4. Leninism and the Ultra-Left

Submitted by libcom on March 21, 2005

As explained in the previous chapter, we will deal here mostly with council communism, or what is known as the German-Dutch left. Its invaluable merit was and remains to hammer in the primacy of workers’ self-activity and spontaneity: the potentialities of communism lie in proletarian experience and nowhere else. This “ultra-left” has therefore consistently appealed to the essence of the proletariat against its numerous mistaken forms of existence. From the 1920s, it has stood against all mediations, whether State, party, or union, including breakaway unions, splinter groups and even anarchist unions such as the CNT. If Lenin can be summed up in one word: “party,” a single phrase defines the ultra-left: the workers themselves… nothing wrong with that. The question is: which workers’ “self” is meant?

This issue must be faced, all the more so since council communism, through the Situationist International, has become quite influential. Guy Debord was a member of the French group Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1960–61, a lot of “social-barbarism” was incorporated in the SI, and the call for workers’ councils became one of the prime Situationist themes.1

The first French draft of this text (1969) originated from a group with ultra-left roots. The essay’s main writer had authored an analysis of the Russian revolution published a couple of months before May ’68: the text made the point that in 1917–21 the Russian working class had strived to achieve worker control or even worker management, only to be defeated by the Bolshevik party which finally replaced the bourgeoisie as the new ruling class. The text equated communism with worker management.2 The experience of the ’68 general strike (as reflected in François Martin’s analysis, for example), plus a growing interest in the Italian left, convinced several members of this informal group that council communism required serious re-examination, the upshot of which was the first draft of this text, written for a convention organised by ICO (Informations & Correspondances Ouvrières), held near Paris, June 1969.3 In fact, our essay targeted more ICO’s version of councilism than councilism in general. We knew of the Situationists’ critique of ICO. While the SI’s eleventh issue wrote “we strongly recommend reading [ICO] for an understanding of the current workers’ struggles,” it added the rider:

There is, however, one fundamental opposition: we believe in the necessity of formulating a precise theoretical critique of the present society of exploitation. We consider that such a theoretical formulation can only be produced by an organised collectivity; and inversely we think that any present permanent liaison organised with workers must attempt to discover a general theoretical basis for its action. What 'On the Poverty of Student Life' described as ICO’s choice of non-existence in this domain does not mean that we think that the ICO comrades lack ideas or theoretical knowledge, but on the contrary that by intentionally putting these diverse ideas in parenthesis, they lose more than they gain in their capacity for unification (which is, in the end, of the highest practical importance).4

By and large, we agreed with this critique, and still do.

Over the years, “Leninism and the Ultra-Left” has been called “prototypal” or “seminal” (usually more a dismissal than a compliment), and gone through several titles, versions, and editions: 1969, 1972, 1973, 1997, now 2013. Former editions had sections on labour and value inspired by Marx’s views, which we are now convinced need re-appraisal. For clarity purposes, and to avoid repetitions, we have chosen to delete those passages, and only to engage in a critique of Marx in the following chapter.


The ultra-left was far from monolithic. As we will see, Herman Gorter’s Open Letter to Lenin (1920) formulates a theory of the party which differs from Lenin’s, but still leaves room for a party, a conception most council communists—Pannekoek among others—no longer accept. On the two decisive points (“organisation” and the content of communism), we shall only consider the ideas which the ultra-left has retained throughout its development. The French group ICO is one of the best examples of a present-day ultra-left group.

1) Party or Council?

Ultra-left ideas are the product of a practical experience (mainly the workers’ struggles in Germany) and of a theoretical critique (the critique of Leninism). For Lenin, the supreme revolutionary problem was to forge a “leadership” capable of leading the workers to victory. On the basis of the rise of mass factory organisations in Germany, the German left said the working class needed no leaders. Revolution would be made by self-organised workers’ councils and not under the guidance of professional revolutionaries. The German Communist Workers’ Party (KAPD), whose aim and tactic were probably best expressed by Gorter, regarded itself as a vanguard whose task was to enlighten the masses, not to conduct them as in Leninist theory.

