Revolutionaries and Elections

by Bob Allen

In August this year Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote from death row about the broad layers of the U.S. population who mistakenly hope for political change through the 2004 elections. He goes on to say: “Every election season, there are people on the sidelines, usually leftists, Marxists, or socialists, who argue against the worth of such exercises, assuring us that both major parties are but fronts for the capitalist rulers.” (See Mumia’s August 7 article, “Beyond Parties, Beyond Elections.”)

It is true that Marxists and many others see both major parties as “fronts for the capitalist rulers,” but it is a common misperception that Marxists “argue against the worth of such exercises.”

In one of the most significant Marxist contributions on electoral politics, “Leftwing Communism, an Infantile Disorder,” V.I. Lenin challenged the notion that revolutionaries have no stake in the electoral process. Lenin’s article, soon published as a pamphlet, was written in 1920 as part of the strategic and programmatic discussions among a broad layer of revolutionaries from around the world who were attracted to the Russian Revolution. In the aftermath of the great slaughter of World War I all revolutionary groups were united in condemning the politicians, especially “socialist” politicians, who had supported the war. It was an understandable inclination to abhor the opportunism and political corruption of parliamentary politics. But Lenin pointed out that this emotional reaction would not suffice as a political strategy, and characterized the attitude as an “infantile disorder.”

In Lenin’s view, failure to challenge the capitalist and opportunist socialist parties in the parliamentary field was a huge political error. To leave the masses of people who see elections as a significant political arena in the hands of the enemy, without a fight, was inexcusable. He went so far as to say that “participation in parliamentary elections and in the struggle on the platform of parliament is obligatory” (emphasis in the original).

This political question was especially important for people living in Western European countries and the United States—nations with established traditions of electoral democracy. In these countries, Lenin said, a central challenge for revolutionaries lay in the admittedly difficult process of creating “a new, unusual, non-opportunist parliamentarianism.”

On the bus ride home from one of last year’s antiwar marches I tried to relate some of the above points to the “Marxist-Leninist” bus companion sitting next to me. He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. What’s that? You say Lenin insisted on revolutionaries participating in elections? He had never heard such heresy!

Any who are interested in this question should not take my word but read the pamphlet themselves. For your consideration here is one of Lenin’s characteristically unambiguous passages, which cuts to the heart of the question. “Criticism—the keenest, most ruthless and uncompromising criticism—must be directed, not against parliamentarianism or parliamentary activities, but against those leaders who are unable—and still more against those who are unwilling—to utilize parliamentary elections and the parliamentary tribune in a revolutionary, Communist manner.”

After eighty-four years this political challenge to revolutionaries living in the centers of imperialist democracy remains the order of the day.

Some Comments on “Revolutionaries and Elections”

by John Kirkland

I just recently reread Lenin’s “Left-Wing Communism” (which I’ll abbreviate as LWC), and I agree with Bob; it’s one of the best pieces on revolutionary strategy going.

Lenin’s argument is quite compelling. He even makes the case for communists to make temporary alliances with forces to their right, though only in very specific circumstances. That is to say, he allowed that it would be necessary for communists to ally with social democrats in order to defeat the right, but that in such an alliance the revolutionaries should maintain their independence insofar as propaganda and agitation go—that is, continue to express a clear anticapitalist, class-struggle point of view.

I’ve had “LWC” cited to me as a way of justifying support by the left for a capitalist candidate like Kerry, and that doesn’t hold water. Lenin was very specific that revolutionaries could form electoral alliances or united fronts with other parties having a working class base—not with capitalist political parties. One reason for allying with nonrevolutionary working-class political formations is that it would give revolutionary forces a chance to bring their political ideas to the rank and file of a reformist social democratic party and open the way to break the ranks away from an opportunist, procapitalist leadership.

Lenin was very clear on the necessity for the left (communists, revolutionaries) not to fence themselves off from workers and the oppressed.

What this means for us in 2004 is an open question. I think the case can be made for a call for critical support for Nader-Camejo, on the grounds that the character of their campaign is objectively social democratic and is clearly antiwar. Other folks would say no because Nader’s not a socialist (and he has a multiclass orientation, not a working class orientation), which is quite true. I think the fact that there is a layer of working class activists and students involved in the Nader campaign means we should at least give it a look.

Lenin’s pamphlet “LWC” also makes the case for working inside the existing trade unions, which I find very compelling.