antagonism
Open Letter

I wish to draw your attention, Comrade Lenin, and that of the reader, to the fact that this letter was written at the time of the triumphant march of the Russians to Warsaw.

I likewise request you, and the reader, to excuse the frequent repetitions. They were unavoidable, owing to the fact that the tactics of the “Lefts” are still unknown to the work­ers of most countries.

 

I. INTRODUCTION

 

 

Dear Comrade Lenin,

I have read your brochure on the Radicalism in the Comm­unist move­ment. It has taught me a great deal, as all your writings have done. For this I feel grateful to you, and doubtless many other comrades feel as I do. Many a trace, and many a germ of this infant disease, to which without a doubt, I also am a victim, has been chased away by your brochure, or will yet be eradicated by it. Your observations about the con­fusion that revo­lution has caused in many brains, is quite right too. I know that. The revo­lut­ion came so suddenly, and in a way so utterly different from what we exp­ected. Your words will be an incentive to me, once again, and to an even greater ext­ent than before, to base my judgement in all matters of tactics, also in the revo­lution, exclusively on reality, on the actual class-relations, as they manifest them­selves poli­ti­cally and econ­omically.

After having read your brochure I thought all this is right.

But after having considered for a long time whether I would cease to uphold this “Left Wing”, and to write articles for the KAPD and the opp­o­s­ition party in England, I had to decline.

 

Basis Mistaken

This seems contradictory. It is due, though, to the fact that the start­ing-point in the brochure is not right. To my idea you are mistaken in your judgement regard­ing the analogy of the West-European revo­lution with the Russian one, regarding the condi­tions of the West-European revo­lution, that is to say the class-relations – and this leads you to mistake the cause, from which this Left Wing, the oppos­ition, originates.

Therefore the brochure SEEMS to be right, as long as your starting-point is assumed. If, however (as it should be), your starting point is reject­ed, the entire brochure is wrong. As all your mistaken, and partly mis­taken, judg­ments converge in your con­dem­nation of the Left move­ment, especially in Germany and England, and as I firmly intend to defend those of the Left Wing, although, as the leaders know, I do not agree with them on all points, I imagine I had best answer your brochure by a defence of the Left Wing. This will enable me not only to point out its origin (the cause from which it springs), and to prove its right, and merits, in the pres­ent stage, and here, in West­ern Europe, but also, which is of equal import­ance, to combat the mistaken conceptions that are prevalent in Russia with regard to the West-European Revo­lution.

Both these points are of importance, as it is on the conception of the West-European revo­lution that the West-European as well as the Russian tactics depend.

I should have liked to do this at the Moscow Congress, which, how­ever, I was not able to attend.

 

Two Argu­ments Refuted

In the first place I must refute two of your argu­ments, that may mis­lead the judg­ment of comrades or readers. You scoff and sneer at the ridi­culous and childish nonsense of the struggle in Germany, at the “dict­ator­ship of the lead­ers or of the masses”, at “from above or below”, etc.. We quite agree with you, that these should be no quest­ions at all. But we do not agree with your scoffing. For that is the pity of it: in West­ern-Eur­ope they still are quest­ions. In West­ern Europe we still have, in many count­ries, lead­ers of the type of the Second Inter­national; here we are still seek­ing the right lead­ers, those that do not try to dominate the masses, that do not betray them; and as long as we do not find these leaders, we want to do all things from below, and through the dict­ator­ship of the masses them­selves. If I have a mountain-guide, and he should lead me into the abyss, I prefer to do without him. As soon as we have found the right guides, we will stop this search­ing. Then mass and leader will be really one. This, and nothing else, is what the German and English Left Wing, what we our­selves, mean by these words.

And the same holds good for your second remark, that the leader should form one uni­ted whole with class and mass. We quite agree with you. But the quest­ion is to find and rear leaders that are really one with the masses. This can only be accomplished by the masses, the poli­ti­cal parties and the Trade Unions, by means of the most severe struggle, also inward­ly. And the same holds good for iron discipline, and strong centr­a­­li­sation. We want them all right, but not until we have the right leaders. This sever­est of all strugg­les, which is now being fought most strenuously in Germ­any and Eng­land, the two countries where Communism is nearest to its realisation, can only be harm­ed by your scoffing. Your attitude panders to the oppor­tunist elements in the Third Inter­national. By this scoffing, you abet the oppor­tunist elem­ents in the Third Inter­national.

