Propaganda and agitation

Why do we need electoral tactics? Mike Macnair completes his three-part series

In the first two articles in this series I worked backwards through the history of Marxist electoral principles and tactics.[1] There is a small snippet of history remaining: Marx’s and Engels’ comments which address electoral tactics. The remainder of this concluding article will try to work from the general principles towards their concrete application.

As I said in last week’s article, there is very little in Marx and Engels’ writings on electoral tactics. What there is, is largely in defence of tactical flexibility within the framework of the principles. Thus both Marx and Engels in several places said that the SPD and its predecessors were correct to limit their public proposals - as far as was possible without positive abandonment of principles - to the needs of legality under an authoritarian regime. Engels in 1881 in ‘Two model town councils’ argued on the strength of French and German examples for the British workers’ movement to stand candidates for local authorities, poor law boards, etc, in spite of their very limited powers. In 1893 he wrote a letter for publication to an American socialist arguing that it was not unprincipled to stand a candidate for the presidency, in spite of the fact that socialists sought to abolish it.[2]

Also in 1893, Engels says that Keir Hardie “publicly declares that [Irish nationalist Charles Stewart] Parnell’s experiment, which compelled Gladstone to give in, ought to be repeated at the next election and, where it is impossible to nominate a Labour candidate, one should vote for the Conservatives, in order to show the Liberals the power of the party. Now this is a policy which under definite circumstances I myself recommended to the English; however, if at the very outset one does not announce it as a possible tactical move but proclaims it as tactics to be followed under any circumstances, then it smells strongly of Champion [Henry Hyde Champion, who was alleged to have taken money from the Tories for ‘labour’ candidates].”[3] In other words, under certain circumstances and if it was made clear that it was no more than a tactic, it might be acceptable to call for votes for the Tories in order to force concessions from the Liberals.

Back to basics

The underlying central political claim of Marxism is that the working class needs to take over the leadership of society from the capitalist class. To embark on the road to doing so, it needs to organise itself as a political party, formulate its own policy independently of the capitalist class and petty bourgeoisie, and put this policy forward as an alternative for the society as a whole. I will not go into the justifications for this claim, but take it as a given.

The electoral forms which exist in capitalist parliamentary constitutionalism can provide the space for the workers’ party to carry out this task. This is not just true of parliamentary elections, but of local and other elections as well. This fact creates an obligation to try to intervene in elections. It is illusory, except under exceptional circumstances, to expect to persuade the working class masses to accept abstentionism: the result is merely to isolate the partisans of working class rule. The point is made well and sharply by Engels in the beginning of The Bakuninists at work (1873):

“The labour masses felt this; they strove everywhere to participate in events, to take advantage of the opportunity for action, instead of leaving the propertied classes, as hitherto, a clear field for action and intrigues. The government announced that elections were to be held to the Constituent Cortes [May 10 1873]. What was the attitude of the International to be? ... Continued political inaction became more ridiculous and impossible with every passing day; the workers wanted ‘to see things done’ ... At quiet times, when the proletariat knows beforehand that at best it can get only a few representatives to parliament and have no chance whatever of winning a parliamentary majority, the workers may sometimes be made to believe that it is a great revolutionary action to sit out the elections at home, and in general, not to attack the state in which they live and which oppresses them, but to attack the state as such which exists nowhere and which accordingly cannot defend itself ... As soon as events push the proletariat into the fore, however, abstention becomes a palpable absurdity and the active intervention of the working class an inevitable necessity.”[4]

The purpose of intervention in elections cannot be propaganda (Plekhanov’s definition: many ideas to few people), though it is possible to make propaganda in connection with an election intervention. It has to be agitation (Plekhanov’s definition again: few ideas to many people).[5] The reason is the same reason that it is illusory to expect to persuade the masses to accept abstentionism. The masses are interested in (some) elections because they see them (to some extent) as deciding the great issues that affect their lives. A propagandistic electoral intervention therefore functions as a form of abstentionism.[6]

The aim of electoral interventions is generally to promote the independent class-political self-organisation and self-representation of the working class. That is the ‘few ideas’ (in fact, one basic idea) that can be argued with many people under election conditions.

