An upcoming event that I'm helping organize has begun to stir up some controversy amongst the leftwing activist population of my city. This event, provocatively titled "Don't Vote, Fight" (or alternately, "Don't Vote, Organize"), is a workshop designed to discuss the possibility of boycotting the upcoming Canadian federal elections as a strategy of building revolutionary politics and fostering revolutionary consciousness. This elections boycott movement was run in Quebec during the last federal elections by a coalition led by the Revolutionary Communist Party of Canada. The point of the movement is to draw a dividing line amongst the left––not the social democratic or liberal left but the elements of the left that claim to believe in revolutionary politics––and already, amongst those who are notified of the upcoming (March 19th) event, the dividing line is becoming clear.
In retrospect, I think the event should have been titled "Vote With Your Feet" because not only does it get to the theoretical heart of the boycott but it avoids the knee-jerk response of those leftists, socialized to be good social democrats regardless of what they say they believe, who find the very notion of a possible elections boycott abhorrent. It also avoids the straw-person response that, just by looking at the title and not reading the explanation that often accompanied the above picture, assumes that we are making some sort of false dichotomy. One asinine response on the Facebook invite, for example, was "vote and fight"––but this was a response by a member of an imbecilic entryist group that imagines revolution will come by infiltrating bourgeois parliamentary parties.
The general point is that "fighting" through the electoral process in this social context, and generally in the context of the imperialist centres of capitalism, is a rigged game and a waste of our time as leftists who speak of revolution on the one hand and then, when it comes to our activism, hide our politics by sublimating them in reformist organizations. I know I've wasted time and energy in these types of coalitions, convinced that official trade union politics represent the beating heart of proletarian consciousness and willing to suspend my theoretical communism in order to work alongside social democratic labour activists. This is the gap between theory and practice that was critiqued at the Second Canadian Revolutionary Congress I attended in December: we argue that capitalism cannot be defeated by bourgeois parliamentarianism, we understand why theoretically, and yet our activism often gravitates towards the very parliamentarianism we philosophically reject.
Therefore, the elections boycott is motivated by two central concerns and aims to cognize the distance between leftwing activists and the masses they claim to support: 1) leftwing activists who understand that revolution does not come from voting often waste their time trying to claim electoral space and concessions; 2) possibly 60% of the Canadian masses do not vote. The point of the proposed boycott movement is to clarify the distance between these two concerns. In my mind it represents what Alain Badiou calls a philosophical situation––that is, a "situation [that] involves the moment in which a choice proclaimed – a choice of existence, or a choice of thinking." And the "proper task is to make the choice clear." (Badiou, Polemics, 4) The event on March 19th that has started, at a micro-level, to stir up some controversy is designed to make our choices clear, to draw a line, to demonstrate not only the gap between theory and practice but also the gap that still exists between leftwing activists and the vast majority of the working and non-working poor.
Again, the event is not aimed at social democrats who already believe that change can only come through the electoral process and that our current system determines the parameters of reality. Nor would any boycott movement be aimed at the population they represent: the liberal middle class, the concerned ex-hippies, the conscientious objectors. Their position in this debate is already clear, they have never pretended to be anything but social democrats, and we know from the very beginning that they would be horrified by anything that insults their understanding of democracy where change can only come through voting in the most socially democratic and reformist party. And yet there are many of us who claim to reject the philosophy of social democracy but still act according to socially democratic ideals––and we reject the possibility of a boycott movement for various reasons, some of which I will attempt to demystify below.
1. While it is true that bourgeois democracy will not usher in the revolution, the masses aren't ready for anything but reforms so they need to vote for these reforms.
This is the main justification for working in social democratic and ultimately reformist coalitions/institutions for those who theoretically believe that reformism is not the same as revolution. Since the possibility of revolution is set beyond the horizon of the foreseeable future, as if this can be predicted through a social-science crystal ball, then the best we can do is agitate for reforms by trying to vote in the most socially democratic party (in Canada this is the New Democratic Party [NDP]). Then the masses, once they see how we have helped win them reforms, will be ready for revolution. Or, at the very least, their lot in life will be better.
Except that the masses have already spoken by not voting, demonstrating that there is an implicit boycott already in affect. So if the masses have spoken, and you claim to represent the masses concerns, it is insulting to say that they aren't ready for anything other than voting for reforms. Clearly they are not willing to vote for reforms and to argue that this is because they are stupid or not even ready to vote is just rank pessimism. They are not voting because voting does not communicate to their material existence and no party apparently represents their interests: we need to figure out what this means rather than waste our time, again and again, trying to get them to vote and then complaining that they are apathetic or dumb when they don't listen. Besides, the social democratic parties have enough of their own resources and loyal followers to agitate for this on their own––so why do we waste time agitating with them when the hard left is strapped for resources as it is?
Moreover, if we waste all our time in reformist pursuits, how can we build a militant left movement that can actually challenge capitalism? Why do we refuse to speak of a strong anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism? Why do we say that we need an anti-capitalist organization and yet build nothing more than social democratic coalitions, secretly imagining that they will one day magically transform into revolutionary parties and organizations when "the masses are ready"? So when will the masses be ready in a context where we are always fostering the ideology that they are not ready?
2. Rosa Luxemburg argued that social reforms, though not an end goal, are necessary to support because they alleviate the suffering of the poor. And Lenin once argued, in the case of England, that it was "ultra-leftism" to allow the reformist-electoral spaces to be claimed by liberals.
