V. I. Lenin

Notes of a Publicist

On Ascending A High Mountain; The Harm Of Despondency; The Utility Of Trade; Attitude Towards The Mensheviks, Etc.[1]

Written: End of February, 1922
First Published: Pravda No. 87, April 16, 1924; Published according to the manuscript
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Volume 33, pages 204-211
Translated: David Skvirsky and George Hanna
Transcription\HTML Markup: David Walters & R. Cymbala
Copyleft: V. I. Lenin Internet Archive (www.marx.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

By Way Of Example

Let us picture to ourselves a man ascending a very high, steep and hitherto unexplored mountain. Let us assume that he has overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers and has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, but still has not reached the summit. He finds himself in a position where it is not only difficult and dangerous to proceed in the direction and along the path he has chosen, but positively impossible. He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit. The descent from the height that no one before him has reached proves, perhaps, to be more dangerous and difficult for our imaginary traveller than the ascent—it is easier to slip; it is not so easy to choose a foothold; there is not that exhilaration that one feels in going upwards, straight to the goal, etc. One has to tie a rope round oneself, spend hours with all alpenstock to cut footholds or a projection to which the rope could be tied firmly; one has to move at a snail’s pace, and move downwards, descend, away from the goal; and one does not know where this extremely dangerous and painful descent will end, or whether there is a fairly safe detour by which one can ascend more boldly, more quickly and more directly to the summit.

It would hardly be natural to suppose that a man who had climbed to such an unprecedented height but found himself in such a position did not have his moments of despondency. In all probability these moments would be more numerous, more frequent and harder to bear if he heard the voices of those below, who, through a telescope and from a safe distance, are watching his dangerous descent, which cannot even be described as what the Smena Vekh [2] people call “ascending with the brakes on"; brakes presuppose a well designed and tested vehicle, a well-prepared road and previously tested appliances. In this case, however, there is no vehicle, no road, absolutely nothing that had been tested beforehand.

The voices from below ring with malicious joy. They do not conceal it; they chuckle gleefully and shout: “He’ll fall in a minute! Serve him right, the lunatic!” Others try to conceal their malicious glee and behave mostly like Judas Golovlyov.[3] They moan and raise their eyes to heaven in sorrow, as if to say: “It grieves us sorely to see our fears justified! But did not we, who have spent all our lives working out a judicious plan for scaling this mountain, demand that the ascent be postponed until our plan was complete? And if we so vehemently protested against taking this path, which this lunatic is now abandoning (look, look, he has turned back! He is descending! A single step is taking him hours of preparation! And yet we were roundly abused when time and again we demanded moderation and caution!), if we so fervently censured this lunatic and warned everybody against imitating and helping him, we did so entirely because of our devotion to the great plan to scale this mountain, and in order to prevent this great plan from being generally discredited!”

Happily, in the circumstances we have described, our imaginary traveller cannot hear the voices of these people who are “true friends” of the idea of ascent; if he did, they would probably nauseate him. And nausea, it is said, does not help one to keep a clear head and a firm step, particularly at high altitudes.

Without Metaphors

An analogy is not proof. Every analogy is lame. These are incontrovertible and common truths; but it would do no harm to recall them in order to see the limits of every analogy more clearly.

Russia’s proletariat rose to a gigantic height in its revolution, not only when it is compared with 1789 and 1793, but also when compared with 1871. We must take stock of what we have done and what we have not as dispassionately, as clearly and as concretely as possible. If we do that we shall be able to keep clear heads. We shall not suffer from nausea, illusions, or despondency.

We wound up the bourgeois-democratic revolution more thoroughly than had ever been done before anywhere in the world. That is a great gain, and no power on earth can deprive us of it.

We accomplished the task of getting out of the most reactionary imperialist war in a revolutionary way. That, too, is a gain no power on earth can deprive us of; it is a gain which is all the more valuable for the reason that reactionary imperialist massacres are inevitable in the not distant future if capitalism continues to exist; and the people of the twentieth century will not be so easily satisfied with a second edition of the “Basle Manifesto”, with which the renegades, the heroes of the Second and the Two-and-a-Half Internationals, fooled themselves and the workers in 1912 and 1914-18.

We have created a Soviet type of state and by that we have ushered in a new era in world history, the era of the political rule of the proletariat, which is to supersede the era of bourgeois rule. Nobody can deprive us of this, either, although the Soviet type of state will have the finishing touches put to it only with the aid of the practical experience of the working class of several countries.

