Impressions from the electoral campaign of the „Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores“ („Left and Workers’ Front“, FIT) and the participation of the PTS
On June 12th, Alejandro López, worker in Zanón and leader of the Ceramic Workers’ Union in Neuquén („Sindicato de Obreros y Empleados Ceramistas en Neuquén“, SOECN), won a seat in the provincial parliament of Neuquén in the first provincial elections in which the FIT presented itself as an electoral front. This victory is an important step in the FIT’s electoral campaign and can serve as a first example of a revolutionary electoral campaign as well as of what to do with a seat in the parliament from a Marxist point of view. In this sense, I would like to write down some impressions of the work of the FIT so far, and especially of the PTS within this front.
1. Background: Why an electoral front?
a) Why participate in elections as a Marxist revolutionary in the first place?
The Second World Congress of the Third International, held in 1920, laid the basis for a Marxist appreciation of parliamentarism as opposed to the parliamentary work of the Social Democratic Parties which, by disconnecting parliamentary work and mass struggle and essentially following a strategy of parliamentary reforms to transform capitalism into socialism, degenerated to enemies of the proletarian revolution (see the “Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism”).
The Congress sustained that the bourgeois parliament, which in the initial period of capitalist development had a somewhat progressive role, in the epoch of imperialism has lost all signs of progressiveness and has transformed into an instrument of deception and class violence, and therefore cannot answer any of the needs of the masses. In this sense, it is the task of Marxists world-wide to smash parliamentarism. However, this can only be done by the struggle for power by the proletariat, “which is characterised by the intensification of small and partial struggles to the general struggle for the overthrow of the capitalist order as a whole. […] In this mass struggle, which develops into civil war, the leading party of the proletariat must as a rule consolidate all its legal positions by making them into auxiliary bases of its revolutionary activity and subordinating these positions to the plan of the main campaign, the campaign of the mass struggle.” Under specific circumstances, the bourgeois parliament can be used by revolutionaries as such an “auxiliary base”, “to help the masses from inside parliament to break up the state machine and parliament itself”. The task here is revolutionary agitation from within the parliament, unmasking the bourgeoisie in front of workers who still have some confidence in the bourgeois institutions.
However, the Congress made it clear repeatedly that parliamentary work must always be “totally and completely subordinated to the aims and tasks of the mass struggle outside parliament. […] Since the centre of gravity lies in the struggle for state power carried out outside parliament, it goes without saying that the question of the proletarian dictatorship and the mass struggle for it cannot be placed on the same level as the particular question of the utilisation of parliament.” While communists can use the parliament for revolutionary agitation, this does not mean that parliamentary work is useful under any and all circumstances. Like all other tactics that revolutionaries can use to show the correctness of their program, parliamentarism as well is only a tactic, and as such subject to the concrete circumstances of the class struggle:
“On the other hand an absolute recognition of the necessity of actual elections and of actual participation in parliamentary sessions under all circumstances by no means flows from the recognition in principle of parliamentary activity. That is dependent upon a whole series of specific conditions. Withdrawal from parliament can be necessary given a specific combination of these conditions. This is what the Bolsheviks did when they withdrew from the Pre-parliament in order to break it up, to rob it of any strength and boldly to counterpose to it the St. Petersburg Soviet on the eve of the insurrection. They did the same in the Constituent Assembly on the day of its dissolution, raising the Third Congress of Soviets to the high point of political events. According to circumstances, a boycott of the elections and the immediate violent removal of not only the whole bourgeois state apparatus but also the bourgeois parliamentary clique, or on the other hand participation in the elections while parliament itself is boycotted, etc., can be necessary.”
As a tactic, then, the participation in bourgeois elections and parliaments must always be seen in terms of how they can serve the strategy of the conquest of power by a revolutionary mass insurrection. In this sense, electoral campaigns are campaigns not for the maximum number of votes but for the revolutionary mobilization of the masses, using strikes, demonstrations, and in general methods which serve to politically activate the masses. One method to achieve this is to call for the election of workers instead of “experienced politicians” to show a clear class perspective and a hint of workers’ democracy as opposed to a democracy of the elites. Also, in order to prevent the corruption of elected comrades, the Congress called for the control of all the work of the parliamentary faction by the Central Committee of the party. The elected comrades are responsible to the decisions of the party, and must subordinate their parliamentary work to the more general task of the construction of the party and the mobilization of the masses, or in other words, to revolutionary work outside of parliament.
