Thu Apr 11, 2024
April 11, 2024

Revolutionaries and Elections

The role of socialists in electoral politics during the period of competitive capitalism

Marx and Engels studied the French Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, along with the Paris Commune of 1871. They argued that while parliaments were key for the bourgeoisie to articulate itself as a class and mediate its collective class interests – managing competition both between individual capitalists and sectors of the bourgeois class with divergent interests – bourgeois parliaments did not function in the same way for the working class and indeed could pose dangerous pitfalls if approached in a theoretically naive way.
By Workers’ Voice
The working class, according to Marx and Engels, could only constitute its identity and program independently, outside of parliaments. It did this through the class struggle broadly, and specifically through the building of trade unions and socialist organizations. The emergence of parliaments in the early-mid 19th Century in Europe and the Americas, in short, had a different effect on the political formation of the working class than it did on that of the bourgeoisie. The working class could not become, as Marx illuminates for example in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, a “class for itself,” merely through participation in bourgeois parliaments. It could only do this through the formation of independent organizations in class struggle.[1]
By this, Marx and Engels however did not imply that the working class should abstain from bourgeois elections, quite the opposite. Indeed, what they argued – and what leading revolutionary socialists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Eugene Debs, and Anton Pannekoek would do after them – was that the organized working class indeed should have a more active engagement with elections and parliamentarism than bourgeois “common sense” or the logic of bourgeois electoralism imagined. For revolutionary socialists, bourgeois parliaments provided necessary political experience for the working class in its struggle to overcome bourgeois democracy and develop workers’ democracy— a deeper more authentic democracy, as occurred during the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Petrograd Soviet of 1905.
The strategy that Marx and Engels proposed in this, the period of free-competition capitalism, was for the working class to struggle to achieve full political rights in order to participate in elections and bourgeois parliaments.[2]This would have two important effects. First it would, so to say, nationalize the working class struggle, bringing the revolutionary proletarian message to a national audience. Second, and relatedly, it would allow a working class party to more easily expose the contradictions of capitalism and bourgeois democracy and more clearly contrast two conflicting strategies for emancipation: bourgeois reform versus socialist revolution. Combined with the intensification of the class struggle in the streets, the struggle for political rights and parliamentary agitation would prove to be politically transformative for the working class and therefore of society as a whole.
One of the main themes running through liberalism, as well as social democracy (which we discuss below), is the idea that parliamentarism can resolve the contradictions and crises inherent to capitalism. Today this idea is expressed by many progressives, from self-styled democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to liberal billionaires such as George Soros, to the pages of the leading liberal (and even “socialist”) media organs. It is the idea that electing progressive candidates will tame the crisis tendencies of capitalism through reforms such as taxing the rich and redistributive policies to fund universal healthcare and tuition-free primary – post secondary education. Some progressives and even some socialists, claiming that a revolutionary rupture through elections “is not on the cards,” expand upon this by arguing that reforms will accumulate and eventually overcome capitalism through “attrition.”
No serious socialist can be opposed to such reforms, which if implemented would indeed massively benefit the working class and oppressed, and our party is in full support of them. However, what distinguishes a reformist (or what might today be called a “progressive”) political perspective from a revolutionary socialist or a Marxist one is that the former believes that profound, long-lasting reforms are possible within the limits of bourgeois hegemony and liberal parliamentarism, and that reforms in themselves will magically translate into social democracy or even socialism. This perspective, which revolutionaries have traditionally referred to either as “reformism,” “revisionism,” or “opportunism,” disconnects reforms from the independent self-organization and combativity of the working class that has always been the material condition of possibility for reforms. The German revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg cuttingly referred to this as “sausage socialism.”[3] The success of the recent wildcat strikes by teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona is only the most recent and most prominent example, in the US context, of the correctness of Luxemburg’s insight.
The assumption that socialism could be voted in at the ballot box has a long history. It is an idea against which Marx vehemently battled but which nevertheless came to dominate European and American socialism around the time of his death in 1883. And indeed, the successes of socialist parties, especially in Europe, in elections in between the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the World War I, seemed to win the argument for the electorally-focused, “revisionist” socialists. This wing of the socialist movement, epitomized by the German socialist leader Eduard Bernstein, could simply and triumphantly point to statistics. Between 1867 and 1908 socialist parties across Europe counted over 400 members of parliament, to which could be added numerous other representatives in regional and city governments. The number of voters for socialist candidates went from 30,000 to about 10 million. In France the socialist Parti Ouvrier Francais, representing only one wing of the socialist movement, had by 1904 gained control of 63 municipalities and counted around 1300 municipal councilors in 174 cities and towns. The Socialist Party of France counted 3800 representatives and officers in 500 municipalities. Socialists had also made impressive electoral gains in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, England, Norway, and Sweden. But it was Germany that was the citadel of European socialism during this period. By 1890, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) could boast over 1.4 million votes, nearly 20 percent of the electorate, which translated into 35 seats in the Reichstag making it the strongest party in the German parliament.[4] By 1903, the SPD had upped its vote to 3 million, nearly 35 percent of the total vote, giving it 110 parliamentary seats. On the eve of the First World War in 1913,  nearly 1.1 million Germans were members of the SPD, with over 13,000 members in local and municipal elected office.
