V. I. Lenin: ‘Left’ Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder — Commentary and Analysis. (4/10) By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
CHAPTER FOUR: “Lenin on Anarchism and Opportunism”
In chapter four of his book "'Left Wing' Communism An Infantile Disorder" Lenin describes the struggle of the Bolsheviks to combat those enemies of the working class movement who were themselves acting within that movement ostensibly in the interests of establishing socialism. Perhaps the term "enemies" is too harsh, but the factions Lenin writes about included within their ranks both opponents of the Bolshevik line (as being not historically appropriate) and hostile elements who actively collaborated with reactionary sections of the bourgeoisie.
In any case, Lenin considered the main enemy of the workers to be what he called "opportunism"-- the placing of the real interests of the workers on the back burner in order to pursue temporary policies which might lead to some gains in the present, but which actually damaged the long-term interest of the workers. He was not referring to historically necessitated retreats and compromises, but to an attitude which consistently led to cooperation and capitulation to bourgeois views where matters of principal were set aside, and the long-term interests of the working class ignored. The trick, as always, is to be able to spot the difference between "opportunism" and legitimate "compromise."
After 1914, the outbreak of WWI, opportunism warped into "social-chauvinism" with so-called Marxists siding with their national bourgeoisie against the bourgeoisie AND the workers of hostile nations. Lenin thought this kind of opportunism was the "principal enemy within the working-class movement."
Even in 1920 it remained the number one enemy of the international working-class.
And here we are, over 100 years down the road, and with the same enemy at work in the working-class. Think of right-wing labor leaders who push their unions into supporting reactionary politicians because some narrow interests have temporarily benefited, say in job creation, their own union at the expense of workers elsewhere. Lenin's old enemy is still very much alive both in the socialist and union movements.
There was, however, another enemy that the Marxists had to battle. This enemy of the workers was not as well known in Lenin's day but will be recognized by everyone familiar with Marxism and the history of the 20th century worker's movement. This enemy Lenin calls PETTY-BOURGEOIS REVOLUTIONISM, a mixture of anarchism and half-baked revolutionary rhetoric.
Marxist theory, Lenin maintains, has shown that the small business owner ("the petty proprietor"), independent professionals, the self-employed, and other members of the so-called "middle classes" who are situated between the large capitalist corporations and the working class, are constantly finding themselves ground down economically and subject to "a most acute and rapid deterioration" of their living conditions and "even ruin."
Today this is happening throughout the capitalist world. A member of the middle class in this situation is “driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries." Unfortunately, many of these people turn to right wing extremism on the one hand and to left wing groups on the other, including Marxist organizations, where they become ultra-revolutionary but are "incapable of perseverance, organization, discipline and steadfastness." Even today it is difficult for Marxist working class parties to always spot and rid themselves of this unstable element. In any case, Lenin thinks anarchism and opportunism are "two monstrosities" that go hand in hand-- the former being the punishment doled out to the working class for the sins of the latter.
In the Russian context the most blatant example of petty-bourgeois revolutionism was to be found in the activities of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party (neither socialist nor revolutionary in Lenin's view.) The Russian Marxists waged unremitting ideological struggle against this party (objectively a false friend of working people) over three of its most significant positions. In the first place the SRs would undertake political action without bothering to fully inform themselves of the issues, the class forces at work, and what the objective alignment of forces was.
[This reminds me of a small Trotskyist party whose members once told me that Cuba had betrayed the Revolution by not attacking the U.S. Navy when Grenada was invaded by Reagan.]
In the second place, the SRs engaged in personal acts of individual terrorism and political assassination which they considered to be very "Left" and very "revolutionary" actions but which the "Marxists emphatically rejected." Finally, the SRs criticized the German Social Democrats for minor opportunistic errors while they themselves were engaged in opportunistic activities far more serious than those of the Germans.
With respect to the second objection to the SRs-- i.e.,"individual terrorism", Lenin does not say that Marxists are against "individual terrorism" per se or for any "moral" reason but reject it "only on grounds of expediency." In fact, he approvingly notes that Plekhanov ("when he was a marxist") had "laughed to scorn" those who "on principle" were opposed to "the terror of the Great French Revolution, or, in general, the terror employed by a victorious revolutionary party which is besieged by the bourgeoisie of the whole world."
The "expediency" of terrorism is still highly contentious today, but it is safe to say that who is or is not a "terrorist" seems to be determined by which side of the barricades the one making the judgement is standing. I will make no mention of the phony "War on Terrorism" being waged by the "bourgeoisie of the whole world" against the workers and peasants of the non-industrialized world by means of drones, air raids, mercenaries, apartheid walls, and military intervention and occupation.
Lenin, by the way, points out that the Russian Marxists had been proven correct in holding the position that the REVOLUTIONARY wing of German Social Democracy up to 1913 (and its traditions now carried on by the Russian Marxists) "CAME CLOSEST to being the party the revolutionary proletariat needs in order to achieve victory." [Where is the "revolutionary proletariat today”? Will the present ongoing decline of the capitalist world order regenerate it?]
Now, Lenin says in 1920, it is obvious that of all the Western socialist parties, after the Great War, the revolutionary German Social Democrats have the best leaders. He is referring to the Spartacists (not to be confused with the petty-bourgeois Trotskyist sect in the U.S.) and the "Left, proletarian wing of the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany". [This Left consisted of the Spartacists who had joined the moderate Independents, but later (1918) broke away and became the Communist Party of Germany.]
