What can communists in the 21st century learn from the classic Left-Communist current?
Left communism is sometimes described as a confused, limited tendency. Critiques range from questioning the relevance of its ideas to disputing the validity of even calling oneself a left communist. A large issue of contention is the Communist League’s shift away from a position closer to the communist left, to a position seeking communist electoralism. Left communism encompasses quite a few positions; the Communist League has not made a hard break with all them. As someone who describes themselves as a left communist, I would like to go over the usefulness that still exists in these ideas and in doing so critique some the ideas currently proposed by the Communist League at large.
As I began to drift away from marxism-leninism and learn of the other currents of marxism, I coincidentally came in contact with the group that would become the Communist League of Tampa. I found a group of like-minded Internationalists with an interest in left communism. Donald Parkinson even wrote an article about Gavril Myasnikov, filling the Guevara-shaped hole in my heart. Along with many of the League’s current detractors, I was alarmed by the complete acceptance of electoralism as a communist strategy by most members. The legitimacy of claiming CLT to be a left communist group is all but gone. it is essentially a multi-tendency group with an interest in orthodox Marxism. Its members are still genuine, well-read communists and I don’t believe all members must agree on all topics for a group of our nature.
Likely the most basic critique of left communism from those familiar with it is whether someone can claim to be a left communist and also if the prominent left communists are similar enough to make a legitimate tendency. Firstly, calling one’s self a left communist in our period probably is dubious. However, it still serves as useful shorthand for a distinctly internationalist and uncompromisingly working class-centered worldview. Left-wing communism, coined by Lenin as an insult towards communist critics of the Bolsheviks, has origins as a catch-all and subsequently has diverse opinions within it. Although the prominent marxists of this selection did not find themselves in a united opposition to the degeneration of the revolutionary movement, their similar criticism and overlapping themes of communism as a movement gives them them the coherence that marks political tendencies. Reading their works with the correct historical context makes for the most adequate understanding of the communist movement and especially its petering out in the 20th century. Still, I think the emphases and viewpoints of the communist left has great relevance to modern capital and the left.
The modern landscape of the left organizations do not seek to push for a theoretical line or gain influence among even a subset of the working class. Obviously a political group cannot just will this influence into existence, but as the left and the labor movement remains defeated these organizations will make little way in recruitment and even less in tangible effects on the social ills of capitalism. What these leftist organizations lack in understanding and what the ideas of left communism have to offer is the re-enforcement of the idea of class activity as a central part of the working class achieving power and emancipation. Its as if an illusion of progress brought about by bank-sponsored labor day events yield results only visible to the activist. I think Amadeo Bordiga’s criticism of activism and the seemingly endless stage play of outrage without any sustainability are an important message to the left:
. . .the bourgeoisie, putting into practice bold reforms in the organization of production and of the State (State Capitalism, totalitarianism, etc.), has delivered a shattering and disorienting blow, sowing doubt and confusion, not against the theoretical and critical foundations of Marxism, which remain intact and unaffected, but rather against the capacity of the proletarian vanguards to apply those Marxist principles precisely in the interpretation of the current stage of bourgeois development. (Bordiga, “Activism”)
Even though left communists such as Bordiga and Anton Pannekoek had differing views in quite a few respects, they both saw the working class as inescapably central to a successful communist movement and attempts to change that constant leading only to degeneration. In our modern day reliance on politicians to champion the specific symptoms of capitalism, the ideas of the communist left could re-introduce some concepts that articulate not avenues around the working class, but why they are necessary.
National Liberation, as an avenue to socialism, serves as a good example of one of the untouchable concepts people are introduced to within the left. ‘To not support national liberation or nationalism of the oppressed is to betray all legitimacy as a communist’, that is the typical line. A sentiment so strong it could make a Stalin-lover swoon over Khrushchev, for his blanket support for national liberation. Though the stated support for nation states is just that, a statement. A soundly applied analysis of the nation state within capitalism could bring some to question the assumptions that come with being integrated into the left. Marx and Engels had already preemptively described why socialism would be impossible in one country (see question 19 of The Principles of Communism), but many militants of the communist left brought back this basic analysis while adapting it to the national liberation ideology that was grafting itself onto communism in the 20th century. Being the gatekeepers of Marxism, the Stalinist parties very successfully melded the concepts of ‘socialism in one country’ and national liberation into being core components to a post-cold war radical left.
