Can socialism be voted into power?

Elizabeth Schulte explains why there is no electoral shortcut to winning a society based on workers' power.

Can we vote socialism into power?

IF YOU ask Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck, Americans put a socialist into the White House when they elected Barack Obama president last November.

Obama denies his secret socialistic leanings, and there's good reason to believe him--in the past few weeks, he and his administration have supported the use of unaccountable military tribunals in the "war on terror," opposed prosecution of the Bush administration torturers, celebrated the insurance industry's eager participation in a suspect proposal for health care "reform"--and, of course, continued to hand untold hundreds of billions to the country's biggest banks.

Not exactly a radical.

But the right's hyperventilating about socialism does raise the question: Are elections the way to win a socialist society? After all, it seems like an easier and more peaceful task to vote socialism into office than to organize a mass revolutionary struggle.

So can we vote socialism into power?

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THE FIRST objection, at least in the U.S., is that people would never go for it, even if it were possible. Maybe they'd vote for the socialists in France and Sweden, but not in conservative America, where we're all rugged individualists who work hard to make it on our own.

What else to read

The recently published The Essential Rosa Luxemburg includes Reform or Revolution, a classic work on the question of socialists and elections.

For an introduction to socialism and the socialist tradition, read The Case for Socialism, by Socialist Worker editor Alan Maass. Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism provides a lively and accessible account of the ideas of Karl Marx, using historical and contemporary examples.

The International Socialist Review provides regular coverage of U.S. and world politics. Paul D'Amato's "Marxists and Elections" appeared in the August-September 2000 issue of the ISR.

Hal Draper's The Two Souls of Socialism makes the case for the genuine socialist tradition that looks to the self-activity of the working class to change society.

For more about the two-party system in the U.S., with a focus on a socialist history of the Democratic Party, see Lance Selfa's The Democrats: A Critical History.

On the other hand, a recent Rasmussen poll found that just 53 percent of American adults believed capitalism was better than socialism--and those under 30 years old were evenly divided on whether they preferred capitalism or socialism or weren't sure.

And the fact is that socialist and radical ideas have been widely popular at various points in U.S. history. In the first part of the century, Eugene Debs campaigned for president under the banner of socialism five times. In 1920, he ran from prison where he was jailed for his opposition to the First World War, and won almost a million votes.

As Debs traveled around the country on a campaign train, known as the Red Special, thousands gathered to hear him speak. At his kickoff meeting at New York City's Madison Square Garden in 1912, he spoke to a sold-out crowd who gave him a 29-minute standing ovation.

In his speeches, Debs shifted the debate away from everyday election themes and used the platform to enumerate the ills of capitalism--and how both the Democratic and Republican Parties backed up the system and workers' role in transforming society. He said in 1912:

The Socialist Party is the only party in this campaign that stands against the present system and for the rule of the people; the only party that boldly avows itself the party of the working class and its purpose the overthrow of wage-slavery.

So long as the present system of capitalism prevails and the few are allowed to own the nation's industries, the toiling masses will be struggling in the hell of poverty as they are today. To tell them that juggling with the tariff will change this beastly and disgraceful condition is to insult their intelligence. The professional politicians who have been harping upon this string since infant industries have become giant monopolies know better. Their stock in trade is the credulity of the masses.

Socialist ideas got a wider hearing in the context of increased class struggle. In the biggest labor struggles of the 19th and 20th century--the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Pullman in 1894, the Lawrence textile strike in 1912, the sit-down strikes of the 1930s--the greed of the U.S. ruling class was laid out for everyone to see, as workers took on police and company thugs.

Under these kinds of conditions, it's easy to see the possibilities for a political party that represented working people.

But there is a further question here about the U.S. political system: Even if he or she were popular, how far would a socialist candidate get?

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Hear Elizabeth Schulte at Socialism 2009 in Chicago, speaking on "How Eugene Debs Became a Socialist." Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

The way elections are conducted in this country, the Democrats and Republicans have an iron grip over the process; rules and regulations make it next to impossible for independent candidates to take part in debates and even get on ballots; and billions of corporate dollars are funneled into the campaigns.

These facts expose the truth about the "world's largest democracy"--that the candidate with the backing of Corporate America usually wins.

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IT WOULD be a welcome development if there were viable left-wing candidates that could break the Democratic/Republican stranglehold over elections. If a candidate could shed light on the crimes of capitalism and make working-class demands a part of the election debate, that would have the potential of strengthening the class struggle.

But if they were somehow to get elected, would that be socialism?

