Franz Pfempfert comments on Lenin's infamous pamphlet, Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder.
In April 1920, when Lenin was putting the finishing touches to his Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, he was as yet unaware of the founding of the KAPD, which would reinforce his determination to liquidate a political tendency which seemed to him to be a denial of reality. In order not to lose touch with the masses, one must go wherever they are to be found. This is the axis around which all of the arguments in Lenin’s book revolve, making the book a theory of manipulation: we shall take advantage of the discord in the enemy’s ranks, we shall unmask the leaders of the Labour Party before the eyes of their membership by making proposals which they cannot fulfill, we shall use the space provided to us by bourgeois democracy against that democracy. . . .
The KAPD, through the pen of Gorter, who published his Open Letter to Comrade Lenin in July, still attempted to open up a dialogue. Gorter stressed the point that, unlike the situation in Russia, in the countries of the old bourgeoisie with deeply-rooted democratic traditions, no method could transform the parliaments into weapons, and one did not need to unmask a social democracy and a handful of trade unions which, rather than carrying out “betrayals”, fulfilled a precise function.
The Open Letter was an attempt to prove to the Bolsheviks that they were mistaken in their efforts to get the communists to imitate them everywhere. Gorter argued as if the KAPD had a clearer awareness of the real interests of the International and the Russian State than Lenin, Trotsky or Zinoviev. Until the middle and even until the end of 1920, the German Left Communists did not consider themselves to actually constitute an opposition to the Bolsheviks; to the contrary, it was the Spartacist leadership which seemed to them to be unfaithful to the principles they felt they held in common with the Bolsheviks. Pfemfert argues from a noticeably different position since, like Rühle, he rejects any positive role for a party. He does, however, just like Gorter but even more explicitly, argue as if a revolutionary situation was in the process of maturing and as if all that was needed was an adequate slogan to be launched by a resolute minority at the right place: the factory, “the reproductive cell of the new society”.
Political stabilization, which was being ever more distinctly established after 1920, deprived the “self-initiative” advocated by Gorter and Pfempfert of its practical scope. To cite just one example, contrary to the hopes of the supporters of an electoral boycott, abstention was of little account. In this confused and turbulent period, the masses were far from demonstrating their loathing for the ballot box, especially on the occasion of the elections to the Constituent Assembly which would decide upon the political regime to succeed the Empire (January 26, 1919). They voted in droves: two-and-a-half times more voters than in 1912, two-thirds of them entering the voting booth for the first time.
Gorter’s Open Letter to Comrade Lenin was left without any public refutation. It would be ten years before its first French edition saw the light of day, published by the Groups of Communist Workers (among whose members was André Prudhommeaux), and thirty-nine more years before the second French edition was published.
Lenin’s Infantile Disorder. . .and the Third International
The Third International should be the association of the revolutionary proletariat of all countries in the fight against the dictatorship of capitalism, against the bourgeois State, for the power of toiling humanity, for communism. Having originated in a country where the workers have already, by great efforts, conquered this power, has helped the Third International to win the sympathies of the world proletariat. Enthusiasm for this new worldwide association of the exploited goes hand-in-hand with enthusiasm for Soviet Russia and for the incomparable heroic combat of the Russian proletariat. But the new structure of the Third International has as of yet had neither the time nor the opportunity to achieve moral results as an organization.
The Third International can and will be a moral force if it represents the expression of the will of the world’s revolutionary proletariat, and then it will be indestructible and irreplaceable as the International of the fighting proletarian class. But the Third International would be an impossibility and a vacuous phrase should it want to be the propaganda instrument of one or more parties.
If the Third International were really the association of the world’s revolutionary proletariat, the latter would then have the feeling of belonging to it, regardless of formal membership. But if the Third International presents itself as the instrument of the central power of a particular country, then it will bear within itself the seed of death and it will be an obstacle to the world revolution.
The revolution is an affair of the proletariat as a class; the social revolution is not a party matter.
