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Left communism

Left Communism is a description of a range of communist viewpoints which oppose the political positions of the Bolsheviks from a position which is asserted to be more authentically Marxist and proletarian than the views held by the Communist International after its first two Congresses. Left Communism is also sometimes refered to as the Commuist Left there is no significance to this.


Two major traditions can be observed within Left Communism, the Dutch-German tradition and the Italian tradition. Their political positions have little in common except for a shared opposition to what is termed 'Frontism' but there is an underlying commonality at a level of abstract theory. Crucially Left Communist groups from both traditions tend to identify elements of commonality in each other.

The historical origins of Left Communism can be traced to the period before the First World War but it only comes into focus after 1918. All Left Communists were supportive of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 but retained a critical view of its development. Some however would in later years come to reject the revolutions proletarian or socialist nature and came to believe that it had simply carried out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution by creating a state capitalist system.

What was later described as Left Communism had a presence in Russia, Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Britain around 1918. However Left Communism can be seen as having three geographic currents within it. The major currents of Left Communism were then the German-Dutch tradition and the Italian tradition. The British wing of the movement did not have any theoretical viewpoint of any lasting significance, the Bulgarian wing was in essence an echo of the German-Dutch experience and the Russian wing perished early on. We will look at each in turn but first it is necassary to glance at the defining features of Left Communism.

Left Communism first came into focus as the left wing of the Communist movement in or around the Communist International in 1918. Its essential features were an stress on the need to build a Communist Party entirely separate from the reformist and centrist elements who were seen as having betrayed socialism in 1914, opposition to all but the most restricted participation in elections and an emphasis on the need for revolutionaries to take the offensive. Apart from that there was little in common between the various wings. Thus only the Italians accepted the need for electoral work at all and the German-Dutch and Russians both opposed the right of nations to self determination.

Russian Left Communism

Russian Left Communism began as a faction in the Russian Communist party in 1918, named logically the Left Communists, which opposed the signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany. The faction, headed theoretically by Bukharin, stood argued for a revolutionary war against the Axis Powers, opposed the right of nations to self determination and specifically of Poland (there were many Poles in the formation), and were generally took a voluntarist stance as regards the possibilities for social revolution at that time. Defeated in internal debates - they had been allowed to publically publish a theoretical paper The Communist - they dissolved. However a few very small Left Communist groups would surface in the next few years but fell victim to repression by the state.

Italian Left Communism to 1926

The Italian Left Communists would be the actual tendency to name Left Communism at a later stage in their development but when the Communist Party of Italy was founded they were actually the majority of Communists in that country. This development was a result of the Abstentionist Communist Fraction of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) being in advance of other sections of the PSI in their realisation that a separate Communist Party had to be formed which did not include reformists. This gave them a great advantage over the secxtions of the PSI who looked to figures such as Serratti and Gramsci for leadership. It was a consequence of the revolutionary impatience common at a time when revolution, in the narrow sense of an insurrectionary attempt at the seizure of power, was expected to develop in the very near future.

Under the leadership of Amadeo Bordiga the Left was to control the PCd'I until the Lyons Congress of 1926. In this period the militants of the PCd'I would find themselves isolated from reformist workers and from other anti-fascist militants. At one stage this isolation was deepened when Communist militants were instructed to leave defense organisations that were not totally controled by the party. These sectarian tactics produced concern in the leadership of the Commuist International and led to a developing opposition within the PCd'I itself. Eventually these two factors would lead to the displacement of Bordiga from his position as first secretary and his replacement by Gramsci. But by then Bordiga was in a fascist jail in any case and he was to remain outside organised politics until 1952. The development of the Left Communist Fraction then was not the development of a Bordigist current as it is often portrayed.

1925 was a turning point for the Italian left as it was the year that so clled Bolshevisation took place in the sections of the Communist International. This plan was designed to eliminater all social democratic deviations from the national sections and develop them on Bolshevik lines or at lest along the lines of what Zinoviev the secretary of the International considered Bolshevik lines. In practice this meant top down bureacratic structures in which the members were controled by a leadership approved of by the Cominterns International Executive Committee. In Italy this meant that the leadership which had formerly been in the hands of Bordiga was given to a body that came into being when the Serrati-Maffi minority of the PSI joined the PCd'I although Bordigas group were in a majority. The new leadership was however supported by Bordiga as a centralist which meant he bowed to the will of the International.

