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(en) The Northeastern Anarchist #9 - None of the Above: The Anarchist Case Against Electoralism by Wayne Price

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 4 Sep 2004 08:04:44 +0200 (CEST)

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Historically, anarchists and other anti-authoritarians have
rejected participation in elections. We neither run candidates nor
vote for those who do run. There have been exceptions to this
tradition, but the mainstream of revolutionary anarchism has been
against participation in elections or in elected government bodies.
This position may seem odd to most people on the Left since,
overwhelmingly, U.S. liberals and reformists are in favor of
voting for the Democratic Party against the Republicans.
Particularly in this presidential election year (2004) there is an
almost hysterical desire among liberals to elect some Democrat
(any Democrat!) to unseat the appalling George W. Bush. The
AFL-CIO, under the Sweeny administration, has made a major
effort to elect more Democratic politicians. Those Left activists
who reject the Democratic Party are mostly for building a new,
third party, such as the Green Party, or a Labor Party based on
the unions. They reject the Democrats but accept electoralism.

Revolutionary anarchists reject this consensus. Sometimes it
feels uncomfortable to be disagreeing with almost everyone else,
from the Left to the Right, but we have to tell the truth as best as
we see it. Anarchists point out that the Democrats, like the
Republicans, are supporters of big business (they believe in the
capitalist economic system; they cannot run without getting
money from businesspeople)--the Democrats are militarist (they
began and carried out World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the
Vietnam War, and the recent Yugoslavian War, they voted for
the current Iraqi War, and are, if anything, more uncritical in
their support for Israel than the Republicans) -- and are
supporters of the national state (they have no program for, or
interest in, dismantling national sovereignty.) Meanwhile, the
Labour Party of Britain is the main ally of Bush in the Iraqi War
and occupation. The other Social Democratic and Communist
parties of Europe and the world (such as the Canadian New
Democratic party) have abandoned any pretense of advocating a
new and better social system, becoming out and out supporters
of capitalism and its imperialism -- as has the once radical
German Green Party. They do not make alternate parties look
very useful for social change in the U.S.

On the other hand, almost every progressive step in U.S. society
came from efforts outside of the electoral process. The last wave
of radicalization -- the so-called Sixties -- included massive
struggles by African-Americans for their freedom, beginning in
the late ‘50s. It included large nonviolent civil disobedience
campaigns in the South, such as demonstrations, boycotts, and
strikes. These were followed in the Northern ghettoes by violent
rebellions. While not ending all oppression, these extra-electoral
struggles destroyed legal segregation and forced the passing of
anti-discrimination and affirmative action laws.

Meanwhile, there developed a struggle against the Vietnam War,
which included mass demonstrations, student strikes,
occupations of colleges, confrontations with the police and
national guard, draft resistance, and a virtual mutiny in the U.S.
army. Together with the military struggle of the Vietnamese,
these non-electoral activities placed limits on the war and finally
led to its abandonment by the U.S. state. On the other hand,
antiwar electoral efforts, in the Democratic Party or third party
efforts (such as the Peace and Freedom Party), were failures.

Other struggles of the period included successful unionization
drives in social service and government sectors as well as a wave
of wildcat strikes. The Queer Liberation movement took off with
the Stonewall Uprising in NYC. The Women's Liberation
movement also began outside the electoral arena with
consciousness-raising groups and demonstrations. Additionally,
one of its greatest legal victories was non-electoral (Roe v. Wade,
making abortion legal) and was a judicial response to the mass
movement. Its main electoral effort, passing an Equal Rights
Amendment to the Constitution, was a failure.

The wave of radicalization before the Sixties was in the Thirties.
It was marked by major unionization drives. These included
mass picketing, occupation of factories (sit-down strikes), and
physical fights with police, the national guard, and vigilantes.
Democratic Party/New Deal politicians only responded to the
mass movement in order to control it, but it was the strikers who
led the way. The methods they used are illegal now and have
been abandoned by the unions--a fact directly connected to the
decline in the union movement.

In brief, almost all progress in freedom has been made by mass
struggles outside of elections and against elected politicians. Yet,
the Left of today is mainly focused on the elections as the way
forward. Why is this?

