Electoral principles and our tactics

When is it permissible to vote for opportunist or even non-working class candidates? In the first of two articles Mike Macnair begins his examination of the issues

Comrade Chris Strafford in a letter in last week's paper argues that communists should not call for a critical vote for George Galloway in the upcoming Scottish parliament elections, although he is standing on a platform of opposition to all cuts, backed by the Socialist Party Scotland (Committee for a Workers' International), the Socialist Workers Party and Solidarity.

Comrade Strafford offers two grounds for this view. The first is that Galloway is the leading figure in Respect, Respect councillors in Tower Hamlets have voted for a cuts package and Galloway has not criticised them for doing so. The second is not new: Galloway's continuing links with the theocratic regime in Iran. Hence, "Working class partisans who are consistent internationalists must not support Galloway in May's election unless he breaks all links with the Iranian regime and opposes austerity in deeds as well as words."

This two-part article is not mainly addressed to the specific question of whether to call for a critical vote for the 'George Galloway (Respect) - Coalition Against Cuts' list, or for George Galloway in particular, in the Scottish parliament elections. This is, in my opinion, a tactical issue which depends on the political meaning of a vote for this list, or for George Galloway as an individual, in the current state of Scots politics.

For what it is worth, my view on this tactical issue is that we should call for a critical vote for the list and for Galloway as an individual candidate - without, in any way, abandoning or cutting back on political criticisms of the list in general, or of Galloway and in particular of his 'idiot anti-imperialism'. In the first place I do not think that a large vote for this list or for Galloway would signify that Scottish voters were solidarising with Galloway's support for the Iranian regime. At most, on this front, it would be a vote for an 'anti-war' candidate.

Secondly, my personal view - not, I should emphasise, the view of the CPGB or of the Provisional Central Committee, but an undeveloped minority view - is that the question of how local councillors should act when faced with cuts imposed by central government is also tactical. In 1984-85 the demand for councillors to set illegal budgets was correct, since to do so would have opened up a 'second front' in the miners' strike. In the immediate conditions of 2011, I think it is ultra-left: it may come on the agenda in 2012 or 2013, but at present the mass movement against the cuts is insufficiently developed. Even apart from this point, the likelihood is that most people who want to express an anti-cuts vote on May 5 will vote Labour, in spite of Labour's extreme ambiguities on the issue. A vote for an anti-cuts list backed by the far left will in this context be an advanced vote.

Thirdly, though the entry of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in Scotland (the CWI's rebranded Scottish section) into an electoral bloc with Galloway is completely opportunist and Galloway's decision to bloc with them is equally so, the CPGB has over the last 15 years, consistently and in my opinion correctly, insisted that moves towards the unity of the ostensibly Marxist organised far left, however opportunist their basis, are nonetheless objectively steps towards what is necessary - a united Communist Party.

It was this policy which led us to give critical support to Scargill's Stalino-Labourite, British nationalist Socialist Labour Party, to the pseudo-left Labourite Socialist Alliance, and in a more limited way to the working class element of Respect before the split with the SWP. The new list is even in one respect a slight political advance - it addresses British-wide politics, as opposed to the overt Scottish nationalist separatism of the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity. I see no more reason to turn back from this policy in favour of pulling back our skirts for fear of contamination by Galloway than there was in 2003-04, when the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (and a minority in CPGB) ran the same argument in relation to the beginnings of Respect.[1]

Nonetheless, my main purpose in this article is to address the larger issue of the relation between principles and tactics in electoral slogans. My reason for writing it is that I think comrades have a tendency to confuse the two issues - not by any means just in this discussion or the CPGB's earlier discussions on voting for Diane Abbott in the 2010 Labour leadership elections, or on how far to call for a vote for No2EU in 2009, or the earlier discussions mentioned before, but also more generally on the left. On the one hand, smaller left groups commonly display an effective rejection of all tactical calls for votes as amounting to 'giving a left cover' to Labour or similar parties, to popular frontism or to this or that centrist. The result is a politics of purity and abstention.

