Lessons of Lenin's 'Left-wing communism'
Those who don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past are obliged to study the past. Jack Conrad argues that the Lenin of Russia remains highly relevant for the tasks of today
Lenin’s intention in writing his deservedly famous pamphlet, ‘Left-wing’ communism, an infantile disorder, was to provide the newly forming communist parties in western Europe with a theoretically grounded reorientation that broke with self-regarding sloganeering, leftist impatience and the understandable, but futile, politics of revolutionary purity. Indeed ‘Left-wing’ communism should be treated as a handbook of Bolshevism internationalised.
Before concretely dealing with the various leftist errors then plaguing the communist movement, Lenin provided a potted history of Bolshevism, naturally bringing out the relevant tactical lessons he and his comrades had learnt over two decades of the most demanding, most variegated, most compacted, most fruitful class struggles.
Lenin’s main text was dashed off in less than a month. The finished pamphlet, as intended, was out in time for the opening of the 2nd Congress of the Communist International in July 1920. Printed in Russian, French and English, delegates were handed a copy as soon as they arrived in Moscow. ‘Left-wing’ communism had an electrifying impact.
For instance, having undertaken a hazardous, circuitous, sea and land journey, without a passport or other such papers, Willie Gallacher (1881-1965), a future CPGB member of parliament, colourfully recounts how he was “amazed” that “our great leader” found it necessary to take issue with his anti-parliamentarianism. It “jolted” but infuriated him.
At the time Gallacher was a leftist British Socialist Party member - as well as a leading representative of the militant Glasgow working class. Having read ‘Left-wing’ communism, a pained Gallacher objected to being included under the “infantile” heading. To his credit Gallagher tenaciously fought his corner at the 2nd Congress. Along with Sylvia Pankhurst, John Reed, Amadeo Bordiga, etc, he formed a “left bloc”. However, when he got back to Britain, Gallacher joined the newly formed CPGB, as Lenin had persuaded him to do ... and he quickly overcame his infantile leftism.
Lenin began his “attempt to conduct a popular discussion on Marxist strategy and tactics” by arguing that the Russian Revolution was of “international significance”. Not just in the immediate sense that the Russian Revolution swept away the hated tsarist autocracy, restored the honour of the international socialist movement, produced a Soviet decree calling for a democratic peace without annexations or indemnities and catapulted ice cold fear into the hearts of every warmongering general, every crowned head of state, every capitalist parasite.
No, Lenin made a considerably bigger claim. Despite the poverty of Russia, the peasant sea and tiny size of the proletarian class compared to western Europe, he was convinced that the Russian Revolution had “international validity”. Key aspects would “inevitably” be repeated in other countries.
Of course, there was the danger of exaggeration. But Lenin emphasised that he was only talking about “certain fundamental features”. Optimistically Lenin looked forward to a revolution in “at least one of the advanced countries”, an event via which Russia would “cease” to be the global paradigm and would become a backward country - in the “soviet and the socialist sense”. Unfortunately this is still yet to happen. The German, Hungarian and Austrian revolutions all tragically failed. The Russia of Lenin therefore remains our best, most advanced model.
To bolster his argument, signalling to discerning readers a continued fidelity to the highest achievements of the Second International’s Marxism, Lenin approvingly quoted Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) ... at length. In his 1902 Iskra article ‘The Slavs and revolution’, the ‘pope of Marxism’ had, with commendable insight, written about the world’s centre of revolutionary thought and revolutionary action shifting eastwards to Russia. Lenin barbedly comments: “How well Karl Kautsky wrote 18 years ago!”
In part, Lenin credited the success of the Bolsheviks in October 1917, and their ability to retain state power, to an energetic seeking out of the “last word” in Marxism - the only correct revolutionary theory. With good reason Lenin has been described as a Russian “Erfurtian” - after the second programme of the German Social Democratic Party. All the evidence shows he modelled the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party on the SDP as far as objective conditions permitted.
