Source: International Socialism, No. 46, February/March 1971, pp. 23–26.
Translation: Ian H. Birchall.
Copyright: © This translation copyright Pluto Press, 1971.
Transcription & Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.
The quoting of classic texts is one of the favourite occupations of Marxists of all tendencies. All to often, however, texts are quoted with no regard for the original circumstances in which they were written. Yet almost all the works of Lenin, in particular, were written as contributions to polemics rather than as systematic expositions of general principles. Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism has been a particular victim of such misquotation, having served not only Stalinists as a blanket weapon against the ‘ultra-left’, but anti-communist apologists concerned to prove Lenin’s unscrupulousness and amorality.
The following chapter from Alfred Rosmer’s Moscow Under Lenin may serve as a useful corrective. This book – to be published in English by Pluto Press during 1971 – deals with Rosmer’s experiences in Moscow from 1920 to 1924, where he not only attended the Second, Third and Fourth Congresses of the Third International, but served on the Executive Committee of the International, and assisted with the creation of the Red International of Labour Unions. Rosmer, expelled from the French CP in 1924 at the time of the so-called ‘Bolshevisation’, was later active in the Left Opposition and, despite subsequent disagreements with Trotsky, was a life-long opponent of Stalinism and a defender of the principles of the early years of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International.
Some copies of a book by Lenin called State and Revolution had arrived in France early in 1919. It was an extraordinary book and it had a strange destiny. Lenin, a Marxist and a Social Democrat, was treated as an outcast by the theoreticians of the socialist parties which claimed to be Marxist. ‘It isn’t Marxism’, they shrieked, ‘it’s a mixture of anarchism and Blanquism’. One of them even found a witty turn of phrase and called it ‘Blanquism with sauce tartare’. On the other hand, for revolutionaries situated outside the mainstream of orthodox Marxism, for the syndicalists and anarchists, this Blanquism, sauce and all, was a pleasant revelation. They had never heard such language from the Marxists they knew. They read and reread this interpretation of Marx which was quite unfamiliar to them. In France, the Marxism which had originated with Lafargue and Guesde had become singularly impoverished. Within the united Socialist Party, founded in 1905, there continued to be a clash of tendencies, and polemics were sometimes sharp. But on essential points there was agreement; socialism could be achieved gradually by means of reforms. They still talked of revolution, but it was no more than a cliché, a conventional evocation to wind up an appeal. (The word had not yet been besmirched as it has been since the fascist period; it still meant working-class violence and insurrection). Things were no different in Germany, considered to be the home territory of Marxism, where Kautsky posed as the defender of the true doctrine.
But it was precisely the revolutionary nature of Marxism which was to be found in State and Revolution, texts from Marx and Engels, and commentaries by Lenin. And for .him too, in a sense, these texts had been a discovery. He remarked: ‘All this was written a little less than half a century ago; and now one has to engage in excavations, as it were in order to bring undistorted Marxism to the knowledge of the masses’. But why raise the question of the state right in the middle of the war? Because, as Lenin wrote at the very beginning of his study:
The question of the state is now acquiring particular importance both in theory and in practical politics. The imperialist war has immensely accelerated and intensified the process of transformation of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism ... The international proletarian revolution is clearly maturing. The question of its relation to the state is acquiring practical importance.
Then he quoted this fundamental text of Engels, taken from the Anti-Dühring:
The first act by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society – the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society – this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then withers away of itself; the government of-jpersons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’. It withers, away.
Lenin comments on this text sentence by sentence, then writes:
The proletariat needs the state – this is repeated by all the opportunisms, social-chauvinists and Kautskyites, who assure us that this is what Marx taught. But they ‘forget’ to add that, in the first place, according to Marx, the proletariat needs only a state which is withering away, i.e., a state so constituted that it begins to wither away immediately, and cannot but wither away.
This proletarian state will begin to wither away immediately after its victory, because the state is unnecessary and cannot exist in a society in which there are no class antagonisms.
‘Breaking of the state power’, which was a ‘parasitic excrescence’; its ‘amputation’, its ‘smashing’; ‘the now superseded state power’ – these are the expressions Marx used in regard to the state when appraising and analysing the experience of the Commune.
The proletariat needs the state only temporarily. We do not at all disagree with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as the aim.
So, for Lenin, the socialist revolution was no longer a faraway objective, a vague ideal to be achieved piecemeal, within the strictest observance of bourgeois legality. It was a concrete problem, the problem of the present day, which the war had posed and which the working class was going to solve. Besides these texts, in which they could find a language akin to their own, what particularly pleased revolutionaries from the anarchist and syndicalist traditions, and attracted them towards Bolshevism, was the merciless condemnation of opportunism. And this was not only of hardened opportunists, the social-chauvinists who had backed up their imperialist governments during the war, but also of those who stopped halfway, who criticised government policies but did not dare draw the logical consequences of their criticism.
For Lenin, the collapse of the Socialist International at the moment when war was declared in August 1914 meant the opening of a new era. While Kautsky wanted to preserve the organisation whose bankruptcy was obvious, saying that the International was valid only in peace-time, Lenin exclaimed: ‘The Second International is dead! Long live the new International!’ The immediate task was to establish it, regrouping the proletarians who had remained faithful amid the torments of war. And since revolution would follow the war, it was necessary to get down immediately to studying the problems of socialist construction.
State and Revolution was actually written only in August and September 1917, when Lenin, hounded by Kerensky and his socialist ministers and accused of treason, had to hide in Finland. But the whole framework, the basic texts which constituted it, had been brought by Lenin from Switzerland. It was in Switzerland, during the war, that he had set out to collect and comment on them. Just before he left Switzerland, on February 17, 1917, he wrote from Zurich to Alexandra Kollontai: ‘I am preparing (and have practically finished) a study on the question of the relation of Marxism to the state’. And he saw this work as so important that, during the July Days, when Bolshevism was going through a difficult phase, he wrote to Kamenev (the same Kamenev that Stalin was to have executed):
‘Comrade Kamenev, in strict confidence, if I should be killed, I beg you to publish a notebook with the title Marxism and the State (it has been left in safe keeping in Stockholm). Bound, with a blue cover. There are collected in it all the quotations from Marx and Engels, as well as those of Kautsky’s controversy with Pannekoek. Also a series of remarks and reviews. It has only to be edited. I think this work could be published within a week. I think it is very important, because it isn’t only Plekhanov and Kautsky who have gone off the rails. All this on one condition: that it is in strict confidence between ourselves.’
Of course there were still disagreements between Lenin and his new supporters. If there was agreement about the withering away of the state, there was still the question of the transitional period during which it would have to be preserved in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the Russian socialists had not hesitated to make the revisions imposed on them by the collapse of social democracy. For their part, the syndicalists would have to take account of experience – the experience of the war, where syndicalism had partly collapsed, and the experience of the Russian Revolution. Hitherto they had failed to make a serious study of the question of the transitional period. Lenin’s book, and, even more, the actions of Bolshevism in power, had created a climate favourable to a reconciliation. As we have already seen, at their congress the anarcho-syndicalists of the Spanish CNT had declared themselves in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat. 
A few days after we arrived in Moscow, we received two books that had just been published by the Communist International. They were Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder by Lenin, and Terrorism and Communism, a reply by Trotsky to a work of Kautsky’s which had appeared with the same title. The two books formed a sort of introduction and commentary on the Theses prepared for the Congress.
I was already familiar with the contents of Left-Wing Communism from conversations and discussions I had listened to during my journey, especially in Germany. The party, the unions, parliamentarism – these were the questions that had produced the split among the German Communists. When I read the book, I discovered once again the true Lenin, the author of State and Revolution. But here his opponent was no longer the opportunist, the social-chauvinist, the centrist, but rather a communist, of the sort that Lenin described as ‘left’. But rather than a sickness which most children go through, Lenin saw this leftism as childishness in the sense of being easy and uncomplicated. And he frequently speaks of ‘childish simplicity’, ‘easiness’, and the ‘childishness of anti-parliamentarism’.
In his view this tendency often appeared in the new communist groups and parties. People wanted to build something new quickly, to create organisations that were quite distinct from all those that belonged to a period that was now seen as over and done with. They abandoned the unions to create mass assemblies of workers; they wanted nothing more to do with democracy or parliament; they retained the party on condition that it was a ‘mass party’, which depended on the base for the initiative and development of the revolutionary struggle, not a ‘party of leaders’, leading the struggle from above, making compromises and sitting in parliaments. We have seen that the KAPD (German Communist Workers’ Party) had been established on this basis, and everywhere there were groups on the same road to a greater or lesser extent. For example, the Kommunismus group in Vienna, the Dutch followers of Gorter, the Bordigists in Italy. In France we had seen the formation of a Federation of Soviets, a Communist Party where the syndicalist Pericat rubbed shoulders with anarchists.
Against this tendency Lenin stood up; he barred its path and fought against it with the same vigour he had shown against opportunists and centrists in State and Revolution. Yet here his adversaries were friends, defenders of the October Revolution, supporters of the Third International. And of course Lenin did make a distinction; but that in now way prevented him from criticising harshly conceptions which he knew to be wrong, and, moreover, dangerous because they could lead to a squandering of the energy that the working class needed to be victorious.
Although it was critical and polemical in manner, the book nonetheless had a rich content. The delegates read it attentively, and it offered them plenty of food for thought and discussion. The argument was solidly supported, but with no concern for form or even construction. Yet it is precisely the absence of the formal construction we are used to that constitutes Lenin’s way of presenting his arguments. He comes back tirelessly to the central point of the debate, finds new arguments and new developments, hammers home the same point; and even when his opponent is in a bad way, he does not hesitate to strike the death blow. Furthermore, the book opens with some general considerations on ‘the international significance of the Russian Revolution’, stresses ‘one of the basic prerequisites for the success of the Bolsheviks’, sketches out ‘the principal stages in the history of Bolshevism’; and only after this substantial preamble does he embark on the critical examination of left communism in Germany, of which the main features have already been described. On the question of anti-parliamentarism, Lenin set out his view as follows:
To express one’s ‘revolutionism’ solely by hurling abuse at parliamentary opportunism, solely by refusing to participate in parliaments, is very easy; but, just because it is too easy, it is not the ‘solution of a difficult, a very difficult problem. It is much more difficult to create a really revolutionary parliamentary fraction in a European parliament than it was in Russia. Of course. But this is only a particular expression of the general truth that it was easy for Russia, in the concrete, historically exceedingly unique, situation of 1917, to start a socialist revolution, but that it will be more difficult for Russia to continue and bring it to its consummation than for the European countries. Even in the beginning of 1918 I had occasion to point this out, and our experience of the last two years has entirely confirmed the correctness of this argument.
And finally, the empirical argument, the most difficult to refute, was:
Liebknecht in Germany and Z. Hoglund in Sweden were able ... to give examples of a truly revolutionary use of reactionary parliaments.
Of the Italian abstentionists, he merely remarked in a note:
I have had very little opportunity to make myself familiar with Left Communism in Italy. Comrade Bordiga and his groups of ‘Communist Boycottists’ (Comunista Astensionista) are certainly wrong in defending non-participation in parliament.
We should note once again in this context Lenin’s scrupulous intellectual honesty. Not being sufficiently well-informed, he remains cautious; he has nothing in common with the attitude of the ‘leader’ who knows everything, decides everything, is never mistaken, is infallible.
Not only should communists stay in the reformist Unions and fight for their ideas, but they should dig themselves in there when the reformist leaders try to drive them out, and use trickery to get in when attempts are made to exclude them.
Millions of workers in England, France and Germany are for the first time passing from complete lack of organisation to the lowest, most simple, and (for those still thoroughly imbued with bourgeois-democratic prejudices) most easily accessible form of organisation, namely, the trade unions. And the revolutionary but foolish Left Communists stand by, shouting ‘the masses, the masses!’ – and refuse to work within the trade unions, refuse on the pretext that they are ‘reactionary’, and invent a brand-new, pure ‘Workers’ Union’, guiltless of bourgeois democratic prejudices, innocent of craft or narrow trade sins! and which, they claim, will be (will be!) a wide organisation, and the only (only!) condition of membership of which will be ‘recognition of the Soviet system and the dictatorship of the proletariat!’ ... There can be no doubt that Messieurs the Gomperses, Hendersons, Jouhaux, Legiens, and the like, are very grateful to such ‘Left’ revolutionaries who, like the German opposition ‘on principle’ (heaven preserve us from such ‘principles’!) or like some revolutionaries in the American Industrial Workers of the World, advocate leaving the reactionary trade unions and refusing to work in them. Undoubtedly, Messieurs the ‘leaders’ of opportunism will resort to every trick of bourgeois diplomacy, to the aid of bourgeois governments, the priests, the police and the courts, in order to prevent communists from getting into the trade unions, to force them out by every means, to make their work in the trade unions as unpleasant as possible, to insult, to hound and persecute them.
