27 April 2010
"Don't Vote, It Only Encourages Them"
Sunday night’s debate at Secular Hall was highly entertaining if a little narrow in its range. About 25 people attended.
Ross Longhurst proposed the motion “This House Believes We Should Not Vote” and Richard Johnson opposed.
Ross took the unreconstructed Marxist-Leninist view of the socio-economic system in which we live – it is capitalism with a ruling class that calls the tune whichever party is elected to ‘govern’ and however sincere its leaders might seem to be in seeking to advance the interests of the common people. The usual litany of facts was called upon to justify the claims: the common (private) schooling of the wealthy; nepotism; interlocking directorships of companies; a media that is owned by capitalists and promotes the capitalist system; extra-parliamentary pressure being applied by bankers, industrialists, landowners, etc; concessions to working class demands only made when it benefits the long-term interests of the ruling class; etc. Thus, voting only legitimises a system that is inherently anti-working class – and on top of this you can’t trust politicians anyway as they are only in it for themselves and invariably break the promises they have made at election time. People should have nothing to do with elections.
Regrettably, Ross said nothing about any alternative strategy for changing the system and I felt the thrust of his argument was that an almost exclusively extra-parliamentary workers’ struggle is being envisaged, where the working class, at some time in the future, will realise they have been hoodwinked, stop voting en masse, and rise up to overthrow the ruling class and establish a genuine workers’ democracy with totally new socialist institutions of power. As I say, nothing was said of this in the debate, only implied.
Again from within the Marxist paradigm, Richard Johnson took a more Gramscian view – sure we have capitalism but its structures are not monolithic. The ruling class does not have a unified common interest and the struggles of people over the centuries (for the vote, among other things) has led to real advances in wellbeing for the mass of the people. It was a betrayal of the sacrifices of those who struggled for the vote in the past that anyone should now advocate not voting. Thus, voting is one element of an ongoing piecemeal struggle for advances in rights and wellbeing, sometimes taking big steps forward, sometimes being beaten back – a to and fro of democratic struggle, within and without the legislature, that will continue to produce benefits for the working class and achieve constraints on the scope for the ruling class to call the tune. Gradually, it is hoped, the hegemony of the capitalist ruling class will be replaced willy-nilly by the hegemony of the mass of the people in a slow reformist process rather than a rapid revolutionary one.
I seem to recall that among Marxists these two views are characterised as the difference between a war of frontal assault and a war of manoeuvre.
Although silent in the discussion I felt that Richard’s view is not that far removed from the pluralist conception of mainstream modern ‘bourgeois’ political theory which portrays every sectional interest within the capitalist system as being free to campaign for the advance of things it wants while recognising, or accepting, that others have the same rights to argue for their sectional interests. Theoretically, changes then result from coalitions of common interests or proceed by horse-trading.
While Ross would argue, I think, that this analysis is a mere illusion fostered by the ruling class, Richard might be less dismissive, but perhaps emphasise that it fails to bring out the inbuilt advantages of the capitalist ruling class in securing its own interests. I believe he would also say that the Left should engage with it as part of a transformational process rather than accepting it as a permanent state of affairs.
When the vote came to be taken the motion was defeated by a margin of exactly 2 to 1 and I voted with the majority.
If I had spoken I think I would probably have taken something like an ‘old Labour’ view, arguing that capitalism has many serious faults but that market mechanisms do have great advantages in terms of managing a complex economy. The problematic issues are how to control and regulate private sector markets in such a way that the interests of the mass of the people are being served by them. This probably means public control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy like the banks and utilities; prevention of monopoly in non-state sectors; break-up of huge conglomerates; employee participation and management schemes; co-operatives; resources managed for the long-term; massive inheritance taxes; common schooling; productive employment as the basis for citizenship and benefits; etc. All these things could be achieved through Parliament, resulting from voting for the right parties, though there would be intense battles with the ‘ruling class’ (largely those with a vested interest in the status quo) along the way.
History tells us that achieving them through extra-parliamentary uprisings is not only a fantasy in the British context but is also by no means an assured route to anything and might easily end up with a dictatorship of a less palatable kind than Marx’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ that Ross seems to be aiming at – and even that does not have a great track record in achieving either the material welfare of the mass of the people or the protection of their civil liberties.
Only engagement in the democratic process as it has been won so far holds out the promise of long-term progress to a more just and egalitarian future.
If there isn't, I won't.
The idea that I should either "vote" or "not vote" seems utterly bizarre to me.
None of the three main parties manifestos indicate intent to withdraw from Afghanistan or Iraq while we're there ostensibly to bring democracy (Out of the barrel of a gun? don't make me laugh) when the truth is all we're there for is to steal natural resources with the twin towers collapse with all it's odd coincidences as an EXCUSE and I use the word excuse advisedly.
