Triumph of ‘revolutionary parliamentarism’
Elections - as a means, not an end - were central to Lenin’s strategic thinking, argued August Nimtz in his concluding talk at the CPGB’s Communist University1
Lenin was in exile in Switzerland when Russia’s masses once again became protagonists of history. This time, in February-March 1917, they did what they could not do in 1905-1907: they finally put to rest the sclerotic 300-year-old Romanov dynasty. A provisional government, composed mainly of Cadets and other bourgeois forces, took its place and claimed its legitimacy in what remained of the fourth duma.
But almost immediately Lenin rained down criticisms on it:
In its manifesto, the new government promises every kind of freedom, but has failed in its direct and unconditional duty immediately to implement such freedoms as election of officers, etc, by the soldiers; elections to the St Petersburg, Moscow and other city councils on a basis of genuinely universal, and not merely male, suffrage; make all government and public buildings available for public meetings; appoint elections to all local institutions and zemstva [councils], likewise on the basis of genuinely universal suffrage; repeal all restrictions on the rights of local government bodies; dismiss all officials appointed to supervise local government bodies; introduce not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion, immediately separate the school from the church and free it of control by government officials, etc ...
The soviets of workers’ deputies must be organised; the workers must be armed. Proletarian organisations must be extended to the army (which the new government has likewise promised political rights) and to the rural areas. In particular there must be a separate class organisation for farm labourers.2
Why was Lenin so insistent that elections be held, especially for “the soldiers”? Because the Bolsheviks, I argue, would then be able “to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint”,3 as Marx and Engels advised in their 1850 ‘Address of the central committee to the Communist League’; to see if “the thermometer of universal suffrage registers boiling point among the workers”, as Engels put it in his The origin of the family, private property and state in 1884; and, to see if “universal suffrage ... indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made”,4 as Engels explained to a French comrade eight years later. Did subsequent developments confirm his expectations?
If it had been premature in the first few months of the 1905 uprising to employ the 1850 ‘Address’, as Lenin had argued against Plekhanov post-February 1917, now was the time to do so. A popular democratic revolution of workers and peasants had overthrown the old regime. The ‘Address’ spoke exactly to such a moment - what the worker’s movement needed to do to ensure a “revolution in permanence”. But, as Lenin sought to explain to his Bolshevik comrades, a unique situation arose, an unanticipated outcome - two contradictory institutions sharing state power: that is, “dual power”.
On the one hand, there was the provisional government, which clearly, on the basis of the class interests of the parties in power, sought to keep the process from being “permanent” - the last thing they wanted. That was still true a few months later when the government was joined by Socialist Revolutionaries such as Alexander Kerensky - “near socialists”, as Lenin sarcastically called them. On the other hand, soviets, the institutional embodiment of the popular uprising, had quickly emerged, independent of Lenin’s calls from abroad to do so - not unlike what had happened in 1905.
In calling for the organisation of soviets, Lenin was following the advice of Marx and Engels in the ‘Address’. The worker’s movement in such a situation, they wrote, should have “unconcealed mistrust in the new government ... Alongside the new government they must immediately establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments, whether in the form of ... municipal councils ... workers’ committees”, etc.
Compare this to what he advised to one of the first groups of Bolsheviks returning to Russia after the February revolution: “no trust in and no support for the new government”.5 What had not been foreseen in the ‘Address’, the uniqueness of the situation, is that the alternative workers’ institutions, the soviets, were not contesting “the new government”, but willingly conceding power to the provisional government.6Much of Lenin’s task for the next seven months was to make a convincing case, through “patient explaining”, why the soviets and not the provisional government were the real expression of the interests of Russia’s plebeian masses and why, therefore, they needed to stop ceding power to the provisional government and take power in their own name. Independent working class political action in the electoral arena - what Marx and Engels and the prior decade of duma work had prepared Lenin for - would be the way to realise his goal. The ‘Address’, I contend, again, served as Lenin’s play book.
