Exchange with CPGB on Lenin’s Electoral Tactics

Bolsheviks, Ballots & the Class Line

We reprint below an exchange that took place last year in the letters pages of the Weekly Worker, newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Beginning as a discussion on tactics for the June 2009 election to the European Parliament, in which the CPGB called for voting for candidates of the popular-frontist ‘No to EU—Yes to Democracy’ (No2EU) coalition, it developed into an exchange on the question of revolutionary policy toward bourgeois political formations in general, and, in particular, the Bolshevik Party’s attitude regarding candidates of the liberal Constitutional Democrat (Cadet) party in elections to the Tsarist Duma.

Barbara Dorn (IBT) in Weekly Worker, 28 May 2009

The CPGB’s call for conditional critical support to ‘No to EU—Yes to Democracy’ candidates in the European elections overlooks one significant aspect of this rotten nationalist project—the involvement of the openly bourgeois Liberal Party. When bourgeois and working class forces present themselves together on the same electoral slate, Marxists call this a popular front, and it automatically precludes any political support, no matter how critical. In his article ‘Republican democracy, voting tactics and communist strategy’ (May 21), CPGB leader Jack Conrad does not think the participation of bourgeois forces is even worth mentioning, let alone including in his list of conditions for critical support.

This organisational embrace of the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’, while contradicting No2EU’s formal claim to stand for the interests of the working class, is completely in line with its nationalist programme, which feeds into the reactionary poison of ‘British jobs for British workers’. This on its own would be reason enough not to give critical support. It is vital that we fight all capitalist attacks, whether carried out in the name of the European Union or of the nation-state, and build active solidarity between workers of all nations.

Conrad then goes on to call for a vote to the Labour Party if, or more likely when, No2EU rejects the CPGB’s conditions. But, after 12 years of this viciously anti-working class government, the idea that there are any class-conscious workers who still believe that Labour represents their separate class interests is absurd. To apply the tactic of critical support to New Labour today can only be done on the basis of ‘lesser evilism’, which defeats the purpose of the tactic—to develop working class consciousness in a revolutionary direction.

Critical support can potentially be useful at times when the reformists pretend to stand for our interests as a class against the bosses. It is a way of engaging in dialogue with class conscious workers over the best programme to advance those separate class interests. With Labour and No2EU today, there is no such impulse to intersect.

In the absence of any candidates standing for the independent interests of the working class, even in a deformed reformist way, revolutionaries call for workers to spoil their ballots in the European elections.

James Turley (CPGB) in Weekly Worker, 4 June 2009

Barbara Dorn (Letters, May 28) raises the issue of some Liberal Party members’ participation in ‘No to EU—Yes to Democracy’. It is certainly yet more evidence of the chauvinist philistinism of the latter’s programme that it attracts a Eurosceptic faction of a Whig splinter group.

But comrade Dorn misses this point entirely, and instead gives us the line of the International Bolshevik Tendency on popular fronts at the level of self-parody. The fact that the Liberals are involved automatically makes this a popular front; the fact that it’s a popular front automatically precludes any possibility of support. The CPGB’s line of posing conditions on support was therefore unprincipled—support should just have been denied.

Firstly, there is no class character that automatically precludes Marxists from giving support to a political formation. For all the accusations of Kautskyite heresy from the IBT, the CPGB stands in the tradition of Bolshevism here—these are the same Bolsheviks who urged intellectual supporters to vote for the liberal bourgeois Cadets. IBT comrade Alan Davis has argued in these pages before that they were wrong to do so—but to argue against this on the basis of principle rather than tactics (and the tactic actually worked out quite well) is a fundamental break from Marxist politics proper into the arid terrain of ultra-leftism.

Secondly, the role of the bourgeois section of a popular front is for the most part a kind of collateral; its involvement is offered to the communists’ allies to insure that the communists will not attempt to implement their full programme. The role of these Liberal Party members has been to piggyback on a programme that had already been decided. To focus on this rather pharisaic point is to take emphasis away from the more fundamental class-collaborationist character of the front—its chauvinist, red-brown programme and implicit alliance with the bourgeois state.

