The Abstentionism of the Communist Left
(«Proletarian»; Nr. 7; Summer 2011)
In his classic work “Anti-Duhring”, Engels explained that “The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine – the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital”. Nearly 4 decades later, the Communist International reiterated at its first Congress that the Socialists had thousands of times “expressed the idea formulated with the greatest scientific precision by Marx and Engels, namely, that the most democratic bourgeois republic is no more than a machine for the suppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie, for the suppression of the working people by a handful of capitalists”. Referring to the tragic example of the Paris Commune, it added: “It was Marx who best appraised the historical significance of the Commune. In his analysis, he revealed the exploiting nature of bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois parliamentary system under which the oppressed classes enjoy the right to decide once in several years which representative of the propertied classes shall ‘represent and suppress’ the people in parliament” (1).
To decide periodically which bourgeois politicians will trample the oppressed classes, this is the essence of bourgeois democracy: this is the crystalline formulation used by revolutionary Marxists to define once and for all the tacky panoply of elections, elected assemblies, of Parliament that the bourgeoisie and their lackeys present as the ultimate achievement of civilization, as the end point of the entire history of mankind which only dreadful reactionaries or fanatical barbarians might even think about disputing. Indeed, the representative institutions and mechanisms of parliamentary democracy are nothing more than cogs in the capitalist state, erected, reinforced, ceaselessly perfected over decades by the bourgeoisie to maintain its class rule and defend the mode of production of which it is the agent.
Initially, only the bourgeois had the legal right to participate in political life, only they had the right to vote, only they took part in the activities of Parliament, which decided the way to run the country. It was clear to everyone that these democratic institutions and the State were in the exclusive service of the possessors and for the oppressed it was therefore clear that the only hope lay in its revolutionary overthrow. The ruling class soon became convinced that this situation was too risky. Little by little, and not without misgivings, the bourgeoisie extended political rights in general and voting in particular to broader sections, to the petit-bourgeoisie, which served as a buffer class, and finally to the “dangerous classes” to the proletarians themselves. It could do that all the more easily, when at the same time the opportunity to participate in the election of the various representative institutions was extended to all citizens, the real power escaped from these institutions and concentrated increasingly into reduced spheres of the state apparatus, linked to networks of the most powerful capitalist interests.
This development has been pushed to its climax. In France, since 1945 women have had the right to vote; since 1980 young people over 18 years (who formerly had the right – Ahem! the obligation – to get shot full of holes defending the homeland and keeping the bourgeois safe, but not of placing a sacred ballot into the parliamentary urn) joined them, maybe tomorrow it will be the turn of foreign workers who are often subject to slave-like conditions, treated as chattel, subject to the most ruthless drudgery and exploitation, but still politically considered as minors. This state of political inferiority which was and still is weighing down on a sector of the laboring population should and must be fought without hesitation by conscious proletarians because if part of the working class is subject to a particular and specific bourgeois oppression, the whole class is weakened: the struggle for equal rights, for equality before bourgeois law, is in this sense an elementary proletarian demand. But could anyone believe that these rights and this bourgeois legality, which are only a codification of capitalist domination, could help to end this domination? Who could seriously believe, especially after the experience of alternating parliamentary majorities and governments of the right and left which have followed basically the same bourgeois politics, that Parliament and representative institutions are really the expression of popular sovereignty, that the parliamentary and electoral path is actually the path to emancipation?
If it wants to resist exploitation, the proletariat has no other real option than to turn its back on the democratic path to rediscover its class weapons, to once again take up the overt anti-capitalist struggle. If it wants to free itself from wage slavery, it must abolish capitalism and overthrow this capitalist state, to destroy all its institutions, even the most democratic and establish its own class power, the dictatorship of the proletariat which alone can carry our the weighty task of economic and social transformation. It is this position which distinguishes revolutionaries, communists, from the reformist opponents of the revolution, deceitfully pretending that capitalism can make amends and transform itself through democratic institutions; it is this position that distinguished the new International constituted in reaction to the shameful betrayal of the Second International, which passed bag and baggage into the camp of the bourgeoisie during the outbreak of World War I, after years of a reformist practice in which parliamentary cretinism (already denounced by Marx as a threatening danger) eventually successfully ensnared the labor movement.
If everyone in the newly-born Communist International was in agreement on the condemnation of the reformist, democratic, electoral and parliamentary path, a tactical question remained unresolved: what attitude to adopt in practice in relation to these representative democratic institutions, in relation to the electoral system, given the persistence of their influence among the masses? This question which does not arise today, unfortunately, in terms of practice – but will do so again in the future – was the subject of an historical debate of which the participants perhaps did not realize the full importance. 90 years later, while fatal democratic illusions continue to flourish, with the stinking corpse of electoralism still on the march, with the precious assistance of so-called revolutionaries, the importance of this debate and of the lessons learned for the activity of the future communist movement cannot be doubted.
