3. A Crash Course in Ultra-Leftology

1) Out of the Past

Palmiro Togliatti, long-time Stalinist and long-time leader of the Italian CP, once called Amadeo Bordiga an iguanodon. Though dinosaurs roamed the Earth for much longer than the human species probably will, one may ask: Why bother about the Communist left?

A good enough reason is that it was the most acute expression of the proletarian movement in the twentieth century, even if the historical situation prevented it from implementing its options and solutions: only at the end of the 1960s were left Communist deeds and ideas revived when a period emerged that needed to re-appropriate the past and pick up historical threads.

2) Beyond Words and Beyond Belief

Ultra-left is nearly always a derogatory term. In the early 1920s, the Communist International called “ultra-leftists” those communists who were anti-union and anti-parliament, mainly the German-Dutch opposition (the KAPD), less so the “abstentionist” Italian CP led by Bordiga. Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920) advocated “utmost flexibility” as a remedy against ultra-leftist “rigid doctrinairism.”

The word was later applied to the Third International for its class against class “sectarian” period (1929–34), before the Popular Front policy. In the 1930s, Trotsky called some of his critics “ultra-left phrase mongers,” and used the term in his polemic on the Spanish question against the Belgian-Italian group which published Bilan. It was also a Stalinist label applied to Trotskyists. Today it has become a media blanket term for violent radicals. The word is a condensed story in its own right, which begets as much confusion as communism or anarchism.

“Leninism and the Ultra-Left” will deal mostly with “German-Dutch” councilism, but we will have to say a few words on the “Italian” left.

The German-Dutch left and the Italian left had a lot more in common than is usually thought… and than either of them believed. Anton Pannekoek regarded Amadeo Bordiga as a weird sectarian pro-Lenin Marxist, and Bordiga viewed Pannekoek as a misconceived mixture of Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism. Neither took any real interest in the other, and like strangers who share the same story the “German” and “Italian” communist lefts largely ignored each other. Both did for a reason, and our purpose is not to reconcile them: each to his own mistakes.

Since the first draft of “Leninism and the Ultra-Left” (1969), a wealth of information has been made public, first in print and now a lot more online.1 Yet the world web is like an endless book that provides an infinity of answers (with thousands more added every hour); only the questions are missing. The Net-surfer is a traveller equipped with a map the size of the country he wishes to explore. What we lack is not data: it is the angle, the approach.

3) The German-Dutch Left

To this day, the 1917–37 years remain a historical watershed. At the end of the 1914–18 war, millions felt they were taking part in the birth of a new era, “when Communism like the morning dawns,” in the words of Sylvia Pankhurst (Writ on Cold Slate, 1920–21: she led the first CP created in Britain in 1919). Anton Pannekoek (1873–1960), Herman Gorter (1864–1927), Otto Rühle (1874–1943) and later Paul Mattick (1904–1981) had expressed (and contributed to organise) some of the most profound features of this post-1917 epoch-making movement.

Though they were mostly active in Germany, some major contributors were Dutch-born, hence the word “German-Dutch.” Socialists in the Netherlands were among the very few before 1914 who kept alive a revolutionary spirit: when the left split in 1909 to form its own party, it was the first split of that kind in Western Europe (only the Russians and Bulgarians had done so).

During the war, what later became the German left took a firm anti-patriotic stand, as the Russian and Serbian socialist parties did, as well as small minorities like the Irish Trades Union Congress led by J. Connolly, the Jewish Bund, or the “Narrow” Bulgarian socialists.

At the end of 1918, at its founding congress, the German CP (KPD) refused to take part in the forthcoming elections, against the opinion of Rosa Luxemburg who thought possible some revolutionary parliamentary action. A few months later, the left found itself a minority in the KPD and split to create the KAPD: the “A” (Arbeiter) emphasised that the new party claimed to be the authentic expression of working class interest, against bourgeois and bureaucrats alike. Meanwhile in the Netherlands, the “left” socialist party gave birth to a communist party in 1918, only to split in 1920, which resulted in a Communist Workers’ Party similar to but much smaller than its German equivalent.

Political events reflected a momentous social change. In the German rampant civil war from 1919 to 1923, the most active workers had created new forms of organisation, Unionen, which did not mean trade-unions (Gewerkschaften in German): the Unionen actually fought the trade-unions. A major difference between the Unionen and previous forms was the will to go beyond the union/party or economy/politics differentiation. For a couple of years, the Unionen gathered several hundred thousand workers.

