John Molyneux Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

John Molyneux

What do we mean by ultra-leftism?

(October 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review 80, October 1985, pp. 24–25.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ONE OF the problems of revolutionary socialists is that like any other minority group in society we tend to evolve a language of our own, using words, phrases and concepts that either are not used or arc used differently in everyday speech.

In general we should be on our guard against this. We are in the business of relating to the working class and talking in jargon frequently blocks communication and alienates people who are not initiated into our circle.

Nevertheless there are certain jargon terms that we do actually need. This is because they designate phenomena and help us to understand and analyse problems which are of no concern to the ‘general public’ or to the bourgeoisie because they do not share our purpose of overthrowing capitalism.

One step ahead

The Marxist concept of surplus value is one example in point, ultra-leftism another. In these cases we have no alternative but to make sure that we explain their precise meaning.

With ultra-leftism we can begin by noting that while the term is hardly common parlance it is quite widely used on the left and in the labour movement, often loosely and inaccurately.

To the right wing Labourite, it is a term of abuse that covers practically everyone with a strong commitment to socialism. To both Stalinists and Eurocommunists it refers to all those who contemplate revolution rather than the parliamentary road. To Militant supporters it is often applied to all socialists who are not in the Labour Party. Yet the concept of ultra-leftism was mainly developed and analysed by a revolutionary Marxist, Lenin, who would certainly be regarded as ultra-left by all the groups just mentioned.

So what is the Marxist meaning of ultra-leftism? It is, perhaps, best explained in relation to the fundamental strategic task facing revolutionary socialists, that of transforming the elemental working class struggle within capitalism into a political struggle for the overthrow of capitalism ie a struggle for state power.

The accomplishment of this task involves revolutionaries in a continuous effort to combine firm adherence to Marxist principles – i.e. the historic interests of the class as a whole – with the closest possible contact with, and involvement in, the mass workers’ movement.

Marxist leadership means being ahead of the mass of workers, not capitulating to their illusions and prejudices, but only one step ahead not so far ahead as to be completely out of sight. Lenin graphically expressed what this involves.

‘It is not enough to be a revolutionary and an advocate of socialism in general. It is necessary to know at every moment how to find the particular link in the chain which must be grasped with all one’s strength in order to keep the whole chain in place and prepare to move on resolutely to the next link.’

Ultra-leftism, then can be defined as the failure or refusal, in the name of abstract ‘left’ principles, to establish and maintain the necessary links with, and involvement in, the mass movement. It means, to use Lenin’s terms, not finding the next link in the chain and so losing hold of the chain as a whole.

It means would-be revolutionaries substituting their own subjective wishes for an assessment of the objective balance of class forces and thereby needlessly widening the gap between the conscious revolutionaries and the rest of the working class.

Within this general rubric ultra-leftism comes in many shapes and sizes. There is the extreme case of anarchism which seeks to leap straight to a classless, stateless society without any transitional period.

There is the ultra-leftism of terrorism which tries to substitute the violent actions of individuals for the mass revolutionary violence of the working class.

There is the old blackboard socialism of the Socialist Party of Great Britain which argues that since we oppose the wages system we should also oppose strikes for higher wages.

Political judgement

Of greater interest and most concern to us today is what might be called ‘Marxist’ or ‘Communist’ ultra-leftism which rather than being a completely separate political tendency like anarchism is rather a leftist deviation which often arises within the mainstream of the Marxist movement.

Again it can take a variety of forms and there is no shortage of historical examples, from Willich and Schapper, Marx’s associates in the Communist League – who, after the defeat of the 1848 Revolution, wanted to raise an exile army and march on Germany – through to the insurgent workers and soldiers of Petrograd who wanted to seize power in July 1917 before the revolutionary situation had matured in the country as a whole.

However there is no doubt that the most historically significant development of ultra-leftism came in the early years of the Communist International between 1917 and 1921.

There was at this time a veritable ultra-left international’ within or on the margins of the Comintern. Its leading figures included Bordiga in Italy, Gorter and Pannekoek in Holland, and Sylvia Pankhurst in Britain. What this trend represented was an alliance, or coincidence, between the extremely dogmatic and abstract views of certain intellectuals and the instinctive attitudes of a layer of young, inexperienced and newly radicalised revolutionary workers who had not yet learned to think strategically and tactically.

The characteristic positions of this tendency were refusal to participate in reactionary led trade unions with the aim of forming ‘pure’ revolutionary trade unions, and refusal to participate in any way in parliamentary elections or to support the mass reformist parties against the open parties of capital – all this in the name of a policy of ‘no manoeuvres, no compromises.’

