Leftism

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Jul 5 2009 14:18
Leftism

Right, so I kind of intuitively grasp what the concept of leftism is, as in stuff that claims to be progressive or communist in some way but involves the use of hopelessly counter-productive organisational forms, tactics, strategies etc. But can anyone give an exact definition of precisely what leftism (in the very specific anarchist/ultra-left sense of the word) is? What the dividing lines between leftism and "proper" communism are? Also of where the term comes from, and how old it is, cos I've read a fair amount of stuff critiquing what I'd understand as leftism but without specifically referring to it as such. Short answers that aren't full of Marx-babble'd be a plus.

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Joseph Kay
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Jul 5 2009 14:24

generally i'd define leftism as concerned with the management of struggles, either directly in terms of seeking political office or trade union exec positions (like the trots) or making demands about how capital should be managed to meet our actual demands (nationalise this, tax the rich etc).

baboon
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Jul 5 2009 14:49

The ICC defines it thus: "Groups and organisations which in one way or another defend the continued existence of capitalism, under the guise of fighting for communism.
This category includes both currents which were once part of the working class but have betrayed it (eg Trotskysm), as well as those which were never part of the working class in the first place ".

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Jul 5 2009 15:38
Joseph Kay wrote:
generally i'd define leftism as concerned with the management of struggles, either directly in terms of seeking political office or trade union exec positions (like the trots) or making demands about how capital should be managed to meet our actual demands (nationalise this, tax the rich etc).

I'd say I agree with that. It's basically the whole breadth of the left wing of the spectrum of the management of capital.

Its focus is, deliberately or not, on attempting to manage capital in workers interests.

So it would include everything from Labour style social democrats to Greens to Leninists to parts of the anarchist movement like some platformists etc.

ajjohnstone
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Jul 5 2009 16:47

By a fortuitous coincidence the SPGB blog Socialism Or Your Money Back has a recent post Against the Left (part1) , a reprint of a 1978 Socialist Standard article - with more related postings to come

Quote:
The SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN has consistently maintained that the 'left-wing', despite their claims to being socialist are, in reality, reformist rather than revolutionary organisations, with no more than a sentimental attachment to the working class. In the first of a series of articles providing a searching analysis of the left, we begin with the historical origins of leftism. Future articles in the series will deal with — Bolshevism, Stalinism and the Communist Party; Trotskyism; Sectarianism and Principles, concluding with a look at the Road Ahead.
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Jul 5 2009 18:22

Leftism, or the left, in my mind refers to the left wing of capital; the parties, unions and institutions hellbent on managing capital for the "workers".

dave c
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Jul 5 2009 19:19

As far as the history of the term goes, I have never seen anything that charted any clear history, and it seems to me to have only really come to prominence in the 1960's with the Situationists and others. The most modern pre-1960's description of the "left" in this sense that I can think of comes from Bordiga:

Bordiga wrote:
The huge river of human history also has its irresistible and threatening swellings. When the wave rises, it washes against the two retaining embankments: on the right the conformist one, of Conservation of existing and traditional forces; along it priests chant in procession, policemen and gendarmes patrol, the teachers and cantors of official lies and state-schooling prate.

The left bank is that of the reformists, hedged with “people’s” representatives, the dealers in opportunism, the parliamentarians and progressive organisers. Exchanging insults across the stream, both processions claim to have the recipe to maintain the fast- flowing river in its restrained and enforced channel.

But at great turning points, the current breaks free and leaves its course, “shifting” like the Po at Guastalla and Volano onto an unexpected course, sweeping the two sordid bands into the irresistible flood of the revolution which subverts all old forms of restraint, moulding a new face on society like on the land. (http://www.marx.org/archive/bordiga/works/1951/civilisation.htm)

baboon
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Jul 5 2009 19:49

I don't disagree with much of the above and I just want to concentrate on trotskyism a bit. It came to power in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and, I seem to remember, was instrumental in bringing an Argentinian faction to power in the seventies. But I think its greatest service to capitalism was from its emergence in the late 60s in order to absorb some of the struggle of the working class in the face of the failure of stalinism - indeed, making a "critique" of the latter. Like leftism generally, trotskyism works as a supplement to the bourgeoise.