Lenin clarified his demand for elections:
Reference is not to the Constituent Assembly, but to elections to municipal bodies. Elections to the Constituent Assembly are, so far, merely an empty promise. Elections to the Petrograd city council [duma] could and should be held immediately, if the government is really capable of introducing its promised freedoms. These elections could help the proletariat organise and strengthen its revolutionary positions.7
To be clear, he still supported the convening of a Constituent Assembly, but “without the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies ... [its] convocation ... is not guaranteed and its success is impossible”.8
Prior to his return to Petrograd Lenin penned his now famous ‘Letters from afar’, in which he outlined his vision for the next stage in Russia’s revolution. Especially relevant were his comments about the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies formed in Petrograd. That the Soviet was “drawing in soldiers’ deputies, and, undoubtedly deputies from rural wage-workers, and then (in one form or another) from the entire peasant poor” was most encouraging. The inclusion of the soldiers’ deputies gave licence to say that the soviet comprised “over 1,500 deputies of workers and peasants dressed in soldiers’ uniform”:
The prime and most important task, and one that brooks no delay, is to set up organisations of this kind in all parts of Russia without exception, for all trades and strata of the proletarian and semi-proletarian population without exception ... I shall mention that for the entire mass of the peasantry our party ... should especially recommend soviets of wage-workers and soviets of small tillers who do not sell grain, to be formed separately from the well-to-do peasants.9
Just as Lenin had once sought to use the four dumas to construct the worker-peasant alliance, he was now advocating that the soviets be the vehicle for doing the same - a far more democratic representative body, akin to the Paris Commune.
Of crucial importance for the effectiveness of the soviets, he emphasised, was the organisation of a “genuine people’s militia: ie, one that, first, consists of the entire population, of all adult citizens of both sexes; and, second, one that combines the functions of a people’s army with police functions, with the functions of the chief and fundamental organ of public order and public administration”.10 Along with independent working class political action in the electoral and parliamentary arenas and workers having “their own revolutionary workers’ governments”, an “armed” and “organised” proletariat was the third essential weapon in the ‘Address’ for ensuring the “revolution in permanence”. Not for naught did Lenin place such emphasis on the militias (nota bene: “of both sexes”).
Lenin’s first task once he returned to Petrograd was to win over fellow Bolsheviks to his position. Campaigning for “all power to the soviets” would require “a systematic struggle within the soviets (by means of propaganda and new elections) for the triumph of the proletarian line”.11 With Trotsky, who once headed the legendary St Petersburg soviet of 1905, now on his side after having been a bitter opponent for more than a decade, Lenin was on surer footing in trying to win over the soviets via “propaganda and new elections”. In the May 15 issue of the newly revived Pravda Lenin raised publicly for the first time the slogan: “All power to theSoviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies! No confidence in the governmentof the capitalists!”12 But only for propaganda and not agitation - at least at this time.
Opportunity to teach
Almost immediately upon his return in April, Lenin plunged into electoral work, picking up from where he had left off three years earlier before the arrests of the Bolshevik deputies. If there was one thing that characterised post-Romanov Russia, it was the ubiquity of elections, this time not only to soviets, but to local dumas as well - why Lenin called Russia “the freest of all the belligerent countries [in World War I] in the world”.13 Elections, as he was fond of saying, were an opportunity “to teach”.
He soon composed a piece of campaign literature for mass distribution, modelled on something he did for the 1906 duma elections that neatly distinguished the stances of the four competing parties - “Parties and groups to the right of the Constitutional Democrats [Cadets]”; the “Constitutional Democrats and kindred groups”; the “Social Democrats [Mensheviks], the Socialist Revolutionaries and kindred groups”; and, lastly, “Bolsheviks - the party which properly should be called the Communist Party”.14
Especially important for Lenin was how the parties stood on “the elective principle”. If the principle applied to government officials, should not soldiers be able to elect their officers? “Not only must they be elected, but every step of every officer and general must be supervised by persons specially elected for the purpose by the soldiers.” And if civilians could displace government officials, should not soldiers enjoy the same right? “It is desirable and essential in every way. The soldiers will obey and respect only elected authorities”.15
Whether Lenin’s pamphlet impacted upon soldiers is uncertain. It may have helped to generalise practices that were already in place, as mounting losses on the battlefield sparked increasing rank-and-file resistance to the commands of officers. What is known is that the Bolsheviks’ success in October was due in large part to the support they enjoyed among soldiers and sailors: the promise of democracy and the elective principle - which no other party had put in writing - no doubt made them attractive. For the party’s new programme he proposed that the principle apply at all levels of governance and throughout the new society it sought to bring into existence. It applied as well, he argued, to the party itself.
