by Alex Bittelman
Preface: We are recirculating Alex Bittelman’s 1932 article To the Study of Lenin and Our Party from Vol. 11, no. 1 of The Communist, the former theoretical organ of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). This article is important for American Communists to study because it provides an outline of those contributions of Lenin which were key to the concretization and early Bolshevization of the American Communist movement. It additionally discusses some material ways in which Lenin interacted with and influenced the Bolsheviks in America.
Warning is given both to the dangers of sectarianism, as well as the menaces of revisionism and opportunism. This warning is administered in the true spirit of Lenin’s warning that “[u]nity is a great thing and a great slogan. But what the workers’ cause needs is the unity of Marxists, not unity between Marxists, and opponents and distorters of Marxism.”
It is to be noted that allusions to the T.U.U.L. (Trade Union Unity League) represented the official line of the Comintern during the period in which this article was originally written (1929-1935), which endorsed dual unionism.
It is high time that a thorough study be undertaken of the development of Marxism-Leninism in the United States. This is made necessary by many reasons chief among which is the need of strengthening theoretically the membership of the Party and its leading cadres.
With the increase in the volume and complexity of our practical everyday tasks, the need for such a theoretical study will become more acute. At the same time, the growing leading role of our Party in the class struggle of the American proletariat; and the resulting practical experiences, continually create more of the requisites for a scientific study of the development of Leninism in the United States. Only such a study will bring out fully the role of Lenin in the origin and establishment of our Party.
To speak of Lenin and our Party means, first of all, to trace the effect upon the labor movement in the United States of the struggle against opportunism that was carried on by the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Lenin, approximately since 1903. It was in this historic fight against world opportunism, especially against the opportunists of the Second International, led by the Bolsheviks ever since the Bolshevik group became crystallized in Russia in 1903-04, that the ideological and organizational foundations were created for the eventual formation of the Communist International and for the formation of our Party as the United States section of the Communist International.
Secondly, we would have to trace the influence of the Russian Bolsheviks in the United States upon the development of Marxism-Leninism in the American labor movement. A study of this subject will establish the fact that the Russian Bolsheviks in the United States, who were members of the Socialist and trade union movement of the country, have contributed greatly towards creating the conditions for the split with the reformists and the formation of the Communist Party. This also belongs to the study of Lenin and our Party.
Thirdly, we will have to study those activities of Lenin including those during the late imperialist world war which aimed to establish direct organizational contact with the internationalists and revolutionary socialists in the United States in order to bring about their separation and split from the opportunists and social-patriots. In undertaking these steps, in the face of the tremendous difficulties created by the capitalist governments during the war for communication between the revolutionary socialists in various countries, Lenin was following out the established orientations of the Bolsheviks since 1903 towards splitting away the revolutionary Marxists from the reformists and opportunists all over the world.
And, fourthly, we would have to study the various decisions of the Communist International and of the Profintern (R.I.L.U.) on the American question. All of these decisions constitute an application of Leninism to the class struggle in the United States, and some of them were made — while Lenin was still alive — under his guidance and with his participation. An essential phase of this angle of the study of Lenin and our Party will be found in the numerous personal interviews and discussions that many American communists had with Lenin on the problems and tasks of our movement.
It is along such lines as the above that we shall have to carry on the study of the development of Marxism-Leninism in the United States and of the role of Lenin in the origin and development of our Party. Such a study will illustrate, on the basis also of American experiences, that the assertion of Slutzky & Co., that Lenin (the Bolsheviks) did not follow the line of splitting with the opportunists of the Second International in the pre-war period — that this assertion is nothing else but Trotskyist slander against Lenin and Lenin’s Party. To allow these smugglers of Trotskyism to question Lenin’s struggle against opportunism and to present the matter as something that requires “further investigation” is to try to transform “an axiom into a problem,” is to be guilty of “rotten liberalism,” as comrade Stalin shows elsewhere in this issue.
A Few Episodes of 1915
The following proposes to recount a few episodes from the relations of Lenin to the labor movement in the United States during the year 1915. These are taken from Lenin’s correspondence with A. Kollontai (the Russian “Leninsky Sbornik,” No. 2) who, in fall of 1915, was contemplating a trip to the United States. Lenin had seized upon the occasion to establish closer contact with the revolutionary socialists in America. In one of his letters to Kollontai (September 1915), Lenin writes:
“It would be very regrettable if your trip to the United States should not materialize. We have built quite a few hopes on this trip also the publication in America of our pamphlet (Socialism and War) . . and the consolidation of the Internationalists. . .” (emphasis — A.B.)