Lenin further credited the success of the Bolsheviks to farsighted strategic thinking and a willingness to engage in the swiftest change of tactics; that included numerous compromises, including with bourgeois parties, and doing all manner of deals. Through this combination the Bolsheviks were able to forge an iron discipline and gain support from the widest layers of the working class. Lenin thanked the communists in the west for the accolades heaped upon the Bolsheviks. But he advised them to conduct a “profound analysis” of the reasons why the Bolsheviks were able to make and sustain a revolution. And this, of course, is the main subject of ‘Left-wing’ communism ... a pamphlet that still brings abundant rewards from close and serious study.
Though we live in Britain, speak a different language, have a long, and more or less uninterrupted, history of bourgeois democracy, and inhabit a world of space satellites, computers, the internet, mobile phones, and even so-called peak oil, a world which is nearly a century removed from October 1917, I believe the “international validity” of the Russian Revolution remains. Key aspects of the Russian Revolution will “inevitably” be repeated in the 21st century.
Ergo, if communists are going to achieve the unity, discipline and indispensable mass support required to make and sustain a revolution, we must fully absorb the Bolsheviks’ tactical flexibility and their ability to combine this with a correct strategy and an unmovable commitment to principle.
Those who cannot, or refuse to do that - whether because of snooty first world arrogance, infatuation with the latest third world populist, Stalinist nostalgia, barren technological determinism or leftist hot headedness (albeit the latter fed by an admirable loathing of Labourism and ‘official communism’) - disarm themselves, and, if they have any influence, those whom they happen to lead. And, as the old adage goes: those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
Frankly, I have heard far too many comrades on the left announce, as if it were a profundity, and not the sheerest philistinism, that because times, material conditions, class consciousness and size of available organised forces are so different now, the Russia of Lenin has precious little, if anything, to teach us today.
In fact the exact opposite is true. The Russia of Lenin has a great deal to teach the 21st century communist movement. Eg: revolution is only possible when the ruling class is unable to rule in the old way; the majority of the working class have, as necessity, to be united around a Marxist party and programme; the existing state cannot be reformed, it has to be overthrown, smashed, broken apart; trustworthy allies have to be secured internationally; and the need to master tactical flexibility must be understood by all class conscious workers.
The Bolsheviks were justifiably famous in the west for their intransigent opposition to tsarism, their brave stand against World War I and their trailblazing role in establishing soviet power. But Lenin was at pains to stress that, in order to gain victory in October 1917, the Bolsheviks had to undergo “thorough, circumspect and long preparations”.
Crucial in this respect, Lenin highlights the struggle against enemies within the working class movement. First and foremost the struggle against right opportunism, an opportunism which with the outbreak of world war in August 1914 morphed into social chauvinism. Epitomised by Georgi Plekhanov (1857-1918), the rightist factions of Menshevism sided with the Entente powers, Russia included. The great cause of international socialism was thereby betrayed. Here was the Bolshevik’s “principal enemy” - and not only within the tsarist prison house of nations, but globally. Plekhanov had his contemptible equivalents in each of the belligerent countries.
However, there was a parallel Bolshevik struggle against petty bourgeois revolutionism, either unknown in the west or deliberately ignored. This trend “smacked of anarchism”, or borrowed something of its methods and attitudes ... and therefore singularly failed to provide the correct strategy and tactics needed by the working class movement.
In Russia the peasantry was enormous. And besides them there were small manufacturers, craftsmen, doctors, school teachers, minor officials, lawyers, shopkeepers, peddlers, students, etc. The middle classes. These people suffered cruel oppression under tsarism. They were robbed, humiliated, treated as fools. And because of the blind workings of the capitalist market there was always the threat and reality of economic ruination. The desperate, insecure, resentful, falling layers of the middle classes provided fertile ground for a frenzied leftism - a leftism that inevitably found constantly renewed expression within the organised working class movement as new people were forced to join the proletariat.
