2infantile4u: How the Ideas of the Communist Left are Still Useful

What can communists in the 21st century learn from the classic Left-Communist current? 

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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.

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My Political Journey: On Left Communism and Isolation in 21st Century

Here’s an article from a Croatian communist group Svjetska Revolucija (World Revolution) that makes some basic critiques of the diffuse tendency that is modern day ‘left-communism’. While left-communism has been an important influence on CLT’s politics we also feel it is necessary to engage in critique of this tendency and to develop a communist politics that can address current conditions and build a real alternative to the current leftist swamp. While the critiques in this article are by no means complete nor do they represent the views of all members in CLT we reposted it because we believe it’s a good start for a conversation that needs to take place. 

Original article can be found here.


It is important to state how the following text represents the view of one member in our collective and is not necessarily the views of the collective as whole. Even though we tend to publish material that represents the collective as whole, the nature of this text is polemical and it’s coloured in the personal remarks of one our members.

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I’ve started writing this text a few times and stopped to ask myself “is there any point in writing this?”, mostly because I am not the type of person that likes to attack political movements or “milieus” that I used to be part of. Still, I believe that sometimes, when a person is at a certain turning point in their political consciousness it is good to write down some thoughts in order to clear things out, not just with themselves, but also with people that they’ve communicated with over the years – and with which they’d like to continue to communicate with.

After few years of trying to organise a group in my country (which is actually working better then I’ve expected) and communicating and visiting other left communists and left communist groups, I’ve grown apart from left communism. In this article I will try to present why that happened to me and what are in my opinion some of the problems with left communism of today. I recognize that for some left communists I might not be the one of “them”, because I was never a part of “the big groups” but a member of small collective. Nevertheless, I’m not particularly interested in such nitpicking as I don’t think that one should be member of one of the “international” groups to be a left communist but one should be engaged in class and political struggle to be so.

This text is a critique of the left communism of today as I’m not interested in politics of 20th century as much as I’m interested about our present. Also, the point of this text isn’t “to bash” left communism and scream some sectarian nonsense, but to raise a certain critique and ask certain questions that many younger left communists, especially those that are not affiliated with any of “the big groups”, are asking these days. The ideas presented in this article are aimed at opening up a discussion around what we can do today instead of talking about how we can defend yesterday.

LEFT COMMUNISM TODAY

I want to start this critique by saying how it is really weird to call yourself a left communist in the 21st century. When I first heard of left communism I asked myself “what does the left stand for?” And even to anyone who knows a little bit about left communist history it is perfectly clear what the name of tendency stands for, but we can still ask the question: what exactly are left communists the left of?

To continue, I believe that left communism as a political tendency and as a tradition, does not belong in 21st century. In my understanding, it is an ideology that belongs to 1920’s splits and opposition within the Communist International. During that time left communists were the real tendency of the real communist movement and their activity, lessons, and history are really important for us if we want to understand the Russian Revolution, struggles within the Bolshevik Party, and the Comintern.

However, today we don’t have the communist working class movement (we can’t even talk about labour or union/syndicalist movement, because unions compete more than they work together), so there is nothing to “be the left of”. In other words, left communist politics demands strong social-democratic movement so that it can offer its alternatives to its militants.

We could say that left communist ideas have a historical significance and how some of their lessons are really important for communists of today. But at the same time, a lot of the political ideas of today’s left communist are inherited from the 20’s and they haven’t evolved much with the times. In that I mean that the conditions of capitalist reproduction have changed, class dynamics has changed, but nobody has adapted to it. Except perhaps in the cases of ideas that were put up by left communist groups formed in the 70’s, but those ideas, for example the idea of decadence, were merely used to canonise the infallibility and stubbornness of a lack of analysis and involvement with the class.

ABSTRACT POLITICS AND SECTARIANISM

One of my main problems with left communism is its focus, and even sometimes obsession, with ideological and abstract politics. That focus makes left communism both appalling and unattractive at the same time, but to different types of communist “militants”. On the one hand, it is really developed and shaped “thought system” that, once you embrace it, makes perfect sense and has an answer to an every question. On the other hand, it is a very closed and dogmatic system based upon “true believer principles” that is increasing its hostility towards the rest of the left and every class action with every minute. It is a system that is based on ideal conceptions of everything; from ideal class action, to ideal intervention, to ideal organisation, to ideal discussion, but it offers very little experience in actual practice.

As I’ve stated, left communism focuses on ideological and abstract politics rather than on class dynamics, struggles, needs, problems, etc.

For example, among certain “Internet left communists” we can see a constant need for quoting he writings of Amadeo Bordiga as an example of such behaviour, mostly because his closed ideological system doesn’t motivate people to leave their rooms, leading people to the belief that they are doing something important and significant. Indeed, it is an ideological krokodil that destroys the flesh of young generations of political militants that have overcome classical leftist voluntarism and activism. Also, these kinds of politics depend on the isolation that most communist “militants” are facing every day.

Left communism focuses on building of an ideal political platforms and is quite hostile to outside world – especially to the left. And by the left I’m not only thinking about other various political currents that were created as an answer to defeat of October Revolution, but I’m thinking about left communism itself.

A lot of us younger communists wanted to join existing organisations rather than creating our own groups and collectives. There are numerous reasons, from the fact that it’s easier to be part of something that already exists and has its own functions and protocols, to the fact that it is incredibly hard to start off as a new group. In most cases, what we have got from those groups were dogmas and sectarianism.

