What is the Communist Left? (Part 1)

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We are re-publishing here the first part of an article written in 1998 for the Russian journal 'Proletarian Tribune', the aim of which was to give a brief history of the Communist Left for those who may not be well acquanted with the political tradition the ICC draws its heritage from. The full version can be found here

1. Since the defeat of the international revolutionary feat of the international revolutionary wave in the middle of the 1920s, no terms have been more distorted or abused than those of socialism, communism, and marxism. The idea that the Stalinist regimes of the former eastern bloc, or countries like China, Cuba and North Korea today, are expressions of communism or marxism is indeed the Great Lie of the 20th century, one deliberately perpetuated by all factions of the ruling class, from the extreme right to the extreme left. During the imperialist world war of 1939-45, the myth of the "defence of the socialist fatherland" was used, along with "anti-fascism" and the "defence of democracy" to mobilise workers both inside and outside Russia for the greatest slaughter in human history.

During the period from 1945-89, dominated by the rivalries between the two gigantic imperialist blocs under American and Russian leadership, the lie was used even more extensively: in the east, to justify the imperialist ambitions of Russian capital; in the west, both as an ideological cover for imperialist conflict ("defence of democracy against soviet totalitarianism") and as a means of poisoning the consciousness of the working class: pointing to the Russian labour camp and hammering home the message - if that is socialism, wouldn’t you rather have capitalism, for all its faults? And this theme became even more deafening when the collapse of the eastern bloc was said to signify the "death of communism", the "bankruptcy of marxism", and even the end of the working class itself. Further grist to this bourgeois mill was added by the "extreme" left of capitalism, Trotskyists in particular, who, although critical of its "bureaucratic deformations", continued to see a working class foundation in the Stalinist edifice.

2. This huge pile of ideological distortions has also served to obscure the real continuity and development of marxism in the 20th century. The false defenders of marxism - the Stalinists, the Trotskyists, all sorts of academic "marxologists", modernisers and philosophers - have occupied the limelight, while its real defenders have been banished to the sidelines, dismissed as irrelevant sects and, increasingly, as fossils from a lost world, when not being more directly repressed and silenced. To reconstruct the authentic continuity of marxism in this century, therefore, it is necessary to begin with a definition of what marxism is. From its first great declarations in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, marxism defined itself not as the product of isolated "thinkers" of genius, but as the theoretical expression of the real movement of the proletariat.

As such, it can only be a fighting theory, one which proves its adherence to the cause of the exploited class by the intransigent defence of the latter’s immediate and historic interests. This defence, while based on a capacity to remain loyal to fundamental and unalterable principles such as proletarian internationalism, also involves the constant enrichment of marxist theory in direct and living relationship with the experience of the working class. Furthermore, as the product of a class which embodies collective work and struggle, marxism itself can only develop through organised collectivities - through revolutionary fractions and parties. Thus the Communist Manifesto appeared as the programme of the first marxist organisation in history - the Communist League.

3. In the 19th century, when capitalism was still an expanding, ascendant system, the bourgeoisie had less need to hide the exploitative nature of its rule by pretending that black was white and capitalism was really socialism. Ideological perversions of this type are above all typical of capitalism’s historic decadence, and are most clearly expressed by the efforts of the bourgeoisie to use "marxism" itself as a tool of mystification. But even in capitalism’s ascendant phase, the unrelenting pressure of the dominant ideology frequently took the form of false versions of socialism being smuggled into the workers’ movement. It was for this reason that the Communist Manifesto was obliged to distinguish itself from "feudal", "bourgeois" and "petty bourgeois" socialism, and that the marxist fraction within the First International had to fight a two-pronged battle against Bakuninism on the one hand, and Lassallean "state socialism" on the other.

4. The parties of the Second International were founded on the basis of marxism, and in this sense represented a considerable step forward from the First International, which had been a coalition of different tendencies within the workers’ movement. But since they operated in a period of tremendous capitalist growth, when the struggle for reforms was a key focus for the energies of the working class, the social democratic parties were particularly vulnerable to the pressures towards integration into the capitalist system. These pressures expressed themselves within these parties through the development of the reformist currents who began to argue that marxism’s predictions about the inevitable downfall of capitalism had to be "revised" and that it would be possible to evolve peacefully towards socialism without any revolutionary interruptions.

During this period - particularly in the late 1890s and early 1900s - the continuity of marxism was upheld by the "left" currents who were both the most uncompromising in the defence of basic marxist principles, and the first to see the new conditions for the proletarian struggle that were arising as capitalism reached the limits of its ascendant epoch. The names which embody the left wing of the social democracy are well-known - Lenin in Russia, Luxemburg in Germany, Pannekoek in Holland, Bordiga in Italy - but it is also important to remember that none of these militants functioned in isolation. Increasingly, as the gangrene of opportunism spread through the International, they were obliged to work as organised fractions - the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Tribune group in Holland, and so on, both within their respective parties and internationally.

5. The imperialist war of 1914 and the Russian revolution of 1917 both confirmed the marxist vision that capitalism would inevitably enter its "epoch of social revolution", and precipitated a fundamental split in the workers’ movement. For the first time, organisations which both referred to Marx and Engels found themselves on different sides of the barricades: the official social democratic parties, the majority of which had fallen into the hands of the erstwhile "reformists", supported the imperialist war by invoking Marx’s writings of an earlier period, and denounced the October revolution by arguing that Russia still had to pass through a bourgeois phase of development. But in doing so, they passed irrevocably into the camp of the bourgeoisie, becoming recruiting sergeants for the war in 1914 and the bloodhounds of the counter-revolution in 1918.

