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The Purpose of engaging in Electoral Politics

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As the IOPS project moves along, we will face certain criticism regarding electoral activism. As a tactic, parliamentary democracy is worth participating in, as many reforms that benefit people can be passed that way. And in this belief I may differ from many on the left. However, it would be delusional to think that winning a majority in Congress would be a victory for socialism, even if we by some chance gained the presidency. Rather such institutions should then be replaced with a workers democracy, which would require a revolution.

So my essential argument remains: when the efforts of reform have exhausted their use, we are left with revolution. Some of the reforms that we will be able to win won't eliminate capitalism, but lessen the harsh brutality on the people's lives. This is an essential part of building up grassroots support.

So if you accept this premise, another issue comes up. Which political party? As this is an international movement, I cannot give the answer for every nation. What I can say is that if you run, be open in your anti-capitalist affiliation. You will quickly learn which parties will keep you.

"You must either vote for or against your own material interests as a wealth producer; there is no political purgatory in this nation of ours, despite the desperate efforts of so-called Progressive capitalist politicians to establish one. Socialism alone represents the material heaven of plenty for those who toil and the Socialist party alone offers the political means for attaining that heaven of economic plenty which the toil of the workers of the world provides in unceasing and measureless flow." ~Eugene V. Debs
A strategy frequently endorsed by many socialists in the US is to "move the Democratic Party to the left". One proposed way of doing this is through the organization PDA, or Progressive Democrats of America. This strategy relies on dishonesty. Not only would the socialism of these people be downplayed, but if a candidate was to run, they would have to adopt capitalist policies in order to be supported by the capitalist establishment. And when in power, if you were to ever be called a socialist, you would deny it, lest your ability to get funding for your next campaign be diminished. Isn't this the dictionary definition of opportunism?

Jed Brandt put it perfectly, when talking about the "Van Jones effect":

"I am opposed to white supremacy, not because its white people involved. I am opposed to the system that we traditionally call imperialism and the idea that some people have rights and privileges that are not granted to all human beings, and the solution to that problem is communism and socialism and we should put it in our mouths. We should say it when we say: "What is your politics?". "I am a socialist! I demand that we have healthcare for people, and its not a demand that is negotiable with insurance companies. We will take your insurance companies! We will take the farms in this country! We will shut down the military apparatus of this country, and I'm tired of being told to stuff my anger back in my pants. Its got to end!"

Progressivism historically has been a trend to save capitalism when the ability to form a socialist movement is at its strongest. The capitalist class thinks long-term. They know that if they are to keep their positions in society, they should support progressivism. At least until the socialist movement dies down. If we are socialists, we should be opposed to both private and state capitalism, and not be fooled by politicians who do not have our best interests at heart.

Socialists trying to infiltrate capitalist parties push the political spectrum to the extreme right. Why? Because capitalists then believe that progressivism is about as far to the left as the people are willing to go, and therefore can get away going to the extreme right. Growing a mass movement for socialism, on the other-hand, would genuinely shift politics to the left.

How can a party, which depends on capitalist contributions in order to sustain itself, be pulled at all to the left? Imagine - after receiving all this money, the politician will vote in favor of the proletariat, domestically or internationally! Again, Jed Brandt is spot on here: "When the left become the defenders of liberal imperialism, it is the far-right who make the gains." Democrats have used the left time and time again, and until you ditch them as their voting block and join the socialist movement, they will continue this abuse.

Debs sums up my thoughts on this perfectly:

"Either you must vote for capitalism, with its ever increasing poverty and prostitution for the workers - with its army, its militia, its police and its courts, with which it enforces bestial conditions upon you - or else you must vote for Socialism which proclaims industrial peace in place of war - plenty in place of poverty - love and chastity in place of vice and prostitution."
The sole purpose of a political party is to have a clear set of changes they intend to make, and to elect people to push for those reforms. They are not to act as a debating society on past figures and revolutions. A political party should not act as a history book, but have a defined ideology and aim to get members elected without compromising on the ideology. Now history can inform and develop ideology, but no more.

