How Revolutionaries Use Elections

Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at a Democratic Party debate in January 2020. (Photo: Tamir Kalifa / The New York Times)


A review of The Ballot or the Streets, or Both? by August Nimtz. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Press, 2019.

As I write this review the protests over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis continue while the liberal and progressive forces in this country call for support of “Uncle Joe” Biden to save us from Trump. These events occur within a larger social context that includes the Covid-19 pandemic, a racial caste system built on violence against Blacks and other Peoples of Color, and a looming climate catastrophe. At this moment in history, August Nimtz’s The Ballot or the Streets, or Both? has never been more needed for those of us who want to build a better world.

How do we bring about fundamental social change? I am not talking about this reform or that, but deep thorough-going change. This is the question of political strategy for revolutionaries. Every generation of radicals struggles with this question. Before us, three of the greatest revolutionaries of the last 300 years also struggled with these same questions: Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Now political scientist and revolutionary socialist August Nimtz has explored their thinking and made it available to a new generation of revolutionaries. Nimtz’s book is a manual for today’s revolutionaries both here in the U.S. and in all corners of the world.

Nimtz prioritizes the voices of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. We hear them speak and learn what they said. They argued that real change comes only through independent working-class mass action. Furthermore, they did not believe the working class could merely take control of the existing state apparatus, which serves the interests of the ruling class — the working class had to smash the state and rebuild it.

 So, did Marx, Engels, and Lenin reject elections and voting rights? No—absolutely not! They were strong defenders of universal suffrage—meaning the vote for all men and women, of all races and religions. But this defense of democracy and voting was not an end in itself; voting was a tactic to strengthen the independent working-class movement, not a strategy of revolutionary change.

As Nimtz shows, they were also aware of the dangers of elections. These dangers were summarized in the label “parliamentary cretinism” used by Engels and later by Lenin.  Parliamentary cretinism is the set of beliefs that what happens in congress or in an election is more important than what happens in the streets, that real change comes from legislation, not mass action. Parliamentary cretinism is a form of opportunism, a willingness to compromise with the ruling class for short-term gains at the expense of long-term objectives. Ultimately, parliamentary cretinism abandons socialism as a goal for reforms that might perhaps bring about a kinder, gentler capitalism.

The alternative to this opportunism and abandonment of socialism is to use elections to build the independent working-class movement. This is done through revolutionaries running their own candidates independent of the capitalist parties. These candidates are selected by a revolutionary party or group and present the positions of the group, not their personal views. It is not important that they win. What is important is that they use the campaign to educate the masses and strengthen the independent organization of the working class. The number of votes the candidate earns is an indication of the mood and consciousness of the working class, just as statistics on strike activity are. If the candidates are elected, they remain under party control and use their positions to strengthen the struggles of working people and the oppressed. This revolutionary use of elections is known as revolutionary parliamentarianism, the very opposite of parliamentary cretinism.

While these revolutionary legislators do support specific reforms that benefit and strengthen the working class and oppressed, they do not compromise with the oppressors. For instance, they oppose imperialist war and police oppression. Revolutionary legislators can expose the class nature of government structures and policies from within. They have greater access to the media and greater opportunities to promote independent mass action in the streets. They can use their positions to educate, agitate, and build independent working-class political power.

It is for these reasons that the ruling class does everything it can to keep revolutionaries off of the ballot and exclude us from participation in its elections. The lists of requirements for candidates to appear on the ballot in bourgeois elections are long, arbitrary, and overseen by capitalist courts, which have no interest in allowing a revolutionary socialist to take part. When Socialist Action and others have run candidates, the ruling class judges simply declare thousands of signatures on our ballot petitions invalid, then say we have too few to qualify – or any of the other myriad reasons they can use to deny socialist candidates. Challenging these rules in the bosses’ courts can result in massive fines.

In this brief review I have not prioritized the voices of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, as Nimtz does.  Nimtz’s book is almost a master class in how to use elections for revolutionary purposes taught by Marx, Engels, and Lenin themselves. As such it is detailed and dense, but also worth every hour, indeed every minute, you spend reading it.

This book was originally published as an expensive two volume hardcover by Palgrave MacMillan. Haymarket Press has reissued the book as an affordable ($28) one volume paperback. The new edition preserves the two-part organization of the original, including several important historical documents contained in the appendices. Volume 1 covers the development of revolutionary parliamentarism from Marx and Engels through the Russian revolution of 1905. Volume 2 covers Lenin’s political activity and thinking from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917. The genesis of Nimtz’s book was a pamphlet by Doug Jenness in 1971 entitled Lenin as Election Campaign Manager, that Nimtz had read many years ago. In Nimtz’s words the pamphlet is “still the best introduction to the topic, and thus, to this book” (p. X). Lenin as Election Campaign Manager is still available from Pathfinder Press for $5.

Together the two parts of the book conclusively demonstrate that Lenin’s revolutionary parliamentarianism was rooted in a profound understanding of Marx and Engels, that Lenin devoted extensive time and thought to the use of elections as a way to build revolutionary working class power, and that revolutionary parliamentarianism was crucial to the success of the October Revolution.

As Nimtz shows, the thinking of Marx, Engels, and Lenin is still relevant today. Calls by social democrats to elect progressives to congress exemplify parliamentary cretinism, to use Engels’ favorite term. Calls to support “Uncle Joe” Biden to defeat Trump exemplify the lesser-evil politics of opportunism, the urge to sacrifice the long-term goals of independent working-class political power and socialism for short term electoral gains and minor reforms. 

In the U.S. context, only the political groups that came out of the Trotskyist tradition of revolutionary socialism, formerly embodied in the old Socialist Workers Party, understood and used Lenin’s electoral approach. Groups that came out of social democracy, such as the Democratic Socialists of America, or the Stalinized left, such as the Communist Party, abandoned the Approach of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

Socialist Action continues to employ Marx, Engels, and Lenin’s approach. Exhibit A: The candidacy of Jeff Mackler, Socialist Action candidate for President. Socialist Action still uses the revolutionary parliamentarianism. [For an introduction to this approach in real life, see the recent debate between Mackler, Howie Hawkins, a leading candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination, and Michael Albert, a staff writer and editor of Z Magazine, who advocates a safe state strategy of voting for third party candidates only in states where Biden is sure to win at].

Nimtz concludes his extremely valuable exposition of the revolutionary legacy of Marx, Engels, and Lenin with a clear summary of the book’s relevance:

“For most of the twentieth century, the center of world revolutionary process was in the so-called Third World. The unprecedented and still unfolding crisis of global capitalism has shifted the axis of politics to the advanced capitalist world, where there are far more opportunities in the electoral and parliamentary arenas—making Lenin’s strategy of revolutionary parliamentarianism more relevant now than ever. But to realize its potential, it has to be used. This [book] is a contribution toward that end for those who are truly anticapitalist and who not only seek but are willing to fight for a working class alternative” (p. 412).

Read this book. Use voting and elections to build independent working-class power. Overthrow the capitalist world system.

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