Preface to the Polish Edition of Lenin's Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder

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This work of Lenin which we submit to Polish readers was written in April 1920. At that time the international communist movement had not passed out of its childhood; its ills were indeed those of infancy.

Lenin, while condemning formal "leftism" — the radicalism of gesture and empty talk — defended no less passionately the real revolutionary intransigence of class policy. In so doing, he had not insured himself — alas, far from it — against misuse by the opportunists of various breeds, who, since the publication of this work twelve years ago, have quoted it hundreds and thousands of times with the aim of defending unprincipled conciliation.

At this time, in the conditions of world crisis, left wings in many countries are detaching themselves from the Social Democracy. These groups, on falling into the ditch that separates communism from reformism, usually declare that their main historic task is the creation of a "united front" or — still more expansively — "the unity of the workers' movement." In fact, nothing but such features as these conciliatory slogans make up the whole physiognomy of the Socialist Workers Party of Germany, which is led by Seydewitz, K. Rosenfeld, old Ledebour, and others. Very little distinguished from the Socialist Workers Party of Germany, as far as I can judge from here, is the small Polish political group formed around Dr. Joseph Kruk. Theoreticians of these groups, the best of them, appeal to Lenin's Left-Wing Communism. Only they simply forget to explain why they have always viewed Lenin as an incorrigible splitter.

The essence of the Leninist united-front policy consists in giving the proletariat the opportunity — while maintaining a fighting, intransigent organization and program — of achieving, in closed ranks, even a small practical step forward; on the basis of such practical steps by the masses, Lenin strove not to conceal or soften the political contradictions between Marxism and reformism, but, quite the contrary, to lay them bare, to explain them to the masses, and thus to reinforce the revolutionary wing.

The problems of the united front constitute the substance of the problems of tactics. We know that tactics are subordinate to strategy. The lines of our strategy define the historic interests of the proletariat in the light of Marxism. We do not wish, by this, to minimize the significance of tactical problems. Strategy without its corresponding tactic is doomed to remain a lifeless abstraction of the study. But it is no less useless to exalt specific tactics, whatever their importance at a given moment, into a panacea, a universal remedy, an article of faith. The first rule in the employment of the united-front policy is a complete and irreconcilable break with unprincipled conciliation.

Lenin's book seemed to deal the deathblow to sham radicalism. The Third and Fourth Congresses of the Communist International, in their resolutions, almost unanimously endorsed the conclusions of the book. But during the subsequent period, the beginning of which coincided with the illness and death of Lenin, we observe that which astonishes at first sight: ultraleft tendencies again come to the fore, acquire strength, lead to a series of defeats, disappear, only to reappear in a more acute and malignant form.

Formal, point-blank protests against an agreement of any kind with reformism, against any united front with the Social Democracy, against the unity of the trade-union movement, and superficial arguments for the creation of our own "pure" trade unions, as Lenin termed them — all these ultraleft considerations are neither more serious nor more intelligent than the ones expounded these days, not by the feeble pipings of infants, but by the bass bellowings of bureaucrats. What is the reason for this amazing relapse?

We know that political tendencies do not exist "in the air": deviations and mistakes, if persistent and prolonged, must be rooted in a class basis. To speak of ultraleftism without defining its social roots is to replace Marxist analysis by "bright ideas." The right wing, the opportunist critics of Stalinism, for example the Brandlerites, going further, actually reduce all the mistakes of the Comintern to a simple, ideological misunderstanding. On a super-social, super-historical, almost mystical basis, ultraleftism is transformed into some form of malevolent spirit such as devours the most pious Christians.

The problem must be approached quite differently. Events conclusively demonstrate that these mistakes, which before were only the expression of individual personalities or of groups, and due solely to their practical infancy, are now exalted into a system and have become the deliberate method of control by an existing political current: bureaucratic centrism. It is not really a question of the inconsistencies of ultraleft thinking, since the political clique that today controls the Comintern alternates its ultraleft mistakes with opportunist practice And sometimes the Stalinist faction, instead of alternating between radicalism and opportunism, uses both simultaneously in different matters, in direct relation to the needs of its factional struggle.

