The issues regarding the practicalities of revolution have, for a long time, divided opinions within communist circles. Karl Marx provided a theoretical basis for almost all things Marxist, from the alienation of the worker in capitalist society to the scientific progression of history, but this was one area which seems to have been glossed over, allowing the theorists and activists in his wake to devise individual interpretations. From this fresh wave of contributions to Marxist philosophy there arose Lenin’s model of a Vanguard Party, Luxembourg’s critique of Bolshevism in favour of revolutionary democracy, and Pannekoek’s concept of council communism, an idea which surfaced some years later in Tito’s Yugoslavia.
One issue in particular, which spurred significant international debate in the years following the Russian Revolution, was that of association. Many communists were prepared to work with other parties and organisations to advance their goal of revolution, whilst others insisted on a somewhat Puritan approach, refusing to affiliate themselves with any counter-revolutionary or bourgeois movements. This rift in opinion helped to alienate the Bolsheviks from a number of former allies, which, taking the ‘Puritan’ stance, became known loosely as the communist left or the ‘ultra-leftists’, a faction which still plays a role in the contemporary socialist movement.
So, if, in the context of revolution, the debate is still open as to who Marxist organisations should be prepared to side with, how should one go about answering this question? Who should be regarded as allies, and who should be renounced in the struggle for communism?
One occasion on which this question was brought to light was in 1921, during a period of unrest that occurred in the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I) following the Comintern’s policy of adopting a ‘united front’, bringing together many worker’s movements and associations to strengthen the fight against capitalism. Prominent ultra-leftists in the party, such as Amadeo Bordiga, were greatly opposed to the idea and refused to work with the reactionary Italian Socialist Party, from which the communists had recently broken away.
Whilst this stance may seem an admirable and dogmatic one, it is important to remember that it is not as though the Bolsheviks (the leading forces in the Comintern) were an opportunist party; they had previously opposed any kind of alliance with reactionary organisations, yet the decision to foster unity between all socialist movements came following a lull in the revolutionary optimism which had swept through Europe following 1917, and a reinstatement of capitalist authority, forcing them to find alternative strategies to weaken capitalism and promote working-class organisation.
The logic of Bordiga and the likes, who eventually lost control of the party to a pro-Moscow group in the PCd’I, prevents this kind of thinking. It asserts that we must form no alliances with counter-revolutionaries no matter what, even if such an alliance would advance the revolution’s goals, and thus, through its rejection of such tactical and pragmatic actions, comes into conflict with the essentially Marxist logic of prioritising revolution over any other political goals. This is the reason why it needs stating that ‘left communism’ or ‘ultra-leftism’ does not deserve its leftist connotations; all that divides Lenin and Bordiga is a practical realisation of the revolution’s immediate tasks on the part of one, and a pompous, counter-productive ignorance of such on the part of the other. It is no coincidence that Russian Bolshevism, not Italian ultra-leftism, proved victorious in the defeat of the bourgeois and the creation of a proletarian dictatorship.
Today, there is an important lesson to be learned from this: one should respect general principals, such as the necessity of distancing oneself from counter-revolutionary people and organisations, but should be ready to break with that principal if it coincides with communist interests. Obviously, it’s unlikely that anyone would cling onto such ideas knowing that they clash with the revolutionary goals; for example, Bordiga undoubtedly rejected Comintern policy with the interests of the proletariat at heart, yet this is due to a failure to see or acknowledge that the Leninist approach (a pragmatic, logical, and ultimately productive manner of thinking) is far superior, and that tactical unity with organisations that may have opposing interests, alongside other sacrifices, may be necessary.
It’s worth pointing out that, at the time the Comintern introduced this policy, there were only two countries in Europe (Russia and Hungary) to have undertaken a successful and independent communist revolution, and in both cases, examples can be found where such sacrifices were necessarily made. To focus on Hungary in particular, it’s fact that the Communist Party took power by merging with the Social Democrats, after which point they established the Hungarian Soviet Republic, set about a program of radical social reforms, and reorganised the economy in a revolutionary manner. If they didn’t partake in this merger, sacrificing leftist principles for a socialist reality, such change would never have occurred.