After 68 thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of young workers, school children and students came towards varieties of leftism, particularly trotskyism, attracted by their anti-capitalism message and the fight for another society that reflected the interests of the working class. There were many sincere individuals that were sucked in and eventually blown out on this basis.

Their main role for the varieties of leftism were as appendages, touts, for the trade unions and their propagandising for democracy in the unions was part of their general defence of capitalist democracy and elections. Their campaigns proved a useful counter-point on the bourgeosie's spectrum: "national liberation"; "anti-fascism"; "anti-racism"; "the lesser evil"; "anti-globalisation"; "anti-privatisation" and a few more antis.

Leftism is not essential for the management of state capitalism and events have recently demonstrated that the right wing of the bourgeoisie is perfectly capable of nationalism beyond the thoughts of leftism. It has been and is fully implicated in imperialism with its national liberation, national defence and support for one or other warring faction of the bourgeoisie.

Though it has suffered some blows leftism is resilient. We seen the Socialist Party active in the construction strikes and the New Anti-Capitalist movement in France is nothiing more than trotskyism dressed up in a few more national interest and democratic rags.

Boris Badenov
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Jul 5 2009 20:07

I think there are two possible distinct meanings to leftism. The first meaning would be a fetishization of New Left politics that are only to the left of capital but part of it. Trotskyism definitely belongs in this category.
However, there is another, perhaps more intuitive definition which actually sees leftism as synonymous with revolutionary politics. In "Obsolete Communism" for example, Cohn-Bendit defines leftism along these lines by pointing out that "Marx was to the left of Proudhon and Bakunin was to the left of Marx." Similarly, Trotsky says in his HotRR that "the masses were a hundred times to the left of the extreme left of the party" (which sort of invalidates the point that Trotskyism was ever for the working class). And Lenin of course famously called left communism an infantile disorder. The French students in '68 were often denounced as leftists by the PCF, on the basis that they were nothing but agents provocateurs in the pay of capital. So ultimately it was centralist statist Communists who first defined leftism as reactionary. It is curious that anarchist and left communists would appropriate this view of leftism only to then use it on the Communists.
Despite the clear preference for using leftism as a derogatory term, I tend to sympathize with the view that historically those who have been on the actual left of socialist politics were much closer to a revolutionary outlook than good Party Marxists.

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Jul 6 2009 09:04

I think you're mixing up two things Vlad. There is the bourgeois camp and the revolutionary camp.

In the former - the leftists are the left wing of capital and represent an outwardly radical face in order to recruit and ultimately nullify (see Baboons post above) revolutionary forces and potential. It's partially because these elements and groups claim a continuity with real revolutionaries (eg - at the risk of another bun fight - Trotsky by the Trotskyists) that they are able to present some 'revolutionary' credibility.

In the latter there can be a left wing - of a party, of a movement, within particular debates and discussions - but the framework of these are the shared revolutionary one. As has been so often the case in history, the left wing ususally represent the politically clearest sections of revolutionaries, even where this clarity came at a price - for example the grouplets which became critical of the bureacratisation of the Bolsheviks (Miasnikov, Decists etc..) and the German, Dutch and Italian lefts which broke away from the degenerating 3rd International.

There has to be clear political criteria for using this term, it's not enough to say that such and such is to the left (or right) of someone else (in fact this would then apply to all Trot groups) the standard we have to measure against is the historical acquisitions of the working class, internationalism etc... unfortunately too many people talk about 'the left' - meaning anyone from the left of Labour onwards.

pannekoek-bakunin
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Jul 6 2009 10:34

To dave c. Thank you!

