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August Nimtz’s study of Lenin’s approach to elections reveals the continuities with Marx and their enduring relevance to revolutionary politics, argues Alex Snowdon

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August H. Nimtz, The Ballot or The Streets or Both? From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution (Haymarket 2019), xvi, 504pp.

When people think of Lenin, there are a number of versions of which they may think. Those who are ideologically hostile to socialism may think of an authoritarian dictator presiding over a totalitarian state (or, prior to 1917, a totalitarian party regime). Even many people sympathetic to left-wing politics may view Lenin as an emblem of single-party political rule or, in an earlier period, a proponent of monolithic, undemocratic party organisation. Those who are supportive of Lenin will tend to focus on his distinctively revolutionary outlook and practice: his role in building a revolutionary party, his place as a leader of a socialist revolution, and his presiding over a workers’ state following the successful revolutionary seizure of power in October 1917.

Lenin as election campaign manager is rarely a version of Lenin we encounter. The same goes for Lenin the election analyst – as a commentator on election campaigns and results. The role of electoral politics in Lenin’s life and work, and, by extension, its role in the experience of the Bolsheviks over many years, is hugely neglected. Yet, as August Nimtz demonstrates with a wealth of evidence, electoral work was a thread running through Lenin’s life prior to 1917. It was an integral component of Bolshevik strategy.

Lenin’s writings and the Bolsheviks’ political practice rejected both the abstentionism of ultra-left and anarchist currents, and also the opportunism of reformist currents. There were, as Nimtz recounts, occasions when major disputes among the Bolsheviks (or in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party more widely) hinged on precisely these matters. Lenin had to argue fiercely at times against those who advocated electoral abstention, yet at other times he opposed just as strongly those opportunists who succumbed to the pressures of electoralism. Nimtz locates these disputes, and the intellectual debates they involved, in the concrete political experiences of Russian socialists.

August Nimtz published two separate, but highly complementary, volumes about Lenin, the Bolsheviks and elections in 2014. Volume One covered the intellectual framework inherited from Marx and Engels, then the experiences of involvement in Russian elections and parliaments in the tumultuous revolutionary and then counter-revolutionary period of 1905-07. Volume Two picked up the story and traced the Bolsheviks’ experiences up to 1917, including the anti-war agitation of 1914 and the emergence of soviets – councils of workers, soldiers and peasants – in 1917. These volumes were expensive hardbacks and it is very welcome that Haymarket has made them more accessible in a single-volume paperback edition.

An overlooked dimension of Lenin

The twin elements of participation in electoral activity and writing about electoral politics, i.e. Lenin’s roles as campaign manager and election analyst, were both extremely important for Lenin. They were also closely connected. Volumes of Lenin’s collected works are filled with his writings about elections, campaigns and the parliamentary activities of the Bolsheviks. This was a major area of literary activity on Lenin’s part precisely because it was such a large part of Russian socialists’ political activity. For Lenin, practice and theory were closely intertwined, with practical tasks shaping much of what Lenin wrote about.

The scale and scope of this writing is generally overlooked for a number of reasons. None of Lenin’s book-length writings were about electoral politics, though “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder in 1920 addressed crucial strategic questions about how revolutionaries ought to relate to parliament and elections. Many of Lenin’s interventions in Comintern debates internationally, from 1919 onwards, were on how revolutionaries ought to relate to bourgeois parliaments and democratic elections, yet these have often been perceived as relevant only to conditions in Western Europe. Yet so much of what Lenin argued was wrought from experiences in Russia before 1917.

Stalinism downplayed anything Lenin wrote about elections and parliamentary activity for reasons that are obvious when we consider the absence of even limited bourgeois forms of democracy in the Soviet Union. The twists and turns of participation in parliamentary democracy held little interest in the Stalin era. Also, the tactical flexibility of the Bolsheviks, and the entire notion of revolutionary politics as art, not merely science, was anathema to Stalinism’s rigid, highly deterministic, vision of social change.

Those who have sought to build Leninist organisations have tended to neglect this rich body of experience and writing, too, because it hasn’t especially tallied with their own practical priorities. There is also the unfortunate fact that Lenin’s writings on elections and the Dumas (Russian parliaments) between 1905 and 1917 have rarely been published outside of the 45-volume Collected Works, which only the exceptionally dedicated are likely to wade through.

At a more intellectual level, a focus on electoral politics has suited very few researchers’ or writers’ purposes. It is inconvenient for anyone who wishes to portray Lenin as a demagogue to ponder the volume of words he devoted to elections. It has also generally been downplayed by those advocating for Lenin. Nimtz offers several examples of sympathetic writers about Lenin appearing to have a blind spot on Lenin’s electoral activities and writings, to a certain extent because it had little direct relevance to their own political activities.

Marxists, democracy and revolution

A focus on elections appears jarring because it seems better suited to a reformist politician. Wasn’t the entire point of Lenin’s politics – its defining characteristic – the rejection of reformism in favour of revolutionary politics? This doesn’t mean, however, a rejection of any participation in conventional democratic politics, whether of the highly limited variety of Tsarist Russia or the kind found in Western capitalist societies.

