A Communist Position on Bourgeois-Democracy and the Parliamentary System
Posted by sorev on 03/01/2010
In light of the recent debates within the International Communist Movement1 as to the value of working within the bourgeois parliamentary system, and because of questions posed to the Social Revolution Party as to its position on bourgeois elections, it seemed prudent to write an article on the bourgeois parliamentary system and the attitude that communists should be taking towards parliament. For whatever reasons, it seems that English speaking communists often romanticize the parliamentary experience; indeed, almost all of the “official” Communist Parties within the Anglosphere have been reduced to, in the words of Marx, “parliamentary cretinism”2.
In the interests of a detailed and thorough exposition of the problem at hand, this article will begin by looking at the original debates surrounding communist involvement in bourgeois parliaments dating back to the inception of the Third International. Careful attention will then be paid to Lenin’s critique of both British and German communist involvement in their respective parliaments, with an eye as to whether or not Lenin was being consistent in his critique. We will then step forward 80 years and examine the modern Canadian context and whether or not advocating parliamentary involvement in Canada in 2009 is a Leninist position. Lenin’s position itself will then be the focus of extreme critiques, examining the effects of parliamentary involvement on communist organisations. Finally, after careful investigation, a position for the Social Revolution Party will be put forward. Onwards!
II. What is Parliament?
Due to the deceptive and anti-analytical nature of politics within the Anglosphere, it is worthwhile to take a brief step back and define what we mean by parliament. By parliament, within the context of this article, we mean the legislative branch of the state. It is nominally the role of parliament to establish state policy and to hold the other branches of the state accountable. In Canada parliament formally includes the Sovereign, the Senate, and the House of Commons3.
It needs to be stated, before we continue, that even when parliament is functioning according to ideal circumstances, it still has a very limited role in the actual functioning of the state. The legislative branch can only set policy; underneath the legislative branch is the massive bureaucracy that carries out the day-to-day tasks of the state. This is a fact oft-overlooked by communists when assessing the role that parliament plays in the life of the state. Winning parliamentary power does not give one power over the state, but rather over the accounting and administration of the state. The state carries on a life of its own, independent of the 308 people that sit at its head.
III. Lenin on Parliamentary Involvement
Lenin’s main critiques of communist anti-parliamentarism are found in his oft-misquoted piece “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder. While categorising and critiquing a series of left-communist heresies, Lenin touches significantly on the question of whether or not communists should participate in bourgeois parliaments4. Lenin’s answer is that unequivocally, communists should engage in the bourgeois parliamentary system; he derides those on the left that abstain from parliamentary activity as having proved that “they are not a party of the class, but a circle, not a party of the masses, but a group of intellectuals and of a few workers who imitate the worst features of intellectuals.”5 There is no ambiguity in Lenin’s work as to whether or not communists should engage in bourgeois parliamentary activity.
It would be completely intellectually dishonest however to look simply at Lenin’s final position on the question of bourgeois parliaments, without examining the reasoning behind Lenin’s position. In responding to assertions that parliament has become historically obsolete, Lenin replies:
Parliamentarism has become “historically obsolete”. That is true as regards propaganda. But everyone knows that this is still a long way from overcoming it practically. Capitalism could have been declared, and with full justice, to be “historically obsolete” many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the soil of capitalism. Parliamentarism is “historically obsolete” from the standpoint of world history, that is to say, the era of bourgeois parliamentarism has come to an end and the era of proletarian dictatorship has begun. This is incontestable. But world history reckons in decades. Ten or twenty years sooner or later makes no difference when measured by the scale of world history; from the standpoint of world history it is a trifle that cannot be calculated even approximately. But precisely for that reason it is a howling theoretical blunder to apply the scale of world history to practical politics.6
Lenin outlines the nature of his position extremely well in the afore-quoted passage; despite the fact that parliamentary democracy is clearly historically obsolete, it may still be necessary in a practical political framework to struggle “on the soil” of parliament.
