Tag Archives: moshe machover

Anti-war anniversary: Party with all-round strategy needed

Moshé Machover looks back at a decade of anti-war protest. This is an edited version of his speech to the March 9 ‘Ten wasted years?’ school, organised by the CPGB

Moshé Machover (photo credit: David Isaacson)

Moshé Machover (photo credit: David Isaacson)

The high-water mark of the anti-war movement was the great demonstration of February 15 2003, the biggest that I have participated in – and I am sure that is true for many others here too. It did not stop the war and it would have been very surprising if it had, but nothing very much seems to have come out of that movement. The question is why?

Of all the similar wars of intervention – what have been called ‘slaughter for humanitarian purposes’, perpetrated on behalf of the US-led ‘international community’ – the Iraq war was the only one that generated such protests. The first I can recall was Kosova in 1999, over which much of the left was confused; then there was Afghanistan in 2001; more recently there has been Libya, Syria and Mali. Remarkably also in the case of Libya much of the left was divided, and again it is worth asking why.

Some have claimed that the big Iraq demonstration 10 years ago was responsible for preventing war against Iran today. I think this is highly doubtful – there are many other considerations. Of course, the march was not without use – just the feeling of being in such a big crowd is a good thing. But my question is, why have we been unable to repeat such large demonstrations?

The attitude of the organised left – in Stop the War Coalition it was mainly the Socialist Workers Party and later the section of the SWP that split to form Counterfire – is that the anti-war movement provides an opportunity not to assert the revolutionary socialist view, not to assert a Marxist analysis of the impending war, but to use this movement for ‘leverage’. I mean leverage in the sense of using a small weight to move a larger one. A small group hopes to use the movement in order to move a much larger public through some kind of ‘united front’.

In my first real political activity I was sent by a Stalinist-Zionist movement to collect signatures for a worldwide peace petition during the cold war. Some communist parties were very small, but could ‘lever’ a lot of peace-loving people through these organisations. Of course, the Stalinists had no intention of making a revolution – they were about defending the Soviet Union – and on these terms the peace petition worked quite well. They did get leverage through a whole series of organisations that are very reminiscent of the types of bodies run by the SWP, Counterfire and so on that we have today. There was the Democratic Youth Movement, which had a succession of festivals in the ‘people’s democracies’, the Democratic Women’s Movement and a whole series of fronts for the various CPs.

But there is a price to pay for this doubtful privilege: you have to moderate your own analysis, as those people you are trying to lever are not entirely stupid: they do not want to be manipulated and they are prepared to form this kind of long-term alliance only provided that the left does not say things that they strongly disagree with. In February 2003 you could see SWP posters and placards, but there were many more Liberal Democrat placards – and, of course, Lib Dem support vanished not long after that – and there were also very big Islamic groups taking part.

Now, I am not implying in any way that far-left groups should not have taken part in this huge demonstration or in other anti-war movements. But they should have used the occasion to put forward their own specific revolutionary-socialist analysis of the situation. What was missing was a distinct, working class, leftwing presentation. The far left felt it had to adapt to what its bourgeois partners were thinking about the war.

Anti-war arguments

Some of the people who march against war are pacifists, who just think that war is bad. Again, I am not saying that we on the far left should not concur that war is a horrible thing, but this is not the mainargument – it is an additional, a supporting argument against war.

Others have opposed some interventions because they say they lacked ‘international legitimacy’ or ‘legality’. In the case of Iraq it was clear that, as Blair stated, there would have to be a second United Nations security council resolution, so even in his terms it was not legal. And this actually influenced a lot of people: the Liberal Democrats opposed the Iraq war (until it actually began) on the grounds that it was illegal. Had the UN passed a resolution making the invasion legal, then they would have had no argument. Again, it is not a bad idea to point out the illegality, but this is not our main argument.

Then there are those who oppose war because it is so expensive. In fact this ‘cost of war’ argument is made not just by those who oppose wars, but also by those who wage them. There is a certain conflict of interest here, because war is very expensive, especially in these times of austerity, when so-called ‘defence’ budgets are being cut. But there is also the so-called ‘defence’ industry, which does not want to cut back.

Some people oppose war on the grounds that aggressor states have evil or unjustified aims. In the case of Iraq it was a very widespread argument that what the Americans were really after was Iraqi oil, which is to some extent true, but I do not think this was the main reason for the intervention and this certainly should not have been used as a main argument by Marxists. For example, the only resource Afghanistan had going for it was lapis lazuli, used for blue dyes!

Another argument made against the Iraq war was that Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction which he was accused of stockpiling. But suppose that he did! And, by the way, no-one was seriously claiming that Iraq had atomic weapons. The term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is in itself deceptive: it lumps together hydrogen bombs and mustard gas. And when Blair said that Iraq possessed WMD he was talking about poison gas. Again, what if Iraq did have this?