Urged on by Lenin, Kollontai made the trip to the United States, sending off her first letter to Lenin from Milwaukee, dated October 18, 1915. In his reply to this letter, Lenin advises Kollontai to spare no efforts in order to consolidate the revolutionary socialists, the internationalists, on the platform of the Left Zimmerwald group which were led by the Bolsheviks. In doing so Lenin makes some very pointed remarks regarding the political characteristics of various groups and leaders in the Socialist Party.
Regarding the Volkszeitung, Lenin writes (November 9, 1915) that “Grimm has assured me today that they are all Kautskians. Is that correct? I believe that the German pamphlet (Socialism and War) might help you to determine the ‘strength’ of their internationalism.” Subsequent events have shown that there was very little strength in the internationalism of the Volkszeitung. For a certain period, the Volkszeitung under Ludwig Lore was pretending to be with the Bolsheviks and with the Communist International, but even then it did not abandon its leanings to Kautsky and Trotsky. The years of the temporary and relative stabilization of capitalism have brought out even more fully the hopeless opportunism of Lore & co., who became the open organizers of Trotskyism in the United States for which they were eventually expelled from the Workers (Communist) Party. The essential identity of Trotskyism and Kautskyism was clearly demonstrated by the opportunism of Lore. The activities of the Right-wing renegades (Lovestone) and the Trotskyist renegades (Cannon) in the present period demonstrate the same truth.
In the same letter to Kollontai, Lenin speaks about Debs. He writes:
“What does Eugene Debs represent? At this time he writes revolutionary. Or is he too a rag a la Kautsky?” A strict evaluation of Debs’ position during the world war will undoubtedly place him among the centrists, that is, among that variety of opportunism that was represented on a world scale by Kautsky.
Lenin also mentions Hillquit. He says: “That Hillquit will stand with Kautsky and even to the right of Kautsky, I never had any doubts because I have seen him (Hillquit) in Stuttgart (1907) and I have heard how he afterward defended the prohibition of Asiatic immigration into the United States (an ‘internationalist’)…” For Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and the Communist International true proletarian internationalism is the very heart of revolutionary socialism, of communism. That is why the mere fact that Hillquit — a “socialist” and an “internationalist” — was fighting for the exclusion of Asiatic immigration from the United States (Chinese, Japanese, Indians, etc.) was sufficient to expose him as a social reformist who during the war became a social-chauvinist, developing after the war into a social-fascist.
By means of these remarks, Lenin was trying to direct Kollontai to those elements in the American socialist and labor movement that was willing to fight for real internationalism, not alone in words but in deeds. The test of real internationalism at that time was the platform of the lefts of the Zimmerwald group and around this platform, Lenin was aiming to consolidate the revolutionary elements in the labor movement in the United States. Thus, Lenin wrote to Kollontai:
“The Zimmerwald Manifesto itself is insufficient. Kautsky and company are ready to reconcile themselves to it on condition: ‘not a step farther.’ Into this we will not go because this is sheer hypocrisy. Thus if there are in America people who are afraid even of the Zimmerwald Manifesto then you better drop them, and gather together only those that stand to the left of the Zimmerwald Manifesto.” (emphasis — V.L.)
Lenin again repeats his direction to Kollontai to “try everywhere to see the local Bolsheviks (if only for five minutes) to ‘refresh’ them and to connect them with us.”
It was at about the same time (November-December 1915) that Lenin sent his famous letter to the Socialist Propaganda League of America. Unfortunately, only part of it has been preserved. We quote from the Letter as it appeared in The Communist of January 1931.
The central point of this letter is Lenin’s advice to the revolutionary socialists of the United States to break with the opportunists, to separate from them. Lenin says:
“We do not preach an alliance with the present socialist parties that are dominating the Second International. On the contrary, we insist upon breaking with the conciliators. The war is the best object lesson. The conciliators, their leaders, their most influential papers and magazines in every country, are in favor of the war; in other words, they have actually formed an alliance with ‘their’ national bourgeoisie (middle class, capitalists) against the proletarian masses. You say that there are socialists in America who express themselves in favor of a war of defense. We are convinced that an alliance with such people is criminal. This would be an alliance with the national middle class and the capitalists, and a break with the international revolutionary working class. We, on our part, stand for a break with the nationalist conciliators, for an alliance with the international Marxists-revolutionists, and with the parties of the working class.” (emphasis — V.L.)