On the other hand, the 'official communist' tradition reduces all electoral issues to tactical ones. This winds up - as is most clearly visible in the policy of the Communist Party USA - with what was once called Lib-Labism: urging the working class to support the lesser evil of two purely capitalist parties, as opposed to taking steps to organise its own independent political representation. As is most transparent, again, in relation to 'Obamania', this policy does not even achieve its own aims, but merely produces cynicism and demoralisation. All the more, it actually functions as an obstacle to the open promotion of the independent interests of the working class as a class or to a communist policy.

To get to grips with this problem effectively requires starting from two related points. First, the bourgeoisie is not a democratic class and the expression 'bourgeois democracy' is an oxymoronic misnomer of what is actually constitutionalism. Second, because the proletariat as a class relies on voluntary collective action in order to defend its interests, it does require both political democracy and an independent class political party organisation.

However, arguments about electoral slogans are usually framed by the history of the issue in the workers' movement. It is therefore necessary to run through the history to see what it can tell us and - in particular - the limits of what it can tell us. The rest of this article will discuss the history as far back as the policy of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party from 1906 on. A second part will discuss the policy of the German Social Democratic Party before 1914, and the occasional comments of Marx and Engels on the issue, and will then move to attempt a more positive analysis of the problem.

Since 1917

Though it may look odd, it is most convenient to work backwards in time through the history, in order to see how the present politics of the issue has evolved.

The electoral policy of the organisations coming out of the Trotskyist tradition has been characterised since 1945 at the latest by complete incoherence. What may be called 'left' Trotskyists demand such stringent conditions for electoral support that they are de facto abstentionists. But they cannot - unlike anarchists and left and council communists - be abstentionists in principle, because this would conflict with their formal commitment to the ideas of the first four Congresses of the Comintern and their use of Lenin's Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder in the education of their cadre. Those Trotskyists who are not practical abstentionists have gone through a bewildering series of tactical zigzags with no coherent policy detectable at all. The only lesson from this history is a negative one: that the framing assumptions of Trotskyist strategy derived from the 1938 Transitional programme do not provide a basis for a coherent electoral policy.

The policy of 'official' communists and Maoists alike insists, as I said above, that the issue is purely tactical. In reality, lying behind this is the policy of a strategic class alliance between the proletariat and a section of the capitalist class, on terms limited to what the relevant capitalist party is willing to agree: the 'people's front' policy, adopted at the 1935 7th Congress of the Comintern and maintained since then, with a brief interlude in 1939-41.

A problem with this policy is that the section of the capitalist class which is to be treated as a strategic ally of the working class has varied between the 'democratic bourgeoisie' (Democrats, Liberals, Radicals and such-like parties) against 'fascism' (meaning authoritarianism in general) and the 'national bourgeoisie' (nationalists of one stripe or another) against 'imperialism' (meaning more or less exclusively US imperialism; but also in recent politics against the European Union). Since nationalists are usually social patriarchalists and public-order conservatives, these are politically inconsistent alliances. It is for this reason that the issue has to be claimed to be purely tactical: the 'official' Communist Party was thus permitted to zigzag between the two types of alliance depending on the diplomatic needs of the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, maintaining the people's front policy has had outcomes ranging from the red-brown (semi-fascist) Communist Party of the Russian Federation, through the reconstruction of the Italian Communist Party as the non-class 'Democrats', to the role of former British Eurocommunists as hard-line Blairites and advocates even after 2010 of regrouping Labour with the Liberals.

In adopting the people's front policy, the Comintern zigzagged away from the 'third period' policy of 1928-34, which was ostensibly[2] and in most places a policy of communist electoral isolationism. For mass communist parties this could function as an electoral policy, for small ones it amounted to de facto abstentionism.

