Chapter 17 - The 'International Communist Left'

Just as the Commune was the “daughter” (Engels) of the IWA, the German revolution was the daughter of an International Left which was never able to provide itself with a united organization, but whose greatest currents were the German Left, which in its struggle even dared to uphold the programmatic leadership established by the revolutionary movement itself, and the Italian Left which assumed the historical task of carrying on the work of the International Left, completing it and formulating it in its attacks on the victorious counterrevolution; they have bequeathed to us their theoretical weapons . . . which will constitute the basis of the future revolutionary movement which finds its greatest historical example in the German Left. The revolution of the future will not be a mere matter of “imitation”; it will be a question of continuing the “thread of time” traced by the International Communist Left.1

The thesis of an “infantile disorder” of the Left must be jettisoned. The young communist organizations, in effect, suffered from a crisis of “growth” between 1918 and 1921 (depending on the country in question), but one which was decidedly unlike that which Lenin diagnosed in his celebrated pamphlet. The tendency towards infantilism was a lesser threat than the opportunist danger. The inability to pose the real problems, to place the Russian experience into context by distinguishing the tasks of a communist revolution in the west, to make a decision regarding the political and trade union structures of the past, in order to demarcate one’s position from centrism, to have no illusions about democracy and the capitalist state, even a “socialist” one—this was the real disorder. Far from being the fruit of a lack of intellectual maturity—even though theoretical backwardness weighed heavily in the balance—this crisis was the reflection, among the organized minority, of the proletarian defeat at the very moment when the proletariat effectively confronted capitalist society and began to unite against the latter’s concentrated forces (State or para-State, such as the fascists). Lenin helped to solve the crisis by reinforcing the reformist elements in the young Communist Parties. He did not cure the disease of the revolutionary proletariat, he killed the patient. The crisis of growth would be resolved with the complete passage of the Communist Parties into the ranks of the counterrevolution.

It is not a choice between a majority which was evolving towards revolutionary positions, with the help of the Communist International, and a sectarian and infantile minority; nor is it an opposition between a centrist “unstable terrain” and a pure and unchanging communist left. One could pick and choose a series of contradictory positions (even among the best elements) comprising “attempts to extricate oneself from difficulties”, from which only a minority would emerge intact by developing what was essential—and even in these cases, in a contradictory manner. Instead of compiling a retrospective history whose point of departure is what the left had ultimately become, we shall situate its evolution and constitution into small groups within a broader effort focused on clarification and radical actions.

The Left in Russia
Brest-Litovsk was one of this epoch’s great revolutionary milestones, as well as the first great revolutionary defeat. It also marked the appearance of a “left” which, while opposed to Brest-Litovsk, was at least quite lucid in its opposition to what the movement was “historically forced to do”. In the face of the danger posed by the resumption of the German advance which was penetrating deep into Russia, Lenin’s “realism” was possibly the only solution. But the “left communists” of the Russian Communist Party thought it was possible to carry out a revolutionary war against the German Army, disintegrating and demoralizing it through fraternization and guerrilla attacks. It would be incorrect to evoke a “red patriotism” in reference to this proposal, as Bordiga did afterwards.2 In the spring of 1918, the left was fighting for workers control of industry in order to prevent what it called “State capitalism”. At the Bolsheviks’ Sixth Party Congress, Preobrazhensky had already lamented the modification of the proposed resolution on “The current period and the war”: “I would prefer to return to the original formula which spoke explicitly of the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Bukharin responded: “We have adopted a less rigorous formula because it is absolutely impossible for us to claim that we have the power to fight a revolutionary war.”3 One year later, at the Seventh Congress, having in the meantime become a “left communist”, Bukharin proclaimed the immanence of an international civil war and the need to prepare for it. The left’s extreme position was, perhaps, impractical. It was the demand of the most intransigent tendency of its time, obstinately determined to defend the proletariat and the revolution at every moment. Today it is easy to present the “evidence” supporting Lenin’s point of view, but he had to fight hard to convince the party’s leadership. Luxemburg considered the separate German-Russian peace treaty to be a catastrophe—which was unfortunately inevitable—whose “historical responsibility” she attributed to the German workers who allowed the war against the Russian revolution to continue. The suspension of hostilities in effect reinforced the German State and its militarism, obstructing the possible evolution of the German army towards an admittedly difficult revolutionary path. This first compromise on the part of the Bolsheviks encapsulates their later evolution: the defeat of the European proletariat compelled them to compromise, which was theorized as a “partial success” in the name of realism, while it strengthened capital, and the left rejected it without being able to propose an alternative.

The “left communists” went beyond Lenin in their conception of the content of socialism, insisting on the abolition of value, which was, however, understood in an administrative sense and not as a social process: the destruction of capitalism as a system was largely understood by the Russian left communists as the transition from anarchy to planning.4 The communist perspective was primarily viewed as a management technique. This current would later be integrated, by its own will, into the Bolshevik majority, and the European left would remain at the margin of the problem. The Russians had posed the problem of communism without having the means to realize it: the westerners, who were capable of realizing communism, did not reach that stage because the proletariat did not go on the offensive. The European left would not pose the problem of communism until after 1930. The left communists tried to defend a program which attempted to be internationalist (cf. Brest-Litovsk) and communist (communist social transformation) at the same time. Subsequent left groupings would be different: the Workers Opposition and Miasnakov’s Workers Group represented, in the period after the civil war, in the purest and also the most direct way, the interests of the proletarians (cf. the preceding chapter). The world socialist revolution, whatever was thought and said at the time, was not the order of the day. From that time on, the workers made their demands within a social system which no longer depended upon them, but on a national and international balance of forces which the revolutionaries could not affect. Neither the Russian left communists nor the European communist left could do anything to help themselves; they could not even understand their place within the epoch: their lack of international links was not a result of organizational or theoretical flaws, but the effect of the non-existence of the proletariat as an effective international force.

In January of 1916, the French internationalists formed the Committee for the Resumption of International Relations, which was composed of two elements: socialist and syndicalist. Each underwent a split within its ranks. Some of the socialists (Loriot) and some of the syndicalists (Monatte) joined the Communist International and fought to reconquer the majority of the SFIO. One part of the socialists (Sigrand) and one part of the syndicalists (Péricat) wanted a small organization based on clear principles, which would break with parliamentarism and traditional politics. In the fall of 1916, they founded the Committee for Syndicalist Defense. Renamed the Committee for the Third International in May of 1919, the Committee for the Resumption of International Relations was asphyxiated under the mass of the SFIO centrists who had suddenly become “revolutionaries” after 1917, and who would later found the French Communist Party. There were also leftist tendencies in the Committee for the Third International, however: a proposed motion of the CTI, published in January 1921 in L’Internationale Communiste (No. 5), declared support for abstention when there is an offensive movement of the proletariat and a revolutionary situation, but also refused to make this position the grounds for a split.

The Committee for Syndicalist Defense, which also joined the Communist International in May 1919, only gave rise to small groups dominated by the ideological weight of revolutionary syndicalism, which were in turn divided between socialists and anarchists. The “Communist Party”, founded in May 1919, broke apart at the end of the year. It confused party and soviets, calling its sections “soviets”. Its optimism led J. Fabrice to write in September 1919: “The Communist Party has actually been founded in France. The initiative for the founding of the party was primarily due to the efforts of comrade R. Péricat’s syndicalist group. He is of the opinion that France will repeat the stages of the Russian revolution. The moderate socialists will take power first and we must prepare, starting right now, to overthrow them. Towards this end, he wants all revolutionary elements to unite, that is, the left socialists, the syndicalists and the anarchists.”5 Some of these revolutionaries were based in quite localized working class sectors (the Seine road workers union, with Lepetit). The defeat of the strikes of 1919 condemned them, as did their own confusion, which led them to confuse the rejection of parliamentarism with the rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They did, however, correctly criticize the CTI’s tendency to privilege work in the SFIO. Sigrand wrote in Le Communisme of July 1920: “We must expect to see a new party formed at the next socialist congress which will do no less than call itself the ‘Communist Party’ and will include the CTI.” But he would remain faithful to the Communist International, which he considered (as did the KAPD) to be merely ill-informed, until September when he would declare his opposition to the dictatorship. On September 26, he called for joint action with Malatesta’s group, the KAPD, the English Communist Party (the leftist faction: cf. below) and the IWW.