The 'voting' sacred cow of 'The left' makes no concession to the fact that the franchise has brought us hardly any nearer to true democracy than we've ever been. Concessions have come through fear - The rulers fear of revolt. Breakthroughs have come about through physical struggle. Before the Bryant and Mays (Relatives of Gladstone) match girls strike supported by our own Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, (Author of 'White Slavery in London') striking was called seditious and could attract a death penalty. It took the abject poverty of the 'Match Girls' who might work for pitiful wages paid by predatory, arrogant employers, and the threat of "Phossy Jaw"(cancer), or resort to prostitution, to stir the consciences of the rich. The introduction of a system where working hours and wages were anything short of slavery that presaged catastrophic civil unrest forced legalisation of trade unionism . Within months thereafter the workers at Beckton unionised and won the eight hour day.
Will Thorns speech encouraging men to organise has gone down in History.
“The way you have been treated in your work for many years is scandalous, brutal and inhuman. I pledge my word that, if you will stand firm and don’t waver, within six months we will claim and win the eight-hour day, a six-day week and the abolition of the present slave-driving methods in vogue not only at the Beckton Gas Works, but all over the country.”
After this speech, 800 workers joined the new union on the first day, and with-in a month another 3000 had joined.
Will Thorn was true to his word; He took on the GLCC management, and cut down the working day without any strike being called.
The dockers strike following in 1889 against low pay, unsafe conditions and casual, employment marked a turning point in UK working class history.
A little further back working peoples views before the English Civil Wars are epitomised in the rhyme.
They hang the man and flog the woman,
Who steals the goose from off the common.
But let the greater villain loose,
who steals the common from the goose.
Cromwell’s new bourgeoisie (whigs / liberals) used the wars to gain power in parliament and the lot of common people ultimately grew worse instead of better culminating in the 'Match Girls Strike'.
The vote was won in the shadow of the revolutions in Europe and Russia. In 1918 when Russia was at war with seventeen different countries at once and 1.5 million Russians died.
The quaking elites introduced Keynesian economics in the West. This system made the NHS and mass consumption possible. A phase near its end. The volcano of credit that the system relies upon is on the brink of collapse and the fuel to power the machines that create the wealth is running out. The elite blithely continue spouting tripe about repairing our broken nation. The day will suddenly come when our so-called democracy "that's better than anything else" collapses and oh what an outcry there'll be then, when it's too late. You get the government you deserve when you vote for shysters.
You don't have to vote for people you see as shysters. There are often a dozen different candidates on ballot papers from the far right to the far left, from softy liberals to hard line Stalinists, from Greens to Raving Monster Loonies. You must be able to find a home somewhere. Or is it that anyone elected by the popular vote then becomes, by definition, a shyster?
If that is how you see it then it's odd that one of your heroes, Will Thorn, saw nothing wrong with standing for election. "He represented West Ham in Parliament in 1906, become Mayor of West Ham 1917-18, and represent Plaistow in Parliament from 1918 until he retired at the 1945 General Election." (From the same web page that you took your information from ... why didn't you mention the rest of his biography?)
A Marxist,yes. His account of how we are controlled by the British ruling class and its state machine was spot on. Bourgeois democracy (the kind we have)is one of the ways in which they conceal their domination, and confuse the people by offering an apparent choice that is not really a choice at all.That's why Ross urged us not to vote.
But a Leninist? Lenin had a dialectical approach that recognised the contradictions in bourgeois democracy. He saw that parliaments could be used by working class revolutionaries, to win concessions, to spread the word about socialism,and above all to expose the loyalty of right-wing labourist leaders to the capitalist ruling class. It's taking a long time to expose them to the mass of the working class, and of course it will never be done in parliament alone. But parliamentary activity can help to build the extra-parliamentary struggle that is the only way society will be fundamentally changed.
A socialist majority in parliament could give constitutional and historical legitimacy to the dictatorship of the proletariat. That much misunderstood phrase simply means that the working class - in Britain the vast majority of the population - would call the shots for the first time, using their own state machinery developed in the course of the revolutionary struggle.
At the stage we're in there's every reason to vote. For socialists where they're standing. For Labour where they're not. If the forthcoming cuts in public services are made by the Tories and/or Lib Dems,many people will still have illusions abouy right-wing social democracy. If the cuts are made by a New Labour government, more and more people will begin to see that their self-professed concern for the national interest is nothing but a cover for their subservience to our capitalist rulers.
So do vote.
George - yes, so true, and on this occasion that points to a Lib-Dem or Green vote for me.
Not even the Labour Party can afford to let Brown get back in at the head of a 'Labour' government. They'll be better off having a break from government and rebuilding from the bottom.
