The tsarist duma was thoroughly undemocratic. Elections were indirect, weighted against workers and peasants, and the monarch could veto anything. Delegates were grouped into four curia: aristocrats,

Taking elections seriously

In his second talk at the Labour Party Marxists’ and CPGB’s Communist University, August H Nimtz looked at Lenin’s approach to the tsar’s first two dumas

My book, Lenin’s electoral strategyfrom Marx and Engels through the revolution of 1905, was inspired in part by a number of political events - not least the mobilisations that took place in the wake of 2008 and especially the events of the Arab spring.

Intellectually, however, the book is inspired by a small pamphlet published in 1971 by the US Socialist Workers Party, called Lenin as election campaign manager. I mention it because I know of no other publication that actually takes up Lenin’s electoral strategy. The context for this pamphlet was the 1972 presidential election and the debates on the left at the time as to whether or not to participate in the political process. The SWP’s Doug Jenness wrote the pamphlet to take on people who were critical of any attempt by the left to take part. I am struck by the fact that this whole question has been ignored not just by the enemies of Lenin, but also by his friends.

Friends of Lenin had devoted little if any attention to it. Progress Publishers would take excerpts and put together various collections of Lenin’s works, but I know of nothing more substantive. When I first looked into this, I was amazed by the amount of time Lenin devoted to the subject. On a rough word count maybe between a quarter and a third of the Collected works are devoted to electoral strategy, but there is a silence on the part of friend and foe.

I took to task Lars T Lih a little bit regarding his biography of Lenin - it is excellent, but it devotes at most four or five pages to Lenin’s electoral strategy. Why is this important part of Lenin’s practice ignored? In a way what I have done is an excavation, rather than something new: it is all there in Lenin’s works.

There are some loose ends to deal with from my last talk1 that I wanted to come back to, in order to back up my claim of continuity between Marx and Engels, on the one hand, and Lenin, on the other, on electoral strategy. I alluded last time to a letter that Engels wrote to Paul Lafargue in 1892, in which Engels is congratulating Lafargue and the French party on the gains they had made in recent elections. This is what Engels says:

Do you realise now what a splendid weapon you in France have had in your hands for 40 years, in universal suffrage? If only people had known how to use it! It’s slower and more boring than the call to revolution, but it’s 10 times more sure, and what is even better, it indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made; it’s even 10 to one that universal suffrage, intelligently used by the workers, will drive the rulers to overthrow legality: that is, to put us in the most favourable position to make the revolution.2

Engels is arguing for the use of elections to force the rulers to resort to illegality. I suspect part of the context for this is what happened in the US civil war and the decision of the Confederacy to walk away from the elections. Lincoln could prosecute the war because the rebels decided to leave the union, as they did not like what had happened in the elections.

There is another idea that I forgot to mention in my first talk: it was Engels who first came up with the phrase, ‘parliamentary cretinism’ - this would become a favourite of Lenin, who often used it when referring to the Cadets and tendencies within the Mensheviks. ‘Parliamentary cretinism’ was used by Engels in describing the Frankfurt assembly in 1848-49 as the tendency on the part of some people - especially professors who like to write constitutions and so on - to think that what takes place within the legislative arena is the be-all and end-all of politics. Engels employed the term in later years and Lenin picked up on it and used it quite frequently.

Parliamentary cretinism is consistent with what I would call voting fetishism. This is the assumption that when you vote you are actually exercising political power, which is treating voting as a fetish. What we are actually doing is registering a preference, and to equate this with the exercise of power is very problematic. I think this supplements the idea of parliamentary cretinism. When Marx and Engels started talking about parliamentary cretinism, there was no universal suffrage, which was not conceded until the 1870s in Germany. Voting fetishism is something that arises later in the 20th century.

Early writings

After looking at what Marx and Engels had to say on parliamentarism and the electoral process, let me now turn to what Lenin was saying prior to 1905. I looked at these earlier writings to see if there was anything that would allow us to anticipate how Lenin would act when the opportunity to participate in elections arose in 1905-06. His first statement on the political process was in 1894 in a 200-page opening salvo called What the ‘friends of the people’ are, which is a critique of the Narodniks.

