The Electoral Tactic

Election tactic graphic, has a square with flag, badge, cross, and outline of Lenin

In his essay on the 1987 General Election, Stuart Hall miserably reviewed Thatcher’s third electoral victory. Whilst exploring the failure of the Kinnock campaign, he stated: ‘Electoral politics – in fact, every kind of politics – depends on political identities and identification.’1 This reflects his concern with the collapse of the historical identification with the ‘working class’ and the undermining of its ‘traditional base’ under Thatcher’s economic policies. He argued for a modernising turn away from traditional discourses of Labour towards newer social identifications, a call taken up in a perverse and grotesque form by Tony Blair in the coming decade.2

In this piece, I wish to turn Hall’s throwaway comment on its head. Certainly, electoral politics depend on political identities, but the opposite is true, too. Namely – political identification is also constructed through electoral tactics – as with any tactic of struggle. If we want to produce socialists, we need socialist electoral challenges. This is to say, the development of viable electoral challenges is one part of the constitution of effective Marxist opposition across Britain. In fact, the dominance of opposition to this tactic amongst British Marxists remains one of the barriers to both the re-constituting of mass socialist politics and the development of a national Marxist organisation capable of opposing the British state. 

It has been nearly five years since the 2019 election. It is highly likely that a Starmer government will be voted in at the July 2024 election, bar major changes. The left within Labour has been smashed. The suspension of left MPs continues. The stitching up of local selection meetings is blatant. The Parliamentary Labour Party elected will be the most right-wing potentially ever. The route for a left challenge internal to Labour seems impossible. In response, Labour stalwarts like Owen Jones are leaving the party and arguing to vote for alternatives. The groups to the left of Labour are all generally growing. Mass demonstrations, direct actions, and other forms of organising against the genocide of the Palestinians are widespread. Never has there seemed to be such a gap between the views of the majority of British people and their ‘representatives’ of all established political parties.  

The election of George Galloway as MP for Rochdale presented a crossroads at this moment. Galloway has long positioned himself as an ally of the Palestinian people against settler colonialism. He succeeded in framing his by-election as a referendum of sorts on Palestine. The internal chaos of the Labour bureaucracy succeeded in removing their own candidate from the running. As such, Galloway was returned to Parliament, stating in his victory speech, ‘This is for Gaza’. 

The response from the wider left was rightly cautious. On Palestine, Galloway has often been solid. But his wider political positions and those of his Workers Party of Britain are less impressive. They are decidedly xenophobic, particularly in defence of British borders against ‘mass migration’. On transphobia, Galloway ‘has no difficulty in defining what a woman is’, a dog whistle so blatant cats could hear it. His comments to Aaron Bastani in an extended interview on Novara included stating he didn’t find gay people ‘normal’ and expressing discomfort with abortion access. In combination with the wider reactionary politics, Galloway has shown himself repeatedly to conflict with others in past electoral organisations. Acting accountably, as a tribune of a wider membership, is not something Galloway is likely to do.3

In short, Galloway’s election shows the scale of mass support for Palestine. However, as a step in building a new opposition vehicle, it takes us no closer to a united Marxist opposition. Galloway’s victory points to a weakness of the British left – its difficulty in sustainably engaging with the electoral tactic. Galloway was able to capitalise partially because the wider left was not there in a meaningful manner. Despite organisations with several decades of history of standing in solidarity with Palestine. Despite ‘organising amongst the class’ for years. Despite some of the larger British far-left organisations having thousands of members. Despite all this, it was Galloway’s vehicle that filled the gap at this historic moment in the anti-imperialist movement. 

Now, there is a sense of ‘throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks’. Various independent candidates have been announced for the national election, local Palestine solidarity groups are fielding candidates, Just Stop Oil’s Umbrella group is setting up Assemble, and so on. The announcement by Rishi Sunak of the July election, pathetically rained upon and barely audible, has accelerated all these schemes. There are real risks to these discussions. The throwing of energies, as with Galloway, into campaigns for those who are anti-imperialists on Palestine but basically right-wing on most other matters. The suspension of previously healthy local organising to liquidate all energies into electoral campaigns. The pursuit of independent candidates with no collective project to which they are accountable or the inadvertent backing of protest candidates as revenge against Labour without a real assessment of their likely victory and impact on the wider movement. 

