Combat of the "Lefts" in the International: Responsibility of Revolutionaries faced with the Degeneration of the International

Printer-friendly version

If there is one struggle that marxist revolutionaries worthy of the name have always fought to the bitter end, even in the most difficult conditions, it is to save their organisation - whether Party or International - from the grip of opportunism, and to prevent it from falling into degeneration, or worse still into betrayal.

This was the method of Marx and Engels in the First International. It was the method of the "lefts" in the Second International. We should remember that Rosa Luxembtirg, Karl Liebknecht and the Spartakists1 took rime to decide on their break with the old party, whether the German Social-Democracy or with the USPD. At best, they hoped to overthrow the opportunist leadership by winning over the majority in the party. At worst, once there was no longer any hope of reconquering the party, they hoped to take as many militants with them when they split. They went on fighting as long as the smallest spark of life remained in the party, and they could still win over the best elements. This has always been the method, the only method, of marxist revolutionaries. Moreover, historical experience has shown that the "lefts, rather than split, have usually resisted to the point where they were themselves excluded by the old party2. Trotsky, for example, spent more than six years of struggle within the Bolsehvik Party before eventually being excluded.

The combat of the "lefts" within the Third International is especially revealing, inasmuch as it was fought during the most terrible period of the workers' movement: that of the longest and most terrible counter-revolution in history, which began at the end of the 1920s. And yet, it was in the midst of this counter-revolutionary situation, this powerful ebb in the workers' movement, that the militants on the left of the Communist International were to undertake an unforgettable struggle. Some amongst them thought it lost from the outset, but this did not daunt them, or prevent them from going into combat3. And so, while there remained the slightest hope of redressing the party and the Cl, they considered it their duty to try to save what they could from the grip of a triumphant Stalinism. Today, this struggle is at best minimised and at worst completely forgotten by those elements who leave their organisation at the first disagreement, or because of their "wounded honour". This attitude is an offence to the working class, and clearly expresses the contempt of the petty bourgeois for the hard struggle of generations of workers and revolutionaries, sometimes at the cost of their lives, which these gentlemen consider perhaps to be beneath their notice.

The Italian Left not only put tins method into practice, it enriched it politically and theoretically. On the basis of this heritage, the ICC has developed the question on several occasions, and has shown when and how it can happen that the party betrays the class4. An organisation's positions on imperialist war and proletarian revolution allow us to determine whether or not it has irrevocably betrayed the class. As long as the organisation's treason is not yet evident, as long as the party has not passed, arms and baggage, into the enemy camp, the role of true revolutionaries is to fight, tooth and nail, to keep it within the proletarian camp. This is what the left did in the CI, in the most difficult conditions of utterly triumphant counter-revolution.

This policy is still valid today. It is all the easier to undertake today, in a course towards class confrontations, in an altogether easier situation for the struggle of the proletariat and of revolutionaries. In the present historic context, where neither revolution nor world war are on the agenda, it is much less likely that a proletarian organisation would betray5. Any conscious and consistent revolutionary should therefore apply the same method if he thinks his own organisation is degenerating: in other words, he should fight within the organisation to redress it. There should be no question of adopting a petty bourgeois attitude of trying to "save one's own soul", which is the tendency of some armchair revolutionaries whose individualist or contestationist tendencies readily attract them to the sirens of political parasitism. This is why, all those who leave their organisation, accusing it of all manner of faults, and without having fought the fight out to the bitter end - as in the case of RV for example6 - are irresponsible, and deserve to be treated like poor little unprincipled petty bourgeois.

The long struggle of the left in the Communist International

The crisis in the communist movement emerged into the broad light of day during 1923. A few events demonstrated this: after the Third Congress of the Cl, will revealed the growing weight of opportunism, and after repression was unleashed in Russia on Kronstadt, while strikes developed notably in Petrograd and Moscow. At the same time, the Workers' Opposition was created within the Russian Communist Party.

Trotsky summed up the general feeling when he declared that "The fundamental reason for the crisis of the October Revolution lay in the delay of the world revolution"7. And indeed, the delay in the world revolution weighed heavily on the entire workers' movement. The latter was also disoriented by the state capitalist measures taken in Russia under the NEP (New Economic Policy). The latest defeats suffered by the proletariat in Germany put off still further any hope of an extension of the revolution in Europe. Revolutionaries, Lenin among them8, began to doubt the outcome. In I 923, the Russian revolution was being strangled economically by a capitalism that dominated the planet. On this level, the situation of the USSR was catastrophic, and the problem posed to the leadership was whether the NEP should be maintained in its entirety or corrected through help to industry.