How can one say that “parliamentarism is politically obsolete,” when “millions” and “legions” of proletarians are not only still in favour of parliamentarism in general, but are downright “counter-revolutionary”!? Clearly, parliamentarism… is not yet politically obsolete. Clearly, the “Lefts”… have mistaken their desire, their political-ideologlical attitude, for objective reality.7
Parliamentarism, of course, is “politically obsolete” for the Communists… but – and that is the whole point – we must not regard what is obsolete for us as being obsolete for the class, as being obsolete for the masses. Here again we find that the “Lefts” do not know how to reason, do not know how to act as the party of the class, as the party of the masses. You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You must call their bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices – prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of class consciousness and preparedness of the whole class (not only of its Communist vanguard), of all the toiling masses (not only of their advanced elements).8
Despite the fact that parliament is historically obsolete, and despite the fact that a Marxist analysis allows communists to realise that parliament is historically obsolete, parliament is not yet practically obsolete for the vast majority of the working class because they still continue to participate in it. For Lenin, the entirety of his position on parliamentary involvement rests on the fact that the masses have not yet moved beyond a bourgeois-democratic frame of mind, and therefore communists, in order to stay in touch with the masses, have to struggle within that same framework. Communists must struggle where the masses are, and therefore communists must struggle within a parliamentary framework.
It is worth noting that within Lenin’s critique one finds no mention of the usefulness of parliament for accomplishing social change; quite the opposite in fact. Lenin’s position in favour of parliamentary involvement is purely based on staying in touch with the masses.
IV. The Parliamentary Question in Britain and Germany circa 1920: Is Lenin Consistent?
The main focus of Lenin’s critique lies within the realm of practical politics, and it is no surprise that Lenin deals not only with the “ultra-left” in the abstract but also how the political positions of the “ultra-left” play out in reality. In doing so, Lenin focuses very specifically on the emerging Communist movement in Britain and the already established communist movement in Germany. It is worth investigating the content of Lenin’s critiques of both the German and the British ultra-left, in particular looking at whether or not Lenin is being consistent within his own critical framework, and if there is anything that we today can practically pull from Lenin’s insights.
The main thrust of Lenin’s position on Germany has already been explored; the quotes contained in section III of this essay were directed against the German “lefts”, but were highlighted there as they hold a more universal significance. Concretely, the German “lefts” believed that parliamentary struggle had become historically obsolete, and therefore struggling within the framework of bourgeois parliaments could be at best a waste of time. Against the arguments of historical obsolescence forwarded by the German “lefts”, Lenin retorts:
This is said with absurd pretentiousness, and is obviously incorrect. “Reversion” to parliamentarism! Perhaps there is already a Soviet republic in Germany? It seems not! How then, can one speak of “reversion”?9
Lenin attacks the German “lefts” for what he conceives as prematurely not engaging in parliamentary activity.
In dealing with the British “lefts”, Lenin advises similar tactics. In the context of the newly forming communist movement in Britain, a communist movement that was already rife with ultra-left tendencies, Lenin advises a parliamentary coalition with the British Labour Party. Speaking to the specific conditions in Britain at the time, Lenin remarks:
In my opinion, the British Communists should unite their four (all very weak, and some very, very weak) parties and groups into a single Communist Party on the basis of the principles of the Third International and of obligatory participation in parliament. The Communist Party should propose a “compromise” to the Hendersons and Snowdens10, an election agreement: let us together fight the alliance of Lloyd George and the Conservatives, let us divide the parliamentary seats in proportion to the number of votes cast by the workers for the Labour Party and for the Communist Party (not at the elections, but in a special vote), and let us retain complete liberty of agitation, propaganda, and political activity.11
Lenin then goes on to suggest that if the Labour Party accepts a deal it will provide a platform for the Communist Party from which they can agitate amoungst the masses. And if the Labour Party doesn’t accept a deal, then it will expose the Labour Party as allies of the bourgeoisie who are against the unity of the working class. In Lenin’s opinion, the British communist movement will make gains regardless of the actions of the Labour Party if it takes the parliamentary road.
Lenin further reiterates his position on British communist involvement in parliament when he writes:
If I come out as a Communist and call upon the workers to vote for Henderson against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I will be able to explain in a popular manner not only why Soviets are better than parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised by the signboard of bourgeois “democracy”), but also that I want with my vote to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man – that the impending establishment of a government of Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.12
On a superficial level it appears that Lenin is being consistent in the application of his analysis to both Britain and Germany. On one hand, Lenin suggests that the German “lefts” support parliamentary involvement. In the same vein, Lenin suggests that British communists do the same. However, internal to Lenin’s argument is the idea that parliament is parliament is parliament the world-over, without taking into account the specific nature of the individual political climates of the respective parliaments themselves. Lenin applies his critique equally to all situations, but fails to understand that a critique of parliamentarism in Germany and Russia does not necessarily apply to parliamentarism in Britain.
