Marxism & Bourgeois Elections

Principles & Tactics

27 October 2019

The corporate media, mainstream intellectuals and most politicians consider voting in periodic elections to be an important civic duty. In democratic societies, they argue, the wellbeing of the population and the fate of the country are determined by the outcome of electoral processes, which they regard as possessing a semi-mystical quality. Millions of people are led to believe that their lives would drastically improve if only Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour or some other political figure or party were to win the next election.

It is undoubtedly true that the victory of one party or one candidate over another can translate into different government policies and that some political systems can provide opportunities for intense public debate during and in between election campaigns and even on the floors of legislatures. Usually, however, the scope of permitted discord is narrow, and most important decisions are made either in the private sphere (e.g., by business owners and managers who choose who gets hired and fired, who gets a raise, etc.) or by the unelected and often unknown top functionaries who provide “continuity” from government to government within the core institutions of the state (including the repressive apparatus of the police, the military, the courts and “intelligence community” spooks). Although not every government decision pleases all or even most capitalists, the state will not betray the ruling class it serves – even the most democratic of capitalist states is the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” insofar as it is committed to preserving the social and economic power of the capitalist class.

While this assessment – based on over a century and half of historical observation and experience – has led revolutionary socialists to adopt a position of implacable opposition to the state, it does not rule out an orientation toward elections for institutions of the bourgeois state. At first glance, this analysis might seem to imply a complete rejection of participating or voting in such elections, and some militants inspired by Marxism have certainly taken that stance – but this was not the view of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, nor was it the position of later Marxist leaders such as V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who argued for a combination of flexible tactics and firm principles. As the principles derive from their repeated verification by practical experience, so too the need for tactical flexibility was learned through hard class struggle over decades. Yet most organizations claiming the heritage of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are often led by opportunism to an odd inversion: rigid “tactics” and flexible “principles.” Voting for a mass reformist labor party, for instance, is turned into a strategic necessity, including in those instances when it is in a cross-class bloc with a capitalist formation. Reviving a mass revolutionary socialist movement must include a new generation of fighters studying the historical development and contemporary importance of the Marxist view of bourgeois elections.

From the First to the Second International

In the Communist Manifesto, written at the end of 1847, Marx and Engels argued that the revolutionary socialist transformation of society would be initiated by the working class wresting control of the state from the bourgeoisie. They speak of a revolutionary state as “the proletariat organized as the ruling class” and specify that “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” The precise connection between “democracy” and the ascension of a proletarian regime is, in this formulation, rather vague. When those lines were written – just before the revolutions of 1848 – nowhere did a working-class majority have the franchise: the vote was limited to greater or lesser degrees to adult male property owners. A call to “win the battle of democracy” was at that point a call to revolutionary action. There is necessarily a certain abstractness, conditioned by limited historical experience, in Marx and Engels’ projection of the revolutionary seizure of power by the working class. “Winning the battle of democracy” was a general formulation, and it was at least conceivable to them that a revolutionary assault on the old regime would put in place a democratic republic leading, by way of elections, to the ascendancy of the proletariat as a new ruling class.

When the revolutionary wave did break, sweeping across Europe, Marx drew important conclusions about the state and elections based on the rapid development of the class struggle, particularly in France. The French working class was a driving force in the democratic movement, but, betrayed by the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, was drowned in blood on the streets of Paris in June 1848. A bourgeois-democratic republic was put in place, yet the effect was to further the process of centralization and strengthen the state against the working class. Louis Bonaparte, the Emperor Napoleon’s nephew, was elected the first president of the republic. In short order he overthrew the republic and re-established the Empire in what Marx described as a farcical repetition of the first Napoleon’s rise to power on the back of the Great French Revolution. In his brilliant analysis of these events, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx observed that the parliamentary republic had been turned against the revolution, concluding that a socialist revolution would have to “smash” the state “machine” in order to put the working class in power.

For Marx and Engels, the need to destroy the old state was not, at this time, absolute. Although they seem to have considered the scenario unlikely, the founders of scientific socialism held open the possibility, at least in England and the United States, that the working class might still come to power peacefully through elections. In their view, this possibility could not be written off in those countries because of the comparative weakness of the repressive and bureaucratic apparatus of the state. In August 1852, Marx wrote:

“Universal Suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population, where, in a long, though underground civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class, and where even the rural districts know no longer any peasants, but only landlords, industrial capitalists (farmers) and hired labourers. The carrying of Universal Suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialist measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent. Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class.”
—“The Chartist Movement,” New York Tribune, 25 August 1852 (in Labour Monthly, December 1929)

Marx addressed the question in a speech in Amsterdam after the 1872 congress of the First International, the loose grouping of workers’ organizations from around the world. The Marxists’ main opposition in the First International came from the anarchists, who believed that workers must abstain from elections. Marx argued that, on the contrary, the working class needed to prepare itself for the seizure of political power, and that “the ways to achieve that goal are not everywhere the same”:

“You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries – such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland – where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. This being the case, we must also recognize the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must someday appeal in order to erect the rule of labor.”
—“La Liberté Speech,” 8 September 1872

While Marx never explicitly rejected the idea of the electoral ascension of the working class to power, his musings should be weighed against the more general assessment of the state that he drew based on the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, when, albeit only in one city and only for a few months, the working class seized state power. In The Civil War in France, and in a new preface to the Communist Manifesto written in June 1872, Marx and Engels argued that the course of the class struggle in France had proved that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” Having smashed the old state, the working class created new state institutions, centered on the repressive force of the armed proletariat. The Commune instituted universal suffrage and fused the legislative and executive functions of government, placing them in the hands of working people. Marx argued that the Parisian working class had shown in practice what the dictatorship of the proletariat would look like: working-class democracy based on new institutions built on the rubble of the old bourgeois state.

The remainder of the 1870s was a comparatively quiescent period in European working-class politics. The First International split apart with the socialists (including the Marxists) on one side and the anarchists on the other. In Germany in May 1875, two socialist groupings came together to found a unified Social Democratic Party (SPD), creating the organizational and political apparatus that in 1889 became the core section of the Second International. Marx and Engels criticized the so-called Gotha Program that formed the political basis of the 1875 fusion, which had been shaped by the reformist impulses of the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle. In September 1879, Marx wrote a scathing “circular letter” in which he condemned the reformist and anti-proletarian leaders of the party, including Eduard Bernstein, who had reported with evident pleasure that “Precisely at the present time, under the pressure of the Anti-Socialist Law, the Party is showing that it is not inclined to follow the path of violent bloody revolution but is determined … to follow the path of legality, that is, of reform.” Marx retorted:

“So if the 500,000 to 600,000 Social-Democratic voters – between a tenth and an eighth of the whole electorate and, besides, dispersed over the length and breadth of the land – have the sense not to run their heads against a wall and to attempt a ‘bloody revolution’ of one against ten, this proves that they for ever renounce taking advantage of some tremendous external event, a sudden revolutionary upsurge arising from it or even a victory of the people gained in a conflict resulting from it.”
—“Circular Letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke, and Others,” September 1879

Marx and Engels argued consistently throughout this period that a socialist workers’ party should stand for election to parliament, but not with a primary orientation of passing reforms and not for a moment renouncing the revolutionary conquest of power by the proletariat. Insofar as the conditions are not ready for the seizure of power (which they certainly are not when the revolutionary party commands the support of merely one-tenth of the population), elections and parliament must be used by the party – alongside illegal means where necessary – for the purposes of building support and raising socialist consciousness among the working class.

From the 1870s through to Engels’ death in 1895, the two main initiators of scientific socialism attacked the electoralist opportunism which had started to poison the most advanced expressions of proletarian political self-organization (the German SPD and the Second International). Shortly before his death, Engels provided a clear articulation of his and Marx’s views on socialists’ participation in bourgeois elections:

“And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in our vote it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us of our own strength and that of all opposing parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion second to none for our actions, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness – if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, it would still have been much more than enough. But it did more than this by far. In election propaganda it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it provided our representatives in the Reichstag with a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in parliament, and to the masses outside, with quite a different authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings.”
Introduction to “The Class Struggles in France,” 1895

In this same document, Engels stresses the importance of the party using election campaigns and speeches in parliament and other bourgeois bodies as propaganda tools in the political preparation of the mass of the working class for the revolutionary seizure of power. To Engels’ fury, parts of his text were cut when it was published in the Social Democratic press, making it look as if he had renounced revolutionary force and illegality in favor of a parliamentary road to socialism. This was a clear sign that the electoralist opportunism that had always been present in the Second International had not abated.

Karl Kautsky, accepted as the leading representative of orthodox Marxism in the German SPD and the Second International, challenged the most egregious expression of reformist electoralism at the turn of the century: the “evolutionary” socialist current of Bernstein. Yet Kautsky’s defense of Marxism was woefully inadequate, making core programmatic concessions to views that Marx and Engels attacked. Kautsky’s books The Social Revolution (1902) and The Road to Power (1909), for instance, are a defense of a revolutionary perspective against an avowedly reformist one, but they fail to articulate the need to smash the bourgeois state. By 1912, in a polemic against the Dutch left socialist Anton Pannekoek, Kautsky rendered his rejection of the Marxist view more explicit, by not merely omitting reference to the need to smash the state but condemning that view in defense of a parliamentary road to socialism: “The aim of our political struggle remains, as in the past, the conquest of state power by winning a majority in parliament and by raising parliament to the rank of master of the government” (cited by Lenin in State and Revolution).

Kautsky’s transformation of socialism into the outcome of parliamentary reform, albeit still couched in “revolutionary” terms, had become commonplace among the leaders of the Second International by the time WWI broke out in 1914. In August 1914, the SPD members of parliament voted to pay for the war budget of the German imperial government, and other national sections lined up behind their “own” governments in the conflict, thus demonstrating that their leaders’ loyalties lay with the states and associated national bourgeoisies rather than with the international working class. This marked the death of the Second International as even an imperfect expression of revolutionary socialism.

Third International: Approaching the Masses

Left-wing dissidents broke away from the Second International after the betrayal of August 1914, initiating the movement for a Third International to reclaim the political heritage of genuine Marxism. Central to this process of regroupment and political rearmament was the Russian Bolshevik Party, which led the first successful seizure of power by the working class in October 1917, sweeping aside the remnants of the old state and erecting in its place a new proletarian order built on workers’ councils (“soviets”) and Red Guards (later reorganized into the Red Army). In the midst of a postwar wave of working-class radicalization, new Communist Parties were forged around the world on the basis of the Russian example, as the vanguard (advanced layers) of the working class were won to the perspective of building a truly revolutionary party on an authentically Marxist program. In 1919, the Third (Communist) International was founded in Moscow.

Hundreds of thousands of working-class militants were flooding into the new organization. In breaking from the reformism of the Second International, it is quite understandable that many supporters of the Third International were so repulsed by the conduct of Social Democratic politicians in elections and in parliament that they rejected participation in bourgeois elections outright, often as a matter of principle. This rejection was also conditioned by the belief that capitalism would not be able to stabilize itself, and that the revolutionary seizure of power was imminent in several countries. In March 1919, the First Congress of the Comintern adopted Lenin’s “Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship” in which he argued:

“By recognizing the class character of bourgeois democracy, of bourgeois parliamentarianism, all socialists have articulated the ideas expressed with the greatest scientific precision by Marx and Engels when they said that even the most democratic bourgeois republic is nothing but the instrument by which the bourgeoisie oppress the working class, by which a handful of capitalists keeps the working masses under.…
“…It was Marx himself, who placed the highest value on the historical significance of the [Paris] Commune, who in his analysis of it demonstrated the exploiting character of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois parliamentarianism, under which the oppressed class is given the right, once in several years, to decide which deputy of the possessing classes shall represent and betray the people in Parliament.…
“The old democracy, that is, bourgeois democracy and parliamentarianism, was so organized that it was the working classes who were most alien to the administrative machine. The Soviet power, the proletarian dictatorship, on the other hand, is so organized that it brings the working masses close to the administrative machine. The merging of legislative and executive power in the Soviet organization of the State serves the same purpose, as does the substitution of the production unit, the workshop or factory, for the territorial constituency.…
“On the basis of these theses and having heard the reports of the delegates from various countries, the congress of the communist international declares that the chief tasks of the communist parties in countries where Soviet power is not yet established are:
“1. To explain to the broad masses of the working class the historical meaning of the political and practical necessity of a new proletarian democracy which must replace bourgeois democracy and parliamentarianism.
“2. To extend and build up workers’ councils in all branches of industry, in the army and navy, and also among agricultural workers and small peasants.
“3. To win an assured, conscious communist majority in the councils.”

Ultra-left currents in the Third International in Germany, Britain and elsewhere agreed with these theses but went further to argue that participation in bourgeois elections and parliaments had become “politically obsolete,” a relic of the old Second International’s opportunism. Some argued that “revolutionary parliamentarism” (i.e., entering parliament for the purposes of revolutionary agitation) was impossible, or at least was destined to devolve into the worst aspects of electoralism. This was the view of figures like Amadeo Bordiga of Italy and Sylvia Pankhurst of Britain, while anarcho-syndicalist currents that had initially been attracted to the Third International offered an even more categorical rejection of parliamentarism.

Lenin, Trotsky and other leaders fought these ultra-left views, drawing on the experience of the Russian Bolsheviks as well as the example set by revolutionaries like Karl Liebknecht in Germany. The Second Congress of the Comintern, held in 1920, was the scene of a major political dispute over the question. In the lead-up to the Congress, Lenin wrote what was to become one of his major contributions to revolutionary tactics: ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, An Infantile Disorder. The pamphlet, which attacks the ultra-lefts on a variety of issues (including whether to participate in trade unions led by reformists), argued that insofar as the mass of the working class has not yet reached the understanding that bourgeois parliaments are historically obsolete, a revolutionary party must seek to participate in them to develop just such an understanding:

“the point is not whether bourgeois parliaments have existed for a long time or a short time, but how far the broad masses of the working people are prepared (ideologically, politically and practically) to accept the Soviet system and to disperse the bourgeois-democratic parliament (or allow it to be dispersed).”

Boycotting elections may be a necessary tactic under certain conditions. For instance, it proved effective for the Bolsheviks in 1905 when the Tsarist regime called elections in order to stifle a revolutionary wave of the mass of workers and poor peasants against the government. But under most circumstances, it is necessary for revolutionary socialists to participate in parliament where possible.

During the Second Congress in August 1920, the Comintern delegates debated counterposed theses – minority theses presented by Bordiga, and majority theses presented by Nikolai Bukharin (drafted by Trotsky, Bukharin and Grigory Zinoviev) preceded by a supportive speech from Lenin. The majority theses, adopted as “Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism,” argued for a return to the First International’s perspective of using parliament to arouse “the proletariat’s class hatred of the ruling class,” breaking from the Second International’s adaptation of parliamentary tactics “to the ‘organic’ legislative work of bourgeois parliaments and to the growing significance of the struggle for reforms within the capitalist framework,” which “resulted in the reign of Social Democracy’s so-called minimum program and the transformation of the maximum program into a debating formula for an exceedingly distant ‘ultimate goal.’”

The Theses noted:

“The fact that parliament is an institution of the bourgeois state can in no way be used as an argument against participating in the parliamentary struggle. The Communist Party does not enter these institutions in order to work as an integral part of them. Rather it does so to use parliament to help the masses take action to break up the state machine and the parliament itself.…
“This activity in parliament consists primarily of revolutionary agitation from the parliamentary rostrum, unmasking opponents, and ideological unification of the masses, who, particularly in areas that lag behind, are still prejudiced by democratic illusions and look to the parliamentary rostrum. This work must be completely subordinate to the goals and tasks of the mass struggle outside of parliament.”

Leaving behind the traditional separation between the minimum and maximum program, revolutionary parliamentarism centers on disciplined party members (speaking ordinary language, conducting themselves as ordinary working-class people and displaying “a defiant attitude toward capitalism”) subordinating “all of their parliamentary activities to the party’s work outside of parliament”: “Demonstrative bills, designed not for adoption by the bourgeois majority but rather for purposes of propaganda, agitation, and organization, must be introduced regularly in accordance with instructions by the party and its Central Committee.” Election campaigns themselves “should be conducted not in the spirit of a race for the maximum number of parliamentary seats but of a revolutionary mobilization of the masses for the slogans of the proletarian revolution.”

The Critical Support Tactic

Another part of Lenin’s fight against ultra-leftism involved developing tactical approaches to the reformist labor parties – what Lenin called bourgeois workers’ parties. The idea of voting for a reformist party in a parliamentary election was viscerally repulsive to many a good revolutionary. But the Bolsheviks had important experience in Russia, having split with the reformist Mensheviks while frequently extending them critical electoral support. In ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, Lenin had noted that the pro-capitalist leaders of the British Labour Party:

“want to take power in their own hands (though they prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to ‘rule’ on the old bourgeois lines, and that when they do get into power they will unfailingly behave like the [German SPD traitors] Scheidemanns and Noskes. All that is true. But it by no means follows that to support them is treachery to the revolution, but rather that in the interests of the revolution the working-class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support.”

Lenin proposed a variant of what has come to be known as the tactic of critical support. His proposal was that, in full view of the masses, the Labour Party leadership should be offered “an election agreement” in which the relative support of the Labour Party and Communist Party would be ascertained in a “special ballot” within the workers’ movement and the number of parliamentary seats (or rather electoral districts) divided accordingly. The Communist Party would retain “complete liberty of agitation, propaganda and political activity” (i.e., the right “to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens” before the eyes of the working class). The purpose of this public approach was not only to gain a mass audience for communist agitation but to assert the basic principle of opposition to parties of the bourgeoisie.

In the likely event of Labour rejecting such an arrangement, the Communist Party:

“would put up our candidates in a very few but absolutely safe constituencies, namely constituencies where putting up our candidate would not give the seat to the Liberal and lose it for the Labour candidate. We would take part in the election campaign, distribute leaflets in favour of Communism, and, in all constituencies where we have no candidates, we would urge the electors to vote for the Labour candidate and against the bourgeois candidate.” [emphasis in original]

This would show that the Communists were the only force in favor of maximizing working-class opposition to the bosses’ parties. In contrast, the Labour leaders’ rejection of the Communist proposal would reveal that they “are afraid to take power alone, and are striving secretly to secure the support of” the bourgeois Liberals, who were openly calling for a bloc with the Conservatives against Labour. In this way, Lenin famously argued, the Communists offer their “vote to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man.”

Lenin’s critical support was tactical rather than strategic. It made sense in the particular historical context in which a Labour Party that stood for nationalizing the “commanding heights of the economy” had not yet been in government, and which could be exposed by the active political intervention of communists both inside and outside parliament. Mass illusions in the Labour Party ran high, and its leaders had been posturing to the left (though “secretly” they hoped for an alliance with the Liberals). So “the majority of the workers in Great Britain still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys or Scheidemanns and have not yet had the experience of a government composed of these people.…”

As Trotsky later wrote in Where is Britain Going?: “In the years of 1917 to 1920 the British labour movement again passed through an extremely stormy period. Strikes took place on a broad scale. MacDonald signed manifestoes from which, today, he would recoil in horror.” Lenin’s tactic was aimed at putting Labour to the test of office to reveal the bankruptcy of reformism and expose the reformist leadership’s unwillingness to really stand independently of the bourgeois parties.

Propaganda, Agitation & the Party Formation

Lenin’s tactical advice was also based on another crucial conjunctural fact: “the vanguard of the working class has been won over, in that it is ranged on the side of Soviet government against parliamentarism, on the side of the dictatorship of the proletariat against bourgeois democracy.” Although the mass of the working class was yet to be won over, by 1920 the advanced sections of the British working class had turned in a decidedly radical direction. London port workers had even taken industrial action to sabotage their government’s military campaign against the Soviet government. Lenin’s tactical proposal presupposed this relationship of forces, where the advanced workers, already organized into the Communist Party or at least in the process of constituting one, should seek “the forms of transition or approach to the proletarian revolution.” The critical support tactic was meant to give masses of workers practical political experience – and in this sense the tactic went beyond mere propaganda to an agitational mode.

While Lenin’s proposed tactic was not principally aimed at educating the vanguard (or effecting political realignment within it), even small propaganda groups can make effective use of critical support – it is not simply a tool for fully-fledged parties. It is true that the masses of workers who still adhere to the reformist party will remain largely unaware of the positions of small organizations, and the leaders of the reformist party will feel little pressure from the revolutionaries’ exposures of their crimes. However, there is propagandistic value in critical support to show in action one of the things a mass revolutionary party would do and thereby educate the vanguard in Marxist tactics. It can be an effective tool in attracting the attention of advanced workers who find themselves still in the reformist party or orienting toward it yet dissatisfied with its reformism.

Trotskyism & Electoral Tactics

With the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Comintern under Stalin, the forces of genuine Bolshevik-Leninism, led by Trotsky, were sidelined and eventually turned into a sort of external tendency from 1929 to 1933. The International Left Opposition (ILO), trying to act as a critical yet loyal faction of the Comintern, therefore framed its discussion of electoral tactics in terms of advancing the cause of socialist revolution via the Communist movement.

The matter was most sharply posed in the late 1920s and early 1930s in relation to the rise of fascism, which sought to mobilize petty bourgeois and other layers to physically destroy workers’ political and trade-union organizations, most notably in Germany. The Stalinists, dubbing this the “Third Period,” adopted ultra-left tactics toward the social democrats, designating them “social fascists” and refusing organization-to-organization blocs with them against the real fascists. When in 1931 the Nazis initiated the removal of the social-democratic government of the German state of Prussia led by Otto Braun, the Stalinists, citing the principle that communists are always opposed to bourgeois governments, voted with the fascists in what came to be known as the “Red Referendum.” As Trotsky noted at the time:

“We have not the slightest ground for supporting Braun’s government, for taking even a shadow of responsibility for it before the masses, or even for weakening by one iota our political struggle against the government of [Chancellor Heinrich] Brüning and its Prussian agency. But we have still less ground for helping the fascists to replace the government of Brüning-Braun.…
“To come out into the streets with the slogan ‘Down with the Brüning-Braun government’ at a time when, according to the relationship of forces, it can only be replaced by a government of Hitler-Hugenberg, is the sheerest adventurism. The same slogan, however, assumes an altogether different meaning if it becomes an introduction to the direct struggle of the proletariat itself for power.”
—“Against National Communism! (Lessons of the ‘Red Referendum’)

Following the Nazi victory in 1933 – a historic defeat for the working class made possible by Stalinist “Third Period” idiocy – and the failure of the crisis to generate internal opposition, the ILO concluded that the Third International was completely unsalvageable as a revolutionary force. It was from this point that Trotskyists began laying the groundwork for a new international, using all possible tactics, including electoral, in “winning over the vanguard of the proletariat” to the movement for a Fourth International on a Bolshevik-Leninist program.

In some ways, the situation faced by the Trotskyists was unique in the history of the revolutionary socialist movement. Before and during the existence of the First International, the objective was to build revolutionary parties as an expression of working-class independence from the bourgeoisie, as the proletariat was just beginning the process of breaking politically from the capitalist class. At its height, the Second International generally represented the mass of the working class, and those proletarian forces outside it were mostly anarchists and mutualists who abstained from elections – so questions of giving electoral support to outside forces did not often arise in most countries (Russia being one of the exceptions). This was one of the reasons that Lenin and other Bolsheviks had to wage a political fight inside the Comintern to educate members and broader layers of workers of the need for tactical flexibility in this regard. By 1933, the ILO now found itself outside of and confronted by two mass non-revolutionary currents (the Stalinists and the social democrats), and between itself and those currents were a range of centrist and reformist groupings of varying size.

Connected to the electoral tactics of the ILO in the mid 1930s was the tactic of temporary entrism, occasioned by mass radicalization and the leftward shift of social-democratic parties in a number of countries. The Trotskyists entered larger formations in order to intersect this leftward movement and break it away in a revolutionary direction, notably in the French Socialist Party, where there was a growing left wing, and in the leftward-moving U.S. Socialist Party. Entrism necessarily had an impact on the Trotskyists’ electoral tactics. In Britain, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) split to the left from the Labour Party in 1932, taking about 15,000 members. Trotskyists joined the ILP, attempting to break away as much of the party as possible from its lurch in the direction of the Stalinist Communist Party and instead toward the movement for the Fourth International.

In the 1935 election, the ILP called for a vote only to those Labour candidates who were programmatically more left-wing, specifically those who opposed inter-imperialist trade-war measures against Italian intervention in Abyssinia. In response, Trotsky argued that the ILP should have given the Labour Party as a whole critical electoral support and to call for a vote for all Labour Party candidates in constituencies where the ILP was not standing:

“…The Labour Party should have been critically supported not because it was for or against sanctions but because it represented the working class masses.…
“It is argued that the Labour Party already stands exposed by its past deeds in power and its present reactionary platform. For example, by its decision at Brighton. For us – yes! But not for the masses, the eight millions who voted Labour. It is a great danger for revolutionists to attach too much importance to conference decisions. We use such evidence in our propaganda – but it cannot be presented beyond the power of our own press. One cannot shout louder than the strength of his own throat.…
“… the [ILP] London Division’s policy of giving critical support only to anti-sanctionists would imply a fundamental distinction between the social-patriots like Morrison and Ponsonby or – with your permission – even Cripps. Actually, their differences are merely propagandistic. Cripps is actually only a second-class supporter of the bourgeoisie.…
“… the ILP should have more sharply differentiated itself from the CP at the elections than it did. It should have critically supported the Labour Party against Pollitt and Gallacher. It should have been declared openly that the CP has all the deficiencies of the Labour Party without any of its advantages. It should have, above all, shown in practice what true critical support means. By accompanying support with the sharpest and widest criticism, by patiently explaining that such support is only for the purpose of exposing the treachery of the Labour Party leadership, the ILP would have completely exposed, also, the spurious ‘critical’ support of the Stalinists themselves, a support which was actually whole-hearted and uncritical, and based on an agreement in principle with the Labour Party leadership.”
—“Once Again the ILP,” November 1935

Centrists who perpetually vote for bourgeois workers’ parties regardless of the situation will sometimes point to Trotsky’s writings during this period to justify an automatic vote to Labour on the basis that it remains a mass workers’ party, paying no attention to its programmatic orientation at a given moment. These centrists thereby turn the tactic of electoral support into a semi-permanent strategy, emptying it of its revolutionary content. Electoral support loses its “critical” dimension if it is automatic. The point of critical support is eventually to withdraw it, to split workers away from the non-revolutionary party they adhere to. Thus Trotsky, in his criticism of the ILP, clearly referred to its decision not to give critical support to the Labour Party in the 1935 parliamentary election not as a strategic but “a tactical error” (“The Treachery of the Spanish ‘Labor Party of Marxist Unity,’” January 1936).

In his advice to his followers in the ILP, Trotsky clearly indicates that critical support is not about choosing “better” reformists who take a more left-wing position on some issue of the moment. Rather, the tactic is useful where there are widespread illusions in reformism as a political ideology, by putting to the test the idea that a party claiming it will make capitalism kinder instead of eradicating its fundamental structures is actually going to deliver for working-class voters. By advocating a selective Labour vote, the ILP leadership only demonstrated their own reformist illusions by implying a “fundamental distinction” between left and right social democracy. Trotsky’s tactic, in contrast, was aimed at putting Labour in power, so its true nature could be revealed.

The tactical character of Trotsky’ approach to electoral support is further demonstrated by advice he gave to the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) after the U.S. Trotskyists had completed their entry in the Socialist Party. In June 1940, several leaders of the SWP visited Trotsky in Mexico, where they discussed tactics for the forthcoming U.S. presidential election. Since the SWP was unable to stand its own candidate for president, Trotsky suggested an electoral approach to the Communist Party (CP), which was then, as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact signed less than a year earlier, assuming an anti-imperialist posture of opposition to American involvement in World War II. Trotsky suggested that the SWP should try to take advantage of “the coincidence between their slogans and ours,” which, he observed, could only be “transitory,” by approaching the CP ranks and clearly posing conditions for electoral support:

“I have a concrete suggestion, that we publish a letter to the Stalinist workers: during five years your leaders were protagonists of the democracies, then they changed and were against all the imperialisms. If you make a firm decision not to permit a change in line then we are ready to convoke a convention to support your presidential candidate. You must give a pledge. It would be a letter of propaganda and agitation to the Stalinist workers. We will see. It is probable that the line will change in some weeks. This letter would give you free possibilities without having to vote for their candidate.”
—“Discussions with Trotsky,” 12-15 June 1940

Trotsky viewed this as a “very short and very critical” maneuver:

“Our party is not bound to the Stalinist maneuver any more than it was to the SP maneuver [i.e., the American Trotskyists’ successful entry into the Socialist Party]. Nevertheless we undertook such a maneuver. We must add up the pluses and minuses.”

This tactical move was designed to break away any CP members who were genuine anti-imperialists and would feel betrayed by any backtrack on this issue from their party. In a propagandistic sense, pointing out that a CP vote could only be applicable on the condition that they denounced the imperialist ambitions of the bourgeois state would raise the profile of the Trotskyists among the left wing of the Stalinists. Trotsky’s approach was diametrically opposed to a policy of automatically voting for reformist parties regardless of their record and declared intentions. By suggesting that the demand would likely not be met and the Trotskyists would not in the end vote for the CP candidate, Trotsky allows for a scenario from which many of his supposed followers today would recoil in horror – that there are times when it is appropriate to give no electoral support at all.

Trotsky’s thinking here, as in other situations, was based on calculations on the dual questions of what would qualitatively advance the class struggle and what would build the revolutionary party, which came down to what furthered the strategy of organizing the proletariat as a class against the bourgeoisie. The tactical measures necessarily depended on a number of factors: the size and influence of the vanguard formation; the programmatic orientation of the reformist party and its influence over the working class; the political mood of the working class; and conjunctural openings provided by the political missteps and other actions of the reformist leaders.

‘Proletarian Class Strategy’ & the Popular Front

In ‘Left-Wing’ Communism Lenin proposed a form of critical support to the Labour Party which aimed to expose the reformists’ unwillingness to take power if that required an agreement with the Communists against all bourgeois candidates. The desire of the Labour leadership to form a government with the bourgeois Liberal Party was clear to Marxists, but not openly admitted by the Labour leaders. Lenin’s tactic was aimed at exposing the treachery of the leadership by offering an agreement that would appeal to the working-class base of Labour who hated the bourgeois Liberals. It was similar to the tactic that the Bolsheviks employed between April and September 1917 toward the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, who were already in a parliamentary bloc with the Cadets, the Russian equivalents of the British Liberals. The Bolsheviks declared “Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers,” offering support to the reformists only on the condition that they break with the Cadets and form a government on their own. In ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, Lenin recalled this historical example while making his case for the critical support offer to Labour.

In an appendix to Volume 1 of his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky discusses the Bolsheviks’ “Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers” position:

“On the placards which had been prepared by the Bolsheviks for the cancelled demonstration of June 10 [1917], and which were afterward carried by the demonstrators of June 18, a central place was occupied by the slogan ‘Down with the Ten Minister-Capitalists!’ … In the government besides the ‘ten Minister-Capitalists’ there were also six Minister-Compromisers. The Bolshevik placards had nothing to say of them. On the contrary, according to the sense of the slogan, the Minister-Capitalists were to be replaced by Minister-Socialists, representatives of the Soviet majority. It was exactly this sense of the Bolshevik placards that I expressed before the Soviet Congress: Break your bloc with the liberals, remove the bourgeois ministers and replace them with your Peshekhonovs. In proposing to the Soviet majority to take the power, the Bolsheviks did not, of course, bind themselves in the least as to their attitude to these Peshekhonovs; on the contrary, they made no secret of the fact that within the frame of the Soviet democracy they would wage an implacable struggle – for a majority in the soviets and for the power.”

This tactic of conditional opposition – i.e., not giving critical support to reformist workers’ parties unless they break their bloc with a bourgeois party – was an attempt to expose the class collaborationism of the reformist leaders. In this sense, it is not simply a matter of tactics but of principle. It raises in the clearest possible way the question of the independence of the working class and what later came to be known as the popular front.