Lenin described this frenzied leftism as a “social phenomenon” which, like anarchism, is “characteristic of all capitalist countries.” The theoretical superficiality of such leftism, its infatuation with one passing bourgeois fad after another, its brittle moralism, its tendency to flip into its opposite - all this was “common knowledge.” However, Lenin argued, a “theoretical or abstract recognition of these truths” does not at all “rid revolutionary parties of old errors”, which always “crop up at unexpected occasions, in somewhat new forms, in a hitherto unfamiliar garb or surroundings.”
Lenin provides a threefold explanation of this “social phenomenon.” In part it is the unstable nature of the middle classes. In part it is the influx of new elements into the working class mentioned above. In part it is simply impatience, miseducation and inexperience.
Hence, not only is there leftism in the form of hardened confessional sects, each with its own defining principles, history and agreed tradition - today in Britain that would include groups such as the Anarchist Federation and Class War, the International Communist Current and the International Communist Tendency, the Commune and Aufheben. There is also leftism as a disposition, a mood, a sentiment, a phase that needs to be grown out of.
Our present-day CPGB leftists strenuously object to being called leftists because they disagree with the above listed type of organisations. But they show an inability to appreciate that leftism can also be a disposition, a mood, a sentiment, a phase that needs to be grown out of. True, our comrades, who are doubtless excellent in many ways, say they accept the need to stand for parliament, work in the standard British trade unions and even the Labour Party - but in my opinion their attitude towards the Labour Party is the give away.
The Provisional Central Committee is not only condemned for being “opportunist” for daring to advise Labour Party members and affiliated trade unionists to vote for Diane Abbott in the 2010 leadership contest and - unlike the social imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - not Ed Miliband, nor any of the other former cabinet ministers. Touchingly in the name of John McDonnell’s failed candidacy our leftist CPGB comrades advocated a boycott or a passive abstention. In order to square this particular circle - after all McDonnell, along with the Labour Representation Committee, the Socialist Workers Party and the Morning Star, advocated an Abbott vote too - our comrades feel compelled to paint her in entirely false colours. Absurdly Abbott is accused of being pro-war and pro-cuts. In fact she is a prominent supporter of the Stop the War Coalition and the Coalition of Resistance. Equivocal, inconsistent, vacillating, an out and out careerist - of course. And the PCC made those exact criticisms of the woman who is now shadow minister for public health.
Our CPGB leftists’ commitment to a strategic orientation to the Labour Party is problematic. We are told, albeit by inference, that the Labour Party can never be won for socialism. As if this was an accepted Marxist orthodoxy, even an historically determined iron law. If that is the case, why not apply that orthodoxy or iron law to affiliated trade unions? The comrades also insist that we CPGBers should neither help nor welcome any strengthening of the Labour left. I think otherwise. Not that I want to strengthen left Labourism as an ideology. But surely the more the Labour left comes to accept the truths of Marxism the better for us.
And naturally, as a point of honour, our leftist CPGBers declare themselves against any kind of manoeuvre or stratagem designed to circumvent the anti-democratic bans and proscriptions introduced by the Labour Party rightwing in the 1920s. No, according to our leftists, the best the CPGB can do is dislodge a few militant workers through an ill-considered short-termist raid so as to build the amorphous anti-cuts movement. Clearly the real strategy of our leftist CPGB comrades, if one can credit it as such, amounts to nothing more sophisticated than empty phrases about conducting an “uncompromising” struggle against Labourism and an entirely misplaced perspective of “smashing” the Labour Party. To me this smacks of classic leftism, albeit motivated by an entirely legitimate hatred of Labourism. But it is classic leftism for all that.
“Anarchism”, Lenin cuttingly remarks, “was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working class movement.” The “two monstrosities” complement each other. Despite that, in the revolutions of 1905 and February and October 1917, the anarchists played an entirely marginal role. Noteworthy, given the size of Russia’s petty bourgeoisie. Lenin claimed partial credit. After all the Bolsheviks conducted a ruthless struggle against Menshevik opportunism. But, Lenin adds, the Bolsheviks had also “taken over” the struggle against anarchism, against petty bourgeois leftism, conducted by the first generation of Russian Marxists.
