How should we relate to supporters of the idea that gradual change, reforms to benefit workers, and eventually socialism, comes through parliament?
Surprisingly, after the victory of the workers’ revolution in Russia in 1917, leading revolutionary Lenin turned his mind to precisely this question.
In 1920, when Lenin wrote his pamphlet Left-Wing Communism: an infantile disorder, he addressed himself to young socialist radicals, particularly in Germany.
They argued that socialists could dispense with work in trade unions, elections and parliament because these forms of struggle were “obsolete”.
Lenin describes how mass revolutionary parties can be built in countries where the trappings of liberal democracy have deep roots.
He was for a revolution to smash the capitalist state, but understood that it means winning over millions of workers.
And he was concerned that in attempting to be the most radical elements of struggle, groups of what he describes as “left” communists were isolating themselves from the masses of ordinary people.
But, Lenin stressed, “We can (and must) begin to build socialism not with imaginary human material, or with human material specially prepared by us, but with human material bequeathed to us by capitalism.”
For revolutionaries and the most advanced sections of workers, parliamentary democracy had been exposed as a sham. They knew power still lay in the hands of unelected captains of industry, police commissioners and generals.
But the mass of workers in 1920s Germany, who had moved to the left, still believed that parliament could meet their interests.
Lenin therefore said, “Clearly the ‘lefts’ in Germany have mistaken their desire, their political-ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is the most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries.”
The task of breaking workers from their belief in parliament meant showing in practice that it could not deliver the sort of society necessary to meet the needs of the majority. In part, that meant that there is no principle involved in standing or not standing in parliamentary elections—it is a tactical question.
In Russia, even after democratic and powerful workers’ soviets were established, the Bolsheviks continued to stand for the Russian parliament, the Duma.
Lenin argued that because revolutionaries wanted to win the mass of ordinary workers to socialist ideas, they must work wherever the masses are to be found.
This means working alongside people who are not revolutionaries and may not always act in the interests of the working class.
Lenin described how for many years the Bolsheviks worked alongside the more right wing socialists —the Mensheviks—in one party against the ruling parties, and stood in elections.
However, the Bolsheviks never stopped an ideological and political argument against the opportunism of the Mensheviks.
If revolutionaries didn’t work in trade unions and with reformists, then they would not be in a position to challenge them—and reformists can be pulled towards siding with the bosses.
In that context, Lenin criticised the view of some members of the newly-formed British Communist Party, such as Sylvia Pankhurst, about abstaining from elections, and ignoring the Labour Party.
Lenin was clear about the nature of the Labour Party, describing it as a “capitalist workers’ party” made up of trade union members, but with a leadership consisting of the “worst kinds of bourgeois elements”.
But at that time the Labour Party had four million affiliated members, and organisations could affiliate while maintaining their freedom to criticise the leadership.
He argued, therefore, that the Communists should try to affiliate.
Left-Wing Communism is a book about tactics, and above all Lenin is arguing that revolutionaries need to be flexible.
What the party does must not be determined just by what has gone before, but by the particular place and time it is operating within.
Lenin said this may mean working to try and “stir-up” even the “oldest, mustiest and seemingly hopeless spheres”.
Revolutionaries must be flexible in order to exploit divisions in the ruling class—and be well placed to lead the working class.
Read Left-Wing Communism at www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/index.htm