The beginning of Trotsky's struggle

Trotsky began his fight9 within the CPSU Politburo, where a majority wanted to maintain the status quo. He disagreed on the question of the economic situation in Russia, and on the CPSU's internal organisation. The divergence was kept within the Politburo, to avoid breaking party unity. It was only made public in the autumn of 1923, in Trotsky's book The New Course10.

Other expressions of opposition also appeared:

- A letter of 15th October 1923, addressed to the Politburo and signed by 46 well-known personalities, including left and opposition communists (Piatakov and Preobrazhensky, but also Ossinski, Sapronov, Smirnov, etc). They called for the convocation of a special conference to take the measures demanded by the situation, without waiting for the Congress;

- The creation of the Democratic Centralism group by Sapronov, Smirnov, and others;

- The reactivation of the Workers' Opposition with Shliapnikov;

- The creation of the Workers' Group of Miasnikov, Kuznezov and others (see the "Manifeste du groupe ouvrier du PCUS", February 1923, published in Invariance no.6, 1975).

At the same time, Bordiga, writing from prison, made his first serious criticism of the CI, in particular on the question of the "United Front", in his "Manifesto to all the comrades of the PCI". On the basis of this disagreement, he asked to be relieved of all his functions as a leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), so as not to have to defend positions with which he disagreed11.

Like Trotsky, Bordiga's attitude was cautious, with a view to developing a more effective political struggle. Two years later, he explained the key to his method in a letter to Korsch (26th October 1926): "Zinoviev and Trotsky are men with a great sense of realism; they have understood that we must still suffer the blows without going onto the offensive". This is how revolutionaries act: with patience. They are capable of conducting a long struggle to arrive at their goal. They know how to suffer blows, to advance cautiously, and above all to work, to draw tile lessons for the future struggles of the working class.

This attitude is a million miles removed from that of the "Sunday revolutionaries”, greedy for any immediate success, or of our "armchair revolutionaries", interested only in "saving their own souls", like an RV who has run away from his responsibilities while complaining all the time that the ICC during the latest internal debates in which he took part has subjected him to a fate worse than Stalin inflicted on the left opposition! Quite apart from its slanderous nature, such an accusation would be laughable were it not so serious. And nobody who knows anything about the left Opposition and its tragic end will believe such a fairytale for an instant.

The crisis of 1925-26

The period that followed the CI's Fifth Congress was characterised by:

- The continued "Bolshevisation" of the CPs, and what has been called the "turn to the right" of the CI. The aim of Stalin and his henchmen was to eliminate the leadership of the French and German parties in particular, in other words those of Treint and Ruth Fischer, which had been Zinoviev's spearhead at the 5th Congress, and which were not prepared to make the turn to the right.

- The "stabilisation'' of capitalism, which for the CI's leadership meant that an "adaptation" was necessary. The report on political activity of the Central Committee to the 14th Congress of the CPSU (December 1925) states: "What we took at one time for a brief pause, has been transformed into a whole period".

Outside the debates of the Congress, the most important event for the workers' movement was the disintegration, at the end of 1925, of the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, which had led the International and the CPSU since Lenin had been forced to give up political activity. Why did this happen? In fact, the triumvirate's existence was tied to the struggle against Trotsky. Once the latter, and the first opposition movement had been reduced to silence, Stalin no longer needed the "old Bolsheviks" around Zinoviev and Kamenev to take control of the Russian state and party, and of the International. The situation of "stabilisation" gave him the opportunity to change tack.

Although opposing Stalin internal Soviet policy, Zinoviev had expressed the same view on world policy: "The first difficulty lies in the adjournment of the world revolution. At the beginning of the October Revolution, we were convinced that the workers of other countries would come to our rescue in a matter of months, or at worst, of years. Today, sadly, the adjournment of the world revolution is an established fact, it is certain that the partial stabilisation of capitalism represents a whole epoch, and that this presents us with a new, much greater and more complex, series of difficulties".

However, while the leadership of the party and the Cl recognised this "stabilisation"; at the same tune they declared that the vision and policies of the Fifth Congress had been correct. They made a political turn-around without saying so openly.

While Trotsky remained silent, the "Italian Left" adopted a more political attitude by continuing the struggle openly. Bordiga raised the Russian question, and the "Trotsky question" in an article in L'Unita.

The left of the PCI created the "Entente Committee" in order to oppose the "Bolshevisation" of the party (March-April 1925). Bordiga did not join the committee immediately, in order to avoid being expelled from the party by the Gramsci leadership. Only in June did he come round to the views of Damen, Fortichiari, and Repossi. The committee, however, was only a means of organisation, not a real fraction. In the end, the "left" was' forced to dissolve the committee to avoid being excluded from the party, despite holding a majority within it.