But we have not finished building even the foundations of socialist economy and the hostile powers of moribund capitalism can still deprive us of that. We must clearly appreciate this and frankly admit it; for there is nothing more dangerous than illusions (and vertigo, particularly at high altitudes). And there is absolutely nothing terrible, nothing that should give legitimate grounds for the slightest despondency, in admitting this bitter truth; for we have always urged and reiterated the elementary truth of Marxism—that the joint efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are needed for the victory of socialism. We are still alone and in a backward country, a country that was ruined more than others, but we have accomplished a great deal. More than that—we have preserved intact the army of the revolutionary proletarian forces; we have preserved its manoeuvring ability; we have kept clear heads and can soberly calculate where, when and how far to retreat (in order to leap further forward); where, when and how to set to work to alter what has remained unfinished. Those Communists are doomed who imagine that it is possible to finish such an epoch-making undertaking as completing the foundations of socialist economy (particularly in a small-peasant country) without making mistakes, without retreats, without numerous alterations to what is unfinished or wrongly done. Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility “to begin from the beginning “ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish).

And still less permissible is it for us to give way to the slightest degree of despondency; we have still less grounds for doing so because, notwithstanding the ruin, poverty, backwardness and starvation prevailing in our country, in the economics that prepare the way for socialism we have begun to make progress, while side by side with us, all over the world, countries which are more advanced, and a thousand times wealthier and militarily stronger than we are, are still retrogressing in their own vaunted, familiar, capitalist economic field, in which they have worked for centuries.

Catching Foxes; Levi And Serrati

The following is said to be the most reliable method of catching foxes. The fox that is being tracked is surrounded at a certain distance with a rope which is set at a little height from the snow-covered ground and to which are attached little red flags. Fearing this obvious]y artificial human device, the fox will emerge only if and where an opening is allowed in this fence of flags; and the hunter waits for it at this opening. One would think that caution would be the most marked trait of an animal that is hunted by everybody. But it turns out that in this case, too, “virtue unduly prolonged” is a fault. The fox is caught precisely because it is over-cautious.

I must confess to a mistake I made at the Third Congress of the Communist International also as a result of over-caution. At that Congress I was on the extreme Right flank. I am convinced that it was the only correct stand to take, for a very large (and influential) group of delegates, headed by many German, Hungarian and Italian comrades, occupied an inordinately “Left” and incorrectly Left position, and far too often, instead of soberly weighing up the situation that was not very favourable for immediate and direct revolutionary action, they vigorously indulged in the waving of little red flags. Out of caution and a desire to prevent this undoubtedly wrong deviation towards Leftism from giving a false direction to the whole tactics of the Communist International, I did all I could to defend Levi. I suggested that perhaps he had lost his head (I did not deny that he had lost his head) because he had been very frightened by the mistakes of the Lefts; and I argued that there had been cases of Communists who had lost their heads “finding” them again afterwards. Even while admitting, under pressure of the Lefts, that Levi was a Menshevik, I said that such an admission did not settle the question. For example, the whole history of the fifteen years of struggle between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks in Russia (1903-17) proves, as the three Russian revolutions also prove, that, in general, the Mensheviks were absolutely wrong and that they were, in fact, agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement. This fact is incontrovertible. But this incontrovertible fact does not eliminate the other fact that in individual cases the Mensheviks were right and the Bolsheviks wrong, as, for example, on the question of boycotting the Stolypin Duma in 1907.

Eight months have elapsed since the Third Congress of the Communist International. Obviously, our controversy with the Lefts is now outdated; events have settled it. It has been proved that I was wrong about Levi, because he has definitely shown that he took the Menshevik path not accidentally, not temporarily, not by “going too far” in combating the very dangerous mistakes of the Lefts, but deliberately and permanently, because of his very nature. Instead of honestly admitting that it was necessary for him to appeal for readmission to the party after the Third Congress of the Communist International, as every person who had temporarily lost his head when irritated by some mistakes committed by the Lefts should have done, Levi began to play sly tricks on the party, to try to put a spoke in its wheel, i.e., actually he began to serve those agents of the bourgeoisie, the Second and the Two-and-a-Half Internationals. Of course, the German Communists were quite right when they retaliated to this recently by expelling several more gentlemen from their party, those who were found to be secretly helping Paul Levi in this noble occupation.

The development of the German and Italian Communist Parties since the Third Congress of the Comintern has shown that the mistakes committed by the Lefts at that Congress have been noted and are being rectified—little by little, slowly, but steadily; the decisions of the Third Congress of the Communist International are being loyally carried out. The process of transforming the old type of European parliamentary party—which in fact is reformist and only slightly tinted with revolutionary colours—into a new type of party, into a genuinely revolutionary, genuinely Communist Party, is an extremely arduous one. This is demonstrated most clearly, perhaps, by the example of France. The process of changing the type of Party work in everyday life, of getting it out of the humdrum channel; the process of converting the Party into the vanguard of the revolutionary proletariat without permitting it to become divorced from the masses, but, on the contrary, by linking it more and more closely with them, imbuing them with revolutionary consciousness and rousing them for the revolutionary struggle, is a very difficult, but most important one. If the European Communists do not take advantage of the intervals (probably very short) between the periods of particularly acute revolutionary battles—such as took place in many capitalist countries of Europe and America in 1921 and the beginning of 1922—for the purpose of bringing about this fundamental, internal, profound reorganisation of the whole structure of their Parties and of their work, they will be committing the gravest of crimes. Fortunately, there is no reason to fear this. The quiet, steady, calm, not very rapid, but profound work of creating genuine Communist Parties, genuine revolutionary vanguards of the proletariat, has begun and is proceeding in Europe and America.

