Doing the same thing, expecting different results: notes on revolutionaries in electoral politics

Shelly Provost | Wikimedia Commons

By DAPHNE LAWLESS. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

See also: Electoralism and Socialist Party-Building in Aotearoa/New Zealand (discussion document by Ani White).

The infamous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has described “ideology” as something that you know isn’t true; and yet even so, you behave like it is.[1] That seems a pretty fair description of how revolutionary socialists seem to react to electoral politics. We know that elections under capitalism only have impact at the margins; that whoever we vote for, Wall Street wins. And yet even so, if the social democrats or the liberals lose to the Right, we’re depressed for ages.

The dust is settling on the defeat of a small and yet promising electoral project in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland – the mayoral campaign of former Manukau councillor Efeso Collins. Winning candidate and new Mayor Wayne Brown is effectively described in terms of Simpsons memes as “old man yells at cloud”. An embodiment of white boomer privilege and reactionary pushback against recent mild urbanist reforms, Brown – backed by his advisors, notorious Right-wing Twitter influencers Matthew Hooton and Ben Thomas – racked up huge majorities in the white, property-owning suburbs.[2]

The point here is not to criticise the Collins campaign as such, which was always pushing uphill against several factors. These include massive funding behind the Brown campaign; somewhat half-hearted support from the Labour Party from the Collins campaign; the sheer force of racism among the privileged section of Aucklanders who actually vote in local elections; and the general reactionary trend which has prevailed in politics since the ruling class lost interest in fighting the COVID pandemic.[3] The question is to ask: what exactly is the activist Left’s theory behind why we get involved in electoral politics – or even care about the results? What do we expect to get out of electoral politics – win or lose?

Against ultraleftism…

Fightback published an article two years ago, summing up the defeat of the electoral movements behind Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Part of our conclusion was this:

Electoral politics usually come after a downturn in the direct-action movements, and vice versa. The failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring gave rise to SYRIZA, PODEMOS, the Corbyn and Sanders movements; the failure or dead-end of these electoral movements has erupted in the current global wave of “Black Lives Matter”/anti-police uprisings.[4]

We feel our analysis in the last part of that article – under the heading “Direct Action gets the goods” – stands the test of time. This analysis stands against two symmetrical errors. We firstly reject the ultra-leftist analysis, that elections and democratic institutions and rights under capitalism don’t matter, or even worse, aren’t worth defending in the face of Right-wing populism and resurgent fascism. It’s obviously in the better interests of working people that the elected bodies of capitalist democracy be run by whichever faction is less interested in attacking working-class wages, jobs, communities, and democratic rights.

To dig a bit deeper into this, we have to materially analyse exactly what happens in elections. There is a real impact – the actual transfer of the leadership of elected bodies from one person/ideological tendency to another. Revolutionaries are right to point out that this is often a marginal change, and that the unelected bureaucracies and the capitalists and corporates who call the shots in the background are unaffected. But there are also what we might call memetic effects – what the election “means” in terms of an impact on how people think and feel, what it does to the confidence of one broad social group or another.

A significant recent example of this comes from outside electoral politics – what happened when Elon Musk finally closed the deal to buy Twitter. It provoked an orgy of racist and transphobic posting – before anything had changed in actual moderation or banning procedures – because the racists and transphobes felt that they had “won”. Similar things happen in the real world when the Right win elections, as we saw with the outcome of the Trump and Brexit votes in 2016. To return to the Auckland local body elections, one of incoming Mayor Brown’s first actions was to send Auckland Transport a letter instructing them to cut back on cycleway construction – something which he legally has no power to do; and yet, Auckland Transport’s leadership complied, presumably because that’s what they wanted to do anyway.[5]

… and against electoralism

Because bourgeois election campaigns and outcomes have real impacts on working people’s confidence and feelings of safety – and those of their fascist enemies – socialists can’t be indifferent to the outcome. A socialist electoral intervention might most often be geared to making an impact on the memetic side of things – raising issues on the campaign trail, and amplifying the voices of workers and the marginalised, at a time when people are actually paying attention.

