Socialist electoralism and the capitalist state

occupy the ballot?

This blog post raises some questions posed by the election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council and related developments, questions for people who are pro- and who are anti- this kind of electoral effort.

Some of my friends and comrades have written about the election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council and related developments, here and here. I wrote this because I want to think some more about this election and many leftists’ response to it. It seems to me there are two basic reactions by people on the left. Some people see important possibilities in efforts to elect candidates like Sawant - I’ll call these people electoral optimists, and some people don’t see such possibilities - I’ll call these people electoral pessimists. I have the pessimistic response. The normal functions of the capitalist state will only ever result in creating or maintaining some version of capitalism. As such, I think electoral optimists are mistaken in their belief that they can still use the state for worthwhile radical political purposes in a non-revolutionary time.

That said, I think we should discuss this across different positions on the left. One of the unfortunate aspects of the left is that it’s hard to have conversations about these issues across different political perspectives. A lot of people on the left tend to limit who they talk with about these issues, talking about this stuff mostly with people they agree with. In some cases, comrades are in organizations that deliberately restrict who and how their members discuss ideas like this, which is very unfortunate. (This is one of many problems with democratic centralism.) It’s also hard to discuss these issues because of the short term stakes: the need to win an election can crowd out any discussion of the issues involved. I know some of my friends who have expressed skeptical views have had people get frustrated with them for expressing the skepticism, because it can detract from the effort to win these elections. That’s very unfortunate, and we should discuss this stuff anyway.

For the electoral optimists, above all, I want to ask you: comrades, what are your goals? Where do you think all of this is going? And what do you think will accomplish aside from your goals? After all, as Marx put it, people make history but not in the manner of our own choosing: most human efforts produce effects beyond those we want and intend. How will you deal with those additional effects? What's your plan? I don't know the answer to these questions, and I would like to. I also am very interested in hearing what ideas and writings inform your thinking on these matters. We come from different experiences of political traditions and organizations, so some references that may be obvious to you are not obvious to me. So, if I want to understand your outlook, are there things I should read?

For my fellow electoral pessimists, I think we have some work to do as well, to better articulate the reasons for our pessimism and our arguments as to why others should share our pessimism. I should add, I’m a state pessimist generally. I’m suspicious of the idea that the state can be used for any emancipatory political purposes. At the same time, I’m not sure I know how to articulate this in a way that will convince people who are optimistic about the state. I also think that there are important differences in the particulars - being optimistic about elections in the capitalist state in non-revolutionary times is different from being optimistic about, say, seizing state power in revolution, or being optimistic about the possibilities for a good
society to exist after a revolution while still having a state. These are related issues, but different ones, and I would most like to discuss the issue of electoralism. I think too often some of us rely on criticisms of other scenarios in order to criticize elections, as if a criticism of the direct seizure of state power automatically does all the work of a criticism of electoral participation. (I should also add, I may mostly be reflecting the gaps in my own reading and thinking here and unfairly attributing those failures to others. If so - someone school me!)

Anyway, for my fellow electoral and state pessimists, I would like to know, how do you argue for your pessimism? What do you recommend people read on this? My own views on this are primarily informed by various marxists who are skeptical about the state (I particularly like the short discussion of the capitalist state in Michael Heinrich’s recently translated book) and by parts of volume 1 of Marx’s Capital. I’m interested in other comrades’ go-to ideas on how to understand the state. I also think we should gather up as many of the current and historical arguments we can find that argue in favor of radicals pursuing elections in the capitalist state as a tactic, in order to evaluate and respond to those arguments. (I touch on these themes in some other blog posts, like "Workers, the state, and struggle," and "Navigating negotiations.")

In the rest of this post, I lay out two general theoretical points about the capitalist state and the state in general. I argue first that people who try to make use of the state will find that they end up becoming different people as a result of their efforts. I then talk about what I think is the general role of the state in capitalist society.

As far as I can tell, the comrades I’ve called electoral optimists believe it is possible to make some kind of politically worthwhile use of the capitalist state at a time like today, when there's not a revolution happening. That's what I want to talk about, which means I'm not going to talk about the relationship between states and ongoing revolutions, ideas about revolutionary states, or ideas about states after the revolution. Those are important ideas that are worth discussing but they're not my topic here.

