With the looming federal election, the campaign circus ramps up again. ASF Geelong contributes this article in order to clarify its anti-electoral stance. This is made more important given the development of new electoral groupings in Victoria drawing substantial support from activists on the far left.
On the 16th of February 2019 the Victorian Socialists held their first official ‘founding’ conference. Commitment to the new electoral project was formalised by Socialist Alternative, Socialist Alliance, and individual activists. After their first electoral efforts (during the last state elections), the conference decided to continue the electoral project and contest the upcoming Australian federal elections. The regroupment of the larger Trotskyist organisations in Victoria into the Victorian Socialists project has created the most significant electoral socialist presence in the country since the original Communist Party. Large numbers of volunteers have been mobilised, some progressive unions gave relatively significant financial support, and the initial campaign garnered a reasonable amount of media attention. In some electorates, the Victorian Socialist project brought in a larger portion of the vote than socialists have received in a long time, and only missed out on one seat because of preferencing. While performing stronger than socialist electoral efforts in recent decades, this is not an earth shattering result. As anarchists, we can draw lessons from the achievements of the Victorian Socialist campaign in mobilising people around working class issues, but we are not here to sing praises for the project. It is more important is to remind ourselves of the reasons we believe electoral politics is a dead end for the working class.
Anarchists do not hold anti-electoral politics for no reason. We have always been well aware that the state cannot become a path to liberation – attempts to use it as such by the socialist left results in the individuals in parliament becoming, at best, an irrelevance with their campaigns a waste of time and resources, and at worst, becoming the most virulent defenders of the state and privilege. Despite the undoubtable integrity of some genuine revolutionaries entering parliament, a principled position in parliament can only last so long.
“The political arena leaves one no alternative, one must either be a dunce or a rouge.” – Emma Goldman
Given that a government of socialists, either in the minority or majority, do not control the entire apparatus of the state under bourgeois democracy, they must attempt to implement a minimum plan. As standard practice, socialists argue to increase taxes on the rich, or to use funds from other state sectors and invest them in poorer communities. This is all well and good, but by involving themselves in this task, they suddenly find themselves burdened with running the very system they claim to want to overthrow. Consider what would happen if a Victorian Socialist candidate is elected and achieves some of the aims of their manifesto, for example, the proposed recycling plant in the northern suburbs. Though the plant will provide some positives – it will create jobs, and meet environmental needs – in a capitalist system, workers will inevitably struggle with their pay and working conditions. Subsequently, the socialist councilors will have to mediate the struggle and potentially discipline striking workers. This highlights an inherent contradiction when ‘revolutionaries’ in government have no choice but to administer the capitalist state. The greatest idealism is shipwrecked on the shores of the reality of capitalist economics. It may sound like quite an abstraction, but historical precedence would indicate this is a very real concern. Throughout history workers have had to face ‘socialist’ strikebreaking many times.
Some of the groups and members within the Victorian Socialist tent will point out that as revolutionaries they should be using parliament to denounce bourgeois democracy (the best line in this situation), but others will see the small reforms as achievements. They will push the party to continue this line of ‘progress’, drawing more and more resources and activists towards parliamentary activity. Given that the Victorian Socialists are a broad project and not an explicitly Leninist organisation, there will be more space for reformists to manoeuvre and rise within the ranks of a growing party apparatus, pushing increasingly conservative demands on the basis of ‘practicality’, that is, what will get them elected. This presents yet another tension between electoral needs and the maintenance of revolutionary principle.
When a party measures progress by the vote tally they can become obsessed with chasing numbers. Imagine a campaign that may have initially started with a radical program. As the party gains seats and power, it is likely to drop its more radical ideals in order to maintain its positions in parliament. Though supposedly progressive, in its last terms of government Labors inability to legislate for gay marriage was a clear example of acting from fear of being ‘too radical.’ In the end, it was the conservatives that legalised gay marriage – after decades of pressure from social movements. We see the same process taking place today with the rightward shift of the Greens, from an activist party to one of ‘professional politicians’. Slowly but surely, Victorian Socialists, like every socialist party before them, will become more invested in the running of, and for positions within, the state, until such a situation that they become the very defenders of electoral democracy. At this stage, the Socialist Equality Party have a better position in regards to participation in bourgeois democracy!
We know that it is social movements and struggle that force politicians left, not parliament. If that were not true, we wouldn’t have seen significant reforms benefiting the working class come from conservative politicians during periods of mass movement and rebellion. On February 19th this was proven once again with the striking teachers in West Virginia, USA, defeating market-oriented reforms by Republican politicians. By contrast, we wouldn’t have seen leftist parties around the world implement tragic and authoritarian laws and punishments upon the working class again and again, betraying them at pivotal moments.