This struggle assumed particular importance with the formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in 1901. Arguments about whether or not the petty bourgeoisie could organise a political party vanished and gave way to the necessity of criticising the SR’s anti-Marxism, their blurring of class distinctions between workers and peasants and their leftist worship of individual terrorism and assassination. Gunning down a tsarist minister or police chief was lauded as the “highest peak of the human spirit” by the SRs.
As an aside, as a corrective to the pernicious myth trafficked by the likes of Tony Cliff, John Molyneux, Paul Le Blanc, Marcel Liebman, Joseph Seymour, etc, who, following bourgeois academia, insist on an entirely ficticous Bolshevik break with the old traditions of the Second International, and the birth of a “party of a new type”, circa 1903, 1912 or 1914, it is worth noting that Lenin, in 1920, considered that German revolutionary social democracy “came closest to being the party the revolutionary proletariat needs in order to achieve victory.”
Lenin readily admitted, looking back, that SDP leaders such as August Bebel (1814-1913) made mistakes and even fell into opportunist error on occasion. Eg, Eduard Bernstein ought to have been expelled once he published and refused to renounce his revisionist bible Evolutionary socialism (1899). But though anarchists and semi-anarchistic leftists sneered at the “comparatively insignificant opportunist sins” of the SDP, Lenin clearly still much admired the party which managed to grow to such an extent that it became almost a state within the state.
The SDP not only dug deep social roots and produced a crop of excellent leaders. After the right’s betrayal in 1914 the German workers’ movement recovered and regained its strength “more rapidly” than other parties. Lenin cited the Spartacists and the leftwing of the Independent Social-Democratic Party. And it is worth adding that, with the merger of these two organisations in October 1920, the resulting united Communist Party of Germany assumed genuinely mass proportions.
Lenin thought it vital to acquaint communists in western Europe with the struggles waged against leftist deviations within the Bolshevik’s own ranks. That would help give a properly balanced picture. On two occasions in particular leftism grew to such a degree that it could have derailed Bolshevism and the entire revolutionary working class movement in Russia.
In 1908 the ultimatumist or recallist (otzovist) faction had a commanding majority. Obviously there existed a difference between those Bolsheviks who demanded an instant recall of RSDLP deputies from the tsarist duma and those who demanded unparliamentary behaviour, eg, refusing to swear the oath of loyalty to the tsar. That would get them suspended or debarred. But in practice the two demands amounted to the exact same thing: boycottism.
In the name of the December 1905 revolutionary uprising, the underground and an unyielding revolutionary spirit, many otzovists went further. Much further. They refused to countenance legal methods per se, ruling out not only participation in the tsarist duma and tsarist elections but workers’ insurance societies, cooperative associations and other legal or semi-legal organisations.
The Bolsheviks boycotted two tsarist duma elections. The first boycott, in October 1905, worked brilliantly - the duma was swept away by the rising tide of revolution. The Bolsheviks demanded a provisional government and a constituent assembly born of the revolution. The second boycott, in 1906, proved a failure ... and was soon recognised as such by Lenin. The revolution was receding. However, Lenin found himself in a minority amongst the Bolsheviks and had to bloc with the Mensheviks to ensure participation in tsarist elections was agreed by the RSDLP.
Despite the flagrantly ever more undemocratic electoral rules, the formerly united party gained an impressive number of deputies in 1907; and Lenin was rightly determined to exploit this platform to the maximum. He saw the Bolshevik deputies as extraordinarily valuable auxiliaries to the illegal organisations of the party. Protected by parliamentary immunity the deputies could openly say what others were prevented from saying. The Bolshevik press reported their speeches ... and to devastating effect. Legal and illegal work thereby combined.
Like Bebel, the Bolshevik deputies made mistakes, even fell into opportunist error on occasion. But for Lenin that was no reason to run away from one’s duty to overcome such problems. Opportunism cannot be fought by leftist purism.
Headed by Lenin’s one time lieutenant Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928), the otzovists used revolutionary phrases to cover “fallacious, un-Marxian arguments.” Naturally, otzovists began by strenuously maintaining that disagreements with Lenin were over practical matters, that there was a common programme and a common approach to tactics.
