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Marxism, Elections, and the State: Part 2

Chris Costello

Previously, I argued that Marxists cannot hope to win socialism solely through the electoral system. The capitalist state is rigged against the interests of workers. Sacrificing other kinds of organizing in favor of intervention in the electoral sphere can only result in the defeat of the socialist movement. However, this does not mean that socialist parties should abstain from elections entirely. There are a variety of benefits to standing in elections, In this section, I hope to outline them from a Marxist perspective.

I think the best place to begin is with The Communist Manifesto. This document was drafted at the founding of the Communist League, a revolutionary organization that Marx and Engels helped to organize. The Manifesto was meant to serve as a set of perspectives that could guide the League in its revolutionary struggle. In it, Marx and Engels pointed to three strategic tasks for the Communists. The first was that they needed to build working class organizations at the primary site of worker’s power: the workplace. Secondly, they had to build social movements to fight against all forms of oppression in society more broadly. Finally, struggle necessitated the construction of an independent political party of and for the working class to, as they put it, “win the battle of democracy” [1].  This battle broke out in a very serious way in 1848, before the ink on the Manifesto had even dried. The 1848 revolutions, by way of background, essentially constituted mass uprisings against the reactionary feudal order and replace it with a representative, democratic one. During this period, the workers were the most militant and dedicated fighters. They were prepared to carry the revolution through to its democratic end. The capitalists, although they mouthed support for democracy and revolution, betrayed the struggle by forming alliances with the feudal oligarchy [2].

The Communist League was far too small to determine the course of these events, but by relating to the wave of revolutions that broke out across Europe in this period, Marx and Engels could better articulate what they meant when they called for an independent working class political party. Marx wrote a document entitled “The March 1850 Address to the Communist League.” In it, he put forward a strategy to prevent another 1848-style betrayal of the working class. He wanted to ensure that the next democratic revolution would be completed to its fullest extent. This strategy grants insights into the ideas of Marx and Engels concerning the relationship between revolutionary socialism and electoral politics. This document was of such great importance that Lenin supposedly committed it to memory [3]. The document warned against workers entering into tight alliances with capitalists. Marx again argued for the formation of an independent worker’s party, in which the working class could realize its potential to lead the revolution through to the end. This political party was described as “the coming together or coordination of various communes and worker’s associations” [4]. The communes referred to local branches of the Communist League, while worker’s associations meant unions, clubs, and the like. Each of the local worker’s groups formed by this coordination was to act as a nucleus or center in which “the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence” [5]. Here, Marx is arguing not merely for the organizational independence of the working class, but also its political independence, which would be formed from the ground up.

Marx points out that this organization — formed again by the merger of the advanced communist organizations and the worker’s movement as a whole — must be capable of functioning both in secret and in the open. Further, this organization must arm itself to create a military force independent of the existing state. Then, as a product of the revolutionary creation of a representative democracy, this organization must “run its own candidates within the new electoral system and take every opportunity to put forward [its] own demands so that the bourgeois democratic government not only immediately loses the support of the workers but finds themselves, from the beginning, supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers” [6].

Here, we see one of the key reasons why standing in elections can be a useful tool. Seeing a worker’s party on the ballot threatens the bourgeoisie’s stranglehold over the status quo. It shows them that they are being watched, that we are working to overthrow them. This may help reign them in and push them further left. Although running in elections can never bring about socialism on its own, our mere presence on the ballot may be enough to win workers minimal gains in the short term. When we explain to workers how these gains were won, they will be more likely to rally behind us. It is only at this stage that the Party can really become a force to be reckoned with. Electoral engagement, then, does two things: it keeps the bourgeoisie in check and shows workers that there is an organization fighting for their interests.

The second element is the most important. Even when there was no potential at all of getting a candidate elected to government, Marx and Engels argued that the worker’s party must still put forward their own candidates. This helped to preserve the independence of the working class, project working class politics into public life, and assess the audience for such politics and count the forces behind the workers. Standing for elections, even when we know we cannot win them, is an important ideological and organizational tool. It shows workers that someone is standing with them, someone really does represent their interests. Socialist candidates give us a rallying point. They give us a face. Standing in elections turns us into a legitimate, visible political movement capable of making public gains.  It also provides us a point to refer people who have questions about politics. In effect, socialist intervention in the electoral sphere makes working class politics visible, and thus helps to radicalize those sectors of society most willing and able to bring about socialism.

