Herman Gorter, Open Letter to Comrade Lenin, 1920


Finally I have to make a few observations regarding your last chapter: “Conclusions,” perhaps the most important of your entire book. Again I was delighted with it, as long as I thought of the Russian revolution. But over and over again the thought came into my head: the tactics that are brilliant for Russia are bad here. They lead to defeat here.

You assert here, comrade (pp. 68-74), that in a certain stage of development the masses must be attracted, millions and millions of them. The propaganda for “pure” Communism, that collected the avant-garde, and educated it, suffices no longer in that stage. Now is the time, and next follow once again your opportunist methods that I have already refuted: taking advantage of “rifts,” of petty-bourgeois elements, etc.

Comrade, this chapter is also completely wrong.

You judge as a Russian, not as an international Communist who knows real West-European capitalism.

Almost every word of this chapter, wonderful though it may be for the knowledge of your revolution, is wrong for big industrial capitalism, for the trusts and monopoly capitalism.

I will demonstrate this here: first in small matters.

Still Need for Propaganda.

You write about Communism in Western Europe.

“The vanguard of the West-European proletariat has been won” (p. 70). This is wrong, Comrade. “The period of propaganda is past” (p. 69). This is not true. “The proletarian vanguard has been won over ideologically.” This is not so, Comrade. This stands in line (and it proceeds from the same mentality) with what I read in Bukharin, not long ago: “English capitalism is bankrupt.” I also read in Radek similar fantasies, that were closer to astrology than astronomy. Nothing of this is true. Except for Germany, there is no vanguard anywhere yet. Neither in England, nor France, nor Belgium, nor Holland, nor, if I am well informed, in most of the Scandinavian countries. There are only a few “Eclaireurs,” who do not agree yet about the course that must be followed (1). “The period of propaganda is past” is a terrible lie.

No, Comrade, this period is just beginning in Western Europe. There is no firm kernel anywhere as yet.

What we need here is such a kernel, hard as steel, clear as glass. And this is where we should begin herewith to build up a big organisation. In this respect we are here in the stage you were in 1903, or even before, in the Iskra period. Comrade, conditions here are far riper than we are, but that is no reason why we should let ourselves be carried away, to begin without a kernel!

For the time being we of Western Europe, the Communist parties in England, France, Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia, Italy, even the KAPD in Germany, must remain small, not because we want to, but because otherwise we cannot become strong.

An example: Belgium. Except for Hungary, before the revolution, there is no country where the proletariat is as corrupted by reformism as Belgium. If at this moment Communism should become a mass movement there (with parliamentarism, etc.), the vultures, the profiteers etc. of opportunism would swoop down on it immediately and drag it to destruction. And it is the same everywhere.

For that reason, because the Labour movement here is very weak as yet, and almost completely trapped in opportunism, because so far Communism is hardly anything, and must fight (on the questions of parliamentarism and the Trade Unions and on all others) until we attain the highest lucidity and clarity, until everything has been made theoretically as clear as possible.

A sect, therefore, says the Executive Committee. Certainly a sect, if that is what you want to call the kernel of a movement that conquers the world.

Comrade, there was a time when your movement, the Bolsheviks, was also small and insignificant. It was because it was small, and voluntarily remained so for a long time that it kept itself pure. And through this, and this exclusively it became powerful. We also want to proceed in this way.

This is a question of the utmost importance. Not only the West-European, but also the Russian revolution depends on this. Beware, Comrade! You know that Napoleon in trying to spread modern capitalism all over Europe was finally wrecked and had to make way for reaction, when he had arrived; where there was not only too much of the middle ages, but especially too little capitalism.

These, your minor assertions, are not true. I will now proceed to the bigger ones, to the most important of all you say: that now the time has come without propaganda to win the millions for “pure” Communism, through the opportunist policy you describe. Comrade, even if you were right in the small matters, if the Communist Parties here were actually strong enough, this would be utterly wrong from beginning to end. Pure propaganda for the new Communism, as I have often said already, will be necessary here in Western Europe, from the beginning of the revolution to the very end. Because (this point is of such importance that it has to be constantly repeated) it is the workers, the workers alone, who must bring Communism. Of the other classes they have nothing to expect, in any considerable measure, until the revolution is finished.

You say (p. 72) : that period of the revolution has started in which we have the vanguard, and in which:

1. all class powers that are against us have become sufficiently disarranged, have fought sufficiently amongst themselves, have been sufficiently weakened by the struggle that surpasses their strength;

2. all vacillating, undecided elements, the petty- bourgeoisie, petty-bourgeois democracy, have been sufficiently unmasked before the people, have exposed themselves sufficiently through their bankruptcy.