Here is more:

http://www.ibrp.org/en/articles/2005-06-01/world-revolution-and-true-marxism-a-letter-from-norway

Greetings from pannekoek-bakunin.

pannekoek-bakunin
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Jul 7 2009 02:17

red star red star red star

I am not sure if this is leftism, or even more doubtful if this is left communism. But it is quite interesting though:

http://www.sinistra.net/lib/upt/compro/lipo/lipoebubue.html

(Hope it is not too long.)

pannekoek-bakunin

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Jul 7 2009 04:28
baboon wrote:
The ICC defines it thus: "Groups and organisations which in one way or another defend the continued existence of capitalism, under the guise of fighting for communism.
This category includes both currents which were once part of the working class but have betrayed it (eg Trotskysm), as well as those which were never part of the working class in the first place ".

This definition doesn't include any defining characteristics that aren't completely subjective. At least we're getting somewhere with the "management of capital" idea.

Quote:
In the former - the leftists are the left wing of capital and represent an outwardly radical face in order to recruit and ultimately nullify (see Baboons post above) revolutionary forces and potential.

"In order to"? So do you think this is a conscious plot by capitalists? If so you are mad, if not, you are being unintentionally obscure and confusing.

pannekoek-bakunin
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Jul 7 2009 20:05

red star Well, leftism and terrorism are perhaps not the same thing. Anyone remembering the "Communist Program"?

Somethings go wrong - somethings go right...

pannekoek-bakunin

knightrose
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Jul 7 2009 05:36

Manchester AF produced this leaflet last year for the Convention of the Left meeting in September:

Quote:
Why we Are Not On The Left

Anarchist Communism, neither left nor right but social revolution

Capitalism's temporary mask of invincibility has once again fallen. Ten years of relative growth and alleged prosperity has let us to where capitalists always lead us, crisis, unemployment, environmental disaster and war. The illusion of sustainability and the absence of recession in the west until now has been bought by the ruthless exploitation of the working class in China, India and other parts of the ‘developing’ world. The historic question has never gone away, though at the moment becomes clearer by the day. Capitalist barbarism or its overthrow, war or revolution.

The left feels resurgent, and is rallying with a sense of urgency and vigor, calling for unity to combat capitalism's excesses. We are not with them, because we are not part of the ‘left’ wing of capitalism. Capitalism is not our enemy because of its excesses, conflict, exploitation, famine, and destruction. These are its inevitable symptoms, not exceptional, but central to its functioning. Capitalism threatens us all because of its normality. Its reduction of us to individual producers and consumers, smashing our collective instincts, exploiting our work, our created isolation and our dreams. How better to oppress and manipulate us for all its other self serving aims, nationalism, profit and the state.

For all its apparent anger and clarity, whatever the noble intention (real or otherwise), the left will be capitalism's last hope. Its belief that the working class can never reach more than a trade union consciousness, that we need the leader(dictator)ship of the party, that by getting us involved in the charade of democracy it will get to lead or seize power and create the workers state, then watch it ‘wither away’, actively opposes the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

Capitalism is not a system of management, it is a social relationship based on the operation of the law of value, the pursuit of profit through exploitation, the accumulation of the labour of others. Its structures: the nation, corporation, wage labour, state and government are its means to this end. Revolution is not a change of management, it is the utter rejection and destruction of that relationship and the dispossessing of those who benefit from it. Anything that allows the state, money, the operation of the law of value to continue is counter revolutionary.

As anarchists, we reject the right and the left of ‘capitalist management’. We believe that revolutionary demands can not be diluted. Reformist demands are dishonest and derail the class struggle. We believe that only the working class is capable of developing a revolutionary consciousness through its autonomous self activity in the course of its class struggle. We are part of this class, not separate from, or outside it. We do not ‘intervene’ externally as leaders, we participate in solidarity as equals. The state is not reformable, nor usable. It is the political instrument of bourgeois class oppression, its abolition is central along with the abolition of money, the market and the wages system.

We are neither on the left nor of it, and calls for unity are calls to save capitalism in another guise. Only social revolution offers humanity the last chance to create a truly human society, neither left nor right, but liberated and free.

*

It would be fair to say we weren't exactly hoping to win the entire conference over ...

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Jul 7 2009 07:12
Quote:
This definition doesn't include any defining characteristics that aren't completely subjective. At least we're getting somewhere with the "management of capital" idea.

