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Marxism, Elections, and the State: Part I

Chris Costello


There has been much debate about how radical political actors should engage with electoral politics. Some, like anarchists, argue that the correct tactic is to ignore electoral politics entirely, focusing on what they see as the more useful path of direct action or “propaganda by the deed” [1]. Among those who identify as Marxists, thought on this topic is generally more varied. Some parties have chosen to confine themselves entirely to the electoral sphere, attempting to win socialism through the ballot box. Others have boycotted elections and embarked upon a “people’s war” of armed struggle with the state and capital. The point here is that there is no one Marxist theory of elections. This is partly because elections themselves are a vastly different from place to place.

The electoral system in Britain, for example, is quite different from the one in Peru. As such, it is impossible to approach elections in a vacuum. Marxists understand that tactics must be based on the material conditions of the struggle, so attempting to craft a platonic plan of action in the electoral sphere is useless. In the essay that follows, I will not attempt to craft such a theory. This is not a manual or a blueprint for Marxist organizations. What I want to do here is sketch out, in broad terms, an analysis of electoral politics from a Marxist perspective. This is simply my opinion of the topic, and I caution readers not to trust in it blindly. It is important to conduct concrete social investigation of every issue rather than simply reading about it. We must, in the words of Mao, “oppose book worship” [2].

In this first section, I want to refute the idea of “voting our way to socialism.” This strategy has been a failure nearly everywhere it has been attempted. I am firmly in favor of a revolutionary road to socialism, based on smashing the existing state and building new organs of worker’s power where it once stood.

It is important to note that the social democratic parties-that is, parties whose main goal is to win socialism through elections rather than revolution – have failed to abolish capitalism even once. This is especially egregious in the context of Western Europe, where many of these parties have enjoyed media backing and majorities in parliament. These parties have not only failed in their aims to bring about socialism peacefully, however. In many cases, they have actually become parties of the bourgeois elite or the labor aristocracy.

Across the region, social democratic parties have implemented dramatic cuts in social spending, as well as a host of reforms designed to boost the position of capital at the expense of workers. In Greece and Italy, proposed or recently passed budgets will reduce spending over the coming years by about 29 billion dollars [3]. In Germany, this number is as high as $96 billion. This figure constitutes the largest collection of spending cuts in this country since World War Two [4]. Cuts will also total as much as one billion dollars in France [5]. Planned or approved reforms in this region include a host of anti-worker measures. This involves a three-year increase in the age at which French workers can retire [6], the elimination of payments into the pensions of the unemployed in Germany [7], and changes to Spain’s labor laws which will make it cheaper and easier for employers to lay off workers [8]. These attacks have, predictably, been met by a great deal of militancy from workers. Many will have heard of the mass strikes and violent protests opposing catastrophic austerity plans in Greece [9].

I bring all of this up because they tell us quite a bit about the nature of social democracy, or “socialism through the ballot box.” As I said above, Western Europe has traditionally been a hotbed of reformist socialism. Many of these parties still exist across the continent. At one point, they hoped to slowly implement reforms culminating in the transition to socialism. This view stood opposed to that of revolutionaries, who sought a sharp, rapid overthrow of the system [10]. After the Second World War, however, many of these parties gave up even this goal. They instead settled on a program of slow progressive alterations to capitalism, offering piecemeal improvements in the lot of workers within the bounds of a “managed capitalism” [11].

These parties focused on creating welfare institutions, extensive public sector employment, and government support for unions. All of these measures, meager though they are, have been or are being destroyed. In many cases, this destruction is being spearheaded by the same parties that instituted them in the first place. This gets at the real problem with reformism. Because reformist socialist parties want to work within states designed to uphold the rule of capital, they will forever be bound by the laws of capitalism. This means that any reforms they win will be subject to market forces and cut back at the first opportunity.

