Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder revisited

Issue: 138

John Rose

The proletarian vanguard has been won over ideologically… But that is still quite a long way from victory. Victory cannot be won with a vanguard alone. To throw only the vanguard into the decisive battle…would be…criminal. Propaganda and agitation are not enough for the entire class, the broad masses of working people, those oppressed by capital, to take a stand. For that, the masses must have their own political experience. Such is the fundamental law of all great revolutions.1

Lenin’s famous pamphlet “LeftWingCommunism: An Infantile Disorder (LWC), published in April 1920, is far more significant than we realise.2 It holds the key to unlocking the reasons why the October 1917 Russian Revolution failed to spread to the more advanced industrial countries in Europe: essential for understanding the greatest question of all in the 20th century—why communism failed.

Applied properly this intervention—as it analyses the past—sharpens our ability to understand the present: the impasse inhibiting the revival of a full blown public and global discussion of the need for “real”, “genuine” communism as an answer to the most profound economic, political and environmental crisis of capitalism in our lifetimes:

Politics is a science and an art that does not fall from the skies…to overcome the bourgeoisie, the proletariat must train its own proletarian class politicians of a kind in no way inferior to bourgeois politicians.3

Lenin here stresses the unique intellectual and theoretical component as essential precondition for the agitational component of the revolutionary party. This is of tremendous significance as I shall argue that the catastrophic failure of political intelligence to implement Lenin’s principles finds its response in arguably one of the most misunderstood yet intellectually sophisticated Marxist documents from the last century, Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. We should take the two, admittedly very different, sets of writings together as the basis for a highly dynamic, creative open theoretical and practical model as useful today to understand and hence act on the present, as it is to analyse the past.

Lenin’s underlying argument called on revolutionary socialists to work wherever the masses are to be found. Lenin was particularly concerned that the growing wave of emerging young communist parties across Europe and beyond learned simultaneously to relate to the revolutionary minorities and the reformist majorities in the working class movements at the same time. Above all this meant working within the reformist trade unions as well as taking national parliamentary, regional and local elections very seriously. This included standing communist candidates where appropriate. Lenin even called it “obligatory” on the party of the revolutionary proletariat to stand candidates. He repeats the word many times.

Of course, Lenin had no illusions in the parliamentary process but recognised that most workers did have just such illusions and that this “democratic” and very public forum had to be utilised to its maximum potential. He even argued that it “is not possible to bring about the soviets’ victory over parliament without getting pro-soviet politicians into parliament, without disintegrating parliamentarianism from within”.4

This recognition of the tenacity of parliamentarianism, especially in the advanced industrial countries of Western Europe, was partly a bitter reflection on the speed with which the reformist “socialists” of the SPD, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, had undermined the flowering of workers’ and soldiers’ councils in the November 1918 German Revolution. The prospect of rapid advance of socialist revolution from Russia into Western Europe was shattered, symbolised by the assassinations of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919. As part of their overall strategy the SPD had very effectively counterposed the national assembly, the German parliament, to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.

Although Lenin rarely refers to this period in the pamphlet,5 it is a silent and menacing presence. All the mistakes which were made at the belated founding conference of the KPD, the German Communist Party, at the end of December 1918, when the German Revolution might still have been rescued, were reproduced by the breakaway ultra-left KAPD, the German Communist Workers Party, in April 1920. It is the KAPD that is the foil for many of Lenin’s general arguments.

It cannot be coincidence that Lenin’s insistence that you had to be inside parliament to undermine its effectiveness echoes exactly a famous speech by Rosa Luxemburg at the KPD’s founding conference:

We are now in the midst of revolution and the National Assembly is a counter-revolutionary fortress erected against the revolutionary proletariat. Our task is thus to take this fortress by storm and raze it to the ground. In order to mobilise the masses against the National Assembly…we must utilise the elections and the platform of the National Assembly itself… To denounce…all the wily tricks of this worthy assembly, to expose its counter-revolutionary work step by step, and to appeal to the masses to intervene and force a decision—these are the tasks of participation in the National Assembly.6

Luxemburg lost the argument in the conference vote. We will return later to the other appalling mistakes made at the KPD conference in December 1918.