It was not the defeat of the revolutionary movement which caused the Bolshevik “model” to be “transplanted” (Kriegel) in other countries: it was this defeat which transformed their attempts to drive the revolutionary process forward into a neo-reformism which was a continuation of the old reformism. The formation of powerful Communist Parties did not take place strictly where the revolutionary movement had been most active, but where the old political and trade union structures had suffered from the most serious crises. In France, the SFIO and the CGT had lost prestige in the eyes of a large part of the workers and peasants, whose vote was decisive at Tours.6 There would be no “communist left” in France until the end of the 1920s.7

The workers’ low standard of living led to a strike by bank employees in September-October 1918.8 Militants who had previously been involved with the Forderung Group and J. Herzog founded a Communist Party. In November, the labor movement, led by a “committee” set up by Olten and Grimm (centrists), called a general strike merely for the purpose of generating pressure to achieve democratic reforms. The professional employees, who had enjoyed the workers’ help in October, did not take part in the strike. The bourgeoisie, as elsewhere, repressed the strike and granted some concessions. In its Congresses of October 1918 and March 1919, the Communist Party was severely critical of the Socialist Party (Platten). The Communist Party participated in the elections of August 1919. Even so, the “Swiss ultra-leftists” were criticized by the Communist International in September 1919.9 The Swiss Socialist Party, having undergone a split, sought extra-parliamentary means of struggle and provided itself with a flexible organizational structure, the Workers Union. During general strikes in Basel and Zurich, on July 31 and August 5, 1919, five workers were killed. The Socialist Party decided to join the Communist International, only to be expelled later, in December 1920, when confronted with the 21 Conditions. A minority within the party (8,000 militants) would eventually, in March 1921, join the “Old Communists” (Altkommunisten) with Herzog, “who defended left communist positions (rejection of parliamentarism and participation in elections, propaganda for the formation of soviets)”.10

According to Humbert-Droz, a French-speaking Swiss communist, before the Second World Congress, the German-speaking Swiss Communist Party “adopted, on the issues of the trade unions and parliamentarism, positions which were quite similar to those of the German KAP”.11 Herzog intervened at the Second Congress against parliamentarism. Later, he subscribed to the Theses of this Congress, in its essential points. In January 1921, he conceded great importance to the trade unions, future “directing organs of communist production”.12 He reproached the Russians for remaining “indifferent” in the face of “all the maneuvers of the center”. He accepted revolutionary parliamentarism, with the proviso that he could change his opinion in the event that it should prove to be opposed to revolutionary interests.

The revolution proceeded more slowly in this country, although it went deeper, since the “integration” of its workers by capital was similar to degree attained by capital in Germany. Unlike Germany, however, where the party-trade union rivalry reigned, the Belgian socialist and trade union sections, and the cooperatives as well, all nominated delegates to the General Council of the Belgian Workers Party, which more effectively unified the workers movement than any other country’s party.13 Belgium, very industrialized, and very “working class”, produced a left which was quite similar to the German Left, and which criticized both parliamentarism and the trade unions, although not as clearly as the German Left.

No Belgian group with a national membership base joined the Communist International in 1919.14 In the summer of 1919, the Young Socialist Guards (the youth organization of the POB) published the first issue of its journal Socialism and announced its support for the Communist International, but did not advocate a split. In November, it refused to help the POB in the elections.15 In January 1920, sixty of its members, with Van Overstraeten, a factory worker, at their head, held a conference and founded the group known as the Independent Communists of Brussels. Their journal, The Communist Worker, sided with the left. It tried to avoid the council fetishism characteristic of the press of other workers organizations (cf. No. 7, June 1, 1920). They sent a delegate to the Amsterdam Conference, for which they provided extensive publicity. They supported the KAPD. This group remained small and was limited to Brussels.

In October 1919, groups from Ambers, Louvaine and Ghent founded a Flemish communist group around De Internacional, which never had a national audience. The unification of this group with the Brussels organization mentioned above failed because the Brussels communists demanded that certain Flemish members be excluded. During this period, the POB left, severely criticized by L’Ouvrier Communiste, remained in the party under the leadership of Jacquemotte (the future Thorez of Belgium): Humbert-Droz considered him to be a centrist.16 In May 1920, the ICB held a conference of French-speaking Belgian communists and founded the Walloon Communist Federation. This conference approved a set of “theses on parliamentarism” which opposed the councils to the State.17 Van Overstraeten attended the Second Congress of the Communist International. According to Rosmer, 18 he did not criticize the essential points of the Leninist line, but only expressed his fear that this line would favor opportunist tendencies. In any event, the Belgian left communists were more anti-parliamentary than anti-trade union, as subsequent articles in the Red Trade Union International’s journal, La Lutte de classes, proved. From this perspective, their position was intermediate between the German and the Italian Lefts.

In September 1921, the WCF united with the left wing of the POB, which had just been excluded from the party, and founded the Belgian Communist Party, which had few members. Van Overstraeten would be excluded in 1928 for “Trotskyism”. The Communist Party was the heir of the Socialist Party center.

Part of the Russian empire until its independence in December 1917, Finland was wracked by civil war from January to March of 1918. The revolutionaries organized in the left wing of the Socialist Party, who had taken power in the south, were defeated by the reaction supported by Germany. The communist Finns working in Russia founded the Finnish Communist Party there in August. The following summarizes the lessons which its leader, O. Kuusinen, drew from the failure of the Socialist Republic of Finland, in his work The Finnish Revolution: an Auto-critique.19

“It was utterly typical that, during the meeting of the (socialist) party held in June 1917—where, by the way, we had joined the Zimmerwald International—not one voice was heard demanding that we separate ourselves from the government socialists . . . the road of democracy, it then seemed, was open and offered vast possibilities. We expected that we could avoid the worst outcome by using parliamentary methods. And what has been the result of this historical error? Were we able to avoid an armed conflict? No! Parliamentary action was and can only be a danger to the working class movement. All that it did was to uselessly gather together all the forces which were necessary for the revolutionary struggle. Parliamentary activity has only served to deceive the masses; it was used to conceal from them the preparations of their enemies, the bourgeoisie, when it was the working class which should have been making preparations. It is now seen that the idea of the democratic state . . . was historically false.”

“The idea of the democratic state was an attempt to fill a vacuum, to serve the transition from capitalism to socialism. But democracy is incapable of assuming the responsibility for such a mission. It has revealed its historical nature during the course of the revolution. Although no one had declared their opposition to it, it satisfied neither the bourgeoisie nor the workers. Its essential characteristic was, in reality, its lack of cohesion, a weakness which necessarily afflicts democracy throughout all of bourgeois society.”

“The Social Democracy claimed it supported the revolution. Yet, what was its rallying cry? Power to the workers? No, its rallying cry was democracy, and respect for democracy. We had not understood that, when the revolution broke out, the workers had violently overthrown the democracy, they had shaken it off as if it were a nuisance.”

Kuusinen showed how the socialists used the democracy to consolidate their power. Later, when the workers rejected the democracy, the bourgeoisie rejected the socialists and resorted to terror. It is not enough to evoke the necessity of the illegal and military struggle; it must also be understood how democracy is opposed to the revolution. This analysis implicitly criticized positions like those taken by the First Congress of the Communist International in regard to democracy and parliamentarism, as well as, of course, the later tactics of the united front and workers governments. The Communist International admitted that democracy was not revolutionary, but it claimed that one could make use of it. The left, on the contrary, said that in order to fight it one had to remain outside of it. At first this appeared to be a slight difference, but it soon highlighted the abyss which existed between the left and the majority. The latter thought it could take a non-neutral social reality and, with certain precautions, turn it into a useful “tool”.

“Our forces must focus on abolishing the bourgeois state rather than setting up in its place, either before or after the revolution, a democracy.” This was the revolutionary position expressed at that time by the Finnish Communist Party, which had also expressed its reservations, at the First Congress of the Communist International, on the topic of the revolutionary use of the trade unions.20 At its founding Congress in May 1920, the party of the socialist left also interpreted parliamentarism as “a buttress of the bourgeois state”: “The bourgeois government, in order to stay in power, must avail itself of the assistance of the representatives of the workers, in every country, in the legislative assemblies, in municipal governments, and, in certain circumstances, in the national administration itself. However [. . .] the party must not make a declaration in advance on its future participation in the assembly, since such a decision would be premature without considering each particular situation.”21

Kuusinen’s positions are even more relevant insofar as he soon abandoned the left to become a “Leninist” and, later, a “Stalinist”: he was to be one of the signers of the dissolution of the Communist International in 1943. Rather than an organization or organizations, the left was a tendency which was generally stifled by the negative development of the class struggle.

