In light of the upcoming elections, we must once again address one of the age-old questions of criticism of political economy: in trying to change the current system, is it worth it to engage with it within its own flawed structures? In short, does electoralism work? Can we reform the state apparatuses of the current system to become those of a new and better one? No.
I: To Whom Does the State Belong?: State Authority’s role in Political Economy and Class Struggle
Let us start with this question: what is the function of the state? For whom and for what does it operate in the context of the capitalist system of political economy? The answer, as has been determined by the careful analytical work of many Marxist thinkers(1), is that the state works for the ruling class and their economic interests within the class conflict between the rulers and ruled. So, as in modern capitalism the ruler of all political economy is the invested and accumulated capital of the major capitalists, it is for further such accumulation that the state as a tool of the ruling class in the struggle between the two classes functions.
Any scientific materialist analysis of history (such as that undertaken through the study of material dialectics and the work of Marx in the afore-cited work by Lenin) proves this, as every state action under liberal bourgeois-democracy (or “democracy,” to be perfectly frank) in recent (or any) memory has been decidedly in service of a single economic institution, and that institution has most certainly not been the majority of people who make up the working proletarian class. Did the Iraq war (and indeed the whole beast of imperialism- itself a mechanism of capitalist value extraction and accumulation(2)) benefit the Iraqi and American civilians who died? No. But it certainly won countless oil derricks from which American capital could pull the value of sold labour and its sold fruits. The same goes for the Afghanistan war, which we found out only recently we were lied into by the utterly un-accountable upper echelons of the capitalist-imperialist state(3). And this of course is not surprising. We may mistake the electoral system as it stands for democracy, but with its dependence on buying advertisement and courting donors, only those backed by sizable sums of capital have a chance at power. After all, in an economy where the bloody machines of the market are guided by the neoliberal delusion that the right of capital to oppress and exploit labour equates to economic freedom, the media of the bourgeois republics is run by a wealthy few, the same who finance candidates, to puppeteer opinion in their favour and we call this for-profit propaganda “free press.” This bourgeois democracy is no true democracy, no democracy for the proletarian majority.
What’s more, even state actions with some benefit to the proletariat can be seen on closer inspection to have simply served to dampen struggle over the contradiction between capital and labour. Take the example of the “New Deal,” which is so often used as an example of how the US state, despite its fundamentally bourgeois nature, can supposedly serve us all. Yet the “New Deal’’ only came into effect after the militant class struggle of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g. the Battle of Blair Mountain, or the riots in Pullman), and served not to give the masses what they wanted (a definitive solution to the contradictions of the dysfunctional control of their labour by capital) but to use concessions to snuff out revolution in its infancy. Its purpose was to return through bread and circuses the material class struggle to a less advanced stage and thus preserve the contradictory control of capital over the fruits of labour and their use and exchange value. And this, of course, is the same function of reformism today- as embodied by the veritable new Kautskyites† of the Sanders camp, who blanch at any talk of real change. Their “socialism” of affordable healthcare and slightly higher wages (or, more accurately, slightly lower rates of exploitative extraction of surplus value by capital) is merely a bandaid atop the bullet-wound of exploitation. It does nothing to combat the oppression of workers by the capitalist class and their capital, leaving the core system of exploitative control of property and labour by capital and its owners (private ownership of economically productive workplace properties) intact. And Sanders, indeed, is not the workers’ hero he pretends to be. He, like any politician within the capital-financed and thus capitalist-puppeteered elections in the US, is all too happy to fall in line with the Imperialist programme of the capitalist class on issues like the question of supporting their coup in Venezuela(4) (And yet nonetheless the capitalist for-profit media makes every effort to downplay him even so- showing even the tiniest amount of good for the masses will never make it through the ringer of bourgeois politics!). His reforms are a far cry from what we need: real change, meaning of course the control of political and economic power structures collectively by the majority who do the work that creates all the useful value within that economy- true democracy, or in the Marxist terms socialism, which must be established not through electoral reform but through a militant and armed class struggle for a Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
Yes, there are many camps within bourgeois politics, but in the end they all have the same political-economic function. From the ultra-right to the phony “left,” all the factions of the bourgeois state’s politics serve that state’s masters: the capitalist class. They have different ideas and fulfill their function in different ways- some through force, some through concessions, some through trickery- but their class alignment is always with the oppressor and not with the oppressed. So on material analysis of the state’s former and present function through the lens of class antagonism, it becomes clear just who it serves. The state is most certainly on one side of the struggle between the classes, and to establish freedom and true political and economic democracy for the masses (socialism) we must be on the opposite side, must struggle violently and uncompromisingly to build the Democratic D. of the P. So how, then, do we engage with the state?
