Bringing Marx and Engels into the picture

Continuity was the link between Marxism’s founders and 1917 Russia, argues August Nimtz, in the first of three talks he gave to the CPGB’s Communist University

Marx and Engels: demands of the Communist Party

First of all, many thanks for having me here to speak. I heard about the event for the first time a few years ago, and was curious to see it for myself. I am very happy that I have managed to fit it into my schedule and be here: we live in incredibly interesting political times and I think that it is vital that we have the kind of discussions we are having here.

In what follows I will begin with Marx and Engels. Subsequently, I will look at the implications of the ideas of Marx and Engels for Lenin’s electoral strategy, based on the ideas outlined in my recent books.1 My aim here is to try and bring Marx and Engels into the picture of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

It was exactly 100 years ago in August that the decisive moment in 1917 took place - the defeat of the attempted coup d’état on the part of general Kornilov. The success of the Bolsheviks in defeating this coup put them on the map and gave them a kind of moral authority, which would allow them to lead workers and peasants to power in October. In September, in the wake of the defeated coup, elections were held in Petrograd and other cities, and this is where we begin to see the Bolshevik success in defeating the coup registered in the electoral process.

In fact, a year later, in 1918, Lenin wrote an article on the prospects of revolutionary development in Germany, in which he made the following comment on the Bolshevik experience of 1917: “We not only thought - we knew - with certainty, from the experience of the mass elections to the soviets, that the overwhelming majority of the workers and soldiers had already come over to our side in September and in early October”.2

Chinese wall

This relationship between elections and Bolshevik strategy is what I wish to focus on. I wish to make the case that Lenin developed a strategy of “revolutionary parliamentarism” (a term he begins to use around 1919-20) and I argue that this concept is more relevant today than it has ever been.

Why? First, the continuing and deepening crisis of capitalism - despite some evidence of a slight recovery in this or that economy - is still with us and is taking its toll on working people. There is a lack of growth within the major capitalist economies, with some bourgeois commentators now referring to ‘secular stagnation’, for example.

Second, this crisis has enormous political implications and accounts to a large extent for the recent round of elections - often referred to as the ‘populist elections’ - which are a reflection of the problems in the economy which have been brewing for decades (we only need think of 1973-74, 1981-82, etc, when we began to witness the standards of living of working people deteriorate). The only solution capitalism had for these problems was credit and debt, but all of that came to an end, in a spectacular fashion, in 2008.

The only solution they have is again to reflate and to continue employing credit and debt in order to get out of this crisis. But there is no way in which they are going to be able to solve the problems in this fashion and it is only a matter of time before the next downturn comes.

What is particularly important in this is to look at how the crisis has impacted materially on working people, and how this development has manifested itself in the electoral process. It is precisely at this moment, when working people are wondering whether the electoral process can be deployed at all in order to solve their problems, that revolutionary parliamentarism is required. The crisis of social democracy continues across the world (whether with Syriza in Greece or the Workers Party in Brazil).

To its peril, social democracy has not taken on board the advice of Marx and Engels (and the only correction they ever made to the Communist manifesto) with regard to the Paris Commune: namely that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”.3 This is the lesson of 20th and 21st century social democracy. I argue that revolutionary parliamentarism is the alternative both to social democracy and anarchist abstentionism. This is the case I now wish to make with reference to the ideas of Marx and Engels and their influence on Lenin.

When researching my books on Lenin’s electoral strategy, one of the things I noted in the existing literature was the absence of, the complete silence on, the relationship between Marx and Engels, on the one side, and Lenin’s electoral strategy, on the other. There was the proverbial Chinese wall between them. Even in Trotsky’s magisterial History of the Russian Revolution, there is little or nothing said about this connection between Lenin and Marx and Engels. Of course, it is not surprising that nothing should be said about it in the mainstream academic literature, which in one way or another is informed by social democracy. But even in the best examples of this research, such as Alexander Rabinowitz’s three volumes on the Bolshevik’s rise to power, he makes it clear that he has no interest whatsoever in exploring whether there are any connections between the strategy of Lenin and that of Marx and Engels. He gives Lenin his due in those three volumes, but Marx and Engels do not even warrant a citation in the index! To a large extent, addressing this gap was one of the motivating factors behind my own research.

Two addresses

The key document, I claim, which links Marx and Engels to Lenin’s electoral strategy, is the March 1850 ‘Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League’.4 The underlying context of this document was the fact that revolutionary forces from the ‘European spring’ of 1848 were forced into retreat because the revolutionary process went into decline.