Lenin’s pamphlet appeared just in time for the 12 Petrograd district duma elections held at the end of May. As they were about to take place, Lenin pointed to “two shortcomings in our party organisation and party work”. They concerned the Bolsheviks’ list of candidates for one of the wealthiest districts in the city:
Our list for Liteiny District has only 33 candidates, as against the 63 of the Cadets and the Menshevik bloc. ... Apparently, our party workers have not been able to find more than 33 candidates of the proletarian party in this wealthy district. But this is an obvious shortcoming in our work, an obvious indication that we have not gone down far enough into the midst of the working and exploited people. We must break with established custom. In the wealthy districts we must ‘go among the people’ more energetically than ever, and waken more and more strata of the working and exploited people to political consciousness. We should get the non-party proletarian elements - especially the domestic servants, for instance - to take an active part in the elections and not hesitate to put the most reliable of them into our proletarian list. Why should we fear a minority of non-party proletarian elements, when the majority are class-conscious internationalist proletarians?16
Nothing in the published corpus about his activities in 1917 reveals better than this directive the seriousness that Lenin lent to elections - precisely because he was trying to measure public sentiment to determine when best to resort to armed struggle.
A few months later elections to the Petrograd city duma took place. William Rosenberg provides the most detailed account in English.17 Of significance are the gains the Bolsheviks made over the prior elections - a 14% improvement that foreshadowed their future fortunes. The party went into full campaign mode not only in Petrograd, but in Moscow - where it increased its vote by 40% - and other locations where local duma elections were to take place. Crucial evidence for my argument is that post-revolution Bolshevik memoirs say that they regarded their gains “not only as a means of ‘taking the revolutionary temperature of the masses’ [Engels’ “thermometer”], but also as a potential aid in seizing power”.18 Not only Lenin, but other Bolsheviks, were familiar with Engels’ metaphor.
Of tremendous assistance to the Bolshevik campaigns was the start-up of two party newspapers, Proletary and Soldat, in place of the now banned Pravda. The Bolsheviks could now disseminate their programme on a mass scale. Very reminiscent of the campaign literature Lenin had once written was the appeal to voters in three issues of Proletary:
Every worker, peasant, and soldier must vote for our list, because only our party is struggling staunchly and bravely against the raging counterrevolutionary dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and large landowners. [Only our party] is fighting the reimposition of capital punishment, the destruction of worker and soldier organisations, and the suppression of all the freedoms won with the blood and sweat of the people. You must vote for our party because it alone is struggling bravely with the peasantry against large landowners, with workers against factory owners, with the oppressed everywhere against the oppressors.19
This appeal and all the details of the campaign make it hard to believe that Lenin - who was on the run, a fact that probably explains the lack of a paper trail - was not the orchestrator of and largely responsible for what was achieved. No Bolshevik knew more about how to conduct an effective and successful election campaign.
Krupskaya, Lenin’s comrade and wife, provides the best circumstantial evidence. After returning to Petrograd, “my work at the secretariat bored me more and more,” she wrote:
I wanted to get into real mass work. I also wanted to see Ilyich [Lenin] more often ... The district duma elections took place in June. I went to Vasilevsky Island to see what progress was being made in the election campaign ... The elections to the district dumas were over. I was elected to the Vyborg district council. The only candidates to be elected to this council were Bolsheviks and a few Menshevik Internationalists ... I learned a great deal from the work in the Vyborg district. It was a good school for party and soviet work. During the many years that I had lived abroad as a political exile, I never dared to make a speech even at a small meeting, and until that time I had never written a single line in Pravda. I needed such a school very much.20
Krupskaya’s education speaks volumes about what was opened for the Bolsheviks with the new opportunity for “mass work” through the local duma elections. Again, it is highly unlikely that Lenin was not intimately involved with her new and more fulfilling political life.