II: Deals with the Devil: The Question of Working with the Bourgeois State for the Sake of the Proletariat
With the true nature of the state being as an instrument of political-economic power for exactly one of the two main classes, we as members of the other class (and advocates for its liberation) may understand working with the state- although this theological metaphor is perhaps incongruous with the all-important scientific materialism of modern Marxist philosophy- as dealing with a devil. This devil may perhaps be helpful, may perhaps be at least useful. But in all it does it has one goal: to crush our organization, the workers’ attempts to seize control of their own labour-power and its use value produced through labour, and to restore utter mastery over the productive labour of the proletarian class to its capitalist (or satanic, in the metaphor) masters. So, knowing the devil is not our friend, how shall we deal with it and to what extent?
The first clear thing is we must never glorify the devil. We must never pretend he is a god, or our friend, or that our dealings with him constitute real political-economic progress. If we deal with him, and that if shall be addressed later, it shall be quietly and in full awareness that he is ultimately our enemy and must be replaced by the angel, if you will, of the Democratic Proletarian Dictatorship of workers’ democratic control of politics and production. If we are to associate with him, it shall be quiet, shall be our shame. None of this liberal glorification of participation in bourgeois elections, none of this “su voto es su voz” nonsense of the center-right liberal “left.” To glorify, to propagandize for and worship, this devil is to create a culture that thinks associating with him is genuine political progress, and worse, that it is the only necessary political action. In reality, it is a political nothing: it is a tiny drop of clean water in a pool fetid with gallons and gallons of the poison of corporate-financed candidates. We must never treat it as anything more, lest the masses begin to believe it is.
But, this material fact of voting’s irrelevance in mind, is it worth it to vote at all? It is tempting to follow the line taken by Wilhelm Liebknecht of the SPD, in that party’s early days when it was Marxist and had not yet become the gang of reactionary state lackeys whose government would ultimately murder Luxemburg and Liebknecht (Karl, not Wilhelm)(5), in his work No Compromise. He said that participation in the politics of the capitalist class dictatorship is permissible in order to create a growing political movement, provided it does not dilute the core ideological message that our ultimate goal is to replace that class’s rule with a democratic rule by the working majority- a D. of the P.- which shall usher in global economic freedom for all. This is also essentially the line of the so-called “Harm-Reductionists”; they believe that participation in the false-democracy of the bourgeois state is a harmless way to reduce the brutality of capitalism, without distracting from the primary struggle. This line, however, has an internal contradiction: Causing oneself to be involved in the affairs of the capitalist dictatorship, the state, inherently dilutes the struggle because it is inherently a distraction from the work of building the alternative: the democratic rule by the workers that shall create socialism. One can not be fully devoted to building worker-democracy in workplaces, or a national power structure of the D. of the P. to defend it, if one is forever involved in the tedium of elections where one chooses between two identical war criminals. When we try to turn the oppressive dictatorship of one class into the democratic one of the other, we inevitably become caught up in its nonsense and lose focus. Indeed, Liebknecht’s own party shows this in its history: The SPD went from a Marxist advocate for dialectical progress in the class struggle at its birth, to a reactionary force that assassinated true Marxists like Luxemburg, to its current position as just another wing of the false-democratic apparatus of the bourgeois state in Germany.
So voting and participating sincerely in electoralism is not a way to progress the dialectical-material struggle for socialism and the true democracy of the D. of the P., even if it is done, as the SPD once did it, with its problems in mind. Any association with the bourgeois state, by organizations or by individuals from within our movement, will derail our movement’s revolutionary nature. No matter how “critically” we support the bourgeois state, we are still letting the devil in. So, if we are to struggle righteously and never let the devil distract us, how do we struggle? How do we go about exorcising bourgeois false-democratic puppet-elections, which have come to be the sole theatre of political life in the minds of most proletarians, from the struggle for control of the economy?