For it is one of the means by which elements in the Spartacus League and in the BSP, and also in the Comm­unist Parties in many other count­ries, impose upon the work­ers, when they say that the entire quest­ion of masses and leader is absurd, is “non­sense and childishness”. Through this phrase they avoid, and wish to avoid, all criti­cism of themselves, the lead­ers. It is by means of this phrase of an iron discipline and centra­lis­ation, that they crush the oppos­ition. And this oppor­tunism is abetted by you.

You should not do this, Comrade. We are only in the introductory stage yet, here in West­ern Europe. And in that stage it is better to encour­age the fighters than the rulers.

I only touch on this quite perfunctorily here. In the course of this writ­ing I will deal with this matter more at length. There is a deeper reason yet why I cannot agree with your brochure. It is the following :-

 

Diff­er­ence between Russia and W. Europe

On reading your pamphlets, brochures and books, nearly all of which writ­ings filled us with admiration and approbation, we Marxists of West­ern Europe invari­ably came to a point where we suddenly grew wary, and on the look-out for a more detailed expla­n­ation; and if we failed to find this explan­ation, we accepted the statement but grudgingly, with all due reserv­ations. This was your statement regarding the work­ers and the poor peasants. It occurs often, very often. And you always mention both these categories as revo­lutionary factors all the world over. And nowhere, at least as far as I have read, is there a clear and outspoken recog­nition of the immense diff­er­ence which prevails in the matter between Russia (and a few other countries in Eastern Europe) and West­ern Europe (that is to say Germany, France, England, Belgium, Holland, Switz­­er­land, and the Scan­d­inavian countries, and perhaps even Italy). And yet, in my opinion, the fund­amental diff­er­ence between your conception of the tactics con­cern­ing Trade Unionism and Parli­a­ment­arism, and that of the so-called Left Wing in West­ern Europe, lies mainly in this point.

Of course you know this diff­er­ence as well as I do, only you failed to draw from it the conclusions for the tactics in West­ern Europe, at least as far as I am able to judge from your works. These conclusions you have not taken into consid­er­ation, and conse­qu­ently your judgement on these West- Euro­pean tactics is false[1].

And this is all the more dangerous, because this phrase of yours is parroted auto­mati­c­ally in all the Comm­unist Parties of West­ern Europe, even by Marx­ists. To judge from all Comm­unist papers, magazines and broch­ures, and from all pub­lic assemblies, one might even surmise that a revolt of the poor peasants in West­ern Eur­ope might break out at any mom­ent! Nowh­ere is the great diff­er­ence with Russia pointed out, and thus the judgment, also of the prole­tariat, is led astray. Because in Russia you were able to triumph with the help of a large class of poor peasants, you repre­sent things in such a way, as if we in West­ern Europe are also going to have that help. Because you, in Russia, have triumphed exclus­ively through this help, you wish to make us believe that here also we will tri­umph through this help. You do this by means of your silence with regard to this quest­ion, as it stands in West­ern Europe, and your entire tactics are based on this representation.

 

Poor Peasants Decisive Factor

This representation, however, is not the truth. There is an enormous diff­er­ence bet­ween Russia and West­ern Europe. In general the importance of the poor peasants as a revo­lutionary factor decreases from east to west. In some parts of Asia, China and India, in the event of a revo­lution, this class would be the absolutely decisive factor; in Russia it constitutes an indisp­ensable and, indeed, one of the main factors; in Poland, and in a few states of South-Eastern and Central Europe, it is still of impor­tance for the revo­lution, but further West its attitude grows ever more antagonistic towards the revo­lution.

Russia had an indust­rial prole­tariat of some seven or eight millions. The num­ber of poor peasants, however, amounted to about 25 millions. (I beg you to excuse the inevi­table numerical errors; I have to quote from mem­ory, as this letter should be desp­at­ched with all speed). When Keren­sky fail­ed to give these poor peasants the soil, you knew that before long they would come to you, the minute they should become aware of the fact. This is not so in West­ern Europe, and will not become so either; in the countries of West­ern Europe, which I have named, conditions of that sort do not exist.

