Lenin On The Role Of A Marxist Party In Relation To The People: Chapter Five of ‘Left Wing’ Communism An Infantile Disorder

By Thomas Riggins, Countercurrents.org

Editor’s Note: The US, in particular, abounds in anti-communist leftists who are uncomfortable not only with the idea of Marxism (which they usually know nothing about and declare obsolete and irrelevant), nor revolution, but with the “party principle” advocated by the likes of Lenin, Castro, Mao, Che, Hoh Chi Minh, etc. The reason why these leaders advocated and fought using a highly disciplined vanguard party as their main instrument to prevail against the formidable force of the bourgeois state and its enormous repressive and ideological apparatuses, is because the party signifies two essential components in this difficult struggle: unity and experience. In an atmosphere of all-out confrontation with the capitalist state, anarchists and hyper-individualists always end up doing the bidding of the enemy. They create endless factionalism and divisions within the people’s ranks, and in that manner weaken the impact and support required by the vanguard elements of society to resist the inevitable push-back of the entrenched order. The fact bears repeating: without unity, experience and discipline, no formation has a prayer against the forces of the status quo. —PG

Lenin in 1920 made an analysis of the political conditions in Germany after the failure of the Communist (Spartacus League) uprising in 1918. The Communists had split into two rival factions. The issues facing the German Marxists were somewhat analogous to those facing the Marxist movements today especially in the industrial world.

This fact makes many of Lenin’s observations of the conditions in Germany relevant to the struggles of today both in advanced capitalist countries such as the U.S. (where Marxist political groupings barely make a blip on the radar screen), Europe (where Marxist parties offer viable alternatives to the status quo and have elected representatives in parliaments, local government, and sometimes as ministers in bourgeois governments (perhaps a dubious tactic), and other areas of the world as well; there is a world Marxist presence that is growing and maturing in face of the continuing decline and slow collapse of global capitalism.

The setting for this chapter is Lenin’s reaction to reading a pamphlet put out by opponents within the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) to the tactics taken by the leadership (a familiar scenario): “The Split in the Communist Party of Germany (The Spartacist League)”.

The basic position of the opposition is that the KPD leaders are opportunists for seeking to work in a coalition with the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). This tactic would later be known as the United Front. This tactic is opposed by the opposition because it is demanding that the KPD stand for the creation of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and so must reject ALL compromises with other left groups and parties and abandon parliamentarianism (elections) as well as working in the established trade unions . The KPD alone can lead the struggle and should create a new big revolutionary union under the slogan “Get out of the trade unions!”

The opposition claims there are now two communist parties in Germany: the opportunist KPD “a party of leaders” and the opposition “a mass party.” Lenin finds these views to be “rubbish” and “‘Left-wing childishness.” He then proceeds to examine the whole issue of “the masses” versus “the leaders.”

The “masses” are divided into “classes” and we can make only very general statements about “classes” and there are always individual cases within a given class which the generalized statement will not cover. We should be provisional and not dogmatic.

In general, politically speaking, classes are led by political parties “at least in present day civilized countries” and the political leaders of a party are usually the most experienced and influential representatives of the class that any particular party represents. Lenin says this is elementary but nevertheless there seem to be some “present day civilized countries” in which the masses and the classes are not congruent — especially where working people do not have highly developed class consciousness; i.e., in the United States, for example, most workers identify with two über-parties neither of which represent the real interests of the working class.

In Europe, until recently (he means until the systemic breakdown of European culture and civilization called World War I) people were used to legal political parties and stable governments (at least in the “advanced” countries) and their political leaders were freely elected at conventions or party congresses.

