Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lenin on "Left-Wing" Communism in Great Britain

Thomas Riggins

There was no Communist Party in Great Britain when Lenin wrote "Left-Wing" Communism an Infantile Disorder [LWC]  (the Communist Party of Great Britain was founded a few months later at the end of July 1920). Nevertheless, Lenin devoted chapter nine of the aforementioned book to discussing the problems of ultra-leftism in Britain. It is not my intention to rehash all the political fights of 1920 surrounding the formation of the CPGB discussed in  LWC, instead I will highlight those insights from Lenin that pertain to general principles of Marxism and that are arguably relevant to the struggle for socialism in the early 21st century.

Lenin begins this chapter with a discussion of an article written by Willie Gallacher (1881-1963) published in the  "The Workers' Dreadnought" (a publication of one of the groups which were in the process of founding the CPGB) which was full enthusiasm for communism, the Russian Revolution, and the future of the working class in Britain. It also rejected cooperation with the Labour Party and working in the Parliament and the author did not want to cooperate with those who did.

Lenin praised Gallacher's article [he later refers to it as "a letter to the editor"] for expressing the mood, or the temper, of the masses and explained it was just these type of young workers, represented by the author, who would be the future of socialism and who should be supported in all their efforts to build a revolutionary socialist party in Britain. Nevertheless, he does not want them to commit the same errors that the early Bolsheviks made, and that the German party made with respect to ultra-leftism.

The future CPGB would be a formation composed of the coming together of at least four different socialist groups. To build a mass party it would be necessary to work with many other groups of workers at differing levels of class consciousness. Lenin stress that the CPGB, as should be the case with all Marxist parties, has to base its activities on SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLES: and science, Lenin says, requires two things.

 First, a knowledge of what is happening in other countries, capitalist countries, and an analysis of the similarities and differences with your own country and how revolutionaries in those countries have coped with their own conditions. Second, a knowledge of your own country and ALL the groups, classes, parties, etc., and their positions and relationships. The policy adopted, in order to have the greatest number of supporters and best chance of wining, "should not be determined only by the desires and views, by the degree of class-consciousness and the militancy of one group or party alone."

The focus of all this fuss about cooperating and compromising with the bourgeoisie was the Labour Party. The leaders of the Labour Party were considered by the radical workers as sell outs and "social patriots" who would govern in the interests of the capitalists not the workers whom they ostensibly represented and led. Lenin agrees with this and then states "it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution; what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentleman a certain amount of parliamentary support." But why does this follow? Why give any support to false leaders who pose as progressives and really do the dirty work of the enemy? What can Lenin be thinking of?

We must consider what was going on in Britain in the 1920s. The Labour Party was growing and the two main governing parties (the Liberals and the Conservatives) were beginning to panic. The Leader of the Liberals, Lloyd George, proposed a coalition with the Conservatives to stop the Labour Party. [Imagine a time in the US when the Republicans and Democrats unite to stop the Green Party!].

Meanwhile many Liberals are jumping ship and going over to the Labour Party. Lenin says that what is happening is that the liberal bourgeoisie is abandoning the traditional two party system by which the liberal and conservative capitalists alternate in ruling the government and exploiting the workers; a system "which has been hallowed by centuries of experience and has been extremely advantageous to the exploiters…."

The British leaders of the revolutionary workers, the very leaders of the future CPGB saw what was going on and even admitted the majority of workers were supporting the Labour Party saying, as did Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) one of the founders of the CPGB, that "the majority of the British working class has not yet emerged" from the way of thinking represented by the Labour Party.

Even knowing this she said: "The Communist Party must not compromise…. The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate: its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution." Shades of Blanqui!

Lenin is a firm believer that the working class learns by doing. If the workers believe in such a party or such and such an idea, which is wrong and will not emancipate them, they must go through the experience of living and working with these false ideas until they learn from experience that they must abandon these wrong approaches.

Meanwhile the revolutionary Marxists will have been working along with the workers and supporting their efforts but also explaining why their views will not succeed and why Marxism provides a better alternative. This is the only way to win over the working people to the revolutionary Marxist point of view. This is why we must work in the reactionary institutions of the bourgeoisie.

 "To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone."

We come now to Lenin's famous formulation of The Fundamental Law of Revolution. Lenin says this law applies to all revolutions which means many of the revolts, insurrections, and coups that historians like to call "revolutions" are not revolutions at all. The Law states: "for a revolution to take place it is not enough for exploited and oppressed masses to realize the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the "LOWER CLASSES" DO NOT WANT to live in the old way and the "upper classes" CANNOT CARRY ON IN THE OLD WAY that the revolution can triumph."

Two obvious conclusions Lenin draws, with respect to an anti-capitalist revolution, are, first,  the majority of the working class (or at a minimum the majority of the politically active class conscious workers [this is "iffy" a majority of these may still be too small]) must fully understand the need for a revolution and be willing to take up arms if necessary to carry it out; second, the government of the ruling class must be undergoing a crisis which brings the masses of people, even those "hitherto apathetic," into a movement that so weakens it (the government) that the revolutionary elements can "rapidly overthrow it".  The revolution will not be a tea party.

Lenin thought the two conditions mentioned above were fast developing in Great Britain, but they did not in fact come about. Nevertheless, Lenin's advice in general as to how the Marxists in Great Britain should behave still makes sense even in our own day, and it is not restricted to any particular country. Briefly he says that unless we want to risk being seen as "mere wind bags"  and  a party that represents only a group and not the masses of the revolutionary working class ["revolutionary" is the key word to understand in this context] we must get the MASSES to follow our party.

To do this we must help the working class achieve the maximum of class consciousness and this means working in the political world in which we and they find ourselves and helping them to understand, by their own experiences, that no solutions of bourgeois politics can solve their problems and the only way forward for their class is by supporting a revolutionary Marxist party.

How would this practically be done? Extrapolating from the conditions of Lenin's day to the present time, and using the experience of the 2012 US elections, I suggest the following edited comment from Lenin: We would take part in the election campaign, we would hand out leaflets in favor of Marxism and explaining what's wrong with capitalism, and where we are not running our own candidates we would urge support for the candidate most favorable to the workers and who had the most support from the union movement and we would urge the defeat of all reactionary, ultra-right and anti-labor, anti-progressive candidates.

Lenin's actual advice to the British Marxists was: "We would take part in the election campaign, distribute leaflets agitating for communism, and in ALL constituencies where we have no candidates, we would urge the electors TO VOTE FOR THE LABOUR CANDIDATE AND AGAINST THE BOURGEOIS CANDIDATE." Others may have a better revision of this quote than what I have proposed above, but I have tried to factor in specifically US conditions (both major parties are bourgeois, the ultra-right poses a clear and present danger, the labor movement is under attack, among others).

As Lenin maintained that each country had an unique historical configuration of its own regarding the class struggle and the relations between the classes and parties making it up, it was therefore the task of Marxists to learn "to apply the general and basic principles" of Marxism to their own situation in order to "study, discover, and predict" the proper course of action. It is with this conclusion that he ends this chapter of LWC.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Lenin on the Need for Political Compromise

Thomas Riggins

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 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 eight ("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 gaged 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.

One 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 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).