Marxists and Elections

We are faced with the fact that Parliament exists and that the mass of the population, despite their criticisms, look to it for change. In 1940 Trotsky, while discussing the question of war, explained how Marxists must make use of bourgeois institutions like parliament. “The courts are bourgeois but we don¹t boycott them as the anarchists. We try to use them and fight within them. Likewise with parliaments. We are enemies of the bourgeoisie and its institutions, but we utilise them.”

Trotsky carried the argument forward – to the question of war: “War is a bourgeois institution a thousand times more powerful than all the other bourgeois institutions. We accept it as a fact like the bourgeois schools and try to utilise it.” He continues: “In the union I can say I am for the Fourth International. I am against war. But I am with you. I will not sabotage the war. I will be the best soldier just as I was the best and most skilled worker in the factory. At the same time I will try to convince you too that we should change society.” (Writings, 1939-40, p. 256).

So with parliament. There is no contradiction between understanding, from a revolutionary point of view, the true nature of a bourgeois parliament and at the same time fighting for every crumb, every concession we can gain from it. In the same sense as Trotsky in 1940 advocated that the members of the Fourth International, while opposing the war; in the case of that particular war should be the “best soldiers,” we must be the “best parliamentary representatives,” the most effective in squeezing every possible concession and, at the same time, the most resolute in revealing its limitations. If we are to expose the limits of change through parliament we have to struggle within it to reach those limits and thereby bring them into the view of the working class.

Instead of such sterile ultra-leftism we explain that we are fighting to become the majority in parliament and go on to spell out what we would do if we had that majority. We say we would pass legislation to take the wealth out of the hands of the ruling class. But, as the bitter experience of Chile showed, the ruling class will not peaceably surrender their wealth and power. They would use their control of the armed machinery of the state to resist. Under those circumstances we would mobilise the working class to confront them, just as the Bolsheviks did in August 1917. Part of this resistance would be the formation of workers¹ councils, of committees in the army, in short of the emergence of an alternative state based on the independent power of the working class. In this way the real question of power would be posed.

Only a sectarian divorced from reality could reduce this explanation to holding open “the possibility that socialism can be achieved by a mass movement Œbacking up¹ its parliamentary representatives.” The ability to go from abstract theoretical understanding to a day-to-day programme and explanation, put forward in a manner and language which can be understood, is one of the factors which distinguishes Marxism from doctrinaire sectarianism. Your comments on the issue of parliament place your party on the wrong side of that line – and by quite some distance.

What is your alternative approach now that you have come round to the idea of contesting elections? You say you would stand for the “dung hill,” but would “do so on a clear revolutionary basis,” (11 January letter). What does this mean? Would you stand explaining that parliament is a con, that nothing can be achieved through it, that it needs to be “smashed” and that workers must rely on their own strength outside? Would you declare that you would not present legislation, amend bills etc. in case you would be sowing illusions in the possibility of achieving change through the “dung hill”? In that case workers will say “fine, there is not much point in voting for your party.”

Or would you put forward a programme for which you would fight within parliament, in which case, by your own argument, you suddenly become “ambiguous” on the question. The truth is that the declaration that you will stand “but on a revolutionary basis” is just more “revolutionary” posturing and is completely empty of content.

The revolutionary line which avoids the opposite but twin pitfalls of ultra-leftism and opportunism is a difficult and often narrow line which cannot be traced out in advance or from the sidelines of the class struggle. It is not formed through declarations of revolutionary intent, nor is it made deeper by revolutionary phrasemongering. It can only be traced out in practice in the course of the struggle itself.

Joe Higgins

We scrutinise the ideas and policies of others on the left to see if genuine common ground can be found. But the decisive test is how these ideas are put into practice. What is most notable about your criticism of the “electoralism” of the Socialist Party is that it is confined to abstract theoretical points. Conspicuous by its absence is any comment on our actual role in parliament since Joe Higgins was elected as a Socialist Party TD in 1997.

A year earlier your 1996 Conference document predicted that Joe Higgins, if elected, would succumb to “electoralism,” in other words to reformist parliamentary pressures. Your 11 January letter repeats the “electoralist” charge as if nothing had happened in between. It contains the same tired accusations about where we are heading, what will end up doing, but has not a word to say about what we have actually done and are doing in the Dáil.

