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Left communism, or the communist left, is a position held by the left wing of communism, which criticises the political ideas and practices espoused by Marxist–Leninists and social democrats. Left communists assert positions which they regard as more authentically Marxist than the views of Marxism–Leninism espoused by the Communist International after its Bolshevization by Joseph Stalin and during its second congress.
In general, there are two currents of left communism, namely the Italian and Dutch-German left. The communist left in Italy was formed during World War I in organizations like the Italian Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Italy. The Italian left considers itself to be Leninist in nature, but denounces Marxism–Leninism as a form of bourgeois opportunism materialized in the Soviet Union under Stalin. The Italian left is currently embodied in organizations such as the Internationalist Communist Party (Battaglia Comunista) and the International Communist Party. The Dutch-German left split from Vladimir Lenin prior to Stalin's rule and supports a firmly council communist and libertarian Marxist viewpoint as opposed to the Italian left which emphasised the need for an international revolutionary party.
Left communism differs from most other forms of Marxism in believing that communists should not participate in bourgeois parliaments, and some argue against participating in conservative trade unions. However, many left communists split over their criticism of the Bolsheviks. Council communists criticised the Bolsheviks for elitist party functions and emphasised a more autonomous organisation of the working class, without political parties.
Although she was murdered in 1919 before the communist left appeared as a distinct current, Rosa Luxemburg has heavily influenced most left communists. Proponents of left communism have included Albert Camus, Amadeo Bordiga, Onorato Damen, Jacques Camatte, Herman Gorter, Antonie Pannekoek, Otto Rühle, Sylvia Pankhurst and Paul Mattick.
Two major traditions can be observed within left communism, namely the Dutch-German current and the Italian current. The political positions those traditions share are opposition to popular fronts, to many kinds of nationalism and national liberation movements and to parliamentarianism.
The historical origins of left communism come from World War I. Most left communists are supportive of the October Revolution in Russia, but retain a critical view of its development. However, some in the Dutch-German current would in later years come to reject the idea that the revolution had a proletarian or socialist nature, arguing that it had simply carried out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution by creating a state capitalist system.
Left communism first came into focus as a distinct movement around 1918. Its essential features were a stress on the need to build a communist party or workers' council entirely separate from the reformist and centrist elements who "betrayed the proletariat", opposition to all but the most restricted participation in elections and an emphasis on militancy. Apart from this, there was little in common between the two wings. Only the Italians accepted the need for electoral work at all for a very short period of time which they later vehemently opposed, attracting the wrath of Vladimir Lenin in "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder.
Left Bolshevism emerged in 1907 as the Vpered group challenged Vladimir Lenin's perceived authoritarianism and parliamentarianism. The group included Alexander Bogdanov, Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Mikhail Pokrovsky, Grigory Aleksinsky, Stanislav Volski and Martyn Liadov. The Otzovists, or Recallists, advocated the recall of RSDLP representatives from the Third Duma. Bogdanov and his allies accused Lenin and his partisans of promoting liberal democracy through "parliamentarism at any price".(p8)
In 1918, a faction emerged within the Russian Communist Party named the Left Communists which opposed the signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Imperial Germany. The Left Communists wanted international proletarian revolution across the world. In the beginning, the leader of this faction was Nikolai Bukharin. They stood for a revolutionary war against the Central Powers; opposed the right of nations to self-determination (specifically in the case of Poland since there were many Poles in this communist group and they did not want a Polish capitalist state to be established); and they generally took a voluntarist stance regarding the possibilities for social revolution at that time.
They began to publish the newspaper Kommunist which offered a critique of the direction in which the Bolsheviks were heading. They argued against the over-bureaucratisation of the state and further argued that full state ownership of the means of production should proceed at a quicker pace than Lenin desired.
The Left Communists faded as the world revolutionary wave died down in militancy as Lenin had proved too strong a figure. They also lost Bukharin as a leading figure since his position became more right-wing until he eventually came to agree with Lenin. Being defeated in internal debates, they then dissolved. A few very small left communist groups surfaced within the RSFSR in the next few years, but later fell victim to repression by the state. In many ways, the positions of the Left Communists were inherited by the Workers' Opposition faction and Gavril Myasnikov's Workers Group of the Russian Communist Party and to some extent by the Decists.