We can never hope to win socialism by passing one reform after another, because these reforms will always be fragile. The capitalist class will seek to cut public services and benefits so that they can better exploit their workers. A socialist party working within a capitalist state will also find themselves subjected to this pressure. This is why social democratic parties have, in many places, become a vehicle for the set of pro-free-market, anti-worker policies often grouped under the banner of neoliberalism. In Greece, Germany, and elsewhere, it is social democratic governments or coalitions pushing these measures [12]. Even outside of government, reformist socialists have led no sustained or comprehensive attempts to resist the neoliberal order. How has it happened that in Europe, where the power and influence of social democratic parties has been greater than anywhere else, social democrats have not only failed in their original mission of abolishing capitalism in the electoral sphere, but have largely come to serve the interests of capital against labor? Perry Anderson, editor of the New Left Review, explained the trajectory this way in 1994: “Once, in the founding years of the Second International, social democracy was dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. Then it pursued partial reforms as gradual steps towards socialism. Finally it settled for welfare and full employment within capitalism….[I]t now accepts the scaling-down of one and the giving-up of the other…” [13].

I want to make some theoretical points about why this shift has occurred. Firstly, socialism is not just state ownership of the economy, as many social democrats believe. In many cases, efforts to bring about socialism in the electoral process failed because the “socialism” these parties were working towards did not actually challenge capitalism. It is entirely possible that an economy could be majority state-owned and still be controlled by capitalists. The state is an instrument of class power, so a transition to state ownership does not automatically correlate to worker’s power. For Marxists, the question is not whether the state owns the economy, but who owns the state.

Socialism is the collective rule of a class: the working class. It thus cannot be handed down from above, but must won through the self-activity of the class guided by a Party which is deeply imbedded in it. Reformist socialism ignores the fact that socialism can only be a collective project, instead trusting the will of a group of politicians rather than the advanced workers. This is one reason why efforts to vote in socialism have continually failed.

Further, the electoral system is rigged in favor of capital. However, this is not a new development, as social democrats like Bernie Sanders say [14]. The American state was not “taken away” from the people, but instead was designed from the beginning to subjugate them. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, admitted as much in a 1787 debate on the constitution. He wrote:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevailed lent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, — when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability” [15].

In other words, wealth (“landed interests”) will be increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands through markets (“various means of trade and manufactures”). The wealthy, therefore, would be outvoted in a democratic system and government would be overrun by the majority of working people. To prevent the working class from attaining political power and expropriating the property and wealth of the rich (“an agrarian law”), we have to “wisely” ensure that government “protect the minority” of the rich against the majority of the poor.

What this means is that the very institutions socialist parties engage with in the electoral arena-the senate, the congress, and even city councils-are designed to hamstring worker’s parties. The American electoral system is explicitly engineered so that socialists-or those opposed to the rule of capital-can never take power within it. Thus, we should not see electoral engagement as the primary means of struggle. We cannot put all our eggs in that basket, as it were. It is vital that, in our engagement with elections, we do not neglect other kinds of mass organizing, such as strikes. Elections, I want to stress, are a tool in our arsenal, one tactic among many.

The capitalist state is, whether “democratic” or otherwise, is constructed to serve the interests of a class that exists for and through the exploitation of workers. As Engels, Marx’s longtime friend and collaborator, once put it, ”the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage labor by capital” [16]. This function is expressed not simply in the parliament itself, but also in the civil services sector, the courts, and-crucially-the fundamental bodies of the state: the “bodies of armed men,” as Lenin put it [17]. These institutions-the army, the police, and so on-cannot simply be redirected towards defending worker’s power. Workers “cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” [18]. Rather, workers must smash the existing state and build their own worker’s state.

Where reformist socialists take power, the institutions of the state-army, police, courts, etc-will revolt. This was seen in General Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, backed by the United States, of the reformist socialist government in Chile [19]. The army and police were created in the interests of capital. This purpose is baked into their very DNA. Attempts to build socialism without fundamentally altering these institutions will inevitably be, to quote Marx in a different context, “drowned in blood” [20].

