Above, from left: Pannekoek, Bordiga, Damen, Chirik
A note to supplement Todd Hamer's article "Transforming the labour movement: a reply to our critics"
The nearest that Lenin came to summing up, in "textbook" form, the lessons to be learned by Marxists from Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, was his famous 1920 pamphlet, Left-wing communism: an infantile disorder.
"In the first months after the proletariat in Russia had won political power (October 25 [November 7], 1917)", wrote Lenin, "it might have seemed that the enormous difference between backward Russia and the advanced countries of Western Europe would lead to the proletarian revolution in the latter countries bearing very little resemblance to ours.
"We now possess quite considerable international experience, which shows very definitely that certain fundamental features of our revolution have a significance that is not local, or peculiarly national, or Russian alone, but international". And he set out to explain that significance by polemic against the "left-communist" currents then strong in the European Communist Parties.
He discussed four main ideas of the "left communists".
• He disputed the scheme of the "left communists" denouncing "a party of leaders, which is out to organise the revolutionary struggle and to direct it from above, accepting compromises and parliamentarianism...", and advocating instead "a mass party, which expects an upsurge of the revolutionary struggle from below, which knows and applies a single method in this struggle... the unconditional overthrow of the bourgeoisie".
"Without a party of iron that has been tempered in the struggle, a party enjoying the confidence of all honest people in the class in question, a party capable of watching and influencing the mood of the masses", wrote Lenin, a revolutionary "struggle cannot be waged successfully".
Previously in the pamphlet, he had been at pains to explain that party discipline was not something to be developed in abstraction from politics.
"How is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained?... First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism.
"Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and - if you wish - merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people - primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people.
"Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct...
"Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning..."
• He rejected the slogan "no compromises". "To renounce in advance any change of tack, or any utilisation of a conflict of interests (even if temporary) among one’s enemies, or any conciliation or compromise with possible allies (even if they are temporary, unstable, vacillating or conditional allies)—is that not ridiculous...
"Is it not like making a difficult ascent of an unexplored and hitherto inaccessible mountain and refusing in advance ever to move in zigzags, ever to retrace one’s steps, or ever to abandon a course once selected, and to try others?"
• Lenin argued that revolutionary socialists must work in the mass trade unions, however conservative they may be at a particular time, however difficult the manoeuvres required in order to gain a foothold in them, in order to help the mass working-class membership learn to assert itself and to transform what can be transformed in those unions.
• Lenin argued for the use of elections and Parliaments as platforms for revolutionary socialist ideas, citing the example of Karl Liebknecht's use of his position in the German Reichstag during World War One to raise the banner of internationalism.
Lenin also took up two more particular questions: the call of the German left-communists to "refuse to recognise" the Treaty of Versailles, an echo of the "national-Bolshevik" call by some of them for a new supposedly revolutionary war by Germany to overthrow Versailles; and the opposition of the British left-communists to affiliation to the Labour Party.
The "left communists" expelled from the German Communist Party around its Heidelberg congress of October 1919 were possibly a majority of its membership. When the bulk of them regrouped in the Communist Workers' Party of Germany, KAPD, in April 1920, they were still tens of thousands strong.
They quickly declined. The advocates of "national-Bolshevism" were quickly expelled. Otto Rühle, one of their best-known leaders, was expelled because he came out against all party organisation. In 1922 the KAPD split into two groups, known as the KAPD-Essen and the KAPD-Berlin, both of which declined. The KAPD-Essen dissolved in 1927. The KAPD-Berlin survived only a bit longer. The KAPDs' political heritage was continued by a group in the Netherlands, the Group of International Communists, GIC, founded in 1927, which started off tiny (three members) and never grew to more than 50 or so.
To that extent, Lenin was right that the "left-communism" had been an "infantile disease". But as labour movements remained dominated by conservative bureaucracies, and much of the activist left by catchpenny efforts to win posts in the established labour movement rather than a strategic struggle to transform the movement, every radicalisation would see some disgusted activists turning to "no compromises" or "purist" alternatives.
