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The Spectre of "Ultra-leftism"

Although I have often complained about the default opportunism that hampers the anti-capitalist left at the centres of imperialism, I believe that it is a complaint that needs to be continuously reasserted.  That is, it is worth recognizing that any movement that openly pursues revolution in practice and not just in theory will be castigated by certain elements of the mainstream left.  Opportunism is such that, even when it veils itself in marxist categories, any and every militant proclamation will be judged as anathema.

Most often the open and militant endorsement of a revolutionary line will be dismissed as "ultra-leftist" and "ultra-leftism" will be treated as the cardinal movement sin.  Those who deviate from a reformist line are "ultra-leftists", those who demand militant action will be dismissed as adventurists, and those who argue precisely for the practice that was endorsed by revolutionaries such as Lenin will be castigated by self-proclaimed Leninists with an eclectically selective use of Leninism.  This is a common opportunistic strategy.

Ultra-leftism, the greatest danger facing revolutionary movements––this is the rallying cry of opportunists, those who have revised the revolutionary core of marxism in order to justify their inaction.  Every historical failure can be understood according to the logic of this heresy: the anti-fascist movement in Germany prior to World War Two failed because of its "third positionist" refusal to unite with the "social fascists" of the SPD, not because the opportunistic SPD was actually collaborating with the fascists (so we should we forget who killed Rosa and Karl); the New Communist Movement in the US and Canada failed because it dared to talk about the necessity of revolution, not because it failed to produce a practice that could accomplish what it theorized; contemporary people's wars have and will fail because they dared to pick up the gun, not because revisionist politics will always be a problem that these revolutions necessarily have to face.

The fetishization of ultra-leftism on the part of opportunists is almost farcical.  In order to explain their inaction, and to dismiss every militant movement that flies in the face of their politics, they elevate the symptomatic error of ultra-leftism into the primary problem facing the left.  If only everyone could get along, demonstrate according to pig-inscribed boundaries, and organize in a lawful manner…  Discipline along peacefully reformist lines, where there is a general peaceful co-existence with capitalism, is treated as the normative basis of revolutionary praxis.  That is, there has been a sleight of hand where what was historically understood as opportunism is treated as the properly sober communist/leftist/marxist/anti-capitalist position and everything to the left of this opportunism, then, must necessarily be understood as ultra-leftism.

Look at these ultra-leftists: they are ruining everything!

None of this is to say that ultra-leftism isn't a problem.  Militancy that is little more than adventurism, that fails to produce a mass-line or is just militancy for the sake of militancy, can indeed be a problem. And the more-radical-than-thou postering which results in "waving the red flag to bring down the red flag"––one of the hallmarks of ultra-leftist practice––is indeed something that undermines a radical anti-capitalist movement.  But what is generally described as "ultra-leftism" by those who crow about its dangers is simply, as noted above, what past historical movements would have understood as normative communist practice.

My point, here, is that ultra-leftism is not the main problem that currently hampers the left at the centres of capitalism.  On the contrary, the problem is the default opportunism that describes everything that takes a more militant line as being ultra-leftist.  Such a default consciousness amongst anti-capitalists works to hamper even the lowest level of militancy, the kind of organizing that has always been necessary to build a revolutionary movement, by advocating a lowest common denominator way of organizing: work only within the limits prescribed by bourgeois ideology and pretend that these limits are a way to agitate for revolution.

Of course, the average opportunist believes that s/he has theoretical grounding for hir use of the term "ultra-leftism"––when pressed, s/he will often cite Lenin's Left-wing Communism an Infantile Disorder in order to justify hir practice.  Reliance on this work of Lenin's has become something of cliche; I recall one person in an online debate, once this book was cited, make a disparaging comment about how Left-wing Communism an Infantile Disorder was "the tomb in which all revisionists eventually find themselves."  A polemical statement, true, but one that contains a kernel of truth: it is a tomb because it is rendered dead in its separation from both the historical context in which it was written and its separation from the entirety of Lenin's thought and the leninism that stands beyond Lenin; it is indeed a text that is used by people who reject much of Lenin's historically significant insights––I've heard it quoted as gospel by people who reject Lenin's theory of imperialism, the party, and the dictatorship of the proletariat––simply because, unlike leninism in general, this specific text seems to accord with their opportunism.

As I have noted elsewhere, though, when Lenin wrote Left-wing Communism an Infantile Disorder he was not advocating the opportunism that is advocated by those who like to cite this text to justify their practice.  Rather, he was trying to understand how communists at the centres of capitalism, where the working-class consciousness was affected by the general opportunism produced by the problem of the labour aristocracy, should organize from a position of weakness.  Whether or not he was tactically correct is one problem; the point, though, is to recognize that he was not proposing a general strategic line.  Moreover, and I think this needs to be emphasized, he did not treat "ultra-leftism" as the cardinal sin even in this text devoted to a rejection of ultra-leftism.  His argument is that opportunism is the primary problem and that ultra-leftism, far from being the main danger facing the communist movement, is ultimately "the penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement."

When we understand ultra-leftism is a penalty for the sins of opportunism we should be able to grasp why ultra-leftism is not the problem so many opportunist organizations pretend that it is.  That is, when actual ultra-leftist praxis emerges to hamper the movement we should understand that it only emerges because this movement has failed to develop a systematic and revolutionary militancy capable of fighting capitalism.  Ultra-leftist practice, that disconnected and adventurist militant praxis, is produced by those groups are tired of the mainstream left's inaction, their failure to do anything but tail the social democratic movements, and their abdication of revolutionary responsibility.

If a communist movement retreats and practices the same politics as a social democratic organization (but with better rhetoric), then many of those who want real change will heighten their militancy and, in anger and sometimes desperation, become ultra-leftists.  But those who embrace such ultra-leftist militancy are not the problem (in fact, we should treat their militancy as admirable, though tactically unviable), and are not undermining "the movement"… Rather, the opportunism that permitted this ultra-leftist rejection should be held to account.  Militants engaged in ultra-leftist practice are still militants, and thus can be drawn into a properly organized revolutionary movement, but those engaged in the opportunism that disparages any and all militancy are the real problem.

The actual ultra-leftists of today are a pale shadow compared to the ultra-leftists of yesterday.  Where the latter embarked on desperate campaigns of armed adventurism, the former are little more than a bunch of angry youth acting rowdy at demonstrations organized by opportunists.  And unlike today's ultra-leftists, who will barely succeed in making a historical mark, yesterday's ultra-leftists are not treated as sinners but as saints––and for good reason.

Historically, past ultra-leftist praxis has been treated as tragic but worthy of canonization.  The Spartacist Rebellion was arguably ultra-leftist but only an arch-opportunist would side with the SPD over Leibknecht and Luxemburg.  Che Guevera's adventures in Bolivia were arguably ultra-leftist, but we generally uphold Che's legacy and despise the Communist Party of Bolivia's behaviour.  The Black Liberation Army was possibly ultra-leftist but we would be reactionaries if we dismissed Assata Shakur.  And here it is worth recalling Lenin's rephrasing of a Russian fable when he compared ultra-leftists to opportunists: "Sometimes eagles may fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles."


  1. Wow, you mean no Fightbackers are flaming this post and demanding that we Maoists admit to being ultra-leftist?

    1. I did so! Though, in my fervor, I also made some brash mistakes! Comrade Ribellarsi of was kind enough to re-post this piece in his organ:

  2. The eagle can only come down if s/he pretends to be a hen.

    1. You need to elaborate rather than simply making metaphorical statements, especially since this one appears to be a shift in categories from the one you're riffing off of. Without context it appears as if you are advocating blanquism.


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