We must be yet more precise:
Soviet Russia will perish without the help of all revolutionary combatants. All the workers who are really class-conscious (and the syndicalists, for example, are also unconditionally part of this category!) are ready to actively come to its aid. The Third International would act in a criminal and counterrevolutionary manner if, in the interests of a party, it were to do anything which could douse the sacred fire of fraternal solidarity which smolders in the hearts of all proletarians for Soviet Russia (and not yet for the Third International as a separate organization!).
Is this so hard to understand? Is it folly, comrade Lenin, for us to shout at you: it is not we who need the Third International at this time, but the Third International which needs us?
Lenin thinks that is indeed folly. In his work, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, which he has just launched against the revolutionary proletariat, Lenin thinks that the Third International must abide by the statutes of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) and that the revolutionary proletariat of all countries must submit to the authority of the “Third International” and, therefore, to the tactics of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks should determine what arms the fighting proletariat of the rest of the world should use. And only those proletarians who unconditionally obey will be chosen to belong to this world association. In the Principles of the Second Congress of the Third International, Lenin has formulated this postulate in a yet clearer way: not only has he given general instructions, but all of the details of tactics, of organization, and he has even prescribed the name which should be assumed by the parties in all countries. And the finishing touch:
“All the decisions of the congresses of the Communist International, as well as of its Executive Committee, are binding on all parties affiliated with the Communist International.”
Even if this is methodical, it is still madness!
In a country as small as Germany, we have repeated experience, most recently in March of 1920, of the fact that a tactic which leads to victory, for example, in the Ruhr, was impossible elsewhere; that the general strike of the industrial workers in central Germany was a joke for the Vogtland, where the proletariat has been condemned to unemployment since November 1918. And should Moscow be the supreme general staff for us and for all the other countries?
What draws us towards the Third International is the shared goal of the world revolution: the dictatorship of the proletariat, communism. The Third International must stand alongside the fighting proletarians of all countries, instructing them concerning the various situations and types of revolutionary civil war. The combatants would be asses instead of combatants were they to want to have nothing to do with the task of examining the weapons used by the comrades fighting here and elsewhere. But they would be sheep were they to fail to stop dragging themselves down roads which they had long since recognized to be impractical for them and which they consequently abandoned.
Lenin’s attack against us is, in its tendency and in its details, simply monstrous. His text is superficial. It does not conform to the facts. It is unjust. Only in its phraseology does it display any hardness. Of the rigor of the thinker Lenin, which was ordinarily manifested in his polemics most of all, not a trace is to be found.
What does Lenin want? He wants to tell the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD) and the revolutionary proletariat of all the other countries, that they are imbeciles, idiots, and, worse yet, that they are not docilely knuckling under to the wisdom of the bonzes, since they are not allowing themselves to be led in an extremely centralized way by Moscow (through its intermediaries, Radek and Levi). When Germany’s revolutionary vanguard rejected participation in bourgeois parliaments, when this vanguard began to demolish the reactionary trade union institutions, when it turned its back on the political parties of leaders, in accordance with the watchword, the emancipation of the workers can only be the task of the workers themselves, then this vanguard was composed of imbeciles, then it committed “leftist infantilisms”, then it necessarily had to be denied the right to join the Third International (this was the result of Lenin’s pamphlet)! Only when the workers of the KAPD return, like repentant sinners, to the Spartacus League, the sole bringer of salvation, will they be allowed to join the Third International. So, this is how it stands: Back to parliamentarism! Enter Legien’s trade unions! Join the KPD, that party of leaders in its death throes! This is what Lenin is shouting at the conscious German proletariat!
As I said above: a monstrous book! I must also call attention to the futility of the arguments which Lenin dusts off from the 1880s to persuade the German leftists that he knows how to employ quotation marks against them.1 All his explanations concerning centralism and parliamentarism are on the level of the USPD. And what Lenin writes in favor of working in the trade unions is so amazingly opportunist that the trade union bonzes have set themselves no more urgent task than to reproduce and distribute this section of Lenin’s work as a leaflet!
The polemic which Lenin directs at the KAPD is scandalously superficial and inexcusably inept. In one passage, for example, he says:
“In the first place, contrary to the opinion of such outstanding political leaders as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the German ‘Leftists’, as we know, considered parliamentarism to be ‘politically obsolete’ even in January 1919. It is clear that the ‘Leftists’ were mistaken. This fact alone utterly destroys, at a single stroke, the proposition that parliamentarism is ‘politically obsolete’.”