And it was in this context that Lenin wrote the lines which have been interpreted as a defence of lying as though it were the very basis of Bolshevik propaganda and activity.
It is necessary to be able to withstand all this, to agree to every sacrifice, and even – if need be – to resort to all sorts of devices, manoeuvres, and illegal methods, to evasion and subterfuge, in order to penetrate into the trade unions, to remain in them, and to carry on communist work in them at all costs.
It is very significant to observe, in connection with this sentence which has since become notorious, that none of the delegates who read it then for the first time was shocked by it. Why? Were they all inveterate liars, precursors of Hitler’s clique who cynically approved the daily use of monstrous lies? Just the opposite. They all spoke and acted frankly, their language was clear and direct, deception was unknown to them. For they were too proud of showing themselves as they really were. But it is necessary to situate oneself in the context of 1920. The reformist leaders denounced by Lenin had abandoned the workers in 1914, they had betrayed socialism, they had collaborated with their imperialist governments, they had endorsed all the lies – and all the crimes – of chauvinist propaganda during the war. They had opposed any possibility of ‘premature peace’. After the war they lad used every means possible to break the revolutionary upsurge. In particular in the unions they had never hesitated to break the rules of the very democracy they claimed to be defending, every time they felt themselves threatened by an opposition growing openly. Nor did they hesitate to use violence to preserve their leadership against the clearly expressed Will of the majority, or to pursue a hypocritical policy of splitting unions. It must be understood that such a state of affairs is, after all, an exceptional situation, it is a state of war, and war requires trickery, above all when one is fighting an enemy who is himself using deception and who has available to him the whole repressive machinery of the state,
Lenin’s book was remarkable, but this idea that it is sometimes necessary to conceal the truth does not constitute its originality. What was new was the insistence on tactics.
The revolutionary parties must complete their education. They have learnt to attack. They must now understand that this knowledge must be complemented by the knowledge of the most appropriate manoeuvres for retreat.
One of the slogans of the German ‘Lefts’ was ‘No compromises’ and something similar was to be found among the British. Lenin began his reply by recalling what Engels wrote in 1874, on the subject of a manifesto by 33 Blanquist Communards: ‘We are Communists’, these had declared, ‘because we wish to attain our goal without stopping at intermediary stations, without any compromises, which only postpone the day of victory and prolong the period of slavery’. Engels commented: ‘What childish naivete to put forward one’s own impatience as a theoretically convincing argument!’ Then Lenin adds on his own account:
‘To tie one’s hands beforehand, openly to tell the enemy, who is now better armed than we are, whether and when we shall fight him is being stupid, not revolutionary. To accept battle at a time when it is obviously advantageous to the ene ny and not to us is a crime; and those politicians of the revolutionary class who are unable “to manoeuvre, to compromise” in order to avoid an obviously disadvantageous battle are good for nothing’.
Thus with Lenin all these questions are posed in a new way. The very words take on a different meaning, or return to their true meaning. ‘Compromise’, for Lenin, is an intelligent act of self-defence, to preserve one’s forces, which may be required by circumstances. It may prevent workers from falling into an ambush, or being caught in a trap set by a better armed opponent. The book took on the character of a manual of revolutionary strategy and tactics. Doubtless the various revolutionary movements, syndicalism in particular, had never completely ignored these factors. The experience of struggle itself had taught workers that there are favourable moments for calling a strike, while in some conditions failure is certain; and that sometimes one has to put up with partial satisfaction, or even be willing to give undertakings. But we also know that they defended themselves badly against the manoeuvres of the bosses, and that more than once a great working-class victory had been followed by a defeat in which the workers lost at one blow more than they had won, because they weren’t able to refuse a fight in which they were doomed to defeat. But it was here for the first time that the rules and fundamental principles of tactics were drawn out and formulated so clearly, we might even say brutally. In contrast to the parliamentary socialists, who were more concerned to put off socialist revolution than to help it on, and for whom class struggle was no more than a rhetorical device, Lenin’s whole being was located inside the revolution, and for him the class struggle was a daily battle in which the working class paid dearly for the mistakes of those who led it. The conclusion: we must learn to manoeuvre.