To take a step back for a moment, an unspoken assumption in Lenin’s argument is that the space for an anti-capitalist critique exists within the context of bourgeois parliamentary action. Lenin assumes, incorrectly as will be pointed out, that this is the case in all parliaments in 1920. Nowhere does Lenin explore, even for a second, that this isn’t the case; indeed, the entire nature of his critique, especially towards the British communists, is that they should be entering into parliament specifically to fill that space. Lenin, while grasping the specific historical events leading to the establishment of ultra-left varieties of communism in both Germany and Britain, seemingly fails to apply an actual historical analysis to parliamentary involvement.
To approach such an analysis, it becomes important to look at the context that the emerging communist movements found themselves in. In Germany, the “lefts” that Lenin rails against were members of an organisation known as the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD). The KAPD had split off from the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in April of 1920, specifically in opposition to electoral tactics. The KPD itself was a newly formed organisation as of 1918, which essentially amounted to the left-wing of the then reformist Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) finally declaring independence/regrouping after expulsion in post-war Germany. The SPD itself, despite being reformist and reactionary by the time 1914 came about, had a long history of being an actual anti-capitalist party. Even after the SPD had been thoroughly exposed as reactionary, the debates within the SPD, specifically those trying to justify the SPD’s support for Imperial Germany in World War I, took place within a nominally Marxist framework.
It can be said then, that the German “lefts” of the KAPD emerged onto the political scene in a context in which there had been a long history of anti-capitalist action and debate. The German working class would not have been unfamiliar with such ideas; the fact that nominally Marxist debates were taking place within the German governing party at the time Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder was written shows how deeply entrenched some semblance of Marxist thought was within the German working class. Therefore the space existed for an anti-capitalist, anti-state movement to exist and actually benefit from a parliamentary presence; Lenin is exactly right within his own framework when he criticizes the KAPD for being out-of-touch with the masses, for being “not a party of the class, but a circle”13. Or, to put it slightly differently, due to the inundation of Marxist and anti-capitalist ideas within the German working class, the space existed for the German left to both agitate against capitalism and the state while engaging in parliamentary activity for the sake of propaganda without getting the two messages confused. It was the space created by nearly 50 years of SPD agitation that afforded this to the German left.
The same however can not be said for the British communist movement. There, the “lefts” that Lenin referred to belonged to four organisations, namely the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the South Wales Socialist Society, and the Workers’ Socialist Federation14. None of these parties had any institutional history with any groupings before them; while individual members assuredly were involved in movements before the inception of their respective parties, the parties themselves were new formations.
On the parliamentary front, there existed only the Labour Party which had been founded in 1900. Prior to its inception, many of its constituent groups had in fact been associated with the Liberal Party15. Even in its best days the Labour Party was purely a reformist organisation; there was never a revolutionary or Marxist current that existed within the Labour Party. Because of this, the space for an anti-capitalist critique in British parliamentary action never existed the way in which it had in Germany. Lenin therefore, not taking into account his unspoken assumption as to the existence of an anti-capitalist space within parliament, urges the British communists to engage not only in parliamentary activity but to seek out an alliance with the Labour Party. Lenin, within his own framework, is incorrect and inconsistent; the situation in Britain was not analogous to the situation in Germany. Or, to put forward the argument again in a slightly different manner, due to the fact that there was no history of anti-capitalist agitation in Britain, the space did not exist within the British Parliament for an anti-capitalist critique. The two messages, that of being anti-capitalist and anti-state, as well as struggling within the context of bourgeois parliaments would not have been as clearly received by the masses as they would have been in Germany.
In summary, Lenin’s position on parliamentary involvement rests on three pillars: The first is that the masses are engaged in parliamentary activity. The second is that the masses have not yet moved beyond a bourgeois-democratic framework. And the third, unspoken pillar is that within parliament there exists a space for an anti-capitalist, anti-state critique. When these conditions are satisfied, as was the case in Germany in 1920, Lenin is quite correct in criticising the KAPD for being anti-parliament. However, when these conditions are not fulfilled, particularly the third condition, as was the case in Britain in 1920, Lenin is being inconsistent within the framework of his own critique. Parliamentary struggles should not always be engaged in, and communists need to take careful stock of their own conditions to decide the correct course of action.
