Lenin and Opportunism


3-13-07, 9:04 am

We can draw several parallels between the current period and 1914-16. Wars were breaking out around the world in 1914. Labor, oppressed nations and democratic rights were under relentless attack everywhere.

The Second International was the leading world association of workers at the time. Formed in 1889, the International by 1912 included socialist parties and unions from practically every European country, as well as from Japan, the US and Canada; the combined membership of its organizations exceeded nine million.

The International was formally committed to Marxism. But its leadership had failed to correctly assess the implications of capitalist monopolization and historic decline of the old system. Much of the leadership had become comfortable, and slipped into routinism and pacifism. It acceded to loose federation of the International along national lines, in sharp contrast to the centralism of the First International. When German armies tore into Belgium and invaded France in August 1914, leaders of several of its national parties voted to fund 'their' capitalist war efforts, and the International collapsed.

Today, there are some 40 wars and significant armed conflicts around the world. Labor, oppressed nations and democratic rights are again under attack across the capitalist world. Capitalism has reversed socialist revolutions – the working class’s outstanding organizational accomplishments – in the USSR and eleven other states. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Young Communist League, the unions, mass equality and peace organizations of the Soviet Union and other collapsed states have splintered and are shadows of their former selves.

In light of these and other parallels, there is reason to believe that much can be learned from the earlier period. After all, in the face of war and the collapse of the International, the crisis opened the door to – the October Revolution, the greatest step forward in humanity’s entire history! This short essay mainly seeks to draw Political Affairs readers’ attention to the historical parallels, and some of Lenin’s writings in those years.

'The Collapse of the Second International' was written in May and June of 1915. Here Lenin points out that 'for all the horror and misery they entail, wars bring at least the following more or less important benefit – they ruthlessly reveal, unmask and destroy much that is corrupt, outworn and dead in human institutions.' One need only think of the torture today in prisons at home, in Iraq, Colombia, Guantanamo, and so on.

But Lenin is especially pointing out to the working class how the war has revealed 'what a foul and festering abscess has developed within its parties...' Lenin points to opportunist leaders’ utter violation of 'the resolution adopted at the Basle International Socialist Congress of 1912.'

Lenin points out that 'the Basle Manifesto says: (1) that the war will create an economic and political crisis; (2) that the workers will regard their participation in war as a crime, and as criminal any ‘shooting each other down for the profit of the capitalists, for the sake of dynastic honor and of diplomatic secret treaties’, and that war will evoke ‘indignation and revolt’ in the workers; (3) that it is the duty of socialists to take advantage of this crisis and of the workers’ temper so as to ‘rouse the people and hasten the downfall of capitalism’; (4) that all ‘governments’ without exception can start a war only at ‘their own peril’; (5) that governments ‘should remember; the Paris Commune (i.e., civil war), the 1905 Revolution in Russia, etc. All these are perfectly clear ideas; they do not guarantee that revolution will take place, but lay stress on a precise characterization of facts and trends.'

Pessimism is widespread among workers in the face of the attacks on labor and democratic rights, the war, and the collapse of their International. Yet what follows in Lenin’s article is a dramatic discussion of the possibility for a successful socialist revolution and what it will require. The pamphlet closes with a strong polemic against opportunism and chauvinism within workers’ parties.

In August 1915, Lenin writes a very short but remarkable comment against the slogan for a United States of Europe -- a slogan that had been advanced in his own party. Lenin points out that 'this is a demand that cannot be implemented under capitalism, inasmuch as it presupposes the establishment of a planned world economy, with a partition of colonies, spheres of influence, etc., among the individual countries, or else it is a reactionary slogan, one that signifies a temporary union of the Great Powers of Europe with the aim of enhancing the oppression of colonies and of plundering the more rapidly developing countries – Japan and America.' Slogans are immensely important for our movement.

In October 1916, Lenin wrote 'Imperialism and the Split in Socialism.' This article connects imperialism with the rise of opportunism in the labor movement. It opens with a remarkable definition of imperialism, based on Lenin’s work to be published a few months later as 'Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.' The definition is worth quoting at some length: 'Imperialism is a specific historical stage of capitalism. Its specific character is threefold: imperialism is (1) monopoly capitalism; (2) parasitic, or decaying capitalism; (3) moribund capitalism. The supplanting of free competition by monopoly is the fundamental economic feature, the quintessence of imperialism…' 'Finance capital,' Lenin emphasizes, 'is monopoly industrial capital merged with bank capital.'

Lenin points out that 'this definition of imperialism brings us into complete contradiction to K.Kautsky,' the theorist of the Second International, 'who refuses to regard imperialism as a ‘phase of capitalism’ and defines it as a policy ‘preferred’ by finance capital…' 'What distinguishes imperialism,' Lenin continues, 'is the rule not of industrial capital, but of finance capital, the striving to annex not agrarian countries [what we would call today oppressed countries, whose agriculture has largely been destroyed by imperialism] but every kind of country. Kautsky divorces imperialist politics from imperialist economics, he divorces monopoly in politics from monopoly in economics in order to pave the way for his vulgar bourgeois reformism, such as ‘disarmament’, ‘ultraimperialism’ and similar nonsense…'

Lenin then draws attention to Engels and Marx’s analysis of the roots of 'the temporary victory of opportunism in the English labor movement' in England. Although Engels and Marx wrote before the rise of imperialism, England 'already revealed at least two major distinguishing features of imperialism: (1) vast colonies, and (2) 'monopoly profit (due to her monopoly position in the world market).'

Lenin writes, 'On the one hand, there is the tendency of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists to convert a handful of very rich and privileged nations into ‘eternal’ parasites on the body of the rest of mankind, to ‘rest on the laurels’ of the exploitation of Negroes, Indians, etc., keeping them in subjection with the aid of the excellent weapons of extermination provided by modern militarism. On the other hand, there is the tendency of the masses, who are more oppressed than before and who bear the whole brunt of imperialist wars, to cast off this yoke and to overthrow the bourgeoisie. It is in the struggle between these two tendencies that the history of the labor movement will now inevitably develop.'

'It is therefore out duty,' Lenin continues, 'if we wish to remain socialists, to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and the whole purport of the struggle against opportunism… The only Marxist line in the world labor movement is to explain to the masses the inevitability and necessity of breaking with opportunism, to educate them for revolution by waging a relentless struggle against opportunism, to utilize the experience of the war to expose, not conceal, the utter vileness of national-liberal labor politics.'

Lenin was not disoriented by the war, the attacks on workers and oppressed, and the confusion and opportunism in the Second International. Just a year after Lenin wrote these words, the working class was taking power in Russia.

--Wadi’h Halabi is a contributing editor of Political Affairs.