Where Victorian Socialists are leading people is a dead end. If we really want socialism, the working class must learn to organise and lead struggles themselves. Placing hope in politicians is misleading when workers would be developing militant class consciousness based on their direct actions. Victorian Socialists members will certainly argue that this is not what they are attempting to achieve. Rather, they believe they are playing the ‘inside, outside’ game; where they leverage parliamentary office to help build social movements. This was famously Adam Bandt’s justification for becoming a Greens MP. Participation in electoral politics is the socialist’s shortcut, just as insurrectionism is the shortcut of ‘anarchists’. Both seek to skip the slow, often painstaking work of building the consciousness of a class that can fight for itself, and organise its own structures to run the world. Elections are not just another ‘tool in the toolbox’, rather they are a tool that actively harms the other work a revolutionary organisation is engaged in.
Elections build the idea that you sign someone up, everyone votes, and when the preferred representative gets into parliament, the party’s demands are implemented. It’s fun and it’s easy to hand out ‘how to vote’ cards – to spruik the virtues of your preferred candidate against the others – but it doesn’t develop the critical relationship with electoral and capitalist politics we have to work towards. Millions of people today are disaffected with politicians. Adding socialists to the list of vultures that ‘get voted in and do nothing’ will not help us build revolutionary ideology. Parliamentary activity does very little to build the capacity of the working class itself to struggle, let alone the idea that the working class can run the world. As MAC-G have written “A Victorian Socialist in the Legislative Council of Victoria might make stirring speeches in support of grassroots struggles and might fight hard to get reforms out of this neo-liberal Labor Government, but if they don’t explain to the working class that this isn’t how we’ll win Socialism, they’ll be leading workers in the wrong direction.”
In practical terms, consider the example of Kasama Sawant, the Socialist Alternative (unrelated to the Australian grouping of the same name) councillor in Seattle. Kasama was elected in 2013, hailed as a major breakthrough as the first ‘socialist’ elected anywhere in the USA for generations. She was elected around a demand for “$15 Now”, that is $15 an hour minimum wage within the Seattle region. She faced significant hostility from business interests, and was funded by the unions to fight for this platform. Though elected, she failed to get this reform through and ‘$15 now’ became ‘$15 later..’ Whilst in Seatac, a city basically next door, the labour movement maintaining autonomy managed to get a republican to pass the legislation without sacrificing themselves to parliamentary limits. The limits of relying on politicians is clear; we see Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez voting to fund ICE in the USA, while simultaneously claiming to want its abolition. The DSA project is yet another example of a growing anti-capitalist consciousness kneecapped by electoral politics. While it is as much a reflection of the current limits of politics within our unions, and paltry compared to the donations to the Labor party, the funds given to the Victorian Socialist project could have gone into ‘on the ground’ organising efforts, fighting campaigns and strike funds.
We can only wonder at the wisdom of the Victorian Socialist campaign at this time. No one from any group within the Victorian Socialist tent has put out a significant theoretical piece explaining their decisions to engage as ‘Victorian Socialists’ in parliamentary politics yet. Socialist Alternative refused to participate in elections until only last year and haven’t yet justified their change of tactics publicly with a material analysis. The closest thing one can find to Socialist Alternatives position on electoral participation being articulated is Mick Armstrong’s 2016 piece from Marxist Left Review ‘The Broad Left Party After SYRIZA.’ While promoting a healthy understanding of the limits of SYRIZA, Armstrong defends the actions of DEA, Socialist Alternatives sister organisation in Greece that participated in the SYRIZA coalition, with the ‘inside, outside’ (or ‘fighting with both fists’) strategy (struggle inside parliament, struggle outside in the movements),
When SYRIZA enacted its historic betrayal of the Greek people, DEA led a revolt that split away from the party… only to repeat the tactic and participate in the formation in a new coalition, Popular Unity. The difference is that now they take a miniscule amount of the vote, losing any position in parliament and having virtually no influence on the struggle. First as folly, then as farce.
We believe they made a fundamental mistake by participation in the first place. The left can be more effective in power at implementing capitals agenda than the right, as social movements that become invested in a party take their foot off the gas in order to allow the new government to ‘perform.’ As such, all the resources that went into the struggles within SYRIZA who would inevitably betray the Greek people by virtue of participation in the state could have gone into developing an even more militant element to the class struggle in Greece. To the union movement and building strikes, to the anti-fascist struggle, to the countless occupations and direct action struggles, to defending the worker controlled factories like VioME – where we see embryonic forms of workers democracy and expropriation of capitalist interests. As Fred Hampton points out, you have to build power where the people are. As anarchists we know that these new forms of social power are infinitely more important than the struggle within parliament.
Armstrong would disagree, arguing in the MLR piece ‘To directly counterpose building strikes and radical movements in the streets as the alternative to a political intervention in a radical left party like Syriza is to lapse into a syndicalist or movementist error that fails to see the dialectical connections between the two. The forces needed for a revolutionary party are not going to be accumulated simply by building mass movements and strikes; and conversely mass movements and strikes are ultimately not going to be successful in challenging capitalist rule without a mass revolutionary party being built.’