 ACTIVISM, CLASS STRUGGLE AND PARTICIPATION

 As I’ve stated before in the text, the problem with left communism is that its class dynamics is rooted in the 1920’s instead of our present. It is for this reason that their political judgements are clouded with almost a century old political decisions and discussions that affects their present, especially when discussing class action, activism, and interventions of communists in the struggles.

And while the majority of other left political tendencies tend to be voluntaristic, and tend to do “actions for sake of actions”, left communism subscribes to another extreme. That is, as I’ve said already in text, waiting for ideal class action to make ideal intervention. If there is no such class action to intervene to left communist stay on the side criticising, observing, discussing, but never participating. So, even we understand the need to criticise activist voluntarism, we also understand the need to criticise ideological idealism that results in total inactivity.

Indeed, what we need today is neither activism nor ideology, but communist politics and action based upon concrete foundation and class dynamics. In other words, we need a political action that comes from the class, but we also need political action from communists to which a working class can relate to. Communists must stop thinking about their petty fights on “the leftist scene” and concentrate on answering the question: how is our political activity relevant to the working class? When one answers that question there will be no more need for hiding behind activism and ideology.

Expecting ideal class actions and interventions is also pointless, because today in the 21st century, the peak of class action are spontaneous wildcat strikes or struggles of workers whose companies are facing lock downs (this is written mostly from a Croatian perspective). These struggles have their good and bad sides, in the sense that while they unite workers outside of institutions of capitalist management, they are also doomed on failure because they are isolated from the rest of the class. Nevertheless, this article is not the place where I’d go into detail about these struggles. My main point was to indicate how one should take every struggle into account and try to learn from them, especially if the type of struggle is repetitive in various workplaces. Only by understanding class dynamics can we affect new struggles with our knowledge and experience.

Also, one shouldn’t be afraid of reforms or struggles for reforms. A lot of reformist struggles have “revolutionary” potential, because people are united under a common goal because of problems that affect their lives. There is nothing wrong if they fight and win. There is nothing wrong in gaining something, no matter how big of an “illusion” it might be. If it improves lives of the working class then it is worth it.

IS THERE ANY ALTERNATIVE?

So, is there any alternative to left communism?

As I’ve repeated few times in this text, in my opinion the key is to have communist politics based on clear and concrete foundations and class dynamics. It is necessary to abandon ideological and activist approaches and start to think about the class and how our activity may be relevant to it. This of course, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have positions or discussions about abstract subjects, but it means that our course of action and preoccupation must be the class.

The best way, at least how I see it, to achieve that goal is trough our own workplaces, unions, and everyday life. Of course, there is necessity for local groups of communists, but we should also be aware that we too are workers and that we need to act in our workplaces. In that way one is not just a distant observer of class action, but an active participant. Of course, there is nothing wrong in being and observer but a lot of communists just stay in that role instead of embracing the active role of conscious proletarian.

By analysing class dynamics and other factors that affect it, we are not only deepening our own knowledge about how capitalism functions today, but we are developing an “archive” of struggles, and attempts for the future. Documenting workers struggles and their failures or gains gives us opportunity to learn from the class and to understand the way in which capital defends itself.

Iskra

Gavril Myasnikov: hero of the working class

The life-story of Bolshevik oppositionist and left-communist Gavril Myasnikov teaches important lessons on the dangers of a political culture that stifles and represses internal debate and factions.  

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Myasnikov in 1922

The communist-left or ‘left-communism’ was not a movement composed of intellectuals isolated from the working class. The ‘left-communists’ mostly remembered for being attacked in Lenin’s famous pamphlet Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder were a real tendency within the workers movement, playing an important role not only in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy but in the Bolshevik Party itself. These experiences of the communist-left in Russia can provide many important lessons to marxists today and the life story of Gavril Myasnikov is no exception.

The ‘left-commmunists’ as a faction within the Bolsheviks first developed as a response to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which made peace with Germany under unfavorable circumstances for the Bolsheviks. This initial ‘left-communist’ faction included prominent Bolsheviks Bukharin and Dzerzhinsky and saw the treaty as a capitulation to world imperialism which would close off the potential for world revolution. Their opposition to it stemmed not from militarism and nationalism but from a belief that world revolution was on the agenda, the immediate task being to form a Red Army and aid the German working class in overthrowing their government. Whether or not this position was correct is up to debate. Ultimately the treaty was signed, despite protestations not only from the left-communists, but also Left-SRs and anarchists. According to Lenin it was more important to have an immediate end to the war and consolidate the Soviet state and too risky to pursue revolutionary war. Due to the difficulty of throwing together a real army in their current circumstances his position won eventually won enough enough support to pass after heated debate and the treaty was signed.

Gavril Myasnikov was a member of this left-communist faction and had a long history of working class militancy behind him. However Myasnikov, unlike Bukharin and Dzerzhinsky, refused to become a bureaucrat. His entire life proved to be one based on intransigent opposition to capitalism and all those who stood in the way of the revolutionary proletariat’s fight against it. He would not only be an enthusiastic participant of the October Revolution but would continue to fight for the proletariat to truly have a voice in the Bolshevik party afterwards. He never surrendered in this fight and ultimately died a prisoner of Stalinism.

Myasnikov was born in the Urals in 1889 and found employment as a metal worker. He found himself in the midst of a strong tradition of working class militancy and took an active role in the 1905 revolution against Czarist autocracy. This revolution saw the formation of the first Soviets through mass strikes and the intervention of political militants. These Soviets or ‘wokers councils’ aimed to unite the entire working class on a regional basis rather than on a trade or industrial basis and showed the capacity of the working class to organize as a progressive class in history, using the Soviets to agitate for political demands against the Czar such the introduction of a parliament. Myasnikov was impressed by the role of the Bolsheviks in these events and joined the party in 1906. Shortly after the Czarist police imprisoned him in Siberia. In prison Myasnikov faced forced labor, beatings and even went on hunger strike for 75 days. He attempted escape three times, each attempt seeing him trying to rejoin the revolutionary underground only to fall back into prison.