After discussing the importance of providing relief for the peasants in Russia, Lenin wrote the following:

In general, the Russian communists, adherents of Marxism, should more than any others call themselves social democrats, and in their activities should never forget the enormous importance of democracy.

... it is the direct duty of the working class to fight side by side with the radical democracy against absolutism and the reactionary social estates and institutions - a duty which the social democrats must impress upon the workers, while not for a moment ceasing also to impress upon them that the struggle against all these institutions is necessary only as a means of facilitating the struggle against the bourgeoisie; that the worker needs the achievement of the general democratic demands only to clear the road to victory over the working people’s chief enemy, over an institution that is purely democratic by nature, capital, which here in Russia is particularly inclined to sacrifice its democracy to enter into alliance with the reactionaries in order to suppress the workers, to still further impede the emergence of a working class movement.

... political liberty will primarily serve the interests of the bourgeoisie and will not ease the position of the workers, but will ease only the conditions for their struggle - against this very bourgeoisie.3

In other words, democratic space provides the conditions for the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie. I contend that the essence of Lenin’s position in 1894 is what informs Lenin in the period up to 1905: this is the framework he employs, when it comes to approaching what needs to be done in Russia in the democratic struggle. He talks about the need for a constituent assembly as part of his political strategy - it is about opening up political space and is consistent with the views of Marx and Engels.

Lenin arrives at another important position as early as 1901 in the short article, ‘What to do?’, that serves as an introduction in some ways to What is to be done? in 1902. It makes what I would argue is perhaps his most important contribution to the workers’ movement, with his argument that if there is no revolutionary party in place before the proverbial shit hits the fan, it is already too late. This insight is the basis for What is to be done? and also has to be seen as informing Lenin’s electoral strategy. Without the revolutionary party electoral work would end up on a reformist course.

It is important to mention Lenin’s fascination with electoral data and with the voting processes. Nowhere is that clearer than in One step forward, two steps back, his analysis of the party’s 2nd Congress. There are about 10-15 pages in the book in which he analyses the voting behaviour and the various blocs at the congress - what political scientists today call ‘roll call voting’ (it may be one of the earliest examples of it). That kind of examination of voting behaviour is exactly what he would end up conducting with election returns from the duma elections.

It appears that in his youth Lenin was befriended by a statistician and through this contact became interested in statistics. He always had a favourable opinion of the statisticians who worked with the zemstvo - the local institutions of self-rule that the monarchy briefly permitted to exist after 1864. Lenin always had a great appreciation of the data that they collected.

One of my favourite revelations in the course of my research was the egregious fabrication of Lenin’s view by Bertram Wolfe, who wrote Three who made a revolution about Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. He took a section from One step forward, two steps back and changed the entire meaning of the piece to try and demonstrate that Lenin was some kind of dictatorial ogre. It is a masterful job in fabrication. The book was published in 1948, remains in print, and was one of the most influential books on Lenin - when I was in graduate school it was official reading. Bertram Wolfe was one of the founding members of the US Communist Party and later broke with Marxism, and this is what made the book so influential.


In 1905 it was increasingly clear that the Russian monarchy was in a deep crisis, especially following the Russo-Japanese war in 1904. Marx and Engels in 1877 made a comment that I do not think Lenin knew about: they said that the Russo-Turkish war had also betrayed the weakness of the regime. Marx had hoped that he would live long enough to see a Russian revolution - if the regime entered into another war, it would lead to another upsurge. Marx thought that the regime would then try to engage in “constitutional tomfoolery” - that is, using elections, feigning reforms and subsequently finding itself in a bind.

That is exactly what happened at the end of 1904. Lenin understood this well and I argue that there had never before been a revolution that had been more accurately anticipated by a revolutionary than 1905. Bloody Sunday (January 9 1905) was an event that saw Lenin immediately spring into action. Though it would take 12 years for his prophecy to be realised, he was essentially correct.

