Workers Vanguard No. 1090
20 May 2016
From the Archives of Marxism
On the Need to Break with Opportunists
We reprint below a November 1915 letter originally written in English by Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin to the Socialist Propaganda League (SPL) of the U.S. Lenin’s letter was part of his efforts to regroup genuine Marxists in the struggle to forge a new revolutionary international party. The outbreak of the interimperialist World War I in 1914 had revealed the bankruptcy of the old Second (Socialist) International, founded in 1889 and to which virtually all existing ostensibly socialist parties adhered. With only a handful of exceptions, these parties had voted war credits for their governments, supporting their own ruling classes’ ruthless scramble for profit and plunder.
This betrayal was echoed by the heads of the trade unions. Carl Legien, head of the major German union federation, was an ardent social patriot who enforced a policy of Burgfrieden (class peace) during the war. Similarly, after the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the head of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, served on President Woodrow Wilson’s Council of National Defense.
Lenin’s struggle for a new international came to fruition with the founding of the Communist (Third) International in 1919, which followed the conquest of power by the proletariat in the October 1917 Russian Revolution. However, forging new, Leninist vanguard parties required a series of political fights to break the revolutionary elements from social-democratic practice and program and to purge the centrist waverers. In his letter to the SPL, Lenin delineates areas of political disagreement, as well as agreement.
In September 1915, a small group of socialists met in Zimmerwald, Switzerland. The delegates at Zimmerwald were not politically homogeneous, ranging from revolutionaries like the Bolsheviks to outright reformists like the Russian Mensheviks. Lenin was a signatory to the Zimmerwald Manifesto, which he regarded as a call to struggle against the chauvinist policies of the official Social Democratic parties. However, he regarded the Manifesto as evasive on several key points. These included its failure to expose the opportunism that lay behind the rot in the Second International as well as its failure to lay out revolutionary methods of fighting against the war, including the organization of street demonstrations against the governments and fraternization in the trenches.
The Left Zimmerwald group organized by Lenin also put forward its own resolution, which received a minority of votes at the conference. This resolution declared against the illusions in disarmament brought about by decisions of diplomats and governments, asserting that a lasting peace could only be achieved by socialist revolution. It proclaimed, “The slogan is civil war, not civil peace.”
An October 1915 manifesto by the Socialist Propaganda League was one of the earliest attempts to cohere a revolutionary opposition within the American Socialist Party. A copy of this manifesto found its way to Lenin, who wrote the letter reprinted here in response. The Boston-based SPL, composed mainly of Latvians (Letts), was among the most influential of the far-left Socialists who had roots in the tsarist empire. (For more on the SPL and its relation to the founding of the American Communist Party, see The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929 by Jacob A. Zumoff, reviewed in WV No. 1067, 1 May 2015.)
The SPL included militants who had been active in the Lettish Social-Democratic Labor Party, which was affiliated to the Russian Social Democrats, and one of whose members signed the Left Zimmerwald manifesto. During the October Revolution, the Lettish army divisions and Red Guards, drawn heavily from Lettish farm laborers, played a heroic role in securing Petrograd for the revolutionary forces. The Lettish Rifles (Strelniki) later provided an essential core for the newly organized Red Army.
“Letter to the Secretary of the Socialist
by V.I. Lenin, November 1915
We are extremely glad to get your leaflet. Your appeal to the members of the Socialist Party to struggle for a new International, for clear-cut revolutionary socialism as taught by Marx and Engels, and against the opportunism, especially against those who are in favor of working class participation in a war of defence, corresponds fully with the position our party (Social-Democratic Labor Party of Russia, Central Committee) has taken from the beginning of this war and has always taken during more than ten years.
We send you our sincerest greetings & best wishes of success in our fight for true internationalism.
In our press & in our propaganda we differ from your programme in several points & we think it is quite necessary that we expose you briefly these points in order to make immediate & serious steps for the coordination of the international strife of the incompromisingly revolutionary Socialists especially Marxists in all countries.
We criticise in the most severe manner the old, Second (1889-1914) International, we declare it dead & not worth to be restored on old basis. But we never say in our press that too great emphasis has been heretofore placed upon so-called “Immediate Demands,” and that thereby the socialism can be diluted: we say & we prove that all bourgeois parties, all parties except the working-class revolutionary Party, are liars & hypocrites when they speak about reforms. We try to help the working class to get the smallest possible but real improvement (economic & political) in their situation & we add always that no reform can be durable, sincere, serious if not seconded by revolutionary methods of struggle of the masses. We preach always that a socialist party not uniting this struggle for reforms with the revolutionary methods of working-class movement can become a sect, can be severed from the masses, & that that is the most pernicious menace to the success of the clear-cut revolutionary socialism.
