Lenin's argument with ultra-leftism


'Left Wing' Communism — An Infantile Disorder
By V.I Lenin
Sydney: Resistance Books, 1999
149 pp., 10.95

Review by Ben Courtice

In April 1920, the Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin wrote a book for the international communist movement, 'Left-Wing' Communism — An infantile disorder. Aimed at the members of the newly formed Communist International (Comintern), the book was to demonstrate to western Europe "whatever is universally practicable, significant and relevant in the history and the present-day tactics of Bolshevism", as Lenin put it.

This book was written in a time when the first postwar wave of revolutionary movements across Europe (Hungary, Germany, Poland, Italy) had failed and the Communist movement — inside and outside Russia — was preparing itself for further confrontations to come. Picture

The Communist parties of western Europe, while enjoying a popularity hard to imagine in these "post-communist" days, were inexperienced and often small. They faced reaction from the state and bourgeoisie — Mussolini's fascist gangs in Italy, a military coup attempt in Germany, invasion of Russia.

From the rear, they were beset by opportunists and reformists of various hues — from the nominally Marxist, such as Germany's Karl Kautsky, to the reformist and liberal English Labour Party leaders — who decried the violence, "dictatorship" and so on involved in the revolution in Russia.

In this atmosphere, it was a diverse crowd that came together to form the Comintern: left-wingers who had left the irreparably opportunist Socialist International; militant trade unionists from Britain; anarcho-syndicalists from France and Italy; various small revolutionary socialist groups; whole parties from the Socialist International in some countries; and a growing number of revolutionaries from the colonial world, fighting for national liberation.

While the authority of the leaders of the Russian revolution was rarely disputed, debates on tactics and strategy for spreading the revolution in other countries were many and often heated.

Lenin wrote his book for one such debate with the so-called "left communists", whose ideas had particular influence in Germany, but also in Italy, England and France. Often coming from a background of anarchism, the "left communist" current posited several basic principles: abstention from participation in the bourgeois parliamentary system; withdrawal from the class-collaborationist trade unions (and the founding of revolutionary ones); no compromises with the bourgeoisie and their governments.

Lenin was firmly against these three principles. The task of communists, he argued, is to find the ways to win over the masses of ordinary workers to the communists' cause. The more advanced, politicised workers were already in many cases with the communists, but they were only a minority of the working class.

Drawing on the historical experiences of the Bolsheviks, Lenin argued that it was necessary to explain communist politics in every forum available — including bourgeois parliaments and reactionary trade unions.

Since masses of unpoliticised workers looked (and still look!) to these bodies, it was necessary for communists to utilise them as a medium for explaining their politics. In their rhetorical fervour, the left communists declared parliament to be "politically obsolete". Lenin pointed out that this was hardly so when millions of workers remained counter-revolutionary and looking to the parliamentary centre for political leadership.

In the case of the argument for "no compromises", Lenin made a pleasingly common sense reply: compromise can be necessary to live and fight another day; compromise can mean exploiting differences among one's enemies to play them off against one another. These are legitimate considerations for communist tacticians.

On the other hand, Lenin was very careful to distinguish these compromises from those of the opportunists who seek to make compromise their raison d'être. It is necessary to continue to criticise the adversary one is reaching a compromise with; to do otherwise would risk misleading the workers whom the communists aim to reach and lead.

One can still see the relevance of this argument in the case of the East Timorese liberation movement: many on the left criticised the call for UN troops to defend East Timorese on the basis that it would "sow illusions" in imperialism, and thus compromise the liberation movement. Lenin counterposes "a compromise enforced by objective conditions ... which in no way minimises the revolutionary devotion and readiness to carry on the struggle" and "a compromise by traitors who try to ascribe to objective causes their self interest".

This new edition of 'Left Wing' Communism contains two addenda — the July 1920 Comintern theses on "The Communist Parties and Parliamentarism", which adopted and expanded on Lenin's line, and Leon Trotsky's 1922 article for the Comintern "On the United Front".

This latter article, directed particularly at the French situation, contains a useful exposition of the communist concept of the united front — which Lenin was also advocating in his book, in an earlier form. Communists should make alliances with other (opportunist and reformist) forces, the argument was, not simply out of practical necessity, but in order to demonstrate the superiority of the communists' politics in practice.

The volume is introduced by Doug Lorimer, who gives a useful synopsis of the political method behind Lenin's specific arguments — winning over the politically advanced working-class activists, then with this group beginning the process of winning over broader masses of workers.

Altogether this is a very useful edition, bringing together four edifying articles on tactics for socialists. It is rightfully remembered as one of Lenin's most important texts — combining sharp, and still relevant, polemic, with a very readable summary of the tactics used by the party that led the first successful workers' revolution.