From the January 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard
To establish Socialism, the working class must organise to win control of the state and turn it from the instrument of oppression which it is today into the agent of their emancipation. This principle asserts the conscious, majority, political nature of the socialist revolution.
The State is the public power of coercion and consists of the armed forces, law courts, prisons and police. Today the State is used by the capitalist class to maintain their dominant social position in a society based on the forcible exclusion of the majority from the means of production.
The first step in the evolution of the modern State was the centralisation of the means of coercion in the hands of Kings and their officials. As the capitalist class grew economically stronger they began to struggle to bring the State under their control. In Britain their weapon in this struggle was Parliament. This struggle to bring the Slate under parliamentary control was finally won with the expulsion of James II in 1688.
In Britain Parliament is the instrument by which the capitalist class control the State. Parliament makes the laws which the State must try to enforce. Thus the State is not an independent agent but is more or less effectively controlled by the capitalist class through representative institutions. The capitalist class does not rule directly. The parliamentary parties, their leaders and members, represent the capitalist class and actually manage their common affairs. The second function of Parliament for capitalism is in the debating and settling of common affairs. For capitalism is an ever-changing system, and change demands adjustments elsewhere. It is the task of the capitalist political parties to draw attention to, and take up, the problems at home and abroad which arise in this way. Party politics is the attempt to find solutions to these problems. Leaving the solutions to the free play of political forces has proved a much better method, as far as capitalism is concerned, than the Absolutist and Bureaucratic methods of the political regimes it overthrew.
Originally Parliament was an exclusive body with the franchise restricted to property owners but the struggle of the working class has forced the extension of the franchise to property-less elements also. The vote is an unqualified gain to the working class. It is something which was won by struggle and which could not be taken away without a struggle. It is a potential class weapon. In Britain the working class have come to appreciate the importance of having the vote, but not yet of how to use it to serve their own interests. But having the vote is itself a restraining influence on the capitalist class and the extent to which they can use the State against the working class.
The next step in the evolution of working class understanding is to use their votes to gain control of the State and turn it into the agent of their emancipation. To do this they most organise as an uncompromisingly Socialist political party. Working class power will be used to dispossess the capitalist class of their privileged social position. When the working class win State power there will be no question of forming a “socialist government.” Like the capitalist class the working class can only control the State through representative institutions; those who are actually sent to the scat of power will go as delegates, they will not be in a position to use the State against the socialist majority who sent them any more than the State officials of today could for long declare their independence of capitalist control. With the establishment of Socialist society will disappear the conditions for a State power of coercion; in its place will be an administration.
A number of objections have been put against this position of the Socialist Party for the most part based on experiences and conditions where both the capitalist class and working class were weak.
Anarchist anti-political propaganda frequently refers to Parliament as a “facade” or a “cypher”; Ministers are just “puppets”; somewhere behind the facade is the “real seat of power.” These are arguments anarchists have been using for years under all conditions. Their use today ignores the fact that the struggles of both the capitalist class and the working class have altered political conditions from when these dogmas were first formulated. For the view of Parliament as a facade, having no control over the State, does correspond to the reality of the pre-World War I Empires of Germany, Russia and Austro-Hungary. Here pressure had led to the establishment of elected assemblies, but these assemblies had no real power. The Emperors and their officials still directly controlled the State. Parliament was a facade, Ministers were puppets, the real seat of power did lie elsewhere. One of the early German Socialists in a famous phrase described one such assembly as “the fig-leaf of Absolutism.”
But to suggest, as anarchists do, that a modern Parliament can be compared to the Duma of Tsarist Russia or the Reichstag of Imperial Germany is just plain nonsense. In Britain Parliament controls the State; this is how the capitalist class rule. It is alright to say, “It doesn’t matter who gets in, the capitalists always rule,” but how do they rule? In fact, they rule through Parliament; the anarchists have apparently found some alternative and secret capitalist organisation for controlling the State. This is absurd, and dangerous, as it leads workers to underestimate the power of the vote.
Other critics admit the need for winning political power but argue that as the Socialist movement grows the capitalist class will suspend Parliament and unleash Fascism. First let us consider the suspension of Parliament. For the capitalist class this would mean the dissolution of the organisation whereby they control the State; they could be abdicating power to a group over which they would have little or no control. In the second place it would lead to confusion and disorder, with the breaking up of established ways of settling common problems. Thus the suspension of Parliament, and the consequent abdication of political power, would be a desperate act.
Once the Fascists were in power parliamentary institutions were smashed; and voting and trade union liberties suppressed. Compared with parliamentary rule Fascism was a step backwards. It is true that some capitalists were prepared to support such movements, and so were the working class. On the Continent the working class have been more violent which is often taken as a sign of their being more “revolutionary.” But in fact it means just the opposite: violence is a sign of the immaturity of a working class as it means they are too weak, to restrain anti-democratic elements.
Fascism did not arise as a counter to the Socialist movement (though it was to a large extent a means of disciplining an unruly working class). In Britain the capitalist class could not suspend Parliament without the support of the working class. In fact, the growth of the Socialist movement itself will change political and social conditions; it will be a restraining influence on the capitalist class rather than a provocation to violence.
A third anti-parliamentary argument uses as evidence the experience of reformist governments like the various British Labour Party governments, the Social Democratic governments of pre-Hitler Germany and the Popular Front government of Leon Blum in France in 1936. From these the lesson is drawn of “the uselessness of the State machinery for the purposes of the proletarian revolution.” In actual fact, however, such governments fail not because they attempt to use political means to benefit the working class, but because what they can do in this respect is severely limited by the basis on which they sought power and by the workings of the capitalist system. Mere political decrees cannot overcome economic forces. Capitalism can only be overthrown by the determined struggle of a Socialist working class. Reform parties, however, do not have such support behind them hence their attempts to make capitalism benefit the working class by parliamentary means are doomed to failure from the start. The reason for this is not because the government is “torpedoed by the bureaucracy” or by financiers but because capitalism cannot be made to work in the interests of the working class. There are things that Parliament and political power can do and there are things they cannot do. Parliament does control the State; it does not control the economic forces that are capitalism. The working class doesn’t need political power to form a government and try to run capitalism but to force the capitalist class to surrender their privileges. The experience of non-socialist, reformist. political action is no argument against the conscious, majority, political action for Socialism.