Elections, the state, reform and revolution

HburgMay4 2011 2

A major electoral battle is shaping up in November that will determine the political terrain of struggle for the next period. Some on the left are less than enthusiastic about throwing themselves into this battle, not seeing any difference between Democrats and Republicans and the viability of change through elections dominated by the two-party system.

This approach doesn't see the need for multi-class united front electoral alliances and the strategic objective of a decisive defeat of right wing extremism. But perhaps lying much deeper is the idea that radical change and the revolutionary transition to socialism will not occur via the electoral path.

In this view, socialism will be ushered in via a general strike during a crisis of capitalism. The capitalist state will be smashed in one blow and a socialist state established in its place. Some see change only through force and violence based on their understanding of the Russian or Cuban revolutions, or even our Civil War.

The CPUSA has long argued against this mischaracterization of history and its implications for our path to US socialism because it has nothing to do with contemporary realities and institutions, or with the traditions and history of democratic struggles. In addition, arguments that place violence as the principle - and only - means to a socialist United States undermine mass democratic involvement. This approach will never win majority support among the American people. Such notions reinforce ruling class stereotypes of communists.

The CPUSA has long said the transition to US socialism will be much more prolonged and complex. The left's challenge is to involve the active participation of the overwhelming majority of Americans. Just like the socialist society we envision - peaceful, humane and democratic - so too must be the path as it will shape every aspect of the new society.

Marx and Engels foresaw the possibility of peaceful transition particularly under conditions of the democratic or bourgeois republic. Engels wrote in Critique of the Erfurt Program: "One can conceive that the old society may develop peacefully into the new one in countries where representatives of the people concentrate all power in their hands, where, if one has the support of the majority of the people, one can do as one sees fit in a constitutional way; in democratic republics such as France and the USA..."

Even Lenin initially thought a peaceful transition to workers' and peasants' power in Russia would be possible as a result of the crisis brought on by WWI, but the armed intervention of western imperialist powers changed the course of history.


Such a process inevitably raises the question: Can the state in the stage of monopoly capitalism, be an arena of class struggle? Can the working class make inroads, gain power and even transform the state for its own purpose?

The state is the form where a class asserts its common interests and includes the legislature, the judiciary and the armed forces as well as the executive. A revolutionary transition under conditions of advanced monopoly capitalism is exceedingly complex where the capitalist state is far more developed. Its institutions, the ideological, bureaucratic and coercive apparatus have undergone centuries of development. How a struggle is conducted against the most heavily armed and powerful ruling class in history is no small matter.

The contest for power involves winning the ideological and political battle in civil society and the institutions of state as well, chief among them the democratic legislative arena. With the decisive conquest of political power, the working class will use this power to "wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state..." wrote Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto.

The state it seems is not smashed but "reshaped" (in the words of Engels) in accordance with the balance of class and social forces from an instrument of class oppression and repression, into one of liberation. In the process the state is transformed, and the foundations are laid for its eventual withering away.

In this view, power is attained through democratic means, through the working class electing its representatives to legislative bodies and through political action, including strikes and demonstrations. Democratic institutions are transformed in the process - existing ones become more democratic and new ones arise to extend and deepen participation.

Political power is wielded to transform the state apparatus at every level, even while the economy is dominated by monopoly capital. Curbing monopoly power restricts their ability to resist, obstruct and use violence against a revolutionary working class movement.

The working class can redirect social development by embarking on a path of converting the economy from one dependent on fossil fuels to one based on renewable resources, while retrofitting buildings and homes and rebuilding and modernizing the infrastructure; from one based on militarization to one used for peaceful purposes.

It can radically expand investment in the public sector, including education and public health care systems, public parks and recreation and the arts, establishing public banks, utilities and cooperatives; redistribute wealth through progressive taxation; and expand democratic rights and end discriminatory practices. It can also begin the process of demobilizing the repressive apparatus of the state, by instituting new policies that democratically control the police and begin demobilizing the standing army, implementing a peaceful foreign policy and dismantling or destroying weapons of mass destruction.

The ability to carry out such reforms, their scale and scope, depends on the social and class balance of forces. The more favorable they are for the working class, the more radical the reform and change.


Marx foresaw the possibility of achieving socialism through universal suffrage. "A historical development can remain 'peaceful'" wrote Marx, "only for so long as its progress is not forcibly obstructed by those wielding social power at the time. If in England, for instance or the United States, the working class were to gain a majority in Parliament or Congress, they could, by lawful means, rid themselves of such laws and institutions as impeded their development, through they could only do so insofar as society had reached a sufficiently mature development."

Given the development of democratic institutions and traditions in the US, involvement in the electoral arena and political action is essential and grows in importance. It entails building broad anti-ultra right, reform and anti-monopoly coalitions that win majorities and thus power in every democratic institution e.g., school boards, planning boards, city council, county boards, state legislature, federal office, in "red" and "blue" states.