Comrade Dorn also claims that no ‘class-conscious workers’ still believe that Labour represents the separate interests of the class. But this is simply to ignore the facts that the vast bulk of the trade union movement is still affiliated to Labour, that there remain sections of the Labour Party ostensibly committed to independent working class representation, and so on.

Glyn Matthews, writing in the same issue, suffers from similar confusions. What happened to the days when we realised that Labour had been ‘exposed as a pro-imperialist party’ and could no longer be supported? Well, those days never happened. What we decided was that the Iraq war was the key polarising issue in British politics and principled opposition to it the key requirement for support. Respect passed that test, if it failed all the others—and so did a small handful of Labour candidates in the 2005 general election!

It is plain now that the Iraq war is drawing to an end and that, when it is over, it will be no more a polarising issue than is the presence of British army bases in former colonies in general. The anti-war movement is basically gone. Its recent revival has had nothing to do with Iraq and everything to do with Israel/Palestine. The conditions we raised in that period are no longer appropriate. And, once again, anyone who says that election tactics must never change, or must add up to a consistent picture in themselves, misunderstands what tactics actually means.

Barbara Dorn (IBT) in Weekly Worker, 11 June 2009

James Turley argues that the International Bolshevik Tendency’s rejection of the ‘No to EU—Yes to Democracy’ campaign as a popular front ‘misses the point’ because the involvement of the bourgeois Liberal Party had no effect on No2EU’s ‘chauvinist, red-brown programme’ (Letters, June 4). But comrade Turley is mistaken to imagine that the issue of whether or not to offer electoral support (however ‘critical’) to cross class, or overtly bourgeois, formations is merely a tactical question for Leninists.

Claiming that ‘there is no class character that automatically precludes Marxists from giving support to a political formation’, Turley cites as evidence the willingness of the Bolshevik leadership ‘to vote for the liberal bourgeois Cadets’ in 1906. At the time Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks adhered to the organisational conceptions of the Second International, and functioned as a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party [RSDLP], a Kautskyan ‘party of the whole class’. They also accepted the idea that a revolution against Russian tsarism would necessarily usher in a period of capitalist development—rather than begin to lay the basis of a socialist economy. This is reflected in a comment in a key document Lenin wrote on this issue: ‘The central issue is: on what lines should the socialist proletariat enter into agreements with the bourgeoisie, which, generally speaking, are inevitable in the course of a bourgeois revolution’ (‘Blocs with the Cadets’, November 1906). Because they conceived of the tasks of the Russian Revolution as essentially bourgeois-democratic, the pre-1917 Bolsheviks were prepared to discuss the idea of electoral agreements with what they described as the ‘revolutionary bourgeoisie’; that is, ‘only with parties which are fighting for a republic and which recognise the necessity of an armed uprising’ (Ibid.). This category did not include the Cadets, as Lenin made clear in his November 1906 ‘Draft election address’.

In reviewing Lenin’s writings at the time, we find that he had in fact opposed the idea of a bloc with the Cadets at the RSDLP’s Tammerfors conference in November 1906, but was outvoted. The conference approved the bloc in principle, but left it up to each local organisation to decide electoral policy in its own area. Lenin did not like the policy, but accepted it in order to maintain a ‘united’ party with the Menshevik reformists: ‘The sanction of blocs with the Cadets is the finishing touch that definitely marks the Mensheviks as the opportunist wing of the workers’ party. We are waging a ruthless ideological battle against the formation of blocs with the Cadets, and this struggle must be developed to the widest possible extent.…The question is how to combine this ruthless ideological struggle with proletarian party discipline.…Does the sanction by Social Democrats of blocs with the Cadets necessitate a complete severance of organisational relations—i.e., a split? We think not, and all Bolsheviks think the same way....Therefore, our duty at the present time is to avoid intellectualist hysteria and preserve party unity, trusting to the staunchness and sound class instinct of the revolutionary proletariat’ (‘Party discipline and the fight against the pro-Cadet Social Democrats’, November 1906).

