The Infantile Disorder of Leftism... and the Senile Weakness of Rightism

2020 sees the centenary of Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, we were ourselves preparing a comment on it which will now be deferrerd. In the meantime it seems appropriate to translate this defence of the Communist Left written by the comrades of the Workers’ Union (Internationalist Communist Workers’ Group). It is even more appropriate given that they are workers from Russia, since the legacy of the counter-revolution has made the words “communist” and “party” difficult to dissociate from the disasters of Stalinism which finally arose out of the defeat of the isolated revolution in Russia.

We have been in contact with the comrades for a number of years but the fact that we shared no common language has led to many misunderstandings on both sides and thus hampered our exchanges. However, this situation is beginning to change as we now have Russian readers in the CWO who are responsible for the translation which follows.

The document is their own take on the decline of the Russian Revolution into the Stalinist nightmare that it ultimately became. The comrades recognise that whoever had been in charge that decline was inevitable as long as the revolution remained isolated (we would have emphasised this much more). They thus focus on “how” the counter-revolution came about in Russia itself and not on the “why” it came about as a general failure of the revolutionary wave which followed the First World War. However, they make it quite clear that this was not down to any individual, since counter-revolution was inevitable whoever was leading it.

Indeed their position on Lenin’s contribution is much the same as ours. His achievement in being the one to stand out against the capitulation of the Second International in 1914, his subsequent recognition (in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism) that this was a new epoch in which capitalism had shown it was rotten ripe for revolution, both underpinned his insistence that the Russian Revolution that broke out at the start of 1917 was not only not the famed bourgeois democratic revolution of Social Democratic theory but just one step in the world working class revolt against the international capitalist order. It was this message which resonated with rank and file workers who had already discovered their own forms of class rule in soviets and factory committees. The Bolshevik Party was the only party to wholeheartedly support soviet power in 1917.

However, as the article recognises, the objective situation of a relatively backward capitalist country (we would say that by 1917 there were few traces of feudalism left) faced with an economic crisis of unbelievable suffering in 1918 as well as facing White Armies partially supported and financed by competing imperialist powers for the next two and half years could only have succeeded with outside assistance from the world working class. The fact that this never came despite some heroic attempts in various countries ensured that the Russian Revolution would have to find its own “solution”.

By 1920 the workers in Russia had all but lost power to a new state apparatus dominated by the Red Army and the Cheka. Something that is well highlighted in the document below. Soviets and factory committees had become empty shells. Party rule replaced them. This was the context in which Lenin wrote his critique of the Left Communists. It accompanied the rapid switch in the Communist International (formed only in 1919) from a body to promote world revolution to a body to act internationally to defend the Russian state.

By 1921 Lenin was calling for “united fronts” between the social democrats and the newly formed Communist Parties (many of whom had only managed to break from these saviours of capitalism a few months before). The united front was a fiasco which only discredited the Communists in Western Europe and disorganised the revolutionary working class. The Workers’ Union are quite right to recognise the weakness of some of the Left Communists in Germany and Holland at the time but they are equally right in pointing out that at this point Lenin was unable to stand against the historic tide of the counter-revolution and was swept up in it. His later recognition that the communists in Russia “were not directing but being directed” by a bureaucratic monster did not alter the policy of “Bolshevisation” of the Communist Parties outside Russia.

We will have more to say on this in August but for the moment we present this document of the Workers’ Union. This is their own document and we would have phrased some things slightly differently but we think that in drawing the essential lessons from the Russian Revolution we are walking along the same road. And that is the key issue. Now we are in a position to discuss with them more directly, we hope to consolidate that understanding as part of a process of contributing towards the formation of a new international of revolutionary workers.

