This paper is written as a contribution to the ideological seminar “The Role of the Left and Social Movements in Elections” held at Kenya National Theater, Cheche gallery on 28th July 2021. I pen this modest contribution to highlight my position on the question as we celebrate the reincarnation of Allende in Gabriel Boric’s electoral victory in Chile. We also celebrate with Bolivia the victory of MAS party Presidential candidate Luis Arce that culminated in the return of Evo Morales. Both Allende and Evo were democratically elected but overthrown by counter revolutionary violence with the help of US imperialism, ushering in neo-liberal governments. There is a need to acknowledge mistakes made, ascertaining the reasons for them, analyzing the conditions that led up to them and then rectifying errors. History is important in our analysis, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Can socialists reform the state apparatus of the current system to become a new and better one? I remind you of Germany in the early 20th century, The Social Democrats were split between reformist who thought they could vote socialism into existence, and revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg, who, while valuing reforms, argued that capitalism and democracy were incompatible in the long run. The pamphlet Reform or Revolution, (Luxemburg, 1900), critiqued the reformism of Edward Bernstein who redefined the fundamental character of labour movement as a “democratic social reform party” and not a party of social revolution. Rosa Luxemburg viewed electoralism as a tool to build class consciousness and extract concessions but not to solve the inherent contradictions. Another pamphlet – The Elections to the National Assembly (Luxemburg, 1918) – argues that our participation in elections was primarily to cast out the bourgeoisie and raise the victorious banner of proletarian revolution. It sounds contradictory to admit the impossibility of building socialism via the electoral path yet contest for electoral positions, right?
Petty bourgeois democrats replaced class struggles with dreams of class harmony, and even pictured socialist transformation in a dreamy fashion. This attitude to the state is a manifestation of the fact that they were sham socialists using neo-socialist phraseology. As socialists, we are opponents of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. We must uphold the revolutionary aspects of Marxism and stand against bourgeois reformism. Marx and Engels argued that the class struggle in France had proved that the working class could not simply lay hold of the readymade state machinery and wield it for its own purpose.
The State and Revolution (Lenin, 1917) gives a good introduction to the nature of the state and why getting socialism is not simply a question of voting for left parties in an election. In Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism (Second Congress of the Communist International, 1920), Lenin, explaining the reason for us to participate in these elections, noted:
The argument that parliament is a bourgeois state institution cannot be used against parliamentary struggle. The communist Party does not enter these institutions in order to carry out organic work there, but in order to help the masses break up the state machine and the parliament itself through action….”
Lenin’s position is rooted in what Marx and Engels argued before him; that a socialist party should stand for parliamentary elections, not with the primary intention of passing reforms and not for a moment renouncing the revolutionary conquest of power by the proletariat. Our participation in election is therefore a matter of tactic rather than strategy. After the collapse of the 1st international, Engels argued against abstentionism (from elections). He wrote on the need to utilize all forms of struggle and conceive them as an overall strategy for revolution. As for the left organizing in Kenya, it is a correct idea for us to participate in both the parliamentary and extra parliamentary struggle, at both above and below levels. This participation in elections is necessary as a rule, unless in the circumstance where the mood of our masses is rebellious and the objective conditions are ripe for revolution. We should however be careful not to relegate ourselves to a strategy of inheriting the existing rotten state which has proved to be a great waste of time for decades across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Our participation in bourgeois elections can be a useful tactic, but there are limits to how far we should go down that road. Our participation must always be in the form of the worker’s parties. Lenin and his comrades formed the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party to maintain their class independence while espousing socialist ideas to the workers. To spend time supporting any candidate running within any bourgeois political party is an opportunity cost in terms of time that we cannot afford. The Communist Party of Kenya believes in elections in so far as it is a temporary vehicle to reach the masses and not a substitute for building a revolutionary vanguard. In the pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (Vladimir, 1920), Lenin’s underlying argument called on revolutionary socialists to work wherever the masses were to be found. This meant communists had to work with reformist trade unions and also participate in parliamentary elections. He correctly analyzed that the workers had illusions in the parliamentary system and therefore they had to capitalize on that platform to educate the masses in order to enlighten and awaken their consciousness. The pamphlet also spells out electoral alliances forged between the Bolsheviks and bourgeois reactionaries. This was a tactical way of reaching the masses to advance their ideological and political struggle against the opportunist and reformist voices. Mwandawiro Mghanga, the Chair of the Communist Party of Kenya (CPK), in the article The 2022 National Elections; Kenyans Think Outside the Box (Kwaela News Network, 2019) addressed the question of participation in the coming elections. He noted; “To them you from the working class in the box and who tear each other apart in your own ethnicity especially during the elections, as you did in 2007/8 and repeated in 2017, thinking you belong to the same ethnicity with them, they use and dump you in the dust bin of poverty, marginalization and backwardness where you will belong until the next elections or until and unless you get yourselves out of the box. For to them you in the box are mere elections statistics and voting machines” He argued that the reactionary politicians have cornered the voters. They use all the means at their disposal, including, but not limited to the press, tribalism, political meetings and all the machinery of propaganda to ensure voters remain permanently fixed in the reactionary box. The people are then forced to decide between corrupt and tribal candidates who hardly think about legislating to really improve conditions of workers. He concludes that the CPK believes in progressive reforms aimed at improving the welfare of the exploited and oppressed as it advances class struggle led by workers and their allies
The Constitution of Kenya 2010 has expanded civil liberties and allows the left to organize overtly. This is an opportunity to fight on all fronts and CPK will therefore field candidates for different positions. In fact, the party has already established a United Political Coalition at the Coast ahead of the 2022 elections. This gives the party a platform to lead debates on issues such as historical land injustices and privatization of the Port of Mombasa, thereby deepening the debate on alternatives to neo-liberalism and capitalism. Our reality is that the masses still believe elections are the only way to bring about a meaningful change. Do we leave these politically activated masses to the hands of reactionary politicians with backward ideas? The coming elections offer CPK a platform to expose the systemic failure of capitalism in Kenya, counter capitalist propaganda, measure our power of organizing and develop class-consciousness among our people.
If CPK is able to capture seats in the coming bourgeois elections, it embarks on reforms –not as a way to socialism, but progressive reforms to make people’s lives better. These policies are clearly outlined in the Minimum and Maximum program of the party (Communist Party of Kenya, 2019). The Kenyan Constitution 2010 can be used to institute many progressive reforms within our current capitalist system. As students of history, we are aware that freedom and liberation of our society will ultimately only be realized when the current system of capitalism is replaced by a historically higher, progressive and human socialist system.
Luxemburg, R. (1900). Reform or Revolution. London: Militant Publications.
Luxemburg, R. (1918). The Elections to the National Assembly. Random House.
Lenin, V. (1917). The State and Revolution. Second Congress of the Communist International. (1920). Theses on Communist Parties and Parliamentarism. Saint Petersburg. Retrieved from marxist.org: https:// www.marxist.org/history/international/cominterm/2nd-congress/ch08a.htm
Vladimir, L. (1920). Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. London: Executive Commettee of the Communist International.
Kwaela News Network. (2019, August 12th). Retrieved from kwaela.co.ke: https://kwaela.co.ke/the-2022-national-elections-kenyans-think-outside-the-the-box/amp/
Communist Party of Kenya. (2019). Communist Party of Kenya. Retrieved from communistpartyofkenya.org: https://communistpartyofkenya.org/87-recent-news/235- summary-of-the-minumum-programe-of-the-communist-party-of-kenya-cpk