Lenin On Boycott - from various writings

Marx-Engels |  Lenin  | Stalin |  Home Page

Lenin On Boycott - from various writings 
Marxist theories have been turned into empty slogans, both unconsciously by Marxists, and consciously by imperialist ideologues through isolating it from the type of country, existing situation and prevailing conditions. Through phrase-mongering, tactical theories presented as prescriptions fitting every country, every condition, every stage and situations. This practice has been one of the core reasons in the defeat and hindrance of revolutionary struggle.
Our theory is a guide to action, not a dogma" says Marx and Engels. Marxism requires a concrete assessment of each specific situation and condition in order to take a tactical stand and action thereupon.
Marxists make decision on every tactical action from the point of the workers' class struggle interests, by carefully and objectively assessing the existing concrete conditions.
If we carefully read Lenin's writings, the first thing we notice is that the question of boycott - as well as parliamentary form of struggle- varies depending on the stage of revolutionary struggle. In " Left Wing Communism" he defines these periods as ; The years of preparation of the revolution (1903-05), The years of revolution (1905–07), The years of reaction (1907–10), The years of revival (1910–14), The First Imperialist World War (1914–17), The second revolution in Russia (February to October 1917).

Lenin defines "The years of preparation of the revolution (1903-05) as "the approach of a great storm is felt everywhere. All classes are in a state of ferment and preparation. ... The representatives of the three main classes, of the three principal political trends, the liberal-bourgeois, the petty bourgeois-democratic, and the proletarian-revolutionary trends, anticipate and prepare the approaching open class struggle by a most bitter battle on programmatical and tactical views. All the issues on which the masses waged an armed struggle in 1905-07 and 1917-20 can (and should) be studied in their embryonic form in the press of that time..... the classes were forging the requisite political and ideological weapons for the impending battles."
We do not see any mention of Boycott at this stage.
He defines “The years of revolution” (1905–07) as; "All classes come out into the open. All programmatical and tactical views are tested by the action of the masses. The strike struggle is unparalleled anywhere in the world for its extent and acuteness. The economic strike grows into a political strike, and the latter into insurrection. ... The Soviet form of organization is born in the spontaneous development of the struggle. ... The alternation of parliamentary and non-parliamentary forms of struggle, of tactics of boycotting parliament and tactics of participating in parliament, of legal and illegal forms of struggle, and likewise their interrelations and connections -- all of this is distinguished by an astonishing richness of content........... " 
And stresses the importance of this stage; "Without the "dress rehearsal" of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible."
At this stage he states; "..it is clear that our tactics at present should first of all consist in support for the idea of a boycott. " However, contrary to the "far-left" arguments and isolationist approach from the social democrats (in countries like Turkey where the left wing democrats are in the ranks of opposition to autocracy), Lenin states; " The very question of a boycott lies within the bounds of bourgeois democracy. The working class is not directly interested in it, but it is definitely interested in supporting that section of bourgeois democracy which is more revolutionary; it is interested in extending and intensifying political agitation. A boycott of the Duma means a more vigorous appeal to the people by the bourgeoisie, a development of its agitation, a greater number of opportunities for our agitation, and a more intense political crisis, which is the source of the revolutionary movement." Page 23
Fundamental difference from the far-left, anarcho-Trotskyite call for boycott (none of which has any ties with the laboring masses) and thus a "passive Boycott", Lenin had in mind an active boycott. He states; " Our tactics with regard to the State Duma may be formulated in five points.... gaining the adherence for the promotion of this agitation and of the armed struggle of all revolutionary democratic elements, and of such elements only,.... support of the boycott idea, which arose among the Left-wing bourgeois democrats, with the purpose of making it an active boycott in the sense of the most widespread agitation ..."" Page 36
In deciding for an active boycott, " We must consider two questions" says Lenin,"1) Is it possible to discuss, at election meetings,... "together with" the class struggle, socialism, and insurrection? 2) If that is possible, should the former and the latter questions be discussed together, or the latter in place of the former?" Page 55
That's why, for example, in a country like Turkey where over %50 is voting for religious autocracy, and if not all but very close to % 100 of the population lay their hopes in parliament and parliamentary elections, to speak of an "active boycott", especially without the participation of left wing democrats, would be nothing but an illusion.
Lenin's assessment, later in the stage , at the start of 1906, in January,  points to a major difference to above. He says; " The class background of this split is clear: the Right wing of the bourgeoisie is prone to come to terms with reaction through the Duma. The Left wing of the bourgeoisie is prone to form an alliance with the revolution, or at any rate to back it." Page 131
Together with the changing of conditions, the stand for boycott changes. In February he states: "We are continuing our struggle for a genuine assembly of real representatives of the people. That assembly must be elected freely, and by all alike, without any privileges for the landlords and the wealthy, and without any hindrance on the part of the authorities and the police. Only a freely elected constituent assembly of the whole people can be a genuine Duma and not a sham one. Page 146
 In March, he states; "in counter-posing revolutionary methods of struggle for freedom to the struggle through the Duma, to devote especial attention during this agitation to familiarising the workers and the people as a whole with the experience of the December uprising, which marks the beginning of a higher stage of the revolutionary struggle for genuine freedom for the people" Page 158
He clearly explains the boycott tactics' relation with the existing, changing conditions. He says; " Our readers know that we were in favour of boycotting the Duma. At the Congress we voted against the formation of a Social-Democratic parliamentary group, for reasons that were given in detail in the resolution published in Volna, No. 12. These reasons did not involve matters of principle; they were prompted by considerations of prudence and the practical conditions prevailing." Page 185