The problems of these arguments about the secret, evil intent of the aggressors are twofold. One, there may not always be obvious ‘evil intent’; the reasons given for war and intervention may be semi-convincingly depicted as humanitarian, as in the case of Libya. These rebels in Benghazi are going to be slaughtered so ‘we’ must save them. If your main argument against the imperialists’ intervention is that they are doing bad things, but this is not immediately apparent, then you are disarmed. And this is actually what has happened to a lot of people on the left – not just the usual suspects, but people who ordinarily should know better. They are confused and have justified (or semi-justified) the intervention in Libya.

On the other hand, if you are not ready to justify the intervention on such grounds but want to oppose the war on the basis of ‘good versus evil’, then you are pushed into actually idealising the victim of the aggression. This is very obvious in the case of Iran, where some of the bigger masses that the left groups seek to leverage are devout Muslims, who are not averse to a harsh theocracy. It is not that the planned American-Israeli war against Iran is ‘good versus evil’ in the way it is portrayed in the bourgeois pro-war press, but merely a reversal of this position – suddenly these regimes become staunch ‘anti-imperialists’.

I think that the lesson of all this is the need to organise independently – not in the sense of refusing to act together on a specific issue in a tactical way with people who have other motives. But one should do it in a way that does not inhibit us from putting forward our own analysis.

Who and why

The question then is, what should be our main argument against these interventions? At this point I cannot resist telling you a story from the Talmud. The Talmud is a huge compendium of Jewish legal and theological disputations ranging over several centuries, but it also contains various stories. Some of them are just fairy tales, but others are reports of actual events. One of them recounts a discussion between three sages towards the end of the 2nd century in Palestine, which was then under the rule of the Roman empire. The discussion was over the attitude that should be taken towards the Romans.

The first sage says that the Romans are not so bad. They build markets, bathhouses, bridges. They bring civilisation. The second sage keeps quiet in the discussion. The third sage says, look, it’s notwhat the Romans do, but what they are doing it for. They build markets as places for lodging whores. They build bathhouses for their own enjoyment, and they build bridges in order to collect tolls, to tax us. So don’t look at what is done: look at who does it and why.

According to the story, a fourth sage overheard this conversation, blabbed about it, and it got to the authorities. The first sage who praised the Roman empire was not touched. The second sage who had kept silent was sent into internal exile. But the third one had the death sentence passed against him and he had to go into hiding. I think this is a very instructive tale, which has a moral lesson.

The question is not whether or not the purported immediate aim is good or not – to save the rebels or whatever. The question is what the bigger picture is about: why are these wars being waged? You can make a whole list of interventions carried out for ‘humanitarian purposes’. It is a system, a method – although this method of justifying war is relatively new, a post-cold war phenomenon.

All the big wars in modern times, up to and including World War II, had been between the major capitalist countries over the competitive division of the world between themselves, over who could become the ‘top dog’ of the imperialist hierarchy. I think another war of this type is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. It may arise again – no-one can prophesy with certainty – but if it does it would be entirely catastrophic, given the weaponry that exists. So the last one in history for the time being is World War II.

Then during the cold war the world was divided, polarised, between the two main superpowers. They had a whole series of agreements to achieve this – Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam. In the period from 1945 through to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, wars were tools for the policing by the respective superpowers of their own mutually agreed spheres of influence. There were also conflicts between the two big blocs in cases where the borders were not sufficiently clearly defined – Korea certainly was a war of this kind and Vietnam arguably so. But additionally there were wars within the blocs, where one power would exercise itself militarily within its domain and the other superpower would not intervene. For example, the USA and its allies did not intervene when the Soviet Union made a regime change in Czechoslovakia in 1948, or when it intervened very forcefully in Hungary in 1956. Some Hungarian rebels called for American intervention, but that did not happen, as it was contrary to the established agreements and would have been destabilising.

Nor did Stalin intervene when the west crushed the resistance in Greece. Immediately after World War II, the Greek Communist Party and its resistance movement were as important as they were in Yugoslavia. But in Yugoslavia the west did not intervene and allowed the partisans to take power, while in Greece the imperialists, Britain mainly, did intervene, because, according to the agreements between the two major powers, Greece was in the western domain. Stalin not only did not intervene, but he actively betrayed his communist allies in Greece.

That period ended in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now we have a world which is structured differently, with one major power at the summit of the capitalist pyramid. It is not a case of the ‘imperialist countries’ versus ‘the colonial countries’ – each state has a role within this hierarchy. It is an intricate system, but certainly there is a top dog. And that top dog would like to assert its right to police the world as it wishes. So, instead of two domains, where in each case there is a major power policing its own backyard, we have one world, one domain, with one superpower that claims, along with its major allies – not least Great Britain and Israel – that it has the right to police the whole world.


It is on these grounds that imperialist war must be resisted. It is part of the capitalist system – and a vicious and dangerous part from the point of view of revolutionary socialists. What the US is trying to do is to legitimise and to normalise its role as world policeman, and it is this that we ought to oppose. This is the major argument that I think the left should put forward in opposing wars.

We should never support a war undertaken by our own ruling classes. Often they are undertaken for domestic reasons. Kissinger said of Israel: it has no foreign policy, only domestic policy; and this is actually true of most states – their foreign policies result from internal class contradictions.

