Lessons and Conclusions from Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder

In the last chapter, the tenth, of his 1920 book, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, Lenin looks back over the previous nine chapters and then draws several conclusions about the then current state of the world struggle for socialism and also predicts some future developments. Let us see how accurate he was from our point of view some 93 years later.

He begins by looking at the Russian Revolution of 1905 and remarking that two lessons can be drawn from it. First that the industrial working class (the proletariat) has far more power and influence in society than its actual numbers would suggest. It does not have to be a majority of the population in order to lead the population in a revolutionary direction. By waging economic and political strikes it can start an armed uprising aimed at the ruling class. Granted that 1905 was premature, but the tactics developed then paid off in 1917. Second, the creation of Soviets in 1905 was the beginning of a new way to organize the masses and to lead a mass struggle against capitalism.

I think we can give Lenin high marks here. Even though only at the beginning of a new revolutionary upsurge, due to the ongoing crisis of world capitalism, we can already see the working class more and more organizing both economically and politically to lead the struggle against the rule of the banks and financial and industrial oligarchs.

“Soviets” is a Russian word, so whether you want to use it or the term “worker’s councils” or “the occupy movement” organizations similar to these will have to be eventually set up as the bourgeois governments lose control of the economy and working people have to take it over and direct it towards serving the needs of the people.

Having said that, we must admit that Lenin’s optimism about the near future in his own day was completely wrong. He thought it was clear that bourgeois parliamentary types of government were clearly on the decline and would be replaced throughout the world by Soviet type governments. That trend, after the rise of fascism, World War II, and the Cold War, is no longer discernible in the early 21st century.

Lenin was convinced that “communism”; i.e., revolutionary Marxism, was on the ascent in the working class movement against its two main enemies “Menshevism” (by which he meant nationalism and opportunism under whatever forms in different countries) on the one hand, and ultra-leftism (“Left-Wing” communism) on the other.

After a hectic century of struggle we currently have five “communist” countries in which both those currents have been nominally overcome (at least as openly argued for positions). In the rest of the developed world Menshevism is alive and well as a popular option in the working  class movement and “revolutionary” Marxism, where it exists at all, is a very small fraction of the working class (although in some countries it is growing and radicalizing thousands of workers in response to the calls for “austerity” in response to the general crisis of capitalism). “Ultra-leftism” has been reduced to small cult-like extremist groups on the fringes of the anti-capitalist struggle with little or no influence within the working class.

The Second International (which Lenin thought “virtually dead”) is alive and kicking while the Third International, which Lenin held was winning the dual between the Internationals “on a world-wide scale”- is, as they say, “history.” Lenin was blinded by the stunning successes of the Bolshevik revolution and its positive reception by the international working class. The founding of the Soviet Union in 1922, just two years after his book on left-wing communism came out would seem to have justified all this optimism.

What else did Lenin think was on the agenda for the near future, or at least the not very distant future? Well, he thought the international working class was ripe to be led towards the construction of “a world Soviet republic.” This is a pipe dream today vis a vis the near future. However, the preconditions for such a republic remain exactly as Lenin stated them.

There are, he said, two fundamental principles of communism that parties have to work towards — one is Soviet power (i.e., working people actually meeting in councils and taking political and economic power as a result; the other is “the dictatorship of the proletariat” — an infelicitous expression these days — but this only means that the working people once in power will not allow the bourgeoisie to engage in active opposition to the worker’s new government.

Lenin thought the establishment of these two fundamental principles on a world wide basis was the historic task of the working class in his day. As it turned out it was all the working class could do to keep itself from being crushed by fascism and economic depression, and it failed to live up to the expectations Lenin mistakenly, as it tuned out, had had for it.

He thought the “chief thing” necessary for the struggle he saw coming had already been achieved by the time he wrote LWC. The chief thing was that internationally the vanguard of the working class had been won over to the need for proletarian dictatorship and the establishment of the Soviet system and was “against bourgeois democracy.” Let us grant that Lenin was correct about this (although I have my doubts). Even so this “vanguard” was not able to pull off the next step in the struggle; i.e., “the search after forms of the transition or the approach to the proletarian revolution.” It was unable to convince the majority of the working masses to follow its lead and remained a militant contingent of the working masses but not THE vanguard (except in a theoretical sense).

Lenin was well aware of the necessity of winning over the majority as he said, “Victory cannot be won with a vanguard alone.” And the broad masses of the people cannot be won over by agitation and  propaganda “alone.” No, “the fundamental law of all great revolutions” is that “the masses must have their own political experience.”

Well, in the U.S. and Europe they have had plenty of time to gather this experience and unless they are suffering from some type of attention deficit disorder (ADD) we can only hypothesize some failure on the part of the socialist leadership (opportunism, nationalism) OR, dispute the horrendous world upheavals that have rent the world in the last ninety years, the three crucial constellations of social forces have not come together which portend the outbreak of a world wide revolutionary movement  such as Lenin expected in his time.