Great Britain
The British revolutionary movement was, like that of other countries, characterized by regionalism. Proletarians in London, Wales and Scotland never managed to unite. Irish communism, for its part, was consumed by nationalism.22 In London, 23 the Workers Socialist Federation originated in radical feminism. S. Pankhurst came to the East End in 1913 to engage in feminist activities and while involved in social work rapidly became interested in the social question, began to participate in rent strikes and workers strikes, and opposed business and state in relation to the war. The Women’s Suffrage Federation became the Women’s Socialist Federation, and then the Workers Socialist Federation, and made contacts with radical workers and shop-stewards, but its membership was still largely restricted to London. Its journal, The Workers Dreadnought, is one of the best sources of information on the workers movement of that era: the WSF would remain the organization of a newspaper with correspondents, distributors, etc., and would never advance beyond this stage. It supported the Communist International and published numerous pamphlets by the Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries. The WSF initiated discussions with the other principle groups which would form the British Communist Party: the British Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party. The BSP accepted both parliamentarism and affiliation with the Labour Party: it was a social democratic remnant which, in England prior to 1914, could produce only a small organization with a few thousand members. The SLP, similar to the American DeLeonist SLP (cf. Chapter 9) was also small but was closer to the working class. It accepted parliamentarism but rejected affiliation with Labour: it would later be split, and the faction still defending this position would leave. After this split, the foundation of the Communist Party became possible. The Communist International made these two points (affiliation and parliamentarism) the criteria for proper tactics in England: the British case is truly a good illustration of its shift towards the right. Lenin, in his letter to Pankhurst24 of August 28, 1919, said that “the question of parliamentarism is actually a particular point of secondary importance”. In 1920, Lenin was in favor of “one party, based on all the decisions of the Third International”, which excluded the left.25

In effect, the WSF rejected both parliamentarism and affiliation, and formed its own Communist Party in May of 1920, but it merged with the official Communist Party of Great Britain, founded a few months later, only to quickly leave it and form an ephemeral “Communist Workers Party”. The Workers Dreadnought went into decline in 1922 and 1923, and disappeared in 1924. After 1920, the militant workers who were members of the WSF rapidly left it and ended up accepting more moderate positions, as in the case of H. Pollitt, the future English Thorez. Pankhurst would soon abandon the revolutionary movement. As a communist, she always based herself on experience. Her radical positions were not based on reason, with reference to the movement’s tradition, but referred to the experience which gave rise to it and verified what she said. Insofar as it was by no means a matter of intellectual progress, her evolution is of interest. She moved close to communism under the pressure of events and left it when communism collapsed as a practical movement.26

Meanwhile, the Scottish and Welsh movements were undergoing their own evolution. In Scotland, the Shop-Stewards Movement was born in 1915-1916 among skilled metal workers fighting to preserve the advantages they had gained with the onset of the war and who were therefore compelled by this circumstance to launch actions which were radical in terms of their form.27 The Scottish movement, which was very combative, would never manage to go beyond these limits and continued under the leadership of the Shop-Stewards. Comparable to the German revolutionary shop stewards (Revolutionäre Obleute: RO), the Shop-Stewards formed a parallel trade unionism28 due to the inability of the trade unions to defend their demands: the SSM would quickly enter the orbit of the CPGB, accepting its ideological control in a National Minority Movement which was formed to conquer the trade unions. Some working class areas in Wales, however, were characterized by their own unique traits. Dominated by one industry (mining), they stubbornly rejected traditional politics (hence their rejection of affiliation with Labour) but were unable to advocate anything besides “the mines to the miners”. This led to a most virulent and combative syndicalism, which was not defeated until the failure of the 1926 General Strike. In Scotland and Wales, however, abortive attempts to create Communist Labour Parties, which were against both parliamentarism and affiliation with the Labour Party, did take place in 1920. The CPGB, however, quickly assumed the role of the only national political force of the extreme left, and the SSM that of the only workers group of importance. In contrast, the only current close to the German Left, which had formed around G. Aldred in Glasgow, a Marxist influenced by anarchism, who had been advocating the creation of a new International since 1906 and had criticized Pankhurst for joining the CPGB, supported the left, but would never overcome its status as a small sect.29

The United States
While the Bolsheviks were relatively unknown prior to 1917 in the United States,30 the theoreticians of the Dutch SDP, on the other hand, contributed to the International Socialist Review and the New Review, where Pannekoek published The Downfall of the International in November 1914. Rutgers, having arrived in the U.S. in 1915, extended the SDP’s influence. One of the characteristics of the American revolutionary movement (in the south as well as the north) was the enormous impact of the foreign-born population. The most radical groups were often socialist organizations composed of immigrants, generally from Russia or Central Europe. These immigrants would exercise a considerable influence in the evolution of the two American socialist parties, the reformist Socialist Party, and the smaller DeLeonist Socialist Labor Party. DeLeon died in 1914: his party did not follow the SP’s policy of acquiescing to the sacred union, but was a centrist group quite distant from the Zimmerwaldian Left.

The Latvian Socialist Federation, which had affiliated with the Socialist Party, moved towards the left: in Europe the Latvian Socialist Party was an ally of the Bolsheviks. But the Socialist Propaganda League, created by the left in 1915, did not want a split. Rutgers played a major role within this current, which at that time did not reject either parliamentarism or the idea of the party, but wanted to organize the class on the basis of “industrial unionism”. Industrial unionism was by this definition opposed to trade unionism (unionism organized by trade): the industrial trade unions were to unite all the workers. These were still trade unions, however, since the term ‘union’ was not synonymous with the German Union. The SLP supported anti-electoral parliamentary action, and advocated “mass action”. One notes here the influence of Pannekoek.31 In 1913, Lewis defined mass action in these terms: “True mass action is situated outside of the sphere of parliamentary action.” On the other hand, Lenin was unknown until the war: Russian immigrants (Kollontai, Bukharin, and Trotsky) would later begin to make the Americans aware of Russian debates.

In 1917, the left had coalesced around Fraina’s The New International, largely financed by Rutgers, and The Class Struggle, somewhat less radical, with Boudin and Lore: only Fraina’s journal spoke of October 1917, which it characterized as a great movement of “industrial unionism”. J. Reed, born in comfortable surroundings, journalist of the Mexican revolution, declared his support for the Bolsheviks. He was sincere: others were not so sincere, like the journalist L. Steffens, who declared: “I have seen the future, and it works.” Reactions of this kind, typical of the disillusion suffered in 1914-1918, were frequent: they turned to Russia and, from the communist point of view, its most superficial aspects, such as the soviet democracy, which was later identified by many with the power of the party. These aspects were viewed as a source of vitality, a cure for decadence. Sorel, like Steffens, admired Lenin before admiring Mussolini. Communism was a new adventure. The most solid individuals moved towards the communist left (which is to say, towards Lenin, during this period), but the majority “joined” communism and committed themselves to the cause of the workers. Others would remain faithful to the heroic epoch, without going any further: such as Rosmer (cf. Chapter 11).

The foreign language federations’ share of SP membership grew from 35% in 1917 to 53% in 1919. There were three great strikes in 1919. The Seattle General Strike—the first ever in the U.S.—paralyzed the entire city. The miners strike in Butte (Montana) was led by a “council of soldiers, sailors and workers” in which almost all of Butte’s trade unions participated. As in Europe, “councils” or “soviets” were being formed at that time as organizations of all the workers, transcending trade union divisions, with a view to a long struggle, but not as insurrectionary organs. Only the 16-week strike by 30,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts ended in victory. In the U.S.A., as elsewhere, communists organized themselves during a moment of intense struggle, and not one of a rising revolutionary movement: September 1919, when the two Communist Parties were founded (cf. below), was also when the great steel strike ended in defeat. With the decapitation of the IWW (cf. Chapter 9), the years 1918-1920 did indeed constitute a phase of class struggle, but one which benefited the bourgeoisie. The “Red Scare” did not signify the existence of a real threat to the bourgeoisie, but revolutionary weakness.

At the beginning of 1919, the left began to coalesce but hesitated at the prospect of a split. Its generally “syndicalist” orientation was attenuated in its officially-approved texts, but remained close to DeLeonism. The majority of its 70,000 members and sympathizers were from the foreign language federations: the Russians were the most numerous, followed by the Latvians. At its June 1919 Conference, the majority of the left refused to break with the party: the minority chose to leave. The Left Wing Conference’s Manifesto was still DeLeonist: the AFL must be destroyed, parliamentarism is worthless except in assisting “mass strikes”, and the future society was to be organized by the “unions”.32

The Russian Federation, the animating spirit of the left wing minority, attracted part of the majority faction, which then became the minority. On September 1, the supporters of the new organization, together with Fraina, founded the Communist Party of America. On September 2, Reed and his friends, expelled from the Socialist Party, founded the Communist Labor Party of America: after tumultuous debate, it rejected unification with the Communist Party. As elsewhere, the social democratic past weighed heavily: Reed’s position, “Fight for the conquest of power”, only won by 46 votes to 22. The Communist Party was divided into three factions: “Russian”, “American” and the “ex-Michigan group”. Scorning “economic” struggles and privileging education and propaganda, the latter tendency was close to the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Party of Canada. It also maintained that capitalism had been strengthened by the war, a position contested by the Communist Party majority. More “socialist” than “communist”, this current was the survival of an orthodox social democratic tradition (Kautsky), even if it was closer to reality than the other factions of the Communist Party, precisely on account of its rejection of revolution. Within the Communist Party, the Russians and the ex-Michigan group were against unification with the CLP. Both Communist Parties together had between 25,000 and 40,000 members.33

They actually had much in common. According to Reed, “the program of the Communist Party is basically theoretical and more general, while that of the CLP adheres to the principles established by the First Congress of the Third International. . . . The CP is more political, while the CLP’s program is more connected with the workers economic struggles.” The two programs admirably complemented one another; it was advisable to elaborate a “workers program”.34 The CLP defended a position close to that of the IWW in relation to the trade unions, while the CP considered the AFL to be a “bastion of capitalism”. “Every strike must be a revolution in miniature. . .” announced The Revolutionary Age (CLP), which criticized the strikers of the steel mills for having allowed the mill owners to collect trade union dues: this is what the AFL was trying to impose upon the workers. This paper asserted, however, that “the revolution is at stake in the steel strike”. For The Communist (CP): “trade unionism is the proletariat’s worst enemy. One of the tasks of the CP is to destroy the existing trade union organizations.”

