On the 2015 Canadian General Elections: Should We Boycott?

no_votar_Eng_2011In the last two posts I have been trying to think through the question of what should be the Left relationship to the 2015 General Elections. In the first post (available here), I articulate what I regard to be the six possible relationships that the Left can have towards the NDP. In the second post (available here), I try to respond to the first two of the five following questions: “a) whether or not boycotting elections actually constitutes a break from bourgeois legality; b) whether or not the reforms being proposed by the New Democratic Party (NDP) are as inconsequential as suggested by boycott advocates; c) what are the conditions necessary for an effective boycott campaign; d) whether a boycott campaign should be used as an organising tactic for organising unaffiliated radicalised workers, feminists and students; and e) whether demarcating oneself from the rest of the Left is an effective tactic in building a revolutionary movement.” I argued there that the boycotting of elections is not a break from bourgeois legality; and that boycott advocates, whilst correct to argue that the proposed NDP reforms are not structural nor sufficiently progressive, do not provide sufficiently convincing diagnosis of the various reforms being proposed, especially as they understate the real effects that the proposed reforms will have on the lives of the Canadian working class and teleological in character. In this relatively short post, I wish to quickly answer the three remaining questions that I posed above. I will argue that there are several preconditions that ought to be met before undertaking a boycott campaign without which the tactic is unsuitable and ineffective. Some of these are technical conditions, but the more important conditions are political. I then posit that while the boycott tactic is not the only method that can be used to accumulate forces, it can be effectively used to do so. Finally, I will argue that the most ineffective way of using the tactic, especially during the small group phase of any organisation, is to use it in a sectarian fashion against other Left activists who are employing one of the other methods in respect to the elections to similarly accumulate forces.

Preconditions

There are several necessary preconditions for the use of the tactic, including – but not limited to – the following: an existing collective of activists (minimum of 3) who have made the decision to organise in a given geographic and/or social area of work for a protracted and concentrated period of time (2-3 years is a minimum); a political discussion about which tactic is to be used on the basis of an analysis of the concrete situation (if this is a new collective the activists may have a limited amount of past experience and links to the masses); the development of a concrete political – tactical plan for the campaign, including articulating goals and alternative revolutionary proposals; there should ideally have been some preliminary social investigation conducted in the area of work that identifies key issues that concern that area of work and are not being address (or are being under-addressed by the electoral parties); and the technical production of preliminary boycott materials, like posters, website etc. It ought to be noted that effectiveness is a demonstration of real political capacity. The flaws and ineffectiveness of the campaign are evidence of the political weaknesses in the collective and the activists.

It should be noted from the outset that the boycott campaign is but a tactic through which one can a) spread their propaganda and begin the process of developing hegemony; b) in the process of developing hegemony accumulate forces; and c) demonstrate the real political power one has through the exercise of the boycott. This latter aspect of the tactic is not currently applicable in Canada, although it may be in various First Nations communities and territories, because of the underdeveloped nature of Left hegemony in the political sphere. Thus, the boycott campaign has to be understood within the context of a political strategy through which the Left can develop its political hegemony and develop higher levels of organisation, the fighting capacities of the working classes can be honed and strengthened, and political power can be won. The relationship between the tactic and the strategy is one of the most important political and theoretical questions in a situation in which Federal Elections are around the corner. However, given that it is a tactic, it needs to have clear deliverable goals than can flow into future tactics. This latter point is something that governs the concern about the sectarian use of the campaign, which will be discussed at the end of the post.

A technical precondition for the boycott campaign is that there needs to be a minimum number of people committed to not only the campaign, but also who understand the relationship between the tactic and the larger strategy of how they wish to develop political power. This number at bare minimum is 3 because without this number, basic activities like the production and distribution of materials, etcetera, simply are not possible in a protracted fashion over the period of an electoral cycle. It is likely that the initiative will be initiated, but will quickly burn out. If one has less than this number of people, especially if one is a lone individual, then one should honestly recognise that one is simply abstaining from the electoral process, and pursue other tactical options. This collective must have already decided to commit itself to an area of work for a protracted period of time. This commitment is important because an effective boycott campaign will only be the first step in constructing the necessary political, social, economic infrastructure in said area of work, and without a commitment to this work over a period of time will likely mean that all of your work will be for naught.