Myasnikov had returned from exile in Siberia in 1917 and played an active role in the October Revolution. He was involved in forming a factory committee, participating in his local Soviet and Bolshevik party district to take a leading part the seizure of power by the working class in the Urals. It was the on-the-ground activity of worker militants like Myasnikov that ultimately made the October Revolution possible. Without these networks of militants who made real connections to the masses of workers no alternative center of authority to the Provisional Government would have been possible.

Myasnikov’s revolutionary zeal was representative of the times surrounding him, where new potentials for social change were opening up all around him. However Myasnikov’s millenarian drive for revanchism against the old regime was a step above others. In July 1918 Myasnikov and a crew of workers executed the Czar’s younger brother the Grand Duke Michael. It is unclear whether this was an autonomous act or an order from higher level Bolsheviks. Either way it got him called “a bloodthirsty and embittered man, and not altogether sane” by the secretary of the Perm’ Bolshevik Party Committee, though shortly after Myasnikov reported to Lenin with the Czar and his family being shot shortly after.

As these events show Myasnikov had no qualms with red terror and proletarian dictatorship when they were aimed against reactionaries. Yet when it came to suppression of dissent from within the working class itself Myasnikov would adamantly fight for freedom of speech and the right to form factions with platforms within the party as well as control over industry through producers soviets. After opposing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk Myasnikov recognized the need for unity within the party and stood by Lenin to defeat the Whites. At this point authoritarian measures were seen as temporary concessions due to the need to win the Civil War and it was hoped that the end of war would see a return of the Soviets. However by the end of the Civil War Myasnikov had joined in with groups like the Democratic Centralists and Workers’ Opposition who were criticizing the party from within, though his own critiques would differ from the aforementioned groups.

The Civil War had transformed the Bolshevik Party into a militarized an hierarchical organized and as the war ended this didn’t seem to change. The party was increasingly becoming an institution which represented petty-proprietors and professional bureaucrats as opposed to the revolutionary working class. The hopes that the proletarian democracy of the Soviets espoused by Lenin’s State and Revolution would return after the Civil War had been proven wrong. The future of the revolution was uncertain at this point and individuals like Myasnikov saw the future of the USSR as a legitimate workers republic at stake. The words of Victor Serge in his later work Memoirs of Revolutionary, also at the time a Bolshevik, capture a certain attitude within the party and amongst the broader working class:

“What with the political monopoly, the Cheka and the Red Army, all that now existed of the ‘Commune-State’ of our dreams was a theoretical myth. The war, the internal measures against counterrevolution, and the famine (which had created a bureaucratic rationing apparatus) had killed off Soviet democracy. How could it revive, and when? The Party lived in the certain knowledge that the slightest relaxation of its authority would give day to reaction.”

At this point Myasnikov primarily critiqued the Bolsheviks as a individual, not as a faction. He disagreed with the Workers Opposition’s position that unions should manage industry, counterposing to this administration of industry through producers soviets. Like his contemporaries who were also part of the communist left, the KAPD, Myasnikov believed that unions for the working class had outlived their use in the current period. However he would advocate for peasant unions, much to the dismay of the Worker’s Opposition who believed this would take power away from the industrial proletariat. His activities critiquing the party got him relocated to Petrograd from the Urals where he would be kept on a tighter leash but proved unwilling to be silenced. As a result he received the ire of Zinoviev who accused him of being an SR, threatening to expel him from the party.

In Petrograd Myasnikov focused on agitating for free speech. In March 1921 he called for unlimited free speech in a memorandum to the Central Committee. He also made it clear he thought this should extend even to monarchists, a comment that made it easy for Lenin to attack his platform. No other Bolshevik made this demand, thought eventually he would back off from this position, and argue that only manual workers should have freedom of speech. He also refused to condemn the Kronstadt rebellion, a position that the Workers’ Opposition refused to take. To Myasnikov Kronstadt was a sad example of communists murdering communists and showed how far the bureaucratization of the regime had gone.

Lenin critiqued Myasnikov’s arguments for freedom of speech on the grounds that they would allow reactionary forces to have the freedom to organize and spread their views, especially amongst the peasants. “What sort of freedom of the press? What for? For which class?” said Lenin in a 1921 letter to Myasnikov. Lenin undeniably had a point; that democracy and freedom are not metaphysical absolutes that exist independent of class context. However, while Myasnikov’s argument for free press extending to monarchists is certainly questionable it is undeniable that the proletariat cannot rule as a class if it does not have the freedom to represent itself. This requires a tolerance of internal debate and dissent as a well as a tolerance of internal factions. It also requires that the proletariat doesn’t face despotic conditions on the factory floor, which related to demands for workers control. Myasnikov responded to Lenin initially with panic but then wrote a letter in response. “You say that I want freedom of the press for the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, I want freedom of the press for myself, a proletarian, a member of the party for fifteen years.” he said. Lenin may have made him change his mind about extending freedom of the press to monarchists but his desire for a legitimate soviet democracy remained.

