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Lenin's guide to elections

Lenin's Electoral Strategy
Bradley Hughes

November 16, 2016

Review: Lenin’s Electoral Strategy From Marx and Engels Through the Revolution of 1905, and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917, by August H. Nimtz, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
By Bradley Hughes

You should read these books because our political lives are dominated by electoral politics and the decisions made by people elected to our parliament. Neither electoral politics as it's usually pursued, nor the parliamentary institutions themselves operate in the interests of workers. August Nimtz uses the writings and actions of Marx, Engels and Lenin to explain what a revolutionary approach to this problem looks like.
Nimtz’ approach is the same as that of his subjects, Lenin, Marx and Engels: the working class is best able to represent it’s own interests and in struggling to do so, it can improve the lives of everyone.
According to Nimtz, Marx and Engels saw electoral campaigns, and participation in parliaments as a tool to build the confidence of the working class to take power for themselves. Since this can never be done through the institutions that capitalism has created to defend its power—institutions like parliament, the military, the courts and so on—workers will need the confidence to smash these institutions and create their own much more democratic state. In the process of doing so they will be able to eventually eliminate even their own state and create a a world of true liberation.
If complete human liberation is your goal, and the only practical method is for workers to create and defend their own institutions to get there, then parliaments and elections are revealed in a whole different light. Elections for a workers’ party are not about gaining power, they are about organizing the working class to take power. Nimtz quotes Marx to make this clear: “Even when there is no prospect whatever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments. . . that by doing so they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory. The ultimate purpose of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletariat party is bound to make by such independent action is infinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”
Strategies and tactics
This describes the “anybody but Harper” position in the last federal election, and the recent "Clinton to stop Trump" arguments in the US. Those arguments benefit only the ruling class as their candidates (Clinton and Trudeau) can be relied on to rule against the interests of workers. In place of lesser evilism, revolutionaries should use election campaigns to put forward policies that benefit workers, and show how the politics of liberals (of the big L variety and of the social democratic variety) are only of benefit to the ruling class. By participating in elections in this way, the results are then a fairly accurate measure of the appeal of class politics to workers.
After the 1905 revolution in Russia, the Czar was forced to introduce a parliament. Elections to the Duma was always rigged in favour of the parties of the aristocratic land owners, but a few representatives of the peasants and of workers were elected. Lenin seized on this opportunity to put into practice the politics of Marx and Engels. According to Nimtz, Lenin’s writings on election campaigns, and tactics within the Duma are second only to his writings on the peasant question. Which leaves us an enormous resource for using elections against the bourgeois parties and the NDP.
In preparing for the elections to the Duma in 1912, Lenin wrote that to “every party at all worthy of the name a platform is something that has existed long before the elections; it is not something specially devised ‘for the elections,’ but an inevitable result of the whole work of the party, of the way the work is organized, and of its whole trend in the given historical period.” Elsewhere he wrote our “election platform can be expressed in three words; for the revolution!”
We can also see his analysis of a party platform in a negative sense, after more than a decade of agreeing with the Tories on the need for pipelines, the need for endless war, the need to ignore First Nations rights to their land, any platform the Liberals devised just for the election should have been greeted with great skepticism. Had the NDP campaigned by exposing common class nature of the Liberal and Tory parties, they might have won, but even if they did not, they could continue to build after the election as the Liberals continue polishing the most important planks of the Tory platform. However, to do so would require the NDP to put the interest of the working class above the interests of the 1%.
In the Bolshevik party, the deputies in the Duma were expected to use their parliamentary position to build the party and to build worker’s confidence to fight for gains outside of parliament. This is the exact opposite of modern social democratic parties like the NDP where members of the party are there to work on behalf of MPs and MLAs, who never have to answer to the party’s members. As Lenin wrote to a comrade regarding the Bolshevik deputies, “our six deputies in the Duma . . . have now begun to work outside the Duma so energetically that it is a joy to see. This is where people will build up a real workers party!”
The responsibility to the members of the party became especially important when the First World War started in 1917. When the war started, one of the Bolshevik deputies, Badayev, spoke to the press: “The working class will oppose the war with all its force. The war is against the interests of workers . . . We, the real representatives of the working class, will fight for the slogan, “War against War.” Every member of our fraction will fight against the war with all the means at his disposal.” As a consequence of statements like this, and for refusing to vote in support of the war, the Bolshevik deputies to the Duma were arrested. Their trial provided more opportunities for the Bosheviks to organize workers’ opposition to the war.
These are just a few examples from over more than a decade between 1905 and the successful revolution in 1917. Nimtz convincingly argues that the revolutionary politics that Lenin and the Bolsheviks employed towards elections and parliament during those years helped to create the class conscious party that was able to lead the revolution. In fact, it was the success of the Bolsheviks in the elections to the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in September of 1917, that lead Lenin to the conclusion that it would now be possible for the Soviets to take power and form the first workers’ state.
These two volumes are a treasure for understanding elections. As revolutionaries, everything we do is built on the fact that working people are able to run our own lives and society much more democratically and effectively than our bourgeois representatives. Turning this fact into a weapon to use within and against capitalist parliaments is our urgent task.

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