This evolution was made explicit in Pannekoek’s essay “World Revolution and Communist Tactics” (1920), one of the most far-sighted writings of that period. Pannekoek saw that the failure of the Second International was not due to the failure of its strategy, but that the strategy was rooted in the function and form of the Second International: the parties and unions that collapsed in 1914 had been adapted to a precise stage of capitalism, in which workers fought for economic and political reforms… and were granted some. To make the revolution, the proletariat had to build organs of a new type, which would go beyond the old party/union dichotomy. A conflict with the Bolshevik-led Comintern was unavoidable. First, because the Russians had never fully understood what the old International had been, and believed in organising the workers from above, without seeing the connection between Kautsky’s “socialist consciousness” introduced into the masses, and Kautsky’s passive radicalism. Secondly, because the Russian State needed mass worker parties in Europe, capable of putting pressure on their governments to come to terms with Russia as a reborn power.

The social waves ebbed and flowed, soon the real proletarian element faced an uphill battle, and various large non-communist Communist Parties developed in the West. Many workers believed Leninism was providing them with a fire-tested doctrine, when it was actually consolidating a new variant of reformism. After 1921, KAPD membership quickly declined. The same happened in Bulgaria. Sylvia Pankhurst gradually drifted away from communism. The Worker Communist International launched in 1923 was stillborn. Nothing could revitalise a proletariat caught between social-democracy and Leninism (soon Stalinism). The die was cast. The aftershocks of the early 1920s rumbled on, the ’29 crash radicalised social strife with little revolutionary content, the communist left was reduced to small groups divided into different factions, and only a few hundred members were still active in Germany when Hitler took power.

The German left’s perception of union and party bureaucracies as forms that channelled and chained worker selfawareness and activity went parallel to its analysis of post-1917 Russia as a society led by a new exploitative class. As early as 1920, after a stay in Russia, Otto Rühle wrote that the workers were as much oppressed there as in Germany. In Western countries, union and party leaders acted as the representatives of the workers within capitalism: in the so-called “land of the soviets,” the Bolshevik leadership was fulfilling the task that the traditional bourgeoisie had proved incapable of achieving. In Lenin as Philosopher (1938), Pannekoek went further: not only had the Russian revolution been made by the workers for the benefit of a bureaucratic ruling class, but basic Bolshevik tenets owed more to bourgeois philosophy and outlook than to proletarian Marxism.

Of special interest to us is how the German-Dutch left envisaged communism. In the early 1930s, the Dutch group GIK (with further developments by Paul Mattick) set forth what has become the classic “councilist” view, in The Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution. Whereas capitalism is production for value accumulation, communism is production for use value, for the fulfilment of people’s needs. Contrary to bourgeois anarchy and bureaucratic planning, so the argument goes, worker councils will organise an accurate system of labour time bookkeeping, without the mediation of money, in order to keep track of the amount of labour time contained in every produced item.

In Workers’ Councils, started during the war and completed in 1947, Pannekoek epitomised the councilist vision where worker councils became the means and the end of revolution and of the future society:

How will the quantities of labour spent and the quantities of product to which [every worker] is entitled be measured? In a society where the goods are produced directly for consumption there is no market to exchange them; and no value, as expression of the labour contained in them establishes itself automatically out of the processes of buying and selling. Here the labour spent must be expressed in a direct way by the number of hours. The administration keeps records of the hours of labour contained in every piece or unit quantity of product, as well as of the hours spent by each of the workers. In the averages over all the workers of a factory, and finally, over all the factories of the same category, the personal differences are smoothed out and the personal results are inter-compared. (Part 1, section 4)

This crucial issue will be dealt with at more length in chapter 5 in connection with Marx. For the moment, suffice it to say that it was an immense breakthrough to try and define communism and, above all, to do it by investigating value which hardly anybody else bothered about at the time. And that pursuit would have been impossible without the practical breakthrough that the proletarians strove to achieve in the 1920s and ’30s. As our chapter 5 will argue, the snag is that, value being the amount of social labour-time necessary to produce an item, a rational accounting system in labour-time would be equivalent to the rule of value without the medium of money.

Worker self-activity is vital to proletarian emancipation: that is the indispensable legacy of council communism. But when that essential notion fostered the thesis that communism is self-managed work, council communism reached a point which turned it into ideology: councilism.

Besides, for a considerable number of council communists, the (justified) opposition to union and party grew into a principle above all else, and was interpreted as a rejection of any action that risked impose itself on the working class. Revolutionaries, the belief runs, only have to correspond, set forth theory, circulate information, and describe what the workers are doing. Everything has to come from the class. Communists must not organise to define a strategy, or act accordingly, lest they become the new leaders of the workers and later the new ruling class.