The "left communism" of today derives partly from the Dutch and German "left communism" of the 1920s, and partly also from a different tradition, that of Italy's "Communist Left", which in the 1920s was led by Amadeo Bordiga.
Lenin mentioned Bordiga only tentatively and in passing in Left-Wing Communism, and that only in relation to participation in elections and parliament.
Bordiga was against participation, but less dogmatically than the Dutch and German groups. He accepted the decision of the Second Congress of the Communist International, in 1920, about parliament, and the Italian Communist Party under his leadership (until 1923) contested elections. Indeed, when a big "Bordigist" party re-emerged for a short time in Italy in 1944-5, it too contested elections.
Bordiga's chief dissent from Lenin and Trotsky after 1921 was that he rejected united-front tactics as between political parties. He accepted united-front approaches in industrial matters, and was for activity in the established unions.
While the KAPD distanced itself from the idea of a revolutionary party "leading" struggles, Bordiga, in contrast, said that the dictatorship of a party was the necessary form of the communist revolution.
Over the decades, both the "Bordigists" and the "Dutch-German left" evolved. The main "left communist" groups today are perhaps the International Communist Current en.internationalism.org (centred in France; British affiliate is World Revolution); the International Communist Tendency www.leftcom.org (Battaglia Comunista in Italy, the CWO in Britain); and a variety of more or less "Bordigist" groups in Italy, of which the biggest seems to be Lotta Comunista www.edizionilottacomunista.com (British offshoot: the Marxist Studies Centre).
In terms of active continuity, the dominant element in the history is people formed or influenced by the Bordiga strand: Ottorino Perrone, Onorato Damen, Marc Chirik, Arrigo Cervetto. The foremost writers of the Dutch-German left moved away from active left-wing politics (Herman Gorter, Anton Pannekoek, Paul Mattick - though Pannekoek and Mattick continued to write). In terms of ideas, though, there seems to be more of the Dutch-German left in today's groups than of the 1920s Italian Communist Left.
The historical pattern is one of successive crises - the Stalinist counter-revolution in the USSR; Hitler's seizure of power in 1933; the Spanish revolution of 1936-7 and the Spanish Civil War; the battles of Ethiopia and China against Italian and Japanese imperialism; World War Two and its aftermath - generating a selection which redefined the "left communists" through a series of rejections.
As Bourrinet says, "the history of the Dutch and German communist left [and, its wake, the 'Italian' left too] appears to present itself as a series of rejections... The position... can be summarised by the title of a series of articles in the ['Bordigist' paper] Bilan in 1936: 'The watchword of the day: don't betray!'."
"Rejection of trade-union and parliamentary tactics, of the 'united front' and [of] support for 'national liberation' movements...
"Rejection of the big mass-parties on the model of the Second International...
"Rejection of state-capitalism [as all these currents, though in different ways, came to define Stalinism]... rejection of the 'defence of the USSR'...
"Rejection of anti-fascist ideology as an ideology of a united front with the left wing of the bourgeoisie..." (This last rejection meant not just criticism of bland "anti-fascist" discourse - which Trotskyists too made - but outright refusal of an efforts defined as defence of democratic rights, or of bourgeois democracy, against fascism).
Few of those "rejections" dated right back to the origins of "left communism". As we have seen, Gorter, writing for the "left communists" in 1920, even presented them as champions of a "mass party" against a "party of leaders". In March 1920, the soon-to-be KAPD criticised the KPD for its initial (first day or so) "not our quarrel" attitude towards the Kapp Putsch (a military coup against the Social-Democrat/ bourgeois coalition government), and not for its later mobilisation against the putsch. The rejections developed piecemeal, in the different currents of "left communism", and essentially as responses to the events of the 1930s.
