Quick reply to: ‘The case for an electoral party’


By Mike Sabot in a personal capacity. The original article by Ben Wray (ISG) is here.

The only reliable and sustainable basis on which to build a left party is to orientate it towards the only democratic institutions that everyone can engage in and the only institutions that have democratic authority over society – parliamentary elections. In Scotland that means, most importantly, Holyrood.

Generally those in the parliamentary left don’t attempt to justify why they participate in elections and see it not only as a useful form of action but, in fact, the primary means of bringing about fundamental social change.  It’s just what socialists do, right? Ben Wray should be thanked for elaborating on this. Nonetheless, I’d argue that his case for an electoral party is contradictory and rests on a number of unfounded assumptions.  I doubt I can change his mind, but I do think it’s possible and really important that more people are brought around to libertarian communist politics. That means organising as a class where it matters, outside and against parliament.

I’ll try and keep this brief and directly respond to some of the points made.

Let’s start at the very end of the piece where it’s said that the broad idea is that of ‘challenging the system at its point of greatest weakness: the governmental level’. It seems a bit odd that I need to make this argument, but assuming we’re talking about capitalism here, surely other socialists would agree that the working class is strongest at the point of production and at work in general.  It’s there that we can disrupt capital, through organising we can force our demands on employers, or harm their profits through threats of collective action, and actual striking, go-slows, sabotage etc.  This isn’t to say that organising around unpaid labour, in our neighbourhoods and against oppressions isn’t absolutely essential and isn’t just as important to transform society, but we need to try to link these struggles to the strategic site of production and work.

By contrast, the influence we can have as a class at the level of government is minimal, except where our extra-parliamentary movements can ‘wring’ reforms out of it.

Some leftists will recoil immediately, arguing that ‘parliament isn’t democratic, it doesn’t serve the people and the working class increasingly don’t trust it and don’t vote’. This is all true but it isn’t a convincing argument against engaging in parliamentary elections because there are no alternative democratic institutions which possess anywhere near the same democratic legitimacy in society as parliament does.

On the one hand,  it’s accepted  that parliament isn’t ‘democratic’ but on the other, it still has ‘democratic legitimacy’ and is the only institution that ‘everyone can engage in’.

In practice, the mainstream left really does accept and endorse parliament as democracy in action, or close enough, and that it’s possible to control it for progressive ends.  Otherwise, why bother?

But the critique of the institution isn’t explored because it’s seen as unrealistic to reject something which undeniably a) has real power, and b) is understood to be the political arena by the majority.  This is what ‘democratic legitimacy’ really means here.

The communist argument would be that you don’t start with what is seen as ‘legitimate’ or not, or where the majority are.  It is axiomatic that, outside of a period of mass struggle, most people won’t seriously question existing social relations. Gradualist reform and social democracy will be seen as all that’s on offer. What works and how we can recreate a militant labour movement is a different question entirely.

What are some basic points against electoralism?

  • Most people can’t meaningfully engage in it. That’s the point. Representation takes decision-making power away from working class people and invests it in a small minority. This order-giver versus order-taker split is an expression of the wider class society.
  • If they’re to be successful, electoral parties have to become ‘popular’ rather than ‘class’-based. They seek coalitions and try not to appear too radical to attract support. The more mainstream they become the greater the chance of gaining seats.
  • Often these parties are mobilised behind a dominant personality with charisma and oratory skills.  How exactly do you avoid the situation where some individuals accumulate more power or importance?
  • Some like to argue that it’s possible to be both ‘on the streets’ and in parliament.  In reality, parliament takes first place and tends to push out everything else.  Where parties are involved in extra-parliamentary activity it’s usually to its detriment, by co-opting things or exploiting them.
  • Whatever the manifesto of left-wing parties, parliament and government is concerned with the political management of capitalist society.  It isn’t structurally possible to challenge capital through the state and it’s questionable to what extent reforms can be passed without the leverage of a militant labour movement, and in this conjuncture.
  • The function of electoral parties on the left, arguing the case for a better-run capitalism – whatever the radical rhetoric –  is to demobilize and divert from more serious threats, like rank-and-file direct action.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not for becoming like the politicians. I believe representatives should take a workers wage; I believe they should be accountable to the community they are elected from

None of these things would let the electoral party off the hook from ‘becoming like the politicians’. A workers’ wage doesn’t challenge the hierarchical relationship of representative to represented.  And politicians speak all the time about being accountable but most people know this is meaningless. Only recallable delegates are genuinely accountable.

