As we explained in the preceding articles in this series, the degeneration of the Communist International didn’t develop without provoking a response. In the face of this degeneration, left communist fractions stood up and energetically defended the principles being abandoned by the CI and, at the same time, tried to respond to the new questions posed by the entry of capitalism into its phase of decadence. These groups were all excluded and subjected to repression one after the other, while opportunist degeneration ate into the ranks of the International and the Communist Parties betrayed the proletarian camp.
This final article in the series highlights the trajectory of the principal groups and above all the fundamental lessons that we can draw from their combat.
1. The reaction to the opportunism within the CI: the birth certificate of the Communist Left
In the second part of this series we showed the basis on which the groups of the left arose within the Third, Communist International. As we recalled, the founding Congress was marked by some fundamental advances in the understanding of the conditions of the new historic period. However, for the majority, revolutionaries remained marked by the weight of the past and regressions were already being made in following congresses on a number of questions. This development, which heralded of the opportunist degeneration of the CI, had disastrous consequences for the revolutionary consciousness of the working class internationally. But, in the same way as the development of opportunism within the Second International gave rise to a proletarian response in the form of left currents, the growth of opportunism in the Third International met the resistance of the communist left - many of whose spokesmen, such as Pannekoek and Bordiga, had already proved in the old International to be among the best defenders of Marxism. The latter was essentially an international current and had expressions in numerous countries from Bulgaria to Britain, the United States to South Africa. However, its most important representatives were to be found in the countries where the traditions of marxism were the strongest: Germany, Italy and Russia.
And if these groups didn’t reach the same level of clarity and cohesion, all of them looked for an alternative to the degeneration of the CI and tried to defend communist principles and the communist programme while confronting new questions brought about by the entry of capitalism into its period of decadence: questions such as, are the unions still organs of the working class or have they been enmeshed in the cogs of the bourgeois state? Was it necessary to finish with the tactic of “parliamentarism”? How to understand national liberation struggles in the era of global imperialism? What were the perspectives for the new Russian state? The raising of all these problems expressed the will to arm the International which itself was unable to comprehend all the implications of the new period of “wars and revolutions”.
But the lefts within the CI remained scattered, having few links between each other. Consequently, they were not really up to taking on the role of an international current of the communist left and thus undertake the real fight of a fraction within the CI. These elements of the left were moreover gradually excluded from the ranks of the CI, under the yoke of Stalinist repression. This was particularly the case with the Workers’ Group, formed in 1922, which was the only real reaction within the Communist Party of Russia to look like a serious fraction able to formulate its critiques, not in the framework of Russia, but against the CI as such, thus expressing a clear will to become involved in the combat at an international level. But very quickly it became victim of the repression from 1923; its main elements were imprisoned by the GPU, thus preventing the group from developing and fulfilling its role.
This fragmentation increased as the different groups were excluded. “At the time of the death of the CI, the German Left, which was already dispersed into several parts, fell into activism and adventurism, and was eliminated under the blows of a bloody repression; the Russian Left was inside Stalin's prisons; the weak British and American Lefts had long since disappeared. Outside Trotskyism, it was essentially the Italian Left and what remained of the Dutch Left which, from 1928 on, would maintain a proletarian political activity -- without Bordiga and without Pannekoek -- by each making a different assessment of the experience that they had had.” We can really see to what point the reflux of the revolutionary wave during the 1920’s and the first blows of the counter-revolution were a terrible test which wiped out a large part of the revolutionary minorities. But whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the lefts, it is nevertheless essential to consider them all as attempts by the proletariat to develop, at the historical level, a consciousness of the conditions of its revolutionary combat to overthrow capitalism. Further, they all had in common the characteristic of joining in the intransigent defence of the class terrain of the proletariat. Similarly, left communism didn’t come from out of nowhere but from the revolutionary movement of the time. On the contrary, it constituted an organic reaction to the abandonment of principles by the CI and its former vanguard, the Bolshevik Party. It was thus normal that as in Russia, in Italy, Germany and elsewhere the different groups of the communist left had come from inside the Communist Parties. It was time therefore for the fight of the fraction to straighten up the CI which was bending under the growing weight of opportunism: “It is the responsibility of the minority, which upholds the revolutionary programme, to conduct an organised struggle for its victory within the party. Either the Fraction succeeds, its principles triumph and the party is saved, or the party continues to degenerate and pass bag and baggage into the bourgeois camp. The moment when the proletarian party passes into the bourgeois camp is not easy to determine. However, one of the most important signs of this passage is the fact that no proletarian political life any longer appears within the party. It is the responsibility of the Left Fraction to continue the fight within the party as long as there remains any hope of redressing it; this is why during the late 1920’s and early 30’s, the left currents did not leave the parties of the CI, but were excluded, often by means of sordid manoeuvres”.
