Left-Wing Communism—an Infantile Disorder

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

“Left-Wing” Communism—an Infantile Disorder


a work by V. I. Lenin devoted to questions of the strategy and tactics of Communist parties and the international significance of the history of Bolshevism and the October Revolution (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 41, pp. 1_104). Written in April and May 1920 for the opening of the Second Congress of the Comintern, it consists of ten chapters. The Soviet Union published the book in Russian in June 1920 and in English and French in July and distributed it to the delegates of the Comintern congress (July 19-Aug. 7, 1920). The most important theses of the book became the basis for the decisions of the congress. “Left-wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder was published abroad in the second half of 1920. By July 1, 1971, 7,548,000 copies of the book in 209 separate editions and 54 languages had been published in the USSR, and by 1969 the book had been published abroad in 151 editions in 32 countries.

In this book, as in a number of his other works, Lenin developed the ideas of Marx and Engels on the strategy and tactics of a proletarian party. Based on the historic experience of Bolshevism in Russia and on the struggle of revolutionary workers in other countries, he created a complete theory of strategy and tactics—the science of conducting the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat.

After the victory of the October Socialist Revolution, Communist parties in capitalist countries faced the very important task of leading the struggle of the proletariat, relying on the revolutionary fervor of the masses. However, the majority of Communist parties, which had just been founded, lacked experience in revolutionary combat, had not mastered Marxist strategy and tactics, did not possess the Marxist-Leninist temper and organization, and were out of touch with the broad masses. In addition to openly right-wing opportunist elements, “Left” Communists appeared in the parties, pushing them along the path of sectarianism and adventurism. The so-called leftists rejected the participation of Communists in the work of the trade unions, which were controlled by Social Democrats, demanded a boycott of bourgeois parliaments, and advanced the slogan “no compromises.” They disrupted Communist parties and prevented them from drawing closer to the masses of the working class. Therefore, Lenin directed his main attack in “Left-wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder, against the grave danger of leftism in the international Communist movement, and he showed the ways to overcome it.

Lenin believed that the goal of his work was to show that which is “universally practicable, significant and relevant in the history and the present-day tactics of Bolshevism” (ibid., p. 30), based on an analysis of the experience of the development of the Russian revolution in connection with pressing problems of the strategy and tactics of the world Communist movement.

Stressing the international significance of the October Revolution, Lenin stated that several of its fundamental features “have a significance that is not local, or peculiarly national, or Russian alone, but international” (ibid., p. 3). “The Russian model,” wrote Lenin, “reveals to all countries something—and something highly significant—of their near and inevitable future” (ibid., p. 4). At the same time, he made note of the concrete characteristics of the development of the revolutionary movement in different countries according to universal laws.

Analyzing the reasons and conditions for the formation in Russia of an ideologically and organizationally united and tempered proletarian revolutionary party, Lenin described the main stages in the history of Bolshevism. “As a current of political thought and as a political party, Bolshevism has existed since 1903” (ibid., p. 6). It was established on a very firm foundation of Marxist theory. Lenin showed that in richness of experience Bolshevism had no equal in the world (ibid., p. 8). He revealed the diversity of the forms of struggle that the Bolsheviks adopted at various stages, depending on concrete conditions, and he emphasized that in their struggle for soviet power Bolsheviks had displayed versatile tactics, care, and circumspection. Among the basic conditions for the success of the Bolsheviks were their firmly revolutionary, politically conscious discipline and the loyalty of the masses of the proletariat.

In this and in other works Lenin clarified and further developed the fundamental theoretical questions of the socialist revolution: the dictatorship of the proletariat, the party and its role in the dictatorship of the working class, party discipline, the role of theory, and the attraction of the broad masses of the working class to the cause of the proletarian revolution. Lenin severely criticized those “Left” Communists who opposed the centralization and firm discipline that is essential in the ranks of Communist parties and who advanced demagogic slogans against the “dictatorship of leaders.” In his criticism of the “Left” Communists, Lenin showed that the rejection of party spirit and party discipline “is tantamount to completely disarming the proletariat in the interests of the bourgeoisie. It all adds up to that petit bourgeois diffuseness and instability, that incapacity for sustained effort, unity, and organized action, which, if encouraged, must inevitably destroy any proletarian revolutionary movement” (ibid., pp. 26-27).

