Communist Theory - Beyond the Ultra-Left?

This material is from the British magazine Aufheben, which appeared once a year for twelve years between 1992 and 2004. This is apparent from the Aufheben archive at:
Reproduced below is part of a text comprising a critique by the French group or groupuscule Théorie Communiste of several Aufheben articles and including Aufheben’s footnotes to the set, which are not given here. The extract includes Aufheben’s title (“Communist Theory - Beyond the Ultra-Left?”) a one-paragraph Intro, plus what appears to be a 4398-words redaction of Théorie Communiste’s self-explanation, (including a 705-word extract from “The Holy Family”) as an introduction to their specific response to Aufheben’s articles (also not given).

There is a web page on the thought of Théorie Communiste in their own words, in English, at:
The full set of articles from which what follows has been extracted appeared in Aufheben 11 (2003). It can be found at the following web page:[2]B#[2]B

Intro: Communist Theory - Beyond the Ultra-Left?

Last century (a few years ago), the French group //Théorie Communiste// (TC) translated and published our articles on 'decadence' (Aufheben issues 2 - 4), accompanied by a critique. We publish that critique here, plus a short presentation by TC on their theoretical positions. TC write in quite a difficult style but they deal with important issues. While we are not in full agreement with either TC's overall perspective or all their criticisms of our text, we find what they are saying challenging. If they are on the right track then they have moved beyond the impasse of revolutionary theory as represented by the 'ultra-left'. We are working on a response to be published in the next issue of Aufheben, but have found we need to translate more of their texts to understand their perspective more clearly. As some of the political tendencies that TC allude to will be quite obscure to many non-French readers, for this issue we have written an introduction to their introduction of themselves, with some thoughts about the relation between communism, the workers movement and the ultra-left, and the French debates on this from which TC emerge.

Introduction: The workers' movement, communism and the ultra-left

At the beginning of the '70s it appeared to a whole tendency already critical of the historic ultra-left that the ultra-left's calling into question all the political and union mediations which give form to the proletariat's belonging, as a class, to the capitalist mode of production is far from being enough...

The central theoretical question thus becomes: how can the proletariat, acting strictly as a class of this mode of production, in its contradiction with capital within the capitalist mode of production, abolish classes, and therefore itself, that is to say: produce communism?

Théorie Communiste


Communism is the self-abolition of the proletariat, which is to say, of the capitalist mode of production, because capital is a social relation with the proletariat as one of its poles. This was fundamental to Marx's contribution to communist theory, something he expresses rather well in the following passage of The Holy Family:

“Proletariat and wealth are opposites; as such they form a single whole. They are both creations of the world of private property. The question is exactly what place each occupies in the antithesis. It is not sufficient to declare them two sides of a single whole.

“Private property as private property, as wealth, is compelled to maintain itself, and thereby its opposite, the proletariat, in existence. That is the positive side of the antithesis, self-satisfied private property.

“The proletariat, on the contrary, is compelled as proletariat to abolish itself and thereby its opposite, private property, which determines its existence, and which makes it proletariat.

“It is the negative side of the antithesis, its restlessness within its very self, dissolved and self-dissolving private property.

“The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognises estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. It is, to use an expression of Hegel, in its abasement the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature.

“Within this antithesis, the private property-owner is therefore the conservative side, the proletarian the destructive side. From the former arises the action of preserving the antithesis, from the latter the action of annihilating it.

“Indeed, private property drives itself in its economic movement towards its own dissolution, but only through a development which does not depend on it, which is unconscious and which takes place against the will of private property by the very nature of things, only inasmuch as it produces the proletariat as proletariat, poverty which is conscious of its spiritual and physical poverty, dehumanisation which is conscious of its dehumanisation, and therefore self-abolishing.

“The proletariat executes the sentence that private property pronounces on itself by producing the proletariat, just as it executes the sentence that wage-labour pronounces on itself by producing wealth for others and poverty for itself. When the proletariat is victorious, it by no means becomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite. Then the proletariat disappears as well as the opposite which determines it, private property.

“When socialist writers ascribe this world-historic role to the proletariat, it is not at all because they regard the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguiseable, absolutely imperative need -- the practical expression of necessity -- is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation. Not in vain does it go through the stern but steeling school of labour. It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organisation of bourgeois society today. There is no need to explain here that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historic task and is constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity.

While, in his later writings, Marx would generally use the word 'capital' (or 'the commodity') instead of 'private property', there is for us a fundamental continuity between what is expressed here and his later work. However, notwithstanding Marx's optimism that a large part of the proletariat in 1845 was developing a consciousness of its historic task - that is, of self abolition - the ideology of the workers' movement quickly became an ideology of work, the dignity of labour, glorification of industry, progress, etc. If one looks at the trajectory of the historical workers' movement, one might easily conclude that, far from trying to abolish the proletariat and the conditions which give rise to it, it has - at least as represented by its dominant traditions - acted to affirm (even generalize) the proletarian condition and to attain recognition for the working class as workers, that is, as subjects within bourgeois society. Instead of the revolutionary watchword, "Abolish the wages system!", which Marx suggested, the workers' movement inscribed on its banner the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!"

This assessment of the outcome as opposed to the stated intentions of the workers' movement can be applied to all its dominant traditions, both 'Marxist' (social democracy and Stalinism) and non-Marxist (labourism, syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism).