The basic conclusions drawn by the Second Comintern Congress, while they are more than 90 years old, are still valid today, since we still live in the epoch of imperialism and decadence of capitalism. In this sense, while certainly – just like any other tactical and programmatic issue – the question of parliamentarism constantly needs to be adapted to today’s circumstances, especially the conclusions concerning the use of electoral campaigns in a sense of mass politization can be applied today and are effectively the basis for the participation of the PTS in the Workers’ and Left Front.
b) Electoral fronts vs. long-term projects
Another important issue for the formation of the FIT is the question of electoral fronts as a temporary united front based on partial agreements in a concrete situation, as opposed to long-term projects that are based on more profound agreements in terms of program, strategy and practice. The FIT is by no means a project that has been designed in terms of a long-term alignment of the PTS with the PO, but on the concrete necessity of a united workers’ front against bourgeois repression (see 1c). As such, all tactics of a united front front apply in this electoral campaign, such as joint actions towards the masses and political-ideological struggle of the forces within the front. In this sense, the front also serves the purpose to accentuate the differences between the PTS and the PO in terms of strategy and the construction of a revolutionary party. In fact, after the electoral victory in Neuquén, the polemics between the PTS and the PO accentuated quite a bit, since the PO sees their way of party construction (which is based somewhat on the extension of the party bureaucracy into some bourgeois institutions) threatened by the PTS, which is gaining more and more ground, especially now that representatives of the most important PTS project in the past 10 years (Zanón) have been elected by thousands of workers.
c) Forming the FIT: PO’s objection to earlier fronts and why they adhered this time
For anybody knowing something about the Argentinian Left, it came as a bit of a surprise that the PO, which in the past has constantly rejected forming any kind of front with the PTS on a national scale, agreed to form an electoral front with the PTS (the FIT also has other forces, but they are basically insignificant and do not have a lot of political influence in the front). The PO is seen in the Argentinian public as THE reference of the Left, for its influence in the movement of the unemployed in the 2001 crisis. It is the biggest party in the radical Left, and has always adopted a position of absolute superiority over any other force of the Left, and especially the PTS. While the PTS in earlier elections formed fronts with other Trotskyist organizations, the PO used to put up candidates themselves. Now, this has changed. The explanation for this behavior is basically an electoral reform passed last year by the Argentinian parliament with the votes of every single bourgeois and reformist party which introduces mandatory primary elections like in the United States. This means that, in order to be able to present candidates in the presidential elections, a party (or an electoral front) needs to hold simultaneous open “test” elections where at least 1,5% of the population that is allowed to vote participate. While the Argentinian Left has won in the past altogether about 4% of the votes, neither PO nor the PTS (or the electoral fronts that the PTS used to do before) can be certain to pass this barrier by themselves. This law is basically a proscription of the Left, and the FIT was formed as an electoral front in defensive terms. Together, it is possible that they break this barrier and thereby achieve a major political victory against the attempts of proscription by the bourgeoisie. The FIT is also defensive for the extension of political influence of the Kirchner government after the death of Néstor Kirchner last year, which has sparked a wave of support for the “progressive” politics of the government, like universal child support and others. However, the Kirchner government is moving fast to the right, and is increasing their attacks and repression against the workers’ movement, intervening with the police in demonstrations which they didn’t use to do a couple of years before. For all these reasons, a temporary “unification” of the radical Left was necessary, but naturally on the basis of a firm program.
2. The program of the FIT
The program of the FIT is the result of a long struggle with the PO, which, after announcing 14 “emergency measures” against the crisis on the day the formation of the FIT was made public (which didn’t include, for example, the right of abortion (which doesn’t exist yet in Argentina) or a condemnation of the electoral reform), didn’t even want to form a clear Marxist program for the front. They argued that the 14 points were enough, even though they clearly where an “emergency program” and didn’t include the entirety of the complex reality of class struggle in Argentina and world-wide today. But in the end, a program was written and decided that reflects the structure of a transitional program aimed at the mobilization of the working class on the basis of class independence.
