Lenin on Anarchism and Opportunism

Chapter Four of ‘Left’ Wing Communism An Infantile Disorder – Published on Dissident Voice, by Thomas Riggins, October 19, 2012.

In chapter four of his book “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder Lenin describes the struggle of the Bolsheviks to combat those enemies of the working class movement who were themselves acting within that movement ostensibly in the interests of establishing socialism.  

Perhaps the term “enemies” is too harsh, but the factions Lenin writes about included within their ranks both opponents of the Bolshevik line (as being not historically appropriate) and hostile elements who actively collaborated with reactionary sections of the bourgeoisie.

In any case, Lenin considered the main enemy of the workers to be what he called “opportunism”– the placing of the real interests on the workers on the back burner in order to pursue temporary policies which might lead to some gains in the present but which actually damaged the long term interest of the workers. He was not referring to historically necessitated retreats and compromises, but to an attitude which consistently led to cooperation and capitulation to bourgeois views where matters of principal were set aside and the long term interests of the working class ignored. The trick, as always, is to be able to spot the difference between “opportunism” and legitimate “compromise.”

After 1914, the outbreak of WWI, opportunism warped into “social-chauvinism” with with so-called Marxists siding with their national bourgeoisie against the bourgeoisie AND the workers of hostile nations. Lenin thought this kind of opportunism was the “principal enemy within the working-class movement.”

Even in 1920 it remained the number one enemy of the international working-class.  And here we are, 92 years down the road, and with the same enemy at work in the working-class. Think of right-wing labor leaders who push their unions into supporting reactionary politicians because some narrow interests have temporarily benefited, say, in job creation, their own union at the expense of workers elsewhere. Lenin’s old enemy is still very much alive both in the socialist and union movements.

There was, however, another enemy that the Marxists had to battle. This enemy of the workers was not as well known in Lenin’s day but will be recognized by everyone familiar with Marxism and the history of the 20th century worker’s movement. This enemy Lenin calls “Petty Bourgeois Revolutionism”, a mixture of anarchism and half baked revolutionary rhetoric.

Marxist theory, Lenin maintains, has shown that the small business owner (“the petty proprietor”), independent professionals, the self employed, and other members of the so-called “middle classes” who are situated between the large capitalist corporations and the working class, are constantly finding themselves ground down economically and subject to “a most acute and rapid deterioration” of their living conditions and “even ruin” … //

… It is on this note that Lenin ends chapter four of “Left” Wing Communism. I must stress that the context of Lenin’s thought is conditioned by the presence in Russia and in large segments of the European and International working class of a revolutionary fervor gripping millions of working people. The question for us is how to adapt Lenin’s views to the present pre-revolutionary outlook of millions of people who are finding themselves being crushed by the slowly spreading decline and fall of the world capitalist system as we have known it since the end of WWII. What are we to do if we don’t have on hand a revolutionary proletariat?
(full long text).

(Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online and also write for the People’s World online daily paper. Read other articles by Thomas).

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