Of course, there are additional arguments that are useful to mention in each case, but this main argument applies just as much to Mali, Syria and Libya as it applied to Iraq and will apply to Iran. It is in principle incumbent on the left to oppose this role of world policeman. Why? Because we know what would happen if there were the possibility of socialist revolution anywhere: this world policeman would bring its power to bear against us. That is why it is essential to build up our opposition both practically and theoretically in order todelegitimise these police actions.

Finally I think it is important to distinguish between a ‘single issue’ form of opposition and one based on class analysis. It is the difference between protest and the presentation of an alternative. In order to do protest you do not really need a single, mass organisation based on the working class, and armed with a socialist programme. All you need is an organisation like STWC, which resists bad wars. Then you have another organisation to resist the cuts.

But in order to actually present an alternative you need an all-round theory, an all-round strategy. You need an organisation, a party. A party that is not just about protests, but whose main purpose is about presenting an alternative to the existing order of things.

(This article was first published in the Weekly Worker)


Joining forces against war and expulsions

Milton Keynes Hands Off the People of Iran and the local Stop the War Coalition group joined forces for a meeting on the threat of war against Iran reports Dave Isaacson (this report was originally published in the Weekly Worker).

Moshé Machover (left) and Dave Isaacson at the meeting. Photo: © Brian Robinson.

Comrades from the Hands of the People of Iran campaign in Milton Keynes have responded to the recently escalating sanctions and war threats against Iran by working closely with the local Stop the War group to build opposition to any imperialist intervention. We worked together to organise a joint Hopi/STW public meeting to discuss these issues on Monday May 28.

Over 20 people attended, which for a town such as Milton Keynes is reasonable. The meeting was addressed by Israeli socialist Moshé Machover, who is also a member of the Hopi steering committee. He gave an excellent opening, looking at the reasons why policymakers in the US and Israel want to see a change of regime in Iran and why some actively favour the methods of war to achieve such an aim. Moshé examined the long-term strategic interests of Zionism in Israel in particular. He argued that these interests flow from the fact that Israel is a certain type of colonial settler state, based upon the total exclusion of the indigenous population, to the extent that this can be achieved (unlike some other settler states such as South Africa and Algeria, where native peoples were needed for their labour-power).

With Israel’s determination to scupper any hopes that Palestinians have for an independent sovereign state on the one hand, and the Zionist nightmare of ‘demographic peril’ (the fear that the growing Palestinian population will increasingly outnumber Israelis) on the other, the very presence of the Palestinians is intolerable to Zionism. Comrade Machover explained that the solution that many Zionists have longed to put into practice is to simply expel the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza: ie, ethnic cleansing.

Indeed the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is on record telling students in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in November 1989 that “the government had failed to exploit politically favourable situations in order to carry out ‘large-scale’ expulsions at times when ‘the damage would have been relatively small. I still believe that there are opportunities to expel many people’.” Israeli provocations that lead to a regional conflagration involving Iran and the US could create just the “politically favourable situation” Netanyahu wishes for – a sideshow while they ethnically cleanse the Palestinians.

Moshé’s talk was well received and there were some very interesting questions which prompted further discussions on issues such as the current conflict in Syria, Israel’s own development of a nuclear arsenal, and an assessment of the Occupy movement. One speaker expressed scepticism about the scale of the ethnic cleansing Moshé argues Israeli politicians would like to carry out. He felt that such a thing would just not be acceptable in this day and age. Moshé responded that it is precisely our job to make sure that such acts are made unacceptable, and indeed made impossible, through our collective opposition. To achieve such aims we need political organisation and a programme.

Everybody I spoke to left feeling that the meeting had been a success. Everyone took home Hopi literature and many bought a copy of the Weekly Worker or of Moshé’s new book – Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution. As well as Hopi and STW, the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign branch was also present with a stall. These are all good signs that people are taking the issues seriously and want to learn more.

As Moshé explained at the end of the meeting, this summer is a particularly dangerous one for the Middle East. We must keep a close eye on the situation and do all we can develop the ideas and organisation we need to pose an internationalist and socialist alternative to imperialism and Zionism. Hopi is very clear: we stand in solidarity with the Iranian people – not their regime – and oppose all sanctions and war threats. In Milton Keynes we will continue to work closely with the local STW group (which incidentally displays none of the sectarianism towards Hopi that we have experienced at a national level). It is also worth mentioning our gratitude to Milton Keynes trades council, an affiliate of Hopi, who financed the meeting with a £100 donation.

Audio files of the opening speech and answers to questions at the meeting are available to listen to on the HOPI website. Thanks to Brian Robinson for producing the recordings.

Fundamentals of Political Economy – weekend school January 21-22

Fundamentals of Political Economy, January 21-22, 11am-5pm. Room 2b, University of London Union, Malet Street, London. Cost: £10 waged, £5 concessions. Email office@cpgb.org.uk to reserve your place.

