WSF (1998): “Parliament is a Rotten System: Vote with Struggle, not Paper”

WSF (1998): “Parliament is a Rotten System: Vote with Struggle, not Paper”

From Workers Solidarity, magazine of the Workers Solidarity Federation, volume 4, number 2, fourth quarter 1998. Complete PDF is here

IS PARLIAMENT PROGRESSIVE?

It is better to live under a parliamentary government than under a racist dictatorship. At least under the parliament we have basic rights of free speech and free association. The laws are not based on race, but claim to be opposed to all discrimination. In addition, labour law has been improved in some respects- notably the extension of union rights to farm workers and domestics.

However, parliament is not now, nor will it ever be, a road to workers freedom. The State as a whole (courts, police, soldiers, government bureaucracy, ministries, parliament) is not a neutral tool. It was set up because we live in a capitalist society divided between rich and poor. The rich -the bosses and top government officials- exploit the poor- all the workers, the unemployed, the labour tenants. The government exists to enforce the power of this minority over the rest of us.

WHERE DOES GOVERNMENT COME FROM?

Class divisions emerged when people invented agriculture many thousands of years ago. Once farming began, more food was produced than was needed. The extra- the surplus- was taken over by a small group who stopped working and began to live as parasites on the majority. This small group – the ruling class- took control over the surplus by stealing the land and tools from the rest of the people. The armed force of the State was used to make and defend this process.

This is what happened in the days of ancient Egypt, Rome, and China. What is called “civilisation” was in fact the emergence of brutal exploitation, leaving as its monuments the useless ruins of tombs and monuments for kings and other ruling class figures. These buildings are symbols of greed and brutality, not of achievement.

IS PARLIAMENT A DEMOCRATIC SYSTEM?

In the old days, the exploited majority was usually slaves and peasants. Today, the exploited are “wage-slaves”- the working class and poor. Our modern system is not slavery but capitalism, based on big corporations and governments owning all the land, factories, mines, and offices.

In all times, the exploited majority – the oppressed class- has always fought back. There is a class struggle between the oppressed class and the ruling class.

The struggle of the working class has forced some concessions from the ruling class. Parliament is one of them. But parliament is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the existence of a parliament means that the ruling class has been forced to give some basic rights to the working class.

On the other hand, though, parliament is still part of the capitalist state. Parliament is only 400 seats in a vast machine in which most real decisions are taken by unelected, faceless, top officials such as permanent secretaries and directors. If a parliament got out of hand, it would be overthrown by the ruling class, probably through a military coup or by foreign intervention, invasion, “dirty tricks”, and the flight of money out of the country. Real power is not in parliament but in the army and police, the top levels of officials, and company boardrooms.

DOES PARLIAMENT LEAD TO SELL OUTS?

It is rare that extreme steps need to be taken- the “sweet life” of the average paid politician means that they soon lose touch with people on the ground, and become co-opted to the ruling class. The power of the ruling class, and the co-option of the politicians, ensures that it is business as usual- and the ruling class gets the decisions made that it wants. How many of the comrades of yesteryear now support privatisation, retrenchments, and capitalism (with a few more Black faces at the top)? This problem has taken place again and again, and in country after country. It has led to the downfall or sell out of every single socialist party that has ever put a foot in parliament. But even if parliament were a way forward, we would still oppose it. Freedom must be brought about by the direct action of ordinary people everywhere – not by the actions of mere 400 “leaders” who take decisions for us.

THE UNION IS YOUR PARTY -THE STRUGGLE IS YOUR VOTE

Comrades sometimes say: if we do not vote, how can we make our voice heard? The answer is that the workers and the poor can be heard through the democratic civics and trade unions.

Trade unions are much better vehicles for workers interests than any political party.

FAT CATS

Parties only want people to vote every five years. At election time, they want to be voted in to make money. In your union, you have a say at every meeting.

Parties demobilise the workers, telling them to rely on the leaders and the government. Unions mobilise and unite the workers to struggle for freedom.

Parties try to use the government to improve matters. The problem is that t

he politicians get high pay and disappear from the sight of the grassroots. The government system also acts in the interests of the bosses all the time.

PHAMBILI BASABENZI

Unions organise workers as a CLASS to FIGHT the bosses directly, with workers real muscle: strike action, the go-slow, occupations.

Parties include all elements, including bosses and tribalists. Unions are made up only of the WORKING CLASS. Unions must be INDEPENDENT of all parties, and all non-working class forces.

BUILDING A REVOLUTIONARY WORKERS MOVEMENT

BOSSES GOVERNMENT

We live under an unfair system. Workers do all the work. They build every house, every car, every road, grow every crop, run every office. But workers get nothing. They are poor, they have bad schools, and they are looked down upon by the bosses. At work, the workers are driven like slaves. At home, their families suffer unemployment, crime and misery. The bosses get everything- nice houses, fancy clothes, elite education, holidays in the sun. And government does not help the workers. It just does what the bosses want- privatisation, flexible labour, cuts in education, retrenchments in the public sector.

FREE SOCIALISM

As long as the bosses rule, workers will be poor and oppressed. Workers must take the bosses down from their ruling place. Workers must take over factories, mines and farms, and use them to benefit the working class. Instead of a boss’s government, workers will run society through their trade unions (allied with democratic working-class civics). This is libertarian socialism.

Tomorrow is built today. We must start to build a revolutionary working class movement. The starting point must be the trade unions. The unions must be kept democratic. They must be independent. They must educate the workers to fight for socialism. They must mobilise the workers to fight back against the bosses in the spirit of no compromise. In this way, the workers will be welded together as a CLASS able to fight in their own interests.

ORGANISE

More than unions, we also need to build an organisation that will spread the revolutionary idea amongst the workers. Such an organisation will expose the bosses’ and governments’ lies, and help show the workers the way forward. This organisation will not aim to RULE the workers- it will encourage and educate the workers to fight back, and it will join in the workers’ fight. But it is only the workers who will change the world- ONLY THE WORKERS CAN FREE THE WORKERS.

The alternative to parliament is WORKERS STRUGGLE, WORKERS. THE UNION IS YOUR PARTY. VOTE WITH STRUGGLE- NOT AT ELECTIONS!

WHOEVER YOU VOTE FOR, THE BOSSES GET IN

For the ruling class bosses, the main use of parliament is the way that it distracts the working and poor masses, and tricks them into thinking that change can come about through putting a piece of paper in a box every five years.

Parliament always leads to betrayal. In 1914, there were powerful socialist parties in the parliaments of most European countries. But all these parties voted for World War One, a savage war between rival groups of bosses for land in which millions died. In 1973, the people of Chile elected a left-wing parliament. When the parliament took some steps at reform, workers made even more demands. The rich got worried and used the army to take power and kill the militant workers- 11,000 died in one year.

And in 1994, the people of South Africa elected a parliament on the basis of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which promised more jobs, houses, land, electricity and education. Two years later RDP was replaced by the anti-worker GEAR programme of privatisation, retrenchments, flexible labour, cuts in social spending etc…

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About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).