Democracy and ballots: The SPGB and subversion discuss

Correspondence with a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. From Subversion #20 (1996)

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 3, 2010

Dear Subversion,

Thanks for the literature you sent me recently and for mailing me Subversion 19. It was all extremely interesting stuff and a source of a lot of good information. Keep up the good work! (And find enclosed a contribution to help you to do so). (...)

If it's OK I'd like to raise a couple of questions concerning the "education" and class struggle issue and the issue of democracy.

Of course experiences in the day to day struggles lead some people to become revolutionaries. Also, I agree with you that upsurges in class struggle and periods of crisis in capitalism provide a POTENTIAL revolutionary springboard. The contradictions, class relationships and miseries inherent to capitalism inevitably lead the workers to confront capital and when this happens there is, of course the POTENTIAL for revolutionary consciousness to grow through the realisation of class position and the nature of capitalism. As the current trends within capitalism continue, squeezing and stamping on the working class ever more relentlessly, alongside the growing realisation of the failure of all forms of running the system; then there is definitely a growing POTENTIAL for the escalation of struggle towards the overthrow of the system. However, how many times has the potential been there in past moments of escalated struggle and capitalist crisis only to disappear or to be channelled into reformist, pro-capitalist directions? And why?

Your correspondent DG, in his last report on the Merseyside dockers' dispute revealingly comments about the dockers that, " their actions they rejected wage labour, but they remain unwilling to recognise it...". It would appear that their dispute has reached the brink of revolutionary consciousness, but this is held back by the general climate of political ideas. That DG goes on to say that dockers only recognise their rejection of wage labour "in private" goes to show that communist/socialist ideas are still incredibly marginalised, to the point of being unthinkable.

Wouldn't things be different if communist/socialist ideas were generalised throughout the working class? The more widely known, discussed, accepted the communist/socialist case is, then surely the more likely it is that "day to day" class conflict will escalate into a decisive mass struggle against the money system itself. This is where "education" (or promoting the socialist case) rears its head. I feel that the biggest job is getting the socialist case across as widely and loudly as possible. Capitalism will continue to throw up situations where an escalation of class struggle towards communism is possible, but the more workers there are who are conscious communists or are aware of the alternative to capitalism, then I would think the greater the likelihood there is of getting rid of the system.

Also, would you agree that upsurges of class struggle which don't have a widespread libertarian socialist political consciousness will always run the risk of being hijacked by the Left and the rest of the leadership brigade?

Following on from this, I'd be interested in hearing a clarification of Subversion's views on democracy. I think we all agree that REPRESENTATIVE "democracy" is a farce and that voting for any group that seeks to administer capitalism or lead us is like loading the gun for your own executioner. Likewise there would be no difference if all state and commercial posts were directly elected as they will always act on behalf of the ruling class and against us. Elected police chiefs (as the SWP plan to have in their "Workers State"!!) would still be thugs-in-chief as much as elected politicians act in the same anti-working class way as unelected ones do. But Subversion seems to damn democracy full stop and I still can't understand why.

Is there anything wrong with democracy in the sense of organisation and discussion as equals, the making of decisions by voting, the election of mandated, recallable delegates to relevant bodies etc.? This is, after all the way a free society would surely work. Democracy is a sham under capitalism because people are anything but equals and the capitalist notion of democracy is used to cover this up.

Going on (!) to the issue of parliament, I don't see why it can't be used as PART of the revolution as it wouldn't be used as an instrument of government, but as a means of demonstrating and carrying out the working class majority's wish to abolish the state for good. Also, bearing in mind that, "...the proletarian movement is the movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority" couldn't the vote be used as a way of ensuring that the socialist revolution IS carried out by the immense majority of our class, and not by a minority that would leave the majority passive and open to manipulation by pro-capitalist or leadership elements? By voting, at least we could know exactly where we were. And it would be on OUR terms, as capitalism would already be in final retreat (hopefully) by this stage.(...)

Yours for socialism,
BM (Bath)
Member of Socialist Party of Great Britain

Subversion Reply

Thanks for your letter...

As you say "we have heard it all before" from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, especially in the north west where we have debated this issue to the point of mutual exhaustion!

However when you say in your letter "...then there is definitely a growing potential for the escalation of struggle towards the overthrow of the system" you have perhaps (inadvertently?) taken one step beyond the usual SPGB approach.

In general the SPGB has only conceived of the 'educative' process of the class struggle from a purely negative point of view. It ignores the possibilities of collective action as a positive experience - the development of class solidarity and confidence in our ability to change material circumstances, if only in small ways. The process is similarly viewed more in terms of individuals' passive reflection in failure, then in the COLLECTIVE advancement of struggle and consciousness.

Whilst some underlying long term trends in the development of capitalism (through the interaction of competition and class struggle) appear to benefit the revolutionary movement, in general we see no evidence of any linear, accumulative advancement towards capitalism's overthrow. What we do perceive are periodic advances in the escalation of class struggle and subsequent retreats. It is these escalations which practically confront large sections of our class with the need, as well as the possibility, of going beyond merely defensive actions towards an attack on both the capitalist economy and state. In the long history of capitalism the period 1917-21 was for instance a high point as on a lesser scale was 1968-70, 1980-81 in more recent times. It is precisely in such periods that revolutionary minorities can have a disproportionate influence by encouraging, both theoretically and practically, the combining and deepening of struggle.

That doesn't mean we just go away and contemplate our navels the rest of the time, but rather that the balance of our work between theoretical development, general propaganda and agitational activity is consciously altered in relation to the development of the class struggle at any particular time.

All of this leads on to our critique of "democracy" which goes well beyond a simple rejection of Parliament.

In basing our hopes on the escalation and deepening of class struggle as the starting point of revolution, we have to accept that this process is something advanced by MINORITIES, often against the passivity of the majority. As the struggle develops these minorities will inevitably grow and on the eve of revolution will doubtless number many millions. The point however, is that we cannot predict exactly what proportion of our class needs to be actively involved in consciously attacking capitalism (as opposed to passively going along with events or waiting to see what happens) to start the revolution. It's not a matter of the number of bodies as such, but rather the balance of class power. Furthermore whilst the defeat of all the major capitalist states marks a definitive moment in the revolution, the momentum carries on involving more people, in a more conscious way until communism is firmly established as a new way of life.

In so far as the class struggle is advanced by 'minorities' an over concern for 'democracy' in the abstract becomes a barrier to revolutionary activity. Parliamentary democracy in particular and also 'Party' and 'trade union' democracy have been continually used against the activity of militants seeking to advance the interests of our class.

To oppose 'democracy' is not to support 'dictatorship' or 'elitism' but to practice equality and self-activity amongst those committed to struggle, and to seek the continual expansion of the struggle on this basis.

We do not view revolution in terms of the extension of political democracy into the workplace, the economy or society as a whole. Rather it should involve the superceding of both dictatorship and democracy, the abolition of politics and economics as such.

Whether or not the organisation of communist society involves elections and voting (and we might expect much of everyday life to take on a 'natural' process within certain well defined principles) this is not its essence, which lies in the conscious creation and re-creation of the human world unmediated by 'exchange' and all its ramifications.

We hope this goes some way to further explaining our approach.