Against these arguments Lenin wrote one of his most important pamphlets Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder which subjected the ideas of the ultra-lefts to devastating criticism.

It was necessary he insisted to remain in the trade unions and ‘carry on communist work within them at all costs’ and that ‘whilst you lack the strength to do away with bourgeois parliaments and every other type of reactionary institution you must work within them’. To do otherwise was simply to abandon the backward workers to the mercies of the treacherous reformist leaders.

‘The task devolving on Communists is to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them with artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans.’

Lenin’s arguments carried the day and the positions of the Left Communists were rejected by the Comintern. As a serious tendency the lefts did not last long – they could not survive the ebbing of the direct revolutionary wave that had given them their basis. Despite this a strand of ultra-leftism remained present within the Comintern, even in its leadership, and was particularly strong in Germany.

The offensive

This expressed itself in the disastrous March Action in Germany in 1921 when the leaders of the German Communist Party attempted to provoke artificially a revolutionary situation when this flatly contradicted the mood of the mass of the working class. The result was fighting between Communist and non-Communist workers, a catastrophic fall in the membership of the KPD and an easy victory for the ruling class.

To justify their actions these ultra-lefts developed a ‘theory of the offensive’ which maintained that it was the duty of revolutionaries always to be on the offensive, always to march forward and that the proletarian vanguard had to ‘galvanise’ and ‘stimulate’ the rest of the class by demonstrative actions.

Lenin, together with Trotsky, had to take up the cudgels again to explain that a revolutionary party had to be able to retreat in good order as well as attack. The direct struggle for power could be attempted only when Communists had gained the support of the majority of the working class – support which had to be painstakingly won in the course of many defensive as well as offensive struggles for partial and particular demands which affected the basic living conditions of the working class.

These arguments formed a prelude to the adoption, in 1922, of the tactic of the united front with the reformist parties which was designed to simultaneously unify the working class for its defensive battles against the ruling class offensive and to expose the reformists as incapable of waging a consistent struggle for even the most elementary demands.

One further form of ultra-leftism is what can be called bureaucratic ultra-leftism. This is where a bureaucratic leadership, having ceased to be accountable and responsible to its members, issues radical seeming slogans and orders to give itself a left image while taking no account of the practical realities faced by the rank and file, or the risks run by them.

Bureaucratic ultra-leftism, stemming from the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution, began to get a grip on the Comintern through the person of Zinoviev after the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923. It later went on to assume monstrous proportions during the Stalinist ‘Third Period’ when united action against the rising Nazis was rejected on the grounds that the Social Democrats were ‘social fascists’ and when orders went out to split the trade unions and form separate red trade unions.

These were exactly the sort of policies that Lenin had condemned in Left Wing Communism though the basis had changed from naivety to cynicism, and thus it was left to Trotsky, now in exile, to supply the Marxist critique.

If it is the period of the Comintern which supplies us with the classic examples of ultra-leftism, what then is the relevance of this experience today?

Tiny sects

First of all, it must be said that ultra-leftism is not at all the major problem facing the British left at the moment. The radicalisation of the late sixties produced a number of distinctly ultra-left formations (the IMG, the WRP, the Maoist organisations etc.) which were able to exert a certain influence on left politics but the overwhelming majority of these former ultra-lefts have either abandoned politics or drifted rightwards into the Labour Party.

What remains are a few tiny sects that most readers of our magazine do not even come into contact with. The WRP is still there, still calling for a general strike, but it is a broken reed, and we have seen the emergence of the RCP (though the ultra-left image was severely damaged by its support for a ballot in the miners’ strike).

There is Workers Power who evidently thought the miners support groups could be transformed into Soviets.

Anyone who wants, out of curiosity, to examine a case of extreme simon-pure ultra-leftism could search out the International Communist Current. This infinitesimally small sect regards itself as the descendent of early Comintern ultra-lefts (Bordiga etc.)and is so far to the ‘left’ that it refuses to take sides between the ANC and Botha in South Africa and the SWP and the National Front in Britain.

But the triviality of these examples only reinforces the point that the main danger at the moment is not ultra-leftism but the pressure to move to the right – to capitulate to Kinnockism.

Nevertheless ultra-leftism is not a problem we can afford to disregard completely. The SWP, despite our recent growth, remains a small organisation without a mass base in the working class. Consequently there is the danger that we may fall into ultra-leftism through ignorance of, and lack of experience in, the mass movement.

Moreover, in our current and necessary determination to combat the drift to the right we cannot avoid bending the stick to the left but we must not bend it so far that we cut ourselves completely adrift from the actual struggles that are taking place. This only makes it easier for the reformists and ex-revolutionaries to get away with their sell-outs.

John Molyneux Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 18.9.2013