In Russia, spring 1926 saw the creation of the Unified Opposition around the first opposition of Trotsky, joined by Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Krupskaya, with a view to preparing the 15th Congress of the CPSU.

Stalin's repression increased, striking tins time at the new opposition:

- Serebriakov and Preobrazhensky12 were expelled from the Party;

- others (like Miasnikov, of the Workers' Group) were imprisoned, or on the point of being imprisoned (eg Fichelev, director of the national printing works);

- some of the foremost combatants of the Civil War were thrown out of the army (such as Grunstein, the director of the aviation school, and the Ukrainian Okhotnikov):

- throughout the country, in the Urals, Moscow, Leningrad, the GPU had decapitated the Opposition's local organisation by expelling its leaders from the Party.

Then, in October 1927, Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the Central Committee of the CPSU.

After 1927, the struggle continues

The capitulation of Zinoviev and his supporters did not prevent the Russian left from continuing the struggle. Neither insults, nor threats, nor expulsion from the Party, could stop these true militants of the working class.

"Exclusion from the Party deprives us of our rights as members of the Party, but it cannot relieve us of the obligations undertaken by each one of us when we entered the Communist Party. Although we have been excluded from the Party, we will nonetheless remain faithful to its programme, its traditions, its banner. We will continue to work to strengthen the Communist Party, and its influence in the working class"13.

Rakovsky gives us here a remarkable lesson in revolutionary politics. This is the marxist method, our method. Revolutionaries never leave their organisations unless they are excluded, and even then they continue the fight to redress the organisation.

During the years that followed, the members of the opposition did everything they could to return to the Party. They were in fact convinced that their exclusion would only be temporary.

In January 1928, however, the deportations began. These were extremely severe, since the deportees were guaranteed no means of subsistence in their assigned residence. Insults and worse descended on the families who remained in Moscow, often losing their right to an apartment. Trotsky left for Alma Ata, followed 48 hours later by Rakovsky's departure for Astrakhan. Still the struggle continued, as the Opposition organised in exile.

Despite a succession of new blows, the members of the opposition and their most notable representative, Rakovsky, continued an untiring struggle despite successive capitulations and Trotsky's expulsion from the USSR.

During this period, the GPU cunningly circulated rumours that Stalin would at last implement the policy of the Opposition. This immediately started to break up the Opposition, a process in which Radek seems to have played the part of provocateur14. The weakest gave up. The Stalinists in power were able to detect the waverers, and to determine the best moment either to strike them down or bring them to capitulate.

Faced with these new difficulties, in August 1929 Rakovsky drew up a declaration: "We appeal to the Central Committee (...) asking it to help us return to the Party by releasing the Bolshevik-Leninists (...) and by recalling Trotsky from exile (…) We are entirely ready to give up fraction methods of struggle and to submit to the statutes of the Party, which guarantee every member the right to defend his communist opinions".

This declaration had no chance of being accepted, firstly because it called for Trotsky's return from exile, but also because it was drawn up in such a way as to reveal Stalin's duplicity and responsibility in the whole business. It achieved its aim. and broke the wave of panic in the ranks of the Opposition. The capitulations stopped.

Despite traps, harassment, and assassinations, Rakovsky and the Opposition centre continued the organised struggle until 1934. Most of them continued their resistance in the camps15.

When Rakovsky abandoned the fight, it was not in the same shameful way as Zinoviev and his followers, for example. Bilan, for one, declared clearly: "Comrade Trotsky (...) has published a note where, after declaring that this is not an ideological and political surrender, he writes: "We have repeated many times that the only path to a restoration of the CP in the USSR is the international one. The case of Rakovsky confirms this in a negative, but striking manner". We express our solidarity with this evaluation (...) of the Rakovsky case, since his last act has nothing to do with the shameful surrender of Radek, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and others ...".

An international struggle

The struggle also unfolded at a world level, with the creation of an international left opposition following Trotsky's expulsion from the USSR in 1929.

The CI's 6th Plenum (February-March, 1926) saw Bordiga's last appearance at a meeting of the International. In his speech, he declared: "It is desirable that a left resistance should be formed internationally, against suck dangers from the right; but I must say quite openly that this healthy, useful, and necessary reaction cannot and must not appear in the form of manoeuvre and intrigue, or rumours spread in the corridors".

