The question for Lenin was: do you stand on the side lines, or engage in joint activity, including electoral activity, in order to break the hold of those who were fudging the issue of reform and revolution?
Texts can be formative in many ways. Reading Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism-an infantile disorder in the early 80’s, not only shaped my politics, but encouraged me to think about how to read closely.
For instance, it is obvious that texts are products of history but what does that mean exactly?.
There are two rocks that need to be navigated. The first one is the disappearance of the text into the context. The text becomes a site on which to tell a story about the past.
The second danger is the context becomes mere illustrative background: a few facts are thrown in to show how the writer was influenced.
The commonality in both approaches is that they ignore how the context is already ‘in’ the text. That is to say, writers deal with, and respond to, issues raised in the culture and politics of the time. In the process she/he is involved in a dialogue, and sets in motion, a range of possible positions that may or may not be taken up by readers then and now. This shapes, not just what they write, but how they write it.
Let’s then take a closer look at Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism-an Infantile Disorder.
Written in April 1920, with an important appendix added a month later, Lenin is trying to grapple with three types of relationship. Firstly, the text establishes the relationship between the Russian Communist Party and its experience up to and immediately after the October revolution, and the new or emerging Communist Parties of Europe. Secondly, Lenin wants to change the relationship between these fledgling organisations and those parties and organisations in their own countries with whom they were competing for influence, namely the social democrats. And finally,he indicates the new potential relationship between the new Communist parties and the working class if the right lessons are learnt from the Russian experience.
He situates the pamphlet then, firmly in the context of the successful Russian revolution and shows that, from 1905 onwards, the Bolsheviks, the precursors of the Russian Communit Party, were constantly making compromises: uniting with, and then splitting with their political opponents the Mensheviks; taking part in parliaments far more undemocratic than western ones - the Russian Duma had a biased voting system balanced in favour of the wealthier classes; joining and helping build trade unions and social welfare networks run or sometimes even set up by the police or state agents.
So, in order to set the record straight about the significance of the Russian revolution, the role of the RCP, and the applicability of this experience to others, the first four sections of the pamphlet start by illustrating the compromises the Bolsheviks made throughout their history. And Lenin has a tough message to the leaders of these new parties. He says,if you think it’s hard making compromises before a revolution, it gets even harder after one. He points out that the Soviet state was extremely isolated after 1917 and was forced to agree, for instance, to a peace deal with the German imperial power by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This was a compromise. Nonetheless it had to be done to ensure the safety of the world’s first workers’ state.
Lenin then pulls out the difference between a compromise that defends the interests of the working class as opposed to one that only benefits the 1%. He shows that the temporary breathing space given the Russian workers’ state set the imperialist powers against each other, as Russia’s wartime allies felt undermined in continuing the prosecution of the war. The Russian opponents of the compromise, Mensheviks, shouted “traitors” at the Bolsheviks but Lenin points out by doing this they ended up defending “their own predatory bourgeoisie”.
Many other examples of compromises are identified from the history of the Bolsheviks from 1903 to 1919.
Lenin’s opening gambit then is to bring out what is of general significance for those outside Russia. He argues that the revolution, and the Bolsheviks’ tactics of compromise, alliances, and “manoeuvres”, were all central in helping the Bolsheviks to break the dominance of the ruling classes’ ideological hold on the workers’ movement.
Alliances and fusions
The pamphlet then moves on to dealing with the “Left-wing communism” of the “left” inside the German Communist Party (KPD) who were scathing of their leadership who believed,correctly in Lenin’s view, that the growth of the USPD, the centrist party in Germany, was an opportunity. The leadership of the KPD wanted a coalition with them, including electoral deals. The lefts thought this was treachery.
Lenin recognised that, even before the failure of the attempt by the far-right wing in Germany to overthrow democracy, in what is known as the Kapp putsch of March 1920, mass centrist organisations were emerging. Parties that were organisationally independent and to the left of the reformist social democratic parties, but were politically unstable and wavering, were pulling hundreds of thousands to the left. The German USPD, for example, had 800,000 members.
The challenge for the leaders of the KPD,who were clear that the leaderships of these centrist parties could not be trusted, was how to engage with this development before it disappeared and demoralised workers. Action had to be swift because of what was perceived as the instability of mass centrist parties. They are a temporary phenomenon. And here is one reason that the tone of the text can be a bit disconcerting when first encountered. Lenin seems to be shouting and denouncing those on the “left” for being “childish” - he uses the word more than once. He employs irony and mocks those he is trying to persuade because he recognises timing is crucial in politics. His tone is a reflection of what he clearly understood as a temporary opportunity.
The German ”lefts” were not on their own.Many of the new Communist Parties refused to take part and engage with what they considered to be “reactionary” institutions. These included the trade unions, parliament and parties like the Labour party in Britain. The positions that Lenin is dealing with are in fact a form of political disengagement he argues.The question for Lenin was: do you stand on the side lines, or engage in joint activity, including electoral activity, in order to break the hold of those who were fudging the issue of reform and revolution?
Lenin was clear. Maintain your political independence but look for ways to unite.
Trade unions were another area of concern for Lenin. The question is well put. Should new, pure, Workers’ or Red unions be established?
The “Lefts” argued that as the unions were run by untrustworthy people, they could not be used as a tool for organising the class in the run up to the overthrow of capitalism. Noting that the growth of trade unions was a “tremendous step forward” which helped unify the class in the face of employers, Lenin agues that it is precisely because the unions are led by “opportunist” leaders that communists must “work wherever the masses are”.To do so offers the CP members in the unions access to a much wider layer of militants, not only for joint work, but also opportunities to challenge the political influence of those very same leaders by arguing for different courses of action where necessary and making action more effective when called.
