Left wing communism and the left wing of capital
The Communist Party of Great Britain, which each summer hosts the “Communist University” in London, is different from the Socialist Workers Party. It’s extremely difficult for revolutionaries to speak at SWP meetings because they pack the floor with their own members who are pre-arranged to monopolise the brief period of debate that usually follows a lengthy introduction (or three). At the Communist University meeting titled ‘Left wing communism, an infantile disorder?’ the period of discussion was long enough and open enough for an ICC member to develop his argument. The SWP, in contrast, is not in the least open to critical theory. For example, internal discussion of the anthropological ideas of Chris Knight and Camilla Power, who have both spoken several times at ICC congresses, was ruled out by the SWP leadership. Both anthropologists gave talks at the Communist University and their ideas are given a regular airing in the CPGB paper Workers Weekly. When the SWP talk about the degeneration of the Russian revolution, they generally argue that it all went wrong under Stalin and readily agree with Lenin’s dismissal of the left communists as childish sectarians. At the meeting on left wing communism, several CPGB members or supporters agreed that the degeneration of the Soviet power began right from the beginning and expressed doubts about the leftist habit of using Lenin’s book Left wing Communism as a tactical manual for all occasions; one said that the Bolsheviks’ suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921 had been a kind of “friendly fire” tragedy.
Does this mean that there is a class difference between the CPGB and the SWP? We don’t think so. Both groups provide examples of a genuine crisis among the organisations that make up the ‘left wing of capital’: the SWP with its mass defections following the revelations about sexual violence by a member of the central committee against a female member; and (as we argue in this issue to a CPGB member who has written to us), the CPGB with its curious meandering trajectory that has led it from Stalinism (it began as a faction within the old CP) to a kind of Trotskyism and now towards a flirtation with Kautskyism and pre-1914 social democracy. But the CPGB has only moved from one location to another within the horizon of leftism without ever once questioning its historic roots in the Stalinist counter-revolution, and its adoption of a more ‘democratic’ approach than that of the more brutal SWP does not change this. This is a question we can come back to in another article but it is relevant to the sense of the intervention we made at this meeting.
The talk on Lenin’s book was given by David Broder, a former member of the Commune group which originally split from the Trotskyist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty to work on a synthesis between Trotskyism and a sort of libertarian or councilist outlook, calling for ‘communism from below’. This group was a further product of the crisis of leftism and although it gave rise to some interesting discussions in and around it, the group has never really broken the umbilical cord connecting it to the capitalist left. And although Broder has now left the group you can still say the same about his own political history.
The presentation by Broder, who had previously contributed an article on Bordiga and Bordigism to the Weekly Worker and has been in Italy researching the revolutionary movement in Italy during World War Two, contained some very accurate observations about how the survival needs of the early Soviet state pushed the Bolsheviks and the Communist International towards opportunist tactics - in particular the United Front with the social democratic parties and organisational fusion with centrist currents in Italy and Germany . This criticism had a certain councilist flavour: at one point the October revolution was described as a “coup” and the Communist International defined more or less as a tool of the Soviet state from day one. But Broder did emphasise the importance of the left communists’ defence of principles against tactical concessions which essentially reflected the increasingly national interests of the Soviet state rather than the necessity for international revolution. The intransigent internationalism of the communist left in the revolutionary period that followed the First World War was emphasised, even if it was also pointed out that they were never unified into a coherent international fraction.
And yet when it came to sketching out the history of the communist left after the 1920s, the talk descended into caricature. There was virtually no mention of the communist left in the 1930s and during World War Two, and no mention at all of the still existing political organisations of the communist left which have, in one way or another, tried to develop the work initiated in the early 1920s by the KAPD in Germany or Bordiga’s Communist Party of Italy. The impression given was that the left communist tradition evolved as follows: Socialisme ou Barbarie, with its ideas about ‘workers self-management’ in the 1950s and 60s, then the ‘communisation’ current which is uninterested in the defensive struggles of the class and demands communism right now. Included in this trend were the TPTG and Blaumachen in Greece (already inaccurate because only the second group fits this category), but particularly well-known individuals rather than political groups: Gilles Dauvé, Jacques Camatte and John Zerzan. The latter two were surely added to make the subsequent history of left wing communism look as ridiculous as possible: Camatte because, while he did begin his political life with the ‘orthodox’ Bordigists and later developed an interest in other currents of the communist left, ended up deciding that capital had become so all-powerful that the only solution was to “leave this world”, and Zerzan, who was never part of the communist left anyway, because he drifted into a kind of deep primitivism which came to the conclusion that human beings began to go wrong when they invented language.
These criticisms of Broder’s version of the subsequent evolution of left communism were included in our intervention at the meeting. Some of the previous participants had criticised Broder for not clearly drawing out any political lessons from his presentation; in defending the real continuity of the communist left, we insisted on the vital theoretical work the surviving fractions carried out in the dark period of the 30s and 40s, which led the most clear-sighted tendencies to the lesson that the role of a communist party is not to take power on behalf of the workers or identify itself with the transitional state – an error which not only pulled the Bolsheviks towards crushing working class opposition but also towards their own destruction as a party of the revolution. In particular, we insisted that the left communists were the only consistent internationalists during World War Two, along with a handful of anarchists and dissident Trotskyists, and that those currents that supported the anti-fascist war passed to the other side of the barricade, as had the social-chauvinists in 1914. This question of the integration into capitalism of the organisations of the official ‘Labour Movement’ – not of the working class itself, as the communisation theorists tend to argue – was seen in embryo by the left communists of the 20s and developed by their political descendants, who had experienced first-hand that Stalinism, for example, was not an opportunist or mistaken trend within the workers’ movement, but a direct agent of bourgeois repression against workers and revolutionaries.
This affirmation – which implies that to be a communist today you have to stand outside and against the organisations of the bourgeois left - was aimed not only at the CPGB but also at Broder who remains within the horizons of Trotskyism. This was confirmed in his response to our intervention regarding the Second World War: although he has always maintained that, unlike the Trotskyists, he regards the 1939-45 conflict as an imperialist war on both sides, at this meeting he rejected the position of the communist left that saw the patriotic Resistance as an integral part of the imperialist war fronts and opposed working inside them. For him, it was necessary to be ‘inside’ the partisans because that is where the workers were - a classically Trotskyist pretext, and itself a degenerated version of Lenin’s argument, in Left Wing Communism, in favour of working inside the reactionary trade unions.
. In fact, the left communist Partito Comunista Internationalista, formed in Italy in 1943 on an unclear basis that was criticised by our more direct political ancestors, the Gauche Communiste de France, was ambiguous about whether or not to participate in the partisan groups, as we argue in this article from no. 8 of our International Review: http://en.internationalism.org/internationalreview/197701/9333/ambiguities-internationalist-communist-party-over-partisans-italy-19