From 1927 onwards, the struggle of the Italian Left was to continue in exile, in France and Belgium, Those militants who had been unable to leave Italy were in prison, or like Bordiga assigned to residence in the islands. The Left fought on within the communist parties and the CI, despite the fact that many of its militants had been expelled. Its basic aim was to intervene within these organisations, in order to correct an avoidable course towards degeneration. "The communist parties are organs where we must struggle to combat opportunism. We are convinced that the situation will force the leadership to reintegrate us as an organised fraction, unless it should lead to the complete eclipse of the communist parties. We consider this extremely unlikely, but in this case also we will still be able to fulfil our duty as communists"16.

This vision reveals the difference between Trotsky and the Italian Left. In April 1928. the latter constituted a fraction, in response to the resolution of the 9th extended plenum of the CI (9th to 25th February, 1928), which decided that it was not possible to remain a member of the CI while supporting the positions of Trotsky. From that moment, the members of the Italian Left could no longer remain as members of the International, and found themselves obliged to form a fraction.

In its founding resolution, the Fraction assigned itself the following tasks:

"1) the reintegration of all those expelled from the International who support the Communist Manifesto and accept the Theses of the 2nd World Congress;

2) the convocation of the 6th World Congress under the chairmanship of Leon Trotsky;

3) putting on the agenda of the 6th World Congress the expulsion of all those elements who declare their solidarity with the resolutions of the 15th Congress of the CPSU17"18.

Thus, while the Russian Opposition hoped to be reintegrated into the Party, the Italian Left aimed above all to survive as a fraction within the CPs and the International, because it thought that their regeneration now depended on the work as a fraction. "By fraction, we understood the organism which develops the cadres who will ensure the continuity of the revolutionary struggle, and which is called to become the protagonist of the future proletarian victory (...) Against us, [the Opposition] declared that we should not have asserted the necessity of the formation of cadres: since the key to events is to be found in the hands of the centrists, and not of the fractions"19.

Today, this policy of repeated demands to reintegrate the CI (which the Italian Left only abandoned after 1928) might seem incorrect, since it failed to halt the degeneration of the communist parties and the International. But without it, the opposition would have been outside the Cl and its isolation even worse. The members of the opposition would have been cut off from the mass of communist militants, and would no longer have been able to influence their evolution20. It was this method, which the Italian Left was to theorise later, which made it possible to maintain the link with the workers' movement, and to transmit the Left's acquisitions to today's Communist Left, of which the ICC is a part.

By contrast, the isolationist policy of a group like Reveil Communiste21 for example, was to prove catastrophic, and the group did not survive it. It was unable to give birth to an organised current. Above all, it confirmed the classic method and principle of the workers' movement: you do not split lightly from a proletarian organisation; nor without having first exhausted all possibilities and used every means, to clarify tile political divergences, and to convince a maximum of healthy elements.

The lessons drawn by the Italian Left

We have not sketched this broad historical tableau for the pleasure of playing the historian, but to draw the necessary lessons for the workers' movement and our class today. This lengthy exegesis teaches us that "the history of the workers' movement is the history of its organisations" as Lenin said. Today, it is the fashion to split, without any principles, from an organisation for trivial, and to create a new one on the same programmatic foundations. Without having subjected the organisation's programme and practice to a searching critique, it is declared to be degenerating. A brief reminder of the history of the Third International shows us what should be the true attitude of revolutionaries. Unless we have the pretension that revolutionary organisations are unnecessary, or that an individual can discover, all by himself, everything that the organisations of the past have bequeathed to us. We have no such pretension. Without the theoretical and political work of the Italian Left, neither the ICC nor the other groups of the Communist Left (the IBRP and the various PC Is) would exist today.

Obviously, if we identify with the attitude of the Opposition and the Italian Left, we do not do so entirely with the conceptions of the Opposition and of Trotsky.

By contrast, we agree with these ideas put forward by Bilan at the beginning of the 1930s:

"It is perfectly true that the role of the fractions is above all one of educating cadres through lived events, and thanks to a rigorous confrontation of the meaning of these events (...) Without the work of the fractions, the Russian Revolution would have been impossible. Without the fractions, Lenin himself would have remained a bookworm, and would not have become a revolutionary leader.

The fractions are thus the only historical places where the proletariat continues to work for its class organisation. From 1928 to this day, comrade Trotsky has completely neglected this work of construction of the fractions, and consequently has failed to contribute to creating the real conditions for the mass movement"22.

Similarly, we also agree with what the Italian Left had to say about the loss of political organisations during a period of historical reflux of the proletariat (in their case a course towards war during the 1930s), which is not, of course, the case today:

"The death of the Communist International springs from the extinction of its junction: the CI's death knell was rung by the victory of fascism in Germany; this event has historically exhausted its junction, and has demonstrated the ftrst positive result of the centrist policy.

