Lenin on Marxism and Bourgeois Democracy

December 12, 2012 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In chapter seven of Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, Lenin addresses himself to the ultra-left claim that socialists should no longer work with or be members of bourgeois parliaments. This may not be a very pressing issue for American (US) socialists and the matter seems settled as far as other countries are concerned (as a result of widespread agreement with Lenin’s views) but in Lenin’s day there were many so-called Left socialists who supported boycotting all bourgeois electoral work. Lenin thought this totally incorrect.

The ultra-left’s position was that bourgeois democracy was historically and politically obsolete: the wave of the future was advancing workers’ democracy in the form of Soviets and so all Marxist socialists should only work to build that future. Lenin’s response to this is philosophically interesting and rooted in his reading of Hegel and his understanding of the latter’s historicism.

Lenin had made a profound study of Hegel’s Logic (among other of the German philosopher’s works) while in exile and could not but have been impressed by the following passage in Hegel’s introduction to his “Lectures on the Philosophy of History” (even though he thought Hegel had been completely antiquated with respect to most of his views on history when compared to the ideas of Marx and Engels.) Nevertheless, the following Hegelian passage, I believe, still had meaning for him, and is important for us today.

Hegel wrote that he wished to call his students “attention to the important difference between a conception, a principle, a truth limited to an abstract form and its determinate application and concrete development.” An example would be that “all men are created equal” was an abstract truth, whilst the American civil war was a determinate application as was the civil rights movement nearly a century later. That latter application is still in the process of development.

Grasping that Hegelian principle we can understand Lenin when he agrees with the ultra-left that indeed bourgeois democracy IS historically obsolete. Lenin says this is true in a “propaganda sense.” Capitalism has also been obsolete for over a hundred years, he says. It is still obsolete today in that we can see its inherent contradictions come to bear as capitalism does not provide us with a sustainable future in the way that socialism is able to. However, this abstract truth, from the point of view of world history, does not mean that its determinate application, its concrete development will not require “a very long and persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism”.

Lenin says world history is measured in decades, indeed he could have said centuries (Napoleon saw the Sphinx looking down on him from 40 centuries): whether the concrete development reaches fruition now or a century from now is something indifferent to world history. Lenin was mistaken in seeing the revolutionary era of his day as the fruition of the social ideal just as we are wrong to see the globalisation of the capitalist world market as the refutation of the social ideal which, from the point of view of world history, may be ushered in by a new revolutionary era which may even now be at the heart of the current world capitalist breakdown and may take place in a decade or in 20 decades time. For this “very reason,” Lenin says, “it is a glaring theoretical error to apply the yardstick of world history to practical politics.”

So, while in a technical sense the ultra-left is correct about the historical “obsolescence” of bourgeois democracy, the real question is, is bourgeois democracy politically obsolete? The answer to that is a resounding “NO!” The masses of working people participate in bourgeois elections and think in terms of bourgeois constitutionality and for Marxists to ignore that fact and refuse to engage in political work where the masses are is the height of irresponsibility. This mistake, that is raising its head again, was already abandoned in 1918 by the German socialists. Both Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, “outstanding political leaders” opposed it in Germany and subsequent events have proven them to be correct.

Those parties today (1920) that are again bringing up this erroneous theory should study the history of Marxism on this issue and admit their mistake. This is a most important principle for Lenin. When a mistake is made it cannot be papered over, ignored, denied, or explained away. How a party treats its mistakes is one of the best ways of judging how serious it is about its duty towards its class and towards working people in general. A party that fails to admit and rectify publicly its mistakes is NOT a party of the masses.

The mistake of the ultra-leftists is a failure to recognise that what is obsolete from the point of view of Marxism (from our point of view) is NOT obsolete from the point of view of the masses. Granted then that we must work within the framework of bourgeois democracy so that we can influence the masses. However, Lenin stresses that we must not “sink to the level of the masses”. The working people must be told “the bitter truth.” That truth, which we are duty bound to tell the people, is that their allegiance to bourgeois democracy is nothing more than a “prejudice.” Even so, we must also act politically with regard to the actual class consciousness of the working masses (not the class consciousness of the Marxist elements). If we do not, Lenin says we risk turning into “windbags.”