Which brings us precisely back to 2019. There is little internalisation of the lessons of 2015 to 2019 amongst the wider British left. Some have taken the wrong lesson that to be a true revolutionary, you must not engage in electoral activity. The cry ‘we must organise workplaces and communities’ echoes endlessly. The questions of ‘which ones?’, ‘how?’, and ‘for what?’ are merely whispered, lost in the howls of ‘ORGANISE!’ We find half a decade has passed, a strike wave has grown and been limited, and yet, the terrain is still determined without us. While revolutions are extra-parliamentary affairs in their final moment, they are not inseparable from crises in the parliamentary form and the conduct of those within them. Far too many take a commitment to ‘extra-parliamentary’ struggle to be the end of the analysis, not the beginning of much more complex questions of fitting together various tactics. 

Others have constructed terrifying narratives of Corbynism that allow them to stick their fingers in their ears. Some complain about the dominance of the so-called ‘professional-managerial class’.4 Others mutter about ‘identity politics’ against class politics.5 All of these are tempting narratives precisely because they argue against Corbynism as a movement which politicised a significant section of the British working classes. For these figures, the ‘working class’ is always out there, just around the corner, and class politics has not yet been tried – and so on and so on. The British state smashed Corbynism, building on contradictions inherent within its base and the push through the PLP – Corbynism was a real mass movement smashed from above and below. These complexities can be ignored by arguing we must simply ‘do class politics’. 

Instead, one of the key impacts of Corbynism has been ignored. A viable electoral challenge from the left briefly politicised hundreds of thousands of people in Britain. Against all the work of ‘going directly to the class’ that the British far-left engaged in – little has sustainably politicised people as much since.6 Of course, there are lessons from Corbynism more widely: the limits of working in a hostile PLP, the problems of compromising on anti-Zionism, the necessity of holding fast to a critique of the repressive arm of the state, the need for a renewed union base in Britain, and so on.7 But the main one remains a classically Marxist conclusion: 

That there is a propagandistic and politicising function to a competent socialist electoral challenge.

Marx, Engels, Lenin – Again, on Elections

For many new to Marxism, the idea that revolutionaries should participate in elections is often presented as antithetical to basic feelings of what revolution is. This is why it’s crucial to distinguish between electoralism and the electoral tactic, as I have titled this piece. Electoralism should be understood as a commitment to electoral organising as the primary method of political struggle. This is, of course, closely related to the idea of reformist parliamentarism, the idea that revolutionary change will come through elections to parliamentary institutions. These limiting ideas should be distinguished from recognising that participation in elections and parliamentary conduct is necessary for our struggle – recognising its necessity as a tactic

Let’s review some of the key interventions on this tactic that emerged during the period of classical Marxism. Not as a justification through authority but because recent work rediscovering what key Marxists thought about electoral work shows it has been generally obscured and neglected, making us less able to tackle the thorny question of electoral activity today. 

Marx and Engels discussed elections and wider electoral strategy in their March Address to the Communist League in 1850.8 Following the revolutionary wave across Europe in 1848, they were forced to clarify their political strategy regarding the cooperation between the bourgeoisie and worker forces in the democratic struggle. This included the question of how worker organisations related to parliaments and the election of bourgeoisie-democratic forces. In this address, they state:

‘Here the proletariat must take care: 1) that by sharp practices local authorities and government commissioners do not, under any pretext whatsoever, exclude any section of workers; 2) that workers’ candidates are nominated everywhere in opposition to bourgeois-democratic candidates. As far as possible they should be League members and their election should be pursued by all possible means. Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body. If the forces of democracy take decisive, terroristic action against the reaction from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed.’

This idea of independent workers’ candidates who stood in elections was crucial to Marx and Engels’ wider political activity. Engels can be found in an interview in 1893 excitedly attempting to explain graphs exploring the German SPD’s electoral performance.9 This was not to argue, as some have, that both began to focus more on elections and a possible ‘peaceful transition’ later in their life – this would ignore their interventions and thinking following the Paris Commune of 1871. But the crucial ideas which emerge in the March Address include:

– The refusal to liquidate worker-socialist candidates into liberal parties (‘to preserve their independence’).