The local and regional labor parties formed during the strike tried to unite in November 1919. This could be viewed as being similar to the efforts of the German RO or the shop stewards: tempered in the fights against the trade union apparatus, the militant workers tried to organize themselves as workers. According to the CLP (1919) the problem was expressed as follows: “The organization of a Labor Party by the trade unions is an inferior form of proletarian agitation, in order to preserve the advantages the trade unions have acquired as a privileged caste. Laborism represents as great a danger to the proletariat as moderate petty-bourgeois socialism. . . .”

As for parliament, the IWW tradition, as well as the whole radical movement in its early days, supported the boycott: the majority of the members of the foreign language federations were not even American citizens. Even so, some communists had previously participated in elections in opposition to the candidates of the Socialist Party right wing. It was decided that the party would participate in the campaign without running any candidates. The communist slogan in the 1919 elections was “boycott the elections”. “At a time when the proletariat’s present tendency towards mass action must be reinforced, the elections must be boycotted.”

At the end of 1919 repression, which for two years had been directed at pacifists and anarchists, fell upon the two Communist Parties, already weakened by their divisions. The ex-Michigan group left the Communist Party at the beginning of 1920. In April, another split took place: the majority of the “Americans” and a minority of “foreigners” left the Communist Party and took the name “CCP”, with a party journal of the same name (The Communist). Ruthenberg accused the original Communist Party of defending principles which were out of touch with reality, and of attempting to be the “party of action”. The original Communist Party responded to his accusations.35

“The exhortation to be in ‘contact with the masses’ contains within it the germs of compromise, of deviations and betrayals in the future. It is the confused and sentimental cry of those who seem to believe that a Communist Party must remain in ‘contact with the masses’ in every stage of its evolution. They ignore the fact that this tenacious attempt to circulate among the masses, at a moment when the masses are not prepared, will reduce communism to a theory and practice in conformity with the approval of politically immature masses. . . .”

“These masses, which will join the party as long as the latter remains silent concerning the necessity of the use of force to throw the bourgeois state in the trashcan, will reject this tactic when the hour of revolution arrives. Consequently, these masses, who have not yet cut the Gordian Knot which ties them to the socialist ideology of a ‘peaceful’ revolution, will enter the party, and by their mere numerical weight will oblige the party to change the communist character of its propaganda and agitation, and will oblige it to revise all of its positions until it adapts to their political ideals, which are still in their infancy. . . . Basically, the communist party is not composed of members but of ideas. . . . We must try to make our propaganda penetrate into the workers environment: but we do not expect immediate success. Good luck or bad, we shall continue our agitation, certain that social forces and the disintegration of world capitalism after the war . . . will compel the masses to heed our message.”

Ruthenberg and the CLP entered into discussions about uniting their organizations. The question of the use of violence was passionately debated, but the most sensitive issue was still industrial unionism. Both groups were in agreement about the need to support the IWW and to destroy the AFL. On the parliamentary question, Ruthenberg distinguished between “legislative and executive functions”: one could employ the first (without fighting for any reforms) but not the second. This thesis was supported by the majority by a narrow margin but the boycott was chosen nonetheless for the 1920 elections: “When the revolutionary crisis is undermining the illusions of the masses concerning capitalist democracy, it is superfluous for the communists to direct their agitation towards the destruction of these illusions.” Thus was born the United Communist Party, whose principle journal was The Communist: it had between 8,000 and 15,000 members, most of whom were foreign-born.

For its part, the composition of the Communist Party did not permit it to take any interest in the trade unions or even the IWW. Its radicalism was in part due to a lack of depth and manifested its lack of social roots in the proletariat. At the same time, however, it maintained a relative distance from day-to-day matters and had a better understanding of certain realities.

The real positions of the Communist International soon became known. Its circular of September 1, 1919 stated that parliamentarism is not a form of revolutionary state organization, but that revolutionaries could use it to prepare for the revolution: this circular became known in the U.S. in January 1920. Infantile Disorder arrived in the U.S. one year later. The Communist International encouraged the American communists to unify their forces.

This period has been described as a “crisis of communism”.36 The world revolution could not indefinitely live vicariously through the Russian experiences, which could only be validated by the world revolution. “Because its initial impulse came from the Russian revolution, it rested upon an illusion: the illusion of the imminent collapse of the entire capitalist system.”

A unification conference (May 1921) gave birth to the Communist Party of America. The two parties met there with more or less equal but not at all homogeneous forces. The new program followed the Communist International line, at least on paper: “The Communist Party condemns the position of those revolutionaries who abandon the existing unions”: not only did it participate in the elections, but its candidates had to propose demonstration “educational measures”, not so as to win the votes of the bourgeois majority, but to advance the cause of the party’s agitation, propaganda and activities.

The Polish Communist Party was formed in December 1918 from the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKPL) led by Luxemburg, Jogisches and Marchlewski, and the Socialist Party of the Polish Left (PPS-L), which had split from Pilsudski’s nationalist PPS.37 Close to the Left Mensheviks, the PPS-L did not gravitate toward the Bolsheviks until October 1917. With its dominant position in the Communist Party, the SDKPL did not officially support either the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks: their “above all factions” position could be compared to that of Trotsky with whom they disagreed on an essential point: the right of national self-determination, which, in the case of Poland, was a burning issue.

As a whole, the SDKPL openly disagreed with Brest-Litovsk: “It seemed to them that inciting the German soldiers who had invaded Russia in 1918 to revolution was much more important than preventing the military reverses which would be endured by revolutionary Russia.”38 Such criticisms persisted in the SDKPL until the fall of 1918. At that time it did not advocate the defense of the Polish state (which was constituted as a republic in November) but a “merger with revolutionary Russia”. Its national conference of November 1918 defended the view that “the proletariat must be made to see the necessity of distinguishing solely and exclusively the camp of the international bourgeoisie in opposition to the international proletariat”. Poland, thanks to its minorities which could not be unified, endlessly resorted to chauvinism and patriotism: 100,000 Lithuanians, 1,000,000 Germans, 1,500,000 Ruthenians, 3,000,000 Jews, and 4,000,000 Ukrainians. The SDKPL, however, shared certain Spartacist errors by saying, for example, in regards to the Ebert government: “Woe to this government, if it has the intention of stopping the revolution!” As if that government could have been revolutionary. The national question alienated the SDKPL from the PPS-L, but they soon came together under the pressure of events. The SDKPL’s anti-national position, and, more generally, its “Luxemburgism”, constituted an important contribution to the communist left, although the Dutch Left had also developed this theme prior to 1914.

In 1919, the Pole Karsky wrote: 39 “In England, the revolutionary movement is retarded by the ‘Irish question’ . . . the proletarian revolution tends towards the abolition of the class state and the political proletariat cannot consider creating a political class state: its struggle must tend towards the creation of a new form of organization: the socialist federation of the proletarians of Europe.” Around the same time, the Finn Sirola, without explicitly criticizing Lenin, proved that “autonomy” formed the basis of “imperialism”.40 In her posthumously published notes on The Russian Revolution, Luxemburg also cited the Finnish, Polish and Ukrainian examples. The Leninist position was frequently challenged by revolutionaries from subaltern countries which suffered under the anti-revolutionary weight of the national question.

As Mattick has shown,41 the Leninist position on this issue is derived from Lenin’s position on democracy and democratic rights. Lenin believed in a democratic state in which the workers could carry on their struggle, thus remaining faithful to the Second International. His anti-democratic position in relation to the content of socialism was still quite limited: he showed, especially against Kautsky, that the dictatorship of the proletariat realizes the widest democracy. For him, the democratic state is necessary for the proletarian struggle: it is the best political form within which the workers can organize themselves (which is true) for the struggle against capital (which is false) (cf. Chapter 3).