V. A Brief Interjection from Lenin
For those familiar with the text of Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, one can already see a rebuttal to the above arguments from the text of the aforementioned piece itself. Responding to the argument that the masses can’t understand the nuances of both an anti-state position combined with parliamentary activity, Lenin retorts:
And if the objection is raised that these tactics are too “subtle,” or too complicated, that the masses will not understand them, that these tactics will split and scatter our forces, will prevent us concentrating them on the Soviet revolution, etc., I will reply to the “Lefts” who raise this objection: don’t ascribe your doctrinairism to the masses! The masses in Russia are probably no better educated than the masses in England; if anything, they are less so. Yet the masses understood the Bolsheviks; and the fact that on the eve of the Soviet revolution, in September 1917, the Bolsheviks put up their candidates for a bourgeois parliament (the Constituent Assembly) and on the morrow of the Soviet revolution, in November 1917, took part in the elections to this Constituent Assembly, which they dispersed on January 5, 1918 – this did not hamper the Bolsheviks, but on the contrary, helped them.16
Here Lenin makes three mistakes. The first is that he fails to grasp the analytical effects of liberalism on a given population. The second, stemming from the first, is that he again conflates two unequal groups in order to prove his point: in this case, the British and the Russian masses. The third mistake, and whether this is an intentional mistake or not is not known, is that Lenin equates bourgeois parliamentary involvement with involvement in a constituent assembly.
Speaking to the first mistake, if one can not conceive of a society after capitalism and without a state, then one can not actively work towards such a society. For Britain this was the case; the working class by and large would have had no conception of a society beyond capitalism17. Lest we forget that capitalism had existed in Britain far longer than elsewhere on the continent. This fact was coupled with the lack of a history of revolutionary agitation in an extra-parliamentary context (revolutionary trade unions, workers’ associations, etc.). The specificities of the British situation (that of being unlike Germany in that the working class lacked a revolutionary identity, and that of being unlike Russia in that capitalism had had more time to permeate the consciousness of the working class) would have in fact led to a confusion of the British masses (and the Party itself!) as to what exactly the Communist Party’s goal was. And in fact this is what happened elsewhere in the Anglosphere as will be demonstrated later.
As for Lenin’s second mistake, we can clearly see even in 1920 that the English masses and the Russian masses were incredibly different in terms of their ability to understand how parliamentary action and anti-capitalist and anti-state critiques could compliment one another. The most glaring indication of difference is that the Russian masses had managed to have a revolution, whereas the English masses had yet to even establish a Communist Party. Add to this the experience of 1905 and the presence of Soviets, themselves anti-state or dual-power institutions, and a comparison between the English masses and the Russian masses seems strange at best. By conflating the two Lenin misses the point; there clearly are situations where the tactics being espoused by Lenin are too subtle and too complicated for the masses to understand, and parliamentary activity is not always the way forward.
Lenin’s third mistake is perhaps the most glaring. Even if we were to accept the comparisons between the English and Russian masses, Lenin’s argument still falls apart based on the fact that a Constituent Assembly is not a bourgeois parliament. A Constituent Assembly is a temporary body whose only role is to draft a constitution; after that, the Constituent Assembly is folded and the constitutionally decided organs are put in place. In the context of Russia in 1917, the class nature of the Constituent Assembly was uncertain. Russia was a society poised on the brink of revolution; had the Bolsheviks won a majority within the Constituent Assembly, the drafted constitution could very well have been Soviet and working class in nature. For Lenin to suggest that British communists engage in bourgeois parliament because their Russian comrades engaged in the Constituent Assembly mis-represents the nature of the two societies as well as the role played by each body.
VI. A Parliamentary Path for Canada?
Having shed light on Lenin’s position circa 1920 in regards specifically to Britain and Germany, it is now time for our gaze to be shifted to something more concrete: Canada in 2009. In order to discern whether or not, within the context of Lenin’s position, a parliamentary way forward is possible within Canada we must look at the conditions that Lenin put forward in analysing the political situations in Germany and Britain. Three aspects need to be examined: first, whether or not the masses are engaged in the parliamentary process; second, whether or not the masses have moved beyond a bourgeois-democratic frame of reference; and third, whether or not the space exists within the Canadian parliamentary experience for an anti-state and anti-capitalist message to reach the masses.
