Can socialism be elected into power?

November 7, 2016

Eric Ruder answers a question that revolutionaries are often asked by looking back at the history of a tradition of socialism that believes capitalism can be reformed away. This and other subjects will be discussed and debated at the International Socialist Organization's one-day Marxist Day Schools being held around the country. Find out more about these conferences at the ISO website.

EVERY FOUR years, the presidential election season becomes an occasion to promote voting as the highest form of political participation.

After the voters vote, however, they are quickly forgotten, replaced by the occasional public opinion poll providing the only reality check on Washington's partisan bickering and the media's round-the-clock cable news punditry.

The outsized role of money in politics, the Electoral College, the manipulation of congressional voting districts for partisan advantage, and the Democrats' long-standing commitment to the interests of Wall Street are among the countless reasons that many working people feel their votes don't matter. The U.S. has the ninth-lowest voting rate among the world's 35 highly industrialized countries.

By focusing his fire on the billionaire class and its iron grip on the American political system, Bernie Sanders--whose open commitment to socialism had long been considered politically toxic in the U.S.--generated tremendous excitement for his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Going to the polls

The fact that he came as close as he did to besting Hillary Clinton--despite her gigantic head start and the hostility of official Democratic Party structures--demonstrates that socialist ideas don't necessarily equate to a lack of political viability.

But while it's possible to elect a socialist into political office, socialism as a system cannot be legislated into existence.

Sanders himself implicitly recognized this early in his campaign, arguing that even if he were elected, his capacity to address the fundamental problems facing everyday working people would be limited. As Sanders said in August 2015:

[N]o matter who is elected to be president, that person will not be able to address the enormous problems facing the working families of our country.

They will not be able to succeed because the power of Corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of campaign donors is so great that no president alone can stand up to them...It is not just about electing Bernie Sanders for president, it is about creating a grassroots political movement in this country.

Sanders was acknowledging that to accomplish his agenda, a movement that breaks out of the confines of the electoral system would be necessary--even when that agenda sets the bar extremely low for what counts as socialism.

Asked to define his vision of socialism, for example, Sanders replied, "[T]here are socialist programs out there that are some of the most popular programs in America," citing Social Security and Medicare. "When you go to your public library, when you call your Fire Department or the Police Department, what do you think you're calling? These are socialist institutions."

THIS DEFINITION of socialism as government-run services goes to the heart of a debate within the socialist movement about what socialism is and what strategies are necessary to get from here to there.

Sanders is emblematic of one current of that debate, known as social democracy, which posits that socialism will come about as a result of the gradual implementation of socialist measures through electoral and legislative means.

After winning elected office, social democrats hope to pass laws to place more and more of society's economic resources under government control, while enacting social legislation to improve living standards and promote political equality.

In the U.S., the Democratic Party never even held out the hope of this kind of transformation taking place. But in other countries, primarily in Western Europe, social democratic parties committed to constructing a socialist society not only competed for elected office, but won.

Yet in the course of more than 100 years of existence, no social democratic party--not even once--has managed to deliver on its vision of socialist transformation.

The revolutionary socialist vision of what socialism is and how to get there stands in sharp contrast to the social democratic conception.

Rather than gradually reforming away capitalism, the revolutionary case starts from Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' point in the Communist Manifesto that the state under capitalism is not a neutral body, but rather "a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."

Thus, government control over production doesn't necessarily represent a break with capitalism. As Engels wrote in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific in 1880:

[T]he official representative of capitalist society--the state--will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into State property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication--the post office, the telegraphs, the railways...

[T]he modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists.

The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine--the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers--proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head.

THE ENTIRE history of social democracy confirms Engels' conclusions.

In the late 19th century, social democrats and revolutionary socialists tended to coexist within the same political parties--for example, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the British Labour Party, and the American Socialist Party.

During the 1890s, the debate between reformists and revolutionaries raged in the German SPD, the world's largest social-democratic party. Though the SPD's radical wing prevailed in the internal party debate, the reformists won in terms of practical implementation of the party's strategy and tactics.

But this was only clarified under the pressure of events unfolding in the early 20th century, which led revolutionaries and reformists to begin differentiating themselves--first politically and then organizationally.

So, for example, when the German SPD's members of parliament shocked the world socialist movement in 1914 by betraying the principle of internationalism to support Germany's entrance into the First World War, it revealed how dominant the reformists had grown within the party.

The SPD had not only come to accept that such a vote was essential to preserve the electoral influence it accumulated over the years, but the party even committed itself to restraining any working-class resistance to the war, proclaiming its support for the German army and navy so long as "the fatherland" was under threat.

