V.I. Lenin on Communist Participation in Bourgeois Parliaments

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“It is with the utmost contempt—and the utmost levity—that the German ‘Left’ Communists reply to this question in the negative. Their arguments? In the passage quoted above we read:

‘. . . All reversion to parliamentary forms of struggle, which have become historically and politically obsolete, must be emphatically rejected. . . .’

This is said with ridiculous pretentiousness, and is patently wrong. ‘Reversion’ to parliamentarianism, forsooth! Perhaps there is already a Soviet republic in Germany? It does not look like it! How, then, can one speak of ‘reversion?’ Is this not an empty phrase?

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.

Is parliamentarianism ‘politically obsolete?’ That is quite a different matter. If that were true, the position of the ‘Lefts’ would be a strong one. But it has to be proved by a most searching analysis, and the ‘Lefts’ do not even know how to approach the matter. In the ‘Theses on Parliamentarianism,’ published in the Bulletin of the Provisional Bureau in Amsterdam of the Communist International No. 1, February 1920, and obviously expressing the Dutch-Left or Left-Dutch strivings, the analysis, as we shall see, is also hopelessly poor.

In the first place, contrary to the opinion of such outstanding political leaders as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the German ‘Lefts,’ as we know, considered parliamentarianism ‘politically obsolete’ even in January 1919. We know that the ‘Lefts’ were mistaken. This fact alone utterly destroys, at a single stroke, the proposition that parliamentarianism is ‘politically obsolete.’ It is for the ‘Lefts’ to prove why their error, indisputable at that time, is no longer an error. They do not and cannot produce even a shred of proof. A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification—that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses. By failing to fulfil this duty and give the utmost attention and consideration to the study of their patent error, the ‘Lefts’ in Germany (and in Holland) have proved that they are not a party of a class, but a circle, not a party of the masses, but a group of intellectualists and of a few workers who ape the worst features of intellectualism.

Second, in the same pamphlet of the Frankfurt group of ‘Lefts,’ which we have already cited in detail, we read:

‘. . . The millions of workers who still follow the policy of the Centre [the Catholic ‘Centre’ Party] are counter-revolutionary. The rural proletarians provide the legions of counter-revolutionary troops.’ (Page 3 of the pamphlet.)

Everything goes to show that this statement is far too sweeping and exaggerated. But the basic fact set forth here is incontrovertible, and its acknowledgment by the ‘Lefts’ is particularly clear evidence of their mistake. How can one say that ‘parliamentarianism is politically obsolete,’ when ‘millions’ and ‘legions’ of proletarians are not only still in favour of parliamentarianism in general, but are downright ‘counter-revolutionary!?’ It is obvious that parliamentarianism in Germany is not yet politically obsolete. It is obvious that the ‘Lefts’ in Germany have mistaken their desire, their politico-ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is a most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries to make. In Russia—where, over a particularly long period and in particularly varied forms, the most brutal and savage yoke of tsarism produced revolutionaries of diverse shades, revolutionaries who displayed amazing devotion, enthusiasm, heroism and will power—in Russia we have observed this mistake of the revolutionaries at very close quarters; we have studied it very attentively and have a first-hand knowledge of it; that is why we can also see it especially clearly in others. Parliamentarianism is of course ‘politically obsolete’ to the Communists in Germany; but—and that is the whole point—we must not regard what is obsolete to us as something obsolete to a class, to the masses. Here again we find that the ‘Lefts’ do not know how to reason, do not know how to act as the party of a class, as the party of the masses. You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You are in duty bound to call their bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices what they are—prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of the class-consciousness and preparedness of the entire class (not only of its communist vanguard), and of all the working people (not only of their advanced elements).

Even if only a fairly large minority of the industrial workers, and not ‘millions’ and ‘legions,’ follow the lead of the Catholic clergy—and a similar minority of rural workers follow the landowners and kulaks (Grossbauern)—it undoubtedly signifies that parliamentarianism in Germany has not yet politically outlived itself, that participation in parliamentary elections and in the struggle on the parliamentary rostrum is obligatory on the party of the revolutionary proletariat specifically for the purpose of educating the backward strata of its own class, and for the purpose of awakening and enlightening the undeveloped, downtrodden and ignorant rural masses. Whilst you lack the strength to do away with bourgeois parliaments and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work within them because it is there that you will still find workers who are duped by the priests and stultified by the conditions of rural life; otherwise you risk turning into nothing but windbags.”

 – V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-Wing Communism’: An Infantile Disorder”

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