This article is the second in a new Passage series exploring different leftist approaches to electoral politics. The first article made a case for an anarchist approach. The third article makes the case for a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist approach to electoral politics.
How should leftists approach electoral politics?
Through his writings, the academic Marxist and member of the 1960s British New Left, Ralph Miliband, proposes a socialist strategy that evades simple in-or-out answers. This strategy doesn’t carry with it the slogans and insurrectionary flavour of some other Marxist approaches, and is useful in that it avoids being formulaic or deterministic. Miliband does envision a role for parliamentary politics, but it’s a vision that differs dramatically from the offerings we see on Canada’s electoral scene.
This has much to do with Miliband’s understanding of the state within capitalist society. The state is a largely conservative network of institutions (including the judiciary, the civil service, the central bank and the military) and even in the event of a successful left-wing electoral majority, an engaged citizenry would be necessary to provide popular support and counter the likely reactionary backlash.
Any attempt to get socialists elected, or to take power, should be sober-minded about the setting in which governments — even left-wing ones — operate. This is especially so given the state’s role as a ruling-class mechanism: to facilitate the long-term interest of capitalism.
This means maintaining capitalist class rule, as when the state disciplines wage-earners and striking workers. It also sometimes means managing conflicts between different factions of capitalists, such as with climate matters. The state and its mechanisms, far from being a neutral tool that can be repurposed for new, working-class purposes, will provide its own kind of resistance should a government embark on an anti-capitalist project.
Left-leaning or social-democratic governments are typically elected in periods of social, economic or financial crisis, benefitting from a deficit of legitimacy usually found in the regular capitalist parties. It becomes the task of these social-democratic parties to subdue popular expectations in the name of the ‘national interest,’ reassure the ‘business community’ and go about managing the crisis so as to restore the long-term viability of capitalism.
To describe their task as such is not to be overly cynical: in periods in the past, the long-term viability of capitalism has at times required the temporary implementation of redistributive policies, the expansion and provision of public services, and the broadening and recognition of the rights of the citizenry and labour.
So, given this general setting, why would anyone advocate for an electoral or parliamentary path to socialism?
It’s important to not be deterministic about the actions available to a hypothetical left-wing government. It’s not necessarily the case that a slate of socialist legislators will always choose to turn on the working-class as they navigate a capitalist crisis. Rather, it’s the likely outcome only if said government decides to operate entirely within the confines of the capitalist state.
This means that for a genuine socialist project to succeed, particularly if it wishes to govern the state, it needs to draw support from sources above and beyond what a typical capitalist government enjoys. Regular check-ins with chambers of commerce and close relations with lobbyists and policy shops all serve to maintain the support of capitalists behind a particular government. These are not sources of support amenable to a socialist project.
Elected socialists would need support from civil society, social movements, the labour movement and a healthy media ecosystem, with the help being powerful enough to aid the government as it took steps toward socialist transformation, and through the likely conservative reaction that would come to bear. What results from this balance of forces then determines what further measures are possible.
Miliband argues that the role of a socialist government in this position would be to implement structural reforms: measures that begin to shift the balance of power increasingly in favour of civil society, wage-earners and the labour movement, opening opportunities to broaden the establishment of democratic rights.
In this sense, the election of socialists to office without the other essential components is a recipe for disappointment. Unfortunately, this has also largely been the NDP’s recipe for most of its history.
Assume for a moment that the most well-intentioned radicals are elected to government, somehow making it through the NDP vetting process and the election itself. When confronted with the conservative inertia of the state and the harsh discipline offered by capitalist markets — typically in the shape of capital strikes and international disinvestment — these radicals would stand little-to-no chance of effecting change.
With this said, an electoral coalition stands to be a likely and necessary component of any majoritarian political project. While the state is heavily skewed against working-class interests, socialists in elected office — even in opposition — can nevertheless increase the visibility of working-class struggles, amplify their cause and maintain and grow their power.
Too often, however, what we see in Canada, particularly with the NDP, is the reverse: an electoral coalition is cobbled together by a political party, and used for the sake of maintaining office. Here the needs of civil society, the labour movement and social movements become subordinate to the task of electing individuals to office.
This has a doubly detrimental effect.
In the short term, the focus on securing and maintaining electoral office orients political discourse to concentrate on the imbecilic minutiae of parliamentary drama and opinion polling. The elements of civil society and the labour movement that are cobbled together to maintain this coalition find themselves increasingly dragged into short-term, near-sighted electoral maneuvers, often censoring their critiques and limiting (or re-aligning) their own long-term objectives for the sake of maintaining their representatives in office. The sum total does very little to increase the range of socialist possibility within society.
Secondly, it curtails the growth and expansion of working-class power in society by parasitically concentrating its energies into electoral efforts. This delays achieving the long-term objective of building a movement that can fight back against the forces of capital.
In this sense, the question of whether or not to engage in electoral politics is not particularly interesting. What’s much more important is to interrogate the nature of an electoral campaign: will it help build up and amplify working-class power, or will it become a resource-sink for efforts that might be better spent organizing more directly to affect people’s lives?
While it’s common for Canadians to think of “politics” and political change in terms of the existing electoral system, we’d be much better off building working-class organizations and institutions with a great deal of independence from, and likely hostility to, the halls of power.