It’s not a question here of asking why the fractions of the left were not up to “winning” the combat, nor of why, while the CI noted the reflux in the revolutionary wave, the necessity to fall back in good order and prepare the conditions for the resurgence of a future party was not more largely understood in its ranks. As the saying goes, with enough ifs, buts and maybes you could put Paris in a bottle! What’s important to us concerns rather the way in which the left fractions undertook the struggle against the opportunist degeneration of the CI. As we saw above, not all of them were to make the same contribution to the historic struggle of the proletariat against capitalist exploitation and the domination of the bourgeoisie.
It is thus indispensable to be able to draw all the lessons of their trajectories and the evolution that they went through during the counter-revolutionary period which opened up at the end of the 1920’s.
2. The fundamental contribution of the Italian Left
“Faced with the demise of the CI, the problem is posed of the formation of cadres capable of reconstructing the international organisation of the proletariat. With this aim it is necessary to set up fractions of the left in each country. The political basis of them must be found, in the first place, in the very foundations of the CI and perfected following a critique of all the events following the war. This critique should represent the specific contribution of each proletariat to the problems that the CI wasn’t able to resolve at the time of its foundation.” Such was the orientation proposed by the Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy to all the forces of proletarian opposition. This was in 1933, and the Italian Fraction, seeing the death of the CI, made an appeal to draw all the lessons of the setback of the revolutionary wave in order to arm the proletariat for future battles and assume political continuity up to the time when favourable conditions for the upsurge of a new class party came together. In other words, it was a question of taking on the real work of a fraction.
Among all the groups of the left involved in the fight against the opportunist degeneration of the CI at the end of the 20’s, the Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy made the richest contribution by far. Why? Because it was alone in assimilating in depth the contribution of the Bolshevik Party within the 2nd International between 1903 and 1917; and because it understood that it was a matter of putting a similar work in place faced with the suicidal path taken by the CI. It was thus a question of presenting itself as: “an organisation inside the party which is united not by place of work, by language or by any other objective condition, but by a system of common conceptions on the problems posed to the party”. What appears essential to us here doesn’t reside in the content of the debates themselves but rather in the method with which the Italian Left tried to defend its positions with the aim of “redressing” the International. Disagreements between the CI and the CP of Italy appeared very early on, from 1920-21, at the time when the CI declared the slogan of the “United Front”, of a “workers’ government” and the creation of mass parties through the fusion of the CP with various centrist currents. Up to 1925, the majority of the CP of Italy, animated in particular by Amadeo Bordiga, turned out to be the most determined to counter all this political opportunism. But the process of the “Bolshevisation” of the Communist Parties changed the conditions in which the left was able to undertake the fight, since the 1925 mid-April enlarged Executive of the CI ordered the elimination of the “Bordiga tendency” for the Third Congress of the CP of Italy. Despite this political manoeuvring, the new “minority” of the Italian CP tried to give itself all the means to pursue the combat within the Communist International. This is what it did at the Pantin Congress of April 1928 by constituting itself as “the Left Fraction of the Communist International” and not only of the Italian CP. Faced with pressures, manoeuvres and the denigrations which became the norm within the Communist Parties, the Fraction never gave up and was able to defend the principles of the communist programme as much through the press – fortnightly publication (monthly from 1933) of the journal Prometeo – as through interventions in the factories and demonstrations. It was also very active in opening up to common work with groups at the international level through the confrontation of positions with a view to the regroupment of revolutionary forces on the basis of clear principles and a clear programme.
