy away from stressing the need for revolution, nor did they run under a wider non-revolutionary umbrella1. They stood for parliament only in order to trash parliament and call for communist revolution. It is disingenuous to cite Bolshevik participation in the Duma as a defense of Victorian Socialists for precisely this reason.

Victorian Socialists have neither the political form nor content consistent with revolutionary politics. I will leave on a note about habits. The central insight of anarchism has perhaps always been as simple as this: habits matter, and you are what you regularly do. Anarchists have always warned that centralised command-and-control parties create centralised command-and-control states which create centralised command-and-control societies, not democratic worker-run societies. Similarly, if Socialist Alternative’s primary political action consists of arguing for social democratic politics at the ballot box, neither the form nor content of which are compatible with their espoused politics, they should be careful that the power of habit doesn’t come to own them, and they find as so many have found before that their revolutionary politics become nothing but a hazy memory.

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  1. ‘But the election campaign itself was of no less importance and throughout its course the revolutionary position of Social-Democracy had to be preserved in all its purity, without being toned down or retouched for any secondary considerations’ pg. 5