Revolutionary parliamentarism?

Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and the electoral arena

Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905:

The Ballot, the Streets—or Both

Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917:

The Ballot, the Streets—or Both

If we do not understand Lenin’s conception of “revolutionary parliamentarism,” as socialist scholar August Nimtz describes it in Lenin’s Electoral Strategy, then we cannot understand how the Bolsheviks came to power, supported by the majority of the Russian working class, in October 1917. Nimtz shines a spotlight on Lenin’s (and to a certain extent Marx and Engels’s) approach to elections, analyzing the choices they faced in the volumes’ subtitle: “the ballots, the streets—or both,” to reveal a little-discussed aspect of political work that was, according to Lenin, an “indispensible” part of the Bolshevik Party’s success.

Though the greater part of both slim volumes deals primarily with Lenin’s experience, Nimtz begins his study with a chapter that sets out to show that “Lenin’s position . . . was squarely rooted in the politics of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.” 

In 1848, Germany had only barely begun down the path of industrialization. A feudal ruling state structure divided its national territory into dozens of mini-fiefdoms, each ruled by a local king or prince. Marx hoped that the outbreak of revolution in Germany in 1848 would bring down this whole edifice, as the great French Revolution of 1789 had done, and usher in, not socialism, but political democracy and capitalist economic development. And upon that ground, prospects for workers’ revolution might then flourish. 

This strategy immediately confronted a roadblock; namely, the big German bourgeoisie, and even most of the middle classes, had no interest in actually fighting to overthrow the kaiser. Instead of producing revolutionary Jacobins, 1848 spawned timid politicians. Engels diagnosed the reformers as having caught that “incurable malady, parliamentary cretinism, a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, is governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honor to count them among its members.” Once the German kaiser smelled fear, he went for blood, crushing the revolution in the spring of 1849, proclaiming his own constitution—granting himself nearly unlimited powers—and banishing tens of thousands of revolutionaries, including Marx and Engels, into exile. 

Back in London, Marx and Engels drew up a balance sheet. Nimtz places great emphasis on what became known as Marx’s Address to the Central Authority of the Communist League, which he presented to the surviving Communist League members in 1850. Nimtz remarks that Lenin reportedly committed this speech to memory and delighted in quoting it. In it, Marx asserts that if the big bourgeoisie is no longer interested in revolution in any form, and “the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned [e.g. suffrage, tax reforms], it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until more or less all the propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power.”

In place of political democracy serving as a halfway station on the road to proletarian revolution, Marx argues that the fight for extending democratic rights for the working class and the oppressed under capitalist conditions is an integral part of the socialist revolution itself, the “permanent revolution,” or the “revolution in permanence,” depending on the translation. Flowing from this, and most directly relevant to Nimtz’s thesis, Marx derives several lessons with respect to electoral politics:

Even when there is no prospect whatever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates [preferably League members] in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by doing so they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory. The ultimate purpose of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. 

Lest Marx be understood to mean that the revolution will be channeled entirely along the electoral path, Nimtz points out that Marx was chiefly concerned with workers using elections to develop their own consciousness and organization—to “count their forces”—all the while emphasizing the need to organize a proletarian militia. Marx understood electoral campaigns for posts within a capitalist state as merely one tactical field of operations—which may have more or less value in a given context—in an overall revolutionary strategy. This sort of revolutionary parliamentarism includes critical corollaries, which Nimtz derives from Marx and Engels’s work over the next several decades. 

In 1864, Marx helped launch the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA)—subsequently called the First International—as a coalition of radical trade unions, anarchists, and socialists. Soon thereafter he and Engels faced complications related to electoral work. On the one hand, when the IWMA helped found the Reform League in England, which aimed to win universal (male) suffrage, several of the League’s candidates, upon election to parliament, commenced to cutting deals, hobnobbing, and generally taking ill with parliamentary cretinism. Similar opportunism arose in Germany where Marx’s one-time collaborator Ferdinand Lassalle founded the General Association of German Workers, only to begin secret negotiations with the kaiser for reforms in exchange for working-class quiescence. On the other hand, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin campaigned relentlessly against any electoral work on principle, preferring secret armed putsches. Thus, Marx’s revolutionary parliamentarism faced challenges from opportunists and anarchists alike. 