One reason is the weakness of the Left today. Mass movements
are limited, therefore people do not think in terms of mass
movements. People ask, How shall I vote? But I am not
particularly interested in persuading isolated individuals to not
vote. Vote or do not vote, it makes little difference. One vote out
of thousands or millions will not change things, in our
over-centralized and massified society.

Liberals deny this, pointing to Florida 2000 as an example of how
a few votes made a difference. (They use this argument to
denounce those who voted for Nader on the Green ticket.) But
the shoe is on the other foot. In that Floridian election many
African-Americans were illegally kept from voting by false
records of having been convicts or by police roadblocks. Many
other people voted but were not counted, due to the voting
machines. Others voted but were confused by the ballots and
ended up being counted for candidates they did not intend to vote
for. After much dishonesty and trickery, the election was finally
settled by the vote of five Supreme Court justices! Rather than
showing the value of individual votes, Florida 2000 was a classic
demonstration of the fraudulence of bourgeois electoral

Consequently, elections serve two purposes. One is to settle
disputes between different sections of the ruling class, without
bloodshed. The other is to give the people the impression that
they rule the government.

The U.S. election of 2000 did decide between two groups of
representatives of the rich, with slightly different programs, but
for a moment it exposed the lie that the people rule.

What I want to ask is: what should large groups do? Although
many of these oppressed forces have been denounced by the
Right as special interests, potentially they represent vast numbers
of people: workers, women, people of color, everyone who wants
to breathe clean air, and so on. They are also the traditional base
of the Democratic Party, which would collapse if the unions,
African-Americans, etc., were to withdraw their support.
Potentially these groupings have great power, if they were willing
to use it. This is especially true for the working class and its
unions. By means of a general strike, the workers could stop any
society in its tracks, and start it up again on a different basis. The
potential for mass action outside of electoralism is great and the
limitations of electoral action are also great.

Is There An Electoral Road To Socialism?

The controversy over electoralism goes way back in the history of
the socialist movement. It was the main programmatic
disagreement between Marx and the anarchists. Marx thought
that the road forward for the working class was to form workers
parties independent of the pro-capitalist parties. (Therefore,
unlike many modern Marxists, he would not have endorsed the
Democratic Party nor any capitalist third party.) He denounced
the anarchists for rejecting politics, when actually what they
rejected was voting. There was other socialists, even Marxists,
such as William Morris, who disagreed with Marx on this, but
they were in a minority.

Later, Lenin and his followers tried to revive Marxism after most
Social Democratic (and supposedly Marxist) parties had
endorsed their governments in World War I. After the Russian
revolution, many -- perhaps most -- of those attracted to the new
Marxism were against electoralism. Lenin was on the Right of
the new Communist movement. He denounced the
anti-electoralists as “Infantile Leftists.” No group was
allowed to affiliate with the new Communist International unless
it agreed to run in elections.

Over time, the issue of electoralism became debated in terms of
the supposed Parliamentary Road to Socialism. That is, is it
possible for socialists to legally and peacefully get elected to
parliament (Congress in the U.S.)? Can a socialist society be
voted into being? (note: In this article I am using
“socialism” in the broadest sense, including state
socialists and libertarian socialists, Marxist-Leninists, social
democrats, and anarcho-communists.)

Marx had been ambiguous on this. He had speculated that
Britain and the U.S. might legally develop into socialism through
elections, while most of Europe could not. It is unclear from his
writings, at least to me, just how he expected election victories in
those European states to lead to revolution. In his time, Lenin did
not believe in any peaceful or legal evolution toward socialism.
He advocated using elections and parliament as platforms for
revolutionary propaganda. Similarly he advocated support for
reformist parties (such as the British Labor Party) as a tactic for
exposing them. Communists will support reformists, he said, as
a rope supports a hanged man.

Yet the Marxist (and other) workers parties did degenerate into
reformist parties everywhere. This is true of even fairly new Left
parties. For example, there is the Workers Party of Brazil, which
is led by Luiz Inacio da Silva (or Lula), a former factory worker
and labor leader. He was elected president in October 2002 with
an enormous majority of the votes, due to his promises of radical
change. There was great popular rejoicing in Brazil and
elsewhere (as if a social Democratic government had never been
elected before). A year later, it is reported, "... Mr. da Silva has
followed the same economic policies that he criticized when they
were being executed by the previous government, and he has
failed... to carry out the promises he made during the campaign.
Inflation and interest rates have dropped and the budget surplus
has risen, thrilling Wall Street, but the cost has been more
joblessness..." (NY Times, 1/4/04).