The Italian left communists were named left communists at a later stage in their development, but when the Communist Party of Italy (PCd'I) was founded its members actually represented the majority of communists in that country. This was a result of the Abstentionist Communist Faction of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) being in advance of other sections of the PSI in their realisation that a separate communist party had to be formed which did not include reformists. This gave them a great advantage over the sections of the PSI who looked to figures such as Giacinto Menotti Serrati and Antonio Gramsci for leadership. It was a consequence of the revolutionary impatience common at a time when revolution, in the narrow sense of an insurrectionary attempt at the seizure of power, was expected to develop in the very near future.
Under the leadership of Amadeo Bordiga, the left was to control the PCd'I until the Lyons Congress of 1926. In this period, the militants of the PCd'I would find themselves isolated from reformist workers and from other anti-fascist militants. At one stage, this isolation was deepened when communist militants were instructed to leave defence organisations that were not totally controlled by the party. These sectarian tactics produced concern in the leadership of the Communist International and led to a developing opposition within the PCd'I itself. Eventually, these two factors led to the displacement of Bordiga from his position as first secretary and his replacement by Gramsci. By then, Bordiga was in a fascist jail and was to remain outside organised politics until 1952. The development of the Left Communist Faction was not the development of the Bordigist current (as it is often portrayed).
The year 1925 was a turning point for the Italian left as it was the year that the so-called Bolshevisation took place in the sections of the Communist International. This plan was designed to eliminate all social democratic deviations from the Communist International and develop them on Bolshevik lines or at least along the lines of what Grigory Zinoviev, the secretary of the Communist International, considered Bolshevik lines. In practice, this meant top-down bureaucratic structures in which the members were controlled by a leadership approved of by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). In Italy, this meant that the leadership which had formerly been in the hands of Bordiga was given to a body that came into being when the Serrati-Maffi minority of the PSI joined the PCd'I, although Bordiga's group were in a majority. The new leadership was supported by Bordiga, who accepted the will of the Communist International as a centralist.
Nevertheless, Bordiga fought the ECCI from within only to have an article of his which was favourable to Leon Trotsky's positions on the disputed Russian questions suppressed. Meanwhile, sections of the left motivated by Onorato Damen formed the Entente Committee. This committee was ordered to dissolve itself by the incoming leadership led now by Gramsci, who only then opposed Bordiga's positions which had gained prestige after a successful recruitment campaign. With the party Congress of 1926 held in Lyons, crowned by Gramsci's famous Lyons Theses, the left majority was now defeated and on course to becoming a minority within the party. With the victory of fascism in Italy, Bordiga was jailed. When Bordiga opposed a vote against Trotsky in the prison PCd'I group, he was expelled from the party in 1930. He took a stance of non-involvement in politics for many years after this. The victory of Italian fascism also meant that the Italian left would enter into a new chapter in its development, but this time in exile.
Left communism emerged in both countries together and was always very closely connected. Among the leading theoreticians of the more powerful German movement were Antonie Pannekoek and Herman Gorter and German activists found refuge in the Netherlands after the Nazis came to power in 1933. The critique of social democratic reformism can be traced back before World War I since in the Netherlands a revolutionary wing of social democracy had broken from the reformist party even before the war and had built links with German activists. By 1915, the Antinational Socialist Party was founded by Franz Pfemfert and was linked to Die Aktion. After the beginning of the German Revolution in 1918, a leftist mood could be found among sections of the communist parties of both countries. In Germany, this led directly to the foundation of the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD) after its leading figures were expelled from the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) by Paul Levi. This development was mirrored in the Netherlands and on a smaller scale in Bulgaria, where the left communist movement was to mimic that of Germany.
When it was founded, the KAPD included some tens of thousands of revolutionaries. However, it had broken up and practically dissolved within a few years. This was because it was founded on the basis of revolutionary optimism and a purism that rejected what became known as frontism. Frontism entailed working in the same organisations as reformist workers. Such work was seen by the KAPD as unhelpful at a time when the revolution was thought to be an imminent event and not merely a goal to be aimed at. This led the members of the KAPD to reject working in the traditional trade unions in favour of forming their own revolutionary unions. These unionen, so called to distinguish them from the official trade unions, had 80,000 members in 1920 and peaked in 1921 with 200,000 members, after which they declined rapidly. They were also organisationally divided from the beginning, with those unionen linked to the KAPD forming the AAU-D and those in Saxony around Otto Rühle who opposed the conception of a party in favour of a unitary class organisation being organised as the AAU-E.