This raises a more fundamental question about what socialism is. One conception of socialism centers on electing representatives who will legislate gradual reforms to the system--more social programs to benefit workers and the poor, and state control over privately controlled industries.

But another socialist tradition that runs back to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels has always insisted on socialism from below--where the aim is a completely different society in which workers aren't handed reforms from above, but make their own decisions about how society is run.

Under this socialism, workers will decide not just on pieces of legislation, but all the other decisions that go into how society is organized--decisions about the economy, what natural resources are used for, how communities function and more.

Workers can't get this kind of power in society simply through a vote--because elections only affect a part of the overall system of capitalism. Obviously, political leaders like Barack Obama have all kinds of power to affect social change, but there are decisions about how society is run--many of them made in corporate boardrooms, for example--that are beyond their power to influence, even if they wanted to.

If socialism is to be a society based on solidarity and freedom that meets the needs of every person in it, then the working class needs to have collective democratic control over all these areas of society. So winning socialism isn't just about winning political power. It's about winning economic power, and that means workers have to assert their control in factories, offices and workplaces.

This isn't to say that reform measures which are socialistic in character can't be fought for and won through the present government system--for instance, single-payer health care or unemployment insurance.

Such measures are important in and of themselves, and they in turn give people confidence to make further demands. But at the same time, these reforms can only go so far. And ultimately, if they come in conflict with the ruling class' ability to make profits, they can be taken away.

In the early part of the last century, socialists around the world fiercely debated how to achieve socialism. Among them were those who proclaimed that they were following in the footsteps of Marx and Engels, but who in fact turned Marxist ideas on their heads.

The German socialist Eduard Bernstein, for example, argued that capitalism had developed to the point that it could overcome class contradictions, and that a benevolent state could be achieved by electing socialists to parliament and enacting reforms from above.

The Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg pointed out the futility of Bernstein's schemes, comparing him to the French utopian Charles Fourier:

Fourier's scheme of changing, by means of a system of phalansteries, the water of all the seas into tasty lemonade was surely a fantastic idea. But Bernstein, proposing to change the sea of capitalist bitterness into a sea of socialist sweetness, by progressively pouring into it bottles of social reformist lemonade, presents an idea that is merely more insipid but no less fantastic.

In fact, the socialists who followed Bernstein's ideas ended up setting aside workers' interests internationally. When the First World War began in 1914, a majority of the socialist parties, then committed to the idea of electing socialism into power, fell in line in support of their national ruling classes, and supported the war.

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ELECTIONS AREN'T simply a more gradual or practical way of getting to socialism. They can't get you to the same place.

So when Russian workers put Marx's ideas into practice and organized the first successful workers' revolution in 1917, they swept away the old government and created a new one, based on democracy from the bottom up.

The new workers' state drew its representatives from a system of workers' councils that grew out of individual workplaces. Delegates from these factory councils came together locally to make decisions, the local councils sent representatives to regional councils, and so on.

Representatives in this workers' council system weren't elected every two or four years. They were immediately recallable by those who voted for them--and therefore, they were held accountable to the mass of workers who were in constant discussion and mobilization over the political questions of the day.

This model of socialism--which has been repeated in various forms in workers' rebellions since the Russian Revolution--is democratic in a much more profound way than the system we live under today. It gives the working class as a whole a genuine say in how society is to be run. And it puts in their hands the power to make decisions about every realm of society--the economic as well as the political.

Ultimately, workers have to take power--what Marx called the "self-emancipation of the working class"--because our current rulers won't simply hand it over.

And the process of revolution itself is crucial to making socialism. Through the struggle, workers teach one another about how to organize a new society--and challenge the rotten ideas, like racism, sexism and homophobia, that propped up the old society.

As Marx and Engels wrote:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.

The most important lesson workers learn in revolutionary situations is that they can run society. This stands in stark contradiction to what we're taught--that the important decisions about society have to be left to "experts."

Workers' struggles of the past provide glimpses of what happens when this leave-it-to-the-experts "wisdom" is put into question--and those who used to take orders are now in the position to give them.

In her book Rising of the Women, Meredith Tax recalls a scene from the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, in which women workers from 25 nationalities came together to take on the bosses. She describes a group of Italian women strikers meeting a cop alone on a bridge--and taking away his club, star, gun and almost his pants, before they tossed him into the water. It's probably safe to assume this wouldn't have happened before they decided to strike.

Workers seizing power in their own interests is the only basis upon which real socialism can be won. As Debs told a New York audience in 1905:

Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.