Lenin also challenged revolutionaries active in the workers’ movement in Britain, like Sylvia Pankhurst and Willie Gallacher, who he hoped would establish a British communist party. His sharp and detailed polemics in LWC, whilst praising their furious class hatred of reformist politicians, mocked their unwillingness to make tactical compromises with them. With heavy irony, he implied British prime minister Lloyd George had a better grasp of Marxism! Lenin even “dedicated” the pamphlet to Lloyd George.7

Lenin singled out a speech made by Lloyd George in March 1920 which called for Liberal-Tory unity to face down the growing parliamentary threat of the Labour Party. Lloyd George worried about Labour “Bolshevik” promises on the common ownership of the means of production, a threat to private property that put civilisation itself “in jeopardy”.8 It was Labour’s industrial working class supporters that really alarmed Lloyd George: “Four fifths of the country is industrial and commercial…more top heavy than any other country in the world, and if it begins to rock, the crash here…will be greater than in any land”.9

Lloyd George understood both the importance of unity on his side of the class divide and the power of ideas. Lenin argued that British communists should learn the lesson. There should be temporary electoral unity with Labour leaders like Henderson and Snowden against the Liberal-Tory alliance. If possible communist candidates should be part of an electoral bloc but retaining “complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity”.10

Though Lenin doesn’t use the phrase he is nevertheless recommending nothing less than an electoral united front. The Bolsheviks had had a long experience of these type of political compromises. Earlier in the pamphlet Lenin spells out in some detail a string of political—including electoral—alliances, around an agreed set of demands, that the Bolsheviks forged with the bourgeois liberal Kadets, as well as later with the reformist Mensheviks and the peasant party, the Social Revolutionaries. We “always adhered to this policy”, but at the same time “we never stopped our ideological and political struggle against them as opportunists and vehicles of bourgeois influence on the proletariat”.11

The Bolsheviks were ready for any allies, however surprising. This included Father Gapon, the Christian socialist who led the workers’ uprising at the start of the 1905 Revolution. This was despite the fact that Gapon’s movement grew out of the police trade unions, the Tsarist state’s crude attempts to undermine the independent trade unions.12 The principle
was reflected in Lenin’s attitude to propaganda. In 1900, developing the revolutionary socialist newspaper Iskra, Lenin was ready to invite Peter Struve, future Kadet leader, to write for it, “opening the paper up to polemics with liberals”.13

Here was the underlying principle: “It is necessary to link the strictest devotion to the ideas of communism with the ability to effect all the necessary practical compromises, tacks, conciliatory manoeuvres, zigzags, retreats…to accelerate the inevitable friction, quarrels, conflicts and complete disintegration”.14

The principle applied just as much if not more so in the trade unions. In a previous issue of this journal John Riddell provided a detailed account of how it was pioneered in Germany by the transformed mass-based communist party, the much enlarged KPD, following its merger with the left wing of the Independent Social Democrats.15 An “Open Letter” in January 1921 called on trade union leaders for joint mass action over agreed demands. This had enormous potential, precipitating mass actions as well as winning thousands of reformist minded workers to the revolutionary camp. The March Action in 1921 cut it dead. John Riddell described LWC as “the as yet unformulated united front approach”.16

The “Open Letter” approach, which set a standard for united front initiatives, helped to crystallise and fully formulate the principles of the united front which would become Comintern policy.17 It can be summed up in the three-prong formula: demands/elections/ideology, as relevant today as they were in Lenin’s period.

1) The demands that the party raises—which go way beyond the ranks of the party—are the vital means of reaching out to the wider “non-revolutionary” masses of workers and other potential allies in the class struggle

2) Participation in reformist trade unions and in all elections

3) The centrality of the ideological struggle.


Alas, formulated or unformulated, Lenin’s argument fell on stony ground. Is it not truly shocking that within just five years of the 1917 October Revolution, the revolutionary movement that took power and held it in Europe was the very opposite of communism—Mussolini’s Fascism in Italy in 1922?

And is it not equally shocking that one year earlier, in Germany, where the spread of October was still eagerly anticipated despite the failure of the November 1918 Revolution, its prospects were fatally weakened by the notorious “March Action” of 1921? This was the crazy ultra-left adventure labelled by Chris Harman “the March Madness”.18

There is a link between the two catastrophic events which helps us make sense of this depressing picture—the Livorno Conference of the PSI, the Italian Socialist Party, very early in 1921. The PSI was unique among the parliamentary socialist parties in Europe. It had opposed Italy’s entry in the First World War. It sustained its Marxist credentials to such an extent that it had applied for membership of the Comintern. Yet when it came to the fabled biennio rosso, Italy’s two “red years” with the Turin factory workers’ council movement at its centre, the PSI stood on the sidelines paralysed. The paralysis blocked development of the workers’ movement.

