The Ballot Box or the Streets? Why the Current ‘Electoral Debate’ has Missed the Point

Mya Walmsley weighs into the debate on anarchism, socialism and elections. The Red and Black Notes editorial collective publishes this response in the spirit of debate, we do not necessarily endorse its conclusions.

The last month has seen a flurried exchange amongst the socialist left concerning the value of electoral participation in the context of the Australian federal election – typical of which has been Tommy Lawson’s piece “Why do Anarchists abstain from Elections?” and Jerome Small’s “How should revolutionaries view parliamentary elections”. This exchange has seen much debate but little insight, as both interventions fail to address the fundamental base of the electoral question: should we struggle for reforms in the current political conditions of Australia? And if so, in what way should we struggle for them? Putting the debate in this term reveals how weak the current state of debate is, and the extent to which both Tommy and Jerome place undue influence on the ballot box as a place of power for the working class.

I will first assert what I think is a basic point: it is a matter of revolutionary necessity and organisational urgency to retain optimism concerning the possibility of struggling for reform. Theoretical pessimism, by which I mean the idea that unfavourable economic and social conditions in a society necessarily implies that struggling for reforms is not strategic, provides a convenient explanation for why revolutionary forces lack influence in Australia today and a great explanation for why it is not necessary for revolutionary organisations to bother trying. The trouble is, such a deep pessimism is unfounded. Conditions being unfavourable is not equivalent to them being impossible to navigate, and it is our task as revolutionaries to provide a vision on how to navigate it. More evidently, such an argument is difficult to maintain with the current international economic and social instability, one that is unlikely to subside anytime soon.

This is an abstract point that would take far more time to fully flesh out than this article would fit, but I raise it because it has a foundational impact on how organisations view reforms and how they structure their activity. For example, the practical effect of this sort of pessimism on an organisation is that it leads to isolation, sectarianism, and an over-emphasis on party building. For if the conditions aren’t right to build the revolutionary potential of the working class, the next best thing a revolutionary organisation can do is keep the lights on: keep the organisation afloat and present socialism as an existing alternative to mainstream politics until the time comes where such an alternative is realisable. Yet such a stance requires the party to isolate itself from the struggles of the broader working class, as if it lent too deeply into that struggle it would see itself lose morale, slide into reformism itself, or waste its energy. These risks exist, but they do not outweigh the rotting effects a pessimistic perspective has.

The necessity of an optimistic perspective on reformism is a point of view I admittedly share with Tommy, as he defines anarchism in his article on the election as a transformative practice that must be built using the correct mechanisms to lead us towards the abolition of class society. This necessitates a productive optimism regarding the value of struggling for reform in the here and now.

The basic problem with Tommy’s argument however is that it presents workers as having power through abstaining from parliamentary elections, rather than through a principled engagement that is oriented towards the streets. The basic substance of his argument is that it is correct for Anarchists to struggle for reforms through direct action, but that electoral interventions are necessarily counter-productive to that goal. He lists many such reason for this ‘electoral exception’ to reformist struggle: that workers become alienated from parliamentary decisions and conditions them away from collective decision making, that the need to maintain parliamentary positions define the role of the party activity, that direct action becomes substituted for parliamentary reforms, and that electoral participation makes electoral party’s managers of the state rather than building towards a revolutionary transformation of society.

There are many reasons why one would choose not to engage with certain forms of ‘struggle’, for example in trying to reform bourgeois political parties or to stack shareholder elections. But Tommy doesn’t sufficiently explain why parliamentary interventions as a whole fit into that category under all capitalist societies. He lists certain risks with engaging with parliamentary elections, but these risks aren’t really distinguished from the risks of engaging with the union movement in the current bureaucratic environment. In the union movement today, don’t workers regularly become alienated from the decisions of their officials and become conditioned away from direct action? Doesn’t the need to maintain the union bureaucracy become the main task of official union activity? Doesn’t direct action get substituted by legal or political reformism?  And in general, isn’t participation in unions is a defacto agreement with the compact between labour and capital, in the way we can see a parliamentary election ‘legitimise the state’? These risks merely emphasise how important it is to fight for a revolutionary perspective, one grounded in the real conditions of struggle in the here and now with an eye to complete social transformation, at work and on the streets.

The ‘strategy’ of abstention at best sees the problems of revolutionary engagement with parliamentary elections, throws its hands up, and leaves it to bourgeoisie and reformists. At worst it can lead to facile arguments that voting ‘legitimises the state’, as if the state does not legitimise itself with batons and pepper spray and economic and social deprivation. When socialism was emerging within the 19th century, the anarchist argument concerning abstention essentially concerned declining to build the newly growing liberal democracy before building the organs of working class control – opposing forms of ‘stagism’. These abstentionist arguments bear far less relevance to today’s circumstances, as their foundations have crumbled, in the same way that the Marxist engagement with social democracy has fundamentally altered with the rise of revisionism.

The pivotal insight we can take from historical anarchism is that the power of workers is not at the ballot box, it is in the street and in our workplaces. There is no parliamentary road to socialism, the working class will have to strike and take power for themselves, with independent organs of labour and community control that have developed through mass struggle against the system. Our strategy to lead to this point must necessarily start where workers are today, and where Australia differs from late 19th century Europe is that the election is the moment where the working class is most politically engaged and open to alternatives for how society should be run rather than a small project being spearheaded by bourgeois liberals. Arguing that we obtain any sort of power or legitimacy by abstention rather than direct action in this moment is absurd, and is in many ways similar to the argument that to win power in the workplaces we must abstain from work as a whole, which merely cedes ground to non-revolutionary forces. 

