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V.I. Lenin, ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, an infantile disorder (Moscow: Novosti Press Agency, 1970). Originally published in 1920.

In his “Study on the Unity of [Lenin’s] Thought” of 1924, Georg Lukacs argued that the “core of Lenin’s thought” was the actuality of the proletarian revolution. When I first read this, I was unclear as to what that actually meant, but having finally read Lenin’s contribution to international communist polemics, I think I finally get it. Not only that, but I think it provides a thread of continuity throughout Lenin’s career (e.g. in What is to be Done (1902) and The State and Revolution (1917)); when you understand what Lukacs means by “the actuality of the revolution”, a lot of Lenin’s theory and practice falls into place.

‘Left Wing’ Communism is, ostensibly, an attempt by Lenin to identify and describe the lessons of the Russian revolution that are applicable to other countries in the context of 1920. This context includes the rise of fascism and the communist response to that threat, controlled primarily through the Comintern, but it also includes the activities and programmes of communists and socialists in all the countries of Europe, pricely because Lenin felt that proletarian revolution was not only on the agenda in those countries, but because the revolution had, in reality, already begun. We know now, with historical hindsight, that Lenin was wrong about this, but it seems clear that this was not propaganda, that Lenin really believed the revolution to be imminent, and that he was making a good-faith contribution to the success of the international revolution.

Lenin always saw the problems of his age as a whole: the onset of the last phase of capitalism and the possibilities of turning the now inevitable final struggle between bourgeois and proletariat in favor of the proletariat - of human salvation. (Lukacs, Lenin, p. 11).

When you read Lenin’s work as active interventions in what he saw as an ongoing process of revolutionary organization and activity, it makes it easier to understand the process of his thought, including the typical criticisms of vacillation or opportunism, usually leveled against him. As he states with his usual force in ‘Left Wing’ Communism, there’s no point in coming up with rigid, abstract rules of political activity; politics and history are too complicated for that.

To reject compromises ‘on principle’, to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously. A political leader who desires to be useful to the revolutionary proletariat must be able to distinghuish concrete cases of compromises that are inexcusable and are an expression of opportunism and treachery.

Lenin is arguing against the “left wing” segments of various Communist Parties who argue that their parties should not participate in bourgeois parliaments (i.e. stand for election, seek seats) or work within reactionary bourgeois trade unions. For Lenin, Communist Parties “must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found”.

To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie, the labour aristocrats, or ‘workers who have become completely bourgeois’. (p. 45)

It seems to me that Lenin’s view of parliaments is - similar to Marx’s - based on their relative novelty and the fact that, in their respective countries at their respective times, the bourgeoisie had not yet learned to make parliaments tools of class oppression, totally dominated both legally and ideologically by capital. In The State and Revolution, Lenin calls the state a special institution for the suppression of one class by another. But it seems clear that he distinguishes parliaments from the state, just as he distinguishes political parties from parliaments. These distinctions were, I assume, valid ones in Europe of the 1850s (Marx) and Russia of 1905-1920, but to my mind, these distinctions have - over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first - ceased to have any validity. The compromises - both financial and ideological - required for any party to stand for parliament in North America are such as to obliterate any left wing progressivism (as witness the sorry state of today’s NDP); and parliament has become an institution of ideological oppression (one of Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses), while the non-parliamentary state (what we call “the government”) handles actual physical oppression and coercion. As someone who believes that any left-wing political party worth the name should have nothing to do with bourgeois parliaments, I’m one of those with an “infantile disorder”, like chicken pox, that Lenin attacks in his pamphlet. Chicken pox isn’t particularly dangerous, and is something we all have to go through; Lenin believes the left-wing opposition will grow out of it.

On the other hand, North America in the 21st century is very different from Russia and Europe 100 years ago. Our political parties are not whether the masses can be found, as lower and lower voter turnout and party memberships show. It is a waste of time to participate in any of the bourgeois parties, just as it is a waste of time to vote for them; indeed, voting simply lends a veneer of legitimacy to an institution of oppression and propaganda. I’m suspicious too of movementism (like Naomi Klein’s Leap Manifesto movement), and the only party which seems to have anything radical to say is the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (PCR-RCP). But, this has a lot to do with the fact that we are not experiencing “the actuality of the revolution”. If anything, our situation is closer to the Russia of Lenin’s youth, when useful political activity was only possible within the study circles such as the one Dostoyevsky belonged to, and for which he was exiled to Siberia. This “circle organization” (kruzhkovshchina) was occupied primarily with education and propaganda, of trying to expose the barbarity of capitalism and the bourgeois state (the kinds of things we now tend to call social justice). Propaganda and education existed alongside economic activism (i.e. labour union activity). Eventually, political activity matured leading to more rigorous activism (“agitation”) and eventually poltical organizing with a view to fomenting revolution. We can’t see that far ahead, obviously, but our propaganda, our education, must reflect the potential for another period - hopefully coming sooner rather than later - of “the actuality of the revolution”.

2017 is obviously a great time to be reading Lenin and other theorists of the Russian Revolution to see what remains valid for us of their experience. Lenin’s works are short, but - because they were written for immediate political purposes - they can be a bit dense and impenetrable, full of forgotten names and superseded polemics. But there is a wealth to be found there - and in Trotsky too - that ought to ring true to anyone working on the left in Canada, 100 years after the overthrow of the bourgeois state in Russia. What happened in Russia after the death of Lenin is an argument not worth getting into here, but it should not detract from the historical and political value of the popular rising that put the Bolsheviks in power.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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