CPGB: a dedicated follower of Lenin?

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We publish here an article written by a sympathiser, in response to a debate going on within the CPGB ("Communist Party of Great Britain") which has found expression in a series of articles about the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain on the 80th anniversary of its founding.


In his 1920 reply to Lenin's “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Hermann Gorter requested that readers excuse his frequent repetition of various points, but laments that this was necessary, seeing as the tactics of the “Lefts” were still unknown to the workers' of most countries. Unfortunately, 90 years on, it seems this is still the case. In recent weeks, there has been a noticeable upping of the tempo at which articles are produced in the pages of the Weekly Worker denouncing 'leftism', 'leftist purity', 'left sectarianism' and other related epithets, particularly in relation to the series on the formation of the original CPGB. This has reached something of a crescendo in a full article in issue 837 by Jack Conrad, “Lessons of Lenin's 'Left-Wing' Communism”, attacking this supposed 'leftist' trend. Understanding the CPGB (PCC) as a non-sectarian organisation which allows for the expression of a variety of viewpoints, I have undertaken to correct some of the misunderstandings on the part of Conrad on the tactics of Left-Communists, an exercise which I hope will also correct misunderstandings on the part of other comrades, and contribute to a more fruitful discussion of Communist tactics than some of the usual mudslinging which passes for 'discussion' in the anti-capitalist milieu, and which is unfortunately present in a large degree in the article by Conrad.

Before we begin, I would like to say that it is unfortunate that Conrad's article refers solely to Lenin's work on the subject. If the reader is to get a better and more balanced judgement of the debate in question, they will need to read the original articles and replies to Lenin's work by the Communist Left. In this connection I would like to suggest a couple of works which, in my opinion, go a good way towards expounding on the tactics of the Left. In general it is difficult to pin down works which satisfactorily sum up the positions of the entire Communist Left, as it is not a homogeneous tendency, but I would think I am not being too controversial in recommending Theses of the Abstentionist Faction of the Italian Socialist Party and The Lyons Theses as works representative of the Italian Left. On the side of the German-Dutch Communist Left, Anton Pannekoek's World Revolution and Communist Tactics is something of a classic, as is Hermann Gorter's Open Letter to Comrade Lenin, in which he responds to the arguments of LWC:AID.

I am willing to put the lack of references to the actual arguments of the Left down to a mere lapse on comrade Conrad's part, but I would like to suggest to him that in future it would be wise to refer to the arguments and works of opposing factions in the Communist movement, if he wishes to engage in constructive debate. As we go through replying to the various points made by Conrad's piece, I hope it will become clear the damage done to the overall argument by failing to make such references. We will begin with what I consider to be the main defect of the article, the lack of any clear conception of what it is arguing against.

What is the Communist Left? 

Throughout the article Conrad opens fire on targets as diverse as a faction in the CPGB which advocated abstaining form participating in the Labour leadership elections on the grounds that John McDonnell was not a candidate, to the Social-Revolutionaries and their advocacy of individual terrorism. Much like the Trotskyite slur of 'ultra-leftist', the 'leftist' category serves to lump together serious political tendencies with advocates of individualist and anti-Marxist tactics and the various aberrations of otherwise consistent centrists. It will be useful then to, in the first place, clarify exactly what the Communist Left is.

For Conrad, the essence of the Communist Left may be found in it's 'purity mania', the slogan of 'no compromises'. He gives us a wonderfully flattering description of us as petty-bourgeois driven to a frenzy by economic crises, or as young and inexperienced elements of the proletarian movement. We must commend Conrad on his commitment to Communist unity in this fashion. Nevertheless, it should come as no surprise that his argument is far from perfect.

In actual fact, the Communist Left is a historical movement consisting of those parts of the workers' movement which supported the Russian revolution and duly joined the Communist International, only to break with Comintern tactics after the 2nd/3rd congress' and be summarily expelled. It consists of differing and heterogeneous trends. For example, the Left in Italy was remarked to be 'more Leninist than Lenin', and supported Lenin's position on the trade unions and struggles against colonialism. On the question of participation in parliament, they considered the debate to be a purely tactical question. The German-Dutch left by contrast rejected the old trade unions and in time came to reject political party organisation altogether. Most modern Left-Communist organisations lean towards a synthesis of perspectives. It is bound historically by its acceptance of Marxist method and principle (such as centralism over federalism), while arguing for a principled break with social-democratic tradition. With this clarified, I cannot claim to speak on behalf of the entire Communist Left, either historically or in modern times, but nonetheless I can perhaps attempt to defend the Left from Conrad's rather confused onslaught.

