This article is the first in a new Passage series exploring different leftist approaches to electoral politics. The second article makes a case for Ralph Miliband’s approach to electoral politics. The third article makes the case for a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist approach to electoral politics.
How should leftists approach electoral politics?
There’s a popular saying among anarchists in Quebec around elections: “Votez bien! Votez rien!” (Vote well! Vote for no one!)
Anarchists differ from Marxists and other radical leftists on what they view as the fundamental contradictions in society. While Marxists view class as the fundamental contradiction, and push for a “dictatorship of the proletariat” to overthrow capitalism, anarchists see state power and government itself, along with capitalism, as fundamental contradictions (in addition to race, gender and other forms of domination).
Communism entails a system with collectivized common goods under a strong centralized government. But history has shown us the contempt that communist governments can have for queer folks, religious and ethnic minorities, and political dissidents. Anarchists would agree with communists on the importance of collectivizing the commons, but would be strongly against any form of centralized, coercive government. It follows as such that voting simply serves to legitimize the state’s power, which anarchists ultimately want to do away with.
In 2007, the Montreal chapter of the North Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists ran a campaign encouraging voter abstentionism. Their slogan was, “We won’t sign them a blank cheque,” underscoring the fact that by voting, we’re in fact abdicating a large amount of our own personal and collective freedom and autonomy to a governing power. The thinking is that to vote is to consent to being governed, regardless of who wins the race.
Abstentionism is one anarchist approach to voting, but there have in fact been a myriad of ways that anarchists have approached electoral politics over the years.
In the mid-00s in the United States, anarchists ran a campaign called, “Don’t just vote – get active.” The approach wasn’t necessarily to encourage abstentionism — although it viewed not voting as a perfectly legitimate choice — but rather to say that voting shouldn’t be the end point of our political involvement. If anything, it should only be the beginning.
We live in a society that in many ways encourages political docility, and voting is the one place where political expression is encouraged. A liberal might argue that it’s one’s civic duty to vote, but then might be content at having so-called civic duties end there.
One thing most people on the left will agree with is that, if anything, election campaigns are useful because they’re a period in which massive political debates take place across society. And anarchists, like most other leftists, love leaning into political debates.
Even in this current election, some of the key issues that anarchists have been heavily involved in are on the table, from the climate and housing crises to the pandemic response. And beyond anarchists, various grassroots, radical left groups have been weighing in on the current election, from Black Lives Matter Canada’s proposal of a “platform for Black resistance,” to the Migrant Rights Network vying to get immigrant justice issues back into the conversation, to the Vote Palestine campaign to push for policy commitments from candidates on the Middle East.
There’s no doubt that an election campaign is a useful period to get people engaged in social struggles. But the goal of an anarchist society would be to expand these debates well beyond election cycles. This is why anarchists are so invested in the principle of direct democracy — the idea that every individual in a society should be involved in the decisions that impact them the most. This is the antithesis of representative democracy. And in societies that have experimented with anarchist organizing on a large scale, such as Greece, Argentina or even Quebec, uprisings have come with large neighborhood assemblies, debating local politics on street corners well into the night.
Another common anarchist slogan on electoral politics is, “Our dreams will never fit in their ballot boxes.” Such a statement is in line with the anarchist mantra of “demanding the impossible” — in other words, expanding the horizon of what are considered to be acceptable or even winnable demands.
Electoral politics operates very much within what it considers to be pragmatic and winnable. This is true across the political spectrum. But what happens when we’re faced with unprecedented circumstances that demand we go beyond what might be politically possible at the moment?
While many on the left in Canada have traditionally voted for the NDP or the Green Party, I’m dismayed that neither party’s platform in the current election includes positions on abolishing the RCMP, or regularization for all undocumented migrants, which should be no-brainers for radical leftists in 2021.
To me, the question of whether or not to vote is an irrelevant one. The act of voting only takes up about 15 minutes of your time, and while it can be strategic, I think many would agree that in our first-past-the-post system, it can also be a bit of a throwaway if you live in a riding where one candidate is strongly favoured over another.
Ultimately, I think the left should divest itself from electoral politics. It’s a question of time and energy. When we all have a limited amount of resources to put into political organizing, we should think about investing them where they’ll have the most impact. And that certainly isn’t in election campaigns. When the crises we face are as overwhelming as they are, the situation demands that we invest our energies into direct action for change, rather than changing the window dressings of parliament.
So vote. Or don’t vote. Neither necessarily has more of an impact than the other. Instead, we should ask ourselves what the current crises we face demand of us and our movements, and orient ourselves toward actions that serve the goals of the liberation, freedom and dignity we all deserve.