The State As Tool And As Activity

When politicians and state institutions use phrases like "we, the people" and "the public" and so on, those phrases are supposed to make it sound like the state represents everyone's interests and is basically neutral. People on the left are relatively good at seeing through those kinds of claims about the neutrality of the state. As Engels put it, the state is "the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class." Leftists tend to agree with Engels's basic assessment, but tend to disagree on some important details.

A key area of disagreement among leftists is about using the state to accomplish political goals. The idea of using the state implies that the state is a tool people can use. It's a thing which can be picked up and put down, or a place which can be occupied. That understanding makes sense. At the same time, there is another important understanding of the state: the state is an activity, many activities, actually. That is, the state is a social practice, a social relationship. This phrasing sounds awkward, but in a way, the state is something people do: people do the state, people act the state, the state is a collection of processes that people do.

The idea that the state is a thing that can be used is sometimes called the instrumentalist idea of the state, the idea that the state is just a tool to make use of. From that perspective, the state is used by the capitalist class to accomplish its goals. In his recently translated introduction to Marx's Capital, Marxist economist Michael Heinrich writes that it is definitely true that parts of the capitalist class sometimes succeed in using the state for their purposes. "The question," Heinrich asks," is whether or not this gets at "the fundamental characteristics of the modern bourgeois state." Heinrich answers no. The idea of the state as an instrument focuses only on "the particular application of the state" but neglects the state as a kind of social relationship and social practice.

A narrow focus on what Heinrich calls the application of the state instead of thinking of the state as a social practice leads some leftists to neglect at least two important aspects of the state that I want to highlight here. First, it neglects the effects of doing state activity on the people who do that activity. Second, it neglects the relationship between state activities and the maintenance of capitalism.

Making Use of the State Makes You A Different Person

Doing state activity shapes the person doing that activity. Who we are is partly the result of what we do. For example, workers bodies are shaped by the work we perform, and our emotions and ideas are shaped by the experiences of taking orders and in some cases giving orders to others. (We are also shaped by our experiences of race, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of social life.) Capitalists are similarly shaped by being capitalists: their experiences and activities shape their consciousness and their way of being in the world - shape who they are as people.

Imagine that a sincere radical won the lottery, then used that money to buy a factory. Would that person's ideas and outlook change as a result of their new social position and their new experiences? It seems very likely. At the least, they would face pressures to be a different person and would face difficult decisions about what kind of person they want to be. If they prioritized their financial interests as a factory owner, they would become a different person. The same thing happens at a smaller level: workers who get promoted to positions at work where they are supervisors and managers begin to become different people as a result of their new experiences of giving orders and facing resistance to their orders. (Or, again, they at least face pressures to become different people, and hard choices about what kind of person they want to be, being pulled between their priorities and interests as a boss and their other values and commitments. This is part of why leftist bosses in union drives tend to act basically like any other boss. The realization that they are acting basically like any other boss, and so are not living up to the person they want to be, tends to be unpleasant for them and is a realization they often try to hide from.) The same thing happens to workers who become small business owners and/or landlords.

What do we expect will happen when leftists become part of the state? I think we can expect the same sort of results, and I think the historical record supports this. When leftists become state personnel, they eventually become different people. Or at least, when leftists become state personnel they face pressures and have to make decisions about what kind of person to be, and it is very difficult to not become at least a somewhat different person as a result. These dynamics are more intense the more decision-making power someone has within the state. I can imagine a response which says "Yes, when we become part of the state, we take these risks, because being a radical means taking risks and making unpleasant choices." That's fair. But I wonder, what is the plan, comrades, for those of you who seek to be part of the state or who seek to help another comrade become part of the state? How will you deal with these transformations or pressures to transform who you and your comrade are as a person? The idea that we can become part of the state without becoming different people strikes me as utopian, just as utopian as saying we can become capitalists or landlords or police without becoming different people. People who seek to use the state to accomplish radical goals will very likely find that they become different people as a result. Making use of the state eventually makes you a different person.