The process underway in Central and South America, where socialist oriented movements are in power and aim to lead a transition to socialism (i.e., Venezuela, Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc), is particularly relevant to our reality. Revolutionary transformation is proving infinitely more complex and protracted than many appreciated. Victories are won by degrees, beginning with small reforms and leading to more radical ones which gradually supplant market capitalism with socialist oriented policies.

This type of transition is by and large peaceful, utilizing the democratic structures and mobilizing millions, notwithstanding the provocations and resistance of the domestic corporate class and US imperialism.

There are important electoral victories that can be built upon in the U.S., including the historic Obama victories and in New York City where the new progressive reform mayor and city council are challenging income inequality, school privatization and the city's stop-and-frisk/racial profiling policies. Other progressive victories including the election of Ras Baraka as mayor of Newark, the election of socialist Kshama Sawant in Seattle and the sweep of labor candidates in Lorain, Ohio, raise the possibility for initiating broad reforms.

These advances, including the emergence of a labor led third party, are possible through greater activism in the electoral arena. This requires the expansion of voter rights, including restoring them for those presently and previously incarcerated, building a grassroots independent voter education and mobilization apparatus - and left candidacies. Likewise expansion of the democratic process will ease restrictions on third parties and limit the power of money. The "Move to Amend" fight to repeal Citizen's United is essential.

All this underscores the key political task addressed by our 30th national convention - an all out effort to build the broad labor led democratic movement and build the Party in all directions. But this can't be separate and apart from involving the Party and the mass movements in the 2014 elections to defeat right wing extremism.

John Bachtell was elected national Chair of the Communist Party USA at its recent convention in Chicago in June.

Photo: union rally, Harrisburg, PA May 2011      Ben Sears/PA


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  • Seconding what comrade Brad said; I recommend Gus Hall's "Basics", while not modern, it is quite informative.

    If you can slog through the whole thing, get one (or all) of Henry Winston's books.

    Posted by Max Hyland, 08/19/2014 12:09pm (4 years ago)

  • The Ballot not the Bullet:
    We can talk about all the great things a socialist America can/will do, but the question for now is how do we get there? The new chair of the party offers excellent reasons for taking the electoral path to power. First, there is the authority of Marx and Engels who thought that certain societies, the U.S. for one, could achieve a peaceful transition to socialism via the ballot if the representatives of the working class can concentrate power; if they can represent the majority of the voters; and if there is universal suffrage without voter suppression. Then there is the moral argument of means and ends. We want a just, democratic, humane, peaceful socialism. The means to that end should be the same. Most Americans will not support violent routes to power. It would only provoke a conservative backlash that would only benefit the extreme Right and proto-fascists. Finally, the repressive nature of the corporate state is militarizing police departments across the nation who will/can use deadly force against certain types of civil disturbances. The electoral contest for power is most intense at the state and local level. But the Left has some very good advantages over the monopoly corporatists and extreme Right-Wing. Its ideological message is much more powerful and persuasive compared to the toxic racist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-worker, pro-corporate messages from the Right. The Left can field more attractive and appealing candidates, unlike the misogynist and racist candidates on the Right. With the help of labor unions, the Left can better build the infrastructures, alliances and coalitions that will mobilize millions and expand political participation. Candidates on the Left should contest every public office, even for dog catcher or street cleaner. The task maybe long term, even generational, but the Left can win majorities and can win elections to achieve state power which will radically transform American society. NT

    Posted by Nat Turner, 07/03/2014 7:25am (4 years ago)

  • To favor peaceful tactics is one thing. Working people would naturally prefer to seize state power peacefully.

    Pacifist ideology is another thing, and is decidedly NOT revolutionary.

    I prefer the way Gus Hall used to formulate the question of the peaceful path to socialism. If, upon winning the great majority of the working class to socialism, the capitalists are willing to peacefully concede their power, then we have a peaceful revolution. But if the capitalists send their National Guards, employ mass violence against the revolution, then that is how revolutions turn violent.

    I highly recommend comrades read (or re-read) Lenin's classic The State and Revolution for a concise and profound analysis on this topic.

    Posted by Brad, 07/02/2014 4:12am (4 years ago)

  • This is a very good contribution. It's timely and it marks a good beginning by the new chair John Bachtell. Course, John is not a newby. Some may say we're way away from consideration of a transition, we're locked in a battle that at this moment that appears to be interminable. We are indeed locked in that battle the outcome of which will greatly impact how we live and struggle. The recently concluded CPUSA convention is a good dose of perspective - action and ideas, forward looking ideas and a great treat on utube. One very important idea contained in the above thesis is that transition is a process - an historic process and that very process is contingent on the all important relationship of forces. How strong, clever, adept, unified, flexible, did I say unified, focused, understanding of political reality and a ream of other working class and democratic characteristics - all required. If you now see not only the enormous strength of capitalism, the unparalleled military might, the 360 degree economic scope, the political penetration etc. but also see the inability of capitalism to save the earth, feed the children, prevent war, clothe the naked, provide dignity to humans. It is in these struggles, day to day struggles, that the relationship of forces is being forged, it is in the current moment that the experiences in struggle forms the politics and idea systems. The experience in the2014 election, warts and all, is a shape up, one of many. What we do - how well we fight, makes a difference.