A word should be said here of Venezuela and Hugo Chavez, arguably one of the most successful “reformist” leaders of all time. While it is true that Chavez could be described as a reformist, in the sense that he took power in an election, the Bolivarian Revolution itself is just that: a revolution. The rank and file working class of Venezuela rejects the idea that socialism was given to them from above. They have instead called for a “radicalization” of the revolution, a “truly communal state” [21]. In a certain sense, this has already taken place. Unlike the social-democratic reformists in Western Europe, the Venezuelan government did not leave the existing state institutions untouched. The Venezuelan government has dedicated its forces to reconstructing the state on a communal basis. According to the Commune Law established in 2006, the Communal Parliament envisions integrating the communes into a regional and national federation, to construct “a system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption rooted in social property” [22]. The Venezuelan people understand the need to create a new state, rather than using the existing state to legislate socialism into being. In this sense, the characterization of Venezuela as “reformist” in the sense I have defined it is overly simplistic. Although Chavez did attempt to “legislate socialism,” he did so in a framework characterized by popular participation and a connection with the masses. The PSUV has not used its position in government to divorce itself from struggle.

The reality, however, is that there have been very few Chiles, and only one Venezuela. Despite a long-held rhetorical commitment to socialism, reformists have rarely, in practice, done things that threaten the power of capital in a significant way. To explain that failure, revolutionaries often point to the character flaws of reformist politicians. The reformists have historically been bourgeois, and this explains why they did not build socialism. This is an incorrect tactic. Our objection is not to reformists as people, but to reformism as a strategy. No matter their background, social democrats, by virtue of their position, eventually become members of a class distinct from the workers they supposedly represent. Well-paid and freed from the daily insults of normal working-class existence, reformist leaders come to occupy a privileged position. This condition is dependent upon their ability not to fight for the emancipation of workers, but to balance the competing interests of capital and labor. They grow conservative and become the out-and-out representatives of capital. We might also add that the importance of campaign contributions and positive media coverage in modern elections mean that electorally-oriented politicians of all stripes must gain support from those who own the money and the media: the capitalist class [23].

Despite the power of this argument, there are deeper reasons for the failure of reformism. Even if the social democratic parties were run by a collection of true proletarians who spent their free time laboring in factories, and even if such parties have media backing and a majority in parliament (which, to reiterate, they often have), they still would not legislate socialism into being. Reformism is definitionally contradictory, and it is these contradictions that are to blame for its continued failure.

Reformism posits that socialists can win elections and use their control over the state to legislate the destruction of capitalism, but the nature of electoral competition itself prevents socialists from forging the kind of solidarity necessary to create majority support for socialism. Elections are static and passive forms of political action — encouraging compromises on important principles and the formation of alliances based on lowest-common-denominator politics. Prioritizing elections leads socialists to adapt to, rather than challenge, popular but conservative ideas. The point of elections, for reformists, is not to advance ideas (that comes later, once they are in power) but to win elections. Because reformists believe that the parliament is the site of liberation, they cannot actually begin liberating the people until they are in parliament. In service to this goal, reformists must learn to avoid radical positions or actions that might threaten short-term vote totals. Pursuing a reformist strategy inevitably leads to missing the forest for the trees. Social democrats cannot lead politically, which is what the masses require, but are instead doomed to tail the most backward elements in the movement.

This leads reformists to hold back mass movements at moments of radicalization, to channel mass grievances into elections and parliamentary maneuvering, and to limit demands to those that do not threaten the power of elites to a degree that those elites would be forced to engage in open struggle against the popular movement, and thus reveal their true character to the masses. In this respect, reformism blinds the masses and makes them incapable of understanding society as it actually exists. Unless one understands society, one cannot hope to change it. Reformism, therefore, actively prevents the transition to socialism from taking place. It confuses the masses so that they become distracted, unable to carry the struggle forward.

Reformists might move left when faced with pressure from the masses, but always within very strict limits. They will attempt to re-stabilize capitalism at those moments of social, economic, and political crisis: precisely the moments at which very large numbers of people could come to understand that there is something deeply wrong with the system. A perfect example of this is Syriza in Greece which, at the moment of crisis, chose to ignore the issues really facing the masses and embrace austerity [24].

