Elections and the Marxist tradition

April 26, 2016

Paul D’Amato, author of The Meaning of Marxism, looks at how socialists--from the time of Marx and Engels through today--have approached politics and voting.

THERE IS a still-widespread fallacy that Marxism cares only about economics.

It is certainly true that Marxists believe the economic relations of society constitute its foundation, and you can't understand the dynamics of a particular society unless you understand its underlying relations of production--and, in particular, its class relations. "What distinguishes the various economic formations of society," wrote Marx in Capital, "is the form in which...surplus labor is in each case extorted from the immediate producer, the worker."

But just as a house is more than its foundation and supports, so capitalism is more than its economic structure. As Marx famously wrote in his Preface to A Critique of Political Economy, a "legal and political superstructure" arises on this foundation, "to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness."

One key component of this superstructure is the state, which has, at its core, agencies of coercion and vast official bureaucracies, but also legislative and executive bodies that change hands between competing political parties, at least in systems where elections are held. Engels described the modern state, even in its most democratic form, as "the organization which the ruling classes--landowners and capitalists--have provided for themselves in order to protect their social privileges."

Elections and the Marxist tradition

The working class must therefore involve itself in politics. It must create its own independent political party to achieve emancipation.

An 1871 resolution penned by Karl Marx for the London conference of the International Workingmen's Association summed up this position. The working class must constitute itself as a party "distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes," as the only means to "ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end--the abolition of classes."

Elsewhere, Engels wrote, "The workers' party must never be the tagtail of any bourgeois party; it must be independent and have its goal and its own policy."

To be sure, Marxists have always focused on the economic struggles of workers as building blocks of collective action and an indispensable means for training the working class in how to exercise its own power and for developing its consciousness as a class.

By its ruthless exploitation of labor, capitalism compels workers to combine into unions and push back against the constant efforts by employers to push down wages and degrade working conditions. But strikes, in and of themselves, do not constitute a means by which workers can reorder social relations and abolish exploitation and oppression.

Marx and Engels were quite critical of trade unionism when it deliberately limited itself to the fight over wages. As Engels wrote about workers in Britain:

For a number of years the English workers' movement has been going round and round bootlessly in a confined circle of STRIKES for wages and the reduction of working hours--not, mark you, as an expedient and a means of propaganda and organization, but as the ultimate aim. Both on principle and statutorily the TRADES UNIONS actually exclude any political action and hence participation in any general activity on the part of the working class as a class.


SO MARXISM by no means ignores or downplays politics. Working-class political power is a precondition for dismantling capitalist economic relations.

As an economic system, capitalism developed within feudal society. The modern class of capitalists first developed its economic power before it sought political power. But it must be the reverse with the working class, as the U.S. Marxist Hal Draper wrote:

The working class (unlike the bourgeoisie) cannot inseminate its own system of economic power within the old one, thereby establishing a plateau of power from which to gain the political heights. The order necessarily is the reverse. The proletariat--through the organization of its political movement, like every other aspiring class--must first conquer political power and then begin the process of socioeconomic transformation. For the bourgeoisie, political power was finally plucked as the ripe or overripe fruit of its socioeconomic power, its power as a possessing class. For the proletariat, political power is needed as the engine with which to bring a new social order into existence.

Note, however, that Draper is talking about more than just running candidates or winning office--he's talking about conquering state power. The "triumph of the social revolution" referred to in the resolution for the International Workingmen's Association cited above isn't going to be achieved by getting the right people elected, as important as elections are in developing the independent political organization of the working class.

The purpose of political participation in the bourgeois system of elections, for Marx and Engels, was that it allowed workers' parties "to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint."

Indeed, refusing to run candidates on the grounds that it might let conservatives win elections--because more moderate candidates would lose votes to the left--was itself an indication of the political immaturity of the class and its willingness to become the "tagtail" that Engels describes above.

As Marx wrote: "The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is indefinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body."


MOST PEOPLE'S view of politics is shaped by the stifling limits of the two-party system. Politics is seen as something politicians do, which has little to do with "us."

The two parties, the Democrats and Republicans, appear, to quote Frederick Engels, as "two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends--and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality exploit and plunder it."

It should be no surprise, then, that most people detest politics--or that an estimated 93 million eligible voters didn't cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential election. There is a widespread recognition that the game is rigged--something colorfully expressed by Republican Sen. Boies Penrose in 1896, addressing big business: "I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money...and out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money."

And yet, to the extent that ordinary people are awakened to a desire for social change, they will, at various points, turn toward electoral politics--witness the enthusiasm in Election 2016 for Bernie Sanders because his speeches address the concerns of ordinary people in a way rarely seen in U.S. politics.

At some point, people who want genuine change ask themselves: If governments set policies that serve the interests of business, then surely we must find ways to win policies that serve ordinary people. Who can we vote for who will represent us--our concerns and our demands--in Congress and in the White House, but at other levels of government as well?

But when ordinary people do turn to politics, they find that neither party seems to work in their interests. The Democrats and Republicans answer to the interests of what used to be called the "captains of industry"--the bankers, industrialists, traders, investors and other corporate bigwigs.

No matter which party is in power, the vast apparatus that administers the state is intimately connected to business interests through a revolving door of lobbyists, lawyers and so-called "regulatory" officials, who rotate between the state and private sectors.

