Revolutionaries and Elections
The decision in the final round of the recent presidential election of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists to vote for Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, against Shafiq, the candidate of SCAF and the counter revolution – a decision I think absolutely correct – has led to a storm of debate, and condemnation, on the international left as well as much controversy in Egypt itself.
My principle aim in this article is not to defend this decision but to review the more general question of the attitude of revolutionary Marxism to elections under capitalism. First however I have to say that while much of the debate in Egypt is fueled by, entirely understandable, youthful ultra-leftism it is my strong impression that a good deal of the international criticism (not all of course) is based on a combination of ignorance and veiled Islamophobic prejudice.
For example in one debate with a veteran leftist in Ireland I was informed that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were like the Russian Black Hundreds (proto-fascist bands used to carry out pogroms in Tsarist Russia). This is manifestly not the case and could only be asserted by someone who had no knowledge or experience of the MB – and, by the way, if it were the case it is inconceivable that the either the Egyptian RS or the SWP or the International Socialist Tendency could recommend a vote for them. [You can accuse the SWP of a lot of things but an inclination to vote for fascists is not one of them!].
In another argument with a long standing leftist I was told the MB represented ‘reaction incarnate’ and were in no sense ‘reformist’. I asked the comrade concerned if he had ever read anything published by the MBs, heard a speech by any of their leaders, met any of them, or knew what programme they were standing on in the election. The answer to all these questions was ‘no’.[At least he was honest]. In other words in both these cases, the comrades were simply responding to the name ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ and the associations, or prejudices, that this conjured up in their minds without any awareness of the facts or the real situation on the ground.
But leaving that aside I want to turn to my main theme: how Marxists relate to bourgeois elections.
Revolutionary Marxists do not believe that it is possible to transform capitalism into socialism through the mechanism of parliamentary reform or parliamentary elections. We do not even subscribe to the ambiguous formula that what is needed is a combination of a left parliamentary majority supplemented by, or backed by, extra-parliamentary working class mobilization. Rather following Marx’s conclusion from the Paris Commune that the working class ‘cannot simply take over the existing state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’, and Lenin’s reinforcement of that position in The State and Revolution, we hold that the working class needs to destroy the existing state apparatus, including parliament, in a mass revolution from below and replace it with a workers’ state based on workers’ councils elected from workplaces and working class communities. As Lenin put it in Left Wing Communism ‘only workers’ Soviets, and not parliament, can be the instrument whereby the aims of the proletariat will be achieved’
We also understand that parliament (or the presidential palace) is not the main locus of power in capitalist society: real power is concentrated in the boardrooms of the giant corporations, banks, and financial institutions and in the state (the chiefs of the armed forces, judiciary, police etc). Consequently the parliamentary arena is not the central focus of the class struggle or of our activity as socialists. To quote Lenin again ‘the action of the masses – a big strike for example – is more important than parliamentary activity at all times, and not only during a revolution or revolutionary situation’.
So why should revolutionaries participate in bourgeois elections?
First, because the fact that elections are not decisive in determining the fate of society does not mean they make no difference at all. To argue that elections and their outcomes make NO difference is both an obvious exaggeration and a form of mechanical economic determinism, clearly repudiated by Engels (along with all the other leading Marxists):
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form
The victory of Francois Hollande over Sarkozy in France does not transform French society or change its basic trajectory but it makes a difference; the victory of Syriza in Greece would also not have transformed Greece but it would clearly have made a significant difference to the circumstances in which the Greek working class has to fight. Socialists cannot be indifferent to these real differences, anymore than we are indifferent to small reforms (limiting the working day, wage increases, the retirement age and so on) which don’t change the system but do affect workers’ living standards.
The second reason for participating in elections is that it is part of the battle for working class consciousness. We revolutionaries may not have faith or illusions in parliament, but millions of working people do; we may understand that real power is not held by parliament or MPs, but millions of working people do not understand this yet. Consequently for these millions elections are time of heightened political awareness when their minds are focused on political debate, in a way they are not much of the time. Revolutionaries, therefore, should not allow this time to go by without intervening in it to make socialist propaganda; above all we cannot afford to abandon this terrain of political activity to the reformists, liberals, conservatives and fascists (especially as the last mentioned have always combined parliamentary and extra - parliamentary struggle, often very effectively).
