The Ballot, the Streets – or Both: An interview with August Nimtz on democracy and elections

The Ballot, the Streets – or Both: An interview with August Nimtz on democracy and elections

Throughout your work on Marx and Engels you make the case that democracy was a cornerstone of their ideas and practice. At times the left has dispensed with or actively opposed democratic slogans, forms of organisation whether at the party or state level. What is it about the struggle for democracy that was so crucial to, what you have called, the Marx-Engels Party?

As you probably know from my writings, I prefer to let Marx and Engels speak for themselves. And for this question there’s no better place to begin with than their Manifesto of the Communist Party, a document that sharply distinguished itself from the programmatic stances of other socialist tendencies in its position that the prerequisite for the socialist revolution was the democratic revolution—the necessity “to win the battle for democracy.” In related pronouncements clarifying their views they wrote that, like the Chartists in England, the German proletariat “can and must accept the bourgeois revolution as a precondition for the workers’ revolution. However, they cannot for a moment accept it as their ultimate goal.” And in no uncertain terms the Manifesto, in four successive locations, made clear that it would take “force” to “overthrow the bourgeoisie” in order to reach the “ultimate goal”. Nevertheless, they maintained to the end that the means to that goal was the conquest of the “bourgeois revolution.” When a critic charged in 1892 that they ignored forms of democratic governance, Engels demurred: “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.”

In their debates with the anarchists, specifically those loyal to Mikhail Bakunin, Engels explained why independent working class political action as opposed to abstention, as the anarchists called for, was indispensable for the working class to take state power and, therefore, the importance of political rights. “The political freedoms, the right of assembly and association and the freedom of the press, these are our weapons—should we fold our arms and abstain if they seek to take them away from us? It is said that every political act implies recognition of the status quo. But when this status quo gives us the means of protesting against it, then to make use of these means is not to recognize the status quo.” In other words, workers not only had an inherent interest in defending basic democratic rights but were obligated to do so since their existence gave them the space to further their own class interests.

As for democratic norms within the workers movement, the record of Marx and Engels was exemplary, in both the Communist League and the International Workingman’s Association, or First International, the only party-like organizations they were ever members of. That experience informed Engels’s advice to a supporter in Denmark many years later: “The labor movement depends on mercilessly criticizing existing society . . . so how can it itself avoid being criticized or try and forbid discussion? Are we then asking that others concede us the right of free speech merely so that we may abolish it again within our own ranks?”

We are witnessing in Egypt a brutal suppression of some basic democratic rights by the military regime something the communist left has been victim to several times. Winning state power through elections has long been the dream of reformists and the new left parties in Europe represented in the writings and speeches of people like Eduard Bernstein, Adam Przeworski and Alexis Tsipras. What can the electoral fortunes and tactics of the Marx-Engels party and the Bolsheviks tell us about the building of a revolutionary party and participation in parliamentary elections?

First, the key thing to understand about Marx and Engels’s electoral/parliamentary strategy is that elections and parliaments were for them only a means toward an end and not an end in itself. To believe otherwise was to be afflicted with what they called “parliamentary cretinism”—an expression Lenin loved to employ. Engels’s description of such hapless victims, specifically, the deputies in the Frankfurt Assembly which owed its existence to the German revolution that began in March 1848—a concession the monarchy was forced to make owing to the masses in motion—is priceless:

These poor, weak-minded men, during the course of their generally very obscure lives, had been so little accustomed to anything like success, that they actually believed their paltry amendments, passed with two or three votes’ majority, would change the face of Europe. They had, from the beginning of their legislative career, been more imbued than any other faction 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, railway-constructing, colonizing of whole new continents, California gold discoveries, Central American canals, Russian armies, and whatever else may have some little claim to influence upon the destinies of mankind—is nothing compared with the incommensurable events hinging upon the important question, whatever it may be, just at that moment occupying the attention of their honorable house.

To supplement Engels’s all so currently relevant expression (I leave aside the question of its political correctness), I’ve coined another, voting fetishism—to mistake the exercise of the right to register a preference for either a candidate or particular policy for the actual exercise of power. For Marx and Engels real politics takes place outside the electoral and parliamentary arenas, in the streets and on the barricades—where power exists and it has to be taken. Voting is a usually brief and private affair—nothing that could be more remote from the actual taking of power. Even demonstrations, as the Greek working class increasingly learns, are just that (though more advanced because they’re public)—the demonstration of preferences and not the actual taking of power.