In this letter Lenin endorses the stand of the “Socialist Propaganda League” against craft unions and for industrial unions. At the same time Lenin found it necessary to say that he is in favor of “the most active participation of all Party members in the economic struggle and in all the trade unions and cooperative organizations of the working class.” Lenin emphasizes here the word all trade unions, meaning the craft unions dominated by the reformists, Gompers, and company, who “represent not the working class but the aristocracy and bureaucracy of the working class.” This was especially necessary at that time, when the tendency to boycott the reactionary craft unions of the American Federation of Labor, and the general sectarian drift, were prevalent among the left elements of the labor movement. But this remark of Lenin retains its full force also for the present period. The fact that the class-conscious American workers, under the leadership of the Communist Party and the Trade Union Unity League, are building revolutionary industrial unions does not exclude the need for working in the reactionary craft unions of the American Federation of Labor, but, on the contrary, makes such work even more necessary. Why? Because in certain industries (having mass American Federation of Labor unions) and under certain conditions (growing foment among the rank and file) our work in the reactionary unions, with the policy of independent revolutionary leadership of the economic struggles of the workers, is proving to be a highly effective weapon for winning the masses away from the reformists and for organizing them into the industrial unions of the Trade Union Unity League. The same element of timeliness is contained in the other remark of Lenin which urges “the most active participation of all Party members in the economic struggle.” This is, in the present period, especially relevant. The participation in and leadership of the economic struggle, through the building of the Party and revolutionary unions in the shops, is today the main road towards developing the revolutionary counter-offensive of the American proletariat under the leadership of our Party and of the T.U.U.L.
In addition to sending the letter to the “Socialist Propaganda League,” Lenin wrote to Kollontai to find out more about this group. He says (November 22):
“I hope you will bend all efforts to find out everything about them and in the greatest possible detail and that you will also try to create out of them (or also out of them, or from among some of them) one of the bases of the ‘Zimmerwald Left’ in America.”
Surveying the field for possible allies in the United States for the “Zimmerwald Left,” Lenin repeatedly inquires of Kollontai about the Socialist Labor Party (S.L.P.). In a letter dated March 19, 1916, Lenin asks: “What about the S. L. P.? They are internationalists, aren’t they (although with a narrow sectarian flavor)?” Lenin makes similar reference to the S. L. P. in the letter to the “Socialist Propaganda League,” in which he says that Marx and Engels “both condemn the sectarian character of the S.L.P.” And again in his letter to Kollontai of February 1917, Lenin makes some very critical observations in connection with the impression he received that “the S.L.P. is throwing out its entire program-minimum.”
The Bolsheviks always viewed the question of “program-minimum” in the sense of partial demands and of transitional demands, that is, as a means of organizing the masses — in the course of their daily struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the entire present system and for the dictatorship of the proletariat. This constituted a clear line of demarcation between revolutionary socialism and reformism for whom the “program-minimum” was a means of preventing the development of the revolution, a weapon for reforming, i.e., strengthening capitalism. On the other hand, this also draws a clear line of demarcation between revolutionary socialism (communism) and “left” sectarianism, also opportunism, which “rejects” all partial demands and transitional slogans. The opportunism and sectarianism of the S.L.P. were covered up with this “ultra-left” rejection of partial demands which had effectively poisoned the Socialist Left Wing of 1918 (which also rejected partial demands) until the experiences of building the Communist Party and the guidance of the Communist International have clarified the American communists on this vital point of revolutionary tactics.
Sectarianism, which covers itself with “left” phrases, is just as foreign to Leninism as is reformism. Both are opportunistic. And while our chief danger in the present period is Right opportunism, whose roots lie in reformism, at the same time we are still suffering from remnants of “left” opportunism (underestimation of the struggle for partial demands, especially the daily economic struggles, etc.) which we must root out in the most determined manner.
A thorough study of the growth and development of Leninism in the United States, which we must undertake as soon as possible, will give us a deeper insight into our present tasks as well as more Bolshevik equipment for the carrying out of these tasks.
[i] Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “Unity.” marxists.org, April 12, 1914. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/apr/12.htm.
[ii] New Yorker Volkszeitung was then a German daily Socialist newspaper in the United States
[iii] The English ‘conciliators’ is not the correct equivalent of the Russian ‘soglashately.’ It would be more correct to use the word ‘class-collaborators,’ or collaborators with the bourgeoisie — A.B.