Finally, profits are the lifeblood of the capitalist system. As long as capitalism exists, profits are what will keep it afloat. If the state is to have resources to distribute to workers and the poor, as reformists claim to want, they must collect enough taxes to do so. That will only happen if the economy is growing. If workers are to win ever greater wage and benefit increases, the firms in which they are employed must stay in business. Not only that, they must be profitable enough relative to their competitor capitalists to afford concessions. As one Swedish social democratic leader put it, “because social democracy works for a more equal distribution of property and incomes, it must never forget that one must produce before one has something to distribute” [25]. This raises a dilemma. The reality is that large-scale structural reforms, such as wage increases or social welfare, can drive capitalists to reduce investment in a given country. This happens because capitalists want to punish governments that implement policies antithetical to their interests. Pro-worker reforms mean that capitalists can invest their money more profitably elsewhere, and those who choose not to do this will go out of business. When capitalists stop investing or lack the capital to invest, the result is economic crisis, declining tax revenue, and inflation. This leads to a sharp drop in support for the government, resulting in its fall from power. Social democrats must, by necessity, balance their desire to reform the country towards socialism with their need to keep capitalists profitable and investing. When there is a contradiction between these two impulses, there are structural pressures built into the state, described above, that push them to side with capital over labor. This can be seen happening right now in Norway, the supposed liberal utopia [26].

It should be noted, by virtue of Western social democracy’s need to accommodate the interests of capital, it has failed to provide an alternative to imperialism. Scandinavia, for example, largely maintains itself through violent imperialist policies just like other Western nations. In 2008, Norwegian communications multinational, Telenor was exposed in a documentary as partnering with a Bangladeshi supplier that employed child labor in horrendous conditions. The report also uncovered that the children were made to handle chemical substances without any protection and one of the workers even died after falling into a pool of acid. Not only was the treatment of workers unacceptable, they also ruined the crops of farmers in the surrounding areas with the waste from the plant. Like other Western multinationals that deliberately go to the developing world looking to save money on labor and operations costs, the company washed its hands of the accusations, denying knowledge about their partner’s inhumane practices [27]. Similarly, Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil, has been involved in multiple corruption cases around the world-especially in underdeveloped countries-where they have bribed state companies and government officials in order to obtain licenses for extraction. Their involvement is not only limited to these aggressive economic practices, they are also deeply involved in the West’s military exploits. Norway dropped 588 bombs on Libya but scarcely is mentioned as being part of these imperialist operations. Statoil has since started joint extractions operations worth millions in the ruined country [28]. Both of these companies, it is crucial to note, are partly owned by the state. This furthers the above argument that state ownership does not automatically translate to a more equitable system of production or distribution. By working within the capitalist state, reformist socialists will be forced to make concessions to that state. This will always mean exploiting workers at home and abroad.

The Swedish clothing giant H&M can retail affordable products in rich nations and make huge profits only because they exploit and underpay workers in impoverished nations such as Bangladesh. As John Smith points out in his book Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, only 0.95 euros of the final sale price of an H&M T-shirt remains in Bangladesh to cover the cost of the factory, the workers, the suppliers, and the government. The remaining 3.54 euros goes for taxes and transportation in the market country, with the bulk going to the retailer. In other words, Western nations capture most of the profit although it is the poor workers and nations that have put most of the input in terms of labor and resources [29].

The ‘Nordic Model’, as it has come to be known, is hardly a system that we should look to for inspiration. No model, system, or structure that depends on the exploitation and domination of others can be ethical. Western nations and their people—if they are to be taken seriously by the rest of the struggling world—must begin to think about developing socialist political and economic structures that are internationalist and, crucially, anti-imperialist at their foundations. This can never be done by working within the capitalist state. Imperialism is, as Lenin put it, “the highest stage of capitalism” [30]. It is a phenomenon that is bound up with capitalist production. Once a capitalist economy becomes sufficiently developed, imperialism must arise in order to keep it afloat. Social democratic parties, because they are working within the capitalist state, must bow to the pressures of capitalist markets. As such, they must engage in imperialism and rank exploitation.