The expectation was that the process would heat up once again. But for the time being, Marx and Engels had to retire from the battlefield to London, with the expectation that they would be able to regroup once again. What was required, therefore, was to draw up a balance sheet of what had happened in those 17 months of 1848-49. The ‘Address’ was the result. There were, of course, other balance sheets - The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; Revolution and counterrevolution in Germany; even The peasant wars in Germany, but this 11-page document - I encourage those who have not read it to do so - lays out very clearly what revolutionaries have to do in this period of retreat in order to prepare for the expected revival of the revolutionary process.

I argue that the very last section of the Communist manifesto held open the possibility that the liberal bourgeoisie might come over to the side of the revolutionary forces. By contrast, the main lesson from 1848-49, as expressed in the ‘Address’, was that we could not rely on the liberal bourgeoisie to carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

But who should the communists look to instead in Germany, with its small working class? Well, to the petty bourgeoisie. The ‘Address’ makes it clear that we look for an alliance with these forces, not unity. We have to work with them, but we should be wary of them. And the only way to guarantee that we defend the interests of the working class is for that class to be organised independently. In fact, the word ‘independently’ appears at least once on each of those 11 pages! It is a key word in the document.

Further, the ‘Address’ makes three major claims which I think support my case for it being the major document for understanding what Lenin would later do in 1917:

  •  First, if a new government is to emerge from the expected revival of the revolutionary process, then workers should have no faith in it. They should immediately set about establishing alternative governments - workers’ councils, and so on. I argue that this anticipates the dual power of 1917.
  •  Second, workers need to arm themselves with workers’ militias.
  •  Third, in the expected future elections, workers need to stand their own candidates - even if there is no prospect of winning, workers must field candidates in order to disseminate their ideas and assess their forces.

In other words, the electoral process should be deployed both to propagandise and to determine when it is most favourable to carry out armed struggle. The claim I am making is that, in many ways, these three tasks become the game plan for Lenin in 1917. Part of the evidence I draw on in order to make this claim comes from David Riazanov, the Bolshevik archivist, who claims that Lenin committed to memory the 1850 ‘Address’ and used to love reciting it. Particularly in the debates between Lenin and Plekhanov regarding what is on the historical agenda in the revolution of 1905, Lenin draws on the 1850 ‘Address’ in order to correct one of Plekhanov’s erroneous claims.

But it should be emphasised that there are two ‘addresses’ in 1850 - there is also the ‘June address’. The ‘March address’ does not mention the peasantry, which might seem to undermine my argument that it provided the basis for Lenin’s ideas, which always revolved around the alliance with the peasantry. But the question of the peasantry actually comes out in the June address. In fact, during 1848-49 Marx and Engels went to great lengths in their activity to realise the alliance with the peasantry.

Where does this idea come from? After all, as some people point out, there is no mention of the peasantry in the Communist manifesto. That is true. But if we look at the accompanying document - namely ‘The demands of the Communist Party’ - we see that within the 17 demands advanced in this document there is explicit reference to the alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry. Engels often referred to this as the ‘people’s alliance’ - the alliance between the workers, the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie. So the reference to the peasantry in the June address does not come out of the blue, but flows from Marx’s and Engels’s previous work.

German example

Let us now fast-forward slightly. By 1861-62, Marx and Engels have once again turned their attention to electoral politics, because space has opened up in Germany for the workers’ party to run candidates. The German party is thus in the vanguard of this process of employing elections in the interests of working class political action.

And the experience gained by the German party in this period will become important subsequently, when this question emerges once again in the context of Marx and Engels’s activity in the First International (International Workingmen’s Association). Marx and Engels will point to this experience in the 1860s as an example of independent working class political action, with Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel as role-models of how to intervene in the electoral process from a working class perspective.

The German experience thus becomes a positive example, to which Marx and Engels can refer in their debates with the anarchists and Bakunin’s policy of abstentionism. In many ways, this debate with the anarchists was an attempt to put meat on the bones of the 1864 ‘Inaugural address’, written by Marx, which claims that the task of the working class is to take political power. Many people, from various political backgrounds, signed up to this guiding idea when joining the International, but the concrete implications of it had not been fleshed out - this was the background to the growing clash with Bakunin’s forces inside the First International. And, with the Paris Commune of March-April 1871, this matter of working class political power was no longer an abstract prospect, but a very real one: how does the working class respond to these opportunities?

In September 1871, the International held a conference in London. It is at this conference that the International went on the record, for the very first time, regarding independent working class political action and what this entailed in terms of the electoral process. The decisions - including the famous 9th resolution which emerged from this conference - would later be ratified by a delegate conference at the Hague, in September 1872. And all this was part of the split with the anarchists. This schism revolved around narrow organisational issues, but, as we know, often in politics these issues are a reflection of political issues - in this case whether to intervene in the electoral process with an independent working class outlook.

