This Quote Does Not Say What You Think It Says
It is not that hard to do your own research and stop spreading dishonestly extracted quotes on the internet ad nauseam, as if shielding countries from criticism is a Marxist duty.
“Some idiot or sloven, evidently an illiterate, has lumped together, as though he were drunk, all the “material,” little articles, speeches […] out of sequence.”
Vladimir Lenin, Telegram to V.V. Vorovsky (October 24, 1919)
This article should not have to be written. Its existence only shows how far people go to distort the most elementary premises of communism to justify their own ideological biases. Nevertheless, it seems like we need to dispel some myths surrounding one of the many Lenin quotes wrongly utilized online. This infamous extract is as follows:
“For the Socialist of another country cannot expose the government and bourgeoisie of a country at war with “his own” nation, and not only because he does not know that country’s language, history, specific features, etc., but also because such exposure is part of imperialist intrigue, and not an internationalist duty.”
So, why is it misunderstood and misused?
Obviously, the quote in itself is perfectly fine as is. The problem arises when some try to rid it of its historical background and theoretical context under which it was written. The piece is a rough draft written in early January of 1917, titled “Theses for an Appeal to the International Socialist Committee and All Socialist Parties” (originally: Черновой проект тезисов обращения к интернациональной социалистической комиссии и ко всем социалистическим партиям). The manuscript bears Lenin’s note: “Written before January 7, 1917 and therefore partly obsolete.” However, its misuse doesn’t stem from the fact that some of its theses are obsolete. It comes from a complete misunderstanding of its aim.
As it is now used, people like to “showcase” how Lenin thought “the Socialist of another country cannot expose the government and bourgeoisie of a country at war with “his own” nation” and try to shield any nation they support from genuine criticism, even by Marxists! Naturally, Lenin gave his own justification for this fact in a paragraph specifically omitted from these fancy quote edits:
“There need be no doubt that no government will allow, especially now, free publication of exposures of its real policy, its treaties, financial deals, etc. That is no reason to renounce such exposures. Rather it is a reason to renounce servile submission to the censorship and publish the facts freely, i.e., uncensored, illegally.”
“Нет сомнения, что ни одно правительство не разрешит свободно печатать разоблачения его действительной политики, его договоров, финансовых сделок именно теперь и т. п. Это не довод за отказ от разоблачений. Это довод за необходимость от холопского подчинения цензуре перейти к вольному, т. е. бесцензурному, т. е. нелегальному издательству.” [the original Russian]
And we have arrived at the context — War! When Lenin was drafting these theses, the First World War was still raging on, which meant that “no government will allow, especially now, free publication of exposures of its real policy, its treaties, financial deals, etc.” The reason why it was so difficult to expose the bourgeoisie of other countries was precisely because of this war-specific condition. Nevertheless, Lenin still insists that this “is no reason to renounce such exposures,” actually encouraging every such endeavor! Perhaps the translation is confusing to our opportunists and they cannot make out what this means, so let us offer our own translation from the original Russian to clear it up a bit:
“Это не довод за отказ от разоблачений” would directly and most literally translate to “this is not an argument/this is not a reason for refusing to expose.” We slowly see how the actual meaning of the pamphlet goes completely against that one small line snipped away from its entire meaning. The only reason you should try to expose the bourgeoisie of your own nation is that you know the language, the conditions and have access to the information specific to your nation more than most people who are not from there. This however, is not a reason to discourage any Marxist from undertaking a similar task in reference to your country, especially in the age of the internet, when we have everything we desire — translation services, works written in other countries, official Party platforms of foreign socialists, etc. — at our fingertips. Theses for an Appeal to the International Socialist Committee and All Socialist Parties itself is literally centered around criticising not only the bourgeoisie, but the social-chauvinists and so-called “Marxists” of foreign countries like Germany, Italy, etc.:
“The second turn consists in a “reconciliation” between the social-chauvinists, who have betrayed socialism and defected to bourgeois nationalism or imperialism, and the Zimmerwald Right wing, as represented by Kautsky and Co. in Germany, Turati and Co. in Italy, Longuet Pressemane-Merrheim in France, etc”
We see how ironically it all comes together and how the actual theses of this work directly oppose the implication e-pigones try to put on it. Not only is it justified and logical to ruthlessly denounce the bourgeoisie and the imperialists when necessary, but also the “socialists” who only pay lip service to Marxism and are only on “our side” in words, not in deeds. Why would a Communist want to defend its bourgeoisie against the socialists of other countries after all?