This is what the logician Lenin writes! In what way, please tell me, is it “clear” that we were mistaken? Perhaps in the fact that, in the national Constituent Assembly, Levi and Zetkin did not sit next to Crispien’s people?2 Perhaps in the fact that this communist duo is now seated in the Reichstag? How can Lenin, so thoughtlessly and without offering even the shadow of proof, write that our “error” is clear and then add the assertion that “this alone destroys the proposition,” etc.? Monstrous! Also monstrous is the way Lenin responds in the affirmative to the question, “Must we participate in bourgeois parliaments?”:
“Criticism—the keenest, most ruthless and uncompromising criticism—must be directed, not against parliamentarism or parliamentary activities, but against those leaders who are unable—and still more against those who are unwilling—to utilize parliamentary elections and the parliamentary tribune in a revolutionary, communist manner.”
It is Lenin who writes this! Lenin suddenly wants “to utilize democracy”, a method with which he had settled accounts by referring to it as “the demand of renegades” (in The State and Revolution, in The Renegade Kautsky. . ., and in Bourgeois Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship)!
The revolutionary proletariat of Germany has distanced itself from the “venal and corrupt parliamentarism of bourgeois society”, that “system of illusion and deceit”. This proletariat has fully acknowledged the battle cry: “All power to the councils!” It has come to understand that it cannot “utilize” the bourgeois parliament. It has recognized the trade unions as institutions which necessarily lead to a community of labor between exploiters and exploited, and for that reason alone sabotage the class struggle, and it is of little import whether their members should criticize this or that. The revolutionary proletariat of Germany has had to atone for its submission to leaders with hecatombs of workers corpses. The infamous Central Committee of the Spartacus League has destroyed that illusion. The proletariat has definitely had enough of all that!
And now Lenin comes along and tries to make us forget the bitter lessons of the German revolution as well as the lessons he has himself taught? Is he trying to make us forget that Marx taught that it is not individuals who are responsible? And that it is parliamentarism which must be fought and not the individual parliamentarians!
Several months have passed since “communists” first took their seats in the Reichstag. Read the minutes of the parliamentary sessions, now that Levi-Zetkin “have utilized” this tribune “in a revolutionary, communist manner” (actually, no more than meaningless journalistic verbiage)! You have read the minutes, comrade Lenin. Where is your “keenest, most ruthless and uncompromising criticism”? Are you satisfied with them? . . . .
It is easy to prove: the KAPD has most effectively utilized the “electoral struggle” in the sense of carrying out revolutionary agitation, and it has been able to utilize it more effectively than the parliamentary communists precisely because it has no “candidates” running after electoral victory. The KAPD has unmasked the parliamentary scam and has brought the ideas of the councils to the remotest villages. But the vote-hunters have confirmed, during the few months of their activity in parliament, that we were right to be anti-parliamentary. Comrade Lenin, has the idea never occurred to you, a Leninist idea, that in a country with 40 years of social democracy’s parliamentary foolishness behind it (that party also wanted, in the beginning, to “utilize” that tribune solely for propaganda!), it is a totally reactionary act to enter parliament? Do you not understand that in a country characterized by parliamentary cretinism, parliamentarism can only be stigmatized by means of the boycott? There is no stigmatization more violent, none which penetrates more deeply into the consciousness of the workers! A parliament unmasked by a boycott carried out by proletarians would never be able to deceive and trick the proletarians. But a correct “programmatic” speech, which Clara Zetkin delivers with the approval of the bourgeois and social democratic newspapers, and from which the press takes what seems suitable, such a speech engenders respect in the bourgeois parliament! Had the bosses of the USPD not gone to the Constituent Assembly, the consciousness of the German proletarians would be much more developed today.
Lenin favors “the strictest centralization” and “iron discipline”. He wants the Third International to endorse his views and to eject all those who, like the KAPD, are critically opposed to omnipotent leadership.
Lenin wants military-style authority to prevail in the parties of every country.
