Socialism or Social Democracy?

While some claim that social democracy had always been reformist, aiming to improve capitalism slowly but surely, that is not the case. When it started, social democracy was far from that. It was a self-proclaimed international revolutionary socialist party, aiming to abolish capitalism by any means necessary -- including the ballot box.

Ignoring the warnings of anarchism, Social Democratic Parties argued that electioneering was a key way of spreading socialist ideas and winning people to anti-capitalism. This proved to be their undoing. Slowly but surely, the parties involved became increasingly reformist, betraying their principles to get into and remain in office. The predictions of the anarchists came true. Socialist rhetoric was used to hide moderate practice.

Not that the contradiction between the party's rhetorical adherence to socialism and its growing opportunistic pragmatism went unnoticed. It provoked an intense theoretical debate, which raged furiously from about 1898 to 1904. However, the distinction between the contenders remained largely a subjective one, a difference of ideas in the evaluation of reality rather than a difference in the realm of action. In the end, rather than change the world, Social Democracy simply changed itself to accommodate its tactics.

The descent into reformism

Working in a capitalist institution will have its effect on those who do so. The corruption does not happen overnight. At the start, the party argues that it takes part in elections to advocate radical ideas. But ends are not independent of means. Even with the best of intentions, the radicals who get elected find themselves powerless to accomplish anything of a radical nature. The demoralisation this brings about takes place little by little, so gradually that few notice it, including the radical politician. They quickly perceive that they are regarded as a laughing stock by the other politicians and find more and more difficulty in securing the floor. When they do, they know that neither their speech nor their vote can influence the proceedings. Their speeches do not even reach the public, just the occasional sound bite. The only solution is to elect more comrades. Years pass and a number are elected. Each of them goes through the same experience and quickly comes to the conclusion that to make an impact they must show that they are practical, that they are doing something for their constituency. The situation compels them to take a 'practical' part in the proceedings, to 'talk business,' to fall in line with the matters actually dealt with in the legislative body (i.e. making capitalism work and run better).

Spending years in that atmosphere, enjoying good jobs and pay, the elected radicals have themselves become part and parcel of the political machine. With growing success in elections and securing political power, they become more and more conservative and content with existing conditions. Removal from the life of the working class, living in the atmosphere of the bourgeoisie, they have become what they call 'practical'. Power and position have gradually stifled their conscience and they do not have the strength and honesty to swim against the current. They become the strongest bulwark of capitalism. They even end up opposing direct action and any spontaneous struggle which hinders the respectable image of the party and its potential votes. This is in spite of the revolutionary ideas that originally inspired them. Indeed, they were sucked into "practical" matters almost from the start. In the words of Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the original leaders of German Social Democracy: "In the early stages, when we had few adherents, we used to go to the Reichstag [the German Parliament] and used it exclusively or almost exclusively for the propagation of our ideas. But very soon we found ourselves involved in practical matters."

However, many radicals refuse to learn this lesson of history and keep trying to create a new party that will not repeat the saga of compromise and betrayal which all other radical parties have suffered. And they say that anarchists are utopian!

The root of the problem

Ultimately, supporters of using political action can only appeal to the good intentions and character of their candidates. This time, we are told, our leaders will be better. Anarchists, however, present an analysis of the structures and other influences that will determine how the character of the successful candidates and their political parties will change. In other words, in contrast to state socialists, anarchists present a materialist, scientific analysis of the dynamics of electioneering and its effects on radicals.

The state is not some neutral body that can be used by all classes in society. It is an instrument of class rule, a machine that exists to protect the wealth and power of the capitalist class and to enforce their property rights and authority. As well as economic pressures from capitalists resulting from capital flight, lack of investment, and withdrawal of support, representatives also face pressures within the state itself due to its bureaucracy. There is a difference between the state and government. The state is the permanent collection of institutions that have entrenched power structures and interests. The government is made up of various politicians. It is the institutions that have power due to their permanence, not the representatives who come and go. We cannot expect different politicians to act in different ways to the same pressures.

And even if a party gained office without loosing its radicalism, it could do nothing. Not only is there the state bureaucracy, the armed forces and police which would hinder the new government while seeking to overthrow it, but no law is miraculous. Economic pressure from business would soon undermine any radical reforms. No law can prevent the capitalists from exploiting their workers. No law can force them to keep their factories open and employ workers under specific conditions. Without a mass movement in our communities and workplaces, all reforms bar the most weak will be dead-letters. And electioneering undermines such a movement, drawing resources and activity away from this, our only real weapon in the class war.

This is ignored by supporters of "ballot box" socialism, who think that only their party can ignore the demands of the dominant class in society while being part of its protector and creature, the state! The intentions and will-power of the people involved are rarely a match for the state, the way it is structured to protect and enforce capitalist rule, the influences and pressures of the permanent state apparatus on the elected representatives, the economic pressure exerted by capital, and so on.