Political lessons taken even from the observation of such a trivial thing as catching foxes prove to be useful. On the one hand, excessive caution leads to mistakes. On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that if we give way to mere “sentiment” or indulge in the waving of little red flags instead of soberly weighing up the situation, we may commit irreparable mistakes; we may perish where there is absolutely no need to, although the difficulties are great.

Paul Levi now wants to get into the good graces of the bourgeoisie—and, consequently, of its agents, the Second and the Two-and-a-Half Internationals—by republishing precisely those writings of Rosa Luxemburg in which she was wrong. We shall reply to this by quoting two lines from a good old Russian fable[4]: “Eagles may at times fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles.” Rosa Luxemburg was mistaken on the question of the independence of Poland; she was mistaken in 1903 in her appraisal of Menshevism; she was mistaken on the theory of the accumulation of capital; she was mistaken in July 1914, when, together with Plekhanov, Vandervelde, Kautsky and others, she advocated unity between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; she was mistaken in what she wrote in prison in 1918 (she corrected most of these mistakes at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 after she was released). But in spite of her mistakes she was—and remains for us—an eagle. And not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works (the publication of which the German Communists are inordinately delaying, which can only be partly excused by the tremendous losses they are suffering in their severe struggle) will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world. “Since August 4, 1914,[5] German Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse"—this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg’s name famous in the history of the international working class movement. And, of course, in the backyard of the working-class movement, among the dung heaps, hens like Paul Levi, Scheidemann, Kautsky and all that fraternity will cackle over the mistakes committed by the great Communist. To every man his own.

As for Serrati, he is like a bad egg, which bursts with a loud noise and with an exceptionally—pungent smell. Is it not too rich to get carried at “his” congress a resolution that declares readiness to submit to the decision of the Congress of the Communist International, then to send old Lazzari to the Congress, and finally, to cheat the workers as brazenly as a horse-coper? The Italian Communists who are training a real party of the revolutionary proletariat in Italy will now be able to give the working masses an object lesson in political chicanery and Menshevism. The useful, repelling effect of this will not be felt immediately, not without many repeated object lessons, but it will be felt. The victory of the Italian Communists is assured if they do not isolate themselves from the masses, if they do not lose patience in the hard work of exposing all of Serrati’s chicanery to rank-and-file workers in a practical way, if they do not yield to the very easy and very dangerous temptation to say “minus a ” whenever Serrati says “a”, if they steadily train the masses to adopt a revolutionary world outlook and prepare them for revolutionary action, if they also take practical advantage of the practical and magnificent (although costly) object lessons of fascism.

Levi and Serrati are not characteristic in themselves; they are characteristic of the modern type of the extreme Left wing of petty-bourgeois democracy, of the camp of the “other side”, the camp of the international capitalists, the camp that is against us. The whole of “their” camp, from Gompers to Serrati, are gloating, exulting, or else shedding crocodile tears over our retreat, our “descent”, our New Economic Policy. Let them gloat, let them perform their clownish antics. To every man his own. But we shall not harbour any illusions or give way to despondency. If we are not afraid of admitting our mistakes, not afraid of making repeated efforts to rectify them—we shall reach the very summit. The cause of the international bloc from Gompers to Serrati is doomed.


[1] This article was not completed.

[2] Smena Vekh— the title of a collection of articles published in Prague in 1921, and then the name of a journal published in Paris from October 1921 to March 1922. It was the mouthpiece of advocates of a socio-political trend that emerged among White émigré intellectuals in 1921 and was supported by part of the old, bourgeois intelligentsia that did not emigrate for various reasons.

A certain revival of capitalist elements in Soviet Russia following the implementation of the New Economic Policy served as the social foundation for this trend. When its adherents saw that foreign military intervention could not overthrow Soviet rule they began advocating co-operation with the Soviet government, hoping for a bourgeois regeneration of the Soviet state. They regarded the New Economic Policy as an evolution of Soviet rule towards the restoration of capitalism. Some of them were prepared loyally to co-operate with the Soviet government and promote the country’s economic rejuvenation. Subsequently, most of them openly sided with the counter-revolution.

A characteristic of this trend is given by Lenin in this volume (see pp. 285-86).

[3] Judas Golovlyov— a landowner and main personage of M. Y. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovlyov Family. He was called Judas for his bigotry, hypocrisy and callousness. The name Judas Golovlyov has become a synonym for these negative traits.

[4]This is a reference to the fable The Eagle and the Hens by Ivan Krylov.

[5] In the Reichstag on August 4, 1914, the Social-Democratic faction voted with the bourgeois representatives in favour of granting the imperial government war credits amounting to 5,000 million marks, thereby approving Wilhelm II’s imperialist policy. .