Perhaps I took it too much without saying that the struggle is for equality (which in the end will benefit everyone) but in which the agenda of struggle should come from the more oppressed and marginalised. There are also some issues - they include climate change and nuclear threats - that are about human and even planetary interests as such - though not without a class dimension because the poor nearly always suffer most. Class isn't the only component here though probably the most important. Always 'class' is also lived through or alongside other relations: gender, ethnicity etc. I know my relatively privileged position in relation to power has to do with my whiteness as well as my middle-class background and occupation and the fact I'm a heterosexual man. We are living in one of the three or four most unequal societies in the 'developed' world and this is a direct consequence of the transition from the post-war settlement (based on relatively high male wages and welfare provision and higher tax rates) to a ruling strategy of marketising everything.
I am perhaps a bit nearer to Ross than appears in that I would refuse to privilege electoral politics. It's not just 'Parliamentary Socialism' (see Miliband the Elder) because all kinds of political action including breaking bad laws, trying to live in a different way, and especially doing political education are important levers on the most powerful and ways of mobilising those with less power and tackling the real question - what would be better than this and realisable too? The stress on voting/not voting was just a consequence of the terms of our debate. Old Labour put too little emphasis on educating the public politically. They tended to rely on given 'interests' and old solidarities yet the old Labour constiutuencies were changing around them. Perhaps that's why old labour fails/ed. But there is a large number of other questions to the old Labour position including how you make public services more democratic..
Still I agree with Harry that we don't seem to have another way than a (better) democratic process (and a lot of critical thought and learning by everyone) as a way to achieve greater justice without violence or dictatorship, which are both evils in themselves.
Yes, a distinction between different Marxisms may be useful and can go back to differences in Marx himself. Sometimes he stressed the logic of capital and made it sound like a natural law. So, revolution would come anyway. Sometimes he stressed the dynamics of class struggle and the very complicated forms they could take when 'translated' to the level of formal politics and social movements. So strategy played a part. Compare Vols II and III of Capital which are very abstract and essays like The Eighteenth Brumaire where he wrestles with making (class) sense of parties and coterie and a lot of political complexity. This is developed by Gramsci of course and by the Marxist who got interested in culture and politics from the 1970s. We can't ignore the specifically political level if we are trying to change things.
Someone said to me afterwards that you tend to stress how people see things (i.e. as opposed to how they really are?) and that's true and it's because politically we have address this - including our own more unhelpful or blocking assumptions. I don't think the blanket idea of ideology is useful here.
Thanks to all for really good discussion and learning experience
The traditional media cannot challenge this because it, too, is oligarchic (none more so than the left radical press!) So it's the new electronic media - blogs etc - which are, somewhat incoherently, raising the need for something absolutely different. 'Incoherently' because there is as yet no developed theorisation of this 'something different' - let alone any policy formulation. It would seem to me that some sort of formalisation of the online pressure groups - like Power 2010 and 38 Degrees (and even Facebook and Twitter) - that are having such an impact on policy decisions is needed. They can mobilise thousands in a couple of hours and render the spin-doctors completely ineffectual in protecting their masters. They are equally successful in dealing with massive transnational corporations. If only this mobilisation could be politically systematised. Any suggestions?
No, the biggest problem isn't convincing people - it's getting to them.
I've always distrusted conspiracy theories. And there's no conspiracy here - unless you think capitalism itself is a conspiracy. It's just the way the system works. Big business controls most of the media just as it controls most economic and much social activity. And our rulers have long been adept at making ideas that support their interests seem attractive to the masses.
Harry may be happy with pluralist,regulated, social democratic capitalism - but its prospects aren't too good at the moment. Three mainstream parties with virtually identical policies, all intent on screwing most of us. Banks resisting regulation, which we all know anyway can't prevent the next capitalist crisis. No serious efforts to moderate climate change, or even deal with its effects. Support for a colonial war in Afghanistan and imperialist occupation of Palestine. I could go on.
The issues raised in this discussion will indeed be considered in depth at the Midands Communist University in Birmingham on 22 May and I hope some of you will be there to meet some of Britain's foremost Marxist thinkers.
That was the generation of militant trade unionists who fought - successfully - against the wage freeze and attacks on trade union rights by Wilson, Heath and Callaghan.
But today there's a new generation who know nothing of those struggles. They neither reject Marxism nor assent to it - because most of them have never heard of it.
Another point. Most people who become socialists aren't converted by arguments alone, but by arguments plus the experience of solidarity in struggle against what capitalism is doing to them. Whatever government is elected on Thursday, there are going to be mighty struggles from the grass roots against cuts in jobs and public services. For those of us who join in there'll be bags of opportunities for making socialists.