Further, standing in elections can help us gain key information about the strength of our movement. We will know how many votes the worker’s party received, and thus understand the kind of manpower we have at our disposal. We can measure the strength of our movement against the strength of our opponents, and use this data to ascertain what kind of action is possible in the streets. In this sense, standing in elections is not only advantageous for the masses, but for the Party itself.

It is often claimed that standing in elections is counterproductive, because socialist candidates will split the vote between themselves and the mainstream “center left” party. It is argued that instead of running our own candidates, we should accept the lesser of two evils. Marx and Engels took a firm stance against this, writing,

“All such talk means, in the final analysis, is that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantage resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in representative bodies. If the forces of democracy [meaning the liberals] take decisive action against the reactionaries from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed” [7].

Essentially, what Marx and Engels mean is that if the liberals lose elections, it is not because a proletarian party has split the vote. Rather, it is because the liberals themselves have failed to put forward a program that the masses can rally around, and in so doing neutralize the reactionaries.

The purpose of running in elections, in Marx and Engels’ view, was this: win the masses over politically, challenge the political hegemony of the capitalist class, pose a real alternative to its agenda, and to defend that alternative by force. The electoral strategy, then, was to be part of a process of self-activity, leading to the self-emancipation of the working class. Marx and Engels, therefore, saw the fight for representative democracy as crucial. It opened up important political space, as well as a range of tactics and tools that workers could integrate into the revolutionary struggle. This did not, however, mean that radical change could be won by electing socialists to office and legislating it into being. Elections were seen as a tool, one component part of a wider revolutionary strategy that included an armed and militant working class. Elections were not to be a substitute for this militant organization.

Twenty-five years after the March Address was written, the German Socialist Party (SDP) came into being. Within ten years, they had already won half a million votes for their candidates running for seats in parliament. By 1912, they had built up an impressive membership and exercised a considerable degree of political influence in working class life [8]. This shows that elections can be a kind of “broadcasting station” for the Party and its platform. Elections cannot bring about socialism, but they can help galvanize workers to do so.

The experience of the SDP, although it does prove that standing in elections has some benefit, also shows the dangers of treating the electoral area as the primary site of struggle. Given the aforementioned success in this area, it is perhaps understandable that a significant faction within the Party argued that a socialist society could be voted into being. The left wing of the SDP, led by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Paul Levey, understood that this was a pipe dream. The real power in society, they argued, does not lie with the elected officials. It lies with the board members of corporations and the heads of the major financial institutions in society. These people are not elected, but the government is really set up to serve them [9]. Of course, this fact must remain a secret. This is why politicians make promises they can never hope to keep: they need to win over the majority and convince voters that the state is looking out for their own best interests. When these politicians enter office, however, they do little more than serve the interests of capital. A recent example of this can be found with Barack Obama, who campaigned on a slogan of hope and change. He was the “people’s candidate,” ready and willing to take the government back from the greedy corporate parasites who had taken it over [10]. Once in office, he immediately rescinded this vision of a new egalitarian order, making ninety percent (90%) of the Bush tax cuts permanent [11].

This gets at the core problem of reformism, which I discussed at length in the previous section. Representative government, like the military and police, is a component of the state. The state is an organ that functions to protect the interests of a particular class. The capitalist state, then, has been developed and tuned to defend the interests of capital against labor. Marx developed this point in a letter to his German comrades. He wrote,

“A historical development can remain peaceful only for so long as its progress is not forcibly obstructed by those wielding social power. If, in England, for instance, or in the United States, the working class were to gain a majority in parliament or congress, they could, by lawful means, rid themselves of such laws and institutions as impeded their development. However, the peaceful movement might be transformed into a forcible one by resistance on the part of those interested in restoring the former state of affairs. If they are put down by force, it is as rebels against lawful force” [12].

