In honor of Lenin’s 150th birthday this week and the recent end of Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialist presidential campaign, I began to think of how these two phenomena are connected. Sanders’ campaign united young workers and students alike around key issues such as universal health care, climate change, and free college tuition. Lenin, perhaps the most iconic revolutionary figure in the international communist movement, would have urged us to be involved in the electoral process here at home no matter who the candidates or what the issues were. But where did he draw his inspiration from? I remember reading the Communist Manifesto for the first time many years ago and arriving at the last two pages in which Marx and Engels talked about the role of communists in the electoral struggle:
In France, the Communists ally with the Social-Democrats against the conservative and radical bourgeoisie, reserving, however, the right to take up a critical position in regard to phases and illusions traditionally handed down from the great Revolution.
In Switzerland, they support the Radicals, without losing sight of the fact that this party consists of antagonistic elements, partly of Democratic Socialists, in the French sense, partly of radical bourgeois.
In Poland, they support the party that insists on an agrarian revolution as the prime condition for national emancipation, that party which fomented the insurrection of Cracow in 1846.
In Germany, they fight with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy, the feudal hierarchy, and the petty bourgeoisie.
Lenin was clearly continuing the ideological work of Marx and Engels regarding electoral politics when he analyzed the 1912 U.S. presidential elections. Now, there are leftists who often criticize the entire bourgeois electoral process as “a waste of time” or “not revolutionary.” But without the workers united, organized, and radicalized around the issues brought to light by means of the electoral struggle, then we would have no revolutionary movement to build on. Lenin clearly understood the significance of the international electoral struggle as described in Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution; the Bolsheviks fought for reforms alongside the Mensheviks, and anti-tsar liberals up until the success of the February 1917 Revolution when the tsar abdicated. Lenin and the Bolshevik majority of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party understood the limits of bourgeois democracy, which is why Lenin’s analysis of the 1912 U.S. elections included the line, “so long as these modern slave-owners are there, all ‘reforms’ will be nothing but a deception.” However, Bolsheviks saw the democratic revolution through until the socialist revolution in October of 1917. But if this is how it played out in Russia, why do so many “leftists” and “Marxist-Leninists” dismiss the electoral struggle as “petty bourgeois” or “pointless”? Well, they fail to see that they are the subject of yet another one of Lenin’s most pertinent messages for our time: “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder.
For Lenin, working within a parliamentary framework was necessary to guide the working-class toward a more democratic and revolutionary alternative.
It is in fact “infantile” to ignore the electoral struggle here in the US or anywhere else around the world despite however limited or corrupt the bourgeois “democracy” finds itself. Here in the United States, our two-party electoral system is dominated by two corporate parties, the Democrats and Republicans, and the presidential results are often unfairly determined by the Electoral College. In other words, the candidate with the most votes is not necessarily the winner. No matter how flawed this system is, it is the system we must work within if we are to dismantle it, expand democracy, and lay the foundations for socialism. There are some leftists who claim that “voting is not harm reduction.” But those of us who are in touch with the class struggle and adhere to a realistic approach to bourgeois elections understand that elections can indeed avoid further setbacks for the working class.
It took the provisional government under Kerensky (February Revolution of 1917) in Russia to lay the foundations for the Bolshevik Revolution later that same year. Lenin explains the necessity for working within a parliamentary framework to guide the working class toward a more democratic and revolutionary alternative in The Democratic Tasks of the Revolutionary Proletariat, in which he states, “The full development of the productive forces in modern bourgeois society, a broad, free, and open class struggle, and the political education, training, and rallying of the masses of the proletariat are inconceivable without political freedom. Therefore, it has always been the aim of the class-conscious proletariat to wage a determined struggle for complete political freedom and the democratic revolution.”
It is for precisely this reason that our party, now 101 years old, continues to advocate working-class unity around issues instead of unity around bourgeois candidates or even around third-party candidates from left parties. But what did Lenin say about participating in bourgeois elections and bourgeois parliaments? The answer to this question is the same answer to yet another pertinent question analyzed by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism, and that is, “should we participate in reactionary trade unions?” The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Nearly a century later, communist parties around the world continue to implement Lenin’s teachings in their struggles on the road to revolution. Most communist parties do not have state power like the communist parties in China, Vietnam, and Cuba.