In July, Lenin summarizes the object of boycott; " The object of the boycott was to sweep away the Witte Duma.. its direct and immediate object, the boycott nevertheless was indirectly of advantage in that, among other things, it distracted the attention of the government. In this case, too, as always, revolutionary tactics were the best means of developing the class-consciousness and fighting efficiency of the proletariat, and of indirectly ensuring the achievement of half-hearted reforms in the event of failure to achieve complete victory."
In August, he explains the approach to boycott; " It should be borne in mind that we have always presented this question concretely, and in connection with a definite political situation...The principal difference between revolutionary Social-Democracy and opportunist Social-Democracy on the question of boycott is as follows: the opportunists in all circumstances confine themselves to applying the stereotyped method copied from a specific period in the history of German socialism...The revolutionary Social-Democrats, on the contrary, lay chief emphasis on the necessity of carefully appraising the concrete political situation....it would be ridiculous to shut our eyes to realities. The time has now come when the revolutionary Social-Democrats must cease to be boycottists. We shall not refuse to go into the Second Duma when (or "if") it is convened. We shall not refuse to utilise this arena, but we shall not exaggerate its modest importance. Page 199
And in November; " At the present time a boycott will not divert the forces of the government—the latter has certainly learned the lesson of the past elections. The work of agitation and organisation can be performed just as well by taking part in elections as by boycotting them—unless the electoral law is changed very much for the worse. If it is, then, perhaps, we may have to resort to the boycott again. But we may not have time to bother with Duma elections at all if big revolutionary battles begin again. Thus, boycotting remains a question of expediency. The only point is that for the time being we do not see sufficient grounds for a boycott. '' Page 212
As we see from the foregoing, even during the "Years of Revolution " approach to boycott was differed based on the objective prevailing conditions.
Lenin defines the years 1907-190 as the " Years of Reaction" where "Tsardom scored victory....The country's development along bourgeois lines proceeds with remarkable speed. Extra-class and above-class illusions, illusions concerning the possibility of avoiding capitalism, are scattered to the winds. The class struggle manifests itself in quite a new and more distinct form....Now they have to realize that this knowledge must be supplemented with the knowledge how to retreat properly. .. Of all the defeated opposition and revolutionary parties, the Bolsheviks effected the most orderly retreat, with the least loss to their "army," with its core best preserved, with the least splits, with the least demoralization, and in the best condition to resume the work on the broadest scale and in the most correct and energetic manner. The Bolsheviks achieved this only because they ruthlessly exposed and expelled the revolutionary phrase-mongers, who refused to understand that one had to retreat, that one had to know how to retreat, and that one had absolutely to learn how to work legally in the most reactionary parliaments, in the most reactionary trade unions, cooperative societies, insurance societies and similar organizations."
In reference to the question of boycott Lenin says ;" The case is presented in such a manner as if the ultra-reactionary nature of the Third Duma by itself makes such a method of struggle or such a slogan as the boycott necessary and legitimate. The impropriety of such an argument is absolutely clear to any Social-Democrat, since there is no attempt here whatever to examine the historical conditions of the boycott's applicability. The Social-Democrat who takes a Marxist stand draws his conclusions about the boycott not from the degree of reactionariness of one or another institution, but from the existence of those special conditions of struggle that, as the experience of the Russian revolution has now shown, make it possible to apply the specific method known as boycott."  Page 304
In his letter to Maria he states: "I am against boycotting the Third Duma; I have been writing a little piece on this subject which will probably soon be out. In my opinion that slogan must not be revived unless there is a situation of heightened political activity, unless there is a struggle against early constitutional illusions....To declare a boycott at the moment would be either premature bravado or the uncritical repetition of slogans that have a glorious revolutionary past."
He clarifies the use of boycott as following:
"active boycott, as the experience .. has shown, is correct tactics .. only under conditions of a sweeping, universal, and rapid upswing of the revolution, developing into an armed uprising, and only in connection with the ideological aims of the struggle against constitutional illusions arising from the convocation of the first representative assembly by the old regime;..........the tactics of boycott could be appropriate only provided our efforts to convert the trade-union upswing into a revolutionary assault were successful." Page 226
Criticizing Maximov Lenin states; " In the political situation of June 1907, when Maximov advocated the boycott, the mistake was still quite a small one.....in July 1907, in this district almost all the Social-Democrats without exception were boycottists but, unlike Maximov, by June 1908 they had the sense to understand that it would be unpardonable stupidity to insist on "boycotting" the Third Duma. " Page 392
"The attempts of ultimatumism to assert its direct connection with the tactics of boycott practised by our wing of the Party during a particular stage of the revolution" says Lenin in critisizing Otzovism and ultimatumism,  "merely distort the true meaning and character of the boycott of the Bulygin Duma and the First Duma, which was quite correctly applied by the overwhelming majority of our Party. By their attempt to deduce, from the particular cases in which the boycott of representative institutions was applied at this or that moment of the revolution, that the policy of boycott is the distinguishing feature of Bolshevik tactics, even in a period of counter revolution, ultimatumism and otzovism demonstrate that these trends are in essence the reverse side of Menshevism, which preaches indiscriminate participation in all representative institutions, irrespective of the particular stage of development of the revolution, irrespective of whether a revolutionary upsurge exists or not."  Page 444