Third, actually getting revolutionaries elected as deputies or councilors, enables them to act as ‘tribunes of the people’, as ‘megaphones’ for socialist ideas, and as rallying points for campaigns by working people and the oppressed.
Lastly, and this point is often forgotten because we haven’t yet reached this stage of the struggle but is stressed by Lenin, it is very helpful to the struggle against parliament to get ‘pro-Soviet politicians into parliament’ who work at ‘disintegrating parliamentarism from within’, and ‘for the success of the Soviets in their forthcoming task of dispersing parliament’.
When to boycott
If in general it is right to participate, in some form, in elections – and this has been the view of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Lukacs, Gramsci, Cliff, Mandel, Harman and virtually the entire serious Marxist tradition – there are nonetheless certain circumstances in which it is correct to mount a boycott. When? Such a question is by its nature tactical and must always be based on a concrete analysis of the concrete situation – it is impossible to formulate any absolute rule. However, on the basis of the history of the Marxist movement, it is possible to say that the boycott position should be the exception, not the rule, and that the principal exceptional circumstance justifying an ‘active’ boycott is when it is an integral part of preparations for a more or less immediate insurrection. The boycott of elections, therefore, is seen as an action leading directly to the overthrow and dispersal of the parliament concerned.
Probably the most instructive historical episode for this question is the development of Lenin’s attitude to the Tsarist Duma in the period 1905-6. This is described in detail in Tony Cliff, Lenin, Vol 1, Building the Party, (London 1986) pp.248-52. The main points are as follows. The Tsarist Duma was a highly undemocratic parliamentary body with a franchise openly and heavily weighted in favour of the landlords and against workers and peasants. In August-September 1905 Lenin advocated and the Bolsheviks decided on a boycott as part of preparing an armed uprising. After the defeat of the insurrection in December 1905, the Bolsheviks continued to support a boycott in the expectation of a renewed uprising. When it became clear this was not going to be possible Lenin, in August 1906, changed his position and supported participation, even going as far as to vote with the Mensheviks, against the Bolsheviks, on this question at a Party Conference in July 1907. Lenin concluded:
Active boycott …is correct tactics …only under conditions of a sweeping, universal and rapid upswing of the revolution, developing into an armed uprising…in the absence of these conditions correct tactics call for participation in the elections.
What attitude to adopt toward the Council of the Republic immediately became for the Bolsheviks an acute tactical problem. Should they enter it or not? The boycott of parliamentary institutions on the part of anarchists and semi-anarchists is dictated by a desire not to submit their weakness to a test on the part of the masses, thus preserving their right to an inactive hauteur which makes no difference to anybody. A revolutionary party can turn its back to a parliament only if it has set itself the immediate task of overthrowing the existing régime.But, of course, this was an immediately pre- insurrectionary situation and the debate within the Bolsheviks reflected this, with the majority of the Bolshevik leadership against boycott, and Trotsky, supported by Lenin (who was in hiding), in favour of it – at this moment Lenin had not yet won the Bolshevik CC to the idea of actually launching the insurrection.
These examples demonstrate the tactical complexities of the boycott question but they also reinforce the point that generally speaking revolutionaries are in favour of participating in elections.
How to Participate
Revolutionary participation in elections can take a number of forms, and once again, which form or forms are adopted is a tactical question which must be decided in each
case on the basis of concrete analysis, and is considerably affected by the nature of the electoral system in place.
Ideally a revolutionary socialist party would participate in elections by standing candidates in its own name. This is the simplest, clearest and best option. Unfortunately, for many decades now, the weakness of revolutionary socialist forces have made this impossible or very difficult. It is not helpful, as the British SWP found out in the late 1970s, to stand candidates who receive completely derisory votes. Nor is it useful to have several far left candidates standing against one another and splitting each others votes to the confusion of the electorate and the detriment of the left as a whole.
