from the collection, What do we mean by ...?, Education for Socialists No.6, March 1987.
Published by the Socialist Workers Party (Britain).
First published in Socialist Worker Review.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.
What are revolutionaries’ attitudes to parliament, to the trade unions, to compromise? These are crucial questions for any socialist. There are few on the left who would argue today against working in the unions or even elections, or that tactical flexibility is never necessary. But what is the basis of such work? Does participation in parliamentary elections mean we believe society can be changed in any way through this hallowed institution? Does compromise with others in joint activities mean we are opportunists? Can unions be transformed into revolutionary organisations?
In July 1920 the Second Congress of the newly formed Communist International discussed these Issues. They were vital because although the expected spread of the Russian revolution had been halted, optimism still reigned. The right-wing Kapp putsch in Germany had been defeated by a massive general strike, the Red Army in Russia continued to sweep the White armies from its path, and in many countries the new Communist Parties were rapidly gaining ground. But the world revolution was not just simply proceeding to some preconceived scheme, and the Communist International’s sections had many serious teething problems. Obviously revolutionary strategy and tactics were of utmost importance and had to be carefully considered.
With this in mind Lenin wrote Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder on the eve of congress. It was to be his last major work, and one of his most lucid and important. As Tony Cliff has commented: “Rarely has such a short work had so powerful and lasting influence on the international labour movement. Its influence could be compared to that of the Communist Manifesto.”
The pamphlet is based on the rich experience of the Bolsheviks’ history and the lessons of their revolution. As Lenin put it: “We now possess quite considerable international experience which shows very definitely that certain fundamental features of our revolution have a significance that is not local or peculiarly national or Russian alone, but international.” Russia during the last 15 years had experienced “a varied succession of different forms of the movement in legal and illegal peaceful and stormy. underground and open, local circles and mass movements and parliamentary and terrorist forms.” The Bolshevik Party had been built in the heat of these tumultuous years and its development was full of lessons.
Historically Bolshevism had fought two enemies; social democratic opportunism on the right and petty bourgeois anarchism on the left. When in opposition the main danger had been from the right: now in power, with the Second International in decline, the danger was from the left.
The incredible revolutionary fervour which gripped Europe combined with the very recent memory of reformist treachery to encourage the growth of such “leftism” both outside and inside the communist movement. Outside it expressed itself in syndicalism – mainly in Spain. France and the USA – inside by “ultra-leftism” particularly in Germany, Italy, Holland and Britain.
This ultra-leftism involved a completely inflexible form of politics and hostility to any kind of revolutionary intervention in either parliament or the existing trade unions. The ultra-lefts were opposed to all compromises in principle.
Lenin accepted that it was not always easy to distinguish between necessary and treacherous compromises. But it was “absurd to formulate a recipe or general rule (‘no compromises’) to suit all cases”. To be able to make the correct decisions and changes in line, a revolutionary party tempered in struggle was needed.
“In politics where it is sometimes a matter of extremely complex relations-nationally and internationally-between classes and parties, very many cases arise that will be much more difficult than the question of a legitimate ‘compromise’ by a strike-breaker etc ... One must use one’s brains and be able to find one’s bearings in each particular case.” Party leaderships had to attain the long and varied experience and the skill necessary to make such decisions. Communists had to avoid battle when it was advantageous to the enemy. They also had to make temporary alliances even with the most unreliable and unstable of allies.
The key to any such necessary compromises or retreats was not to lose contact with the masses and yet to be able, as Engels put it, “through all the intermediate situations and all compromises [to] clearly perceive and pursue the final aim”. So Lenin insisted: “The task devolving to Communists is to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them with artificial and childishly ‘left’ slogans.”
Above all it was necessary to analyse each concrete situation.
The communists did not believe socialism was possible through parliament. This body had to be destroyed along with the rest of the capitalist state and replaced with a system of workers’ democracy based on soviets. Many revolutionaries at this time, understandably, interpreted this as a total boycott of parliament. Lenin argued they were wrong.