In the wake of the Paris Commune in 1871, the International collapsed, largely over arguments related to the defeated uprising, leading Engels to formulate his and Marx’s position once again:

For us abstentionism [from elections] is impossible. . . we seek the abolition of classes. What is the means of achieving it? The political domination of the proletariat. . . revolution is the supreme act of politics; whoever wants it must also want the means, political action, which prepares for it, which gives the workers the education for revolution and without which the workers will always be duped.

Why does Engels here stress “political action?” This polemic was aimed especially at Bakunin and his strand of anarchism. In doing so, Engels stresses his opposition to notions of spontaneous revolution or an expectation that sudden revolts against oppression or exploitation can defeat the capitalist state. Instead, in order for the working class to learn how to defend itself on an elementary level, lead a whole constellation of the oppressed, constitute itself as a power in its own right, and then, finally, overthrow the highly armed and ideologically coherent capitalist state, a long process of political education, self-organization, critique, and experience is required. That is, Engels is not counterposing elections to strikes, protests, occupations, and other forms of direct action and class struggle; rather, he is saying that all these forms must be integrated and conceived as an overall strategy for revolution. 

As it turned out, the Paris Commune represented the last revolutionary insurrection in Western Europe until the Easter Uprising in Ireland in 1916. Over the next forty years, socialist working-class parties took root in more than a dozen countries and, although they continued to face significant repression, they were allowed to stand in elections for local and national assemblies of various capitalist states. Nimtz traces the growth of the German movement and explains how Marx and Engels attempted to confront the growing problem of opportunism. It is a complicated history, but suffice it to say that after a merger in 1875, the German Socialist Workers Party (SADP) won a number of seats in the Reichstag—the national parliament. Although this body remained subject to the authority of the kaiser, Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck worried enough about the SADP’s success to outlaw the party in 1878 under the Anti-Socialist Laws. Many party leaders reacted by moderating the SADP’s rhetoric in the hopes of attracting liberal support.

Marx and Engels were not, to put it mildly, happy with this turn. Nimtz directs our attention to the Circular Letter they drafted to the party leadership in 1879. In it, they demanded that the editors of the most important party newspaper be removed, insisted that the elected Reichstag delegates be placed under party discipline, defended the rank-and-file party membership’s right to criticize the Reichstag fraktion, and called August Bebel (one of the party’s founders) and Edward Bernstein (a member of the editorial board) to come to London to meet with them in person for a settling of political accounts. 

After this scuffle, Marx’s health declined rapidly until his death in 1883. However, Engels remained deeply involved in the SADP’s affairs, serving as a sort of advisor-in-exile to the party leadership. Though officially banned, the party exploited legal loopholes, nominating “independent” candidates throughout the 1880s before the anti-socialist laws were finally overturned in 1890. Now able to function openly and “count its forces,” the party (renamed the Social Democratic Party—SPD) elected many dozens of Reichstag delegates, becoming the best-organized parliamentary opposition force. While enthusiastic about the party’s growth, Engels became increasingly alarmed at the opportunist and reformist tendencies incubating within. By 1890, Nimtz argues that the “parliamentary disease has metastasized into a cancer.”

Further evidence of this appeared in 1891 when Karl Kautsky, Engels’s young protégé and SPD theoretician, wrote that “parliamentary activity. . . is the most powerful lever that can be utilized to raise the proletariat out of its economic, social and moral degradation.” Why didn’t Engels criticize Kautsky for his seemingly narrow-minded focus on parliamentary activity as opposed to strikes, uprisings, etc.? Nimtz suggests that Engels never got around to reading Kautsky’s pamphlet, which may very well be true as he was at the time struggling to finish editing volume 3 of Capital. But Engels did pick other fights. In 1895, just months before his death, he lashed out at Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of his most trusted collaborators, for editing an essay in such a way as to make it appear that Engels supported “the tactics of peace at any price and of opposition to force and violence.”