The poor peasant here lives under conditions quite different from those of Russia. Though often terrible, they are not as appalling as they were there. As farmers or owners, the poor peasants possess a piece of land. The excell­ent means of transport enables them often to sell their goods. At the very worst they can mostly provide their own food. During the last ten years things have improved somewhat for them. Now, during and since the war, they can obtain high prices. They are indispensable, the import of food­stuffs being very limited. Regularly, therefore, they will be able to get high prices. They are supported by Capi­tal­ism. Capi­tal­ism will maintain them, as long as it can maintain itself. In your country, the posi­tion of the poor peasants was far more terrible. With you, therefore, the poor peasants had a poli­ti­cal, revo­lutionary programme, and were organ­ised in a poli­ti­cal, revo­lutionary party: with the social-revo­lut­ionaries. With us this is nowhere the case. Moreover, in Russia there was an enor­m­ous amount of landed property to be divided, large estates, crown lands, government land, and the estates held by the monasteries. But the Comm­unists of West­ern Europe, what can they offer to the poor peasants, to win them to their side?

 

Nothing to Offer Peasants

Germany counted, before the war, from four to five million poor peas­ants (up to two hectares). Only eight or nine millions, however, were empl­oy­ed in actual large-scale industries (over 100 hectares). If the Comm­­unists were to divide all of these, the poor peasants would still be poor peasants, as the seven or eight million field-labourers also claim their share. And they cannot even divide them, as they will use them as large-scale industries[2].

These numbers show that in West­ern Europe there are comparatively few poor peasants; that, therefore, the auxiliary forces, if there were any at all, would be very few in numbers.

The Comm­unists in Germany, therefore, except in relatively insigni­ficant regions, do not even have the means to win over the poor peasants. For the med­ium and small industries will surely not be expropriated. And it is pract­ically the same in the case of the four or five million poor peas­ants in France, and also for Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, and two of the Scand­inavian countries[3]. Every­where small and medium sized industry prevails. And even in Italy there is no absolute certainty; not to mention England, which counts only some one or two hundred thousand peasants.

Neither will they be attracted by the promise that under Communism they will be exempt from rent-paying and mortgage-rent. For with Comm­unism they see the approach of civil war, the loss of markets, and general dest­ruction.

Unless, therefore, there should come a crisis far more terrible than the pres­ent one in Germany, a crisis, indeed, far exceeding the horrors of any other crises that ever were before, the poor peasants in West­ern Europe will side with Capi­tal­ism, as long as it has any life left[4].

 

Indust­rial Work­ers Stand Alone

The work­ers in West­ern Europe stand all alone. Only a very slight portion of the lower middle class will help them. And these are econ­omi­cally insig­ni­f­icant. The work­ers will have to make the revo­lution all by them­selves. Here is the great diff­er­ence as compared to Russia.

Possibly you will say, Comrade Lenin, that this was the case in Russia. There also the prole­tariat has made the revo­lution all by itself. It is only after the revo­lution that the poor peasants joined. You are right, and yet the diff­er­ence is immense.

You knew with absolute certainty that the peasants would come to you, and that they would come quickly. You knew that Kerensky would not, and could not give them the land. You knew that they would not help Ker­ensky long. You had a magic charm, “The Land to the Peasants”, by means of which you would win them in the course of a few months to the side of the prole­tariat. We, on the other hand, are certain that for some time to come the poor peasants, all over West­ern Europe, will side with Capi­tal­ism.

You will possibly say that, although in Germany there is no great mass of poor peasants whose assistance can be relied on, the millions of proletar­ians that side as yet with the bour­ge­oisie are sure to come round. That, there­fore, the place of the poor peasants in Russia will here be taken by the proletarians, so that there is help all the same. This representation is also fundamentally wrong, and the immense diff­er­ence remains.

The Russian peasants joined the prole­tariat AFTER Capi­tal­ism has been defeated; but when the German work­ers that are now as yet on the side of Capi­tal­ism join the ranks of the Comm­unists, the struggle against Capi­tal­ism will begin in real earnest.

The revo­lution in Russia was terrible for the prole­tariat in the long years of its devel­op­ment – and it is terrible now, after the victory. But at the actual time of revo­lution it was easy, and this was due to the peasants.