This work became even more crucial from 1933 when the disarmament of the international proletariat faced by the victory of Nazism in Germany largely consecrated the victory of the counter-revolution. The time was no longer to struggle for turning the CI around but of drawing the lessons of the defeat of the revolution and the degeneration of the International so as to strengthen the world proletariat and prepare the conditions for the resurgence of the future party. For that to happen it was important not to avoid any questions and of facing up to the fundamental problems confronted by the proletariat and its organisations since October 1917. This theoretical and political work, exemplified by Bilan, wouldn’t have been possible without a profound understanding of the demands of the work of a fraction. In 1935, taking on board the definitive passage of the CP into the camp of the counter-revolution, it henceforth saw itself as an external fraction in order to continue to lead the fight for communism: “This special situation of the Third International has already resulted in a great number of capitulations coming mainly from the fact that militants think it essential is to keep the organic links with the Communist Parties, and who haven’t understood that the essential is to construct the organism which is demanded by the new situation, and which has to find a communist solution to the same problems which have given birth to centrism.”
The theoretical and political contribution of the Italian Fraction up to 1944-1945 will subsequently be continued and enriched by the Communist Left in France up to 1952 and the International Communist Current from 1975!
3. The failure of the KAPD to take up the fight of a fraction
Unfortunately the German Left was unable to follow the same trajectory. If, very early on, the KAPD defended clear positions on the rejection of parliamentary work or participation in the unions, it wasn’t able to achieve the same organisational coherence of the Italian Left, seeing itself as having an organic continuity with the old party. Quite to the contrary, its whole trajectory after its exclusion from the CI at its 3rd Congress in September 1921, would even be characterised by calling into question the purely proletarian nature of the revolution in Russia (and of the Bolshevik Party) to the profit of a vision of a “dual revolution”, both bourgeois and proletarian; bourgeois, because it suppressed feudalism in order to bring capitalism to the countryside; proletarian, because it suppressed capitalism in the towns. The same incomprehension of the gradual process of degeneration is found in its analysis of the 3rd International, which was already thought of as having been totally absorbed by the Russian state. Thus, the KAPD thought that all the sections of the CI (the Communist Parties) were definitively lost. This implied that no revolutionary fractions could arise from within it or within the Communist Parties. This whole theoretical scaffolding justified the proclamation of a Communist Workers’ International (KAI). This totally artificial and voluntarist foundation of an alternative International led to the party splitting (between partisans and opponents of the KAI) and its numerical disintegration. It revealed a lack of understanding of the role of the party within the class and the relationship between fraction and party that could only lead to failure.
This suicidal policy was to be heavy with consequence for the revolutionary movement since it considerably weakened the capacity of the left communist fractions to group together in order to carry on the fight against the degeneration of the CI to the end. The Dutch Left, which subsequently took up the theoretical spirit of the German Left, went on to amplify these errors on the organisational question. The councilist current, in the image of the Group of Internationalist Communists (founded in 1927), came to purely and simply deny the necessity for revolutionary organisations as an active factor of the class struggle and of the development of consciousness. This was to the profit of a federation of “working groups” reduced to the sole role of giving an opinion. This was a real regression on the question of organisation within the communist left since the latter was reduced to a merely decorative addition to the class. Moreover, the century just passed is there to witness the weakness of the councilist current faced with the challenges posed to revolutionaries in the decadence of capitalism.
4. Trotsky and the Left Opposition: a catastrophic policy
“In the past, we have defended the fundamental notion of the ‘fraction’ against the idea of an ‘opposition’. By fraction we understand it to be the organism which builds the cadres to ensure the continuity of the revolutionary struggle and which is called upon to become the protagonist of the proletarian victory. Against us, the concept of the ‘opposition’ has triumphed within the International Left Opposition. The latter has affirmed that you should not have to proclaim the necessity for the formation of cadres: the key to events can be found in the hands of centrism and not in the hands of the fraction. This divergence has now taken on a new aspect: the basic contrast is the same, although at a first look it seems that the problem today is this: for or against new parties. For the second time comrade Trotsky totally neglects the work of the formation of cadres, thinking it possible to pass immediately to the construction of new parties and of a new International”. This statement made by the Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy in the first number of its theoretical review Bilan contains the central question posed to all the organisations engaged in the reaction to the degeneration of the CI: “What are the tasks of the hour? The fight of the fraction or the creation of a new party?” These two discordant approaches express a major divergence between the Left Fraction and Left Opposition led by Trotsky.
As we described in the preceding article, the years 1921-1922 were marked by the combat led by Lenin against the rise within the Communist Party of Russia, then of the CI, of the bureaucratic faction led by Stalin. Although the means Lenin advocated expressed a clear inability to remedy the situation, Lenin well understood that the direction taken by the RCP distanced itself a little more each day from the proletarian camp.