Participation in Parliament

Conrad follows Lenin in basing his argument on the fact that certain facets of the October revolution have a universal significance. He says that it is mere first world arrogance that denies the relevance of the October revolution to determining our modern tactics. I consider this mistaken, especially with regards to the tactic of participating in parliament.

Russia had only had a parliamentary institution since 1905, and it met precisely four times before the revolution. It did not have time to become a recognised centre of political authority which could pose a challenge to the rule of the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' deputies. In Western Europe however, both in 1917 and even more so in the 20th century, we have, as Conrad himself notes, “a long, and more or less uninterrupted, history of bourgeois democracy”. The parliamentary-representative form of government has become a permanent feature of the political landscape, and a recognised source of legitimate political authority.

This does not mean, however, that people think that the parliamentary process is any kind of vehicle for change. In fact, people are becoming more and more apathetic, and voting turnouts are sliding downwards. This should not, in itself, be encouraged by Communists, as it represents mere apathy with political processes, and not an understanding that an alternative form of political administration is possible. Nonetheless, it would be profoundly mistaken for Communists to attempt to get people out voting and rekindling their faith in the electoral process. It is our job as Communists to show that the existing institutions do not provide a vehicle for real social change. To attempt to do this by going into those same organisations we wish to discredit and arguing within in them is nothing but the worst confusionism. 

'Artificial' forms of Labour Organisations

Conrad claims that the German-Dutch Left wanted workers' to abandon the apparently natural forms of labour organisation of the old trade union apparatus for a 'brand new and immaculate' form of organisation, which in reality was an entirely 'artificial'. A comparison is made with the  many futile modern projects to create a new 'labour' party, apparently Conrad thinks that an attempt to organise workers' outside and against the trade-union bureaucracy is in anyway comparable to Labourism, an ideology based on the upper levels of same said bureaucracy..

But what exactly does it mean to critique an organisation on the basis that it is 'artificial'? That it is not a product of spontaneous action by the workers perhaps? This is the only interpretation that I can think of. If this is so, then I think I would not be out of place in noting a 'subordination to spontaneity' in this thesis, perhaps even a somewhat 'slavish' one. Perhaps Conrad would do well to remember the 'profoundly true and important' words of Karl Kautsky to the effect that socialism itself was not a product of the proletariat but of the bourgeois intelligentsia, and that it was this strata that communicated the socialist idea to working-class militants who in their turn introduced socialist ideas into the class movement where conditions allowed. Should we reject socialism and Marxism because they are 'artificial' and not products of the 'pure' workers movement (as, I would add, some anti-communists have indeed attempted to do)? And remind me again who here is supposed to have the fetish for purity?

To begin with, the fact that the Arbeiter-Unionen movement was in any way artificial is false. The movement was born from the factory council movement which appeared during the last year of the war, and emerged “almost spontaneously, without any precise ideological definitions or attachments, during the summer of 1919.” What united them was a dissatisfaction with the existing trade-unions and the willingness to use militant tactics. The General Workers Union of Germany (Allgemeine Arbeiter Union Deutschlands or AAUD) had 80,000 members within a month of it's formation in 1920 and some have the number as high as 200,000 by the spring of 1921.

Having satisfied Conrad's infantile workerist purity fetish, perhaps we can move on to discuss the advantages of this new form of unionism from the standpoint of Marxist tactics. The first thing we should note is that, farm from being simply a more 'immaculate' form of the trade-union, the Arbeiter-Unionen represented a decisive break from the old craft and trade unionism in a number of ways. For starters, taking their inspiration in part from the American Industrial Workers' of the World, the AAUD was to be a class wideunion. However, this in itself does not necessarily differentiate the Arbeiter-Unionen form of unionism from traditional syndicalist unions, such as the Free Workers Union of Germany (Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands or FAUD), which were also arising at that time.