That implies aiming to win the election, to maximise the vote and to get as many candidates of the workers’ party elected as possible. This does not completely rule out ‘spoiler’ tactics to force concessions from another party (as Engels suggested), though these are prima facie dodgy because they are not easily explainable to broad masses. Maximising the vote improves the self-consciousness, solidarity and morale of the working class more generally. Getting MPs (etc) of the workers’ party elected has the same effect.

This is not the same thing as to claim that the working class can legally come to political power by winning a parliamentary majority in elections, even under universal suffrage and with full freedom of speech, press, assembly and association. This belief is an illusion, which rests on a misunderstanding of capitalist parliamentary constitutionalism and the role of elected representative institutions in it.

Undemocratic capitalists

The capitalist class is not a democratic class and the idea of ‘bourgeois democracy’ is an oxymoron. The point should, at a certain level, be obvious: capitalists are quite a small minority in society (even if small capitalists who employ few workers are included). For capitalists to be the ruling class, therefore, there have to be mechanisms in place which make the state answerable to this minority and not to the proletarian and petty bourgeois majority.

The illusion that the capitalist class is a democratic class results from the fact that in order to overthrow the European feudal regimes - which had to happen for the capitalist breakthroughs in the commercial, agricultural and industrial revolutions to take place - the capitalists need to piggy-back on a revolution of the petty bourgeoisie and proto-proletariat against the landlord and clerical institutions. This revolution took Protestant ideological forms in the Netherlands and England, but secular-democratic ideological forms in the political revolution which created the US and in the French revolution - and hence in 19th century European and Latin American radical liberalism.

However, once feudal, clerical, peasant and artisan rights, and the state regime which upholds them, have been removed as obstacles to a capitalist economy, the minoritarian character of capitalist rule has to find institutional forms.

In early capitalist regimes, which do not face significant and persistent, organised pressure from the lower orders, a common state decision-making form is a closed group which is recruited by coopting newly wealthy families. The Venetian ‘aristocracy’ (of merchants entitled to participate in government) and the Dutch Regents both provide examples.[7] The English House of Lords, in spite of its feudal-aristocratic ‘nobility of blood’ pretensions, in fact operated in this way, and so did the commissions of justices of the peace in the localities; the boroughs also after 1688 had closed-elite systems dominant in their government, which lasted until Victorian local government reform, and persist in a diluted form in the peculiar City of London government.[8]

Institutions of this sort have not withered away: an increased use of ‘appointed’ bodies, in practice largely cooptative, has developed in the US and England since the beginning of the capitalist counteroffensive in the 1970s, as an alternative to elected local government and to the self-government of institutions like universities.[9]

To the extent that elections are necessary to incorporate the petty bourgeoisie, property, income or taxation qualifications for the franchise are normal. If the Prussian form referred to above was peculiarly bizarre, England - which no-one can claim not to have been a fully capitalist country - maintained property qualifications on the vote throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th. With the (unusual) exceptions of the manoeuvres of Louis Napoleon and of Bismarck, universal suffrage is something extorted from the capitalist class by the rise of the workers’ movement. It is not something introduced for reasons dictated by the logic of capital.

Even before the extensions of the franchise forced on it by the emergence of workers’ movements, a bourgeois state regime requires controls against the petty bourgeoisie. These controls function both outside the electoral and representative institutions and within them. They have increased in importance, as the capitalists have been forced to make concessions on the franchise.

Those outside the electoral and representative institutions are called ‘checks and balances’ or the ‘separation of powers’. On the one side, the armed forces and bureaucracy are separated from the elected representatives by the role of the ‘single person’ (as it was called in the English constitutional arguments of the 1650s). Executive monarchies are now rare, but ceremonial monarchies are commonplace, and ceremonial and executive presidencies, separately elected from the election of representatives, even more so. These operate as constitutional backstops, with relatively rarely used powers to ‘protect the constitution’ available to block the decisions of elected representatives which are inconsistent with capitalist interests; they also ideologically represent in the constitutional order the managerial authority which is a principle of the capitalist workplace.