Well, Comrade, this is Russian. In the Russian government body, which was rotten through and through, these were the conditions for the revolution.

In the modern, really big-capitalist states, however, the conditions will be altogether different. The big bourgeois parties will stand together in opposition to Communism, will not get disarranged, and the petty-bourgeoisie will stand by them. Not in an absolute sense, of course, but to such an extent that it has to determine our tactics.

Character of Western European Revolution.

In Western Europe we must expect a revolution that is a tenacious struggle on either side, with a firm organisation on the part of the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie. The immense organisations of capitalism and of the workers prove this.

These, therefore, we have to organise likewise with the very best weapons, the best form of organisation, the best and strongest methods of fighting (not with weak ones).

It is here, and not in Russia, that the real struggle between capital and labour will be fought. Because here there is real capital.

Comrade, if you think that (from a tendency for theoretical purity), I exaggerate, just look at Germany. There you have an utterly bankrupt, almost desperate State. But all classes, big and petty bourgeois alike, as well as the peasant classes, stand firmly united against Communism. Thus it will be everywhere with us.

It is true that just at the end of the development of the revolution, when the most terrible crisis breaks out, when we are quite close to victory, the unity of the bourgeois classes will perhaps disappear, and some of the petty bourgeois and peasants will come to us. But what good is that to us? We must determine our tactics for the beginning and the course of the revolution.

Because this is so, and has to be so (because of the class relations and even more the relations of production) , the proletariat stands alone.

Because it stands alone, it can only triumph if it gains greatly in spiritual strength.

And as this is the only way it can triumph, propaganda for “pure” Communism is needed here until the very end (quite the contrary to Russia).

Without this propaganda, the West-European, and consequently the Russian proletariat, is lost.

And the same holds true of the Executive in Moscow.

Whilst I was writing these last few pages, the news came through that the International had adopted your tactics and those of the Executive. The West-European delegates have let themselves be dazzled by the brilliance of the Russian revolution. All right, we will take up the fight in the Third International.

We, Comrade, your old friends Pannekoek, Roland Holst, Rutgers and myself, truer than which you cannot find, on hearing of your West-European tactics, asked ourselves what could have caused them. Opinions differed greatly. The one said: the economic condition of Russia is so bad that, after all, it needs peace. For that reason, Comrade Lenin wants to gather around him as much power as possible: the Independents, Labour Party, etc., so that they may help him to obtain peace. The other said: he wishes to hasten the general European revolution. Therefore millions have to join. That is the reason for his opportunism.

I myself believe, as I have said before, that you misunderstand European conditions, the state of things.

However this may be, Comrade, and from what motives you may act, if you go on with these tactics, you will suffer the most terrible defeat, and you will lead the proletariat into the most terrible defeat.

For if you wish to save Russia, the Russian revolution, by means of these tactics, you collect non-Communist elements. You join them to us, the real Communists, whilst we do not as yet have a firm kernel! With this medley of dead Trade Unions, with a mass of half or quarter Communists, in which there is no solid kernel, you want to fight against the best organised capital in the world, with all the non-proletarian classes on its side. It goes without saying that in the battle this medley will fall apart, and the great mass will take flight.

Why German Workers must not be Defeated.

Comrade, a crushing defeat, of the German proletariat for instance, is the signal for a general attack on Russia.

If you wish to make the revolution here, with this hodgepodge of Labour Party and Independents, French Centre and the Italian Party, etc., and with these Trade Unions, the outcome cannot be otherwise. The governments will not even fear such a load of opportunists.

If however you form internally firm, radical groups, firm (though small) parties, then the government will fear these parties, as only these carry away the masses in great deeds in the revolution – as the Spartakus League has proved in the beginning – then the governments will have to release Russia, and finally, when the parties will thus, through these “pure” tactics, have grown powerful, victory will be ours. These our “Left” tactics, therefore, are the best; nay the only ones that bring salvation for us and for Russia alike.

Your tactics on the other hand are Russian. They were excellent in a country where an army of millions of poor peasants stood ready, and where there was a wavering, desperate middle class. Here they are no good.

I must finally refute your assertion and that of many of your associates, upon which I have already touched in the third chapter; that the revolution in Western Europe can only begin after the lower, democratic layers of capitalism have been sufficiently shaken, neutralised or won.

This assertion also, in one of the most weighty questions of the revolution, proves once more that you consider everything from a purely East- European point of view. And this assertion is wrong.

For the proletariat in Germany and England is so numerous, so powerful through its organisation, that it can make the revolution, its beginning and development without, and in opposition to all these classes. And even that it must make the revolution, driven by sufferings in Germany.