Nimtz contends that “the split in the Second International over World War I, between communism and social democracy was long in place. . . owing in large part to two very different conceptions of how Marxists should comport themselves in the electoral/parliamentary arenas.” Here, I think Nimtz is too categorical. He is certainly right about the sharply differentiated trends growing between the left, center, and right within the Second International parties (the international coalition of parties founded in 1889 of which the SPD was the leading force), and he is also right to point to parliamentary politics as one of the points of friction. However, the splits did not occur primarily (“in large part” as Nimtz argues) along the lines of electoral strategy. Questions as to the nature of the capitalist state itself, reform and revolution, the role of trade unions, alliances with other revolutionary classes, and, especially, imperialist war and colonialism all played major roles in the split.

Lenin’s electoral politics
Which brings us to Lenin.

“No one did more to utilize the electoral and parliamentary arenas than Lenin for revolutionary ends,” argues Nimtz. Furthermore, “the ‘head-start’ Marx and Engels gave Lenin on electoral politics goes a long way toward explaining why the Bolsheviks . . . were hegemonic in October 1917.” In making this claim, Nimtz hopes to move revolutionary parliamentarism from the margins to the center in the drama of the Russian Revolution. He is right to do so; I only wish he had more effectively related this part of Bolshevik policy to their work and views of trade unions, agitation in the army, united fronts, national self-determination, state and revolution, etc., instead of trying to set it above these factors. By doing so, he errs in arguing that electoral tactics were the lynchpin to all of Lenin’s formulations, instead of simply being one (previously underappreciated) component of a dynamic whole.

Of course, for the first ten-plus years of Lenin’s political career, the question of standing in elections didn’t come up for the simple reason that Russia was a police state. Nimtz goes to great length to demonstrate, as authors such as Lars Lih, Tony Cliff, Neil Harding, Paul LeBlanc, Earnest Mandel and others have done, that the absence of freedom in Russia led Lenin to see the fight for democracy as a central pillar of his strategy for the working class. As Lenin himself put it, the “proletariat alone is capable of bringing about the complete democratization of the political and social system since this would place the system in the hands of the workers.”

Lenin advocated working-class preeminence no matter the form of the struggle, from mass movements, to uprisings, to campaigns against national and religious oppression, to fighting sexism, to standing in elections. In fact, although there were other issues at stake, this insistence on proletarian independence from even its staunchest allies, not only in the fight for specifically working-class demands, but in the overall fight for democracy, turned out to be one of the central dividing lines which deepened the famous 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik split in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). 

As it happened, a revolution exploded across Russia in 1905, soon after the Bolshevik-Menshevik split after troops slaughtered hundreds on January 9 in a peaceful procession in St. Petersburg pleading with the czar for reforms. In June, terrified by the power of the upheaval, the czar agreed to elections to a Duma, or national assembly, but his decision to exclude workers and poor peasants from the voting only added fuel to the fire. In October, a general strike in St. Petersburg launched the first soviet, or workers council, and the idea caught on in city after city. These councils grew so powerful that they began to take on aspects of what was later called dual power, threatening the legitimacy of the czarist state itself. Despite the onslaught from below, the czar’s forces held firm. Exhausted from a yearlong struggle and massive repression (15,000 executions, 20,000 injuries, 45,000 exiles), the soviets were dispersed, but not before the czar was forced to grant workers and poor peasants the right to vote in the upcoming Duma elections scheduled for April 1906. 

Unlike Marx and Engels’s Communist League had done in 1848, neither faction in the RSDLP dissolved itself during the revolution—in large measure thanks to the example set by the SDP. Quite the opposite, both grew rapidly, alongside the socialist Jewish Bund, as well as the Polish and Baltic sections of the party. Meeting in Stockholm and Stuttgart in 1906 and 1907, the factions had grown from several thousand activists to a mass party with tens of thousands of members. At both Congresses, the RSDLP conducted multisided debates, involving topics well beyond electoral calculations, yet Nimtz is right to point out that the elections to the Second and Third Dumas loomed large. 