In 2008 the banks crashed. States round the world bailed them out by borrowing money. Inevitably, this did not get rid of the crisis but rather gradually transmuted it into a crisis of the creditworthiness of individual states: today the crisis of Eurozone state creditworthiness threatens a new bank melt-down (which may already have happened by the time of this weekend school).

The ‘solution’ demanded by governments and the media is austerity. Creditors – ‘savers’ –  must not be made to accept the losses: the working class, both in and out of paid work, must do so. Predictably, the result is an economic downward spiral – as seen in Greece, but coming now to the rest of Europe.

The ‘Occupy’ movement has represented a cry of rage but not put forward a clear alternative. The broad left, including the far left, has committed itself to Keynesian ideas – that states should borrow more and spend more and hope by doing so to grow ‘their way out’ of the crisis.

Understanding the unfolding crisis and proposing real alternatives requires us to grasp Karl Marx’s critique of political economy. But while education in the basics of Marx’s ideas was commonplace on the far left in the 1970s, today it has withered away: there are academics and theorists who ‘do’ political economy, while left activists and groups ‘do’ only campaigns.

Our school aims in a small way to contribute to beginning to overcome this gap in the education of the left. We are therefore seeking to address fundamentals rather than to tackle the analysis of the crisis directly.

Fundamentals of Political Economy, January 21-22, 11am-5pm. Room 2b, University of London Union, Malet Street, London. Cost: £10 waged, £5 concessions. Email office@cpgb.org.uk to reserve your place.

Topics and speakers:

Moshé Machover

1. The Labour theory of value – Moshé Machover

The labour theory of value and how it should be understood is the fundamental centre of Marx’s critique of political economy: the basis on which all else is built.

Academic and long-standing militant Moshé Machover coauthored with Emmanuel Farjoun Laws of Chaos: a probabilistic approach to political economy (1985), pioneering an approach which has been used by some Marxist theorists and criticised by others. He gave a paper explaining the approach to the Historical Materialism Conference this year, which is recommended reading.

2. Money and finance capital – Hillel Ticktin

Hillel Ticktin

The financial system is at the centre of the present crisis. But what is the underlying basis on which the luxuriant overgrowth of financial institutions and instruments has grown up?

Hillel Ticktin is the editor of Critique journal. He has written numerous articles on finance capital and the ‘financial turn’ of the 1980s and its consequences and on the shape of the present crisis.

Werner Bonefeld

3. Political economy and the state – Werner Bonefeld

Keynesian and nationalist ‘solutions’ to the present crisis rest in the last analysis on the illusion that the nation-state stands above classes and can ‘manage’ the monetary and financial system so as to overcome the crisis. How does the state relate to the capitalist economy?

Werner Bonefeld is one of the founders of the ‘Open Marxism’ school of Marxist theory. His work on the state and political economy has been published in Critique, Capital and Class and elsewhere.

Mike Macnair

4. Against Keynesianism – Mike Macnair

John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) was a muddled partial critique of the ‘orthodox’ economics of his day while remaining within the fundamental ‘orthodox’ ideas of marginal utility and equilibrium – though full of striking phrases. Its assumptions are deeply nationalist. Keynesianism is popular among opponents of the policy of austerity because it seems to have ‘worked’ in the 1950s and 60s. It seemed to do so, in reality, because of the results of World War II.

Mike Macnair is a regular writer for the Weekly Worker, among other issues on the present crisis and its implications.

Communist University 2011

A week of discussion and debate for a thinking left

Our annual school – Communist University – takes place in a world in flux. The near hysterical euphoria that surrounded the election of Barack Obama in 2008 has evaporated, as US foreign policy is characterised by aggressive continuity – for all the flatulent talk of “change”. Change has come to the Arab world – from below. Millions have risen in defiance of batons and bullets in a revolutionary fight for democracy and freedom.

In the UK, we have see the first stirrings of revolt from the trade union movement against austerity and cuts, with the gargantuan March 26 demo and the coordinated strike action on June 30. The movement across the rest of Europe is further advanced. We have seen huge mobilisations in Ireland, Greece and Spain. The battle lines are drawn.

Given its explanatory power and practical programme, Marxism has huge potential in this period – a potential that is irresponsibly squandered by the sectarian in-fighting and opportunism of the Marxist groups. Communist University points a way out of this mess. Over eight days of intense and open discussion, comrades from a variety of left political backgrounds teach and learn from each other. Differences between comrades are debated in a fiercely partisan way – but without the fear of ‘excommunication’ characteristic of the confessional sects that inhabit much of the rest of the left. The aim is clarity to show the relevance of contemporary Marxism to the huge battles the workers’ movement is facing.

Come and join us this year and make your contribution to the job of politically tooling up our side. Speakers include: Moshé Machover (Israeli socialist) Mohammed Reza Shalgouni (Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran) Owen Jones (author of Chavs: the demonisation of the working class) Camilla Power and Chris Knight (Radical Anthropology Group) Hillel Ticktin (Editor of Critique) Yassamine Mather (chair, Hands Off the People of Iran) Jack Conrad and Mike Macnair (CPGB) Anne Mc Shane (Weekly Worker Ireland specialist)

Saturday August 13 – Saturday August 20
Raymont Hall, 63 Wickham Road, New Cross, London SE4

20-minute walk from New Cross tube station (East London line), 5 minutes from Brockley railway station – there are trains leaving London Bridge Station every 10-15 minutes.