Those who don’t vote aren’t setting up co-operatives to run communities or workers’ councils to run workplaces. Their process of re-engagement and democratic renewal will likely pass through parliamentary elections on their way to participatory democratic control of society, if we are to ever get there.

Not voting isn’t important in itself, and for the growing distrust of politicians and the electoral process to achieve anything it would have to find expression in new forms of organising.  But it’d be naive to think that participatory or direct democracy is something that will be proclaimed one day by parliament – handed down from above.  Rather it needs to be prefigured in whatever struggle we’re involved in.

The point is, however apparently dire our situation and despite the broad extra-parliamentary left being a small minority, it is both possible and absolutely necessary that we create new directly democratic institutions.  Coming from a revolutionary unionist or syndicalist position, I see unions ‘as associations of workers’, rather than as  representatives or service-providers, as probably the most crucial institutional forms for class struggle.* The fact that the trade union movement is so weak means that we actually have an opportunity to go about building a new labour movement controlled from below and rejecting collaboration with bosses.

A false dichotomy is sometimes raised by the mainstream left that you either have to accept  electoralism or you’re for some sort of revolutionary insurrection tomorrow.  Instead, we need to take the long road of trying to spread militant rank-and-file organising, of winning small but significant victories and gaining strength. Whether it’s the IWGB in the Tres Cosas Campaign, the IWW in organising service workers or in setting up rank-and-file networks in, for example, the education sector, SolFed’s campaign against workfare – these are all examples of radical unions ‘as associations’ doing really inspiring work.  I’d also add Glasgow SolNet’s direct action victories for private tenants and ECAP’s actions by and for claimants, as examples of union-like structures outside the workplace.

Put it this way – what do you think the capitalist elite want us to do? Leave parliament to their mates and focus on extra-parliamentary activism, or challenge for democratic control over society? The question should answer itself.

The history of left-wing electoral parties around the world is one where the elites were not threatened by their entry into parliament.  In fact, in Britain, the Labour Party was welcomed by many existing parliamentarians as a reasonable, collaborative bunch who would help to control the extremists in the labour movement and work for the national good.  They were right. The working class is strong to the extent that it is autonomous and can act in its own class interests outside of the state.

Where left-wing electoral parties exist in parliament, the extra-parliamentary left should try to argue the case for class struggle politics with their grassroots, use pressure to gain concessions, and keep up a constant critique of the leadership.

* For the difference, see the excellent SolFed pamphlet Fighting for Ourselves, pp 12-13.

William Morris on Parliament

William Morris

“What a spectacle of shuffling, lies, vacillation and imbecility does this Game Political offer to us? I cannot conclude without an earnest appeal to those Socialists, of whatever section, who may be drawn towards the vortex of Parliamentarism, to think better of it while there is yet time.

If we ally ourselves to any of the presen[t] parties they will only use us as a cat’s-paw; and on the other hand, if by any chance a Socialist slips through into Parliament, he will do so at the expense of leaving his principles behind him; he will certainly not be returned as a Socialist, but as something else; what else is hard to say.

Parliament is going just the way we would have it go. Our masters are feeling very uncomfortable under the awkward burden of GOVERNMENT, and do not know what to do, since their sole aim is to govern from above. Do not let us help them by taking part in their game. Whatever concessions may be necessary to the progress of the Revolution can be wrung out of them at least as easily by extra-Parliamentary pressure, which can be exercised without losing one particle of those principles which are the treasure and hope of Revolutionary Socialists.”

William Morris  (1834-1896) | Commonweal, November 1885



Organising for AFem2014: an anarcha-feminist conference in London on Sunday October 19th 2014.

