Lenin on the Role of a Marxist Party in Relation to the People

Chapter Five of 'Left Wing' Communism an Infantile Disorder

Lenin in 1920 made an analysis of the political conditions in Germany after the failure of  the Communist (Spartacus League) uprising in 1918. The Communists had split into two rival factions. The issues facing the German Marxists were somewhat analogous to those facing the Marxist movements today especially in the industrial world.

This fact makes many of Lenin’s observations of the conditions in Germany relevant to the struggles of today both in advanced  capitalist countries such as the U.S. (where Marxist political groupings barely make a blip on the radar screen), Europe (where Marxist parties offer viable alternatives to the status quo and have  elected representatives in parliaments, local government, and sometimes as ministers in bourgeois governments (perhaps a dubious tactic), and other areas of the world as well;  there is a world Marxist presence that is growing and maturing in face of the continuing decline and slow collapse of global capitalism.

The setting for this chapter is Lenin’s reaction to reading a pamphlet put out by opponents within the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) to the tactics taken by the leadership (a familiar scenario): “The Split in the Communist Party of Germany (The Spartacist League)”.

The basic position of the opposition is that the KPD leaders are opportunists for seeking to work in a coalition with the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). This tactic would later be known as the United Front.  This tactic is opposed by the opposition because it is demanding that the KPD stand for the creation of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and so must reject ALL compromises with other left groups and parties and abandon parliamentarianism (elections)  as well as working in the established trade unions . The KPD alone can lead the struggle and should create a new big revolutionary union under the slogan “Get out of the trade unions!”

The opposition claims there are now two communist parties in Germany: the opportunist KPD “a party of leaders” and the opposition “a mass party.” Lenin finds these views to be “rubbish” and “‘Left-wing childishness.” He then proceeds to examine the whole issue of “the masses” versus “the leaders.”

The “masses” are divided into “classes” and we can make only very general statements about “classes” and there are always individual cases within a given class which the generalized statement will not cover. We should be provisional and not dogmatic.

In general, politically speaking, classes are led by political parties “at least in present day civilized countries” and the political leaders of a party are usually the most experienced and influential representatives of the class that any particular party represents. Lenin says this is elementary, but nevertheless there seems to be some “present day civilized countries” in which the masses and the classes are not congruent — especially where working people do not have highly developed class consciousness; i.e., in the United States, for example, most workers identify with two über-parties, neither of which represent  the real interests of the working class.

In Europe, until recently (he means until the systemic breakdown of European culture and civilization called World War I) people were used to legal political parties and stable governments (at least in the “advanced” countries) and their political leaders were freely elected at conventions or party congresses.

With the outbreak of war, revolution parties and leaders found themselves proscribed or forced to combine illegal activities with legal activities. Some leaders had to go underground, open legal party congresses could not be held or had to be held abroad. In this era of turmoil some socialists and communists began to feel uncomfortable and to complain about undemocratic leadership and a separation of the leaders from the “masses.” Lenin thinks it is this confusion in the heads of those communists, who have themselves little experience of the conditions of functioning underground, that has led to the ultra-‘Leftism’ he calls an “infantile disorder.” Unfortunately, this disorder has begun to spread into more experienced cadres in parties that also have experienced conditions of illegality.

But in some parties, Lenin says, there really is a divergence between the leaders and the led. What accounts for this? The answer is to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels in the period 1852 to 1892 on the political developments in Britain. As the working class began to develop politically there “emerged”, Lenin says, “a semi-petty-bourgeois, opportunist ‘labour aristocracy’.” These were those British labor leaders that went along with the bourgeoisie, compromising demands, and collaborating with the class enemy for narrow sectarian interests of their own craft or union and not working for the good of the whole class as a class.

In Lenin’s day this phenomenon reappeared in the Second International where opportunist leaders (Lenin calls them “traitors”) worked for their own craft and became separated from the great mass of the working class– “the lowest paid workers.” Lenin says:

The revolutionary proletariat cannot be victorious unless this evil is combated, unless the opportunist, social-traitor leaders are exposed, discredited and expelled.

This advice is not, I think, limited to the “revolutionary proletariat.” In general, militant trade unionists  should keep in mind the needs of the working class as a whole and not distant themselves from supporting the struggles of other unions, non-union workers, and the lowest paid, nor should they be afraid to speak out when they see their own leaders engage in opportunist deal making with the bosses that may weaken the labor movement as a whole (sweetheart deals, no strike pledges, etc.)

