Parliament or Direct Action? - Socialist Studies (2004)

In this day and age the idea of Black Rod solemnly knocking on the door of the House of Commons so that the Queen can go in and read a speech that has been written for her by the government is a piece of nonsense that accords well with the rest of bourgeois tradition.

What we see in parliament today is a mockery of democracy. The chamber of the House of Commons rarely has 10 per cent of its 659 members present. There are probably more MPs propping up the commons bar at any given time than there are present in the chamber. When the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition are present and due to address the House, only then is it filled to capacity.

The spectacle is one where the front-bench leaders do most of the speaking and the rest jeer and cheer, like a lot of unruly children. There are jibes and counter-jibes, and cheap point-scoring is the game of the day. Order papers are waved wildly but substance and reasoned argument, for the most part, are sadly lacking.

The political confusion and leadership fetishism inside parliament reflect those same conditions existing in the world at large outside. In the absence of a Socialist working class electorate, parliament can only be used by reformist politicians to run capitalism.

It must be remembered that this state of affairs exists because workers are deluded enough to vote for it. It is utterly absurd to believe that anything can be done about Socialism, inside or outside of parliament, without a majority of workers understanding and wanting it.

To regard politics and parliament as uniquely corrupt is a mistake. All the fraud and lying, the extremes of riches and poverty, militarism and conflict, are the normality of capitalism. It is wrong to imagine the institutions of a system built on exploitation as capable of being other than a reflection of the rivalry and the promotion of capitalist class interests which characterise the system as a whole. The warped ideology of nationalism and religion wrapped up in monetary relations permeates the entire edifice of capitalism.

Trades Unions - Industrial Action

Trade unions represent organised labour in factories, transport, mines and offices, but in the UK only nine million out of 27 million workers are in unions. The best unions can do, or have ever been able to do, is to bargain and negotiate with the owning class about the degree of exploitation of their members. "Sell-out" is an oft-repeated cry, especially when governments impose wage restraint. This exposes the weakness of industrial action when confronted by political power. It also shows the folly of trade unions financing the Labour Party which, when in power, always attacks organised labour.

Although workers have to resist the downward pressure on their working conditions, in particular on wages, this resistance should be seen in its correct perspective. While the capitalist class (the employers) own and control the means of production, political power in the hands of capitalist politicians (alleged labour or avowedly capitalist) remains a threat to the working class. It must be remembered that, overwhelmingly, it is the votes of workers that give their class enemies power.

Against this background Trotskyite and anarchist organisations who advocate taking and holding the means of production must be seen as a danger to workers seeking emancipation. All such advocates of 'direct action' merely seek to avoid the need for majority understanding. At bottom they have a contemptuous attitude which leaves workers dependent upon leaders and exposed to the coercive State.

We are asked to accept the nonsensical view that the ruling class can close down parliament against a Socialist majority but cannot stop a minority of workers occupying factories. The revolutionary procedure involved in gaining a democratic consensus by voting for Socialism is a social as well as a political act. It concerns and involves society in its entirety, not just industry as 'workers' control' proponents would have it.

Direct Action For What?

Consider some other aspects of direct action. The late Alexander Berkman, in his booklet ABC of Anarchism (Freedom Press,1942), discusses bombing and killing as a means of removing tyrants in the name of justice. In a chapter headed Is Anarchism Violence? he says: "Yes, Anarchists have thrown bombs and have sometimes resorted to violence. You will find that this applies to all men and to all times" (p14).

After giving examples as far back as ancient Rome, he says: "I mention these instances to illustrate the fact that from time immemorial despots met their fate at the hands of outraged lovers of liberty. Their acts were cases of individual rebellion against wrong and injustice" (p15).

What is really of interest in these arguments is that they show anarchism as completely lacking in any theory of history. "Men at all times" and "time immemorial"?! It cannot be shown that disposing of this or that despot or tyrant has rid the world of despotism and tyranny or could do so. The fact that capitalism creates a world ready for change and a class whose interests lie in ending capitalism is lost on such people.

In earlier class societies the ownership of the means of wealth production by a minority and the exploitation of a subject class could not be abolished. Capitalism paves the way for a classless society.

Berkman poses the question "What must be abolished, then, to secure liberty?" and answers: "That thing is government" (p21). The confusion of anarchist thinking is made even clearer with this statement:

It follows that when government is abolished wage slavery and capitalism must go with it, because they cannot exist without the support and protection of government.

Governments protect wage-slavery and capitalism with the coercive armed forces of the State. To gloss over this and talk about simply abolishing government is dangerous nonsense. How this coercive armed State can be prevented from protecting capitalism without gaining control of it is the crux of the whole matter.

This question is answered in The SPGB's DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, particularly Clause 6 which declares that:

"… the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government …" so that government machinery, including the armed forces "…may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation".

The fact is that anarchists have no theoretical foundation to prevent them fantasising or to show them the inconsistencies in their arguments.

Berkman asks himself the question: "But are not the Bolsheviki Communists?" and says: "Yes, the Bolsheviki are Communists, but they want their dictatorship, their government to compel people to live in Communism"(p24).

This betrays total ignorance of everything they seek to discuss. The fact that they believe that Communism can be compatible with government, dictatorship and compulsion, shows they understand nothing. The fact that the Bolsheviks were a conspiratorial minority, dedicated to leader-worship and the pursuit of power, means that, apart from using the terms Socialism and Communism and abusing Marx's teaching on the subject, they were concerned with gaining dictatorial power - not Communism.

In helping to perpetuate Bolshevik falsehoods, anarchists such as Berkman have helped to misrepresent Socialism and Communism. These two words mean the same thing and were used interchangeably by Marx and Engels. They mean the worldwide common ownership of the means of production, the end of class society, and of money, markets and frontiers, with production solely for use. Communism was not historically applicable to predominantly peasant Russia when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, and 'Socialism in one country' is absurdly un-Marxist.