On the other side, modern capitalist constitutions also assert the independence of the judiciary from the elected representatives.[10] Overt judicial activism in relation to laws made by parliaments and other legislatures has varied; but in practice the scope of the judicial power to interpret legislation is inherently so wide, given the fluidity of human language, that the legislature’s aims are very frequently frustrated by the judiciary. The independence of the judiciary, and the ‘rule of law’ which is its ideological expression, serves capitalist control for two reasons: the first is that law as such is founded on the sanctity of private property; the second is that the ‘free market in legal services’ has the effect that very often judicial proceedings will end with the victory of the party able to spend more money on lawyers.[11]

Controls within the electoral and representative institutions are less obvious, but more directly relevant to the present problem. They consist, in essence, of mechanisms to ensure that the lower orders are represented by the paid agents of the capitalists. Engels in 1891 identified the two-party system of professional politicians in the US as a form of corruption and a means of capitalist control.[12] But the professional politicians and the two-party system in reality went back to Whigs and Tories in the ‘rage of party’ of 1689-1714.

Equally important is the tendency to concentration of the means of communication in capitalist hands, which Kautsky remarked on in 1905, describing the capitalists as “flooding the country with a commercially bribable press” (again, referring to the US).[13]

The third element is - paradoxical as it may seem - the fact that the government is answerable to the elected representatives. The result is that the elected representatives can, in Engels’ phrase, “make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory [be] rewarded with positions”. It is also that the capitalist media can represent every election - even local elections - as not being about a choice of representative for the constituency, but rather a choice of who should form the government. By doing so they present the only ‘real’ choice as being between the contending gangs of paid agents for the capitalists, and even electing a minority party representative as being a ‘wasted vote’. Even where proportional representation is used, this possibility of gaining the spoils of office allows the hope of the professional politician obtaining a place through participation in a government coalition.

Electoral and parliamentary systems are in general designed to force the electors to choose between one or another gang of paid agents for the capitalists. First past the post in Britain and the US is notorious for this effect; in Britain we have the added hurdle of deposits, and the electoral commission - which, for reasons it is unwilling to explain, prohibits the CPGB and the Socialist Party in England and Wales from standing in elections in their own names. The second round system in France (and in second empire Germany, as we saw in the last article) has the same effect. The alternative vote system allows a token first preference to be cast for a minority party, but reinforces the monopoly of the two-party professional politicians. PR systems usually contain a threshold requirement, which gathers up minority votes for the benefit of the ‘main’ parties.

These mechanisms of control do not, of course, always work. They contain internal contradictions, which can allow political space for independent working class self-representation. And unpredictable events (wars, crises, etc) and external working class resistance (strikes, movements like the anti-poll tax movement, etc) can break them open. The working class can win concessions if our rulers are persuaded that the alternatives to concessions are worse than making them.

The need for tactics

We want to see an independent workers’ party standing candidates in every constituency, every local government ward, and so on. We want to maximise the votes for this party, and to maximise the number of its representatives in the elected body.

The capitalists’ mechanisms for controlling the elections and the elected bodies are largely different today from the restricted franchises, indirect elections, and so on, of the 19th century. But it remains the case that the capitalist regime puts real obstacles in the way of working class electoral representation. Tactics are necessary to overcome these obstacles. These tactics can include technical deals with bourgeois parties and conditional support to bourgeois parties. The conditions are that the agreements must not compromise arguing for independent working class political organisation and representation.

That is, to paraphrase the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party-Bolshevik 1912 resolution, that “No electoral agreements may involve putting forward a common platform, and they may neither impose any sort of political obligations on ... candidates [of the workers’ party] nor may they impede the [workers’ party] in their resolute criticism of the counterrevolutionary nature of [the bourgeois parties].”

Within this framework, and referring to the examples I gave in the first two articles, the SPD was probably right to offer conditional support to individual bourgeois candidates in run-off elections after the SPD candidate had been knocked out, Bebel was probably right to argue for technical deals to get SPD candidates elected in the indirect elections in Prussia, and the RSDLP were probably right to make technical deals with petty bourgeois democrats and even the Cadets in the highly undemocratic duma election arrangements. In neither case - with the exception of the controversial operations of the SPD south Germans - did these tactics muddle up the workers’ independent party with a ‘broad left’ or ‘people’s front’.

