Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) on Parliamentary Democracy

Contents:i) The Need for Direct Action and/or Revolution
ii) Modified Capitalism or Modified Socialism?
iii) Are the Majority of Voters Always Right?
iv) The Government and the State
v) Only Revolutionary Socialism or a Blind Acceptance of Parliament?


This essay is a response to Colin Barker’s article, ‘Can’t we win change through Parliament?’


The Need for Direct Action and/or Revolution

Colin Barker makes a clear logical mistake. His point is that all changes, or all important changes, in British politics have come about by ‘revolution’, or by other forms of direct action (such as ‘demonstrations and riots’). It doesn’t follow from this that present and future important changes will or must come about due to such examples of direct action. Perhaps, at least in theory, a system can be democratic enough to rule out the need for direct action or revolution. That is at least possible. It is a possibility which the SWP doesn’t even discuss.

However, I used the phrase ‘important change’ to stress the SWP’s position. Its position on the need for direct action also applies to what it calls the ‘small steps in the direction of popular rights and democracy’. Thus even small changes, or ‘steps’, will require direct action, according to the SWP. It gives the example of the suffragettes as, presumably, a case of a big step. All this seems to imply that not only have there been no large political changes without direct action, but that the SWP also believes the same about ‘small steps’. That is clearly false in the case of our parliamentary system. As far as I know, the introduction of the minimum wage, as well as many other examples, were not responses to direct action of any kind, never mind to ‘riots’.

The other problem with the SWP’s defence of direct action is that it sees all such examples as being equivalent to one another, politically speaking. That is clearly not the case. Take the example given of the suffragettes and the other example of the English Civil War. In the former case, only one woman actually died battling for the vote for women, although there was indeed violence. Surely there is a huge difference in kind and ethically between the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the military battles of the Civil War, and the hundreds who were the minor victims of suffragette action such as the demonstrations and or the small acts of direct action. As for the Russian Revolution, that bears very little resemblance to either the English Civil War or the struggles of the suffragette movement. So the justification of suffragette direct action hardly passes over, without problems, to revolution or even to mass riots or demonstrations. For example, the unintended death toll of a revolution can in theory cause the revolutionaries to think twice about the justification of the revolution which is currently underway. In addition, not all ‘collective action’ is politically and ethically equivalent. We can justify and analyse the demonstrations against the Poll Tax in ways which make them very different to any revolution, both historical and theoretical.

Modified Capitalism or Modified Socialism?

The SWP cites the case of the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. She believed that ‘a parliamentary road to socialism’ is not socialism at all. It is ‘a modified version of capitalism’. Thus if socialism simply has to be non-parliamentary or revolutionary, then the SWP simply makes it definitionally the case that any case of parliamentary socialism simply cannot, in fact, be socialism. Full stop. That is, the SWP’s concept of socialism rules out from the start any kind of fusion of socialism with parliamentary democracy. Of course we need not accept the SWP’s notion of socialism. We can say that a possible socialism only becomes a non-socialism, as it were, if one has already bought into the SWP’s definition. Put it this way. There is no logical contradiction involved in the acceptance of parliamentary-based socialism. Only by accepting the SWP’s definition of ‘socialism’ would the parliamentary democracy-socialism fusion be self-contradictory. So we need not accept the SWP’s conceptual analysis of [socialism].

On Luxemburg again. Surely Luxemburg’s ‘modified capitalism’ is better than un-modified capitalism. However, the assumption seems to be that capitalism and modified capitalism are basically or essentially the same. That can’t be true. If capitalism and modified capitalism are still the same, then capitalism could not have been modified at all because that implies both a real change and a definite difference between capitalism and modified capitalism. This seems to be theoretically rejected by the SWP for simple ideological reasons.

The SWP then goes on to stress this parliamentary democracy-socialism relation by simply saying that there is no ‘parliamentary road to socialism’. The SWP actually or really means:

There is no parliamentary road to revolutionary socialism.
Clearly it does. That is only a definitional or conceptual point by the SWP. The whole point of revolutionary socialism is that it isn’t parliamentary. Thus the above is simply conceptually true or true by definition.

Perhaps the SWP’s position on the socialism-parliamentary democracy disjunction is more complex than this article makes it seem. That is, despite what the SWP has said about the disjunction, it nevertheless goes on to say that a revolutionary socialist need not be against parliamentary democracy entirely and may in fact participate in it. In addition to that, the SWP also gives examples of socialists who have used parliamentary democracy, as it were. For example, the SWP cites the case of Bernadette Devlin becoming a Northern Ireland MP in 1972 and yet she still used direct action when she ‘laid her first into the home secretary of the time’. In addition, although the SWP describes Parliament as a ‘dung heap’, it also says that a socialist can ‘stand on top of’ the dung heap. This would make his ‘voice carry further’.