There's even a special word for the way in which government agencies aimed ostensibly at regulating an industry end up advancing the interests of that industry--regulatory capture. The result is that, with few exceptions, officials are "naturally" committed to what is euphemistically called a "good business climate."

Of course, the parties aren't necessarily open about this. The Republican Party does sell itself as a friend of free enterprise. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, doesn't shout its cozy relationship with big business from the rooftops.

For example, Hillary Clinton just announced her support for the recent Verizon strike. But her whole résumé as a Democrat should remind us that this is political posturing, and not at all reflective of where her allegiances, nor those of the party she represent, lie. More telling is the fact that she netted $675,000 dollars for just three speaking engagements in front of Goldman Sachs executives--where, according to an observer of one of the events, she sounded, not at all surprisingly, "like a Goldman Sachs managing director."


THIS ISN'T a historical aberration, but reflective of the party's entire history.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal policies seem far to the left of the Democratic Party today--which has been, in the name of "small government" and "personal responsibility," whittling away at the social programs that were products of hard-fought struggles in the 1930s and 1960s.

But that's precisely the point: the reforms weren't a product of a particular party, but of particular struggles. Roosevelt himself pointed out to conservative business leaders who felt he was giving away too much that he was saving capitalism, not promoting socialism.

Moreover, among the facts left out of the FDR myth: "[M]ore company unions had been organized; more workers killed, wounded and jailed; [and] more troops called out against strikers under Roosevelt than under any president in memory," as the labor historian Art Preis wrote.

It is a fact that every major progressive reform in the U.S., from the introduction of unemployment insurance to the abolition of Jim Crow segregation laws in the South, had to be proposed by one of the two major parties, passed by a Congress controlled by them, and signed into law by a president belonging to one.

But that's because only two parties are permitted to share power under the U.S. system. Positive reforms are born of social struggle, not the benevolence of politicians. The proof of this isn't only that the reforms were almost always won at the high points of struggle, but that in the periods of conservative reaction, both parties shifted rightward and participated in their dismantling. It was Bill Clinton, after all, and not Ronald Reagan or the Bushes, who "ended welfare as we know it."

When Engels observed the emergence of the Knights of Labor in the U.S. in the 1880s, along with moves toward the creation of labor parties, he remarked to another socialist: "In a country that has newly entered the movement, the first really crucial step is the formation by the workers of an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is distinguishable as a labor party."

To another comrade in the U.S., he wrote, "A million or two of working-men's votes next November for a bona fide working-men's party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform."


FOR THE reasons already mentioned, there is a strong institutional barrier to developing such a party in the United States.

As a result, a vote for a third party is generally seen as a wasted vote--and much of the left short of socialists preaches the common sense that third-party candidates are "spoilers," because they threaten to deliver a victory to conservative candidate or parties.

The two-party system is designed to elicit this response precisely as a means to prevent independent political action of the working class and the oppressed. The only way to defeat the right, so the refrain goes, is to vote for the lesser of two evils.

Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Organization have always challenged the logic of "lesser evilism" and instead supported "genuine left-wing candidates and political action that promotes independence from the corporate-dominated two-party system in the U.S.," as the ISO's "Where We Stand" statement puts it. Even if the votes we cast are protest votes, with no realistic hope of defeating the two parties, they can contribute toward the future project.

But it would be a mistake to conclude from this that all we need to do is break the two-party system and get the right people, with better proposals and better politics, elected into office.

It's one thing for one of the two "great gangs of speculators," as Engels called the Democrats and Republicans, to gain control of government and distribute the spoils of victory. Neither of these parties, however much they rail against each other, threatens the system. Their interests, though they may diverge by a matter of degrees, are the same when it comes to promoting and protecting the interests of the dominant class.

The state is not a neutral body that simply builds roads and repairs water mains. It conducts its work within capitalist relations; its projects, institutions and spending--not to mention who it taxes and by how much--are bent toward the dominant interests, no matter what party is in power.

So elections may be an excellent means to amplify the socialist message and organize and give shape to movements that develop outside the electoral sphere. But socialism cannot be legislated into existence.

Universal suffrage, wrote Engels, is a useful "gauge of the maturity of the working class," but by itself, it cannot put an end to capitalism. And as Engels concluded, "On the day when the thermometer of universal suffrage shows boiling point among the workers, they as well as the capitalists will know where they stand."

Even in the event that socialists were able to win a majority and establish a government, the ruling class will not go gently into that good night.

As Karl Marx noted in an interview with a New York newspaper, when the ruling class "finds itself outvoted in what it considers vital questions, we shall see here a new slave owner's war." Though he was referring to Britain, the slave reference is to the fact that Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 triggered a violent reaction from the Southern slaveholders, leading directly to the Civil War.

Any party that comes into power seeking to transform the system in ways that contradict its logic--or, to put it more clearly, that attempt to promote class interests running counter to the interests and priorities of the ruling class--will face such a "slave owners' war."

The absolute precondition in the U.S. to the building of a genuine socialist movement, embracing millions of workers, the poor and the oppressed, is breaking from the limits imposed by the two-party system and creating a party of workers and the oppressed. But for the socialists to fully succeed in their project, there must be a revolutionary struggle that moves far beyond the limits of our rigged democracy.

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