If the “lefts fence themselves off” he says,they can not possibly break the hegemony of those who would compromise with capitalism. His challenge is to get in the room and argue or stand outside the house where no one can hear your principles,thus leaving the union members under the influence of those leaders who want to compromise. These he says are the choices.
Next, he takes issue with those who were arguing that as a workers’ state was up and running in soviet Russia,the old forms of democracy, parliamentary systems, are now out of date. He poses the challenge very clearly. How on earth can anyone say that parliamentary democracy is dead, when millions are still participating in…parliamentary democracy. He is clear, that revolutionaries should stand for election and if elected use parliament as a base from which to harass the representatives of the ruling class and encourage the struggle outside on the streets and in the workplaces thereby helping to create the political conditions for the “smashing” of the state.
Crucially, what Lenin is doing here, is outlining what the minority of revolutionaries do to engage and draw into activity those who don’t,or only partially, agree with them.This side of the revolution, Lenin is saying, the revolutionaries are a minority even if, at times, a significant one. Therefore only by working alongside those who do not agree with you on every issue, can you hope to become a majority convincing them of the relevance of your strategy and tactics in the course of the struggle.
Lenin always grasped that there is one huge paradox about revolutionary theory.For all its radicalism, Marxism,a theory of revolution, was based on a clear sighted understanding of the necessity of… compromise.
Marx, himself, spelt it out on several occasions.
In the German Ideology he pointed out that the ideas that most people hold, most of the time are the ideas of those who control the media, education systems and religious networks. People are subject to the ideas of those in power. However, he also argued, in the provisional rules of the First International, that only workers themselves can free themselves and in the process develop ideas in opposition to the ruling ideas in society. But how can we liberate ourselves and change society if, crudely put, we are subject to ideas that constantly tell us the world can’t be changed?
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx put it most poetically. He writes in the opening page that: “Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted”.There is no straight line from the present to the future. Manoeuvres, compromises, alliances and deals, even retreat, will be necessary in the fight for a better world. The effective left wing leader, Lenin argues, has to be able to grasp this and act quickly with “flair”, not repeat worn out slogans.
The Labour Party
However, of all the sections of the pamphlet, it was the section on the Labour Party and how the emerging British Communist Party should relate to it, that most engaged me. I read it near the end of the rise of Bennism and the near wholesale entry of large sections of ex-revolutionaries moving to the right in order to change it.
The British CP was formed from a selection of small sects in July 1920. In section IX, Lenin is trying to influence the tactical decisions that the party will take. Importantly, he recognises the difference in context between Russia, which had had its reformist equivalent-the Mensheviks-in office, and the Labour party which had not yet formed a majority government.
Recognising the more important role of “the political experience of the masses” compared to propaganda alone, Lenin explains that the unusual affiliative structure of the Labour Party, should be tested, and application should be made to join on the basis of a freedom to criticise the leadership for any sell outs.The emerging British CP are encouraged to help get the Labour Party elected in order to show to those who do not fully support revolutionary ideas at the moment, the real purpose and function of reformism.
Of course, Lenin argues, the leadership of the LP might refuse affiliation. Fine. If that happens we can clearly say that the LP, which has not yet formed a majority government, is more inclined to work with the Liberals than work alongside others who want to unite working class opposition to capitalism. We can benefit from this too.
Interestingly,and relevant today,is the fact that the CP did apply the tactic and when refused affiliation did not meekly accept the refusal of the LP leadership but instead initiated a year long debate with LP and trade union branches up and down the country seeking to challenge the decision. They had mixed results but during the process became an interventionist party not a sectarian propaganda group.
For Lenin, this approach is what is at the heart of being an effective leader: principled but with great, tactical flexibility.
It is worth adding one more point, finally, about Lenin’s advice to the British CP. And that is how starkly relevant it is today. He explains that the “immediate cause” -(his italics)-of a political upsurge can not be predicted. A “parliamentary crisis”, “imperialist contradictions” or any “unexpected” event can lead to tens of thousands of people, who have been “dormant”, suddenly springing into political action and engagement! Today’s crisis in the Labour Party just shows how stunningly relevant and prescient “Left-Wing” Communism is.
I said at the beginning that context is ‘in’ a text.It shapes both style and structure. The sense of urgency that cries out from the pamphlet, the repeated mocking of the “childishness” of “left wing communism”, even here the ironic use of inverted commas, is a result of the set of relationships that the text is trying to mediate and set in motion. The text glances sideways at the ultra-lefts gesturing to them to see the possibilities of the future open to them only if they are willing to reconfigure their political positions in the present.
Lenin’s purpose is to force the pace of change in the practice of those in Germany,Italy, Holland, France and Britain, so that they may reap the political benefits of the moment. The text, then, reflects the mood of the period when revolution flared across Europe and large sections of people were moving left but initially towards reformist or centrist organisations. The expectation was that further radicalisation was on the agenda. Duncan Hallas, a leading member of the International Socialist Tendency, in his preface to a 1993 edition wrote that it was a “work to be read, re-read and read again”. How right he was.
Paul Vernell is a long-standing socialist and NUT representative in a South Gloucestershire Multi-Academy Trust. He has written on trade unions, education and critical pedagogy. He blogs at In the City.