Precedents for flexibility?

August 20, 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 Nate Moore.

Did Lenin Advocate Tactical Support for a Capitalist Party?

Nate Moore | In the current SW debate, some have considered whether to critically support socialist candidates who run in the Democratic Party.

In challenging the idea that revolutionary socialists should not under any circumstances support candidates who run in the Democratic Party, Eric Blanc, in his latest contribution “A Few Lessons from History,” makes the following argument to show that the Bolsheviks in Russia did not have a principled stand of non-support for the liberal Cadet Party, and instead exercised “tactical flexibility.” He writes:

In both the 1907 and 1912 elections...Lenin’s current advocated that Marxists support “the compilation of common lists of electors” with liberal parties in the second round of the elections...

Lenin sometimes even openly advocated a lesser-evil voting tactic in the second round of elections in Russia: “When a socialist really believes in a Black-Hundred danger and is sincerely combating it — he votes for the liberals without any bargaining.”...[O]ur revolutionary socialist predecessors often displayed more tactically flexibility than many comrades have yet acknowledged.

The article by Lenin that Eric quotes from is “The St. Petersburg Elections and the Hypocrisy of the Thirty-One Mensheviks.” It was written in February 1907 and concerns the lead-up to the second elections to the Duma — a toothless parliamentary body set up by the monarchy as a concession to the revolution of 1905.

I believe, on the contrary, that rather than Lenin demonstrating “tactical flexibility,” a reading of this article in context shows his principled position of independence from the liberal capitalist Cadets and provides some lessons for us today.

Some background

Before looking at the article, it is necessary to briefly describe how the second Duma elections were structured, and understand the political groupings under discussion.

Before the elections, parties registered under “lists.” These “lists” operated like electoral coalitions. In the Duma elections, there were three lists: the Black Hundreds (far right), the Cadets (liberal) and Social Democratic (revolutionary).

The election process for obtaining seats in the Duma involved two rounds. In the first round, people voted for “electors” (representatives). In the second, the electors voted for the final composition of the Duma. By design, the second round weeded out radicals, thereby leading to a more conservative grouping of representatives.

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

Alex Macmillan
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?

At this time, the revolutionaries were organized in one party: the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). This party, although formally united, had two main wings: the Bolsheviks, the more revolutionary wing, and the Mensheviks, the more moderate.

Lenin wrote the article that Eric quotes from to show that the Menshevik position of supporting agreements with the Cadet Party during the first round of elections was inconsistent. The Mensheviks justified agreements with the Cadet Party, arguing that the Black Hundreds winning a majority of seats in the Duma was a real danger. Later, the Mensheviks broke from the Cadets over the latter not giving the former a seat in the Duma.

Lenin points out the inconsistency of the Mensheviks with the argument that if the Mensheviks thought the Black Hundreds were really a danger, they wouldn’t have broken over the issue of not getting a seat in the Duma. The Mensheviks’ actions proved that they prized electoralism — that is, winning a Duma seat — over a principled position of independence from Cadet liberalism.

By contrast, Lenin’s point was to argue for independence from the Cadets throughout the whole election process.

Eric is right that Lenin was open to the idea of giving some level of support for Cadets in the second round of elections to the Duma to prevent a Black Hundred majority. But Lenin’s statement is highly qualified.

First of all, he was writing about a hypothetical scenario, not a real one. Lenin argued that the electoral sentiments and mood of the country made it highly unlikely, if not impossible, for a split vote between Cadets and Social Democrats to lead to a Black Hundred majority. Instead, the manufactured fear of a Black Hundred majority was the Cadets’ excuse for getting workers to vote for them. The Mensheviks broadcasting this fear was evidence of their inconsistent policy.

Second, if the highly unlikely hypothetical scenario did become a reality, Lenin believed it would not compromise the revolutionary principle of political independence from the Cadets because the second round of “elections” was a closed session among electors. There was no longer any Social Democratic agitation that could be conducted among the people.

The second round was merely haggling over the division of seats among electors in a toothless body where the Russian masses no longer had a say. Consequently, it would cost revolutionaries, at most, a few Duma seats and no loss of independent revolutionary influence among the people to prevent a Black Hundred majority.

More than displaying Lenin’s tactical flexibility toward liberals, his writings at this time show that Lenin didn’t prize a symbolic seat in the Duma at all costs, as was the case with the Mensheviks. Symbolic support could be given in the event of a highly unlikely split vote without revolutionaries tying their hands.

What does this mean for socialists today?

I believe the article Eric quotes from and other articles from this time better illustrate Lenin’s argument for a principled independence from liberal capitalist parties than any confirmation of Bolshevik “tactical flexibility” toward liberalism.

The Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP approached the first round of elections as an independent party. They only permitted electoral agreements with other radical parties like the Social Revolutionaries. They never ran elections under a Cadet Party banner or platform. This is as much the case in 1907 as 1912.

While the Bolsheviks stayed independent throughout the elections, the Mensheviks, by contrast, made an electoral pact with the Cadets, only to be burned by the liberals in a deal that didn’t go their way.

How does any of this apply to the U.S. electoral context today? Though conditions are obviously very different in the two cases, the first round of elections to the Duma more resembles the situation with U.S. elections today in the sense that both involve open agitation of political parties among the people. The second round of elections in Russia isn’t at all comparable to anything we face electorally in the U.S.

In the first round, Lenin was adamant on complete independence from the Cadet Party, with no electoral agreements.

Concluding that Lenin exhibited tactical flexibility toward liberalism — and therefore that we consider doing so today with the Democratic Party — because of a highly qualified and hypothetical scenario in the second round of elections that has no parallel in the U.S. electoral system today is a stretch, and all the more so when one looks at everything Lenin wrote before the elections regarding why Social Democrats should oppose the Cadets.

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