For this reason is often necessary for revolutionaries to stand as part of coalitions of the left as, for example, Richard Boyd Barrett (of the Irish SWP) did in Ireland in 2011 as part of People Before Profit and the United Left Alliance, or the Greek SEK did as part of Antarsya, or the British SWP did at various times with the Socialist Alliance, Respect and TUSC (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition). Such coalitions and alliances are often necessary but invariably present their own complex strategic and tactical problems which cannot be gone into here.
Nevetheless it is possible to outline some general guidelines for these campaigns: 1) We should mount serious campaigns with the aim, if possible, of winning; 2) to this end we should stand on programmes of concrete demands which make sense to large masses of working people not a purely abstract maximum programme; 3) but we should resolutely reject opportunist concessions to the pressures of electoralism, eg populist law and order campaigns, or any compromise with zenophobia, racism, sexism etc, 4) we should make clear that the election campaign is just one (subordinate) part of the struggle to mobilize the masses.
However there is also the question of how to vote when or where we are unable to stand ourselves and, even when we can stand, how to use second preference votes or to vote in second rounds if we are eliminated. Obviously this gives rise to a multitude of questions, sometimes tricky, sometimes crucial and sometimes much less important. For example in the general election in Ireland in 2011 I had a number of discussions with comrades as to how, after voting first for United Left Alliance candidates, we should use our second and third preferences: should we vote second Sinn Fein and third Labour or second Labour and third Sinn Fein. Here, even less than on the question of standing candidates, can there be a one-size fits all solution but once again it is still possible to make some general observations.
Deciding who to vote for
First it is necessary to understand that revolutionary socialists decide how to vote on a different basis from liberals or others who actually believe that parliamentary representatives or presidents really do run society. For a start the ‘personal’ characteristics of a candidate are of very little importance and certainly not the starting point for making the decision. If, for example, the main candidate of the left in an election is George Galloway in Britain, Ralph Nader in the US or Hamdeen Sabbahi in Egypt, it is not a good argument to say ‘I won’t vote for this guy because I don’t trust him, or even because I can’t stand him because he did this or that bad thing three years ago’.
Secondly a vote in an election constitutes a preference for a particular outcome in circumstances usually not of our choosing, not an overall political endorsement. The concept of critical support – variously expressed as ‘voting without illusions’ ‘voting and preparing to fight’ or even ‘support like a rope supports a hanging man’(Lenin) is crucial here. It is an unfortunate habit of polemic on the left to attack a decision by another left organization to vote for party X or candidate Y in terms of denouncing their ‘support’ for party X or candidate Y as if this meant full blooded political support, even when it is made perfectly clear that this is not the case. (It is, of course, incumbent on the revolutionary socialists to make their criticisms clear). Thus in 1997 I (and the British SWP) voted for Tony Blair’s Labour Party. This was because in that election I/we judged it very important for the British working class to remove the Tory Government who had been in office for 18 years, and this was the only means of achieving this objective. It did not mean that I/we had the slightest illusions in what Blair or the Labour Party would do and to interpret this vote as the SWP or John Molyneux ‘supporting Tony Blair’ is simply a travesty.
Lenin wrote as follows about an earlier generation of Labour leaders:
It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens are hopelessly reactionary [Labour Party leaders in 1920- JM]. It is equally true that they want to assume power (though they would prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to "rule" along the old bourgeois lines, and that when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemanns and Noskes [German Social Democrats – the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht and betrayers of the German Revolution- JM]. All that is true. But it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution; what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support.Anyone who interprets this to mean that Lenin was, in general, a supporter of Ramsay MacDonald or Scheidemann and Noske is foolishly or deliberately missing the point.
The key thing is to determine the political meaning of the vote in any particular political situation, based on examining the situation as a whole.
It demands that account be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country, and also that policy should not be determined only by the desires and views, by the degree of class-consciousness and the militancy of one group or party alone.In my opinion three elements are particularly important in making this assessment: 1) the class nature of the parties/candidates involved; 2) the class and political nature of the support, among the masses, for said parties/candidates; 3) the political consequences of a particular vote and/or of a particular outcome to the election concerned. The matter would be relatively simple if the answers to all these questions always pointed in the same direction, unfortunately life is not that easy.