ADD is not to be taken seriously (only about 2.5% of the world’s population, plus or minus a few percentage points, appear to suffer from ADD according to many experts) so what are the three social conditions that have to be in action? Lenin says that millions and tens of millions of people must be on the move and ready for progressive revolutionary leadership to change the system.

If this is the case, then revolutionary Marxists must find (1) all the hostile bourgeois class forces usually united against the workers are embroiled in internecine struggles among themselves and have so weakened themselves they can no longer effectively oppose the workers; (2) the petty bourgeois democrats (Mensheviks of whatever stripe) and their parties have so discredited themselves politically that the workers no longer have faith in them and will not vote for them; (3) the working people are becoming more and more determined, as the struggle continues, to support revolutionary forces dedicated to overthrowing the bourgeoisie and creating a workers’ government.

All three conditions must hold and if they do “revolution is indeed ripe”, and if the Marxists have correctly understood that these conditions are, in fact, present and they act on them at the right moment, then “victory is assured.” This is a tall order indeed! I can see why “victories” are few and far between, especially considering the fact that Marxist leaders in many countries they already “controlled” were blind to the fact that they were the ones their “own” workers had lost faith in. Well, as Lenin pointed out earlier, it is not a crime to err, but it is not to learn from the error and correct it. The five “Leninist” states still standing have their work cut out for them.

Here is another important conclusion that Lenin draws looking back over the history of the socialist movement and adapting it to the struggle he sees coming. That is, that since the really class conscious vanguard can be numbered in the thousands, while a revolutionary upsurge is to be measured by the activity of millions who are not at a high level of class consciousness but reacting to oppressive conditions in an almost instinctive manner, the vanguard must be able to master all forms of revolutionary struggle — both legal and illegal — and be ready to correctly act under rapidly changing conditions.

It is relatively easy to act in a revolutionary manner once the pot of discontent has boiled over, Lenin points out; the really difficult time for the class conscious Marxist is to know how to behave in times that are not revolutionary, are indeed relatively calm and peaceful and revolution looks to be a far off possibility, or no possibility at all, and the bourgeoisie is seemingly benign or even when it is behaving in a reactionary manner does not seem about to lose control of the state.

In these situations when conditions for “direct, open really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist” it is the task of the revolutionary Marxist not to lose sight of the revolutionary ends even when the masses of working people “are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for revolutionary methods of action.”  Lenin says in these conditions the main task for socialists in both America and Western Europe [nowadays we might as well include the whole capitalist world] is to find a way to lead the oppressed classes “to the real, decisive and revolutionary struggle.” I think if Lenin were around today, he would see this as the real task of 21st century socialism. The problem is, to figure out how to do this without falling into the traps of opportunism (Menshevism) on the one hand, and/or being too focused on national peculiarities and interests at the cost of not maintaining an international outlook on the other.

Lenin understood this problem and stipulated that Marxists must actively engage with the political struggles in their own countries but in a new way completely different from the usual way of working in the union movement and in political movements influenced by the traditional (and opportunist) left. They must propagate Marxist theory to the masses with leaflets and meetings and work not only with the advanced industrial workers but also get involved with “the unorganized and downtrodden poor” and their election work should not be aimed at winning elections per se (“to ‘get seats’ in parliament”) but to educate and inform the masses about what Marxism is all about, they should “try to get people to think, and draw the masses into the struggle, to take the bourgeoisie at its word and utilize the machinery it has set up, the elections it has appointed, and the appeals it has made to the people.”

This may have to be done within the rules of the bourgeoisie but the Marxists will always keep to their own slogans and advocate Marxist solutions and not water down their positions to curry favor with the opportunists and their followers. Lenin says this is a very hard job to do, “and extremely difficult in America” but nevertheless “it can and must be done.” Well, this is the message of the 1920s to us and to the 2020s: is it still appropriate or is it out of date and ready for the ash heap?

One must note, in considering this question, that the tactics put forth by Lenin were based on the historical conditions that he found himself in and his interpretation of what they portended. Here is the context as he understood it.  The masses were on the rise everywhere as a result of colossal destruction inflicted upon the people by the savage world wide war waged by imperialism from 1914 to 1918 “for the sole purpose of deciding whether the British or the German robbers should plunder the largest number of countries.” Social “sparks” were flying everywhere and revolutions could flare up at any moment and the Marxists had to be ready and able to take advantage of them.