The instructions of the First Congress of the Third International had a somewhat different flavor! In those instructions, directed against the Independents whose fighting spirit was uncertain, it recommended:
“. . . separate the revolutionary elements from the ‘Center’, something which can only be achieved by means of resolute and merciless criticism of the ‘Center’s’ leaders.”
They also said:
“It is in addition necessary to form an alliance with those elements of the revolutionary workers movement who, although not previously members of the socialist party, now stand completely on the terrain of the proletarian dictatorship in its soviet form, that is, first of all with the syndicalist elements of the workers movement.”
But now a different tactic prevails. Instead, the slogan is: Down with the syndicalists! Down with the “idiots” who do not submit to the bonzes! The Executive Committee is in command, and its orders are the law.
Lenin thought he could quote Karl Liebknecht against the “Leftists”. I shall quote Karl Liebknecht against Lenin:
“The vicious circle in which the big centralized organizations operate, provided with functionaries who collect their salaries and who are quite well-paid considering their social background, consists not only in the fact that these organizations are creating, in this professional bureaucracy, a social layer directly hostile to the revolutionary interests of the proletariat, but also in the fact that they confer power upon a leader, who easily becomes a tyrant and is chosen from among those who have a violent interest in opposing the revolutionary politics of the proletariat, while the independence, the will, the initiative and the moral and intellectual autonomous action of the masses are repressed or completely eliminated. The paid parliamentarians also belong to this bureaucracy.”
“There is but one remedy, on the organizational plane, for this evil: suppression of the paid bureaucracy or else its exclusion from all decision-making, and the limitation of its activity to technical administrative work. Prohibition of the re-election of all functionaries after a certain term of office, which shall be established in accordance with the availability of proletarians who have in the meantime become experts in technical administration; the possibility of revoking their mandates at any time; limitation of the purview of the various offices; decentralization; the consultation of all members in regard to important questions (veto or referendum). In the election of functionaries the greatest importance should attach to the proofs they offer concerning their determination and readiness in revolutionary action, of their revolutionary fighting spirit, of their spirit of boundless sacrifice in the active commitment of their existence. The education of the masses and of each individual in intellectual and moral autonomy, in their capacity to question authority, in their own resolute self-initiative, in the unrestrained readiness and capacity for action, in general constitute the only basis to guarantee the development of a workers movement equal to its historical tasks, and also comprise the essential conditions for extirpating the dangers of bureaucracy.”
“Every form of organization which obstructs the education in an international revolutionary spirit, the autonomous capacity for action and the initiative of the revolutionary masses must be rejected. . . . No obstacle to free initiative. The educational task most urgently needed in Germany, a country of blind, passive, mass obedience, is to favor this initiative among the masses; and this problem must be resolved even at the risk of being exposed to the danger that, momentarily, all ‘discipline’ and all the ‘solid organizations’ might all go down the drain (!). The individual must be given a margin of freedom much larger than he has been attributed with until the present by tradition in Germany. No importance at all must be conceded to the profession of faith in words. All the dispersed radical elements will fuse into a determined whole in accordance with the immanent laws of internationalism if intransigence is practiced towards all opportunists and tolerance is practiced towards all the efforts made on behalf of a revolutionary fighting spirit in the process of fermentation.”
I know that Lenin has not become a “renegade” or a social democrat, although Left-Wing Communism. . . has a purely social democratic effect (the German leaders were saying almost exactly the same things in 1878). How, then, can the publication of this text against the world revolution be explained?
The monarchists have the custom, in order to excuse the stupidities (or the crimes) of their monarchs, of always alleging that their majesties were “misinformed”. Revolutionaries cannot (they do not have the right to) make such an excuse. We are well aware, of course, that Karl Radek and the Spartacus League, in order to divert Lenin’s attention from the causes of their political failure, have purposefully told him lies about the situation and the revolutionary proletariat in Germany. The insolent letter directed by Karl Radek at the members of the KAPD shows just how things have been presented to comrade Lenin. But this by no means excuses Lenin! In any event, such exculpation is useless: the fact remains that Lenin, with his stupid pamphlet, has complicated the struggle of the revolutionary proletariat in Germany, although he has not abolished that struggle.