The case for splitting the PSI was overwhelming along reformist and revolutionary lines—but on what basis? How to bring about a split which followed Lenin’s principles allowing for a distinctive revolutionary socialist current but one which could continue to relate to the working class and peasant majority? One of the most prominent communists in Italy who might have understood how to do this was Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci and his comrades had turned the PSI Turin workers’ newspaper L ‘Ordine Nuovo into “the paper of the factory councils”.19 Gramsci wrote in it how he and his comrades toured Turin’s factories winning the argument for transforming the Turin factory council “biennio rosso” movement into revolutionary soviet type institutions.

L ‘Ordine Nuovo had in effect become the paper of a Bolshevik faction inside the Turin PSI. And although Gramsci had been excluded from the PSI delegation to the Second Congress of the Comintern in July 1920, Lenin explicitly singled out L ‘Ordine Nuovo as the key to progress the spread of socialist revolution in Italy.

The 17th clause of the “Theses on the Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International” very publicly endorsed L ‘Ordine Nuovo criticisms of the PSI’s paralysis in the face of the Turin factory council “biennio rosso” movement.20

Nevertheless the task of splitting the PSI at the Livorno conference proved daunting and the notorious ultra left communist Amadeo Bordiga, also the subject of criticism in Lenin’s LWC, unfortunately proved to be a far more capable operator than Gramsci. Now this is not the place to discuss the reasons why Gramsci failed to stand up to Bordiga. But it resulted in Gramsci helping “to create the sort of party he did not want”.21 Bordiga’s version of the split proved decisive with the immediate result of isolating the new communist party from the mass of workers.

However another factor was at work here—frankly catastrophic Comintern intervention, influenced by the so-called “theory of the offensive”.22 This resulted in the ultra left “March Action” in Germany 1921 which simultaneously destroyed Paul Levi, Rosa Luxemburg’s successor as KPD leader, as it almost certainly fatally destroyed prospects for socialist revolution in Germany.23

And the point is this: Levi was present at the PSI Livorno conference and opposed the Comintern delegates support for Bordiga. This led to Comintern manoeuvres to drive Levi out of the leadership of the German communist party in preparation for the March Action 1921.

Thus Livorno saw the immunisation of both Gramsci and Levi as potentially corrective influences in the face of an isolationist ultra leftism which would help undermine the revolutionary potential of workers’ movements in both Italy and Germany.

Bordiga’s ultra leftism proved absolutely appalling and must count as a major factor in the failure to challenge the rise of Mussolini. This is the subject of a brilliant book by the late Tom Behan which details the rise and enormous potential of the wonderfully named Arditi del Popolo (ADP, People’s Shock Troops),24 the spontaneously formed mass-based Italian anti fascist movement. It developed a united front perspective with one aim—halting Mussolini’s mobilisations, by mass based force if necessary, with maximum involvement across the political spectrum of the left. Alas, although many PSI and PCI activists took part, this was not the official line of these organisations.

By July 1921 at least Gramsci had belatedly realised the serious threat that fascism posed and called for Communists to support the ADP.25 But Bordiga disagreed. His first major article on the subject published in Il Comunista on 14 July argued: “The proletariat’s revolutionary military organisation must be on a party basis… Communists therefore must not take part in activities organised by other parties, or which in any event arise outside the party”.26 And even Gramsci was not always fully consistent with his support for the ADP.27

A year later in July 1922 with Mussolini just three months away from taking power, Bordiga mocked the prospects. He wrote: “So the Fascists want to burn down the parliamentary circus? We’d love to see the day!”28

The PCI refused all offers of joint work with the parliamentary socialists as well as with the ADP. As Bordiga had put it in May 1921: “Fascists and social democrats are but two aspects of tomorrow’s single enemy”.29 Again Gramsci was ambiguous.

This failure to understand either the threat of fascism or how to confront it affected some of those Comintern leaders who had earlier promoted the theory of the offensive. This remained true even after Mussolini had seized power. Thus Comintern president Zinoviev asked: “Is it a coup or a comedy? Perhaps both at the same time. From a historical point of view it is a comedy. In a few months the situation will turn to the advantage of the working class”.30

Nevertheless the Comintern had been shifting. Following the disastrous March Action in Germany, the Third Congress of the Comintern in the summer of 1921 adopted the principles of the United Front. Though too late, the Comintern in January 1922, finally issued a stinging rebuke to the Italian communists for failing to respond to the ADP:

Where were the effective leaders of the working masses? Where were the Communists in this period? Were they busy scrutinising the movement with a magnifying glass to see whether it was sufficiently Marxist and in keeping with their programme? We don’t believe so. On the contrary—to us it appears that at that moment our young PCI was too weak to be able to dominate this spontaneous movement. The doubt arises that the party’s pedantic and formulaic position towards Arditi del Popolo was the cause of this weakness… The PCI should have immediately and energetically joined the Arditi movement, making common cause with workers and therefore turning petty bourgeois elements into their sympathisers. Adventurists should have been denounced and removed from positions of leadership, and trusted elements placed at the head of the movement. The Communist Party is the heart and brain of the working class, and there is no movement in which masses of workers take part which could be too low level and impure for the party… For our movement it is always more advantageous to make mistakes alongside the masses rather than away from them, isolated in a closed circle of party leaders who declare their principled virginity.31

The Italian working class would pay a heavy price for this failure by the left, as would its potentially most gifted leader, Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and the Modern Prince

The publication of The Gramscian Moment by Peter D Thomas has given added weight to the perspective on Gramsci’s writings that the late Chris Harman, former editor of this journal, developed over many years.32 Thomas draws similar conclusions based on his detailed engagement with a wide range of Gramscian scholarship, much of it hostile to such a perspective.33

“Running through the notebooks,” argued Chris, was a concern with “why was the revolutionary upsurge in Italy unsuccessful, ending with Benito Mussolini coming to power?”34 Part of the answer was the failure to implement united front principles, which Gramsci had by now fully embraced—not just in relation to opposing Mussolini, but also earlier in relation to the failure of the Turin factory workers’ council “biennio rosso” movement to lead a society-wide movement of millions towards a revolutionary challenge to the Italian state. This would have meant spelling out the “practical and ideological steps to draw in all workers, the mass of peasants, demobilised soldiers and the discontented layers of the petty bourgeoisie”.35 Here Gramsci’s most important yet misused concept of hegemony comes into play.

Gramsci came to believe that “the ideological ties binding people to existing states are stronger than they were in Russia because of the existence of dense networks of formal and informal organisations (‘civil society’). These influence the lower classes but their leaderships are tied in one way or another into the structures of existing society and serves as a channel which feeds the ideologies into ‘subaltern’ (ie lower) classes.” Thus the “hegemonic struggle is a double battle—to free the working class from the ties that bind it to the existing exploitative order and to bind other subaltern classes into a ‘bloc’ with the working class”.36

But how is this objective to be achieved? Here Chris introduces arguably one of Gramsci’s most celebrated passages with its focus on the “active man in the mass”:

The active man in the mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.37

Contradictory consciousness can paralyse the active man of the mass. She/he has to overcome the numbing ideological inheritance from the past, but cannot do this alone. A revolutionary combat organisation is essential which raises the ideological struggle, as part of the class struggle, to the highest plane. This is the Modern Prince:38

A human mass does not “distinguish” itself, does not become independent in its own right without, in the widest sense, organising itself; and there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is without organisers or leaders, in other words, without the theoretical aspect of the theory-practice nexus being distinguished concretely by the existence of a group of people “specialised” in conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas.39

Thomas adds to this argument by introducing Gramsci’s empowering idea of the “democratic philosophy”, where the intellectuals are at least as often the “educated” as they are the “educators” and who combine with worker activists, “to construct an intellectual-moral bloc that renders politically possible a mass intellectual progress”. They are to be “permanently active persuaders” struggling for proletarian hegemony to form the basis for a new society.40

The lost revolution in Germany

We are now in a position to revisit the causes of failure of the German Revolution. At a critical point in his book The Lost Revolution: Germany 191823 Chris Harman opens the way for this intervention by introducing the “active man in the mass” passage from Gramsci.41 He is describing how SPD pressures undermined the revolution.

The recent publication in English, All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 19181919, edited and translated by Garbriel Kuhn, allows a unique test of Gramsci’s insight here by focusing on one of the key “active men in the mass”, Richard Müller. Müller was a leading member of the Executive Committee of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Berlin. The book groups together several speeches and written statements by four of the key leaders of the German Revolution in the crucial months of November and December 1918, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the Berlin revolutionary shop stewards and workers’ leaders Richard Müller and Ernst Daumig. All four had been in prison for anti-war activities.

One theme dominates every contribution: how the councils must assert their authority over the revolution and resist the SPD’s ferocious ideological, strategic and tactical attempt to subordinate the councils to the demand for a national assembly. And yet one of the most obvious
conditions—the essential Gramscian theme—for mounting such resistance was spectacularly absent: unity of revolutionary intellectuals and worker leaders in a common organisation.42 This remained true even at the German Communist Party (KPD) foundation conference in late December 1918.