The Russian Revolution had shook the world and the bourgeoisie was “terrified of Bolshevism” and over-reacting to the perceived threat to such an extent they were actually helping Bolshevism grow in popularity with the working class. Lenin refers to the Palmer raids when the American bourgeoisie had “completely lost its head” and arrested thousands and thousands of people suspected of being Bolsheviks. This could only help the cause, he thought, because it helped to get “the masses interested in the essence and significance of Bolshevism.”

But this revolutionary fervor was tamped down, a great economic depression gripped the world leading to another explosion of a world wide imperialist war (1939-1945), followed by revolutionary upheavals which were countered by a resurgent imperialism led by the U.S. in the form of the “Cold War.” McCarthyism was a revival of the Palmer “red scare” and definitely showed how the bourgeoisie could “lose its head” — but (pace Lenin) did not “help the cause” by moving the working class to become more interested in Marxism. Finally the “Cold War” eventuated in the demise of the Soviet Union and east European socialism. So, looking at the world of today, we have to decide if the tactics Lenin put forth in the 1920s are still the best guide to action in the struggle to overthrow capitalism. Are there any after shocks from the Russian Revolution still to come? What tactics could be better?

Lenin, himself was not unmindful of the fact that the capitalist countries would gang up on Russia and do all in their power to crush “Bolshevism”; he just did not think it was possible for them to do it. He tells us that the bourgeoisie thinks of practically only one thing when it hears the word “Bolshevism”: “insurrection, violence, and terror; it therefore strives to prepare itself for resistance and opposition primarily in this field.” This sounds familiar.

He even thinks they may succeed for a time in putting down the Marxist “contagion” (their favorite word) by violence and the killing of “hundreds, thousands, and hundreds of thousands” of revolutionary Marxists (as they have already done in India, Hungary and Germany– [and were about to do in China])– but these are only the actions “of all historically doomed classes.” Lenin is a little too cavalier here, I fear, and certainly underestimated the future death toll inflicted on the worker’s movement by the capitalists– especially their Nazi incarnation which cost about 25 million Soviet lives alone.

At any rate Lenin thinks they will fail to eliminate revolutionary Marxism because the “contagion” is too wide spread and has infected every aspect of the capitalist organism — its social, political, economic, educational, and moral institutions — Marxist ideas are everywhere and the corruption and exploitation of capitalism can no longer be hidden from the masses who must, eventually, overthrow it. “Life,” he says, “will assert itself.” Today, when the bourgeoisie is busily destroying the planet, itself, and threatening the existence of billions of people these views of Lenin remind us how far we still have to go to rid the earth of the exploiters and to educate masses of people in the fight against “the frenzied ravings of the bourgeoisie.”

In his day Lenin thought that only one thing was preventing the victory of the socialist movement from rapidly coming about — is it the same thing that is holding it back in our time as well? — “namely, the universal and through awareness” on the part of all revolutionary Marxists dedicated to the achievement of socialism “in all countries of the necessity to display the utmost flexibility in their tactics.” This is something that from Lenin’s day to the present most Marxists have failed to learn how to put into practice.

Finally, Lenin explains why the leading Marxists of the pre-World War I Second International (Kautsky, Otto Bauer, and Plekhanov to name just a few of the better known) fell into opportunism and took the capitalist road (if I may use that expression). It was their lack of flexibility and inability to properly understand dialectics.

“The principal reason for their bankruptcy was that they were hypnotized by a definite form of growth of the working-class movement and socialism, forgot all about the one-sidedness of that form, were afraid to see the break-up which objective conditions made inevitable and continued to repeat simple and, at first glance, incontestable axioms that had been learned by rote….”

In other words, they did not appreciate the revolutionary environment created by the war and its aftermath and attempted to impose bourgeois political legitimacy and parliamentary democracy on the socialist movement which they had learned in the post-1848 struggle of the working class to organize itself and develop its consciousness. By failing to ally with the new revolutionary consciousness (such as manifested by the Soviets and revolutionary workers’ councils) they ended up on the side of the bourgeoisie and against the workers. At least this seems to me to be his position.

Considering the situation to be as he described it, Lenin held that the two trends within the socialist movement, he called them Right doctrinairism (opportunism) and Left doctrinairism (ultra-leftism), had to be opposed but that the Right was far more dangerous than the Left (which was new and experience would soon correct). Today the ultra-left is confined to fringe groups or to groups that thrive in countries with an underdeveloped working class due to backward economic conditions, while almost all of the major political parties following the dispensation of the Second International are completely controlled by opportunist non-revolutionary cadre that are running dogs (another useful expression from another context) of the dominate forces of finance and industrial capital.

Those remaining socialist parties and groups which consider themselves “Leninist” in orientation will find Lenin’s book on “Left-Wing” Communism still a meaningful tool to use in the struggles of the 21st century as will others who are struggling with the problems of organizing the working people to take political and economic action to liberate themselves and humanity at large from the scourge of capitalism.

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