This conception was rejected by many ultra-leftists, who opposed the dual existence of the factory organisations and the party: revolutionaries must not try to organise themselves in a body distinct from the masses. Part of the KAPD—Otto Rühle in particular—called for the immediate abolition of the party organisation, and logically left the KAPD. In the AAUD (General Union of German Workers), which gathered together many Unionen, a tendency developed against what it regarded as harmful leadership by the KAPD, and created a new gathering, the AAUD-E, the “E” (Einheitsorganisation) standing for unitary organisation, viz. beyond the economic/political division. The AAUD-E reproached the AAUD with being controlled by the KAPD in the same way as the official CP controlled the trade-unions. Most council communists later adopted the same view as the AAUD-E. In France, ICO’s present activity is based on the same principle: any revolutionary organisation coexisting with the organs created by the workers themselves, and trying to elaborate a coherent theory and political line, must in the end attempt to take control over the workers. Therefore revolutionaries do not organise themselves outside the organs “spontaneously” created by the workers: they merely exchange and circulate information, and establish contacts with other revolutionaries; they never try to define a general theory or strategy.

This is the exact opposite of Leninism. Lenin’s theory of the party is based on a distinction common to quite a few socialist thinkers of the period: “labour movement” and “socialism” (revolutionary ideas, Scientific Socialism, Marxism, etc.—it goes by many names) are two different realities. Compare Kautsky’s The Three Sources of Marxism (1907) and Lenin’s Three Sources and Three Components of Marxism (1913): both interpret the making of modern proletarian revolutionary thought as the fusion of German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism and utopianism, i.e. an intellectual construct, elaborated by bourgeois-born intellectuals.5 Labour movement and revolutionary movement must be united through the leadership of the latter over the former. Therefore revolutionaries must get organised and act on the working class “from the outside.” Unless socialists “introduce” socialism into the working class, that class can only fight bread-and-butter issues.

Kautsky-Lenin’s starting point seems based on facts: a university-educated person is more familiar with reading and writing than a plumber who left school in his teens. Yet who holds the pen is inessential. Marx’s writings were an expression of the struggle of the proletariat. Even if communist thought was articulated by “bourgeois intellectuals” (and by highly educated workers like Joseph Dietzgen, a selftaught tanner who developed his own materialist conception of history), it was spawned by class confrontation. In the twentieth century, theoreticians as important as Paul Mattick and Jan Appel were both manual workers.

Instead of explaining “class consciousness” by class experience, Kautsky and Lenin derived experience from consciousness. Lenin knew perfectly well that revolution was made by spontaneous mass action (in that sense, he was no bureaucrat), but thought it could only succeed with proper leadership built from outside.

This was in stark contrast to Marx’s conception of the party. There is no text which sums up his ideas on the subject, only scattered remarks, yet a general view emerges: capitalist society generates a communist party, not in the primarily political sense, but as the organisation of the objective movement that is at work within society and can lead to communist revolution. This movement is objective because it is not created by consciousness, though of course it is expressed consciously in various conflicting ways.

After the “League” had been disbanded at my behest in November 1852, I never belonged to any society again, whether secret or public; … the party, therefore, in this wholly ephemeral sense, ceased to exist for me eight years ago … since 1852 I had not been associated with any association and was firmly convinced that my theoretical studies were of greater use to the working class than my meddling with associations which had now had their day on the Continent. Because of this “inactivity” I was thereupon repeatedly and bitterly attacked. … Since 1852, then, I have known nothing of “party” in the sense implied in your letter. … The “League”, like the Société des Saisons in Paris and a hundred other societies, was simply an episode in the history of a party that is everywhere springing up naturally out of the soil of modern society. … I have tried to dispel the misunderstanding arising out of the impression that by “party” I meant a “League” that expired eight years ago, or an editorial board that was disbanded twelve years ago. By party, I meant the party in the broad historical sense.6

This “party” is neither created nor not-to-be-created: it is a product and an expression of the proletariat (often identified with the working class in Marx’s writings), and less an organisation than a programme, a perspective, held by at least an active minority. This is miles away from Kautsky’s and Lenin’s conception of a “socialist consciousness” which must be “brought” to the workers.

Lenin misunderstood class struggle. In a non-revolutionary period the proletariat cannot change capitalist production relations. It therefore tries to change capitalist distribution relations through its demand for higher wages. Of course the workers do not “know” that they are changing the distribution relations when they ask for higher wages. Yet they do try, “unconsciously,” to act upon the capitalist system. Kautsky’s and Lenin’s theory of class consciousness breaks up a process and considers one of its transitory moments: for them the proletariat “by its own resources alone” can only be reformist. In this education-centred view of history, the workers are promising children who yet have to go to school. In actual fact, revolutionaries as well as their ideas are born in workers’ struggles.