In other words, if the ruling capitalist class feels that its power is threatened, it will not hesitate to use the state to remove that threat. If attempts at cooptation or coercion fail, the military and police will employ brutal force to crush the socialist movement.This was not abstract speculation on the part of Marx and Engels. Rather, it was arrived at through a rigorous analysis of the 1871 Paris Commune. For a short time, the workers of Paris took control of the city and formed their own institutions of direct democracy. The Commune taught Marx and Engels that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” [13]. A radically different form of worker’s self-government would need to be established and defended against counterrevolution. The Paris Communards were content to establish an island of socialism within the city, but did not defeat the existing bourgeois state of France. As a result, the deposed ruling class was quickly able to regroup and, as Marx put it, “drown the Commune in its own blood” [14]. In analyzing elections, we should always be mindful of the corrosive and destructive effects of capital. Our goal, in this respect, should not necessarily be to win office, but to spread our message and rally the workers behind a concrete political program. Capitalism, as the Paris Commune proves, can never be voted out of existence. Those in power will never let us peacefully take that power from them. There must be a revolution in which the workers and oppressed forcibly defeat the bourgeoisie, break up their state, and create a radically new one in its place.

As I argued above, reformist socialism necessarily entails watering down our political program to appeal to the widest possible audience of voters. Receiving as many votes as possible becomes the goal, instead of winning socialism. This negates the tactical benefit of elections described above: elections no longer show workers that someone is fighting for their actual interests, but merely sow confusion as to what those interests are. In order for elections to benefit the Party, therefore, they must remain subordinate to other forms of struggle. Only in doing so can they actually serve to push workers towards socialism. This dynamic played itself out disastrously in the SDP at the outbreak of World War One. They turned their backs on their working class comrades around the world and supported their own state in the conflict. They did this in order to win over German voters, who had been temporarily whipped into a pro-war frenzy by the bourgeoisie. This abandonment of international solidarity by the Party-the most advanced detachment of the worker’s movement-caused German workers to believe that international solidarity was not in their interests and set the worldwide struggle for socialism back by decades [15].

In fairness, the SDP took their pro-war position at a time when speaking out against the war would mean imprisonment of leaders and the outlawing of the organization entirely. This, of course, would have eliminated their electoral strategy altogether and jeopardized the progress they had made in that arena. While their actions are understandable, they also reveal the strategic problem with focusing on elections. By engaging exclusively in legal modes of struggle, we subject ourselves to the whims of the law. Since the judicial system is part of the state, this means that we put ourselves at a disadvantage. By acting openly in the electoral sphere, and leaving open no other avenues of struggle, repression of the Party would have meant the complete downfall of the movement. Not diversifying our tactics, as the experience of the SDP shows, can only mean death [16].

Given this experience, it is understandable that some revolutionaries could develop a complete aversion to political elections under capitalism. It is understandable that some would argue that we should not partake in elections under any circumstances. I would, of course, argue against this view. Lenin and the Bolsheviks engaged in a similar debate as a result of the 1905 revolution. In response to mass upheaval, the Russian Tsar granted the creation of a parliament called the Duma. He did not do this because his mind had been changed by the masses, but rather because he knew that the revolutionary movement was most dangerous in the streets. If he could redirect it to legal channels, the pressures of the parliament would render it ineffective. The Duma, because it was stacked with pro-tsarist forces, could easily control and neutralize the revolutionary struggle.

For the Tsar, the establishment of the Duma was not matter of principle. It was a purely tactical consideration based on an actual assessment of a particular situation. It is important to note at this juncture that even our enemies are aware that there is no electoral road to socialism [17]. When standing for elections, we must be ever vigilant and on guard, ensuring that we do not get caught up in the spectacle of anti-worker politics. If our enemies utilize bourgeois democratic institutions in a tactical manner, we must also understand them in this way.