What really differentiated the Arbeiter-Unionen movement was it's concept of 'unitary organisation'.  This was a concept first theorised by Fritz Wollfheim in March 1917, and developed by the left-radical movement in Germany and Holland, the basic cornerstone of which was the conception of a single organisation combining the functions of party and trade-union. What this meant in practice is that although the Arbeiter-Unionen took on functions of traditional trade and craft unions, they were in actual fact revolutionary political organisations. The AAUD had a programme, according to which it's members were dedicated to the achievement of a classless society through the dictatorship of the proletariat. Early manifestations of the Arbeiter-Unionen movement also had such political objectives, for example, the Port and Shipyard Workers Union of Hamburg, as well as defending it's members immediate economic interests, had a political programme, one of the planks of which was solidarity with the Russian revolution. The Ruhr union had a similar program.

In contrast to the syndicalist unions, the Arbetier-Unionen were willing to affiliate with the Communist movement. The provisional statutes drawn up by the Bremen federation included solidarity with the Communist International. Contrast this fighting orientation with the spineless cosying up to the Prussian junker state by the yellow unions, which resulted in the union bureaucracy putting increasing pressure on the leaders of the SPD to engage in subversive politics, and manifested itself in the SPD's attempt to put a cap on mass political strikes for suffrage reform in Germany which occurred just before the war. Contrast it also with the political activity of modern trade-unions, which usually goes as far as tailing behind various single-issue campaigns, and the general lack of fighting spirit which caused the outlet Reuters to remark that “the most remarkable thing in this age of austerity is just how few strikes there have been and how weak and ineffective unions have proved... the crisis has laid bare a truth partially hidden during the boom years: Europe's unions are less powerful, less influential, and less relevant than they have been for decades.” Contrast it with May 68 in France where the unions put the cap on the strike, with the Italian Hot Autumn where workers drove the union representatives from strike meetings, with Solidarnosc in Poland which diffused the workers' committees and mass meetings and made deals with the Stalinist state apparatus, and with the pamphlets coming out in France in the wake of the current struggle criticising the union leadership for leading them to defeat.

The old trade-unions represent on the economic field what the labour and social-democratic parties represent in the political field. They represent the working-class within capitalist society and as members of that society. Although their early orientation may have been a fighting one, they have increasingly been drawn into the apparatus of the capitalist state. The Arbeiter-Unionen represents the working-class as a class with a historic interest in seizing power and dissolving their own status as proletarians, and in turn the whole of class society. 

This is not to say that there were not profound contradictions in the Arbeiter-Unionen movement. Since it was a political and not just an economic movement, the movement had various factions. These factions held together organically during the immediate revolutionary period after the war on the basis of mass action, but as the revolutionary energy of the masses began to recede, the AAUD crumbled and after 1923 almost all of it's former social weight was lost. Its commitment to 'mass action' and an anti-bureaucratic orientation which bordered on anarchism left it unable to maintain itself as a coherent organisation in a period which was no longer suitable to such action. But while it did exist its capacity as an organisation which was relevant to the class was immense. Its activity was frenzied, regularly publishing a dozen weeklies and pamphlets with print runs of up to 120,000 copies. Its role as a bridge between traditional forms of unionism and the factory councils of the future, and it's use as a pole of regroupment for militant workers outside and against the trade-unions mean that the Arbeiter-Unionen still serves as an important model in some respects for our present situation.

The Russian Left-Communists

Whilst discussing the various 'leftist infections' that occurred within the Bolshevik party, Conrad mentions the Left-Communist fraction, which included Bukharin and Radek, and which formed in 1918. Conrad claims that “signing the Brest-Litovsk treaty was the point at issue.” This is false. Signing Brest-Litovsk was a rallying point for the Left-Communists, but not the only point in issue. For the record, a good deal of Left-Communists would tend to agree with Lenin over Bukharin on the question of Brest-Litovsk. Here is the theoretical journal of the Italian Left, Bilan, for example:

Of the two tendencies in the Bolshevik party who confronted each other at the time of Brest-Litovsk, Lenin's and Bukharin's, we think that it was the former who was more in line with the needs of the world revolution. The positions of the fraction led by Bukharin, according to which the function of the proletarian state was to liberate the workers of other countries through a ‘revolutionary war', are in contradiction with the very nature of the proletarian revolution and the historic role of the proletariat.