Capitalists And The State, Production and Reproduction

The idea of using the state to accomplish leftist political goals tends to involve some understanding that the current state favors some groups over others. Leftists efforts to use the state involve forcing the state to change how much it favors different groups. As Michael Heinrich puts it, "the instrumentalist conception of the state usually leads to the demand for an alternative use of the state: the claim of common welfare should finally be taken seriously and the interests of other class more strongly taken into consideration." The idea that the capitalist state can be used for radical political purposes outside of revolutionary times seems to involve this kind of understanding of the state: under the right circumstances, the state can be used for other purposes than just serving capitalists' interests.

Above all, the role of the state in capitalist society is to keep society capitalist. As Engels put it, the state is the "ideal personification" of the capitalist class. As Michael Heinrich puts it, this means the state serves the general interest in capitalist society, which means a specifically capitalist version of the general interest, or the general interest of the capitalist class. That does not mean all capitalists get what they want. That doesn't necessarily even mean that any capitalists get what they want. The capitalist class's most basic interest is that it continue to exist as a class, which is to say, the capitalist class's most basic interest as a class is that our society remain capitalist. That continued existence of capitalism explains why the state sometimes acts in opposition to the desires or interests of particular groups of capitalists.

Capitalists tend to focus on their own short-term interests. They are not automatically class conscious, nor are they automatically loyal to their class. Just as some workers will sometimes betray each other and their class by serving as scabs and police informants or by otherwise harming other working class people, similarly sometimes individual capitalists will harm other capitalists and the capitalist class as a whole. Indeed, capitalists have to compete with each other as part of their class position, and this competition pushes against capitalist class consciousness and class loyalty. This also means that individual capitalists or groups of don't necessarily seek to preserve capitalism as a whole. The current threats to our planet's environment illustrate this: if climate change gets too intense, we face some terrifying potential futures. This is in part the result of the petrochemical industries. Those capitalists profit greatly through actions that threaten other capitalists and perhaps the continued existence of the capitalist class as a whole.

The possibility of ecological devastation is an example of some capitalists threatening the conditions that make capitalism possible. One of the most basic conditions for capitalism to exist is the existence of the working class. Capitalists pay workers to produce goods and services which belong to the capitalists. Capitalists sell those goods and services. Workers get a portion of the value of what they produce. Workers' portion is smaller than what we contributed. That difference is what Marx called surplus value. Surplus value is key to capitalism, and our labor is what produces surplus value. No workers, no surplus value, and so no capitalism. Each capitalist enterprise is largely focused on the continued production of surplus value at their enterprise and is less focused on maintaing the overall conditions for the existence of capitalism. This is where the state comes in. The state's role is reproductive. The state helps maintain and reproduce capitalism. The state helps make sure that capitalist production can continue. The state's role is to prevent capitalist production from undermining the reproduction of capitalist society. The state is in part an institution for introducing some measure of planning into capitalist society.

If left unchecked, individual capitalists and groups of capitalists tend to threaten the reproduction of capitalism. And so, the reproduction of capitalism requires some control over capitalist production. This is part of the state's role, to govern capitalist production in the interest of the capitalist class as a whole and in the interest of society continuing to be capitalist society. This is part of why we have laws like social security, workers compensation, food stamps, limits on work hours, occupational safety and health regulations, and so on. As Heinrich puts it, these laws "limit capital's possibilities (…) but secure them in the long term." That is, these kinds of laws restrict individual capitalists and groups of capitalists, in order to preserve the existence of capitalism. Individual capitalists and groups of capitalists tend to see these kinds of laws as a limit on them and a cost for them, and they often oppose these kinds of laws. This is part of why it often takes social struggles to create these kinds of laws which improve aspects of workers' lives under capitalism. This does not mean such improvements are necessarily steps toward ending capitalism. In chapter 10 of Capital, Marx describes the English Factory Acts as greatly improving the lives of the English working class by reducing work hours. English capitalists greatly opposed these laws, and they lost. And these laws improving workers' lives pushed English capitalism into an even more profitable form. Marx describes these laws as helping cause a shift from capital accumulation based on what he called absolute surplus value, meaning extension of work time, to accumulation based on what he called relative surplus value, the intensification of labor productivity. That is, what may seem to individual capitalists like a limitation can eventually result in higher profits for capitalists over all, and not just a limitation imposed for the sake of capitalism’s long-term health.