In a non-revolutionary period, revolutionary workers, isolated in their factories, do their best to expose the real nature of capitalism and the institutions which support it (State, unions, “worker” parties). They usually do this with little success, which is quite normal. And there are revolutionaries (workers and non-workers) who read and write, who do their best to provide a critique of the whole system. They usually do this with little success, which is also quite normal. This division is a result of capitalism: a characteristic of capitalist society is the division between manual and intellectual work. This division exists in all social spheres, therefore also in the revolutionary movement, which is a product of our society and bears the stigma of capitalism.

Only the complete success of revolution will do away with this division: until then, we must challenge this separation, but we cannot help it having effects on our movement as much as it affects society as a whole. It is inevitable that numerous revolutionaries are not greatly inclined to reading, and show little interest in theory. This is a fact, a transitory fact. But “revolutionary workers” and “revolutionary theoreticians” are two aspects of the same process. It is wrong to say that the “theoreticians” must lead the “workers.” When ICO maintains that collectively organised theory could result in leadership over the workers, it takes a position opposed to but symmetrically opposed to Lenin’s. The revolutionary process is an organic process, and although its components may act separately for a certain time, the advent of any historical tremor starts getting them together.

What happened in May 1968 in the worker-student action committees at the Censier centre in Paris? Some (ultra-left) communists, who before these events had devoted most of their revolutionary activity to theory, met up with a minority of radical workers. Before May 1968 (and since then), they were no more separate from the workers than every worker is separate from his fellow workers in a non-revolutionary situation. Marx was no more estranged from the working class when he was writing Das Kapital than when he was active in the Communist League or the First International. In these organisations, he felt neither the urge (as Lenin), nor the fear (as ICO), to become the leader of the workers.

Marx’s conception of the party as a historical product taking different forms according to the evolution of society enables us to go beyond the dilemma: need of the party/allergy to the party. The communist party is the spontaneous (i.e. totally determined by social evolution) organisation of the revolutionary movement created by capitalism. The party is a spontaneous offspring of the soil of modern society. There is no point in attempting to “build the party,” nor in refraining from it.

Marx had a theory of the party. Lenin had another, which contributed to the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, and then played its part in the defeat of the revolution, as it cemented together a ruling elite which thought of itself as separate from and superior to the toiling masses. This encouraged the ultra-left to reject all theories of the party. Yet Lenin’s theory was not the cause of the revolutionary failure in Russia: his conception prevailed because the Russian revolution failed, mainly because of the absence of revolution in the West, and there was a power vacuum in Russia that only the Bolsheviks were there to fill. Why discard all theories of the party because one of them (Lenin’s) was a counter-revolutionary instrument? Councilism gave a different answer to the same warped question: for or against party-building. The ultra-left remained on the same ground as Lenin. Lenin’s view is not to be reversed, but abandoned.

Modern Leninists set themselves the Sisyphus goal of organising the masses. Contemporary ultra-left groups (ICO, in particular) only circulate information and avoid adopting a collective position on all the issues we are confronted with. As opposed to this, we believe it necessary to formulate what the SI called a unitary critique of the world, which implies collective activity with an attempt at coherence. Any permanent group of revolutionary workers logically looks for a theoretical basis for its action. Theoretical clarification is an element of, and a necessary condition for, practical unification…

…bearing in mind that in each period, communist theory expresses two things: the highest level reached by the previous insurrectionary phase; and the elements in contemporary proletarian struggles which seem to herald the content of new insurrections to come. Therefore radical theory can never avoid expressing its overall “historical” perspective within the inevitable limits of its time. The incompleteness of communist theory reflects the in-between-two-worlds situation of the proletarians.

2) Managing What?

The Russian revolution died when it ended up developing capitalism in Russia. To create an efficient body of managers became its watchword. The German-Dutch left concluded that bureaucratic management could not bring about socialism—which was true, and which many people (Trotskyists for instance) failed to understand—and it advocated workers’ management, which is inadequate. A self-contained conception was born, with workers’ councils at its centre: the councils act as the fighting organs of the workers under capitalism and as the instruments of workers’ management under socialism. Thus the councils play the same pivotal role in ultra-left theory as the party in Leninism.