The problem is that when these arguments are made they are both made out of historical context. Both Luxemburg and Lenin were speaking of social democratic parties that were far more radical than the social democratic parties of the North American context where it is difficult to even call the NDP (in Canada) "social democratic" anymore, and impossible to call the Democratic Party (in the US) "social democratic" even at its inception. Luxemburg was speaking of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (where we get the in-leftist slur "social democrat"), which was still motivated by a defanged marxism, and Lenin was speaking of the Labour Party in Britain that, at that time, was filled with unionists who were arming themselves (and the Labour Party in England now is a far cry, all Tony Blair imperialism, from the Labour Party of Lenin's day).
Then there was the fact that Luxemburg was speaking, in her article, of building a revolutionary party that was not reformist––something we are not doing in our context––and her ultimate argument was that those who call themselves "revolutionaries" should not be wasting their time in reformist organizations. It is also interesting to note that the voted-in Social Democratic Party of Germany was not able to stop the Nazi rise to power, even collaborating with the Freikorps to crush the Spartacist Uprising and have its leaders, Luxemburg included, murdered. And again, the SDP was far more to the left than the supposedly "social democratic" parties in the North American context.
Furthermore, Lenin was actually proved wrong about the Labour Party. As one of my good comrades never tires of reminding me, Lenin's "Left-Wing Communism: an infantile disorder," a piece that is often used to justify entryism, was probably one of Lenin's weakest pieces. Not because he was wrong about some of the theoretical positions he argued but because the concrete tactics he supported in Britain––that were rejected by Sylvia Pankhurst––actually failed. And yet this tract is still treated as dogma by some leftwing groups who would prefer to ignore everything Lenin wrote about "opportunism" and spend most of their time insulting everyone who does not want to be a social democrat as "ultra-left."
3. We need to work hard to vote in a social democratic, or at least liberal, government because of the swing to the right and the rise of conservative parties. Fascism is a real danger.
This argument seems reasonable on the surface but, concerned only with appearance, fails to even engage with essential questions about fascism. Fascist movements are generally populist movements that begin outside of the electoral process by disaffected masses manipulated by a monolithic capitalism. If and when they come to power through parliamentarianism this demonstrates two things: 1) the election is only the end point of something larger; 2) bourgeois parliamentarianism is often sympathetic to fascism.
Look at the rise of the Tea Party in the US, accompanied by open fascist policies, and the danger of fascism is clear. Moreover, this is a danger that happened both in spite and because of leftists wasting their energy on social democratic pursuits (if you can even call it that in the American context). The movement that cohered around Obama, raised against the weak fascism of Bush, did nothing but waste the energy of the left: capitalism is still being protected, imperialism is still alive and well, and in response to this election a fascist movement is growing. And those who sublimated their energies and beliefs in the Obama election are proving incapable of combating this movement; their blunted revolutionary politics, their inability to communicate with the deep-seeded disaffection of the poor, neutralizing them in the face of contemporary fascism. What would have happened, we need to rhetorically ask, if the US left had not wasted all of its time in getting a Democrat elected and instead concentrated on building a parallel movement?
Fascism lurks at the threshold of the bourgeois parliamentary process and we render ourselves incapable of dealing with this danger the more we hide ourselves within this process and deny that the threat is coming from those spaces in which we fail to organize. And these spaces are not primarily the privileged spaces of unions because we live in a context where the majority of the most exploited labour is non-unionized, oft-times migrant, and subordinated to the threat of a massive reserve army of the poor and deportation. This is not to say we should ignore union spaces, and the resources these spaces possess, but that we need to start thinking outside of the traditional "this-is-the-proletariat" box––a box that is often the box of the labour aristocracy.
And if the terrifying conservatisation of our society is a warning of the dawn of real fascism, then we need to ask ourselves why we have failed to prevent conservatism in the past with all of our voting power, all of our mobilization, all of our attempts to prevent these anti-human politicians from winning the ballot. We keep arguing that we need to vote in some social democratic government to end the rise of the right and yet our arguments have been proved, time and time again, completely wrong. In the US Obama's election is not preventing the right from gaining power, state by state, from gaining both popular and electoral support. In Canada we keep getting the Harpers and Fords elected. Then we blame the poor who do not vote for spoiling our social democratic fantasies, imagining that they are stupid rather than asking why they don't vote in the first place.
Meanwhile, imperialism, settler-colonialism, and capitalism continue. So many of us lock ourselves in reformist and/or trade union contexts and complain that there is nothing powerful enough to challenge actually existing capitalism and yet do nothing to change this state of affairs.
Let us be clear: the electoral space in these centres of capitalism is a moribund vehicle for change and our participation in this space has done nothing to prevent enemy forces from growing. Moreover, and this is very important, social democratic electoral parties continue to move to the right: conservatisation is not limited to the conservative parties but is currently part of the entire process of electoral politics. And this despite every attempt on the part of a left that should know better to fight for social democratic spaces in parliament.
As the RCP Canada argued in 2004:
No election in the framework of bourgeois democracy will transform the army, the police and justice to put them at the service of the exploited. We have to prepare for this confrontation, not with unarmed pro-bourgeois parties, which the State can easily ignore. We must prepare by finally building a revolutionary party serving the oppressed that will not be afraid to say: the bourgeoisie will never abandon its power by itself! The majority has to seize power by the force of its numbers and defend it by every means necessary! Against elections, let's prepare the revolution!