However, he put all his political energy into a desperate battle against the growth of Stalinism and asked Trotsky to join with him in the fight against bureaucratism in general and Stalin in particular.
But from 1923, and his forced retreat from political life, a real, open crisis broke out within the RCP. On one side, the bureaucratic faction consolidated its grip, initially under the form of a “triumvirate” formed by Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, whose main cement was its need to isolate Trotsky. This enterprise showed itself in the form of a real cabal against the “best of the Bolsheviks”, as he recalled in his autobiography: “Lenin was resting at Gorki; myself at the Kremlin. The epigones were enlarging the circles of their plot. (...) A whole new science was created: the fabrication of artificial reputations, making up biographical fantasies, claims of a leadership appointed in advance. (...) Later, when Zinoviev and Kamenev fought Stalin, the secrets of this first period were revealed by the very accomplices in the plot; because it really was a conspiracy. A secret political bureau was created to which all the members of the official political bureau belonged except me. (...) Leaders in the party and the state were chosen systematically according to a single criterion: ‘against Trotsky’. (...) Thus a certain type of ‘careerism’ was determined which later became openly called ‘anti-Trotskyism’. (...) At the end of 1923, in all the sections of the Communist International, the same work was undertaken: Leaders were removed, others kept their places according to the attitude that they had taken towards Trotsky.”
Since then, during the course of 1923, an opposition appeared in the ranks of the RCP. It took the form of a political platform signed by 46 militants either close to Trotsky, or coming from the Democratic Centralist group. This “Platform of the 46” expressed two things above all:
- the necessity for greater state planning in the economic domain;
- a warning against the suffocation of the internal life of the party.
But, at the same time, the platform publicly took its distance from the Left Communists within the RCP, labelling them “unhealthy”.
Although Trotsky didn’t sign the Platform, he openly took part in this left opposition while several times showing hesitations to engage with the struggle against the Stalinist faction in a determined and intransigent way, thus revealing a tendency towards centrism that made him more and more incapable of defending essential principles. This indecision showed itself at the 5th Congress of the CI (June 1924) when Bordiga pressed him to become the spokesman of a Left Opposition at an international level. Trotsky refused, even asking Bordiga to approve the motion of the 13th Congress of the RCP so as not to be excluded.
While we can always invoke individual characteristics, the essential reason for Trotsky’s timidity lay in his incapacity:
- to understand that Stalinism constituted the bourgeois counter-revolution in Russia:
- to draw the lessons of how the politics undertaken by the party (in which he had largely participated) had accelerated the course of its degeneration.
In other words Trotsky and the opposition in Russia did not at all understand the meaning of the struggle to be waged, namely, fraction work aimed at re-directing the party away from its opportunist course. Instead of that, the Opposition continued to defend tooth and nail “the banning of fractions” adopted at the 10th Congress of the RCP in 1921. Consequently, “inasmuch as it sees itself, not as revolutionary fraction trying to safeguard the theoretical and organisational gains of the October Revolution, but as a loyal opposition to the Russian Communist Party, it will not go beyond a certain ‘manoeuvrism’, making unprincipled alliances with the aim of changing an almost completely gangrened party (for example, Trotsky looking for the support of Zinoviev and Kamenev who had continually slandered him since 1923). For all these reasons, one could say that the ‘left opposition’ of Trotsky in Russia always fell below the proletarian oppositions which appeared from 1918.”
However, the oppositional tendency succeeded in organising itself internationally but in a dispersed fashion, without any real rigour on the organisational level. It was only from 1929 and the expulsion of Trotsky from the USSR that an International Left Opposition organised itself in a more centralised way without being able to go beyond the errors and confusions carried by the CI.
Consequently, it “constituted in more ways than one the extension of what had been represented by the setting up and the struggle of the ‘Left Opposition’ in Russia. It went backwards on the main ideas and claimed the first four congresses of the CI. Moreover, it perpetuated the ‘manoeuvrism’ which already characterised the ‘Left Opposition’ in Russia. In many ways this ‘Opposition’ was an unprincipled regroupment of all those who wanted to make a left criticism of Stalinism. It banned all real political clarification within its ranks and left to Trotsky, who was seen as a living symbol of the October Revolution, the task of becoming its spokesman and ‘theoretician’. In these conditions it very quickly turned out incapable of resisting the effects of the counter-revolution which was developing on a global scale on the basis of a defeat of the international proletariat.”
