The Bolsheviks’ success and the ‘revolutionary’ fear of electoralism

Mike Macnair reviews two books by August Nimtz in the context of the left's fear of politics

August A Nimtz Lenin’s electoral strategy from Marx and Engels through the revolution of 1905: the ballot, the streets - or both Palgrave Macmillan 2014, pp241, £62.50

August A Nimtz Lenin’s electoral strategy from 1907 to the October revolution of 1917: the ballot, the streets - or both Palgrave Macmillan 2014, pp296, £62.50

Left Unity’s self-identified ‘revolutionaries’ are concerned that the party may fall a victim to ‘electoralism’. Thus Simon Hardy (formerly of Workers Power and then the Anti-Capitalist Initiative) argued in May 2013:

Left Unity must avoid this fate by focussing most of its energy and activist time on actual resistance to the cuts, to neoliberalism and the austerity offensive. The first time people come across Left Unity members should be on the picket line, the protest and direct action campaigns, not door knocking for an election ...

If we do well in the campaigns, if we make a name for ourselves as serious and dedicated activists supporting every strike and building every protest, then and only then can we build the credibility we need to turn that support into votes. In other words, the elections are a secondary area of work that flows from our general activism.1

Ellen Bates of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty argued following the November 2013 founding conference: “Some local groups are building healthy local campaigns and unity initiatives. They will need to assert themselves to prevent what looks like a probable rightward and electoralist drift by Left Unity.”2

Mark B and Simon H (him again) in the ‘Perspectives document’ in the International Socialist Network Bulletin No2 (summer 2014) argue: “We have to resist any attempts to pull LU onto a trajectory of electoralism.”3

A supporter of last year’s Socialist Platform in LU, John Tummon, writes this week on the LU site:

I must admit I am a reluctant participant in electoral work and regard it as a subsidiary activity, at best, to be considered tactically and never as a strategy; I have worried about the electoralism that seemed implicit in Left Unity at its inception, but joined because it was not yet clearly the point of the party. That is still the case, but if it does become formally regarded as the most important activity of the organisation, I will leave LU at that point.4

This idea is frankly silly. A comment under the name of ‘Redshift’ on Simon Hardy’s article on the Left Unity site knocked at least one nail on the head: “I’m sorry, but the whole ‘electoralism is bad’ argument is daft and is part of the reason the far left struggle. You end up failing to understand how you effectively communicate with normal, depoliticised people ...”5

If the two volumes of August A Nimtz’s study of Lenin’s electoral policy - and its roots in the electoral policy of Marx and Engels - were on sale at a price affordable by activists, they might be a very useful corrective to this silly idea which appears common among the self-identified ‘revolutionaries’ - or at least those who come out of the Socialist Workers Party or groups (like Workers Power or the AWL) which passed through the SWP and are committed to the dogma of ‘socialism from below’.

But then again, it might not: many of these ex-‘Leninist’ ‘revolutionaries’ have reacted against the miniature Stalinism of the SWP and similar groups they have left, toward an illusory ‘horizontalism’, which is at the end of the day no more than a variant of anarchism. Hence, showing that Lenin always took electoral and parliamentary work seriously as an important priority of Bolshevism - even when it was conducted under extreme difficulties of illegality and anti-democratic electoral structures - might cut no ice with them. Maybe even Nimtz’s demonstration, in chapter 1 of his first volume, of Marx’s and Engels’ attention to electoral and parliamentary politics would not persuade our ex-Trotskyist, born-again neo-Bakuninists to abandon their ‘programmatic flexibility, tactical intransigence’.

Nimtz’s overall argument is summarised in the preface: the book in its two volumes “makes four arguments”:

The first is that no-one did more to utilise the electoral and parliamentary arenas for revolutionary ends than Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov - Lenin. The second is that Lenin’s position on the ‘streets’ versus the ‘ballot box’ - no it wasn’t either/or - was squarely rooted in the politics of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Third, the historic split in international Marxism between communism and social democracy was long in place before the guns of August 1914 exploded, owing in large part to two very different conceptions of how Marxists should comport themselves in the electoral/parliamentary arenas - with Lenin on one side and what would become 20th-century social democracy on the other side. The last claim is that the head-start programme the founders of the modern communist movement gave Lenin on electoral politics goes a long way toward explaining why the Bolsheviks, rather than any other political current, were hegemonic in October 1917 (pviii).

This argument is developed through chronological chapters. In volume 1, chapter 1 is on ‘What Marx and Engels bequeathed’, chapter 2 on ‘Revolutionary continuity: Lenin’s politics prior to 1905’, chapter 3 on 1905 and the first duma of 1906, and chapter 4 on the second duma of 1907. Three appendixes contain some relevant documents from the Marx-Engels Collected works and Lenin’s Collected works, and the volume concludes with ‘A critical review of the relevant literature’. Volume 2 has three substantive chapters: ‘Legal and illegal work: the third duma’ (1907-12); ‘“To prepare for a new Russian revolution”: the fourth duma’ (1912-14); and ‘The “Great War”, 1917 and beyond’; and a conclusion. Then there are seven appendices, mostly from Lenin’s Collected works - the last (appendix I) is on the 1920 theses of the second Congress of the Comintern on The communist parties and parliamentarism; and, finally, ‘A critical review of the relevant literature’.