While voting for reformist labor parties is a permissible and sometimes useful tactic, voting for out-and-out bourgeois parties is a violation of the basic Marxist principle that the working class must organize itself independently of the capitalists to fight for its own class interests. What, then, should revolutionaries do when a reformist workers’ party (whose base has radicalized and is pushing leftward against the leadership) is in an electoral or governmental bloc with a bourgeois party? That was precisely what the Bolsheviks confronted in 1917, and their strategy was to attempt to break that bloc – to split the “popular front” along elemental class lines by calling to oust the capitalist ministers. In July 1936, when popular fronts supported by the Stalinists were sabotaging revolutionary upsurges in Spain and France, Trotsky wrote:

“The question of questions at present is the People’s Front. The left centrists seek to present this question as a tactical or even as a technical maneuver, so as to be able to peddle their wares in the shadow of the People’s Front. In reality, the People’s Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It also offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism. For it is often forgotten that the greatest historical example of the People’s Front is the February 1917 revolution. From February to October, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who represent a very good parallel to the ‘Communists’ and Social Democrats, were in the closest alliance and in a permanent coalition with the bourgeois party of the Cadets, together with whom they formed a series of coalition governments. Under the sign of this People’s Front stood the whole mass of the people, including the workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils. To be sure, the Bolsheviks participated in the councils. But they did not make the slightest concession to the People’s Front. Their demand was to break this People’s Front, to destroy the alliance with the Cadets, and to create a genuine workers’ and peasants’ government.
“All the People’s Fronts in Europe are only a pale copy and often a caricature of the Russian People’s Front of 1917, which could after all lay claim to a much greater justification for its existence, for it was still a question of the struggle against czarism and the remnants of feudalism.”
— “The Dutch Section and the International” (15-16 July 1936), in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36 [emphasis in original]

Some ostensibly Trotskyist organizations – the same groups who perpetually vote for mass reformist parties in all conditions, as a strategy and not a tactic – argue that Trotsky was in favor of voting for the workers’ component of the popular front. There is no evidence of this, and, on the contrary, Trotsky made exactly the opposite point when addressing French communists in 1922:

“26. Reformist-Dissidents [the followers of Jean Longuet] are the agency of the ‘Left Bloc’ within the working class. Their success will be the greater, all the less the working class as a whole is seized by the idea and practice of the united front against the bourgeoisie. Layers of workers, disoriented by the war and by the tardiness of the revolution, may venture to support the ‘Left Bloc’ as a lesser evil, in the belief that they do not thereby risk anything at all, or because they see no other road at present.
“27. One of the most reliable methods of counteracting inside the working class the moods and ideas of the ‘Left Bloc,’ i.e., a bloc between the workers and a certain section of the bourgeoisie against another section of the bourgeoisie, is through promoting persistently and resolutely the idea of a bloc between all the sections of the working class against the whole bourgeoisie.…”
“31. The indicated method could be similarly employed and not without success in relation to parliamentary and municipal activities. We say to the masses, ‘The Dissidents, because they do not want the revolution, have split the mass of the workers. It would be insanity to count on their helping the proletarian revolution. But we are ready, inside and outside the parliament, to enter into certain practical agreements with them, provided they agree, in those cases where one must choose between the known interests of the bourgeoisie and the definite demands of the proletariat, to support the latter in action. The Dissidents can be capable of such actions only if they renounce their ties with the parties of the bourgeoisie, that is, the “Left Bloc” and its bourgeois discipline.’
“If the Dissidents were capable of accepting these conditions, then their worker-followers would be quickly absorbed by the Communist Party. Just because of this, the Dissidents will not agree to these conditions. In other words, to the clearly and precisely posed question whether they choose a bloc with the bourgeoisie or a bloc with the proletariat – in the concrete and specific conditions of mass struggle – they will be compelled to reply that they prefer a bloc with the bourgeoisie. Such an answer will not pass with impunity among the proletarian reserves on whom they are counting.”
—“On the United Front” (2 March 1922), in The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2 [emphasis added]

Like the Bolsheviks with their call to oust the capitalist ministers, Trotsky was laying down the “conditions” for agreements with the Socialists – i.e., that they “renounce their ties” with the popular front. Throughout the period of popular frontism in the 1930s, the Trotskyists’ slogan was “Break with the bourgeoisie!” This should be understood to mean that critical support was at a minimum conditional on the organizational independence of the reformist parties from the popular front.

Firm Principles & Flexible Tactics

The principle of working-class independence is the bedrock of revolutionary electoral tactics. When a reformist party joins or openly advocates an alliance with the bourgeoisie, or presents a program that makes no pretense of defending working-class interests, electoral support will only hinder the efforts of the working class to organize separately in its own interests. But where a working-class party, however tentatively, starts to go beyond the bounds of the bourgeois status quo and states an intention to fight for the working class as a class, that opens up the possibility of various tactical approaches.

The task of revolutionaries today is to gather together into a Marxist propaganda group capable of effective intervention in the workers’ movement on a transitional program. A principled yet flexible approach to bourgeois elections will play a role in the struggle to educate and win over the working-class vanguard to the cause of socialism and consolidate it into a fighting party, just as it will play a role in the future in breaking the masses in the direction of a party that can carry out a revolution. The fact that we are today a long way from that should not discourage us. We are very few in number, but we have an advantage that our forebears did not: the accumulated experience and knowledge of more than a century and a half of class struggle.