Glasgow Anarchist Federation

We received the following call-out; see the end for the email contact:

Who are we?
We are a group of anarcha-feminists of varying genders, backgrounds and histories, who have come together to organise an anarcha-feminist event. We want to use it to build concretely towards the transformation of our own experience, and towards toppling the institutions and ideas which oppress us.

What is AFem2014?
AFem2014 will be the first of what we hope will be a series of international anarcha-feminist conferences. The need for this has been obvious for a long time within anarchist organising. Efforts to shut us down, belittle our ideas, and physically assault and abuse us have led to a level of anger against the masculinisation of our movement. We are not represented in equal numbers and often are not taken seriously. Whilst on paper we are equal, we sometimes face oppression even in our own groups…

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Edinburgh dayschool: building working class resistance to capitalism and racism

[Postponed to 2014]

novemberdayschoolEdinburgh Anarchist Federation invite you to a day of discussion on contemporary anarchist and communist strategy and organisation. Focusing on practical experience of organising above abstract theory we want as many people as possible to come together on November 30th.

In the aftermath of the largest economic crisis in decades and the collapse across the world of the legitimacy and membership of social-democratic parties, the opportunity should exist for a re-emergence of the communist movement. Despite this, we remain marginal, disorganised and lacking in strategic direction. The left remains in thrall to outdated ideas and tactics unable to adapt to current conditions, to offer any effective opposition to neoliberal attacks or build the organisations necessary for working class power and autonomy.

Too often self-described revolutionaries and communists meet only to discuss abstract theories or to analyse historical events, divorced from any material relation to current struggles in the UK, and unwilling to consider new organisational methods. This gathering aims to be different. We want to discuss practically how we create a culture of resistance and organisation in our own workplaces and communities, to smash the growing threat of fascism and racism from the EDL to the UKBA.

Though we remain weak at present, reasons for optimism do exist, from the wave of spontaneous workplace occupations and wildcat strikes in 2009 to the student movement of 2010, the arrival of the anti-fascist network as a serious, militant alternative to the UAF, the innovation of the pop-up union at Sussex university and the growth of solidarity networks. We want to draw out the successes and failures of these nascent formations and consider where we go from here. Do these ideas offer the basis for a new workers movement or another dead end? We invite everyone who opposes capitalism and fascism to present any ideas and discuss the future of our movement.

We’re still working on the line up.  Join the facebook event for updates.

Grangemouth and the need for rank-and-file solidarity

In this blog post, Floaker in AFed Glasgow draws lessons from the industrial dispute, lock-out and threatened closure of the Grangemouth petrochemical plant in October.grangemouth

There has been a lot of speculation about how ready and willing workers at Grangemouth have been to take industrial action. Looking at the actions of the Ineos bosses, Unite the Union, and the politicians we can start to see how much of these three groups vested interests are tied up in making sure workers on the ground are given the thin edge of the wedge.

First, Ineos themselves – as expected from the bosses – have been lying through their teeth. On one hand they have claimed the site is making a loss, though when the economic analyst Richard Murphy looked through their books he was stunned to find they were £7million in the black while at the same time the costs to the company for site assets and a public loan they were paying back have been written off. Money from the site is also being moved into an offshore tax haven. All of this makes the future of Grangemouth look hugely profitable. The only other way Ineos can squeeze more money out of the plant would be to cut staffing costs and benefits, and that is just what they are doing.

Michael Connarty, the Labour MP who covers Grangemouth, claimed on the BBC’s Daily Politics show that Unite had been “conned” and that it was “quite clear [Ineos] prepared for this conflict quite well”. However, the workers of Grangemouth have not been outsmarted by their bosses as much as they have been ill-represented by the Unite bureaucracy and their tired and predictable way of reacting to negotiations. The union’s willingness to keep the peace by giving a three year no-strike deal means the bosses can do what they want for that time with no real way for workers to come back at them; that is unless the workers take the decision to act outside of Unite’s hands and back into their own.

Some have claimed that rank-and-file action may not have been possible, but if that’s the case then it raises the question of how the workforce got into that state, and what was the union’s role in creating this situation? Back in 2000, workers at Grangemouth were striking in solidarity with truckers blockading the plant as part of the fuel price protests, then again in 2009 hundreds of Grangemouth workers took wildcat strike action to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with striking oil refinery workers at Lindsey. Have they really given up this strong will to fight in just four short years? Or have Unite (and the other trade unions) been quick to dampen any militancy in an attempt to show the bosses that they are in control of militancy and keep their own slice of the pie?