The Arab Revolution: reasons, impact and prospects

A roundtable discussion organised by Hands Off the People of Iran featuring Mohamad Reza Shalgouni (of the Iranian socialist group Rahe Kargar), Moshe Machover (anti-Zionist Israeli socialist), Mike Macnair (Communist Party of Great Britain), and Yassamine Mather (Hands Off the People of Iran).

The Arab revolution

On March 27 Israeli socialist Moshe Machover addressed a meeting of the CPGB. He argues that with the involvement of UN and Nato forces, the Libyan revolution had already been lost. The only solution now is an Arab-wide revolution.

Proportional representation and Brown’s opportunist ploy

What sort of electoral system should communists advocate? Moshé Machover – mathematician, lecturer in philosophy and leftwing activist – examines the alternatives to ‘first past the post’

In what looked suspiciously like a deathbed conversion, Gordon Brown has pushed through the House of Commons a Constitutional and Governance Bill, one clause of which provides for a referendum on electoral reform, to be held within a year following the forthcoming general election. In the referendum, voters will be asked to decide whether the present plurality[1] procedure (popularly known as ‘first past the post’, or FPTP) for electing the House of Commons would be replaced by the alternative vote (AV) procedure.

AV is a special case, or an adaptation, of the single transferable vote (STV); but, whereas under full-fledged STV each constituency elects several MPs, under AV there is just one MP per constituency, as under the present FPTP.

AV, like STV, is a preferential system: instead of putting an ‘X’ against your preferred candidate, you rank the candidates in order of preference, marking them with ‘1’ for your favourite, ‘2’ for your second choice, and so on.

Under AV, a candidate who gets a majority of top-choice votes is elected outright. If no candidate gets more than half of the top-choice votes, the candidate who has the least number of these votes is eliminated; and if you voted for that candidate as your top choice, your vote will now go to your next choice. The process is repeated until one candidate gets a majority, and is thereby elected.

Clearly, this bill is an opportunistic ploy by Gordon Brown. A Tory government will certainly not hold the proposed referendum. If the forthcoming election gives New Labour a majority of seats, then electoral reform will probably be kicked into the long grass. However, in case of a hung parliament, the referendum may help to cement a deal whereby the Liberal Democrats would join a coalition with New Labour or, more likely, support a minority New Labour government.

The Lib Dems have long called for STV, but they will gladly support AV as a ‘step in the right direction’, because it would work to their advantage. Most voters for the larger two parties are likely to put the Lib Dems as their second choice under AV. This may help the Lib Dems win in constituencies where they are now in second place and which under the present FPTP would be won by one of the larger parties with a plurality but not a majority of the votes.

New Labour also stands to gain – or at least not lose too much – from AV. Although Nick Clegg claims that the Lib Dems are equidistant from the Tories and New Labour, it is a fair guess that most Liberal supporters would rank a New Labour candidate higher than a Tory. This may help New Labour win in constituencies where it is now in second place and which under the present FPTP would be won by a Tory with a plurality but not a majority of the votes.

So the Lib Dems are likely to gain seats at the expense of both New Labour and the Tories, while New Labour is likely to lose a few seats to the Lib Dems, but gain some at the expense of the Tories.

The Tories are almost certain to lose from AV. No wonder they are dead against it.

Quirks of AV

Brown’s proposed reform would not be a great improvement: while FPTP is just about the worst and most undemocratic electoral system, AV is not a great deal better. Under FPTP it has happened several times that a party won a majority of the seats while not getting a nationwide plurality – let alone a majority – of the votes. The same can happen under AV.

One of the worst features of FPTP is that a candidate who is the most detested by a majority of a constituency’s voters can still win the seat. Here is a toy example illustrating this pathology. Suppose there are seven voters who must elect one out of three candidates – A, B and C – and whose preference orderings among these candidates are as follows:[2]

3: A B C
2: B C A
2: C B A

(In the present example, the first row means that three of the seven voters prefer A to B and B to C; the other rows should be read similarly.) Here four out of the seven voters – a majority – regard A as the least desirable candidate; but under FPTP, assuming that people vote for their most preferred candidate, A has a plurality of the votes and is elected.

Under AV this perverse phenomenon cannot occur. However, AV can result in rather bizarre outcomes that infringe the principle of majority rule. In the next example there are three candidates and 17 voters, whose preferences are as follows:

3: A B C
2: A C B
4: B A C
2: B C A
4: C A B
2: C B A

Here A is preferred by a majority of the voters to each of the other two candidates: nine voters prefer A to B, and nine also prefer A to C (by the way, B is preferred to C also by nine voters).[3] However, under AV – since none of the candidates has a majority of the top-preference votes – A, who has the least number of these, will be eliminated, and the votes of A’s supporters will be transferred: three to B and two to C. So B will now have a majority and be elected – although, as we have just seen, a majority of the voters (nine out of 17) actually prefer A to B.