With respect to the anarchists, Lenin says the whole period from the Paris Commune to the founding of Soviet Russia proves that the Marxist critique of this group was correct. However, the demise of the Soviet Union will no doubt give a new lease of life to this ideological dead end. Lenin does, incidentally, give the anarchists credit for pointing out the opportunistic positions of the Western Marxists on the question of the state. On this question Lenin refers his readers to his book "The State and Revolution" [a work, I fear, that will not cheer the hearts of many who call themselves "Marxists" today.]
Lenin now turns his attention to discussing two major struggles that were carried on within the Bolshevik movement against the "Left" Bolsheviks (actually they were left deviationists) namely, the 1908 question of participating in the Duma and the 1918 struggle around the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
The problem in 1908 was that the "Left" Marxists mechanically applied the correct tactics of 1905 when the party called for a boycott of the Duma (it was completely controlled by the Tsar and was swept away by the 1905 revolution) to the situation of 1908 where the duma was not totally subservient to the Tsar and the Bolshevik delegates could openly work to influence events and educate the masses politically. The same was true of the reactionary trade unions and other mass associations. In 1905 the boycott was correct "not because non-participation in reactionary parliaments is correct in general, but because we accurately appraised the objective situation" -- that an uprising was about to occur. There was no uprising on the horizon in 1908 after the 1905 revolution had been put down so the same tactics would have been out of place.
In fact, the party was in error by continuing to boycott the Duma in 1906 but corrected itself in 1908 and was correct in expelling the "Left" Marxists when they refused to see that new tactics were called for. The 1905 boycott helped the Party and the masses learn valuable lessons regarding the rejection of legal forms of opposition such as parliamentarianism but it is "highly erroneous to apply this experience blindly, imitatively and uncritically to OTHER conditions and OTHER situations."
Looking back at the period from 1908 to 1914, Lenin remarks that the party would never have been able to educate and lead the masses had it not changed its tactics and engaged in legal activities even in the most reactionary institutions set up by the Tsar.
Although the "Left" Bolsheviks were expelled from the party in 1908 for opposing participation in the ultra-reactionary Duma (parliament) as well as other legal organizations approved by the Tsar (unions, cooperative societies, etc.,) Lenin says they were still basically good Marxists, as they recognized their errors and corrected them, and were by 1920 again members of the Communist Party and good revolutionaries.
Incidentally, Lenin in a footnote observes that "It is not he who makes no mistakes that is intelligent. There are no such men, nor can there be. It is he whose errors are not very grave and who is able to rectify them easily and quickly that is intelligent."
In 1918, with respect to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk [which required the Soviets to surrender large areas to the Germans in order to get peace (and a breathing spell)] the "Left" Communist "faction" again erred but it did not lead to a split as their leaders (Radek and Bukharin) admitted their mistake in opposing the treaty in the same year. They considered the treaty to be a compromise "with imperialism" and thus antithetical to the revolution and to the working masses. Lenin agreed that it was definitely a compromise but one that "HAD TO BE MADE."
Lenin would become chafed when western "Marxist" opportunists would use the example of Brest-Litovsk to justify the unprincipled compromises they were making with the bourgeoisie in their own countries. He would compare the compromise over the treaty with the compromise a person makes with a bandit who waylays his car and threatens to shoot the occupants if they don't cooperate. That is the position the Communists found themselves in. The western opportunists (Kautsky, Bauer, Adler, Renaudel, Longuet, the Fabians, British Independents and Labourites) actually made deals with their bourgeoisies against their own workers which amounted to being "ACCOMPLICES IN BANDITRY."
Lenin's point is that there are some compromises forced on the masses against their will due to the balance of power at a particular time, and then there are some that are not really forced on the masses but made by leaders for their own interests and personal or political advantages. A true Communist must be able to spot the difference and fight against the latter while explaining to the masses the necessity of the former. "However, anyone who is out to think up for the workers some kind of recipe that will provide them with cut-and dried solutions for all contingencies, or promises that the policy of the revolutionary proletariat will never come up against difficult or complex situations is simply a charlatan."
To make sure he is not misunderstood Lenin proposes "several fundamental rules" to be used to distinguish principled from unprincipled compromises. One can spot the former if the leaders and party advocate internationalism and reject "defense of country" in international conflicts (i.e., reject support of their own bourgeoisie against the bourgeoisie of other countries, which support actually means not supporting their own workers and the workers of other countries.) This should also involve advocating universal peace between all countries. It should also support the revolutionary efforts to overthrow bourgeois and feudal governments by workers and peasants wherever they rise up in revolt. [Lenin refers to the German Revolution specifically but his logic, I think, extends to all revolutionary movements led by the working class.]
As for the latter, the opportunists, they can be recognized by their "defense of country" and justification of its military actions (or lack of serious struggle against it-- which amounts to the same thing.) Another sign of unprincipled actions is "entering into a coalition with the bourgeoisie of THEIR OWN country" in its struggle to prevail over foreign countries; they thus become "ACCOMPLICES in imperialist banditry."
It is on this note that Lenin ends chapter four of "Left Wing Communism”. I must stress that the context of Lenin's thought is conditioned by the presence in Russia and in large segments of the European and International working class of a revolutionary fervor gripping millions of working people. The question for us is how to adapt Lenin's views to the present pre-revolutionary outlook of millions of people who are finding themselves being crushed by the slowly spreading decline and fall of the world capitalist system as we have known it since the end of WWII. What are we to do if we don't have on hand a revolutionary proletariat?
NEXT UP: Chapter Five “Lenin on the Role of a Marxist Party in Relation to the People”
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.