More decisive than the elections to the local dumas, however, as history would show, were those to the soviets. Unlike those for the local dumas, elections to the soviets were more frequent and included the right of recall, the details of which, however, are not captured in the extant published Lenin corpus. A decisive turning point in the revolution came in July, when the Bolsheviks - who, in Trotsky’s words, “occupied a wholly insignificant sector” of the workers’ section of the soviet in April - now constituted “two thirds of its members” as a result of by-elections in the factories: “That meant that among the masses their influence had become decisive”.21
The Bolsheviks achieved a major victory in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets on, respectively, August 31 and September 5, when an overwhelming majority of delegates in both bodies passed motions calling for a rejection of any compromises with the bourgeoisie and the transfer of “all power to the soviets!” - testimony to the deepening of the revolutionary process. About this moment Trotsky writes:
The city dumas, which had made an effort to compete with the soviets, died down in the days of danger and vanished. The Petrograd duma humbly sent its delegation to the Soviet ‘for an explanation of the general situation and the establishment of contact’.22
Eve of October
In the lead-up to the October revolution Bolsheviks debated whether they enjoyed sufficient support for carrying out an armed overthrow of the provisional government. The carnage on the battlefield, enabled by Kerensky’s government, specifically, the price that Russia’s peasants and workers were paying in blood, was the pressing issue. Lenin, in the minority - Trotsky was the central committee member closest to his views on this - insisted that adequate support existed:
The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands ... The majority gained in the soviets of the metropolitan cities resulted from the people coming over to our side ... Compare the elections to the city councils of Petrograd and Moscow with the elections to the soviets. Compare the elections in Moscow with the Moscow strike of August 12. Those are objective facts regarding that majority of revolutionary elements that are leading the people.23
For Lenin, again, elections were an invaluable tool for calculating the probability of success in the most important election: the masses voting with their feet, their willingness and ability to not only take power, but defend it. Note “objective” - exactly the term he had used in analysing the fourth duma election results in 1912. Also note the qualifier, the “majority of revolutionary elements that are leading the people” - the most effective voters, those voting with their feet.
Lenin reiterated this point about the value of elections five months after the October revolution in a debate about the prospects for a Bolshevik-like revolution in Germany:
As matters stood in October, we had made a precise calculation of the mass forces. 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. We knew ... that the coalition [provisional government] had also lost the support of the peasantry - and that meant that our cause had already won.24
Engels would have nodded in agreement.
The Socialist Revolutionary-Menshevik leadership of the executive of the soviet convened in mid-September the ‘Democratic Conference’ - basically an attempt to divert the energy boiling from below, and increasingly led by the Bolsheviks, into the parliamentary arena. Lenin urged the party’s leadership not to be enticed:
It would be a big mistake - sheer parliamentary cretinism - on our part if we were to regard the Democratic Conference as a parliament; for, even if it were to proclaim itself a permanent and sovereign parliament of the revolution, it would nevertheless decide nothing. The power of decision lies outside it in the working class quarters of Petrograd and Moscow.25
Consistent with all of the lessons Marx and Engels had drawn about 1848 and the experiences of Russia’s own revolution, Lenin explained - in anticipation of Russia’s future “civil war” and its outcome - why “outside” the electoral and parliamentary arenas was more important:
A comparison of the data on the ‘parliamentary’ [local duma] elections and the data on the ... mass movements [since April 20] fully corroborates, in respect of Russia, an observation often made in the west: namely, that the revolutionary proletariat is incomparably stronger in the extra-parliamentary than in the parliamentary struggle, as far as influencing the masses and drawing them into the struggle is concerned.26
When Lenin decided that the Bolsheviks should boycott the conference he drew on “the elements that went into shaping the correct tactics of boycotting the Bulygin duma” in 1905 and the “incorrect” ones of “boycotting the third duma” in 1907.27 Again, note the importance of his prior practice with the four state dumas. Note, also, his love affair, once again, with “data”.