Why have these supposedly radical parties so consistently turned
to the right, slowly or quickly as the case may be? Is there
something about the electoral process, which pushes them to
adapt to capitalism? I would say that there are two sets of forces;
one from below and another from above, which pressure them to
the right.

From below, there is the pressure of popular consciousness.
Election campaigns are run in order to get elected, if not this
time then in the future. Once elected, a party positions itself to be
reelected. (For the moment I leave out those who just use
elections as platforms for revolutionary propaganda; very few, if
any, U.S. supporters of a Green or Labor party follow this
Leninist approach). But popular consciousness is mixed. Most
people are individually decent and often have good spiritual and
moral values. Politically they distrust big corporations; and are
for the right to join unions, the right to a decent job, racial
equality (at least in the abstract), women's rights (ditto), civil
liberties, free speech, nationalized health care, a clean
environment, and do not want war. At the same time, most
people are patriotic, have religious superstitions, as well as have
racist and sexist ideas. People are often irrational, selfish, and
look to leaders to take care of them. (And in the U.S., right now,
people are scared of terrorism and therefore many support
government repression and foreign wars.) People usually want a
better world for their children. But most voters do not yet accept
the goal of a transformation of capitalist society into socialism.
Today only a radical minority sees the need for, or wants, a
revolutionary change in the social system. This is what defines
this period as non-revolutionary.

If a party wants to get elected it must make all sorts of limited
proposals to win votes. Most supporters will be attracted to the
party for its reform proposals, not for its supposedly revolutionary
final ends. Most will vote for its reform program and join it for
this program. There is, of course, nothing wrong with advocating
reforms if they are integrated into a revolutionary program. But
with electoralism, the reforms become the real program and the
radical goal becomes just a pie-in-the-sky vision, which means
little in action.

More important is the pressure from above. To try to get elected,
in a non-revolutionary period, is to offer to manage a capitalist
state and capitalist economy. While a socialist party's long-term
goal may be a socialist change, an electoralist strategy means
that its short-term goal must be to govern a capitalist society. But
what if the capitalists do not want to be governed by a socialist
party? They will not give it money to run its campaigns but will,
instead, finance its opponents. They will use the press (their
press, after all) to lie about the socialist party If the party is
elected the capitalists can sabotage the economy in many ways.
They can go on a capital strike and close down their factories.
They can refuse to invest. They can take their money out of the
country and invest elsewhere. These possible actions show the
limitations of electoral reform proposals. Even if elections were
completely honest and money-free (an impossibility), the
capitalists would still own the economy and the politicians would
have to cooperate with them.

Similarly, the socialist politicians must persuade the generals and
police chiefs that they are not antimilitary or antipolice. Also, the
socialists will have to get along with the civil service bureaucrats,
or nothing will get done. This is the price of managing a capitalist

So even a socialist party with radical goals would have to make
deals with the bosses. This is why Lula, in his campaign for the
Brazilian presidency, went out of his way to persuade Brazilian
and foreign capitalists that he was not antibusiness. That is why
Allende, then president of Chile, brought General Pinochet into
his cabinet (then the generals overthrew and killed Allende
anyway). Whatever its rhetoric, any socialist party would have to
do the same or face artificial unemployment and the resultant
mass discontent. The capitalists could see to it that the socialists
will not be reelected if they do not play ball. The same is even
truer with U.S. Democrats, who have never claimed to be
anything but supporters of capitalism. Even the most liberal
Democrats must be prepared to make deals and moderate their
programs if they want to look effective in governing a capitalist

Suppose, on the other hand, that a socialist party is really
revolutionary and has the popularity to get elected? Or, what if
the party is reformist but the capitalists feel that they cannot
afford to let it be elected, since even the mildest reforms threaten
them in a situation of economic crisis? In such situations, the
capitalists would see to it that the socialists do not get elected or
stay elected. Laws would be passed limiting the socialists rights.
Fascist gangs would be subsidized to terrorize the socialists and
drive them from the streets.