Lenin’s banning of factions in 1921 saw the Workers’ Opposition essentially suppressed. Myasnikov, while not yet part of an official faction, was expelled from the party in 1922. After this he would form an actual opposition organization, the Workers Group. The Workers Group united Myasnikov with former members of the Workers’ Opposition and operated as a clandestine organization, unable to print its own manifesto in Russia. The Workers Group Manifesto not only addressed issues in Russia but addressed the international communist movement as a whole. The Manifesto critiques not only the lack of working class rule in Russia but also the united front policy being imposed on the Communist Parties of the world. It also makes claims that fights for reforms are now historically obsolete and that insurrection is now on the agenda, expressing of the more voluntaristic tendencies in left-communism at the time.

The response of party leaders was to arrest Myasnikov and send him to Germany to do trade union work. It was here where we made connections with the KAPD, the left-communist party in Germany, as well as the more radical elements of the KPD (the more moderate of the communist parties who had the approval of the Comintern). The Workers Group critique of the ‘united front’ policy that sought unity with the same social-democrats who supported WWI and held back revolution at all cost resonated with the KAPD. Yet Myasnikov did not stay in Germany for long and returned to Russia during a strike wave where remaining members of the Workers Group were agitating. Shortly after arrival Myasnikov was put behind behind bars; Zionviev had promised him this wouldn’t happen if he was to return.

After spending over three years in prison and insane asylums Myasnikov was sent to Armenia, then Persia only to be arrested again. Myasnikov had already spent a good chunk of his life in prison and this one be one of his shorter sentences, leaving for Turkey after six months. In Turkey Myasnikov took up correspondence with Trotsky who was also in exile from Turkey. Years before Trotsky had helped repress and purge the Workers Group and lead the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt, yet Myasnikov looked beyond this and the two engaged in principled discussion.

After Turkey Myasnikov settled in France, publishing his pamphlet The Latest Deception that elaborated his theories of state-capitalism in the USSR. Trotsky still refused to believe the USSR was no longer a proletarian dictatorship, instead calling it a ‘degenerated workers state’. In summary his argument was that the working class had never been overthrown and nationalized property was evidence that the workers rather than bourgeois ruled (otherwise markets would return). As a result Trotsky was more of a loyal oppositionist to the Stalinist regime rather than a full-on opponent like Myasnikov. Instead of a mere political revolution that would reform the party Myasnikov claimed the sytsem itself must be overthrown and replaced with the rule of soviets with multiple political tendencies represented. He developed a theory where the ruling class in the USSR was not the proletariat with bureaucratic deformations as in Trotsky’s theory but a ‘social bureaucracy’ that expropriated political power from the proletariat and consolidated a state-capitalist system. These ideas were very similar to future state-capitalism theories expounded by the likes of CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya and Tony Cliff and as a result have theoretical problems of their own. Their strength lies not so much in their ability to comprehend the USSR through marxist categories but rather in their political conclusions that allowed them to advocate working class independence from Stalinism.

Myasnikov would work in factories in France until 1945, meeting fellow oppositionists such as Ruth Fischer and Victor Serge. He remarried and was able to accommodate to life in France, remaining there during the war and keeping quiet. However in 1946 he disappeared. Friends inquired and discovered he had been taken back to Russia on a Soviet plane; nothing was heard of him since. What exactly happened is unclear, but it is clear that Myasnikov ultimately died a victim of the Stalinist state.

Myasnikov’s demands were not for the immediate institution of communism, which most knew wasn’t a possibility. Rather his demands were aimed to secure the proletariat the institutional means necessary to rule as a class. If this was the case, why were other Bolsheviks so hostile to Myasnikov’s demands? Wasn’t the Civil War over, meaning authoritarian measures were no longer needed? Wasn’t Lenin himself an advocate for soviet democracy in State and Revolution? Truth is that Russia was a peasant majority country, most of these peasants hostile to any kind of social change that would disrupt ownership of their property. Leading Bolsheviks worried that a return to mass soviet representation would give too much political voice to the peasants and would lead to populist or reactionary parties forming and gaining support. Getting the peasants a better deal would require the support of developed European industry, so therefore the leading Bolsheviks believed their only choice was to hold onto power at all costs through dictatorial means while giving the necessary concessions to peasant demands until world revolution came to the rescue. World revolution never came however and the result was that the Stalinist bureacracy would consolidate itself through mass repression and impose collectivization/industrialization in order to resolve ‘the peasant question’. However without the capacity to organize as a class workers had no means to combat the rise of Stalinism, nor would they have the means to oppose the full imposition of markets after the collapse of the USSR later on in 1989.

Why is the legacy of Myasnikov important today? Today many Leninist sects aiming to mimic the Bolsheviks impose crippling forms of centralism and repression of open political debate. They refuse any kind of transparency and act like rackets. It is often forgotten that before the Russian Civil War the Bolshevik was an organization that was centralist but also genuinely democratic, where dissenting views were openly discussed and factions were free to draw up platforms and debate them. The loss of this culture of internal dissent and debate was a major blow to the Russian Revolution. This was not because of vague abstract ideals of “democracy” or “freedom” but because the proletariat relies on political freedom in a very concrete form to be able to effectively organize and rule. The proletariat is an organically divided class. Factions are an expression of these divisions and enforcing a centralism that ignores them rather than a centralism based on real unity simply allows for the consolidation of bureaucratic cliques. The proletariat must also have genuine forms of political association which are not subsumed to the class interests of petty-propietors and civil bureaucracy that can adequately allow the class to represent itself. By banning factions such a form of association was blocked off. In the USSR the result of this was that the proletariat is ultimately liquidated as a class, only capable short outbursts over immediate economic demands.