Armstrong would appear to see the dialectic incorrectly. Rather than a project like Victorian Socialists acting as a foothold for radical ideas in a broader workers movement, participation in parliament establishes a foothold for reformist ideas in revolutionary organisations. We believe in building mass social organisations that can overthrow capitalism – but they are not the vanguard party.
“…according to the Syndicalist view, the trade union, the syndicate, is the unified organisation of labour and has for its purpose the defence of the interests of the producers in the existing society and the preparing for and the practical carrying out of the reconstruction of social life after the pattern of [libertarian] Socialism. It has, therefore, a double purpose…” – Rudolph Rocker
As such, the accusation of syndicalist and movementist errors only holds true to a socialist who believes that only the vanguard party can lead the working class to make the revolutionary rupture with capitalism. However as anarchists and libertarian socialists, we know that historically this is untrue. Syndicalism also provides a mass organisation where workers take up the battle of ideas in all facets of society, making the critique of both capitalist and state socialist visions, and promoting the vision of a free and equal world. It is only the narrow view of socialists who believe revolutionary unions cannot play this role. Despite eventual failure of the classic workers revolutions, the working class has nonetheless shown its capacity to overthrow the state and capitalism without the ‘vanguard party.’ Revolutionary experiments in the Ukraine ‘19-21 and Spain in ‘36 attempted to establish a society where ‘the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things’. It would be facetious to argue that the Bolsheviks were the only ‘successful’ example of working class revolution when what they achieved was a bloody and repressive failure certainly no worse than the failure of the libertarian revolutions. If your only criteria of revolutionary success is the crushing of counter-revolutionary military forces, then the Bolsheviks were indeed successful. However if your criteria is the building of a workers democracy from the bottom up, then they failed almost from the very start. World revolution has not been achieved, but we can remain certain that socialists in parliament is a strategy that cannot lead to socialism.
“We assert that social problems can only be resolved by a revolutionary movement that transforms the economy while at the same time destroying bourgeois political institutions.” – Garcia Oliver
While within the libertarian movement we can debate various forms of anarchist organisation from syndicalism to especifismo, anarchists all seek to propagate the idea of self-management and direct action, and assist the working classes to build new forms of self-governance beyond capitalism. This differs vastly from the Leninist party. After all, the state and party have proven in the last instance to be the defenders of bourgeois interests and the gravediggers of the social revolution. Even if we agreed with Lenin, we doubt very much that the defence of electoral participation by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 in any way translates to a strategy for today – especially for a ‘mass socialist party’ that isn’t yet much more than a coalition of propaganda groups based out of the universities.
Only coherent and combative anarchist organisations with distinct class politics can become an alternate pole of attraction to fill the space on the revolutionary left – anarchism is becoming a stronger revolutionary current around the world once again, given the abysmal failure of Marxist politics in the 20th Century, and with ‘21st Century Socialism’ proving to achieve either nothing, futile reform, or some meaningful reform but no capability to move beyond capitalism (Socialist Alliance in the UK, SYRIZA, and Venezuela come to mind respectively.)
Internally to Victorian Socialists, fractures within the revolutionary cadres of Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance will begin to become more pronounced as resources are pulled from practical needs and in the situation of a Victorian based party – other state branches. Revolutionary socialists who understand the dead ends of electoral politics will break away from electoral projects like Victorian Socialists in time, and we must be there to meet these militants who have always had the right idea in understanding the many problems of capitalism. What they will need is a better perspective of the state.
Far more important than winning over militants from the socialist groups however is winning new workers over to the anarchist movement. For too long the anarchist movement in Australia has been internal looking. Our struggle as libertarians should be where the working class itself is fighting, and our ideas should inform our action. It will be our motion that draws people in, not just our ideas – this for example is part of the initial explosion of ‘success’ of the Victorian Socialist project.
Anti-capitalist ideas are growing traction around the world, and we want anarchism to become the dominant form of revolutionary politics once again. It is easy to forget that anarchism was once the predominant ideology of the revolutionary left, a far cry from the liberal mess we find passing for much of anarchist politics today. To return to relevance, we require insertion into the important movements and struggles of our time to help build their mass character, and playing a leading role in the redevelopment of a labour movement. To counter the growth of electoral projects anarchists also need easy ‘on ramps’ to politics too, but not ones that will channel workers into handing their fate over to political parties. To build our own organisations and militant movements requires developed and specifically anarchist politics to guide our strategies and tactics. It is our task to reveal the fatal flaw of following strategies like the Victorian Socialists electoral attempts, and reaffirming that the revolution can only be made by the struggle of the workers themselves.
“The working class has no Parliament but the street, the factory, and the workplace, and no other path than social revolution.” – Buenaventura Durruti
ASF-IWA Geelong Section.
For a more comprehensive understanding of the limits of electoral politics we recommend the pamphlet “Socialist Faces in High Places”, by the Black Rose / Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation.