Duncan Hallas, Introduction, V.I. Lenin, “Left-wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder, Bookmarks, London 1993.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
This is one of the most important of all Lenin’s writings. “Left-Wing” Communism was written in April 1920 (the appendix was added in May). The date is significant. The German revolution of November 1918, which had overthrown the imperial regime, had been contained. The Weimar republic, a purely bourgeois state, had been created by the Social Democrats (SPD) with the indispensable aid of the left wing breakaway Independent Social Democrats (USPD). The revolutions in Hungary and Bavaria had been defeated. The Entente powers, essentially Britain, France and the US had erected a tier of new states (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Baltic states, Finland) and reconstituted or expanded others (Poland, Romania). Their Cordon Sanitaire was directed first against soviet Russia, second against the possibility of a revival of German power. The “monstrous robber treaty of Versailles”, as Lenin called it, had been enforced.
Yet the whole structure was unstable. In Germany an attempt to replace Weimar by a military dictatorship (the Kapp Putsch) had been defeated by massive working class opposition in March and the radicalisation of millions of workers was proceeding apace. The SPD was losing ground fast to the USPD. All the new and reconstituted states were experiencing, in varying degrees, large scale discontent and political turmoil.
In soviet Russia the counter-revolutionary forces, such as Kolchak’s army in Siberia and Denikin s troops in the Ukraine, had, by this time, been decisively defeated. The British, French and America forces sent to support them had been made to withdraw (although the Japanese still operated in eastern Siberia). Lenin’s attention was already turning to the problem of restoring the mined Russian economy.
This is the background. It is testimony to Lenin’s profound and unshakable internationalism that, in the midst of a mass of problems internal to the soviet republic and a heavy administrative workload, he found it both possible and necessary to devote so much time and attention to the problems of the western Communist Parties, to studying the literature of German, British, Italian, French, Dutch and other Communists.
It was no longer a question of the military survival of the revolutionary regime. True, the Polish invasion of the Ukraine in April was a heavy blow, and the ensuing war continued throughout the summer. But this never remotely threatened the existence of the regime and an armistice was signed in October. The key question was now the spreading of revolution to other European countries, for, as Lenin had written in 1918 and again in 1919, “the final victory of socialism in a single country is, of course, impossible.”
The Communist International, or Comintern, had been founded in March 1919 by a small and not very representative meeting composed of 35 delegates, many, if not most, of whom did not represent real organisations. Nevertheless, it raised the flag, so to say, of militant revolutionary internationalism, continuing the (small) wartime revolutionary left represented at the Zimmerwald (1915) and Kienthal (1916) international conferences. The Comintern issued a manifesto containing a militant attack on the way in which capitalist ruling classes use parliaments to grant formal “democracy” while denying the mass of the population any real control over their own lives. Instead of this sham, bourgeois democracy, the manifesto mounted a vigorous defence of workers’ councils (soviets) as “new forms of democracy, new institutions that embody the new conditions for applying democracy”.
The problem was that, outside soviet Russia, the Cominten represented very little. There was indeed, in 1919, widespread sympathy with the October revolution – one of the reasons for the failure of the Entente’s intervention in support of the “white” counter-revolutionary armies. Yet there were no real revolutionary parties of any size and substance and such parties as there were demonstrated the symptoms of the “infantile disorder” against which Lenin’s pamphlet was directed. In fact, it took many forms of which two were to prove of considerable importance.
There was the putchist notion that a revolutionary minority of workers could, by insurrectionary actions which had no support from the mass of the working class, somehow “galvanise” the masses and lead to workers’ power. The rising in Berlin by Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartakists in January 1919 is the most important example. One of the main ways in which this type of “leftism” manifested itself was the refusal in principle to participate in parliamentary elections.
At the same time the essentially passive, propagandist, “we are the pure selected few” – and don’t want “dilution” by ignorant workers – approach was also important in a number of cases. Lenin attacks this as a “Dutch alternative”. It was also influential in a number of other countries including Britain and the US. To summarise, the Communist Parties outside Russia were, for the most part, very weak and usually “leftist” in the bad sense.
The one western Communist Party that had been able to play a significant role in events was the German (KPD) and its role, although heroic, had been ineffective and worse. There was however a “right wing” in the party, i.e. a wing closer to the views argued in “Left Wing” Communism, although its ideas derived from Luxemburg rather than Lenin. In October 1919 this wing managed to arrange a split in the party that led to the secession of most of the “left” and also to the loss of half (at least) of its membership (perhaps 50,000). Lenin refers to this in his appendix and evidently hoped (wrongly as it turned out) that some kind of reconciliation was possible.
So far we have spoken about ultra-leftism, indeed that is the target of Lenin’s work. Yet a much more important thing was happening in the spring of 1920, the radicalisation of very large numbers of European workers, a much deeper and probably wider radicalisation than in 1919. It resulted in a massive growth of support for what we term “centrist” parties.
The essence of centrism is a willingness to use left wing, even revolutionary, phrases and to combine th~m with a vacillating, hypocritical and cowardly practice. Of course there are centrists and centrists, those moving left towards a consistent revolutionary position and those moving right to social democracy. Lenin writes here of the revolutionary workers of the USPD:
To fear a “compromise” with this wing of the party is positively ridiculous. On the contrary it is the duty of Communists to seek and find a suitable form of compromise with them, a compromise which, on the one hand, will facilitate and accelerate the necessary complete fusion with this wing and, on the other, will in no way hamper the Communists in their ideological and political struggle against the opportunist right wing of the Independents.
Of course, he adds, this is difficult, but it is essential.
The attack on the ultra-lefts was an indispensable prelude to winning the masses of the USPD. And not just in Germany, but similar forces in France, Italy, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.
The slogan of the German “lefts” – “no compromise, no manoeuvres” – was a recipe for sterility and isolation. In fact, after the Second Congress of the Communist International (July-August 1920), where the line of “Left Wing” Communism was carried (not without a good deal of opposition), the centrist parties in Germany, France, Czechoslovakia and (less successfully) Italy were shifted and the Communist International gained, for the first time, real mass parties in a number of important countries outside Russia. Naturally, this did not solve all the old problems and it introduced some new ones, but without it there would have been no real mass Communist Parties in Europe.
Moreover, it was necessary to seize the time. As Trotsky wrote later,
The masses don’t ever stay for very long in this transitional stage; temporarily they rally to the centrists, then they go on and join the Communists or go back to the reformists – unless they relapse into indifference.
What has all this do to with today? We have no large, or even significant centrist or even left-reformist currents. Ultra-left splinters certainly exist but they are of no great importance. It is a question of the aim and the method. Time and again Lenin comes back to the necessity of winning the support of the mass of the working class, not just the most advanced workers, and the impossibility of doing so without “changes in tack”, manoeuvres in the good sense of the word. Above all, he insists repeatedly, it will not do to rely on general formulae. “One must use one’s brains and be able to find one’s bearings in each particular instance.”
The disaster of Stalinism internationally destroyed the communist movement as a serious force. We are forced back into operating in conditions of much less advanced working class consciousness. Yet it is certain that when the next phase of working class radicalisation comes, and it will come, the old problems will arise under new guises, for they are aspects of the process whereby the working class achieves full consciousness. And the general notions of Lenin’s approach, the spirit and thrust of them, apply (or should apply) to the operations of any revolutionary Marxist organisation that is more than a propaganda circle.
Lenin refers to Engels “who, like Marx, was one of those rarest of authors whose every sentence in every one of their fundamental works contains a remarkably profound content”. It is true of Lenin too and it is especially true of “Left Wing” Communism. It is a work to be read, re-read and read again.
Last updated on 5 February 2017