The theory of workers’ management analyses capitalism in terms of who runs it. But is capitalism first of all a mode of management? The analysis of capitalism initiated by Marx does not lay the stress on who manages it: Marx described both capitalists and workers as functions in a productive system: “the capitalist as such is only a function of capital, the labourer a function of labour power.” The Russian bureaucratic leaders do not “lead” the economy; they are led by it, and the development of the Russian economy obeys the objective laws of capitalist accumulation. A manager is no autocrat. Capitalism is not a mode of management but a mode of production based on specific productive relations, and revolution targets these relations. Russian and American managers only wield power in as much as they pander to the requirements of value and productivity.

Of course production relations are personified in the concrete existence of worker v. boss, but the leader/led opposition is a form of the fundamental capital/wage-labour relation. The function of capitalist tends to be separate from the function of worker: “order-takers” will never be “order-givers,” to use a vocabulary favoured by Castoriadis and the late Socialisme ou Barbarie.

Let us confront Lenin with Marx:

The fundamental problem of any revolution is the problem of power. (Lenin)

In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity always remained unscathed and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the preceding, does away with labour … and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society. (Marx)7

In a bourgeois revolution, the fundamental problem may well be power. In a communist revolution, power certainly matters… in so far as it helps create a “mode of activity” that “does away with labour,” and this creation is fundamental.

The Bolshevik bureaucracy took the economy under its control. Council communists want democratically-organised workers to do this. It remains on the same ground as Leninism: it once again gives a different answer to a similar question: how to run the economy. Let’s replace that question with a different one: the destruction of that economy, which is capitalist.8

3) The Historical Limit of the Ultra-Left

Communist revolution is the process by which the proletariat terminates the historical course of capital. The proletariat does more than seize the world: it puts an end to the objective dynamics which created value, commodity, and wagelabour, and spread them all over the planet. Marx insisted on substance, Lenin and the ultra-left on forms: form of political organisation, form of social management. This, too, was a historical product: the situation of the period prevented revolutionary struggles from having a communist content.

When they kept repeating that the masses needed leaders, the Bolsheviks expressed the impossibility of revolution in their time. Councilism expressed its necessity, without situating exactly where its possibility lay. This was an era of large reformist organisations, social-democrat and Stalinist ones: it took little time for “communist” parties to sink into another variant of reformism. The post-1917 revolutionary wave did not go deep enough for a communist perspective to emerge, so everywhere, in Germany, in Italy, in France, in Britain, in the United States, the working class soon fell back under the control of “worker” leaders. Reacting against this situation, at the same time as they affirmed an indispensable and still valid critique of unionism, parliamentarianism, “worker’“ parties and vanguardism, council communists were driven to the point where they feared to become the new bureaucrats. Instead of understanding Leninist parties as a product of proletarian defeat, they theorised diametrically opposed organisational forms and, like Lenin, ignored the Marxian conception of the party. As for the content of communism, no social movements, except in Spain for a short time after 1936, really endeavoured to overthrow capitalism.9 In such conditions, it was unlikely for any segment of the Communist left to come close to a profound critique of Leninism. Misinterpreting the content of revolution was all the more inevitable as actual struggles hardly manifested that content.

Revolution has, but is not a problem of organisation. The main point is not that unions or political parties are inadequate vehicles for proletarian emancipation. Indeed they are. Communist revolution being an altogether different phenomenon from bourgeois revolution and implying a break with bourgeois society, it requires completely different modes of organisation: O. Rühle was perfectly right to explain in 1920 that “The Revolution Is Not a Party Affair.” Yet the heart of the matter is that autonomous proletarian bodies only retain their autonomy if they engage in tasks which tear away the social fabric, if self-organised collectives initiate value-less and work-less means and ways of life, which force them to confront the State, etc, and it is this process we have to shed light on.

Councilism replaced the Leninist fetishism of the party and class-consciousness with the fetishism of workers’ councils. The critique of both Leninism and ultra-leftism is now possible because the development of capitalism, and the struggles that question it, give us a better understanding of what communist revolution means.

Holding on to such basic ultra-left notions as fear of party-building and workers’ management would turn them into mere ideology. When these ideas first appeared around 1920, they were not “mistakes,” they were the highest possible level of consciousness of hundreds of thousands of strikers and insurgents embarked on a dramatic combat with the bourgeois State, social democracy and Leninism. But things have changed a great deal since 1920. Turning limits into theory is a regression. A new revolutionary workers’ minority is in a slow process of formation, as was revealed by the 1968 events in France, and by other struggles in several countries.