But when we look at the program of the Left-Communists we find that certain other issues were on the agenda, such the rejection of labour discipline and the introduction of piecework, as well as agreements with the 'captains of industry', arguing that with this “rejection of active proletarian politics, the conquests of the workers' and peasants' revolution will start to coagulate into a system of state capitalism and petty bourgeois economic relations. 'The defence of the socialist fatherland' will then prove in actual fact to be defence of a petty bourgeois motherland subject to the influence of international capital.” Conrad obscures these important elements of the debate between the 1918 Left-Communists and Lenin by trying to whittle down the issues at hand to merely one of Lenin's sensible policy of the cheapest peace possible, and Bukharin's insane calls for a revolutionary war against Imperial Germany.

Labour Party Affiliation

Conrad informs us that Lenin advocated supporting the Labour party “like a rope supports a hanged man”. He then claims that this was the kind of support which the CPGB gave to Dianne Abbot in the Labour leadership election. In the first place the idea that this support was similar to what Lenin advocated is clearly absurd. The meaning of Lenin's phrase was that in power it would become clear that the Labour party leadership “are petty-bourgeois and treacherous by nature, and that their bankruptcy is inevitable”, and because of this clarity in the bankruptcy of the Labour party “it w[ould] be possible, with serious chances of success, to overthrow the government of the Hendersons at once”. This exposition first occurred clearly in 1924 when the Labour minority government threatened to use its emergency powers against striking transport workers, and it would be needless to recount how it has occurred in practically every Labour government since. But despite the presence of the 'Official Communist' party which the CPGB so dearly loves because of it's apparent relevance for the class, the latter certainly did not succeed in carrying out Lenin's expectations and overtaking the Labour party in terms of mass support.

In my humble opinion, the failure lies in the confusionist nature of the affiliation tactic. On the one hand, you have a Communist party which advocates voting for the Labour party, which therefore appears to support it, on the other hand you have this same Communist party trying to expose the  treachery of the Labour leadership. Excuse me if I am unable to comprehend the clearly quite profound and dialectically advanced reasoning behind this tactic, but to me it seems to be the most ridiculous and contradictory course of action, and I am sure it must have seemed that way to workers looking for an alternative to Labour treachery and finding only a Communist party which supported that same treachery, almost the same as building a second Labour party. I have no doubt that such an absurd course of action would produce a similar effect in the future.

The Bolshevisation of the Comintern

At the start of Conrad's article, he refers to LWC: AID as “a handbook of Bolshevism internationalised.” Although he does not intend it in this way, his language is unfortunately close to the rhetoric of the centrist gangsters who purged the Communist Left from their ranks. This may surprise some CPGB readers, as for the past few weeks we have been subjected to an onslaught of attacks on 'left sectarianism' on the part of elements like Pankhurst who formed the Communist Left in Britain. In Germany and Italy however, the Left was crucial to the formation of their respective communist parties, had a significant influence on tactics early on, and were expelled from the party by centrist leadership. Since Conrad's tactics mirror those of the Comintern expulsionists, I will end this article with a short recount of the processes by which the Left was expelled by the Communist International.

When the Communist Party of Italy was formed at the 1921 Livorno congress, as a fusion between the Abstentionist faction of the PSI and the group centred around L'Ordine Nuovo, the abstentionists comprised the majority of the new cadres, and Amadeo Bordiga was took the position of de facto leader of the party. At the fourth world congress of the Comintern however, Zinoviev demanded the PCI 'fuse' with the PSI seeing that Serrati had just expelled the reformists and declared allegiance to the International. Delegates were sent to arrange the fusion, but a rebellion against the fusion in the PSI ranks led by Pietro Nenni collapsed the negotiations. In February 1923, Bordiga was thrown into jail by Mussolini's thugs. Taking advantage of his incapacitation, the Comintern had him expelled from the leadership. This allowed Antonio Gramsci, Stalin's man through and through, to convince a slim majority of the Central Committee to vote for his position over the manifesto drafted by Bordiga while in jail, which called for freedom of discussion within the party. Bordiga still had support from the party rank and file, but as a committed centralist, instead of initiating a split, he stood his ground and argued his position within the International, one of the only ones who did against the Comintern's policy, made explicit at the fifth congress, of the 'Bolshevisation' of the western Communist parties.