Internationalist Communist Tendency

March 2020

The Infantile Disorder of Leftism… and the Senile Weakness of Rightism

Today various opportunists hide behind Lenin's work “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder in order to, firstly, justify their parliamentary cretinism, or trade union reformism, or generally pro-Putin social chauvinism, and secondly – to accuse everyone who does not want to join them, or tail them, of that same “infantile disease of leftism”. It is as if they are not crafty agents of capital, but we, left-wing workers, are frivolous “lefties”, illiterate and dumb... Loud words about the centralisation of political power in the hands of Stalinist leaders could make a worthy impression if only it were not already known that this argument is used merely to defend the most corrupt, most opportunistic and most disgusting of politics.

Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder is simply a cover and the last refuge for pseudo-left scoundrels. One could calm down here, and not pay attention to puppet masters who profit from people’s grief and the “left” idea. However, the duty of a conscientious follower of socialist teachings requires consideration of this book by Ilyich in order to evaluate it, not on a religious basis, such as: “Lenin said so – end of discussion”, but based on objective historical facts. Indeed, in the ranks of the opportunists there are not only political adventurers, but also sincere fighters for the cause of the working class, who for various reasons reverently worship the authority of Lenin. Perhaps these lines can become information for consideration...

“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder is a work by V. I. Lenin, which contains sharp criticism of the German and Dutch Left Communists. The book was written in 1920 and published in the Russian, German, English, and French languages; it was intended for members of the Third International. In this work Lenin argues that, in the war against the bourgeoisie, “iron party discipline” based on the strictest centralisation and authority of party leaders is the “prerequisite condition” for the victory of the working class. He then describes the circumstances that led the Bolsheviks to this conclusion.

When reading Lenin’s book, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, you get the impression that on the one hand: Lenin was inspired by an unprecedented historic victory of the proletarian party, but on the other hand: he was pretty drunk on the cult of his own personality that was born of this victory. On the one hand, he justly pointed out some mistakes of the Left Communists, but making it the peremptory tone of the “leader of the world proletariat” he, at the same time, adopted the right-wing positions of bourgeois political science.

It is common knowledge that the masses are divided into classes, that the masses can be contrasted with classes only by contrasting the vast majority in general, regardless of division according to status in the social system of production, with categories holding a definite status in the social system of production; that as a rule and in most cases—at least in present-day civilised countries—classes are led by political parties; that political parties, as a general rule, are run by more or less stable groups composed of the most authoritative, influential and experienced members, who are elected to the most responsible positions, and are called leaders. All this is elementary. All this is clear and simple.

Lenin, Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder

Lenin argues for party membership and leadership by the fact that this is practised everywhere and always. But where is it practised? In a society divided into the oppressors and the oppressed! Moreover, the role of bourgeois parties lies precisely in securing and perpetuating such social division and inequality. The party is of bourgeois origin. Its emergence dates back to the time when the class of the bourgeoisie was coming to power. And this bourgeois political model is accepted by Lenin a priori as a phenomenon that does not require evidence. Here lies the boundary between Lenin the revolutionary Marxist and Lenin the ruler of the state, for whom the party is an effective tool to defend his political power. Moreover, power that is virtually unbounded from the side of the working people.

In passing Lenin mentions the Workers' Opposition, which was at that time already arising within the RCP(b) itself; he wrote of it: “And among us too there are some who adhere to similar views”.

But, after all, these are not just “some” people – these are the same people with whom he created the party and alongside whom he struggled for power. Moreover, historical experience has vindicated them. A revolution can only be the result of the actions of the masses, it can only be realised by the masses. Lenin and his uncritical followers in the RCP(b) forgot this elementary truth, taking on the task of the whole class. The result became the defeat of the world revolution.

The more the party fought to control all areas of life for the working masses, the more it detached itself from these masses and transformed into a new ruling class. And as the power of the RCP(b) strengthened and merged more and more closely with the State, all those who were attracted by the opportunity to pursue a career poured into the ruling Party in a continuous stream.