I think this is one possible role that radical involved in efforts like the Sawant election could end up playing. Radicals don’t care about capitalists and their interests. This indifference to capitalists means that radicals are willing to push through limits on current capitalists. Which is to say, radicals in political office are willing to rise above the particular and current interests of individual capitalists and groups of capitalists and to act in line with a larger general interest. In my view, though, this larger interest is always and only going to be a version of the capitalist general interest, at least when exercised through legitimate political offices in the capitalist state. Mamos from Black Orchid Collective refers to “capitalism’s shock absorbers,” which refers to the institutions that govern society in the interests of capitalism. Mamos argues that what made the Sawant election possible is the thinning out of those shock absorbers. I agree with that. I also think, though, that the Sawant election and similar efforts could result in a renewal of existing shock absorbers or the creation of new ones. This is not because of the individual intentions or sincerity or political outlook of the people involved, it’s just what results from the state.

To put the point abstractly: the capitalist state is a set of institutions that organizes the capitalist class and the working class as interest groups within capitalism, that regulates the specific forms of social relations in capitalist society, and that maintains society as capitalist society. The capitalist state is only ever going to produce some version of capitalist society. Individual state personnel having radical ideas will not change that. If anything, state personnel with radical ideas might ultimately improve capitalism, because those radical ideas will help state personnel disregard any particular capitalists’ interests, but the result will
be only a different capitalism.

Comments

Chilli Sauce
Dec 30 2013 10:17

This is awesome Nate. If I find some free time, I want to comment a bit more specifically. But for the time being, just know this is awesome.

ocelot
Dec 30 2013 12:30

I agree with Chilli, great piece by Nate.

I also think it's important to dis-aggregate the argument around electoralism in the "here and now", both from other questions around radical transformation to a post-capitalist society (revolutionism & the "transition question") and also from an assumption that anti-electoralism is somehow part and parcel of a left libertarian or anarchist perspective. Certain fascists and authoritarian socialists also advocate anti-electoralism and radical change through violence or insurrection. In fact, if anything, I would guess that most people would associate anti-electoralism as being inherently authoritarian or dictatorial, so assuming an obvious link between anarchist/libertarian politics and anti-electoralism is doubly problematic. Secondly there's no necessary reason why people with reformist agendas that are not fundamentally anti-capitalist, cannot adopt anti-electoralist or even direct action perspectives. We see this a fair amount in the environmental movement, for e.g. So strategic anti-electoralism needs to be argued on its own merits. Both as a strategy for social change in general and as part of a strategy of class recomposition in particular. In the latter case, there are certainly left electoralists who argue for a "left regroupment/unity" electoralism explicitly on the grounds of providing a vehicle for recomposition, so our arguments need to address that.

Finally, just a note on the Kshama thing. One of the editors of spiritofcontradition.eu told me that the recent letter of resignation from the Irish SP by a number of leading cadres was rejected for publication by thenorthstar.info because "Kshama is popular", and she being a CWI member now presumably means that criticism of the Irish (or presumably British) SP therefore cannot be carried. An early example of the "chilling effect" of electoral success.

Angelus Novus
Dec 30 2013 16:40

Very cogently argued, Nate, great job.

Heinrich also more explicitly takes aim at electoralist conceptions in his critique of Die Linke's draft program, available here

ocelot
Dec 30 2013 16:51

Somewhat tangentially related, english translation of José Gutierrez' reflections on the recent Chilean electoral debacle http://www.anarkismo.net/article/26584

L.S.
Dec 30 2013 19:57

I'm an electoral optimist, and I justify my position with the last words of this very interesting article: "a different capitalism". If electoral effort can help moving the balance of the economic system a bit to the left, so be it. I think that a left-wing government is unquestionably better than a right-wing one, although still framed in the statist vision of society. Surely voting won't bring the overcoming of capitalism and the state, but refusing to vote for a left-wing party/coalition/candidate will only help the opposing side, and pretending that the two sides are equally bad is quite foolish. From a certain point of view I'm a pragmatist and I don't see how abstaining instead of voting will concretely help the anti-capitalist cause. If someone thinks otherwise, please correct me.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 30 2013 19:31

Mate, I think you'll be getting some correcting...