The isolation of Luxemburg and Liebknecht was gratuitously underlined when they were deliberately excluded from the National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in mid-December.43

Richard Müller was intellectually and political disarmed. His precarious position was exacerbated by the majority of SPD activists on the executive of the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Committee. Not that they were all in agreement with each other. All of them, some sincerely, others less so, were enthusiasts for the revolution and its working class majority. And several were genuinely confused by the councils versus assembly debate. Their group, and much more importantly their supporters in the factories, could be split, and indeed mobilised for action, by astute strategy and tactics coming from the revolutionary side. Reflecting critically on his role several years later in an article reproduced in this collection, Richard Müller wrote:

The first and most important duty of the Executive Council was to give the revolution a programme, and thereby content and direction. Instead the Executive Council got caught up in a thousand things, let the first weeks pass without any initiative, and allowed both opportunists and outright opponents of the revolution to shape public opinion and to announce a date for national assembly elections.44

Pierre Broué provides a graphic description of how Müller was outmanoeuvred on the committee by a resolution which superficially supported the councils but in practice anchored them to the national assembly.45 SPD appeals for “workers’ unity”, and Müller’s susceptibility to seek a compromise too far,46 made him literally a prisoner of contradictory consciousness.

Müller’s absolutely justified if belated recognition of the need for a programme was indeed the way to break out of this impasse. Rosa Luxemburg had developed such a programme, a programme of demands predicated on mass working class action, and in the same article Müller later reports on it.47 If acted upon, it raised the prospects, in her words, of nothing less than “a united front of the entire German proletariat, bringing together the south and the north, the country and the city, the worker and the soldier”.48 Here was the mechanism to appeal to SPD supporters in the workplaces over the heads of their leaders. Key demands focused on the need to mobilise, and begin the transfer of power at the base:

Election of shop councils in all workplaces; in collaboration with the workers’ councils, the shop councils will be responsible for controlling the inner affairs of the workplace, the labour conditions, the production, and, eventually, management.

The very next demand provided the mechanism for implementation:

Instalment of a central strike commission that shall, in constant collaboration with the shop councils, give the strike movements emerging across the country a unified leadership and socialist direction, while at the same time securing the highest possible support by the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.49

As Luxemburg explained at the KPD founding conference this was the necessary next step from the political to the “economic revolution and therefore socialist revolution”.50 Her projection, indeed prediction, of “strike movements across the country” was confirmed in the early months of 1919, tragically after the assassinations of both her and Liebknecht. However, because of the abject failure of the KPD conference to adopt policies to fit the situation and recruit worker leaders like Richard Müller and Ernst Däumig, and potentially thousands of others,51 it failed to build the unified leadership and hence could not properly provide socialist direction for the strike movement.52 Nevertheless Luxemburg’s intervention, in principle even if it could not be carried out in practice, confirms the validity of the united front perspective implicit in Lenin’s LWC, including Gramsci’s refinements.

Her programme of demands was about mobilising the mass of workers to break the paralysis of the revolution and the SPD’s assertion that the National Assembly took precedence over the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. The demands would involve workers experiencing and hence acting directly to bring about a fundamental shift in power at the productive base of society and hence of the revolution itself. These practical steps had to be accompanied by an ideological offensive, very explicit in so much of Luxemburg’s writing at the time, which distinguished genuine socialism, based on workers’ power from below, from the SPD’s elitist version where socialism would be introduced by decree in the National Assembly.53

However, Luxemburg never for a moment underestimated the continuing appeal of the SPD version: what a “nice idea to realise socialism the parliamentarian way, by a simple majority vote”.54 This is what made the other point of the demands/elections/ideology united front formula so essential. To adapt the earlier reported remark of Lenin to the German context, a workers’ and soldiers’ councils’ victory over parliament was not possible without pro-council politicians in parliament, without disintegrating parliamentarianism from within.

Lessons for today

There is an immediate lesson for the one country in the world in the middle of a revolution, Egypt. The question of its future direction, and the prospects for transforming it into a socialist revolution, is a live and vigorous debate among thousands of revolutionary activists. It is a debate stimulated partly by the Revolutionary Socialists (RS).

In early summer last year the Egyptian RS faced a challenge over electoral democracy with uncanny echoes of the arguments facing the German communists in 1918-19. There was a mood among activists to boycott the elections, especially among some of the hardened street fighters who had helped topple Mubarak. The mood affected many members and supporters of the RS. It was compounded by the fact that in the final run-off between presidential contenders the choice was between a supporter of the old regime and a Muslim Brotherhood candidate unambiguously hostile to the left. Enormous crowds in Tahir Square responded by waving their shoes and shouting, “We want neither plague nor cholera.”