A political precondition for the boycott campaign is that it must be the result of a thorough and open tactical discussion within the collective. It should not be assumed that the boycott tactic is the appropriate one in all situations. Rather, the decision employ this tactic should be grounded on an analysis about the current situation in both structural and conjunctural terms. A conjunctural analysis of the situation should be distinguished from the structural analysis. A conjunctural analysis is of course determined by a structural analysis of a situation, but differs inasmuch that the conjuncture is the particular formation that the structure articulates at a given time and place. Thus, while Canada is structurally an advanced imperialist capitaist country, with internal colonies of FIrst Nations peoples, the manner in which this structure comes to bear in 2015 will be different than it did in 2014. The use of the boycott tactic should be appropriate to the given conjuncture. Thus, in 2015, given the high rate of anti-Harper sentiment across the country it could be argued that the tactic will not be as effective as it was in 2011, and thus another tactic should be employed. I am not saying that this is necessarily the case, but it is these kinds of questions that one needs to answer in arriving at a conjunctural analysis.

If one does decide that there are sufficient grounds for a boycott campaign and opts to employ the tactic then the collective must develop a political – tactical plan for the campaign. The political – tactical plan should have the following phases of work:

  1. A period of social investigation (political and technical): this period of time should be dedicated to understanding the geographical or social (university, workplace etc.) area of work’s relationship to the elections and the issues that concern said area of work i.e. the formal campaign should be preceded by basic social investigation and the boycott campaign should be organised around the issues that are mentioned by neighbourhood people in the context of “focus groups.” These focus groups ideally will help develop some basic links to the masses, who are vital for the production of an appropriate analysis, the basic components of a revolutionary proposals, and constant feedback on the quality of the campaign, So if for example, neighbourhood members are particularly antagonised about cops in the area because of police harassment, then a focus on different electoral promises to increase cop funding could be particularly effective. Furthermore, one should analyse what other players exist in the area of work and what their relations are to the electoral process. Thus, if there is a radical anti-cop brutality group in the neighbourhood then one may want to include them in one’s boycott campaign organising committee as full and equal partners, and not treat the campaign as one’s sole property. If there is a ‘get out the vote’ campaign being organised by anti-poverty groups to help empower poor disenfranchised people then one may have to reconfigure the terms of the campaign etc. If one has not had an opportunity to conduct social investigation prior to the campaign then the campaign itself can be used to conduct social investigation, although it will be far less effective, because you will have to guess what are the most salient issues to a neighbourhood and you will have to use the campaign to introduce yourself to a neighbourhood.
  2. A period of drafting a manifesto and alternative proposals (political): This is perhaps the most important aspect of your work and the period of time spent on this should be the bulk of your pre-campaign work inasmuch that this is where one is talking politics not within your collective alone, but also with people in the area of work. On the basis of the preceding social investigation it is necessary to collectively prepare a boycott manifesto that is short, clear and speaks to the conjuncture in which you are in. Furthermore, an alternative set of policies to solve the relevant problems should be articulated. It is important to articulate that these policies in a concrete manner and not simply as abstract goals, like “revolution” or “communism.” The question one needs to pose is: what is a concrete communist alternative proposal for curbing police brutality in the short, medium and long-term? Different ideas and messaging should be tried out with the masses prior to the campaign, so that your messaging is effective, but also reflects the ideas and concerns of the masses themselves.
  3. A period of material production (technical): It is important to initiate a campaign with some basic materials on hand, fully realising that one will need to constantly produce new materials as the campaign continues. This is a demonstration of basic technical capacity and competency. Again, these should take into consideration what the people in the area of work have already suggested and have said about previous iterations of the propaganda. Do they like that poster image? What about the wording? If one does not have the basic mass links through which these answers can be answered then this technical problem is in fact a political problem. These materials should include: posters, flyers, banners, a website, placards etc. You do not want to be producing basic materials when the campaign has already started.
  4. Regularly planned activities (technical): It is vital that given the structural critique of bourgeois democracy that alternate forms of democratic practice be established. These alternative spaces will need to be constructed. So what events is one organising in week 1, 2, 3 of the campaign so that this process of democratic construction can occur?

Should It Be Used?

The use of the boycott campaign tactic can be useful in the context of a small group of activists who have newly formed a student group, feminist group, Serve the people initiative etc, who to go into a neighbourhood where there are already high rates of abstention, or a university/college, and try to forge a deeper unity amongst themselves and the masses. Many people attracted to the boycott campaign come from the pre-existing broader Left milieu and typically default to a critical left position or abstentionism. Workers with families in neighbourhoods normally do not have time to join such campaigns unless they are trying to fight for something tangible. Indeed, why would they “actively boycott” something that they are already “passively boycotting”? This is not to suggest that the campaign could not be effectively organised in a neighbourhood, but for this to occur one has to already have done a substantial amount of prior legwork and organising. Thus, the campaign can be useful for two things: 1) drawing in new people, most likely students or youth, who are already part of the broad Left milieu and have a radical critique of the existing electoral parties and the capitalist system; and 2) giving these people a campaign to work on so that they can develop preliminary links amongst themselves and with a given group of people in the pre-determined area of work. Thus, the boycott is not a goal unto itself, rather it is a means to achieve a goal i.e. the limited accumulation of forces and the successful implantation of your group in the area of work. The boycott campaign can also be used as a way to start a discussion within the broader milieu of Leftists who critically endorse the NDP to shift away from a critical endorsement to other more radical strategies. Indeed, one of the comparative strengths of the boycott position is that it structurally addresses the general elections and finds them wanting. The abstentionist position on the other hand, for example, provides no clear position in respect to the elections and thus squanders a political opportunity.