But conversely, when socialists decide to make electoral politics a focus of their activity, they’re generally not very good at it. To put it less bluntly, the “ideological” contradictions of being involved in electoralism while knowing full well that the working class’s road to power isn’t through elections leads to several counter-productive patterns of behaviour. Here I will try to list out a number of the ways in which socialist interventions in electoral politics can go wrong – some of which contradict each other, as things can go wrong in many directions.

1. The Red-Brown temptation

This is probably the greatest danger in the current environment where Right-populism and even fascism are ascendant on a global level. The sad reality is that the public health initiatives which were necessary to slow down the spread of COVID-19 have also delivered an angry and fearful mass audience to the entrepreneurs of fascist-style conspiracy theories, as revealed (in this country) by the occupation of Parliament grounds in February this year. The temptation here is to see a real mass movement rising up against the Leftish wing of neoliberalism, but to not understand (or not care) that a fascist mobilisation against bourgeois liberalism is not only different, but actively poisonous, to working-class communities. This despair and wishful thinking, leading to a desire to jump on the bandwagon of those who wish us dead, is the root of what I’ve previously termed “the Red-Brown Zombie Plague”.[6]

The United States, with its lack of recent experience of independent workers’ organisation, is “Ground Zero” for this kind of politics. The Green Party of the USA and the newer “Movement for a People’s Party” run electoral campaigns which centre the principle, hard to challenge on the US left, that it is impermissible to ever give electoral support to Democrats/liberals. But to do this in the current climate, they have to soft-pedal or deny the threat to democracy and the lives of minorities posed by the contemporary Republican Party, controlled by Donald Trump’s fascistic “Make America Great Again” movement. Worse still, the most “mask-off” of this Red-Brown current actively paint MAGA as a “working class” movement with which socialists must unify.[7]

With regard to the recent Brazilian presidential election, an American socialist on Twitter recently commented:

…I worry the US left is falling into a pattern: 1) our international bodies and magazines uncritically cheer a left or center-left candidate. 2) they ignore contradictions and fail to educate our members or provide analysis 3) we get blindsided when we lose[8]

This uncritical cheerleading of Left-flavoured electoral alternatives is the flipside of the self-righteous refusal to support centrist politicians as “lesser evils” against extremist conservatives or fascists. It is fundamentally dishonest in that it refuses to admit that the difference between – say – Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders is one of degree, not kind. They are both capitalist politicians, one of which has a better programme from a socialist point of view. And yet, both are supportable options if actual fascism is on the line. To prioritise bashing the centrist mainstream over a sober electoral calculus of how workers and marginalised communities would be impacted by the victory of the Right is not voting based on a class line, and it is not building an “electoral alternative” if it will have nothing but a spoiler effect. It is reducing politics to a simple “insider/outsider” or “elites/people” duality, which either ignores the very clear and present danger of Right-populism and fascism, or takes the Red-Brown path to welcoming it as an ally.

2. Program fetishism

A less dangerous, but still counter-productive, tendency in socialist electoralism is the presumption that electoral success comes from a sufficiently Left-wing programme – that is, one of strong social democratic reforms. To begin with, this is a paradox, since such a programme is significantly to the “Right” of what revolutionaries actually want to happen. The essential flaw of this strategy is the assumption that “real” Leftist social democracy would be popular enough to win; but actual social democrats won’t do it, so revolutionaries have to substitute for them.

One amusing example of this came about in the 2017 election in New Zealand. The Labour Party came well back in second place in terms of votes; one socialist website (which no longer exists)[9] took the opportunity to explain that Jacinda Ardern had lost because of her party’s inadequately left-wing programme. Of course, two weeks later, Ardern put together the coalition numbers to become the new Prime Minister. In contrast to this, we can see what happened to the British Labour Party in 2019 – a strongly supportable Left-wing manifesto went down to humiliating defeat at the hands of the clownish and corrupt Boris Johnson. (Arguments about the biased media are beside the point – there is no electoral road to socialist reforms which will face a supportive or even neutral media.)