This 17-voter example can also be used to illustrate another quirk of AV: an increase in support for a candidate can be counterproductive. Suppose the last two voters, those in the sixth row, were to change their minds, and switch their preference order from (C B A) to (B C A). In that case, C would have the fewest top-preference votes, and be eliminated. The four votes of C’s supporters would go to A, who would have a majority, and be elected. So, purely as a result of getting two additional first-preference votes (at C’s expense), B fails to win, and instead loses to A.

In technical jargon, this kind of phenomenon is called non-monotonicity. One of the few good things that can be said about FPTP is that it does not suffer from this perversity: a candidate cannot be harmed by increased support. So in this particular respect AV is worse than FPTP.

A non-monotone electoral procedure cannot possibly be truly proportional. In practice, AV is not likely to produce greater proportionality than FPTP – possibly quite the reverse. It may favour the Lib Dems compared to FPTP, but like the latter it is specifically designed to exclude smaller parties, unless they are concentrated in a few constituencies (as are the SNP and Plaid Cymru), or are in the ‘moderate’ centre.

These are just a few of the quirks of AV. So the proposed reform would replace a very bad undemocratic system by one that is almost as bad. Whether radical socialists should vote for this reform in the referendum (assuming that one will be held …) is in my opinion a tactical question, on which I would not like to pronounce here.

Opportunity for public discussion

However, the fact that the idea of electoral reform has been put on the public agenda creates a welcome opportunity for the radical left to intervene in the debate and mount a general critique of the limitations of bourgeois (so-called) democracy in general, and of the way it is practised in the UK. It is also a good opportunity for raising the question as to the kind of electoral reform we ought to support.

Let me make it clear that in this article I am not going to discuss the kind of electoral system that would be suitable for decision-making in a communist commonwealth. I have addressed this issue in a recent essay, Collective decision-making and supervision in a communist society.[4] Here I will confine myself to the question as to the kind of electoral reform that radical socialists may advocate and support in a capitalist country, and specifically in the UK. These are clearly rather different questions. A communist society will make possible and require novel structures and procedures for making social decisions, which are not applicable under present conditions. On the other hand, faced with the inherently restricted and largely illusory nature of bourgeois democracy, we should advocate the most far-reaching reforms possible here and now. (This does not make us reformists: reformism is the illusion that capitalism can be gradually reformed away, without a revolutionary break.)

In evaluating various possible electoral procedures, it is necessary, but not sufficient, to apply general criteria as to which system is more democratic in some rather abstract sense, as is done in the academic social-choice literature. Of course, this is important. But we must also bear in mind which system would be favourable to the radical left, particularly in conditions where it is numerically and organisationally weak and struggling to make its voice heard. These two kinds of consideration are certainly not incompatible; but the radical left perspective leads us to dismiss some criteria and assign greater weight to others.

For example, in a non-revolutionary situation, the radical left must not aim at, or let itself be lured into, participation in government; to be truly radical, it must be in opposition. Parliamentary politics is to be used not for taking part in running the state, but as a forum for projecting a socialist message from the hustings and from the floor of an elected assembly. Now, some voting procedures are criticised in the academic literature – and in a vulgarised form in the bourgeois media – for tending to lead to ‘unstable’ or ‘weak’ government. In fact, these arguments are largely spurious; but even supposing they are not, why should we care? Seeking stable, strong government betrays a hankering after a strong state – not a particularly democratic sentiment. Surely, we are interested in promoting a strong left opposition, not a strong government.

Also, in the present situation in the UK, in which the radical left is still small and electorally marginal, it is in our particular interest to advocate voting systems that are fair to small, radical  (‘extremist’) parties. Such systems are not only more democratic in an abstract sense, but would remove much of the temptation that, under the present FPTP system, attracts sections of the would-be radical left to forming unprincipled alliances with reformists and alien class forces.

Two concepts of representation

A great many procedures have been used for electing parliaments and similar decision-making representative assemblies, and many more have been proposed but never used. Before advocating any particular procedure, let me first address the issue of representation in a rather abstract, idealised, theoretical manner.

In what sense is an elected assembly supposed to ‘represent’ the electorate? There are in fact two quite different theoretical answers to this question, each of which is embodied in a distinct mode of representation and a corresponding type of election procedure.

The first mode may be called district representation (DR): every member of the assembly is personally elected to represent a particular constituency, which is defined geographically. Accordingly, there are a large number of constituencies, each of which elects a single representative or a small number – at most a handful – of representatives. Naturally, such a constituency may be, and normally is in fact, quite heterogeneous: its voters may differ considerably from one another in their interests, preferences, tastes and opinions.

The second mode is proportional representation (PR): the assembly is supposed to be a microcosm of the society at large, like a statistical sample, reflecting in true proportion (or as near to it as possible) the various shades of opinion that exist in the society as a whole. Thus it can stand as proxy for a market-place meeting of the entire citizenry; and a vote taken in the assembly may be regarded as a close approximation to a referendum. Here a member of the assembly represents not a geographically defined constituency (which may well be very heterogeneous in the above sense), but a like-minded section of the electorate at large, which may well be geographically dispersed.

