“We are constantly making the mistake in Russia of judging the slogans and tactics of a certain party or group, of judging its general trend, by the intentions or motives that the group claims for itself. Such judgement is worthless. The road to hell—as was said long ago—is paved with good intentions.”1
Lenin wrote at a time in history that would inevitably be seen to be nearly providential by those looking back from the contemporary vantage point. In 1913 the crucible of revolution had yet to boil over into the true paradigm shift that was the fall of the Russian Monarchy and its’ proto-capitalist/feudal system. We forget today, or are made to ignore the fact, that history is not preordained or inevitable even if it is in fact possible to be analyzed rationally. Lenin wrote in his letter, Word and Deed, of imminent, arising social upheaval. We cannot look at this letter as a piece of self-conscious dogma; instead we must realize that Lenin is expressing a realization of political reality that is made self-evident by the events taking place around him.
The workers strike was still seen as a violation of societal doxa, a rejection of the contract written and executed from above and based upon the premise that mass civic action was a form of terrorism. Lenin makes an especial case against the liberal members of the structural orthodoxy who viewed worker organization and proletarian action as a dangerous attack on their own pursuit of “reform” within the context of the existing system. The rejection of the liberal bourgeois conception that change within a flawed system is required or preferable to the dismantling of the system through class struggle was an important step for the socialist movement in Russia and an essential signpost on the road that we are still traveling towards a more sustainable and equitable system. By accepting the claims of liberal parties and movements that they are friendly towards the proletariat, socialism is undermined and indeed made heterodox. A step forward on a crooked road is not progress made towards the destination; it is for all intents and purposes a step backwards to a state of affairs intolerable to the interests of the proletariat and its aims.
For example, look at the left liberal (contemporary United States) Democratic party pledge of strengthening the middle class[es] through “hope” for “change” in the system of a “reformed” market capitalism. But what sort of “change” can be expected when there is no rejection of underlying conditions that lead to inequality or abuse? The classic capitalist class system is upheld and even celebrated by the acceptance of a reformation of processes and laws that can only see success as the increasing stratification and separation of workers from each other. The middle class becomes a destination away from the working classes, a realm apart and a vantage point from which the anointed can look back in shame and increasing disgust at the situation of the proletariat. Lenin says that there is nothing remarkable about the upper class, governmental or conservative reactionary dismissal of proletarian needs and struggles but that “Much “newer” is the amazing indifference of the bourgeoisie”.
Similarly the antagonism between the Democratic party and the vast and expanding ex post politico “working poor” (as the proletariat is referred to within the context of contemporary American politics) is, if not actually increasing, becoming more apparent and shocking to those who once labored under the delusion that at least one party represented a means of support for the worker. The left liberal “solution” to the problems of the unequal division of wealth and exploitation of labor is simply a less violent entrance into a feedback loop that preserves the systems that create the need for such exploitation. Members of the proletariat need to come to terms with the fact that they were and are “making the mistake of […] judging the slogans and tactics of” the liberal Democratic party based on their own standards that reject the very idea that the capitalist system is something to be overcome. Indeed, Lenin goes on to say, “in many cases this indifference [on the part of the left liberal factions] changes to a negative attitude” and eventually expresses itself as so much reactionary more violence against the rejection of the class constraints advocated by the Marxist philosophies and socialist parties. Lenin is correct that we must look beyond the word and to the deed when examining the intentions of those professing to be allies of the proletariat and its cause. Lenin makes it clear that in order to move the proletariat cause forward liberal conciliation with reactionary forces and capitalist institutions must be combated as though the factions were one and the same.
The tragic irony of this letter becomes clear when we realize that the trenchant criticisms leveled by Lenin against accommodations with strains of left liberal thought and practice can just as easily, indeed should just as readily, be leveled against Lenin’s own assertion that the vanguard party was essential to the advancement of the interests of the proletariat and its eventually achievement of a communist society without need of party (or the class system that invariably arises from a vanguard party). Lenin writes
The proletariat cannot do its democratic duty, serve as the advanced contingent, give service to, educate and consolidate the masses of the people other than by a decisive struggle against the liquidators, who, in fact, are completely dependent on liberalism. The liberals, too, frequently play at being radicals from the Duma rostrum and do it as well as the various near-Marxist or wavering elements, but that does not prevent the liberals from fighting (with the aid of the liquidators) the democratic aspirations of the masses outside the Duma.2
Lenin fails to understand that the elite vanguard party apparatus, whose very education and intellectual assumptions are themselves derived from liberal bourgeois systems and values and cannot be separated, in essence, from this strain, are also “play[ing] at being radicals”. If proletariat cannot, therefore, “do its democratic duty” by cooperation with liberal economic and social forces, how, then, can the proletariat be expected to do the same under the aegis of a vanguard party indelibly stained by bourgeois prejudices against the inherent genius of the proletariat? Lenin succeeds in highlighting the problem of compromising one’s values in the name of pragmatic expediency in pursuit of revolution and the creation of communism in a nation, but he fails to apply this criticism to his own compromised values, in the form of the vanguard party idea of revolutionary action.