The incapacity of the Trotskyist current to become involved in the work of a left fraction, restricting itself to the role of a simple “opposition” to Stalinism, equally led it to see the construction of the party as a matter of “will” without taking into consideration “the conditions of the class struggle contingent as they are upon the historical development and the rapport de force of the existing classes.”
So, far from bringing forward any credible contribution to the ranks of a working class suffering from the full force of the assaults of the counter-revolution, Trotskyism took over a good number of opportunist positions developed within the CI, actively participating in the disorientation of the world proletariat and finishing up capitulating and abandoning proletarian internationalism during the course of World War II in the name of anti-fascism and the defence of the “workers’ state”.
The founding of the Communist International in March 1919 was the most profound undertaking by revolutionaries which provided the working class with an organisation capable of leading it to victory. A century later, the history of this heroic moment of the struggle of the proletariat, and the lessons that revolutionaries have drawn from it, should not be displayed like goods in a shop window. Quite the contrary; all this legacy must be at the heart of the preoccupations of revolutionaries today so that they are able to defend the clearest conception of how the party of tomorrow must be built. We hope that the effort of deepening the questions undertaken throughout this series of articles offers a pertinent contribution to the reflection and to the discussion in the whole of the revolutionary milieu on a subject of such great importance for future combats. For now, we think that we can affirm some major lessons regarding the political conditions in which the party will have to emerge:
1. The foundation of the party must be determined by the conditions of the class struggle.
2. The necessity for the party to be established before the outbreak of a revolutionary wave.
3. The regroupment of revolutionary forces must be based on the clarification of principles programme and not on the basis of a simple desire to participate in the revolutionary struggle. As Bordiga said, the party is above all “a programmatic body and a will to act”.
4. In the period preceding the foundation of the party, the fraction type of work is the one and only organisational form allowing revolutionaries to prepare for its construction.
Nadjek (11th November 2022).
 For a more complete and global idea of the Left Fractions in Russia see:
- “The Communist Left in Russia: 1918-1930 (Part 1)”, International Review no. 8.
- “The Communist Left in Russia: 1918-1930 (Part 2)”, International Review no. 9.
 “Convulsions in the revolutionary milieu”: the PCI (Communist Program) at a turning point in its history”, International Review no. 32 (1st quarter, 1983).
 “Polemic: Origins of the ICC and the IBRP (part one) – The Italian Fraction and the French Communist Left”, International Review no. 90 (3rd quarter, 1997).
 “Draft constitution of an International Bureau of Information”, Bilan no. 1, November 1933.
 “The necessity for the Left Fraction of the Communist Party”, Bulletin d’information de la Fraction de gauche italienne no. 6. What the Italian Left inaccurately called “centrism” within the CI referred to the bureaucratic Stalinist faction, which in reality was the incarnation of the counter-revolution.
 See “One hundred years after the foundation of the Communist International, what are the lessons for future struggles? (part 2)”, International Review no. 163, (second quarter, 2019).
 We can’t tarry here over the details of the history of the KAPD. For more ample developments in this respect see:
- “The conception of organisation in the Dutch and German Left”, International Review no. 37 (third quarter 1984).
“Theses on the role of the party in the revolution”, International Review no. 41 (2nd quarter 1985).
- The Dutch Left. Contribution to the history of the revolutionary movement, “Chapter V: Gorter, the Communist Left and the founding of the KAI”, an ICC book.
 For more detail on this see the article “How to understand the defeat of the Russian revolution, 1922-1023: Communist Fractions against the growth of the counter-revolution”, International Review no. 101.
 Leon Trotsky, My Life, “The Conspiracy of the Epigones”, Chapter XL.
 In reality the Russian Left Communists, in particular Miasnikov’s Workers’ Group, expressed the clearest vision in Russia about how to fight against the degeneration of the RCP and the CI.
 “Trotskyism, product of the counter-revolution”, Le Trotskyisme contre la classe ouvrière, ICC pamphlet in French.
 The left opposition notably claimed the first four congresses of the CI.
 “Trotskyism, product of the counter-revolution”.
 “The methods of Left Communism and those of Trotskyism”, Internationalisme no. 23 (June 1947).
 For more precision on the evolution of the Trotskyism, see our pamphlet in French: Le trotskyisme contre la classe ouvrière.