Unlike in almost all other countries, the Social-Democratic movement in the Netherlands had split left/ right as early as 1909. But the "Tribunist" left, with which Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek, the chief writers of "left communism" in 1920, had been associated, advocated none of the distinctive "rejections" of later "left communism". The issue on which it split was that the right, citing the need to defer to widespread religious feelings among workers, backed public subsidies for religious schools.
Pannekoek was for a while before World War One active in the radical-left tendency of the German Social Democracy, alongside Rosa Luxemburg. He did not then argue the later "rejections". The Tribunists certainly, and vigorously, backed "national liberation" for the Netherlands' major colony, Indonesia.
The "Bordigist" left long described itself as adhering to the ideas of the first two congresses of the Communist International. Thus, among the ideas which Trotskyists take as valid legacies from the early Comintern, it rejected only the political united front and the "workers' government" slogan. The idea of "transitional demands" was formulated explicitly only at the Third Congress, but it was developed long before then in documents like Rosa Luxemburg's Spartacus Program and Lenin's The Impending Catastrophe: the "left communists" did not dissent.
The "left communist" currents aimed to be the ones who would "not betray" old principles, who would uphold what the "Bordigists" called an "invariant doctrine". Yet they ended up, over the 1930s in particular, shifting substantially, and not, I think, through arguments which revealed that old ideas had been shown invalid either by reasoning or by substantive developments of capitalism and the labour movement.
Their positions were set for the capitalist "trente glorieuses" of mid-1940s to early 70s, for the turmoil of the late 60s to early 80s, for the neoliberal and "globalising" era, and for the post-USSR era, for all of those, in fact, by reactions to the 1930s. In a world dominated by capitalism and Stalinism, they arrived at a position which was anti-Stalinist, but not the "Third Camp" proposed by the Trotskyists, instead, that of a bunker, aside from the battlefield.
They all came to define Stalinism as variants of state capitalism. The details of the different 'Bordigist' theories of Stalinism as state capitalism are complex, but eventually all the currents came to see Stalinism as "just a particularly brutal form of the universal tendency towards state capitalism, itself a major characteristic of the period of decadence [of capitalism]". They could not aspire to a "Third Camp", if only because in the world around them they saw only one "camp", its internal differentiations inessential.
This "decadence of capitalism", described as operating since World War One (and uniformly, whether capitalism has in fact been growing or floundering), has become a core idea of the "left communists". That capitalism is now "decadent" is the universal explainer of the "left-communists" for why their approaches, so different from Marx, Engels, and all the Marxists before 1914, are now valid. With it has come the idea that all the existing labour movements (trade unions, reformist political parties, etc.) are "the bourgeois labour movement", and non-left-communist tendencies (including Trotskyists) are only part of "the left wing of the bourgeoisie".
When dealing with the Bordigists' outraged denunciations of the Trotskyists' entry as factions into some social-democratic parties in 1934, Trotsky wrote: "For all sorts of Bordigists, all these variants, perspectives and stages have no importance. The sectarians live beyond time and space. They ignore the living historical process, which pays them back in the same coin. That is why their 'balance' is always the same: zero". (The name of the Bordigists' magazine then was Bilan, or "Balance").
Arguing (falsely) that Newton's infinitesimal calculus allowed all distinctions to be blurred by letting differences reduce to zero, Hegel quipped: "When it is dark, all cows are black". In the darkness of the mid-20th century, when contemporary "left communism" congealed into its present form, all actual politics seemed to them equally "black".
The story of the retreat into the bunker has many twists and turns.
The KAPD was initially a group oriented to immediate and hectic mass activity, hoping for a quick revolution. It rapidly subsided. By the time the centre of "left-communism" shifted to the GIC in the Netherlands, the orientation had become one primarily of defending and advocating (mostly in print) what were seen as properly intransigent revolutionary ideas, unable to grasp large numbers for the time being but necessary for the future.
