Ezra Otieno is an organizer and a member of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) in Kenya. He is also a member of Ukombozi Library
There is a prevalent misconception that Marxism is solely concerned with economics. It is undeniably true that Marxists believe that society’s economic relations form its foundation, and that you can’t understand the dynamics of a particular society unless you understand its underlying relations of production and class. “What distinguishes the various economic formations of society,” Marx wrote in Capital, “is the manner in which…surplus labor is extorted from the immediate producer, the worker.”
Arguments among the Kenyan left regarding participation in parliamentary elections have rekindled great interest on the topic of bourgeoisie elections to the left worldwide. The dilemma facing the Kenyan left is an appropriate point for engaging with the radical thoughts of Vladimir Lenin on the meaning of participating in parliamentary elections. This paper discusses his view of the link between strategy and tactics in parliamentary elections. The paper also summarizes attempts to decipher the relevance of Lenin’s arguments on parliamentary elections.
To start with, the state is a crucial component of the superstructure as it includes not only coercive agencies and official bureaucracies, but also legislative and executive bodies that switch hands between rival political parties, at least in systems where elections are held. Even in the most democratic form of the state, Engels defined the modern state as “the institution which the ruling classes—landowners and capitalists—have constructed for themselves in order to safeguard their social advantages. As a result, the working class must become involved in politics. To accomplish liberation, it must form its own autonomous political party.”
In a resolution in 1871 written for the International Workingmen’s Association’s London convention, Karl Marx argued that the “only way to guarantee the success of the social revolution and its ultimate end—the abolition of classes, the working class must create a party that is different from, and hostile to, the former parties formed by the propertied classes.” The workers’ party must never be the tag tail of any bourgeois party; it must be autonomous, with its own aims and strategies. Perceptions of many people on politics are often shared around the restrictive boundaries of the multi-party system. Politics are viewed as the domain of politicians that have little to do with ‘us’ and by ‘us’ of the working class. In the Kenyan context, just like in other capitalist systems in the world, any progressive party must be driven by the masses. Participation in elections by leftists must be informed by the ideological leanings of the masses. In Kenya, where a large number of people are still not ideologically conscious, the duty of every revolutionary is to conduct political education with as many people as possible until such a time when subjective and objective conditions are realized. Radical political education would entail determining the tactics and strategies to be used to capture state power. Until then, the mission of any serious left party is to conduct radical political education among the masses.
Other sections of the left movement use the term “infiltration”, meaning joining bourgeoisie institutions, such as Parliaments, and attempting to change them from within. Looking at the current conditions in Kenya, it would be practically impossible to bring change this way given the tribal inclinations of our political parties. Any progressive party would have to stoop to the level of these parties and mobilize along tribal lines and as argued earlier, the masses that are not yet politically conscious will treat this party as the usual liberal party. We can also learn from the experiences of “progressive” comrades who have vied for political seats and how they conformed to the norms of the capitalist system and did little or nothing at all to change the material conditions of the masses. These comrades seem opportunistic as they engaged in bourgeoisie elections without a critical analysis of the ideological levels and material conditions of the people.
Political parties that have ruled Kenya since independence have championed bourgeoisie interests at the expense of the masses, consequently alienating them. It is no wonder that most people do not take elections seriously. For many people, elections are chances to “eat” from the competing politicians. When the masses engage in politics, they realize that no party appears to be working in their best interests. Most liberal parties are meant to safeguard the interests of those referred to as the “captains of industry”, that is, bankers, industrialists, merchants, investors, and other corporate bigwigs. People who desire to bring genuine and meaningful social change need to question themselves constantly on the meaning of elections. If elections are about the government, adopting policies that benefit businesses must be for the benefit of the working class. Regardless of the party that is in power, the massive machinery that runs the state is inextricably linked to commercial interests that are held by the revolving doors of lobbyists, attorneys, and the socalled “regulatory” officials who alternate between the state and private sectors.
In my opinion, under no circumstance should a truly leftist party take part in bourgeoisie elections given the current conditions in the country. Revolutionaries can only take part in elections as a tactic when they are certain that the masses are politically conscious to understand the limits of bourgeoisie elections. Until then, engagement in radical political education should be the number one priority of our party