The KAPD was unable to reach even its founding congress prior to suffering its first split when the so-called National Bolshevik tendency around Fritz Wolffheim and Heinrich Laufenberg appeared (this tendency has no connection with modern political tendencies in Russia which use the same name). More seriously, the KAPD lost most of its support very rapidly as it failed to develop lasting structures. This also contributed to internecine quarrels and the party actually split into two competing tendencies known as the Essen and Berlin tendencies to the historians of the left. The recently established Communist Workers International (KAI) split on exactly the same lines as did the tiny Communist Workers Party of Bulgaria. The only other affiliates of the KAI were the Communist Workers Party of Britain led by Sylvia Pankhurst, the Communist Workers Party of the Netherlands (KAPN) in the Netherlands and a group in Russia. The AAU-D split on the same lines and it rapidly ceased to exist as a real tendency within the factories.
Left communists generally supported the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 and entertained enormous hopes in the founding of the Communist International, or Comintern. In fact, they controlled the first body formed by the Comintern to coordinate its activities in Western Europe, the Amsterdam Bureau. However, this was little more than a very brief interlude and the Amsterdam Bureau never functioned as a leadership body for Western Europe as was originally intended. The Vienna Bureau of the Comintern may also be classified as left communist, but its personnel were not to evolve into either of the two historic currents that made up left communism. Rather, the Vienna Bureau adopted the ultra-left ideas of the earliest period in the history of the Comintern.
Left communists supported the Russian revolution, but did not accept the methods of the Bolsheviks. Many of the German-Dutch tradition adopted Rosa Luxemburg's criticism as outlined in her posthumously published essay entitled The Russian Revolution. In this essay, she rejected the Bolshevik position on distribution of land to the peasantry and their espousal of the right of nations to self-determination which she rejected as historically outmoded. The Italian left communists did not at the time accept any of these criticisms and both currents would evolve.
To a considerable degree, Lenin's well known polemic Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder is an attack on the ideas of the emerging left communist currents. His main aim was to polemicise with currents moving towards pure revolutionary tactics by showing them that they could remain based on firmly revolutionary principles while utilising a variety of tactics. Therefore, Lenin defended the use of parliamentarism and working within the official trade unions.
As the Kronstadt rebellion occurred at a time when the debate on tactics was still raging within the Comintern, it has been wrongly seen as being left communist by some commentators. In fact, the left communist currents had no connection with the rebellion, although they did rally to its support when they learned of it. In later years, the German-Dutch tradition in particular would come to see the suppression of the revolt as the historic turning point in the evolution of the Russian state after October 1917.
After 1926, Italian left communism took shape in exile and without the participation of Bordiga. Contacts between the Italians and the Germans had been made and were developed in France, but the Italian left saw the KAPD's stress on factory organisation as being similar to the ideas of Gramsci's L'Ordine Nuovo and therefore rejected closer contact. Attempts to work with the group around Karl Korsch also failed. The left faction of the PCd'I was formally established in July 1927 by a number of young militants. This new group had members in France, Belgium and the United States and published a review entitled Prometeo. It was estimated in 1928 that it had at most 200 militants, but it would seem that while it never had more than 100 militants active at any one time its influence was actually far greater. However, the control of the PCd'I apparatus by the Stalinists meant that attempts to reach other exiles was almost impossible and they were driven back into small circle work.
The Italian left faction was for the rest of the 1930s led by Ottorino Perrone (also known with the pseudonym Vercesi), although it was fiercely opposed to the cult of the personality which was developing in the Comintern around Joseph Stalin in these years and resisted similar pressures in its own organisation. The faction had members in France, Belgium and the United States, but how many in Italy looked to it cannot be ascertained since all communist activities there had been driven underground by the fascist government. The main activity of the faction through these years was the publishing of its press, which consisted of the paper Prometeo and the journal Bilan. With its establishment as a group, the fraction also looked for international co-thinkers. Seeing the International Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky as central to the non-Stalinist Communist movement, they sought contact with it. However, these contacts were to be severed when agreement on basic principles proved impossible.
The political distance between the faction and other communist currents would deepen throughout the 1930s as the faction declared itself opposed to the tactics adopted by the Left Opposition to broaden its support (i.e. the faction affirmed its opposition to fusion with centrist groups, opposition to entryism and so on). Always opposed to the united front tactic of the Comintern, the fraction now declared itself firmly opposed to the popular front after 1933. Like the Trotskyists, it saw the failure of the German Communist Party in the face of fascism as its historic failure and ceased to consider itself a fraction of the party from the date of its 1935 Congress held in Brussels.