– The use of electoral tactics as an attempt to measure how popular socialist ideas are (‘to gauge their strength’).

– To use the publicity opportunities that come with running and being elected to conduct propaganda (‘to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention’).

Thus, we see an understanding of the electoral tactic that is fundamentally different from that of electoralists – the role is cohering, measuring, and propagating – not the election of some government. Kautsky, before his drift ever rightwards, recognised this in 1908 when he wrote: 

‘Imagine for a moment that our parliamentary activity were to assume forms which threatened supremacy of the bourgeoisie. What would happen? The bourgeoisie would try to put an end to parliamentary forms. In particular it would rather do away with the universal, direct and secret ballot that quietly capitulate to the proletariat.

So we are not given the choice as to whether we shall limit ourselves to a purely parliamentary struggle.

It is only by having an extra-parliamentary force to fall back on that the proletariat can make full use of its parliamentary power. We can accomplish in legislative halls what can be accomplished there only on condition that we are ready to defend our right to representation. We must be prepared at any moment to fight for the ballot with all the means at our command.’10 

Throughout the history of the Second International, as workers’ parties grew, the ‘centre tendency’ of Marxism had to argue for the importance of the electoral tactic against a left-deviation that saw such activity as unnecessary and a right-wing tendency that believed that radical social change could come through compromise deals or the election of a socialist government in a bourgeoisie state. In this ‘centre tendency’, Lenin wrote extensively on elections over various periods. Following the ebb of the revolutionary wave in the 1905 revolution and the convening of the Duma, August Nimtz and Doug Jenness have shown that Lenin engaged intensively with the conduct of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) in the parliament and elections. In Nimtz’s assessment, Lenin writes on electoral work so much it ranks second only to his writings on the agrarian question in his Works.11 

In 1907, Lenin wrote a foreword for and popularised a translation of German revolutionary Wilhelm Liebknecht’s pamphlet No Compromise – No Political Trading to reassert the classical Marxist arguments about the electoral tactic – class independence, participation in elections, against the forming of coalitions with bourgeoise elements.12 In fact, one of the major factional battles occurring within the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP in the years following 1907 was over electoral tactics around the recently formed Russian Duma. Lenin argued in his pamphlet Against Boycott for participation in the Third Duma election, against the ultra-left. Two groupings coalesced in the years following this election: the Otzovists and the Ultimatumists . The Otzovists, or Recallists, wished to recall the RSDLP electeds from the Duma. Similarly, The Ultimatumists wished to put a final ‘ultimatum’ on the elected RSDLP members, which if they did not meet would result in recall. In both regards, Lenin opposed these attempts to prevent the popular conduct of the Bolshevik electeds. Whilst he recognised some of the early failures of the elected officials, his position was one of patient and disciplined engagement with Duma work, resulting in a marked improvement of the Duma fraction from 1909.

In the years following the October Revolution, Lenin returned to opposition to electoral tactics in his Left-wing Communism. In this, he took aim at various currents attempting to intervene in the nascent Communist International in opposition to electoral work. He argued:

‘it has been proved that, far from causing harm to the revolutionary proletariat, participation in a bourgeois-democratic parliament, even a few weeks before the victory of a Soviet republic and even after such a victory, actually helps that proletariat to prove to the backward masses why such parliaments deserve to be done away with; it facilitates their successful dissolution, and helps to make bourgeois parliamentarianism “politically obsolete”.’13 

What emerges here, and what has been forgotten by contemporary discussions of the electoral tactic, is this unique understanding which emerged under the ‘centre tendency’ of Marxism. Independent worker-socialist candidates, who were accountable to a mass communist party (tribunes of the people), should contest elections to defend the possibility of independent socialist politics, measure its popularity, and propagandise around it. This is precisely because the existence of such institutions not only opens avenues of communication through speeches, the press and the like, but it is also an area where ‘politics’ is popularly thought to occur for the majority of people – it is an entry point to mass politicisation. When elected, these candidates are not to engage in coalition or behind-the-scenes deals with other parties. Instead, their role is to expose as much as possible the class democracy of Parliament, popularise socialist politics, and act to articulate demands of the extra-parliamentary movements.14

Broad-left or a Marxist Unity?