The election of Joe Higgins is not the first occasion that we have participated in parliament. In Britain, Dave Nellist, Pat Wall and Terry Fields, all members of Militant, sat as Labour MPs and were able to use parliament as a tribune for socialist ideas. Terry Fields went to prison for refusing to pay his poll tax. None of these representatives succumbed to the parliamentary pressures. Sadly, Pat Wall died while an MP and the Labour leadership saw that he was replaced by a right-winger. Terry Fields and Dave Nellist were expelled from the Labour Party and eventually lost their seats because they refused to abandon their ideas and their principles. Is this putting parliamentary positions before the building of the revolutionary party? You appear to be lost for words on this as well.

Like Terry Fields, Pat Wall and Dave Nellist, Joe Higgins has not adopted the lifestyle or adapted to the customs and norms of bourgeois politics. He lives on a workers wage and provides the Dublin West electorate with an account of where the rest of his salary and all his allowances go. He has used the Dáil chamber to challenge the establishment. He has brought the scent of the class struggle into the otherwise rarefied atmosphere of the Dáil, as with his handcuffed gesture in solidarity with jailed building workers. He has used his position to promote working class struggle outside the Dáil, speaking at countless meetings, protests and pickets. He has intervened in debates on legislation, with opposition proposals and amendments. On top of this he has carried a huge constituency case load, trying to use his influence to help working class people in Dublin West with day-to-day problems.

Lenin, who you are fond of (mis)quoting, often used the expression, “an ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory.” You are loud with accusations made in the abstract but when it comes to the concrete are strangely mute on the experience of Joe Higgins’ role. If we are to have a properly informed debate on “electoralism versus revolutionary politics” we would want to know precisely what the “revolutionary” SWP would have done in parliament that would be different from what Joe Higgins has actually done.

In your letter (11 January) you say: “Electoral work is subordinate to the overall activity of the party. We do not, therefore, see preparation for elections as the dominant focus for our party’s work.” At face value, we can accept this. But in the context of the light-minded way in which your party takes up and drops issues and your failure ever to lead or even participate in a sustained manner in any mass campaign or struggle, we are naturally concerned that the real meaning of this comment is that you will apply a similarly casual approach on the electoral front.

Our electoral work is likewise subordinate to the overall work of our party. But this does not mean that we do not take extremely seriously the question of standing and the preparation for standing. During elections we put ourselves on public view. How we prepare, campaign, our result and our work in the constituency after the election are all important in building our standing and developing our base of support. We are concerned that your electoral work will be conducted like other aspects of your work. You will appear with candidates without having done the necessary preparatory work. Your campaign will be to recruit to the SWP and little else. After the election you will disappear to other fields of work.

We are engaged in the arduous task of sinking roots in working class areas. Our electoral base has developed out of the serious campaigning work we have conducted on the water charges and on other issues. It is the political and now parliamentary extension of our ongoing extra-parliamentary work. Given the position that we have built and the reputation that we have to protect we will not lightly endorse others who do not have a similarly serious approach.

In discussing some degree of future electoral co-operation, we will also want to establish that this is not the way you will behave. The fact that we have a TD means that we cannot enter into electoral agreements lightly. A call from Joe Higgins for workers to vote SWP means a certain public endorsement from our party. It means that, in the eyes of the working class, we carry some degree of responsibility for your actions. We are prepared to discuss the question with you but we make clear at the outset that we will not tarnish our reputation by endorsing candidates who have done no serious work in an area and who will vanish from view once the votes have been counted.

During future elections we will consider advocating votes to anti-establishment parties and others on the left. However, unless you can convince us otherwise, we will give no blanket endorsement to the SWP, but will decide our position constituency by constituency. For example, in a case where an SWP candidate, who had no real base, stood against a genuine community activist who had real support, who leaned to the left, and who would not suddenly disappear after the election, we would almost certainly advocate a vote for the latter.

If we are to discuss with you, we would want, in addition to the other concerns we have raised, to examine each constituency where you are standing to see if you have real support and are approaching the election in a serious manner. If you were to implement what you said in your 1986 “Socialists and Elections” document you would do the same. That document concludes by saying: “Here a key consideration will be our success in our more general approach of building roots over the next year… it is a condition of standing in any area that we do have such roots.” (our emphasis)

The above are the issues we want to clarify in discussing any possibility of electoral co-operation. Other ongoing differences between us do not exclude joint work on the areas of agreement and are therefore not crucial to the discussion. However, some of these differences have come up in the course of our correspondence.