Don’t all these examples fall under the concept of ‘modified capitalism’, or even modified socialism (or even modified revolutionary socialism!)? Thus again we can see that the SWP’s binary parliamentary democracy-socialism division is simply too strong and simple, as the SWP’s own Devlin example and others actually show. It just seems odd and contradictory for the SWP to stress the fundamental difference between revolutionary socialism and parliamentary democracy and then go straight ahead and give us examples of socialists who have used parliamentary democracy. Unless the SWP is saying that these acts, in the domain of ‘modified capitalism’, are clearly not revolutionary in themselves but are, nevertheless, the actions of revolutionary socialists. What must matter then are not the acts within Parliament, as in the Devlin case, but the person, the revolutionary socialist, who is doing these acts. So even in Parliament, or within a parliamentary democracy, a revolutionary socialist can do things for the revolution, as it were. You can see how people like Salma Yaqoob and George Galloway of Respect fit into this category – that is, revolutionary socialists within the parliamentary system! Thus they become part of a system which they effectively want to destroy. The SWP is entirely happy with this double role for revolutionary socialists like Yaqoob and Galloway. Thus Yaqoob and Galloway are in the same position and category as the SWP’s own example of Karl Liebknect. This German revolutionary ‘spoke through the windows’ of Germany’s parliament at the same time as he spoke about the ‘war’ through those windows, just as Yaqoob and Galloway today speak out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if not from Parliament itself, then from within the parliamentary system.

If the SWP itself admits that revolutionary socialists can ‘speak through the windows’ of Parliament and have their voices heard there, then why, exactly, is its take on parliamentary democracy so absolute if it still gives relative free reign to some revolutionary socialists? Being absolutely against parliamentary democracy, as a revolutionary must be, seems to be at odds with the SWP’s acceptance of modified socialism, or modified capitalism, in the examples which have been given. Even if revolutionary socialists say, to themselves of course, that these other revolutionary socialists are ‘simply using parliamentary system’, they are still using the parliamentary system. Thus the SWP’s revolutionary socialists must in fact be 'modified' or mitigated revolutionary socialists if they are allowed to function effectively even in Parliament, as the SWP’s example show.

Are the Majority of British Voters Always Right?

The SWP tells us that ‘the majority of British voters opposed the attack on Iraq, but the Government went ahead with it’. Yes. Absolutely. The majority of British voters also want an end to immigration, or at the very least it wants immigration to be radically reduced. The SWP would certainly not champion the ‘majority of British voters’ in this instance. The same will be true in the case of capital punishment and many other issues. Thus it must follow that the majority status of a position does not make it right. Neither does it ensure the SWP’s support. Far from it. There must be something more to this than the simple championing what the majority of British voters want. The SWP supports the majority of voters in the case of the war in Iraq, etc. It does not support it in the case of immigration, etc. After all, virtually every SWP idea or policy will be opposed by the majority of British voters. Thus the SWP is often in exactly the same position as the Government in the Iraq war case.

The Government and the State

The SWP makes the traditional Marxist distinction between the government and the state. Parliamentary MPs and parliamentary processes do not actually make up the state on the Marxist analysis. They make up the government. They are elected. The state, on the other hand, is made up of ‘senior civil servants, police and army officers, judges’. None of these is elected.

The SWP thinks that it is the state, not the government, which has real political power. This must effectively mean that judges, the police, the army and senior civil servants have more political power, both individually and collectively, than British MPs and therefore Parliament itself.

Why are MPs seen as being politically weaker than judges, etc? It is certainly true that the state does more, physically as it were, than the government. Does this automatically make it more powerful politically? Perhaps the SWP’s Marxist analysis is wrong. It is hard to say because the SWP does not defend or elaborate on its distinction between state and government in this article and nor does it argue as to why the former is stronger politically. It may be. But here the distinction, as well as the nature of political power, is simply assumed or accepted. It’s almost as if this Marxist distinction of state and government is simply a given and therefore need not be argued for. I can see the logic of the distinction. However, the SWP does not argue for it or tell us about any of the consequences of this distinction. In any case, most people accept the legislature/executive distinction and also draw many conclusions from it. For example, at its most basic level there is a division and split between government and state. And that in itself needs to be commented upon as well as drawing the consequences of such a distinction.

Only Revolutionary Socialism or a Blind Acceptance of Parliamentary Democracy?

The SWP also makes the logical mistake of arguing, or assuming, that because voters themselves are unhappy with parliamentary democracy that they must, almost by definition, consequently also adopt a positive stance to revolutionary socialism. One can be deeply unhappy with parliamentary democracy and yet still accept it in principle (as Churchill did). In addition, one may be unhappy with parliamentary democracy but also reject revolutionary socialism. Surely the SWP does not believe that there are only two choices here – revolutionary socialism or parliamentary democracy?

Many non-revolutionary socialists, and even a few non-socialists, may accept the SWP’s criticisms of parliamentary democracy and yet still not want to embrace revolutionary socialism. Thus a non-revolutionary may indeed agree with the SWP when it criticises the fact that ‘MPs immediately fall out of control of those who elect them’ when they enter Parliament. In addition, there ‘are no rights to recall’ when it comes to these elected MPs. However, it far from follows from this that if a non-revolutionary accepts these criticisms, and thinks that something should be done about them, that he or she must become some kind of revolutionary, whether of the socialist kind or another. There surely must be other ways, perhaps many, of stopping the five-year ‘elected dictatorship’ of MPs and government as well as gaining the right to recall in the case of MPs. Why must it be a simple case of either revolutionary socialism or parliamentary democracy?

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