Elections and the socialist tradition

July 18, 2018

Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset in a congressional primary election against one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. House has inspired discussion and debate about how this campaign fits into the project of advancing the socialist left. SocialistWorker.org is hosting a dialogue in our Readers’ Views column. This installment has a contribution from Kyle Brown.

What Do We Know from the Past?

Kyle Brown | There are two moments in the revolutionary socialist tradition that have particularly shaped my ideas regarding discussions on socialist electoral strategy.

The first is Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ “Address to the Communist League” in 1850, which speaks to a general method for how to approach elections as revolutionary socialists. The second is the electoral work of the Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma in 1910s Russia, which I think shows more concretely what it might look like to put that method into practice.

Although the conditions are obviously very different, I think there is a lot that may be useful for socialists today grappling with a revolutionary socialist approach to electoral work.

The March Address of 1850

One of the key lessons for Karl Marx and Frederick Engels coming out of the wave of revolutions across Europe in 1848 was the necessity of working-class independence.

The 1848 revolutions were mass uprisings against feudal oligarchies, in which workers were the most militant and dedicated fighters for democracy. The bourgeoisie wavered and hoped to strike a deal with the oligarchs. Without independent organization, the working class had no means to continue carrying the struggle forward when the bourgeoisie put on the brakes.

Marx and Engels generalized the strategic lessons from the experience of 1848 in a speech to the Central Committee of the Communist League in March 1850. They put forward a strategy for how to prevent a future betrayal from happening and ensure that a revolution could be carried through to its conclusion.

In this statement, Marx and Engels argued that workers should not enter into a political alliance with the bourgeoisie, but instead must develop their own political party. Because only the working class had the collective interest, agency and power to lead a revolution democratically, it had to develop “the maximum degree of organization, unity and independence, so that it is not exploited and taken in tow by the bourgeoisie.”

Marx and Engels describe the development of a working class political party not as the product of elections, but as the coming together and coordination of various “communes” and “workers’ associations.” Commune was the term used for local chapters of the Communist League, and workers’ associations were the equivalent of unions and other forms of working-class organization.

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers and contributors are debating the lessons of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in New York. SW’s coverage of the election began with this article:

Alan Maass and Elizabeth Schulte
How far can the left go in the Democratic Party?

Further contributions include:

Dorian B., Jason Farbman and Zach Zill
What can we do with the Democrats?

Alan Maass, Jen Roesch and Paul Le Blanc
Socialists, AOC and the Democratic Party

Aaron Amaral, Samuel Farber, Charlie Post and Shane James
A “socialist movement” in the Democratic Party?

Fainan Lakha
Getting concrete about AOC and the Democrats

Lucy Herschel
The old guideposts matter on new terrain

Owen Hill
What kind of break from the Democrats?

Kyle Brown
Elections and the socialist tradition

Hadas Thier
Independence and the Democratic Party

Todd Chretien
Revolutionaries, elections and the Democrats

Chris Beck
Who will win the Democratic tug of war?

Nate Moore and Craig McQuade
Independent inside the Democrats?

Eric Blanc
Socialists, Democrats and the dirty break

Robert Wilson
Seeing all the opportunities in elections

Alan Maass
Can socialists use the Democrats?

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field
On spoilers and dirty breaks

Paul Le Blanc and Steve Leigh
What do socialists take into account?

Joe Evica
What kind of break are we looking for?

Nate Moore
What should independence mean today?

Eric Blanc
On history and the dirty break

Nate Moore
Precedents for flexibility?

Each local commune or association was to act as a “nucleus” or “center,” where “the position and interests of the proletariat could be discussed free from bourgeois influence.” In other words, political as well as organizational independence of the working class was essential, and had to be built from the grassroots level, outside of the electoral arena.

A working class organized independently not only provided the best means to win a democratic revolution, but it was also seen by Marx and Engels as a way to “make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions.”

Marx and Engels argued that the workers’ party had to put forward its own candidates, even when there was no prospect of getting a workers’ candidate elected. They argued that this helped “preserve the independence” of the working class, project working-class politics and gauge the strength of its forces.

In doing this, workers were not to fall for lesser-evil arguments. “The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body,” they wrote.

Finally, Marx and Engels argued that workers’ party candidates must take “every opportunity to put forward their own demands against those of the bourgeois democrats,” so that the “bourgeois-democratic government not only immediately loses the support of the workers but finds themselves from the very beginning supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of workers.” [emphasis added]

So one role of the workers’ party at the ballot box is to raise working class demands and expose the government in order to win over workers politically to the need for a revolutionary socialist alternative.

But the strength, leverage and power to do so is based on the candidates’ relationship with the organized power of the working class. In other words, socialist candidates had to be an expression of working class power, not a substitute for it.