I'd start with this (it's short, don't worry) if you want to see where most regular posters on this site are coming from:

http://libcom.org/library/state-introduction

sbf
Dec 30 2013 19:33

so basically whoever you vote for, government always wins

L.S.
Dec 30 2013 19:58

Yes, I'll definitely be getting a lot of correcting, but I was expecting it smile . Thanks for the link (although I've already read that piece).

Chilli Sauce
Dec 30 2013 20:02
Quote:
From a certain point of view I'm a pragmatist and I don't see how abstaining instead of voting will concretely help the anti-capitalist cause.

You could flip that statement on it's head, though, couldn't you? How can voting concretely help the anti-capitalist cause?

I'm a bit of a pragmatist myself. I'm all for gaining concessions from the state - I'd love a bit more social democracy in my life. It's just how we achieve those concessions that counts.

Solidarity, direct action, and collective activity boost the confidence and combativity of the class. Voting, lobbying, symbolic action, trade union bargaining, etc are, at best, a mediation of the power we actually hold as a class. So why even give validity to a system that is fundamentally against us by voting?

You ever see that quote from solidarity?

"Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self-activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others - even by those allegedly acting on their behalf."

Cooked
Dec 30 2013 20:28

I don't vote (think I did it once in a local election and I'm not young) but I'd struggle to pretend that a 'better capitalism' can't make all the difference when you are close to the line and every penny counts. I'm doing ok atm so I can afford not voting.

Living in Sweden I also have to compare getting us getting 480 days of guaranteed leave at 80% pay when we had our kid to the two unpaid weeks or whatever I'd gotten in the UK! Of course you can't claim it's all due to pure electoralism or pretend that Sweden isn't a capitalist shithole in almost every other way. Thing is that a 'small' thing like that makes a hell of a difference to your daily life.

I doubt I'll ever vote but when looking at it coldly it does seem a bit of an abstract political pose. sad

Actively participating in the electoral circus and putting in work for elections is another issue and perhaps the one the OP is focusing on?

kropotcorn
Dec 30 2013 20:57

Yep, great post. I especially like the straightforward language you've used to explain the state as an activity.

Joseph Kay
Dec 30 2013 21:28

Good blog, thanks. Dodgy internet connection so will keep it brief. In England, the most cited example of electoral optimists' is the Militant (now Socialist Party) councillors in Liverpool. Though I think they ended up making mass layoffs. I'd be interested in hearing from people who were around at the time on that.

Currently Brighton has a Green council (they're the biggest party but not a majority, I think that's called a plurality?). We also have the only Green MP. There's already been some big conflicts over attempts to cut council workers' pay, which have lead to strike action.

More to say, will post when I have a better connection.

Nate
Dec 30 2013 23:24
Cooked wrote:
Actively participating in the electoral circus and putting in work for elections is another issue and perhaps the one the OP is focusing on?

Yeah that's totally what I meant. I wasn't clear, my fault. And I agree with you that a better capitalism is really better for people in real ways. I definitely didn't mean to suggest otherwise, if I did that's clumsiness on my part. I'm the sole income in a family of four at the moment and we only manage to make ends meet through the assistance of the meager welfare state here. And when my kids were born I got two weeks off and 10 days the second, had to go back to work because we needed the money and I desperately wanted more time off. I've also made really serious life choices, like the timing of when we had our kids, based on access to health insurance. Like Chili said, I'd be up for a bit of social democracy myself, at least in terms of comfort in my life. The thing is though how does all that relate to the stuff in that quote from Solidarity that Chili posted? I'm not convinced it does, necessarily. But yeah, anyway, I really meant doing the electoral work, like campaigning and whatnot. Sorry that wasn't clear.

Thanks the rest of y'all for your kind words, I appreciate it, and your thoughts on this are interesting. I'm pretty sure that the tendency in Liverpool is connected to Sawant's organization, like they're in the same international or something.

libera
Dec 31 2013 05:19

What about business union officials? Could we say that pie cards serve the interest of the state as well? I think so. The interest of the business union agent is to ensure that workers pay dues to further the health of the union. So the pie card wants the wages of workers and productivity of their labor to increase in order to serve the ends of their union and the boss. The business union agent negotiates with capital and the state, thus they serve and important role in making capitalism sustainable for the interests of capital and the state.