Leaders and Led

The use of electioneering has a centralising effect on the movements that use it.

The state has been developed to enforce minority rule. It has evolved a structure based upon minority, top-down rule that ensures the continuation and protection of that rule. The state is hierarchical despotism. It is based on delegating power into the hands of a few - in a democracy, elected representatives and the state bureaucracy. It is a truism that elections empower the politicians and not the voters. Using the ballot box, by its very nature, focuses the fight for change into the hands of a few. Rather than those involved doing the fighting, the organising, the decision making, power rests in the hands of the representative. The importance of the leaders is stressed, as it must be in a centralised system.

Within the party, electioneering has a similar impact. Political action comes to be considered as parliamentary activities made for the population by their representatives, with the 'rank and file' left with no other role other than that of passive support. Only the leaders are actively involved and the main emphasis falls upon them within the party as well. It soon becomes taken for granted that they should determine policy (even ignoring conference decisions when required). In the end, party conferences become simply like parliamentary elections, with party members supporting this leader against another.

Soon the party reflects the division between manual and mental labour so necessary for the capitalist system. Instead of working class self-activity and self-determination, there is a substitution. A non-working class leadership develops which acts for people, replacing self-management in social struggle and within the party itself. Electioneering strengthens the leaders dominance over the party, reducing internal democracy and marginalising the members within it.

Socialism from Below?

Thus electioneering results in the fight being carried out by means of leaders, in which the masses can play but a minor role. In practice it means a handful of individuals, the representatives, carry on the struggle on behalf of the masses. It can only lead to the illusion that others can do the fighting for us - regardless of the wishes of the leaders in question. Once radicals are elected the whole focal point of struggle changes. Rather than direct struggle against the state and the boss, this is no longer needed as the elected representatives will act or people will think they will act and so not act themselves. They have elected someone to fight for them and so do not need to fight themselves. If radicals are elected to fight for people, can we be surprised if people do not act themselves? The notion that reforms (indeed, the revolution) would be the work of leaders acting on behalf of the masses soon followed, with the masses reduced to voters and followers, not active participants in the struggle.

Moreover, socialist support for electioneering is somewhat at odds with their claims of being in favour of collective, mass action. There is nothing more isolated, atomised and individualistic than voting. It is the total opposite of collective struggle. The individual is alone before, during and after the act of voting. Unlike direct action, which, by its very nature, throws up new forms of organisation in order to manage and co-ordinate the struggle, voting creates no alternative organs of working class self-management. Nor can it. It is not based on, nor does it create, collective action or organisation. Given that socialists often slander anarchists as "individualists" the irony is delicious!

Building the new world while fighting the old

Anarchists argue that the erosion of internal democracy and socialist principles is inevitable in any organisation which operates within, and models itself upon, the hierarchical, centralised capitalist state. The institutional pressures upon it grinds away at the honest intentions of the party, turning it slowly but surely into a mirror imagine of the system it claims to oppose.

For this reason anarchists argue that we must apply our socialist principles in the organisations we create to fight capitalism. This means that any group must be self-managed, with policy decided directly by the members in mass assembly. Decisions would be co-ordinated by means of mandated delegates subject to instant recall. If any delegate ignores the wishes of the membership, they would be recalled and replaced by someone who executed the decisions of the base assemblies. In this way real power would rest in the hands of the membership, not in a handful of leaders.

Such an organisation would exist to encourage the same principles in social struggle. It would aim to create a federation self-managed workplace and community assemblies which would use direct action and solidarity to win improvements under capitalism while trying to get rid of it once and for all. The idea that socialists standing for elections somehow prepares working class people for revolution is simply wrong. Standing in elections only prepares people for following leaders - it does not encourage the self-activity, self-organisation, direct action and mass struggle required for radical and lasting reform, never mind a social revolution. It generates reformism, not socialism.

We can only achieve socialism by practising it in the here and now. Anarchism is clear. Socialism can never come above via the ballot box. The state is the means by which minorities establish and organise their power over the masses. It cannot be the force that will serve to destroy those privileges.

Socialism can only be created from below, by the direct action, mass participation and self-organisation of working class people. Electioneering is political activity that makes the work dependent on the ability of leaders, using capitalist institutions. Direct action is political activity that makes the struggle the task of the working class itself, using working class organisations. The sooner we learn this and start applying it, the better!

 On to Ideas to change the world or just the bosses?

Making history or just repeating it?
A leaflet discussing why socialism and electioneering do not go together. Available in pdf format and in four parts:

  1. Making history or just repeating it?
  2. Socialism or Social Democracy?
  3. Ideas to change the world or just the bosses?
  4. For a socialism that liberates!

PDF file of Making history or just repeating it?

Anarchism and elections in Britain


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