Elections: Quicksand for Socialist Ideas


We don't live in a socialist world. In fact never before has capitalism exercised such total hegemony. Despite huge disaffection with austerity and global capitalism, for billions of people the world over, an alternative is impossible to imagine. One of the key tasks of the left then, is not just to oppose attacks on the living conditions of working class people, but to provide an alternative vision of a society where we do not exist to serve the economy, but rather the economy exists to serve us, a society where the slogan "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" becomes a reality.

The question then arises; what is the most effective way to carry out this task? For most of the left, elections have some part to play. There was a time that the mainstream left believed that socialism could be brought about by the ballot box. During the long boom that followed the second world war that looked possible. In many countries, social democratic parties were able to introduce significant reforms, albeit as a result of the power of organised workers in unions. Under today's conditions, a few still make that argument.

On the back of the electoral success of SYRIZA in Greece and Ken Loach’s film, The Spirit of ’45, there has been a renewal in interest in radical social democratic ideas. A glaring flaw in applying the logic of the post war settlement to today is that we are not living in 1945. We have not just won a war, Europe is not being bankrolled by a United States government in an attempt to halt the influence of the Soviet Union, capital can be moved about a lot more freely and crucially, we don’t have a mass workers movement to terrify the ruling class into granting these concessions (on which there was consensus from left to right).

The main argument of the nominally revolutionary left for engaging in the electoral process today is that it serves as a platform for socialist ideas. The opportunity to speak to people during election campaigns, to have speaking time in the Dáil and to have elected representatives with access to media airtime is attractive. However, the left has been actively engaging in this process for over a century and we are further away from socialism now than we were one hundred years ago.

There are very good reasons for this. At times socialist parties have made significant electoral gains and had massive popular support. Even when they had mass membership, the tendency was always for their leaderships to become institutionalised and drift to the right. There is also a tendency for electoral success to sew illusions in the capitalist state. Not least is the growing reliance on leaders which leads to the demobilisation of organised workers.

The history of The Workers Party in the eighties and nineties is a prime example of all three of those problems. The party membership had spent years building support among the working class through activism in communities and in the unions. This translated into electoral support and during the eighties they became a force to be reckoned with.

However, in 1992 a six of the seven Workers Party TD's along with some of the membership attempted to change the party constitution. Their aim was to move the party to the right in an attempt to win more electoral support. Having failed, the six TD's left the party, taking a significant proportion of the membership, effectively undoing the work of decades. Some of the TD's who broke away are now government ministers, implementing austerity policies as members of the Labour Party.

The Workers Party is not an isolated example of electoral success being counterproductive to the struggle for socialism. The Militant Tendency (Then a faction in the Labour Party, now The Socialist Party) in the U.K. also built significant support in the eighties. Their influence on the Liverpool City council was such that the British media ran a red scare campaign that lasted years and even penetrated the Labour Party that they were a part of. At their height they were believed to have somewhere in the region of 8,000 members. Peter Taaffe, a leading member of Militant, in the book, Liverpool: A city that dared to fight, predicted that the following decade would be the "red nineties".

Within a few years, that confidence was eroded. Expulsions from the Labour Party, the fall of red Merseyside and a split in the organisation left them in complete disarray. Derek Hatton, the main figure of Militant on Merseyside became a hate figure (a quick google or youtube search will tell you why) and the idea of socialism lost support. In both of these examples it was activism in workplaces and communities that built support for Socialism and electoralism that destroyed it.

Closer to home, Socialist Party members in north county Dublin, spent years building up the profile of Clare Daly. Clare won the Party's second seat in Dáil Éireann and was one of five United Left Alliance candidates elected. Clare went on to forge an alliance with former property speculator Mick Wallace and supported him when it was revealed that he had made false VAT declarations to the revenue commissioners. She then left the Socialist Party, amidst the disintigration of the ULA.

The lesson we must take from this is that if we are to pose an alternative to the capitalist system, it cannot come through participating in elections. The alternative is to build centers of counter power, to organise in communities and workplaces and show how the world can be when we collectively take action. We can build the structures of the new world within the old. Strikes, community campaigns and student struggles can act as schools of self organisation and provide glimpses of a world based on solidarity not greed, a world without leaders and bosses.

This is an ammended and updated version of an article that was first published in lookleft magazine, Vol.2 Issue 13