Cooked
Dec 31 2013 09:47
Nate wrote:
Cooked wrote:
Actively participating in the electoral circus and putting in work for elections is another issue and perhaps the one the OP is focusing on?

Yeah that's totally what I meant. I wasn't clear, my fault.

Your text is clear about this. The conversation was going elsewhere and I just attempted to steer it back.

Nate wrote:
The thing is though how does all that relate to the stuff in that quote from Solidarity that Chili posted? I'm not convinced it does, necessarily.

A common analysis of the leftish political parties here is that they need grassroots and radical movements to pressure them leftwards. Movements outside the parties are just as effective. This means that organising according to the solidarity quote above will have positive reformist side effects while building for communism and ignoring electoralism.

I don't know how true the above theory is in todays economy. If it's even possible to have significant reformist gains particularly when taking into account the idea that the main function of the state is maintaining capitalism?

ocelot
Dec 31 2013 12:32
Nate wrote:
I'm pretty sure that the tendency in Liverpool is connected to Sawant's organization, like they're in the same international or something.

Yup, it's the Committee for a Workers' International. Which is the pet "I-can't-believe-it's-not-the-Fourth-International-(again)" international of the Socialist Party of England & Wales (SPEW), formerly publically known as the Militant Tendency, privately/covertly as the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL).

See also my note on the censoring of the recent resignation statement by Irish Socialist Party members for fear of offending Kshama supporters in last para of my first comment.

Agent of the Fi...
Dec 31 2013 16:05

Blog Piece of the Year!

Its excellent because it criticizes electoralism in most part through a criticism of the nature of the state and its relationship to capitalism, which is the only way such a critique can go about (at least, from an anarchist perspective). And doing just that have been very rare.

And it comes around the right time, when there is a lot of optimism around left-wing figures like Sawant and Bill de Blasio of NYC. If there have been any criticism of these figures from the left itself, its mostly of the variety, "look, they're betraying their promises". Which leads me to asking, is there any chance this piece can be published in left outlets? Since, after all, it does address their ideas and concerns, and they are the ones who have to hear such a critique.

Nate
Dec 31 2013 21:05

Thanks Agent. It just got reposted by the North Star which I think it's fair to say has a slightly different audience than libcom - http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11739

Cooked, I like this: "organising according to the solidarity quote above will have positive reformist side effects while building for communism and ignoring electoralism." Can you elaborate on this please?

"I don't know how true the above theory is in todays economy. If it's even possible to have significant reformist gains particularly when taking into account the idea that the main function of the state is maintaining capitalism?"

Ocelot, I like your point about chilling effects too. I know friends of mine were hesitant to voice criticisms prior to the elections and did get some frustrated responses from other people for doing so. I'm sympathetic to some of that impulse - there are times for shutting up and getting on board, I think, but it can't be all the time, and I think all or nothing sorts of contests like elections (union certification elections too) maybe make it harder to have conversations about issues like this. I also know that some individuals inside Socialist Alternative (the US one, Sawant's party) have some similar reservations, but they're not supposed to discuss them publicly, and I don't know if they're allowed to form internal political minority tendencies in their organization. That's a different sort of chilling effect, and an unfortunate one because these are issues worth discussing I think.

coyote16
Jan 3 2014 07:27

Thanks for a thoughtful article.

Leninism (Stalinist/Trot or "anti-revisionist" has apparently returned to the Social-Democracy from which it ancestors sprang. SAlt's victory in Seattle is basically very little different than if CPUSA, SPUSA or Socialist Action's (mainstream Trots) won. They offer slightly left Democrats program or something that is so bizzaro it would fall apart if attempted to be implemented.

But I suggest investigating the impossibilist/radical Socialist experiences to the discussion. Their view was basically accepting the anarchist belief that the state was what gave the capitalist's power. Their view was to stick a stick in it's spokes. Sab it. The best known example of which is Karl Liebknecht's activity in the Reichstag. Also I would include Eugene Deb's campaigns for US President, especially the 1920 one from from prison.

