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V.I. Lenin: ‘Trotsky was a thousand times right’

February 6, 2018
Lenin2-2

V.I. Lenin, 1920

Newly published speeches by Lenin, Trotsky, and Béla Kun, part 3

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Lenin’s speech, given 17 June 1921 at the Communist International’s Third Congress, followed remarks by Trotsky on ultra-leftist errors within the French Communist movement and a response by Hungarian Communist Béla Kun.

The speech posted below is absent from editions of his Collected Works, presumably because his expression of strong support for the views of Leon Trotsky offended the anti-Trotskyist editors of these collections.

Congress participant Victor Serge is probably referring to this speech when he recalls:

Lenin spoke in French, briskly and harshly. Ten or more times, he used the phrase ‘Béla Kun’s stupid mistakes’: little words that turned his listeners to stone. My wife took down the speech in shorthand, and afterwards we had to edit it somewhat: after all it was out of the question for the symbolic figure of the Hungarian Revolution to be called an imbecile ten times over in a written record. (Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, 2012, p. 163) [1]

For the assessment of another participant, Umberto Terracini, see endnote 4.

Lenin: I arrived at just the right moment, during the speech by Béla Kun. I came here precisely in order to oppose the remarks by Béla Kun. I suspected that if Béla Kun opened his mouth, it could only be to defend the leftists, and so I wanted to find out on whose behalf he would speak. In Comrade Béla Kun’s opinion, communism means defending the leftists. He is wrong, and this error must be most energetically opposed.

It must be stated openly that if there are still opportunists in the French party (and I am convinced that this is true) if they are not Marxists (and that is quite accurate), the leftists, for their part, have also committed an error, in trying to appear as leftists in the mould of my friend Comrade Béla Kun and some of the French comrades. Comrade Béla Kun thinks that there are only opportunist errors, but leftist errors exist as well.

According to the stenographic record of Comrade Trotsky’s remarks, he said that if the leftist comrades continue to act in this manner, they will be digging the grave of the Communist and workers’ movement in France. (Applause) I am strongly convinced of that as well. I have come here in order to protest the speech by Comrade Béla Kun in which he attacked Comrade Trotsky instead of defending him, as he was obligated to do if he was a real Marxist.

Marxism consists of determining what policy should be adopted in different types of circumstances. However, when Comrade Béla Kun comes here and talks of sangfroid and discipline, and of what was said about that in an article in L’Humanité with that title, it is he who understands nothing and is clearly in error. During a crisis such as that created by the mobilisation of French troops in the Ruhr, a party cannot launch slogans of that type. Anyone who does not understand that is not a Marxist.

Comrade Béla Kun believes that being revolutionary is a matter of defending the leftists, everywhere and under all circumstances. Preparing the revolution in France, one of the largest countries in Europe, cannot be done by a party on its own. What gives me the greatest pleasure is the fact that the French Communists have won over the trade unions. When I pick up this or that French newspaper – and I must frankly admit that I do this only rarely, because I do not have time to read newspapers – I notice the word ‘cell’ (noyau). I don’t think you will find this word in any dictionary, because it is a purely Russian expression, which emerged from our long struggle against tsarism, against the Mensheviks, against opportunism and the bourgeois-democratic republic. It is our experience that gave rise to this organisational form. Cells act in concerted fashion, whether in the parliamentary fraction, in the trade unions, or in other organisations. And when Communists commit this or that error, even if less serious than the blunder committed by Béla Kun, we do not give it our approval.

When I regard this outstanding work by the French party, these cells in the unions and other organisations, I must say that the victory of revolution in France is assured, provided that the leftists do not commit blunders. If people say, like Comrade Béla Kun, that sangfroid and discipline cannot be justified, that is a leftist blunder. And I have come here to tell the leftist comrades that if you follow that advice, you will dig the grave of the revolutionary movement, just as Marat did.[2] I am not trying to defend the Communist Party of France. I do not claim that it is a thoroughly Communist Party. Not at all. Comrade Zalewski quotes a passage from L’Humanité, saying that the demand is justified; it may well be that he is quite right, from his point of view.[3] But we must not tolerate such a view.

Let us take another example, that of Marcel Cachin and others who defended the foreign policy of the Franco-British alliance in the French legislature and said it was a guarantee of peace, when in fact this alliance is nothing more than a gang of robbers. That is opportunism, and a party that tolerates its parliamentary representative taking such a political position is not a Communist Party. We have certainly referred in our resolution to various facts that must be emphasised, and to various actions that cannot be tolerated and are not Communist. But criticism must be specific in character. The task is to condemn opportunism. But the pronounced opportunism expressed in Cachin’s speech has not been criticised. Instead, criticism has been directed at this formulation and new advice has been proposed.

Comrade Trotsky said the following in his speech: (Lenin quotes a passage from the German stenographic transcript of Comrade Trotsky’s speech.)

In addition, Comrade Laporte is quite wrong and Comrade Trotsky absolutely right in protesting against this statement. I am prepared to concede that the conduct of the French party is perhaps not fully Communist. But in that given situation, a blunder of this type would destroy the Communist movement in France and Britain. The revolution cannot be carried out by the class of 1919. And Comrade Trotsky was a thousand times right to emphasise this repeatedly. The same holds true for the Luxembourg comrade [Reiland] who charged the French party with having failed to sabotage the occupation of Luxembourg. He thinks this is a geographical question, as does Comrade Béla Kun. That’s way off the mark. It is a political question. And Comrade Trotsky was absolutely right to protest against this. Yes indeed, it is an entirely leftist blunder, in which you appear to be very revolutionary, but which is in fact very harmful for the French movement.