Thus, as Lenin explained, labour and social democratic parties are, typically, neither simply capitalist parties nor simply workers’ parties but rather ‘capitalist workers parties’ or ‘bourgeois labour parties’. They combine a thoroughly pro-capitalist leadership with (typically) an organic link with the trade unions (especially with the trade union bureaucracies) and mass electoral support in the working class. On this basis Lenin, as we have seen, argued in favour of a vote for the British Labour Party against the main parties of the British bourgeoisie ie the Tories and the Liberals. But there are nuances and variations: there are left reformist parties whose leadership is not simply ‘pro-capitalist’ in the sense that Blair, Brown, Miliband, Hollande, Papandreou and so on are, even though they are very likely to capitulate to capitalism eg Syriza in Greece, or Front de Gauche in France; Syriza however though much more radical does not have a comparable trade union base to British Labour. Often the case for voting for the Labour type party against the outright bourgeois party is overridden by the need to develop a left or revolutionary socialist alternative to the reformists. Sometimes, as in Ireland, the electoral system allows one to do both (by using second preferences etc); other times, as in Britain (with first-past-the post), it does not and a choice has to be made.
Another complication is the fact that in ‘third world’ or ‘developing’ countries and former colonies the political space filled in Europe by social democratic parties is often taken by nationalist or Islamist parties that combine support for capitalism in practice, with anti-imperialist rhetoric (and sometimes struggle) and mass support among the working class, the poor and the peasantry – examples range from the ANC in South Africa to Hezbollah in Lebanon and, at different times, the PLO and Hamas. In Ireland we have the unusual role played by Sinn Fein.
Sometimes factor three – the political consequences of a result- can seem to pull in a different direction from factors one and two. For example when the second round of the French Presidential election in 2002 was reduced to a run-off between the right wing Chirac and the Fascist Le Pen. Obviously no socialist would normally contemplate voting for Chirac. Equally obviously a Le Pen victory would be a disaster. Opinion among revolutionary Marxists was divided. The British SWP argued against a vote for Chirac , calling for extra parliamentary mobilization against the fascists. The French LCR (Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire) voted for Chirac. At the time I accepted the SWP line but now think I was probably mistaken. As it happened Chirac won by a landslide with 82% of the vote on a 79% turnout, so clearly the vast majority of French workers, including its more class conscious layers voted Chirac.
Left Wing Communism
In my opinion the best general guide in the Marxist tradition to the whole issue of revolutionaries and elections is Lenin’s Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, (1920) from which I have already quoted on a number of occasions. Written to combat the ‘Left’ Communist tendency which was then a considerable force in a number of the newly formed parties of the Communist International (German, Dutch, Italian etc) it is a superb manual of strategy and tactics, and should be studied by everyone who aspires to make serious judgments on these issues. Just as one can’t be a serious Marxist economist without having studied Capital, so one can’t be revolutionary socialist political leader without having read Left Wing Communism.
Its main arguments are: a) that a refusal in advance of all ‘compromises’ is not a serious Marxist position; b) that it is absolutely necessary to work in trade unions, including ‘reactionary’ trade unions ; c) that it is obligatory to contest elections and participate in bourgeois parliaments; d) that it is necessary to vote for the social democratic parties against the openly capitalist parties in order to side with the mass of workers against the right, to expose the reformists before the masses by putting them into office, so as to win over the rank-and-file workers from the treacherous reformist leaders; e) that the art of revolutionary leadership involves learning how to win the majority of the working class not just its revolutionary vanguard (‘Victory cannot be won with the vanguard alone’) and that this means being one step ahead of the masses not out of touch and round the corner.
But just as Capital is a prerequisite for a Marxist economic analysis but not a substitute for studying the economy today, so arriving at correct decisions in relation to elections cannot simply be read-off from Lenin (or Trotsky etc) but involves an assessment of the concrete balance of class and political forces.
Back to Egypt
It is precisely because, sat in Ireland, I am not in a good position to make such a concrete assessment that I did not want to make Egypt the main focus of this article. However some of the arguments developed here have clear implications for the situation in Egypt.