The tsar did just as his counterparts in Germany had done in 1848-9; that is, play the constitutional card. The idea was to take all the energy in the streets and bring it into the electoral arena. Revolutionary forces had to figure out how to respond to this. The first wink and nod on the part of the regime saw both revolutionary and liberal forces deciding to boycott the proposal for a constituent assembly. The Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks were united in boycotting the Bulygin duma and it never really got off the ground.

By December, with the end of the uprising in Moscow, the regime made another proposal to convene a duma in 1906. In the meantime, in the second half of 1905 a new form of representative governance had come into existence - the soviets. At first Lenin was a bit cool towards them, but was finally won over - although by December they had been defeated.

The question then became one of how to respond to the call to convene another duma, which provoked a major debate within the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks decided to go along with the elections, but the majority of the Bolsheviks took the opposite view - Lenin was in a minority. You can see him bending to the majority on this - he explained that it was because they had been on the ground in Russia and he thought they knew the situation better. Lenin later criticised this position in Leftwing communism: an infantile disorder, saying that it was a mistake to have boycotted these elections.

Lenin’s perspective was that in a revolutionary moment boycotting was legitimate, because the elections were an attempt on the part of the regime to siphon off the energy in the street. But by the spring of 1906 the revolutionary wave had ebbed, which many did not recognise, and so they should have participated.

The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks took part in a unity congress during the middle of the elections and the Mensheviks had a majority. When the congress voted to support a duma fraction, you can almost feel Lenin’s joy. This is the context in which the question of democratic centralism really is first posed - the question of carrying out the decisions of the majority of the congress.

There were 18 Social Democrats elected to the first duma. Immediately afterwards Lenin sprang into action to organise them - that was when he first emerged as the manager of the Social Democrat fraction within the duma (the written records are not very clear on how he was able to manoeuvre this with the Menshevik leadership). Lenin was very open to working with the duma fraction, even though he was very clear that they were not Bolsheviks.

One of the issues that came up at the party’s 4th Congress was the relationship between the duma representatives and the party rank and file. The Bolsheviks unsuccessfully proposed that the duma fraction would be under the control of the whole party. Despite the defeat of that resolution Lenin enthusiastically embraced the fraction.


The duma election results were not what the regime had anticipated, in the sense that a lot of liberals were elected. A Cadet majority was unacceptable to the regime and the duma was sent packing by the tsar - new elections were called for February 1907. Lenin saw this election as a chance to spring into action again. The Bolsheviks by now were pretty much unified on the importance of participating and Lenin now had licence to direct their activity in the elections themselves. He saw this as an opportunity to get out ideas. And, once the elections took place, he was very interested in the outcome.

One of the realities of these elections in Russia was that they were very Byzantine, involving something similar to the electoral college in the United States, in which different estates were represented. The bourgeoisie, the peasantry and the petty bourgeois townspeople each had their own curia, as did the workers. These four separate colleges representing the different groups would then decide on who would serve in the duma. For Lenin the fact that the workers had their own electoral college was excellent. This gave the Bolsheviks an opportunity to speak to workers and have debates inside the factories. For Lenin this was a godsend and he was very concerned that some in the party were not taking the elections seriously enough. He said:

Unless our party officials, and especially the advanced workers themselves, undertake the necessary and extremely important task of studying the course and the results of the elections in the worker curia, we can definitely say that we shall lose extremely valuable and necessary material for the future development of party work and party agitation.4

He believed that if they did not take the elections seriously they would lose an opportunity for the development of the party. When it turned out that the Socialist Revolutionaries had performed better than some had anticipated, he argued that all Social Democrats should study this carefully:

We cannot conduct consistent Social Democratic work in St Petersburg unless we pay close attention to the way in which the masses of the workers have voted for the candidates of the various parties. For the bourgeois parties it is important only to win so many seats. For us it is important for the masses themselves to understand the tenets and tactics of Social Democracy, as distinct from all petty bourgeois parties, even though they may call themselves revolutionary, socialist parties. We must therefore strive to obtain exact and complete data on the voting at the elections in the St Petersburg worker curia.5

This gives you a sense of the kind of detailed attention Lenin would give to election results.