It is true that Lenin has been shamelessly lied to about the affairs of the Spartacus League and the KAPD, but he should have nonetheless said that it is a serious error to identify the German situation with the Russian situation. Lenin was perfectly capable, despite Radek, of seeing the difference between the German trade unions, which have always led a counterrevolutionary existence, and the Russian trade unions. Lenin knew perfectly well that the Russian revolutionaries did not have to fight against parliamentary cretinism because parliament had neither a tradition nor any credit among the Russian proletariat. Lenin knew (or should have known) that in Germany the leaders of the party and the trade unions necessarily brought on the 4th of August 1914 by “utilizing” parliament! That the authoritarian and militaristic character of the party, accompanied by blind obedience, has stifled the revolutionary forces in the German workers movement for decades. Lenin should have considered all of these things before undertaking his battle against the “Leftists”. Had he done so, a sense of responsibility would have prevented Lenin from writing this unforgivable pamphlet.
To convince the world proletariat that Left-Wing Communism. . . indicates the right road to the revolution for every country, Lenin presents the road which the Bolsheviks followed and which led to their victory, because it was (and is) the right road.
Here as well, Lenin finds himself in a completely untenable position. When he cites the victory of the Bolsheviks as proof that his party had worked “correctly” during the fifteen years of its existence, he is hallucinating! The victory of the Bolsheviks in November 1917 was not due solely to the revolutionary strength of the party! The Bolsheviks took power and achieved victory thanks to the bourgeois-pacifist slogan of “Peace”! Only this slogan defeated the national-Mensheviks, and allowed the Bolsheviks to win over the army to their side!
Thus, it is not their victory in and of itself which can convince us that the Bolsheviks worked “correctly” in the sense of maintaining the firmness of their principles. It is instead the fact that they know how to defend this victory now, after almost three years!
But—and this is a question posed by the “Leftists”—have the Bolsheviks always run their party dictatorship in the way that Lenin demands, in Left-Wing Communism. . ., that the revolutionary proletariat of Germany should run their party? Or has the situation of the Bolsheviks been such that they did not need to abide by Lenin’s “condition”, who demands that the revolutionary party “be able to mix with, to fraternize with and, if it so desires, to a certain extent to unite with the broadest masses of the workers, primarily with the proletarian masses, but also with the non-proletarian masses” (Left-Wing Communism. . .).
Until now, the Bolsheviks have been capable of putting into practice, and have only succeeded in putting into practice, one thing: the strict military discipline of the party, the “iron” dictatorship of party centralism. Have they been able to “mix with, fraternize with, and, if [they] so [desire], to a certain extent to unite with” the “broadest masses” of which Lenin speaks?
The tactics employed by the Russian comrades are their business. We protested, and had to treat Mr. Kautsky as a counterrevolutionary, when he allowed himself to slander the tactics of the Bolsheviks. We must defer to the Russian comrades in the matter of their choice of weapons. But we do know one thing: in Germany, a party dictatorship is impossible; in Germany, only a class dictatorship, the dictatorship of the revolutionary workers councils, is capable of victory (and it will be victorious!), and (what is most important) will be able to defend its victory.
I could now write, following Lenin’s recipe in Left-Wing Communism. . ., that this “is clear”, and then change the subject. But we do not need to evade the question.
The German proletariat is organized in different political parties which are parties of leaders with distinctly authoritarian characteristics. The reactionary trade unions, controlled by the trade union bureaucracy due to the strictly centralized nature of their structures, are in favor of “democracy” and the recovery of the capitalist world, without which they could not exist. A party dictatorship in this Germany means: workers against workers (the Noske3 era began with the party dictatorship of the SPD!). A KPD-Spartacus League party dictatorship (and Lenin proposes no other kind!) would have to be imposed against the workers of the USPD, the workers of the SPD, the trade unions, the syndicalists, and the Factory Organizations, as well as against the bourgeoisie. Karl Liebknecht never aspired to such a party dictatorship with the Spartacus League, as the whole corpus of his revolutionary work demonstrates (and as is shown in the passages I quoted above).