Today organizations must learn from the early Bolsheviks rather than mimic the militarized, hierarchical and bureaucratic-centralist party it would become. We must aim for organizations that instead can work towards unity while allowing a healthy culture of debate. This of course doesn’t mean “anything goes” and that any political view should be accepted. Communists must work around firm principles and coherent points of unity that are clearly understood. Within these points of unity there should be room for discussion and debate, but at a certain level of divergence debate becomes pointless. For example, if a faction formed within a communist organization supporting US war with Iran or offering ‘critical support’ to MRAs those members should be expelled without question. Certain things are simply not up for debate; we are not liberals. That said many differences can and should be tolerated within a communist organization and creating a stultifying atmosphere where debate is prohibited can only limit how effectively it can grasp and intervene in its real surrounding circumstances while building a genuine connection with the working class.

Further reading:

Bolshevik Opposition to Lenin: G. T. Miasnikov and the Workers’ Group by Paul Avrich

Manifesto of the Workers Group

Letter to G. Myasnikov by V.I. Lenin

The Latest Deception by Gavril Myasnikov

What is our current historical era and how did we get here?

To understand our current conditions and why the working class is currently so weak we must look at the changes that capitalism went through in the 20th century. 

1083017372north1Our current historical period in the broadest sense can be described as the “neo-liberal era” of capitalism. “Neo-liberalism” is sadly an abused term, but really it is just a means of describing the period of capitalism from around 1973 to today. Rather than being a result of an ideological shift from public regulation to market extremism it is a response to structural tendencies in capitalism, particularly the re-emergence of its classic crisis tendencies. In many senses neo-liberalism is really a return to the capitalism of the pre-1945 era, back to capitalism as usual before managerial strata of the bourgeoisie aimed to stabilize rule through Keynesian policies. The dominance of finance capital and labor markets with a large reserve army of the unemployed are hardly novel developments in capitalism. Yet unlike pre-1945 capitalism, the neo-liberal cycle of bourgeois rule was consolidated after new advances in the states ability to integrate class antagonisms through public interest liberalism. In many ways it is continuation of the post-war era’s attempt to liquidate class conflict. Additionally, with the former colonial world now formally independent, imperialism primarily functions through proxy wars rather than direct conflicts between world empires.

The Neo-liberal era according to many has come to end with the financial crisis of 2008, yet what exactly defines the supposed new conjecture is unclear. Much of this was misplaced optimism over the potential of ‘new social movements’ that developed after the 2008 crisis. As far as we are concerned we still are living under a hegemonic ideology which proudly proclaims the end of class conflict and even history itself, where the collapse of the USSR and turn to market reforms by the remains of the “socialist bloc” supposedly signals that no alternative to the market exists.

To understand our current moment we must look at the overall trajectory of capitalism and the class struggle over the past century. At the beginning of the 20th century capitalism had undergone a breakthrough in the development of its modern institutional forms with the managerial, financial and corporate revolutions. Imperialism was raging with an unprecedented intensity with world empires competing to expand colonization of Africa and Asia. From this tendency came World War I, both a crisis of the remaining old regime and the new capitalist one which was coming into dominance. Social-democracy and syndicalism had developed institutions capable of contesting class power, but for the most part ended up rallying behind the nation when the war began.

Out of the crisis of WWI came the most revolutionary and internationalist tendencies of the workers’ movement, as more and more workers realized that the war was a travesty that served the interests of their exploiters. Bolshevism, which would produce both Stalinism and left-communism (the latter the historical tendency we most identity with), emerges as a energizing factor for an international workers movement. In the interwar period world revolution seems to be a real item on the agenda, and capitalist ideologues as well socialists believe the end days of the system are happening before their eyes. At this point even the bourgeois economist Schumpter was able to envision the collapse of capitalism. Due to the intensity of social crisis in this period states are faced with the challenge of integrating antagonistic classes, giving rise to new developments in the bourgeois state. Fascism emerges as a reactionary mass movement, integralist nationalism using the forms of the workers movements to mobilize violent gangs of mostly demobilized soldiers, criminals and petty-bourgeois to crush communism and establish a more authoritarian form of capitalism. In the USA the New Deal emerged as a state response to crisis, not relying on squadrons of blackshirts but on democratic-republican workerism and the development of public interest group liberalism and the administrative welfare state.

The barbarism of WWII brings the United States and the USSR to the hegemonic states in the new world empire. The war sees scattered initiatives of proletarian internationalism but nothing that amounts to a real threat to the dominance of capitalism. Anti-fascist alliances of bourgeois states and workers movements and the acceptance of the labor movement by the capitalist state began a conscious project to integrate the proletariat into the nation as loyal “labor-citizens” that continued after WWII. Yet even before this much of the workers movement was preoccupied with “winning the battle for democracy” and modernizing society by crushing the remains of pre-capitalist state-forms. For example in Germany it was ultimately the SPD who finished the bourgeois revolution and consolidated democracy, while  Russian Social-Democracy kept no secrets about bourgeois revolution and winning political freedom being their initial tasks.

The post-war arrangement of capitalism saw a shift in power towards the managerial strata of the bourgeoisie, with an attempt to rationally plan capitalism on a global scale. Communist internationalism had essentially collapsed as national liberation movements cleared away most of the remains of direct colonial rule from the core to periphery. In the USA and Europe the managerial strata of the capitalist class engaged in a ‘social contract’ of sorts with labor where compliance with the state promised economic growth and wealth redistribution. While waves of wildcat strikes and militancy still existed (from those marginalized from the social contract like black and latino workers), the tendency of the working class towards being integrated into capitalism through this new public interest group liberalism was overwhelming. Both liberal technocrats and New Leftists declared that capitalism had overcome its internal crisis tendencies through the welfare states and mass consumption of the new mixed economies, with class-based revolutionary movements being a thing of the past. Some even believed the USSR and Western capitalist states were both converging towards the same type of planned bureaucratic society.