Lesser evil

There was another important issue in these elections that Lenin had to grapple with. This was the question of the Black Hundreds, the reactionary organisation that anticipated in some ways the fascists in subsequent generations. The question that came up for the Social Democrats was the lesser of two evils.

The Cadets made an appeal to the Social Democrats, arguing that if they did not lend them their support that would allow the Black Hundreds to be elected. All of us are familiar with this argument and it was used in different contexts throughout the 20th century.

Lenin insisted upon independent working class political action. Voting for the Cadets was in his opinion antithetical to the very basis of what a workers’ party should be about. To make his case Lenin analysed the results of the first duma elections, in order to argue that voting for the Social Democrats would not enable the right wing to be elected. This required detailed attention to voting records from the first duma elections. On that basis he was able to persuade - if not the Mensheviks - the Bolsheviks not to give in to the scare campaign of the Cadets.

Indeed, when the election results came in, he was proven right. He was very clear that he was not opposed in principle to electoral blocs. However, he had made it clear in the first duma elections that they should not do this. What would be the point in standing if it means making concessions in the first round of elections? This is exactly what Marx and Engels had to address in the 1850 address to the Communist League. Lenin, drawing on this, was able to make a convincing case about why the Bolsheviks should not buy into this scare campaign.

Back in April 1905 there was a debate between Lenin and Plekhanov about the relevance of the 1850 address. Plekhanov argued that the 1850 address was applicable at that moment, but Lenin disagreed. He argued that the address was designed for a moment after the overthrow of the regime in Germany and for dealing with the question of what kind of government would replace the monarchy in that country. In Russia, he argued, this was not on the agenda and it would only apply in a post-tsarist scenario.

I think this shows that Lenin was much more conversant with the ideas of Marx and Engels than Plekhanov. This moment defined their relationship and enabled Lenin to establish his authority in regards to Marx and Engels, as opposed to Plekhanov.

After the second duma elections had taken place there were 65 Social Democrats elected - 30 were Mensheviks, while the rest were Bolsheviks and independents not aligned with either faction. There was a big contingent from the Caucasus region once again. These were the biggest gains the Social Democrats would ever have in the duma, prompting the regime to change the electoral laws to make sure this would never happen again.

Worker-peasant alliance

One of the things the regime did for the second duma elections was facilitate the election of more peasant representatives. This was to counter the influence of the Cadets - the view of the regime was that the peasants were loyal to the tsar. One of the things that Lenin did was use the parliamentary process to help forge the worker-peasant alliance. This was done by putting forward ideas to convince the peasant deputies that the working class, not the Cadets, had their best interests at heart. The Cadets had been campaigning to win over the peasants and Lenin consciously attempted to prevent this. This meant coming up with policies on land reform, agrarian policies and so on. He worked closely with the deputies, even writing speeches for some of the Social Democrats on the peasant question.

Some of his clearest work on the peasant question was based on the interventions in the duma. He was grappling with the central question: how can the Social Democrats win over the peasantry to the working class programme? His whole strategy of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants was concretised in this duma work. If you are interested in trying to figure out programmatically what that actually represents, I suggest you look precisely at that duma work.

It was a success, in that peasant deputies began to side with the Social Democrats. I argue that this explains why the regime became more and more nervous about the second duma, and after three months sent it packing. At the same time Lenin was using the press, playing a constant cat and mouse game with the regime. There would be a newspaper that would be legal for two weeks, then suppressed; then it would change its name and the printing press would be moved. What Lenin made clear through the press was that what was happening in the duma should not be restricted to the duma, which was why being able to publish a newspaper was extremely important.

A few days before the regime closed down the duma it suppressed the Bolshevik newspaper. In that last issue Lenin really let it all hang out with regards to agrarian reform and the peasant question - this was too much for the regime.

In the final talk I will look at the third duma and the way in which the regime changed the electoral laws in an attempt to prevent what happened with the second duma recurring. This would provoke what I think is the biggest debate conducted amongst the Bolsheviks l


1. See ‘Bringing Marx and Engels into the picture’ Weekly Worker September 21.

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

3. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1894/friends/08.htm.

4. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1907/jan/30.htm.

5. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1907/jan/30b.htm.