It is vitally important that comrades who use this tactic should have a clear understanding of why they are using this tactic. There is, of course, a historical reason to use the boycott tactic and that is to create a line of demarcation. The use of the electoral boycott as a line of demarcation is historically best expressed by the Left Communists who emphasised the construction of the communist party through a demarcation of the communist movement apart from that of centrist and reformist elements who had fallen into parliamentary cretinism. Sylvia Pankhurst, who founded The Workers’ Dreadnought newspaper, was one such communist who advocated for the boycott tactic as a form of line of demarcation; although it ought to be noted that she was willing to subsume herself own position to that of the larger collective who utilised parliamentary tactics. Lenin of course was sympathetic to drawing a line of demarcation against centrist and reformist elements, but felt that the raising of the boycott tactic to one of strategy was an inappropriate way of drawing the necessary line of demarcation. Indeed, Lenin wanted to distinguish between the tactical use of parliament from the collapse into strategic parliamentarism. I think that it is premature to use the boycott campaign tactic as a line of demarcation and ought to be understood as one viable tactic by which to accumulate forces.

Lines of Demarcation

I do not believe that it is appropriate at this time to use this tactic as a line of demarcation within the Left. Indeed, to do so would be simply sectarian. One is not part of the “advanced” simply because one is boycotting the elections. As I discussed in the last post, many people refuse or cannot be be part of the electoral process for less than revolutionary reasons. Rather, it should be understood as a tactic that is supposed to help achieve the aforementioned specific goals. Too often, boycott advocates have used the tactic as a way of demonstrating to people that they alone are the most revolutionary. Some have gone as far as to suggest that if a critical Left activist votes for the NDP then they are actually not as anti-imperialist as the boycott advocate, or that they are in fact liberals. This is because of a confusion between the critical Leftist position and the position of those who are truly NDP believers. There is a qualitative distinction between those who are firmly ensconced within the NDP and those on the Left who critically support the NDP in the context of an electoral campaign. It is important to remember that often those who critically support the NDP do little more than to simply vote for the NDP on election day, but do little else to ensure that they get elected. As I noted in the first post, there are a number of different tactics possible and all of them are to some extent plausible tactics, although at this time I think entryism or running one’s own candidates are not necessarily the most useful. If boycott advocates begin with a more-revolutionary-than-thou perspective, which often carries with it a great dose of moralism, then this prohibits political discussions that can create the future conditions for greater political solidarities amongst the radical Left. Contemporary differences about the use of the boycott tactic often are due to different analyses of the contemporary conjuncture and it is vital that the discussion about the nature of the conjuncture be one that is sustained. One cannot shortcut what inevitably will be a long discussion. I know that some would argue that this long discussion is not worth having as much of the Left i.e. those who do not already agree with your collective will never be won over, but think that this argument rests on a misunderstanding about the political maturity of the contemporary Left, including one’s own maturity. Furthermore, given the relative weakness of the Left at the present time, nearly all of the tactics will attract some forces, thus it is not viable to say that one’s tactic has been proven to be effective in the class struggle. Finally, the sectarian deployment of the boycott tactic unnecessarily alienates one from the larger milieu of the Left of which many may be, in fact, sympathetic to a boycott line, but are yet to be convinced about its effectiveness. This alienation actually makes future joint work around campaigns difficult, if not impossible, and ensures that those sections of the Left will likely never be drawn closer to one’s own hegemonic project. This I believe demonstrates a lack of foresight and political capacity.

It ought to be noted that this problem is one that the Left has regularly faced. Most notably in Germany in the 1930s, where the Communist Party of Germany’s (KPD) advocacy of Third Period tactics alienated it from the very social democratic workers that they hoped to win away from the Social Democratic Party. It also ensured that no unity was possible between Communists and Social Democrats when the Nazis began their meteoric rise to power because of the poisoned relationship between the respective parties. There is one thing to criticise a coalition partner after one has developed a trusting and political relationship, there is another to slander it in a sectarian fashion. This is not to suggest that one day it will not be necessary to use the boycott of formal bourgeois state institutions as a line of demarcation, however, the conditions for that do not exist currently i.e. the organs of dual power have yet to be established and dual power has yet to achieve a strategic equilibrium with that of the State. Indeed, the KPD was a far larger and more significant revolutionary organisation than anything that exists in Canada today and history has amply demonstrated that it too was premature in drawing a line of sharp demarcation, which resulted in them becoming politically alienated from the largest section of workers and activists. It even alienated them from the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party, who were keen to work with the Communists, and drove them away from communism.

