Lenin’s Perspective: What Exactly Does It Mean to Vote — Part 1

Against the Current No. 231, July/August 2024

August H. Nimtz

V.I. Lenin Graphic: Lisa Lyons

“Universal suffrage [provided] the terrain for the proletariat’s revolutionary emancipation, but by no means the emancipation itself.” —Marx, 1850

“. . . universal suffrage . . . indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made.” —Engels, 1891

“Voting for socialism is not socialism any more than a menu is a meal.” —Eugene V. Debs, 1911

“. . . those who imagine that extremely important political matters can be solved , , , merely by voting.” —Lenin, 1919

IN LAUNCHING HIS reelection bid President Joseph Biden declared: “America, as we begin this election year, we must be clear: Democracy is on the ballot. Your freedom is on the ballot.”(1)

Apparently — as this is being written — many of his supporters embrace the claim of an existential threat to democracy the centerpiece of the campaign. That goes a long way in explaining the sentiment expressed by liberal New York Times columnist Gail Collins in this exchange with her conservative colleague Bret Stephens 17 months before the presidential election.

“No, no Bret. Even if you vote for a third party that perfectly represents your views — or at least your view on a favorite issue — if it isn’t going to win, you’re throwing away your vote. A vote for the Green Party, for instance, is a vote that Biden would probably have gotten otherwise. Which means the Green Party is helping Trump.”

The context, summer 2023, was the growing debate in ruling-class circles about the No Labels electoral phenomenon, the possibility of there being a mainstream presidential campaign as an alternative to both Biden and Trump should they be their party’s candidates.

Collins voiced the timeworn view that because such campaigns are not likely to succeed, voting for their candidates would be tantamount to “throwing away” one’s vote and, more ominously, enabling the victory for an undesired candidate — “splitting the vote,” or, the “spoiler effect.”

With the announcement shortly later of the academic Cornel West running for the Green Party nomination, Collins now had a face for “the spoiler.”(2) (West subsequently announced an independent campaign —ed.)

The issue has bedeviled progressive forces as well for probably a century. The traditional left response comes from Eugene V. Debs, five-time socialist presidential candidate in the beginning of the 20th century. “I’d rather vote,” he quipped on a number of occasions, “for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it.”(3)

Exhibit A for Debs was Democratic Party president Woodrow Wilson, whose 1916 campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war,” was belied by Wilson’s decision in 1918 to do exactly the opposite — sending U.S. troops to fight in “the Great War” to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.”

A couple of generations later, progressives faced a similar dilemma: the 1964 contest between Democratic Party candidate Lyndon Johnson and Republican opponent Barry Goldwater. To advocate for a third-party option, most of the left thought, would enable a victory for Goldwater, someone deemed irrational, who would ignite a nuclear war and, thus, an Armageddon.

Johnson, the “peace candidate” and victor, soon proved to be Wilson redux — his escalation of the war in Vietnam, Exhibit A+, in other words, for Debs’ warning. If the Democratic Party bogey for 1964, Goldwater-the-existential-threat-to humanity, challenged progressives then, their 2024 slogan, Trump-the-existential-threat-to-Democracy, is guaranteed to do the same six-decades later.

In the world’s relatively brief experience with competitive electoral politics, it’s not clear when consciousness about “the spoiler effect” first took hold. Another U.S. presidential campaign may have prompted the issue, in 1848. Anti-slavery forces mounted a third-party campaign to split the vote in order to deny victory to the more pro-slavery candidate Democratic Party candidate, to assure the victory of the less pro-slavery slave-owning Whig Party candidate — lesser-evilism politics par excellence.

The following year saw the first competitive elections in Germany owing to the German edition of the 1848-1849 Revolutions, the European Spring as they are often known. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, leaders of the most radical wing in the German movement, the communists, were obligated for the first time to address “the spoiler effect.”

But is it true that democracy’s fate will be decided at the ballot box? Or that an election would decide slavery’s fate? Or that such contests determine when wars occur? Subscription to the lesser/evil voting conundrum might suggest as much in each case. The “spoiler effect” claim, however, awards an unwarranted premium to the import of voting. The kernels of wisdom Marx and Engels bequeathed about how to respond to the “splitting the vote” charge, and enriched with the lessons that Lenin distilled about the Bolshevik experience with the electoral/parliamentary process, reveal why. Together they offer an answer to the timeworn conundrum.

Inextricably linked to that solution is the thesis that all three communists subscribed to about voting itself — its actuality as opposed to its repute, which this essay purports to demonstrate. Not likely to be palatable to Collins and Stephens, what’s proposed here could be invaluable for progressives, an improvement on Debs’ retort about the conundrum.

Lessons of the European Spring

Violence — or the threat of violence — is the most likely means, as history has shown, for obtaining the right to vote.(4)

Not coincidentally, it was the English Civil Wars that gave humanity its first detailed documented debate on suffrage, the 1647 Putney Debates — who had the right to vote, how to determine an electoral unit and its constituency, the property question, etc.(5)

But as the debate’s most radical voice, True Leveller or Digger Gerard Winstanley, cautioned — in anticipation of the Communist Manifesto two centuries later — suffrage could not guarantee democracy as long as inequalities in wealth were existent. Only a classless society could do so.

