Socialist Worker 429, June 30, 2004 N

Ultraleftism: left words, sectarian practice

By Abbie Bakan

Whenever there is a new period of radicalization, debates arise within the movement about how to move forward. One current that has found expression on the left today, in Canada and internationally, claims to be the most radical. Its advocates call for small groups of self-identified leftists taking "direct action" against capitalism and the state as a universal principle of organization.

Mass direct action is one key tactic in building mass movements against capitalism and war. But those who use the most extreme verbal radicalism can often pose a cover for a very sectarian approach in practice.

Confusing a tactic for a principle and insistence on provoking the state into arresting activists often gives more confidence to the state and the police than to those who support the cause of resistance.

Especially in a period of extreme state supported racism and Islamophobia, it makes no sense to build a movement where small actions are inevitably vulnerable to state repression.

Repression is always a risk. But the goal of the movement should be to minimize such risks, not maximize them. A strategy that only generates an increased sense of fear, rather than inspiring unity and greater collective confidence in the movement, over the long term, is a recipe for defeat.

This wing of the movements includes a mix of various anarchist and socialist activists who claim to be "new" and "innovative", seeking to reject "old style" methods of collective organizing.

In fact, there is nothing new about the perspective.

In the history of the left, what the Russian revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, called "ultraleftism" has emerged as a familiar element of all anti-capitalist and anti-war movements.


The Communist International (Comintern), formed in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, was a centre of debate among mass revolutionary parties. Though conditions have of course changed, the basic contours of the struggle today are tenaciously similar. The early socialist movement was up against capitalist monopoly corporations, imperialist war, virulent racism and attacks on poor, oppressed states. By the time of its second international congress in July-August 1920, the Comintern was embroiled in debates about a tendency to ultra-leftism — expressed in extreme radicalism in words, but in fact covering for sectarian practice — among the newly formed Communist Parties of Europe.

There was a tendency for the new party leaderships to dismiss parliamentary and trade union activity, on the false claim that reformist organizations were no arenas for revolutionary socialists.

Lenin had written a booklet, titled Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, in an effort to alter the course of this error especially within the German section of the Comintern.

The third congress of the Communist International met in June-July 1921, when the immediate revolutionary situation had ebbed. The tendency of ultra-leftism was still rampant, and now the stakes were even higher.

Italy and Germany

The Italian Socialist Party (PSI), for example, had failed to operate effectively in a mass wave of working class resistance, including factory occupations that culminated in September of 1920. Despite the arguments and discussions with more experienced activists in revolutionary Russia — including Bukharin, Lenin and Zinoviev — the PSI failed to use its influence in the workers’ movement to unite the working class and effectively guide the struggle forward.

As Leon Trotsky put it:

"The PSI verbally conducted a revolutionary policy, without ever taking into account any of its consequences. Everybody knows that during the September events no other organization so lost its head and became so paralyzed by fear as the PSI, which had itself paved the way for these events."

The costs of ultraleftism on the Italian left, led particularly by Bordiga within the PSI, were extreme. The Italian capitalist class was frightened by the threat of immediate revolution, but the party did not have the roots or orientation to lead an effective, united struggle for power.

The ruling class then openly turned to fascism. Mussolini’s movement was weak and insignificant before September 1920, but after the defeat of the factory occupations, the fascists grew with remarkable speed.

The revolutionary movement was crushed, and its most effective and brilliant leader, Antonio Gramsci, was sent to prison where he later wrote his famous Prison Notebooks.

In Germany, ultra-left tactics also led to disaster for the workers’ movement.

In March of 1921, in the absence of a nation wide mass revolutionary uprising, a section of the leadership of the German Communist Party (KPD), tried to force the pace of events by substituting the party for the mass of the working class.

The Saxony police, under the direction of the conservative Social Democrats, ordered a police occupation of the Mansfeld copper mines, a communist stronghold. In response to the provocation, there was localized workers’ resistance. But the working class as a whole was not confident and sufficiently organized to act. Nevertheless, the KPD called for a general strike and armed actions against the state.

The call fell on nearly deaf ears, but the KPD failed to lead a tactical retreat. Instead, the party’s military units were ordered to "provoke" the working class to action, including setting off bomb explosions in Breslau and Halle. An apparent call for bomb explosions in Berlin did not materialize.

The result was a disaster, leading to a serious defeat. It was based on an ultraleft tactical position, called the "theory of the offensive". This view maintained that "the working class could be moved only when set in motion by a series of offensive acts", as left party leader Fischer had put it.

The German ruling class, like the Italian, turned to support fascism after fearing revolution, while the working class parties were fragmented and confused.

United Front

It is in the context of these debates that the Comintern leadership put forward an alternative approach, summarized in the tactic of the united front. The aim was to unite revolutionaries in common actions with reformist, social democratic currents, demonstrating in practice that collective working class activity could challenge the capitalist class.

The revolutionary party, argued by those such as Lenin and Trotsky, while maintaining independent organization in the united front, could influence reformist workers and draw them to revolutionary Marxism in the course of the struggle against capitalism and war.

Today, Marxists who understand that the working class is the central agent of revolutionary transformation also need to understand ultraleftism. While attractive in its promise of extreme radicalism, whenever ultraleft forces gain a hegemonic position in the left the result is inevitably fragmentation and demoralization.

The future lies in an alternative left strategy, one based on the Marxist principle that mass united struggle is the only effective means to challenge a system bent on war and profit.

In the current context — now several years into a period of radicalization that first found its voice in the Seattle protests against the WTO — mapping out a way forward that is clear and effective is critically important for the battles that lie ahead. Fortunately, we have a rich history of revolutionary theory and practice from which we can learn.


Socialist Worker 429, June 30, 2004 N