For those who learn from rote and lack the application of Marxist dialectics, they "  only memorised a few slogans without grasping their meaning, could only repeat old phrases and were unable to adapt the old principles of revolutionary Social-Democratic tactics to the changed conditions."  Page 462
Lenin defines the years (1910–14) as "The years of revival"; "At first the rise was incredibly slow; then, following the Lena events of 1912, it became somewhat more rapid. .... But the Bolsheviks would never have succeeded in doing this had they not carried out a correct tactic of combining illegal work with the obligatory utilization of "legal possibilities." The Bolsheviks won all the labour seats in the arch-reactionary Duma."
His writings in regard to boycott is limited to the critique of Trotsky and his inflated phrases.
The First Imperialist World War era (1914–17) he states; "Legal parliamentarism, with an extremely reactionary "parliament," is of very useful service to the party of the revolutionary proletariat, the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik deputies are exiled to Siberia...... one of the principal reasons why Bolshevism was able to score victory in 1917-20 was that ever since the end of 1914 it had been ruthlessly exposing the baseness, loathsomeness and vileness of social-chauvinism and "Kautskyism" , and the masses later became more and more convinced by their own experience of the correctness of the Bolshevik views. "The Bolsheviks " he says "called for an active boycott of the Duma and concentrated their propaganda on the following slogans: armed uprising, revolutionary army, provisional revolutionary government. They used the boycott campaign to mobilise all the revolutionary forces, carry out mass political strikes and prepare an armed uprising. The nation-wide general political strike of October 1905 and the mounting wave of revolution prevented the elections and the Duma was never convened."  Page 533
In his letter to Inessa Armand he says that ""in general, refusal to participate in representative institutions is an absurdity; there are cases when we have to refuse; there is a visual comparison for you which makes clear that there is no contradiction between them."
For The second revolution in Russia (February to October 1917), where " within a few days Russia was transformed into a democratic bourgeois republic, more free -- under war conditions -- than any other country in the world. The leaders of the opposition and revolutionary parties began to set up a government", there was no case of boycott. His writings are mostly related to the evaluation of previous boycott tactics. In one of those writings he asks the question ; " Why did the tactics of boycotting the Third Duma prove incorrect?" and responds, " Because they were based only on the "catchiness" of the boycott slogan... .The objective situation, however, was such that on the one hand the revolution was in a state of collapse and declining fast....extra-parliamentary means of propaganda, agitation and organisation were almost nonexistent or extremely weak." Page 538
He repeats the same conclusion on another writing ; " The boycott of the "Duma" by the Bolsheviks in 1906 was, however, a mistake, although a small and easily remediable one. A boycott of the Duma in 1907, 1908 and subsequent years would have been a serious mistake and one difficult to remedy."  Page 548
As we see, except the year of revolution, boycott was not effective and proved to be wrong. Stalin notes; " By boycott, the Bolsheviks usually meant an active boycott, and not the mere passive abstention from voting in the elections," and quotes Lenin; "The boycott was unable to frustrate the convocation of the Duma because, as subsequently became clear, it took place at a time when the revolution was receding, when it was on the decline."
Stalin on his reply to the Letter of the Political Secretariat of ECCI dated 25th October, 1933 states;  The Cominternists are not correct. The boycott proposed by them is not an active boycott in the Bolshevik spirit. It is a simple abstention from elections: simply absenteeism. The Bolsheviks have never observed such a boycott. They observe only active boycott accompanied by revolutionary activities, their aim is to undermine or even to foil the elections. But this, the solely acceptable boycott, is now not possible in Germany. Therefore the Cominternists are wrong and the Foreign Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPG is correct. You must participate in the elections, cross out the fascist list and vote for the option ‘no’ in the referendum. On such a basis you must form an anti-fascist front with the social-democratic workers and lead them so that such an initiative can be undertaken on a communist platform and under their leadership. Any other politics will serve only the interests of the fascists and social-democrats.
Another example from Stalin is "On the tactics of Greek Communist Party Stalin stressed the fact that the Greek communists earlier made an error with the boycott of the parliamentary elections , he states "Boycotting makes sense when it brings about the failure of elections. Otherwise, a boycott is a foolish thing."" Dimitrov's Diary , September 2, 1946
Treating the tactic of boycott as a practice that fits to every country, every situation regardless of the objective conditions and the balance of power, especially in fascist, autocratic countries can only  further isolate the revolutionaries from the masses and thus serves the interests of the reactionary bourgeois. Boycot is a tactic at a given right time in order to mobilise all the revolutionary forces, carry out mass political strikes and prepare an armed uprising. If this situation and conditions do not exist, as Stalin puts it, a boycott is a foolish thing."
E. A
From May , 2007 articles
How History is Written.. November 1906
The years of reaction (1907–10)
Tsardom scored victory. All the revolutionary and opposition parties have been defeated. Depression, demoralization, splits, discord, renegacy, pornography take the place of politics. There is an increased drift toward philosophical idealism; mysticism becomes the shell of counter-revolutionary sentiments. But at the same time, it is precisely this great defeat that gives the revolutionary parties and the revolutionary class a real and very valuable lesson, a lesson in historical dialectics, a lesson in the understanding of the political struggle and in the skill and art of waging it. 
The country's development along bourgeois lines proceeds with remarkable speed. Extra-class and above-class illusions, illusions concerning the possibility of avoiding capitalism, are scattered to the winds. The class struggle manifests itself in quite a new and more distinct form.
Against Boycott 1907
The Social-Democrats and the Duma Elections January 14 1907 
  Attitude of the Social-Democratic Labour Party to the Third Duma July 1907