All the above proceeds on the assumption that there is one workers’ party. It should be clear that this is by a long way the preferable situation. The history of the SPD between 1875 and the early 20th century, and of its imitators founded in several cases by fusions (including the RSDLP), demonstrates pretty clearly that Marx’s and Engels’ objections to the 1875 fusion were wrong.[14] The working class got as near as it did to taking power in 1917-20 because of the prior construction of large, unified socialist parties and their associated movements - even if these were unavoidably split by World War I. Where there were only competing sects, the proletariat did not get close to power.

Split workers’ movement

The split in the workers’ movement resulting from World War I was undesirable, but unavoidable, and we cannot ‘put Humpty together again’. I argued this point in Revolutionary strategy (2008) chapter 6, and I have argued it in a different way in relation to the Labour Party in two articles in this paper in 2009.[15]

The point has two aspects. One was already visible in the 1860s in the history discussed in the second article in the current series: Bismarck deported Liebknecht from Prussia in order to protect Schweitzer’s leadership of the Allgemeine Deutschen Arbeiterverein. The state, media and individual capitals intentionally intervene in the internal life of the workers’ organisation to promote their agents, or people who can be made into their agents.

The scale of the intervention in the 20th century was much larger than this little instance, and the fact that the bourgeois agents in the social democratic parties can call on the state to back them means that they can operate mechanisms of bureaucratic control which exclude real challenges to their power or the open presentation within the party of the politics of the proletariat taking over society.

The second aspect lacks the immediate intentionality of the first. It is that, to the extent that a workers’ organisation develops a full-time paid staff and/or elected representatives, these people become in their objective social position members of the class of professional politicians - people who make their living from politics - that Engels describes. Elected representatives in particular will therefore naturally tend to adopt the culture of the class of paid agents of the bourgeoisie. It is then a very small line to step over to actually taking capitalist support and doing favours for capitalist contributors.

As indicated in the second article, Marx and Engels saw the phenomenon in Britain, but tended to attribute it merely to Britain’s dominance of the world market. In reality it is now plain that the same thing happens to workers’ elected representatives in poor countries.

The result of this combination of capitalist intervention in the workers’ parties and the logic of integration in the capitalist party system is a political commitment of the social democracy to serving capital: loyalty to the parliamentary constitution and the rule of law, loyalty to the nation-state and commitment to collaboration between classes on the basis of ‘fairness’ - as opposed to class conflict.

The Comintern believed that it had found remedies for these problems. But the remedies - bureaucratic centralism and purges - turned out, in fact, to exacerbate the problems. Already in inter-war France it was said that two deputies (MPs), one of whom was a communist, had more in common than two communists, one of whom was a deputy.[16]

With the stabilisation of the people’s front policy after World War II, the ‘official communist’ and Maoist parties committed themselves to rejection of the most elementary Marxist principle - the independent political organisation and representation of the working class - in favour of ‘democratic’ coalitions which repeat the projects Marx and Engels fought against - or, worse, in favour of coalitions for ‘national independence’, which subordinate the working class to the party of order.

The Trotskyists inherited the policy of bureaucratic centralism and purges. The upshot of this policy - in the absence of state power backing the Trotskyists, as it backed the ‘official’ communists - has been merely endless splintering and the creation of the present-day wilderness of sects.

This, of course, brings us forward to the recent past and present. What are our electoral goals and tactics in circumstances where mass workers’ parties exist, but are politically committed to class-collaborationism and the rejection of working class political independence, and controlled either by direct agents of the capitalist class (the social democrats) or by careerist bureaucrats (the surviving ‘official’ communist parties), and where the Marxists, who at least in theory stand for working class rule, are smashed to smithereens by bureaucratic centralism? What follows is brief, and inevitably specific to British conditions.