The kind of conduct described above is exceptionally difficult to imagine today in Britain, not least because we lack the vehicles capable of uniting socialist forces nationally or the ability to meaningfully expect electeds to be held accountable. 

Re-applying this understanding to Corbynism, we can see it as a failed attempt to shortcut once again the construction of a meaningful Marxist opposition – a mass communist party – in Britain. It was capable of politicising many people, of constructing a broad-socialist ecosystem reflected in projects like Novara Media, The World Transformed, and various long-term organising projects in which people have since gotten involved in. In terms of the propagandistic function, it initially succeeded. However, attempts to shortcut this construction through the PLP inevitably met the compromise coalitional nature of the PLP, the unaccountability of the Labour bureaucracy, and was then sacrificed through various political miscalculations. There was no way to ensure that elected officials were to act as tribunes of the people, as reflected in the conduct of most Socialist Campaign Group MPs following 2019. 

A recent exchange between Joseph Choonara (British Socialist Workers Party) and Paul Murphy (RISE, a faction within the Irish People Before Profit) on electoral work raises some of these difficulties.15 In it, Choonara makes a generally pessimistic assessment of recent electoral work from the European left. He argues that ‘in non-revolutionary times, reformism has distinct advantages on the electoral terrain’, which means that revolutionary forces are often minimised within electoral work on broad bases and reformist forces can exert pressure ‘internally’ and ‘externally’ on revolutionary forces. In regard to the formation of mass revolutionary parties through revolutionaries combining with partial splinters from reformist forces, he concludes that for ‘such a process to work to the advantage of revolutionaries, it is likely that a far higher and more sustained level of workers’ struggles is required.’ He argues that ‘paradoxically, a fixation on elections and parliamentary manoeuvres can undermine the very struggles that often help give rise to the electoral breakthroughs of the radical left.’ In short, the energy used, the reformist and bureaucratic pull of electoral work, and the dominance of reformist forces in broad-left organisations generally have undermined revolutionary forces in the electoral arena, which should disincline revolutionaries from this work.16 

In his far more positive reply, Murphy argues that ‘any serious mass work involves dangers and pressures towards ­opportunism. That goes for trade union work and social movement campaigning as well as elections.’ Murphy argues that mass revolutionary parties are potentially constructed through revolutionaries engaging in a sustained manner in formations which are breaking from the left of Labourism – in this case some project with Corbyn and key figures from that movement. He also argues against what he sees as Choonara’s mischaracterisations of the Irish project People Before Profit.

Ultimately, in his final article, Choonara argues that building mass revolutionary parties is crucial, but reasserts his view that electoral work presents a unique challenge to this. He states:

‘Although there can be moments in which left-wing electoral upsurges disrupt the normal functioning of politics, and elections fuse with broader social and political struggles, this is far from the norm. Quite often, more moderate tactics are superior if the goal is to win elected office. Moreover, winning office, though providing an important platform for the left, does not automatically persuade workers to use their collective strength to push for wider reforms. Indeed, it can have the opposite effect, convincing them that reform “from above”, through the existing state, rather than “from below” is a more viable approach.’ 

Again, one could repeat Murphy’s previous answer. This is the case with union work; the more workplace victories are secured, the greater the strength of a tendency to syndicalist politics. The greater the direct action victories, the greater the strength of a minoritarian actionist current. And so on. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has gripped these discussions –  the participation of socialists in vehicles or temporary giving of support to ‘left’ candidates prior to the existence of any mechanism to hold them accountable. When such characters disappoint, or there is a breakdown of relations, and so on – the response is to cry foul of electoral participation in general. This ignores the continued tendency to repeatedly put very fragile carts in front of very angry horses. 

In general, whilst producing some light, the exchange is rather confused for two reasons. Firstly, the question of ‘broad-left’ electoral projects and the question of the electoral tactic are mixed together. Secondly, the inadequate attention to the consensus position of ‘centre tendency’ Marxism on these questions means many of these issues are treated as if they are novel. 