The police and courts would be inspired to persecute them.
Socialist militants would be fired from their jobs. If necessary,
elections would be canceled and a dictatorship installed. If the
socialists had gotten so far as to be elected (as with Allende or
Spain in the 1930s), they would be overthrown by a military
coup. The Left would be drowned in blood. This is the history of
fascism in Europe in the twenties and thirties, of dictatorships in
Latin America, and of dictatorships and repression everywhere in
the world. Eventually, after years of vicious repression, a limited
capitalist democracy might be restored, once the Left had been
thoroughly defeated.

The United States is one of the most difficult governments to
make a sweeping transformation by elections. It has a
complicated system of checks and balances, with election of
different parts of the national government taking place at
different times for different lengths of service (including six years
for Senators and lifetime appointment of judges). It has obviously
undemocratic features, such as the electoral college or the Senate
with its two seats per state, regardless of the size of the
population of each state. The whole system was deliberately
designed by the "founders" to prevent either one-man
dictatorship or too-much democratic control.

Think of U.S. history in the 1850s,when slavery became an
explosive issue. The old political parties were fractured and one
dissolved (the Whigs). A new party was formed which was
antislavery, at least in a moderate way (the Republicans). They
did not threaten to abolish slavery where it existed, only to
prevent its expansion. (Advocates of forming a new party today
should notice that it took a total crisis leading to the tearing apart
of the country to produce a new party. This was the only
successful formation of a third party in U.S. history.) The
Republicans were elected in 1860. Lincoln got the most votes -a
plurality- and won fairly by the rules. However, the slave owners
did not accept the election results. They rebelled against it,
seeking to break up the country and defeat its elected

They took most of the leading U.S. military officers with them.
There followed the Civil War, as bloody a conflict as any
revolution. This is in spite of the fact that Lincoln's program
threatened the slaveocracy far less than a socialist program would
threaten the capitalist rulers of the U.S. today.

It is absurd to imagine that the capitalists of the U.S. or any other
country would permit themselves peacefully to lose their power,
their wealth, and their positions, merely because they lost an
election. The U.S. ruling class has supported dictatorships and
repression around the world and does so to this day. It has
supported regimes, which murdered millions of their citizens. To
maintain its wealth it would do the same at home. Anyone who
imagines that there can be a peaceful and legal overturn of
capitalism is living in a fool's paradise. I wish it were otherwise
but the U.S. capitalists will not leave the stage of history unless
forced to. A revolution will be democratic, the self-organization
of the exploited majority. But it must be prepared to defend itself
against the expected violence of the capitalists and their agents,
or it will be destroyed.

But We Have To Defeat Bush!

Liberals are furiously against the administration of George W.
Bush, but rarely ask how the country got into this mess. A gang
of conscienceless adventurers has been elected and then
proceeds to loot the treasury in the interests of the very rich and
to start a foreign war. How did this happen?

The turning point was the election of 1964. From World War II
to then there had been little difference between the two major
parties. The Republicans had accepted the New Deal and the
Democrats did not intend to expand it. Both parties were
enthusiastic about the Cold War and domestic anti-Communism.
The unions were shackled but were locked into the Democratic
Party anyway. Social philosophers regarded this national
consensus as proof of the virtues of U.S. democracy.

In 1964, however, the extreme Right won control of the
Republicans and ran Barry Goldwater for president. In the
election Johnson swamped Goldwater and almost everyone
thought that things would now return to normal. But the Right
kept on organizing until it was able to take over the Republicans
lock, stock, and barrel.

I was too young to vote in 1964 but I followed the election
process closely. I read the debate on the Left between those who
were against voting for either candidate and those, such as
Michael Harrington, who were for voting for Johnson. At the
time I was persuaded by the pro-Democratic position. Goldwater
had to be stopped or he would expand the war in Vietnam and do
other dangerous things. Enough people agreed with this view to
elect Johnson in a landslide. Then Johnson went on to vastly
expand the war in Vietnam and to invade the Dominican
Republic to overthrow an elected government. I had been duped.
I concluded that the radical Leftists had been right after all and
swore off voting for the Democrats.