Hmm, the Stalinists had some rather objective anti-working class politics, as did the Social Democracy when it turned on the working class.

Quote:
"In order to"? So do you think this is a conscious plot by capitalists? If so you are mad, if not, you are being unintentionally obscure and confusing.

The Junkers, German Army and SDP consciously plotted to stop the revolution in 1918. The unions supported the war effort - consciously. Bourgeois political currents will fight each other tooth-and-nail, but they always stand together against the real enemy. The conscious integration of the leftist currents of the bourgeoisie into the wider political apparatus has different levels at different times and places but their fundamental essence never changes.

Boris Badenov
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Jul 7 2009 13:59
miles wrote:
I think you're mixing up two things Vlad. There is the bourgeois camp and the revolutionary camp.

I did specifically say that they are two distinct meanings of leftism, but I can see how confusion might arise.
I agree with most of the above definitions of leftism, but the fact is leftism, as a term of abuse, is far from having a concrete and clear definition.
I have seen anarchists refer to social democrat activism/radical liberalism as leftism, but also to ultra-left currents that they didn't agree with.

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Jul 7 2009 16:20
Demogorgon303 wrote:
Quote:
"In order to"? So do you think this is a conscious plot by capitalists? If so you are mad, if not, you are being unintentionally obscure and confusing.

The Junkers, German Army and SDP consciously plotted to stop the revolution in 1918. The unions supported the war effort - consciously. Bourgeois political currents will fight each other tooth-and-nail, but they always stand together against the real enemy. The conscious integration of the leftist currents of the bourgeoisie into the wider political apparatus has different levels at different times and places but their fundamental essence never changes.

Did the unions consciously support the war effort because they consciously wanted to nullify revolutionary potential, or because they consciously believed that workers would benefit in some way from it? And how far is it useful to talk about the SDP as a single identity, as if there was no difference between Ebert and the rank'n'file?

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Jul 7 2009 16:26


Quote:
I have seen anarchists refer to social democrat activism/radical liberalism as leftism, but also to ultra-left currents that they didn't agree with.

That's fair enuogh Vlad, but the point I was making was exactly that trying to define leftism is more than just saying the x calls y 'a leftist' - anyone can call anyone else anything they like (you only have to look at all the names the ICC has been called on these boards, for example). If it's to have a more general meaning there has to be criteria by which we can measure. For example, most of the posters on this thread (if not all) seem to agree that Trotskyism today is clearly part of the left wing of capital - why's that?

baboon
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Jul 7 2009 19:19

The support by the trade unions for imperialist war - both the first and the second - whatever the degree of consciousness involved, is clearly counter-revolutionary, ie, defending the national interest of worker killing worker against the proletarian interest of internationalism. Nothing could be more in the bourgeoisie's interests and thus against any revolutionary potential of the working class.

According to 888 internationalists are "mad" if they believe that the bourgeoisie plots and schemes against the working class, ie develops strategies in order to confront the class struggle. The events of the German Revolution, ninety years ago, demonstrates this in spades.

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Jul 7 2009 19:35

Only in exceptional cases, if ever, is there a deliberate plot to "represent an outwardly radical face in order to recruit and ultimately nullify revolutionary forces and potential." If you think this is the norm, you are a misguided conspiracy theorist.

slothjabber
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Jul 8 2009 09:28

I disagree, 888. I think "playing left" is recurrent factor in bourgeois politics. Every time some bourgeois politician enacts some populist measure in an attempt to calm social tension or genuine class conflict, this is what's happening. Trade unions do it all the time.

The German Revolution isn't an isolated event. The election of Barak Obama, the politicking of Jaques Chirac over the 2nd Gulf War (France's general line of policy against the USA in fact), "anti-imperialism" as a general strategy, support for nationalisations (ie strengthening national against foreign capital), for instance the whole Chavez thing; all of these are examples of how the ruling class plays to its perception of the "the left".

I'm astounded that you do not think this is normal bourgeois politics.

baboon
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Jul 8 2009 11:32

I agree with that Sloth and there are many more examples. But it's a problem of method, or as far as 888 is concerned, a complete lack of it.

