Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 28, 2020

August Nimtz on Lenin and “lesser evil” voting

Filed under: Lenin,liberalism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

I can think of no other scholar who has written more about Lenin’s electoral strategy than August Nimtz, an ex-SWPer who has taught at the University of Minnesota for many years. I got in touch with him a while back when I first ran into the argument that Lenin was an advocate of “lesser evil” politics because he approved of a bloc with the Cadets in the second round of the Duma elections. It might have been prompted by Kasama Project’s Mike Ely reference to this tactic or somebody else trying to justify voting for a Democrat. The most recent use of Lenin’s articles was in Eric Blanc’s article in Socialist Worker newspaper advocating a vote for Sanders and now for Biden. August sent me a copy of his “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905” that I highly recommend. According to Amazon, the paperback edition is out of print but fortunately you can buy a copy from Haymarket.

This is the relevant section:


In his pamphlet Lenin addressed for the first time an issue that has bedeviled many a working-class party in multiparty elections—the “danger of splitting the vote.” Marx and Engels first raised the issue in their Address. In calling for the proletariat to put forward its own candidates in elections, even though “there is no prospect whatever of their being elected . . . they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats . . . that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory. The ultimate purpose of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is infinitely more important than the advantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.” To these kernels of wisdom, Lenin added the necessary body.

The “few reactionaries” Lenin had to deal with were the fascist-like “pogrom mongers,” the Black Hundreds. And for that reason the issue of vote splitting had to be taken “seriously”: “It cannot be denied,” he admitted, that in the absence of a “bloc of the Lefts,” “Black-Hundred electors may be elected . . . And there is no doubt that the general public will take this [possibility] . . . into account; they will be afraid of splitting the vote, and because of that will be inclined to cast their votes for the most moderate of the opposition candidates.”

The first thing that had to be taken into account, he said, was “the present electoral system in Russia.” Elections were held in two to four rounds in four curia or electoral colleges, for landowners, urban dwellers, peasants, and workers. In the initial rounds the voting was for electors who eventually elected the deputies to the Duma. (The following figures make clear that due to the law of December 11, 1905, there was nothing representative about the elections: “one elector to every 2,000 voters in the landowner curia, one to each 7,000 in the urban curia, one to 30,000 in the peasant curia and one to 90,000 in the worker curia.”11 In the first round, Lenin argued, when the mass of “primary voters go to the poll,” the conundrum of vote splitting was most pronounced. In the subsequent rounds “when the elected representatives [or electors] vote, the general engagement is over; all that remains is to distribute the seats by partial agreements among the parties, which know the exact number of their candidates and their votes.” The Black Hundreds were likely only to be elected from the cities, which contributed less than 10 percent of the seats to the Duma; in the countryside the electoral process was generally nonpartisan.

So should social democracy enter into electoral agreements in the first rounds—that is, have joint lists of candidates with other parties, especially Cadets, to block the election of the Black Hundreds? For Lenin that would be a mistake: “We would undermine the principles and the general revolutionary significance of our campaign for the sake of gaining a seat in the Duma for a liberal! We would be subordinating class policy to parliamentarism instead of subordinating parliamentarism to class policy. We would deprive ourselves of the opportunity to gain an estimate of our forces. We would lose what is lasting and durable in all elections—the development of the class-consciousness and solidarity of the socialist proletariat. We would gain what is transient, relative and untrue—superiority of the Cadet over the Octobrist.”12 Furthermore, the “arithmetic possibility of splitting the vote,” he argued, based on an analysis of the returns for the First Duma, was minimal. But in later rounds, again, electoral agreements were not only permissible but necessary to block the Black Hundreds. That meant, more specifically, blocs with the Trudoviks to defeat the Cadets and blocs with the Cadets to defeat the Black Hundreds. This was Lenin’s ranking of the evils, from lesser to greater.

Given the Mensheviks’ orientation toward the Cadets—on full display in the First Duma—it is not surprising that they objected to Lenin’s call for a prohibition on electoral agreements in the first rounds of voting. Such a policy, in their view, would be an obstacle to their pas de deux with the liberals. At a party conference in Tammerfors (Tampere), Finland, November 3–7, the Menshevik-dominated Central Committee had enough delegates to adopt a resolution that allowed for electoral agreements with the Cadets in the first rounds. Because it was a conference, the decisions, as Lenin pointed out later, were only “advisory.” The Bolsheviks submitted, for discussion in local organizations, a “dissenting opinion” that reiterated their call for a ban on electoral agreements in the first rounds, but with a qualification: “Exceptions to this rule are permissible only in cases of extreme necessity and only in relation to parties that fully accept the main slogans of our immediate political struggle, i.e., those which recognize the necessity of an armed uprising and are fighting for a democratic republic. Such agreements, however, may only extend to the nomination of a joint list of candidates, without in any way restricting the independence of the political agitation carried on by the Social-Democrats.” But there was an exception to this exception: “In the workers’ curia the Social-Democratic Party must come out absolutely independently and refrain from entering into agreements with any other party.”13 If Lenin was willing to be a bit flexible on the general stricture on blocs in the first rounds of elections, that didn’t apply to the arena devoted exclusively to the proletariat—the one place where social democracy had to be pure and unadulterated in order to accurately assess its support. More than anything to date, the differences at Tammerfors revealed the collision course the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were on.

The “Black-Hundred danger,” the Mensheviks insisted, justified first-round electoral agreements with the liberal Cadets—a claim that has a very familiar ring to it for anyone acquainted with Left politics in advanced capitalist countries since the Second World War. Lenin took this head-on in “Blocs with the Cadets,” his first major writing after Tammerfors.

There were three basic “flaws” with the Menshevik argument. The first is that it assumed an alliance with the Cadets would actually lessen the Black Hundred danger. But there was nothing, he pointed out, in the track record of the Cadets that warranted such a claim. Look, he said, at their behavior in the First Duma. As a liberal-monarchist party, the Cadets were apologists for the Czar—“the known leader of the Black Hundreds. Therefore, by helping to elect Cadets to the Duma, the Mensheviks are not only failing to combat the Black-Hundred danger, but are hoodwinking the people, are obscuring the real significance of the Black-Hundred danger. Combating the Black-Hundred danger by helping to elect the Cadets to the Duma is like combating pogroms by means of the speech delivered by the lackey [Cadet] Rodichev: ‘It is presumption to hold the monarch responsible for the pogrom.’”

“The second flaw . . . is that . . . the Social-Democrats tacitly surrender hegemony in the democratic struggle to the Cadets. In the event of a split vote that secures the victory of a Black Hundred, why should we be blamed for not having voted for the Cadet, and not the Cadets for not having voted for us?” Social democrats “must not allow themselves to be bribed”—as Marx and Engels counseled in their Address—by what had always happened whenever they embarked on independent working-class political action in the electoral arena, “the howling and barking of the liberals, accusing the socialists of wanting to let the Black Hundreds in.” Why should the Cadets be allowed to pose as democrats? To the contrary, they had to be fought: “Now or later, unless you cease to be socialists, you will have to fight independently, in spite of the Black-Hundred danger. And it is easier and more necessary to take the right step now than it will be later on . . . But the real Black-Hundred danger, we repeat, lies not in the Black Hundreds obtaining seats in the Duma, but in pogroms and [field] military courts; and you are making it more difficult for the people to fight this real danger by putting Cadet blinkers on their eyes.” Ceding “hegemony in the democratic struggle to the Cadets” was to miseducate the masses and therefore disarm them in waging the “real” fight.

The “third flaw” was related to the second—“its inaccurate appraisal of the Duma and its role.” Implicit in the Mensheviks’ “tactics of partial agreement,” as they called them, was the assumption that what transpired within the elegant walls of Tauride Palace was decisive in the class struggle. Trying to utilize the “Duma as a whole, i.e. the Duma majority”— again, in their own words—was the best way for “fighting the autocratic regime.” It was just the opposite for Lenin and the Bolsheviks: “We think it is childish to imagine that the elimination of the Black Hundreds from the Duma means the elimination of the Black-Hundred danger.” The Black Hundred danger, he argued, would be overcome in the only place it could—in the streets. The Mensheviks, Lenin charged, had succumbed to “parliamentary cretinism”—not the first and not the last well-intentioned revolutionaries to have met such a fate.

Although Lenin’s answer to the vote-splitting/lesser-evil conundrum took into account the then existent electoral rules in Russia, there is nothing to suggest that it would have been qualitatively different for a different set of rules. At the heart of his position was a cost-benefit calculation informed by the assumption that what took place outside the parliamentary arena was decisive in politics. To the extent that participation in the electoral arena advanced independent working-class political action then it was worth taking part. If, however, such involvement interfered with that course, then the costs outweighed the benefits. Forming a bloc with the Cadets in the first round of elections incurred, in his view, an unjustifiable cost—the miseducation of the working class and its allies. It would be better to abstain—as the Bolsheviks did with the Bulygin Duma proposal—than to risk such an outcome. Even in the likelihood of the Black Hundreds obtaining a majority in the Duma, Lenin would have had the same answer; the Third and Fourth Dumas bear that out. However frightening that prospect might have been to some, Lenin knew that in the final analysis the “real” fight with the Black Hundreds had to take place outside Tauride Palace. “Everywhere we have a single policy: in the election fight, in the fight in the Duma, and in the fight in the streets—the policy of armed struggle. Everywhere our policy is: the Social-Democrats with the revolutionary bourgeoisie”—that is, the peasantry—“against the Cadet traitors.”14 Nothing distinguished the Bolsheviks more from the Mensheviks than that stance.


  1. Haymarket republished the two volumes of Nimtz’s work on Lenin and elections at an affordable price.


    Comment by D — October 28, 2020 @ 9:59 pm

  2. Dear Louis,

    it would be very nice if you could provide me with a copy of August Nimtz‘ “Lenin‘s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905”.

    I herewith promise not to share it with anyone else.

    Best and many thanks in advance

    Bernhard Thiesing

    Von meinem iPhone gesendet


    Comment by Bernhard — October 28, 2020 @ 11:54 pm

  3. Marxism and socialism are gaining adherents and popularity for its economic, historical and philosophical positions. Political Marxism is often forgotten but it’s owed its due. I’ve been reading August Nimtz’s earlier book that covers Mark and Engels and their work with the Communist League up to the First International. We’re privileged to have a thorough and precise historian like Nimtz to produce books that are focused on these important questions on working class organizing and political activity. I’m looking forward to getting his Lenin book.

    Comment by Aaron — October 29, 2020 @ 4:59 am

  4. The old Russian system looks great in comparison to the current one in USA. In California there is on elector per 700,000 people!

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — October 30, 2020 @ 6:59 am

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