“The surest way of discrediting a new political (and not only political) idea, and to cause it harm, is, under pretext of defending it, to reduce it to an absurdity. For every truth, if it be carried to excess, if it be exaggerated, if it be carried beyond the limits of actual application, can be reduced to an absurdity.” --- V. I. Lenin.
History has been unkind to the American left. A hundred years ago, the movement was plagued with "infantile sickness," an inability to recognize setbacks that could basically be equated with diseases in babies, like colic. By comparison, today's left grapples with dissociative identity disorder, multiple warring personalities, just when it needs more than ever to focus on politics.
In Lenin’s vision of the future communist society, popular councils (soviets) formed by workers and peasants would replace parliaments, and the organization of all workers in their places of work would replace organization of workers by trades. But it is childish to believe, Lenin maintained, that a proletarian revolution can proceed in an advanced capitalist society without participation in the parliament, without coalitions with bourgeois political parties, and without communist presence in trade unions. Awareness of the reactionary character of these institutions does not abolish them in practice. In the context of a reality in which these institutions continue to exist, one must master the arts of politics and compromise in order to advance the revolution (Lenin 1920).
In the German communist movement of Lenin’s time, there emerged an extreme radicalism that was opposed to the formation of political parties and to participation in the parliament. Invoking the slogan “down with leaders,” the extreme radicalism implied an opposition to leadership itself. Lenin acknowledged that there were opportunistic leaders and parties that had broken away from the masses. But Lenin viewed the extreme radicalism of the “Left wing” as childish nonsense. He maintained that to eschew the formation of a disciplined political party is to disarm the proletariat before the centralized power of the bourgeoisie. It would result in the demoralization and corruption of the proletariat, causing it to lapse into individualism, lack of integrity, and alternating moods of exhilaration and dejection (Lenin 1920:25-29).
Lenin maintained that the communist parties of the various nations ought to participate in parliamentary elections, in order to have a platform for the education of the people. Through this strategy, communists could form a parliamentary faction of committed leaders that would develop a new form of parliamentarianism, oriented to the education of the people. The communist faction would form alliances with other parties, in order to demonstrate to the masses that it understands the art of politics and that it is sensitive to the concrete needs that are important to the masses (1920: 42, 47, 74, 77).
Lenin criticized the German Left Communists for their opposition to participation in bourgeois parliaments, noting that such opposition previously had been criticized by the eminent leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. He observed that by persisting in this mistake, “the ‘Left’ in Germany (and some in Holland) proved themselves thereby to be not a class party, but a circle, not a party of the masses, but a group of intellectuals, and a handful of workers who imitate the worst characteristics of the intellectuals” (1920:41; italics in original).
Lenin also criticized the British communists for their refusal to participate in parliament. He proposed that the four small British communist parties unite into a single communist party, and that it negotiate an electoral compromise with the British Labour Party, which was a reformist “socialist” party that had the support of the majority of workers. The Labour-Communist compromise should include concessions to the communist party, such as proportional parliamentary representation and the right of the communist parliamentarians to freely criticize the Labour-dominated government. Such an alliance of the parties of workers would prevent a Conservative-Labour alliance against the communists, and it would ensure the removal from political power of the representatives of the bourgeoisie. A Labour-dominated government ultimately would demonstrate its lack of commitment to the workers, who then would flock to join the communists. If the Labour Party were to reject the offer of compromise by the communists and join with the conservatives, its lack of commitment to the working class would be exposed, to the benefit of the communists. Lenin praised the young British communists for their understanding that the parliamentary system must eventually be replaced by popular councils, and for their appropriate disdain for the “socialist” politicians. But, he maintained, they demonstrate a total lack of understanding of the art of politics (Lenin 1920:59-69, 74-76).
Infantile left-wing communism also was opposed to participation in reactionary trade unions. It maintained that the workers should leave the craft unions and that communist workers should create separate workers’ unions. Lenin acknowledged that trade unions have reactionary traits, such as a tendency toward non-political action, and that the leaders were reactionary and opportunistic. But he viewed the creation of separate workers’ unions to be an unpardonable error, for it left the least politically conscious workers to the influence of reactionary leaders. He maintained that communists must be present in all social institutions, however reactionary, where workers are found, patiently and persistently educating them. This is difficult, because the reactionary leaders resort to all methods of attacking communists; but it is necessary to remain in the trade unions and carry out educational work inside them. Lenin here criticized not only the German extreme leftists but also the American Industrial Workers of the World (Lenin 1920:32-39).
Lenin also noted that infantile left-wing communism opposed the 1918 Peace Treaty that Russia signed with the imperialist powers. Infantile left-wing communism rejects all compromises with imperialism on principle, even compromises made imperative by conditions. Lenin maintained that a party and party leaders fulfill their duty when they maintain a distinction between compromises made necessary by conditions and treasonable compromises, which are rooted in opportunism (1920:22-23, 50-51).
Lenin observed that communism must struggle not only against reformist social democracy to its Right but also against the infantile disorder of unreflective extremism in its own ranks. It must develop the art of politics, capable of making necessary compromises with imperialism and forming alliances with reformist bourgeois parties. It must display flexibility in tactics, developing them on the basis of objective analysis of national and international conditions as well as on reflection on the experience of other revolutionary movements (Lenin 1920:22-23, 36, 46, 66-71, 80).