The return of economic crisis in the 1970’s proved these ideas wrong. Capitalism had failed to provide a means for infinite growth without economic chaos and the ruling class was restructured to the advantage of finance capital, its strategy of accumulation shifting towards an embrace of “creative destruction” and the anarchy of the market. By the late 1970’s a definite political project amongst the capitalist class emerged to maximize the competitiveness of markets and create a fluid global labor market. This meant a shift towards privatization rather than the ideal of the mixed economy, but not necessarily a weakening of the state.

If the post-war Keynesian era was a class compromise, the neo-liberal era would be a direct attack on the working class and their relative stability. Creating a more fluid global labor market would mean attacking the social wage and the power of collective bargaining in the core, increasing the reserve army of labor (more unemployment) and shifting investment in manufacturing towards newly proletarianized laborers in the periphery where development programs are imposed through international financial and state apparatuses. In the core manufacturing doesn’t disappear, but is largely restructured to become less labor intensive where it remains. As a result the masses of unskilled workers increasingly find themselves in service industry jobs such as a food and retail, which are far more decentralized and less concentrated than manufacturing industries. These factors, coupled with a large reserve army of labor, makes traditional union organization almost impossible.

Contrary to the fantasies of its ideologues, the “neo-liberal” arrangement didn’t roll back the power of the bureaucratic and authoritarian state. While civil servants were laid off and nationalized firms were privatized the actual repressive arm of the state took on forms more pervasive and controlling than ever. A rising surplus population of individuals excluded from waged labor can mean for many (both non-employed and those employed in low wage jobs) a reliance on often harmless black market activities and illegalism for survival. State policing and surveillance, especially in low income neighborhoods, takes on a newfound paternalism and intensity in order to control these populations and enforce capitalist relations. Due to discrimination in labor markets and the white supremacist origins of the US state much of this state violence is heavily racialized, creating a stark contradiction to the multicultural ideology of the ruling class.

So why didn’t the working class fight back and protect itself from falling into this position? A big part of it had to do with the previous success of efforts by the capitalist class to integrate the labor movement into the state, a route that was admittedly taken begrudgingly after years of violent struggle. The “class compromise” of the post war era saw an overwhelming tendency towards workers choosing loyalty to the state over radical organizations as a means to secure reforms and a higher standard of living. A lack of even basic defensive organization independent from the state and the conservatism of the labor bureaucracy made resistance difficult. Labor bureaucrats already used to giving concessions to the state would have a difficult time mounting real defenses against privatization campaigns. State co-operation may have been the option with the most immediate benefits for workers in the post-war economy but in the long run it weakened the ability of the working class to fight for its basic interests.

This integration of the proletariat with the state didn’t come out of nowhere and didn’t occur smoothly without resistance either. Both social-democracy and Stalinism, two political phenomena that for us signify the ‘left-wing of capital” played a key role in this process. The political role of both these movements was rallying workers in the name of nation and democracy while systematically repressing genuine communist movements movements that developed within the class. Rather than acting as a force for communism the workers movement tended towards what G.M. Tamas termed “Rousseauian socialism”, socialism which aims to unite “the people” against caste society (the remains of the old regime in Europe continued after the turn of the century) as opposed to class society, which is ultimately only fully realized under capitalism. This was what the politics of social-democracy, the Popular Front, and the Chinese revolution ultimately were about – wiping away the remains of the old regime society that stood in the way of capitalist development while aiming to fully realize the ideals of democracy and civic equality.

The weakness of working class today is not simply due to repression from the state and fascists thugs. These certainly played a role, but much of the left also played a role by repressing the most radical wings of the movement and integrating the working class into their respective national states. The statist/nationalist left contributed much help in the development of the modern labor bureaucracy which once helped contain and manage waged labor. Yet as soon as these institutions become a barrier to the accumulation of capital they come under attack, a tendency that becomes fully fleshed out in the “neo-liberal” period. Largely integrated into the system and lacking independent political institutions, the working class is largely incapable of resisting the more direct phase of intensive disciplining to the domination of the market that marks the current era.

Whether the workers movement was doomed to act as a modernizing force for capitalism to overcome the residuals of the pre-capitalist world or simply made the wrong choices is a pointless question to ask. We can only look at how history played out and theorize on what objective factors may have influenced this. We should also not forget that despite the overwhelming hegemony of what we would call “the left wing of capital” various minorities within the old workers movement looked beyond the bourgeois politics of the hegemonic left and struggled against its role in integrating the proletariat into capitalism. This “communist left” consisting of figures like Amadeo Bordiga, Anton Pannekoek, Sylvia Pankhurst and Gavril Miasnikov was probably the most advanced political expression of the proletariat as a class struggling for Communist society to have existed and serves as vital inspiration for those looking to overcome capital today, though many aspects of their politics may be outdated.

