May 15, 2013

Revolutionary tactics: Engels on voting and street fighting

This article is part of an seven-part series of short quotes Rebel Youth is issuing about class struggle, revolution, civil-war, and parliamentary democracy. See also: Lenin on elections; the Communist Party of Canada on a counter-offensive against capitalismEngels on voting and street fightingLenin on Democracy and Class struggleCommunist and Worker's parties on the struggle for socialism; and Lenin on tactics and guerilla war; theCommunist Party of Canada on force, and a peaceful transition to socialism.

There had long been universal suffrage in France, but it had fallen into disrepute through the way it had been abused by the Bonapartist government. After the Commune there was no workers’ party to make use of it. It had also existed in Spain since the republic but in Spain election boycotts had been the rule for all serious opposition parties from time immemorial. The experience of the Swiss with universal suffrage was also anything but encouraging for a workers’ party. The revolutionary workers of the Latin countries had been wont to regard the suffrage as a snare, as an instrument of government trickery. It was different in Germany.

The Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage, of democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat, ["the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy" source] and Lassalle had again taken up this point.

Now that Bismarck found himself compelled to introduce this franchise as the only means of interesting the mass of the people in his plans, our workers immediately took it in earnest and sent August Bebel to the first, constituent Reichstag.

And from that day on they have used the franchise in a way which has paid them a thousandfold and has served as a model to the workers of all countries. The franchise has been, in the words of the French Marxist programme, transformé de moyen de duperie qu'il a été jusquici en instrument d'emancipation — transformed by them from a means of deception, which it was before, into an instrument of emancipation. [Engels quotes the theoretical Preamble to the French Workers’ Party’s programme adopted at the 1880 congress in Le Havre. The Preamble was written by Marx.]

And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in our vote it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us of our own strength and that of all opposing parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion second to none for our actions, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness — if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, it would still have been much more than enough. But it did more than this by far.

In election propaganda it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it provided our representatives in the Reichstag with a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in parliament, and to the masses outside, with quite different authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings. Of what avail was their Anti-Socialist Law to the government and the bourgeoisie when election campaigning and socialist speeches in the Reichstag continually broke through it?

With this successful utilisation of universal suffrage, however, an entirely new method of proletarian struggle came into operation, and this method quickly took on a more tangible form. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organised, offer the working class still further levers to fight these very state institutions. The workers took part in elections to particular diets, to municipal councils and to trades courts; they contested with the bourgeoisie every post in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had a say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.

For here, too, the conditions of the struggle had changed fundamentally. Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, had become largely outdated....

.... Does that mean that in the future street fighting will no longer play any role [in revolution] ? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavourable for civilian fighters and far more favourable for the military. In future, street fighting can, therefore, be victorious only if this disadvantageous situation is compensated by other factors. Accordingly, it will occur more seldom at the beginning of a great revolution than at its later stages, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces. These, however, may then well prefer, as in the whole great French Revolution or on September 4 and October 31, 1870, in Paris, the open attack to passive barricade tactics.

Does the reader now understand why the powers-that-be positively want to get us to go where the guns shoot and the sabres slash? Why they accuse us today of cowardice, because we do not take without more ado to the streets, where we are certain of defeat in advance? Why they so earnestly implore us to play for once the part of cannon fodder?

Engels, Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France (1895)

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