Fast forward to 1789, the French Revolution, when universal manhood suffrage was constitutionally enshrined in 1793 for the first time. But its realization would require another social explosion, a half-century later, the uprising in Paris in February 1848 that sent France’s last monarch packing.(6)

In the following April, the world’s first, at least in a major country, nationwide elections based on universal manhood suffrage took place, for a constituent assembly. Within weeks of the upheavals in Paris, Berlin exploded and for the first time Germany’s ruling class was forced to concede a constitution and parliamentary elections.

Five years earlier, the young pre-communist Marx underscored one of the “defects” in Hegel’s political ideal, constitutional monarchy. More important than whether or not, as the philosopher erroneously thought, civil society [bürgerliche Gesellschaft in the original, literally bourgeois society] was represented in the legislature either “through representatives or by all individually; the question is rather one of the extension and greatest possible generalization of election both of the right to vote and the right to be elected.”

In anticipation of the European Spring, “this is the real point of dispute concerning political reform in France as in England.” The young radical democrat, in other words, was an ardent advocate for universal suffrage.(7) And for that and other reasons he was not impressed with Great Britain, the model of constitutional monarchy for Hegel.

Marx, like many of his fellow Rhinelanders. chafed under the monarchical rule of the Hohenzollern Prussian dynasty and sought an alternative. To enable his quest for an alternative, he called for “making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism.” (MECW, 3: 144)

His journey prompted him to take a close look at the best that liberal democracy in that era had to offer. Underappreciated is how the American reality informed Marx’s route to communism. Research revealed that the country’s political system “allows private property, education, occupation, to act in their way . . . to exert the influence of their special nature. Far from abolishing these real distinctions, the state only exists on the presupposition of their existence.” (MECW, 3: 153)

If America was the best that liberal democracy could offer, then clearly something more radical, the young Marx concluded, was needed for “human emancipation.” (MECW, 3: 152)

America’s class-ridden reality, in other words, rendered impossible “true democracy” — a proposition that Winstanley would have agreed with. That epiphany, along with the concomitant discovery of the class that could emancipate itself only by emancipating all of class society’s oppressed, namely the proletariat, birthed the Communist Manifesto in February 1848 — just in time for the 1848 Revolutions.

Nothing in the Manifesto addressed elections and suffrage. In four places in the document, however, it did say that it would take “force” to “overthrow the bourgeoisie” in order to reach the “ultimate goal.” The omission was soon rectified within weeks of the document’s publication with a new one quickly composed by Marx and Engels, the effective leaders of the organization that commissioned them to write the Manifesto, the Communist League.

“The Demands of the Communist Party in Germany’’ constituted the organization’s guide for concrete daily work. None of the 17 demands were communist or socialist but rather basic bourgeois democratic ones, what the “real” situation in Germany at that moment required.

Following the first, a demand for “a single and indivisible republic,” the second called for “the right to vote and to be elected” for “every German having reached the age of 21 . . . provided he has not been convicted of a criminal offence” — in other words, universal male suffrage.

1789 caricature of the Third Estate carrying the First Estate (clergy) and the Second (nobility) on its back and leading to the demand for a constituent assembly.

The third demand stated that “representatives of the people shall receive payments so that workers, too, shall be able to become members of the German parliament.” (MECW, 7: 3-5) The rest of the demands were mostly to end semi-feudal relations in Germany.

But developments in France would prove in the long run to be determinant. The April/May 1848 elections to the constituent assembly, again, the first universal male suffrage elections, were conducted by the Provisional Government that issued from the February Revolution, the first iteration of a social-democratic regime.

Its establishment of the world’s first unemployment program for workers, the National Workshops, explains the “social” component of the label. In June, just six weeks later, Paris’ proletarian masses received their first object and sober lesson about social democracy. When they rose up again, this time to protest the ending of the jobs program, their revolt was crushed in blood.

Thousands were killed and wounded by government-backed troops, and even more were deported to France’s colonies. The bloodbath grimly taught that the right to vote should never be confused with the actual exercise of political power — a lesson Marx and Engels would later codify.(8)

Though not as sanguinary and starkly posed as the lessons from France, German working-class experience with suffrage also offered a reality check. As the Communist League’s “Demands” anticipated, Marx and Engels were vigilant from the very beginning about Germany’s first experiment in the electoral/parliamentary process.

The two did so largely from the outside through their newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and their activism in two mass organizations where they were based, the Cologne Workers Association and the mostly petit-bourgeois republican Cologne Democratic Association.

Initially they employed the League to direct that effort but at a certain moment, Marx, who had the authority to do so, decided to suspend its operations — a decision that he and Engels would later criticize (more about shortly).