Means and Ends

The first fact of working class politics is that ends and means have to be compatible. If the starting point is with a conspiratorial minority and a demagogue in the role of leader, with a mass following of ignorant people willing to listen to promises and follow leaders, later when power is attained, the relation of an elite minority with an ignorant mass will continue. The end is determined by the means.

If the compatibility argument is sound and in line with history, as we claim it is, then it follows logically that parties and leaders which adopt non-Socialist means do not have Socialism as their end or object.

The Labour Party has long abandoned any pretence of being Socialist. It is an openly capitalist party, running capitalism. Like the Bolsheviks, they are an elitist party of demagogues, who depend upon an ignorant mass believing their promises and voting them into power.

Only a party seeking a democratic majority of workers consciously aiming for Socialism has a valid claim to being Socialist. The SPGB is such a party. As the modern working class is the final subject class, it can only use political power as the means to end the power of one class over another, finally and forever.

Violent Minorities?

Forty and more years ago a frequent question about parliament was: "What would you do about a recalcitrant minority?" If we take the question at its face value, suggesting that a determined, violent, minority could be an obstacle to establishing Socialism, then it strengthens the case for a Socialist majority to gain control of political power.

This would prevent state power being used against the majority wanting Socialism; it would ensure that a violent minority could not thwart the majority, and it would demonstrate that Socialists chose the democratic way, while the minority status of the recalcitrants would be exposed. Should there be a peaceful minority opposition, every facility would be freely available for its expression, unlike the bourgeois pretence of democracy in relation to Socialists today.

It should be noticed that when all the contrived and imaginative obstacles to Socialism being established democratically through parliament are added up they amount to the conviction that society can never change because the ingenuity of the capitalist class and their agents won't let it, thus conferring the mantle of eternity upon the capitalist system. The further you move away from the quest to gain political power, the more vague and intangible become your aspirations to change. Capitalism is here today because the great majority of workers support it and vote for it.

Apart from workers withdrawing their support from this system, what answer is there? They do the bulk of the killing and the dying. Apart from Socialist understanding, what can unite the world's workers in rejecting militarism, nationalism and religion?

If political power is of no consequence to workers, it is strange how tenaciously every ruling class on earth hangs on to it. George W Bush has no illusions about the advantages of political power. He set himself the target of $200m to fight for re-election. American workers, like many workers in Britain and elsewhere, protested against the Iraq war. But if American workers switched to voting for someone like Bill

Clinton, who bombed Serbia as well as Iraq, and maintained genocidal sanctions against Iraq - what would be gained? Nothing is gained by switching from one capitalist party to another. But, when such workers turn away from capitalism and use their votes for Socialism, society will change.

After nearly 30 years of indiscriminate bombing and shooting, Northernn Ireland's Sinn Fein leaders, Adams and McGuinness, now strain every sinew to gain political power. They would hardly have discovered a love of the ballot box if IRA direct action was successful.

In the early 1950s, Kenya was engaged in a bloody rebellion against British land grabbing. The Mau Mau movement expressed the long-standing grievance of the Kikuyu tribes people. Jomo Kenyatta, their leader, was imprisoned. Nearly ten years later he took over as Prime Minister of independent Kenya. State power was the key to dominance on both sides. This showed that a mere change of rulers did not remove the extreme misery of the people of Kenya - a lesson yet to be learned in the struggles going on in Northern Ireland.

The necessity for controlling the armed forces of the State is universally understood by the ruling elite in every country on earth. The advantages of coercive state power should not be lost on the various Trotskyite sects. Having wasted years "boring from within" the Labour Party, they must remember that Trotsky himself was part of Lenin's coercive State, using the Red Army to crush rebellious sailors at Kronstadt in 1921. The Kronstadt sailors' demands had been for:

... democratic elections, freedom of speech and the press, and the release of all political prisoners. The rising was mercilessly repressed by the Red Army, under Trotsky's direction, surviving mutineers being swiftly and ruthlessly shot. J M Roberts THE PENGUIN HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, p294

The murky, behind the scenes, manoeuvres involved in power struggles are not always clearly reported as when, in November 2003, Shevardnadze was deposed as President of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Shevardnadze had assured the Russians, who have two military bases in the country, that he would not resign. Then 200 of his own National Guards switched sides and, in the face of popular demands, he stood down. America's Colin Powell, concerned about the oil and gas pipelines under construction to transport Central Asian oil and gas into Turkey, had done a deal with the opposition.

America's serious interest in oil-rich Central Asian dictatorships has resulted in various surprising, opportunistic, alliances.


In Marx and Engels' COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, we find this argument:

Political power, properly so-called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during the contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled by the force of circumstances to organise itself as a class, if by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally. It will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Any sensible reading of this passage must bring the realisation that class struggle over the ownership of the means of production is the driving force for change in history; that political power and control of the State is the key to one class dominating another; and that this class domination and oppression can finally be ended only by the working class gaining political power to end power and classes altogether.

All direct action arguments rely on the absurd notion that the working class can somehow outgun the capitalist class's armed forces. The SPGB has always argued that direct action, confronting the coercive power of the state, would be a suicidal strategy. The capitalist class has invariably resorted to state force against workers, even against those with very limited industrial aims: for instance, the Fire Brigades Union, the 1984 NUM strike, the dock strike in the late 1940's; the General Strike in 1926, etc. Even more so when they feel their class position is threatened, e.g. the Paris Commune.

Class ownership of the means of production and the capitalists' consequent ability to exploit the working class - "those who produce but do not possess" - is sustained and protected by the coercive apparatus of the state. That means that, if we are to end this state of affairs, it is essential to defeat them on the field of political struggle.