We defend always in our press the democracy in the party. But we never speak against the centralization of the party. We are for the democratic centralism. We say that the centralization of the German Labor movement is not a feeble but a strong and good feature of it. The vice of the present Social-Democratic Party of Germany consists not in the centralization but in the preponderance of the opportunists, which should be excluded from the party especially now after their treacherous conduct in the war. If in any given crisis the small group (for instance our Central Committee is a small group) can act for directing the mighty mass in a revolutionary direction, it would be very good. And in all crises the masses can not act immediately, the masses want to be helped by the small groups of the central institutions of the parties. Our Central Committee quite at the beginning of this war, in September 1914, has directed the masses not to accept the lie about “the war of defence” & to break off with the opportunists & the “would-be-socialists-jingoes” (we call so the “Socialists” who are now in favor of the war of defence). We think that this centralistic measure of our Central Committee was useful & necessary.
We agree with you that we must be against craft Unionism & in favor of industrial Unionism, i.e. of big, centralized Trade Unions & in favor of the most active participation of all members of party in all economic struggles & in all trade union & cooperative organizations of the working class. But we consider that such people as Mr. Legien in Germany & Mr. Gompers in the U.S. are bourgeois and that their policy is not a socialist but a nationalistic, middle class policy. Mr. Legien, Mr. Gompers & similar persons are not the representatives of working class, they represent the aristocracy & bureaucracy of the working class.
We entirely sympathize with you when in political action you claim the “mass action” of the workers. The German revolutionary & internationalist Socialists claim it also. In our press we try to define with more details what must be understood by political mass action, as f. i. [for instance] political strikes (very usual in Russia), street demonstrations and civil war prepared by the present imperialist war between nations.
We do not preach unity in the present (prevailing in the Second International) socialist parties. On the contrary we preach secession with the opportunists. The war is the best object-lesson. In all countries the opportunists, their leaders, their most influential dailies & reviews are for the war, in other words, they have in reality united with “their” national bourgeoisie (middle class, capitalists) against the proletarian masses. You say, that in America there are also Socialists who have expressed themselves in favor of the participation in a war of defence. We are convinced, that unity with such men is an evil. Such unity is unity with the national middle class & capitalists, and a division with the international revolutionary working class. And we are for secession with nationalistic opportunists and unity with international revolutionary Marxists & working-class parties.
We never object in our press to the unity of S. P. [Socialist Party] & S.L.P. [Socialist Labor Party] in America. We always quote letters from Marx & Engels (especially to Sorge, active member of American socialist movement), where both condemn the sectarian character of the S.L.P.
We fully agree with you in your criticism of the old International. We have participated in the conference of Zimmerwald (Switzerland) 5-8.IX.1915. We have formed there a left wing, and have proposed our resolution & our draught of a manifesto. We have just published these documents in German & I send them to you (with the German translation of our small book about “Socialism & War”), hoping that in your League there are probably comrades, that know German. If you could help us to publish these things in English (it is possible only in America and later on we should send it to England), we would gladly accept your help.
In our struggle for true internationalism & against “jingo-socialism” we always quote in our press the example of the opportunist leaders of the S.P. in America, who are in favor of restrictions of the immigration of Chinese and Japanese workers (especially after the Congress of Stuttgart [of the Second International], 1907, & against the decisions of Stuttgart). We think that one can not be internationalist & be at the same time in favor of such restrictions. And we assert that Socialists in America, especially English Socialists, belonging to the ruling, and oppressing nation, who are not against any restrictions of immigration, against the possession of colonies (Hawaii) and for the entire freedom of colonies, that such Socialists are in reality jingoes.
For conclusion I repeat once more best greetings & wishes for your League. We should be very glad to have a further information from you & to unite our struggle against opportunism & for the true internationalism.
Yours N. Lenin
N.B. There are two Soc.-Dem. parties in Russia. Our party (“Central Committee”) [the Bolsheviks] is against opportunism. The other party (“Organization Committee”) [the Mensheviks] is opportunist. We are against the unity with them.
You can write to our official address (Bibliothèque russe. For the C. K. 7 rue Hugo de Senger. 7. Genève. Switzerland). But better write to my personal address: Wl. Ulianow. Seidenweg 4a, III Berne. Switzerland.