First they suggest that a number of reasons given for an abstentionist or boycottist position, either in the parliamentary or presidential elections do not stand up. Not only is it false (because untrue) to argue that it is impossible to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood against Shafiq because the Brotherhood represent extreme reaction, it is also mistaken to argue that we shouldn’t vote for them against Shafiq because they have sold out the revolution or will sell out the revolution (though they have and will), or because they are religious or have backward attitudes to women etc. History shows that serious revolutionaries have had to vote, against outright reaction and counter revolution, for such sell outs and backward elements on many occasions. (Does anyone imagine that Irish Republicans who had to be supported against British imperialism were fighters for women’s rights and workers’ power? Not to speak of innumerable social democrats who backed imperialist wars from 1914 onwards and imposed racist immigration controls amongst many other crimes.)
It was also a mistake to argue that the left should not participate in the elections unless the Political Isolation Law was upheld: it was wrong as an absolute or ‘moral’ principle since all bourgeois elections, all elections held under capitalism, are flawed and biased and it was meaningless as a ‘threat’ or bargaining counter since why should SCAF care if the left boycotted the elections.
It is also interesting that there are strong parallels (not exact, of course) between the revolutionaries advocating abstention in Germany in 1919/1920, who Lenin wrote Left Wing Communism against, and the revolutionaries advocating non-participation in elections in Egypt today. In both cases they tend to be (mainly if not exclusively) young recently revolutionized workers and street fighters. These are entirely admirable people without whom revolution is impossible, but they lack experience and training in revolutionary strategy and tactics and, crucially, they cannot make the revolution – the socialist revolution- or even bring down SCAF, by their own courage and will power alone.
Carrying the revolution through to victory involves the heroic revolutionary vanguard winning over the masses – the workers in the workplaces, the urban and rural poor, a substantial section of the peasants – not just in their hundreds of thousands but in their tens of millions. Doing that requires not only street fighting but also political strategy and part of that strategy has to be an electoral strategy, so as to relate to the millions of working people who voted for Hamdeen Sabbahi and Mohammed Morsi. Formulation of such a strategy will therefore be an important task facing the Egyptian left in the period ahead.*
*This raises the issue, as it has done in many other countries (Greece, France, UK, Ireland etc) of electoral coalitions or united fronts between revolutionaries and left reformists of various kinds. In many cases this is clearly necessary in order to make an effective electoral intervention but, as experience has shown (not least in Britain) it can also generate a host of problems. For reasons of time a general discussion of these problems cannot be undertaken here and my knowledge of ‘the left’ and radical forces in Egypt is inadequate to say anything concrete about the situation there. It does seem likely, however, that revolutionaries in Egypt will need to address this question at some stage.
July 23, 2012
 Lenin adds. ‘And, of course, those who have failed to understand this up to now are inveterate reactionaries, even if they are most highly educated people, experienced politicians, most sincere socialists, most erudite Marxists, and most honest citizens and family men’. Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, Peking 1965, p.80.
 As above, p.55.
 Engels letter to Bloch, 1890, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm
 As above,p.81.
 There are also, exceptions to the exception. The Bolsheviks, as Lenin points out in Left Wing Communism (see above pp.53-4) participated in the elections to the elections to the Constituent Assembly in September-November 1917, ie before and after the insurrection and prior to dispersing the Assembly.
 Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 13, p.60 cited in Cliff, as above p.251.
 Tortsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, London 1977, p.541.
 Lenin, Left Wing Communism, as above p.81
 As above,p.81
 ‘The fact that is that “bourgeois labour parties,” as a political phenomenon, have already been formed in all the foremost capitalist countries, and that unless determined and relentless struggle is waged all along the line against these parties—or groups, trends, etc., it is all the same—there can be no question of a struggle against imperialism, or of Marxism, or of a socialist labour movement’.Lenin, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism’ http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm
 I have discussed this at length in my article ‘Marxism and Trade Unionism’, Irish Marxist Review 1, 2012.
 Lenin, Left Wing Communism, as above p.97.
 The law excluding Mubarak’s NDP and other ‘feloul’ (remnants of the old regime) from standing.