(1) See “Theses on bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat” adopted by the First Congress of the Communist International. (MIA)
The abstentionism of the communist left
When the issue of whether to use parliament to fight against parliamentarism was discussed in 1920 within the Communist International, our current, the Communist Left of Italy, fought for the adoption of the tactic of abstentionism in countries with a long democratic tradition, as opposed to the tactics of “revolutionary parliamentarism” advocated by the Bolsheviks.
But the spokesmen of each of the two solutions were united on the terrain of principles, by a solid common platform.
Both excluded, not only the possibility, sustained by the reformists, of the transition to socialism by parliamentary means, but also all the perspectives advanced by an anti-Marxist “far left”: democratization of bourgeois institutions as a springboard to the proletarian revolution; intermediate stages between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat, formation of governments within the framework of the bourgeois state; mélange of parliamentary institutions and organs of proletarian power.
Both proclaimed that the unique and obligatory means to proletarian emancipation is violent revolution, the destruction of the bourgeois state (and therefore of parliamentarism), the dictatorship of the proletariat led by the revolutionary communist Party, the use of strength against the former ruling class – which signifies the end of all “democracy”.
The discussion between the Bolsheviks and our current were not about points of principle, which all currents and parties that today claim to be Marxist have disowned. It concerned a question of tactics that was relatively minor in comparison to these principles: in the framework of communist struggle, both anti-democratic and anti-parliamentarist, should we use the “platform» of parliament, “since we do not have the power to destroy it”, to mobilize the masses against the bourgeoisie and its political system?
The Second Congress of the Communist International adopted the “revolutionary parliamentarism” theses presented by the Bolsheviks. Denying the prospect of the conquest of the parliament, these theses argued that the C.P. should participate in it in order to destroy it from within. This directive, which all the far left groups mired in electioneering have now forgotten, were accompanied by a series of draconian conditions:
First, the center of communist activity should absolutely not be electoral and parliamentary activity, having the parliament in the developed capitalist countries definitively transformed itself into an instrument of falsehood and deception of the proletariat. The essentials of communist action must be carried on outside of parliament, in the masses action led by the party with the objective of insurrection and civil war.
Consequently electoral and parliamentary activity should be rigorously subordinated to the preparation of the revolutionary struggle of which it is only a subsidiary and accessory means. The theses moreover did not make participation in elections and parliament an absolute rule; they argued instead for the need to boycott them in certain clearly defined circumstances of revolutionary radicalization: the Bolsheviks had done this several times beginning in 1905 with the boycott of the first Duma granted by the Tsar, when they left the Kerensky parliament in 1917 and with the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1919, the day of its convocation
Finally, the Bolsheviks put as a condition to the implementation of “revolutionary parliamentarism” the existence of genuine communist parties, having completely broken with all reformist or centrist tendencies (“revolutionaries in words, reformers in deeds”) which they saw, not as “tendencies of the labor movement”, but as agents of the class enemy.
This was the revolutionary parliamentarism of Lenin: it had nothing in common with the practice of his supposed followers of the far left, who makes electoral participation the axis of their activity and toward which they spend most of their energies and resources; who, far from seizing the opportunity to spread revolutionary principles, instead make every effort to prevent the rupture of the proletariat with reformism; and who even see in the participation in the electoral masquerade, the way to build a proletarian party by the opportunist fusion of heterogenous currents ...
In presenting their arguments to the Congress of the International, the Bolsheviks were especially concerned with combating the “infantile” positions of the anarcho-syndicalist or ultra-left type that hindered the growth of the young Western communist parties. But despite the full correctness of the principles on which they relied and despite all the conditions for their application, these arguments were very inadequate in the countries with old democratic traditions, where the bourgeoisie had managed to lure the proletariat into the electoral and parliamentary impasse, when it was precisely a question of leaving it. The Bolsheviks, who were accustomed to tough illegal activity in the situation of a double revolution (that is to say a revolution which was not only anti-capitalist but anti-feudal and therefore a situation where democratic demands still had a revolutionary content), struggled to understand the extent of the dangers of the democratic opium for the class struggle in the developed capitalist countries and the difficulties which the proletariat had in detoxifying itself.
The Communist Left did not deny that the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary parliamentarism was justified in countries where the bourgeois revolution had not yet occurred (such as in Czarist Russia, in the colonies or in backward countries): in these countries, democracy, signifying the end of the old feudal structures, was a bourgeois revolutionary goal, to be attained through armed struggle, which the proletariat supported. The tactics of revolutionary parliamentarism could have also be useful in the countries of young capitalism, when parliament was still the center of power and, in part, an arena of struggle between classes. Participation in elections and parliament was a means of propaganda and agitation to extract the proletarians from the influence of the left bourgeois parties, in contrast to the anarchist apoliticism, even if there was the danger –denounced by Marx –of falling into “parliamentary cretinism”, that is, of giving far too much importance to parliamentary activity.