With the outbreak of war and revolution parties and leaders found themselves proscribed or forced to combine illegal activities with legal activities. Some leaders had to go underground, open legal party congresses could not be held or had to be held abroad. In this era of turmoil some socialists and communists began to feel uncomfortable and to complain about undemocratic leadership and a separation of the leaders from the “masses.” Lenin thinks it is this confusion in the heads of those communists who have themselves little experience of the conditions of functioning underground that has led to the ultra-‘Leftism’ he calls an “infantile disorder.” Unfortunately, this disorder has begun to spread into more experienced cadres in parties that also have experienced conditions of illegality.

But in some parties, Lenin says, there really is a divergence between the leaders and the led. What accounts for this? The answer is to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels in the period 1852 to 1892 on the political developments in Britain. As the working class began to develop politically there “emerged”, Lenin says, “a semi-petty-bourgeois, opportunist ‘labour aristocracy’.” These were those British labor leaders that went along with the bourgeoisie, compromising demands, and collaborating with the class enemy for narrow sectarian interests of their own craft or union and not working for the good of the whole class as a class.

In Lenin’s day this phenomenon reappeared in the Second International where opportunist leaders (Lenin calls them “traitors”) worked for their own craft and became separated from the great mass of the working class– “the lowest paid workers.” Lenin says, “The revolutionary proletariat cannot be victorious unless this evil is combated, unless the opportunist, social-traitor leaders are exposed, discredited and expelled.” This advice is not, I think, limited to the “revolutionary proletariat.” In general militant trade unionists should keep in mind the needs of the working class as a whole and not distance themselves from supporting the struggles of other unions, non-union workers, and the lowest paid, nor should they be afraid to speak out when they see their own leaders engage in opportunist deal making with the bosses that may weaken the labor movement as a whole (sweetheart deals, no strike pledges, etc.)

The mark of Left Wing Communism (LWC) is, according to Lenin, when one advocates impossible to achieve goals in a given particular situation, bucks party discipline, and drives wedges between the masses and their leaders. LWC is the flip side of opportunism and class collaboration in that they both hamper the unity of the workers in the struggle against capital. Lenin was particularly incensed by those who claimed to be against leaders “in principle.” These very representatives of LWC were themselves claiming leadership positions within the working class.

Lenin quotes one such ultra-leftist who wrote, “The working class cannot destroy the bourgeois state without destroying bourgeois democracy, and it cannot destroy bourgeois democracy without destroying parties.” Lenin says this type of muddle-headed “Marxism” is all too prevalent amongst people claiming to be Marxists who have never studied or tried to come to grips with Marxist theory. Merely calling oneself a Marxist had become a “fashion” in Lenin’s day (it’s not that fashionable now when even sympathy for some aspects of Keynesianism make you a “socialist.”)

The idea of abolishing the party as part of the struggle against capital is ludicrous and would aid and abet the bourgeoisie. Lenin says, “From the standpoint of communism, refutation of the Party principle means attempting to leap from the eve of capitalism’s collapse, not to the lower or intermediate phase of communism, but to the higher.” [I amended this quote by leaving out “in Germany” after “collapse” because I think this quote has a wider sense (Sinn)].

Parties represent the interests of classes and even after the working class comes to power it as a class and other classes as well will remain “for years” and so will leaders. The working class cannot establish socialism by just abolishing the LANDLORDS and CAPITALISTS, these classes will be easily gotten rid of (!) after a revolution– but the PETTY-BOURGEOISIE must also be abolished and Lenin says “they CANNOT BE OUSTED or crushed: we MUST LEARN TO LIVE WITH THEM.” It will take a long era of re-education to transform this class and eventually absorb it into the class conscious working class– a process that will be “prolonged, slow, and cautious.” These unheeded words go a long way in explaining the many problems that arose in both the USSR and China with respect to the peasantry.

Lenin is referring not only to small business but basically to the peasantry. Advanced industrialized countries really don’t have a peasant problem anymore (in this sense China is far from a really advanced country despite it phenomenal economic advances) but they do have small businesses and workers who own property (houses primarily) and/or are self-employed giving them a stake in the current economic system which Marxists seek to replace.

This petty-bourgeois element, especially where there is a large peasant component, “surround the proletariat on every side with a petty-bourgeois atmosphere, which permeates and corrupts the proletariat and constantly causes among the proletariat relapses into petty-bourgeois spinelessness, disunity, individualism [the Libertarian disease and Ayn Randian brain cancer are examples], and alternating moods of exaltation and dejection.”

To overcome all this the workers need a party of their own with the “strictest centralisation and discipline.” Without a Marxist party of this type the working class cannot carry out its PRINCIPAL ROLE and mission which is ORGANISATIONAL — i.e., creating the necessary structures for the creation of socialism and educating the masses to that end.

I must admit, looking at the conditions we have today it seems almost impossible to meet the requirements set by Lenin to carry on a successful revolution against capitalism. “The force of habit,” he writes, ” in millions and tens of millions is a most formidable force. Without a party of iron that has been tempered in the struggle, a party enjoying the confidence of all honest people in the class in question [the working class] , a party capable of watching and influencing the mood of the masses, such a struggle cannot be waged successfully.” Anyone who weakens such a party, or questions its “iron will” (or doesn’t lead in its formation one might add) is objectively an ally of the bourgeoisie and against the working people.

Where do we find such a party today? In the entire Western Hemisphere only the Cuban party comes to mind. There are other parties, of course, earnestly struggling to become such parties in different countries of the hemisphere and we can only hope they achieve the confidence of the workers Lenin seems to require. The Eastern Hemisphere shows mixed results and I have no wish to try and judge which ones are doing what. But it should be noted that the movement contra austerity in some European countries may accelerate the creation of such parties where they do not yet exist and reinforce already existing militant parties.

This pretty much concludes what Lenin has to say about the relation of the party and its leaders have to the working masses and the errors about this relationship frequently mouthed by the ultra-left. A future article will try to explicate Lenin’s views concerning Marxists and “reactionary” trade unions.


Thomas Riggins is the associate editor of Political Affairs and also writes for the People’s World online newspaper.

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One thought on “Lenin On The Role Of A Marxist Party In Relation To The People: Chapter Five of ‘Left Wing’ Communism An Infantile Disorder

  1. I will begin by saying that I haven’t fully understood this article, and I haven’t studied Marx or Lenin in great depth. Still, I’ve thought a lot about the world around us, and I think I’m in disagreement with this article.

    I’m in favor of a people’s revolution. But it appears to me that Lenin and Riggins call for it to be led by a vanguard party, and I am dubious of that. I guess I am in favor of a “mass party,” which Lenin called “left-wing childishness.”

    I believe the revolution we want cannot be imposed by force; it can only be imposed by understanding. We must spread awareness throughout the masses — it is not enough to have the masses led by a small group of people who claim to have understanding. Indeed, how would such a small group of people differ from, for instance, Obama, who claims to be bombing people for the good of the world?

    It is true that, here in the USA, most people “do not have highly developed class consciousness.” But that means our task is to raise class consciousness. As far as I can see, that consciousness IS the revolution. When enough people see the world as it is, the plutocracy will fall without a shot. Until that time, any revolution will merely replace the old oligarchy with a new one.

    Leaders cannot be trusted; they are too easily corrupted or silenced. What we need is not a revolution of leaders, but a revolution of ideas and understanding. Ross Carre’s writings on this are pretty good: http://theleaderlessrevolution.com/

    I am a great admirer of the Occupy Movement. Their structure is non-hierarchical, horizontalist, anarchist. And yet their year of tents raised public awareness more than decades of efforts by all the socialists and communists in the USA. It’s true that their tents are now gone, but the movement is not gone — it is merely changing forms — now it is Tar Sands Blockade, and Occupy Sandy Relief, and Rolling Jubilee. Each of those may fail to bring revolution; but each of those may raise awareness, and bring us closer to revolution.

    Join the global conversation. Tell people we’re ALL on the planning committee.

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