In the wake of 1905’s bloody repression, a debate broke out among the RSDLP about how to respond to the czar’s granting of the Duma elections. Unsurprisingly, a large numbers of revolutionaries, including the majority of Bolsheviks in 1906, wanted nothing to do with czar’s sham Duma—even if workers would now be allowed to vote in a limited way. Lenin seems to have supported the Bolsheviks’ boycott tactic in the run up to the spring 1906 elections of the First Duma, based on the argument that at that stage revolution was still on the agenda. At the very least, as Nimtz points out, Lenin was unwilling to break with his faction’s dominant sentiment while the firing squads were still shooting down comrades in great numbers. 

The majority of the Mensheviks, on the other hand, supported taking part in the election —after workers were granted the vote—in hopes of eventually transforming the Duma into a “real” parliament, even if the electoral law itself severely skewed the voting process. In order to stack the elections to the Duma in favor of the landlords, the vote was conducted by social class and carried out in several rounds based on one delegate being granted in curias, or districts, to each 2000 landlords, each 7000 wealthy and middle class urban citizens, each 30,000 peasants, and each 90,000 workers—these ratios are for the Second Duma, but the law was similar for all Duma elections.

Socialist hostility to the czar’s Duma notwithstanding, elections took place in the spring of 1906 and generated considerable enthusiasm. And, although the representative structure favored the elite, voting by social class turned out to be a silver lining for the RSDLP. “Imagine what it would be like for a communist today,” says Nimtz, “to be able to debate every credible opponent before an audience composed exclusively of industrial workers, in their own workplaces. . . . This has probably never happened before or since, anywhere.”

No section of the RSDLP was able to organize a coordinated campaign for the First Duma elections, yet many members or sympathizers stood as candidates on their own initiative or as part of local efforts and fifteen were elected. Drawing on Marx’s 1850 “Address,” Lenin realized the importance of the opportunity the elections presented for socialists to “count their forces” and, from this point on, strongly advocated Bolshevik (and RSDLP in general) participation in the elections. Figuring out exactly how to do this was not without its complications.

As it turned out, the czar was unhappy with the large number of elite liberals who won seats in the First Duma (they advocated a constitutional monarchy), so he dissolved it after two months, setting elections to a Second Duma for February 1907. Once again, too liberal for his taste, he dissolved it and ordered elections for a Third Duma in September 1907, which, through a combination of merciless repression and further voting restrictions, finally returned a sufficiently conservative Duma which the czar allowed to sit from 1907 to regularly scheduled elections in 1912.

In terms of the boycott question, by the fall of 1906 Lenin had largely succeeded in winning over the Bolsheviks to take part in the elections. This process was aided by the fact that they were in a minority at the April 1906 Stockholm RSDLP Congress and the majority, guided by the Mensheviks, set course to participate in the elections with or without the Bolsheviks. Most Bolsheviks realized that the boycott would simply mean leaving the field open for the Mensheviks and thus, not only did the Second Duma elections take on a strategic field of struggle for the working-class movement in general, it also became a key battleground on which to fight out intraparty fights over policy and leadership. 

In the run up to the February 1907 Second Duma elections, Lenin translated Marx’s insistence that the working class maintain its independence in general into concrete electoral tactics through a series of debates over the question of blocs with other party and class forces in the complicated, multiround elections. Designed to be confusing and easily manipulated by the authorities, elections were held in various stages by social class and by region. For workers in St. Petersburg—Lenin’s main arena of operations as well as the main focus of Nimtz’s research—this meant choosing delegates at the factory level who would then have to bargain through a complicated system of alliances in order to finally select Duma delegates at a later stage. 

Nimtz shows that during all this, Lenin drew a sharp line between the Menshevik policy of promising critical support for the liberal bourgeois Cadet party in the Duma versus the Bolshevik policy of hostility to the Cadets and support for a bloc between the Bolshevik members of the RSDLP and the peasant and radical intelligentsia delegates from the Trudovik and (sometimes) Social Revolutionary parties. Further, while Lenin advocated deals and alliances with other radical parties or delegates in the second and third rounds of voting, the Bolsheviks insisted that workers should only vote for members of the RSDLP in the first round at the factory level—and because only Bolshevik faction candidates supported this policy, this meant practically fighting it out between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in competitive elections at workplaces across Russia. 