When in January 1849 the first opportunity for organized German working-class participation in parliamentary elections presented itself where he was based, Marx had to grapple with the question of whether the workers’ movement should run its own candidates and risk the “spoiler effect” or rather support the more moderate liberal party candidates.(9)

Marx, according to the minutes of the January 15 meeting of the Workers Association, concurred with the opinion of a more experienced League member in the workers’ movement in Cologne.

“Citizen Marx is also of the opinion that the Workers’ Association as such would not be able to get candidates elected now; nor is it for the moment a question of doing anything with regard to principle, but of opposing the Government, absolutism, and the rule of feudalism, and for that, simple democrats, so-called liberals, who are also far from satisfied with the present Government, are sufficient. Things have to be taken as they are. Since it is now important to offer the strongest possible opposition to the absolutist system, plain common sense demands that if we realise that we cannot get our own view of principle accepted in the elections, we should unite with another party, also in opposition, so as not to allow our common enemy, the absolute monarchy, to win.” (MECW, 8:514)

Marx, then, when first confronted with the all-too familiar dilemma for most progressives today, opted for the lesser/evil liberals in order to avoid victory for the greater evil, the spoiler feudal “absolute monarchy.”(10) However, his “participation in politics, and therefore real struggles” soon taught otherwise.

Once it became clear that the German edition of the European Spring had ebbed, Marx and Engels were forced to retreat from the battlefield, draw balance sheets and regroup. Most relevant for purposes here is their 11-page “Address of the Central Authority of the League, March 1850.”

The document begins with a self-criticism of the decision to suspend, sometime in summer or fall 1848, the organization. The result was that “the workers’ party . . . came completely under the domination and leadership of the petit bourgeois democrats. An end must be put to this state of affairs, the independence of the workers must be restored.”

Two years had taught that “the democratic petit bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible” while “it is in our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent . . . For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation . . . not the improvement of the existing society but the foundation of a new one.”(11)

The premise of the document was that a resurgence of the revolution was imminent and, thus, the need for preparation. The call for “independent,” or some variant of, working-class political action rings out on virtually each page.

In unambiguous rejection of Marx’s position for the 1849 elections, the document directed “that everywhere workers’ candidates are put up alongside bourgeois-democratic candidates” in the next elections, “that they are as far as possible members of the League, and that their election is promoted by all possible means.”

“Even where 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 of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing 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 proletarian 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.” [emphasis added] (MECW, 10:281, 284)

Here, then, for the first time was Marx and Engels’ opinion about “splitting” the vote, or the “spoiler effect.” It was of more value, they argued, for the working-class movement to risk a “few reactionaries in the representative body” by running an independent campaign than not to have done so — the opportunity “to count their forces” and “to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint,” that is, political education.

Implied in that directive was the premise that elections best serve the working class not as an end in themselves but rather as a means to an end.

But what about the “few reactionaries in the representative body”? How were they to be treated? “If from the outset the democrats come out resolutely and terroristically against the reactionaries, the influence of the latter in the elections will be destroyed in advance.” Without any further elaboration in the document the reader can only speculate on the meaning of the sentence.

Though neither Marx nor Engels lived long enough to see the next German revolution, the “Address” forever informed their approach to elections. Engels, at the appropriate moment, would later teach the significance of being able “to count their forces.” Lenin, as we’ll see, singularly and consequentially instantiated Engels’s point.

Experiences of 1848 Summed Up

As Marx and Engels were issuing their “Address,” Marx was composing his analysis of the recently transpired French events, since known as The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850. Relevant here were his comments on the suffrage question.

Marx Graphic: Lisa Lyons

The key takeaway for him about the February 1848 uprising was the plebeian proletarian masses in the streets of Paris imposing their will, “dictating,” to make possible universal suffrage in a major country for the first time. They did so, he argued, only for the purpose of providing “the terrain for its revolutionary emancipation, but by no means the emancipation itself.” (MECW, 10: 54)

Their demand for universal manhood suffrage was for Marx, therefore, a means for “emancipation” rather than “emancipation itself.” And when the ruling class grew tired of the proletariat employing those means and had the ability and confidence to do so — their slaughter of the rebellious Parisian proletariat in June 1848 proved to be a decisive turning point — they effectively ended universal manhood suffrage by the end of May 1850.

“Universal suffrage,” as Marx in clinical-like fashion explained, “had fulfilled its mission. The majority of the people had passed through the school of development, which is all that universal suffrage can serve for in a revolutionary period. It had to be set aside by a revolution or by the reaction.” (MECW, 10: 137) Again, for Marx elections were a means rather than an end — in complement to the “Address of March 1850.”

Another post-revolutionary balance sheet was Engels’ Revolution and Counterrevolution about the German Revolution. As for the petit-bourgeois liberals who had been elected to the Frankfurt Assembly to write a constitution for a unified Germany, many of whom were academics, Engels was unsparing.