This demonstrated quite conclusively that adherence to marxism is vindicated not by pious declarations or party labels but in living practice. It was the left wing currents who alone kept the banner of proletarian internationalism flying during the imperialist holocaust, who rallied to the defence of the proletarian revolution in Russia, and who led the strikes and uprisings which broke out in numerous countries in the wake of the war. And it was these same currents who provided the core of the new Communist International founded in 1919.

6. 1919 was the highpoint of the post-war revolutionary wave and the positions of the Communist International in its founding congress expressed the most advanced positions of the proletarian movement: for a total break with the social-patriotic traitors, for the methods of mass action demanded by the new period of capitalist decadence, for the destruction of the capitalist state and for the international dictatorship of the workers’ soviets. This programmatic clarity reflected the enormous impetus of the revolutionary wave, but it had also been prepared in advance by the political and theoretical contributions of the left fractions inside the old parties: thus, against Kautsky’s legalist and gradualist vision of the road to power, Luxemburg and Pannekoek had elaborated the conception of the mass strike as the soil of the revolution; against Kautsky’s parliamentary cretinism, Pannekoek, Bukharin and Lenin had revived and refined Marx’s insistence on the necessity of destroying the bourgeois state and creating the "state of the Commune". These theoretical developments were to become matters of practical politics when the hour of revolution dawned.

7. The retreat of the revolutionary wave and the isolation of the Russian revolution gave rise to a process of degeneration within both the Communist International and the soviet power in Russia. The Bolshevik party had more and more fused with a bureaucratic state apparatus which grew in inverse proportion to the proletariat’s own organs of power and participation - the soviets, factory committees and red guards. Within the International, the attempts to win mass support in a phase of declining mass activity engendered opportunist "solutions" - increasing emphasis on working within parliament and the trade unions, the appeal to the "peoples of the east" to rise up against imperialism, and above all, the policy of the United Front which threw out all the hard-won clarity about the capitalist nature of the social patriots.

But just as the growth of opportunism in the Second International provoked a proletarian response in the form of the left currents, so the tide of opportunism in the Third International was resisted by the currents of the communist left - many of whose spokesmen, such as Pannekoek and Bordiga, had already proved themselves as the best defenders of marxism in the old International. The communist left was essentially an international current and had expressions in many different countries, from Bulgaria to Britain and from the USA to South Africa. But its most important representatives were to be found precisely in those countries where the marxist tradition was at its strongest: Germany, Italy, and Russia.

8. In Germany, the depth of the marxist tradition coupled with the huge impetus coming from the actual movement of the proletarian masses had already, in the height of the revolutionary wave, engendered some of the most advanced political positions, particularly on the parliamentary and trade union questions. But left communism as such appeared as a response to the first signs of opportunism in the German Communist party and the International, and was spearheaded by the KAPD, formed in 1920 when the left opposition within the KPD was expelled by an unprincipled manoeuvre. Though criticised by the CI leadership as "infantile" and "anarcho-syndicalist", the KAPD’s rejection of the old parliamentary and trade union tactics were based on a profound marxist analysis of the decadence of capitalism, which rendered these tactics obsolete and demanded new forms of class organisation - the factory committees and workers’ councils; the same can be said for its clear rejection of the old "mass party" conception of social democracy in favour of the notion of the party as a programmatically clear nucleus - a notion directly inherited from Bolshevism. The KAPD’s intransigent defence of these acquisitions against a return to the old social democratic tactics made it the core of an international current which had expressions in a number of countries, particularly in Holland, whose revolutionary movement was closely linked to Germany through the work of Pannekoek and Gorter.

This is not to say that left communism in Germany in the early 20s didn’t suffer from important weaknesses. Its tendency to see the decline of capitalism in the form of a final "death crisis" rather than a long drawn out process made it hard for it to see the retreat of the revolutionary wave and exposed it to the danger of voluntarism; linked to this were weaknesses on the organisation question which led it to a premature break with the Communist International and the ill-fated effort to set up a new International in 1922. These chinks in its armour were to hinder it from resisting the tide of counter-revolution that set in during the 1920s and resulted in a disastrous process of fragmentation, theorised in many cases by the ideology of "councilism" which denied the necessity for a distinct political organisation.

9. In Italy, on the other hand, the communist left - which initially occupied a majority position within the Communist Party of Italy - was particularly clear on the organisation question and this enabled it not only to wage a courageous battle against opportunism within the degenerating International, but also to engender a communist fraction that was able to survive the shipwreck of the revolutionary movement and develop marxist theory during the night of the counter-revolution. But during the early 1920s, its arguments in favour of abstentionism from bourgeois parliaments, against merging the communist vanguard with large centrist parties in order to give an illusion of "mass influence", against the slogans of the United Front and the "workers’ government" were also based on a profound grasp of the marxist method.

The same applies to its analysis of the new phenomenon of fascism and its consequent rejection of any anti-fascist fronts with the parties of the "democratic" bourgeoisie. The name of Bordiga is irrevocably associated with this phase in the history of the Italian communist left, but despite the huge importance of this militant’s contribution, the Italian left is no more reducible to Bordiga than Bolshevism was to Lenin: both were organic products of the proletarian political movement.