The years of revival (1910–14) 
At first the rise was incredibly slow; then, following the Lena events of 1912, it became somewhat more rapid. Overcoming unprecedented difficulties, the Bolsheviks pushed aside the Mensheviks, whose role as agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement was perfectly understood by the whole bourgeoisie after 1905, and who were therefore supported in a thousand ways by the whole bourgeoisie against the Bolsheviks. But the Bolsheviks would never have succeeded in doing this had they not carried out a correct tactic of combining illegal work with the obligatory utilization of "legal possibilities." The Bolsheviks won all the labour seats in the arch-reactionary Duma.

Fundamental Problems of the Election Campaign December 1911
To speak, apropos of the elections, about “the fighting mobilization of the proletariat” , or about a “broad and open mobilization of the worker masses” , and so on and so forth, means not only to lack any sense of proportion, but plainly to harm the modest, necessarily modest work by fostering phrase-mongering of exactly the same quality as that of the “otzovists”, “ultimatumists”, etc. According to the latter, a boycott is needed as a means of especially stressing that the “spirit” is not dead (but the “spirit” of the work must permeate all spheres of activity, including the elections); ..... We all know perfectly well that the elections of 1912 (unless conditions arise which will radically change the situation that existed in 1908 and exists in 1911) will not, and cannot, bring about either a “broad” or an “open” “mobilisation of the masses”. All they will give is a modest opportunity for activity that is not very broad and not very open, and this opportunity should be made use of. But there is no point in imitating Trotsky’s inflated phrases.