Less known is the "old" Socialist Party of Canada (pre-1931), an impossibilist party elected legislators in Alberta, BC and Manitoba. They viewed their candidates as delegates who were sent by the working class of their ridings. They usually didn't participate in proceedings, unless it benefited the working class. In BC they were best known for accepting a series of major betterment of labor laws in exchange for voting on some procedural matters.

leeeberation
Jan 3 2014 12:02

Do we have to chose between "optimism" and "pessimism" about the state? Social reality tends not to be so simple. I'm a pessimist about Blasio in NYC (see how he nominated the fellow responsible for stop and frisk to police chief) but I'm an optimist about any elected official who takes marching orders directly from sections of class conscious workers.

CWI's short term demands are pretty ... meh ... but they reflect the demands of workers in Seattle who have particular needs. I think elected officials can be one of many tools in the toolbox of an activist class. And whatever problems with Trotskyism, they are committed Marxists with a commitment to the working class seizing the MOP. Mrs Sawant recently spoke of Boeing workers expropriating their factory - hardly the words of someone drawn into liberalism through their participation in electoral politics.

I agree with your argument about the nature of the state changing the priorities of the politicians in office. However, there is no way to establish any kind of absolute determinism in that respect. After all, Engels was a factory owner, yet despite that remained a committed revolutionary. Business or the state is not so mystical as to be able to always change the character of people in every situation. Yes it tends to change someone's class interest, especially politicians focused on re-election, but that's not some law of nature. If a politician is elected by a class conscious political base which is independently active, there's no way to be certain that the politician will then go and backstab their constituents.

Really, I think people make too much of electoralism - whether we support the candidate or not. We shouldn't be arguing about whether or not to support the candidate, we should be demanding that the candidate support the working class. Let their actions be the basis for our judgement.

Sanvanlan
Jan 3 2014 12:08

Great article Nate, it reminded me of two things I have seen happening in leftist electoralism in student bodies.

In Germany I saw radical leftist groups participating in student elections, the idea being that if they get elected they get office space, some money and other resources, which can then be used for campaigns outside the elected bodies. I didn't speak to them long enough to find out how this worked out, and how this influenced their behaviour unfortunateley.

In the university where I studied, in the Netherlands, I saw a radical group participating in elections. Their first goal was to get access to documents as soon as they were elected. But within a year at least parts of them were deradicalized. Some said they should stay in for the decisions as well, since they could make minor improvements which would matter in the long run. After two years, there was some split since some of them saw the university board no longer as the opponent, but as an ally. Seeing this destroyed my last small bit of hope in electoralism. Unfortunately, once more, I cannot tell what happened in the German case, because when I heard about that the first time it sounded legitimate to me.

Tyrion
Jan 3 2014 18:57
leeeberation wrote:
Do we have to chose between "optimism" and "pessimism" about the state? Social reality tends not to be so simple. I'm a pessimist about Blasio in NYC (see how he nominated the fellow responsible for stop and frisk to police chief) but I'm an optimist about any elected official who takes marching orders directly from sections of class conscious workers.

No elected official takes marching order directly from workers, class conscious or otherwise. These aren't mandated delegates. And unless an elected official wants the government that they're now a part of to go bankrupt as a result of capital flight, they'll certainly be inclined toward encouraging capital accumulation.

leeeberation wrote:
And whatever problems with Trotskyism, they are committed Marxists with a commitment to the working class seizing the MOP.

Trotskyists (at least the ones who're actually in line with Trotsky's politics) have a commitment to the erection of a party dictatorship and state capitalism. Trotskyism and Leninist variants in general are in stark opposition to communism. Also in sharp contrast with Marx's view that the emancipation of the proletariat is the task of the proletariat itself, and the conception of socialist revolution being lead by a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries that brings "socialist consciousness" to a proletariat unable to develop further than "trade union consciousness" on its own is idealist rubbish.

Fortunately, putting aside that Trotskyists are not a significant political force in the US, most self-described Trots I know are generally ignorant of his reactionary role in the Russian Revolution and probably less in agreement with him than they think.

leeeberation wrote:
Really, I think people make too much of electoralism - whether we support the candidate or not. We shouldn't be arguing about whether or not to support the candidate, we should be demanding that the candidate support the working class.