Essential key

Nimtz certainly successfully shows just how much careful attention Lenin devoted to elections, electoral tactics and advice to the ‘labour’ representatives in the dumas (even going beyond social democrats in advising ‘labour’ representatives in a broader sense).

He is also clearly and unambiguously right that the Bolsheviks’ attention to electoral and parliamentary issues, their electoral success in 1912 and the conduct of their elected representatives down to their sedition trial in early 1915 are an essential key to understanding the strength of the Bolsheviks in 1917. It cannot be repeated too many times: Bolshevism in 1917 was not a far-left groupuscule which ‘made it big’ under revolutionary conditions. It was a faction-party with majority support in the Russian urban working class (itself, admittedly, a minority in the peasant-dominated society), which was temporarily knocked back by repression in 1914-16 - but even so had 20,000 or more members in February 1917, a high figure after two and a half years of acute repression.

Nimtz also plausibly argues that in 1917 - that is, between February and the constituent assembly elections in November - a substantial part of the Bolsheviks’ political work consisted of election campaigning (for the soviets; for municipal councils, and so on) and that Lenin’s ‘thermometer’ for the ripeness of the situation for a second revolution was - precisely - election results. (Not, on the other hand, numbers on street demonstrations - a test which would have led the Bolsheviks to wreck themselves in the July days by failing to hold the Petrograd masses back for the provinces to keep up; or days of strike action, which declined somewhat after July.)

Other aspects of the argument are somewhat less persuasive. Nimtz’s framing narrative is, broadly, that of the US Socialist Workers Party, which broke in the 1980s from ‘orthodox’ Trotskyism in the direction of left ‘official communism’ (with a ‘Cuban’ twist to it). This is obtrusive in the treatment of Marx and Engels in volume 1, chapter 1, as well as in chapter 2: ‘Revolutionary continuity: Lenin’s politics prior to 1905’ (‘revolutionary continuity’ is a slippery concept and all too often the legitimating idea of a sect); and in the account of 1917 in volume 2, chapter 3. For an example from the latter, the dissolution of the constituent assembly is explained by preference in principle for soviet government; Trotsky and others at the time explained it as the result of the old party lists used, resulting in the Right SRs being overrepresented and the Left SRs underrepresented, so that the constituent assembly was unrepresentative on its own electoral terms. Trotsky’s account better explains why the dissolution passed off without serious mass opposition, only becoming a ‘scandal’ within Russia after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk destroyed the majority which made the October revolution.

For the first two chapters, the problems are twofold. The first is the schematic focus on the issue of ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’. This is understandable, given the role of 1848 in Marx’s and Engels’ thought, and Nimtz’s aim of focusing on continuity between Marx and Engels and Lenin. But it is far from exhausting Marx’s and Engels’ comments on electoral matters: even my own very superficial look at the issue in this paper in 2011 covers ground not touched upon by Nimtz’s account.6

The second problem, equally one of schematism and ‘orthodoxy’, is that Nimtz digs up all the usual ‘official communist’ and Trotskyist proof-texts for Marx’s and Engels’ criticisms of the German socialists, leaving out, naturally enough, positive comments, and ‘flattens’ the political differences between the Social Democratic Party of Germany’s (SPD) coalitionist right wing - who really were what would become 20th-century social democracy after 1914 - and its various lefts (very notably, August Bebel). Lenin’s point, which Lars T Lih has emphasised, that Karl Kautsky after 1914 broke with what he had previously written, is submerged in the ‘manifest destiny’ of the SPD to become a reformist party, while Lenin is ‘saved’ from this fate by his reliance on an inheritance, beginning in his earliest thought, from Marx and Engels.

It is particularly unfortunate that Nimtz’s two volumes are so expensive, because, while the study would be (potentially) seriously useful to far-left readers, the volumes are priced as books aimed at university libraries; and it is not obvious that this is a significant contribution to the academic literature on the history of Bolshevism, in spite of the fact that the two ‘critical reviews of the relevant literature’ are largely addressed to differences with academic ‘Leninologists’.

Nimtz relies entirely on the Marx-Engels Collected works and Lenin’s Collected works, and other Anglophone sources and literature. On this basis it is certainly possible to criticise certain far-left orthodoxies, and some of the cruder versions of the academic ‘Lenin led to Stalin’ narrative of Lenin, the ‘elitist’ (and so on). But the ‘Mega 2’ second edition of Marx’s and Engels’ complete works in German certainly adds to available information on their political activities and correspondence (as well as being the notorious result of ‘decompiling’ Engels’ editions of Capital Vols 2 and 3), as can be seen in Jonathan Sperber’s (non-Marxist) Karl Marx: a 19th century life.7

On Russian language sources the problem is more severe, since much has become available since the fall of Stalinism which was either unavailable or merely practically inaccessible. Lars T Lih’s work in Lenin rediscovered and since8 demonstrates the importance of Russian-language materials for understanding the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and its Bolshevik faction, and placing the particular arguments found in Lenin’s Collected works in context; this leaves aside the issue of the Stalinist editorial spin of the editors of the Collected works and things left out.