Naturally such actions produced a reaction and Bordiga fought the IEC from within only to have an article of his favourable to Trotskys positions on the disputed Russian questions suppressed. Meanwhile sections of the left motivated by Onorato Damen formed the Entente Committee. This committee was ordered to dissolve itself by the incoming leadership, led now by Gramsci who only now opposed Bordigas positions, which had gained prestige after a succesful recruitment campaign. With the party Congress of 1926 held in Lyons, crowned by Gramscis famous Lyons Theses, the left majority was now defeated and on course to becoming a minority within the party. With the victory of fascism Bordiga was jailed and when he opposed a vote against Trotsky in the prison PCd'I group was expelled from the party in 1930. He would take a stance of non-involvement in politics for many years after this. The victory of fascism also meant that the Italian left would enter into a new chapter in its development this time in exile.

German-Dutch Left Communism to 1933

The German-Dutch tradition of Left Communism was so named because the movement in both countries was so closely connected. Among the leading theoreticians of the more powerful German movement were Pannekoek and Gorter for example and german activists found refuge in the Netherlands after 1933. In fact this current could trace its origins back before Worlkd War one as in the Netherlands a revolutionary wing of Social Democracy had broken from the reformist party even before the war and had built links with german activists. However after the beginning of the German Revolution in 1918 a leftist mood could be found among sections of the Communist Parties of both countries. In germany this led directly to the foundation of the Communist Workers Party (KAPD) after its leading figures were expelled from the Communist Party (KPD) by Karl Levi. This development ewas mirrored in the Netherlands and on a smaller scale in Bulgaria where the Left Communist movement was to mimic that of Germany.

The KAPD when founded was a small party of some tens of thousands of revolutionaries but within a few years had been reduced to an impotent and much split set of sects. This was because it was not founded on a coherant set of politics but on the basis of revolutionary optimism and a purism that rejected what became known as Frontism. Frontism was seen as an opposition to working in the same organisations as reformist workers such work being seen as unhelpful at a time when the revolution was seen as an actuality and not merely as a goal to be aimed at. This led the members of the KAPD to reject working in the traditional trade unions in favour of forming their own revolutionary unions. These Unionen, so called to distinguish them from the official free trade unions, had 80,000 members in 1920 and peaked in 1921 with 200,000 members after which they declined rapidly. They were also organisationally divided from the beginning with those unionen linked to the KAPD forming the AAU-D and those in Saxony around Otto Ruhle who opposed the conception of a party in favour of a unitary class organisation were organised as the AAU-E.

The KAPD was unable to reach even its founding Congress prior to suffering it's first split when the so-called National Bolshevik tendency around Wolffheim and Laufenburg appeared. it should be noted that this tendency has no connection with modern political tendencies which seek to fuse Marxism and extreme nationalism together, but are in fact variants of fascism. More seriously the party lost most of its support very rapidly as it failed to develop lasting structures. This also contributed to internecine quarrels and the party actually split into two competing tendencies known as the Essen and Berlin tendencies to the historians of the Left. The recently established Communist Workers International (KAI) split on exactly the same lines as did the tiny Bulgarian Communist Workers Party. The only other affiliates of the KAI were the Communist Workers Party of Britain led by Sylvia Pankhurst, the KAPN in the Netherlands and a group in Russia. The AAU-D split on the same lines as it rapidly ceased to exist as a real tendency within the factories.

Left Communism and the Communist International

As we have seen above the Left Communists initially rallied to the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and to the new Communist International. In fact they controled the first body formed by the Comintern to coordinate its activities in Western Europe the Amsterdam Bureau. However this was little more than a very brief interlude and the Bureau never functioned as a leadership body for Western Europe as was originally intended. Some left communists support the Russian Revolution, but do not accept the methods of the Bolsheviks. Lenin polemicised against this position in his pamphlet 'Left-Wing' Communism and other Infantile Disorders. In the pamphlet, Lenin ascribes this position to groups including the De Leonist Socialist Labor Parties, the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, the Spartacist League of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers Socialist Federation. In this he contrasts the Bolshevik's activity within the parliamentary system and regular trade unions with their self-proclaimedly independent positions.