Harrington and many others argued for a strategy called Political
Realignment. The idea was to drive right wing forces (Southern
racists and the big-city political machines in the North) out of the
Democrats and into the Republicans. Then the Democrats would
become the party of the unions, African-Americans, and the
Left. It is almost embarrassing to cite this strategy today. The
Southern racists did move from the Democrats to the
Republicans. Big-city machines, which once controlled the
Northern Democrats, have generally collapsed. Fanatical
right-wingers have taken over the Republicans, with views that
go all the way to fascist advocates of theocratic dictatorship and
the restoration of racial segregation. However, the result has not
been a move to the Left by the Democrats but their shift to the
Right. Since the Republicans have done so well appealing to the
Right, the Democrats have also swung to the Right, in an effort
to catch up with them.

Meanwhile, liberals, rather than becoming disgusted with the
Democrats, have stuck with them. In election after election,
liberals have voted for the Democrats, since the Republicans
have so obviously been worse. And in election after election, the
Republicans have consistently gotten worse and the Democrats
have followed behind, moving more and more to the Right. The
liberal support of the Democrats is no longer advocated as part of
a grand strategy of Realignment but merely as Lesser Evil-ism.
Taken seriously this means admitting that the Democrats are,
indeed, evil, even if lesser, but by the time the election rolls
around liberals usually persuade themselves that the Democratic
candidate is really good.

Even though they both accept the same framework, the point is
that there are differences between the Democrats and
Republicans. The Democrats are, if not Left, at least less to the
Right. The point is that we cannot beat the far Right with the
Democrats. The lesser evil cannot defeat the greater evil. To
repeat, supporting the Democrats has resulted in a growth of the
Right, the domination of the Republicans by the far Right, the
domination of the national government by the Republicans, and
the moving of the Democrats further to their Right.

Recognizing this, some on the Left have sought to break out of
the Democratic Party trap by creating new, third, parties. They
remain caught in the electoralist trap. They do not propose that
the new party have an anti-capitalist program. In fact, none of the
third party efforts has a socialist program. Ralph Nadar's
campaign has criticized big business, but he has always
advocated a better-regulated capitalism.

These are all efforts to create a third capitalist party. In practice,
it is extremely difficult to create a third party in the U.S., given its
winner-takes-all election system, the need for big bucks to run a
campaign, and the widespread lesser-evilism which keeps on
drawing independent voters back into the Democratic swamp.
Whether or not a new party is a good idea, we have to ask
whether the movement should be spending its limited money and
human resources in such a difficult effort.

Suppose a major crisis were to shake the U.S., such as a collapse
of the economy. There would be mass discontent. In that case, a
new party might form, precisely to get in front of the mass
rebelliousness and to lead it back into the established order. That
is, the new party would be an obstacle to change, not a means of
achieving it. The party would be based on the Left of the
Democrats (such as it is) tearing itself away from the Democrats
in order to maintain its base. It would include the union
bureaucrats, more-or-less liberal party hacks, popular preachers,
and various demagogues. It might call itself a Labor party, due to
the participation of the union officials, or it might not, but the
middle-class composition of the organizers would be the same. It
might use democratic socialist rhetoric, but its program would
really be the stabilization of capitalism. In fact it would be a new
capitalist party and not a challenge to the system. Due to the very
capitalist crisis that created it, it would be unable to make real
improvements; but it might be able to derail a popular rebellion.
Such a formation should not be welcomed but opposed.

There are some who advocate the original Leninist approach of
using elections only as platforms for revolutionary propaganda.
One problem with this is that it makes it look like even the
revolutionary socialists believe in the value of elections and
Congress. Whatever we say in words would seem to be
contradicted by our actions. More importantly, such an approach
cannot be maintained indefinitely. In non-revolutionary periods
there will be enormous pressure to really try to get elected by
promising reforms and then trying to get these reforms enacted
in parliament (Congress). This is the history of the Communist
Parties in Western Europe. They adapted to the electoral system
far more than they influenced the system. Over time they became
reformists in practice, and when there were revolutionary
upheavals (such as in France in 1968), counterrevolutionaries in

What Should We Do?