However, The Scotsman reported that 665 workers did not sign the survival plan agreement, indicating that workers on the shop floor are still up for a fight. How has Ineos reacted? They are going to sack these workers and have them rehired as new employees, putting them on contracts with lower pensions than those who where forced into giving in. Those who did sign the contract will also get a “sweetener” of between £2,500 and £15,000. Unite, rather than fighting this blatant attack to divide the workforce, had already tied their hands in preparation by signing that no-strike agreement and are complicit in worsening conditions for its members and breaking the bonds of solidarity between different workers. It is clear that they have no interest in protecting the working class, just so long as they get their place at the bosses table.

Over in Holyrood, the SNP have been only too willing to play into the hands of the bosses, giving Ineos support in the calls for compromise to be reached. The thought that a Scottish government (either further devolved or fully independent of Westminster) will be any friendlier to workers, the unemployed or anyone else is an assertion without any backing. The state will always behave in the interests of the state. Holding hope that someone else can fix things for us is only going to lead to half-measures and disappointment. It is only by building up our ability to take action together at the heart of the problem that will give us any real measure control of our lives.

The way in which the unions and the politicians have behaved is not the victory for common sense that is being billed; it is a stitch-up against all of us as a class. Bosses are pitting worker against worker while the trade unions and politicians are only too happy for this to happen as long as their power remains intact. The people on the shop floor know their business better than anyone else. We should learn the lessons from past fights such as the 2009 Lindsey strikes where worker stood in solidarity with worker and won the reinstatement of 698 workers and an agreement of no retaliation from the bosses: a victory through shared struggle. By helping to empower one another by showing support when action is called for we can take a degree of power for ourselves, and to hell with the bosses, union bureaucrats and politicians who stand in our way.

Veteran black panthers visit Scotland

joninaandlorenzoOn 6th October, JoNina Abron Ervin and Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, two long-time grassroots organisers from the United States and former Black Panthers, kicked off their speaking tour of the UK at Edinburgh University. They spoke on the subject of “The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan, new confederacy movements and the anti-racist movement for this period” to an audience of nearly 100, standing room only.  The following day they travelled to Glasgow for another packed talk this time on the 1960s/70s US black power movement.

In the Edinburgh talk, Lorenzo gave background on the history of the three rises of the Ku Klux Klan, and both he and JoNina spoke about the recent mobilisation against them in Memphis, Tennessee. JoNina told us about Ida B. Wells, a pioneering investigative journalist who visited the UK in 1893 and 1894 to raise awareness of lynchings in the United States. In her memory JoNina and Lorenzo introduced the new Ida B. Wells Coalition Against Racism and Police Brutality, and invited groups in the UK to join.

Lorenzo and JoNina are both founding members of the Black Autonomy Federation based in Memphis, promoting class-based grassroots anti-authoritarian struggle, self-determination for the Black community and autonomy and liberation for the oppressed world-wide. Like them on facebook!

JoNina is the author of Driven by the Movement: Activists of the Black Power Era, and Lorenzo is the author of Anarchism and the Black Revolution.


Glasgow feminists protest for choice


Every now and again, Glasgow sees the small “pro-life” lobby come out of the woodwork.  On Thursday 24th October, they planned a vigil in George Square and then a torch-lit procession to St Andrew’s Cathedral. In response, feminists and allies decided their own get-together to argue the case for women’s control over their own bodies.  They easily outnumbered anti-abortionists, and produced loads of excellent signs, slogans and chants—”Keep you rosaries off my ovaries!”.

Women’s access to abortion along with other reproductive rights remain a massive issue here and around the world. We only need to read the traumatic stories of women in neighbouring Ireland, where abortion is restricted.  Those who campaign against choice need to be opposed.

The counter-demonstration was organised and led by self-identifying women, who made up the majority, and male allies supported.  Hopefully we’ll see more like it.

Thanks to A Thousand Flowers for the picture.