It is incontestable that all the workers (including the workers at the beck and call of Legien and Scheidemann!4 ) must be supporters of the new communist order, providing their internal divisions do not render the repression of the bourgeoisie impossible. Are we to await the last judgment, when all the proletarians, or even only a few million of them, are members of the KPD (which is today composed of no more than a handful of employees and a small number of people of good faith)? Perhaps the Third International will be the inducement that will oblige the revolutionary workers to enter the KPD (as Karl Radek and Mr. Levi have imagined)? Can the egoism of its leaders remain ignorant of the fact that, at this very moment, the majority of the industrial workers and the rural proletariat is mature and ready to be won over to a class dictatorship?
We need a slogan for summoning the German proletariat to unite. We possess it: “All power to the workers councils!”. We need a place for recruitment where all the class-conscious workers can meet without the interference of party bonzes. We have such a place: it is the workplace. The workplace, the reproductive cell of the new community, is also the base for recruitment. For the victorious realization of the proletarian revolution in Germany, we do not need bonzes, but conscious proletarians. Those who currently call themselves syndicalists or independents, share with us the goal of destroying the capitalist State and realizing the communist human community and therefore they are part of us, and we shall “mix with, fraternize with and unite with” them in the revolutionary Factory Organizations!
The Communist Workers Party is not, therefore, a party in the bad sense of the word, because it is not an end in itself! It makes propaganda for the dictatorship in its sense of the word, because this dictatorship is not an end in itself! It makes propaganda for the dictatorship of the proletariat, for communism. It trains its combatants in the Factory Organizations, where all the forces that will abolish capitalism, establish the power of the councils and permit the construction of the new communist economy are concentrated. The Factory Organizations are brought together in the Union. The Factory Organizations will know how to guarantee the rule of the proletariat as a class against all the manipulations of the party bosses, against all traitors. Only the power of the class provides a broad and firm foundation (as capitalism proves!).
The Communist Workers Party of Germany has had to endure Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism. . ., Radek’s maledictions, and the calumnies of the Spartacus League and all the parties of leaders, because it is fighting for the class rule of the proletariat, because it shares Karl Liebknecht’s views concerning centralism. The KAPD will quite well survive Left-Wing Communism. . . and everything else. And, whether or not Karl Radek understands this, and whether or not Lenin writes a pamphlet against us (and against himself): the proletarian revolution in Germany will take different paths than in Russia. When Lenin treats us as “imbeciles” it is not us but he himself who is the target, since in this matter it is we who are the Leninists. We know this for a fact: even if national or international congresses prescribe the most detailed itineraries for the world revolution, it will nevertheless follow the course imposed by history! Even if the Second Congress of the Third International pronounces a judgment condemning the KAPD in favor of a party of leaders, the revolutionary communists of Germany will know how to easily deal with this and will not whine about it like the bonzes of the USPD. We are part of the Third International, because the Third International is not Moscow, it is not Lenin, it is not Radek, it is the world proletariat fighting for its liberation!
Die Aktion, August 7, 1920
Published in English in a collection of texts as appendix to Dauvé and Authier’s The Communist Left in Germany 1918-1921. Introduction by either Dauvé or Authier. Online version taken from the Collective Action Notes website.
- 1 He is undoubtedly speaking of the antiparliamentary opposition in the SPD, especially in Berlin, which, however, did not become organized until 1889-1892 around the group called “The Youth”. Analogous tendencies arose during the same era in Denmark, Switzerland, England (William Morris) and Holland (D. Nieuwenhuis). It was also at that time that the “Marxism”/“Anarchism” split was consummated.
- 2 Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), member of the SPD Left, later a Spartacist, supported Levi.
Crispien (1875-1946), left the SPD to join the USPD right wing. Attended the Second Congress of the Communist International, but was opposed to joining it and later returned to the SPD.
- 3 Noske (1868-1946), SPD Minister of War in December 1918, organized collaboration between the socialists and the Freikorps. Architect and symbol of the ensuing bloody repression.
- 4 Legien (1865-1939), government socialist, Minister in November 1918, Chancellor of the Republic in 1919, one of the architects, together with Noske and Ebert, of the anti-Spartacist repression.