Unhappy with what had transpired, the old party members, as a rule, sincerely supported slogans of transferring power to the soviets, and factories to workers in the literal sense of these words. Inside the RCP(b), a “workers’ opposition” naturally arises – exactly the same “childish leftism” only within the party itself. In 1920, when Lenin's work was written, the Workers’ Opposition was already quite ripe both in the centre and in the regions. At the Tenth Party Congress in 1921 one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Party, Bukharin, was already forced to admit that the rest of the five-million-strong working mass, with a significant part of rank-and-file party members, was opposing the “party vanguard”.

The workers of the bureaucratic apparatus of the official trade unions, Shlyapnikov, Medvedev, Lutovinov and others tried to lead the centre of the Workers’ Opposition. In an effort to lead the mass workers’ movement, they put forward demands that were popular among its participants – they proposed transferring the management of the soviet economy to the All-Russian Congress of Manufacturers, united in professional production unions. At the local level, congresses of trade unions had to establish regional, district, and other local economic bodies, so that workers’ committees elected by workers and employees would manage the enterprises and economic institutions. They relied on the Eighth Congress of Soviets, which “must pronounce a death sentence on bureaucratism”.

Gavriil Myasnikov served a special role in developing the ideas of the Workers’ Group (another faction within the RCP(b)). He was a bright speaker, making use of his great popularity in Perm and Motovilikha. Practically all the workers of the huge Motovilikha plant sympathised with him, including the Bolsheviks and the Left Social-Revolutionaries. Myasnikov believed that party-state bureaucracy removed the workers from governing the country and production. It was necessary, he believed, to restore the key role of the workers in all areas of public life. He considered the soviets as the cells of the best organisation of government. It was the soviets, freely elected by the workers (with the mandatory mandate of the labour collective and the right to recall and replace a delegate at any time), who were to take on a key role not only in managing political processes, but also in organising production. They were to draw up programmes for the development of industry and supply the workers with all the necessities. At the same time, trade unions were to oversee the implementation of such programmes regionally.

It was a desperate attempt to overcome capitalist production relations and create a management system based on the self-government of workers. But the problem was that the productive forces of post-revolutionary Russia did not develop to such a level that socialist production relations could arise. Therefore, even with all the good wishes of the Workers’ Opposition, they could not resist the objective laws of social development, inexorably moving Russia towards state capitalism under the auspices of an authoritarian, bureaucratic party. In this regard, Lenin acted as a realist and a pragmatist. However, the fact that he justified this tendency of the bourgeois degeneration of the party in its isolation from the working masses as a good thing for the proletariat and its world revolution – this was Lenin's unconditional mistake.

On the one hand, the second programme of the RCP(b) stated that the trade unions should come to “concentrate in their hands all the management of the entire national economy, as a single economic whole”. This was seen as “the main means of combating the bureaucratisation of the economic apparatus of Soviet power”. But next to this arose the theory and practice of that “device”, the mechanism of which is described in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder:

In its work, the Party relies directly on the trade unions, which, according to the data of the last congress (April 1920), now have a membership of over four million and are formally non-Party. Actually, all the directing bodies of the vast majority of the unions, and primarily, of course, of the all-Russia general trade union centre or bureau (the All-Russia Central Council of Trade Unions), are made up of Communists and carry out all the directives of the Party. Thus, on the whole, we have a formally non-communist, flexible and relatively wide and very powerful proletarian apparatus, by means of which the Party is closely linked up with the class and the masses, and by means of which, under the leadership of the Party, the class dictatorship is exercised. Without close contacts with the trade unions, and without their energetic support and devoted efforts, not only in economic, but also in military affairs, it would of course have been impossible for us to govern the country and to maintain the dictatorship for two and a half months, let alone two and a half years. In practice, these very close contacts naturally call for highly complex and diversified work in the form of propaganda, agitation, timely and frequent conferences, not only with the leading trade union workers, but with influential trade union workers generally; they call for a determined struggle against the Mensheviks, who still have a certain though very small following to whom they teach all kinds of counter-revolutionary machinations, ranging from an ideological defence of (bourgeois) democracy and the preaching that the trade unions should be ‘independent’ (independent of proletarian state power!) to sabotage of proletarian discipline, etc., etc. (…) Then, of course, all the work of the Party is carried on through the Soviets, which embrace the working masses irrespective of occupation. The district congresses of Soviets are democratic institutions, the like of which even the best of the democratic republics of the bourgeois world have never known; through these congresses (whose proceedings the Party endeavours to follow with the closest attention), as well as by continually appointing class-conscious workers to various posts in the rural districts, the proletariat exercises its role of leader of the peasantry, gives effect to the dictatorship of the urban proletariat wages a systematic struggle against the rich, bourgeois, exploiting and profiteering peasantry, etc.

Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder

In the 1920s and 1930s the party’s “close relationship with the trade unions” turned into a short leash on which the party firmly held the trade unions. The trade unions forgot about the principle of elective leadership, more and more often it was simply appointed by the party. Large industrial sector trade unions were divided into a multitude of small organisations – both by sector and territory. Such micro-organisations were powerless before the ruling party and therefore absolutely obedient to it.

The Soviets of Workers’ Deputies at the beginning of 1918 were still merged with the peasant soviets. The Joint Soviets were then completely subordinated to the RCP(b). Under these conditions, the proletariat remained the powerless class, which was authoritatively operated by the Party apparatus.

In this way, Lenin’s approach differed from that of Marx. Indeed, according to Marx, it is the absolute participation of the proletarians in the management of the national economy and public affairs that will be the main sign of the transition to communist relations. If there are no workers’ assemblies, without any real economic or political power, then there is no social revolution in this society and power remains in the hands of a tiny minority, in this case the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. If the working class loses its organs of power, political, military, and economic influence (soviets controlled by regular meetings of collectives of enterprises with the right to recall and replace any delegate, workers’ control in factories, workers’ militias), it completely loses everything. It lacks (due to its position as those being managed) the ability to control the Party apparatus, officials, military and factory directors. And Bolshevism came to a complete merger with state capitalism, controlled by the bureaucracy. With the help of bureaucratic centralism, a capitalist economy can be developed. But the socialist economy, in addition to developed productive forces, also requires a system of soviets (when everyone produces to satisfy their needs and everyone participates in management). Without the soviets socialist construction is impossible, communism is impossible.

The Bolsheviks were in power with the task of carrying through to the end the doings of the bourgeois revolution – that is, ensuring the development of Russia’s economy. This development, in a semi-feudal agrarian country, could be no other than capitalist. Subordinating the working class to this task and crushing any opposition became the most important. Myasnikov’s Workers’ Group and the Workers’ Opposition were defeated for denying the “leading role of the party”. Lenin's theory of the party was imposed on the Third International. After Lenin's death, Zinoviev, Stalin and others developed it, tightening even more “iron discipline” and “centralism”. The principles on which the Stalinist Comintern rested were the same on which the reformist socialist parties were built: the party is separated from the working class and “brings into it” the “socialist” consciousness. Those who rejected this approach were declared as falling into the “infantile disorder of leftism”.

In the words of Lenin himself: “The intelligent man is not the one who makes no mistakes. There are no such people and there cannot be. The intelligent man is the one who makes mistakes that are not very significant, and who knows how to easily and quickly correct them”. Unfortunately, the leader’s rapidly deteriorating health did not leave him a chance not only to correct his mistake, but to even recognise it. However, in the famous Testament of Lenin notes of remorse can already be felt for such an increase in the vertical of power, that he himself was terrified of the fact it would be led by a man like Stalin. Alas, it was already too late...

Yes, Lenin was in many ways right criticising the Left Communists of Germany and Holland. The abandonment of the party form of organisation ultimately led to the rapid disappearance of the German-Dutch Left as a mass labour movement. Well-organised and funded by the Comintern, the Stalinists came to occupy a dominant position in the labour movement of both the West as well as the East. This served as one of the decisive subjective factors in the defeat of the World Proletarian Revolution.

