Lenin on the Need for Political Compromise

Current political struggles often echo those of the past. In the US today we see the conflict between the Republicans and Democrats over the best way to shore up monopoly capitalism presented as a series of stark alternatives leading to a political paralysis in which major leaders of both parties are seen as pushing competing agendas: “left” Democrats favoring higher taxes for the rich  and  spreading around more money to stimulate the economy (an indirect way to transfer tax money to the business community) vs “conservative” Republicans dedicated to cutting taxes by reducing social benefits available to the poor and working class members of society (a direct way to transfer tax money to the business community).

The only way to end this paralysis, we are told, is by a “grand compromise” or as it is called today a “grand bargain” to be struck as both sides move to the center. But what kind of compromise is acceptable? Can basic principles and long term goals be compromised away for short term  solutions that only postpone and delay real solutions to fundamental problems? Is it ever permissible to compromise your beliefs in the face of the struggle against those whose ideas you hold are anathema.

I think it will be helpful to understand the politics of today by considering the nature of compromises and how to deal with them as put forth by V.I. Lenin in Chapter 8 (“No Compromises?”) of his classic work “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder.

Lenin wrote that work to counter an ultra-left pamphlet published in Frankfurt which had taken extreme positions urging communists and socialists to go it alone down the road to revolution eschewing cooperation with trade unions  as well as the institutions of bourgeois democracy because they were not revolutionary enough for the Frankfurt radicals. One of their positions was the refusal to compromise on their program no matter what the external conditions might be.

Lenin thinks it sad that people who call themselves Marxists “forget the fundamental truths of Marxism.” In order to remind them of these truths he refers to an article published in the German socialist paper Volkstaat in 1874 by Engels entitled “Programme of the Blanquist Communards.”

A little background: Louis Blanqui (1805-1881) was a utopian socialist agitator who thought a small band of dedicated revolutionaries could seize power in a coup d’etat and then impose socialism upon the state. After the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871 the followers of Blanqui fled to London where, a few years later, they published their “Programme.”

“We are Communists,” they wrote, “because we want to attain our goal without stopping at intermediate stations, without any compromises, which only postpone the day of victory and prolong the period of slavery.”

In his article Engels ridiculed such thinking saying that it is “the course of historical development” that forces Communists to compromise and to pass through intermediate stations and that what makes one a Communist is holding on to the strategic “final aim” of creating a classless society that abolishes human exploitation during all these tactical shifts. Engels says just because the Blanquists don’t want to compromise that doesn’t mean the real world will comply with their subjective desires. “What childish innocence,” he wrote, “it is to present one’s own impatience as a theoretically convincing argument!”

Lenin says that all workers who have struggled against the exploiting class, who have been on strike, who have fought for greater benefits, have had the experience not only of victories but of bitter defeats when they have had to admit defeat or accept a partial victory and compromise “with the hated oppressors.”  But the workers also know the difference between a compromise that has been forced upon them by the necessity of the objective conditions and the balance of forces and one that has been the result of a sell-out by leaders who have betrayed them for their own self interested motives.

But how can we tell the difference? Lenin tells us that there are “cases of exceptional difficulty and complexity, when the greatest efforts are necessary for a proper assessment of the actual character of this or that ‘compromise.’” In these cases, he says, we have to use our own brains to figure out the situation.

Lenin also points out that the history of the Russian Revolution is full of examples of compromises carried out by the Bolsheviks. Lenin calls these “changes of tack.” The Bolsheviks made deals not only with other revolutionary forces but also with bourgeois parties. The war that socialists are waging, “a war for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie,” is more difficult, long-lasting and complicated than any of the other wars that have taken place in history. The idea that we can never make compromises and changes of tack during this war is, Lenin says, “childish.”

Lenin further points out that bourgeoisie is internationally more powerful than the workers and this holds true even after a successful revolution in one or a few countries has brought the working class to power. Not only that, but even in a successful revolution, such as the one Lenin himself was leading, the bourgeoisie remains dangerous, even more dangerous than it was before the victory of the workers, because of its international connections.

Wherever there are small commodity producers at work, Lenin says, even within a country trying to build socialism, the “continuous restoration and regeneration of capitalism and the bourgeoisie” will be taking place. The revolution will never succeed if its leaders do not know how to “change tack” to take advantage of every weakness shown by the enemy and to further the interests of the working class, however slight, when it is possible to do so. “And this applies equally to the period BEFORE and AFTER the proletariat has won political power.” To use a Chinese metaphor, revolutionary leaders and parties are riding the tiger and the tiger has, for example, eaten up the Russians and East Europeans — but its hunger is unabated. Only the future will tell if any more revolutionary parties end up as tiger chow.