The problem of German-language texts is posed again by Nimtz’s argument - elaborated in his 2009 critique of Lih9 and present in the structure of Lenin’s electoral strategy - that Lenin took his ideas on electoral policy directly from Marx and Engels, and was therefore able to ‘see the weaknesses’ in the SPD, which led in due course to August 1914. This argument rests on a standard ‘cold war’ narrative of the history of the SPD, in the ‘official communist’ or Trotskyist variant. There is (relatively recent) Anglophone literature which calls this narrative into question, and in a certain sense the fact that a serious opposition developed to the wartime right, and that the German Communist Party (KPD) was able to win a large part of the ‘independents’ in 1920, is evidence against the ‘cold war’ narrative; but it is perhaps easier to see how much it misses out if the German-language primary sources (like the articles in the Neue Zeit or the stenographic Protokolle of the SPD’s party congresses) are consulted.

Political action

To return, again, to the weaknesses of volume 1, chapter 1 - and with this to the problem of the LU ‘revolutionaries’. Karl Marx wrote a letter to Friedrich Bolte in New York in November 1871 explaining criticisms of the Proudhonist, Lassallean and Bakuninist opponents of working class political action (which Nimtz, as far as I can see, does not cite). At the end of the letter, he wrote:

NB as to political movement: The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc, is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc, law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement - that is to say, a movement of the class - with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.

Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power - ie, the political power of the ruling classes - it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game messrs Gladstone and co are bringing off in England even up to the present time.10

My point is that this argument of Marx’s for working class political action - parties, election campaigns and parliamentary action where possible - is by no means either merely connected with the idea of ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ (in which case “the game messrs Gladstone and co are bringing off in England” would be irrelevant), nor merely as a thermometer of the state of class-consciousness. It is about the working class constituting itself as an independent political actor. It is an absolutely fundamental point, which is also fundamental to Lenin’s arguments (in What is to be done? and elsewhere).

To get beyond capitalism, the working class has to rule the society and address all its problems: to play the central coordinating role that the capitalist class (especially its financial sector) and its hired governments play under capitalism. In order to reach the point of challenging for power, the working class needs to learn to rule. And it can only do this by thinking beyond the immediate concerns which may impel people to strike or demonstrate, and by challenging capitalist leadership where it is possible to do this. Elections and parliaments are one of the places where such a challenge is possible and where a “political movement - that is to say, a movement of the class - with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion”, is possible.

Electoral activity is not easy in a world where most political communication is swamped by advertising. But it is completely indispensable to any struggle for working class power and socialism. Our ex-Trotskyist, born-again neo-Bakuninists would not make Left Unity more revolutionary by counterposing ‘activism’ to ‘electoralism’. They merely make the activists a “plaything in [the] hands” of bourgeois professional politicians: in the present case, anti-austerity campaigning without politics leads merely to the inexorable conclusion: vote Miliband to get rid of Cameron.



1. http://leftunity.org/left-unity-class-struggle-resistance-and-elections.

2. ‘Future unclear for Left Unity’: www.workersliberty.org/story/2013/12/03/future-unclear-left-unity.

3. Available at http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/downloads/467-is-network-bulletin-2.

4. ‘Take democracy back!’: http://leftunity.org/take-democracy-back, July 21 2014.

5. For the benefit of potential dismissive responses to my use of this quote: the Weekly Worker is deliberately addressed to the existing left, not to broad masses. The problem with the ‘agitational’ writing of the ‘activism, activism’ people is that they do not understand the difference, and as a result address the left (readers of their papers) with liberal-outrage banalities, and the broad masses of ‘ordinary people’ with too many standard leftwing assumptions about what they will believe.

6. ‘Principles to shape tactics’ Weekly Worker April 21 2011.

7. Mega 2: see www.iisg.nl/imes. Sperber: New York 2013. Decompiling Capital Vols 2 and 3: see, for example, E Dussel Towards an unknown Marx: a commentary on the manuscripts of 1861-63 London 2001. The problem does not seem to be that Nimtz does not read German (he cites Kautsky’s Der Parlamentarismus, die Volksgesetzgebung und die Sozialdemokratie Dietz 1893 (p73 and note 75, albeit following a citation in Lenin, and without - as can be seen there and at p56 - a clear idea of Kautsky’s arguments). Nor is he unaware of Mega 2, which he cites too in his Marx, Tocqueville and race in America: the ‘absolute democracy’ or ‘defiled republic’ (Lanham 2003); for instance, chapter 1, note 31. The point of using MECW is presumably to facilitate access to his sources by his readers.

8. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered (Leiden 2005) and more recent articles, including several in this paper. I do not mean by ‘and since’ to play down the significance of Lih’s earlier work on Soviet politics; we are concerned here with the issue of understanding the politics of Bolshevism before and down to the revolution.

9. ‘A return to Lenin - but without Marx and Engels?’ Science and Society No73, 2009, pp452-73.

10. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_11_23.htm.