Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder

My library’s copy.

I knew of Lenin‘s pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, long before I finally, a few weeks ago, chose to read it, largely because it has the single most fantastic title of any Marxist literature of which I’m aware. In that regard, it’s the equivalent of Mingus’ “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.”

I’ve read a moderate amount of Lenin, but by no means a ton. I haven’t even read What Is To Be Done?, for example. That said, I know enough about the Russian experience to know that, despite efforts on the right and center-left, Lenin was no Stalin, and to treat him as such does a great disservice to anyone who wants to work to make the world a better–nobody is saying “perfect,” people–place for people. You can disagree with Lenin while learning from him. There have been few people in the last few centuries who have put more thought and effort into the problems our species faces.

Why this particular pamphlet, and why now? Obama raised the issue, and particularly an ongoing discussion at Smartypants’ blog about the fissures on the left over his presidency. I am certain that when I say my politics are Marxist, lots of people on the left would dismiss me as a poseur. I’m certainly not living the revolutionary dream, going underground, organizing cells, nor partaking of any of the side benefits, like being dashing and having a series of torrid, brief affairs. I do, however, find that Marx’s readings of capitalism particularly and historical change generally hold more water than anyone else’s I’ve encountered. With this in mind, I make a point of declaring myself “Marxist” when I participate in discussions. I think we would all be better off if a Marxian read on things was part of the larger conversation.

In any event, Smartypants’ general take, as she puts it, is as “pragmatic progressive.” I would join that club. This is in contrast to a huge swath of the left that, from my vantage point, is so accustomed, during my lifetime, to not exercising influence or, better still, wielding power, that it retreats into intellectual discussions among itself, with all kinds of notions of purity, etc. Most often, the practical implications of this for most people ends up with declarations like “both parties are the same, so don’t justify them with your vote.” Neither Ms. Pants nor I think that both parties are the same, and this discussion reminded me of Lenin’s famous title.

So, Lenin, writing in 1920, at the peak of his powers both politically and intellectually–you could argue that his political high-water point was with NEP, maybe–takes young, enthusiastic Communists to task for their left deviationism. Substantively, he critiqued various Dutch, German, French, and English Communists (Sylvia Pankhurst was a target) for refusing to use legal, electoral means, in coalition with other parties, as a tool in the larger struggle, viz.:

Parliamentarianism has become “historically obsolete”. That is true in the propaganda sense. However, everybody knows that this is still a far cry from overcoming it in practice. Capitalism could have been declared—and with full justice—to be “historically obsolete” many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism. Parliamentarianism is “historically obsolete” from the standpoint of world history, i.e., the era of bourgeois parliamentarianism is over, and the era of the proletarian dictatorship has begun. That is incontestable. But world history is counted in decades. Ten or twenty years earlier or later makes no difference when measured with the yardstick of world history; from the standpoint of world history it is a trifle that cannot be considered even approximately. But for that very reason, it is a glaring theoretical error to apply the yardstick of world history to practical politics.

The money quote, to repeat it: “is a glaring theoretical error to apply the yardstick of world history to practical politics.” I suppose I went to Lenin because you can’t find a radical leftist with better radical leftist credentials. You can argue with Leninist vanguardism, but you can’t argue, as people do about Obama, that Lenin is a bourgeois toadie. When Obama says, “compromise,” some of my siblings on the left hear, “sell-out.” So, Lenin, on compromising.

Of course, in politics, where it is sometimes a matter of extremely complex relations—national and international—between classes and parties, very many cases will arise that will be much more difficult than the question of a legitimate “compromise” in a strike or a treacherous “compromise” by a strike-breaker, treacherous leader, etc. It would be absurd to formulate a recipe or general rule (“No compromises!”) to suit all cases. One must use one’s own brains and be able to find one’s bearings in each particular instance. It is, in fact, one of the functions of a party organisation and of party leaders worthy of the name, to acquire, through the prolonged, persistent, variegated and comprehensive efforts of all thinking representatives of a given class, the knowledge, experience and—in addition to knowledge and experience—the political flair necessary for the speedy and correct solution of complex political problems.

