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Lenin on the Role of a Marxist Party in relation to the People

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Review: Chapter Five of 'Left Wing' Communism an Infantile Disorder

Thomas Riggins

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 to 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 uber-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 distant 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 (sweet heart 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
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 to 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, reputation 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)].

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Born Lake Worth, FL 1942. Educated FSU and Graduate Center CUNY. Currently teaching philosophy in NYC. Associate editor of Political Affairs online.

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This article is a review of chapter five of Lenin'... by Thomas Riggins on Tuesday, Nov 27, 2012 at 10:17:40 AM
Interesting ____ Marx was the best philosopher and... by jean labrek on Thursday, Nov 29, 2012 at 5:58:49 PM