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Mainstream, VOL L, No 21, May 12, 2012

Marx and Engels on the Use of Parliamentary Institutions

Friday 18 May 2012, by Anil Rajimwale

A STUDY OF ENGELS’ INTRODUCTION

“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,” (Engels’ Introduction of 1895 to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, SW1, Moscow, 1973, p. 195)

These are the words of Frederick Engels on the attitude of the Communists to the struggle for universal suffrage. In this entire para, Engels clearly expresses himself in favour of not only fighting for universal suffrage, but even for using it to win elections and power. Engels was discussing the German social democratic move-ment in particular and the European working class movement in general.
Both Marx and Engels always stood for open propagation of Communist ideas and open functioning of the proletarian party. This was made clear in the Manifesto and elsewhere on several occasions. One of the pre-conditions of the founding of the Communist League was its open functioning. It was only in the forced conditions of illegality that the revolutionaries would be compelled function secretly.

At the same time, Marx and Engels constantly endeavoured to struggle for full democratic and electoral rights, as is clear from their writings on the Chartist movement and others.

Wrong Image of Marx and Engels

A wrong and erroneous image of Marx and Engels has been created in the subsequent history of the workers’ movement. Both the opponents and supporters are responsible for creating this faulty picture. Marx and Engels have been presented as advocating violent class struggles, leading to violent revolution. Marx, Engels have almost been presented as such a revolutionary, totally opposed to the system of parliamentary elections as a farce. It has been propagated by the ultra-’Leftists’, Maoists, anarchists of various shades that since elections were a farce and a hoax, the proletariat could not come to power without the use of ‘force’.

These have been presented as the views of Marx and Engels. It was for these reasons that they have been treated as ‘revolutionaries’!

This is the image that has created down the ages of the greatest theoreticians and practitioners of revolution. This picture is totally wrong.

Marx-Engels on Peace Transition

MARX, Engels on several occasions have advocated and visualised peaceful transition to ‘socialism’. The writings of Marx on peaceful revolution in England, Holland and Belgium are well-known. He and Engels also probed the possibilities of peaceful transition in many other countries during their lifetime, like Germany, England, Russia etc.

Engels on the Importance of Universal Suffrage as Electoral Path to Power

ENGELS considered universal suffrage an entirely new method of proletarian struggle, so effective that the working class not only could come to power but also transit to socialism with its help.

Engels comments in his Introduction (1895) to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France that thanks to the intelligent use of the universal suffrage, introduced in 1866 by the German workers, there was astonishing growth of the German Social Democratic Party (SDP). This became clear by the incontestable vote figures of the party: 1871: 102,000; 1874: 352 000; 1877: 493,000. An anti-socialist law was introduced in 1878 in Germany. The SDP organisations, mass workers’ organisations and workers’ press were prohibited, socialist publications were subject to confiscation. The law was repealed under pressure from the mass workers’ movement, in 1890. After a temporary setback in 1881, the SDP continued its growth even under this law. In 1884 it received 550,000 votes, in 1887, 763,000; 1890, 1,427,000 votes. During Engels’ lifetime (he died in 1895), the votes went up to 1,787,000 or more than a quarter of all votes cast. The SDP,-became the strongest party in Germany. The percentage of votes rose to 27.2 in 1898 (over three million votes) and 34.8 (over four million votes) in 1912.
The German SDP became a massive organisation, and the largest party in the country. In 1907, it was running over a hundred dailies!

The comments and analyses of Frederick Engels on the successes of the German SDP in the national elections are interesting and incisive. They constitute the fundamental principles on Marxism towards electoral process and parliamentary institutions.

Engels highly praised the use of the ballot box by the German working class. He said in the aforesaid Introduction that the German workers had supplied their comrades in all the countries with a new weapon, and one of the sharpest, when they showed them how to make use of universal suffrage. “With the successful use of suffrage, an entirely new method of proletarian struggle came into operation.” This method quickly developed further. The working class got new opportunities and weapons to fight the state institutions. The workers took part in the elections to particular Diets (state assemblies), municipal councils and trades courts. Thus the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than the illegal actions of the workers’ party, “of the results of elections than of those of rebellion”.

Engels called for giving up illusions about street and barricade fighting, and about armed struggle in general.

Engels highly praised “the strongest, best disciplined and most rapidly growing socialist party”. Significantly, Engels said that the German SDP occupied a special position in the working class movement, and had a special task: that of proceeding steadily towards power. Engels characterised the voters of the German SDP as the ‘shock force’ of the world workers’ movement: “The two million voters whom it sends to the ballot box, together with the young men and women who stand behind them as non-voters, form the most numerous, most compact mass, the decisive ’shock force’ of the international proletarian army.” This mass already supplied over a fourth of the votes cast. The by-elections to the Reichstag (German parliament), the Diet elections of the states, and other lower level elections showed that the movement was growing continuously. “Its growth proceeds as spontaneously, as steadily, as irresistibly, and at the same time as tranquilly as a natural process.”

Engels says further that all the government intervention had proved powerless. If this continued in this fashion, by the end of the century “we shall conquer the greater part of the middle strata of the society, petty bourgeois and small peasants, and grow into the decisive power in the land before which all other powers will have to bow, whether they like it or not”. (Introduction) Very significantly, Engels further advises on how to keep this force intact, without interruption, until it went beyond the prevailing system. He makes a highly important statement to the effect that that there was only one way to disrupt this uninterrupted process: “a clash on a big scale with the military, a blood-letting like that of 1871 in Paris”. So, he is warning the working class and its party against any undue haste, any unnece-ssary, thoughtless action, against getting provo-ked into an adventurist clash with the military. He is asking them not to be crazy enough to be driven to any kind of street fighting.

“The irony of world history turns everything upside down”—the revolutionists, the ‘over-throwers’ are thriving better on legal means than on illegal methods and overthrow, says Engels.

Marx and Engels looked upon the ballot box as a means of achieving the socialist revolution, after the democratic rights had been won.

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