Your 11 January letter raises points on a number of issues. Although most of these do not have an immediate bearing on the debate on an electoral pact, we believe it is worth continuing a public discussion on them.

Your letter mentions four points of differences, two of which – trade union work and electoral work – we have already dealt with. We do not believe we can define what distinguishes us from your party in an arithmetical manner, as the sum of differences on a number of specific questions. We see it as more fundamental, as a question of method and approach. Political and tactical differences that arise from time-to-time are merely the then current expression of the more basic methodological gulf that divides us.

We are in agreement that the task in this epoch is to build a revolutionary party which can carry through the overthrow of capitalism and lay the basis for the building of a socialist society internationally. We agree on this, but on what a revolutionary party is, on how it is structured, on its programme and on the key question of how it can be built, we clearly disagree.


Your 11 January letter implies that our “ambiguity” on parliament must lead to an “ambiguity” also on the explicit need for a revolutionary party. And, indeed, if we were “ambiguous” on how society is to be changed that would be true, but we have already dealt with your arguments on that point. You cite the example of Scotland where our sister organisation is working in a broad party, the Scottish Socialist Party, and say “these issues will also emerge for you in the future.” The clear implication is that the Socialist Party in Ireland, because of our “parliamentary approach” will end up as a broad party in which the distinction between reform and revolution is blurred.

In dealing with Scotland you need to address the actual situation. The Scottish Socialist Party was founded from the Scottish Socialist Alliance, a broad formation within which our sister party, then known as Scottish Militant Labour, was working. The justification put forward for forming the Scottish Socialist Party was that it offered a broader banner which could draw a much bigger section of the working class behind it. The SSP is not affiliated to the CWI. The group which is affiliated works within the SSP, but is organised separately.

During this entire period, the SWP in Scotland acted in a characteristically sectarian manner. You did not support us when we successfully fought elections. You refused to take any part in the Scottish Socialist Alliance.

The most recent turn taken by our Scottish comrades has been extensively debated in our international organisation, the Committee for a Workers¹ International (CWI). Our World Congress, held last autumn, disagreed with what they have done. It took the view that their best option would have been to re-launch Scottish Militant Labour as the Scottish Socialist Party. This would not have excluded ongoing work within a broader socialist alliance if there were other genuine forces to make this up.

The Congress viewed the launching of the SSP – especially in the manner which was proposed – as a mistake. However, now that it has been formed we believe that our comrades are correct to work within it and make use of the opportunity to put our ideas to a wider audience. To do this successfully requires that we are clear on our political differences with the other non-revolutionary forces within it, that we have separate publications to put our views forward and that we pay attention to our own internal structures, to recruitment, education and so on.

When the SSP proposal was first made, the material produced by our Scottish comrades did contain some unclear formulations about the need for a “hybrid” or “broad” party. We think that too many concessions were made to get the SSP going and that there needs to be the allocation of extra resources into building our own organisation within it. These are the tasks now being undertaken by those building the CWI in Scotland.

The CWI has 20 sections and a number of other supporting groups. We work in a total of 35 countries and on every continent. Our World Congress brings together delegates from all sections and is the supreme decision making body of our International. Points of difference are debated in a democratic manner and decisions arrived at through debate.

A debate on any major issue is not the property of a small circle at the top of the organisation, but is something in which the membership needs to be involved. Whenever differences have arisen within our International, or when it has been necessary to adjust our position or to correct past mistakes, we have involved the full membership in the discussions. International Discussion Bulletins, containing all the material from all sides of a debate, have been produced and made available to every member. Only in this way can we educate and involve the membership and only then can the members, in turn, become fully informed, intervene and act as a check on all decisions made. When the recent World Congress criticised the Scottish comrades and set out criteria for future work in the SSP, it did so in an informed manner after a full debate.

You are free to criticise the policies and tactics of the CWI. Debate around constructive criticism can only be beneficial. But if you are going to do so you should attack us for our actual policies and tactics, not for those we have specifically rejected.

It is inevitable that a revolutionary party with real roots in the working class will come up against reformist/opportunist pressures, as well, at times, as the opposite pressures towards ultraleftism. Debates such as the CWI have had over Scotland are absolutely inevitable as we chart the difficult course of constructing a mass Marxist international.

In order to withstand the pressures of moods, temporary or longer lasting, which develop within the working class, it is essential that a revolutionary party maintains a democratic centralist structure. This means the fullest internal discussion on all issues including points of difference, but unity in action when it comes to putting agreed decisions into effect.