    Posted by Beth Edelman, 06/30/2014 9:56pm (4 years ago)

  • "It follows, therefore, that workers who place political unity with “their own” bourgeoisie above complete unity with the proletariat of all nations, are acting against their own interests, against the interests of socialism and against the interests of democracy. "
    - Lenin
    Theses on the National Question

    Posted by Proletarian Revolution, 06/27/2014 1:31am (4 years ago)

  • Oftentimes, blind to the perils of (or, as M L K called them, "quagmires")war, oppression, racism, misogyny, genocide, militarism and environmental destruction (which last three may be one in the same, note the Vietnam atrocity), right wing, center forces and even liberals, often acquiesce, or even serve the whims of capitalism and imperialism.
    To serve war is to aid the most backwards sections of capitalism, and to devastate the conditions of life of the poor, both in the U. S. , and in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Ukraine.
    That is why, if the voters of the 2014 November elections are educated and mobilized, with the legacy of the hundreds of thousands(now millions) which, M L K, the communists, anti-war activists, the preachers, the teachers and their unions, the congregants, the ecumenicists, the steel and auto workers and their unions, the longshoremen, the garment workers, carpenters and their unions, the Black and women's liberationists the environmentalist backers and others swell the polls to vote peace, freedom and jobs, an avenue to minimize the violence, war, environmental devastation, genocide and omnicide(a term used by our late, great Henry Winston) of capitalism and imperialism may be opened.
    The question is not so much whether the people will use violence to stop deadly oppression-but whether the deadly "omnicide" of capitalism will be stopped in time to same humanity and the planet, as Angela Davis' message to the 2014 Communist convention communicated.
    It is not the organized or unorganized people, opposing capitalism in name or function, which pose a threat of violence, but the trained designs of capitalism and imperialist which not only has a track record but a functioning modus of bombing, polluting, on an unprecedented scale, annihilating fauna and flora of the earth, including its precious peoples.
    The highly developed prison-military-monetary-"intelligence"/counter-intelligence-industrial complex, which aids the adventures of capitalism and imperialism, with its World Bank, N A T O and International Monetary Fund (to name some of its more infamous state(the capitalist's state institutions) to the destruction of the world's peoples and organizations, has been challenged consistently, in one form or the other, for over a century, whether by W. E. B. Du Bois' NAACP or Pan African Conferences- or Lenin's Bolsheviks or his Comintern.
    Part and parcel of the challenges-all international in scope-from W. E. B. Du Bois' solving and correcting the "Colorline" to Gandhi's and Martin Luther King Junior's "Soul Force", have been the demands for the expansion of democracy, literacy and peace.
    These three can and must be effected in the concrete on November 4th 2014, by the broadest sections of voters of the multi-national, multicultural, multi-generational configurations in the history of the U. S., if we are to continue along the paths of peace and progress for ourselves and for the world's peoples.
    All who hate peace, socialism, communism, equality, democracy, literacy and love- must be confronted at the voting booth that day, much the same as the whole, united, South African people confronted these same haters on 26-29 April, 1994, to challenge Apartheid, racism, war, illiteracy and military brutality in their country.
    We must teach that the world is one world, that life on our planet is being seriously threatened by the capitalist state, that we must fight for peace, socialism and equality, in line with the strong, long traditions of our country and the world.
    To do this, we must vote, and fight for the universal vote-especially the vote of labor.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 06/26/2014 11:40am (4 years ago)

  • Good analysis, and good projected political program of action butressed by the political wisdom of the founders of the modern communist movements. I also think it is good it is good to draw upon the experience of the struggle, showing how that has enriched our thinking on these matters. You can't have a practical map of the territory you have not surveyed. The very reason for being of a revolutionary party is to help the working class to develop class consciousness and to become a political force for itself in it's own interest. This is almost like a revolutionary prerequisite, a standard bearer for all parties that claim to be striving for socialism.
    I say this because I hear from the self-righteous left what we should have did, could have did and what we plan to do but very little about we are doing, how that will be improved and how we are adjusting our thinking to make it happen. So these projections put forth by Bechtel on how the left should consciously intervene in the electoral process with the ultimate aim being to defeat the ultra right is in essence a call for a united progressive democratic front.
    Lenin always reminded us of the fact that practice is richer than theory, which means that on the question of revolution we must practice our way into correct thinking. History gives us no choice for as Marx, Engles and Lenin pointed out long ago electoral politics has always been the arena for class struggle and we got to be in it to win it.
    One last on the question of violence. Marx said violence is often the midwife of the old society pregnant with the new. Looking at actual history and current events it seems to me that it is the ruling class who always initiates the violence. They are the ones who murder, and repress the people who are fighting for progress. We the oppressed are obligated to pursue socialism by peaceful means but they have no such moral obligation.

    Posted by Frank Chapman, 06/26/2014 10:59am (4 years ago)

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