No Longer Ultra: “What’s Left?” December 2007, MRR #295

[W]henever a revolutionary upsurge comes along, drawing its strength from the bottom, without guidance from the top, the proletariat-or at least its most active segment-tends each time in differing ways and circumstances to spontaneously set up more or less identical democratic institutions. Councils are by no means particularly Soviet. Representatives democratically elected by the working people in a given locality or on a larger scale, and tending to take on legislative and executive powers, can be seen in the shop-steward committees in Britain, as well as in councils formed in Bavaria, Turin, Hungary, Catalonia, and elsewhere. The mere existence of councils does not automatically solve the problem of political power, of course. They can go on being “parallel” bodies right up until they are repressed. And historically, councils and committees set up spontaneously by workers seem to follow the initial burst of energy, with a subsequent rapid loss of momentum, due to lack of cohesion and an accelerated process of delegating responsibility.

Gérard Chaliand,
Revolution in the Third World

Okay, so now for the question, the answer to which you’ve all been waiting for with bated breath. Why don’t I consider myself an anarchist or left communist anymore? Here’s the short answer.

The Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02.

But, you ask, aren’t these the exemplary revolutionary moments in history that both anarchism and left communism claim in their genesis and resurgence, hail as undeniably liberatory, and consequently hold up for guidance and inspiration? Yes indeed, which brings up the much longer answer as to why I no longer profess to be part of either radical current.

Of the various examples of spontaneous revolutionary upsurge cited in the above paragraph, some considered themselves anarchist, others communist, and still others socialist. (With the rather dubious exception of France, 1968, however, none were explicitly left communist, or council communist.) Many of these upsurges never called themselves anything other than revolutionary, and anybody and everybody, including diehard Leninists, have mercilessly appropriated their history. But whatever their politics, and however liberatory their practice, these revolutionary historical moments lasted no more than a few days, weeks, or months, or in some cases a few years. Neither anarchism nor left communism has managed to create a revolutionary society that has lasted for any length of time.

“Oh, but that doesn’t mean that these short-lived social revolutions collapsed because of internal problems, or social contradictions, or human nature, or anything of the sort,” is often the rejoinder. “Nor is this history of failure an indication that anarchist ideas or left communist theory has failed in some fundamental way. These revolutionary moments were either crushed by the superior power of liberals, capitalists or fascists, or else Leninists, social democrats and other sordid leftists betrayed them.”

Anarchists are often heard spouting this pitiful excuse, even going so far as to contend, all evidence to the contrary, that these stillborn experiences actually prove anarchism to be correct. Left communists are usually more nuanced, conscious of contradictions, and self-critical of internal problems. All subtlety aside, let’s take this reasoning at face value. Shouldn’t anarchists and left communists be painfully aware that social democrats and Leninists are no friends of revolution, especially of bottom-up revolution, and are perfectly willing to suppress, sabotage or seize control of them? And, if a genuine, liberatory revolution is incapable of defending itself against the forces of reaction, how will a truly revolutionary society be possible, except by sheer accident?

A social revolution has to do more than just happen. A social revolution has to be able to defend itself, not just militarily, but politically, economically, and socially. It has to be able to win out against all enemies, externally and internally, and then it has to endure. So far, nothing remotely anarchist or left communist has been able to do this.

So, let’s set aside for the moment the destruction wrought by outright enemies and false comrades of these social revolutions. That leaves us with the particular mistakes and failings of the revolutionary forces themselves in each historical instance. In the Spanish Revolution, for example, the anarchists subordinated themselves to a Republican government dominated by social democrats and Stalinists out to subvert their July 1936 revolution-on-the ground, whereas the ultraleft POUM realized, too late by May 1937, that they needed to make common cause with Spanish anarchism in order to avoid the Stalinist ice pick. We can also consider the general mistakes and failings of anarchism and left communism as such. For anarchism, this includes a consistent failure to deal with the issue of power, increasing theoretical incoherence, and a pie-in-the-sky idealism that considers anarchist ideas sufficient to inspire successful anarchist revolution. For left communism, this includes an inability to sustain mass working class movements after the 1920s, a penchant for adopting undeclared revolutionary events like Hungary 1956 as its own, and the tendency to isolate itself in a metacritique of the rest of the Left.

I think it would be a mistake to stop there, though. As Gérard Chaliand’s quote at the head of this column suggests, there might be something in the very nature of these spontaneous revolutionary upsurges “from the bottom, without guidance from the top,” that make the ultra-democratic institutions they give rise to insufficient to the tasks of carrying a revolution through to victory. At least, that’s what I’ve come to conclude after forty years divided almost equally between anarchism and left communism.

I no longer think that the workers councils, factory committees, general assemblies, partisan bands, peoples militias and guerrilla armies of such social revolutions are up to the rigors of consolidating, defending and extending a revolutionary society for any significant length of time. In the crucible of the Spanish Civil War, the Friends of Durruti decided in 1937 that things weren’t working, and that anarchists and ultraleftists had to radically change their strategy for the Spanish social revolution to have any chance of succeeding. Among other things, the Friends of Durruti proposed a revolutionary junta-comprised of themselves, the POUM, and the CNT-FAI-to take power, as well as the forging of a disciplined Red Army to fight Franco. I, too, think that things aren’t working, in that social revolutions have uniformly failed, and that anarchism and left communism need to radically change their theory and practice as a consequence. Unlike the Friends of Durruti though, I don’t have a clue as to what to recommend.

There is a rather silly notion that moments like Hungary in 1956 and France in 1968 are the orgasms of history; exciting, ecstatic, but of necessity short lived. As such, the social democratic or Leninist retrenchment that follows, even the ossification and bureaucratization of the original revolution, are all but inevitable. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’ve concluded is that social revolution and the institutions it creates, by themselves, are insufficient to sustain a revolutionary society. A pretty harsh verdict, I know, but one that took me four decades to reach. That’s forty years of studying history, engaging in theory and practice, and trying to put my politics to use in the real world.

While I can’t claim to be an anarchist or left communist anymore, I haven’t decided that Leninism or social democracy or some other brand of Leftism, or perhaps even liberalism, is the way to go. My commentary and analysis as “Lefty” Hooligan is still 85% left communist and 15% anarchist, as these are the political currents to which I still feel closest. But I’m actually in a kind of limbo, no longer really a part of these political milieus, yet outside the grace of knowing what is to be done. I know what hasn’t been working, but I don’t know what will. And while I would go to the barricades for an anarchist or left communist uprising in a heartbeat, I have no faith that it would succeed. That’s the politics behind why I no longer call myself an anarchist or left communist.

If pressed, I guess I’d still call myself a communist; an unaffiliated, nondenominational, small “c” communist. After all, I haven’t pulled a David Horowitz or a Larry Livermore, where I rabidly denounce everything I formerly believed in while rushing headlong to the right. In fact, I’m proud to be a commie pinko, even though, personally, I’m not too fond of most of the folks I’ve had to associate with, politically speaking. Again, that’s the subject for a future column.



  1. I’ll say right here that I am a member of the IBRP…

    I think left-communist originated groups have become overly lenin-defensive in their organizations because of the anti-organizational counter-tendency that comes from the disillusion of mainstream leftists with their own parties. This practically translates into ex-lefties calling themselves “anarchists”, while defending classicly Stalinist “Marxist-Leninist” or Trotskyist positions, two-stage revolutions, support for state-capitalism and lesser-imperialism (under the guise of “national liberation”). There is a profusion of left-communist influenced intellectuals out there with few really committed or convinced of the need to draw together these militants into activity. I think also groups that have come out of the communist left have sought to misrepresent the communist left as simply a series of “pure” political positions, rather than pointing to and examining the struggles that have been led and initiated by left-communists. People might say that Left-Communists have never led anything, which I always find ironic coming from leftists here in the US, whose first CP of A leader was Luigi Fraina and not the right-social-dems Foster, Cannon and Browder.

    I’ve been rereading the transcripts from the Conferences of the International Communist Left and have realized that the bulk of organizations in the tendency are so diffuse and for the most part approached any talk of unity as if it were simply an opportunistic maneuver. Attempts at building a revolutionary party are often regarded as “leninist”, even though Lenin was certainly not the first to propose the formation of a revolutionary party. Even the approach of the small left-communist groups to this conference was hostile. With as many organizations on the communist left that refused to attend, just as many of these little groups have dissolved or disintegrated.

    The history of Trotskyism and Stalinism in the left has largely been forced into the liberal mold of the history of great leaders. Literally a “great man” theory of leftist history is what they have always put forward. The history of the Bolshevik Party has been reduced to the decisions of leaders on the CC, rather than the hundreds of thousands of revolutionary workers who built the Bolshevik Party. Likewise in the Communist Left there exists that idea that we must follow the great theorist man, be it a Marc Chirik or an Amadeo Bordiga, or whoever. It doesn’t have to be that way. There seem to be two extremes among left-communists that say either there is no purpose in forming a party at all, as a more “councilist” group would do, or by stating that they are THE international revolutionary party and everyone just has to figure this out and join.

    I would like to defend some of the work of left communists, to the extent that nobody has sustained any sort of a mass movement on the left. Nobody. The PCInt was the most successful left communist organization in the post-WWII era. At one point it was an actual mass party with thousands of militants. Left-Communists have occasionally led struggles since then. But then perceptions and histories of the “communist left” are overly French, and ICCist oriented, despite the fact that the communist left in France had no base among workers at all. The communist left post-WWII was largely Italian. The space that left-communists would have occupied, in France had always been occupied politically by Trots. This is the same in the US and the UK. I see many people state that they agree with left-communists but they refuse to participate and make their own revolutionary party. Some of the same people, like Loren Goldner on his website, then fault the communist left groups for not being able to organize and sustain a mass movement of workers. A revolutionary party is what its militants make of it.

  2. Nice piece. It’s so close of what I feel and experienced, having been part of the left in Berlin/Germany for several decades. Like you I have no alternative.

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