“They had from the beginning of their legislative career been more imbued than any other fraction of the Assembly with that incurable malady, parliamentary cretinism, a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honor to count them among its members, and that all and everything going on outside the walls of their house — wars, revolutions . . . and whatever else may have some little claim to influence upon the destinies of mankind — is nothing compared to the incommensurable events hinging upon the important question, whatever it may be, just at that moment occupying the attention of their honorable House.” [emphasis added] (MECW, 11: 79)

Contrary to what those afflicted with “parliamentary cretinism” believed, determinant in politics, Engels posited, is what took place “outside” the legislative arena.

Marx seconded Engels’s insight shortly afterward in his more famous The Eighteenth Brumaire. The affliction, “which since 1848 has raged all over the Continent, parliamentary cretinism, which holds those infected by it fast in an imaginary world and robs them of all sense, all memory, all understanding of the rude external world.” (MECW, 11: 161)

Exactly because the two communists prioritized developments beyond the “honorable House” they were willing to risk for the sake of independent working class political action “a few reactionaries in the representative body” and not be frightened about the “spoiler effect.” The benefits of being able “to count forces” and to carry out political education outweighed the potential costs.

Two decades later political conditions in Germany and elsewhere in Europe allowed Marx and Engels to opine once more on a working-class perspective on the electoral and parliamentary processes. Along the way, Marx led, with the founding in 1864 of the International Workingmen’s Association, or First International, the campaign for forming mass working-class political parties. He codified in the organization’s founding documents the chief lesson of the European Spring: only if organized for political action independently of the bourgeoisie could the working class emancipate itself.

With the German party in the vanguard of the process, Marx and Engels, owing to their historic ties to the movement there, had license to offer frank and sober advice. Engels, for example, criticized one of the party’s candidates for the 1874 Reichstag elections who rejected the use of “force” in the political process “even though we all know that when it comes down to it, nothing can be achieved without force” — one of the essential lessons of the 1848-1849 upheavals. (MECW, 45: 9)

Marx, four years later, pointed out that one of the lessons of the United States Civil War — a revolution that he devoted considerable attention to — was that “a ‘peaceful’ movement might be transformed into a ‘forcible’ one by resistance on the part of those interested in the former state of affairs,” that is, the slave oligarchy.(12) The point qualified a comment he had made in a speech in 1872 — often quoted out of context by voices who seek to defang Marx — which suggested that he exempted America from armed revolutions. The Civil War’s staggering toll in human lives demonstrated otherwise.

After Marx’s death in 1883 it fell to Engels alone to advise the fledgling working-class parties in Europe about how to conduct themselves in the electoral/parliamentary arenas. With an eye on German state censors, Engels could only metaphorically iterate his and his deceased partner’s revolutionary position on elections in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State the following year.

In the same sober and clinical-like tone rendered by his partner three decades earlier in The Class Struggles in France, “universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state, but that,” he continued, “is sufficient. On the day the thermometer of universal suffrage registers boiling point among the workers, both they and the capitalists will know where they stand.” (MECW, 26: 272)

Nine years later, Engels could be more transparent about the meaning of his point in a letter to Marx’s son-in-law and a leader of the French party about the recent gains it had made in an election:

“Do you realize now what a splendid weapon you in France have had in your hands for forty 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 ten 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 ten 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 favorable position to make the revolution.” (MECW, 50: 29)

Nothing better in the Marx-Engels arsenal made clearer than this passage the intent of those kernels of wisdom in their “Address of March 1850” about the revolutionary value of independent working-class political action in the electoral arena. It was a position he still defended four decades later.

Such action would allow the workers’ movement “to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint” in order — what they could only hint at in 1850 — to “make the revolution.” To repeat, elections for Engels and his partner were an invaluable means rather than an end in themselves.

When a critic, also in 1892, accused the two communists of being dismissive of bourgeois democracy, Engels objected.

“Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseam, that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.” (MECW, 27: 271)

Just as the electoral and parliamentary arenas were only for both of them a means to the end of proletarian ascent, so too, therefore, the same for bourgeois democracy itself.

This exposed the fundamental incompatibility between class society and democracy. Only with the proletariat in power could the process begin for dismantling class societies and, thus, the realization for the first time of true democracy and, hence, human emancipation. Lenin, as we’ll soon see, absorbed that perspective to his very political core.

Engels, who died in 1895, didn’t live long enough to see what later became of universal suffrage on a global scale. Not until after the Second World War did that become a reality and along with it, therefore, all of the illusions that were shattered about elections as an end in themselves for achieving true democracy.(13)

This distillation of Marx’s and Engels’s views on the electoral and parliamentary processes would be remiss without a recognition of the campaign to rob them of their revolutionary content even before their deaths in respectively 1883 and 1895 — a campaign from within the movement they both nurtured.

No individual’s role in that development was as consequential as that of Karl Kautsky, the so-called “Pope of Marxism.” His 1892 The Class Struggle, which he dubbed a “catechism of Social-Democracy,” was widely read including by Eugene V. Debs (about which more later).