Thus, at this moment, we see on the one hand a refusal on principle to carry through any policy of agreements, whatever they may be, with the German Social Democracy and on the other hand we witness the antiwar congress, called together through agreements with bourgeois and petty-bourgeois pacifists, French Radicals, Freemasons, or with pretentious individuals of the Barbusse type who consider it their particular mission to "unite the Second and Third Internationals.”

Those simple and, as always, exhaustive arguments that Lenin advanced in favor of "agreements," of "compromises," of inevitable concessions, all unsurpassably serve to demonstrate the limits which these methods must not transgress without most certainly transforming them into their opposite.

The tactic of a united front is not a universal panacea. It is subjected to a higher test: does it effect the unification of the proletarian vanguard on the basis of an intransigent Marxist policy? The art of leadership consists in defining, in each case, on the basis of a concrete class relationship, with whom, to what end, and to what limits the united front is acceptable, and at what moment it must be broken.

If one were to seek the perfect model of the way in which the united front should not and cannot be formed, one could not find a better — or rather, a worse — example than the Amsterdam congress of "all classes and all parties" against war. This example deserves examination point by point.

1. The Communist Party in each and every agreement, temporary or prolonged, must stand openly under its own flag. Yet at Amsterdam, parties, as such, were ignored! As though the struggle against war were not a political task, and consequently a task of political parties! As though that struggle did not demand the most complete clarity and the most strict precision of thought! As though any organization other than the party were capable of formulating as completely and as clearly as the party the question of the struggle against war! And yet the real organizer of this congress, that ignored party, was none other than the Communist International itself!

2. The Communist Party must seek a united front, not with individual lawyers or journalists, not with sympathetic acquaintances, but with the mass organizations of the workers, and consequently, in the first place, with the Social Democrats. But a united front with the Social Democrats was excluded from the very outset. Even a united-front offer to the Social Democrats — to test openly the influence of the pressure of the Social Democratic masses upon their leaders — was declared inadmissible!

3. Precisely because the policy of the united front carries within itself opportunist dangers, it is the duty of the Communist Party to avoid every kind of dubious mediation and secret diplomacy behind the backs of the workers. Yet the Communist International judged it necessary to put forward — as formal banner-bearer and organizer, as behind-the-scenes negotiator — the French writer Barbusse, who supported himself on the worst Elements of both reformism and communism. Without giving notice to the masses, but obviously with the backing of the presidium of the Comintern, Barbusse had "talks" on the subject of the congress with — Frederick Adler. The united front from above is banned, is it not? Yet as we see from this, through the mediation of Barbusse, it is acceptable! It is unnecessary to mention that the wire pullers of the Second International are miles ahead of Barbusse in the field of political maneuvering. Barbusse’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy presented the Second International with highly advantageous excuses for shirking participation in the congress.

4. The Communist Party has the right, and even the duty, to win for its cause even the weakest of allies — if they are real allies! But in so doing it must not repel the working masses, who are its essential ally. Yet the participation in the congress of individual bourgeois politicians, members of the leading party of imperialist France, cannot but repel the French socialist workers from communism. Nor will it be easy to explain to the German proletariat why one may march side by side with the vice-president of Herriot's party, or with the pacifist General Schoenaich, while at the same time it is declared inadmissible to make proposals for common action against war to the reformist workers' organizations.

5. It is most dangerous in applying the policy of the united front to have a false estimate of one's allies — when false allies are presented as true, the workers are deceived at the outset. Yet this is the crime that the organizers of the Amsterdam congress have committed and are committing.

The French bourgeoisie is now, as a whole, "pacifist” — that is not at all surprising: every victor endeavors to prevent the defeated from preparing its war of revenge. The French bourgeoisie seeks, always and everywhere, guarantees of peace in order that the fruits of their pillage shall be held sacrosanct and inviolable.

The left wing of petty-bourgeois pacifism is prepared, in seeking these guarantees, even to ally itself with the Comintern. An episodic alliance! On the day war is declared, such pacifists will side with their own governments. The French workers will be told: "In our fight for peace, we went to the utmost extremes, even to the Amsterdam congress. But war has been forced on us — we stand for the defense of the fatherland." The participation of French pacifists in the congress binds them to nothing, and at the moment of the declaration of war will entirely benefit French imperialism. On the other hand, in the event of war for equal rights in the field of international brigandage, General Schoenaich and his like will be entirely on the side of their German fatherland and will exploit to the full their newly acquired Amsterdam authority in its service.

