Thoughts on this Leninist exposition on Ultra-Leftism

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Vlad The Inhaler's picture
Vlad The Inhaler
Joined: 17-04-15
Jul 14 2018 07:42
Thoughts on this Leninist exposition on Ultra-Leftism

The following is taken from a pamphlet called Strategy and Tactics. It was authored by John Rees, co-leader of the (loosely-speaking) Trotskyist grouplet Counterfire, who lost (depending on how you look at it) a power struggle within the UK SWP.

The Pamphlet sets out the political and philosophical justifications for a Leninist organisation. I'm not looking for people to critique the Leninist model, as I'm perfectly capable of doing that myself these days. What I was interested in was this section which draws heavily on the history of the German revolution. My knowledge of that moment in history is sketchy and heavily jaundiced by my Leninist education. I'd like to get some input from members on this section.

11. Ultra-leftism
Lenin observed that for a vanguard party to perform its
function properly, it must always be in touch with the
rearguard. It must encourage and organise action by the
majority of the class, or at least by the widest possible layers
of the class beyond its own ranks. It cannot substitute the
actions of its own members for those of the workers.

‘Ultra-leftism’ is the term given to those slogans
and actions that attempt to substitute the actions of the
militant minority for that of the majority of workers. The
most graphic example of this policy is the behaviour of the
German Communist Party in March 1921.

Germany was in a highly-charged political crisis after
the revolution of 1918 that overthrew the Kaiser and ended

Germany’s participation in the First World War.
Huge class battles swept the country, at one time
providing opportunities for revolution, at others opening
the door to armed counter-revolution.

In 1921, a combination of intervention from the
newly-formed Communist International in Moscow and
home-grown ultra-lefts in Germany itself forced through
a new tactical turn in the German Communist Party. The
existing line of the Communist Party was criticised as too
passive and in need of ‘activising’. Karl Radek and Bela
Kun, the representatives of the Communist International,
urged the party to ‘go on to the offensive’ in order to shock
workers out of their passivity, ‘if necessary by a provocation’,
and force them to confront the government.
When the social-democratic President of Prussian

Saxony announced a police crackdown on industrial areas,
this policy of ‘forcing the revolution’ was activated.

The party paper ran an editorial on 20 March headed
‘Who is not with me is against me: a word to social-
democratic and independent workers’. It was an ultimatum
to workers, telling them they must choose sides in the
coming struggles.

The party called for and organised a general strike (the day
before the factories were due to close for the Easter holidays),
with the occupation of factories and the arming of workers.
But the mood in the working class was not revolutionary,
and the tactic was a disaster, pitting Communist Party
workers against the non-Communist Party majority.

In Berlin, the strike was practically non-existent.
Elsewhere, armed Communists clashed with workers as
they went into the factories. In Hamburg, in an exchange
of gunfire, dock workers drove off CP-supporting dockers
and unemployed workers who had occupied the quays.

Estimates of the number who heeded the strike call
vary between 200,000 and 500,000 – in a country with a
working class of many millions, and where the Communist
Party itself claimed no less than 500,000 members. It had
ended, as one Central Committee member had predicted
it would, with the 50 or so CP members who formed the
core of the party in each workplace ranged against fellow
workers who would, and often had, followed their lead in
other circumstances.

The adventurism of the ‘March Action’ isolated the
vanguard of the class and put reaction in the ascendant.
The lesson of Lenin’s Left-wing communism: an infantile
disorder, written a year earlier, now stood out in the
sharpest possible relief:

'While the first historical objective (that of winning
over the class conscious vanguard of the proletariat
to the side of soviet power and the dictatorship of the
working class) could not have been reached without
a complete ideological and political victory over
opportunism and social chauvinism, the second and
immediate objective, which consists in being able to
lead the masses to a new position ensuring the victory
of the vanguard in the revolution, cannot be reached
without the liquidation of Left doctrinarism.

In this battle, Lenin argues, ‘propagandist methods
alone, the mere repetition of the truths of “pure”
communism, are of no avail’. What is necessary is that the
slogans and actions of the revolutionaries point out the
next, most pressing, step in the struggle, not simply the
ultimate goal of the struggle.

But to know what the next step is, revolutionaries
must be in close contact with the mass of workers and
must judge both what the most urgent problem is and
what the next possible step might be. Only then can a
vanguard organisation unite with the majority of the
class in taking that step. If the revolutionaries attempt to
‘leap over’ the current consciousness of the class, they will
divide themselves from even the best non-party workers,
damaging their own organisation, the wider working-class
movement, and the relationship between the two.

Joined: 6-01-07
Jul 18 2018 12:09

That of course is a 'Leninist' definition of what ''ultra-leftism' is! but what and who are a minority in any given historical and contingent situation is precisely what requires understanding. Certainly basing you political analysis and practice on the lowest common denominator will get you nowhere and attempting to lead from the rear is no leadership at all! We should learn by our mistakes but those who take no risks make no mistakes to learn from.
Best stick with Gorter over Lenin anytime. See here:

darren p's picture
darren p
Joined: 5-07-06
Jul 17 2018 18:56

One thought with the Rees quote is that it is the essence of reformism - thinking that communism can be got at by following a series of step by step measures. Troskyism, in practice, is a reformist doctrine and one that functions by trying to manipulate the masses who they think are too stupid to understand what socialism is.

comradeEmma's picture
Joined: 27-04-18
Jul 17 2018 20:45

Maybe I am not understanding but that feels like an odd interpretation based of preconceived notions of their definition. Most workers might develop an understanding of the antagonism between them and the capitalist but that does not mean they have developed a class consciousness or become communists.

The point of the text being that the party should support and help lead struggles instead of attacking workers who have yet to become communists, like they say,

The party called for and organised a general strike (the day before the factories were due to close for the Easter holidays), with the occupation of factories and the arming of workers. But the mood in the working class was not revolutionary, and the tactic was a disaster, pitting Communist Party workers against the non-Communist Party majority.

I don't think its reformist to state that you can't just show up to a factory with rifles and tell everyone it is the time for an insurrection, that is a voluntaryist stance. As Marx said, "men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past".

Also, Lenin in Marxism and Insurrection,

To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning-point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism.

Once these conditions exist, however, to refuse to treat insurrection as an art is a betrayal of Marxism and a betrayal of the revolution.