It is often taken as given in the exchange that electoral work requires the existence of ‘broad left’ organisations, such as Syriza or Podemos. This risks getting distracted by the construction of broad-left coalitional electoral projects, rather than actually discussing the possibility of a unity of sufficient British Marxist forces in the electoral arena as a first step. Of the three types of formation that frame the discussion introduced by Choonara, (revolutionaries in reformist formations, ‘united fronts of a special type’, and ”strategically non-delimited’ formations’) none take seriously the kinds of regroupment that actually marks the historical transition from local circles to workers’ parties that we saw both in the late 1800s and the early 1900s – that of smaller Marxist groups engaging in a sustained project to cohere nationally. Of course, this would require more groups to reckon with the fact that whilst declaring themselves the party, most do not have the resources to coordinate work in both electoral and movement spaces at the scale needed (i.e. aren’t actually capable of covering the historic functions of the revolutionary party). In this regard, the decision of the CPB to stand in various constituencies and the RCP to recently field Fiona Lali should be welcomed as attempts to openly run on socialist politics, for all the faults of these respective groupings, rather than constructing more nebulous broader formations. As a result of the way their exchange began, neither Choonara nor Murphy can directly tackle the necessity of discussions across the British Marxist left about regrouping meaningfully on a principled programmatic basis for electoral work.

That is, of course, because we are inheriting a situation where we will see various individuals kicked from Labour but continually attached to Labourism, who would bring significant forces into any project – such as Corbyn or Abbott. It is ultimately far more tempting to discuss possible formations that Corbyn might attach to, and so on. This now less likely, given Corbyn’s announcement as an independent candidate, with no attempt to cohere with other independent candidates beyond the exceptionally broad and opaque Collective. But it also speaks to a lack of confidence in all this important work ‘from below’. Surely, after all these years of rank-and-file trade union work and ‘united front’ community organising, socialists should be able to identify people popular in their local area or be sufficiently known themselves? That would require a greater reckoning with how the various British ‘Leninist’ groups have fared over the previous decades. 

What is most striking about the articles, however, is the absence of a sustained engagement with our inherited writings on this question of compromises, accountability in elected work, and its propagandistic use. Whilst Choonara briefly summarises this in the beginning, it is hardly brought to bear in the rest of his discussion. In particular, the importance of a kind of programmatic unity between sufficient forces is not tackled, and how this programme has historically related to electoral work is not engaged with. This perhaps relates to the tendencies the two authors emerge from. Murphy’s ex-CWI experience means he has been focused on a tradition of the ‘transitional programme’. He, in fact, explicitly calls for a ‘socialist programme’ which he understands as a ‘“minimum programme”—a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on corporations, repeal of anti-trade union laws and so on—as well as transitional demands that do not simply push against the logic of the capitalist system.’ Choonara’s IST has historically defined itself by its anti-programme stance and his discussion of the function of the ‘minimum programme’ tends to reduce it to merely a list of reforms. This ignores the historical importance of the ‘minimum-maximum’ programme in providing a basis not just for uniting Marxist forces but as the bastion for orienting and articulating how Marxists conduct themselves given the electoral tactic. As Donald Parkinson of Cosmonaut summarises: 

‘These represent immediate changes that the party will fight for before taking power and will collectively institute before taking power. While taking a closer look at these demands, we will see two important things: 1) that these demands taken individually do not entail a break with the capitalist economic system and 2) if instituted in totality would entail a break with capitalist rule over the state and the establishment of the political rule of the proletariat. In short, the aim of a minimum program is not to simply create a list of reforms that a party will fight for to gain support and popularity but to provide a roadmap for the proletariat to seize state power entirely in a revolutionary break.’17

This is to say that the demands made, such as universal suffrage, claims on free time, and rights to strike and assemble, qualitatively shift the terrain to allow greater organisation of the exploited and oppressed in its pursuit of the seizure and smashing of state power. They reject the distinction between the political and economic struggle, and articulate demands about the capitalist state faced by the masses. They were also closely linked to the minimum demands that socialists put forward before they would countenance any joint work. Finally, they acted as a basis for various tendencies to unite around whilst retaining a sufficient number of revolutionaries to engage with electoral work. We can get trapped in discussing the formal differences between types of programmes, but the idea of the programme as the guide to work in this way has been underdeveloped by Marxists discussing the electoral tactic. 