Let's take the case of the SWP, a trotskyist organisation, in Britain from the 60s. From this time it was very active in recruiting genuine worker and student militants, very active in strikes and demonstrations within a framework of the development of growing wildcat strikes, dissillusion with the unions (mostly run by stalinists or right wingers) and developing important political demonstrations by workers.

Was the SWP born as an element of the ruling class, as a wing of the bourgeoisie? Yes, absolutely. Did a cabal of the bourgeoisie sit down in a room and decide on its construction to foment a left wing attack against rising working class struggle? What a stupid suggestion. If the SWP was part of the ruling class why should it need a conspiracy to tell it how to act against the workers? The ruling class constructs its right (including fascism) and left wing forces according to circumstances as it needs to.

The SWP was part of the organisation of the bourgeoisie and it's not the point whether all factions of the bourgeoisie agreed with it (they didn't). Its actions, its very existence was an attack on the class struggle and this, in great part, is the organisation of the bourgeoisie. To activate its left wing the bourgeoisie doesn't need anything as crude or stupid as a conspiracy. It's 888 and his like, who don't see the organisation of the bourgeoisie, who are conspiracy theorists suggesting that something as integral and fundamental to the ruling class as its left wing, needs a conspiracy to bring it about.

The SWP, leftism generally, is part of capital, is against the working class and acts for capital (the national capital). How is that "mad"?
What has that got to do with loony ideas of conspiracy. Or perhaps 888, you believe that leftism doesn't act against the working class from its very being, from its political positions, from its bourgeois nature. Or perhaps you think that leftism comes from a completely random sequence of events that could have occured anytime in mankind's history. Or maybe that leftism has been created by a superior god-like being that stands above us all. Or even a manipulation by aliens on a distant galaxy? Where do you think the SWP came from - any of the examples above or possibly from your own favourite conspiracy theory?

For internationalists, the SWP and leftism generally, is rooted in the material reality of the ruling class.

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Jul 8 2009 11:41

Slothjabber has already given some good examples, but there's an even more significant example. The whole Russian Eastern bloc was, for decades, built precisely on the lie that it represented a radical, communist, anti-imperialist position and certainly "represent [ed] an outwardly radical face in order to recruit and ultimately nullify revolutionary forces and potential".

Quote:
Did the unions consciously support the war effort because they consciously wanted to nullify revolutionary potential, or because they consciously believed that workers would benefit in some way from it? And how far is it useful to talk about the SDP as a single identity, as if there was no difference between Ebert and the rank'n'file?

The precise motivations that lead the unions to this position are hardly the point. Ebert also may have honestly believed he was doing the best for the working class - in fact, once you accept the reformist line of some kind of peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism fighting a revolution by the masses (for their own good, of course) becomes a moral necessity. Regardless of their good feelings (or lack thereof) they consciously acted against the revolution in collaboration with the right.

It's true, of course, that there were divisions within social democracy and that some among the rank and file were more radical than the leadership but, ultimately, all this served to do was provide a cover for the latter's conservatism. Also, the idea that the rank-and-file were necessarily more radical is not borne out by the fact that many SPD activists, especially those connected with some of the soldiers councils, took deliberate actions to curb the more radical elements in the working class.

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Jul 8 2009 13:25
baboon wrote:
The support by the trade unions for imperialist war - both the first and the second - whatever the degree of consciousness involved, is clearly counter-revolutionary, ie, defending the national interest of worker killing worker against the proletarian interest of internationalism. Nothing could be more in the bourgeoisie's interests and thus against any revolutionary potential of the working class.

I completely agree with that. I just don't think it's useful to talk about leftists as if they know what they're doing, rather than as if they're confused and contradictory.

slothjabber
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Jul 8 2009 14:07

Well, I'd agree that there are many people in organisations that the majority of us would label "leftist", that do actually believe that what they're doing benefits the working class. I'm sure that we all know people who are sincere but wrong.