The fundamental theoretical defect of DR is that on close analysis the concept itself turns out to be deeply problematic. The question that a DR election procedure needs to resolve is which of several candidates ‘best’ represents a constituency, in the sense of providing the ‘best’ reflection of the preferences of its voters. If there are just two candidates, A and B, the answer seems fairly straightforward: clearly, if the number of voters who prefer A to B is greater than that preferring B to A, then A is the better representative and ought to be elected.[5]

But, when there are more than two candidates, things become much less clear-cut. Suppose there are three candidates, A, B and C. As we saw in the second example above, the electorate can be divided into six distinct camps according to their preference among the three candidates.[6] A profile of the electorate is a list of six numbers, giving the numerical size of each of the camps. If a single candidate is to be elected, then we need a procedure that selects, for each possible profile, the ‘best’ candidate. It turns out that any such procedure must produce in some cases a result that is in some sense unreasonable or unsatisfactory. The same applies a fortiori when there are more than three candidates, one or several of whom are to be elected.[7]

Leaving aside such abstract, idealised considerations, there is a concrete, but general argument against DR voting systems. All those that have been seriously proposed by social-choice theorists, and certainly all those that are in actual use for electing parliaments, are biased against small, radical  parties. They privilege large or middle-of-the-road parties (or both), and are often designed for this very purpose.

For this reason it seems to me that the radical left – particularly in the UK, given the present state of the left – ought to advocate PR.


The single transferable vote (STV) system is an intricate preferential voting procedure. Each constituency elects a small number of representatives – typically from three to six – rather than a single one. To be elected (ie, win a seat), a candidate needs to get a certain quota of votes. (This quota is the least number of votes such that no more than the required number of winners can achieve it. For example, in a three-seat constituency, the quota will be just over 25% of the valid votes.) Votes are then deducted from candidates who get too many first-preference votes (more than the quota) or, in some cases, too few; these votes are transferred to other candidates: namely to those who are the next preference of the voters in question.[8]

STV, which is zealously advocated by the British Electoral Reform Society and is used for electing the Dáil Éireann (lower house of the Irish parliament), is often described as a PR system. This is not strictly true; as I showed in a letter published in this paper,[9] STV, just like AV, is not monotone. Thus, an increase in support for a party’s candidate can lead to the party winning fewer seats. Such a system cannot possibly be truly proportional.

Rather, STV is a DR system that is ingeniously designed to produce less disproportionate outcomes than the extremely undemocratic FPTP; and the approximate degree of proportionality it produces is quite erratic. Also, like other DR systems, STV is biased against small and radical parties.

In the last elections to the Dáil, held in May 2007, Fianna Fáil got 41.56% of the top-preference votes. Under strict proportionality, this would entitle it to 69 seats (give or take one seat, due to rounding) in the 166-seat assembly. But in fact it won 77 seats. Similarly, Fine Gael, with 27.32% of the votes, won 51 seats instead of some 45 to which it would have been entitled under PR. And Labour, with 10.13% of the votes, won 20 seats instead of 17.

On the other hand, the Greens and Sinn Féin got fewer seats than they would deserve under PR: the Greens were cheated of two seats, and Sinn Féin of at least seven. Moreover, although Sinn Féin got considerably more top-preference votes than the Greens (6.94% and 4.69%, respectively) the former won fewer seats than the latter (four and six, respectively).[10] So much for proportionality!

It would be naively optimistic to expect that STV, were it to be used for elections to the House of Commons, would treat a radical socialist party more favourably or fairly than it treats Sinn Féin in Ireland.

Nevertheless, STV would be a massive improvement on the present FPTP, and in my opinion socialists should regard it as acceptable.

Genuine PR

The most consistent PR procedure is the party-list system used in many countries for parliamentary elections and in most EU countries for elections to the Euro parliament. The country is divided into a small number of large constituencies. (In some small countries, such as the Netherlands and Israel, the whole country is a single constituency.) In each constituency a party can present a list of candidates, and a voter casts a vote for one of these lists. The assembly seats are allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes cast for it.[11] In the ‘closed list’ variant of the list system, the seats are allocated to a party’s candidates in the order in which they appear on its list. In the ‘open list’ variant, voters may indicate preference for a particular candidate in the list of their choice, and seats are allocated accordingly.

The arguments often voiced against this consistent PR system are for the most part specious, if not outright reactionary, and are of no interest to us here. For example, it allegedly tends to produce unstable or weak government (not necessarily true, but if it were, so what?); it is said to encourage the existence of small parties (true, but no reason for complaint if you do not expect to be in a large party soon).

However, the party-list system does have one obvious fault: a representative can only be elected through a party. This tends to give undue power to party leaderships and bureaucracies. However, the weight of this argument is not as great as it may seem. For one thing, under existing DR systems party leaderships and bureaucracies also have, in reality, a major influence on selecting candidates. (In the UK, few maverick candidates are allowed to stand for major parties in safe or promising constituencies.)