The mark of Left Wing Communism (LWC) is, according to Lenin, when one advocates impossible to achieve goals in a given particular situation, bucks party discipline, and drives wedges between the masses and their leaders. LWC is the flip side of opportunism and class collaboration in that they both hamper the unity of the workers in the struggle against capital. Lenin was particularly incensed by those who claimed to be against leaders “in principle.” These very representatives of LWC were themselves claiming leadership positions within the working class.

Lenin quotes one such ultra-leftist who wrote, “The working class cannot destroy the the bourgeois state without destroying bourgeois democracy, and it cannot destroy bourgeois democracy without destroying parties.” Lenin says this type of muddle-headed “Marxism” is all too prevalent amongst people claiming to be Marxists who have never studied or tried to come to grips with Marxist theory. Merely calling oneself a Marxist had become a “fashion” in Lenin’s day (it’s not that fashionable now when even sympathy for some aspects of Keynesianism make you a “socialist.”)

The idea of abolishing the party as part of the struggle against capital is ludicrous and would aid and abet the bourgeoisie. Lenin says, “From the standpoint of communism, reputation of the Party principle means attempting to leap from the eve of capitalism’s collapse, not to the lower or intermediate phase of communism, but to the higher.” [I amended this quote by leaving out "in Germany" after "collapse" because I think this quote has a wider sense (Sinn)].

Parties represent the interests of classes and even after the working class comes to power it as a class and other classes as well will remain “for years” and so will leaders. The working class cannot establish socialism by just abolishing the landlords and capitalists, these classes will be easily gotten rid of (!) after a revolution — but the petty-bourgeoisie  must also be abolished and Lenin says “they cannot be ousted  or crushed: we must learn to live with them.” It will take a long era of re-education to transform this class and eventually absorb it into the class conscious working class — a process that will be “prolonged, slow, and cautious.” These unheeded words go a long way in explaining the many problems that arose in both the USSR and China with respect to the peasantry.

Lenin is referring not only to small business but basically to the peasantry. Advanced industrialized countries really don’t have a peasant problem anymore (in this sense China is far from a really advanced country despite it phenomenal economic advances) but they do have small businesses and workers who own property (houses primarily) and/or are self-employed, giving them a stake in the current economic system which Marxists seek to replace.

This petty-bourgeois element, especially where there is a large peasant component, “surround the proletariat on every side with a petty-bourgeois atmosphere, which permeates and corrupts the proletariat and constantly causes among the proletariat relapses into petty-bourgeois spinelessness, disunity, individualism [the Libertarian disease and Ayn Randian brain cancer are examples], and alternating moods of exaltation and dejection.”

To overcome all this the workers need a party of their own with the “strictest centralisation and discipline.” Without a Marxist party of this type the working class cannot carry out its principal role and mission which is organizational; i.e., creating the necessary structures for the creation of socialism and educating the masses to that end.

I must admit, looking at the conditions we have today, it seems almost impossible to meet the requirements set by Lenin to carry on a successful revolution against capitalism. “The force of habit,” he writes, ” in millions and tens of millions is a most formidable force. Without a party of iron that has been tempered in the struggle, a party enjoying the confidence of all honest people in the class in question [the working class] , a party capable of watching and influencing the mood of the masses, such a struggle cannot be waged successfully.”

Anyone who weakens such a party, or questions its “iron will” (or doesn’t lead in its formation one might add) is objectively an ally of the bourgeoisie and against the working people.

Where do we find such a party today? In the entire Western Hemisphere only the Cuban party comes to mind. There are other parties, of course, earnestly struggling to become such parties in different countries of the hemisphere and we can only hope they achieve the confidence of the workers Lenin seems to require. The Eastern Hemisphere shows mixed results and I have no wish to try and judge which ones are doing what. But it should be noted that the movement contra austerity in some European countries may accelerate the creation of such parties where they do not yet exist and reinforce already existing militant parties.

This pretty much concludes what Lenin has to say about the relation of the party and its leaders have to the working masses and the errors about this relationship frequently mouthed by the ultra-left. A future article will try to explicate Lenin’s views concerning Marxists and “reactionary” trade unions.

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.