4) Bordiga

To make the most of the German-Dutch left, a few words on the “other” Communist left, the Italian left, can be of assistance. Whereas Pannekoek came to a complete rejection of Bolshevism and from the 1930s interpreted the Russian revolution as an anti-bourgeoisie capitalist revolution, Amadeo Bordiga (1889–1970) always maintained he only had tactical disagreements with Lenin, and even wrote in 1960 in defence of An Infantile Disorder. So nothing looks further apart than “Bordigism” and “council communism.”

The situation goes a lot deeper than that.

Like Pannekoek, who had fought against reformism before the war and even split the Dutch Socialist Party to create a new one, Bordiga belonged to the left of his party. But Italian radicals did not venture as far as the Dutch ones. At the time of the First World War, Italian socialism kept a somewhat radical outlook, so there was little opportunity for or desire of a split. The party even opposed Italy’s joining in the conflict in 1915, albeit in a passive way.

At the end of the war, the Abstentionist faction led by Bordiga prevailed among the radicals who founded the Italian CP in 1921. Contrary to what was happening in France and Germany at the same time, the new party was born out of a break not just with the right of the old party, but also with its centre. This was the exact opposite of what the Comintern wanted. In any case, the proletarians found themselves in an intractable challenge, locked between a parliamentary regime they could not overthrow and a rising fascist movement, and the party was unable to reverse the downhill trend. After Mussolini took power, the party leadership went to Gramsci in 1923, forcing Bordiga into minority and opposition, until he was expelled from the Italian CP in 1930.

The Italian left’s attitude on the parliamentary question, the united front tactics, the workers’ government policy and, last but not least, on anti-fascism, is well documented enough for us not to deal with those issues here. The books and sites mentioned in our note are also very informative on what the so-called Bordigists did in the 1930s and later, especially in Italy, Belgium, and France. Let us just say that, at least until 1926, and unlike the German left, Bordiga refused to explain the Bolsheviks’ and the International’s positions in terms of the degeneration of the Russian State and party. He felt the Comintern was wrong, but was still communist. At the Executive Committee of the Communist International in 1926 and in Stalin’s presence, Bordiga harshly criticised the Russian leaders: this was probably the last time a revolutionary openly attacked them from within at such a high level, and lived to tell the tale. Yet at that time Bordiga still failed to define Russia as capitalist.

In a nutshell, Bordiga supported Lenin but was no Leninist: his conception of the party was different in theory and practice. He did not think “socialist (or communist) consciousness” had to be introduced into the working class from an outside group of revolutionaries who would then organise a party based on workers’ cells centralised around a theory-providing leadership. Unlike some of his comrades within the Italian left, in particular after 1945, Bordiga was no party-builder at all costs. He never subscribed to Trotsky’s theory that “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership” (Fourth International’s Transitional Programme, 1938).

However, his belief that Lenin’s options for Western communists were tactical mistakes, and above all his inability to see the reality of what had happened to the Russian workers and peasants soon after 1917, show how he conceived the proletariat. He never understood that the Russian revolution had failed as early as 1919–21, because he thought it possible for a fully-committed communist minority to seize power, keep it for years, and serve as a support point that would hold the fort until revolution erupted elsewhere. To put it bluntly, revolution from above: though Bordiga never ignored proletarian self-activity, he did not regard it as a necessary condition of communist revolution.

5) The Salient Point

Now the polemical dust has settled, and our purpose is not to deal out blame or merit.

Both Pannekoek and Bordiga had a much broader perspective and world-view than most. Though Bordiga kept disclaiming adding any novelty to pure and simple theory of the proletariat, he was an innovative thinker, particularly after 1945, on ecology, Marx’s early works, community, ancient society… Pannekoek showed similar, if lesser, interest, for instance in his Anthropogenesis (1944). Both thought there was a lot more in capitalism and class struggle than capitalism and class struggle. In spite of councilism and party-ism, or via a councilist bias and a party bias, they broached communism and proletariat in all their dimensions.

Today, and only today, as the next two chapters will argue, we can understand why the attempt to define communism made by the GIK, Mattick, and Pannekoek later was basically flawed. And our re-examination of Marx will help get a clearer picture of the German-Dutch left.

All in all, it will prove a lot more than a trip down failed revolution memory lane.

(G.D., 2013)