After a hard-fought campaign, 200 out of 250 factory delegates voted to support the Bolshevik Left Bloc policy in January 1907. Nimtz claims that, “This is no doubt the moment when the Bolsheviks assumed leadership of the St. Petersburg proletariat.”  Nimtz may well hang too much on these elections, but he is onto something.  

The Bolshevik electoral policy also won support within the RSDLP, helping raise the Bolsheviks from minority to majority (when support from the Polish and Latvian party sections is included) by the time of the May 1907 Stuttgart Congress. This shift largely had to do with a strategic vision of which class alliance would lead the coming revolution against the czar and the landed barons. The Mensheviks argued for an alliance between the working class and the liberal bourgeoisie (Cadets)—a policy which included an argument that the workers must not present too radical a policy so as not to “frighten” their would-be bourgeois allies—while the Bolsheviks advocated an alliance between the working class and the peasantry (Trudoviks and Social Revolutionaries), with the working class as the “vanguard” of this alliance. Nimtz suggests that this divide was most clearly fought out over parliamentary blocs, as two thirds of the Stuttgart Congress sessions dealt with Duma debates with leading RSDLP Duma delegates, Tsereteli for the Mensheviks and Alexinsky for the Bolsheviks, each traveling to Stuttgart to participate in the three-week congress.

Explicitly referring to the debates raised by Marx and Engels about the need for working-class independence, Lenin took Tsereteli to task at the congress for revisionism, arguing that “the year 1848 does not teach us to make alliances with bourgeois democrats but rather the need to free the least developed sections of the masses from the influence of bourgeois democracy, which is incapable of fighting even for democracy.”

Despite the ground gained by Lenin’s revolutionary parliamentarism, support for returning to the boycott tactic remained relatively strong within the Bolshevik faction, leading Lenin to write a pamphlet entitled Against Boycott aimed at his own faction almost immediately after the Stuttgart Congress. Lenin won the argument this time around and the Bolsheviks once again successfully applied the no-blocs-with-Cadets policy in the Third Duma elections in the fall of 1907. Unfortunately, the elections coincided with a tide of political reaction, demobilization, and depression on the part of the working class, and the atmosphere forced the whole RSDLP further and further underground. 

This is not the place to trace the complex relations between the party factions or within the factions themselves—the liquidationist trend among the Mensheviks (who sought to abandon the illegal party apparatus) and the ultra-left trends among the Bolsheviks (who stood against running candidates), for example. Nor does Nimtz take up the argument as such about how and if the Bolsheviks constituted themselves as an fully independent party in 1912—as opposed to remaining a (highly organized) faction within the RSDLP. Nimtz believes the Bolsheviks did constitute themselves as a fully independent party in these years, and I agree with him. However, what is most original about Nimtz’s work is that he shows just how important the Duma elections were at every stage of the intra/interparty fights from 1906 right through the 1917 Revolution itself. 

In fact, he takes Harding, Cliff, LeBlanc, and others to task for not granting this aspect of Lenin’s activity sufficient weight—especially between 1908 and 1912—and I think he makes a convincing case on this front. Over the course of those years, as czarist repression was at its height, Lenin clung tightly to the thin legality the RSDLP fraction in the Duma provided. He kept in close communication with the deputies from exile, even writing some of their speeches. And following Marx and Engels, he insisted, with some success, that although the party was driven underground, the Duma delegates still had the duty to subordinate themselves to decisions carried out at party conferences and internally-elected leaders. 

Stressing Lenin’s close relationship with the Duma fraction between 1909 and 1911, and the ability of the Duma RSDLP members to function legally, also helps explain how the party (both Bolshevik and Menshevik wings) survived and was able to operate over the course of its worst thirty-six month period of repression. Certainly, Cliff and LeBlanc, for instance, are not wrong to stress the party’s dire straits. For example, Cliff writes

The movement was in actual fact in complete disarray. For instance, in the summer of 1905, the Moscow district had 1,435 members. The figure rose in mid-May 1906 to 5,320. But by mid-1908, it had dropped to 250, and six months later, it was 150. In 1910, the organization ceased to exist, when the district secretary’s job fell into the hands of one Kukushkin, an agent of the okhrana, the secret police.*

I have always accepted Cliff’s version of the party’s near total liquidation during this time as a given, but I think Nimtz succeeds in showing that, as bad as it was, the party, and especially the Bolshevik faction, survived as a visible and organized presence within Russia. 