In the first place we still aim to promote the independent class-political self-organisation and self-representation of the working class. Voting Labour both does in an attenuated way and does not promote this goal. It does promote it because of Labour’s name, the trade union link and Labour’s continued historical base in the working class districts - very visible in the 2010 general election.

It does not promote it because of Labour’s institutional control by the class of professional politicians and bureaucrats, and its political commitments to nationalism, class-collaboration and constitutionalism, which tie it to the capitalist class, creating a workers’ party controlled by capital - a bourgeois workers’ party.

These circumstances force on us the struggle for a party which is institutionally antagonistic to the dictatorship of the bureaucracy and politically committed to radical democracy, working class political independence and the unity of the interests and solidarity of the international working class: a Marxist, or communist, party. Our aim is that such a party should replace Labourism. This goal can be achieved either by overthrowing the constitution of the Labour Party and turning it into a simple confederal party or general united front of workers’ organisations, within which a Communist Party could fight for political hegemony; or, if this proves impossible, by a Communist Party replacing Labour as the mass party of the working class.

The present obstacles to this goal are three - besides, obviously, the institutional forms and controls of the parliamentary and electoral system. The first is the political commitment of the British left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, to Labourism in the sense of nationalism and commitment to bureaucratic rule - reflected obviously in the Labour left, but equally in the character of the Morning Star and in projects like Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliance (which got nearest to a break from this politics), Respect and (even more!) ‘No to the European Union, Yes to Democracy’ (No2EU) and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. The second is the continued influence on the Labour and non-Labour left of the ‘official communist’ idea of the people’s front. The third is the splintering of the Marxist left, due mainly to bureaucratic centralism.


The Weekly Worker is an instrument of propaganda: many ideas to few people - about 12,000 currently read us online. Electoral interventions, however, are, as I have pointed out, about agitation - few ideas to many people. Our electoral interventions, where we cannot stand ourselves - as we could in the Socialist Alliance - are addressed to persuading our 12,000 readers to use a few ideas in agitation, in talking with the far wider layers they are in contact with.

The ‘few ideas’ are basically given by our goals: independent class-political self-organisation and self-representation of the working class, and the creation of a Communist Party in place of the existing splintered left with the aim of replacing Labourism. How we express these ideas in agitation is a matter of inserting them in current real discussions and conversations; as Trotsky correctly said, “agitation is always a dialogue with the masses”.[17]

Our forces are weak, and we are not, therefore, in a position to impose our own agenda on election campaigns - even at the level of the interventions of the far left or of the Labour left. Our electoral tactics therefore have to be highly flexible and responsive, in order to insert the ‘few ideas’ we want to put forward in the election campaign which actually develops.

We return, finally, to the issues with which the first article began. I do not mean to say that we have necessarily always been right in the tactical choices expressed in our electoral slogans. But we have consistent goals and principles. These have been expressed, repeatedly, in our support for any serious attempt at united electoral intervention of the far left. They have equally been expressed in our arguments for conditional support to Labour candidates in 2005, with the conditions based on the war question, when this issue formed a clear line between class-collaboration and proletarian internationalism in the election debates; in dividing support for Respect in the same election along class lines; and making support for candidates of the nearly red-brown No2EU project conditional.

As I said in the first article, whether to call for votes for the ‘George Galloway (Respect) - Coalition Against Cuts’ list in Scotland is 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. The more important point is that all such issues have to be grasped as agitational tactics within a framework of principled aims, not as simple moral choices.