Luxemburg’s perspective on revolution and liberation from foreign oppression was based on the proletarian movement in Austria, Germany and Russia, and not on the kind of national rebellion characteristic of the 19th century. A national revival would certainly possess a guaranteed force, but if it is crowned with success, the workers movement would be paralyzed, or destroyed, by the nationalist current which it had unleashed. The creation of a Polish national state would not be the solution to the oppression of the minorities of the region, because that state would in turn humiliate the non-Polish minorities, nor would it be a revolutionary factor.

In the workers soviets formed at the end of 1918, the Communist Party was often as strong as the socialists. It even dominated the Dabrova mining region where an ephemeral Red Republic was formed.

Like the KPD during the same period, the Polish Communist Party boycotted the Constituent Assembly (Sejm) in February 1919. It would only renounce its abstentionism with difficulty. One of its pamphlets from 1921 would still assert: “the PCP’s boycott of the 1919 elections for the Sejm was justified because there was a chance of moving directly to the struggle for power. . . . In such conditions, participation in the elections would have been tantamount to a declaration in advance of the result of the struggle. . . .” That same year, two deputies who had previously been members of the PPS and the Radical Peasants Party joined the PCP. When the party debated the “united front” in April of 1922, the left feared that “the tactic of the united front and the formulation of merely partial demands obscures the ultimate goal of the movement and in fact leads to the abandonment of the much more profound goals of the socialist revolution”. The left yielded, but even the party’s majority did not accept this tactic until after animated debate. It is curious to note how the center opposed the united front with the same arguments (which are utterly non-revolutionary) that were used by the center of the French Communist Party during the same period: since you have fought against the socialists, they said, how can you offer them your hand today? One must distinguish between the radical tendency and the attempt to preserve a trademark image.

The Polish revolutionaries had foreseen that the creation of new states would be used to contain proletarians within national frontiers. It would also isolate Germany from Russia (cf. the previous chapter). The Polish Communist Party was quite firm on this issue at its First Congress: “. . . proletarian politics rejects all political solutions which depend upon the development of a capitalist world, such as autonomy, independence and self-determination. . . . For the international camp of the socialist revolution, national questions do not exist.” The Silesian revolutionary movement was suffocated by nationalism and confusion as a result of plebiscites. Pilsudski seemed to be a prophet, with his mixture of nationalism and “socialism”. At that time “national bolshevism” was an issue not only in Germany, but in the Ukraine and Hungary as well.42

The Communist International upheld the opposite view. Incapable of truly lifting themselves out of their context (destroying the multinational state by availing themselves of the nationalist tendencies opposed to it), the Bolsheviks had a very poor understanding of the ability of national structures (as was the case, in a different framework, with their grasp of the power of democratic structures) to squelch the revolution. They believed that they had correctly assessed the factor of nationalism, and accused their adversaries of “indifference”, and of “imperialism”, without grasping the essential point: a world ruled by capital can only produce capitalist national structures.43 They thought they had discovered a weak point in the world system precisely where the latter was demonstrating its power. Quite soon, of course, their position came under the influence of their foreign policy (support for Attaturk’s Turkey and Sun Yat Sen’s China).

Under pressure from the Communist International and above all as a result of its defeat, the Second Congress of the Polish Communist Party (August 1923) evoked the “defense of the interests of the whole nation”, under threat from the “offensive of world capitalism”. Poland, it said, needed an army which could eliminate “non-democratic elements”. Despite the protests of the party’s left, this line destroyed the PCP as a communist organization. It recognized, for example, Poland’s “rights” to Upper Silesia. It is obvious, as Bukharin said (cf. Chapter 3) that in this manner it opened the door, within the very heart of the revolutionary movement, to imperialism. A direct line connects the recognition of the nation to support for its imperialism against other nations.

The Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ) was formed in November 1918 from various groups or informal circles, among them the Linksradikalen with roots in the working class and influence in the socialist party, anarchists, etc.45 The Wertheim group (more or less anarchist) and the Linksradikalen did not effectively become incorporated into the Communist Party, however, until February 1919. Between August 1919 and October 1920, the KPÖ confronted the parliamentary question. The majority allowed itself to be convinced by Koritschoner, leader of the former Linksradikalen, not to participate in parliament; later, in mid-September, he changed his opinion under the influence of the Communist International. A social democratic left faction then merged with the Communist Party which, with this contribution, had close to 15,000 members.

The founding Congress of the KPÖ had opposed the election of a constituent assembly by shifting parliamentarism from parliament to the soviets, which did not resolve the issue.46 There was, at that time, a Volkswehr formed of workers who had been soldiers in the former Austrian army. At least one battalion was communist. The Red Guard (radical workers organizations) and the soldiers councils formed part of it. But who was in command of this army? Who held power? An army was maintained (and consequently a State), while the State had not been overthrown. This militia, on the other hand, crushed the riot of April 1919 when the police were incapable of doing so. The KPÖ also accepted the councils and their National Executive Committee as an executive organ. An organization is not revolutionary unless it acts in a revolutionary manner: this was not the case in this instance. The revolutionaries were, therefore, supporting a capitalist state organ, a new sort of capitalist state, but one which was capitalist nonetheless and even more dangerous. At the same time, the KPÖ dedicated itself to a series of putsches, such as the (unsuccessful) putsch of June-July 1919. This behavior was not contradictory: it was because the KPÖ believed that the political regime was undermined by a situation of dual power that it carried out sudden assaults to definitively destroy it. But it was all in vain: there was no dual power, such as had indeed existed in Russia. Developments from February to October of 1917 in Russia had accentuated the differences and the confrontation between the soviets and the government, because the latter was unable to satisfy the needs of the masses. This did not happen in Austria: to the contrary, the councils, a parallel power, were progressively institutionalized. The only solution, therefore, would consist in fighting the (official) council system. That is what the KAPD did, but not the KPÖ. The councils cannot be used to exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat unless they break with the bourgeoisie and all its forms.

We shall now address the position adopted by the Austrian communists on the national question. The position on the national question adopted by Koritschoner, one of the leaders of the Austrian Communist Party, can be summarized as follows: in opposition to the various currents of the social democracy of the former Austria-Hungary, he apparently assumed Lenin’s slogan: the right of national self-determination. However, as one may note from reading one of his articles published on May 22, 1920 in Kommunismus, he gave this slogan a different meaning from that intended by the Bolsheviks, one which was also quite variable in accordance with the situation; in reality, he was opposed to the Leninist idea of the nation which united all classes. For Koritschoner, what was important in considering any national question was the direct interest of the proletariat in the affected regions. He provided as an example the series of watchwords which the Austrian communists had broadcast at various times: when, at the end of 1918, Germany seemed to be on the verge of carrying out the Anschluss revolution, it called for the union of the Austrian proletariat with the German proletariat which it seemed might be victorious; when the revolution was crushed in Germany (January 1919): “Independence for Austria”. When the council republic ruled in Hungary, there was a German population in the western part of the country. The choice of what stance to take became complicated when the two countries which were parties to a disputed claim to a region were under bourgeois rule. In this case Koritschoner declared that one must decide which country had the best chance for a proletarian revolution, the country where the workers councils were more advanced, or the country where the reaction was strongest. Thus, the Austrian Communist Party opposed the integration of certain Austrian regions into Switzerland, the most stable country in the world. Other Austrian regions would have chosen to merge with Bavaria prior to May 1919, but the Austrian Communist Party defended their retention by Austria when the worst reaction was victorious in Bavaria. When there was an “equilibrium”, such as was the case of the region of Carinthia, claimed by Austria and Yugoslavia, where it was difficult to determine which country presented the most favorable situation for the proletariat, the party advocated abstention from the referendum, with the proviso, however, that in such a case what was important was not so much voting for, or against, or abstaining, what was important was not so much the result of the referendum, but that the proletariats of the two countries carry out a common action in accordance with a joint decision.

The Austrian Communist Party was therefore extremely flexible in its attempt to provide an adequate response to the infinite series of national questions which arose in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. In reality, however, Koritschoner always based his decisions on the interest of the proletariat, and did not recognize the autonomy of the national question in any respect—unlike Lenin. Koritschoner also showed, in respect to western Hungary, for example, that this question did not have any autonomy for the bourgeoisie, either, who emphasized various national claims, only to later abandon them suddenly, depending on which position served the counterrevolution. Lukàcs and Gorter, however (cf. the text reproduced below), the German and Dutch Lefts, and before them, Luxemburg, had a much clearer understanding of the essentially counterrevolutionary character of the newly-created states in the east.