The victory of fascism in Germany means that events are moving in the opposite direction to the revolution, towards world war.

The Party does not cease to exist, even after the death of the International. The Party does not die, it betrays"23.

All those who, today, declare their agreement with the positions and principles of the Italian Left, and who accuse an organisation of degeneration, have the duty and responsibility to do everything to halt this dynamic and stop it turning to betrayal, as the comrades of Bilan did before them.

But the Italian Left, in criticising Trotsky, also criticised all those unprincipled individuals (or those who did not want to recognise the course of history), who could only think of building new organisations outside those that existed already, or - as we see with the development of parasitism today - of destroying those that they had just left:

"Similarly, as far as the foundation of new parties is concerned [here the Italian Left was thinking of Trotsky, who in 1933 proposed the formation of new parties], the sportsmen of the "great action", instead of building the organisation for political action (...), have made a lot of noise on the necessity for losing not an instant in setting to work (...).

It is obvious that demagogy and ephemeral success are on the side of sport, and not of revolutionary work"24.

We would remind all these fine gentlemen, these new "sportsmen", these irresponsible founders of new sects, these righters of wrongs and of parties who thunder their denunciation of the existing proletarian organisations, of the patient revolutionary work of the Opposition, and above all of the Italian Left during the 1920s and 1930s, to save their organisations and prepare the cadres for the future party, rather than quitting their organisation to "save" themselves.



Note: The following correction was omitted from the previous issue of the Review

The IBRP has asked us to correct the following sentence in our article "A rudderless policy of regroupment" in International Review no.87: "at the 4th Conference [of groups of the international communist left] the CWO and BC again relaxed the criteria and the place of the ICC was taken by the Supporters of the Unity of Communist Militants" The IBRP has informed us that in fact, the 4th Conference met under the same criteria as those adopted at the end of the 3rd, since the SUCM had declared itself in agreement with these criteria. We note this fact. We have every interest that the polemics between the ICC and the IBRP, like all debates between revolutionaries, should deal with fundamental questions, and not misunderstandings or incorrect details.

1 See the articles on the German Revolution in previous issues of the International Review.

2 The revolutionaries who were to found the KAPD did not split from the German Communist Party (KPD) but were excluded from it.

3 Pierre Naville has pointed out that Rakovsky, whom he met in Moscow in 1927, had no illusions in the period. He foresaw only years of suffering and repression, which, however, did not dampen the determination of this true fighter for the working class. See Rakovsky, ou la revolution dans tous les pays by Pierre Broue (Fayard), and Pierre Naville's Trotsky vivani.

4 See our texts on the Italian Left, and our hook on The Italian Communist Left.

5 Such a betrayal can never be completely excluded, for example if a proletarian organisation's confusion on the national liberation question allows it to be dragged onto the leftist, ie bourgeois, terrain by supporting one imperialist camp against another in the conflicts between the powers under the disguise of "national liberation ". This is what happened to some sections of the (Bordigist) International Communist Party at the beginning of the 1980s.

6 See our pamphlet The alleged paranoia of the ICC.

7 Trotsky. The Communist International after Lenin.

8 See Philippe Robrieux. Histoire interieure du Pani Communiste Francais, Vol l . pp 122 onwards.

9 At first, he fought alongside Lenin on the question of internal party organisation and the bureacracy. But Lenin suffered his second attack, and was never to return to work. See Rosmer's introduction to De la revolution, a collection of articles and texts by Trotsky, published by Editions de Minuit, pp 21-22.

10 Published in December 1923.

11 The left of the PCI still represented the majority of the party.

12 Party Secretaries before Stalin.

13 See Rakovsky, ou la revolution dans tous les pays by Pierre Broue (Fayard)

14 Ciliga. 10 ans au pays du mensonge deconcertant. Champ Libre, Paris, pp233 onwards.

15 Bilan no.5, March 1934.

16 Response of 8/7/1928 of the Italian Left to the Communist Opposition of Paz. See Contre le Courant. no. 13.

17 And in particular with the resolution excluding all those who declared their solidarity with Trotsky.

18 Prometeo no. 1. May 1928.

19 Bilan no. 1. November 1933.

20 H. Chaze, for example, remained within the French CP until 1931-32. as secretary of the Puteaux Rayon. See his book. Chronique de la revolution espagnole. Spartacus.

21 See our book on the Italian Communist Left.

22 Bilan no. 1 .November 1933, "Towards the 2-3/4 International?"