Isolated, the left fraction sought to discover allies within the milieu of groups to the left of the Trotskyist movement. Typically, these discussions came to nothing, but they were able to recruit from the disintegrating Ligue des Communistes Internationalistes (LCI) in Belgium, a group which had broken from Trotskyism. A loose liaison was also maintained with the council communist groups in the Netherlands and in particular with the GIK. However, these discussions were pushed into the background as the attempted fascist coup in Spain led to revolution and civil war.
Immediately after the civil war began, a minority emerged within the left fraction whose members sought to participate in the events in Spain. This minority, including longtime members of the fraction, numbered some 26 militants mainly belonging to the Parisian federation of the Fraction. They travelled to Barcelona to enlist in the workers militias and after a fruitless meeting in September with a delegation from the Fraction back home, they were expelled. The problem for the fraction was that the military support given to the Republican forces by this minority was accompanied by political support (in that the minority wished to halt strikes among loyalist workers in the name of military victory against fascism). According to the fraction, no support could be given to a bourgeois state even in a struggle against fascism.
The question of Spain forced the Belgian LCI to clarify its positions and a split ensued as a result of debate within its ranks. At its February 1937 conference, a minority of the LCI led by Mitchell defended the positions of the Italian left and were expelled. Although less than ten in number, they formed a Belgian Fraction of the Communist Left. It was at this point that the Italian left learned of a group called the Grupo de Trabajadores in Mexico with very similar positions to their own. It was led by Paul Kirchhoff and had left the Mexican Trotskyist movement. Kirchoff had formerly been a member of the Communist Party in Germany, then a Trotskyist in the United States, but his tiny group would seem to have disappeared at the outbreak of war in 1939. In early 1938, the Italian and Belgian fractions formed an International Bureau of the Left Fractions which published a review called Octobre.
During this period, the Italian left also reviewed a number of positions which it thought had become outdated. They rejected the idea of national self-determination and began to develop their views on the war economy and capitalist decadence. Much of this was carried out by Vercesi, but Mitchell from the Belgian fraction was also a leading figure in the work. Perhaps most dramatically, they also reviewed their understanding of the Russian Revolution and the state that had emerged from it. Eventually, they came to argue that the Russian state was by the late 1930s state capitalist and was not to be defended. In short, they believed there was need for a new revolution.
Many small currents to the left of the mass communist parties collapsed at the beginning of World War II and the left communists were initially silent too. Despite having foreseen the war more clearly than some other factions, when it began they were overwhelmed. Many were persecuted by either German Nazism or Italian fascism. Leading militants of the communist left such as Mitchell, who was Jewish, were to die in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Meanwhile, the final council communist groups in Germany had disappeared in the maelstrom and the International Communist Group (GIK) in the Netherlands was moribund. The former centrist group led by Henk Sneevliet (the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party, RSAP) transformed itself into the Marx–Lenin–Luxemburg Front. In April 1942, its leadership was arrested by the Gestapo and killed. The remaining activists then split into two camps as some turned to Trotskyism forming the Committee of Revolutionary Marxists (CRM) while the majority formed the CommunistenBond-Spartacus. The latter group turned to council communism and was joined by most members of the GIK.
In 1941, the Italian fraction was reorganised in France and along with the new French Nucleus of the Communist Left came into conflict with the ideas which the fraction had propagated from 1936, namely of the social disappearance of the proletariat and localised wars and so on. These ideas continued to be defended by Vercesi in Brussels. Gradually, the left fractions adopted positions drawn from German left communism. They abandoned the conception that the Russian state remained in some way proletarian and also dropped Vercesi's conception of localised wars in favour of ideas on imperialism inspired by Rosa Luxemburg. Vercesi's participation in a Red Cross committee was also fiercely contested.
The strike at FIAT in October 1942 had a huge impact on the Italian fraction, which was deepened by the fall of Mussolini's regime in July 1943. The Italian fraction now saw a pre-revolutionary situation opening in Italy and prepared to participate in the coming revolution. In 1943 the Internationalist Communist Party was founded by Onorato Damen and Luciano Stefanini, amongst others. By 1945 the party had 5,000 members all over Italy with some supporters in France, Belgium and the USA. It published a Manifesto of the Communist Left to the European Proletariat, which called upon workers to put class war before national war.
In France, revived by Marco in Marseilles, the Italian fraction now worked closely with the new French fraction, which was formally founded in Paris in December 1944. However, in May 1945 the Italian fraction, many of whose members had already returned to Italy, voted to dissolve itself so that its militants could integrate themselves as individuals into the Internationalist Communist Party. The conference at which this decision was made also refused to recognise the French fraction and expelled Marco from their group.