In fact, Nimtz’s approach sheds important light on the vexed question of the 1912 Prague Conference. Called by Lenin and his supporters in the Bolshevik faction, the meeting attempted to stand on the decisions of the last full party Congress in 1907, when the Bolsheviks were in the majority. The ensuing repression, and a whole series of withering internal fights, had reduced the party’s strength—and the Mensheviks leaned on support from sections of the SPD leadership to force fruitless unity negotiations on the increasingly politically distinct trends, one which retained its revolutionary principles, and the other which was moving in an increasingly moderate direction. By 1911, clearly, Lenin had had enough of the paralysis, but why did he pick January 1912 to insist on the Bolshevik faction having the right to initiate a reorganization of the party?

Nimtz argues that Lenin believed that “the forthcoming elections provide a natural, inevitable ‘topical’ pretext for such work.” Writes Nimtz, “More than a year before the elections . . . Lenin began campaigning.”  Cliff, Harding, and LeBlanc have, rightly, argued that Lenin noticed an increase in activity in 1911, but I think Nimtz gives us a sharper picture of what Lenin was up to. As it turns out, one of the Prague Conference’s most important initiatives was planning the launch of a daily legal newspaper, Pravda, in St. Petersburg. 

Pravda hit the newsstands on April just weeks after czarist troops massacred hundreds in Lena during a gold miners’ strike. It soon reached a daily circulation of between 30,000 and 40,000. What has not been widely recognized is that the RSDLP Duma deputies extended their parliamentary immunity to Pravda, without which it could not have published nearly as openly as it did. With regards to Nimitz’s running polemic with Cliff, et al., it is worth noting that Cliff fails to note Pravda’s relationship with the Duma faction. This also helps explain Lenin’s relationship to Pravda. Far from being a one-man mouthpiece, the paper was the collective project of clearly aligned Bolshevik organizers working alongside Duma delegates (and rank-and-file party members) who did not always operate along strict factional lines. Thus, some of Lenin’s articles insisting on complete independence from the Mensheviks in the upcoming September 1912 Duma elections did not make it into Pravda, either because the on-the-spot Bolshevik editors didn’t agree, or out of fear of alienating the Duma delegates. 

In the run up to the elections, Lenin sent Inessa Armand, one of his closest collaborators, to St. Petersburg to convince the local party of his electoral tactics, which mirrored his 1907 insistence on complete independence in the first round and no blocs with the Cadets in the second round. Armand won over the workers at the Putilov works, the largest factory in St. Petersburg, laying the basis for a repeat of the Bolshevik’s success in the factory elections. Although she was arrested soon after, Armand’s efforts set the stage for a strike of 70,000 workers when the authorities tried to annul the Putilov elections, as well as those in other factories. This is fascinating stuff, and Nimtz does a magnificent job of connecting the dots. And it all points to the impressive capacity of the Bolsheviks, as well as left-wing Mensheviks and generally pro-RSDLP worker militants, to combine legal work (under the partial protection of parliamentary immunity) and strictly underground work, while connecting both to a base of some tens of thousands of workers who had joined the party during the 1905 upswing but who could not easily operate as open party members in the repressive conditions of 1906–1911. 

The period from the September 1912 election of the Fourth Duma until the onset of World War I in the summer of 1914 confirms Nimtz’s thesis that the elections and the subsequent relations between the party factions, its mass membership, and the Duma fraction loomed large in Lenin’s thinking and practice. As noted above, Lenin used the elections to launch Pravda and give a focus to party organizing work, as well as a means to bring to the fore the programmatic and political debates between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, especially focusing on why the working class should organize independently from the liberal capitalist Cadet Party. Pravda’s editorial line helped create a mass working-class base for the Bolsheviks, even as responsibility for that line, and the paper’s practical operations, were shared between the left wing of the Duma fraction (who did not initially operate on strictly factional lines), on-the-spot organizers in St. Petersburg factories, and hardline Bolshevik operatives sent from abroad by Lenin. Pravda soon became so identified with the Bolsheviks that the Mensheviks felt the need to establish their own newspaper—Luch or The Ray—to compete. 