The phenomenon which we find most interesting is the journal Kommunismus, and its treatment of the connections between the left in Germany and the countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, above all Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria (cf. below). In Chapter 8, we have already seen how official history has over-emphasized the reality of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (March-August 1919), and how it underestimated that republic’s impact on revolutionary strategy. Rakosi’s report at the Second Congress of the Communist International reproached the Hungarian Communist Party for having “from the very beginning, committed the grave error of merging with the social democratic party”.47 Like the Finnish “auto-critique” summarized above, this acknowledgement of the failure of socialist-communist collaboration and of the first “workers government” led to the determination to destroy the social democracy. It had been common knowledge since the “Spartacist Week” that the social democracy would not hesitate to call in the army to kill revolutionaries. Now it was known that the German case was not an exception: when social democracy found itself compelled to cooperate with the revolution, it did so only in order to fight it. In brief, it is as or more dangerous, as Marx said of the nationalist leaders of his time (Mazzini, etc.), when it mimics revolution. The revolution must destroy social democracy if it does not want to be destroyed by it. All “means” are to be subordinated to this end. After the revolutionary assault and its defeat, however, the opposite conclusion would be deduced from the same evidence. Since social democracy was the last resort of the counterrevolution, one must not directly confront it but collaborate with it in order to unmask it. This deduction, theorized in Infantile Disorder, was directed against the revolutionary movement, but corresponded to a phase of decline and of adaptation to a non-revolutionary reality. Kommunismus, published in Austria after the Hungarian defeat, illustrated this evolution.

One could consider Kommunismus as a kind of “semi-official office” of the Communist International.48 Its subtitle presents it as the organ of the Communist International for the countries of southeast Europe. The Balkan Federation had also attempted to create a regional center in Sofia (cf. Chapter 11). The Hungarians (B. Kun, Reval, Lukàcs, and Varga) made extensive contributions to Kommunismus. In the spring of 1920 an article by Lukàcs appeared in the journal, on the topic of parliamentarism, which he conceived of as merely a defensive weapon.49 His manner of opposing councils and parliament (cf. the KPÖ) was criticized by Il Soviet (journal of the Italian abstentionists) in a brief note which accompanied a translation of Lukàcs’s article. Another article by B. Kun advocated an “active boycott” motivated by tactical rather than principled reasons, a distinction rejected by Lukàcs. Kommunismus also published texts of the Amsterdam Bureau, without ever entirely endorsing the theses of the Left. In June 1920, Lenin discovered “indubitable symptoms”, of infantile disorder in this journal, and defined the “active boycott” as “perfect”.50 But the journal was, rather than a doctrinal center, a point of convergence, and rapidly regressed along with the situation in general. The frequently highly abstract character of Lukàcs’s articles testified to the journal’s shallow social penetration (for which we cannot blame him) and revealed that the journal was a theoretical base and not the theoretical expression of an active practical movement. From this perspective, it is not at all comparable to the organs of the German Left. This degree of separation and abstraction soon allowed Lukàcs to identify party and class, and later party-institution and party-program, as his later evolution would demonstrate, especially his work Lenin (1924). But in 1920, the debate had not yet been resolved, and the left still exercised some seduction over the journal’s collaborators who oscillated between the Communist International and the German Left, while the journal itself leaned more towards the Communist International. But its most important feature was the fact that its distinctive manner of theoretically comprehending the left did not correspond to a deeply-rooted movement. It was more a reflection rather than the theorization of experience.

The September 1920 issue of Kommunismus contained a critique of the KAPD written by A. Maslow (KPD left). On October 26, commenting on the Halle Congress where the USPD majority voted to merge with the KPD, Lukàcs saw this as a “process of sorting-out”. He wanted the USPD left, “and also, very soon (as we hope), the revolutionary elements of the KAPD” to join the KPD. After Wolffheim, Laufenberg and Rühle had been excluded from the KAPD, Lukàcs repeated his appeal to that party’s revolutionaries: Levi was pleased, and wrote Lukàcs expressing his wish to welcome them. . . . “The struggle to win over the mass of the proletariat is far from over, but there is, nonetheless, a mass party of the proletariat”, Lukàcs responded, without taking into account the fact that this method was transforming the party into an entity which was above all real relations.

Roland-Holst, who published a series of articles entitled “The Tasks of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution” in early 1921, represented the tendency which was moving towards the left without truly and thoroughly embracing it: in theoretical form, it was the precise expression of the actual practice of the proletarians. We should not copy the Russian Communist Party: European conditions are different, she explained, explicitly referring to the Open Letter to Comrade Lenin. The masses/leaders relation is different in Europe. Here, the masses will realize the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or “proletarian democracy” by means of actively involved soviets in order to play the dominant role, while in Russia the party plays the dominant role. The function of the leaders (Führer) will be of lesser importance in Europe. Her last article concludes with a quasi-eulogy of the KAPD which she defends (almost in the past tense) as a combative movement. She recalls Luxemburg’s critique of the Bolsheviks and then ends: “They have dared!” But this halfway position is indefensible. It can only be understood from the perspective of a possible recovery in Europe, which would change the balance of forces in the Communist International, whose new position would then constitute a dynamic factor. Roland-Holst’s prudence can be explained by her intention not “to smash this machine to pieces”, referring to the Communist International, which could still be useful.

Commenting on the consequences of the March Action in an article on communist self-criticism and Levi’s downfall (May 1, 1921), Reval anticipated the Trotsky of 1938:51 “The crisis of the German party is the crisis of its leadership (die Krise der Führer), it is a moral crisis.” He admitted that the KAPD would never even have existed were it not for the opportunism of the KPD, but concluded from this fact that the KAPD would take over the leadership of the German revolution and that “the KAPD’s left radicalism will be definitively liquidated”. On the same topic, Lukàcs established a parallel between the economic crisis affecting the bourgeoisie, and the ideological crisis (a crisis of consciousness and thus of the party) affecting the proletariat. “The mass party is only a precondition for the revolution.” Idealism and reformism would not take long to merge into what would be called “Stalinism”, justified theoretically and then superficially criticized by Lukàcs.

Founded in 1891, the Bulgarian Socialist Party was split in 1902-1903 between the “narrows” (left) and the “liberals” (right). Until 1914 the two parties together had between 1500 and 2000 members; they were primarily propaganda organizations.52 Their split also divided the trade unions. The unions were very weak (their active membership was composed of 70,000 artisans and 93,000 wage workers in 1910). The “liberals” defended Bulgaria’s entry into the war on the side of the central European empires, while the “narrows”, in 1916, advocated a break with the Second International, but did not accept the slogan of turning the war into a civil war until after October 1917. They supported the founding of the Communist International and in May 1919 formed the Bulgarian Communist Party, led by Blagoev, which had more than 20,000 members, of whom 2,200 were industrial workers, and organized 13,000 workers in the trade unions which it controlled.

The war was very unpopular in Bulgaria: ruinous and badly-led, it was accompanied by an influx of Germans and Austrians who treated the country like a semi-colony. A rebellion broke out and a republican army was formed which advanced upon the capital before being defeated in September 1918. The “narrow” faction did not consider this movement to be a proletarian movement and did not participate in it.53 Later, from 1919 to 1923, the country was ruled by the dictatorship of Stamboulisky’s Peasant Party, which organized a peasant militia, and was detested and feared by both the petty-bourgeoisie and the workers. This regime was not conducive to the differentiation of political tendencies, and clandestine conditions often mixed socialists, communists and anarchists together. The anarchists exercised some influence on the left communists. The anarchists were divided into two tendencies: one, peasant and communitarian, close to the views of Makhno and the Andalusian libertarian communists; the other, based in the cities and anarchosyndicalist, whose stronghold was Varna. The first was primarily dedicated to propaganda, the second to organizing the workers. The anarchists were numerous but did not have a national organization. The anarchists who were closer to communism and were calling for both CNT-type organizations and German-style unions joined the Communist Party, from which they would later be excluded or would join the Communist Party Left. The anarchists also had some influence in a few trade unions (longshoremen).

Between December 1919 and February 1920, a great strike of railway workers and postal employees took place, and was defeated by force: several thousand railway workers were dismissed. The Communist Party acted in an excessively prudent manner in the opinion of its left faction: the Communist International, however, encouraged the Communist Party to support Stamboulisky, who was presented as at least leading a popular movement. Under the leadership of I. Ganchev, a party fraction with about 1,000 members was formed, which denounced parliamentarism, blaming it for the Communist Party’s accommodationism. Indeed, from 1919 to 1923, the Communist Party had overtaken the socialist party and became the leading opposition party in the Bulgarian parliament.