At the same time, though, the majority of Egyptians enthusiastically welcomed the elections as the most visible prize yet of the revolution itself. Surely one of the great aims of the revolution, democracy, was about to be fulfilled?

A sharp argument blew up within the RS. A statement by their leadership, later made public, made the case against an election boycott. It put into the practical electoral context of Egypt 2012 all the arguments from Lenin explored earlier in this article. From the many passages, perhaps the most fascinating is this one, not least because of the prophetic polemic aimed at Muslim Brotherhood candidate Morsi who, of course, became president:

The choice between Shafiq and Morsi is not a choice between a revolutionary candidate and a counter-revolutionary candidate… It is rather a choice between a military bourgeois candidate hostile to the revolution and a vacillating bourgeois candidate who wants neither a return to the old order nor the completion of the revolution to its end. This means a choice between two enemies. And the question is who among them do we prefer to struggle against: a general who will send out tanks against the citizens, or a waffling opportunist Brother subject to pressures from below, who can possibly be exposed before his own base and citizens?55

More broadly, there are important lessons also for understanding the failure of the left in the revolutions in the last half of the last century as well as guidance for our practice in this century. We learn that revolutionary crises can throw up spontaneous and very advanced forms of workers’ organisations. But we also learn that pressures from the old society will undermine these new structures unless a highly sophisticated revolutionary socialist party, ideologically innovative, rapidly developing a mass base in the revolution, can intervene and give it direction. This includes helping to raise self-confidence among workers to see themselves as the new rulers in a socialist society.

The Bolsheviks, of course, faced just such a crisis. Lenin was completely alone in April 1917 when he called for “All Power to the Soviets”. As in Germany the soviets, the workers’ councils, were dominated by reformist voices calling for a national assembly. The Bolsheviks were vacillating. Describing this historic moment in his biography of Lenin, Tony Cliff entitled his chapter “Lenin Rearms the Party”, the military metaphor underpinning the decisive significance of Lenin’s ideological offensive.

The absence of even the serious beginnings of a revolutionary party in Poland, Iran and South Africa in the late 1970s and 1980s made inevitable the complete paralysis and later disintegration of the revolutionary potential of the workers’ movements in those countries, despite their decisive role in removing authoritarian regimes.56

Contributing to the stalling and collapse of the workers’ movements in Poland, Iran and South Africa was of course the gathering crisis in the Soviet Union and its satellites which exploded, or rather imploded, in 1989. Official Communism’s impending obsolescence had hung over the three struggles. In Poland the workers’ revolt was itself aimed at Official Communism. In Iran the ultra-loyal pro-Soviet Tudeh Party was itself virtually obsolete. In South Africa the SACP, the South African Communist Party, capitulated to neoliberalism following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Never mind reform versus revolution, the SACP was so ideologically disoriented, it wasn’t even able to counter the ANC’s embrace of market-led policies with aggressive state-led reforms to tackle the grinding black township poverty left over from the apartheid years.

Most of the world, including especially its intellectuals, on the right and most of the left, interpreted this breakdown of official Communism as an irreversible defeat for the principles of communism, as outlined by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. We are foolish in the extreme if we underestimate the intensity of the cluster of attitudes which have now developed as part of a new “common sense”57 taking for granted the “truth” of this as a tried and failed project.

Or to put the point in another way, returning to the passage from LWC at the beginning of this article, in the aftermath of October 1917 Lenin assumed that the vanguard of the workers’ movements in Western Europe had already been, or was about to be, won ideologically to Bolshevism. This was a not an unreasonable assumption as tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of working class activists hailed and identified with the October victory. Lenin and the Comintern rallied these workers and other activists, encouraging the formation of new communist parties as well as pressurising left reformist and anarchist sympathisers with October to join with them.

The Russian Revolution and its subsequent Stalinist degeneration would dominate the vanguards of the workers’ movements across the world and throughout most of the 20th century. Activists leading workers’ movements in the 21st century carry this memory as a damaging historical burden which has yet to be properly addressed. Worse, it has led to ideological disorientation among activists, a lack of conviction in a socialist alternative where often “socialism” at best means exerting mass pressure on the capitalist state to soften the worst effects of crisis.