This formidable success – all the more remarkable given that the German party was illegal during the 1880s – nevertheless masked contradictions in the socialist movement that would soon be revealed, in a time of war and revolution. For Bernstein, author of the seminal revisionist text Evolutionary Socialism (1899), and his comrades had managed to move the socialist movement away from the principles of working class independence, combativity, and class struggle, and toward class collaboration.[5] The aforementioned electoral successes combined with a period of capitalist stability and prosperity (based – as revisionists studiously avoided mentioning – on colonial plunder) led the Bernsteinians to conclude that capitalism would after all resolve its own contradictions, that it had transcended its tendencies toward crisis. Instead of the necessity of revolution, they envisioned socialism coming about through what they called “the free state” (free of capitalism) based upon principles of “commonwealth cooperativism.” What this meant, in today’s terminology, was that the main task for socialists was to take over the state – “by electing representatives to parliament” – and turn it into an instrument for cooperation instead of class exploitation. In short, they removed any hint of class from the nature of the state itself.
Seen in this historical light, then, we can say that parliamentarism is basically a faith in capitalism’s ability and willingness to resolve its own crises. However, historically, it has been more the case that both progressive legislation and advances in working class power more generally are the outcome – one possible outcome but necessarily an outcome – of class conflict rather than than cross-class collaboration. As Marx, Luxemburg, and Lenin recognized – the first based upon his critical examination of the French revolutions between 1830 and 1871, the latter two based upon their respective analyses of the Russian revolutionary process between the 1880s and 1905 – parliamentarism does not resolve the contradictions of capitalism. Quite the opposite. And this is for a simple reason: any advance in working class power calls forth renewed and escalated efforts, often violent, by the bourgeoisie to roll back that power.
In 1908, Lenin noted that:
Parliamentarism does not eliminate, but lays bare the innate character even of the most democratic bourgeois republics as organs of class oppression. By helping to enlighten and to organize immeasurably wider masses of the population than whose which previously took an active part in political events, parliamentarism does not make for the elimination of crises and political revolutions, but for the maximum intensification of civil war during such revolutions. The events in Paris in the spring of 1871 and the events in Russia in the winter of 1905 showed as clearly as could be how inevitably this intensification comes about. The French bourgeoisie without a moment’s hesitation made a deal with the enemy of the whole nation, with the foreign army which had ruined its country, in order to crush the proletarian movement.[6]
What he had in mind here were the repressions that followed the 1905 revolution in Russia and, in particular, the 1871 Paris Commune, whose bloody defeat by the bourgeoisie inaugurated a high point of French parliamentarism. There were two reasons, according to Lenin, why parliamentarism intensified rather than resolved class conflict. First, bourgeois parliaments formed a space where workers and other oppressed groups had access to a national discussion where political and economic issues were debated. Parliamentarism in this sense helps the working class transcend local scales of struggle while at the same time highlighting the class nature of bourgeois society, its rule by a tiny minority of exploiters. Second, the parliament polarizes the working class itself, dividing that segment of the working class active in the class struggle and that which is inactive. The parliament, for Lenin, organizes the working class and oppressed in a passive way, subsuming political action to legislative action within the limits of bourgeois legality. There is therefore a dialectical character to parliamentarism in the period of competitive capitalism, a basic contradiction within it. While drawing masses of the working class, the oppressed, and the poor into national-scale political debates, it simultaneously depoliticizes the same forces, channeling their energies away from self-organization, self-activity, and combativity in the struggle against the bourgeoisie.
It was, in part, this inherent contradiction in bourgeois electoral politics that led revolutionary socialists to so passionately defend the centrality of a socialist political program in relation to socialist parliamentary work. As the US socialist leader Eugene Debs put it in the early 20th century, around the time of peak US Socialist Party electoral power, socialists should seek not simply to maximize their votes but to maximize what he called “intelligent” votes, votes that reflected agreement with the socialist program. It was these votes that would enable socialists to mobilize for independent political action. As Debs wrote in 1904, in socialist electoral campaigns, it is “the value of the socialist principle that is taught and emphasized, and if this is not understood and approved the vote is not wanted.”[7] This was done, according to revolutionary socialists such as Debs, by means of the socialists’ program. The socialist program distinguished itself from that of the reformists not so much in proposing needed reforms to the existing system – both revisionists and revolutionaries tended to share this so-called minimum program. What distinguished the socialist program was its strategy to achieve those reforms and, more fundamentally, to achieve workers power: the so-called maximum program. Socialists such as Debs argued that workers’ victories were not durable under a capitalist regime. Only workers’ power – referred to in the contemporary terminology of the time as “the dictatorship of the proletariat” or workers’ government – would ensure the durability of the positive achievements of the workers’ movement. All power and democracy to the workers and the oppressed, none to the bourgeoisie. All socialist electoral work should, from a revolutionary perspective, offer this alternative and magnify its appeal.
To summarize thus far the analysis of revolutionary socialists in this, the first period of parliamentarism (as the 1920 Comintern Theses referred to it): socialists should participate in bourgeois parliaments in a principled manner for the purposes of agitation, awakening the class consciousness of the proletariat against the exploiting ruling class. This entailed:

  • The fight for full democratic rights for the working class and oppressed
  • The struggle against those on the ultra-left who argued in favor of abstaining from parliamentarism and instead focusing all socialist energies on extraparliamentary work
  • Uncompromising defense of working class independence and refusal to make alliances with bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties
  • The centrality of a socialist political program
  • Subordination of parliamentary work and action to the class struggle and mass mobilization


Imperialism/monopoly capitalism and the emptying out of bourgeois democratic institutions

The most important political and structural change in the role of parliaments occured with the emergence of monopoly capitalism or imperialism in the 1900s—that is, the consolidation of large-scale production into the hands of monopolies or trusts, where entire branches of industry are dominated by a handful of corporations that are in turn controlled by giant banks and financiers (what Lenin called ‘finance capital’).  With the centralization and concentration of economic power, monopolies began to gain direct political access and partial control of the state apparatus in imperialist countries. Big cartels developed powerful think-tanks, lobbying groups, and the means to influence government through secret meetings and back-door deals. Hence parliaments went from being the center stages of political disputes to empty shells—decisions were being made elsewhere by the big trusts and corporations, which became increasingly able to buy off politicians and offices, design and amend government policies, etc.
This process was studied by American socialist John Reed, who explained that the accumulation of wealth and the centralization of economic power in the United States began taking place on a truly massive scale during the Civil War, “when the manufacturers of the munitions of war, the purveyors of provisions and the speculators piled up colossal fortunes.”[8] But it was during World War I that Big Business showed its muscle. Although three quarters of Congressmen were opposed to war, a coalition of US financial and industrial cartels wanted it, as American bankers were financing France and Great Britain in their war efforts. As Reed explains:
“The war completed the abject surrender of the government to the great financiers. The country – the voting majority of the small property owners- elected a Democratic administration in 1916 primarily because “it had to keep us out of war”. But in the Spring of 1917, the United States government was at war. It had been clearly proven for almost two years that the forces which were pushing the country toward war were the great munitions interests, the bankers who had floated Alliance’s loans, and the imperialist corporations, anxious to get a share in the redistribution of foreign markets.”
Thus WWI demonstrated who really had control of the state machine in the United States and where decisions were made in the last instance: not in Congress, and not even in the White House, but in back room meetings of major corporations. This hijacking of bourgeois institutions would become an irreversible turn in the US political system.
Dutch socialist Anton Pannekoek also studied the increasing obsolescence of bourgeois parliament in the era of imperialism and called for replacing parliamentarism with mass action. In a polemic with Kautsky, Pannekoek argued that imperialism brought a “reaction in domestic politics, [the] discontinuation of social reform, [the] growth of employers’ associations, [the] aggravation of trade-union struggles, [the] high cost of living.” While in the first era of capitalism, the workers could hope to use parliament for “advancing social reforms and increasing its political rights through its political representation, “in the imperialist epoch, the working class was put on the defensive: it has to strain all its forces not to be deprived of its current rights and living standards. Its attack has been turned into a defence.” Yet the result of this process is not an assuagement of class conflict. On the contrary:
The class-struggle thus becomes sharper and more generalised… Imperialism threatens the masses with new dangers and catastrophes (the petty bourgeoisie as much as the proletariat) and whips them up into resistance; taxes, high cost of living, and the war-danger make a bitter resistance necessary. But these phenomena originate only partially in legislation and can therefore only partially be fought against in parliament. The masses themselves must enter the political arena and exert a direct pressure on the ruling classes … Mass-actions are therefore the natural consequence of the imperialist development of modern capitalism and increasingly constitute the necessary form of struggle against it.[9]
Lenin shared Pannekoek’s strategic prognosis but added an important caveat. The vast majority of workers still saw parliament as a legitimate “democratic” institution, and revolutionaries should develop their tactics taking into account to the realities of the class struggle—including working class consciousness—and not only their desires. This was the core of Lenin’s debate with the ultra-Left faction led by Bordiga in the 1920 Communist International (Comintern) Congress.