Inspired by the  views of Marx and Engels (they saw their doctrine not as a CREDO but as a GUIDE– Engels’ Letter to Sorge 11-29-1886)  Lenin declares Marxist “theory is not a dogma but a guide to action.” He then gives some examples of major compromises the revolutionary Russian Marxists made before the overthrow of tsarism.  In 1901- 02, before the Russian Social Democrats split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, they made many compromises with the bourgeois liberals and at one point were even allied with the leader of the liberals [Peter Struve 1870-1944].

Even then, in a formal alliance with the liberals, the Marxists waged “an unremitting and most merciless ideological and political struggle against bourgeois liberalism and against the slightest manifestations of its influence in the working-class movement.” Later, after the split, the Bolsheviks had to compromise at times and work with the Mensheviks and other forces. But, Lenin says, “we NEVER STOPPED our ideological and political struggle against them as opportunists and vehicles of bourgeois influence on the proletariat.”

Lenin’s lesson is thus:  we must sometimes compromise but never give up pressing our own views about the nature of reality, never water them down for the sake of appeasing our temporary “allies.” Compromises should be, as far as possible, principled compromises, and should never result in misleading the workers about the true nature of capitalism and the bourgeoisie. This would be especially true in circumstances where the workers are woefully ignorant of their role in the class struggle and how that struggle affects them.

Lenin now proceeds to discuss some examples of compromises and errors made by revolutionary Marxist parties. After the February Revolution in 1917 the Menshevics had their own right and left wings. The right Mensheviks took part in the Kerensky government and the left refused to participate. This weakened the appeal of the Mensheviks to the Russian workers who gradually shifted their support to the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks, who had about 13 per cent support of the working people in the summer, had garnered about 51 per sent by October of that year (as gauged by votes in the All-Russia Congresses of Soviets). This shift in support allowed the October Revolution to supersede the February Revolution. Lenin asks why the revolutionary Marxists were successful in Russia in gaining over the working people while in Germany, which had an identical right/left split in the opposition, the revolutionary Marxists failed to rally the working people to their side.

The answer he gives is that it was the ERRONEOUS tactics of the German revolutionary Marxists: specifically their refusal to work in reactionary trade unions and reactionary parliaments (thus isolating themselves and being unable to to take advantage of the right/left split within the other organizations of the working people involved with these institutions). This is a perfect example of the “Left wing” infantile disorder that Lenin is polemicizing against. He thinks seeing its results is the best way to cure it. The mainstream Left has been pretty much inoculated against it, but it still manifests itself in left fringe groups who have somehow escaped being vaccinated against it by properly understanding Lenin’s book.

Lenin also points out that capitalism produces, besides proletarians and semi-proletarians (handicraftsmen, people who work part time for others and also for themselves even sometimes hiring others, etc.)  a great number of “motley types” in between as well. There are thus many different types of workers and kinds of mixtures creating different levels of class consciousness and false consciousness (a consciousness so unrelated to a person’s actual existential conditions that he or she is rendered incapable of understanding the world).

This being the case it follows that revolutionary Marxists, or the Communist Party as their political organization, which represent the class conscious vanguard of the entire class must “resort to changes of tack, to conciliation and compromises with the various groups of proletarians, with the various parties of the workers and small masters. It is entirely a matter of KNOWING HOW to apply these tactics in order to RAISE — not lower — the GENERAL level of proletarian class-consciousness, revolutionary spirit, and ability to fight and win.”

Lenin ends this chapter with a discussion about the Treaty of Versailles and how Marxists should handle the question about supporting it or not depending on the circumstances.  This discussion is of historical interest only as regards the treaty itself, but Lenin enunciates some basic principles which all Marxist and socialist parties would be well advised to subscribe to today.

The is that we should not be dogmatic but tailor our tactics to fit the circumstances of the moment. We should not proclaim grand revolutionary plans and make non-negotiable demands based on our theoretical ends such that we cannot take actions and make temporary alliances because of our public stances: “it is folly, not revolutionism, to deprive ourselves in advance of any freedom of action, openly to inform an enemy who is at present better armed than we are whether we shall fight him, and when.”  There is no doubt who is better armed at the present time.

For this reason a frontal attack on the capitalist state and its bourgeois democratic institutions would be futile as neither the consciousness of the people nor the strength of the Marxists is anywhere near the level of development necessary to even contemplate such a ludicrous program of action. “To accept battle at a time when it is obviously advantageous to the enemy, but not to us, is criminal; political leaders of the revolutionary class are absolutely useless if they are incapable of ‘changing tack, or offering conciliation and compromise’ in order to take evasive action in a patently disadvantageous battle.”

It is no easy task to apply these principles today. Every party in every country has to formulate its programs based on a correct analysis of the balance of forces specific to its own situation. It is especially difficult for the “leaders of the revolutionary class” in those countries where the revolutionary class doesn’t know it is the revolutionary class and the leaders don’t know that the class they lead is supposed to be revolutionary. It will be some time, I think, before Lenin’s ideas will become fully applicable; that time, however, will surely come due to the failings of capitalism and its impending collapse (if we don’t first destroy ourselves with greenhouse gases).

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