With us it is quite the contrary. In its development the revo­lution was easy, and it will be easy afterwards; but its actual coming will be terrible – more terr­ible, perhaps, than any other revo­lution ever was, for Capi­tal­ism, which in your country was weak and only slightly rooted as it were to feud­alism, the middle ages and even barbarism, here in our country is strong and widely organ­ised and deeply rooted, and the lower middle classes as well as the peasants, who always side with the strongest, with the except­ion of a shallow and econ­omically unimport­ant layer, will stand with Capi­tal­ism until the very end.

The revo­lution in Russia was victorious with the help of the poor peas­ants. This should always be borne in mind here in West­ern Europe and all the world over. But the work­ers in West­ern Europe stand alone: this should never be forgotten in Russia.

The prole­tariat in West­ern Europe stands alone. This is the absolute truth: and on this truth our tactics must be based. All tactics that are not based on this are false, and lead the prole­tariat to terrible defeat.

Practice also has proved that these assertions are true, for the poor peas­ants in West­ern Europe have not only no programme and failed to claim the land, but they do not even stir now that Communism is appr­oach­ing. As I have observed before, this state­ment is not to be taken absol­utely literally. There are regions in West­ern Europe where, as we have ment­ioned before, landed property on a large scale is predominant, and where the peasants are therefore in favour of Commun­ism. There are yet other regions where the local conditions are such that the poor peasants may be won for Comm­unism. But these regions are comparatively small. Neither do I wish to imply that quite at the close of the revo­lution, when all things are com­ing down, there will be no poor peasants coming to our side. They undoubtedly will. That is why we must carry on an unceasing propa­ganda amongst them. Our tactics, however, must be adop­ted for the beginning and for the course of the revo­lution. What I mean is the general trend, the general tend­ency of conditions. And it is on these alone that our tactics must be based[5].

From this there follows in the first place – and it should be clearly, emph­at­ically and plainly stated – that in West­ern Europe the real revo­lut­ion, that is to say the overthrow of Capi­tal­ism, and the erection and perm­anent inst­i­t­ution of Comm­unism, for the time being is possible only in those coun­tries where the prole­tariat BY ITSELF is strong enough against all the other classes – in Germany, England, and Italy, where the help of the poor peas­ants is not possible. In the other countries the revo­lution can only be prep­ared as yet by means of propaganda, organ­isation and fight­ing. The revo­lut­ion itself can only follow when the econ­omic conditions will be thus much shaken through the revo­lution in the big States (Russia, Ger­many, and Engl­and), that the bour­ge­ois class will have grown suffici­ently weak. For you will agree with me that we cannot base our tactics on events that may come, but that may also never happen (help from the Russian armies, risings in India, terrible crises, etc., etc.).

That you should have failed to recognise this truth concerning the imp­or­tance of the poor peasants, Comrade, is your first great mistake, and like­wise that of the Executive in Moscow and of the Inter­national Congress.

What does it mean with regard to tactics, this fact that the prole­tariat of West­ern Eur­ope stands all alone: that it has no prospect of any help what­so­ever from any other class?

It means, in the first place, that the demands made on the masses are far greater here than in Russia – that, therefore, the proletarian mass is of far greater importance in the revo­lution. And in the second place that the impor­t­ance of the leaders is proporti­onately smaller.

For the Russian masses, the proletarians, knew for certain, and already saw during the war, and in part before their very eyes, that the peasants would soon be on their side. The German proletarians, to take them first, know that they will be opposed by German Capi­tal­ism in its entirety, with all its classes.

It is true that already before the war the German proletarians num­bered from nineteen to twenty million actual work­ers, of a population of seventy million, but they stood alone against all the other classes[6]. They are opp­osed by a Capi­tal­ism that is immeas­urably stronger than that of Russia – and they are UNARMED. The Russians were armed.

From every German proletarian therefore, from every individual, the revo­lution demands a far greater courage and spirit of sacrifice than was nec­essary in Russia.

This is the outcome of the econ­omic class relations in Germany, and not of some theory or idea risen from the brain of revo­lutionary romantics or intell­ectuals!

Unless the entire class or at least the great majority stand up for the revo­lution pers­onally, with almost superhuman force, in oppos­ition to all the other classes, the revo­lution will fail; for you will agree with me again that on deter­min­ing our tactics we should reckon with our own forces, not with those from outside – on Russian help, for instance.

