Herman Gorter, Open Letter to Comrade Lenin, 1920

IV. Opportunism in the Third International

The question of opportunism in our own ranks is of such immense weight that I must deal with it more at length.

Comrade! With the establishment of the Third International, opportunism has not died in our ranks either. We see it in all Communist parties in all countries. Also it would be truly miraculous and against all the laws of development if that which killed the Second International did not live in the Third.

On the contrary, just as the fight between anarchism and social democracy was fought in the Second International, that between opportunism and revolutionary Marxism will be fought in the Third.

This time again Communists will go into parliament to become leaders. Trade Unions and Labour parties will be supported for the sake of votes in the elections. Instead of parties being founded for Communism, Communism will be used to found parties. But parliamentary compromises with social patriots and bourgeois elements will once more come into use, as after all the revolution in Western Europe is going to be a slow process. Freedom of speech will be suppressed, and all good Communists expelled. In a word, all the practice of the Second International will come to life again.

The Left Wing must oppose this; it has to be there, to wage this fight, as it was there in the Second International. Herein the Left Wing must be supported by all Marxists and revolutionaries, even if they are of the opinion that the Left Wing is mistaken in detail – for opportunism is our greatest enemy. Not only, as you say (p. 13) outside, but also within our ranks.

It would be a thousand times worse, that opportunism, with its devastating effect on the soul and the strength of the proletariat, should again slip in, than that the Left Wing should be too radical. The Left Wing, even though at times it goes too far, always remains revolutionary. The Left Wing will alter its tactics as soon as they are not right. The opportunist Right will grow ever more opportunist, will sink ever further into the morass, will corrupt the workers to an ever greater extent. Not in vain have we learned from twenty-five years of struggle.

Opportunism is the plague of the Labour movement, the death of the revolution. Opportunism has brought about all evils; reformism, the war, the defeat and the death of the revolution in Hungary and Germany. Opportunism is the cause of disaster. And it exists in the Third International.

What do I need so many words for? Look around you, Comrade. Look into yourself, and into the Executive Committee! Look into all countries of Europe.

Feeble Criticism.

Read the papers of the British Socialist Party, now the Communist Party. Read ten, twenty numbers of this paper; read the feeble criticism against the Trade Unions, the Labour Party, the Members of Parliament, and compare this to the paper of the Left Wing. A comparison between these two will show you that opportunism is approaching the Third International, in immense masses. Once more (through support of the counter-revolutionary workers) to obtain power in Parliament. A power after the pattern of the Second International. Remember too that soon the USP will enter the Third International, and numerous other Centre parties besides! Do you not believe that if you compel these parties to expel Kautsky that a swarm of tens of thousands of other opportunists will come? The entire measure of this expulsion is childish. An innumerable stream of opportunists is approaching (1) – especially since your brochure.

Look at the Dutch Communist Party, once called the Bolshevists of Europe. And rightly so, taking into account the conditions. Read the brochure about the Dutch Party, how utterly already it has been corrupted by the opportunism of the Second International. During the war, and after it, and even to this day, it has pledged itself to the Entente. This once brilliant party has become an example of equivocality and deceit.

But look at Germany, Comrade, the land where the revolution has started. There opportunism lives and thrives. We were utterly amazed to hear that you defended the attitude of the KPD during the March days. But fortunately we learned from your brochure that you did not know the actual course of development. You sanctioned the attitude of the KPD-Zentrale, that offered loyal opposition to Ebert, Scheidemann, Hilferding and Crispien, but you evidently did not know, at the time of writing the brochure, that this happened at the same moment Ebert organised troops against the German proletariat, whose general strike was still spread all over Germany, and in which the great majority of the Communist mass strove to bring the revolution, if not to victory (perhaps this was hardly possible as yet), at any rate to a higher strength. Whilst the mass by means of strikes and armed revolt, conducted the revolution into a further stage (there has never been anything more hopeful or gigantic than the revolt in the Ruhr region, and the general strike), the leaders offered parliamentary compromises. In so doing they supported Ebert against the revolution in the Ruhr region (2). If ever an example proved how damnable the use of parliamentarism is in the revolution, this is it. You see, Comrade, that is parliamentary opportunism, that is compromise with the social patriots and the Independents, which we refuse to accept, and which you try to further.

And, Comrade, what has already become of the industrial councils in Germany? You and the Executive of the Third International had advised the Communists to unite with all the other trends, in order to obtain the leadership of the Trade Unions. And what has happened? The opposite. The industrial Zentrale has well-nigh developed into an instrument of the Trade Unions. The Trade Unions are an octopus, strangling everything living that comes within its reach.