‘If there is a candidate who represents my views, then I will vote’
‘If there isn't, I won't’
‘The idea that I should either "vote" or "not vote" seems utterly bizarre to me’
Lenin argued that the working class has to pass through several stages of preparation for a socialist revolution. He referred to the limitations of the objectives of social democracy, but he adapts Marxist theory to the reality of the political and economic situation. So we have to distinguish between periods when the working class are more or less revolutionary and the different types of social democrats. Lenin also refers to Liberal democrats as being reactionary, patching up capitalism ‘it is progressive in so far as it puts forward general democratic demands.....it is reactionary in so far as it fights to preserve its position as a petty-bourgeoisie’. So do we vote or do we not. I would say yes we vote to further socialism, we vote first for a socialist/communist left candidate, if non-available, we vote for the Labour candidate to prevent a Conservative or Conservative/Liberal Democrat government if possible.
If ‘socialism has passed it's sell-by date’ dose that mean we are condemned to facing deep cuts in health, education, welfare and draconian laws attacking the power of workers to defend their jobs, pensions and standard of living. If we wish to see a government committed to protecting the gains of the 20th century and any chance of advances in conditions of the working people then we need to see Left-Unity candidates such as Avtar Sadiq for UfPS and Steve Score for TU&SC and Left-Labour candidates doing well next Thursday. Otherwise, the capitalist elite will not hold back if the people of Britain choose to vote BNP, UKIP, Conservative and Liberal-Democrat Whitehall and the Bank of England has the green light to go on the offensive against what is left of welfare capitalism and the post war consensus set up by the Attlee government and ministers like Nye Bevan. If that’s passed ‘it's sell-by date’ we either face pure Thatcherism under Cameroon and Clegg or less so under Brown, all believe in the ideology of neo-liberal/neo-conservatism. If we are to fight back we have to have a theoretical base and socialism/marxism is that base. New-Labours third way or was it the SDP who first advocated that idea and theorists like Will Hutton of the Observer, anyway that led to Blairism and we know where that got us. Hear facing the prospect of the most right wing offensive against the people of Britain for nearly a hundred years.
"The longest suicide note in history" is an epithet originally used by Gerald Kaufman to describe the Labour Party's left-wing 1983 election manifesto, which called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Economic Community, abolition of the House of Lords and the re-nationalisation of recently de-nationalised industries like British Telecom, British Aerospace and the British Shipbuilding Corporation. Its far-left policies, along with the popularity gained by the current PM Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands War, contributed to a victory with a substantial majority in Parliament for the incumbent Conservative party. This led to a turning point in the history of the party, which thereafter adopted more free market principles. The epithet referred not only to the orientation of the policies, but also to its marketing aspect. Michael Foot, the Labour leader, had decided, as a statement on internal democracy, that the manifesto would consist of all resolutions arrived at conference, making the manifesto over 700 pages long."
We need to learn from past mistakes, not repeat them.
a rugged collectivism is a possible way to try to do things. there are plnety of groups exixting in society - as diverse as Allottmeny Asssociations and other interest groups: and in most of these people treat each other well, snd get things done. but there is not enough space to look into all that now. only to suggest that Organising can be more useful than voting; I have seen good examples of this in El Salvador and Tamil Nadu, and Lyddington.
Which of these wouldn’t be popular unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Union, abolition of the House of Lords and the re-nationalisation of de-nationalised industries like British Rail, Gas, Electricity and Water. Its far more to do with the Falklands War that contributed to a victory of Margaret Thatcher in 1983. The year before she was so unpopular Labour would have walked back into power whatever their manifesto as they did in 1997. That victory was nothing to do with Blair, New-Labour or a new clause four, more to do with the fact that after 18 years of neo-liberalism (free-market privatization) and neo-conservatism (authoritarian state/governance) voters turned back to Labour.
The turning point/mistake we need to learn from in history of the party, isn’t Michael Foots democratic socialism, it’s the abandonment of the commitment to socialism which could this week see the Liberal-Democrats replace Labour in the way Labour replaced the Liberal Party seventy five years ago. Labour lost in 1979 because under Callaghan and Healy it abandon its commitment to social-democracy/socialism, Blair and Brown have done the same and we may see Labour not just out of power for 18 years but forever. Labour may not get the chance to repeat past mistakes ever again.
He saw the sun drown in the sea
Mist rose up and darkness came
We'll never see the sun again
The rest of M J O'Connor's lyrics are here: http://bit.ly/bBBrmM .
If you like it, come and sing it with Red Leicester Choir!
Now it seems to me that working people have a very serious interest in the abolition of slavery and the health and safety protection of workers so from time to time alliances with factions of the capitalist class are advantageous.
So the structure of the ruling class is not at all monolithic. It actually gets to look more and more like a dynamic pluralist set-up where astute working class leadership - and SERIOUS Marxist analysis - ought to be able to come up with more subtle strategies than the parroting of simplistic slogans that we've heard a lot of on here.
We've also learned a lot about the inherent difficulties of putting old-time socialist dogma into practice in the real world. Lessons that ought to make any socialist hesitate a little before urging workers to take to the barricades.