If working people are just waiting for a sufficiently Left-wing manifesto to turn away from the establishment parties and from apathy, then if the mainstream centre-Left parties choose not to run such a manifesto, it must be because they don’t really want to win – a conspiracy theory which, like all others, thrives on defeat and is therefore particularly popular in the United States. This is an essentially moralistic rather than materialist view of politics, that the system can be made to function for working people if the right comrades take control of the electoral parties, and consequently the State. But as Marxists and revolutionaries have always pointed out, controlling a capitalist state, in a global capitalist economy, means your options are limited to what capital can tolerate. When “staunch socialists” do manage to replace discredited social democrats at elections, they are forced by the realities of living with capitalism to adopt essentially the same politics – as was shown in Greece, where the PASOK party was replaced by their left-wing rivals of SYRIZA and not much changed at all.[10]

To paraphrase a famous internet meme, if elections could be won by turning a big dial marked SOCIALISM, and looking back at the audience for approval, our job would be so much simpler. Even worse – when the radical Right win by appealing to a mass audience’s fear of change with appeals to bigotry and authoritarianism, that can prove disastrous for socialists who see their role in politics as “giving the people what they really want”. See The Red-Brown Temptation, above.

3. Doing it right is expensive

The logic of electoralism requires building the biggest possible support base among those who’re not politically active or interested at most times of the year. Outside of a revolutionary situation, revolutionaries are a minority; the logic of electoralism requires building a much broader coalition than a consistent anti-capitalist politics can sustain.

The inescapable fact about mass politics under capitalism is that success means funding; and it means media coverage. Funding means appealing to people with money; that is, a sufficiently large swathe of the middle and upper-middle classes, or perhaps one or two renegade “left millionaires”. Media coverage means “playing the game” as set out by the political economy of the mass media, and the agendas and preferences of leading journalists and opinion makers – who, inevitably, themselves reflect the agendas and worldviews of the property-owning middle classes.

Now, this isn’t a moralist argument that any support (financial or mediatic) from the big or little bourgeoisie instantly disqualifies a Leftist project. Lenin’s return to Russia to lead the Bolshevik Revolution was made possible by a free train ride from the German imperialists.[11] And we reject the “campist” argument that funding from the agencies of the US state, or from billionaires such as George Soros, instantly disqualifies any popular uprising in non-Western authoritarian regimes. But any such support introduces contradictions into the movement. It inherently imposes limits on what the movement can possibly achieve; limits which have to be justified in themselves. In this country, the “Internet-MANA” electoral project of 2014 failed despite having the backing of a “radical billionaire” – and given that that particular billionaire is now an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, we may well feel that we “dodged a bullet”.[12]

4. The Rasputin temptation

A final pitfall that is often seen when socialists get involved in electoral politics is a similar shortcut to the “programme fetishism” trap, in that it requires a kind of “top-down manipulation” which is counterposed to what we claim to believe in. Simply put, this is the attempt to steer the movement in a “Left” direction by gaining influence over the existing leadership of the movement – often by just being the “best activists” for whatever the leadership were planning to do anyway, or even worse, the leadership’s most devoted partisans within the movement.

As we discussed this in our analysis of the Corbyn and Sanders movements, this cynical move might reap results in the rhetoric or the programme which the leadership issues; and certainly in terms of material benefit for the activists who get themselves paid gigs as “researchers” or “advisers”. But to maintain these positions of power requires preserving the power and influence of the leadership – generally by squashing challenges from within the movement’s base. It also requires the kind of trade-off where revolutionaries are expected to put a “Left” face on some horrible, sell-out policy if they want to keep their precious influence.

There is also a general problem that when Left activists get embedded in the leadership of a mass electoral movement, they bring with them particular political “obsessions” of their subculture of origin which end up being poison when introduced to mass politics. The classic example of this, as we explored in 2020, was the influence of Communist Party of Britain veterans over the Corbyn leadership’s foreign policy, leading to not only electorally poisonous pro-Putin, pro-Assad positions, but also turning a blind eye to an antisemitic fringe – a more potent weapon in the hands of Tories is impossible to imagine. As with the question of funding explored above, the gap between the politics of ideological bubbles or sects, and the politics of mobilising people at the scale which can shift elections, is something which canny revolutionaries often seem convinced they can jump. They haven’t been proved right so far.