The Sixth (Prague) All-Russia Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. JANUARY 5–17 (18–30), 1912
Assemblies of workers’ delegates, guided by the decision of the illegal Party organisations, must decide who precisely is to be elected to the Duma from the workers, and bind all electors, under threat of boycott and being branded as traitors, to withdraw their candidature in favour of the Party candidate;

The First Imperialist World War (1914–17) 
Legal parliamentarism, with an extremely reactionary "parliament," is of very useful service to the party of the revolutionary proletariat, the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik deputies are exiled to Siberia...... one of the principal reasons why Bolshevism was able to score victory in 1917-20 was that ever since the end of 1914 it had been ruthlessly exposing the baseness, loathsomeness and vileness of social-chauvinism and "Kautskyism" , and the masses later became more and more convinced by their own experience of the correctness of the Bolshevik views.

The second revolution in Russia (February to October 1917)
The incredible senility and obsoleteness of tsardom had created (with the aid of the blows and hardships of a most agonizing war) an incredibly destructive power directed against tsardom. Within a few days Russia was transformed into a democratic bourgeois republic, more free -- under war conditions -- than any other country in the world. The leaders of the opposition and revolutionary parties began to set up a government, just as is done in the most "strictly parliamentary" republics, and the fact that a man had been a leader of an opposition party in parliament, even in a most reactionary parliament, assisted him in his subsequent role in the revolution.

Theses for a Report at the October 8 Conference of the Petrograd Organisation, Also for a Resolution and Instructions to Those Elected to the Party Congress 1917
I cannot attempt here to formulate the conditions under which a boycott is useful, since the object of this pamphlet is far more modest, namely, to study Russian experience in connection with certain topical questions of international communist tactics. Russian experience has provided us with one successful and correct instance (1905), and another that was incorrect (1906), of the use of a boycott by the Bolsheviks. Analysing the first case, we, see that we succeeded in preventing a reactionary government from convening a reactionary parliament in a situation in which extra-parliamentary revolutionary mass action (strikes in particular) was developing at great speed, when not a single section of the proletariat and the peasantry could support the reactionary government in any way, and when the revolutionary proletariat was gaining influence over the backward masses through the strike struggle and through the agrarian movement. It is quite obvious that this experience is not applicable to present-day European conditions. It is likewise quite obvious—and the foregoing arguments bear this out—that the advocacy, even if with reservations, by the Dutch and the other “Lefts” of refusal to participate in parliaments is fundamentally wrong and detrimental to the cause of the revolutionary proletariat.