Here I must mention an issue that was important to Lenin but is no longer applicable at the present time. One of reasons he was upset by the ultra-leftist was that some of them were in leadership positions within fraternal communist parties which were members of the Communist International (Third International). Lenin was convinced that his position on bourgeois democracy was correct and had been successfully applied in Russia. This was also the position of the International, which, he said “must work out its tactics internationally (not as narrow or exclusively national tactics, but as international tactics)’,” and the rejection of his views by some members of the International amounted to abandoning the concept of internationalism even while giving lip service to it.

Today, of course, we have to be concerned with internationalism but there is no “International” to oversee and direct a unified program subscribed to by all the active Marxist parties. In fact, national tactics take a leading role everywhere. There are some regional groupings of Marxist parties as well some groupings based on particular ideological interpretations of Marxism, and some “go-it-alone” parties. This reflects the fragmented and ideological confusion that reigns on the left and is a major reason why more international meetings and conferences should be held with a view to creating some kind of consensus around international issues and how the national struggles in each country can relate to the movement towards creating the conditions or preconditions for an international unified fightback against capitalism.

Another issue addressed by Lenin in this chapter is the relation between legal and illegal activities by the workers’ party. All workers’ parties are faced with this issue and all engage in some form of illegal activity. In the US Marxist parties, for example, although they were legal parties, still engaged in illegal activities such as sit ins and illegal demonstrations during the civil rights movement and various forms of civil disobedience in anti-war protests and marches. Lenin thought that as capitalism begins to breakdown and the workers become more militant, the bourgeois state would crack down ever harder on the working class violating its standards of legality.

As an example of ruthless persecution of working people, he gives the example of the United States. He makes reference to the Palmer Raids and the espionage acts. It is also edifying to see the Obama administration dust off these old laws from ninety years ago to try and shut down whistleblowers and journalists (think of Wikileaks). Socialist parties should be prepared to face savage persecution by the state as the class struggle intensifies. Paper tiger parties today will be treated as real tigers tomorrow if they effectively lead the workers in the struggle against capitalism.

Lenin stresses that before Marxists even think about repudiating working within bourgeois democracy there must be a revolutionary situation in which the majority of working people have lost faith in the bourgeoisie and are willing and able to advance towards the seizure of power and the establishment of a socialist state. People can talk revolution all they like and advocate revolutionary tactics all they want but “without a revolutionary mood among the masses, and without conditions facilitating the growth of this mood, revolutionary tactics will never develop into action.”

Certainly in the U.S. there is no mass revolutionary mood [yet] and none on the immediate horizon. This must be taken into account by the Left. In Europe and other areas of the world the situation is different and various degrees of the “revolutionary mood” are rapidly advancing as the glacial melting of global capitalism speeds up.

Lenin further notes that “it is very easy to show one’s ‘revolutionary’ temper merely by hurling abuse at parliamentary opportunism” [i.e., bourgeois democracy] but tactics “must be based on a sober and strictly objective appraisal of ALL the class forces in a particular state (and of the states that surround it, and of all states the world over) as well as of the experience of revolutionary movements.” A tall order, I should think, with many opportunities for error: all the more reason for more international conferences and even the creation of a new International.

So, the upshot of this discussion is that Marxists must work within bourgeois democratic institutions and it is childish to attack parties and socialist leaders who do so. The only justified criticism, Lenin says, is against those leaders “who are unable — and still more against those who are unwilling — to utilise the structures of bourgeois democracy ‘ in a revolutionary and communist manner.” The question that remains is: What constitutes a revolutionary and communist manner in the 21st Century?


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This post was written by Thomas Riggins

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