Lenin’s “`Left-Wing’ Communism: an infantile disorder”
This was written by Lenin in 1920 and he himself called it “an attempt at a popular discussion on Marxist strategy and tactics”. Like so much of his writing, it is very much up to date for 1920 but, nowadays, it can be puzzling just to come across the names of the long forgotten adversaries he bandies about. At times, it seems that all he can say is `this person is wrong on this or that’. But what makes it fascinating reading today is just how relevant his core thinking is now
Both the title and the description say it all really. Communists have to understand what is a short-term tactic and how these aid our longer-term strategies. It’s a distinctive feature of Communist politics.
Lenin is concerned to show how both right wing and ultra-leftist positions sap the confidence of the revolutionary movement. The “left-wing” Communist is suffering from something akin to revolutionary chicken pox; even if it’s not exactly the plague, it’s still a childish aberration.
Writing so soon after the Russian Revolution, Lenin draws attention to its international significance and yet insists its experience should not be seen as rigid model. Revolutionaries need not only internal discipline; they should also seek mass support. This does not mean falling prey to the “old refrain” of the right wing in the movement, who are slaves to doing everything through parliament and do not see how extra-parliamentary movements can be linked up with `legal’ struggle.
But the movement also suffers from those addicted to fads, often the type that fashionably recoils at the “horrors of capitalism”. Twice, Lenin recalls, the Bolsheviks had to combat left deviations in the Party. Once on whether to participate in the Tsarist parliament; and again when the Bolsheviks compromised to accept an unfavourable peace treaty with the Kaiser’s Germany.
Compromise is “admissible” when the adversary is an “armed bandit”! It is quite another thing to compromise with the class enemy as an accomplice. But the leftist cult of opposition to leaders is the supreme “infantile disorder”, even if in itself it is not a “dangerous illness”.
This leads neatly on to the question of whether revolutionaries should work in reactionary trade unions. For Lenin, it is “absurd” not to do so. Even in conditions of state power, there is a need to keep contact with non-Party mass organisations, so as to “watch the mood of the masses”. Anyway, trade unions are “schools of Communism”.
It’s the same argument as whether to participate in capitalist dominated parliaments. Of course we do, says Lenin. But at that time many British Communists were so angry at the role of Parliament and the Labour leadership in pursuing the bloody war of 1914-18, they lost their cool over the whole question and Lenin had to put them right.
Lenin devotes a lot of space to this and it is, as they say, `deja vu all over again’. He’s especially welcoming of what he calls “the temper” of young British revolutionaries. But temper “alone” is not enough. Hatred for the system doesn’t dismantle it. True, the Labour leadership – including its leader, Arthur Henderson, is hopelessly reactionary. Sure, they’re all bloody war criminals. But anti-socialists seek accommodation with them, to strengthen the capitalist system. A section of Liberal opinion has even linked up with Labour’s leadership. So, we need to tile the balance our way a bit.
A revolution in Britain is impossible “without a national crisis affecting both the exploiters and the exploited”. A crisis so intense that it draws in even the most politically backward of people. We must help Labour beat the Liberals and Tories precisely because Labour is “afraid to win” such a struggle. Communists should propose unity and, if it is rejected and the people clearly see that Henderson is useless and prefers capitalists, they are more likely to turn to the left. (This is where the oft-quoted phrase about supporting Henderson, the Labour leader note – not the party, like a rope supports a hanging man comes in!)
Communists shouldn’t contest elections where they split the vote and prevent Labour from being elected. Voting for Labour is not a “betrayal of Communism”, not if it brings us closer to its voters. To do anything else just “scatters our forces”. Not much point in getting a few hundred votes here and there when you need millions to win.
Britain is Britain, and elsewhere is elsewhere, concludes Lenin. He’s a practical politician as well as a revolutionary, with his feet firmly on the ground. You’ve got to think about how to work in such a way that you take the struggle to a point where “the inevitable conflicts” mature.
No one, he ends, can say what turn events will take. But it’s our duty to carry on preparatory work until an “immediate cause” rouses the people. Revolutionary politics is indeed a “difficult” business; but this is nothing compared to the task of revolution itself.