Relevant here is Kautsky’s claim that “Great capitalists can influence rulers and legislators directly, but the workers can do so only through parliamentary activity . . . By electing representatives to parliament, therefore, the working class can exercise an influence over the governmental powers”[italics added].(14)

Only through parliamentary activity”? That’s exactly the stance Engels and Marx derisively labeled “parliamentary cretinism.” In hindsight, Kautsky’s claim registered a larger development in the German Social-Democratic Party, the growth of reformism. Engels’ last and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to arrest it had a tragic outcome that still resonates in world politics.(15) Lenin, to segue and to be seen, had good reason to later label Kautsky a “parliamentary cretin.”

Lessons from Revolutionary Russia

Three years after the Bolshevik-led revolution that brought Russia’s workers and peasants to power in October 1917, Lenin declared his party’s “participation . . . in parliaments . . . was not only useful but indispensable” in its success.(16) If true — and there is no reason to doubt him — it suggests that Lenin employed the parliamentary road to realize working-class state power, the first and only time since then.

But of utmost importance for Lenin, the electoral and parliamentary arenas were, as his two mentors had taught, a means rather than an end for proletarian ascendancy. This was what distinguished him from what later became 20th-century Social Democracy. “Revolutionary parliamentarism” is the label he employed for what he advocated in distinction to the “reformist parliamentarism” of the latter.

When the opportunity presented itself for the first time to partake in the electoral and parliamentary processes, Lenin seized the moment with relish. Czar Nicholas II, as monarchs had done before — including his Hohenzollern cousin in Berlin in 1848 — sought to end the mass strikes in the 1905 Revolution with the promise of liberal democracy.

To hold the Czar’s feet to the fire, Lenin counseled his Bolshevik comrades, “we must fight in a revolutionary way for a parliament but not in a parliamentary way for a revolution.” (LCW, 9: 258-61) Only when the mobilizations began to run out of steam did Lenin advocate for working-class participation in the Czar’s proposals, despite their severe democratic limitations.

No founding document of the modern communist movement informed Lenin’s practice as much as Marx and Engels’ “Address of March 1850,” which he “knew by heart” and “used to delight in quoting.”(17) It served, I argue, as Lenin’s playbook for Bolshevik ascendancy in 1917.(18)

To understand why, between 1906 and 1914 Lenin directed Bolshevik election campaigns for participation of its elected deputies in Russia’s four state Dumas.(19) The “Address” taught that elections, to repeat for the umpteenth time, were only a means for the Bolsheviks — “to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint.”

The document also informed Lenin’s stance on the ever present lesser-evil/splitting the vote issue. Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State taught as well to regard elections as a “thermometer” that “registers boiling point among workers.”

In his single most detailed writing on non-party elections, an assessment of those for the First Duma in 1906 — an 80-page text that’s as long as his more famous Left-Wing Communism — Lenin previewed in broad strokes exactly what he led in 1917.(20) His instructions to the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) deputies who were elected to the Duma in which the liberal Cadet party was hegemonic are all-so revealing:

“Our task is not to support the Cadet Duma, but to use the conflicts within this Duma, or connected with it, for choosing the right moment to attack the enemy, the right moment for an insurrection against the autocracy. . . As a means of testing public opinion and defining as correctly and precisely as possible the moment when “boiling point” is reached . . . but only as a symptom, not as the real field of struggle. . . . Our task is to use the respite that will be provided by an opposition Duma (and as the proletariat needs time to rally its forces properly, this respite will be very much to our advantage), to organise the workers, to expose constitutional illusions, and to prepare for a military offensive. Our task is to be at our post when the Duma farce develops into a new great political crisis; and our aim then will be, not support for the Cadets (at best they will be only a weak mouthpiece of the revolutionary people), but the overthrow of the autocratic government and the transfer of power to the revolutionary people.” [emphasis added] (LCW, 10: 237-38)

Nota bene“boiling point.” In unmistakable language that Marx and Engels would have endorsed, electoral and parliamentary work were “not . . . the real field of struggle” but to be seen only “as a means” to “prepare for a military offensive,” that is, an armed action to “transfer . . . power to the revolutionary people.” Nothing in the Lenin arsenal, I contend, so accurately anticipated the historic events of October 1917.

For the first time Lenin spoke to the lesser/evil/splitting the vote issue. In preparation for the Second Duma elections, at the beginning of 1907, he had to address the call by the Menshevik wing of the RSDLP to support the liberal Cadet candidates: the reason, to avoid splitting the vote of the left and allowing, supposedly, the proto-fascist Black Hundreds to win.

Given the indirect system of elections in four different electoral colleges or curiae for the different social classes of the population, Lenin had his work cut out to make his case against the Menshevik argument. It required him, for example, to do a detailed analysis of election returns to the First Duma to calculate the probability of Black Hundred success as the Mensheviks, echoing the Cadets, claimed.

Lenin in two detailed articles essentially concretized, for the specific conditions he faced, Marx and Engels’ advice that the workers’ movement not be persuaded by the claim of the petit-bourgeois Democrats that in running their own candidates “they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory.”(21)

To not run their own campaign, he replied, would deny the RSDLP the opportunity to know its true strength within the proletariat, in other words, its raison d’être. Also, according to his calculations, the Cadets were exaggerating the probability of Black Hundred victory.