In July-August 1920, when Gorter wrote his open letter to Lenin, the "left communists" were fervent supporters of Bolshevism in Russia. By early 1921 they objected to the New Economic Policy (limited reactivation of market mechanisms). They also had contact with dissident Bolshevik groups like the Workers' Opposition.
Over the 1920s, the Dutch-German "left communists" came to define Russia as state-capitalist, and many of them to define the October 1917 Russian Revolution as "bourgeois".
They came to reduce the role of the revolutionary party to a general-educational one, and to counterpose the rule of workers' councils against that of a revolutionary party winning a majority in and accountable to the councils. Some of them came to call themselves "council communists".
They had come close to anarchism, but differentiated themselves by their rejection of trade-union work, by their self-ascribed Marxism, and by their focus on propagandist literary activity. They would also sharply denounce the Spanish anarchists for their siding with the Republic in the Spanish Civil War.
By the outbreak of World War Two, the GIC had completed its redefinition of "left communism". But it found itself organisationally too weak to continue operating during World War two. A new broadly "left-communist" group, the Spartacusbond, emerged in 1942 as a split from the semi-Trotskyist group led by Henk Sneevliet. Most of the ex-GIC people who had joined it quit in 1947. The Spartacusbond survived, as a loose aggregation, until 1980.
After the Spartacusbond, according to Bourrinet, and apart from the "Bordigists", the most important group to continue some of the Dutch-German "left-communist" tradition was a small group in Britain, called Solidarity, which operated from 1960 to the late 1970s (and, apparently, vestigially until 1992). It was a splinter from Orthodox Trotskyism, influenced by a previous and similar splinter in France, Socialisme ou Barbarie (1949-67). Solidarity was somewhat closer to anarchism in its approaches than the old "left-communist" groups. It did not have the doctrinairism and hostility to union activity of those older groups, and at its height put most of its energy into promoting its pamphlets (some of them well-researched and well-written) around other left groups, rather than shunning them all as "bourgeois".
Bordiga's current in the early 1920s was both bigger than the Dutch-German "left communists" - Bordiga was the leader of the Italian Communist Party - and far closer to Bolshevism. Bordiga would be the only prominent figure in the movement to denounce, at the time and in the name of authentic Bolshevism and Marxism, the 1924-5 "Bolshevisation" of the Communist Parties. That "Bolshevisation" meant the imposition of "monolithism", the political atomisation of the membership by reorganising into factory cells, the banning of factions, the anathematisation of "Trotskyism" and "Luxemburgism", in short the reshaping of the Communist Parties on the model of the Bolsheviks as they had been reshaped by the constraints of civil war and burgeoning Stalinist bureaucratism. In 1924-5 Trotsky and the 1923 Left Opposition had stepped back to await better times for confronting Stalin.
Unlike the KAPD, Bordiga unequivocally accepted the responsibility of a revolutionary socialist party to fit itself to lead workers in struggle. He declared bluntly that workers' rule would be the "dictatorship" of a revolutionary workers' party (but Bordiga's left faction in the Italian Socialist Party titled its paper Il Soviet: he would have taken it for granted that the revolutionary party would win power through a majority in the workers' councils). His demur about "democratic centralism" was on the word "democratic". He preferred "organic centralism" (and Damen would later prefer "dialectical centralism"), because the program of the revolutionary party should be set primarily by adherence to principle, not by voting procedures. That he equally valued free debate and accountability, and rejected monolithism, was shown by his critique of "Bolshevisation".
Bordiga was jailed by the fascist regime in 1926. When released from jail in 1930, he stayed out of political activity, pursuing only his professional career as an engineer and architect. He would, as we shall see, return to activity from 1944.
Meanwhile thousands of Italian CP workers had moved to exile in France. In 1928 they formed a Left Fraction. The main mover was Ottorino Perrone, a former close comrade of Bordiga's, although he himself was expelled from France and lived in Belgium.