But party unity with the Mensheviks proved to be a dead end. The precondition for successful proletarian revolution, as the October Revolution demonstrated so powerfully, is a political split between revolutionaries and reformists. The greatest single contribution of Bolshevism in the organisational sphere is the recognition that revolutionaries must organise themselves independently of reformists. Lenin and the other cadres of the Bolshevik faction did not fully come to this understanding until 1912, when the final definitive split with the Mensheviks occurred.

The Bolshevik Party’s struggle for hegemony in the Russian working class in 1917 hinged on exposing the attachment of the ‘socialists’ in the provisional government to their liberal bourgeois partners, codified in the slogan ‘Down with the 10 capitalist ministers!’ When Lenin introduced this orientation in his April theses, he was regarded by many ‘old Bolsheviks’ as venturing into the ‘arid terrain of ultra-leftism’. The adoption of the April theses marked the completion of the qualitative transformation of the Bolsheviks from a revolutionary social democratic to a communist formation.

It is quite true that the nationalism and protectionist logic of the No2EU programme are poison for the workers’ movement. That, of course, is why the Liberals find it so congenial. The Liberal Party presence in No2EU is indeed minor, amounting to what Trotsky once called the ‘shadow of the bourgeoisie’, and even without Liberal participation No2EU’s reactionary programme would be a sufficient guarantee to the capitalist class that the ‘socialist’ backers of the project are harmless reformists. The adherence of the Liberals to No2EU is chiefly significant because it has formalised and concretised the ‘fundamental class-collaborationist character of the front’, as comrade Turley put it.

Working class independence from all wings of the bourgeoisie is the first step on the road toward ending unemployment, racism, poverty, war and all the other pathologies that come with life under the tyranny of capital. Of course, reformist workers’ organisations do not necessarily need a bourgeois political partner (or even the shadow of one) in order to betray their base. We need only look at the Blairite New Labour traitors to see that. There is a curious symmetry between Turley’s mistaken assertion that ‘the CPGB stands in the tradition of Bolshevism’ in being open to ‘giving support to bourgeois political formations’, and your current attempts to once again recycle the same old Labour loyalism that has deformed the British left for so many decades.

James Turley (CPGB) in Weekly Worker, 18 June 2009

Barbara Dorn spins a fascinating yarn about the history of the Bolshevik faction—a narrative only slightly undermined by a distinct lack of support from one Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (Letters, June 11).

Keen readers of his famous pamphlet Leftwing communism: an infantile disorder can only wonder at what the International Bolshevik Tendency comrades make of it. This book was, after all, published in 1920—long after the moment that Dorn and her comrades mark as Lenin’s Damascene conversion to permanent revolution.

It is also not a minor work, but one of Lenin’s most extensive interventions on the question of strategy and tactics, one widely cited (if less widely understood) in the communist tradition. Finally, it is notable for its extensive treatment of precisely those parts of Bolshevik Party history that comrade Dorn, were she a Russian comrade before World War I, would have found somewhat contentious.

Presumably, then, we should expect thoroughgoing self-criticism from Lenin? Not so: ‘The entire history of Bolshevism,’ he writes, ‘both before and after the October Revolution, is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties!’ And to refuse to engage in such tactics and compromises in the much harder international struggle—‘is that not ridiculous in the extreme?’

We cannot take everything Lenin wrote for good coin, of course, and this is precisely the period of war communism and the resultant bureaucratisation of the Bolsheviks, which would be later used to such devastating effect by Stalin. I cite it to indicate to the comrades that, as far as Lenin was concerned, alliances with bourgeois parties are not deduced from the revolutionary potential of the bourgeoisie as a class, but by the demands of the situation on the proletarian party, in relation to the overall strategy pursued, and nothing else. Whether one follows Lenin’s earlier political emphases or the later demands for ‘iron discipline’, on this point he is utterly consistent and crystal-clear: anyone who rules out a tactic in advance is no Bolshevik.

On the question of a deal with the Cadets, what Lenin opposed in 1906 was a strategic alliance, as proposed by the Mensheviks. But Dorn neglects to mention that the Bolsheviks did strike a tactical deal with the Cadets in the duma elections, which resulted in the Bolsheviks winning all six seats in the workers’ curia. And, of course, Lenin referred to this approvingly in Leftwing communism.