In the final analysis, lastly and most importantly, the only place, he contended, where the Black Hundred danger could be effectively dealt with was outside the parliamentary arena, in the streets. To believe otherwise, he charged, was to succumb to “parliamentary cretinism” — not the last time he would employ Engels’ and Marx’s label.

Though Lenin couldn’t persuade his Menshevik comrades with his arguments, he felt vindicated when the election results revealed that indeed a Black Hundred victory was unlikely. In retrospect, his debate with the Mensheviks may have been the beginning of the end of the Bolshevik-Menshevik coalition.

That the Bolsheviks proved eventually to be more influential than the Mensheviks with Russia’s proletariat was not coincidental. Lenin’s 1906-1907 writings constitute the Marxist movement’s first, and maybe only, detailed response to the lesser/evil/splitting-the-vote conundrum.

Fast forward to 1917. A unique feature of the 1905 upheaval were the mass democratic councils that workers formed to coordinate their strikes — soviets. When they reappeared in the February Revolution of 1917, the soviets began to increasingly function as an alternative to the parliamentary-like Duma bodies.

Because they were more democratic than the latter and thus more representative of public opinion, Lenin immediately recognized that the soviets could be more effective than the Dumas in realizing his vision for working-class ascent via “a military offensive.” Five months after the Bolshevik victory, he explained their success:

“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 [provisional government] had also lost the support of the peasantry — and that meant that our cause had already won.” (LCW, 27: 25)

It was as if Lenin had actually read and taken heed of Engels’ advice to his French comrade in 1892 about the unique value of elections for determining when “to make the revolution.”(22) Lenin could easily read between the lines of the thermometer metaphor in the Origins text to know what Engels meant by “the boiling point.” The almost decade-long experience in the electoral/parliamentary arenas — learning how “to count forces” and do political education — goes a long way in explaining why Lenin deemed that work to be “indispensable” in Bolshevik ascent in 1917.

After the Bolshevik victory in 1917, Lenin was obligated to defend from its detractors what they had accomplished. Again, as Lenin had sketched out in 1906, electoral and parliamentary work was only a means to prepare for an armed revolution — exactly what happened in October/November 11 years later.

A key difference between 1906 and 1917 was the presence of the soviets, capped by the national one for the country as a whole, the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies. That was the body the Bolsheviks employed for organizing the workers and peasants to overthrow the Duma-based Provisional Government. The insurrection was relatively peaceful precisely because the Soviet was more representative of public opinion than the Duma.

With state power, the new Bolshevik-led coalition government began immediately to act on its campaign promises for the Soviet elections noted above — “peace, land, and bread.”

The first two pledges, extracting Russia from the bloodbath of the First World War and enactment of a land reform, proved relatively speaking the easiest of the three to meet.

Realization of the second promise ensured support for the new government from Russia’s largest constituency, the peasantry. It was why, basically, the Bolsheviks defeated their class enemies in the civil war, a bloodletting that Lenin accurately anticipated.

The new Bolshevik-led government also organized and held three weeks later elections for the Constituent Assembly, long-promised but never realized by the Provisional Government. Historian Adam Tooze, no friend of Lenin, admits that the elections were “a milestone in the history of 20th-century democracy. At least 44 million Russians cast a vote. To date it was the largest expression of, in his opinion, “popular will in history.”(23)

The peasant-based Socialist-Revolutionary Party received the largest share of the vote, thirty-eight per cent. Twenty-four percent went to the proletarian and urban-based Bolsheviks, three per cent to their Menshevik rivals, and five per cent to the liberal Cadets.

The results brought to a head the long simmering and unresolved political issue of 1917: which of the two forms of representative democracy was more legitimate, soviet or parliamentary? The question was in fact a proxy for the real issue: which class should rule Russia?

An answer was finally rendered on January 6, 1918, when the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, where the Bolsheviks were hegemonic, voted at Lenin’s initiative to dissolve the two-day old Constituent Assembly for not recognizing its supreme authority. Lenin’s decision to unceremoniously send the Assembly packing has never been forgiven by his liberal detractors.(24)

Lenin’s definitive defense of his actions came almost two years later when the detailed results of the November 1917 elections finally became available. Written in 1919, the last stages of Russia’s devastating civil war, and three years before his final stroke, “The Constituent Assembly Elections and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” constitutes his last word on the electoral process.(25) Not to be forgotten, again, is that he previewed his position in 1906.

What Kind of Democracy?

The essence of Lenin’s argument, first, was that by the time the Constituent Assembly met in January, the revolutionary train had already left the station. In seizing state power in October, the proletariat under Bolshevik leadership immediately began to enact measures, particularly the land reform, to win the peasant majority to its side. Russia’s effective majority, in other words, voted with its feet.