Leave aside the philosophical demolition job he performed on Bogdanov and his co-thinkers in Materialism and empirio-criticism (1908), Lenin tenaciously fought back. Polemical article followed polemical article. Suffice to say, Lenin convincingly showed that Bogdanov’s political positions represented a deviation from the programme and tactics of Bolshevism. To considerable effect, he mockingly branded his opponents as “childish” for wanting nothing to do with the tsarist parliament, all the while contrasting it with the ‘real’ parliaments in the west. Lenin had no intention of rewarding quality points to this or that bourgeois parliament. What concerned him was taking advantage of every opportunity to further the revolutionary cause. So, apart from exceptional circumstances, Lenin insists in ‘Left wing’ communism that it is “obligatory” to participate “even in a most reactionary parliament”.
Once Lenin felt sure he had won the Bolshevik cadre back to Bolshevism he moved to press his advantage. The party came before all old friendships and personal relationships. In June 1909 the boycottists, the left liquidators, were expelled from the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP (simultaneously Lenin agitated for the expulsion of the right liquidators by the Mensheviks, all the while seeking a rapprochement between pro-party Bolsheviks and pro-party Mensheviks).
Not that Lenin failed to acknowledge the sincere motivations of the boycottists. Repeatedly he expressed an admiration for their selfless devotion to the cause of the working class and their hatred of tsarist oppression (and many of these comrades eventually found their way back into the ranks of the Bolsheviks and came to occupy positions of considerable responsibility).
The other occasion when the Bolsheviks nearly succumbed to the leftist infection was in the first half of 1918. Signing the Brest-Litovsk treaty was the point at issue. This time, thankfully, things did not result in a split. Though the leftists formed a faction, it proved fleeting. After no more than a matter of months the most prominent Left Communists, eg, Karl Radek and Nikolai Bukharin, were prepared to openly acknowledged their errors and mend fences with Lenin. After that the faction dissolved (though it reappeared in the much smaller forms of the 1920s Workers’ Opposition, Democratic Centralists, etc).
The Brest-Litovsk treaty imposed horrible conditions. It handed over a quarter of the old tsarist empire’s population, a quarter of its industry and nine-tenths of its coal mines to the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungry and Ottoman Turkey. Furthermore, Poland and the Baltic countries were to be included within their ‘sphere of influence’. There were also to be compensation payments for German property and assets nationalised after the October Revolution.
But Brest-Litovsk secured the vital breathing space of peace. And as things turned out the treaty and its onerous terms was quickly nullified by events, crucially the November 1918 armistice which ended World War I and the proclamation of the German republic.
Brest-Litovsk was seen by the Left Communists as an inexcusable compromise. Echoing the Russian bourgeoisie, the faction protested against the “betrayal” of Poland and the Baltic countries. The Left Communists held out the splendid example of 1792-93 France by demanding revolutionary war. They confidently pronounced that German military forces were “unable” to attack Russia and banked on workers in Germany overthrowing the kaiser regime within a matter of a “few weeks”.
Lenin is perfectly candid. The Left Communists were producing wonderfully intoxicating slogans but they amounted to nothing more than revolutionary hot air. Brest-Litovsk was indeed a compromise with the imperialists, “but it was a compromise which, under the circumstances, had to be made.” So it was not inexcusable.
Without a negotiated peace Lenin feared that the Soviet regime faced disaster. His diagnosis was well founded. The old army was disintegrating and militarily was completely useless. The Red Army had hardly gone beyond the embryonic stage. So revolutionary war could not be regarded as a practical proposition. To launch such a war without the ability to deploy serious military forces was to risk another German offensive and perhaps the collapse of the Soviet regime ... and after that there would surely have followed a slaughter on a scale only equalled later by the Nazis in 1943-45. That would not have helped workers in Germany or anywhere else.
Lenin too banked on revolution in Germany. However, in early 1918 its newly formed Communist Party was little more than a propaganda group. The KPD did not command anywhere near a majority of the working class, let alone of the population as a whole. Lenin recognised that the revolution in Germany needed time to mature. The Soviet regime was doing everything it could to help that process. Secret treaties published, agitators dispatched and fraternisation by soldiers on the front encouraged.