Lenin even states in the paragraph right above the misquoted one, that not to do so is a betrayal of socialism:
“For every member of parliament, every editor, every secretary of a labour union, every journalist and public leader can always gather the information kept secret by the government and the financiers that reveals the truth about the real basis of imperialist deals. A socialist’s failure to fulfil this duty is a betrayal of socialism.”
This is precisely why “the Socialist of another country cannot expose the government and bourgeoisie of a country at war [once again we see how crucial the context of the First World War, and therefore the concept of revolutionary defeatism is to this pamphlet — ed.] with “his own” nation” (emphasis on “another” by Lenin), as it is the duty of the socialist of nation x to want to criticize nation x before anyone else, not that anyone else globally is not allowed to do so as well.
To prove even further the correctness of our view, we only need to remember that Lenin wrote one of his most famous books, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism before this pamphlet and published it after this pamphlet — it was written in 1916 and published in the April of 1917. This means that the rough draft of the piece we’re dealing with now was written precisely in-between these two events, clearly showcasing that not only is it not impossible to “expose the government and bourgeoisie of a country at war with “his own” nation,” but that this can be done extremely elaborately. Lenin was simply encouraging to do so in your own nation as well, as a socialist from e.g. Germany may have had better access and understanding of German events and facts. This is not always universally true either, Lenin knew the conditions of German Imperialism much better than many Germans, as evidenced by his work. The very same article also clearly states:
That being the objective state of affairs, it is the obvious and imperative task of every sincere socialist policy, every honest proletarian policy (not to speak of conscious Marxist policy) first of all and above all consistently, systematically, boldly and unreservedly to expose the pacifist and democratic hypocrisy of one’s own government and one’s own bourgeoisie.
Indeed — “first of all and above all,” not “only” or “solely!”
Regardless, all of this was written in the context of World War One. Immediately after it was over (1918), we can clearly see Lenin encouraging international critique in The Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Kautsky, written and published before the First World War had even completely concluded:
“We would be grateful beyond words to every West-European Marxist who, after studying at least the most important documents, would criticise our policy, because he would by that render us immense assistance and would also help the maturing revolution throughout the world.”
Therefore, we see how illogical and dishonest it is to utilize an out-of-context rough draft written during the war and discarded soon after in 1916. Lenin never refused to critique the bourgeoisie of another country, nor did he refuse critique from the socialists of other countries — this is clear to any abecedarian of socialism who has taken more than a few hours to look into Lenin and his life. To speak of the most banal example, what were the Luxemburg-Lenin polemics but friendly exchange between two revolutionary socialists from different nations, subjecting each other to criticism through evaluating each other’s conditions?
Since this quote is most commonly used by the so-called “Dengists” to shield China from criticism, let us give them a taste of some Mao, who, in On the Correct Handling of the Contradictions Among the People wrote:
“People may ask, since Marxism is accepted as the guiding ideology by the majority of the people in our country, can it be criticized? Certainly it can. Marxism is scientific truth and fears no criticism. If it did, and if it could be overthrown by criticism, it would be worthless. […] Marxists should not be afraid of criticism from any quarter. Quite the contrary, they need to temper and develop themselves and win new positions in the teeth of criticism and in the storm and stress of struggle.”
If your tendency is a “correct interpretation” of Marxism, and the country you so aggressively defend online upholds this correct line, o’ falsifier, why not let people, especially Marxists, criticise it?!
One needn’t look for proof in Lenin, Mao, et al., but in their mind and heart: would it not be absolutely unreasonable and out of synch with Marxism to even suggest that Lenin, or any revolutionary Marxist for that matter, opined that one could not criticize anyone outside their own nation? Of course it would and it is, and we have a plethora of evidence for the renegades who refuse to admit it.
Why Is This Even An Issue?
The ruthless criticism of all that exists does not exempt any nation, any bourgeoisie; nor does it know the difference between nation, race and colour. It would be deceit and ahistorical nonsense to suggest that Lenin or any other communist has encouraged such a demeanor. Anyone can undertake this task against anyone else — an Austrian Marxist can criticize a Chinese Marxist, a Vietnamese Marxist can criticise a Brazilian Marxist, a Georgian Marxist can criticise an Angolan Marxist and so on. It is disheartening and revolting to see “Marxists” make a mockery of the most fundamental theses of Scientific Socialism and “grant” (or refuse!) the right to criticise to whomever they so desire.
The reality of the matter is that an ideologue, completely divorced from intellectual honesty and revolutionary Marxism has stumbled upon a piece that they violated abhorrently, cut and sewed it to present it completely out of context to aid their Bernsteinite cognitive dissonance and put it all together nicely by slapping on it a Lenin painting and quote marks. Of course, those who are able to take a few minutes and see for themselves, know how crudely incorrect its contemporary usage is.
Dixi et salvavi animam meam.