The 'third period' replaced the policy of the united workers' front, which the Comintern and its sections had been pursuing in various forms since 1921. The background to this policy is that the Social Democrats (German SPD and French SFIO) on the one hand argued that the communists were splitters, while on the other hand their own actual policy was one of coalition with bourgeois parties. The united front is presented in the Comintern documents as a matter of definite class actions (strikes, etc), not electoral or parliamentary combinations. In practice it was also an electoral and governmental ('workers' government') policy: the communists proposed to the Social Democrats a socialist-communist alliance, as opposed to the Social Democrats' coalition policies.[3]

In this aspect it was a partial turn away from the policy of forcing through the split in the international workers' movement which had been dominant between 1918 and 1921 and - in Lenin's and Zinoviev's thought, if not more widely - since 1914-15. Bolshevik policy in 1917 Russia itself after Lenin's return aimed for the unity of the internationalists, partially achieved in July with fusion of the Bolsheviks and Mezhrayontsi, and a split with the defencists. Though Trotsky and subsequent Trotskyists have retrospectively interpreted the May-June slogan, 'Down with the 10 capitalist ministers', and Bolshevik policy in the August 1917 Kornilov coup, as examples of the united front policy, in reality neither was conceptualised in this way.

All these different policies down to and including the original creation of the people's front policy had a common framing assumption. This was that capitalism had entered into the terminal crisis, or Zusammenbruch ('breakdown'), predicted since the 1880s as the inevitable outcome of capitalism by the left and centre of the German SPD. The period of gradual growth of the workers' movement under capitalism was thus definitively over and the struggle for power was on the immediate agenda. If there was a temporary revival in the 1920s or the mid-1930s, it could only be a brief prelude to a new massive dislocation.[4]

Electoral and parliamentary tactics were therefore at the end of the day of secondary importance - though, as Lenin argued in Leftwing communism, not to be abandoned. It was for this reason that the tactics were conceived as short-term.

In the event, however, it turned out that the crisis of 1914-45 was the death agony not of capitalism, but of British world hegemony. Once the US had established its hegemony - but was nonetheless faced with a much expanded 'Soviet bloc' - a period of relative stability and reforms opened up in Europe and, after 'decolonisation', in a good many of the resulting semi-colonies. In these new circumstances a long-term electoral and parliamentary policy was inevitably needed. US hegemony has weakened in the late 20th-early 21st century, in spite of the illusion of a 'unipolar world' caused by the fall of the USSR. The position of the working class has very substantially worsened since the 1970s. But we have by no means entered into the death agony of the US hegemony. Hence the workers' movement still - as yet - inevitably needs a long-term electoral and parliamentary policy. This requires us to look back - critically - at the pre-1914 electoral policy of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, and of the German SPD, which the former to a considerable extent attempted to copy.

Before 1914

In Leftwing communism, Lenin wrote: "Prior to the downfall of tsarism, the Russian revolutionary Social Democrats made repeated use of the services of the bourgeois liberals: ie, they concluded numerous practical compromises with the latter. In 1901-02, even prior to the appearance of Bolshevism, the old editorial board of Iskra (consisting of Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich Martov, Potresov and myself) concluded (not for long, it is true) a formal political alliance with Struve, the political leader of bourgeois liberalism, while at the same time being able to wage an unremitting and most merciless ideological and political struggle against bourgeois liberalism and against the slightest manifestation of its influence in the working class movement.

"The Bolsheviks have always adhered to this policy. Since 1905 they have systematically advocated an alliance between the working class and the peasantry, against the liberal bourgeoisie and tsarism, never, however, refusing to support the bourgeoisie against tsarism (for instance, during second rounds of elections, or during second ballots) and never ceasing their relentless ideological and political struggle …"[5]

The context is the peculiar class-based electoral system for the Russian duma created in response to the 1905 revolution. Votes were cast in class-based curia - workers', urban, peasants, noble - for electors who would elect the actual duma delegates. The RSDLP (apart from the 'boycottist' tendency) sought to gain representation under this very undemocratic system. This inevitably involved partial alliances with other parties.

The evolution of RSDLP policies in this respect is as follows. At the 1906 Tammerfors all-Russian conference, which was dominated by the Mensheviks, a general resolution allowing for local agreements was passed, which Lenin opposed.[6] At the July 1907 Kotka all-Russian conference, where Lenin was in a bloc with the Mensheviks against the boycottists, the resolution passed was that "in the second and subsequent stages agreements are permitted with all revolutionary and opposition parties up to and including the Constitutional Democrats … in the workers' curia, no agreements are permitted with other parties, except the PSP and national social democratic organisations … the only agreements permitted are those of a purely technical nature."[7]

The 1912 Prague congress, which was Bolshevik-controlled and was generally regarded as the moment of a decisive split, resolved that the RSDLP should:

"1. Put forward its own candidates in all workers' curiae and allow no agreements with other parties or groups (ie, the liquidators) ....