In May of 1920, without “intending to show any disrespect to this exemplary party”, Sidarov tried “to call attention to the deviations in the tactics and principles of the Third International” in an article published by Kommunismus.54 “Just as in western Europe, the contradictions which are appearing in Bulgaria are the fruit of the old tradition of the leadership of the movement and of the absence of a truly revolutionary tradition. Peaceful evolution within the bourgeois state has left its mark on the psychology and the revolutionary initiatives of the communist leadership in Bulgaria. At the same time, it is generally believed in western Europe that the economic development of Bulgaria is almost insignificant . . . even if it is true that its development is not progressing on an extensive scale, one must nonetheless point out that it is strong enough for its tendencies to be suitable for the social and economic life of this country as a whole.”

This argument constituted a refutation in advance of all the justifications for a non-communist policy due to the backwardness and the specific conditions characteristic of largely unindustrialized regions. Bordiga, prior to 1924, defended an analogous position in respect to southern Italy.55

The uprising of a part of the army in September 1918, under the slogan, “Work, Bread and Return Home”, was defeated “by the unified power of the bourgeoisie”. While enumerating other conflicts, Sidarov asserted that the necessity of struggle “is so strong among the masses that it obliges the communist party to intervene in this struggle, even if this constitutes an exception. We deliberately say that the Communist Party only exceptionally commits itself to this struggle. During the September events, for example, it held a party conference during the course of which, frankly, it never addressed these events.” The absence of a united revolutionary leadership favored Stamboulisky’s freedom of action.

In January 1921, the minority founded the Communist Workers Party, whose journal, Rabotnicheska Iskra, was published in Varna. Attending the Third World Congress, the CWP of Bulgaria, like the KAPD, was not admitted as a member into the Communist International (not even in a consultative role). It established contacts with the KAPD, which supported it. In April 1922 it joined the Communist Workers International (cf. Appendix I). In June of 1921, the official Communist Party asserted that the CWP had been “definitively liquidated”56 and that its members had returned to the Communist Party, but this declaration appears to have been quite exaggerated. The Bulgarian Left was the expression of a tragedy, understanding this term in the sense of a contradiction without a solution (at least one which did not lie in a distant future): it wanted to go on “the offensive”, knowing that parliamentarism would fail, but it remained impotent.

An International Communist Left?
This chapter’s “disjointed” form reflects the absence of relations between the lefts of the various countries; each practically ignored the other. The Italians, for instance, reproduced articles by Pannekoek, Gorter and Pankhurst in Il Soviet, but never devoted any space to a common elaboration of activities in Western Europe. One cannot explain this dispersion as being due to a lack of information. This lack of information, the absence of an interest in establishing and maintaining contacts, reflects a situation where the revolutionary movement remained circumscribed within small areas, each of which had its own problems.

There was no international left; there was, at most, a tendency for its future continuation.57 The lack of simultaneity of events within national contexts and their respective evolutions impeded the exchange of information. In Germany, certain truths would be revealed sooner than in other countries, but this precocity condemned the German Left to isolation. The full extent of the opportunism of the Communist International had not yet become apparent in the other countries. By the time it was fully displayed, both the German Left as well as the German proletariat had already been defeated, despite a few final outbursts. An article signed “W.M.” which appeared in the International Youth Correspondence (June 10, 1921), on “the crisis of the Communist International and the Young Communists”, spoke of expelling the opportunists and sought the “reintegration of those groups which had acted with too much freedom (the KAPD tendencies), who, for that very reason, will be won over for the great revolutionary task”.

The process which led to the successive formation of left fractions also led to their being destroyed one after another, and the KAI (cf. Appendix I) was incapable of playing a coordinating role. The KAI was a site for theoretical encounters and not an organ for coordinating international activity. After 1921, the Italian Left received the same treatment which had been imposed upon the Germans: the Communist International compelled it to mix centrists and communists in the same party. But the Italian Left did not understand this. It would face the same problems as the German Left: anti-fascism, united front, fusion with the centrists, workers government. Except in respect to the trade union and national questions (which were certainly of capital importance), it would basically respond in the same way as the German Left: often with more precision, since the reaction of the German Left was situated on a more practical level, corresponding to the effective experience of the class, and sought, where it could do so, a response in action. The Italian Left had theoretically extended the theoretical-practical critique of the Germans. It was as remote from the Communist International and the Russian Communists as the German Left was. But the opposition of the Italian Communist Party came later, or in any case appeared to come later, the Italians not having grasped the immensity of their differences with the Communist International. The Italian Left would misunderstand its relation to the German Left as much as it would misunderstand its relation to Lenin.

It is true that some authors, such as A. Kriegel, consider the communist left, which they call the “ultra-left”, as something like a vast current which derived from the anarchists, at a time when the latter were close to the Communist International and even the Italian Communist Party during its early days.58 But Kriegel conceals the differences within this current and concludes by totally deforming it to the point of making any differentiations disappear: to include under this rubric the experiences of Munich and Hungary is a monstrous caricature which even a sub-Leninist polemicist would not have considered. To speak of an “international communist left” is not to impose a structure on a multitude of movements which are as varied as they are unlike one another. It is obvious that the revolutionary “solution” for the epoch could not have consisted in a mindless agglomeration of all these tendencies. Only a minority had arrived at a (relatively) correct view and had tried to act on that basis. The “German” and “Italian” communist lefts had in part cleared the way for communist perspectives, while the anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists of all stripes remained trapped in the past, even though a considerable number of them were revolutionaries. Even the German and Italian Lefts were still the prisoners of serious errors. Confusion reigned everywhere, but it was not shared equally. Spartacism and Bolshevism were both hybrids halfway between the revolution and centrism. This contradiction would be resolved. After the twilight of the movement, their radical aspects (which constituted an always living contribution: internationalism for the former, revolutionary defeatism and the question of the state for the latter) lost their importance to the benefit of positions inherited from their social democratic origins, which can be summarized as follows: win over the majority of the workers. Little by little, most militants turned towards reformism and became integrated into the party apparatus, in the KPD as in the RCP.

The fragmentation of the left reflected the weakness of the proletariat. Depending on the original experiences of the various countries, the revolutionaries managed to clarify some issues and remained confused about others. If the proletariat had manifested proofs of its internationalism and had truly acted on a worldwide scale, the left would have been enriched and would have developed alongside it: but this did not happen. At the time, the only trait common to the proletarians of the different countries was their attachment to democracy (cf. Chapter 4). Later, proletarian atomization led to the fragmentation of the left groups and their descent into sectarianism (cf. Appendix I).

One of the criteria which differentiated the German Left from the other manifestations of the communist left is undoubtedly the trade union question. Only the Dutch-German Left understood that it was impossible for the workers to ever again create permanent revolutionary workers organizations. Many left communists were supporters of “industrial unions” but did not see the connection linking classical and industrial trade unions, and even expected that the former would be transformed into the latter, and defended systematic activity within the trade unions.59 Even though DeLeon worked in the old trade unions, he wanted to create new workers organizations.60 The national question is the other differentiating criterion. At that time the German Left groups devoted little attention to the national question, but they conceived of it in essentially the same terms as the SDKPL, although Pannekoek opposed Luxemburg’s position on imperialism (cf. Chapter 3).61 Today the national and trade union questions are two crucial criteria to determine whether an orientation is clinging to the bygone past or preparing for the revolution.

In retrospect, the Italian Left is considered by the German Left as one more variant of the much-detested Leninism. Reciprocally, the Italian Left considers the German Left as a variety of anarchosyndicalism. These conflicting interpretations allow the representatives, either official or unofficial, of these traditions to avoid the question of their common origin. Where a double supersession was necessary, the defenders of each current instead became addicted to their own particular special characteristics.

What is extraordinary about these polemics is the mutual ignorance of the real nature of the objects of their attacks. Bordiga, in articles from 1955-1957, compared the KAPD to the revolutionary syndicalists.62 In his texts he frequently compared the German Left to the Gramscian current. In fact, Gramsci distinguished between “industrial power” and “political power”. In its worst formulations, the KAPD did consider that taking power in the workplace precedes taking political power. In other formulations, it presents the matter as two parallel moments. But the ambiguity persisted. In its weakest and most dangerous form, this conception leads to making the struggle against the state equivalent to the action of the economic organizations: the rank and file workers organizations would be strong enough to “make the exercise of counter-violence superfluous or at least secondary”, DeLeon thought.63 The texts and above all the practice of the German Left prove, however, that it never reduced “political” to “economic”. There are, of course, traces of revolutionary syndicalism in Bergmann’s intervention at the Third World Congress, for example, 64 but they always recalled the danger of losing the global perspective. The same delegate criticized the IWW and the factory occupations in Italy in 1920. It would be absurd to base one’s opinion on the texts without explaining them within the context of the effective practice of the German proletarians,65 with which, however, the Italian Left was indeed familiar and could explain quite well when it wanted to.66 Revolutionary journalism and other works are not a “photographic” reflection of a movement: they always present a distorted expression, especially since the proletariat is not manifested in its entirety, and remains separated without any real international action. The sense of the totality was therefore easily lost. The German Left had committed far fewer “errors” than the Communist International, and no more than the Italian Left. Despite its apparent rigor, the Communist International had provided no solutions for the problems faced by the world proletariat. The communist left, both German and Italian, tried to do so, and was at least partly successful.

