Abstentionism - Theses on Parliamentarism

We are publishing again the "Theses on parliamentarism". We first published these in RP3 old series which has for many years been out of print. We consider it timely to republish these theses for two principal reasons. The first is that the use of democracy as a weapon against the working class and in particular against independent class politics has become stronger in the last two decades. The second is the use of bourgeois democracy as a weapon in the armoury of US imperialism in its struggle to control the oil supplies of the Middle East and the territories of the former Soviet Union. In a sense the theses are more relevant today than when they were drafted.

The Theses were drawn up by Bordiga who represented the minority position of the Italian Socialist party on this issue. The original motivation was to get rid of the corrupt parliamentary faction of Turati and Modigliani, and so to enable a communist party to be formed. The theses were presented at the Second Congress of the Third International (Comintern). Although other left communists like the German KAPD and the Pankhurst group in Britain supported these theses the majority did not. The majority, which included Lenin and Trotsky, supported "revolutionary parliamentarism" or using parliament as a tribune to denounce capitalism. They did not support work in parliament. We consider the theses are more relevant today than when they were first published and that today the possibility of using parliament as a revolutionary tribune has virtually disappeared.

  1. Parliamentarism is the form of political representation characteristic of the capitalist regime. In the field of principle, the critique of Marxist communists in regard to parliamentarism and bourgeois democracy in general shows that the franchise, granted to all citizens of all social classes in the elections of the representative organs of the State cannot prevent the whole governmental machinery of the state constituting the committee of defence of the interests of the ruling capitalist class, nor can it prevent the state from organising itself as the historical instrument of the bourgeoisie in the struggle against the proletarian revolution.
  2. The communists categorically reject the possibility of the working class conquering power by a majority in Parliament instead of attaining it by an armed revolutionary struggle. The conquest of political power by the proletariat, which is the starting point of the work of communist economic construction, implies the violent and immediate suppression of the democratic organs, which will be replaced by the organs of the proletarian power, the workers councils. With the exploiting class being thus deprived of all political rights, the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is to say, a system of class government and representation, will be realised. The suppression of parliamentarism is therefore a historic goal of the communist movement; still more, it is precisely representative democracy which is the first form of bourgeois society which must be overthrown, before capitalist property, before even the bureaucratic and governmental machine of the state.
  3. The same goes for the municipal or communal institutions of the bourgeoisie, which are falsely regarded as being opposed to the governmental organs. In fact their machinery is identical to the state mechanisms of the bourgeoisie. They must also be destroyed by local councils of workers' deputies.
  4. While the executive, military and police machinery of the bourgeois state organises direct action against the proletarian revolution, representative democracy constitutes a means of indirect defence which works by spreading among the masses the illusion that their emancipation can be attained through peaceful process, and the illusion that the form of the proletarian state can also have a parliamentary basis with the right of representation for the bourgeois minority. The result of this democratic influence on the proletarian masses has been the corruption of the socialist movement of the Second International in the domain of theory as well as in that of action.
  5. The tasks of the communists at the present moment in their work of ideological and material preparation for the revolution, is, above all, to remove from the minds of the proletariat those illusions and prejudices, which have been spread with the complicity of the old social democratic leaders in order to turn it away from its historical path. In the countries where a democratic regime has held sway for a long time and has penetrated deeply into the habits and mentality of the masses, no less than into the mentality of the traditional socialist parties, this work is of a very great importance and comes among the first problems of revolutionary preparation.
  6. Possibilities of propaganda, agitation and criticism could be offered by participation in elections and in parliamentary activity during that period when, in the international proletarian movement, the conquest of power did not seem to be a possibility in the very near future, and when it was not yet a question of direct preparation for the realisation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. On the other hand, in a country where the bourgeois revolution is in course of progress and is creating new institutions, communist intervention in the representative organs can offer the possibility of wielding an influence on the development of events to make the revolution end in the victory for the proletariat.
  7. The present historical period was opened by the end of the World War with its consequences for the social bourgeois organisation, by the Russian Revolution which was the first realisation of the conquest of power by the proletariat, and by the constitution of a new International in opposition to the social democracy of traitors. In this historical period, and in those countries where the democratic regime achieved its formation a long time ago, there is no possibility of using the parliamentary tribune for communist revolutionary work, and the clarity of propaganda, no less than the efficiency of the preparation for the final struggle for the dictatorship, demand that communists conduct an agitation for an election boycott by the workers.
  8. In these historical conditions, where the main problem of the movement is the revolutionary conquest of power, the whole political activity of the class party must be directed towards this direct end. It is necessary to shatter the bourgeois lie according to which every clash between opposing political parties, every struggle for power, must necessarily take place within the framework of the democratic mechanism, that is through elections and parliamentary debates. We cannot succeed in destroying that lie without breaking with the traditional method of calling the workers to vote in elections side by side with members of the bourgeoisie, and without putting an end to the situation where delegates of the proletariat act on the same parliamentary ground as the delegates of its exploiters.
  9. The dangerous idea that all political action consists of electoral and parliamentary action has already been spread too widely by the ultra-parliamentary practice of the traditional socialist parties. On the other hand, the distaste of the proletariat for that treacherous practice has lent favourable ground to the mistakes of syndicalism and anarchism which deny all value to parliamentary action and to the action of the party. For that reason the communist parties will never obtain great success in propaganda on behalf of the revolutionary Marxist method if their work for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the workers' councils is not based on the severing of all contacts with the machinery of bourgeois democracy.
  10. In spite of all the public speeches and all the theoretical statements, the very great importance which is attached in practice to the electoral campaign and its results, and the fact that for a long period the party has to devote to that cause all its means and all its resources in men, in the press, and even its money, helps to strengthen the feeling that this is the true central activity to achieve the aims of communism; on the other hand, it leads to complete cessation of the work of revolutionary organisation and preparation. It gives to the party organisation a technical character quite in opposition to the requirements of revolutionary work, legal as well as illegal.
  11. For the parties which have gone over, by a majority resolution, to the Third International, the allowance of the continuation of electoral action prevents the necessary sorting out and elimination of social-democratic elements, without which the Third International would fail in its historic role, and would be no longer a disciplined and homogeneous army of worldwide revolution.
  12. The very nature of the debates which have parliament and other democratic organs for their theatre excludes every possibility of passing from criticism of the policy of the opposing parties, to a propaganda against the very principle of parliamentarism, and to an action which would overstep parliamentary rules - just as it would not be possible to get the right to speak if we refused to submit to all the formalities established by electoral procedure. Success in parliamentary fencing will always depend only on the skill in handling the common weapon of the principles on which the institution itself is based, and in dealing with the tricks of parliamentary procedure - just as the success in electoral struggle will always be judged only by the number of votes or seats obtained. Every effort of the communist parties to give a completely different character to the practice of parliamentarism cannot but lead to failure of the energies spent in that Sisyphean labour; whereas the cause of the communist revolution calls these energies without delay on the terrain of the direct attack against the regime of capitalist exploitation.

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