Initially, the Bolsheviks organized an active boycott of the election. They recognized that it was a trap and chose to focus their energy on harnessing the rising struggle in the streets. In this context, this was the correct line. The point that we need to take away from this is that we ought not use elections as a substitute for struggle, but neither should we swear them off completely. Whether we intervene in the electoral sphere at a given moment should be dependent on a rigorous analysis of the concrete material conditions of struggle. This is how the Bolsheviks understood this question as well. In 1906, when it was clear that the struggle was turning towards a period of reaction, the Bolsheviks changed their position on the Duma [18]. This was the result of a long theoretical and practical debate in the Party. The Bolsheviks understood that at that particular point, the forces of reaction had vastly outnumbered the forces of progress. In order to rally the workers behind the Party, it was necessary to unify them around a program and a “face.” Elections here functioned, as I said above, as a “broadcasting unit” capable of carrying the struggle forward.

Lenin also published a pamphlet called “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” in which he put forward another argument for participation in the Duma. He argued that, while revolutionaries understand that the electoral system is set up to serve the people in power, the masses have not necessarily drawn this conclusion. If the electoral arena garners the political attention and focus of the working class, if the masses believe that the government can serve them, then revolutionaries must play an active part in it. This is part of how we relate to the masses, shift their consciousness, and win them to revolution. This theoretical point reflects an understanding of the mass line, which Leninists argue should be the primary method of work of the Party. The mass line begins when we meet the people where they are at. We cannot run ahead of the masses. If we do so, we risk alienating them and dooming the Party to isolation [19].

The Bolsheviks, based on this understanding, participated in the Duma and eventually won six delegates (which they called Deputies) to it. In the same vein as the Marx-Engels attitude outlined above, the Bolshevik Deputies were used as a tactic in pursuit of a wider strategy of raising the revolutionary consciousness and combativity of the masses. The elections were not an end in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end. For this to be possible, the Deputies had to engage in activity outside the Duma as well as inside it. They needed to have strong, intimate connections with both the workers and the rest of the Bolshevik party. Unlike capitalist politicians, the deputies were not divorced from the real conditions of working people and subject to the totalizing influence of the bourgeoisie and their lackeys. Nor could they be like the German socialist representatives mentioned above. They were not put on a pedestal and divorced from the socialist party from which they came. The Bolshevik deputies were deeply involved with non-electoral Party work as well as the Duma. They made daily contact with the editorial board of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, and were also in close contact with the central leadership of the Party. They also attended the regional and national Party congresses. All the Bolshevik deputies were workers themselves, and Bolshevik trade union work meant that they had already cultivated grassroots connection to the class. The Bolsheviks knew that electoral engagement was merely one tactic among many, not to be used in place of genuine organizing [20].

They also understood, however, that electoral intervention gave them a unique advantage, in that it allowed them to reach sections of the masses they would ordinarily have been cut off from. Having seats in the Duma helped to legitimize the Party and its platform in the eyes of the general public. It gave them an opportunity to meet with labor leaders and other working class organizations within their districts, and thus exercise greater influence on the worker’s movement as a whole. Elections, as this experience makes clear, can help extend the influence of the Party and carry the struggle towards revolution [21].

The Bolshevik deputies made cunning use of the privileges that came with being members of the government. They were able to conduct propaganda among the masses, give radical speeches at strikes and protests without legally being arrested. When the police and the government tried to crack down on the deputies, it only enhanced the ties between the Party and the masses, making it more difficult to follow through with the persecution [22].

The deputies also used the Duma as a platform to concentrate the attention of the masses on crimes committed by the Tsarist government. They found that they could do this effectively in the Duma by using a procedure called an interpolation. This involved the deputies giving a speech on the floor of the Duma and officially asking the government to explain their reasoning behind a particular anti-worker policy or action. Knowing full well that liberal ministers within the Duma wanted to cast themselves as sympathetic to the workers, the Bolshevik deputies would bring them worker concerns, publish a full account of the conversation — including the false promises made by the ministers — and then use the breaking of those promises to appeal to the workers to continue their struggles and not place any hope in the liberal authorities moving forward [23]. The Bolshevik deputies utilized the Duma to expose the workers to the actual nature of the system, to show the workers that they could not rely on liberals who pretended to speak for workers while apologizing for violence against them. They could only rely on themselves and their party to make real, lasting change [24].