And it can only do so, if it follows the right tactics, if it founds its organisation on a shop floor basis, and rejects parliamentarism; if only it strengthens the workers in this way!

We of the Left Wing, therefore, choose our tactics not only for the reason mentioned above, but especially also because the West-European proletariat, and in the first place the German and English proletariat, by itself alone, if only it grows conscious and united, is so immensely strong, that it can win in this simple manner. The Russian proletariat had to take roundabout ways, being too weak by itself, and it has done so brilliantly, in a manner far surpassing all that the world proletariat has ever achieved. But the West-European proletariat can triumph by the straight, clear road.

Thus also this assertion of yours has been refuted.

There remains one argument still to be refuted, one which I have read over and over again with the “Right” Communists, which I heard from the Russian Trade Union leader, Losovski, and which is to be found also with you: “The crisis will drive the masses to Communism, even if we retain the bad Trade Unions and parliamentarism.” This is a very weak argument. For we have no idea how big the crisis is going to be. Will it be as deep in England and France as it is now in Germany? Secondly, this argument (the “mechanical argument of the Third International”), has proved how weak it is during the last six years. In Germany the misery during the last years of the war was terrible. The revolution did not break out. It was terrible in 1918 and 1919. The revolution did not triumph. The crisis in Hungary, Austria, the Balkans and Poland is terrible. The revolution did not come, or did not win, not even when the Russian armies were quite near. But in the third place the argument turns against yourself, for if the crisis should bring about the revolution in any case, the better “Left” tactics might be just as well adopted.

The examples of Germany, Hungary, Bavaria, Austria, Poland and the Balkans however, all prove that crisis and misery do not suffice. They have the most terrible economic crisis, and yet the revolution does not break out. There must be another cause yet, which brings the revolution about, and which, if it does not work, causes the delay, or the collapse of the revolution. This cause is the spirit of the masses. And it is your tactics, Comrade, which fail to sufficiently awaken the spirit of the masses in Western Europe, which does not sufficiently strengthen it, which leaves it as it was. In the course of writing I have pointed out that banking capital, the trusts, the monopolies and the West-European and North American state formed by them, and dependent on them, as they are, unite all bourgeois classes, big as well as small, into one whole against the revolution.

But this force, uniting society and the state against the revolution, goes even further. Banking capital itself organised the working class in a previous period, in the period of evolution, against the revolution: educating, uniting and organising them. And in what way? In the Trade Unions (Syndicalist as well as free), and in the social-democratic parties. By forcing them to fight only for reforms, capital turned these Trade Unions and Labour parties into counter-revolutionary forces for the maintenance of the State and society. Because of big capital, Trade Unions and Labour parties became props of capitalism. As, however, these organisations consist of workers, and of almost the majority of workers, and as the revolution cannot be made without the workers, these organisations must be destroyed before the revolution can succeed. And how are they to be destroyed? By changing their spirit. And their spirit can only be changed by making the spirit of the members independent to the utmost degree. And this can be done only by replacing the Trade unions with industrial unions and workers’ unions, and by abolishing parliamentarism in the Labour parties. And your tactics prevent this.

It is true that German, French and Italian capitalism is bankrupt. Or rather: these capitalist States are bankrupt. The capitalists themselves, their economic and political organisations, maintain themselves and their profits, dividends and new capital are still huge. Only, however, by an extension of the circulation of paper by the State. If the German, French and Italian States fall, the capitalists fall likewise.

Crisis is Nearing.

The crisis approaches with an iron necessity. If prices rise, strike waves rise as well; if they fall, the army of the unemployed increases. Misery is spreading all over Europe, and hunger is approaching. Moreover, the world is full of new fuel. The conflict, the new revolution, is drawing near. But how will it end? Capitalism is still powerful. Germany, Italy, France and Eastern Europe are not the whole world. And in Western Europe, North America and the British Dominions, for some time to come, capitalism will hold together all classes against the proletariat. The issue therefore to a very great extent depends on our tactics and on our organisation. And your tactics are wrong.

Here in Western Europe there is only one kind of tactics: those of the Left Wing, that tells the proletariat the truth, and does not blind it with illusions. Those that, even though it may take a long time, forge the only effective weapons – the industrial organisations (uniting these into one whole), and the originally small, but pure and firm kernels, the Communist parties. Those tactics, moreover, that spread these organisations over the entire proletariat.

This has to be like this, not because we of the Left Wing want it, but because the relations of production, class relations, demand it.