  1. ‘Electoral principles and our tactics’ Weekly Worker April 14; ‘Principles to shape tactics’, April 21.
  2. SPD and legality: episodic references in RH Dominick III Wilhelm Liebknecht and the founding of the German Social Democratic Party Chapel Hill 1982, chapters 8-10 and (at a low level of understanding) WH Maehl August Bebel, shadow emperor of the German workers Philadelphia 1980, chapters 5-12. ‘Two model town councils’ Labour Standard June 25 1881: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1881-ls/ls05.htm President: Engels to Sorge March 18 1893: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_03_18.htm
  3. Engels to Bebel, January 24 1893: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_01_24.htm J Barnes, ‘Gentleman crusader: Henry Hyde Champion in the early socialist movement’ History Workshop Journal 2005, Vol 60, pp116-38 gives a sympathetic account of Champion, who passed during the 1880s from Georgism to Christian socialism to Hyndman’s SDF to ‘own brand’ labour representation, and by 1890 was in Australia calling himself a Marxist.
  4. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1873/bkunin/index.htm, at chapter 1.
  5. ‘The tasks of the Social-Democrats in the famine’ (1891): www.workersliberty.org/node/3134
  6. It may, of course, in reality have a limited purpose, as the CPGB’s largely propagandistic electoral intervention in 1992 served notice that the Eurocommunists had not succeeded in obliterating communism when they themselves abandoned it. This idea was agitational even if the concrete form of the intervention was not.
  7. Venice: FC Lane Venice, a maritime republic Baltimore 1973, chapter 18; J Martin, D Romano (eds) Venice reconsidered Baltimore 2000, chapters 2 (G Rösch) and 8 (S Chojnacki). Netherlands: J de Vries, A van der Woude The first modern economy Cambridge 1997, pp586-90.
  8. On the House of Lords: JV Beckett, C Jones, ‘Introduction: the peerage and the House of Lords in the 17th and 19th centuries’ in C Jones (ed) A pillar of the constitution London 1989, chapter 1. On local government the classic account is S and B Webb English local government London 1929, Vols 2 and 3. City of London: the (few) local residents have the franchise, but “Businesses and other organisations are also entitled to vote. All voters must be registered on the ward lists before they can vote in City elections. Sole traders and partnerships are entitled to register all equity partners. All other organisations are entitled to nominate a certain number of electors based on the size of their workforce.” www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/LGNL_Services/Council_and_democracy/Councillors_democracy_and_elections/Voting_and_Registration/Voting+FAQ.htm
  9. J Stewart, ‘Appointed boards and local government’ Parliamentary Affairs 1995, Vol 48, pp226-41 surveyed the development in Britain at that date.
  10. This was not a feature of the 18th century English constitution, in which it was normal for all the peers to vote in judicial appeals to the House of Lords and not unusual for the Lords to divide on party lines, so that the judiciary were subordinated to parliament (visible in judicial appeals in the Lords Journals, online at www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue.aspx?type=2&gid=44). The Act of Settlement 1700 reflects this approach in principle: judges, except the lord chancellor, who was also a minister, could no longer be removed by the king alone, but could be removed by address of both houses of parliament. The transition to the ‘judicial committee of the House of Lords’ as a free-standing court of professional judges took place in practice in the period of Tory reaction of the 1780s-1820s, but in formal legality only in 1875 (after the 1867 Reform Act).
  11. More in M Macnair, ‘Free association versus juridification’ Critique 2011, Vol 39, pp53-82.
  12. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/postscript.htm, quoted in last week’s article (‘Principles to shape tactics’ Weekly Worker April 21).
  13. On the general point see M Macnair, ‘Marxism and freedom of communication’ Critique 2009, Vol 37, pp565-77. The Kautsky quotation is from Ben Lewis’s current draft translation of Kautsky’s ‘Republik und Sozialdemokratie in Frankreich’ Neue Zeit 1905, Vol 23, pp260-70 at p264: “Überschwemmung des Landes mit einer käuflichen Presse”. If Kautsky thought the US in 1905 was flooded with corrupt media it would be interesting to imagine what he thought of 2011 ...
  14. This is not to disavow the substantive content of the Critique of the Gotha programme (though some of it, on the political part of the programme, is merely taken from Bakunin and was not followed by Marx or Engels in later discussions). The point is simply that the arguments against fusion (notably Engels to Bebel in 1873: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1873/letters/73_06_20.htm) were disproved by the course of events.
  15. ‘Labour Party blues’, July 23 2009; ‘Making and unmaking Labour’, July 30 2009.
  16. The earliest reference I have found on the web is C Hollis Can parliament survive? London 1949, cited in a review of the book by FC King Irish Monthly 1949, Vol 7, p495, but the statement is there already said to be proverbial.
  17. L Trotsky Whither France chapter 1: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/whitherfrance/ch01.htm