How then are we best to orient towards the election? We must always orient towards it by arguing that it is the strike and protest that gives us real power as workers. We use the moment of the election to bring the ideas of the major campaigns of the day to the working class, and encourage them to struggle beyond the ballot box. We organise with the base of social democracy to draw them towards struggle and away from the leadership by denying horse-trading, sell-outs, backroom deals and compromises. Like all campaigns, this requires working with a non-revolutionary mass base on a critical basis.

In the Australian context what this implies is a critical intervention into the Greens, as it represents the most visible and social-democratic mass alternative to the major parties. When workers go to the ballot box and look for a left-wing alternative to Labor politically, they currently look to the Greens, who historically are a left wing split from Labor’s base. This is a similar base that we draw on for protests and strikes, and we would be remiss to abstain from the opportunity to agitate with them politically. Like all social democratic forces (and indeed unions), it contains contradictions, but it is the task of revolutionaries to intervene in such a way to bring the rank and file towards radical politics, towards the streets, and away from the reformist drift of the leadership. This is, like our engagement with unions, not to rule from above, but to organise from below.

This strategy would undoubtedly be rejected by Jerome Small from Socialist Alternative on the basis that the Greens is a middle class party, a position only tenable if you consider well-unionised workers such as teachers, nurses, council workers, and researchers as ‘middle class’, as these kind of workers form the major base of the Greens. Whether they flatly deny the class reality of the Greens or lean into the Stalinist concept of the industrial worker in this context, this perspective is either way convenient to adopt as it supports their theoretical pessimism, and therefore has historically demanded nothing but electoral abstention from their organisation. This theoretical pessimism was hinted at when Jerome claimed that the “argument for revolution in Australia today is not one of practical politics but of propaganda and political argument, of winning people to a world view.”,  which serves to reinforce the lack of desire from the organisation to build the power of the working class but instead to build a propaganda machine. The debate about the propaganda perspective has been thoroughly ventilated, but for the sake of this argument I think its consequences are broadly negative. This pessimism places Socialist Alternative’s position on elections remarkably close to Tommy’s, a fact that Jerome himself admits when he said “When our forces were smaller, there was really no option but abstention from electoral campaigning”. This is to say that Jerome would have made the same choice if he was in Tommy’s position, the only difference being that Jerome argues this on the basis of a broader cynicism of the Australian political context compared to Tommy’s abstract cynicism regarding parliamentary elections. Either way, choose your abstention; choose to turn from the working class.

We could perhaps write off the Victorian Socialist project as a bout of adventurism if the impact of their intervention was not already reverberating across their campaigns, regardless of what Jerome  claims. I can point to two recent examples. Members of Socialist Alternative recently argued that Refugee Action Coalition Victoria not putting Victorian Socialists on their vote scorecard was “putting its own hostility towards Socialist Alternative ahead of the fight for a more humane treatment of refugees” before arguing that “all leftists and supporters of refugees… support Victorian Socialists”. This is the least egregious of many claims coming from the Victorian branch that the best thing that the left can do right now for refugees is campaign and vote for Victorian Socialists. Especially in the context of Socialist Alternative’s withdrawal from the Refugee Action Coalition, the idea that the Victorian Socialist electoral campaign is the principal arm of the refugee movement indicates a significant shift towards electoralism, as it substitutes the refugee movement with the specific political project of Victorian Socialists. Further, while preparations for the University of Sydney strike on the 24th May is underway, Socialist Alternative is shipping their activists from Sydney (and indeed as far as Brisbane) down to Melbourne to campaign for Victorian Socialists rather than building the strike. The message this sends to the workers is that a lot of the socialists who stood next to them on the picket line actually believe that real power lies in a ballot box in Victoria, and that if the workers of University of Sydney really want to advance their ultimate interests, they should drive far from campus and doorknock in Melbourne. –Whilst I imagine Jerome will naturally claim that Socialist Alternative can march on the streets and hand out in the election, politics is always a matter of emphasis, and the emphasis Socialist Alternative is communicating to the working class is that the ballot box is more powerful than the strike.

The natural question that will follow from this is whether I believe Victorian Socialists is supportable. The political ideas that Victorian Socialists is putting forward are supportable, but it represents a strategy for the revolutionary left that is ultimately retrogressive, and thus we must voice our clear support for their political ideas, but not their strategy. But we should not reject their strategy through abstention. Our eye should always be looking to sites of mass struggle, ones that give the opportunity to build a credible left alternative to the system. With all the contradictions with organisations that have mass proportions, the Greens provides the field where electoral struggle can be engaged with, and revolutionaries would do well not to abstain from intervening in it – whether by removing themselves from the election or building an adventurist micro-party.

Circling back to the main point thrust of this article, the main strategic error that both Jerome and Tommy make is placing immense power in the hands of the ballot box. Tommy by making abstention from the ballot box a necessary and vital part of the Anarchist strategy, ‘from which everything flows’, and Jerome by substituting struggle for the ballot box. Whilst elections can be vital in the course of social transformation, we must always position the power of the working class as being in the streets, by striking and protesting, before and after the election for our demands.