The Italian Left, like the groups comprising the German Left, opposed, for example, the English communists’ affiliation with the Labour Party,67 but insisted on showing that its disagreement with Lenin on this point was of secondary importance, since his position contained the principled theses which far transcended this particular issue.68 Lenin’s position in this case rests on the idea (justly refuted by the Italian Communist Party) that social democracy was the right wing of the workers movement, rather than one of the forms assumed by capital. The Italian Left likewise insisted on the masses-leaders opposition, so beloved by the German Left.69 The KAPD attempted, above all, to promote the most wide-ranging proletarian action possible. Its activity was not, in any event, any more unilateral than constantly repeating the necessity of the party. The German and Italian Lefts did not possess a correct representation of what they were doing, since each interpreted its own practice with the aid of partially false theories. The Germans were prone to democratism, the Italians to the metaphysics of the party, although neither could be reduced to either one of these “deviations”. The organizational question inevitably acquires excessive importance when proletarian action is lacking. The masses-leaders distinction (cf. Chapter 14), a preoccupation also shared by the Italian Communist Party, while so poorly expressed by the Germans, was addressed in just as unsatisfactory a way by the Italians with their theorization of the party. This emphasis on the masses-leaders opposition was not so much an attempt to guarantee a democratic organization, as an effort to prevent the formation of a VKPD-type group or the kind of organization the Communist International wanted to impose upon the Italian Communist Party. It was this rejection of the masses-leaders perspective, despite what he himself thought, which inspired Gorter to write:

“Leadership politics is not the politics of leaders and centralization—without which nothing can be obtained, any more than in the absence of a party—but the politics which . . . holds that the leaders can be victorious if they at least have a large numbers of people behind them.”70

One could say much the same of the Left’s educationalism:

“The real mysticism is . . . that of revolutionary parliamentarism, which thinks it can educate the working class voters (and in Lenin’s vision even the peasants and the ‘functionaries’) and lead them to believe in the need for revolution by means of a well-organized presence in bourgeois institutions.”71

One could quote innumerable Leninist declarations totally within the “culturalist” orientation denounced by Bordiga after 1912.72 A text from 1919 has achieved classic status: 73

“Only parliamentarism, thanks to civilized culture, has allowed the oppressed class of the proletarians to become conscious of itself and to create a worldwide workers movement. Without parliamentarism, without the electoral principle, this evolution of the working class would have been impossible.” This combines a partial, Russian point of view with the western social democratic deviation in regards to consciousness, education and organization as preconditions for action. He would therefore incite the western revolutionaries to rejuvenate the trade union movement74 in order to provide the “Communist Party” with a mass trade union75 and electoral base.

The Italian Left’s organizational fetishism concerning the Communist International and its centralized “discipline” would continue to unfold.76 So as not to have to situate itself within the trend towards an international left, the Italian Left gave itself adversaries which were no match for it, Trotsky and Luxemburg, 77 in order to avoid confronting the only interlocutor of its own stature: the German Left. Such a confrontation did not take place at the time. But defeat had such an impact upon a revolutionary of Bordiga’s temperament that he forgot what he had written about the KAPD in 1920.78 Although he did not take the side of the party of the German Left against the official KPD, Bordiga did not reject it either and considered it to be the most vigorous aspect of the movement in Germany. He judged that it would evolve by eliminating its non-Marxist aspects: he did not, therefore, situate it outside of the “Marxist” camp, as if its positions rested upon other principles. The Italian Left did not identify itself with the German Left, but did consider the latter to inhabit a framework of Marxist principles identical to its own, and not an anarcho-communist mixture. Urquidi, author of a study of the origins of the Italian Communist Party, wrote that79 “A. Pannekoek is the only foreign author whose name is frequently repeated in the columns of Il Soviet. One could also read various articles by H. Gorter and H. Roland-Holst in that journal. It is even more surprising that, from 1918 to 1921, one does not find even one article by Lenin. The most Il Soviet offers in this respect are short extracts from Bukharin and Kollontai, and these are the only Russians published in Bordiga’s journal.”80 We will recall that in April 1920 Il Soviet described Pannekoek as an “excellent theoretician of Marxism” and the KPN as a “very good communist party”.81

Upon issuing a Manifesto to rectify the situation within the Communist International and the Italian Communist Party, Bordiga would judge in 1923 that “one might think that it would have been better to issue this warning sooner. But, as we have said in relation to the matter of tactics, the disagreement was imperceptible for quite some time: the Communist International’s method consisted in presenting its own slogans one by one.”82 The Italian Communist Party began to fall victim (in this case, as well, due to the weakness of the revolution) 83 to what it had imputed to the German communists. But the communist left, in Italy, was the Italian Communist Party. The Communist International was confronted by strong resistance from those communists who rejected fusion with the centrists (Serrati). But it stubbornly persisted. The Italian Socialist Party and the Italian Communist Party were both invited to send delegates to the Third World Congress.

Depending on the environment where they are encountered, one faction or party is often “anarchist” or “Leninist” to the other. In early 1920, Lenin stated that the Marxist-anarchist opposition had been superseded.84 Later, in 1921, he definitively catalogued the German Left under the rubric of “anarchism”.85 If by “anarchism” one means the rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat and all that implies, then the KAPD was no more “anarchist” than Bordiga, about whom Lenin said at the Third Congress: “He has most loyally declared . . . that he has renounced all anarchism and all anti-parliamentarism.”86 The Italian Left would later be known not for its orthodoxy (compared to the German Left, with its occasional syndicalist and federalist appearances) but for its doctrinal adherence to and faith in the Communist International. Bordiga’s position is somewhat reminiscent of that of Roland-Holst (cf. above). The Communist International was still a potentially communist force, it had to be preserved.

The Italian Left was moving in the direction of collaboration with the German Left in 1917-1921, but the question was never really posed because the proletariat did not transcend the national framework. The position which maintains that the Italian Left was not part of the communist left, or that other position which holds that it was the only communist left, are both founded upon a false criterion: the Leninist/non-Leninist opposition. As a “Leninist”, Bordiga would be totally distinct from the German Left. It is the very idea of this “Leninism” as a reference point for the history of the revolutionary movement of that epoch, which must again be challenged. One cannot study history from the vantage point of a time after the period in question. It was only after 192387 that “Leninism” became an ideological reference point. In the sense in which the term is ordinarily used, Leninism has never existed. It is an invention and a distortion of reality. “Leninism” and “Trotskyism” are products of the defeat, not its cause or its remedy. It is absurd to use Bolshevism as an object lesson as Rühle did in 1939, especially when Stalin was at that time liquidating all that remained of it.88

It would be vain to develop this or that partial aspect by considering it as the whole. Thus, in 1917-1921, no one had a global vision, and various degrees of confusion reigned everywhere. The “German Left” is itself a convenient formula which conceals quite different realities. Rühle was much more lucid about the real policy of the Communist International and the need to break with it, but succumbed to certain federalist and educationalist illusions. Gorter had too much faith in the Communist International and deluded himself about the possibility of building a leftist current within it, but had a better understanding of the need to unify the movement and to strengthen its organization. He was mistaken about March 1921, which Rühle assessed more correctly. Bordiga overestimated the prospects offered by the Communist International, without seeing that the failure of the world revolutionary movement would bring in its wake a regression on the part of the Russians and an initially ambiguous policy which would become reactionary later. We have shown how both the KAPD of 1920 and the Italian Communist Party insisted on discipline, the need for an organizing framework to prepare for the movement’s reactivation.89 Their shared organizational fetishism was not catastrophic, however, since all activity brings deviation with it (by transforming a means to an end), which is often corrected by the unfolding of the action itself (but not always).

The Left (German and Italian) confronted the same problems in different countries, and tried to respond to these problems. In Italy, Bordiga made concessions at the Bologna Congress (October 1919) and at Livorno (January 1921).90 Damen (who broke with the “Bordigist” ICP during the early 1950s) would write that the abstentionist fraction should have brought about the schism sooner: in 1919 rather than in 1921.91 The left was diverted from the theme of its international convergence at the Second World Congress in 1920. Rühle had contributed to this, by refusing to represent the KAPD at the Congress, but it was primarily due to the Bolsheviks who arranged everything in order to prevent the various lefts from approaching one another. “The need to seriously consider international relations never arose, however, for the German Left. Perhaps this was the clearest indication of its insignificance.”92 Considered as a whole, the course of the revolutionary movement did not depend on the Left, but on the extent and depth of the social crisis, including the greater or lesser capacity of the proletarians to organize themselves with a view to destroying capitalist society.