On the first condition, that of whether or not the masses are engaged in the bourgeois parliamentary process in Canada, it can safely be said that they are not. The most recent federal elections in 2008 saw a record low for the last 100 years in terms of voter turnout: only 58.8% of those eligible to vote did so18. This was down from an equally pathetic 64.7% in 2006. In fact, within the last 30 years the highest voter turnout occurred in 1979, where 75.7% of Canada’s electorate voted. Indeed, in the entire history of Canada’s federal elections, 1958 holds the record for the highest voter-turnout with 79.4%19. Even in the historical best case scenario, over 20% of the electorate was not engaged in parliamentary activity. In more normal situations, such as the past 10 years, anywhere from 35%-40% of the people of Canada have not voted.
Distaste for the bourgeois political system is pervasive; not only is voter-turnout down, but membership in political parties is also dwindling20. What this means is that under normal conditions, 35%-40% of the electorate in Canada finds the parliamentary process so disengaging that they can’t even be bothered to cast a ballot. This clearly shows that in Canada, the masses as a whole are not eagerly engaged in the parliamentary process. Only a fringe element is intimately engaged, and only a small majority have any engagement at all. The first condition established by Lenin for communist involvement in the bourgeois parliamentary process is not met in a modern Canadian context.
The second condition, that the masses in Canada have not moved beyond a bourgeois democratic frame of reference, is still the case. Indeed, there is no mainstream political party or movement in Canada that even questions the basic assumptions behind a bourgeois democratic framework. While the masses are not engaged in the current bourgeois parliamentary framework, due to the non-existence of palatable alternatives (namely Soviet democracy), the masses still find themselves within a bourgeois democratic framework.
The third and final condition established by Lenin, that the space for an anti-state and anti-capitalist critique exists within the context of parliament, can unquestionably be said to be false. The Canadian state has a long history of anti-communist action; when the Communist Party was at its peak popularity, and on the eve of the election of the first Communist MP, the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) was banned under the War Measures Act. The banning still went forward even after the CPC and its constituent labour organisations not only supported the war effort, but agreed not to strike for the duration of the war! The CPC was forced to re-organise under the name of the Labour-Progressive Party (LPP).
In terms of actual representation in the House of Commons, one of only two Communist MPs to ever be elected, Fred Rose who was elected in 1943 on the LPP ticket, was accused of being a Soviet spy and was imprisoned mid-way through his term in 194521. Following his release from prison he was tailed from job to job by the RCMP; as punishment for having the audacity to win an election as a Communist, his life was destroyed. He eventually returned to Poland. Doris Nielson, the other Communist who was elected in 1943, ran initially for the Progressive Unity Party22 but once in office shifted her allegiance to the LPP. She was not re-elected.
As can be seen, the Canadian state goes out of its way to ensure that there is no anti-state, anti-capitalist space within the Canadian parliamentary framework. This is something that even the CPC, a party heavily involved in parliamentary cretinism, admits in its program:
State-monopoly capitalism undermines the basis of traditional bourgeois democracy. The subordination of the state to the interests of finance capital erodes the already limited role of elected government bodies, federal, provincial and local. Big business openly intervenes in the electoral process on its own behalf, and also indirectly through a network of pro-corporate institutes and think tanks. It uses its control of mass media to influence the ideas and attitudes of the people, and to blatantly influence election results. It corrupts the democratic process through the buying of politicians and officials. It tramples on the political right of the Canadian people to exercise any meaningful choice, thereby promoting widespread public alienation and cynicism about the electoral process.23
Even if interference in the electoral process by the Canadian state was not an issue, one still faces the problem of the lack of saturation of the Canadian working class with anti-state and anti-capitalist influences. Much like Britain in 1920, it is quite reasonable to predict that an anti-state message would become confused if pushed through the medium of parliament. The Canadian working class does not have any conception of life beyond capitalism; all of the reasons to not engage in parliamentary activity in Britain in 1920 apply more-so to Canada in 2009. The active involvement of the Canadian state in anti-communist activity, as well as the lack of class consciousness amoungst the Canadian working class amount to the fact that within the Canadian parliamentary system there is no space for an anti-state and anti-capitalist critique. Lenin’s third condition is not satisfied.