III: The Political-Economic Exorcism: The Nature of Genuine Mass Work for Material Progress in the Class Dialectic of Political-Economy
Let me be clear that what we militant Marxists advocate is not just a boycott. Refusal of participation in the dictatorship of the capitalists is but one part, the least part, of the way we encourage class struggle to be undertaken. The fool who refuses to vote because it is pointless, but does nothing else, is no better than the fool who votes and thinks they have had an impact upon material political-economic conditions. Rather, we must refuse to bother with electoralism in order to free up time for what really must be done: building non-exploiting workplace conditions and real democracy for the workers now, not waiting for the bourgeoisie to peacefully hand over control over the masses’ labour, its produced surplus use value, and their lives. There must in every country be organized a democratic vanguard party, which shall rise out of the working masses and be made up of the most advanced revolutionary elements, who shall together practice democratic leadership of their efforts to educate the workers and encourage militant revolt. Around the central leadership of the party’s leading democratic assemblies, the party cadre must organize a united front of militant unions and workers’ organizations which shall democratically take over workplace leadership (thus building worker democracy). Together, these democratic bodies shall begin to build the true democracy of socialism. This, of course, is the same grandiose plan the great Marxists have spoken for decades, and it sounds like a lot of big talk with very little associated groundwork. But in reality the militant D. of the P. thus constructed can and will start small.
It is a great task to construct the vanguard, but not so great a task to construct around oneself a group of dedicated leftists willing to work together toward that goal. Mass work, the work of building the D. of the P. and advancing the class struggle, begins with such small actions. The key, indeed, to building a vanguard party which serves the local workers is to be intimately connected in direct communication with their democratic will. We as Marxists must keep one eye ever on the troubles of the masses to see what concerns them, and the other on Marxist scientific analysis through dialectical materialism and class conscious economics, so we may teach them how to make progress on these issues. Are the workers concerned about global warming? Encourage them to organize and express their mass democratic power in order to protect Earth! Are they concerned about gentrification? Encourage a rent strike, resistance to the parasite bourgeois landlords! These small forms of struggle can begin with something as small as a conversation, and quickly grow into community-wide struggles for freedom from exploitation, the local embodiments of the worldwide war between capital and the masses. And with time, this proletarian struggle against individual contradictions of capitalism gives birth to militant unions and mass organizations, and from these struggles may arise the democratic vanguard that has the power to unify these organizations into a United Front in order to build a democratic D. of the P. and socialist economy. We see examples of the power of small-time direct action in all manner of places: the Black Panther party began by simply giving the poor food and engaging in armed community defense patrols, and it reached a point where it was a genuine threat to the bourgeois state. The CPP-NPA-NDF communist insurgency currently building the D. of the P. in the rural Phillipinnes gained a great deal of support by simply standing up for queer rights and becoming famous for officiating illegal lesbian weddings. These struggles are small, yes, but they, unlike voting, are clearly and directly steps in the direction of dialectical progress away from capitalist contradiction.
Of course, in both these cases the communists were able to make these small strides because they were not afraid to fight, to defend themselves and the workers. This is another critical part of how we engage in proper Mass Work: we who are truly committed to building a better society must be prepared to arm ourselves for that purpose. When we make these small and meaningful strides the bourgeois state and its lackeys will respond violently and try to crush us, so we must be prepared to defend our efforts. Communists must be armed, and must be prepared to defend ourselves, the masses, and our efforts at organizing for revolution from the violent forces of the bourgeois state. Furthermore, when we succeed at establishing the vanguard Communist Party and the United Front around it for the purpose of building socialism, these must be united with a People’s Army (which is built around and controlled democratically by the leadership of the party, to ensure it remains committed to the cause) prepared to fight militantly for their cause, and the Party must be armed and militarized to lead that Army. Communists must be ready to defend our small actions by force, to achieve larger actions through force, and to ultimately establish socialism through the force of People’s War. We who are dedicated to real progress must take up arms, and we must never surrender them.
Thusly, the true way of progress in the class struggle is not vague participation in the abstract processes of puppet-elections, it is a boycott, coupled with the more important action of a constant programme of agitation and education towards the masses to encourage their resistance to capital. We must encourage resistance, and from that resistance shall arise the organized struggle and vanguard. We must also take up arms, to defend the growth of the movement and ultimately to fight a revolutionary war for its goals. From this, not from the political nonaction of voting, shall rise real material progress and ultimately the organized vanguard and D. of the P. that shall build socialism and communism, shall bring true economic democracy and freedom to the workers.
SOURCES AND FOOTNOTES:
†The Kautskyites, for those unaware, were a faction of “Marxists” in the early 20th century who wrongly thought the bourgeois state could be peacefully converted into a Democratic D. of the P. through electoral means. They were heavily criticized and proven wrong by Lenin, and their political actions ultimately served only to reinforce bourgeois power- just like the New Deal and just like Sanders. They, like the Sanders camp, were heavily confused about what socialism actually is.
- State and Revolution, VI Lenin
- Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, VI Lenin
- “Afghanistan Papers,” SIGAR, published to the public (in one of their rare cases of honest journalism) by the Washington Post
- In an interview with the New York Times