Some self-styled Marxists have since used this to justify their own erroneous belief in a “parliamentary road to socialism”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Again it was a question of relating to the actual level of workers’ ideas – though not capitulating to them – and trying to raise their consciousness. Even in a revolutionary period like the early twenties, many millions of workers still had illusions in parliamentary democracy. So for Lenin both parliament itself and elections were arenas where revolutionaries could speak to more people.
Parliamentarism is of course “historically obsolete” to the Communists; but-and that is the whole point-we must not regard what is obsolete to us as something obsolete to a class, to the masses.
You must not sink to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You are duty bound to call their bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices what they are – prejudices.
But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of the class consciousness and preparedness of the entire class (not only its Communist vanguard), and of all the working class people (not only of their advanced elements).
The aim of the exercise was clear – parliament and elections were to be used to expose the fraud of bourgeois democracy. to call for its overthrow. The parliamentary system in itself could never be used to advance towards socialism. The centre of gravity remained firmly outside.
The treachery of the reformist leaders had led many Communists to reject the trade unions as hopelessly reformist and bureaucratic. What were needed were workers’ assemblies and soviets, genuine revolutionary bodies. But as Lenin pointed out: “Millions of workers in England, France and Germany are for the first time passing from complete lack of organisation to the lowest, most simple, and (for those still thoroughly imbued with bourgeois-democratic prejudices) most easily accessible form of organisation, namely, the trade unions. And the revolutionary – but foolish – left Communists stand by, shouting, ‘The masses, the masses!’ – and refuse to work within the trade unions, refuse on the pretext that they are ‘reactionary’.”
Of course the reformist leaders would be delighted If the revolutionaries separated themselves from their membership and left them “in peace”. In fact these same leaders would resort to “every trick of bourgeois diplomacy, to the aid of bourgeois governments, the priests, the police and the courts in order to prevent Communists from getting into trade unions, to force them out by every means, to make their work in the trade unions as unpleasant as possible; to insult, to hound and persecute them”.
In this context Lenin wrote: “It is necessary to be able to withstand all this, to agree to every sacrifice and even – if need be – resort to all sorts of devices, manoeuvres and illegal methods, to evasion and subterfuge, in order to penetrate into the trade unions, to remain in them, and to carry on Communist work at all costs.”
This quotation is a favourite of bourgeois hacks to prove the duplicity and dishonesty of Communists. Interestingly, as eye witness Alfred Rosmer noted in his excellent book, Lenin’s Moscow, none of the Communist International delegates were shocked by it. “Why? Were they all inveterate liars? Just the opposite. They all spoke and acted frankly, their language was clear and direct, deception was unknown to them. For they were too proud of showing themselves as they really were.”
In order to understand Lenin’s proposals, it is necessary to understand the context of 1920. As Rosmer described it: “The reformist leaders had abandoned the workers in 1914, they had betrayed socialism, they had collaborated with their imperialist governments, they had endorsed all the lies – and all the crimes – of chauvinist propaganda during the war. They had opposed any possibility of ‘premature peace’. It must be understood that such a state of affairs is, after all, an exceptional situation, it is a state of war, and war requires trickery, above all when one is fighting an enemy who has available to him the whole repressive machinery of the state.”
For a revolutionary party to be able to really lead the working class it needs more than just a formerly correct programme. Its ideas, its slogans must fit the moods and feelings of the masses and be able to lead them forward. Lenin insists: “History as a whole, and the history of revolution in particular. is always richer in content, more varied, more multiform, more lively and ingenious than is imagined by even the best parties, the most class conscious vanguards of the most advanced classes.”
Every revolutionary has to be trained in strategy and tactics. “Politics is a science and an art that does not fall from the skies or come gratis, and ... if it wants to overcome the bourgeoisie the proletariat must train its own proletarian ‘class politicians’ of a kind in no way inferior to bourgeois politicians.”
There is no easy road to revolution. We can’t always choose the terrain we fight on or the weapons we use. The Bolsheviks managed to develop their strategy and tactics In the long, arduous years before the revolution without losing sight of their ultimate aim-socialism. Lenin’s pamphlet is as full of relevant lessons for today as it was in 1920 and remains vital reading for all serious revolutionaries.
Last updated on 31.3.2002