The prole­tariat almost unarmed, alone, without help, against a closely unit­ed Capi­tal­ism, means for Germany that every proletarian must be a consc­i­ous fighter, every proletarian a hero; and it is the same for all West­ern Europe.

For the majority of the prole­tariat to turn into conscious, steadfast fight­ers, into real Comm­unists, they must be greater, immeasurably great­er, here than in Russia, in an absolute as well as a relative sense. And once more: this is the outcome, not of the representations, the dreams of some intell­ect­ual, or poet, but of the purest realities.

And as the importance of the class grows, the importance of the lead­ers becomes rela­t­i­vely less. This does not mean that we must not have the very best of leaders. The best are not good enough; we are trying hard to find them. It only means that the imp­or­tance of the leaders, as compared to that of the masses, is decreasing.

For you, who had to win a country of 160 million, with the help of seven or eight million, the importance of the leaders was certainly imm­ense! To triumph over so many, with so few, is in the first place a matter of tact­ics. To do as you did, Comrade, to win such a huge land, with such small forces, but with assist­ance from outside, all depends in the first place on the tactics of the leader. When you, Comrade Lenin, started the struggle with a small gathering of proletarians, it was in the first place your tactics that in the crucial moments waged the battles and won the poor peasants.

But what about Germany? There the cleverest of tactics, the greatest clar­ity, even the genius of leaders, cannot attain much. There you have an inexorable class enmity, one against all the others. There the proletarian class must tip the scales for itself – through its power, its numbers. Its power, however, is based above all on its quality, the enemy being so mighty and so endlessly better organ­ised and armed than the prole­tariat.

You opposed the Russian possessing classes, as David opposed Goli­ath. David was little, but he had a deadly weapon. The German, the Engl­ish, the West-European prole­tariat oppose Capi­tal­ism as one giant does another. Betw­een them all depends on strength – strength of body, and above all of mind.

Have you not observed, Comrade Lenin, that in Germany there are no great leaders? They are all quite ordinary men. This points to the fact that this revo­lution must in the first place be the work of the masses, not of the leaders.

To my idea this is something more wonderful and grand than has ever been, and it is an indication of what Communism will be.

And as it is in Germany, it is in all West­ern Europe, for everywhere the prole­tariat stands alone.

The revo­lution of the masses, of the work­ers – of the masses of work­ers alone, for the first time in the world.

And not because thus it is good, or beautiful, or conceived in som­eone’s brain, but because the econ­omic and class relations will it[7].

In other words, and to read the matter as clearly as possible: the relat­ion between the West-European and the Russian revo­lution can be demon­strated by means of the following comparison:

Supposing that in an Asiatic country like China or British India, where only one half a per cent of the inhabitants are indust­rial proletarians, and 80 per cent small peasants, a revo­lution should break out, and should be succ­ess­fully carried through by those small peasants under the lead of the poli­ti­cally and socially more trained proletarians that were united in local trade unions and cooperatives. If these Chinese or Indian work­ers proclaimed to them:

“We have won through our local trade unions and cooperatives, and now you must do the same with regard to your revo­lution”,

what would the Russian work­ers have replied? They would have said:

“Dear friends, this is impossible. Our country is far more developed than yours. With us not half, but three per cent of the population are indust­rial proletarians. Our Capi­tal­ism is more powerful than yours, therefore we need better and more powerful organ­isations than you did.”

From this diff­er­ence between Russia and West­ern Europe there follows likewise:-

1. That when you, or the Executive in Moscow, or the oppor­tunist Comm­unists of West­ern Europe, of the Spartacus League, or of the English Comm­unist Party, say: “It is nonsense to fight about the quest­ion of lead­er or masses”, that you in that case are wrong as regards us, not only because we are yet trying to find those leaders, but also because for you this quest­ion has quite another meaning.

2. That when you say to us: “Leader and mass must be one inseparable whole”, you are wrong, not only because we are striving for that unity, but also because that quest­ion has another meaning for you than for us.

3. That when you say: “In the Comm­unist Party there should reign iron discipline, and absolute military centralisation”, this is wrong, not only bec­ause we are seeking iron discipline and strong centralisation, but also bec­ause this quest­ion has a different meaning for us and for you.