There exist billions of proletarians. There also exist what could best be called revolutionary groups. In socially quiet times, little interaction occurs between the two. In socially troubled times, revolutionaries are part of proletarian struggles. Prolier-than-thou behaviour and (as a symmetrical complement) guilt at not-being-working-class inevitably appear: if these attitudes develop, they are an unmistakable sign of weakness. A truly deep revolutionary movement tends towards social unification and theoretical coherence.

Until such times come, revolutionaries never hesitate to act collectively to propagate their critique of the existing society. Communists represent and defend the general interests of the movement. Whenever and however they can, they express the whole meaning of what is going on and make practical proposals. If the expression is right and the proposal appropriate, they become part of proletarian struggle and contribute to build the informal, and possibly sometimes not so informal, “party” of the communist revolution.

  • 1

    Historians of the SI and Debord’s biographers tend to play down the influence Socialisme ou Barbarie exerted on the SI. What SoB s a group really tried, did, and became is obscured by the celebrity of its “animating personality,” Cornelius Castoriadis. For a good short account: Marcel van der Linden, Socialisme ou Barbarie, A French Revolutionary Group (1949–65), 1997, http://www.left-dis.nl/uk/lindsob.htm. (Regrettably, van den Linden does not mention the SI-SoB connection.) Anselm Jappe’s good biography, Guy Debord (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), says little on Debord’s passage in the SoB group. To the best of our knowledge, the only English language articles that deal substantially with this relation are by Bill Brown, on the notbored.org site.

    This is not the time for an essay on the SI, but the situationist vision differed greatly from the usual councilist approach. If daily life is given its real broad sense, extending worker management to generalised self-management of daily life meant a qualitative leap which exploded the concept of work and managing… and therefore of workers’ councils: if you modify the whole of life, then production, workplace, work, and the economy cannot exist as separate domains anymore.

    The SI indirectly addressed councilism when it criticised “a one-sided, undialectical, and insufficiently historical manner by some of the radical groups who are halfway between the old degraded and mystified conception of the workers movement, which they have superseded, and the new form of total contestation which is yet to come. (See, for example, the significant theories of Cardan and others in the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie.)” For the SI, “the very core of the revolutionary project . . . is nothing less than the suppression of work in the usual present-day sense (and of the proletariat) and of all the justifications of previous forms of work.” (“Ideologies, Classes and the Domination of Nature,” Situationist International no. 8 (1963): see Situationist International Online). The reference is probably to On the Content of Socialism, by Cardan-Castoriadis, published in S ou B in 1955, available at http://eagainst.com/articles/castor/.

  • 2Our Notes pour une analyse de la Révolution russe was later integrated in the book Communisme & Question russe, still available in the Editions Spartacus catalogue, yet never translated into English. Two years later, the English group Solidarity (which had been close to SoB) published The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control: The State and Counterrevolution, by Maurice Brinton, who wrote in the introduction: “That such an analysis might be possible was suggested in an excellent short pamphlet Notes pour une analyse…” The interpretative framework of worker v. bureaucratic power could only please the theorists of worker management.
  • 3ICO later became and is still active as Echanges & Mouvement: mondialisme.org.
  • 4Reading ICO, SI no. 11, 1967; also What Makes ICO Lie?, no. 12, 1969. For ICO/Echanges & Mouvement’s point of view: ICO & l’IS: Retour sur les relations entre ICO et l’IS, 2007 (mondialisme.org; as far as we know, it has not been translated into English).
  • 5At the same time (1969) as our informal group was writing this critique of councilism, we published The “Renegade” Lenin & His Disciple Kautsky, now in English on the John Gray site.
  • 6Marx’s letter to Ferdinand Freiligrath, February 29, 1860. “Marx and Engels derived the characteristics of the party form from the description of communist society.” (Jacques Camatte, “Origin and Function of the Party Form,” 1961, available in English https://www.marxists.org/archive/camatte/origin.htm). An illuminating comment.
  • 7Lenin, On the Duality of Power, April 9, 1917; Marx, German Ideology, Part I, D, 1845–46. For more on power, see chap. 1, section 12 in this volume.
  • 8Council communists would reply that the workers’ management they envisage is entirely different from capitalism. As we will argue in the next chapter, their scheme maintains the fundamentals of capitalism, because it is based on labour time counting.
  • 9On Spain: Gilles Dauvé, When Insurrections Die, 1998, http://www.troploin.fr/node/47.


remus bleys

10 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by remus bleys on July 19, 2014

Like doesn't having the workers led by the ultra left which enlightens them = the socialism introduced from behind talked about in witbd?