The Indian bourgeois nationalist, Patel, participated in the Amsterdam congress for the same reason that Chiang Kai-shek participated with "a consulting voice" in the Comintern. Such participation will, without doubt, increase the authority of the "nationalist leaders" in the eyes of the masses of the people. To any Indian Communist who at a meeting calls Patel and his friends traitors, Patel will reply: "Were I a traitor, I would not have been an ally of the Bolsheviks at Amsterdam." So the Stalinists have armed the Indian bourgeoisie against the Indian workers.

6. Agreement in the name of a practical objective must in no case be at the cost of concessions in principle, of silence on essential differences, of ambiguous formulations that permit each participant to interpret them in his own way. Yet the manifesto of the Amsterdam congress is drawn up entirely on the basis of subterfuge and double meaning, of play upon words, of hiding contradictions, of flamboyant meaningless speeches, of solemn declarations which lead to nothing. Members of bourgeois parties and liars of Freemasonry "condemn" capitalism! Pacifists "condemn" pacifism! Then on the very next day after the congress General Schoenaich, in an article printed in Münzenberg's paper, declares himself a pacifist! And the French bourgeois who has condemned capitalism returns to the ranks of his capitalist party and gives his vote of confidence to Herriot. Isn't this a scandalous masquerade, a shameful charlatanism?

Marxist intransigence, obligatory when realizing the united front in general, becomes doubly or trebly so when it is a question of a problem as acute as war. The resolute voice of that one man Liebknecht, during the war, had a significance incomparably greater for the development of the German revolution than the sentimental semi-protests of the whole Independent Social Democratic Party [USPD]. In France there was no Liebknecht. One of the principal reasons is that in France Freemason-Radical, socialist-trade-union pacifism builds up a sphere cunningly snared with lies and humbug.

Lenin insisted that in any kind of "antiwar" congress one should not attempt to seek agreement on commonplaces, but on the contrary to put the questions so clearly, so brutally, so precisely as to push the pacifists into burning their fingers and drawing back — thus providing an object lesson to all workers. Lenin wrote, in the instructions to the Soviet delegation to the antiwar congress at The Hague in 1922: "I think that if we have several people at The Hague Conference who are capable of delivering speeches against war in various languages, the most important thing would be to refute the opinion that the delegates at the conference are opponents of war, that they understand how war may and will come upon them at the most unexpected moment, that they to any extent understand what methods should be adopted to combat war, that they are to any extent in a position to adopt reasonable and effective measures to combat war" [Collected Works, volume 33, "Notes on the Tasks of Our Delegation at The Hague," December 4, 1922].

Just picture for a moment Lenin voting at Amsterdam on the empty and grandiloquent manifesto, hand in hand with the French Radical G. Bergery, with the German general Schoenaich, with the nationalist liberal Patel! One could not better measure the depths to which the epigones have fallen than by the monstrous character of this picture.

In this book by Lenin there is not a single formula which we do not adhere to today. Today, twelve years after this book was written, there has constituted itself — based on a systematic alteration of Leninist policy and misuse of quotations from Lenin — a definite tendency, bureaucratic centrism, a tendency that did not exist when Lenin wrote his book.

It is not hard to explain why the Stalinist tendency exists. It has social support: the millions of bureaucrats, bred by a revolution, victorious but isolated in a single country. The separate caste interests of the bureaucracy create in it opportunist and nationalist tendencies. But, nevertheless, it is the bureaucracy of a workers’ state, encircled by a bourgeois world. At every moment it collides with the Social Democratic bureaucracy of capitalist countries. The Soviet bureaucracy, dictating the direction of the Comintern, imposes on it the contradictions of its own situation. The whole policy of the epigones' leadership oscillates between opportunism and adventurism.

Ultraleftism has ceased to be an infantile sickness. It is now one of the methods of self-preservation of a faction pulled more and more by the developments of the world proletarian vanguard. The struggle against centrist bureaucracy is now the first duty of every Marxist. Were there no other reasons, for this reason alone we should greet warmly this Polish edition of Lenin's admirable work.