In 1929-30, that Left Fraction was part of the International Left Opposition which Trotsky and his comrades pulled together after Trotsky's expulsion from the USSR. The Left Fraction and the Trotskyists parted ways because the Left Fraction refused to fight for the defence of (bourgeois) democratic rights against fascism - it argued that bourgeois democracy and fascism were only different phases of the same bourgeois offensive against the workers - and rejected the Trotskyists' call for a united front of the Communist Party and the Social Democrats against the rise of Hitler in Germany.
On other counts, the Left Fraction was on the same terrain as the Trotskyists. It classified the USSR as a "degenerated workers' state", and would continue to do so until the start of World War Two. It dropped the idea of the "defence of the USSR against imperialism" earlier. Its argument on that was similar to the one used by the Heterodox Trotskyists around Max Shachtman in 1941 when they still considered the USSR as economically progressive compared to capitalism: that the USSR was inextricably knitted in with one of the imperialist blocs in an imperialist world war.
The Left Fraction considered itself an expelled faction of the Communist Party (as did the Trotskyist Left Opposition until 1933). It continued that orientation longer than the Trotskyists, until 1935 (the Stalin-Laval pact), though it regarded 1933 as an epoch-making defeat for the whole labour movement, perhaps even the "death" of the "old" labour movement. The Left Fraction favoured work in the unions - Perrone himself had a day job as a backroom official for the typesetters' union in Brussels, and was an activist in the office workers' union there.
The Left Fraction, however, became an increasingly beleaguered minority. It started to retreat into the bunker politically with its refusal to support Ethiopia against Italy's war to conquer it, launched in 1935. According to Bourrinet: "On the basis of this whole analysis of the world-wide decadence of the capitalist system, the Italian and Belgian Fractions deduced that national liberation struggles by the colonial peoples were impossible and could only be a link in the chain of imperialist war". Lenin's position had "been overtaken by events", they said, though their view seems to me to repeat one argued by a section of the Bolsheviks (Bukharin, Bosch, Pyatakov) during World War One and discussed by Lenin in his article A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism.
Supporting Ethiopia, argued the Fraction, would only "aid the march towards world war, where each local conflict expressed the confrontation between the imperialist powers in order to divide up the world". (The League of Nations had condemned the Italian invasion and called for sanctions against Italy).
The Fraction was further redefined by the Spanish Revolution (1936-7) and Civil War (1936-9). It refused to recognise the workers' uprising of 1936 as a real revolutionary impulse, or to side in any way with the Republic against the fascists. A sizeable minority of Fraction members, refusing to accept this, travelled to Barcelona to work with the POUM: the fight with the minority seems only to have hardened the Fraction's shift.
Increasingly, the Fraction came to argue that, in the absence of a revolutionary party, the working class had "disappeared" politically. This shift laid the basis for the later (and current) "left communist" doctrine that all existing labour movements and most left groups are "bourgeois".
Around the same time, in the late 1930s, it retreated from its strident affirmations of the responsibilities of the revolutionary party, towards a view of the tasks of the party as more limited to general political enlightenment.
Finally, around the outbreak of World War Two, a substantial section of the Fraction came to think that the USSR must now be classified as "state-capitalist", and no longer a "degenerated workers' state". (The "Bordigists" always continued to defend the October 1917 revolution, and never came to define it as merely "bourgeois", as some of the groups derived from Dutch and German "left communism" would).
The Fraction was organisationally dispersed by World War Two. A "French Fraction" was reconstituted in 1942 by a small group who had made their way to a fruit-pie factory in Marseilles, in Vichy France, operated by Trotskyists and sympathisers to give jobs to political dissidents. It emphatically rejected the "degenerated workers' state" assessment of the USSR.
In 1943 Mussolini fell. Within the next year, two large organisations (several thousand strong) of "Bordigist" heritage emerged in Italy. There were, it seems, still many old "Bordigist" CP activists from the 1920s around, who had been forced into inactivity by the fascist regime but were willing to re-emerge when they saw fascism falling.