As the most visible form of party activity, the Duma fraction’s political affiliations served as a proxy for the coalescing organizational independence of the Bolsheviks from faction to party. Five out of six members of the Duma fraction members supporting the Pravda line (including one who turned out to be a police agent) came to visit Lenin in the summer of 1913 in Cracow, Poland to hammer out policy and finalize the split with the Mensheviks. Yet, Nimtz demonstrates that “hard” split was not simply settled by Lenin and the Prague conference in 1912; instead, thousands of St. Petersburg workers debated the competing political positions of the increasingly hostile and independent party factions, largely through the lens of the Duma factions. In 1913 and 1914, around ten thousand workers signed declarations or took up monetary collections to support one Duma group or the other, with the Bolsheviks securing support at a rate of about two to one.

This long, open struggle prepared the ground for the ability of the Bolsheviks to oppose World War I as a party. On July 26, 1914, the Bolshevik Duma members refused to support Russia’s declaration of war, leading to their expulsion from the Duma and their arrest. In a negative fashion, the Bolsheviks’ arrest clearly confirmed Lenin’s warning against the Russian form of the “parliamentary disease” Engels had warned about decades before. That is, the faith that the Mensheviks had placed in the czar’s willingness to respect parliamentary legality was either an opportunist betrayal or dangerous naïveté. While a capitalist state might permit a certain number of revolutionaries to win seats for a time, the rulers would always violate their own constitution and turn to repression when push came to shove.

Wartime repression effectively ended the limited legal operations of the Duma until a workers and soldiers’ revolt forced the czar to abdicate in February 1917, after more than three years of catastrophic death and destruction. Out of the rebellion, two forms of state confronted each other in a situation of dual power. The first was the so-called Provisional government, an ad hoc, unelected conglomeration of aristocrats and leading members of the bourgeois Duma parties who promised to continue the war. The soviets that had first appeared in 1905 reconstituted themselves and stood alongside the Provisional government, this time with mass participation from not only urban workers, but also peasants and, critically, armed soldiers and sailors. The February Revolution now presented Lenin with a whole new series of questions related to which institution would win out. Nimtz, following the topic of his study, focuses his analysis of 1917 on the specifically electoral calculus involved in these dilemmas. 

First, as has been widely discussed, in his April Theses, Lenin immediately emphasized the importance of strengthening the soviets, or workers assemblies. Throughout this period, Lenin was working on his book State and Revolution, in which he sharpened his views on the need to disperse and break up the old capitalist state and replace it with a revolutionary workers government based on the democratic will of the exploited classes. Far from the revolution constituting a retreat from elections and democratic practices, Lenin argued that the soviets were more democratic from the point of view of the working classes than the old Duma or institutions like Western European parliaments. Lenin merged his theoretical starting point with the historical experience of 1905, forming the basis of his famous slogan “All power to the soviets.”

Second, while Lenin argued that the soviets should take power, he continued to press for the most democratic rules possible to be adopted within the old, capitalist electoral bodies, insisting that Bolsheviks stand candidates in city council elections, for example. Further, Lenin and the Bolsheviks advocated that elections for a Constituent Assembly (a sort of revolutionary congress) be convened immediately—even if the Assembly would not necessarily represent a clean break with the capitalist state form. As the Provisional government feared the radicalized masses, it did its best to frustrate elections for such an Assembly, which was to be based on universal suffrage. Rather than dismissing the Assembly as less democratic than the soviets, and therefore arguing to boycott it (and other local elections besides), Lenin spoke in favor of the Bolsheviks participating with the clearest party list that could be managed under the chaotic circumstances. 