To repeat, the question is not what you or I should do but what
we should all be doing on election day. I am not trying to
dissuade anyone from voting for a Democrat against George
Bush, if that is what he or she wants to do. (I myself will not vote
for any Democrat due to personal revulsion.) What I am opposed
to is the AFL-CIO endorsing Democrats, giving them the
workers money, using its members as foot-soldiers for
Democratic candidates, manning phone banks for the Democrats
on election day -- and then acting surprised when the Democrats
vote for anti-labor legislation together with the Republicans.

Instead, the unions could be spending their money and using
their people to organize the 91% of private business workers who
are not in unions. A big expansion in the size of unions would do
a lot to make their demands more influential. Unions should
support union organizing in poor and oppressed nations, to raise
the standard of living there for workers. The unions need to be
much more militant. This includes striking despite judicial
injunctions or anti-strike laws (for public employee unions). It
includes mass pickets, occupation of work places, secondary
boycotts of suppliers, and general hell-raising.

Most important of all is the idea of the general strike, where all
the unions go out, in a city, region, or nationwide. A successful
major strike or, even better, a general strike, would cause the
workers to feel their power in a way in which no election could. It
would lead to a breakthrough in consciousness for many

Oppressed communities need to be democratically self-organized
and to be able to use militant mass actions against repression, in
coalition with each other and the labor movement. This applies
to all oppressed groups with their own needs and issues, but who
overlap with all others. They too need as much self-organization
as possible and militant mass action, in coalition with all the
overlapping groupings, especially labor.

Anarchists do not say, wait until the revolution. We advocate
militant mass action right now to win even partial gains. We
support the struggle for reforms, but do not think that this system
can consistently and permanently provide a decent life for
everyone. A revolution is needed (the complete transformation of
capitalism into libertarian socialism).

Within anarchism, there have been exceptions to this view. The
first self-labeled anarchist, Proudhon, was elected to the French
parliament. Murray Bookchin, a well-known anarchist of today,
advocates running in local elections and taking over city and
town councils, as part of his Libertarian Municipalism strategy.
The arguments against electoralism apply to this strategy too.

City governments are merely local parts of the national state. Any
attempt to make radical changes locally would be overruled by
the state government and the national government (the way
judges forbade city councils from passing resolutions against
South Africa and refusing to do business with SA businesses --
this was creating their own foreign policy, the judges said, and
was not permitted). City governments preside over local capitalist
economies. An anti-business program would cause local
businesses to pull out of town and invest elsewhere. The town
would go broke and the radicals would be voted out.

There is nothing wrong with community organizing, in fact, it is
vitally important, but only if illusions in the local state are
opposed. Also, by his indifference to unions and the working
class, Bookchin rules out mobilizing one of the potentially most
important forces for shaking up local communities.

In any case, most of the revolutionary wing of anarchism has
historically opposed using elections (locally or nationally). From
the beginning, the anarchist movement has rejected the
possibility of an electoral road to socialism (meaning, not state
socialism but libertarian socialism or anarcho-communism).
They have opposed both revolutionary Marxism-Leninism,
which aims to overthrow the existing state and replace it with a
new state (the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat, really a
dictatorship of a bureaucratic party), and the social democracy
(reformism), which advocates electing their bureaucratic party to
run the existing state. Both programs require the people to chose
a few leaders who will supposedly represent them in the national
capital. These leaders will be political FOR the workers. The
workers can go back to their jobs, doing what they are told by
their bosses.

Instead, we as anarchists say that working people should
organize themselves, should create institutions of direct,
face-to-face democracy, such as factory councils or community
committees, and federate these together. Stop relying on others
and take your fate into your own hands!


Wayne Price is a member of Open City Anarchist Collective
(NEFAC-NYC), and also active in the US Labor Against War

This essay is from the newest issue of 'The Northeastern
Anarchist' (#9, Summer/Fall 2004)... which includes essays on
the Iraq war and military recruitment, anarchist arguments
against electoralism, wages for housework, prisons and fascism,
revolutionary organization, a history of anarchism and
anti-imperialism, the Quebec general strike of 1972, and much

The Northeastern Anarchist is the English-language magazine of
the Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC),
covering class struggle anarchist theory, history, strategy, debate
and analysis in an effort to further develop anarcho-communist
ideas and practice.


To order a copy, please send $5ppd ($6 international). For
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