It makes the question of the ideological struggle in our period
fundamentally more important than in Lenin’s period. It means we have arrived at what Peter Thomas calls the “Gramscian Moment”.58

Deepening our understanding of the failure of Communism with a capital “C” in the 20th century increases our capacity to know and therefore act in the struggle for communism with a small “c” in the 21st century. Hopefully this article serves as a modest contribution to this proposition.


1: Lenin, 1968, pp75-76. This article is an adaptation and development of talks given on this subject at the International Socialism conference in September 2012 and the Historical Materialism conference in November 2012.

2: “Rarely has such a short work had so powerful and lasting influence on the labour movement. Its influence could be compared to the Communist Manifesto. It was of enormous importance in creatively developing the strategy and tactics of the revolutionary movement”-Cliff, 1979, p24.

3: Lenin, 1968, p63.

4: Lenin, 1968, p64.

5: It is curious that Lenin never wrote specifically about this period.

6: Cliff, 1979, pp15-16

7: Lenin, 1968, p101.

8: Lenin, 1968, p65.

9: Lenin, 1968, p65.

10: “Without this condition we can’t agree to a block, that would be treachery…need complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and Snowdens”-Lenin, 1968, p69. “I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports the hanging man”-Lenin, 1968, p71. This was one of Tony Cliff’s favourite quotes.

11: Lenin, 1968, p55

12: Gapon himself was later exposed as a police spy. Cliff reports Lenin’s infatuation with Gapon-Cliff, 1975, p149-158.

13: Cliff, 1975, p73.

14: Lenin, 1968, p78.

15: Riddell, 2011, p119-124.

16: Riddell, 2011,p118.

17: Riddell, 2011, p134.

18: Harman, 1982, p192-220.

19: Fiori, 1990, p120; Trudell, 2007, p73.

20: Fiori, 1990, p134.

21: Bambery, 2007, p89.

22: Bambery, 2007, p89, also Broue, 2006, p488-490; Harman, 1982, p207-8.

23: See Zehetmair and Rose, 2013.

24: A rough translation, according to Behan, 2003, p121 fn2.

25: Behan, 2003, p62.

26: Behan, 2003, pp67-68. Emphasis in original.

27: Behan, 2003, p74.

28: Behan, 2003, p92.

29: Behan, 2003, pp92-93.

30: Behan, 2003, p94.

31: Behan, 2003, pp107-108.

32: In International Socialism 114, Chris, with the help of several comrades, brought together a lifetime’s study of Gramsci under the rubric “Antonio Gramsci’s Revolutionary Legacy”.

33: While inevitably conceding some of its arcane scholastic language, Thomas pierces much of its pretension. In a note to me about this article, he writes, “Point out that I reference one of Chris’s texts on Gramsci…as an antidote to post-Marxist readings… Chris and I also spoke together at an International Socialism day school on Gramsci in 2007, and I was pleased to see that we were in agreement on central issues. Regarding your point [that the Prison Notebooks are a response to the left’s catastrophic defeat in Italy resulting in Mussolini’s victory], I think that what you write is generally accurate-however, I would add that the Prison Notebooks and the concept of the Modern Prince in particular need to be understood also, and perhaps above all, as a rejection of the “third period” [of Stalinism], and the call for a renewed united front in the 1930s.”

34: Harman, 2007, p107.

35: Harman, 2007, pp107-108.

36: Harman, 2007, pp108-109.

37: Gramsci quoted in Harman, 2007, p109-110; Thomas, 2010, p378.

38: Why the Modern Prince? See Harman, 2007, p106. Also: “Of all the themes explored in the Prison Notebooks, few are as little discussed today as Gramsci’s theory of the working class political party as an ‘organisation of struggle’”-Thomas, 2010, p437.

39: The intellectuals here are “organic” intellectuals, “a new type, which arise directly out of the masses”-Gramsci, quoted in Harman, 2007, pp110-111.

40: Gramsci, quoted in Thomas, 2010, p436.

41: Harman, 1982, p148.

42: A serious weakness with this book is its failure to address this adequately. It should be read alongside the following chapters, “Days of Workers Power” in Harman, 1982, pp52-72, especially the last part, and “The Period of Dual Power”, Broué, 2006, pp157-188.

43: Harman 1982, p56; Nettl, 1966, p745.

44: Kuhn, 2012, p61.

45: Broué, 2006, pp177-179.

46: Broué, 2006, p178.

47: Kuhn, 2012, pp70-71.

48: Kuhn, 2012, p102.

49: Kuhn, 2012, p105.

50: Harman, 1982, p67; Broué, 2006, p219.