In this final post about the Canadian general elections I have argued that the boycott tactic can be useful in helping a small collective of activists who have committed themselves to an area of work to accumulate forces and intervene into the situation. I have argued however, that for the tactic to be useful a series of political and technical preconditions must be met, otherwise the tactic will not be effective, and in fact will demonstrate a lack of political maturity and capacity. The tactic should not be regarded as a goal in itself, but rather as a means through which real political goals, like the development of a basis of real support in a community, can be developed and achieved. However, it is vital that boycott advocates not prematurely deploy the tactic as a line of demarcation, given the weakness of the Left, and the fact that any premature line of demarcation will simply alienate boycott advocates from the rest of the Left. Some boycott advocates will argue that they want to draw the line of demarcation because it clarifies who the real revolutionaries are, however, this delineation is premature given the lack of dual power institutions and the current balance of forces. My next post will be concerned with Galvano della Volpe’s Rousseau and Marx.

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7 thoughts on “On the 2015 Canadian General Elections: Should We Boycott?

  1. Interesting post. Incidentally i think Lenin’s 1907 text Against Boycott is worth reading in relation to this question-especially as when Lenin is brought into these discussions its usually only Left Wing Communism which is cited.

    1. Thanks Karl for the recommendation. I haven’t read it before and will definitely read it in the next few days.

    2. So I just finished reading it. Its really a good piece. In fact, I think it says quite nicely what I have been trying to articulate in these posts, although admittedly Lenin’s pithy summation at the end has a conceptual clarity that my posts lack. I especially agree with Lenin’s argument that the boycott tactic is one to combat bourgeois illusions in the context of a revolutionary upswing, and that its improper use could actually result weaken one’s own agitation’s effectively. I think that this comes back to a concrete analysis of the situation inasmuch that I do not believe, or in Lenin’s words, have an “unbelief in an upswing.” I think that the adoption of Third Periodist language and tactics, especially amongst Maoists in Canada, but one could say more generally across much of Europe and North America, is reflective of an over-optimistic belief in an upswing, despite the fact that there is little evidence to suggest such an phenomenon is occcuring.

      I think the only major historical difference, and it is a significant one, is that Lenin is writing this in the context of the aftermath of the 1905 revolution and the Bolshevik’s were a far more significant force and the level of the class-struggle was still higher than anything that is going on today in Canada. Thus, the question still remains whether, in the context of a small group situation, rather than in a situation where there exists a party in the proper and robust sense nor the existence of significant working-class movements the boycott tactic can be effectively used as a response to bourgeois elections as a means to do the very elementary first steps of the phase of the accumulation of forces?

      Also, I was curious to know what you think your approach will be to the upcoming American elections?

  2. I appreciated all of these posts, and in particular their thoroughness and sensitivity to the needs of a viable political movement. I don’t have any comments at the moment beyond that, but I wanted to offer my encouragement and thanks if nothing else.

    1. Thanks! It means a lot to hear your encouragement and thanks. I really that the creation of a politically viable left movement is the most difficult political problem of our time. I was wondering what you finally decided to do? Did you vote? Did you abstain? Did you spoil your ballot? Also, I think that we need to start a process of reading groups/collectives that begins the process of indexing ourselves to the situation.

  3. I ended up attending and working with the RCP boycott supporters on a couple of events. I found it a great chance to start getting out into the city and talking with people and contributing to a collective group for the first time in my political life. Despite being fairly well-read in Marxism, I hadn’t been able to do much political work before the last couple of months because the left’s organizational presence was so minimal and largely skewed towards small anarchist collectives that didn’t appeal to my partner and me.

    So I didn’t vote, since I felt it would be hypocritical at that point. The Liberal candidate ended up winning my riding in N. York by a landslide, as happened in many places. I feel like reading your posts while participating gave me a better sense of the situation in which I was working.

    1. I am glad to hear that you found the posts useful while you were participating in the boycott campaign. I am also happy to hear that you found the boycott campaign to be a useful tactic to talk to a broader group of people, getting out into the city and contributing to a collective project. Toronto can be a very isolating city and I know that it took me many years before I finally could/can call it “home.” The boycott campaign did the same for me when we ran it in 2011 in Toronto. I am curious about how the rally in Scarborough went? Oh, and go Jays go!

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