The failure of the left in the 20th century to transcend capitalism has left a legacy where radical social change can only lead to the spectre of “totalitarianism”, where class society can never be overthrown but merely be replaced by another form of it where the new oppressors are only worse than the old. The collapse of the Soviet Union, market reforms in China and Vietnam or the embrace of neo-liberal policies by social-democratic parties have shown that the strategies and vision of the official left to be bankrupt. To most it is clearer than ever that the old ways didn’t work, that Stalinism and social-democracy didn’t offer liberation to the workers. Yet the common sense reaction to this is not to embrace a more radical and critical form of communist politics instead of the old guard left, but rather to reject the possibility of any real alternative to the ruling order. We can hardly blame people for this reaction either, as there is hardly any real alternative for people to choose.

The situation this has led to is very contradictory – on one end the irrationality and barbarism of capitalism is more exposed than ever, yet the formation of a working class collectivity capable of challenging the current order faces an array of obstacles. In the United States and other core economies decentralization of workplaces and de-industrialization leave the workforce largely incapable of the kind of union organization that marked the 20th century workers movement, where workplaces with high concentrations of workers were the norm. The traditional routes of electoral action, if they ever were a correct tactic, are also essentially blocked from having any efficacy as the state-apparatuses of modern capitalism are more subsumed to its laws of motion than ever before. Any party coming to power through electoral victories is bound to make compromises with the middle classes and other bourgeois parties and become managers of capitalism. Ideology also plays a role, as the naturalization of market relations due to their increased penetration of social life and the failure of 20th century socialism makes capitalism appear to be the only way for humanity to exist.

As hopeless as the situation may currently appear we must keep a clear head and avoid embracing despair. The collapse of Stalinism and social-democracy, though their remains may still haunt us, gives us a relatively clean slate to rebuild a genuine communist movement. Moving forward will require a strategy of patience and experimentation in new forms of organization. It will also mean a rejection of the legacy of the statist/nationalist left whose projects have only led back to capitalism.

Towards a communist left

What is the modern left in the USA? How can we escape the world of sects? Moving beyond both defeatism and activism will require an approach that’s aware of our historical limitations as well as opportunities. 

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Today the existing left in America is largely composed of leftovers from the New Left student movements of the 60’s and 70’s, anti-globalization populism and a labor bureaucracy in decay. Left discourse today primarily focuses its critiques on neo-liberalism, which is identified with finance capital and a corrupt power elite, and cultural expressions of oppression and alienation. Class struggle as a unifying factor in the left is largely missing. Rather there is skepticism not only of movements centered around class but around any kind of universal project of human emancipation. For to posit such a project would mean to put forward a “grand narrative” where universalism is asserted, something forbidden in post-structuralist influenced leftist discourse. Rather than individual struggles being part of a greater project aiming to abolish capitalist relations worldwide we are presented with individual activist campaigns against given evils of the world. Fragmentation and individual subjectivity are more important than unity in a common project of emancipation, with mere allyship with individuals in struggles against subjective oppressions being celebrated as an alternative to solidarity.

Otherwise popular leftist discourse focuses on a surface critique of existing conditions, refusing to truly delve into the root of things. Anything but communism itself is suggested as a solution to the continuing crisis of capitalism, as the Thatcherite credo of TINA (There Is No Alternative) is essentially absorbed by the left. This is reflected in everything from Jacobin magazine’s endorsement of market socialism to enthusiasm for co-ops and universal basic income. Finance capitalism is presented as the real enemy, in counterposition to productive capitalism that is unionized and domestic and therefore preferable. Instead of capitalism itself, which requires a global solution, movements uphold “Neo-liberalism” or “globalization” as the problem, upholding the sovereignty of the nation over the international scope of the world market. Social movements expressing this ideology are not class based, but instead a broad front of liberals, far left participants and even aspects of the right.

The ostensibly Marxist left in the United States, who unlike much of the left do play lip service to class, is primarily composed of “soft-Trots” like the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity and Socialist Alternative who offer bureaucratic organizations and actual politics on slightly to the left of the democrats despite proclaiming allegiance to Bolshevism. On the other hand are the Maoists and Stalinists of groups like Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and Workers World Party (WWP) who are essentially leftovers from the various splits of groups from the New Left generation. These groups offer antiquated cold-war era politics to a mostly student audience, often basing much of their identity on support for various third world dictators.

Truth is that the world of the organized radical left still exists in the shadow of the New Left. The existing official leadership of these groups for the most part are old-timers from the social movements of the 60’s, 70s and 80s. This is true for RCP, FRSO, WWP, International Socialist Organization (ISO), and the Spartacus League, as well as left-communist groups such as International Communist Tendency (ICT) and International Communist Current (ICC). Essentially the “world of sects” is under control of a gerontocracy of leftists who grew up with different movements and different conditions. It’s the decaying remains of an old generation of social movements. They are able to attract revolving door membership amongst youth, meaning that only the most committed recruits stay for long while most quickly get bored or disillusioned and leave. Very few groups amongst the marxist left have a central leadership comprised of younger militants who didn’t get their political education from the New Left.

The “world of sects” is also a world full of splits, many quite mundane. Look at PSL, FRSO-ML and WWP. These three groups have essentially identical politics, as dreadful and incorrect as they are. There’s no real reason for them to not be one larger group with minor internal disagreements. It’s a similar case for ISO and Socialist Alternative. These “soft-Trot” groups have little different about them at the political level. So why so many splits? These people go on and on about the necessity of centralism yet see no real reason to centralize around their actual politics. Part of the problem is that organizations don’t aim for programmatic unity through the broader organization but instead have a political and theoretical line imposed by the leadership. Splits are often over theoretical disagreements rather than political disagreements where real issues are at stake. Rather than having complete theoretical unity an organization should aim for unity in basic political questions – programmatic unity. Another problem is the notion of vanguardism taken from an ahistorical reading of Lenin that sees splits as a mean to purge potential rightist bureaucracy and maintain revolutionary purity. Splitting is often justified, but as a tool for achieving purity it accomplishes little. Yet is the fractured, sect-like nature of the left really a reason to embrace some vague project of broad left-unity?