One last note for Glyn Matthews (Letters, June 11). No, comrade, I did not say that there were no polarising issues in contemporary British politics—just that the Iraq war was not one any longer. The rest of his letter follows from this misapprehension and is thus wholly redundant. It is time the inhabitants of Planet Matthews learnt basic reading comprehension.

Bolshevism and Electoral Tactics (IBT)

The following item was submitted as an article to the Weekly Worker, but the editor opted to shorten it and publish it as a letter. While the political content of the abridged version that appeared in Weekly Worker (9 July 2009) was not altered, we reproduce below an expanded version of the text.

In recent weeks we have had an exchange with James Turley in the Weekly Worker on the subject of Lenin’s attitude toward voting for bourgeois parties. In a previous discussion with the CPGB, in which the same issue was raised, we wrote:

‘The most interesting political point raised in comrade [Mike] Macnair’s contribution is his reference to Lenin’s 1920 assertion in “Leftwing” communism: an infantile dis-order that the Bolsheviks had been correct to vote for the bourgeois Cadets in the second round of elections to the tsarist duma. Macnair appears agnostic on the issue, commenting only that “Lenin may have been wrong” on this point. We think Lenin was indeed mistaken to pose this as a model for the fledgling Comintern, and note that voting for the Cadets stands in contradiction to the policy outlined in his famous April theses, the document that laid the political basis for the victory of the October Revolution.’
Weekly Worker, 19 May 2005

In his letter of 4 June 2009, comrade Turley cited the Bolsheviks’ electoral support to the Cadet party as evidence that ‘there is no class character that automatically precludes Marxists from giving support to a political formation’. We replied:

‘Because they conceived of the tasks of the Russian Revolution as essentially bourgeois-democratic, the pre-1917 Bolsheviks were prepared to discuss the idea of electoral agreements with what they described as the “revolutionary bourgeoisie”; that is, “only with parties which are fighting for a republic and which recognise the necessity of an armed uprising” [“Blocs with the Cadets”, November 1906]. This category did not include the Cadets, as Lenin made clear in his November 1906 “Draft election address”....
Weekly Worker, 11 June 2009

In his reply of 18 June 2009, comrade Turley quoted Lenin’s comment in ‘Left-Wing’ Communism that ‘the entire history of Bolshevism, both before and after the October Revolution, is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties!’ This is of course quite true, and we have often participated in united actions with various bourgeois formations to defend abortion rights, to win equality for gays and lesbians, to stop fascist mobilisations, etc.

But the nub of our difference is the CPGB’s insistence that it is perfectly principled for communists to vote for cross-class formations or outright bourgeois parties. Turley charged that we were ‘spinning a yarn’ to suggest that Lenin saw voting for the Cadets as unprincipled:

‘as far as Lenin was concerned, alliances with bourgeois parties are not deduced from the revolutionary potential of the bourgeoisie as a class, but by the demands of the situation on the proletarian party, in relation to the overall strategy pursued, and nothing else….
‘On the question of a deal with the Cadets, what Lenin opposed in 1906 was a strategic alliance, as proposed by the Mensheviks. But [the IBT’s Barbara] Dorn neglects to mention that the Bolsheviks did strike a tactical deal with the Cadets in the duma elections, which resulted in the Bolsheviks winning all six seats in the workers’ curia. And, of course, Lenin referred to this approvingly in Leftwing communism.’
Weekly Worker, 18 June 2009

It is true that the Bolsheviks were prepared to make deals involving support to Cadet candidates during some stages of the convoluted Tsarist electoral process. It is also true that Lenin retrospectively endorsed this policy in ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, his famous 1920 polemic against those who rejected the idea of any and all ‘compromises’:

‘Prior to the downfall of tsarism, the Russian revolutionary Social-Democrats made repeated use of the services of the bourgeois liberals, i.e., they concluded numerous practical compromises with the latter. In 1901-02, even prior to the appearance of Bolshevism, the old editorial board of Iskra (consisting of Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Martov, Potresov and myself) concluded (not for long, it is true) a formal political alliance with Struve, the political leader of bourgeois liberalism, while at the same time being able to wage an unremitting and most merciless ideological and political struggle against bourgeois liberalism and against the slightest manifestation of its influence in the working-class movement. The Bolsheviks have always adhered to this policy. Since 1905 they have systematically advocated an alliance between the working class and the peasantry, against the liberal bourgeoisie and tsarism, never, however, refusing to support the bourgeoisie against tsarism (for instance, during second rounds of elections, or during second ballots) and never ceasing their relentless ideological and political struggle against the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the bourgeois-revolutionary peasant party, exposing them as petty-bourgeois democrats who have falsely described themselves as socialists.’