Build worker and community power

It’s worth repeating that electoral politics are not a bad thing in themselves, and may deliver gains for working people and their communities. But to be able to intervene effectively, the radical Left have to admit to ourselves that this is not our core competency. To centre electoral politics or movements in themselves, rather than building the self-organisation of the masses, is Hal Draper’s “socialism from above”.[13]

Fightback’s alternative is based on the fundamental Marxist insight that workers’ power at the point of production – and community power through self-activism and self-organisation on the ground – is the only power which can refute and subvert the power of capital and the power of the capitalist state. It is of course the only path to an actual revolution, that is, the only form of social organisation which could take over. But it is also the only weapon that workers and their communities have that can put effective pressure on capitalists and their State – including winning the kind of electoral victories which “stick” and make lasting changes for the better.

Through winning victories in the workplaces and communities through direct action, such a movement will build both real and memetic power; meaning that, even where it might not be strong enough to make changes directly, mainstream politicians will see in it a possible ally, and amend their programmes and strategies directly. When the union movement in Western countries was strong in the 1950s, even the conservative parties had to pay lip-service to working class demands.

Part of revolutionary politics is not to tell lies to the working class, and to politically campaign with a message that the current system is the way it is because the current crop of politicians is rotten or feckless – thereby implying that “good” politicians could fix things – is not only untrue. It opens the field to fascist organisers, who can tell a much more exciting and compelling story with villains such as “Globo-Homo” or “the International Jew”. It also fosters dangerous illusions in how much power a nation-state government has to accomplish a serious break with international capitalism – a mistake which led many British socialists to support Brexit from a “Left-nationalist” point of view, again, playing directly into the hands of the radical Right.

In contrast, understanding that elections are important, but not central, allows revolutionaries to, at the same time, advocate electoral support for social democrats or liberals where the alternative would be disastrous for people’s rights and safety; or alternatively to support or even help build a “more Left” electoral formation where the calculus allows for it (for example, the Greens or Te Pāti Māori in Aotearoa). But this must go along with prioritising the building of a political movement independent of all electoral, systemic forces, capable of direct action to win material gains, which may in turn influence electoral politics. Attempts by Left-wing pundits to attempt to “shame” Labour politicians into being more radical through essays and Twitter posts won’t cut it.

Similarly, if revolutionaries decide to get involved in an electoral campaign for the sake of “building the movement”, then we need a strategy that will mean that the movement will keep going after the election night celebrations (or, much more likely, drowning of sorrows). It will be interesting to see what happens to what’s left of the Efeso Collins coalition in Auckland.

As the quotation above from our 2020 article might indicate, Left-wing electoral movements usually come into existence as a consequence of defeat of direct-action mass movements – and vice-versa, in an endless cycle. Could it be that the way forward is through a synthesis of these two opposing paths:to build organisations of workers’ and community power which can wield real influence on electoral politics, while always remembering that the electoral struggle can never be central to our goal of emancipation?


[1] https://iep.utm.edu/zizek/

[2] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/local-government/130317630/new-voting-detail-shows-mayor-wayne-brown-lost-the-west-and-south

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/a-shift-in-political-thinking-why-many-of-new-zealands-cities-have-lurched-to-the-right-local-elections

[4] https://fightback.org.nz/2020/08/25/left-populism-at-the-dead-end-where-to-after-corbyn-and-sanders/

[5] https://www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2022/10/28/concerning-news-coming-out-of-auckland-transport/

[6] https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/

[7] For some examples, see https://twitter.com/search?q=%22people%27s%20party%22%20maga&src=typed_query

[8] https://twitter.com/mangosocialism/status/1576768106449764352

[9] The site of the short-lived “Socialist Voice” group.

[10] https://fightback.org.nz/2015/08/21/greek-crisis-syrizas-dead-end/

[11] https://spartacus-educational.com/Lenin_Sealed_Train.htm

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Party_and_Mana_Movement

[13] https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/

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