Second, there could never be democratic elections under conditions based on private property and other capitalist relations of production — Russia’s reality on November 7. Third, “extremely important political matters” could never be settled “merely by voting. Such problems are actually solved by civil war if they are acute and aggravated by struggle.” To claim otherwise was “crass stupidity, or else, sheer deception of the workers.” (LCW, 30: 265-67)

The Bolshevik triumph, Lenin argued in conclusion, taught a profound lesson. Rather than rely on an election for “the majority of the population . . . to express themselves in favor of the party of the proletariat . . . [l]et the revolutionary party first overthrow the bourgeoisie, break the yoke of capital, and smash the bourgeois state apparatus.”

Armed with that victory, “the victorious proletariat will be able rapidly to gain the sympathy and support of the majority of the non-proletarian working people by satisfying their needs at the expense of the exploiters.”

Lenin’s strategy was to first win a majority of the proletariat — what the soviet elections registered in September 1917 — in order to overthrow the bourgeois government. Then employ state power to win over a majority of the peasantry to end the power of the bourgeoisie. The almost decade-long Duma experience had taught the Bolsheviks that only with deeds rather than words would the countryside be won to their perspective.

Could socialist transformation be done differently as the Second International Social Democrats contended, that is, by relying on elections beforehand? For Lenin that would have been “[the] rare exception.” And besides, he continued, “the bourgeoisie can resort to civil war, as the example of Finland showed.”(26)

Another civil war, to be seen shortly, instantiated his point.

As evidence for his strategy, Lenin pointed to the progress the Red Army was making in the civil war, and employed the newly available Constituent Assembly election to make his case. They largely predicted, he convincingly argued, the course of the war and eventual Bolshevik victory. Areas where the Bolsheviks did well in the elections anticipated military victories.

As for the reality of “democratic” elections under capitalist relations of production, Exhibit A for Lenin was the United States. Had he lived long enough, he could have added the SCOTUS 2012 Citizens United decision.

But by no means did Lenin dismiss U.S. elections. To the contrary, as he argued most tellingly in a 1912 article in defense of them — against a Russian monarchist voice that sought to impugn them owing to the unmistakable influence of money in their conduct (LCW, 18:3350 — elections under bourgeois conditions were preferable to none at all or under semi-feudal conditions.

As for “civil war,” Lenin likely had in mind the foremost example of the 19th century, the U.S. Civil War. Sixteen months earlier he pointed out in his famous “Letter to American Workers” (1918) that only through a very bloody and destructive war, not unlike the one then in progress in Russia, could America’s version of feudalism, chattel slavery, be ended.(27)

Neither a Supreme Court decision, the infamous 1857 Dred Scott ruling, nor the 1860 presidential election that brought Lincoln into the White House, settled the most contentious issue the nation had ever faced. If ever there was an example of how “extremely important political matters” can only be “solved by civil war,” then surely the conflagration in America must qualify as Exhibit A.

So important for Lenin were his arguments that he ended the article with 10 theses. “The Constituent Assembly Elections“ article constitutes the bookend to his definitive writings on the Marxist approach to the electoral/parliamentary process — his definitive statement.

Frederick Engels Graphic: Lisa Lyons

The invaluable lessons that Marx and Engels bequeathed to Lenin help explain why at the Revolution’s arguably most decisive moment he proved to be more effective than his peasant-based Right Social Revolutionary opponents who won more votes than the Bolsheviks in the Constituent Assembly elections. As the historian Orlando Figes, another mainstream Lenin opponent, admits:

“The Right SRs were hypnotized by the ‘sanctity’ and the ‘dignity’ of the Constituent Assembly. the first democratic parliament in the history of Russia, and by the ‘honour’ which this bestowed upon them as representatives. Carried away by such ideals, they deluded themselves into believing that Russia was firmly set on the same path as England or America, and that the ‘will of the people’ was alone enough to defend its democratic institutions . . . . There was [in fact] no mass reaction to the closure of the Constituent Assembly.”(28)

The Right SRs, in other words, as Engels would have explained, were afflicted “with that incurable malady, parliamentary cretinism” and deluded, as Lenin would have put it, to think that “extremely important political matters” could be settled “merely by voting.” Such faulty thinking doomed their fate.

For Marx and Engels, and Lenin as well, the parliamentary and electoral arenas were only a means rather than an end for “making a revolution.” As Lenin argued in his final pronouncement on the topic in Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, that’s what most distinguished “revolutionary parliamentarism” from “reformist parliamentarism.”

For Lenin, no individual represented the stance of reformist parliamentarism more than the one-time “Pope of Marxism,” Karl Kautsky. His objection to the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary road to power earned him Lenin’s opprobrium and, as noted earlier, the label of being a “parliamentary cretin.” (LCW, 28: 241)

Four decades later the essence of Russia’s revolutionary course would be duplicated on an island 9,000 miles away in the Caribbean.

Lenin’s perspective about elections, to conclude, also applied to the revolutionary party itself. This is what he was alluding to in the last of his ten theses in the “Constitutional Assembly” article. “Bolshevism would not have defeated the bourgeoisie in 1917-1919, if before that, in 1903-17, it had not learned to defeat the Mensheviks, i.e., the opportunists, reformists, social-chauvinists, and ruthlessly expel them from the party of the proletariat vanguard.” (LCW, 30: 275)

Political experience had taught, beginning in 1903, that just as “important political questions” in the larger world couldn’t be settled “merely by voting,” the same was true for a real proletariat party — “inevitable, since the proletariat is operating in a capitalist environment.”

