Marx 101 is a series of meetings to introduce the Marxist classics to activists in the twenty first century. Elaine Graham Leigh concludes the present series with a look at Lenin's Left-Wing Communism
The Bolshevik revolution in Russia in October 1917 was a great achievement, but the Bolsheviks’ ability to establish a real socialist society depended on it being not one isolated proletarian success, but the first of a series of revolutions across the developed world. Russia was a poor, backward country, meaning that even after the revolution, people were facing considerable hardship. It was also surrounded by hostile bourgeois regimes, with foreign intervention helping the anti-Bolshevik armies in the civil war, which lasted until 1922. As early as January 1918, Lenin said that ‘without the revolution in Germany, we are doomed’.
The success of the Russian revolution was an inspiration to workers around the world, but how they could apply its lessons to their own struggles was not always obvious. Lenin believed that repetitions of the Russian revolution were historically inevitable, in the sense that the period was a revolutionary one, but this did not mean that these revolutions would simply happen without effort. So the question was how, in this revolutionary period, the communists in Germany, Britain, Holland, Austria, Italy and so on could learn the right lessons from the experience of the Bolsheviks in Russia and take advantage of the objective conditions which made revolution possible.
Lenin wrote Left-Wing Communism in April 1920 to correct mistakes by communist leaders in Europe, particularly in Germany. It was published in June, ahead of the second congress of the Communist International, which was held in Petrograd in July-August 1920, in which socialist parties from across Europe participated.
The years since the start of the First World War in 1914 had not been particularly easy ones for the parties of the Second International - the international organisation of socialist parties. Before the war, the general position was that a war between the European powers would be the national bourgeoisies fighting for their own interests, not for the interests of the proletarians who would be required to lay down their lives, and that the task remained building the proletarian revolution. The Second International parties talked about a mass general strike of workers should a war be declared. However, when the war became a reality, they quickly supported their national sides, capitulating, as Lenin puts it, to bourgeois nationalism. In England, for example, the Labour party and the Fabians supported the war.
Lenin thought that part of the problem was that these parties, unlike the Bolsheviks in Russia, had been used to operating legally, whereas once war was declared, activities opposing the war and continuing to work with the proletariat in the enemy countries would have been decidedly illegal. This was disorienting for leaderships who, unlike Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders had never been forced to go underground at key moments to continue the revolutionary struggle. We can also recognise how in war time, the working class is subject to considerable pressure to support the war and ‘back our boys’. Socialists are not immune from this, although it does not make being swayed by it any less of a mistake.
While opposing the war in 1914 would have been against the current of whipped-up nationalism in most European countries, by the end, the horrific experience of the war had convinced more and more workers that the Bolsheviks had been right all along. By supporting the war, the Second International parties had therefore managed to isolate themselves from the most advanced workers: they were behind them, taking reformist rather than revolutionary positions, rather than forming their vanguard. This had a severe effect on the ability of the workers to take the opportunities offered by the revolutionary period at the end of the war.
The German revolution
Left-Wing Communism was not only aimed at the German communists - the errors of Dutch, British and Italian organisations also coming in for criticism - but the German revolution was particularly important. The German Kaiser had been overthrown in November 1918 in a revolution comparable to the February 1917 revolution in Russia which removed the Tsar and ushered in a situation of dual power, between the bourgeois government and workers’ councils. In the German case, once the republic had been established, the social democratic party, the SPD, which had supported the war, had no interest in allowing the revolution to go any further. An attempt by the Spartakists in January 1919 to achieve a proletarian revolution ended in defeat and in the murder of their leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, by the reactionary Freikorps.
This did not mean that in 1920 there was now no hope for socialism in Germany. Workers were still flocking into unions, and the power of the working class in what remained a very volatile situation was shown in March 1920, when an attempt to overthrow the bourgeois government in a military coup – the Kapp putsch – was defeated in a matter of days by a general strike. The objective conditions remained favourable, but only if the German Communist Party – the KPD, formed at the end of 1918 – could restrain itself from reacting to the betrayals of the SPD in a way which cut it off from the workers.
Ultra left errors
In Left-Wing Communism, Lenin takes issue with some key errors being made by the KPD and KAPD (formed from a split from the KPD in October 1919), in particular the arguments that communists should not work in trade unions or participate in parliamentary elections. Both of these were arguments about how far revolutionaries should work with those to the right of them. The German lefts argued that it was futile and wrong for revolutionaries to work in “social-chauvinist”, “counter-revolutionary” trade unions, and that there was no point in engaging in bourgeois parliaments, which in their view were historically and politically obsolete.
This was left wing communism because it involved taking the most extreme left position – that communists should not work with anyone to the right of them – and it was infantile in Lenin’s view because it meant that the communists were cutting themselves off from the majority of the working class. The task of the revolutionary party was to ‘link itself with, to keep in close touch with, and, to a certain degree, if you will, merge itself with the broadest masses of the toilers’, not use left slogans to build a barrier between the party and the class.