Imperialism and the labor aristocracy: the material base for reformism

Both Pannekoek and Lenin saw how imperialism had corrupted the mass parties of social-democracies. In his 1914 article “The Collapse of the International”, Pannekoek noted that, as European Social Democracy strengthened its parliamentary representation, “the tendency to join hands with portions of the capitalist class for the purpose of winning reforms became more marked. The middle-class idea of making capitalism more tolerable by means of small reforms was adopted in place of the revolutionary struggle for power.”[10] In 1916 Pannekoek deepened this insight, writing that social democratic parties had become “spiritually and materially adapted to the tasks of the proletarian struggle in an earlier period,” for “their task was to fight for reforms during the ascending phase of capitalism – to the extent they were possible within the capitalist framework – and to organise the proletarian masses for that purpose.” For this reason, these organizations had to be overcome.
Pannekoek’s also pointed out that the growth of reformism had a material basis. It was made possible by “the prosperity that furthered capitalist expansion as well as the growth of labour-organisations.” Lenin built on this insight by describing how monopoly capitalism tends to “create privileged sections also among the workers, and to detach them from the broad masses of the proletariat.”[11] He introduced the concept of the labor aristocracy and the further stratification of the working class—which developed both at the international level (great material differences between living standards of workers in different countries), and in the national level (growing material inequalities between different layers of the working class)—to develop Engels’ earlier insights about the co-optation and bribery of the labor party in England, which had become a “bourgeois labor party.” In the imperialist epoch, Lenin argued that “a bourgeois labor party” is inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries” since the superprofits generated by the expansion and centralization of capital enable the development and bribery of a small, privileged layer of workers.[12]
This materialist analysis of reformism developed by Lenin is of key importance. Reformism, bureaucratization and opportunism (three processes that often go together in working class politics), are not an inevitable result of the growth of working class organizations; they are the result of their corruption and degeneration, which can and must be combated. From a materialist perspective, there are two dangerous processes at play. 1) the reflection of real material and political pressures that the bourgeoisie exerts on working class organizations—that is, the economic heterogeneity of the class and the constant attempt to directly buy off combative sectors, working class leaders, and union officials with material benefits. And 2) the “mechanics of political democracy” in the bourgeois arena —for Lenin (like Pannekoek), the parliamentary grip on social democracy is a form of material corruption.
By 1920 Lenin considered the top layers and leadership of the socialist parties and the business unions (not its rank and file members) to be the “real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class”, that is to be open counter-revolutionary elements. Concretely this meant that those forces had to be politically defeated as a precondition to any revolutionary development in imperialist countries: the bureaucracies had to be kicked out of workers organizations, unions had to be reformed or workers needed to create parallel unions, and the mass working class bases of social democratic parties had to be raided by revolutionary organizations.[13]

Revolutionary Parliamentarism

Given the transformation of capitalist democratic institutions in the era of imperialism and the rise of reformist parties centered on an increasingly degenerated parliament, revolutionary socialists worked to develop a new tactical orientation for engaging with bourgeois parliaments—one that allowed socialists to use the platform of elections and parliament to expose the true nature of capitalist democracy and to build a revolutionary movement while combatting both ultra-left abstentionism and reformism. This set of tactics is known revolutionary parliamentarism and was crystalized in the Thesis of the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism, drafted by Trotsky for the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920. While much has changed in the last 100 years, we believe the general principles outlined in 1920 remain valid for revolutionary socialists in the United States. Thus we close this piece with a synthesis of these general principles:

  • Socialist Parties are not “parliamentary parties” but “combat parties” —                                                 

The goal of our intervention in parliaments is to show that they are not the real place where politics are discussed and decided and to expose them as a sham. When in parliament or a city council, however, revolutionaries need to conduct a political intervention connecting the struggles outside the parliament with the debates in the parliament. The primary goal of this agitation is to reinforce the legitimacy of workers’ organizations to struggle and eventually make an implement political decisions through their own democratic systems (be it councils, city popular assemblies, strike committees etc.). The second goal has to do with exposing the real politics of the bourgeois and reformist politicians, the kind of deals they make on the back of workers and poor people, etc.

2) The Center of Gravity of the Party Should Be Outside of Parliament, in the Class Struggle

“One should always bear in mind the relative unimportance of this question. Since the centre of gravity lies in the struggle for state power carried outside parliament, it goes without saying that the question of the proletarian dictatorship and the mass struggle for it cannot be placed on the same level as the particular question of the utilisation of parliament.”[14]

3) In both in Electoral and Parliamentary Tactics, the Emphasis Should Be Put on Mass Action and Dual Power Strategy.

“The most important method of struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, i.e. against its state power, is above all mass action. Mass actions are organised and led by the revolutionary mass organisations (trades unions, parties, soviets) of the proletariat under the general leadership of a unified, disciplined, centralized Communist Party.”[15]

These three principles entail the following tactics:


  • Socialists cannot support or endorse a bourgeois party candidate without breaking with the strategy to fight for socialism
  • The socialist political program and platform should be at the center of electoral campaigns. Revolutionary socialists should not compromise on their program to build an electoral front
  • Whenever possible, candidates should be workers from the less privileged layers of the class
  • Campaigns must be connected with and oriented to develop the ongoing struggles of the working class
  • If elected, socialist members of parliament must subordinate all parliamentary activity to the party’s priorities in the class struggle. Socialist elected leaders are not to be “legislators”, but rather agitators sent into the enemy camp to carry out decisions and tasks of working class organizations. Thus, they are not accountable to the scattered mass of voters but to their party.

[1] See
[2] For a discussion of the contrast between competitive and monopoly capitalism, see Florence Oppen’s articles on imperialism in the last two issues of La Voz (“What is Imperialism? A Marxist Understanding” Parts 1 and 2), La Voz May 2018, pp. 31 – 34 and La Voz July 2018, pp. 33 – 37. See also Paul M. Sweezy, “Monopoly Capitalism,” Monthly Review October 1, 2004,
[3] As Luxemburg put it in Social Reform or Revolution (1899), “Legal (i.e., legislative) reform and revolution are not different methods of historical progress that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. They are different moments in the development of class society which condition and complement each other, and at the same time exclude each other reciprocally as, e.g., the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat” (see Peter Hudis and Kevin Anderson, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 2004 Monthly Review Press, p. 156).
[4] These figures are cited in Morris Hilquit, Socialism in Theory and Practice (New York: MacMillan, 1909), pp. 194 – 195.
[6] V.I. Lenin (1908), “Marxism and Revisionism,”
[7] Eugene V. Debs, “The Social Democratic Party’s Appeal,” The Independent 57(no. 2, October 13, 1904), p. 839.
[8] Reed, “Why Political Democracy Must Go”, I, The New York Communist, 1919, p. 4
[9] Anton Pannekoek, Quoted in Discovering Imperialism, Social Democracy and World War I, Richard B. Day, p 783.
[10] Anton Pannekoek, “The Collapse of the International”, (October 1914) in Discovering imperialism: Social Democracy and World War I, Richard B. Day, 784.
[11] Anton Pannekoek, “The Collapse of the International”, (October 1914) in Discovering imperialism, p, 899.
[12] Lenin, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, Published in Sbornik-Demokrata No. 2, December 1916.
[13] Lenin, “Preliminary Draft Theses on the Agrarian Question for the Second Congress of the Communist International” (1920). Lenin’s Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Volume 31, pp. 152-154.
[14] “Thesis on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism”
[15] “Thesis on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism”
Article published in:

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles