The experience of the Russian Bolsheviks shows that parliament can be a useful platform for revolutionaries.
Prior to 1905 Russia was an autocratic state. The Tsar ruled with no political representation for the vast majority of the population.
But in 1905 a revolutionary wave swept the country.
The Tsar was forced to concede an elected representative assembly, called the Duma.
Initially the Bolsheviks didn’t stand in the elections. Unrest was continuing and the Bolsheviks used election meetings to call for an armed uprising.
By 1907 the revolutionary wave had passed. Lenin, the Bolsheviks’ leader, now argued that the party should take part in the Duma elections and work within the “pigsty”.
It led to a sharp argument among the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s insistence that the Duma could be used to advance the revolutionary cause eventually won out.
The parliamentary field was not an easy one for the Bolsheviks to operate in.
The Duma was far from democratic.
Extra votes were given to property owners. The vote of one landlord equalled the votes of three urban bourgeoisie, 15 peasant votes or 45 workers.
Despite this, the Bolsheviks got six deputies elected to the Duma in 1912.
They stood on a platform that encompassed the key demands that came out of every strike at that time – a democratic republic, an eight hour working day and the confiscation of all landlords’ estates.
They used the election to spread these demands among the workers.
Every speech they made or parliamentary bill they put forward was printed in Pravda, the Bolsheviks’ paper.
Speeches by Bolshevik deputies were timed to coincide with strikes and demonstrations.
Questions would be put to ministers about the issues behind the strikes and protests to highlight the Duma’s failure to deal with workers’ demands.
For example, when there was an explosion at the Okhta powder works killing several workers, the Bolsheviks immediately sent their deputies to speak to the workers.
The Bolsheviks coupled their demand for an investigation into the matter, caused by poor safety conditions, with mass protests by the workers.
They ran their own investigation into the explosion and used their speech in the Duma to put forward the lessons of what they uncovered.
For the Bolsheviks, the mass struggle of workers was the highest form of struggle. The Duma was a useful platform for propaganda.
As a result, the Bolshevik deputies in the Duma were seen as “trumpeters not leaders”.
The party kept close control over the actions of the deputies.
One of the Bolshevik deputies, Malinovsky, was later revealed to have been a police spy.
Yet, since his speeches were written by Lenin, he was extremely useful for the party.
Even when he omitted the most provocative parts of a speech, the full speech was printed in Pravda anyway.
The Bolshevik deputies constantly visited workplaces, speaking to workers, raising support and finding out workers’ demands.
Badayev, one of the Bolshevik deputies, described how he received mountains of correspondence from workers who wanted him to raise issues on their behalf.
Pravda publicised the hours that Badayev would be at his home and often there were queues of workers wanting to speak to him.
Deputies had a degree of legal immunity from arrest. So the Bolshevik deputies were the legal tip of an otherwise illegal party.
Money collected for strikes could be channelled through them. And they were able to make speeches at protests that others would have been arrested for.
When the police did attempt to suppress the activity of the Bolshevik deputies, there was a strike and uprising in support of the deputies that forced the police to back down.
The Bolsheviks used the elections and the parliamentary platform to help build the confidence of workers.
The Bolsheviks continued to stand and take their places in the Duma right up to, during, and even after the October 1917 revolution.
Then the Duma was replaced by the vastly more democratic councils of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ – the soviets.