Lenin and the Tsarist Duma

Issue: 157

Richard Donnelly

A review of August H Nimtz, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), both £69.

August Nimtz’s two-volume work on Lenin’s electoral strategy provides an impressively detailed account of the work of the Bolsheviks in the Russian parliament, the Duma, during the pre-revolutionary period. In doing so, it shines a light on a fascinating but often overlooked area of the history of the Russian Revolution.

The creation of a Duma was a gain of the 1905 Revolution, which shook the absolutist state. While the uprising failed to overthrow the monarchy and transform the semi-feudal social relations of Russian life, it did force Tsar Nicholas II to grant limited constitutional reforms such as a legislative assembly.

But from its birth, this state Duma was a deeply undemocratic institution. Rather than being elected on a one-person, one-vote basis, parliamentary representatives were elected from each social class: landlords, wealthy city-dwellers, workers and peasants. The allocation of delegates was heavily weighted towards the rich. There was to be a deputy for every 2,000 landlords, but only for every 30,000 peasants or 90,000 workers. Moreover, Lenin’s Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was still an illegal organisation, which the Tsarist state constantly clamped down on.

Faced with this monstrous caricature of democracy, Lenin faced an uphill struggle trying to win Russian radicals to participating in elections. Cynicism was understandably rife, not only among groups like the Socialist Revolutionaries, who believed that the struggle against Tsarism had to be waged through terrorist means, but also from Lenin’s own comrades in the RSDLP.

But despite the rigging of the elections, Lenin saw that running in them would afford real possibilities to his Social Democrats; indeed, partly because of the very gerrymandering that made them so undemocratic. As deputies were elected from each social class, workers’ deputies had to be elected from meetings in all the big factories in a major industrial area. The RSDLP would have the opportunity to lay out its election programme in front of mass meetings of workers in each of the major workplaces and have its candidates elected by a show of hands, an opportunity of which Marxist parties in Western Europe could only dream. Once socialists were elected to the Duma, it would give a vital platform for Marxist ideas in a society in which political discussion was hampered by police surveillance, state violence and the threat of deportation to Siberia.

Lenin was initially unsuccessful in convincing the Bolshevik section of the RSDLP to run candidates. But it wasn’t long before he had the opportunity to put his argument again and win his comrades over. The first Duma was scrapped in 1906, after just a few months. The Tsar, seeking to deliver a blow to the bourgeois liberal Cadet Party that had won over a third of the seats, dissolved the assembly and called for new elections with even more undemocratic rules.

Nimtz explains that, for Lenin, this abrupt and autocratic end to Russia’s first elected assembly was a key “teaching moment” that illuminated fundamental aspects of Tsarist society: ones that he would call upon the Bolshevik ­parliamentary deputies constantly to restate again and again until the RSDLP Duma faction was conclusively outlawed for agitating against the First World War in 1915.

The main party of the capitalist class, the Cadets, had failed to do anything to defend the first Duma beyond giving highfalutin speeches in its chamber. Lenin believed this highlighted two important lessons. First, it demonstrated the danger of “parliamentary cretinism”, a term Lenin borrowed from Karl Marx to describe the belief that somehow parliaments gain their power from their legal or constitutional status, rather than because they exercise control over real social forces, like the state. Secondly, it dramatically underlined Lenin’s thesis that the Russian capitalist class was incapable of leading the sort of bourgeois revolutions that their English and French counterparts had made in the 17th and 18th century to destroy feudalism and smash the power of the old aristocratic ruling classes. The liberal capitalists and their political arm, the Cadets, were simply too scared of the possibility of working class uprisings to lead a confrontational movement against the Tsar and the great landowning nobility, despite the huge obstacle they represented to the political and economic development of Russia. So, instead of the bourgeoisie playing the role of a revolutionary class, Lenin envisioned the working class having to take matters into its own hands by making an alliance with the peasants to overthrow Tsarism.

Lenin’s Electoral Strategy provides fascinating insights into how Lenin worked with the RSDLP deputies in the Duma as part of the strategy of building a political alliance with the peasants. The parliamentary groups of the peasant parties, the Trudoviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries, were among the few national organisations that represented this vast and scattered class, which made up the bulk of Russia’s population. The direct contact that a workers’ party could have to such a peasantry was necessarily limited, so Lenin was committed to using the debates in the Duma to expose the unwillingness of the liberals to confront the aristocracy. In this way, he hoped to convince the peasantry that only a revolutionary alliance with the working class could give them control of the land.