At the conclusion of my exposition, I will draw them up in a concise survey, so that the worker may see everything clearly for himself.

In the first place, I imagine, there follows from it a clear image of the causes of our tactics (a clear survey of the motives of our tactics) , and the tactics themselves: banking capital dominates the whole world. Ideologically and materially it keeps the gigantic proletariat in the deepest slavery, and unites all bourgeois classes. Consequently the gigantic masses must rise and proceed to act for themselves. This is only possible through industrial organisations and the abolition of parliamentarism in the revolution.

Secondly, I will summarise the tactics of the Left Wing, and those of the Third International in a few phrases, so that the difference between your tactics and those of the Left Wing become clearly and absolutely obvious, and so that if your tactics lead to the greatest debacle, as they probably will, the workers will not lose courage, but might see there are other tactics.

The Third International believes that the West-European revolution will proceed together according to the laws and tactics of the Russian revolution.

The Left Wing believes that the West-European revolution will make and follow its own laws.

The Third International believes that the West-European revolution will be able to make compromises and alliances with petty-bourgeois and small peasant, and even with big bourgeois parties.

The Left Wing believes this is impossible.

The Third International believes that in Western Europe during the revolution there will be “rifts” and scissions between the bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and small peasant parties.

The Left Wing believes that the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties will form one united front until the end of the revolution.

The Third International underestimates the power of West-European and North American capital.

The Left Wing makes its tactics conform to this great power.

The Third International does not recognise the power of banking capital, the big capital which unites all bourgeois classes.

The Left Wing on the contrary bases its tactics on this unifying power.

As the Third International does not believe in the fact that in Western Europe the proletariat will stand alone, it neglects the mental development of this proletariat; which in every respect is still deeply entangled in bourgeois ideology; and chooses tactics which leave slavery and subjection to bourgeois ideas unmolested and intact.

Left-Winger to Free Workers’ Minds.

The Left Wing chooses its tactics in such a way that in the first place the mind of the workers is liberated.

As the Third International does not found its tactics on freeing the mind, nor on the unity of all bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties, but on compromises and “rifts"; it leaves the old Trade Unions intact, trying to unite them with the Third International.

As the Left Wing strives above all for freeing the mind, and believes in the unity of the bourgeois parties, it realises that the Trade Unions must be destroyed, and that the proletariat needs better weapons.

The same motives induce the Third International to support parliamentarism.

The same motives also induce the Left Wing to abolish parliamentarism.

The Third International leaves the condition of slavery such as it was in the Second.

The Left Wing wishes to change it from below upward; it seizes the evil at the root.

As the Third International does not believe that in the first place the liberation of minds is needed in Western Europe, nor that all bourgeois parties will be one in the revolution, it collects masses around it, without inquiring whether they are really Communist, without determining its tactics, on the supposition that they are – as long as it gets the masses.

The Left Wing wishes in all countries to form parties consisting exclusively of Communists, and determines its tactics accordingly. Through the example of these originally small parties, the majority of the proletariat, and therefore the masses, will be brought to Communism.

To the Third International, then, the masses in Western Europe are a means.

To the Left Wing they are the aim.

Through these tactics (which were quite right in Russia), the Third International employs leader-politics.

The Left Wing, on the other hand, employs mass politics.

Through these tactics the Third International is leading not only the West-European, but also the Russian revolution, into ruin.

The Left Wing on the other hand, through its tactics, leads the world proletariat towards victory.

And, finally, I will gather my statements into a few theses, so that the workers who must strive for themselves to gain a clear insight into those tactics, may have them before their eyes in a concise, surveyable form. They have to be read, of course, in the light of the above exposition.

1. The tactics of the West-European revolution must be different from those of the Russian revolution.

2. For here the proletariat stands alone.

3. Here the proletariat must make the revolution all by itself, against all other classes.

4. The importance of the proletarian masses, therefore, is relatively greater, and that of the leaders smaller than in Russia.

5. Consequently, here the proletariat must have the very best weapons for the revolution.

6. The Trade Unions being insufficient weapons, they must be replaced or changed into industrial organisations, that are united into one league.

7. As the proletariat must make the revolution all alone, without help, it has to rise very high morally as well as spiritually. It is better therefore not to use parliamentarism in the revolution.

Marx had learnt from the Paris Commune the proletariat cannot use or take over the bourgeois

State for the revolution. Thus the “Left Wing” has learnt from the Russian, German, Hungarian, from the World Revolution, that the proletariat cannot use the old Socialist parties, nor the old Trade Unions for the revolution.

With fraternal greetings,


1. The English Communists for instance, with regard to the most important matter of affiliation to the Labour Party.