Harry Quelch 1907

Socialism and Parliamentarism

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 3 March, 1907, pp. 137-142;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Several recent events have shown the necessity for pointing out the true relation between Socialism and Parliamentarism. We hear, for instance, a great deal about the severe “set-back” that our comrades in Germany have suffered in the recent elections. The loss of some thirty odd seats in the Reichstag is represented by our enemies as a crushing blow to Social-Democracy, from which it can surely never recover, and they are correspondingly jubilant in consequence. Unfortunately there are some of our friends who appear to regard matters in the same light, and who are equally disappointed and depressed. All this jubilation on the one hand and disappointment on the other is entirely due to a misconception of the Socialist movement and a confusion of the end with the means.

In the same light, to a certain extent, are regarded the policy of the Labour Party in the British House of Commons and the defeat of the Progressives (Liberals) at the London County Council elections. This defeat is acclaimed by the political opponents of the Progressives as a blow to Socialism; and there are some of our friends, so deluded by the term “Progressive” as to so regard it. They ought to know by this time that these Liberals are the worst enemies of Socialism, and that by their halt-hearted and incapable tinkering with municipal enterprise they have not only done their worst to discredit Socialism, but have even hindered the development of public municipal control.

As to our Labour Party, it is claimed, on their behalf, that we owe to their presence in the House of Commons the passing of the Trade Disputes Act, the Amendment of the Compensation Act, and the Provision of Meals Act. I, for one, should be sorry to deprive them of any credit to which they are entitled on this score, and far be it from me to suggest that they have done no good and have been absolutely useless in Parliament. It is the duty of a Labour Party in the House of Commons to defend the interests of the working class on every occasion, and to win for them any legislative concession whenever possible. But that is not the only, or indeed the chief, function of a Labour Party, and to assume that to be so is to entirely misunderstand the objective of working-class political action from a Socialist standpoint.

To the Social-Democrat, whose objective is the Social Revolution – the abolition of capitalism and wage slavery – and the emancipation of the working class, the end is everything, the means nothing. Parliamentary action is not the only means, nor always the most speedy or efficient. In Parliamentary countries we use parliamentarism, because it is there to use; but in doing so the immediate object in view, there as elsewhere, is to win the people to Socialism – to make Socialists, in short – and to organise the working class for the Social Revolution. That being so, the winning or losing of seats in any legislative chamber is of quite secondary importance. What is important is to win votes – not merely as votes, but as evidence of the growing strength of the movement. In other words, as has been well said, we count heads instead of breaking them. That is not to say that the winning of seats is of no importance at all. It is important for two reasons – it enables us to stimulate palliative and revolutionary legislation, and it also helps the propaganda and organisation of the general movement. I do not wish in any way to decry or to contemn Parliamentary action, but simply to place it in its proper perspective. It is necessary from time to time to discount the undue importance too often attached to such action, in consequence of success, due, it may be, to quite temporary causes. Unless such success is correctly estimated, a “set-back,” due to the disappearance of the temporary causes of success – and which, in itself, may be no real set-back at all – is likely in its turn to be over-estimated, and to do harm which might otherwise be avoided.

The so-called set-back in Germany has done no harm whatever, rather the reverse; because the veteran Social-Democrats there know the value of mere parliamentarism. They keep the objective of the movement well in view, and can regard with serenity the loss of a few seats in Parliament while they see the ranks of the organised army of Social-Democracy growing in numbers, in discipline and in enthusiasm. It is only the “reformers” who are cast down and disappointed.

In this country our Labour Party may reasonably expect a far worse set-back, and how that set-back will affect them depends entirely upon the view they take of their function as a party. It is not at all likely that they can hold all the seats they gained by the goodwill of the Liberal Party, if they maintain a position of independence. On the other hand, a strong, independent course will have to be maintained if they are to retain the seats won against the Liberals. In any event, and whatever fresh conquests they may make, the Labour Party may look for a reduction in the number of Parliamentary seats they hold, even with a considerable growth of the party in the country. As to the effect this will have on the party, that will depend, as I have said, on the view they take of the duty of an independent working-class party.

Labour representation or a Labour Party may be regarded from two points of view, the one conservative, the other revolutionary. From the conservative standpoint Labour representation would be claimed, and a Labour Party organised, on the ground that the working class, forming so large a proportion as it does of the nation, is entitled to representation in its legislature and a voice in public administration. That standpoint presupposes the permanence of class society; it assumes that we have practically reached finality in social development – that the existing divisions of society are perfectly just and reasonable, and that the only reason for working-class representation is that that class, being a permanent institution in society, should play a part in the affairs of society equally with the other classes. It is from this conservative standpoint that an analogy is set up between the working class as a class and women as a sex; and it is on precisely the same grounds – i.e., that they form a large and important section of society – that Women Suffragists base their claims. In both cases, it is not because the movement aims at fundamental social changes, but because it accepts existing society as being fundamentally right, that it seeks for expression in the political affairs of the State. At the same time, it is scarcely necessary to point out that this is scarcely the view of a Labour Party and its function which is likely to evoke much enthusiasm among the working class. It is very well to claim that the working class, by virtue of its existence in society, has a right to representation, but if that representation is to be an end in itself, and not a means to an end; if it is simply to mean a conservation of existing conditions, and a co-operation with other classes to make those conditions tolerable, it is scarcely likely to inspire in the working class that activity and devotion necessary to make such representation anything more than a negligible quantity. There is little doubt that it is precisely because this conservative view has existed so long in this country that we are so backward in the political organisation of the working class. Working men have not thought it worth while to organise, to do the hard work, and to make the personal sacrifices, necessary to return a party of their own class to the House of Commons, simply to say ditto to the representatives of the other classes and to do precisely the same work as other men would do who were willing to pay for the privilege of doing it.

On the other hand, a revolutionary Labour Party enters into politics hostile to all other parties and to the existing regime. It regards the present class society as only a passing phase in social development, and works to hasten its destruction. Its objective is not the maintenance or the palliation of existing conditions but their termination by the abolition of class domination and the emancipation of the working class. It takes an active part in every piece of work which in any degree improves the lot or lightens the toil of the working-class; it does not contemn palliatives, but it most vigorously supports those which in their application afford not only immediate amelioration of the lot of the workers, but hasten their final emancipation. The policy of such a party, allowing for the difference in objective, is analogous to that of the Irish Parliamentary Party. That party is openly and avowedly hostile to the British connection, and to British institutions. It does not hesitate, however, to take advantage of the representation and the platform that connection affords, or to make use of those institutions, to secure any possible improvement in the conditions of British rule in Ireland, while steadily pursuing the complete overthrow of that rule which is its declared objective. Irish nationalism is the aim of the Irish Parliamentary Party; an aim which it pursues by Parliamentary means because Parliamentary means are those most effective at the present time. In the same way a real Labour Party should have for its objective the overthrow of capitalist rule and the emancipation of the working-class. It should understand that Parliamentarism is simply a means to that end, and that the means must always be subservient to the end. Once a Labour Party clearly understands that position, it will be not less, but more, zealous in its work for ameliorative measures; but it will also attach less importance to these proportionately, and will be consequently bolder in its attack upon the power and privilege of the possessing class. It will then have less respect for Parliamentarism and for Parliamentary forms and usages, will think little of mere Parliamentary reverses, and will help to inspire the working-class with a belief in itself and in its future.