The concept of ideological anti-imperialism has been the outcome of this thought as national liberation itself becomes less relevant. It will aid the left in moving on from the holdovers of being a cold warrior to understand the fundamental ineffectiveness of these nationally and ethnically based fights for equality through statehood. If not to just make us look less like jackasses defending horrid states like the DPRK and the Syrian government out of hatred for our own states and their imperialist histories. In all seriousness socialists became popular because of their opposition to pointless inter-imperialist conflict not for supporting the underdog in it. I think there is a completely definable line between understanding the reason for struggle leading to national liberation, but being honest about its dead end. This is summed up nicely by left communist, Paul Mattick:
Although socialists sympathies are with the oppressed, they relate not to emerging nationalism but to the particular plight of twice-oppressed people who face both a native and foreign ruling class. Their national aspirations are in part “socialist” aspirations, as they include the illusory hope of impoverished populations that they can improve their conditions through national independence. Yet national self-determination has not emancipated the laboring classes in the advanced nations. It will not do so now in Asia and Africa. (Mattick, “Nationalism and Socialism”)
In a way I see the line of the communist left as decluttering the notions of who is the enemy of communists and the workers. Many tendencies in the radical left seem to be falling to notions that the main antagonist for the radical left is the American imperialist or the fascist. As communists of course these are to be opposed, but simply put the answer to defeating them lies in defeating capitalism. The communist left may seem reductive in their dead set analysis of capitalism and the need for its survival being the root of these problems, but history seems to favor this analysis. I think this is important currently when we deal with the age of opposition to Donald Trump. It is ridiculous to abandon all principles and act as if the problems of capitalism fell from the sky the day Trump took office. In our critique of antifascism, it is clear why it is alarming to see these antifascists concede to the idea that this particular figurehead of capital is an anomalous and particularly worse representative.
Although the stakes are not as high, this is fundamentally the popular-frontist position applied to Donald Trump. While crackdowns on dissent, further erosion of the welfare state, and continual war are in the works for us, these are long standing trends that did not begin with the election of Trump nor would they have abated with a Clinton victory. However, much of the left is easily corralled into believing that this is the time to defend democracy from the anomaly. Communists of our perspective urge that we see the issue as capitalism and not just the people currently in charge. All the more ironic that this view is blamed for Trump’s victory and the rise of fascism when it is this same bourgeois leadership that always hands the house keys to the fascists in times of crisis. Although I find it hyperbolic to label Trump as a fascist, I think the critique of popular fronts can be applied to the left’s rationalizing of America under Trump. Gilles Dauvé describes the tactic employed by the bourgeoisie to use the radical left as defenders of liberal democracy:
If they succeed in dominating the situation, the creation of this new political form will use up people’s energy, fritter away radical aspirations and, with the means becoming the end, will once again turn revolution into an ideology. Against them, and of course against overtly capitalist reaction, the proletarians’ only path to success will be the multiplication of concrete communist initiatives. . .(Dauvé, When Insurrections Die)
Many Communist League of Tampa members have adopted the view that an effective communist movement not only can, but should engage in the electoral process. Donald Parkinson laid out the basis of this view and ends up conflicting with one of the most consistent positions among the communist left. Fellow member Donald brings up that anti-electoralism is a position taken without thought by the left and I’d agree that more of the left should read up on early communist participation to draw their conclusion. I still think the weariness of electoralism is justified for the radical left and I believe abstentionists of the early 20th century have insight that accurately assess the limitations of parliamentarianism for communists.