What left unity really offers today when groups don’t have any real political weight is very unclear, and “left” is such an ambiguous term these days it is bound to mean capitulation to awful politics.  Most of these groups are not only isolated from any mass movements of the working class but are also quite toxic in their behavior, with rape scandals, silencing of opposition and opportunism at large. Yet it would also be a mistake to consider them “The main enemy” with our primarily goal as an organization to prevent them from having influence over workers (as the Nihilist Communism writers suggest).

Rather than an enemy to be actively battled, these shitty left groups can for the most part be dismissed as “Live Action Roleplayers” or “LARPers”. Stuck in the past, the radical left of today often tries to roleplay the movements of old in search of a way to maintain permanent activity with an inflated sense of importance. We can see this in the various Maoist/Stalinist groups looking to relive the student activism of the 60s or certain sections of the IWW who think that recreating the good old fashioned industrial unionism of the early 20th century is possible today. LARPing is an expression of the cult of activism – a phenomena which goes back to Lasalle’s notion of the “permanent campaign”. Activism doesn’t mean activity as such; rather it means refusing to make an appraisal of what limitations are generated by the current historical conjecture, to pretend as if one’s group must merely try harder to generate a movement when no real movement exists. Activism damns those who sit back during a quiet period to focus on theory and make a discerning judgement on what is realistic. Instead the need to take action takes priority above all else. Out of organization, agitation and education the cult of activism leaves us only with agitation.

With regards to the ultra-left (where we would situate ourselves, Marxist tendencies to the left of Trotskyism and Maoism) there is little in terms of formalized organization in the United States beyond scattered members of the ICT, ICC, certain sections of the IWW, online cliques and heavily theoretical journals.  Amongst the “ultra-left” is a heavy element of defeatism and anti-organizationalism. Many mistake a justified critique of activism with a way to legitimate complete political quietism, falling in line with the dominant neo-liberal discourse about “The end of history”. Others maintain hope in revolution, but first announcing the end of “proletarian subjectivity” in favor of immediately establishing communist relations without the mediations of politics, creating a vision of revolution so idealistic it might as well be impossible. Amongst this eclectic milieu of “communizers” any kind of associational organization on a programmatic basis is frowned upon with many instead placing hope in the spontaneous riots as a path forward.

There is of course much to take from the analysis coming from groups such as Endnotes and Theorie Communiste who take up the mantle of communization, and we in many ways are sympathetic to their project of creating a fresh analysis of current conditions. De-industrialization in core economies, fragmentation of workforces, increases in the reserve army of labor and a decrease in the power of unions are very real phenomena that pose real challenges to the formation of the proletariat as a class. It would be a mistake to think we can bring back the old workers movement, that old school left-communist politics can be applied today untouched from their original form without taking new conditions into consideration. But questioning orthodoxy doesn’t mean that all orthodoxies need be abandoned and are necessarily wrong.

Much of the skepticism of modern ultra-lefts towards organization is with good reason. Fear of falling into the misery of the LARP-form and degenerating into the cult of activism as well as experiences of being burned previously by various leftists groups often deters individuals from being politically active. Yet by refusing to build a movement and engage with the greater public we merely cede ground to the politics of liberals, reactionaries and the left-wing-of-capital. A “real movement” isn’t going to fall out of nowhere without a pre-existing era of organization by conscious radicals. There is no historical precedent to believe otherwise. The question should not be “organization – yes or no?” Rather, it should be “how can a formalized organization be self-aware of its own historical limitations?”

Those who have completely given up and declared “There is no alternative” only empower the dominant ideology. There is no reason to think that capitalism will have a future of peaceful and balanced growth where crisis tendencies and class conflict are liquidated, nor is there strong evidence to believe that mass political mobilizations are now historically obsolete. Given these two claims there is reason to think that communist politics can have potential relevance in the coming years. However moving forward will require fresh perspectives and organizations, organizations not under the leadership of left-overs from the New Left but rather a new generation of communists that are in tune with current realities.

Is it possible to avoid being a sect in todays era? At this point, probably not. But what groups can do is 1) be self-aware of their actual importance and limitations and 2) fight against the various symptoms that are expressed in sects. One way of doing this is to form organizations that are based on unity in politics, programmatic unity, as opposed to unity through a totalizing theoretical interpretation of Marxism. An example of the latter would be International Communist Current, which is unified around a certain interpretation of “decadence theory”, or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which is unified around a specific theory of state-capitalism regarding the USSR. Ultimately these theoretical issues should be up for debate and discussion in a group, not a basis for unity. What should instead be a basis for unity is basic political positions, which can often be arrived at through differing theoretical paths. To take the example of the SWP and state capitalism, what matters is ones basic political position on whether the USSR was a positive example of working class rule rather than ones theory on what specific mode of production existed there. To fight the symptoms of the “sect-dom” means an organization must tolerate factions and internal dissension rather than senselessly purging opposition. Rather than every disagreement being a sign of a need for splitting, groups must develop a culture that can tolerate internal disagreement and debate. Centralism that is imposed rather than achieved through collective debate and political struggle is usually a form of bureaucratic consolidation, not a centralism based on real unity within the group. While these basic suggestions are no guarantee against pointless splits and the clique-like dynamics of sects they do provide some ideas for trying to tackle the problem.