“On Marxist Compromise”
Piece by Comrade Joseph W.
When should we, as Marxist-Leninists, make compromises?
It is certainly a complex question that does not have a simple answer. As materialists, we recognize this fact: whether or not a compromise is acceptable is entirely dependent on the particular material conditions that are present. Despite the unique character of each compromise, there are some useful guidelines that can be used when undertaking such an analysis.
Firstly, what is a compromise? Put simply, compromise is an action that provides some benefit to those making it, yet is, by definition, not ideal.
What conditions must a compromise fulfill to be an acceptable compromise? It must positively influence the building or maintaining of socialism or the socialist movement, it must only be made when preferable actions are not available, and it must not in any way serve counter-revolution and the betrayal of socialist principles.
There are two main errors one can make when analysing and carrying out compromises. The first error is the ultra-leftist error of rejecting compromise altogether. The second error is compromising with flawed and occasionally counter-revolutionary motivations – and thereby harming the integrity of the socialist movement. These errors have presented themselves in different forms throughout the history of our struggle.
Perhaps one of the best descriptions of the nature of Marxist compromise, and of the two main errors that can be made, was presented in Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In this text, he illustrates the necessity of compromise and the two kinds of errors using the historical actions and reactions of various forces in the socialist movement during the First World War, as well as a clever and easily understandable analogy.
He first speaks on the ultra-leftist error of rejecting compromises on principle:
“In…1918, the most prominent representatives of “Left” Communism, for example, Comrades Radek and Bukharin, openly admitted their mistake. It had seemed to them that the Brest-Litovsk Peace was a compromise with the imperialists that was inadmissible on principle and harmful to the party of the revolutionary proletariat. It really was a compromise with the imperialists, but it was a compromise which, under the given circumstances, was obligatory.”
Next, he begins his analogy which illustrates the two kinds of errors and the idea of acceptable compromise.
“Imagine that your automobile is held up by armed bandits. You hand them over your money, passport, revolver, and automobile. You are spared the pleasant company of the bandits. That is unquestionably a compromise… I “give” you money, firearms, automobile, so that you “give” me the opportunity to depart in peace. But it would be difficult to find a sane man who would declare such a compromise to be “inadmissible on principle”, or who would proclaim the compromiser an accomplice of the bandits (even though the bandits might use the automobile and the firearms for further robberies). Our compromise with the bandits of German imperialism was a compromise of such a kind…. The conclusion to be drawn is clear: to reject compromises “on principle,” to reject the admissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness which is difficult to even take seriously.”
It is obvious now that Lenin and the other members of the Bolsheviks that supported the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty were correct. The territories of what used to be the Russian Empire were in ruin following the First World War and the Russian Civil War. If the young socialist republics were to survive, they had to do something to put an end to the fighting. The treaty was indeed, as Lenin said, a compromise with the forces of imperialism, but a necessary one under the circumstances.
Lenin then moves on to discussing the other error, that of opportunist compromise that is counter-revolutionary and a betrayal of the socialist struggle.
“When the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries in Russia, the Scheidemannites in Germany, the Fabians and the “Labourites” in England, in 1914-18 and 1918-20 entered into compromises with the bandits of their own, and sometimes of the “Allied” bourgeoisie against the revolutionary proletariat of their own country, all these gentlemen did then act as accomplices in banditry.”
Lenin is here referring to groups in the Second International who supported the First World War, as well as those who assisted the bourgeoisie in putting down socialist revolutions (most notably in Germany, where the Spartacist Uprising and the larger German Revolution of 1918-19 were crushed and its most notable leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were summarily executed.)
Continuing his analogy, he says,
“There are compromises and compromises. One must be able to analyse the situation and the concrete conditions of each compromise, or of each variety of compromise. One must learn to distinguish between a man who gave the bandits money and firearms in order to lessen the evil committed by them and to facilitate the task of them getting captured and shot, and a man who gives bandits money and firearms to share in the loot. In politics this is not always as easy as in this childishly simple example. But anyone who set out to invent a recipe for the workers that would provide ready-made solutions for all cases in life, or who promised that the politics of the proletariat would never encounter difficult or intricate situations, would simply be a charlatan.”
Moving on from Lenin’s discussion of compromise, I will analyze one of the most controversial compromises that took place in the 20th century, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and illustrate the necessity for the correct analysis of compromises.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a treaty of nonaggression between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed in 1939. At first glance, without understanding the context of the material conditions under which this agreement was signed, this agreement seems obviously unacceptable, and potentially irredeemable. A careful analysis of the context, however, tells a different story.
In 1939, it was clear that the Hitlerite fascists and their allies in Italy were preparing for war. They had repeatedly flaunted the military restrictions placed upon them by the Treaty of Versailles. The United Kingdom and France at this point were still for the most part engaged in a policy of appeasement. This policy had allowed Germany to annex Austria as well as the Sudetenland, a German-speaking territory of Czechoslovakia. Hitler had shown no signs of stopping this pattern of annexation and conquest, and he had made no attempt to conceal his antagonism towards Marxism, and in particular Bolshevism and the Soviet Union. It would have been clear to anyone who had read Mein Kampf, which included almost certainly the leaders of the Western European countries as well as Stalin, that the German fascists would do everything in their power to eliminate the influence of Soviet socialism from the world.
The Soviet leadership, knowing with near certainty that the Germans would invade, and probably soon, had a decision to make. The armed forces of the Soviet Union were at the time unprepared for such a conflict. Should they, in keeping with the anti-fascist line of the socialist movement, antagonize the Germans despite their army being totally unprepared? Or should they attempt to buy some time to organize the Red Army and prepare the country for the inevitable invasion? They chose, quite sensibly, to try and buy some time. They did so by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Two years later, in 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. These two years were crucial in ensuring the survival of the Soviet Union and the lives of millions of the Soviet people. The losses from the fighting were enormous, some 27 million in total, but the Soviet Union triumphed in the end. If the Soviet leadership had made the first error, the error of rejecting all compromise on principle, the results would have been tragic.
Had they been less prepared, the Germans could have taken key cities like Moscow and Stalingrad and secured the surrender of the country. As it was, the fascists expanded the inhumanity of the Holocaust into the Soviet territory they had managed to occupy, killing hundreds of thousands. The main architects of the Holocaust, most notably Heinrich Himmler, had drawn up plans (codenamed Generalplan Ost) for the extermination and deportation of vast numbers of the various Soviet nationalities after occupation to create lebensraum for the “Aryan” race. The figures are horrifying: 50-60% of Russians, Estonians, Latvians, and Czechs were to be killed or otherwise removed as well as 65% of Ukrainians, 75% of Belorussians, and 85% of Poles.
Obviously, signing a nonaggression pact with an enemy as odious as the German fascists is far from ideal. Such an enemy should be destroyed without mercy, but had the Soviets followed this instinct, millions more could have died, and the only stronghold of socialism in the world could have been destroyed. Considering the circumstances, the Soviet leadership undoubtedly made the correct decision.
Not all compromises have such high stakes, but it is important to analyze the potential consequences of either making or not making a compromise. Mistakes will inevitably be made, but by using the examples and guidelines illustrated by Lenin, such mistakes can be kept to a minimum. Compromise cannot be avoided in political struggle, and it is imperative that we as Marxists make our decisions as we should: carefully guided by materialist analysis.