The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 70 (Spring 2004).
With pseudo-Trotskyists and other leftists barreling rightward every day, it is no wonder that there are “Leninists” who cite Lenin in defense of voting Democratic – and not just the Communist Party, which has long been embedded deep in the Democrats. The typical argument quotes the passage from Lenin’s pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, in which he debates left communists who refused on principle to participate in bourgeois elections.
Lenin argued for campaigning for the British Labour Party (which despite its name has always been a pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist party) in 1920. He explained that putting the Labour leaders, Henderson and Snowden, in office would expose their true pro-capitalist role:
At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of bourgeois “democracy”), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man – that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.
Doesn’t that reasoning mean that today we should support the Democrats getting into office, “in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man”?
Not at all. In contrast to the Democrats, the Labour Party was created by workers’ struggles. It was an independent class party, although politically dominated by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaders. Lenin urged the British Communists of his day to support Labour as a mass working-class-based alternative to “the historical system of two parties of exploiters” – the British Liberals and Conservatives, led by Lloyd George and Churchill – “which has been hallowed by centuries of experience and has been extremely advantageous to the exploiters.” He wrote:
The fact that most British workers still follow the lead of the [Labour Party] and have not yet had experience of a government composed of these people ... undoubtedly indicates that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action; that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone.
The condition of facing two parties of exploiters still holds in the U.S. – the Republicans and Democrats. Yes, many U.S. workers back the Democrats, the way many British workers once backed the Liberal Party before the rise of Labour. But we don’t have a labor party or any mass working-class party whose lead most American workers follow. Nor do American workers lack experience of the Democrats – they just don’t see an alternative.
It is up to Leninists today to promote the real alternatives: massive class struggle and a revolutionary working-class party. Supporting the Democrats would be analogous to supporting the Liberals in Lenin’s day – endorsing the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Try finding a Lenin quote advocating that!