The only thing that can prevent the victory of communism in France, Britain, and Germany is leftist blunders of this sort. If we pursue our campaign against opportunism without exaggeration, our victory is certain. We should openly criticise the French party. We should say that they are not a Communist Party. We should say bluntly that the policy advanced by Marcel Cachin regarding the alliance of France and Britain to exploit the working masses – and here, if I may use a word in an unofficial sense, they are robbers, and not only that, but robbers on a huge scale – we should state emphatically and entirely openly that the policy advanced by Cachin in this or that speech, in this or that article is not Communist but opportunist. The Central Committee of the Communist Party and, I hope, the Communist International congress as well will not approve this policy. Nonetheless we will not tolerate the even greater blunders committed by Comrade Béla Kun, or the blunders in the speech by the comrade from Luxembourg, or those of Comrade Laporte – even though he speaks so eloquently. I know that there are true revolutionaries among the Communist youth. Criticise the opportunists in a specific fashion; demonstrate the errors of official French communism – but do not commit such blunders!

Now, as the masses are approaching you more and more closely and as you are advancing toward victory, you must win over the trade unions. Preparations are under way in outstanding fashion to win a majority in the unions. And when you win them over, it will be an enormous victory. The bourgeois bureaucracy is powerless. It is the bureaucratic leaders of the Two-and-a-Half International that have the upper hand in the unions. Our task is to win a firm Marxist majority and then we will begin to make the revolution. But not with the class of 1919 and similar blunders, in which Béla Kun excels, but through the struggle against opportunism, and against the leftist blunders now coming to light.

Perhaps, in that case, there will be no need for a struggle, but only a warning against Marcel Cachin’s speech. An open struggle against traditions and opportunism, but only a warning against leftist blunders. That is why I have considered it my duty to support Comrade Trotsky’s position, by and large. The position advanced by Comrade Béla Kun is not worthy to be expressed by any Marxist, by any Communist comrade. It must be actively opposed. And I hope, comrades, that after the commission proposed here has done its work (and setting it up is a sensible move), and after an investigation of the French party’s conduct, it will come to a conclusion that does justice to this idea. [4]

Notes

[1]. Victor Serge presents Lenin’s speech as taking place during an ECCI debate on Germany. However, Lenin’s comments at such a debate would have been delivered in German, not French, and the stenographic transcript would not likely have been compiled by Serge’s wife (Liuba Russakova Kibalchich).

[2]. The comment on Marat attributed here to Lenin is at odds with other writings of his that express respect for Jacobin revolutionaries of 1793. Marxists of his time generally evaluated Marat positively. The name index of Lenin’s Collected Works (Lenin 1960–71) includes no mention of Marat. The present translation is based on an uncorrected archival record that is not free from anomalies; the reference to Marat may represent a slip by either Lenin or the stenographer. Lenin may have been thinking of Maximilien Robespierre, whom many Marxists outside France held responsible for having begun the repression of the popular movement. Thanks to Jean-Numa Ducange for research assistance on this point.

[3]. The ‘demand’ referred to here and subsequently is the French Communist youth’s slogan that youth drafted for military duty refuse to report for service, explained earlier in this discussion by Laporte.

[4]. In a 29 June 1921 letter to the Italian CP leadership, Umberto Terracini (1895-1983) described the impact of this speech: ‘I will not conceal the impression created among all congress participants during the commission and Executive discussions,… namely, that these comrades have leaned enormously to the right. Lenin gave a speech on the French party … [i]n which he laid out tactical principles, but did so using terms that were so crude and expressing himself so curtly that it was quite clear … he was trying to prepare the delegates for even coarser statements in his speech to the congress. The content of his speech was markedly toward the right, as against what he explicitly terms ‘les bêtises de gauche’ [leftist stupidities]. Nor did he find more genial terms to describe the factions at the extreme [left] in all the International’s parties.’ Claudio Natoli 1982, La Terza Internazionale e el fascism, p. 131.

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2 Comments
  1. Susil Gupta permalink

    Virtually useless text because, unusual for Lenin, there is no indication or clarification on what the alluded dispute is about. You can read paragraph after paragraph and still remain clueless. One certainly cannot make a judgement about who is right or wrong, perhaps because one cannot make a judgement about what the dispute is about. Also, it is sad to see Lenin, normally so perspicacious, be so deluded about the prospect of revolution in Western European states.

    • Dear Susil Gupta. Thank you for pointing to the importance of the context in which Lenin’s remarks were delivered. I posted Lenin’s article, “Trotsky Was a Thousand Times Right,” together with the two speeches that preceded it in the Communist International debate — the interventions by Bela Kun and Leon Trotsky. So a good deal of the context is actually there on my website.

      However, I agree that it would be good to have more. I aim to post the preceding two speeches, by Reiland and LaPorte, this month.

      You ask what was the debate all about? Surely it is clear: Lenin, like Trotsky before him, was criticizing exaggerated hopes about “the prospect of revolution in Western European states.” It was Bela Kun and his co-thinkers who deserve your adjective, “deluded.”

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