One, the Left Faction of Communists and Socialists, was formed in the Allied-occupied South. The main organiser was apparently Matteo Renato Pistone, an ex-Trotskyist, but he had the backing of Bordiga. The other, the Partito Comunista Internazionalista, was formed in the North, still German-occupied, by Onorato Damen, an old comrade of Bordiga's who had been in Italy continuously since 1924, mostly in jail.
The Faction from the South would join the PCInt after the Allies forced out the Germans. But by then the official Stalinist party was establishing itself solidly and marginalising the "Bordigists", who declined to a few hundred, and would split in 1952.
Perrone, the historic leader of the Left Fraction outside Italy, would back Bordiga. But meanwhile his authority with the "Bordigists" in France had been shaken by the revelation that he had spent the war doing Red Cross activity and busywork for a bourgeois anti-fascist committee. He said the activity was only "cultural and humanitarian", without political implications.
Moreover, the new PCInt was, at first anyway, far from catching up with the development of the "Bordigists" outside Italy in the 1930s. Hesitantly it advocated activity in the unions. It even ran candidates in elections.
Marc Chirik, leader of the French "Left Fraction" based in Marseilles, refused to back the new PCInt until its political physiognomy was clearer. He would form a French Communist Left group in 1945. In 1952, that group disbanded, with Chirik moving to Venezuela with the aim of maintaining some political continuity if France were pulverised, as the group expected it to be in the Third World War they then saw as certain.
Chirik returned to France in 1968, with some co-thinkers he had won in Venezuela, and was able to reconstitute a group there. That was the origin of the International Communist Current, probably the most active of the various "left-communist" groups today. It continued all the "rejections" adopted by the "Bordigists" in the 1930s. Jan Appel, who had been in the KAPD and the Netherlands GIC, was there at the founding of the ICC, aged 86.
In the late 1940s Bordiga gradually moved towards seeing the USSR as state-capitalist, but was reluctant to accept all the other "rejections".
According to Bourrinet: "Bordiga [wanted] a return to Lenin and the theses of the Italian Left before 1926..." He called for the union movement to be rebuilt, reviving the best traditions of the old Camere di Lavoro (rough equivalent of Trades Councils).
"The split took place. In 1952, it seemed that a majority followed Damen, who rejected any hope of conquering the unions, any support for [national liberation struggles]... This tendency considered the CPs to be not opportunist or centrist, but bourgeois... The [revolutionary] Party should not take power and exercise it in the name of the proletariat..."
Damen himself continued the Partito Comunista Internazionalista, and its paper Battaglia Comunista, with the rejections of the 1930s. Bordiga in his old age (he would die in 1970) became the éminence grise of a group called Partito Comunista Internazionale. The main day-to-day leader was Bruno Maffi, a younger activist won to "Bordigism" by Damen in prison from the 1930s. The Partito Comunista Internazionale would suffer severe splits in 1973 and 1982, and there are now five or six groups claiming that same name.
As far as I can tell, the most active group in Italy now with some "Bordigist" background is Lotta Comunista. It has no continuous filiation with the old "Bordigist" groups, but was formed in 1965 from the activity of Arrigo Cervetto - who had "frequented [Damen's] Battaglia Comunista for a time and even wrote some articles for Prometeo" - in a splinter from the Italian Communist Party formed by opponents of the Russian suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1956.
Lotta Comunista apparently rejects any defence of bourgeois democracy against fascism, but it does not, as I understand it, oppose work in trade unions. The focus of its activity is very much the sales (door to door, on the streets) of its monthly newspaper, straplined as the "organ of the Leninist groups of the communist left". It looks like an odd combination of journalism and activity: the paper is severely didactic, with no pictures, and long articles focused on economic and industrial trends rather than on workers' struggles or daily politics.