An agreeable point is one on the use elections as platforms of agitation and propaganda in the correct level of revolutionary fervor. They can be used as gauges of support and displays of power. However, I believe the need to move from bourgeois institutions in periods of higher struggle was succinctly pointed out by abstentionists of the Third International. The party that integrates itself into the power of the state seems to develop an instinct to protect that position and also form factions sympathetic to the state within it, with the SPD as a prime example. In the current CLT position it is believed that the tendency of communists in state positions to favor their position and party unity can be overcome. I think skepticism of this position is justified in looking at the way in which the right of a party is allowed to consolidate power and betray the working class when in a position of elected power. In situations like the one SPD found itself in during the German Revolution I don’t believe measures to make the party leadership accountable will work when it is engaged with the bourgeois state at a time of that state’s vulnerability. The leftcom position would see the case of the SPD as the rule and not merely an anecdote, as Anton Pannekoek described, “When personal statesmanship has to compensate for what is lacking in the active power of the masses, petty diplomacy develops; whatever intentions the party may have started out with, it has to try and gain a legal base, a position of parliamentary power; and so finally the relationship between means and ends is reversed, and it is no longer parliament that serves as a means towards communism”.
I would also argue that right-wing deviation within a communist party in legislative power comes from stagnation in the possible gains from parliamentarianism and that it would be unavoidable in this parliamentary road. Though Donald does wisely call for a diversity of tactics and not just electoral focus, I think the work within the bounds of the state will lead to an opportunistic right that will need to be fiercely oppose and defanged. I would regret not including a quote about this phenomenon from the ultimate sass-master Bordiga, again from “Activism”:
we saw the sordid conclusion of the super-activism of social democracy: after decades of activity entirely devoted to the conquest of parliamentary seats, of mixed trade union commissions, and of political influence, that had bathed them in an aura of unstoppable activism.
This is not to imply that left communism is a tradition with all the answers or without need of reevaluation. The already sectarian nature of the defeated left leaves modern left communist organizations some of the most sectarian and ideologically demanding. Some of these qualities are greatly exaggerated for their lack of compromise with more center/reformist positions, but this description can still be true. Although I enjoy much of the writings of the International Communist Current, I don’t believe it would be unfounded to call some of their positions class reductionist. Additionally, some left communists in their opposition to the trappings of reformism, reject outright advocating for alleviating the ills of capitalism. It is true that any gains in alleviation are at the mercy of the capitalist state, but it is useful to bring our views to the table and join the working class when they actively take up these reforms.
In other ways this strongly working class-centered view can lead to seeming irrelevancy is a dismissal of social issues. I’ve enjoyed bordigist texts on race, but I believe the historical council communists’ view on social topics may leave us out of the 21st century. I think this Theorie Communiste piece, “Communisation vs Spheres” on feminism describes this well:
True to its origins, this current remained fundamentally anti-feminist in its period of total marginalization. Feminist ideology was interpreted as one of those ‘modernisms’, which substituted for the proletariat a new revolutionary subject (e.g. women, the youth, or immigrants). Of course, there is an anti-class feminism, but it does not speak for all feminists.
Some of the issues of left communism having a place today could be found in a pattern noticeable even in this article, that being mostly negative assertions. Seemingly more positions opposed than taken. Left communist works often function as the most fundamentally communist line attempting to push the movement to its most powerful and encompassing conclusion. As we adapt to this setting we should be attempting to lay a concrete vision for the world allowing with our usual critique of the capitalist state and the left at large. I hope to see more organizations such as the comrades in Worker’s Offensive, trying to actively engage the world despite the landscape of the defeated communist movement (to be fair I don’t know what the activity is like of all leftcom groups).
I don’t believe people need to unequivocally accept all the opinions of left communist theoreticians(that literally wouldn’t be possible), in fact Dauvé’s “Notes on Trotsky, Pannekoek, Bordiga” ends with the message that we should always contextualize prominent marxists and take the good and leave the bad. It is a travesty that the works of these genuine, militant radicals are kicked to the wayside because they are not the words of a eventual head of state or romantic revolutionary. The problems facing the left today can’t be entirely boiled down to theory, however theory informs praxis and that is clear in looking at the modern left. As internationalists we push for the most radical line for proletarian power and as long as the proletariat exists the ideas of genuine communists will remain useful.