This is the crux of the matter: the state under capitalism is an organ of capitalist power. In light of this, attempts to build socialism by winning seats in parliament or similar political bodies will always result in failure. Treating the electoral arena as the primary space in which socialism will be won is a recipe for disaster. In order to achieve victory, we must organize workers in a militant communist party capable of smashing the existing state and running society in the interests of all.


[1] John Most, “Action as Propaganda” Freiheit, July 25, 1885

[2] Mao Zedong, Oppose Book Worship, 1930.

[3] Beirne, John, and Marcel Fratzscher. “The pricing of sovereign risk and contagion during the European sovereign debt crisis.” Journal of International Money and Finance 34 (2013): 60-82.

[4] Tomasson, Richard F. “Government old age pensions under affluence and austerity: West Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States.” Research in Social Problems and Public Policy 3 (1984): 217-72.

[5] Levy, Jonah D. “Partisan politics and welfare adjustment: the case of France.” Journal of European Public Policy 8.2 (2001): 265-285.

[6] Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Kreitler. “The retirement test: An international study.” Soc. Sec. Bull. 37 (1974): 3.

[7] Börsch-Supan, Axel. “Incentive effects of social security on labor force participation: evidence in Germany and across Europe.” Journal of public economics 78.1 (2000): 25-49.

[8] Bentolila, Samuel, and Juan J. Dolado. “Labour flexibility and wages: lessons from Spain.” Economic policy 9.18 (1994): 53-99.

[9] Rüdig, Wolfgang, and Georgios Karyotis. “Who protests in Greece? Mass opposition to austerity.” British Journal of Political Science 44.03 (2014): 487-513.

[10] Paul Blackledge (2013). “Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today and Jesus followers”. International Socialist Journal.

[11] Stan Parker (March 2002). “Reformism – or socialism?”. Socialist Standard.

[12] Puetter, Uwe. “Europe’s deliberative intergovernmentalism: the role of the Council and European Council in EU economic governance.” Journal of European Public Policy 19.2 (2012): 161-178.

[13] Giddens, Anthony. The third way: The renewal of social democracy. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

[14] “Bernie Sanders: The Democracy Now Interview.” Democracy Now, 2016.

[15] Madison, James. “Federalist no. 39.” The Federalist Papers (2007): 246.

[16] Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The communist manifesto. Penguin, 2002.

[17] Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, and Todd Chretien. State and revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Petras, James F., and Morris H. Morley. The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government. Monthly Review Pr, 1975.

[20] Marx, Karl, and Céline Surprenant. The class struggle in France. 2000.

[21] Epstein, David, and Peter Zemsky. “Money talks: Deterring quality challengers in congressional elections.” American Political Science Review 89.02 (1995): 295-308.

[22] Hawkins, Kirk Andrew, and David R. Hansen. “Dependent Civil Society: The Círculos Bolivarianos in Venezuela.” Latin American Research Review 41.1 (2006): 102-132.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Kouvelakis, Stathis. “SYRIZA’S RISE AND FALL.” (2016): 45-70.

[25] Quoted in John Hall, The State: Critical Concepts. 1993. p. 325.

[26] Bayulgen, Oksan. Foreign Investment and political regimes: The oil sector in Azerbaijan, Russia, and Norway. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[27] Falkenberg, Andreas W., and Joyce Falkenberg. “Ethics in international value chain networks: The case of telenor in bangladesh.” Journal of business ethics 90 (2009): 355-369.

[28] Ask, Alf Ole (2003-09-12). “Statoil’s international director resigns”. Aftenposten.

[29] Foster, John Bellamy, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna. “The global reserve army of labor and the new imperialism.” Monthly Review 63.6 (2011): 1.

[30] Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism. Resistance Books, 1999.


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