By the time the war had ended, Germany's revolutionaries had left the SPD and were attempting to lead the outbreak of workers' struggles against the immiseration of the working class that flowed from wartime conditions. In January 1919, Gustav Noske, the SPD Defense Minister, ordered the arrest of German revolutionary leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who were murdered after their arrest.

COMPROMISED BY their betrayals and under the shadow of the revolutionary breakthrough in Russia that overthrew the aristocracy and fledgling capitalist class in 1917, social democrats saw their influence wane considerably.

But the Great Depression of the 1930s created the conditions in which they could re-establish their relevance--this time, as the saviors of the capitalist system from its own self-destruction.

Social democratic parties helped carry out stimulus spending to get the economy moving again. Though it wasn't necessary to be a social democrat to understand the need for such measures--similar ones were carried out by practically every nation regardless of the party in power--these policies fit neatly within the social democratic project of reform, leading to a renewed lease on life.

Having saved capitalism from collapse, the social democrats again proved their usefulness to the system during the unprecedented economic boom that followed the Second World War.

In Western Europe, and especially in the Scandinavian countries, rapid economic growth allowed the social democrats to deliver on their promise of steadily improving living standards for workers and growing profits for capitalists.

The social democratic insistence on negotiations to orchestrate "social peace" between labor and capital further enhanced their reputation for engineering a kinder, gentler capitalist system.

But slowing growth rates and the return of economic crisis to the system in the late 1960s and early 1970s revealed that social democracy couldn't deliver when faced with resistance from capitalists who urgently sought to restore profitability in tough economic times.

For example, between 1970 and 1973, confrontation was escalating between Chile's capitalist class and the increasingly militant resistance of workers and peasants. Salvador Allende's social democratic government tried to straddle the chasm, pledging to pursue the interests of workers but refusing to countenance any break with the existing political order.

In June 1973, the right wing carried out a coup, and Allende and many of his ministers paid for their misjudgment with their lives. The working-class movement was ruthlessly repressed.

A DECADE later, across Western Europe, coups and the violent suppression of the labor movement weren't necessary.

Social democratic parties, responding to the mere threat by capitalists to disinvest or move their factories abroad, became willing administrators of austerity measures--the same measures being enthusiastically pursued by neoliberal governments under Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the U.S.

The reversal of the reform agenda of the social democratic government of François Mitterrand in France was the classic example. In the Scandinavian countries, the embrace of neoliberal measures such as privatization and deregulation began more slowly and picked up steam through the 1990s and 2000s.

The rightward lurch of social democracy in recent decades illustrated the dilemma facing reformist socialism: Reformists must use tax revenue to fund their reform measures, but tax revenue can only be generated if the system is profitable--so reforms are dependent on a healthy business climate, which is dependent on taking away reforms.

As the Chilean and French examples showed, capitalists can reduce investment or send investment abroad in order to discipline social democratic governments that they think go too far. In the face of capitalist resistance, revolutionary socialists argue for the need for workers to run production themselves, which is precisely the outcome that social democrats have sought to deflect for more than a century.

Without a rapid, sharp break with the existing political order to place the productive resources of the economy under the direct control of the working class, the existing state will remain a tool of the capitalist class.

This state must be replaced with workers organized in workers' councils at the point of production to overcome both the resistance of individual capitalists as well as the armed power of the state to crush working-class solidarity.

Socialism can't be elected into power because it's impossible to legislate that workers organize themselves to take charge of all of society's affairs. The working class can only learn about its own power and come to wield it through the actual experience of participating in living, breathing struggles to transform the world.

It's understandable that those seeking to challenge the capitalist system often turn first to social democratic parties in the hopes that they can deliver on the promise of a gradual and rational alternative to a highly irrational system.

But history shows that such hopes are utopian--if only because the super-rich can't be compelled by electoral means to relinquish their wealth and power. It's this power--directed at preservation of the capitalist market and the profit motive as the guiding principle of the economy--that must be swept away in order to bring the world's vast productive capacity under working-class control, guided by the principle of human need and environmental sustainability.

To be effective, revolutionaries need an organization of their own in order to analyze and strategize about the questions that social democrats neglect--in particular, the strategy and tactics that can help the workers' movement to attain the highest possible level of political consciousness and to act with the greatest degree of solidarity and militancy.

Throughout their history, social democrats have consistently tried to undercut working-class militancy by using the language of liberation to justify the status quo--and portray anyone who resists as "impractical," "ignorant" or even dangerously "subversive."

By contrast, revolutionary socialists attempt to explain why a revolutionary challenge to capitalism is necessary in order to change the course of history.

Further Reading

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