After delays and postponements the provisional government finally set a date for elections to the Constituent Assembly: November 12. Having insisted for months that they be held, the Bolsheviks immediately made preparations to take part. Ever vigilant about a proletarian approach to the electoral process, Lenin, however, criticised the composition of the list the central committee had put together. There were two problems. First, more workers - “four or five times more” - needed to be included, because in what would be an overwhelmingly “peasant Constituent Assembly ... they alone are capable of establishing close and intimate ties with the peasant deputies”. The second and related problem had to do with the political histories of many on the list:
It is absolutely inadmissible also to have an excessive number of candidates from among people who have but recently joined our party and have not yet been tested ... In filling the list with such candidates who should first have worked in the party for months and months, the CC has thrown wide open the door for careerists who scramble for seats in the Constituent Assembly.28
His more than decade-long work around the four state dumas had prepared Lenin for this moment - to ensure that the Bolsheviks who might be elected, including himself, hewed strictly to a course of independent working class political action and the forging of the worker-peasant alliance.
In the meantime, and almost anti-climatically, Lenin was finally able through the use of “data” and “objective facts” to convince the majority of the Bolshevik central committee to organise an armed overthrow of the now-discredited provisional government. The relative ease with which the revolution was carried out on October 25 - marked by the absence of any real defence of the provisional government and, thus, minimum bloodshed, especially in Petrograd - offers convincing evidence that Lenin was indeed right that the effective majority of the population - those willing to vote with their feet - would support the insurrection. And nothing was as important in his calculus as the results of the various elections that preceded it - an opportunity, as the ‘Address’ put it, for the Bolsheviks to “count their forces”.
The fundamental question of the Russian Revolution - which class would rule after the overthrow of the monarchy - was officially settled on January 6 1918. The new soviet government, at Lenin’s initiative, essentially declared null and void the long-delayed Constituent Assembly that finally met the day before. Events on the ground from at least October 25 to January 6 revealed that the coalition of workers and peasants via the soviets constituted the country’s de facto and new ruling classes. ‘All power to the soviets’ was no longer just a demand, but now a fait accompli.
Unlike in July and August 1917, when soviet power was threatened by the bourgeoisie - the attempted coupd’état of Kerensky and Kornilov - the masses did not come out into the streets to defend the Constituent Assembly when it was dissolved on January 6. This was telling testimony to what had transpired over the course of the preceding year. Its dissolution meant that the bourgeoisie no longer had the prospect of a government, like the provisional one, to protect its class interests. The bourgeoisie and its supporters had made the mistake of confusing an election - to the Constituent Assembly - with the actual exercise of political power: what I call voting fetishism (the necessary complement to ‘parliamentary cretinism’).
Realising that real political power lies outside the electoral/parliamentary arena, Russia’s bourgeoisie sought to recoup its losses by launching a civil war, with the assistance of fellow bourgeois governments, including that of the United States. The Bolsheviks had anticipated as much - one reason why the internal debate had been so heated. It was not enough, the argument went, to take state power: could it be held? When the data for the Constituent Assembly elections finally became available in 1919 - more than a year into the civil war - Lenin’s penchant for number-crunching kicked into high gear. The data, he argued, explained not only why the Bolsheviks were able to take power in October, but why they were winning the civil war at the end of 1919.
Even Lenin’s opponents grudgingly admit to the objectivity and validity of his analysis.29His article, ‘The Constituent Assembly elections and the dictatorship of the proletariat’,30 with its concluding list of 10 thesis-like points, proved to be Lenin’s penultimate declaration on the revolutionary employment of the electoral and parliamentary arenas - a summary and generalisation of the Russian experience.31
Lenin’s final word on the topic came a few months later in Leftwing communism: an infantile disorder, his mostextensive writing after the October revolution. In preparation forthe second congress of the newly founded Communist or ThirdInternational, its purpose was to convince revolutionary forceselsewhere inspired by the October revolution of the need to fullyunderstand Bolshevik ascendancy. For those who thought that participationin bourgeois elections and parliaments was a waste oftime, he demurred. Referring to the four state Dumas, he wrote:
We Bolsheviks participated in the most counterrevolutionary parliaments, and experience has shown that this participation was not only useful, but indispensable to the party of the revolutionary proletariat, after the first bourgeois revolution in Russia (1905), so as to pave the way for the second bourgeois revolution (February 1917), and then for the socialist revolution (October 1917).32
Lenin could not have been clearer about how “indispensable” he saw his decade-long experience in electoral-parliamentary work around the four state dumas was to Bolshevik success in 1917. The evidence also makes clear, I claim, that Marx and Engels were his “indispensable” informants in that work.