Overall, Murphy’s recognition of the necessity of the electoral tactic and its relation to mass work is closer to grasping the nettle than Choonara’s justifications for resisting participation. We recognise the possibility of risks from the electoral tactics, but these risks have been discussed and tackled extensively. By reinserting the ways in which, from Marx to Lenin, Marxists understood the necessity of independent, accountable, electoral challenges for propagandistic reasons, with no chance of coalition or love of government, we shift the conversation onto new terrain. Which is what are the key barriers to effective use of the electoral tactic today in Britain?

Barriers to the Electoral Tactic in Britain

With the election now being in July, the likelihood of Marxist forces uniting in some vehicle is now decidedly off the table. We are left with a smattering of independent challengers, the RCP in Stratford, the CPB in various locations, TUSC attempting to run in as many constituencies as they can muster, the Workers Party rapidly and messily attempting to run nationally whilst revealing its right-wing politics in various forms, various arguments to support Green challengers and local organisations like Communist Future.18 Of the British far-left organisations not running candidates, the lines will vary from ‘vote Labour with no illusions’, ‘kick the Tories out, and keep kicking’ to ‘vote left where you can’. The situation is poor. 

Returning to the three ideas behind the electoral tactic initially sketched out by Marx—class independence, measurement of the popularity of socialist ideas, and its propagandistic function—there are a few problematics that deserve to be considered. 

On the idea of class independence, we inherit two closely related problems – the existence of a ‘labour’ party, as opposed to the workers’ party, and the ‘decomposition’ of Britain’s working classes since the post-war years. On these, Lenin’s original conception of the Labour Party was a ‘thoroughly bourgeois party’ which is ‘made up of workers’ – in part due to the historic failure to unite socialist forces and merge them with a workers’ movement, with a section of a wider-left instead building an alliance with the union bureaucracy.19 This point has been made effectively by Ed Potts when he states:

‘By squandering the historic potential of merging its socialist politics with the worker movement, and instead deferring to the politics of the short-termist and defensive trade union bureaucracy, the ILP foreclosed the possibility that the Labour Party might be established as a vehicle for the socialist transformation of society.’20

Thus, the party contains tensions identified and analysed by Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism and Cliff and Gluckstein’s The Labour Party: A Marxist History. Historically, it has attracted mass support among working-class communities, but the party’s structural politics has been dominated by a layer of right-wing bureaucrats and politicians, with Marxist forces making minimal inroads and fealty to the British state being the measure of the day. 

However, there is an argument to be made that in 2024 and post-Corbynism, we must update Lenin’s original assessment and the analyses. Firstly, because of the watering down of the unions’ ‘block vote’ that has intensified since the 1980s. Initially, the Labour Right initiated attempts to remove the block vote to undermine left figures who were unpopular with the party but backed by some of the more ‘militant’ union leaders. The changes to this union linkage, initially in 1993 and then culminating in the ‘one member, one vote’ move of 2014, opened a space for an influx of members to actually support Corbyn. However, it also has fundamentally shifted the structural relationship between the party and the unions. If at least one argument for the party being ‘made up of workers’ was the union block vote, has this changed? 

More generally, we have to deal with the results of a changed workers movement, not just since the Thatcherite offensive of the 80s, but based on the more long-term moments of class ‘decomposition’ that accelerated in the post-war period. Certainly, the worker-subject conceived of at the high point of the First to Third International is an after-the-fact creation – with many of the activities of the Social-Democratic and Communist parties actually contributing to workers identifying as workers as well as socialists.21 That said, there has been a breakdown of the institutions of class politics and mass union membership that undergirded the traditional merger analysis in the period of the 1870s to 1930s.22 Despite the strike wave, we have to deal with the large swathes of Britain’s workers who are unorganised, disengaged from collective action and often do not identify as workers. Whilst many working class people still vote Labour, that is insufficient to ground an analysis of the party as ‘made up of workers’. This is to say, if we take Kautsky’s merger thesis seriously, the analysis of the Labour Party currently constructed fails to really indicate the location and placement of the workers’ movement with which the socialists aspire to merge.23 A provocation is that cohering Marxist forces into a national party might also accelerate a reidentification with being a worker, as Corbynism sometimes did – allowing a refocus of our efforts. 