The program begins with a short analysis of the world situation and the growing struggles against the crisis world-wide, and on that basis analyzes the current situation of Argentina, condemning the electoral reform and denouncing the “half-measures” against the crisis, and proposes a campaign “to mobilise workers and activists, and promote an independent political pole with a clear programme, demarcated from the capitalist factions, including those of the centre-left, so that the workers can become a decisive political factor and lead the exploited sections of the nation against capitalism and imperialism. The electoral campaign of the Workers’ Left Front seeks to prepare workers for the task of struggling for their own government.”
Among the most important points of the program are demands for a higher minimum wage, against inflation, the redistribution of working hours, against precarization, against the payment of the foreign debt, for the expropiation without pay and under workers’ control of banks, big land owners, and major industries, against the trade union bureaucracy, and for a legislators’ salary equal to a workers’ and the possibility of the recall of representatives, as well as several demands reflecting internationalism (no to the capitalist restoration in Cuba, support for the Arab revolution etc.), and the demand for a government of the workers’ and the oppressed.
The only thing the program doesn’t do is to show a clear path to socialist revolution, in terms of a concrete strategy for the construction of a revolutionary party. In fact, it doesn’t even make mention of the necessity of a revolutionary party. The only allusion to the self-organization of the masses and the necessity of a revolutionary party (while it does talk about a revolutionary program) is to “prepare workers for the task of struggling for their own government” and for the “mobilisation of the exploited and oppressed”. This discrepancy between the demands of a transitional program and the lack of the reference of a revolutionary party, and in this sense the lack of reference to a clear revolutionary strategy, can only be explained by the big differences among the forces of the front, especially the PO and the PTS, in terms of the construction of the party and the role of the self-organization of the masses, which can also be seen very clearly in the different take of both on the electoral campaign.
In conclusion, the program is by no means perfect, but it lays a good basis for a temporary unification of forces against a concrete threat (the electoral reform). It is not 100% a revolutionary program, but as I said before, this front is not long-term, but a temporary solution to a concrete problem, which can also show the differences among the members of the front and thus help the PTS gain a clearer profile against the PO, when it comes to self-organization of the masses and the construction of a revolutionary party.
3. Electoral campaign: differences between PO and PTS
The strategic differences between the PO and the PTS are clearly visible in the way each organization takes on the electoral campaign. While for the PO, the campaign is entirely based upon passing the 1,5% barrier (and thus gain the most votes possible), the PTS has also used this campaign to deepen their theoretical and programmatic work. To give you the two most important examples:
a) One of the biggest event the FIT has so far organized was a public meeting of all the youth organizations of the FIT aimed at mobilizing the radical left student activists. In this event, the main candidate and leader of the PO, Jorge Altamira, held a speech about the necessity to mobilize the masses. Not in one word, however, did he speak about the necessity to organize these masses in a revolutionary party (or even for the masses to organize themselves). He kept alluding to a very inconcrete subject of the “masses” that will rise and do the revolution. The main candidate and leader of the PTS, Christian Castillo, however, held a very different speech. I want to quote one part of it that will give you a good impression of what he was talking about:
“Crises like the current one are big opportunities for the development of revolutionary organizations, if we are consequent in the affirmation that the crisis we are living in opens more and more doors to pre-revolutionary situations and wars of different kinds, that means to the continuation of politics by violent means, according to this famous formula of Clausewitz that the great Marxist revolutionaries adopted as their own. Consequently, the new revolutionary generation that is present here needs to be conscious of the relevance that – apart from the current situation – the reflection about the problems of insurrection acquires nowadays for all of us, including those problems that concern the military problem that revolution that deserves this name poses.”