The ‘formal political alliance’ with Peter Struve refers to his brief involvement with the revolutionary left. Struve was one of a dozen delegates at the 1898 founding congress of the RSDLP and the author of its manifesto. He subsequently moved far to the right and ended up as a political adviser to the White Army’s General Wrangel during the Russian Civil War.

The Bolsheviks’ willingness to ‘support the bourgeoisie against tsarism (for instance, during second rounds of elections, or during second ballots)’ derived from their presumption that Tsarism would be overthrown by a bourgeois-democratic revolution. Their policy was also shaped by the necessity to manoeuvre within the framework of a grossly undemocratic, multi-tiered, indirect electoral system where voters were assigned to different ‘curia’, with ‘one elector to every 2,000 voters in the landowner curia, one to each 7,000 in the urban curia, one to 30,000 in the peasant curia and one to 90,000 in the worker curia’ (Lenin Collected Works Vol. 12, p. 514). A member of the Bolshevik Duma fraction outlined his party’s approach as follows:

‘The Bolsheviks thought it necessary to put up candidates in all workers’ curias and would not tolerate any agreements with other parties and groups, including the Menshevik-Liquidators. They also considered it necessary to put up candidates in the so-called “second curiae of city electors” (the first curiae consisted of large property owners and democratic candidates had no chance there at all) and in the elections in the villages, because of the great agitational value of the campaign. But in order to safeguard against the possible victory of reactionary candidates, the Bolsheviks permitted agreements respectively with the bourgeois democrats (Trudoviks, etc.) against the Liberals [Cadets], and with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias. The five big towns (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Riga, Odessa and Kiev) had a direct system of elections with second ballot. In these towns the Social-Democrats put up independent lists of candidates, and as there was no danger of Black Hundred candidates being elected no agreements were entered into with the Liberal bourgeoisie.’
—A. E. Badaev, The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma

The Bolshevik policy was clearly spelled out in resolutions adopted at a series of RSDLP conferences, beginning with the Menshevik-dominated Tammerfors conference in November 1906. The resolution on election tactics adopted at that conference stated that a key goal was ‘to defeat the counter-revolutionary plans of the reactionaries who are endeavouring to dominate the Duma in order to use it to group backward social elements around the monarchy.’ The resolution also stated:

‘During the first stage of the elections in the workers’ curia [according to the election law of 11 December 1905, eligible voters in the workers’ curia elected ‘representatives’ (first stage), who in district electoral assemblies chose ‘electors’ (second stage), who finally in guberniia electoral assemblies with electors from the other curiae picked the actual Duma deputies], absolutely no partial or local agreements are permitted with groups or parties which do not adhere to the viewpoint of the proletarian class struggle.
‘In all other curiae [i.e., landowners’, peasants’ and other urban residents’], if during the course of the election campaign there appears to be a danger that the lists of the right-wing parties will win, local agreements are permitted with revolutionary and democratic opposition parties….
‘The forms of such agreements must correspond to the local conditions and may involve either a territorial distribution of candidacies within a single electoral district or the composition of joint lists of elector candidates.’
Resolutions and Decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Vol. 1

A similar policy was agreed to at the July 1907 conference in Kotka:

‘In the second and subsequent stages [of elections] agreements are permitted with all revolutionary and opposition parties up to and including the Constitutional Democrats (and related groups, such as the Muslims, cossacks, etc.).’

This motion stipulated that ‘the only agreements permitted are those of a purely technical nature’.