But for Marx and Engels that was only—though profoundly important—the beginning of wisdom. Elections and the parliamentary experience could be an invaluable means toward an end—the revolutionary seizure of power by the working class. Their first explicit statement on this is their March 1850 Address to the Communist League, the party that they led. Written after a lull in the two year-old German revolution, every one of its eleven pages is imbued with the demand for independent working class political action in what they thought would be a soon expected revival of the revolution.

Following, among other issues, a discussion on the need for the workers party to prepare for armed struggle, the document then addressed what that party needed to do if another round of elections take place—in order to avoid being betrayed again by the liberal bourgeoisie and middle class forces who they had supported in prior elections: “ . . . that everywhere worker’s candidates are put up alongside the bourgeois-democratic candidates, that they are as far as possible members of the League, and that their election is promoted by all means possible. 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 [my italics].” “To count their forces” was of utmost significance as subsequent pronouncements on their part made clear. And not the least important thing about the Address is that Lenin committed it to memory and enjoyed reciting it. I argue that it constituted the core of his electoral/parliamentary strategy.

Fast forward then to Marx and Engels’s later opinion about the gains the German workers party—what would become the Social Democratic Party—in the electoral/parliamentary process. In anticipation of the 1884 Reichstag elections, where the party was expected to make important gains Engels soberly wrote: “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 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.”

Aware of Bismarck’s censors, Engels couldn’t be as explicit about his comment as he was a few years later in a letter to a comrade in France on the advances the party was making there: “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 knew 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.”

For Marx and Engels, it was clear, therefore, that elections were an invaluable tool for the workers party, not only to present their ideas and program but “to count their forces” in order to determine when would be the most opportune time to launch “armed revolution.”

What I do in my Lenin volumes is to connect for the first time—I know of no one else who has done this—the dots between what Marx and Engels advocated and what Lenin implemented. No one in the Bolshevik party paid as close attention to election returns as he did. It went into his calculus in making his case to the rest of the leadership when the October insurrection should take place. He also used the returns to the Constituent Assembly elections in November 1917 to calculate Bolshevik success in the subsequent civil war—which proved to be accurate.

With regard to the electoral/parliamentary reformist course of twentieth century European Social Democracy, I contend that Marx and Engels both anticipated and critiqued its development. First, the all-important addendum that they made to the Manifesto in the aftermath of the Paris Commune—the only correction they ever made to the document. The revolutionary program in the second part,they noted, had “in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz, that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.” The bourgeois republic, in other words, could not be a vehicle for socialist transformation—a lesson either ignored or unknown by twentieth century Social Democracy, to its peril.

The other key document is the Circular of 1879, Marx and Engels’s critique of the increasingly reformist direction of the German party, a course that the young Eduard Bernstein aided and abetted. Aside from very problematic votes that some party deputies in the Reichstag had taken, particularly alarming was the reaction of the leadership to righteous indignation by rank and file criticism of those votes. “[H]as German Social-Democracy,” they asked, “indeed been infected with the parliamentary disease, believing that, with the popular vote, the Holy Ghost is poured upon those elected, that meetings of the faction [Fraktion] are transformed into infallible councils and factional resolutions into sacrosanct dogma?” To combat the “disease,” that is, parliamentary cretinism, the party had to uphold the norm that the parliamentary representatives to be subordinate to the will of the party as a whole—a test that many a Social Democratic party has failed in meeting. Though it appeared at the time that they had beaten back Bernstein et al’s opportunist initiative, subsequent history revealed that it had simply gone into remission.

By the way, Przeworski, an apologist for Social Democracy, attempts to make his case by distorting, sometimes gratuitously, the writings of Marx and Engels as I demonstrate in my article, “Marx and Engels’s Electoral Strategy: The Alleged versus the Real,” New Political Science, vol. 32, no. 3 (Sept. 2010). I also take up Tsipras in the Conclusion to my Lenin volumes and interrogate him and his party Syriza through the lens of the Bolshevik experience. What they are about—owing largely to their political DNA—has nothing, I conclude, to do with the revolutionary parliamentarism, as Lenin began calling it after 1914, practiced by the Bolsheviks.

In your two recent volumes on the Bolshevik experience you begin your conclusion by asking whether the Bolshevik experience of elections has any lessons for those in struggle against capitalism. Could you summarise what you think the key lessons the communist left needs to defend, re-assert and practice if it is to become a relevant and eventually the leading part of struggles against capitalism?