Communists across the globe often work in coalition with non-communist progressive and social democratic parties.
Communists across the globe in places like Chile, South Africa, Nepal, India, Venezuela, Uruguay, Brazil, France, Cyprus, Spain, and Portugal participate in bourgeois elections, often in coalition with non-communist progressive and social democratic parties. The SACP, ANC, and COSATU in South Africa form the “Tripartite Alliance” and have governed the country since its transition from apartheid nearly 30 years ago. The Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) participated in the ruling coalition alongside Lula and the Workers’ Party, which saw through certain reforms such as “Bolsa Familia” and socialized health care—programs that continue to exist today. The Communist Party of Spain (PCE) participates with the Spanish Socialist Workers Party in the Unidas Podemos (United We Can) coalition, which has made gains in the areas of raising the minimum wage and socializing hospitals, achievements that have taken on more significance in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The Communist Party of Uruguay (PCU) has played a leading role in the Broad Front coalition, which oversaw the election of former Marxist guerilla fighter José Mujica to the presidency in 2010. The Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), although critical of many of Maduro’s social democratic policies, works in the Great Patriotic Pole coalition with Maduro’s United Socialist Party in an effort to combat imperialism and provide progressive reforms for the Venezuelan people despite the economic hardships in the country. The Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) in Cyprus elected the first communist president in the European Union in 2008 in coalition with progressive forces. The Communist Party of Chile continues to work in coalition with Salvador Allende’s Socialist Party and others, sometimes in government and sometimes in opposition. The Nepalese Communist Party (NCP) overwhelmingly won the 2017 legislative elections after gaining the support of a united working class. The Communist Party of India (CPI-M) continues to win election after election after decades of successful coalition work with leftist parties and progressive trade unions in Kerala, and it has recently received praise in the mainstream media for their response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Addressing Lenin’s second point on “reactionary” trade unions, many of our fraternal communist parties have the support of communist-led trade unions. This is the case in France, South Africa, Greece, and so forth. Other communist parties urge their members belong to non-communist-led trade unions similar to the AFL-CIO. We, as Communists, can influence these workers and bring them closer to the struggle. We can be the “communist plus” on these fronts and fight for working-class unity, which is essential at all levels of the class struggle. A communist party without roots and influence in the labor movement is no communist party at all but rather a rallying point for petite bourgeois radicalism.
Revolutionary potential is built through struggle. The struggle right now lies in the defeat of Trump in 2020. The extreme right must be defeated in order to give us better ground to fight to expand democracy and lay the foundations for socialism. In other words, as long as the reactionary right wing maintains power in the White House and the Senate, it is very difficult for left and center forces to unite. Nevertheless, we must continue the struggle for Left-Center unity against the extreme right and for the working class to gain political independence. This is done through unity around the issues.
Many ask if it is a “compromise” to vote for a moderate/centrist Democrat to oust Trump in the November elections, and the answer is yes. But Lenin stated that these compromises are necessary on the road to revolution to build unity and revolutionary potential. Without struggle, there is nothing to build on. Class struggle and the road to revolution is a marathon, not a sprint.
Let us reiterate that our party does not endorse bourgeois candidates. Rather, we endorse ideas and policy over individual candidates no matter how progressive or left they may seem. For example, our party endorses the Green New Deal and Medicare For All, but we never endorsed Bernie Sanders. We, like the Russian Bolsheviks living a century ago, understand the limits of bourgeois democracy and are critical of the reactionary policies held by conservative and liberal politicians alike regarding health care, education, women’s reproductive rights, climate change, and so forth. But let’s unite the working class around the issues we agree on and defeat Trump in November. Let’s celebrate Lenin’s 150th birthday this week and honor his legacy by carrying on the torch of revolution and freedom. First stop: defeat the fascist threat. “King Trump,” like the Russian tsar, has fallen out of favor with working people and will go down in history as yet another pitiful tyrant who refused to meet the demands of his suffering people. We must avoid further setbacks for the working class. We ain’t going back.