How did he square his simultaneous support for elections to the Constituent Assembly, which would not necessarily represent a break with capitalism, and his support for the soviets taking power and replacing the capitalist state with a workers state? Although Nimtz does not explicitly address this apparent conundrum, Lenin’s attitude flows from the key lessons of revolutionary parliamentarism he absorbed from Marx and Engels: so long as the working class cannot overthrow the limits of capitalist democracy, revolutionary socialists should use the electoral arena to “count their forces” and build up their consciousness and organizational capacity, but the ultimate goal, as Marx summarized back in 1850, was “to make the revolution permanent until more or less all the propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power.”

Third, Lenin always assumed that elections would normally constitute a critical part of the revolutionary process. In September, as the Bolsheviks gained sway within the soviets, the existing Menshevik and Social Revolutionary soviet leadership (which had been elected on a national basis in June), attempted to head off the drive to soviet power by creating an ad hoc “Democratic Conference” of all the revolutionary trends. Critically, the Conference was not based on clear democratic elections, but was simply a power grab—what the aristocrats and liberals did in February under the banner of the Provisional government, the moderate socialists now tried themselves. Absent a clear democratic mandate, and owing to the growing radicalization of the soviets and the impending date of the second national gathering of soviets in late October, Lenin insisted on, and won, a policy of boycott of the Democratic Conference by the Bolsheviks.

Fourth, although Lenin, basing himself on the example of the Paris Commune, argued that organized force was necessary to overthrow the Provisional government and that the Bolshevik Party should take the initiative to launch an insurrection, this insurrection would only be legitimate if confirmed by the majority vote of the assembled national soviet delegates. And that is exactly what the Bolsheviks did. Rather than seizing all power for the party, the Bolsheviks looked to the democratic will of the soviets to begin building a revolutionary workers state. The soviets had been elected in the freest elections the world had ever known, and all delegates were immediately recallable. A multiparty coalition government composed of Bolsheviks and the left wing of the Social Revolutionary party (and supported, albeit critically, by the left wing of the Mensheviks) took power in the name of the victorious revolution, despite a walkout staged by the right wings of the Social Revolutionary and Menshevik parties. The October Revolution demonstrated that insurrection and revolutionary democracy are not opposites, but rather are two closely related mechanisms.

The Russian socialist movement’s deeply ingrained habit of making decisions by majority vote, elections by party list, discipline of the elected deputies to their base, etc., all contrast starkly with the failure of some subsequent revolutionaries (Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Castro, for example) to appeal to direct, immediate elections among the masses as the normal process for building a workers state. Nimtz traces this back to the incredible lengths to which Russian revolutionaries of all factions went in order to convene democratically elected congresses and conferences to decide on party policy and leadership. Given the choice between bureaucratic diktat and risking prison, exile, and execution to elect delegates, debate, and vote, Nimtz shows they choose the latter whenever at all plausible. This is a lesson, which should not be lost on future generations, and Nimtz deserves credit for underlining it. 

As good as Nimtz is in bringing the past to life and uncovering new and important aspects of Lenin’s political practice, his analysis of current left formations falters, as he gives what seem like cursory reviews of complex situations in Greece, Germany, and elsewhere. There are other distractions in the book, such as Nimtz reprinting part of an email exchange with historian Alexander Rabinowitch and his belief that Castro’s maneuvers somehow confirm Bolshevik strategy. Nimtz is a talented historian, but his affinity for certain political tenets of the American Socialist Workers Party should be kept in mind while reading his work. That tradition, at least since the early 1980s, has argued for a rejection of Trotsky’s conception of permanent revolution and a reliance on Lenin’s pre-1917 formulations of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. None of this automatically invalidates any of his judgments, but it is worth knowing when balancing his views against other like-minded historians—especially when balancing his more aggressive polemics. Those criticisms aside, as the weight of this review makes clear, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy deserves to be widely read and discussed.


*    Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin 1893–1914 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002), 209.

Issue #67

September 2009

Iran: rebellion and reaction

Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Interviews

Critical Thinking

Reviews

  • Humanitarian imperialism and its apologists

    Ashley Smith reviews The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War by Conor Foley; Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani; Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War by Jean Bricmont; Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law by China Miéville; and The Liberal Defense of Murder by Richard Seymour
  • Debating how to change the world

    Eric Kerl reviews Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic
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