In ‘Left-wing’ communism Lenin hammers the point home. To reject compromises “on principle” is to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind. This, says Lenin, is “childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously.” Of course, there are compromises and compromises. There is every difference between those who compromise in service of the revolution and those who inexcusably compromise with the bourgeoisie and betray the cause of the revolution.
The Bolsheviks did the former in 1918. The Labour Party in Britain did the latter in 1914 when, despicably, it joined the Tories and Liberals in supporting British imperialism in its bid to retain its empire and position of world domination. Rather than supporting tsarism the Bolshevik duma deputies “preferred exile in Siberia”.
Lenin could have cited other instances of leftism that cropped up in the history of Bolshevism. Eg, the disagreement with the programmatic commitment to national self-determination raised by Bukharin and others in 1916; or the Military Opposition of 1918-19 when Trotsky was head of the Red Army. Objections were raised to the abolition of the “electoral method”, the reintroduction of military discipline, “enlistment of experts” from the former tsarist officer caste and building the Red Army as a centralised institution. But in comparative terms these examples of the leftist illness were minor.
Lenin goes on to deal with the various errors of the ‘left’ communists in western Europe. Specifically, he takes to task comrades in Germany, Holland, Italy and Britain. Their errors revealed “all the symptoms” of the “infantile disorder of leftism”. The German ‘left’ rejected rapprochement with the Independent SDP and refused to recognise “in principle” the use of all means of struggle. Hence all manoeuvring, compromises and parliamentary deals were forthrightly rejected. Nor would the German leftists countenance working in “reactionary” or “counterrevolutionary” trade unions. They wanted leftwing workers to leave them and instead join “a brand new and immaculate” workers’ union they had just invented. Lenin ridicules what he calls “artificial” forms of labour organisation. Today, I would unhesitatingly include, under that “artificial” category, all the delusional projects for a Labour Party mark two and other such half-way houses.
By contrast Lenin urged the communists in western Europe to work in the existing trade unions, despite them often suffering from craft narrowness, selfishness and imperialist corruption. The struggle would be long and hard, but could not be skipped. Lenin advised - if need be - the use of various stratagems, evasions and subterfuges. But not towards some live-and-let-live. The “incorrigible” leaders of opportunism and social chauvinism had to be beaten and in the end “driven out” of the trade unions.
The hardcore left communists in the west declared parliament, and therefore standing in bourgeois elections, “obsolete”. Lenin, on the other hand, wanted to reach out to masses and use every opportunity to do that. Tactics, for Marxists, have to be based on a sober and strictly objective appraisal of all the class forces in a particular state (and of the states that surround it, and of all states the world over). It is easy to display one’s ‘revolutionary’ credentials by hurling vacuous abuse at parliamentary opportunism. Easy to repudiate participation in parliament. But that is no solution. Creating a “really revolutionary parliamentary group” in Russia proved relatively straightforward. The same was not going to be the case in western Europe. Nevertheless, that “arduous” task cannot be passed over. Attempts to do so are “absolutely childish”, thundered Lenin.
The left communists adopted the seemingly revolutionary slogan of “no compromise”. Lenin convincingly showed that this was moralistic posturing. Of course, to young and inexperienced revolutionaries, as well as to petty-bourgeois revolutionaries of even a very respectable age, any compromise seems dangerous, incomprehensible and downright wrong. But surely every militant trade unionist understands the necessity of compromise. So argued Lenin. Even after the most successful strike there must be an agreement and a return to work. Sometimes, of course, there is a defeat due to lack of funds, intimidation, failure to secure secondary action, a willingness of strike breakers to cross the picket line. Once again, however, there will need to be a compromise. Those who denounce such a defensive compromise do a disservice to the working class.
