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A Marxist Perspective on Political Participation 

Percy Brabander



We have become all too accustomed to waves after waves of man-made horrors beyond comprehension created by late-stage capitalism. It seems like it is only ever going from bad to worse and infuriatingly, we, the general population, feel powerless. The one thing we are always encouraged to do is vote, but even that feels basically pointless because nothing seems to ever really change. The politicians we elect inevitably let us down and do not follow through on their promises and, once people get frustrated enough, the other party wins, and the cycle continuously repeats itself. Over and over and over again. We only ever seem to get closer to the end of the world as opposed to lasting, meaningful progress. 

Take Trudeau’s Liberal party, for example: they got elected by promising amongst other things to bring Indigenous communities clean water and fight climate change, but eight years later, according to the Council of Canadians, 73% of First Nations’ water systems are still at medium or high risk of contamination and Canada is nowhere near its climate goals. Whenever positive reforms or changes do happen, they are so slow and incremental that by the time one aspect of our society has changed for the better, we are several new humanity-threatening crises deep.

So what do we do? Clearly, continuing to just vote the way we do is not working. This is where we can turn to a Marxist perspective on how to create the real, progressive changes in society that we want to see. To clarify, this does not necessarily mean a complete communist revolution the man just made some good points about political participation.

In the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League of March 1850, Marx argued that workers had to represent themselves politically, and not side with or settle for the Liberal bourgeois candidates. He thought that “worker’s candidates” should be platformed and promoted wherever possible, even if there was no real chance of them winning the election. There were three main reasons for this strategy: “to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint.”

He rejected the argument that doing so would “split the vote” a common argument against voting for smaller, more left-wing parties in Canada and allow reactionaries to win. August Nimtz, Political Science professor, summarizes in his book The Ballots, The Streets, or Both, Marx’s argument like so: “The potential gains from independent working-class political action outweighed the risks of ‘reactionaries’ being elected”.

For Marx, it was worth platforming a leftist candidate even if they did not have a hope in hell of winning  if nothing else, it allowed their message to be heard by the masses and sent the message that they would not settle for catch-all parties who only ever upheld the status quo. If voters only ever vote for the lesser of two evils, it all too easily becomes a race to the bottom.

A few years later, philosopher Friedrich Engels discussed the failure of Liberal “reforms” made in an effort to democratize Europe, his insights remaining relevant today. Following a series of uprisings, Liberal politicians settled for a constitutional monarchy instead of pursuing the revolutions that had been started. This failed to adequately advance workers’ rights and create meaningful structural change, which Engels criticized harshly: “These poor, weak-minded men, during the course of their generally very obscure lives, had been so little accustomed to anything like success, that they actually believed their paltry amendments, passed with two or three votes’ majority, would change the face of Europe.” 

A modern example of the same idea is when people argue that reform cannot fix policing in the United States, therefore the entire police force must be abolished  incremental reforms designed to curb the very worst of a problem are no way to solve deep-rooted, structural issues. 

Operating within the existing parliamentary voting system is not by any means the only or the best way to participate in politics. Historically, it has largely been the masses mobilizing and taking to the streets that has won victories such changes almost never come from the government, but rather from bottom-up action by the people. This can look like protesting, boycotting, striking, petitioning, etc. 

Voting is an important right to exercise and we should feel encouraged to use it, especially to support independent/non-mainstream candidates whose ideas one actually agrees with; but we should not limit ourselves to parliamentary means to accomplish revolutionary/radical goals. 

If we have learned anything from history, it is to use all the resources at our disposal to actively and effectively participate in politics, so we can create the changes in society that we want to see. The better we understand local, provincial, and federal politics, the better we can engage with them to make society better.



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