At the Bolshevik-dominated Prague conference in January 1912, the same policy was endorsed for the elections to the Fourth Duma:

‘[I]n cases of a second ballot…for electors in the second stage assemblies of urban curia representatives, agreements may be concluded with the bourgeois democratic parties against the liberals, and then with the liberals against all the governmental parties. One form of agreement could be the compilation of common lists of electors for one or several cities proportional to the number of votes cast in the first stage of the elections.’

These narrow ‘technical’ agreements were further restricted in the big cities where, ‘because of the clear absence of any Black Hundred threat, agreements are allowable only with democratic groups against liberals’, i.e., with Socialist Revolutionaries and other Trudoviks against Cadets.

Max Shachtman, the pre-eminent American renegade from Trotskyism who, like Peter Struve, ended up backing counterrevolution, cited Bolshevik support to Cadet candidates to justify his shift toward voting for the ‘lesser evil’ Democratic Party imperialists (see New International, Fall 1957). Various other revisionists have used the same argument over the years, and it is abundantly clear that the CPGB leadership considers it a licence to cross the class line.

But such comparisons are entirely illegitimate because this tactic was conditioned by the anomalous situation the Bolsheviks found themselves in: as the socialist leadership of the most militant sections of the proletariat in a semi-feudal society that they were convinced had to undergo both a bourgeois revolution and a period of capitalist development before a socialist transformation was on the historical agenda.

In Britain, where the bourgeois-democratic revolution had occurred hundreds of years earlier, Lenin recommended that the fledgling Communist movement attempt to form a united front with Labour against the capitalist parties:

‘The Communist Party should propose the following “compromise” election agreement to the Hendersons and Snowdens: let us jointly fight against the alliance between Lloyd George and the Conservatives; let us share parliamentary seats in proportion to the number of workers’ votes polled for the Labour Party and for the Communist Party (not in elections, but in a special ballot), and let us retain complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity.’
—‘Left-Wing’ Communism

Lenin suggested that if the Labour Party rejected this offer, it would provide the Communists with an opportunity to expose it as an agency of the capitalists, just as the Bolsheviks had exposed the reformist parties in the Provisional Government by calling on them to break with the ‘ten capitalist ministers’ and assume responsibility in their own name:

‘If the Hendersons and the Snowdens reject a bloc with us on these terms, we shall gain still more, for we shall at once have shown the masses (note that, even in the purely Menshevik and completely opportunist Independent Labour Party, the rank and file are in favour of Soviets) that the Hendersons prefer their close relations with the capitalists to the unity of all the workers…. It should be noted that in Russia, after the revolution of February 27, 1917 (old style), the Bolsheviks’ propaganda against the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries (i.e., the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens) derived benefit precisely from a circumstance of this kind. We said to the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries: assume full power without the bourgeoisie, because you have a majority in the Soviets (at the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets, in June 1917, the Bolsheviks had only 13 per cent of the votes). But the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens were afraid to assume power without the bourgeoisie….’

For revolutionaries, offering political support to capitalist formations is a matter of principle, not ‘tactics’. The CPGB’s attempt to defend a policy of electoral class-collaborationism by hiding behind the ‘purely technical’ arrangements the Bolsheviks were forced to make to get around the obstacles created by the Tsarist autocracy is unworthy of any militant with an ounce of revolutionary integrity:

‘Many sophists (being unusually or excessively “experienced” politicians) reason exactly in the same way as the British leaders of opportunism mentioned by Comrade Lansbury: “If the Bolsheviks are permitted a certain compromise, why should we not be permitted any kind of compromise?”…Every proletarian—as a result of the conditions of the mass struggle and the acute intensification of class antagonisms he lives among—sees the difference between a compromise enforced by objective conditions (such as lack of strike funds, no outside support, starvation and exhaustion)—a compromise which in no way minimises the revolutionary devotion and readiness to carry on the struggle on the part of the workers who have agreed to such a compromise—and, on the other hand, a compromise by traitors who try to ascribe to objective causes their self-interest….’

‘Communists’ who are prepared to give electoral support—however ‘critical’—to bourgeois parties do not stand on the legacy of Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the October Revolution, but rather embrace the policy of Kerensky and the Mensheviks.