If Voting Changed Anything...

A critical article on the electoralism of Murray Bookchin and the Independent Working Class Association from Black Flag #207 (1995)

Submitted by martinh on March 8, 2006

The issue of elections to state bodies has once again become live. Anarchists today are presented with arguments for their use from two angles. Firstly, there is Murray Bookchin and his allies, the social ecologists who argue for "libertarian municipalism". Secondly, there is the agenda of some parts of the left who are seeking to create a new political force, against Labour and of the working class.

Bookchin raises a number of arguments in favour of participating in local elections, which I will attempt to summarise here. This is different from what we mean by libertarian municipalism, which is the control and management of local services by a libertarian commune. We discussed this some years ago, under the title of "Municipal Anarchy".

Bookchin envisages that any such electioneering is done as part of a popular movement for democratic control, and members try to gain seats on the council in order to build mass assemblies as an alternative. He does not see this happening at a national level and stresses that it is only one part of an overall strategy. In support of this tactic, which has been criticised as being anti-anarchist by many, he counters that Bakunin advocated similar things and that there is a long history of anarchists participating in councils and other elected bodies, albeit on a localised scale.

Let's deal with the Bakunin point first. Bakunin advocated plenty of things that modern anarchists would disagree with, and he himself would not have treated his own thoughts as set in concrete and unable to change. Bakunin said that revolutionaries could intervene on a municipal level in the mir. The mir was not the same as the town council, but was a collection of every man who worked or lived in the village, not their representatives. This is a crucial point, as the difference is one of an obviously imperfect direct democracy (men only) against representative democracy. There is also the scale - even with new technology, a set up like the mir could not work even in a London borough, let alone across a whole city.

A much greater hole in his theory is that it does not recognise what the state will do. In Australia during the 80s, socialists in New South Wales left Labor and became independent councillors. The State government introduced boundary changes which took away every single one of their seats. In Victoria, whole councils were abolished because they stood in the way of the privatising Kennett government in the 90s. Will the State sit back and allow libertarian municipalists to take over in this way - unlikely. And what is to stop the "libertarian municipalists" building alternatives like mass assemblies anyway, such as the CNT have done in Puerto Real? Doctrinaire anti-syndicalism?

Nor is lack of democracy the only problem facing us. In Tower Hamlets in London in 1986 the Liberals introduced a radical decentralisation. This resulted in the election of a nazi, and only a massive mobilisation by the Labour bureaucracy prevented his re-election. Potentially the fascists could have gained control of a local council with a budget of millions.

There are also disturbing stories of the biggest libertarian municipalist group, Ecology Montreal, and the strange alliances they have made. (See issue 37 of the American Anarchy magazine). What Bookchin's allies are really doing is libertarian intervention in local state politics. Local state politics are about the pursuit of power - we are not going to be led down that road.

The other set of arguments for electoralism are harder to pin down, as they are implied rather than stated by the various advocates of "new political organisation"s. There are at least three current initiatives that I know of, and there may be many more. Disillusion with Labour and the left seems endemic. The three initiatives are: the "Independent Working Class Association" sponsored by Red Action and London Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), with various anarchist and several communist groups participating: "Resistance", founded by the Colin Roach Centre: and a group centred around the Somerset Clarion, which has actually stood candidates against Labour and won. Of the three, the latter is likely to end up with Scargill's Socialist Labour Party. The other two have no definite commitment to standing candidates, but it is implied in their logic.

The Red Action initiative came from the last round of council elections when the fascist British National Party's (BNP) role in East London made clear the limitations of AFA's single issue strategy. Put simply, workers in poor districts like Tower Hamlets can see that Labour has nothing to offer them after years of attacks by Labour councils who they have far more dealings with than the Tory central government. No amount of "blaming it on the government" can excuse Labour here. The only ones to offer anything 'radical' or "alternative", albeit false, are the fascists. Groups like Militant and the Socialist Workers Party are associated with Labour in the popular mind. This was shown in a recent East London by-election, where Militant Labour, who stood a candidate against Labour, got one fifth of the vote of the nazis, who also stood. In this context, anti-fascist activity has got to be more than "Don't Vote Nazi", as it implies support for Labour, i.e. for the status quo. Red Action don't state it outright, and individual members have told me that they are not aiming to be an electoral force.

However, this is where the organisation points. This is a pity, as it otherwise shows promise. Red Action are interested in working with others to talk to workers, not the left. Even though their initial coalition is somewhat reduced, there are many positive points. Obviously many anarchists won't work with them in areas like Glasgow, where their behaviour has been outrageous, but they are at least looking in the right direction.

The Colin Roach Centre grew out of Hackney Community Defence Association and Hackney Trade Union Support Unit. Although anti-fascism is only one part of their politics, they have followed a similar line of logic to arrive at a similar position. There is no consensus about elections, the issue has surfaced a couple of times in discussions.

Although the logic is compelling in terms of anti-fascist work, we mustn't make the mistake of looking at anti-fascist activity alone. To accept the poisoned chalice of representative democracy merely to oppose the odd bonehead electorally would be wrong. Electoralism, and particularly the parliamentary variety, is fed by the mass media. To gain credibility with them, you have to discard what you believe in. Maybe that's not what these organisations are after, but it's what they could become.

What if any of these groupings, or Arthur Scargill's new Socialist Labour Party, were to win? Or let the fascists in by default? What would the reaction be of the black and Asian communities in East London if an intervention lets a fascist in? It's hardly likely to be celebratory? There have been individuals who have won both local and parliamentary seats under independent guises. While the individual concerned has usually done well, the consequences for the labour movement as a whole have been less happy.

The answer is not an easy one, but calls for precisely the type of working class organisation that the Colin Roach Centre and Red Action are moving towards. One that is built from the bottom up, and is of the working class, with its loyalty to the working class in its broadest sense, as opposed to the student and middle class oriented left.

It is long and hard work done by the comrades of the CNT in Spain that has resulted in mass village assemblies in the Puerto real area near Cadiz. The municipal councils are still in the hands of the politicians, and can still be shut down by central government, but neither can move without worrying what the people's reaction might be. Of course, Marxists of all shades will argue that we shouldn't shirk from the political arena. We say that we shouldn't separate out politics into some form of specialised activity that only certain people, i.e. our representatives, can do. The labour movement was co-opted by municipalism before. Libraries set up by workers' subscriptions were taken over by councils and are now shut by the local council, invariably Labour. Gas, water and electricity boards were originally under council control. Now they are sold off cheaply to the well off at the cost of jobs and higher prices for us. The working class departed from the left over the last fifty years. The situation we now face is a direct result of this - electoralism substituted for organisation and direct action.