In measuring the popularity of socialist ideas, we have to recognise we are coming from a rather low base. At times, like in 2017, identification with a swathe of socialist policies was exceptionally large, but explicitly identifying as a socialist or communist is not as common in Britain as it could be. As a result, we need to expect the likelihood that any immediate challenge, such as Communist Future, is more about the cohering of forces rather than close to some major breakthrough. Therefore, we need to deal with the demoralisation that comes from low results.

The anti-democratic nature of the British electoral system further exacerbates the ability to effectively measure support through the British electoral system. This is not to argue we should all become proportional representation nerds, but it is to argue that there should be a minimal demands around greater democratisation. As both Paul Foot and Domenico Losurdo have shown, the initial breakthroughs of the bourgeoisie-democratic settlement in Britain have been systematically reversed in tandem with the weakening of the workers’ movement.24 One key aspect of the Marxist challenge in Britain is to reopen the conversations about democracy, suffrage and more, which have been incomplete since the heady days of the Chartists. 

On the propagandistic function of the electoral challenge, the immediate issue is the absence of a serious Marxist account of contemporary mass media. The exposures, antics, and otherwise propagandistic activities of elected figures depend on people hearing about them – we can’t expose the bourgeois parliament if no one hears about it. The ability to print electeds’ speeches was crucial to revolutionary movements from Germany to Russia in the 1800s and early 1900s. They could distribute them to factories and in party presses with less fear of censorship, using this to cohere forces and membership. However, there has been a mass shift from the newspaper era, and the capital costs of radio and TV have prevented the development of alternative media. Even with social media platforms, the initial promises of a revolutionary democratic internet have been undermined because states and mega-corporations own the platforms themselves. We often have no say about what gets in front of people. 

For example, Galloway was given intensive media coverage once it became clear he had a viable chance of defeating the Labour candidate. Similarly, Corbyn and Abbott could regularly appear on television when leading figures in the shadow cabinet. Once all these figures were returned to the backbench, there was a clear media blackout. This is not to argue that there is no longer any propagandistic value to the electoral tactic. Even one viable challenge could create major propagandistic breakthroughs, but this is in a hostile mass media without grassroots forms that are capable of distributing information to a mass of the population. Whether and how we could tackle this is key.

More generally, there is the question of cadre and capacity. One of the issues that TUSC faces in running across a significant number of seats is the lack of sufficient members of the Socialist Party to effectively canvas for candidates. Rather than attempting to mobilise their members for a breakthrough candidate in one or two areas, which may get intensive media attention and provide a significant propaganda breakthrough, they will spread themselves thin.25 This relates again to the issue of propaganda. We need people to canvas, be rooted, and distribute the propagandistic challenge of Marxist figures – the gambit of uniting forces sufficiently is that it creates a snowball effect. 

I raise these problematics not because I have answers but because rather than discussions for and against ‘electoralism’, we need to move our discussion of the electoral terrain onto a more generative terrain. From the election this year, we are in a salvage operation. The conversations that are needed on the British left should be about cohering Marxist forces into something which could reasonably act as an opposition to Starmer in all spheres. To do so, we need an open polemic between groups, the development of joint work, and a break up of the historic bureaucracies of groups by their wider cadre interested in a Marxist party. Or, more succinctly, we are in an era of socialist correspondence societies, and one thing we must discuss is the electoral tactic. 


 

1 Hall, Stuart (2021), ‘Blue Election, Election Blues’ in The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, Verso Books, p261.

2 See Hall, Stuart and Jacques, Martin (eds) (1989), New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s, Lawrence and Wishart. On the link between ‘New Times’ and Blairist politics, see Sivanandan, Ambalavaner (1990), ‘All That Melts into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times’ on the Verso Blog and Pimlott, H. F. (2024), Wars of Position? Marxism Today, Cultural Politics and the Remaking of the Left Press, 1979-90, Haymarket Books.