A leading role for the Communist Party is the main pre-requisite for a successful struggle for socialism and communism. “Without a party of iron that has been tempered in the struggle, a party enjoying the confidence of all honest people in the class in question, a party capable of watching and influencing the mood of the masses, such a struggle cannot be waged successfully,” wrote Lenin (ibid., p. 27). He emphasized that the Communist Party will become invincible when it exposes and analyzes the mistakes and inadequacies in its work and is able to correct them in time.

Although he considered right-wing opportunism the main danger in the workers’ movement, Lenin criticized “left-wing” doctrinairism and dogmatism and insisted that communism had to be cured of the “infantile disorder of ’left-wing’ Communism.” The “leftists” in the international Communist movement did not understand the revolutionary significance for a proletarian party of a combination of legal and illegal forms of struggle and failed to realize that the strength and invincibility of a party guided by revolutionary theory consists of its close ties with the masses. Lenin argued that it was necessary to join trade unions, even if they were reformist, and to conduct communist work there and to participate in bourgeois parliaments. He wrote: “We Bolsheviks participated in the most counterrevolutionary parliaments, and experience has shown that this participation was not only useful but indispensable to the party of the revolutionary proletariat, after the first bourgeois revolution in Russia (1905), so as to pave the way for the second bourgeois revolution (February 1917), and then for the socialist revolution (October 1917)” (ibid., p. 45).

Clarifying the issue of the admissibility of political compromises, Lenin pointed out that during a revolutionary struggle a proletarian party can and should conclude agreements and form political blocs in the interests of the working class. He wrote: “To carry on a war for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie, a war which is a hundred times more difficult, protracted and complex than the most stubborn of ordinary wars between states, and to renounce in advance any change of tack, or any utilization of a conflict of interests (even if temporary) among one’s enemies, or any conciliation or compromise with possible allies (even if they are temporary, unstable, vacillating, or conditional allies)—is that not ridiculous in the extreme?” (ibid., p. 54). Lenin advised Communists to find, without sacrificing their principles, a form of compromise that would not hamper them in carrying on an ideological and political struggle but that would allow them to maintain their revolutionary tactics and organization.

Lenin taught that the tactics of the party should be based on a strictly objective consideration of the arrangement of class forces and on a scientific analysis of the historical situation. He wrote that the Communist parties should learn to win victories without taking risks. In other words, following the example of the Bolsheviks, they must apply as fully as possible all forms of the class struggle of the proletariat:

“Unless we learn to apply all the methods of struggle, we may suffer grave and sometimes even decisive defeat” (ibid.,p. 81).

According to Lenin, Communist parties should take into consideration the variety of forms of action, national differences, fundamental tasks of struggle, and concrete forms which the struggle assumes and inevitably must assume in each country. He called attention to the necessity for an accurate scientific analysis of the presence of a revolutionary situation in a given country. Considering the question of when a revolution may be said to be imminent and what conditions will provide for its victory, Lenin pointed out that the ideological conquest of the vanguard of the proletariat is in itself insufficient for the victory of the revolution. “Victory cannot be won with a vanguard alone. To throw only the vanguard into the decisive battle, before the entire class, the broad masses, have taken up a position either of direct support for the vanguard, or at least of sympathetic neutrality toward it and of precluded support for the enemy, would be not merely foolish but criminal” (ibid., pp. 77-78). The genuine political experience of the broad masses of the toiling people is necessary for the victory of the revolution. “Such,” said Lenin, “is the fundamental law of all great revolutions” (ibid., p. 78).

Lenin’s book had and continues to have an enormous influence on the development of the Communist and workers’ movement. It is a particularly sharp weapon in the struggle against deviation in the communist and workers’ movement, especially against contemporary right and “left” opportunism, dogmatism, and doctrinairism.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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