I also prefer to have Lenin speak for himself and the Bolsheviks and there’s no better document that addresses this question than his Left-Wing Communism—An Infantile Disorder,his last major writing. It was written precisely to win those who had been inspired by the Bolshevik-led triumph to correctly understand what Lenin’s party had done. An emerging problem was the tendency to see the October insurrection as the magic bullet. That was a narrow and potentially dangerous misread of the actual Bolshevik experience: “The alternation of parliamentary and non-parliamentary forms of struggle, of the tactics of boycotting parliament and that of participating in parliament, of legal and illegal forms of struggle, and likewise their interrelations and connections—all this was marked by an extraordinary wealth of content.”

After a brief description of the party’s decade-long parliamentary experience, in the Dumas from 1906 to 1915, he distilled its significance: “Today, when we look back at this fully completed historical period, whose connection with subsequent periods has now become quite clear, it becomes most obvious that in 1908-14 the Bolsheviks could not have preserved (let alone strengthened and developed) the core of the revolutionary party of the proletariat, had they not upheld, in a most strenuous struggle, the viewpoint that it was obligatory to combine legal and illegal forms of struggle, and that it was obligatory to participate even in a most reactionary parliament and in a number of other institutions hemmed in by reactionary laws. . .” The “strenuous struggle” referred to the recurring debate on whether to boycott or participate in the Dumas.

Lenin argued that the Russian experience challenged those voices in the newly formed Communist, or Third International, who justified non-participation in parliaments, especially when they became centers for organizing the counterrevolution. “We Bolsheviks participated in the most counterrevolutionary parliaments, and experience has shown that this participation was not only useful but indispensable to the party of the revolutionary proletariat, after the first bourgeois revolution in Russia (1905), so as to pave the way for the second bourgeois revolution (February 1917), and then for the socialist revolution (October 1917).” For my book, “indispensable” is indispensable for one of its arguments, namely, that Lenin’s electoral/parliamentary strategy goes a long way in explaining Bolshevik success in 1917. As for the claim of some would-be revolutionaries that parliaments had now become “obsolete,” Lenin responded, yes and no. The Paris Commune and the Russian experience, the soviets, specifically, did indeed show that a new era of representative democracy had opened. But both were only at the beginning of a historical development that could only be “counted in decades.” In the meantime and as long as the dictatorship of capital was in place the “Lefts” would have to participate in them. It was true, he admitted, that it “is far more difficult to create a really revolutionary parliamentary group in a European parliament than it was in Russia. That stands to reason. But it is only a particular expression of the general truth that it was easy for Russia, in the specific and historically unique situation of 1917, to start the socialist revolution, but it will be more difficult for Russia than for the European countries to continue the revolution and bring it to its consummation.” Yes, he could “assure foreign communists” that doing parliamentary work in Russia was “quite unlike the usual West European parliamentary campaigns. From this the conclusion is often drawn: ‘Well, that was in Russia, in our country parliamentarianism is different.’ This is a false conclusion. Communists, adherents of the Third International in all countries, exist for the purpose of changing — all along the line, in all spheres of life—the old socialist, trade unionist, syndicalist, and parliamentary type of work into a new type of work, the communist.” In the debate at the Second Congress of the International Lenin reminded delegates that though brief, Russia too, after the February Revolution, experienced bourgeois democracy that the Bolsheviks had to figure out how to negotiate.

Though written in 1920, I contend that Left-Wing Communism is as relevant today as then, if not more so. For most of the twentieth century the revolutionary process concentrated itself in the so-called Third World, where opportunities to do revolutionary politics in the electoral and parliamentary arenas were more limited owing to the tenuous or non-existent character of bourgeois democracy. The still unfolding crisis of global capitalism has forced workers in the advanced capitalist formations back on to the center stage of the class struggle and with all the opportunities, therefore, to make history. Their theatres of action have already encompassed the electoral/parliamentary arenas. What’s missing is the example of revolutionary parliamentary. My two volumes are part of an effort to reknit the revolutionary threads to Marx, Engels and Lenin that were broken with first the opportunism of the Second International and then the class collaborationist perspective of a Stalinized Comintern, the pitfalls of the Popular Front.

Lastly, as I point out in the introduction to my Lenin book, I was able to write it because many years ago I had the good luck to read a little pamphlet called Lenin as Election Campaign Manager by Pathfinder Press, luckily still in print—the only brief introduction to the topic that I know.

All the citations come from my Lenin volumes, Chapter One in vol. one, and Chapter Three in vol. 2.

August H. Nimtz is Professor of Political Science and African American and African Studies and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Minnesota, USA.  He is the author of Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (2000), Marx, Tocqueville, and Race in America: The ‘Absolute Democracy’ or ‘Defiled Republic’ (2003), and a number of related articles in edited volumes and journals.

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: The Ballot, the Streets-or Both were both published by Palgrave Macmillan on 13 Mar 2014 and can be ordered online or through your library.

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