3 For examples of reflections on Galloway’s relationship with Respect, see Renton, David (2024) ‘The Socialist Alliance, George Galloway and Respect: left electoralism the last time around’, rs21

4 See for example, Evans, Dan (2023), A Nation of Shopkeepers: The Unstoppable Rise of the Petite Bourgeoisie, Repeater. A critical review on this matter is Marvin, Jonas and Woody, Gus (2023), ‘Where did all the gravediggers go?’, rs21

5 A worrying penchant of the Revolutionary Communist Party. See for example Socialist Appeal (2022) ‘Identity politics: The ruling class’ favoured weapon against the left’, Communist.red

6 That is not to say there hasn’t been moments of mass-political struggle – there was the 2020 Black Lives Matter struggle, the Sarah Everard protests, the Palestine demonstrations of both 2021 and now the mass movement which began in October 2023. The key word here is sustainably, where people don’t just commit to participation in a movement, but continue to be active in collective projects going forward, and crucially doing so in a way that can articulate at the level of the British state.

7 Instructive in this regard is Strafford, Chris (2020) ‘Party, Principles & Patience’, Prometheus

8 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich (1850), Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League

9 Engels, Friedrich (1893), Daily Chronicle Interview

10 Kautsky, Karl (1908), Practical Work in Parliament

11 Nimtz, August (2019), The Ballot, the Streets—or Both? From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution, Haymarket Books. Jenness, Doug (1971) Lenin as Election Campaign Manager, Pathfinder Press. See also Mitchell, Seán (2021) Lenin, Elections and Socialist Hegemony, Rebel Books

13 Lenin (1920), ‘Should We Participate in Bourgeois Parliaments?’ in Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder

14 Much of the wider writing on this tradition has been helpfully summarised in the Marxist Unity Group Curriculum.

15 Choonara, Joseph (2023), Revolutionaries and Elections, International Socialism Journal. Murphy, Paul (2023), Learning to Swim: revolutionaries, broad parties, and elections, International Socialism Journal. Choonara, Joseph (2024), Swimming, waving and drowning: a response to Paul Murphy, International Socialism Journal.

16 The difficulties of really understanding the exchange also ultimately relate to the rather opaque relations within the International Socialist Tendency, with discussions of elections also relating to the relationship between the British SWP and the Irish People Before Profit and German Marx21 groups, prior to the latters splintering (both of whom engaged in far more electoral work than the other sections). In fact, what is interesting is the attempt to lump People Before Profit in discussions of ”strategically non-delimited’ formations’ along with the NPA and SSP (two organisations which died mainly due to external factors), rather than what it is – an organisation with three factions of Marxist groups that can contest nationally. This does a disservice to learning from the steps taken in Ireland, but also refuses to take seriously this formation as one that has come closest to the kinds of left-unity needed for Marxist electoral work – for all the particularly misgivings people will have with the various factional positions and the inhereted bureaucracy that will come from the practices of the Irish SWP.

17 Parkinson, Donald (2021), The Revolutionary Minimum-Maximum Programme, Cosmonaut

18 There will certainly be more by the time this article appears online.

21 See Bonnell, Andrew (2021), Red Banners, Books and Beer Mugs: The Mental World of German Social Democrats, 1863–1914, Haymarket Books. Or Deutsch, Julius (2017), Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: Forging a Militant Working-Class Culture, PM Press.

22 Perhaps the most notorious intervention in Britain on this question is Hobsbawm, Eric (1981), The Forward March of Labour Halted?, Verso Books.

23 Some relevant articles on this question include but are not limited to; Allinson, Ian (2023), What is the potential for rank-and-file organisation today?, rs21; Conlon, Eddie (2021), Restoring our fighting traditions, Rupture Magazine; Strafford, Chris (2020), Why have our trade unions declined?, Prometheus and (2020),  ‘Workers’ power of resistance declines with their dispersal, Prometheus. The wider work of comrades in Notes from Below on workers inquiry, class composition, and organising strategies is invaluable in this regard.

24 Losurdo, Dominico (2024), Democracy or Bonapartism: Two Centuries of War on Democracy, Verso Books. Foot, Paul (2024), The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined, Verso Books.

25 In this regard, the RCP, sadly running as an Independent due to electoral laws, in Stratford and Bow, with a candidate who has made national and social media news, where they can concentrate their members from student accommodations in East London, has thought this problem through far more seriously.

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