Discussion 12 Comments

  • Lambert Meertens 3rd Dec 2012

    The social status-quo is the resultant of a force field in which the various actors pull, as in a multi-party tug-of-war, in different directions to get things where they want them to be. This tug-of-war is played out in all spheres, not just the political, but certainly the political sphere is an important arena. It has always struck me as weird that large parts of the Left want to give the corporations and forces of the reaction a free hand in this arena. That cannot be good for winning changes in society that better the situations of suffering constituencies while also laying the ground work for more changes and construction to come. So to speak.

    But I agree we must be honest if we venture into the political arena. I'd even say, brutally honest. Truth is our strongest weapon. We must not give it up for some temporary gain. So we have to avoid false promises and be clear that we do not consider this system of "representative" democracy to be true democracy, and that the state has only very limited power. But even this limited power, used the right (that is, left) way, can make a real difference. If being honest means we are banished from a party, or a candidacy, so be it. In the end that is better than participating in a charade.

    • Lambert Meertens 3rd Dec 2012

      To be clear, where above I write "we", I mean, we as left activists. IOPS as an organization should steer clear of trying to function as a political party.

    • Lambert Meertens 3rd Dec 2012

      Here is an interesting essay on the topic: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/politics-our-missing-link/. (Thanks to Stephen Lawton for mentioning this on another blog.)

    • David Jones 4th Dec 2012

      I read the essay Lambert, and there is plenty there I agree with. But I strongly disagree with this paragraph:

      "Finally, politics implies the left‑right spectrum (which many greens seek to evade). This spectrum has its origins in revolutionary France, where it accompanied the birth of modern politics, and reflected a division that was not about ethnicity, religion, or region, but about ideas and classes, which is why it became globally recognised. And it is still, I think, unavoidable and necessary (if not always straightforward). When someone claims to have superseded the left-right spectrum, they’re evading the reality of a divided society."

      At the very least I think we need a second axis to talk meaningfully in this way. When both Stalin and Chomsky (for example) are regarded by most as being "extreme left-wing" then I think accepting this literally and figuratively one-dimensional system of political categorization is asking for trouble. I could never figure out what "the left-right spectrum" was supposed to mean anyway. When I hear it now I always think of the "lifeline" scene from the film Donnie Darko:

      Donnie Darko: Ling Ling finds a wallet on the ground filled with money. She takes the wallet to the address on the driver’s license but keeps the money inside the wallet. I-I’m sorry Mrs. Farmer. I don’t get this.

      Kitty Farmer: Just place an X on the Life Line in the appropriate place.

      Donnie Darko: No, I mean I know what to do, I just don’t get this. You can’t just lump things into two categories. Things aren’t that simple.

      Kitty Farmer: The Life Line is divided that way.

      Donnie Darko: Life isn’t that simple. I mean who cares if Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love.

      Kitty Farmer: Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions.

      Donnie Darko: Okay. But you’re not listening to me. There are other things that need to be taken into account. Like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can’t just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else.

      Kitty Farmer: If you don’t complete the assignment you’ll get a zero for the day.

      Donnie Darko:

    • Lambert Meertens 4th Dec 2012

      I think the left-right spectrum can't be the whole story but is still meaningful. Essential human freedoms have champions and foes on both sides of the left-right spectrum, and the libertarian-authoritarian spectrum is also politically meaningful and important.

    • Lambert Meertens 4th Dec 2012

      I see that Wikipedia has an article on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_compass.

    • David Jones 5th Dec 2012

      Sure, the second axis the "political compass" adds is a big help, like I said. I much prefer "left-libertarian" to just "left". But I think a term like "libertarian socialist" is better still. The "socialist" part says something precise about my stance on economic matters (I oppose private ownership of productive property) and the "libertarian" part says something precise about my stance on political matters (I oppose coercive bureaucracies - state or corporate). I'm not sure what "left" says about either - it seems to be this vauge label applied to a whole hotchpotch of political ideas!