Castillo was talking about the re-appropriation of a strategy of mass insurrection led by a revolutionary party that the Bolsheviks used and that has been lost in decades of Stalinist degeneration and centrist deviations. In other words, instead of basing the electoral campaign on purely “democratic” agitations against the electoral reform, the PTS is opening up and spreading important strategical questions to vanguard sectors in order to prepare them politically and programmatically for coming tasks. After the event, the PO reacted to Castillo’s speech in terms of “it was too theoretical, too academical, hard to understand”. While it is important that revolutionaries use a language that the wider masses understand, they must not water down their program and it is clear here that the PO does not want to talk about strategy. The PTS, on the other hand, is using even this electoral campaign to deepen their understanding of the most important problems of world-wide class struggle.
b) In the campaign in Neuquén, the most important demand of the PTS was to put the main worker activists of Zanón, which is a symbol of workers’ democracy and a bastion of the working class of Neuquén and all of Argentina, on the top of the list, in an effort to spread symbols of class struggle and class independence. PO objected at first, but due to the relative political weight of Zanón in the entire province, they had to except eventually. The initial posture of PO shows clearly that they depreciate the importance of workers’ democracy. They do not want to see what the SOECN, with important PTS participation, has done to help spread class struggles and the idea of class independence and self-organization in Argentina and world-wide. This is not solely because the PO dislikes the PTS as its direct competitor, but because the party construction project of the PO is fundamentally different from the PTS project which is based on the regroupment of the vanguard sectors of the working class who were forged in the class struggle and led by workers’ democracy. In this sense, the victory in Neuquén is a direct threat to the PO, which is why they reacted very hostile to the PTS in the week after the elections, ripping down PTS posters and denouncing the open post-election meeting to debate what to do with the won seat (see 4) as a unilateral PTS action not agreed upon by the other forces (which, even if it were true, poses the question of why the PO doesn’t want such a meeting based on workers’ democracy).
These two examples show clearly that the PTS and the PO have a very different understanding of the purpose of the FIT and the conduction of the electoral campaign. In abstract terms, we can say that the biggest danger for Marxists of an electoral campaign is to slide into mere parliamentarism, subordinating the concrete questions of class struggle to meaningless debates in the bourgeois institutions, and underestimating strategically important questions for a comfortable hiding place within the system; or in other words, pressure from the right. The campaign by the PTS (which by the way could always be better – like a stronger focus on women’s rights and against sexual oppression) shows from my point of view that they have identified this problem and try to consciously combat it by focussing on the most important lessons of revolutionary parliamentarism. The PO, on the other hand, does not give much importance to these lessons, underestimating the strategically important questions at hand and focusing only on winning many votes. This might raise the question why the PTS would even want to form a front with the PO if they don’t pursue a clearly revolutionary strategy, but as I said before, the front is a defensive measure against rising attacks by the bourgeoisie, and it can also serve to accentuate the differences between the PTS and the PO, thereby winning new comrades who see the importance of strategical discussions because this front gives them much more audience than a candidature on their own would have. As one PTS member said in an internal meeting, the differences between the PTS and the PO have never shown themselves as clearly as now that they are in a common front.
4. Delegates in Neuquén: a step forward in bringing the revolutionary program to the masses
The first real test for the FIT was the provincial election in Neuquén. The main candidates for the FIT where Alejandro López (independent) and Raúl Godoy (PTS) from the SOECN for the provincial parliament, and Patricia Jure (PO) for governor. As I said before, there were a couple of big disagreements between the PO and the PTS about the importance of Zanón in the electoral campaign. But in the end, López and Godoy could present themselves on top of the list, giving the concept of workers’ democracy a wide audience in a bourgeois election. But the campaign does not end there. The forces of the front have decided to rotate the won parliamentary seat among the different forces, so as to show in a small measure what the principle of rotation that is an important part of workers’ democracy can look like, even in the limited range of the bourgeois parliament which wouldn’t allow for recall, for example. Also, the representative of the FIT in the parliament will only gain the same salary as a normal worker – everything else will be contributed to a strike fund to help workers’ mobilizations in the entire country. And finally, in the night of the election, López and Godoy called for an open meeting to debate what the FIT should do with their parliamentary seat – a measure that the other forces of the front do not agree to. But this measure is also a very good sign for how workers’ democracy could work – since the political opinion of the masses is not only important once every four years but they can influence the politics of the FIT in the parliament more concretely. As I said, the bourgeois parliament doesn’t allow for a full implementation of principles of workers’ democracy, but in the measure that it does, the PTS in the FIT wants to exploit these possibilities and use the seat for the support of the struggles of the masses and to show them an alternative to the undemocratic “democracy” of the bourgeoisie.
by Stefan Schneider, RIO, Buenos Aires, June 2011