Lenin believed that reformist social democracy, with its opportunistic leaders who pretended to be socialist but were not committed to the defense of workers, was a greater threat to communism than infantile left-wing communism. Nevertheless, he believed that the childish extreme radicalism of the Left had brought “the most serious harm to communism.” He believed that the lack of an intelligent flexibility in tactics was preventing the communist vanguard from bringing the masses over to its side (Lenin 1920:66, 72-73, 80-81).
In their analyses, Marx and Lenin believed that the working class, by which they generally meant the industrial working class or the factory workers, is and will be at the vanguard of the socialist revolution. They had good reason for this interpretation. Based on his observations of the economic development of capitalism, Marx believed that technological development would increasingly forge the industrial working class as a revolutionary class (see “Marx on automated industry” 1/13/14). Moreover, Lenin observed that, in the Paris Commune of 1871 and in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the workers created popular councils as an alternative to the bourgeois bureaucratic state (Lenin 1943:32-48). In addition, the particular conditions of Russian industry had created a working class in Russia that was characterized by advanced political consciousness (Trotsky 2008:7-10). Furthermore, Lenin found that middle class “socialists” in Russia and Western Europe distorted Marx and turned against the proletarian revolution (Lenin 1943:7-9, 22-3, 26-27).
But we live today in a different world historical context. Materially benefitting from colonial domination and imperialist penetration of vast regions of the Third World, the United States and the nations of Western Europe were able to make significant concession to the concrete demands of industrial working-class organizations, channeling them in a reformist direction. During this time, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements in the Third World emerged to the forefront of the global revolution, with the middle class playing a decisive role, as a result of its objective interest in transforming the neocolonial situation. At the same time, the technological and commercial development of the advanced capitalist economies led to the expansion of the middle class, which played a vital role in the popular revolution of 1968, a revolution that gave issues of race and gender a more central place in political and social consciousness, and that included a historically significant anti-imperialist dimension. Beginning in the 1970s, the neocolonial world-system entered a sustained and multi-dimensional structural crisis, demonstrating its unsustainability, a phenomenon that coincided with the relative commercial decline of the neocolonial hegemonic power. Responding to the global crisis and to the relative decline of the United States, the global elite has broken its alliances with the popular classes of the core and with the national bourgeoisie of the Third World, and it is leading the world toward chaos or a new form of fascism, creating the conditions for the possible extinction of the human species. In the context of this dark scenario, Third World movements of national and social liberation have renewed since 1994, and they are proclaiming that a more just, democratic and sustainable world-system is possible and necessary, and they are developing an alternative world in practice.
As a result of these conditions, all of the world’s peoples and all of the popular sectors of the core nations have an objective interest in the establishment of governments that are controlled by the people and not by the corporate class; and there is today no reason to believe that the working class will lead the popular revolutionary movements in the core. Recognizing the common interest of all the popular sectors of the core in the taking of political power, the Left needs to focus today on all of the popular sectors, and on the need to form a coalition of the popular sectors, understanding and responding concretely to the different ways in which each sector is dominated and excluded. Thus, when we seek to apply the insights of Lenin to our social and historical conditions, when Lenin speaks of the workers, we should immediately think not merely of workers but of the people.
With recognition of this appropriate adaptation from “the working class” to “the people,” Lenin leaves insights for us concerning what we should do. We should form an alternative to the bourgeois political parties, a popular democratic socialist party. The principle mission of the party would be to take political power, with a long-term plan of taking power in twenty or twenty-five years. During this period, the party would give emphasis to the education of the people, generating pamphlets for the education of the people, distributed by party members in their places of work and study and in their neighborhoods. The party should not run a candidate for president, but candidates for the Congress in favorable congressional districts, such as those with high percentages of blacks and Latinos. The party faction in the Congress would form alliances with other parties with respect to particular legislative proposals, showing to the people its appreciation of the issues that the people define as important, and demonstrating its consistency in taking a position in defense of the people. Thus, the Left would be participating in the established bourgeois electoral system, but it would not be doing so as individuals in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, but through an alternative political party (or an alliance of alternative political parties), constantly giving emphasis to the education of the people, seeking to lead them toward the taking of power. With its emphasis on education, the party would promote its Congresspersons as speakers in all of the places where the people are found, accompanied by an organizer who would recruit people to the party, seeking to develop and strengthen party chapters in a variety of social places. Through this process, the party would be forming its Congresspersons as leaders, with the capacity to educate, exhort, and convoke the people to political action in their own defense and in defense of humanity. The party should run a candidate for president only when it has a possibility of winning and has sufficient popular support to also capture control of the Congress. When that triumph occurs, the construction of a popular democratic socialist political-economic-cultural system would enter a new stage, for the party would control the executive and legislative branches, but not the judicial, nor would it have control of the military nor the mass media.
But why should we listen to Lenin? I will address this issue in my next post.
Lenin, V. I. 1920. “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. London: The Communist Party of Great Britain.
__________. 1943. State and Revolution. New York: International Publishers.
Trotsky, Leon. 2008. History of the Russian Revolution. Translated by Max Eastman. Chicago: Haymarket Books.