Comrade, if you read and investigate everything that is being done in Germany, in Western Europe, I have full confidence that you will come over to our side. Just as I believe that your experiences in the Third International will convert you to our tactics.

However, if opportunism proceeds thus in Germany, how will it be in France and England!

You see, Comrade, these are the leaders we do not want. That is the unity of mass and leader that we do not want. And that is the iron discipline, the military obedience, submission and servility that we do not want.

Permit us to add here one word to the Executive Committee, and especially to Radek: the Executive Committee has had the insolence to demand of the KAPD that they should expel Wolffheim and Laufenberg, instead of leaving them to settle this for themselves. It has threatened the KAPD, and has pandered to the central parties, such as the USP. But it did not demand of the Italian Party that it should expel the Zentrale which, through its offer, was partly responsible for the murder of Communists in the Ruhr region. It did not demand of the Dutch Party that it should expel Wijnkoop and Van Ravesteyn, who during the war, offered Dutch ships to the Entente. This does not mean to say that I myself wish those comrades to be expelled. On the contrary, I hold them to be good comrades, who have gone wrong only because the development, the beginning of the West-European revolution, is so terribly difficult. We, all of us over here, still make many big mistakes. Moreover, expulsion at present, from this International, would be of no avail.

I only point this out to demonstrate by another example how fiercely opportunism is raging already in our own ranks. For the Moscow Central Committee has committed this injustice against the KAPD only, because for its opportunist world tactics it did not want the really revolutionary elements, but the opportunist Independents, etc.. It has deliberately used the tactics of Wolffheim and Laufenberg against the KAPD for the most miserably opportunist of reasons, although it knew that the KAPD did NOT agree with those tactics. Because it wants to have masses around it, like the Trade Unions and the political parties, no matter whether those masses are communist or not.

Two other actions of the Third International prove clearly where it is drifting. The first is the expulsion of the Amsterdam Bureau, the ONLY group of revolutionary Marxists and theoreticians in Western Europe, that has never wavered. The second section, which is almost more serious, is the treatment of the KAPD, the ONLY party in Western Europe which, as an organisation, as a whole, from its very origin onwards, has conducted the revolution as it should be conducted. Whilst the Centre parties, the Independents, the French and English Centre, who always betrayed the revolution, were allured by all possible means, the KAPD, the real revolutionaries, were treated as enemies. These are bad signs, Comrade.

In a word: the Second International is still alive, or alive again, in our midst. And opportunism leads to ruin. And because this is so, and because opportunism is very strong amongst us, far stronger than I could ever have imagined, the Left Wing has to be there. Even if there should be no other good reasons for its existence, it would have to be there as an opposition, to counterbalance opportunism.

Alas, Comrade, if only you had followed the tactics of the Left Wing in the Third International; those tactics, that are nothing but the “pure” tactics of the Bolshevists in Russia, adapted to West-European (and North American) conditions!

If only, as stipulations and statutes for the Third International, you had proposed and carried through economic organisation in industrial organisations and workers’ unions (into which, if need be, industrial unions on a shop floor basis might have been introduced), and political organisation in parties which reject parliamentarism!

Then you would in the first place have had, in all countries, absolutely firm kernels, parties that could really carry out the revolution, parties that would gradually have gathered the masses around them, through their own example, in their own country, and not through pressure from outside. Then you would have had economic organisations that would have annihilated the counter-revolutionary Trade Unions (syndicalist as well as free). And then with ONE stroke you would have cut off the way for all opportunists. For these can thrive only where there is plotting with the counter-revolution.

Then, likewise – and this is by far the most important point – you would have educated the workers into independent fighters to a very high degree, as far as it is possible in the present stage.

If you, Lenin, and you, Bukharin and Radek, had done this, had chosen these tactics, with your authority and experience, your strength and genius, and if you had helped us to eradicate the faults that cling to us as yet, and to our tactics, then we would have achieved a Third International that was perfectly firm internally, and unshakable externally, an International which would gradually have gathered the entire proletariat around it, through the force of its example, and which would have built Communism.

It is true that there are no tactics without defeat. But these would have suffered least defeat, and would most easily have recovered from it; they would have gone the quickest way, and would have won the quickest and surest victory. Yours lead to repeated defeat for the proletariat.

However, you have rejected this because, instead of conscious, steadfast fighters, you wanted partly or totally unconscious masses.


1. In Halle, in one day alone, 500,000 new members came under leaders which only a short while before they themselves had recognised to be worse than the Scheidemann lot. And in Tours, three quarters of the French Socialist Party joined, which until quite recently were for the most part social patriots.

2. Comrade Pannekoek, who thoroughly knows Germany, had predicted this. If the leaders of the Spartakus League were placed before the choice between Parliament and Revolution, they would choose Parliament.