I agree too that "leftist" as a description of a person is hardly useful. I think it's OK to use as a description of an organisation (eg Militant/SPEW), or a position (eg on "oppressed nations" etc), or a tactic (eg seizing control of the leadership of a Trade Union) but not as a general term for a member of a leftist organisation (though I have used it as such on occassion). It doesn't really add much to describing someone in terms of their politics, because you amost always have to add some sort of modifier anyway - "confirmed leftist", "confused leftist", "unrepentant leftist", or whatever.

But there certainly are leftists (and I'm deliberately allowing the use of the term for "conscious leftists") who know what they're doing. Some people in leftist organisations may be genuinely wrong, and my fervent hope is that in the crucible of the revolution, they'll realise that they're wrong and come over to the side of the working class; but I'm quite sure that some, like Noske in the German Revolution, will slavishly give themselves over to the most vicious reaction.

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Jul 8 2009 14:36

In an article we published several years ago now, we tried to describe the process of absorption into unions and the contradictory consciousness that it creates:

"We must also acknowledge that many union officials at the lower levels want to help their comrades. But straightaway they are absorbed into a structure that exists to contain workers in a certain framework. When class struggle erupts, these reps are suddenly confronted with a contradiction between the needs of the struggle and their function within the union. And because Union ideology conflates the working class with the union completely, defending the union becomes an end in itself. It is thus possible for union officials to subjectively believe in the struggle of the working class while objectively acting more and more against it.

This process of indoctrination is similar in any bourgeois institution. For example, many join the police with the idealistic aim of “helping society” – but very quickly, elements are drawn into an institutional culture that slowly inculcates contempt for the vast majority of people “outside” the police. In a similar way, union reps (and the same is true of leftism generally) develop a contradictory view of the working class: on the one hand, impatience and contempt for workers when the latter are passive; and, on the other hand, terror of “things getting out of hand” when workers are on the move. As union officials move up the hierarchy, they are more and more removed from workers and become submerged in the internecine conflicts within the union hierarchy. The top level union leaders have been thoroughly disciplined by a bruising “political” life as any leader of a bourgeois political party. They approach control of their union with the same ruthlessness as a bourgeois politician controls his party."

baboon
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Jul 9 2009 20:14

First of all I agree with Farce that in respect of leftists, and indeed the bourgeoisie generally being confused and contradictory in certain circumstances. There is no general all-knowing power of the bourgeoisie and it acts, like the working class, "in circumstances not of its own choosing". But it has a refined and historical class instinct and is not blindly stumbling about, particularly when it confronts the working class. It has taken on and defeated many working class movements both nationally and internationally and it has clearly learned from its experience. There are many examples not least the "different" approach it took towards the end of WWII compared to the same period during the first world war. So no all-knowing power, no blueprint, but an effective understanding of the danger of the working class and the need to confront it.

On moving to the left: elsewhere on Libcom, there's a China Labour Bulletin Research Report, which I think is based is Hong Kong, which clearly advises the Chinese trade unions to distance themselves more from the state and become more "grassroots" and democratic.

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mikail firtinaci
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Jul 9 2009 20:23

left is what is left from rotting skin of the working class past sloughed away

------- an attempt to play with words in a language you are not very familiar eek

pannekoek-bakunin
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Jul 10 2009 22:51

cool To baboon. Thank you for your answer. I fully agree with you. But it is indeed difficult to say what is real communism, and what is fake (The fake "marxism" is what I call "leftist".)

Here is a link to a lady whome I believe it is extremeley difficult deciding is a real communist or a leftist. Perhaps anyone here in the Forum has an opinion. confused

http://www.marxists.org/archive/dunayevskaya/index.htm

pannekoek-bakunin red star

pannekoek-bakunin
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Jul 11 2009 00:48

Marxism is indeed a being with many heads. I remember Paul Cardan´s leaflet "Redifining revolution". On the front page Marx is a big tree, with many smaller "fruits" on. Well, here is a book for those reading Swedish:

http://www2.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/svenska/pannekoek/1938/lenin.htm

Greetings from

pannekoek-bakunin