Devoting any amount of time or energy to making demands of politicians does nothing to further the self-organization, confidence, and autonomy of the working class and is generally of very limited usefulness even in terms of accomplishing immediate goals.

blackstarblackfist
Jan 3 2014 21:56

I generally lean towards electoral pessimist for many reasons already mentioned but where I see the strongest case for optimism (or pragmatism) is in the idea of privilege. If the goal is revolution or the end of capitalism then forget about it BUT we admit that long term preservation of capitalism involves social policies that benefit the working class then it is up to the working class to deny these benefits and advance revolutionary tactics. It has always felt privileged for me as a white, middle class individual to choose not to engage and put things like food stamps, unemployment benefits at risk which won't affect me, but will undoubtedly affect those less fortunate. At the same time legitimizing the state through participation also causes me grief. Complex issue indeed.

kingzog
Apr 9 2014 20:45

I realize this is an old thread, but.... I'm wondering if the SA is truly reformist in the sense they want to *reform away* capitalism through the state in some sort of peaceful manner, like how some 19th century/early 20th century Social-democrats wanted? Or are they more like orthodox Leninists and Trotskyists? Maybe this is a question worth pursuing?

kingzog
Apr 26 2014 22:34

I mean, it's difficult to figure out. Traditional Leninists and Trotskyist don't believe the state can be used (hence the whole smashing the state deal), but Trots do believe in electing people to office for propaganda purposes. But I think maybe Socialist Alternative has broken with the othrodoxy and feels that society could be changed through the state.

klas batalo
Apr 28 2014 13:38

Either they don't know what the hell they are doing (very well possible they are just trying anything) or they do think of this as a propaganda move. Otherwise they are just riding opportunistically on the FF15 thing, which is really more adopted program than their orthodoxy. Though I'm sure they see it as some sort of transitional demand.

Entdinglichung
Apr 28 2014 14:34

differs from case to case, e.g. the members of the SAP (USFI) who became elected on the list of the Red Green Unity List to the Danish parliaments try very hard to be constructive MPs while the notion of revolution is probably still hidden somewhere in their head while the newly elected MPs and state assembly members of the FIT (an electoral alliance of PO, PTS and Izquierda Socialista) in Argentine are doing it the classical Liebknecht way

Nate
Apr 29 2014 01:33
kingzog wrote:
I mean, it's difficult to figure out. Traditional Leninists and Trotskyist don't believe the state can be used (hence the whole smashing the state deal), but Trots do believe in electing people to office for propaganda purposes. But I think maybe Socialist Alternative has broken with the othrodoxy and feels that society could be changed through the state.

I tried to look up some stuff on their core political positions recently (it might have been when I first saw your question on that) and I couldn't find anything. I have a vague memory that I don't totally trust, that they used to have more stuff on like their general political outlook (like the ISO does) on their web site. If I'm right about that and if that stuff's been taken down now instead of just me being able to find it, that'd be interesting. (I'd appreciate if someone else could doublecheck this by looking at their site, and I should probly use the Wayback Machine to see if older versions of their site really did have more info like this.)

ocelot
Apr 29 2014 16:14

Hmm. I dunno, their "About" and "Publications" pages seem pretty standard for a trot org of the Militant/SP type. "Nationalise the Top 500 companies" (About us), "Lenin, was he just really cool, or like totally fucking awesome?" (Publications - ok, maybe I slightly paraphrased that last one...wink.

kingzog
May 10 2014 05:51

I've been thinking more about this. I think the difficulty of finding out what their program really is, is due to the tradition of the "transitional demand." They make these programs like, "nationalize the top 500 companies" as sort of propaganda demands. They don't think these demands could be realistically met within capitalism but they are not revolutionary demands; they make them to get people excited and riled up and because they don't think average people are ready for a maximum program (a revolutionary program).

"It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution." http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/index.htm

Sawant talked about using the local government to seize the Boeing plant if the company moved to the south. It's not a revolutionary program, but it's a reform which is clearly unreasonable. So It's transitional-- between minimum program and maximum program.