Greenwald would call him a sell-out.

By no means am I suggesting that Obama is the heir of Lenin, let alone a socialist. It’s very clear to me he is a little-“d” democrat, however, and that he made a decision a long time ago to work within the system to get things done.

Lenin, referring to Britain, very sensibly advocates work with the Labour Party against both the Liberals and Conservatives, contrary to Sylvia Pankhurst who recommended non-cooperation with Labour:

It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens [of Labour] are hopelessly reactionary. It is equally true that they want to assume power (though they would prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to “rule” along the old bourgeois lines, and that when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemanns and Noskes. All that is true. But 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 gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support…

…[T]he fact that most British workers still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys or Scheidemanns and have not yet had experience of a government composed of these people—an experience which was necessary in Russia and Germany so as to secure the mass transition of the workers to communism—undoubtedly indicates that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. 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.

So, Lenin advocates working within legal, parliamentary means. Why? Because of something completely obvious, something that the US left needs to consider: the views of the actual majority of the working class are what matter, not the views of a tiny minority of quite radical leftists. In the US, the issue at stake is that huge portions of the working class identify and vote not even with Democrats, who are willing to respond to some kind of pressure (e.g., every decent piece of social legislation this country’s ever had, excepting possibly the Americans with Disabilities Act), but with the GOP, which institutionally despises them.

The second portion of Lenin’s point above, about “a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone,” is crucial, and not just for an understanding of Lenin himself. At this point the word “soviet” needs a definition for English readers. The word is simply the Russian for “council.” The soviets of the 1905 and 1917revolutions were local governing councils

St. Petersburg Soviet, 1905, including lil’ Trotsky. Practice makes perfect.

formed in the vacuum left when the state, in 1905, wavered, and in 1917 collapsed. “Soviet” means, in other words, direct, participatory democracy with a little “d.” I am well aware that this is not how the system developed in Russia, and the logistical demands of civil war are the most important reason the system didn’t. The point, however, is that Lenin came to power after Russian workers and, mutatis mutandis, peasants had had decades of experience making decisions for themselves in their local communities, centuries, you could say, if you count the mir, the Russian peasant commune.

In the US, participation is not the name of the game for most of us. Disenfranchisement and consumption are. We will not see democracy in this country until we increase the former until it’s normalized and decrease the latter until they are insignificant. It’s very clear to me, to take a painful example, that Guantanamo Bay is still open not because Obama is Bush-Cheney in sheep’s clothing, but because there was no public outcry, or rather none with sufficient weight, demanding its closure in 2009.

Lenin constantly chides the international left-wing for its failure to base its actions on the actual development of consciousness of an actual majority of real workers. Much is made in the US about the bloodiness of Bolshevik policy at its worst, so much that you might imagine that it was Stalin, not Lenin, who led the party to power in 1917. All of the damning evidence trotted out against Lenin, however, comes from the Civil War. If you want to hang Lenin for violence against civilians, so too will you have to hang Lincoln. More important for us is the fact that when the Bolsheviks actually took state power in October 1917, they did so in one of the most nearly bloodless coups d’etat the world has ever seen. Far from the huge deal we see in Eisenstein’s film,

After a single day of revolution eighteen people had been arrested and two had been killed.

Two people killed. That’s a good night in Rahm’s Chicago. How could the single most important coup d’etat yet in human history have been such a small affair? Because by the time it happened, nobody, or nearly nobody, was willing to defend the state as it existed, an overwhelming number of people wanted to dismantle it, and–this most critically–there was a replacement for the old state in the form of soviet, “council,” power, not only waiting in the wings but in actually experientially-existing form. The deal was done before it went down.