Building on his earlier study of Marx’s and Engels’s careers as political actors, Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (SUNY, 2000), Nimtz shows that Lenin’s entire assessment of the conservatism of the Russian capitalist class and the resulting need for a worker-peasant alliance to abolish feudalism was solidly rooted in the work of the two godfathers of Marxism. Indeed, Lenin had committed to heart one of Marx and Engels’s summaries of the lessons of the 1848 German Revolution, in which they had participated. In this Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League from 1850, the pair described the failure of the German capitalist class to overthrow the archaic patchwork of petty kingdoms in Germany and create a modern bourgeois nation-state. Frightened by the movement of workers, peasants and other popular elements on the streets, they were lured by the aristocracy into the idea that they could cooperate with the old order to set up constitutional monarchies.

But the kings and princes were merely playing for time. They demobilised the struggle with the establishment of a German Parliament made up mostly of professors and intellectuals, which then directed its energies into the “parliamentary cretinism” of debating the niceties of a new written constitution, just as the source of their power, the popular movement, disappeared. As soon as it was safe to do so, the King of Prussia refused to accept the parliament’s authority and it fell to bits. For Marx and Engels, the lesson was clear: the working class needed to lead the revolution, not the liberal capitalists. And for that, the workers needed to organise an independent party, which could then win hegemony over the other oppressed strata in society.

For Lenin, the similarities with Russia were striking. The Duma had come out of the mass upheavals of 1905, but despite these struggles receding, the liberals still believed that they could bring about political modernisation through parliamentary manoeuvres, thus sidestepping the possibility of a revolt from below. But despite the Cadet’s illusions in the sanctity and authority of parliament, the old regime became ever more intransigent to any meaningful political and economic change: a fact registered by the successively more undemocratically heavy weighting given to the landowner class in each of the four Duma elections between 1905 and 1917.

But it’s not only a critique of the parliamentary illusions and spinelessness of the liberal bourgeoisie that Lenin drew from Marx. Lenin also looked to the writings of Marx and Engels to help him develop an analysis of the reformism of the Marxist parties in Western Europe such as the Socialist Party of Germany (SPD). Even prior to his split with them over their support for their own ruling classes at the start of the First World War, Lenin had identified a type of “parliamentary cretinism” that afflicted some of these parties, leading them to privilege political manoeuvres in parliament over the use of parliament as a platform for communist agitation and propaganda. Nimtz provides some interesting evidence that this assessment was ultimately founded on insights that Lenin gleaned from Marx’s and Engels’s own criticism of some of the symptoms of reformism already exhibited by the SPD in the late 19th century.

This attempt firmly to root Lenin’s early critique of reformism in Marx and Engels is interesting because it cuts against the conclusions of Lars Lih, the prominent biographer of Lenin. Lih has attempted to portray Lenin as a conventional follower of Karl Kautsky, the intellectual head of the SPD. He argues that Lenin simply wanted to adapt the organisation and strategy of the German party to Russian conditions, and didn’t have a critique of the SPD’s reformism before they backed the Kaiser’s drive to war in 1914. Nimtz provides some useful clues that Lenin was far from an uncritical disciple of Kautsky, but rather was moving towards an understanding—based on his reading of Marx and Engels—that the subordination of the socialist parties in Western Europe to their parliamentary groups was breeding reformism.

Nimtz’s book also shows Lenin’s great commitment to democracy, in the face of the common right wing smears against him as an elitist or a despot. Not only did the Bolsheviks grasp with both hands the opportunity to participate in elections, despite the utter rottenness of the Duma, but they also went to huge and dangerous lengths to ensure that they made their deputies accountable to the base of the party. In a country in which political meetings were heavily suppressed, this level of dedication to party democracy could mean imprisonment or exile.

This is a thorough and readable summary of Lenin’s work on elections and the nature of parliaments. It underlines that Lenin had a clear vision of how revolutionary parliamentarians should conduct themselves: using their position to expose constitutional illusions and amplify the voice of workers in struggle. Its attempt consistently to show Lenin going back to the work of Marx and Engels is a useful counterweight to descriptions of him as a conscious emulator of the centrist Kautsky. However, much of the book is limited to the action inside the Duma chamber itself. Those looking for a compelling first-hand account of how Bolshevik deputies participated in and bound themselves up in the struggles of the working class should read Aleksei Badayev’s classic memoir, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma.

Richard Donnelly is a postgraduate student at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy in London.