Against this replacement of empiricism by technique, there was nothing to be said. This particular point of Lenin’s work aroused no criticism. And it was just this point which concealed a danger. That was the very term used then by a communist – the Belgian, War Van Overstraeten.
‘What a dangerous book’, he said to me; ‘with Lenin there’s no risk, because he will always use a manoeuvre in favour of the working class, and any compromise he makes will be in its interests. But remember the young communists – and even some who aren’t all that young any more – who have no practical experience of workers’ struggles ... They will take only the secondary points out of this manual, because that is what is easiest and most convenient for them; they won’t bother with the work and study necessary. Since they don’t have a solid socialist base to support manoeuvres and compromises, they will tend to see these as the essence of the matter, and find an easy justification for all their actions’. 
We didn’t have long to wait to see that this danger was by no means imaginary: the ‘Zinovievite Bolshevisation’ undertaken immediately after Lenin’s death saw it raising its head in every section of the International, and with Stalin, ‘communism’ itself was reduced to the level of a manoeuvre.
The book had an important appendix. After the manuscript had gone to press, Lenin received new information which led him to think that ‘leftism’ was decidedly stronger and less localised than he had believed, and that the polemics directed against it so far would be inadequate to cure the communist movement of it. This is what he now wrote:
There is reason to apprehend that the split with the ‘lefts’, the anti-parliamentarians (in part also anti-politicals, opposed to a political party and to work in the trade unions), will become an international phenomenon, like the split with the ‘Centrists’ (i.e., the Kautskyites, Longuetists, ‘Independents’, etc.). Be it so. At all events a split is preferable to confusion which impedes the ideological, theoretical and revolutionary growth and maturing of the party and prevents harmonious, really organised practical work that really paves the way for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Let the ‘Lefts’ put themselves to a practical test on a national and international scale; let them try to prepare for (and then to achieve) the dictatorship of the proletariat without a strictly centralised party with an iron discipline, without the ability to master every field, every branch, every variety of political and cultural work. Practical experience will soon make them wiser.
But every effort must be made to prevent the split with the ‘lefts’ from impeding (or to see that it impedes as little as possible) the necessary amalgamation into a single party – which is inevitable in the near future – of all those in the working-class movement who stand sincerely and whole-heartedly for the Soviet power and the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Russia the Bolsheviks had the particular good fortune to have 15 years in which to wage a systematic and decisive struggle against the Mensheviks (that is to say, the opportunists and ‘Centrists’) and also against the ‘lefts’, long before the direct mass struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Europe and America the same work has now to be performed by means of ‘forced marches’. Individuals, especially those belonging to the category of unsuccessful pretenders to leadership, may (if lacking in proletarian discipline, and if they are not ‘honest with themselves’) persist for a long time in their mistakes, but the working masses, when the time is ripe, will easily and quickly unite themselves and unite all sincere communists in a single party that will be capable of establishing the Soviet system and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Only a few weeks after he had written these lines, Lenin was able to see that his fears had been exaggerated. ‘Leftism’ survived, especially in Germany, but it never regrouped in a bloc all the elements likely to attach themselves to it, and the most important organisation, the KAPD (German Communist Workers’ Party) was admitted to the Communist International as a sympathetic section.
1. The German anarchist, Eric Mühsam, wrote, in September 1919, in the fortress of Augsburg where he was imprisoned:
‘The theoretical and practical theses of Lenin on the accomplishment of the revolution and the communist tasks of the proletariat have provided a new basis for our action ... There are no more insurmountable obstacles to a unification of the whole revolutionary proletariat. It is true that the communist anarchists have had to yield on the most important point of disagreement between the two great tendencies of socialism; they have had to abandon Bakunin’s negative attitude to the dictatorship of the proletariat and accept Marx’s opinion on this pcint ... The unity of the revolutionary proletariat is necessary and must not be delayed. The only organisation capable of achieving it is the German Communist Party. I hope that anarchist comrades who see communism as the foundation of an equitable social order will follow my example.’ (Bulletin communiste, July 22, 1920)
2. When the book was published in Paris, Jacques Mesnil expressed a similar opinion:
‘Lenin never conceals the difficulties of the task to be accomplished. This is a book for all conscious and thoughtful militants. But Lenin’s methods put into the hands of a new comer could have disastrous results. It must not be slavishly imitated, but everything in it is worth consideration and is a subject for serious thought.’ (Bulletin communiste, March 10, 1921)
Last updated on: 30 January 2016