In 1926 at the sixth enlarged executive of the Comintern, Bordiga asked whether “Comrade Stalin thinks the development of the Russian situation and the internal problems of the Russian Party are linked to the development of the international proletarian movement?”. For this crime of questioning Stalin's internationalist credentials, Bordiga's faction was expelled for “Trotskyism”. In his last political work of this period, a letter to Karl Korsch, he advises that the Left “still needs to receive further blows before passing to the open offensive”. Clearly the tactics of an unremitting sectarian.

In Germany, the first organised expression of the Communist Left was the International Socialists of Germany, whom Lenin praised for being the first to make a definitive break with Kautskyism:

A very great defect in revolutionary Marxism in Germany as a whole is its lack of a compact illegal organisation that would systematically pursue its line and educate the masses in the spirit of the new tasks; such an organisation would also have to take a definite stand towards opportunism and Kautskyism... That the “International Socialists of Germany” (I.S.D.) group alone remains at its post is definitely clear to everybody.”

In November 1918 the ISD became the International Communists of Germany, and in December joined with the Spartacist League to form the KPD. The clear majority of the left can be seen from the fact that, despite opposition from Luxemburg and Liebknecht, the motion opposing participation in the upcoming national assembly elections was passed by a majority of three to one.

After Luxemburg's death, leadership of the KPD fell to a supposed 'Luxemburgist' Paul Levi, who quickly revealed himself as a centrist bureaucrat. At the Frankfurt congress in August 1919, Levi packed the congress with newspaper editors, secretaries and orators, allowing only one delegate per district, a move calculated to weaken the left which was in control of almost all the party's local organisations. The move failed however, because the extraneous elements invited by the central committee moved to the Left.

At the Heidelberg congress in October the Central Committee had another shot. It distorted the voting arrangements by giving each district one vote, regardless of size, and it put forward a motion to restore the Central Committee's right to vote, giving the CC eight extra votes in its favour. The Left was slandered as 'anarcho-syndicalists' because of the fact that their papers allowed a variety of perspectives, including elements which confused the Unionen with syndicalism. Finally, the Heidelberg theses were published, which ended by declaring that “Those members of the KPD who do not share these views concerning the nature, the organization and the activity of the party, or those who have opposed them orally or in writing, must be excluded from the party.”

Initially the KPD left thought there must have been a misunderstanding and tried to mend its split from the leadership. They attempted to negotiate with the Central Committee and asserted the rights of the opposition but were continually rebuffed. They sent delegates to the third KPD congress in February 1920 and proposed the amendment of the Heidelberg Theses, but the congress reiterated that those who did not accept the theses as they stood would be excluded.

After the expulsion of the majority Left current, as Gilles Dauvé reports, the KPD practically ceased to exist:

The reports of the delegates to the Third Congress provided evidence of the party’s utter prostration. In Berlin, out of 8,000 members, only 500 supported the central committee; in Essen, 43 out of 2,000, etc. “After his experience in Rhineland-Westphalia, Brandler resigned himself to saying, ‘We no longer have a party at all’.”

It had as he notes, “been reduced to a mere skeleton financed by Moscow”. The left was excluded and the party practically destroyed for the sake of a facile 'unity' with the centrists in the USPD. Even in spite of it's exclusion, the KAPD still attempted, and briefly succeeded, to gain entry into the Communist International and argue its case.

By parading under the cover of “Bolshevism internationalised”, and writing slanderous articles which seek to combine disparate elements and canonise them en bloc as  “leftist puritans”, Conrad shows that despite his and the CPGB's calls for Marxist unity in a mass Communist party, the rhetoric does not quite match up to the sectarian practice, a sectarian practice derived, however unwittingly, from the practices of the Stalinised Comintern, and going back before that to the  liquidationist practices of the KPD under the 'Luxemburgist' leadership of Paul Levi. If Conrad is serious about his commitments, he must drop the bureaucratic centralism which is everywhere the calling card of centrism.