Also, the power of a party’s leadership to fix the list of candidates can be overcome to a great extent by using the open-list variant and, more importantly, by holding a primary election within the party (possibly including close supporters) for choosing its candidates. A party with a robust inner democracy has little to fear from such a system.

Weekly Worker readers will not expect me to have many good things to say about Israel. But here is a rare, perhaps unique, exception: Israel has just about the most democratic electoral system possible in a bourgeois state: a consistent form of proportional representation. Under this system, even in the paranoid period of 1950s McCarthyism, the Israeli Communist Party – Stalinist, but nevertheless the most radical leftwing political party at the time – was able to win five to six mandates in the 120-seat Knesset. Minority voices, including that of the Arab national minority, have regularly been heard on the floor of that house.

To prevent misunderstanding I hasten to add: I am not saying that Israel is a highly democratic country. The foregoing remark refers to one narrow aspect, the electoral system. Israel ‘compensates’ for its democratic electoral system by having a racist citizenship law, which discriminates against non-Jews and denies the vote to many non-Jewish residents. The state has occasionally used administrative and judicial devices in order to prevent certain parties – mainly Arab nationalist ones – from participating in the elections. However, the electoral system as such cannot be used for disenfranchising or silencing minorities.

A hybrid system: AM

There are some hybrid election procedures that combine DR with PR, aiming to obtain the advantages and mitigate the faults of both modes. Such is the mixed or additional member (AM) procedure, variants of which are used for electing the German Bundestag (federal lower house), New Zealand’s House of Representatives, the Scottish parliament and the London assembly (elected council of Greater London). Under this procedure, each voter has two votes: one for a representative under a DR system (usually FPTP, but in principle any other DR system would do), and one for a party list. The assembly thus consists of two kinds of member, elected by DR and PR systems respectively; and the number of the latter can be adjusted so as to achieve – or at least approach – overall proportionality.

This system has a number of faults, mainly inherited from its DR component; but none of these are of major importance in my opinion. Its main virtue is that it can produce a proportional outcome.

However, in practice bourgeois states using AM have introduced artificial provisos designed to deny representation to small parties. Thus in New Zealand, in order for a party to get any seat, it must win at least 5% of the party votes or win at least one seat in a DR constituency. The German electoral law is even less democratic: here a party must win 5% of the party votes or three DR seats.

In conclusion: if I were to choose between electoral systems for the House of Commons that are feasible here and now, this side of a socialist revolution, I would opt for the pure party-list system (open version) as my top choice, with the AM system (without any threshold provisos, or very low ones) a close second, and STV third.

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to my scientific collaborator, Dan Felsenthal, for some factual-technical help in writing this article. He bears no responsibility whatsoever for the opinions expressed here.


  1. In the strict terminology I use here, plurality means the greatest number of votes; whereas majority means more than half of the total.
  2. Here and in subsequent illustrative toy examples, I have used small numbers purely for convenience. In each case the same phenomenon can be illustrated with larger, more realistic numbers.
  3. Such a candidate, who is preferred to any other candidate by a majority of the voters, is known as a Condorcet winner, after Nicolas de Condorcet, the revolutionary French philosopher, mathematician and political scientist, who in an essay published in 1785 proposed that such a candidate ought to be elected. A Condorcet winner may not exist, in which case the question as to who ought to be elected is very thorny.
  4. www.zcommunications.org/collective-decision-making-and-supervision-in-a-communist-society-by-moshe-machover
  5. Even this seemingly obvious rule, which implicitly assumes strict majoritarianism, is not entirely uncontroversial: there are apparently reasonable voting systems that violate it. One such system, used to choose the winner in some sporting and artistic competitions, asks each voter to assign a mark, say from 0 to 10, to each candidate; the winner is the candidate getting the highest average mark. A variant of this system uses the median mark (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Median) instead of the average. Under both versions it may happen that B wins although a majority of the voters prefer, and award a higher mark to, A. For a simple example, see DS Felsenthal, M Machover, ‘The majority judgement voting procedure: a critical evaluation’ Homo Oeconomicus 25 (3/4), 2008, pp319-34: downloadable from eprints.lse.ac.uk/24213
  6. For the sake of simplicity I have excluded orders of preference that are indifferent between two or all three of the candidates. If indifferences are admitted, there are not six, but 13 possible camps!
  7. For details see, for example, SJ Brams Paradoxes in politics: an introduction to the non-obvious in political science New York 1976; M Dummett Principles of electoral reform Oxford 1997; H Nurmi Voting paradoxes and how to deal with them Berlin 1999.
  8. For details see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_Transferable_Vote#Voting
  9. Weekly Worker November 12 2009.
  10. For all these data, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dáil_Éireann
  11. In practice, a deviation from strict proportionality is introduced by the rounding error in calculating the number of seats, which must, of course, be a whole number. Also, in most places a list obtaining less than a certain threshold – typically set at between 2% and 5% of the total vote  is not allocated any seats, and the votes cast for it are disregarded.