Having Principles Vs. Being Principled

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“Principled Anti-Imperialism”: one of the greatest chimeras of an already polymorphous Left.

Today a comrade of mine in DSA wrote a Facebook post about the inter-relation of principal and power. His Facebook is not public so I am not going to share it but basically it said that it is “easy” to be principled when one does not have power because no one views you as an asset to be bought or a threat to be combated. I responded with this:

Can we even call that principled though? I see nothing principled about, for example, “principled anti-imperialism” that focuses on calling soldiers and veterans Amerikkkan storm troopers and then does nothing material to decrease or fight US empire. It’s not easy to be principled without power; it’s impossible.

Both his sentiment and my own can seem very much in contrast, at first glance, with the practice of socialism. After all, we posit ourselves as the organizers, sometimes even the leaders, of those who have the least power in our society. It seems to be “punching down” to say these people are not principled.

But herein lies a critical distinction. It may at first seem semantic, but bear with me because I think once it is laid out it should be plain to see the substantive difference here. That difference, as you may have guessed, is “having principles” versus “being principled.”

Oddly enough the words “principl-” are not heavily featured in the Leftist writings that so many “principled anti-imperialists,” “principled Communists,” and so on draw from (perhaps someone with better understanding of such things can explain why — I am thinking it is more a general language thing rather than translation but I could be wrong). But many socialists of the 20th century wrote conceptually about what I would call the distinction between “having principles” versus “being principled.” Most notably this comes out in Lenin’s writing after the Revolution, during his term as Chairman of the People’s Commissariats (an administrative body relatively similar to the U.S. executive branch).

Basically Lenin wrote in two major contexts. First, it is important to understand that despite his frequent, prolific, vitriolic disagreements with practically the majority of the Left internationally, Lenin was a strong believer in internationalism. While historical hypotheticals are best avoided by socialists, one clear difference between Lenin and Stalin was the former’s insistence that the revolution continue to expand: “there would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone,” he said during a speech in 1918, “if there were no revolutionary movements in other countries.” And of course plenty of socialists around the world, even those who had disagreements like Rosa Luxemburg, wanted to learn about and from the Revolution.

The second context is Lenin’s shift from revolutionary agitator to head of the administrative body of a government overseeing millions of people. While Lenin had never been the sort of socialist who believed the revolution would immediately usher in some utopian full communism, the realities he was faced with led to modifications of more idealistically socialist policies implemented during the war. Most significantly was the New Economy Policy, enacted in 1921, which allowed for small businesses while maintaining national control over the large industrial sectors. Still very contested today politically, the NEP was very successful in inducing the necessary economic recovery from the war.

A year prior to the implementation of the New Economic Policy, there were labor shortages that would soon lead to the famines that provided the triggering of the NEP (along with the Kronstadt rebellion and some other events). It was in this context that Lenin published a pamphlet titled “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: an Infantile Disorder.” This work was ostensibly a response to Kautsky and other critics of the Bolsheviks in the international socialist movements; but it is not a leap to think it was also Lenin setting the stage for the NEP.

Lenin restates the dynamic he had been asserting since the formation of the Bolsheviks: that theirs was a struggle of communism against “opportunism and social-chauvinism.” This group, the Mensheviks, can be considered in Lenin’s eyes to be those without principals. But in “Infantile Disorder” Lenin names another foe, a “complement” to Menshevism: Left-wing communism. This “doctrinairism” is essentially having principals without being principled.

Ideologically, writes Lenin, the Left had already been won over. What was missing was practical action, something more: “Propaganda and agitation alone are not enough.” That action was, broadly speaking, leadership. Lenin sought to actualize “pure communism” through “all the necessary practical compromises, tacks, conciliatory manoeuvres, zigzags, retreats and so on.” It is this putting into action that gives one the opportunity to be principled, to reject opportunism. The Bolsheviks could only take principled stands in the Duma (the pre-Soviet parliament) because they were there to take them.

“It is far more difficult — and far more precious” wrote Lenin, “to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to be able to champion the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organisation) in non-revolutionary bodies, and quite often in downright reactionary bodies, in a non-revolutionary situation, among the masses who are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for revolutionary methods of action.” Lenin points out that the Red Scare around Bolshevism, both in Russia and internationally, did not start with the Revolution. Rather it was their participation in the Duma that inspired the fears.

Lenin’s general point can be summed up as so: “It is entirely a matter of knowing how to apply these tactics in order to raise — not lower — the general level of proletarian class-consciousness, revolutionary spirit, and ability to fight and win.” Returning to my DSA comrade’s sentiment, he was referring to the “knowing how” — having the power to actually effect change. But my point and, dare I be so auspicious to say, Lenin’s is that advancing socialism is about principled forward progression in general. The “principled” individualized and atomized stances are meaningless, a mere expression of a single person or party’s principles. They are not principled stances at all because they do not raise the general level of class-consciousness: they are at best naive recitation and at worst chauvinistic performance.

Of course the situation of Lenin’s Communist ambitions are not the same as DSA’s socialist ones. And Lenin himself said that one cannot simply repeat the same tactics, that there are no universalisms in revolutionary struggle as there are in revolutionary thought. But the general political principle rings true for any dissident movement operating in a capitalist democracy, and I would argue all the more-so for the current United States as for the United States of 1920 that Lenin addressed. It is only by making the compromises that allow us to enter the field and to wield power that we can be principled socialists.

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