Lenin ridiculed all those who in the name of ‘uncompromising’ struggle renounce any retreat, change of tack, or utilisation of conflicts (even if temporary) among one’s enemies, or any conciliation or compromise with possible allies (even if they are temporary, unstable, vacillating or conditional allies). Powerful enemies can be defeated only through persistent effort and by the “most thorough, careful, attentive, skilful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest, rift” in their ranks. Lenin also forcibly advocated “taking advantage of any, even the smallest, opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional.” Those who do not understand this “reveal a failure to understand even the smallest grain of Marxism, of modern scientific socialism in general.”
Prior to the overthrow of tsarism, the Bolsheviks entered into numerous compromises with bourgeois liberals, ie, in the second round of the indirect tsarist elections they agreed to vote for the Cadets. Similar deals were done with the SRs and Mensheviks. Such compromises were principled because they never involved the Bolsheviks suspending or letting up on their ideological and political struggle against the Cadets, SRs and Mensheviks.
Lenin points out the obvious. The class struggle rarely proceeds along a straight line. There are, for example, intermediate stages as workers shift from right to left. Here Lenin cites the Independent SDP - whom he politically characterises as Kautskyite - and its rapid growth. Within a couple of years of its formation the ISDP boasted 750,000 members ... there was also a very large left, or proletarian, wing. Lenin unashamedly welcomed this development and urged communist engagement.
When Lenin was busy writing ‘Left-wing’ communism the CPGB had not yet been formed. Various leftists were pigheadedly turning down the calls for communist unity, not only citing the inadmissibility of working in reactionary trade unions and using parliament but affiliation to the Labour Party.
The British Socialist Party - the largest communist group in Britain - had been affiliated to the Labour Party since 1916 and it leading comrades rightly thought that a Communist Party should do the same. Ditto their policy of supporting the Labour Party electorally. Lenin agreed (as he made crystal clear in his August 6 1920 speech on communist affiliation to the Labour Party at the 2nd congress of the Communist International).
That stance implied no illusions in the Labour Party’s grandees. Arthur Henderson, John Clynes, Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden “are hopelessly reactionary”, Lenin emphatically declared. It was also the case that these gentlemen looked to forming a government that would “rule” in a manner hardly distinguishable from the Tories and Liberals. Nevertheless, it “does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution”. Indeed, Lenin forcibly argued that it was in the interests of working class revolutionaries to side with the Labour Party against the Liberals and Tories and help it into government. This, he argued, was the best way to gain a hearing from the working class and expose the Labour leaders for what they are ... reactionaries of the worst type.
The workers in Britain had to experience a Labour government if they were to start coming over to communism. Of course, that required a CPGB armed with the correct strategy and tactics.
Communist electoral support and CPGB affiliation were for Lenin conditional on demanding and getting the “complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens”. That is what the Bolsheviks got from and did to the Mensheviks. And for the purposes of illustration Lenin referred to the demand made by the Bolsheviks in 1917 that the Mensheviks and SRs “assume full power” without the ten capitalist ministers in the provisional government.
With this in mind Lenin thought it an excellent tactic for the CPGB to urge electors “to vote for the Labour candidate and against the bourgeois candidate”. Sylvia Pankhurst and Willie Gallacher were badly mistaken to think that this was a “betrayal of communism”, or a “renunciation of the struggle against the social-traitors.” On the contrary, the cause of communist revolution would undoubtedly gain by such a course.
Supporting Henderson, Snowden, etc, in the “same way as the rope supports a hanged man” would help bring the masses over to the side of the communists. We gave exactly that kind of support to Diane Abbott in her Labour Party leadership bid.
- See VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp17-118. Most quotes in this article are from this work.
- W Gallacher The rolling of the thunder London 1947, pp8, 38.
- LT Lih Lenin rediscovered Chicago 2008.
- T Cliff Lenin Vol 1, London 1975; J Molyneux Marxism and the party London 1978; P Le Blanc Lenin and the revolutionary party Atlantic Highlands 1990; M Liebman Leninism under Lenin London 1980; Joseph Seymour Lenin and the vanguard party New York 1978.
- VI Lenin CW Moscow 1977, Vol 15 , p383.
- VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp257-63.