To recap: in modern Canada the masses are not engaged in parliamentary activity. While they may not have moved beyond a bourgeois-democratic framework, they certainly have not embraced the currently existing bourgeois-democratic framework. The Canadian state has historically also engaged in anti-Communist activity whenever a Communist has had a chance of being elected to the House of Commons. This, when coupled with the fact that there is no long history of anti-capitalist agitation in Canada, shows that the space for an anti-capitalist and anti-state critique does not exist within the current Canadian parliamentary system. Within Lenin’s framework then, a parliamentary path is not the way forward. It is not a Leninist position to suggest parliamentary involvement in Canada in this particular historical context.
VII. Is Lenin’s Position Correct?
Thus far, we have only looked at the issue of parliamentary participation in the context of the framework that Lenin advanced nearly 90 years ago. It has been the assumption that communists should work within the bourgeois parliamentary system should the possibility present itself. But is this the case? Or should communists refrain from parliamentary involvement even in the best circumstances? This is the question that will now be explored, as we move towards an actual tactical position for our modern context.
Pushing aside the assumption that parliamentary involvement is always good given the chance, there are three main dangers that struggling within the bourgeois parliamentary system brings: the first is that parliamentary struggle brings the wrong kind of attention towards the Party; the second is that parliamentary struggle can take the place of struggling for alternative organs of power; and the third is that the Party risks internalising their own rhetoric around parliamentary struggle, and in so doing, loses sight of the goal of establishing a state based around organs of workers power. Each risk will be explored in further detail.
Struggling within a parliamentary context inevitably brings a certain type of focus towards the Party. Within Lenin’s framework, it is suggested that one engages in parliamentary activity as a way of spreading revolutionary ideas throughout the masses. However, those that will receive the message being put out by the Party in a parliamentary context will be those that are engaged in the parliamentary process to begin with. And while some of them may be won over to the revolutionary ideas, the vast majority of people seeing the message will not be disillusioned in the bourgeois-parliamentary system. One runs the risk then of the message being lost on the masses due to the medium it is being transported through. One also runs the risk of wasting time all-together; assuredly it is easier to convince those that have no interest in bourgeois-democracy about the failings of parliamentary systems than those that do.
On the second danger, in a context of limited time and resources certain types of struggle need to take precedence over others. If our goal is the establishment (and subsequent withering away) of soviet democracy, then one would hope that our limited resources would be going towards that end. Unfortunately, electoral politics take up massive amounts of time and resources. In so far as time and resources are being spent on electoral politics, they are not going towards the establishment of workers’ councils or a mass movement capable of smashing the state. And indeed we see this; the parliamentary presence of the CPC and other parties on the left is felt, but there is no mass movement being invested in.
The third risk is the most dangerous and therefore deserves the most amount of attention and analysis. The danger lies in the notion that in the process of engaging in parliamentary struggle, the Party will become so wrapped up and enamoured with this form of action that it will come to espouse parliamentary struggle above all else. This is especially dangerous in a context where liberalism is as pervasive as it is, as well as in a context where limited resources force the Party to prioritize certain actions over others. While this may seem like the most far-fetched danger associated with struggling within the bourgeois-parliamentary system, it is also the most common. To prove this, it is worthwhile to look at the program of the CPC.
The Communist Party of Canada has an undoubtedly revolutionary and progressive history; amoungst its many achievements we can include support for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, mobilisation to crush fascism in Europe during WWII, and the creation of the Workers Unity League. It is likely the most important revolutionary organisation in Canada’s history; with all criticism it is important to give credit where credit is due. However, found within its most recent program, the CPC takes a position that elevates parliamentary struggle beyond merely usefulness as a propaganda tactic. The CPC puts forward:
A democratic, anti-monopoly, anti-imperialist alliance will have as its objective the democratic restructuring of Canadian society so that the interests of the majority of Canadians come first, and the stranglehold of finance capital on every aspect of life is broken. It will seek to advance the working people’s interests through all available avenues of struggle, based on massive and united extra-parliamentary action.
The alliance will strive to score electoral advances, and the winning of power by a people’s government dedicated to carrying out sweeping measures to democratize society and transform economic relations in the interests of the working class and the Canadian people as a whole.
