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notes on Lenin, "Left-Wing" Communism an Infantile Disorder (1920)

From Lenin's "Left-Wing" Communism -- An Infantile Disorder (1920):

"[E.g.,] Parliamentarianism has become "historically obsolete". That is true in the propaganda sense. However, everybody knows that this is still a far cry from overcoming it in practice. Capitalism could have been declared -- and with full justice -- to be "historically obsolete" many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism.

"Parliamentarianism is "historically obsolete" from the standpoint of world history, i.e., the era of bourgeois parliamentarianism is over, and the era of the proletarian dictatorship has begun. That is incontestable. But world history is counted in decades. Ten or twenty years earlier or later makes no difference when measured with the yardstick of world history; from the standpoint of world history it is a trifle that cannot be considered even approximately. But for that very reason, it is a glaring theoretical error to apply the yardstick of world history to practical politics. . . ."

* * *

"The revolutions of February and October 1917 led to the all-round development of the Soviets on a nation-wide scale and to their victory in the proletarian socialist revolution. In less than two years, the international character of the Soviets, the spread of this form of struggle and organisation to the world working-class movement and the historical mission of the Soviets as the grave-digger, heir and successor of bourgeois parliamentarianism and of bourgeois democracy in general, all became clear. . . .

"But that is not all. The history of the working-class movement now shows that, in all countries, it is about to go through (and is already going through) a struggle waged by communism — emergent, gaining strength and advancing towards victory -- against, primarily, Menshevism, i.e., opportunism and social-chauvinism (the home brand in each particular country), and then as a complement, so to say, Left-wing communism. The former struggle has developed in all countries, apparently without any exception, as a duel between the Second International (already virtually dead) and the Third International The latter struggle is to be seen in Germany, Great Britain, Italy, America (at any rate, a certain section of the Industrial Workers of the World and of the anarcho-syndicalist trends uphold the errors of Left-wing communism alongside of an almost universal and almost unreserved acceptance of the Soviet system), and in France (the attitude of a section of the former syndicalists towards the political party and parliamentarianism, also alongside of the acceptance of the Soviet system); in other words, the struggle is undoubtedly being waged, not only on an international, but even on a worldwide scale.

"It is now essential that Communists of every country should quite consciously take into account both the fundamental objectives of the struggle against opportunism and "Left" doctrinairism, and the concrete features which this struggle assumes and must inevitably assume in each country, in conformity with the specific character of its economics, politics, culture, and national composition (Ireland, etc.), its colonies, religious divisions, and so on and so forth. Dissatisfaction with the Second International is felt everywhere and is spreading and growing, both because of its opportunism and because of its inability or incapacity to create a really centralised and really leading centre capable of directing the international tactics of the revolutionary proletariat in its struggle for a world Soviet republic."

-- V. I. Lenin, "Left-Wing" Communism -- An Infantile Disorder (1920)

As I have pointed out in previous posts, the Lenin of 1920 is pointed to by anarchists and Left-communists as the Right, opportunist Lenin, the Lenin that suppressed the Kronstadt mutiny and implemented the New Economic Policy sanctioning capitalist enterprise, etc. This text is taken as a rationalization for such a (supposedly) Right turn by Lenin (and Trotsky, who supported it). On the other hand, Lenin's pamphlet has also been abused -- perhaps above all -- by Stalinist-informed reformist "Marxism." The pejorative "ultra-Left" has an unfortunate ideological history traceable to a fundamental misunderstanding of the point Lenin was trying to make here.

Our discussion of Lenin's pamphlet should focus on this elucidation by Lenin of the difference, crucial for politics, between "historical" and "practical" obsolescence. For such discussion should emphasize how this difference is one of the keys ways that regression manifests itself. For social-democratic reformism -- including most especially Stalinism! -- is only one side of regression. The other is "ultra-Leftism." And this would include not only so-called "utopianism" but also what Lenin called "doctrinairism," or, more simply, dogmatic sectarianism. Not only Lukacs and Korsch (as expressing, broadly, both paths to degeneracy in the 1920s-30s and beyond, namely Stalinism and "Left" Communism), but also the the "Trotskyism" of the Spartacists (et al.).

But, as we have discussed previously, there is no hard-and-fast rule that can be applied to avoid such sectarian dogmatism, just as there is none for avoiding opportunist concession that liquidates Marxism's raison d'etre. Rather, both sectarian dogmatism and opportunist liquidationism are dangers against which we can only exercise judgment, and not conceptual -- or organizational, strategic or tactical -- schemes.

This speaks back to our fundamental perspective that Left and Right exist on a spectrum, as dimensions of social-political phenomena, and are not different in kind. But this spectrum of continuity between Left and Right is one of symptomology, from which the Left is not exempted, but only pushes the envelope of what is critically recognizable and practically possible, whereas the Right blurs and betrays this, in theory and practice.

Lenin's point about the lessons to be drawn from the Bolshevik Revolution is that international workers council/soviet-revolutionary politics has revealed itself as a practical political possibility -- and indeed a necessity under given conditions of WWI, etc., the "imperialist" form of capitalism -- for moving beyond capitalism. Marxists were tasked with recognizing this and advancing this social-political form, but recognizing it, not as an abstract principle to array against capitalism understood in a one-sided way, but as part and parcel of it.

This speaks to our larger point in Platypus of recognizing the any potential "democracy of the producers" as the highest expression of the commodity form -- of capital -- and not as being already beyond it.

The self-understanding of the revolutionary moment of 1917-19, as expressed here by Lenin, and in coming readings (in 2 weeks) by Trotsky and Luxemburg on the significance of the Bolshevik and German Revolutions, is vital for us on this point. It helps cut through all the false anxiety (as well as spurious positivity by various sectarians such as the Spartacists, ISO, et al.) around the Bolshevik Revolution in particular, but 1917-19 more generally. It thereby helps us reorient our sense of the task of a revolutionary Marxian politics at present, by regaining potentially lost horizons. It allows us to grasp regression not vaguely, but acutely. All that remains vague -- and rightfully so -- is what it would mean to actually build upon (and potentially beyond, at some future point of advanced practical success) the politics and self-understanding of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. The vague character of what it would mean to re-attain the similar point of achievement of their politics is of a different order. In this sense, the obfuscation -- really, silence -- around the theoretical point of departure for Lukacs and Korsch, and, after them, Benjamin and Adorno, is all we have to work with, beyond LLT.

Because Benjamin and Adorno consciously recognize and thematize regression, and, in however obscure a way, seem to retain their ability to find some kind of audience in the present (whereas LLT, and Lukacs and Korsch do not so easily), their philosophy of history, of the disparity between what Lenin calls the historical and the practical, or what Korsch and Lukacs (and Adorno after them) call the problem of the separation of theory and practice, and how the memory of Marx and 1848 informed all of these thinkers/actors, we have our possible approach laid out before us.

Ours is an eminently modest approach: To conceive and hold fast to the inner coherence of the thought and political action among the examples and writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukacs, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno, what they all share in common and can contribute collectively to the critical theory of capital and a political practice of working within, through and beyond it in an emancipatory manner.

Practice has obviously informed theory, and in a rather seemingly inexorably regressive way (e.g., the already mentioned complementary trajectories of degeneration traced by Lukacs and Korsch, in the directions of Stalinism and ultra-Left communism, respectively, after their great insights circa 1920-1923, in the immediate wake of 1917-19).

The question remains -- LLT raised it long ago -- whether and how theory, in the form of historical consciousness (i.e., a Marxian approach, such as expressed by Lenin in this pamphlet), can inform -- grasp and push beyond the actual limits and horizons of -- practice.

Platypus exists to explore this.

-- But first we have to be clear about what it is we are actually exploring to begin with. This is why we are reading Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky at all.

One principal aspect of the great example LLT provide us in Platypus is that, unlike the subsequent pseudo-"Left," they always refused to call defeat "victory," the hallmark of opportunism -- of the Right. Platypus exists to counteract and prevent calling defeat victory, what the "Left" has done and continues to do, in various forms, ever since the collapse of the 2nd International in 1914 and the rank duplicity of the SPD in the German Revolution of 1918-19, the Stalinization of the world Communist movement beginning in the 1920s, and the all varieties of desperate "Leftism" (e.g., "New Leftism," the "new social movements," neo-"anarchism," etc.) that have flourished ever since, in the wake of these crucial defeats.

Such defeatism that Lenin identified long ago has taken the form both of the overt, avowed Right, and of a dogmatic-sectarian ultra-"Left," whose perspective has lost all potential practical purchase on the world, and has thus become a new Right, in practice as well as in theory.

Platypus takes its stand against such regression of consciousness. The first step is the memory, provoking recognition, that can interrupt the flow of regression, the possibility of thinking and acting otherwise that the historical example of LLT can be shown to prove is possible, however under circumstances different from our own.

One comment

  • Posted 12 years ago

    [Jeremy and I just exchanged on this as follows:]


    The reason we are not already beyond “equal pay for equal work” is that the relation between value production and price of wages is only obscurely due to the — collective or individual — conscious intention of the subjects of exchange (of pay for work). (And subjects of exchange here is understood not merely as individual workers and capitalists, but mediated all the way up to, e.g., international state transactions, etc.)

    It is indeed the case that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is not yet even socialism but the transition towards this. In The State and Revolution, Lenin associates not only the dictatorship of the proletariat but also socialism with “bourgeois right” — of the rights of labor.