"3. In cases of a second ballot for electors in the second-stage assemblies of urban curia representatives, agreements may be concluded with the bourgeois democratic parties against the liberals, and then with the liberals against the governmental parties. One form of agreement could be for the compilation of common lists of electors ….

"5. No electoral agreements may involve putting forward a common platform, and they may neither impose any sort of political obligations on Social Democratic candidates nor may they impede the Social Democrats in their resolute criticism of the counterrevolutionary nature of liberalism and of the half-heartedness and inconsistency of the bourgeois democrats.

"6.Wherever it is essential to defeat the Octobrist-Black Hundred or the government list in general in the second stage of the elections (in the district assemblies of representatives, in the guberniia electoral assemblies, etc) agreements must be reached concerning the division of deputy seats - first with the bourgeois democratic parties (Trudoviks, popular socialists, etc) and then with liberals, non-party persons, Progressivists, etc."[8]

This policy is not one of a campaign coalition in modern terms like the people's front or the various coalitions that the French and Italian left has been involved in. It is a much more limited policy of stand-down agreements, where the parties campaign independently on their own platforms, but may agree not to contest some seats or - after the votes have been cast - carve up the slate of delegates in order to keep out the right.

It should also be emphasised that the election of duma delegates had no implications for the election of a government or taking responsibility for it. The Russian government was responsible to the tsar, who retained the legislative power, not to the duma, which was merely consultative.

Nonetheless, the RSDLP and the Bolsheviks in particular were prepared to make limited technical agreements even with the liberal Cadets against the monarchist 'governmental parties'. In the workers' curia, however, they insisted on a very much more limited scope for such agreements. It is clear that the Bolsheviks, unlike the Mensheviks in 1906, thought there were issues of principle as well as of tactics involved.

Lying behind this RSDLP policy is the electoral policy of the German SPD, which the RSDLP - like many other European socialist parties - attempted to imitate. I will discuss this policy in the second part of this article before going on to the underlying issues.



1. The two arguments presented in comrade Strafford's letter can be found more elaborately developed by the AWL at www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/04/10/george-galloway%E2%80%99s-new-bag-carriers (posted April 10). The arguments from 2003-04 can be found in the back issues of this paper from that period, and on the AWL website (Google Galloway & site:workersliberty.org; though the results are not chronologically organised, their date is shown on the results page).

2. The Soviet diplomatic orientation which lay behind it was arguably one of alliance with the German nationalist right against the Social Democrats, following the decision of the Social Democrats in late 1926 to denounce in the Reichstag the secret military collaboration between Germany and Russia under the Rapallo treaty, and French and British war threats towards the USSR in 1927. In 1931 in the 'Red Referendum' the KPD actually made a bloc with the Nazis and the right to try to remove the SPD Land government in Prussia.

3. J Riddell, 'The origins of the united front policy' International Socialism April 2011 usefully discusses the antecedents of the policy. I have argued in Revolutionary strategy (London 2008) chapter 7 that the policy involved a contradiction with the ban on factions adopted in 1921, which adversely affected its implementation in the 1920s.

4. RB Day The crisis and the crash London 1981; on the connection with the 'third period' turn, N Kozlov, ED Weitz, 'Reflections on the origins of the "third period"' (1989) 24 Journal of Contemporary History pp387-410.

5. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch08.htm.

6. RH McNeal (ed) Resolutions and decisions of the CPSU volume 1; R Carter Elwood The RSDLP 1899-October 1917 Toronto 1974, p105. For Lenin's opposition, 'Blocs with the Cadets' (November 1906) CW Vol 11, pp307-19: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/nov/23c.htm.

7. Resolutions and decisions p117.

8. Extracts from Resolutions & Decisions pp150-52.