Such a breakthrough will be difficult to accomplish given the sophisticated means at the disposal of the ruling class to manipulate public opinion, discourage political activism and otherwise influence the outcome of bourgeois elections. A crucial task for the alliance will be to defend and expand democracy and to fight against corporate and governmental attacks on the electoral process.
A democratic, anti-monopoly government, based on a parliamentary majority, and acting in concert with the united and militant extra-parliamentary movements of the people, would signal a qualitative shift in the balance of class forces in Canadian society, and open the door to the revolutionary transformation to socialism. It would involve the people in a truly meaningful way.
The people’s government would be committed to a program of action geared to serve people before profit. That program would arise in the course of the social, economic and political struggles of the working class and its democratic allies, and be subject to the widest discussion and approval among all of the forces of the alliance.24
The CPC suggests, as the way forward, the creation of a massive anti-imperialist, anti-monopoly, and democratic parliamentary bloc. Upon this bloc winning a majority in parliament, that is to say upon the bloc gaining control over the legislative branch of the state, it would institute a series of reforms designed to promote the creation of a socialist Canada. Indeed, according to the CPC, this parliamentary bloc would “open the door” to a socialist Canada. The CPC even goes so far as to refer to the supposed parliamentary bloc as the “people’s government”; a far cry indeed from Marx’s warning in The Civil War in France “that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”25.
The CPC’s program, in its current parliamentary-oriented context, does not differ in any meaningful way from the program of a social democratic party. Despite mentioning extra-parliamentary activity in passing, the CPC has elevated bourgeois-parliamentary struggle to the place of prime importance. The CPC has substituted any notion of change from below with the concept of change from above; the parliamentary bloc “opening the door” for a socialist Canada. And in doing so, the CPC has abandoned any revolutionary theory of the state as an organ for one class suppressing another and has replaced Leninism with class-collaborationalism. Instead of building alternative organs of power, such as the Workers Unity League of over 50 years ago, the CPC suggests taking control of the bourgeois state and using the bourgeois state to somehow further proletarian ends. The CPC’s position is thoroughly revisionist and inexcusable.
To further highlight the ridiculousness of the CPC’s parliamentary fixation, and the dangers of going down the parliamentary road, it is worthwhile to briefly look at the WFDY’s26 statement regarding the acension of Madhav Kumar-Nepal to the position of Prime Minister of Nepal27. The WFDY remarks:
Nepal has achieved in recent years a tremendous magnitude of political changes by the strength of Great People’s Movement 2006 in a greater consensus and understanding among political parties. We do believe that those achievements can only be consolidated after a more upgraded understating among all political parties to put the peace process in a logical end and by carrying out the agendas to a progressive restructure of the state.28
Completely ignoring the brutally collaborationalist content of the statement, including calls for cooperation with reactionary parties (and therefore classes) and an end to the revolutionary process, what strikes one most strongly is the similarity of the statement with that of the recommendations of the US State Department in regards to increased “friendship” (i.e. renewed imperialist exploitation) between the US and Nepal:
And I think one of them is that the Maoists renounce violence and terrorism. The second would be that they stop the violent activities of the Young Communist League. And the third would be that they actively participate, and work together with the other parties, to support the peace process. There are other things, but those are the main factors that likely will go into our consideration.29
Focusing on the parliamentary process has clearly put the WFDY, and by extension the YCL and the CPC into the reactionary camp in regards to Nepal. It becomes clear that the fetishization of the parliamentary process can only lead an organisation down a path of revisionism and eventually reaction. We can however learn from our mistakes: the Social Revolution Party does not need to repeat the follies of the past.
VIII. The Social Revolution Party on Bourgeois-Parliamentary Involvement
The Social Revolution Party is against struggling within a parliamentary context both in terms of focusing on parliamentary activity as a means of progress and running for office in bourgeois-democratic institutions. Struggles within the parliamentary medium can only lead to revisionism and reaction; either the Party risks attracting the wrong kind of attention, risks spending limited resources on reformist ends, or risks internalising the message of parliamentarism. Furthermore, the Social Revolution Party does not believe in legitimising institutions that serve only to uphold the rule of capital and the ability of the ruling class to oppress, exploit, and alienate the people of Canada.