  • stephen lawton 9th Dec 2012

    My thinking on this issue is as follows, given that the economic crisis is going to continue IOPS along with other elements of the Left need coalesce into some sort political party with a clear commitment to take control of the state in order to disperse state power to the localities(the Commons). There would be a clear commitment to democratise the economy as per IOPS vision, then the polity, family etc. As Lambert says it should clear that we are a revolutionary anti-capitalist movement. Party politics is seen as a step on the road to revolution, as part of a wider social movement to change the world.

    We can start to network now to build a broad coalition just to get the arguments and our name and vision out there. It can be seen as a tactic to dent the crazy arguments of the current elite.

    We could decide to fight say five high profile seats in the next election to simply get us on the political map and into the minds of the people. I could them go to work and say would you vote for this anti capitalist party that wants to change the world, this is our vision. The person I'm talking to may say yes to this because they can get their head around the notion of elections to gain power but might not understand how IOPS as a broader movement plans to make a revolution. The communist left in Greece polled 3% of the vote 3 years ago now they are preparing for power, why cant we do the same, it's the same crisis?

    • David Jones 10th Dec 2012

      Greece has proportional representation though. We're stuck with first past the post.

      I agree with Lambert that if we choose to engage in electoral politics we must remain resolutely true to out organizational commitments and be totally honest about them. In the UK this probably means remaining a minor party, given how electoral campaigns here are funded and covered by the mainstream media (plus the major handicap of FPTP). Still, I could see there being a point to engaging in electoral politics - to the extent that it gets us out there talking to people about IOPS and gives radical critiques more of a public platform. Also, if we gain some independent seats in a few years time, we could apply pressure with the aim that the government steal some of our reform measures or implement some of our more modest demands?

  • Mark Evans 10th Dec 2012

    Hi Andrew - you write "As a tactic, parliamentary democracy is worth participating in, as many reforms that benefit people can be passed that way. And in this belief I may differ from many on the left."

    You are right in thinking that this is something that many on the left will disagree with you on. As you may know this difference of opinion is a root cause of one of the major splits within the revolutionary left. This, of course, greatly weakens us and yet revolutionaries seem absolutely committed to adopting either an anti-electoral or a pro-electoral position.

    If, as a matter of principle, revolutionaries adopt one of these positions then they are helping maintain this split within the revolutionary left as well as the weakened position that naturally follows from this. That is the consequence of the "principled position" regarding strategy and tactics that has typified the revolutionary left over the past 150+ years.

    An alternative to this principled position that attempts to transcend the resulting split is that which is articulated within aspect of the IOPS key documents. For example:

    "IOPS sees social strategy and especially tactics as largely contingent on place and time and therefore continually revises shared views in light of new evidence including regularly updating analysis, vision, and strategy."(Mission)

    whilst also...

    "assesses engaging in electoral politics case by case, including cultivating a very cautious electoral attitude." (Structure and Programme)

    I hope that you can see a difference between the "principled position" that you seem to argue for in your blog and the "strategic position" expressed in the IOPS key documents that have been conceived as an attempt to overcome the major splits within the revolutionary left in an effort to build a powerful new revolutionary organisation.

    There is lots more to say on this but I will leave it there for now...

  • Andrew Fletcher 11th Dec 2012

    Looking at politics as 'left' or 'right' is wrong.The authotitarian left has killed more anarchists than any other group has- hence the distrust- are we the same-NO

    • Andrew Gorman 12th Dec 2012

      When I say "left", I should be clear that I mean democratic socialism. By its very nature, I don't think this is something that could be imposed onto others, nor should it be. The people should want it, and in order to convince them to our argument is to show them how capitalism is literally killing us.