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.