To this end, the Social Revolution Party puts forward an alternative: instead of worrying about bourgeois organs of power, we should be busy constructing our own proletarian organs of power. The Social Revolution Party believes that investing power in workers’ councils is the only way forward; “All power to the soviets!” is more than just a catchy phrase. Therefore, the efforts of members are best spent building the Popular Action Movement. A new world is possible, but it is up to us to build it; nobody will build it for us. Onwards!
1Particularly the Two-Line Struggle within the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist, as well as the recent debate on Kasama titled Can Our Revolution Use Elections to Organize? (September 7, 2009). Clearly the two aren’t of the same magnitude on the international level, but within the Anglospheric Communist Movement, debates on Kasama punch above their weight, so to speak.
2“They were therefore reduced to moving within strictly parliamentary limits. And it took that peculiar malady which since 1848 has raged all over the Continent, parliamentary cretinism, which holds those infected by it fast in an imaginary world and robs them of all sense, all memory, all understanding of the rude external world — it took this parliamentary cretinism for those who had destroyed all the conditions of parliamentary power with their own hands, and were bound to destroy them in their struggle with the other classes, still to regard their parliamentary victories as victories and to believe they hit the President by striking at his ministers.”
Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.”
3The Sovereign being the Queen of Canada who is represented by the Governor General; this position is, in most cases, purely ceremonial. The Senate is appointed by the Sovereign on recommendation of the Prime Minister, and is in modern times essentially a rubber-stamp for the House of Commons; except on issues dealing with Senate reform it would seem. The House of Commons is directly elected by the people of Canada and is usually what is meant when the Communist Party of Canada talks about winning a parliamentary majority.
4Indeed, chapter 7 bears the name “Should We Participate in Bourgeois Parliaments”. Lenin’s work is extremely illuminating; it is worthwhile for comrades to read not only this chapter, but the entire piece.
5Lenin, “Left Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder. 51
9Ibid, 49. It is worth mentioning that Lenin’s quote here is extremely intellectually dishonest; he has purposely mis-represented what the German “Lefts” meant by “reversion”. The German “Lefts” were actually referring to an inner-movement reversion to focusing on parliamentary activity as opposed to mass-based activities, as opposed to a reversion to parliament from Soviet democracy as Lenin implies.
10Both Phillip Snowden and Arthur Henderson were prominent members of the Labour Party at the time Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder was written.
15In particular, the Lib-Labs (Liberal Party members with the backing of trade unions), and the Labour Representation League provided, amoungst many other groups, the ideological basis for the formation of the Labour Party.
17We should remember that as early as 1858, Engels in a letter wrote: “and the fact that the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that the ultimate aim of this most bourgeois of all nations would appear to be the possession, alongside the bourgeoisie, of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat.”.
Frederick Engels, letter to Marx, October 7, 1858, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1858/letters/58_10_07.htm
18Voter Turnout at Federal Elections and Referendums
Elections Canada, Voter Turnout at Federal Elections and Referendums, 1867-2008
19At the time, “eligible voters” did not include the first nations people, who were only given the right to vote in 1960.
Canadian Human Rights Commission, Aboriginal Rights
20While there are no concrete numbers available, one of the biggest issues amoungst the intellectuals of the Canadian parliamentary elite is lack of engagement in the political system, including political parties. One can be sure, however, that the number of people registered as members of political parties is only a small fraction of those who vote.
21This was referred to as the Gouzenko affair; indeed, the state-run media in Canada was still slandering the name of Fred Rose well into the 1980s.
22The Progressive Unity Party was an attempt at a united front between the CPC and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). CCF riding associations that attempted to participate in the united front were shut down.
23Communist Party of Canada, “Canada’s Future is Socialism!: Program of the Communist Party of Canada”
24Communist Party of Canada, “Canada’s Future is Socialism!: Program of the Communist Party of Canada”
25Marx, The Civil War In France, 64
26World Federation of Democratic Youth; an international organisation that the youth-wings of many “official” Communist Parties are involved in world-wide. The Young Communist League is a member.
27Madhav Kumar-Nepal is a member of the Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist and Leninist, a reactionary and revisionist organisation that actively struggled against the Nepalese Revolution. He was elected to the position of Prime Minister after Prachanda and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) stepped out of the bourgeois parliamentary system.
28World Federation of Democratic Youth, “Congratulatory Message to the New Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal”
29US Department of State, Friendship Between the U.S. and Nepal
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