The most significant fact about the British General Election of 2001 was the record number of people who refused to vote. In reality it was the lowest ever turnout since the great majority of adults were enfranchised at the end of World War I. People’s Power do not flatter ourselves that we were instrumental in bringing about this positive result. Rather it was caused by significant social changes that have occurred in British society – and the other advanced capitalist societies – during the last half century.
The great mass of the people have a much higher educational and cultural level than did previous generations. The enormous expansion of further and higher education and the mass of information and ideas provided by the mass media means that people are far more questioning and critical than in the past. Of course, we recognise that education and the media are important agents of social control for the bourgeoisie but they are two-edged swords. Simultaneously they both uphold and undermine the capitalist system. One unintended consequence is the fact that more and more people are seeing through the fraud of bourgeois parliamentary democracy.
Many bourgeois politicians, Trotskyites and revisionists try to depict electoral rejectionists as irresponsible and ignorant. People’s Power know from our public campaigning that this is not true. We encountered many people with a keen interest in politics who were making a considered decision not to vote. Some of them were old socialists who had spent a lifetime trying to bring about real, progressive changes in society by means of the ballot box but whose bitter experience had taught them that this road to socialism is a dead end. Others were younger people who felt insulted and are repelled by the cynical, manipulative opportunism of the main political parties. Their rejection of the electoral farce shows that it is the Labour, Tory and Liberal politicians who are the dupes – of the ruling class – and not those they would seek to deceive. The truth is that there was more mindless, blind habitual behaviour among those who loyally plodded into the polling booths than among those who refused to be demeaned in this way.
MISLEADERS AND DECEIVERS ON THE “LEFT”
At the same time the Trotskyites and revisionists were horrified at the prospect of people rejecting bourgeois “democracy” in general and the Labour Party in particular. On the one hand there was Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party which wants to take us back to the time when coal was king and so was Arthur. On the other hand was the Socialist Alliance which put forward an unashamed Old Labour platform in opposition to New Labour. Neither faction even raised the question as to whether or not the road to socialism lay through bourgeois parliamentary elections. Both claimed that if only people like them were elected to Parliament then everything would be different. Paul Foot, a prominent figure in Socialist Alliance, made it quite clear that the aim of SA was simply to give Labour “a sharp and painful kick up the backside from the left” to encourage the Labour leaders “to change direction” (The Guardian, 25/05/01). In Nottingham East on the eve of the election the SA candidate Peter Radcliff – who boasted about his twenty-eight year membership of the Labour Party – issued a leaflet to assure potential supporters that a vote for him would be no threat to Labour. The Boy Trotskyist said “Could voting Socialist Alliance let the Tories in? Not a chance!” Foot and Radcliff gave the game away by making it clear that the aim of SA is not to form a serious alternative to the Labour Party but simply to try to get it to return to Old Labour policies. Pigs might fly! The ardour of the Trotskyites and revisionists for Labour is as strong as ever despite the fact that for decades the Labour Party has rudely rejected their professions of love. Now that New Labour has found a much more attractive suitor – the bourgeoisie – than assorted leftists, they are even less likely than before to be impressed and swayed by SA and the SLP pretending that they have lost interest in the former object of their desires. The truth of the matter is that far from the SLP and SA being new, radical departures they are a desperate and pathetic attempt to return to the social democratic past. As the masses increasingly reject the fraud of bourgeois democracy the Trotskyites and revisionists desperately try to push us back into the stifling embrace of the bourgeoisie and their functionaries.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Many people who have reached the conclusion that voting in bourgeois elections is a waste of time reasonably enough raise the question of what they can do instead. The obvious answer is that only a revolutionary, socialist solution will deal with the real problems we face. A common response to this suggestion is for people to say that this has been tried – in Russia, China, etc. – and does not work. The truth is that the first wave of socialism in the world has been defeated. But the material conditions of capitalism that give rise to the need for socialist revolution still exist in a very fundamental way. At least one half of the world’s population are either actually starving or suffering from malnutrition. People in the advanced capitalist countries who do not suffer from the most basic material deprivation are still subject to considerable oppression and exploitation. The hard-won reforms in education, health, social security and services are under attack and being whittled away by governments serving the interests of the ruling class. The need for socialism, for a society where the great mass of people exercise power in order to build a life where the old inequities and distortions are abolished, is greater than ever before.
In fact, the question of democracy is central to the socialist critique of contemporary capitalism. The literal meaning of democracy is ‘rule by the people’, something that growing numbers of people realise is not brought about by bourgeois parliamentary democracy. The central concept in the Marxist critique of class society is alienation: our collective loss of control over our lives. The paradox of existing human societies is that although they are created and sustained by the conscious actions of human beings it is not we who control the social system but it that controls us. This is so even for the capitalist ruling class who find that despite their best efforts they are unable to prevent the periodic recessions and slumps that are a structural feature of the capitalist system. The main aim of the Marxist revolutionary project is the liberation of human beings from alienation, of us collectively gaining conscious control over the direction our lives are to take. In this sense, the democratic project and the Marxist revolutionary project coincide and are thus essentially identical.
In those parts of the world dominated and exploited by imperialism – great parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America – the classical Marxist analysis which proclaims the necessity of revolution is as valid as it ever was. But in the advanced capitalist countries the socialist critique is in urgent need of development. While material inequalities are as great as ever in these societies it is also the case that the sort of absolute material deprivation that is all too common in the rest of the world largely no longer exists. The problems people are confronted with in their daily lives are not so much ones of quantity but rather ones of quality. For example, most people have the use of a motor car but road congestion makes them increasingly limited as effective means of transport.
One of the central problems people are confronted with in the advanced capitalist countries is that of work. Marxists claim that it is through productive activity – praxis – that people change the world and in doing so change themselves. The root of alienation is our lack of control over this process which is the very one that determines our humanity. Nowhere is this more clear than in the societies of advanced capitalism where work has taken on the character of a disease. Although the forces of production – technology and human knowledge and skill – are extremely advanced we are working more hours than has been the case for many decades. Half a century ago the typical family was sustained by one wage earner but now both partners are usually working and often the children have part-time jobs as well. The typical household is engaged in vastly more hours of paid labour than a generation or two ago. At the same time material standards of living have risen but nonetheless a lot of people’s earnings go into buying goods and services that they have no time to provide for themselves because they are spending so much time working. Hours of work have been rising and working conditions have been deteriorating. Far from providing an age of plenty and leisure as its apologists promised, capitalism is producing poverty on a hitherto unprecedented scale for at least half the world’s people while generating working lives of futility for many of the rest as they are forced to remorselessly engage in meaningless and worthless activities such as trying to sell each other things they neither need nor want.
In order to renew the revolutionary socialist movement we need to renew and develop the revolutionary critique of all existing things. People’s Power aims to encourage such theoretical and practical criticism. We welcome your contributions to this essential project.