One of Nimtz’s challenges, which he handles extremely well, is elucidating how such activity was geared towards revolutionary goals. An interesting aspect is the way that parliamentary politics tended to become less important when the class struggle was rising, especially at times of great upheaval. At these times a major focus on extremely limited parliamentary democracy could be dangerous, diverting popular energies away from mass strike action and street demonstrations. In quieter or more difficult times, however, it was of great importance for socialists to take parliament seriously, providing a platform for revolutionaries.

Nimtz’s intellectual project involves rooting Lenin in the tradition of Marx and Engels. One of the author’s central claims is that there is continuity from Marx to Lenin on these issues. He summarises the ideas of the founders of Marxism on political organisation, democracy, suffrage and the role of socialists in electoral politics. The often overlooked March Address of 1850, a brief document that emerged from the European revolutionary experiences of 1848/49, is a vital starting point. This recognised the essential nature of independent organisation for communists, to avoid being subsumed in the bourgeois democratic movement, and the corresponding championing of independent working-class interests.

Nimtz also examines the Inaugural Address for the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, the debates inside the International and the lessons derived from the Paris Commune in 1871. Nimtz establishes that Marx and Engels took the vote, its application in elections, and the need for independent working-class politics very seriously. He also demonstrates how this was related to larger political goals of revolution and social transformation. The Paris Commune, which prompted Marx’s radical analysis of the state and the need for its overthrow in ‘The Civil War in France’, was a massively important practical experiment in popular working-class control. The soviets of 1905 and, on a larger scale and with more enduring success, 1917 would pick up this revolutionary thread of radical democracy from below.

Lenin, elections and parliament

Lenin was influenced by, and developed, these ideas. In this respect he articulated a revolutionary alternative to the revisionist ideas associated with the likes of Eduard Bernstein in Germany, who rationalised the increasingly reformist practice of European socialist parties. Elections, for Lenin, were a means to an end, not an end in themselves. There is much in common between his arguments and those of Rosa Luxemburg in her famous pamphlet Reform or Revolution. Crucially, Nimtz demonstrates convincingly that Lenin built on the writings of Marx and Engels, who had seen growing workers’ suffrage as a measure of political maturity, but not as a means to socialism.

Lenin was acutely conscious of the dangers of parliamentary cretinism: socialists treating parliament as the primary arena of struggle and subordinating everything to its priorities. This would bend socialists’ politics towards compromise with capitalism and also their practical orientation to parliamentary manoeuvring. He was equally alert to the problem of voter fetishism: voters mistakenly thinking the vote is an exercise of power, when in fact power in a capitalist society is collective, social and located largely outside the parliamentary realm. Elections had a place, but they were no substitute for mass working-class action in the workplaces, streets and squares. Ultimately power must be wrested from the capitalist class in revolution.

For Lenin, elections had two major functions. One was the opportunity to make propaganda for socialism: to put across arguments and ideas that could win adherents. This was a vision of elections and election campaigns as a platform. The other function was elections as a means of ‘counting our forces’, i.e. gauging levels of support for socialist ideas and assessing political progress. This could in turn influence what tactics to adopt in a range of areas of political work. Furthermore, if Bolsheviks were actually elected (which did happen) their role was to champion radical socialist ideas and demands. It was to use parliament, which was very limited in actual powers, as a megaphone; not to believe falsely that parliament would in fact bring about significant change.

The main substance of the book is the documenting of what the Bolsheviks did in elections, and in the Dumas to which some were elected as deputies, between the two Russian revolutions. There is a wealth of interesting material on electoral activities, debates among socialists, and the practical work of Bolshevik deputies (and how this interacted with other areas of party work). The example of how the tiny number of Bolshevik representatives in the Fourth Duma responded to the outbreak of war in August 1914 is especially instructive.

There are also suggestive examples of the Bolsheviks facing dilemmas about when to build alliances (and when not to) and how to confront the threat from the proto-fascist Black Hundreds. There are examples of Lenin facing familiar problems, such as the question of ‘lesser evilism’ in relation to who to support in elections, and whether running independent candidates might split the vote in opposition to outright reactionary political forces.

Nimtz’s concluding chapter brings the focus into the present day by looking at what lessons can be derived from the Bolsheviks’ experiences and Lenin’s commentaries. First published in 2014, this chapter is a little dated in places – reflecting particular debates that were prominent several years ago – but is nonetheless stimulating and relevant. The Bolshevik historical experience remains hugely interesting and pertinent for anti-capitalists, not in a prescriptive sense but because it is rich with insights and debates. Nimtz does us a great service by both recapitulating that experience in a general sense and by specifically foregrounding the neglected arena of electoral campaigning. Crucially, he integrates that work into the broader strategic aims and revolutionary project identified with Lenin.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​

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