But another part of the truth lies in the fact that the RCP(b) itself became a victim of its over-centralisation and hyper-custody over the working class. Centralism has the advantage that it concentrates the existing forces, unites them, connects them into a whole and thereby contributes to greater efficiency in terms of establishing unity. But it has a drawback: it kills the initiative of individual parts, fetters the will of its members, binds by hands and feet the development of individual forces, and thereby hinders the development of the individual into an independent person, their self-consciousness and initiative. It is an organisational system for lords overseeing slaves. Yes, Lenin himself ultimately paid for this, becoming in the twilight of his life a helpless hostage to Stalin. Those Marxists who supported Lenin against the Left Communists and the Workers’ Opposition also paid. As did Trotsky and his allies who spoke from their positions, though also against the Workers’ Opposition. And that is to say nothing about the Workers’ Opposition itself – no one but Kollontai survived the “Stalinist purges”.

It cannot be said that Lenin was absolutely wrong in his dispute with the Left Communists and his own “left oppositionists”. It also cannot be said that the Left Communists and Workers’ Opposition were absolutely right in everything. A significant drawback of the Workers’ Opposition programme was that it lacked concrete proposals for how to end the economic devastation. Their declarations of confidence in the proletariat, when the latter was terribly demoralised by the Civil War, were not supported by the real capabilities of the Workers’ Republic. The demand for immediate satisfaction of the needs of workers, equal remuneration for labour for all, free food, free clothing, etc., was completely unrealistic under the conditions of the general economic collapse. It was highly unlikely that a demoralised and mostly not conscious proletariat would be able to organise production on the principles of self-government in such a short time and effectively. At individual enterprises such workers’ control, and even workers’ self-government, was already in place, but it was not possible for all workers throughout the country to organise themselves in this manner, even for a short period of time. And the entire country as a whole, dying of starvation and epidemics, just did not have time. There were no other measures, except administrative ones, which could lead the destroyed economy out of the dead end.

On the other hand, the Bolshevik leaders raised temporary measures, dictated by the hopelessness of the situation – in principle. Horrified by the terrible consequences of the Civil War and intervention, it seemed to them that only a regular army, professional police (militia and the Cheka), and a centralised apparatus of the state bureaucracy could become the sole guarantee of salvation for the Workers’ Republic. After a little time the party bureaucracy, led by Stalin, consolidated this state of affairs, solidifying its dominance as the whole politics of the CPSU right up until the collapse of the USSR. The party-state apparatus was forced to, and very quickly got a taste for, appropriating the results of the labour of the whole society, using them at its discretion, thus becoming a “collective capitalist”. After all, the class is determined not by abstract rights of ownership, but by a real opportunity to benefit from its power over others.

To protect the conditions of such state capitalism from encroachments by the workers, the ruling circles were forced to turn the Supreme Soviet into an institution that officially approved the decisions that had already been taken, and assign its dictatorial functions to themselves – the top of the CPSU, thanks to its hierarchical structure, was independent even from the control of ordinary members of its own party. The structures of soviet power became nominal.

The European Left Communists and the Workers’ Opposition of the RCP(b), together with Myasnikov’s Workers’ Group, were rightly worried that production relations based on party-state property remained bourgeois, since Anti-Dühring was their handbook and they remembered that:

At a further stage of evolution this form also becomes insufficient: the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. (…) But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. (…) The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head.

Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring

Thus each of the opponents turned out to be right in some ways, but wrong in others. The task of modern representatives of the revolutionary workers’ movement: to draw adequate conclusions from historical experience and build new tactics of class struggle, while taking into account the lessons of history. Left groups striving to combine socialism with the workers’ movement can no longer fully utilise the old Leninist methods cast in bronze by the Trotskyists and Stalinists. Such “senile weakness of rightism” today can only serve party bureaucrats who gamble against the interests of the working class. The opposite of centralism is federalism, which gives the individual a greater right to self-determination and the widest freedom of action – an advantage that, however, is opposed by a disadvantage: insufficient cohesion of all forces into a conscious and effective whole. We need to look for the golden middle. Will we be able to do this? The fate of the working class depends on this.

Will the proletariat be able to “use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class” (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party)? Or will it again be forced to entrust its fate to the party leaders of some kind of “workers’ party”?

It is not at all necessary to take away all social wealth and all the instruments of production from the ruling class in order to transfer them to the party administration. It means the same thing as transferring it the power of the expropriated bourgeoisie. The party will begin to abuse this because in its hands there will be all the threads of the economic, and, therefore, political life of society, all the forces of a centralised, state mechanism. And it will abuse this because its very position will push it to do that. The dictatorship of the party – it is the rule of bureaucrats, it is state capitalism, the worst exploitation and slavery.

The point is not that the Bolshevik Party is to blame for Russia's development along the state-capitalist path. The economy of post-revolutionary Russia could not be launched without commodity-money relations and trade with the West, since its productive forces were not enough for commodity-free exchange and cash-free production. Objective conditions did not allow the Russian economy to function in a socialistic manner. Lenin was not God – he could not change the laws of social development. The Russian economy could work only according to the laws of capitalism. Lenin is not to blame for the fact that state capitalism was established in Russia. But Lenin did not allow workers to take the initiative where party-state nomenclature did not need to intervene. If Lenin agreed with Myasnikov, then perhaps Russian state capitalism would develop under the political superstructure of a democratic workers’ republic. Even the proposals of the Workers’ Opposition would not have saved the Revolution, but they could have made the defeat less painful. However, Lenin's mistakes helped the Russian bureaucracy to appoint the “emperor” – Stalin. Stalin, in turn, as described in the apt expression of Zyuganov: “revived the empire in the form of a great Soviet Union state”. He not only destroyed the most revolutionary elements among the working class, but also gave the world capitalist class a great gift – the idea that total state capitalism is socialism.

However, the interests of the working class do not require a “red flag empire”, but something completely different, namely:

  • the creation of a powerful international communist organisation based on the philosophy of Marxism;
  • arming the international proletariat with a classic scientific communist project;
  • preparing the proletariat for the impending world communist revolution, for further communist transformations after the seizure of power;
  • forming a network of modern producing-consuming communes;
  • the creation of an international soviet semi-state;
  • the implementation of measures to completely overcome the subordination of people to the law of commodity production and exchange, the dissolution of the world market, its replacement by world and local supply bodies;
  • the implementation of measures to purposefully overcome the subordination of people to the law of the social division of labour;
  • implementation of measures for the transition to the principles of self-government.

Our goal is the goal of eternally young “children” who are “sick” with dreams of a bright future:

The power of workers’ assemblies at all levels of society. The widespread introduction of direct labour democracy, the transfer of the right to make key decisions about public life – to assemblies of workers, students, pensioners, and other groups of the oppressed population.

The creation of soviets, elected and strictly subordinate to the assemblies, for workers’ control over enterprises, housing, education, and other spheres of life, with the holding of regular meetings of collectives, with the right to a decisive vote and the right to recall or replace their delegate at any time.

The widespread replacement of commodity-money (market) relations by comradely collectives, based on the principles of mutual aid and brotherhood. Joint planning from below by self-governing collectives of workers, residents, and consumers of economic activity.

Instead of the state army, the formation of volunteer militias of workers for self-defence.

Not the party minority, but the working people, deprived of power today, should rule as the majority! The liberation of the working people is the task of the working people themselves!

Workers’ Union (Internationalist Communist Workers’ Group)

Translation: Nikopetr (Communist Workers’ Organisation)

Saturday, April 4, 2020