51: “Disastrous”-Harman, 1982, p72. See also the sad and infuriating article by Liebknecht, “Negotiations with the Revolutionary Stewards”-Kuhn, 2012, pp119-121. See also Müller’s “Revolutionary Gymnastics”-Kuhn, 2012, pp76-78.

52: See also the chapters, “The Months of Civil War”, in Harman, 1982, pp96-124, and “The Noske Period” in Broue, 2006, pp261-283.

53: However, there is an unresolved puzzle about the section of her programme entitled International Tasks. It called for: “Immediate establishment of regular communication with international socialist parties in order to provide the socialist revolution with an international platform and to administer and secure peace by the fraternisation and the revolutionary uprising of the world proletariat”-Kuhn,2012, p105. It did not mention the need for solidarity with the successful seizure of power by workers in Russia in October 1917 and the bitter struggle to defend this historic development that had raged throughout Russia in 1918. This is particularly surprising because the ideological showdown between reformists and revolutionaries in November and December 1918 in Germany was especially intense over the wildly differing interpretations of events in Russia. Liebknecht reports that by mid-December a majority of soldiers had been “incited against Bolshevism”-Kuhn, 2012, p107. Richard Müller quotes Kautsky. “The councils…can never legitimise the rule of the masses in the same way [as national assembly elections]. That’s why the [Bolshevik] terror became necessary”-Kuhn, 2012,p69. Lenin had warned repeatedly just how dangerous Kautsky was as an ideological opponent. This is why he wrote the pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky-Broué, 2006, p121. It was a defence of soviet democracy against parliamentary democracy as well as a polemic against Kautsky’s attacks on the Bolshevik Revolution. How forcefully did Luxemburg and Liebknecht respond to Kautsky’s attacks? The entire German political class, the political spectrum ranging from Kautsky through all the parliamentary parties, left, centre and right, to the crumbling German aristocratic establishment and the military top brass, were lined up against the Bolshevik “virus” spreading to Germany. The propaganda barrage was suffocating. Did Rosa Luxemburg’s severe doubts about the Russian Revolution, expressed in her manuscript The Russian Revolution, written just before she was released from prison in August September 1918, affect her judgment about how to respond? Paul Levi had visited her in prison and persuaded her not to publish it-Broué, 2006, p123 fn49. See also Cliff’s “Rosa Luxemburg’s Criticisms of the Bolsheviks in Power” in Cliff, 1959. Of course, we should exercise extreme caution before making superficially plausible hindsight critical judgments on Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Nevertheless this is a legitimate area for investigation. It is a further example of where increasing our capacity to know increases our capacity to act: see the conclusion to this article.

54: Kuhn, 2012, p113.

55: I would like to thank Anne Alexander for the information about the boycott mood in Tahrir Square and for obtaining this statement for me. The full statement can be viewed at www.scribd.com/doc/97156218/To-the-Comrades. See also Sameh Naguib’s excellent article in which he explains why the Revolutionary Socialists must themselves be ready to participate in parliament, insisting that parliament must not be left to the Islamists: “We can’t pretend to be too pure to get involved”-Naguib, 2013.

56: The political biography of Jacek Kuron, the former revolutionary socialist, who became a leading adviser to the Solidarity-led workers’ movement in Poland, and then a reformist labour minister in the new post Stalinist, pro-Solidarity government, serves as a negative or reverse template for the argument developed here. See Zebrowski, 2004. The failure of the left in the workplaces during the Iranian Revolution allowed Khomeini and the Islamists to fill the vacuum. They turned the Lenin and Gramsci arguments inside out. Khomeini launched an ideological barrage against “Marxism” in the workplaces and successfully adapted the shoras’ (the embryonic workers’ councils) demands to the welfare programme of the “Islamic” revolution, imposing “Islamic” shoras on the existing structures. The failure of the left also gave the revolutionary Islamic electoral democracy legitimacy, with voting to the Iranian parliament in post-revolutionary Iran taken seriously by a majority of the public. See Poya, 1987, pp123-168.

57: For Gramsci “common sense” was ideologically conservative inducing passivity. See Harman, 2007, p109; Thomas, 2010, p16.

58: That “identity of theory and practice” promoted by the revolutionary party that “becomes the critical art of finding, on the one hand, the adequate theoretical form of a practice, capable of increasing its capacity to act, or, on the other hand, the adequate practical form of a theory, capable of increasing its capacity to know”, a “revitalisation of a Marxism that strives to become, to quote Gramsci, an ‘alternative conception of the world’”-Thomas, 2010, p383; also pp450-453.


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