The problem of trying to get the minority of the Russian Socialist Democratic Labor Party, the official party that Lenin belonged to until 1914, to carry out the perspective democratically voted on by majority surfaced quickly after its unity congress in 1903.

To prevent that from happening in the future, the principle of democratic centralism was adopted as the party’s modus operandi (initiated, by the way, by the Menshevik wing). It would become the defining principle of a “Leninist” party. Membership, in other words, would now depend on whether a member carried out the line democratically adopted by the party majority — the only way in which the majority could impose discipline, i.e. its will, namely to make voting meaningful.

(To be continued in the next issue of Against the Current, September-October 2024.)


  1. Jan 5, 2024, Valley Forge, PA, (AP News)
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  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/13/us/politics/cornel-west-campaign-manager-peter-daou-green-party-democrats.html. West’s Green Party candidacy proved to be short lived. As of this writing, he will run as the newly Justice For All party candidate.
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  3. Ray Ginger, The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene V. Debs, originally published 1947.
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  4. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, “Why Did the West Extend the Franchise? Democracy, Inequality, and Growth in Historical Perspective,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, November 2000.
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  5. Paul Foot, The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined (New York, 2005).
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  6. Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and The Fight For a New World, 1848-1849 (New York, 2023) is arguably the new one-volume definitive account of the entire episode.
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  7. Marx planned in 1844 to write a volume or two devoted just to the state in which “suffrage” was slated to be the last topic. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, 50 vols. (New York, 1975–2005), vol. 4, p. 666 (hereafter MECW, 4: 666).
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  8. For details see Clark, 557-65.
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  9. For the larger context of the elections, see Jonathan Sperber, Rhineland Radicals: The Democratic Movement and the Revolution of 1848-1849 (Princeton, N.J.1991), 337-46.
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  10. Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York, 2013), 233, claims that Marx was motivated by opposition to a rival in the workers movement — a possibility but only speculation.
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  11. According to Sperber 2013, 251, “the revolution permanent” was “coined by [Andreas] Gottschalk, in an article he wrote in January 1849 denouncing Marx for opposing Gottschalk’s plan to put up workers’ candidates against the democrats in the elections to the Prussian parliament.”
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  12. MECW, 24: 248. For details on Marx’s attention to the Civil War, see August Nimtz and Kyle Edwards, The Communist and the Revolutionary LIberal in the Second American Revolution: Comparing Karl Marx and Frederick Douglass in Real-Time (forthcoming). . . .
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  13. Nimtz 2021, “‘Putting weapons into the hands of the proletariat’: Marx on the contradiction between capitalism and liberal democracy,” Research Handbook on Law and Marxism, eds. Paul O’Connell and Umut Ozsu (Cheltenham, U.K,. 2021), 57-60.
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  14. Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program), New York, 1971): 186.
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  15. Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets, or Both?: From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution (Chicago, 2019): 32-35.15. Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets, or Both?: From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution (Chicago, 2019): 32-35.
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  16. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow, 1977), vol. 31: 61; hereafter, LCW, 31: 61. . . .
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  17. David Riazanov, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: An Introduction to Their Lives and Work (New York, 1973): 99.
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  18. Nimtz, “‘The Bolsheviks Come To Power’: A New Interpretation” Science & Society (81:4).
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  19. For the rich details, see Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets, or Both?, Chapters 3 to 6. . .
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  20. This is the first recognition in print, as far as I can tell, of that preview. I certainly missed it in my The Ballot, 98-99. Lenin spilled as much ink, if not more, on party elections, specifically, for example, his pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, LCW, 7.
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  21. For details, see Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets, or Both?: 132-35, 138-40.
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  22. Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (New York, 2014): 84-85.
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  23. Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (New York, 2014): 84-85.
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  24. In real-time, however, Lenin’s actions were greeted with mixed and ambiguous reac- tions by liberals. In his famous Fourteen Points Speech of January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson, for example, praised “Russia’s leaders for their democratic . . . “ Then later in March he sent a letter of encouragement to the Congress of Soviets in implicit acknowledgement that it was the sovereign authority in Russia. See Nimtz, Marxism versus Liberalism: Comparative Real-Time Political Analysis (New York, 2019): 213-17.
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  25. An unexpected reward awaits today’s reader of the article — Lenin’s endorsement of Ukrainian self-determination.
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  26. LCW, 30: 273. Eminent Russian Revolution scholar Alexander Rabinowitch, I’m told on good authority, claims that Lenin “didn’t trust elections” (Nimtz, The Ballot, 2019: 463). But that claim flies in the face of the evidence distilled here.
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  27. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/aug/20.htm
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  28. Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution (New York,1996): 518.
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July/August 2024, ATC 231

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