Bearing all this in mind, it’s clear at least to me that there’s a lot of work to be done in this country before we on the left demand a full, immediate transition to socialism, or a full, immediate dismantling of the security state, or full, immediate employment, etc. You can call for those things, but you’re going to be isolated very, very quickly, and you’ll only get to talk to the people who don’t need convincing. Lenin wouldn’t do that. He told you to get involved with the people you imagine you despise–because moderate leftists are worse, right?, than plutocrats–and work the daily grind of organizing labor. More importantly, you need to work to create structures in which working people get used to making decisions that count in their own lives for themselves. Ilyich wrote this.

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Friedrich Engels, The Peasant War in Germany

The Peasant War in Germany is not the first Engels I’ve read–I read his work on the family about 20 years ago and liked it well enough while having a sense of its limitations by current standards.  I have since developed something of a disrespect for Engels as the junior partner in the relationship with Marx, and an unfair one my reading of the The Peasant War tells me.  He never pretended to be Marx’s equal, but he was in no sense a slouch, and if he certainly wasn’t a tenth the dialectician that Marx was, he had very different contributions of his own to make, and not only as an editor.  Surely, these are not original observations, but to me this was news.  I’d always held what I (and many others) had felt was Engels’ reduction of Marx’s analysis of historical change to a rigid schema of historical change, inevitably proceeding in a predictable direction.  Marx did not think that way.

The introduction to my edition, however, makes the point that Engels, as a historian, was top-notch and deserves our attention.  I could not agree more.  I read The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte more or less 20 years ago, and in the intervening decades I’ve matured enormously as a reader, not only of Marx, but I will say that a lot of it went past me, which was fine by me because I always felt with Marx that, even though I would miss a lot, the things I would get would be of enormous value, and indeed they always were (and continue to be–I’m reading The Civil War in France right now).

Engels’ chief virtue in my mind had always been enormous clarity in his writing and thinking, which at its best, either as a direct collaborator as in The Communist Manifesto, or as an editor, brought out the best, so to speak, in Marx.  That clarity is fully in evidence in The Peasant War.

To the book itself: Engels wrote this in the aftermath of the failure of the German Revolution of 1848 to produce a radical outcome, not necessarily even a socialist one but a bourgeois republic, or parliamentary monarchy in which ministerial responsibility rested with elected officials.  Much of The Peasant War seems aimed at German revolutionaries, dejected, with Engels saying, “chins up, people!  We are not French, but we too have a radical, revolutionary past, were we only to examine it for ourselves!”

Engels subject, the social uprisings in Germany following the Reformation, are rarely discussed in your average history textbooks yet are, for my money, the single most important aspect of the period to understand if one wants to get a sense of the broader development of European and world history that followed.  That is to say, Luther gets it in his head to nail his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenburg, and then all Hell broke loose.  Luther posits a direct, personal relationship of the believer with God.  The clergy, a theologically and therefore institutionally necessary intermediary between the believer and God, no longer is necessary.  This, given the contours of that society, is as radical a proposition as one could get.  It had the equivalent effect of a starter’s pistol on the German peasantry.  You are equal, Luther implied, to all those who lord it over you, in your relationship with God, which is of course the most important thing there is.  Fairly quickly, German peasants rejected their earthly superiors’ superiority in the name of the Reformation.

The book is short–really, it’s a pamphlet.  That said, Engels’ legendary concision is in full display here.  He sketches quickly, but clearly and accurately, antecedents to the Peasant War in both the theological and social movements in the immediately preceding centuries.  Thumbnail sketches of the principals as well as a lengthier discussion of Thomas Muenzer, the most far-seeing–that is, the closest to nineteenth-century socialism–of the various leaders of the revolts–or, I should say, revolution, clarify the personalities without bogging down.  The pace is brisk but not superficial, the mark of a truly excellent writer.

It is important, I think, when dealing with socialism, to point out that while Marx and Engels looked to the future, they were by no means dreamers.  Quite the contrary, and though they emphasized this fact constantly their critics (who, I have to imagine, tend to give them a very cursory read, if that) rarely acknowledge it, they always looked backward to see the future.  Nothing comes out of nothing.  This is important to bear in mind if one wants to have an intellectual discussion of Marx and Marxism, but essential if one actually wants to work for a better, actually existing, society.