    Lenin, following Marx, understood that the productive forces unleashed by capital already under capitalism far outstrip the “means of consumption” by which they are socially realized in the form of the wages of labor but also as general social consumption.

    It won’t be production that will be minimized progressively in trying to get beyond capital, but rather the labor necessary to be able to make a claim on consumption. While socially necessary labor time is already being progressively minimized under capitalism, it balloons as workers who aren’t really necessary for value-production are forced to scramble to be able to make a claim on social consumption.

    On the matter of producers’ democracy, it is not simply a matter of decision-making on the shop floor/workplace, but rather of setting social priorities while remaining responsible to the rights of labor.

    What needs to be overcome is the political aspect of the commodity form of labor, namely, the justification of social existence on the basis of being a producer — whether understood as wage laborer, or as scientific inventor, organizer of people’s activities, etc. For only in disarticulating the grounding of social right from production can people actually be freed from the (possibility of the) need to labor, which is not a matter presently of material production but of social organization. How to make society safe for and responsible to those who cannot or do not need to labor for the purposes of social reproduction is the problem socialism seeks to address. The Marxian point of departure is to recognize how capitalism itself makes socialism both possible and necessary, and not only desirable. (E.g., medieval/peasant society is “socialist” by comparison to capitalism, i.e., people get their needs met and desires served through overt socially customary arrangements and not through the exigencies of value-production and its effects in the broader social milieu.)

    The other matter for a Marxian approach to socialism is how to regard democracy. Marxists recognize democracy as symptomatic of capitalism. The point is to get beyond (the need for) democracy, which capitalism makes both possible (in a good sense) and necessary (in a bad sense, necessary to — try to — master the effects of the value-dynamic of capital). Just because we can’t say in a concrete sense what getting beyond democracy on the basis of democracy, hence what getting beyond commodity relations on the basis of commodity relations, might mean practically, doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize the inherent limitations that have manifested for both social production under the commodity form of labor-value and democratic politics, and how they are intrinsically related historically.

    The Marxian approach is about recognizing the (historical) problem and seeing how social-political struggles relate to the possibilities for getting beyond it. Neither Marx nor Lenin (and Luxemburg, Trotsky, et al.) invented socialism or producers’ democracy, etc., at the level of philosophical principle, rather they looked at forms that the class struggles of the working class towards social revolution took (e.g., soviets/workers’ councils) and endorsed these as a potentially adequate basis for the politics of trying to get beyond the problems of capitalism, on the basis of the historical phenomenon of capital.

    Our problem in the present is that prior forms of socialist politics have failed and developed only regressively, making the forms of politics that Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky et al. sought to push forward unappealing to workers today, because they can’t be properly recognized. The crassest example of this is that people spontaneously associate the politicization of social production with management by the bourgeois nation-state in a way that blinds them to other possibilities. But this is more for ideological reasons than practical ones. Proletarian socialism is not impracticable but rather frightening. It is not that the workers refuse to be socialists, but rather that they’ve become depoliticized, with massive ideological barriers to overcome before they can be convinced to become repoliticized in directions that could lead beyond capitalism.

    — Chris

    — On Mon, 4/13/09, Jeremy Cohan wrote:

    From: Jeremy Cohan Subject: Re: [platypus1917] notes on Lenin “Left-Wing” Communism Infantile Disorder (1920)
    Date: Monday, April 13, 2009, 3:19 PM

    Chris, a question of clarification:

    “This speaks to our larger point in Platypus of recognizing the any potential “democracy of the producers” as the highest expression of the commodity form — of capital — and not as being already beyond it.”

    Can you explain this sentence a little more clearly? First–what does it mean for a social form to be an “expression” of capital? Second, why would a democracy of the producers be the “highest” of these expressions (i.e. what are other, lower, ones; what is the criteria of “height”; etc.)?

    I’m not sure what is intended as the problem here (or why it is still “capital”)–the very fact of there needing to still be “producers”–or democracy as the means of politics–or something else entirely.

    And how does this fit into the distinction in Marx, that Lenin then tries to rescue in State and Revolution, between the “first stage” (socialism) wherein there is “equal pay for equal work” and the entire society being put to work to achieve some set of social goals created by the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (which could be another way of saying producer’s cooperatives) and the “higher stage” (communism) wherein “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs?”

    Are you saying that those needs would not be determined by how much labor-input one gives?–that seems to be precisely the situation is capitalism now. That those needs are determined consciously/ politically? How would this differ substantively from a “producer’s democracy” where everyone was a producer AND production was increasingly minimized to almost nothing by social direction?

    Bordering on utopianism, but really just out for clarification,

    by Chris Cutrone (Author) on April 13, 2009 2:55 pm

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