This point is key to our understanding of elections. Because the masses are focused on the parliamentary sphere, winning seats in it actually allows the Party to spread its critique of the system to a wider audience. We cannot change the system from within, but we can call it out from within. This, again, reflects an understanding of the mass line. Once we meet the people where they are (in this case in parliament), we must develop their understanding of the issues and move them forward in struggle. Because elections are seen as legitimate by the masses, winning seats in representative bodies is an excellent way to do this.

The Bolshevik deputies were always careful to meet the people where they were, often literally. Upon hearing of any worker incident or protest, the deputies would rush there, provide solidarity, and collect information from the workers on the ground. They would then use this information for the next interpolation. Before long, resolutions began streaming in from the workers to the deputies, requesting that the government be questioned on everything from the persecution of trade unions to the treatment of political prisoners. In this way, the Duma functioned as a rallying point for the workers, showing them that the Party was willing and able to fight for their interests. To quote the Bolshevik deputy A.Y. Badayev, “the worker’s deputies were in the thick of the fight. We were in constant communication with the strikers, helped to formulate their demands, handed over funds collected, negotiated with various government authorities, etc” [25]. The deputies would collect strikes and deliver the money to workers so that they would have an income even when they were on strike. This was a way of providing concrete solidarity with workers and winning them over to the cause of the Party. Badayev continues,

“Workers would call on me to ask all sorts of questions, especially on paydays when money and aid for strikers was brought. I had to arrange supply passports and secret hiding places for those who became illegal, help to find work for those victimized during strikes, petition ministers on behalf of those arrested, [and] organize aid for exiles. Where there were signs that a strike was flagging, it was necessary to instill vigor into the strikers, to lend the aid required, and to print and send leaflets….There was not a single factory or workshop, down to the smallest, with which I was not connected in some way or another. Often, my callers were so numerous that my apartment was not large enough for them, and they had to wait in a queue down the staircase. Every successive stage of the struggle, every new strike, increased these queues, which symbolized the growing unity between the workers and the Bolshevik faction, and at the same time furthered the organization of the masses” [26].

To reiterate, socialism cannot be handed down from above, but must be a product of the self-activity of the workers and their party. Revolutionaries cannot simply win seats in parliament and cloister themselves off from the struggle. They must remain in contact with the masses every step of the way. Elections are merely one path by which to do this. Putting this electoral strategy into action not only increased the self-activity and consciousness of the masses, it also gave the Bolsheviks a thermometer through which they could measure the mood of the masses and tailor their practice to fit that mood. This helped them win the masses over to their program with much greater expediency than if they had abstained from elections entirely.

Ultimately, in 1917, it was by assessing their elections to the soviets that allowed the Bolsheviks to ascertain whether they had enough support to wage an armed revolutionary struggle [27]. If you think back to the strategic perspectives put forward by Marx and Engels in 1848, all of this should sound familiar. Elections were not the be-all and end-all of socialist practice. They were a tool to be utilized as part of a greater strategy of winning the masses over to revolution and organizing them to take power.

Of course, there are some significant differences between where we are as a movement today and where we were in 1848 or 1917. Just like the Bolsheviks debating whether or not to boycott the Duma, all strategy and tactics need to be based on as accurate an assessment as possible of the concrete situation. They must be based on our weaknesses as well as our strengths, on what we think we can accomplish. Above all, however, we must always return back to the central question every revolutionary should ask: what will it take to increase the consciousness, combativity, and organization of the workers and the oppressed? In short, what will it take to win?

Elections ought to be subordinate to this goal, but they can play an important role in catalyzing and sustaining revolutionary struggle. In the United States particularly, one of the major factors holding back the progress of the worker’s movement is the Democratic Party. Unlike in other countries, where workers have their own political Party, the American working class is tied to an organization that, although it claims to support their interests, is actually bound up with the interests of capital. Election law in this country is rigged against third party challenges. Unlike in Europe, where seats in parliament are dictated by the proportion of the vote a party receives, the United States has a winner-take-all system. The American political system offers little in the way of real democracy; workers feel that they only have two choices at the ballot box [28]. Their choice is of the Republican party, which openly supports the rich and powerful, and the Democratic party, which offers a more clandestine form of moneyed repression. Although the Democratic party attempts to hijack the rhetoric of the left, history has shown that they can never be any more than liberal-democratic defenders of the status quo. By dishonestly and hypocritically giving voice to vaguely left politic, a dynamic is created in which the workers, no matter how frustrated they are with the Democrats, feel compelled to vote for the “lesser of two evils.”  Every four years, there is pressure on the worker’s movement to put militant organizing on pause and focus on making sure a Republican is not elected into office. When Democrats feel like they have the working class vote on lock, there is nothing to stop them from shifting further and further to the right once they actually get into office.

This was never clearer than in the Obama presidency. On the 2008 campaign trail, Obama said he was going to “put on his walking shoes” and walk picket lines with workers [29]. He was nowhere to be found when Democrat Rahm Emanuel attempted to smash the teacher’s strike in Obama’s hometown of Chicago [30]. This strike was waged for better working conditions and against racist school closures. It is easy to imagine that, if there was ever a time for a black Chicago native to walk a picket line, this would be it. The Left’s ties to the Democratic Party, as this example illustrates, serves only to demobilize and demoralize the working class and oppressed. Marx’s call for an independent political party of the working class has never been more relevant and vital.

This has such potential to be a boon to the consciousness of the working class and oppressed; having candidates that jump in the opportunity to participate in and support strikes the way the Bolshevik delegates to the Duma did. While the conditions in the United States are very different from the conditions of Russia more than a century ago, we are still faced with the historic task of building an independent political party of the working class and oppressed. In the United States, that means breaking the stranglehold of the Democratic Party on the working class. This is no easy task. It will be a long process, encompassing a wide variety of tactics, strategies, and moments. In this task, we must never cut ourselves off from the tools at our disposal. Standing in elections is just one of such tools. Insofar as we assess that standing in elections would carry the struggle forward, that it would make a real impact on the consciousness of the masses, we should make use of this tactic. We must always remember, though, that the goal of the revolutionary party is to raise and direct the consciousness of the masses. We must stand firmly against the failed reformist roads to socialism; understanding that the route to a better society for everyone is one that is revolutionary and engaging on every level.


NOTES [1] Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Penguin, 2002.

[2] Marx, Karl, and Céline Surprenant. The Class Struggle in France.2000.

[3] Nimtz, August. Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both. Springer, 2016.

[4] Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League.” Communist League, 1850.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Retallack, Imperial Germany, p. 187

[9] O’Kane, Rosemary HT. Rosa Luxemburg in Action: For Revolution and Democracy.Routledge, 2014.

[10] “Candidate Obama,” Francine Orr. Los Angeles Times, 2017.

[11] “Budget Deal Makes Permanent 82 Percent of President Bush’s Tax Cuts.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. N.p., 10 June 2015.

[12] Quoted in Nimtz, August H. Marx and Engels: Their contribution to the democratic breakthrough. SUNY Press, 2000.

[13] Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, and Todd Chretien. State and Revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.[14] Ibid.

[15] See Retallack, Op. Cit.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, et al. Selected Works: The Revolution of (1905-1907).Vol. 3. 1967.[18] Badaev, Alekseĭ Egorovich. The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma. International Publishers, 1932.

[19] Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. ”Left-wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Resistance Books, 1999.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. Lecture on the 1905 Revolution.Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1951.

[28] “Problem with US elections: winner-takes-all electoral system.” Consultant’s Mind. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016.

[29] O’Brien, Michael. “Obama in 2007: ‘I’ll walk on that picket line’ if bargaining rights threatened.” The Hill.03 Feb. 2016.

[30] Layton, Lyndsey, Peter Wallsten, and Bill Turque. “Chicago teachers strike places Obama at odds with key part of political base.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 11 Sep. 2012.


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