In the case of trade unions, the German lefts argued that revolutionaries should encourage workers to leave the existing trade unions and form new “workers’ unions”, thus removing the necessity of working with unprincipled and reformist union leaders. Lenin points out that that this would simply take the revolutionaries away from the bulk of the workers, who would inevitably remain in the old unions and who would be more difficult to reach, as in those unions they would only be influenced by the reactionary leaders.
Similarly, the argument that revolutionaries should not stand in elections because they had become irrelevant ignored the fact that millions of workers still voted in parliamentary elections, and voted for social democratic parties like the SPD, or even worse for the right-wing Catholic party. Abstaining from elections at this time would mean that the communists were depriving themselves of a way of relating to those workers. Lenin says ‘as long as you are unable to disperse the bourgeois parliament and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work inside them, precisely because in them there are still workers who are stupefied by the priests and by the desolateness of village life: otherwise you run the risk of becoming mere babblers.’
Lenin was clear that this was childishness on the party of the German communists, and given the importance of Germany to the revolution in Russia and internationally, it’s easy to understand his exasperation. There was however a context for the unwillingness of the KPD to work with the social democrats. As Lenin points out, the SPD had betrayed the workers by supporting the war, and the party had worked to prevent the November 1918 revolution from going further than establishing the bourgeois Weimar Republic. The SPD secretary, Friedrich Ebert, had collaborated with the right-wing generals in January 1919 to have the Berlin uprising put down by the Freikorps, which resulted in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It’s not surprising that, after this, KPD members were unwilling to work in organisations dominated by the SPD, although retreating into ultra-leftism was no less of a mistake.
Lenin believed that the KPD would grow out of its left wing communism, but it was unfortunately unable to do so in time to combat fascism. More than a decade later, in December 1931, Trotsky wrote an open letter to the “German worker-communists”, against their central committee’s conviction that they could only defeat fascism, not by working with social democrats in a united front, but by defeating social democracy first. ‘These creatures,’ Trotsky says, ‘are very much inclined to spout ultra-radical phrases beneath which is concealed a wretched and contemptible fatalism. ‘“Without a victory over the social democracy, we cannot battle against Fascism!” say such terrible revolutionists, and for this reason…they get their passports ready.’ It’s a portrayal of the ultra-left error which could have come straight out of Left-Wing Communism.
Why does this matter today?
The debate about when and how far revolutionaries should be involved in trade unions, in elections, or in campaigning with forces to the right of us is still a live one – there is an argument at the moment, for example, about whether left wing students should split from the NUS which is very similar in essentials to the arguments put by the German lefts about trade unions. But the relevance of Left-Wing Communism is not restricted to these questions.
The theme underlying Lenin’s criticisms of the behaviour of the German lefts and others is that revolutionaries cannot take abstract principles on strategic questions which they then attempt to apply in all circumstances. This inability to assess situations as they arise and work out what would be the best tactical decision underlay the arguments about involvement in trade unions and parliaments. The lefts, making a principle of abstention, could not see that sometimes not standing in elections, for example, might be correct, but sometimes it would definitely be an error.
Lenin gives the example of the Bolsheviks’ boycott of elections in 1905-1908. In 1905, their decision to stay out of elections to the advisory parliament called by the Tsar in an attempt to avert the 1905 revolution was correct. Elevating this judgment on the situation in 1905 to a principle, however, meant that they made an error by not taking part in the elections in 1906-8, which would have given them more opportunities to engage with the workers and would have meant that they were not just abandoning the parliamentary field to the right.
The point is that to be a revolutionary is not to enter a competition for who can strike the most abstractly left wing position, it is to fight for the liberation of the proletariat. When deciding on tactics, revolutionaries therefore have to ask not ‘what is the most left wing thing to do?’, but ‘which course of action will ultimately advance the revolution?’, and that answer will not always be the same. Making a principle of a tactic is to deprive yourself of the ability to consider the best way forward in the particular circumstances. Lenin gives the example of the foolish arguments presented by some who criticised the Bolsheviks’ decision to end the war with Germany in 1918: that because the Bolsheviks had “compromised” in that instance, this meant that any compromise with imperialist governments was legitimate. For compromise with imperialism to be wrong, the Bolsheviks would also have had to have been wrong in signing the treaty.
Lenin says that the success of the 1917 revolution depended on the strictest discipline in the Bolshevik party, and part of that discipline is the discipline to think through the demands of the circumstances in which the party finds itself and come to a mature decision on the best strategy and tactics. It might be nearly a hundred years since Lenin wrote Left-Wing Communism, but it remains as relevant now as it was in 1920.
- Tony Cliff, Lenin, vol.1, Building the Party
- Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution, Germany 1918-1923.
- John Rees, Strategy and Tactics. How the left can organise to transform society.
- Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October. The struggle against fascism in Germany.
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