Editorial from the June 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard
Every few years, when the working class in most parts of the capitalist world are invited to elect another government, they go to the polls unmindful of the real significance of the occasion. For some time they will have been bombarded by the claims of the competing parties to have the most effective and humane programme for organising capitalism. They will have read many assertions of an ability to eliminate poverty, ill health, war. . . With this information — it would be too kind, and inaccurate, to describe it as knowledge — in their heads the workers can go to the polls and weightily decide between one party and another — which means between one style of capitalism and another. Having elected a government, the workers then expect it to get on with the job, which they assume to be arranging the affairs of society so that they run more happily and efficiently, in the interests of the voters. For that is how they regard the function of the legislative bodies to which they elect the people they call their representatives.
But the truth is rather different, for very little of the work of those bodies has any connection with the interests of the mass of the people. Of course, at times it does have some effect on their lives (although usually not in the manner promised) and for that reason it may be the subject of impassioned debate among the working class. But this effect is rarely, if ever, in any sense permanent or significant. For the rest, the legislatures are concerned with the day-to-day organisation of capitalism which has no relevance to working-class lives.
In some cases this takes the form of organisational, managerial reforms, for example the present policy of the Thatcher government to end state control over some industries such as telecommunications and to open these up to private investment. Workers get very excited about these measures, in some cases because they think that "they" (the Tory government) are thereby taking away some of "our" property. Others get equally worked up because they are allowed to buy a few shares in the newly organised concern and so, in their own estimation, become "investors". They might even think of themselves as tycoons, manipulators of the world's stock markets. But whatever the fantasies, the reality is that the fundamental of the class ownership of the industries remains undisturbed. Any worker who has doubts on that score can test the matter out by trying to get free telephone calls. We should also remember that there was equal excitement when the industries which the Thatcher government are now "privatising" were taken into state control. Nationalisation was regarded then as the public (which meant by all of us) ownership of a concern so that it was to be operated in the interests of everyone. Workers who held that theory could have tested it out by trying to keep for themselves some of the produce of "their" industry. In fact, many of them have been forced to assess the theory, by resisting the efforts of nationalised industries to close down unprofitable plant and to sack "redundant" workers or to try to hold back wage rises and intensify exploitation. As the steel workers and the coal miners have found out, the notion that state control is common ownership is a cruel deception.
Another overriding concern of the legislatures is the juggling with the financial superstructure of capitalism, to create the illusion that in this they are making fundamental social changes. This takes place under the popular assumption that there is no problem of capitalism which can't be solved by an injection of money into the appropriate. sensitive spot. The more extreme expressions of workers' poverty, such as slum housing and malnutrition, are widely supposed to be curable by simply increasing the amount of state benefits and investments applied to the area of concern. But this is not an original idea; governments have long tried, or claimed to be able, to deal with such problems in that way but whatever grants they make, and however skilfully and frenziedly they juggle with the finances, the problems will not go away. The reason for their impotence is that the problems are endemic to capitalism; poverty, for example, is an inevitable feature of class society and an accompaniment of wage slavery. As long as capitalism lasts — as long as there is a working class —there will be poverty and with it there will be extremes of poverty, just as there will be riches and excessive riches. So when a legislature sets itself to a session of financial juggling it is engaged in something which has no relevance to the abolition of capitalism's problems and none, therefore, to the interests of the working class who elected them.
In the end, the proof of where the efforts of a legislative body are directed lies in experience. After ages of laws being laid down, and repealed, are the working class any nearer to a solution of their problems? Has poverty been abolished? Is war no longer a threat to society? Is everyone as healthy, happy and secure as they can possibly be? The answer to all these questions is clearly a negative, which is not to be cynical or despairing but realistic.
This fact may be taken as giving credence to those who argue that legislative bodies are themselves irrelevancies, to be ignored by the working-class movement for the socialist revolution to take over society in the interests of the world's people. In fact that attitude misses the essential point. An elected legislature is the seat of power in capitalism, however its function may be misconceived and misused. The miners had this rammed home to them during their recent strike and it is time the workers as a whole grasped it. At present the voters send people to legislatures with a clear mandate to continue the capitalist system, which means to absorb themselves with measures which have no bearing on workers' lives.
But a socialist working class will use the occasion of an election in a completely different way. They will know that, as the legislatures are the seat of power, it is an act of futile waste to run up against them; they must be controlled before they can be used to bring about working class emancipation. This will be the function — strictly imposed, monitored and controlled which will be applied by the working class on their elected delegates in the establishment of socialism.
The revolution will bring a society of communal ownership and democratic control — a world of abundance and free access to wealth. Worldwide, legislatures will have their part to play in the revolution — it will be an act of historic significance.