Since capitalism began, socialists have debated how to bring to an end to class divisions and make society more fair and just.
Early on, a split developed between those who thought revolution was necessary to overthrow capitalism, and others who thought a socialist society could be created gradually through parliamentary reforms.
Some socialist parties started with radical politics but gradually became part of the system and gave up on calling for revolution.
The classic example is the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which by 1914 had become the largest and most organised socialist group in the world. However, it sold out its revolutionary principles and gave full support to its ruling class to engage in World War I in the name of “defence of the fatherland”.
This came about due to a variety of factors that over time eroded the SPD’s revolutionary analysis and practice.
With the creation of such a big party and affiliated trade union organisations, there sprung up a whole apparatus of full-time party organisers, paper editors and union officials.
These paid officials of the party and the affiliated unions formed a bureaucracy that began to see their own material interests in the maintenance of the status quo rather than in a revolutionary change to society.
Another factor in the degeneration of the party was the influx of what Gregory Zinoviev, a Russian Bolshevik party leader, termed “camp followers” — small business owners, managers, professionals and government officials who were not members of the working class and only had a temporary stake in the cause of socialism.
The lack of real conviction in socialist politics of this layer was demonstrated by the 1907 elections where, in a climate of extreme nationalism, these members and voters left the party in huge numbers.
These factors led to a situation where the party opportunistically tried to get votes so it could increase its bargaining power in the parliament, even to the point of giving up its own principles.
After the election defeat, instead of arguing an internationalist position that workers of all countries have common interests that transcend their nation, the SPD stated that not only were they patriots, but they were better patriots than the ruling class.
The degeneration of the SPD from its revolutionary principles was a major blow to the socialist movement. However, it was not inevitable, as other historical examples show.
Bolsheviks and the Duma
In contrast to the decline of Social Democracy, the Russian Bolsheviks used its work in the Duma (the Russian parliament) from 1912-1914 to build a revolutionary movement and its party project.
Given by the Tsar as a concession to the working class following the mass upheavals of the 1905 revolution, the Duma in reality had very little political power and was mainly a talk shop.
The Bolsheviks, however, recognised the usefulness in running for the Duma as a way of popularising its political program, supporting the current struggles of the working class and attracting radicalising workers to their ideas.
The Bolsheviks organised their election campaign as one of their central agitational actions for the year. Alexey Badayev, one of the Bolsheviks elected to the Duma, wrote: “The central committee attached exceptional importance to the elections in St Petersburg and therefore instructed the St Petersburg organisation to extend its work as widely as possible and to mobilise all party forces for the election campaign”.
Even with electoral laws rigged against them, the Bolsheviks gained six seats in the Duma. However, they did not participate in working on legislation or passing laws, except where the law would benefit working people.
The Bolsheviks operated from the premise that bourgeois parliaments are one arena where socialists can struggle for reforms to improve the lot of working people, but the central means of winning reforms was the mass mobilisation of the working class — in strikes, street marches and factory occupations.
Parliamentary work was only an auxiliary to this mass action strategy.
Badayev describes how this worked in practice. The Bolshevik deputies actively campaigned in support of strikes and mass protests. They toured the factories to talk to workers and used their parliamentary immunity to investigate industrial accidents.
They collected strike funds and popularised the struggles of the working class through speeches that were printed in the party newspaper and in leaflets given to workers.
In contrast to social democracy, the Bolsheviks did not give up their revolutionary principles in order to win more votes. Instead they relied on a simple but revolutionary program that would gain the support of the working class.
This approach of using their positions in the Duma to support working-class struggles, rather than parliament being an end in itself meant that when Russia entered WWI the Bolsheviks staunchly opposed it and tried to build an anti-war movement.
Lessons for Socialists Today
There is a danger in running for parliament that socialist parties will begin to lose their revolutionary principles, but there is also the opportunity to utilise parliamentary work to build a larger revolutionary force and to support the day-to-day struggles of the working class.
Although many people in Australia feel disillusioned in the political system and understand that politicians do not represent their interests, the majority of people still believe parliament is democratic and central to social change.
In reality, parliament is used by the ruling class to block progressive change. People need to be involved in struggles in which they can test the limits that parliament places on their activity before they can be convinced of the necessity of overthrowing this system and replace it with genuinely democratic political institutions.
To make this work, revolutionaries must be clear that we do not run in parliament because we think we can reform capitalism into socialism, but that we run as a means of building the general political consciousness of working people and supporting their mass struggles to create a socialist society though their own actions.
[There will be a discussion about socialists and elections during a two-day conference “How to make a revolution” in Brisbane over December 13-15. Speakers on this panel include Sean Brocklehurst from Resistance and Peter Boyle from the Socialist Alliance. For more details about the conference, visit resistance.org.au.]