The Kronstadt Rebellion was also characterised as left communist by the Bolshevik leaders of the time, conducted as it was by sailors who moved from being fervent supporters of the revolution to opponents of its slow, and in their view compromised, progress.

Italian Left Communism 1926-1952

After 1926 Italian Left Communism took shape in exile and without the particiaption of Bordiga. Contacts between the Italians and the germans had been made and were developed in France but the italian Left associated the KAPD's stress on factoiry organisation as being similar to the ideas of Gramsci's L'Ordine Nouvo and therefore rejected closer contact. Attempts to work with the group around Karl Korsch also failed. The real foundation of the Italian Left as an independent group may then be placed at that point when the Left Fraction of the PCd'I was established in July 1927 by a number of young militants. the new group had members in france, Belgium and the USA and published a review Prometeo. It was estimated in 1928 that it had at most 200 militants but it would seem that while it never had more than 100 militants active at any one time its influence was actually far greater. The control of the PCd'I apparatus by the Stalinists however meant that attempts to reach other exiles was almost impossible and they were driven back into small circle work.

The Italian Left Fraction was for the rest of the 1930s led by Ottorino Perrone, although it was fiercely opposed to the cult of the personality which was developing in the Comintern around Stalin in these years and resisted similar pressures in its own organisation. The Fraction had members in France, Belgium and the USA, how many in Italy looked to it cannot be ascetained. The main activity of the fraction through these years was the publishing of its press which consisted of the the paper Prometeo and the journal Bilan. With its establishment as a group the Fraction also looked for international co-thinkers and seeing the International Left Opposition, led by Leon Trotsky, as central to the non-Stalinist Communist movement sought contact with it. These contacts were to be severed when agreement on basic principles proved impossible (see note below).

The political distance between the Fraction and other communist currents would deepen throughout the 1930s as the Fraction declared itself opposed to the tactics adopted by the Left Opposition to broaden its support, ie opposition to fusion with centrist groups, opposition to entrism, etc. Always opposed to the United Front tactic of the Comintern th Fraction now declared itself firmly opposed to the Popular Front after 1933. Like the Trotskyists it saw the failure of the Communist Party of Germany in the face of fascism as its historic failure and ceased to consider itself a fraction of the Communist Party from the date of its 1935 Congress which was held in Brussels.

Isolated the Left Fraction sought to discover allies within the millieu of groups to the left of the Trotskyist movement. Typically these discussions came to nothing but they were able to recruit from the disintegrating Ligue des Communitistes Internationalistes (LCI) in Belgium a group which had broken from Trotskyism. A loose liaison was also maintained with the Council Communist groups in the Netherlands and in particular with the GIK.

Left Communism 1952-2004

A Note on Left Communism and the Left Opposition

Following his exile from Russia Trotsky and his supporters formed the International Left Opposition as an external tendency of the Communist International aiming to reform it. This has caused some commentators to confuse the Left Opposition with Left Communism. In fact the two were breifly associated until Trotsky came to the conclusion that the positions of the exiled Italian Left Communists were irredemably sectarian and broke with them. Left Communists came to argue that with the Second World War that trotskyism had passed over to the camp of the bourgeoisie and no longer represented a communist current. The confusion between the two currents was made worse by the tendency of some Trotskyists to call themselves Left Communists which was made most explicit in the case of the Spainish section of the International Left Opposition which named itself the Left Communists of Spain (ICE) to the ire of Trotsky as he held this was not the position of the Opposition which was instead Bolshevik Leninist ie, Trotsky was identifying the Left Opposition as the orthodox Leninist current in contra-distinction to both the Left Communists and the Stalinist centrist faction.

See also

Further Reading.

There is very little in English on Left Communism but the following two books give an adequate historical survey of the movement. Albeit from a viewpoint that is fundamentally in sympathy with Left Communism. Both are published by the International Communist Current a present day Left Communist current.

The Italian Communist Left 1926-1945

The Dutch-German Communist Left