I cannot recommend enough Marx’s and Engels’s interventions in these debates in September 1871 regarding the need for the working class to take advantage of the political space and not to abstain. Abstention only allows the working class to be duped by other, non-working class forces, they say. It is incumbent upon the working class movement to make use of this space. It is in this context that we see Engels writing on the need to defend and extend civil liberties, which are needed in order for the working class to develop a party able to take power.

Let us once again fast-forward slightly. After the Hague Congress the International basically became defunct. But Marx and Engels left the congress in the confident expectation that the seeds had been planted for the development of independent working class parties in various countries. And indeed this period (roughly between 1875 and 1895) saw the biggest ever growth of working class parties in Europe - I view this as the product of the decisions adopted by the International in London and the Hague.

Reformist dangers

In the meantime, their familiarity with the activities of the German party had allowed Marx and Engels to get a greater sense of what was involved in electoral politics. The party had such a long history of being involved in this process that Marx and Engels were able to offer advice - and caution - to provide a sober assessment of what the electoral arena entailed. Indeed, I argue that one of the most important documents in the Marx-Engels arsenal is the ‘Circular letter’ of 18795 - a private letter sent to August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Wilhelm Bracke and other leaders of the German party.

This correspondence is a critique of the tendencies towards reformism within the party - with a young writer by the name of Eduard Bernstein leading the charge in this direction. Marx and Engels are able to beat him back at this point, but we now know that Bernstein was simply laying low, waiting for the death of Engels before coming out with his true politics. At any rate, Marx and Engels zoomed in on the danger of being seduced by the electoral process and one of the phenomena they note was the tendency of the representatives in the Reichstag to seek increasing independence from the rank and file of the party - all in the name of manoeuvring and negotiating within the parliament.

So alarmed were Marx and Engels by this development that they threaten to break off relations with the German party. Bebel and Bernstein were then invited to come over to London to discuss with the two ‘old ones’ and to achieve some clarity about what was going on within the German party. What is significant about this episode is Marx’s and Engels’s recognition that participation in the electoral process is fraught with all kinds of reformist dangers. As such, the ‘Circular letter’ of 1879 is a crucial document in the genesis of revolutionary parliamentarism.

One of the problems faced by the German party, of course, was the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878, which ensured that the party could not hold the meetings and conferences required for rank-and-file control over the parliamentary fraction. The fraction was thus able to use Bismarck’s limits on the freedom of assembly, and so on, to begin to make independent moves politically - away from the rank and file. When the Anti-Socialist Laws fell in 1890, Engels (Marx had died in 1883) was adamant that the party convene the kind of delegated meetings and congresses which could bring the parliamentary fraction under control.

I refer to Engels’ struggle with the leadership of the German party - his attempt to maintain the revolutionary intervention in the electoral process that he and Marx had outlined - as his last struggle. Only in hindsight do we know that Engels was not successful in this battle (we are always wiser in hindsight, of course). But there was nothing inevitable about the reformist course within the German party. Engels was very clear about the importance of using the electoral arena as a means to an end. As he put it in a letter to Paul Lafargue, one of the leaders of the French party which had just won some seats in parliament in 1892, universal suffrage “indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made”.6

Engels marvelled at the weapon of universal suffrage - if only people knew how to use it properly, as a way of assessing the forces required for armed struggle! And in the last section of his Origins, when talking about universal suffrage, Engels uses the thermometer as an analogy. He had to camouflage his thoughts slightly in order to get the book past Bismarck’s censors, but the analogy is clear: when things are heating up, the thermometer of universal suffrage can be used to decide when to launch the armed insurrection.

Russian vanguard

There is a lot more that I could say on these matters, but I will finish with one final point. Contrary to standard Marx-and-Leninology, Marx and Engels paid much attention to Russia, which became tremendously important in their thinking - so much so that Marx was learning Russian towards the end of his life and reading about the peasantry. His last research and writing revolved around the Russian peasantry, and Lenin’s first writings also deal with the same topic - he picked up where Marx left off.

In the 1872 preface to the Russian edition of the Communist manifesto, Marx and Engels - not Lenin, remember! - are clear that Russia forms the vanguard of the revolutionary process in Europe. Engels, who outlived Marx by 12 years and was thus able to see how this process unfolded further, was clear on this too. In his last definitive words on the subject, written about six months before his death, he was adamant that, while the revolution can begin in Russia, its success will depend upon whether it extends westward - there can be no transformation towards socialism in Russia unless the working class takes power in western Europe.


1. A Nimtz Lenin’s electoral strategy from Marx and Engels through the revolution of 1905 Basingstoke 2014; Lenin’s electoral strategy from 1907 to the October revolution of 1917Basingstoke 2014.

2. VI Lenin CW Vol 27, Moscow 1965, pp19-29.




6. K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 50, p29.