4. That when you say: “We acted in such and such a way in Russia (after the Korniloff offensive for instance, or some other episode), or entered Parli­ament during this or that period, or we remained in the trade unions, and therefore the German prole­tariat must do the same”, all this means abso­lutely nothing, and need not or cannot be applicable in any way. For the West-European class relat­ions in the struggle, in the revo­lution, are quite different from those of Russia.

5. That when you wish to force upon us tactics that were good in Russia – tactics, for instance, that were based, consciously or unconsciously, on the conviction that here the poor peasants will soon join the prole­tariat – in other words, that the prole­tariat does not stand alone – that your tactics, which you prescribe, and which are followed here, will lead the West-European prole­tariat into ruin, and the most terrible defeat.

6. That when you, or the Executive in Moscow, or the oppor­tunist elem­ents in West­ern Europe, like the Central Board of the Spartacus League or the BSP, try to compel us to follow oppor­tunist tactics (oppor­tunism always seeks the support of outside elements, that forsake the prole­tariat), you are wrong.

The general bases on which the tactics in West­ern Europe must be founded are these: the recognition that the prole­tariat stands alone, that it is to exp­ect no help, that the importance of the mass is greater, and that of the lead­ers relatively smaller.

This was not seen by Radek when he was in Germany, nor by the Exec­utive in Moscow, nor by you, as is evident from your words.

And it is on these bases that the tactics of the Kommunistische-Arb­eiter Partei in Germany, the Comm­unist Party of Sylvia Pankhurst[8], and the maj­ority of the Amsterdam Commission, as appointed by Moscow, are founded.

It is on these grounds that they strive, above all, to raise the masses as a whole, and the individuals to a higher level, to educate them one by one to be revo­lutionary fight­ers, by making them realise (not through theory only, but especially by practice), that all depends on them, that they are to exp­ect nothing from foreign help, very little from leaders, and all from themselves.

Theor­et­ically, therefore, and apart from private utterances, minor quest­ions and excrescences, which like those of Wolfheim and Laufenberg, are inevit­able in the first phases of a move­ment, the view taken by these parties and comrades is quite right, and your oppos­ition absolutely wrong[9].

On going from the East to the West of Europe, we traverse at a given mom­ent an econ­omic boundary. It runs from the Baltic to the Mediterr­anean, some­where from Danzig to Venice. This line divides two worlds. West of this line there is a practically absolute domination of indust­rial, commercial and financial capital, united in the most highly developed banking capital.

Even agricultural capital is subject to, or has been compelled to unite with, this capi­tal. This capital is organ­ised to the utmost degree, and conv­erges in the most firmly established State Governments of the world.

East of the line there is neither this gigantic development of indust­rial, comm­ercial, transport and banking capital, nor its almost absolute domin­ation, nor, consequently, the firmly established modern State.

It would be marvellous, indeed, if the tactics of the revo­lutionary prole­tariat west of this boundary-line were the same as in the east!

 



[1] In State and Revo­lution, for instance, you write (page 67): “The greatest majority of the peasantry in every capit­al­ist country that has any peasantry at all, is oppressed by the government, and is thirsting for the latter’s overthrow, for a ‘cheap’ government. The proletariat is called upon to carry this into execution ...”. The trouble is, however, that the peasantry does not thirst for Communism.

[2] The Agrarian Theses of Moscow acknowledges this.

[3] I have no statistical data for Sweden and Spain.

[4] In the brochure, The World Revo­lution, I have emphatically pointed out this diff­er­ence between Russia and West­ern Europe. The development of the German Revo­lution has proved that my judgment was even too optimistic. In Italy it is possible that the poor peasants will side with the proletariat.

[5] You, Comrade, will surely not try and win in an argu­ment by taking the assertions of your opponent in too absolute a sense, as small minds do. My above remark, therefore, is meant for the latter.

[6] Of course I had to take the pre-war figures, and have made the increase in prole­tarians after the last census (of 1909) proportionate to that before.

[7] I do not touch here on the fact that through this other relation of numbers (20 mill­ion to 70 million in Germany!) the importance of the mass and the leaders, and the relation between mass, party and leaders, also in the course and at the close of the revo­lution here, will differ from those of Russia.

[8] So far, at least.

[9] It has struck me that in this controversy you almost invariably make use of private, and not public voices of the oppos­ition.