On the other hand, the new phase opened by the first world war required that all energies of the party and the working class be devoted to the direct preparation of the proletarian revolution; a much more rigorous tactic was necessary in all the major capitalist countries, where parliament and democratic institutions were nothing but a counter-revolutionary arm of indirect defense against the proletarian struggle, a powerful brake on the extension of the revolution coming out of Russia.
After decades of electoralism and parliamentary reformism, the rigorous selection of revolutionary minorities was impossible without the sharpest break with the intertia and interclassist compromises of bourgeois democracy, so also with the electoral and parliamentary practice which is the terrain where it operates. If it was necessary to innoculate the fledgling Communist Party against the “infantile disorder” of leftism, it was all the more important to innoculate against, or to get rid of the falsely revolutionary currents which, forced by the radicalization of the working class to make revolutionary-sounding speeches, in fact remained steadfastly committed to social- democratic reformist practice.
However, the tactic of “revolutionary parliamentarism” made it more difficult to break with centrism – that hidden reformism . What’s more, by dedicating a part of the energies of young Communist Parties to electoral activity, it risked hindering their activity on the extra-parliamentary terrain and their preparation for the tasks of leading revolutionary activity. This risk was especially great in that these C.Ps. could not rely, as did the Bolsheviks, on a tradition of revolutionary struggle and illegal action, but had to break with a leaden reformist tradition inside the parties of the Second International of purely legal and parliamentary activity.
The need to explain clearly and relentlessly to Western proletariat, imprisoned in the paralyzing network of democratic institutions and imbued with pacifist illusions, the practical impossibility of attaining the overthrow of capitalism through electoral, parliamentary and pacifists methods, demanded that the communist parties not make use of these same methods, even occasionally and “tactically”, but concentrate all their efforts of propaganda and agitation on the revolutionary class struggle, calling the workers to turn away from the electoral diversion.
So the abstention of the Communist Left had nothing in common with the metaphysical attitude of the “infantile” currents. For our current, refusal to use parliament was not motivated by moral reasons – refusing to compromise, fear of getting our hands dirty, refusal on principle to use legal means – by political indifference or by the horror of “Chiefs” for whom parliament is the field of action; it was motivated by the requirements of revolutionary preparation in the context of a precise historical and materialist analysis.
In 1920 the question could still be discussed; since then, history has demonstrated that the critiques made by the Communist Left were justified. From revolutionary parliamentarism understood as a simple revolutionary tribune, the use of parliament increased imperceptibly to the use of parliament to make the revolution, then its use to defend the bourgeois State against fascism, and finally to the “revaluation of the role of parliament” in this State!
Of course, the degeneration of the communist movement and the International, was determined by a set of material factors far wider than just the attitude toward the electoral question. If that degeneration became possible, it is in the first place because the process of the formation of the communist parties was done in the worst possible way: not through ruthless selection, but through the admission into these parties of whole wings of the old reformist parties which enfeebled them from the beginning by preventing the rupture with the social-democratic practices. The fact that abstentionism, the “test” of the break with reformism was not applied, undoubtedly contributed to this weakening.
But somebody may tell us that the situation is different from that of the 20’s. Obviously! But how is it different?
There is no more revolutionary International. The principles of violent revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat have been discarded and forgotten. The working class is infected to the core with democracy and legalism. Even the daily struggle of defending one’s existence against the effects of capitalist exploitation has been repeatedly thwarted by calls for “dialogue” and “class collaboration”.
So if the situation is different, it makes even more imperative the rupture with the methods and practices of representative and parliamentary democracy.
The need for this complete break is inseparable from the termination of all social peace, of all collaboration between classes, of all solidarity with the nation. Those who pretend to summon the proletariat to the class struggle and the electoral masquerade, those who speak of revolution and at the same time call on them to vote for a leftist government or against a right-wing government, merely undermine the basis of the proletarian advances they claim to want to promote.
But again our detractors may object, your voice remains unheard.
This is how we respond: this objection is that of traitors or future traitors. Lenin gained victory in October 1917 because he had dared to declare in April, after four years of bitter struggle against the current in the heart of the imperialist war: “better to be alone like Liebknecht – because it means to be with the revolutionary proletariat”. Whatever the distance – still long whithout doubt– that separates us from the final outcome, it can be prepared only through waging the struggle against reformist perspectives and practices, without oscillation and against the current, therefore against electoralism.
Whatever the relationship of forces, the dilemma remains: either electoral preparation, or revolutionary preparation.
International Communist Party