This led to a split in the French fraction and the formation of the Gauche Communiste de France by the French fraction led by Marco. The history of the GCF belongs to the post-war period. Meanwhile, the former members of the French fraction who sympathised with Vercesi and the Internationalist Communist Party formed a new French fraction which published the journal L'Etincelle and was joined at the end of 1945 by the old minority of the fraction who had joined L'Union Communiste in the 1930s.
One other development during the war years merits mention at this point. A small grouping of German and Austrian militants came close to Left Communist positions in these years. Best known as the Revolutionary Communist Organisation, these young militants were exiles from Nazism living in France at the start of World War II and were members of the Trotskyist movement but they had opposed the formation of the Fourth International in 1938 on the grounds that it was premature. They were refused full delegates' credentials and only admitted to the founding conference of the Youth International on the following day. They then joined Hugo Oehler's International Contact Commission for the Fourth (Communist) International and in 1939 were publishing Der Marxist in Antwerp.
With the beginning of the war, they took the name Revolutionary Communists of Germany (RKD) and came to define Russia as state capitalist in agreement with Ante Ciliga's book The Russian Enigma. At this point, they adopted a revolutionary defeatist position on the war and condemned Trotskyism for its critical defence of Russia (which was seen by Trotskyists as a degenerated workers' state). After the fall of France, they renewed contact with militants in the Trotskyist milieu in Southern France and recruited some of them into the Communistes Revolutionnaires in 1942. This group became known as Fraternisation Proletarienne in 1943 and then L'Organisation Communiste Revolutionnaire in 1944. The CR and RKD were autonomous and clandestine, but worked closely together with shared politics. As the war ran its course, they evolved in a councilist direction while also identifying more and more with Luxemburg's work. They also worked with the French Fraction of the Communist Left and seem to have disintegrated at the end of the war. This disintegration was sped no doubt by the capture of leading militant Karl Fischer, who was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he was to participate in writing the Declaration of the Internationalist Communists of Buchenwald when the camp was liberated.
The closing stages of World War II marked a watershed in the history of left communism as was true for every other political tendency. Like the Trotskyists, left communists expected the war to end with at least the beginnings of a revolutionary wave of struggle similar to that which had marked the end of World War I. Therefore, strikes in Italy from 1942 onwards were of intense interest to them. Many left communists formerly in exile, in jail or simply inactive due to repression returned to active political activity in Italy. This had the result that new organisations identifying with left communism came into being and older ones dissolved themselves.
If for the Italian Left the end of war marked a new beginning, it also did so for the German-Dutch left. Although in Germany it was the case that the communist left tradition was all but extinguished, surviving only in the form of a few scattered groups holding councilist views, by comparison France saw an interesting development with the beginning of a conscious attempt to develop a synthesis of the two strands of left communism in the form of the Gauche Communiste de France, which built on pre-war contributions.
The year 1952 signalled the end of mass influence on the part of Italian left communism as its sole remaining representative, the Internationalist Communist Party, split in two sections: the group led by Bordiga took the name International Communist Party, while the group around Damen retained the name Internationalist Communist Party. The Gauche Communiste de France (GCF) dissolved in the same year. Left communists entered a period of almost constant decline from this point onwards, although they were somewhat rejuvenated by the events of 1968.
The uprisings of May 1968 led to a small resurgence of interest in left communist ideas. Various small left communist groups emerged around the world, predominantly in the leading capitalist countries. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Battaglia Comunista initiated a series of conferences of the communist left to engage those new elements, also attended by the International Communist Current. As a result of these, in 1983 the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (later renamed as the Internationalist Communist Tendency) was established by Battaglia Comunista and the British Communist Workers Organisation.
Prominent post-1968 proponents of left communism have included Paul Mattick and Maximilien Rubel. Prominent left communist groups existing today include the International Communist Party, the International Communist Current and the Internationalist Communist Tendency. In addition to the left communist groups in the direct lineage of the Italian and Dutch traditions, a number of groups with similar positions have flourished since 1968, such as the workerist and autonomist movements in Italy; Kolinko, Kurasje, Wildcat; Subversion and Aufheben in England; Théorie Communiste, Echanges et Mouvements and Démocratie Communiste in France; TPTG and Blaumachen in Greece; Kamunist Kranti in India; and Collective Action Notes and Loren Goldner in the United States.