Marx and Engels certainly saw the fight for representative democracy as crucial. It opened up important political space as well as a range of tactics and tools that workers could integrate into their struggle to advance the fight for revolution.

Elections were seen as one component in a revolutionary strategy that was dependent on an independently organized working class. This is what allowed a workers’ party to be able to win the masses over politically, actually challenge the people in power, pose an alternative and defend that alternative by force if needed.

Bolshevik Deputies in the Tsarist Duma

The Bolsheviks in Russia consciously built on this approach. Their experience is described in the book The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, by A. Badayev.

The Bolsheviks ran in elections and won workers’ deputies in the parliament temporarily conceded by the Tsar as a tactic within an overall strategy of raising revolutionary consciousness, confidence and organization of the working class.

For this to be possible, the Bolshevik deputies needed to have “strong and intimate connections” with both workers and all aspects of Bolshevik party work. To ensure these connections, the deputies made daily contact with the editorial office of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper. They were in close contact with the central leadership of the party, attended regional and national party congresses, and were expected to be subordinate to the decisions of the party.

Because of the Bolsheviks’ trade union work and the distribution of Pravda, the deputies already had many grassroots connections to workers. It also helped that the Bolshevik deputies were workers themselves.

Becoming an official representative of workers in the Duma allowed them to reach workers the party couldn’t ordinarily reach. Deputies met with all the leaders of the labor unions and other workers’ organizations in their district upon winning election, and remained “in touch with the masses and all working class organizations, legal and illegal.”

In the Duma itself, the deputies used their position as a platform to “concentrate the attention of the masses on crimes committed by the Tsarist government.” They found that they could do this effectively by using a Duma procedure called an interpellation, where deputies could give a speech to officially ask the government to explain an anti-worker act or policy.

Upon hearing of workplace actions or protests, the Bolshevik deputies would rush to the location, speak with workers, express solidarity and collect as much information as they could for the next interpellation. Before long, the deputies were inundated with resolutions requesting that the government be questioned on various matters — from the persecution of trade unions, to the treatment of political prisoners, to acts of violence committed by the Tsarist police.

The Bolshevik deputies utilized the Duma to expose the undemocratic nature of the political system, to show workers that they couldn’t rely on liberals, and to help the working class learn self-reliance and self-activity as the key driver of social change.

In another example, knowing full well that liberal ministers in the Duma would want to sound sympathetic to the workers, the Bolshevik deputies would bring workers’ concerns to them, and then publish a full account of the conversation to expose the false promises made by the minister.

In addition, the Bolshevik deputies also used the privileges that came with being an elected member of the Duma to agitate and organize in the streets. They were able to stand up and give militant radical speeches at strikes or protests without police being able to legally arrest them. When the police or government tried to crack down on the deputies, it only enhanced their connection to the masses, making it more difficult for them to follow through with repression.

As the deputies agitated and organized, the synergetic relationship between the Bolshevik party and the masses grew. One Bolshevik deputy to the Duma wrote the following account that illustrates this dynamic:

Workers would call on me to ask all sorts of questions, especially on paydays when money in aid of strikers was brought. I had to arrange supply passports and secret hiding-places for those who became “illegal,” help to find work for those victimized during strikes, petition ministers on behalf of those arrested, organize aid for exiles, etc. Where there were signs that a strike was flagging, it was necessary to take steps to instill vigor into the strikers, to lend the aid required and to print and send leaflets...

There was not a single factory or workshop, down to the smallest, with which I was not connected in some way or other. Often, my callers were so numerous that my apartment was not large enough for them, and they had to wait in a queue on the staircase. Every successive stage in the struggle, every new strike, increased these queues, which symbolized the growing unity between the workers and the [Bolshevik] fraction, and at the same time furthered the organization of the masses.


This history underlines the centrality of independent working class struggle and organization as a necessary building block for successful socialist electoral work. This is what makes possible the relationship between the electoral arena, the working class and revolutionary socialist organization.

The existence of independent working class struggle and organization is the only mechanism we have to hold candidates accountable to working-class demands, whether they be candidates we support and campaign for or politicians we oppose.

Building independent political organization, however small we start, is what allows for integrating electoral work into an overall revolutionary strategy based on the self-emancipation of the working class and oppressed.

This history doesn’t provide us with prescriptive answers today. However, it does suggest that what is possible for us in terms of socialist strategy inside the electoral arena is based on the state of struggle and organization outside — on the streets, and in our workplaces and communities.

This isn’t an argument to abstain from electoral arenas until struggle and organization reach a certain point. Instead, this history helps offer a guide to how socialists should decide when and whether to engage in such an arena, what accountability means for socialist politicians, and what the potential building blocks are for a much larger revolutionary party.

Further Reading

From the archives