The only addendum Marx and Engels ever made to the Communist manifesto - in 1872 - was what they regarded to be the principle lessonof the Paris Commune of 1871: “One thing especially was provedby the Commune ... the working class cannot simply lay hold ofthe ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purpose”.33 The bourgeois republic, in other words, couldnot be a vehicle for socialist transformation - a lesson eitherignored or unknown by many a workers’ movement party eversince and, tragically, to their peril (the most notable recent casualtiesarguably are Syriza in Greece and the Workers Party in Brazil).
The Commune revealed that a new kind of state was needed for such a transformation, such as what Russia’s toilers invented - soviet governance. Participation in the bourgeois electoral-parliamentary arena, Marx and Engels recognised, was indeed fraught with all kinds of reformist dangers. But to abstain, as the anarchists advocated, was a dead end. The alternative, squarely rooted in Marx and Engels, was what Lenin came to call “revolutionary parliamentarism”.
Rather than an end in itself, taking part in bourgeois elections and parliaments was a means to an end - working class ascent.That is the lesson of the October revolution which has, I argue, more currency than ever.
1. Comrade Nimtz’s first talk discussed how Marx and Engels informed that strategy (‘Bringing Marx and Engels into the picture’ Weekly Worker September 21). The decade-long work around the four state dumas from 1905 to 1915, and how it allowed him to develop that strategy, was the subject of the second talk (‘Taking elections seriously’ Weekly Worker October 5). This concluding talk discusses the fruition of that election work a century ago, in October 1917. It was based on the article, ‘The Bolsheviks come to power: a new interpretation’, published in Science and Society Vol 81, no4, October 2017.
2. VI Lenin CW Vol 23, pp289-90.
3. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 10, pp280-81.
4. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 50, p29.
6. M-A Waters, ‘The workers’ and farmers’ government: a popular revolutionary dictatorship’ New International summer/spring 1984.
7. VI Lenin CW Vol 23, pp292-93.
8. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, p25.
10. VI Lenin CW Vol 23, pp324-29.
11. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, pp295-96.
12. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, p334.
15. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, pp93-101.
16. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, p512.
17. WG Rosenberg, ‘The Russian municipal duma elections of 1917: a preliminary computation of returns’ Soviet Studies October 1969.
18. Ibid p162.
19. Quoted in A Rabinowitch The Bolsheviks come to power: the revolution of 1917 in Petrograd New York 1976, p92.
20. N Krupskaya Memories of Lenin London 1970, pp303-06.
21. L Trotsky The history of the Russian Revolution New York 2009, pp523-24.
22. Ibid p795.
23. VI Lenin CW Vol 26, p19.
24. VI Lenin CW Vol 27, p25.
25. VI Lenin CW Vol 26, p25. It is no accident that Lenin re-employs “parliamentary cretinism” at this moment. He had been reading Marx and Engels on the German revolution of 1848, as his letter to the central committee, ‘Marxism and insurrection’, shows.
26. VI Lenin CW Vol 26, p33.
27. VI Lenin CW Vol 26, pp54-55.
28. VI Lenin CW Vol 41, pp446-48.
29. See, for example,Oliver Radkey, who writes: “... his point of view was by no means as biased as one might expect, for he consciously sought in the figures the lessons they contained for his party, whether flattering or otherwise, and his deductions constitute a thoroughgoing and penetrating analysis of the results” (O Radkey Russia goes to the polls: the elections to the all-Russian Constituent Assembly, 1917 New York 1990).
30. VI Lenin CW Vol 30, pp252-75.
31. Trotsky and Zinoviev drafted a set of theses on the communist parties and parliamentarism for the Second Congress of Comintern in 1920 that drew on that experience. See J Riddell Workers of the world and oppressed peoples unite! Proceedings and documents of the Second Congress, 1920 New York 1991.
33. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol; 23, p175.