The most extreme example, is of course, the large parts of the workers' movement that have supported the USSR, where the identification of socialism with modernization of the 'national economy', the proletarianization of the peasantry, the building of huge factories and exhortations to labour-discipline and productivity - in short, with capitalism - reached its apogee and became a model for 'third world' modernization across the world. Yet we also see it outside those who identify directly with Stalinism: in the embrace by syndicalists of productivist ideologies (even allowing a significant number to pass over to fascism), in the social democrat Noske's definition of socialism as 'working a lot', in Lenin's embrace of Taylorism and iron labour discipline, in Trotsky's arguments for the militarization of labour and his critically expressed admiration for Stalin's industrial achievements, in the anarcho-syndicalist militants flinging themselves into organizing production against the resistance of Spanish workers. A further indication of the bankruptcy of the official workers' movement was the way in which the aspects of it which the fascist and Nazi movements did not need to destroy could be integrated quite smoothly into the regimes they established.

Of course, it could all be summed up in terms of betrayals: the betrayal of the social democratic parties and the trade unions, mobilizing workers for slaughter in the first world war and acting to save capitalism against workers insurrection afterwards; the betrayal of Stalin (or earlier, Bolshevik leaders, depending on one's politics), turning the Soviet Union from a vision of hope for workers throughout the world into a workhouse; the betrayal of the anarchist leaders in Spain for joining the government and demobilizing workers' resistance to Stalinist repression. In this view, these tendencies were at one moment on the workers' side, but at crucial moments go over to the side of capital and do so through the failings of their leadership. The point is to defend a pure tradition of - depending on one's ideological perspective - classical Marxism or true anarchism - a red or a black line - from how such traditions expressed themselves historically. Hidden in such assumptions is generally the idea that, with the right leaders or organization, those historical movements would have succeeded and communism would have 'won'; thus the task becomes to rebuild (or maintain or create) organizations that next time won't betray us.

But it must be asked, how did these ideologies become possible; how did the working class end up expressing itself in these ways?

How did each of these organizational expressions of the proletariat - social democracy, Third International Communism, revolutionary syndicalism, anarcho-syndicalism - all end up supporting capitalism? One can use the term leftism to get a handle on this phenomena but it remains true that leftism does not explain things, leftism needs to be explained.

Now, as Debord emphasized, the movement of workers cannot simply be reduced to its ideological representations. Historically, the class struggle, including that waged by workers identifying with the movements described, has not always stayed within the limits their ideologies prescribe. On an everyday level, the behaviour of workers often runs counter to their political allegiances, the positions adopted by trade unions they might be members of, and even from their own previously expressed opinions. Organizationally (even before WW1), workers in the heartlands of the Second International expressed themselves in mass political strikes that went against the separation of political and economic action agreed by the social democrat parties and the unions. Representing a more fundamental break, workers responded to the Second International parties and the unions' support for the first world war by leaving these organizations and setting up alternative organizations - factory struggle groups, breakaway parties, etc. Later, opposition to the way the Russian Revolution was developing emerged continuously, within and outside the party, in Russia and beyond. Large numbers of anarchist workers opposed the CNT's line both in terms of economic sacrifices for the war and later over the Maydays. In another example, during WW2 American auto workers responded affirmatively to the combined efforts of employers, state and Stalinists to make them sign a no strike pledge... but then struck anyway!

Thus, as well as signs of workers accepting their role, there is both an everyday contradiction between workers and 'their' organizations' efforts to integrate them into capitalist society, and moments in which the working class has moved to rupture with its representatives. Whether conceiving of themselves as a fundamental break from the mainstream traditions of the workers' movement, or more often as in some way upholding the revolutionary kernel those traditions were abandoning, political/theoretical currents have regularly emerged from this contradiction.


The 'historic ultra-left' refers to a number of such currents which emerged out of one of the most significant moments in the struggle against capitalism - the revolutionary wave that ended the First World War. Ultra-leftism offers an explanation of why the workers' movement failed to get rid of capitalism, and why in particular the Russian Revolution failed to deliver. Whatever its subsequent history, the ultra-left did not emerge as tiny sects or groups of dissidents but as a part of a mass social movement when the dominant tradition of social democracy was thoroughly discredited and it seemed as though the meaning of the workers' movement and communism was up for grabs. In Western Europe, large numbers of workers made a break with social democratic politics and gravitated to the Third International set up by the Bolshevik Party. However, in the crucial formative years after 1917, many sections of the world communist movement, including a majority of those in Italy and Germany (the areas of Western Europe which seemed closest to revolution), had or would develop a different understanding of what a communist break from social democracy amounted to, than that displayed by the leadership of the Bolsheviks. These differences would lead to splits. In 1920, in the build-up to the first proper congress of the Third International, Lenin laid out what he considered the difference between 'Bolshevism' and these other tendencies in his (in)famous pamphlet - Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.


One of the two main wings of the historic ultra-left, the Dutch/German Left, parted from the Third International on the basis of the debate opened by Lenin's polemic, on issues like what sort of party communists should form, the attitude to take towards parliament and trade unions, etc. The other main wing - Bordiga's Italian Left - essentially sided with Lenin at this point and only opposed Moscow's dominance of the world communist movement later, around issues like the United Front and Stalin's embrace of 'Socialism in one Country'. Thus, on the grounds around which it split from Moscow, and on issues like nationalism, trade unions and the role of 'the party', the Italian Left appears far from the Dutch/German Left. However, while there is no space in this text to go into the detailed histories of these currents and how their positions evolved, there are good reasons to connect the two traditions.

Despite the apparently fundamental difference over the role of the party that leads to mutual incomprehension between partisans of each tradition, their political analysis of certain crucial issues, such as grasping the counter-revolutionary nature of the USSR and its CPs, opposing united and popular fronts and maintaining a revolutionary opposition to capitalist wars, identified them together as the ultra-left as against Trotskyism, which defended the USSR, joined social democratic parties, etc. In perhaps the most significant historic example - a test by fire - while 'the left', including most Trotskyists, generally supported democracy and/or the USSR against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and in WW2, both 'wings' of the ultra-left agitated against support for the democratic bourgeoisie against the fascist variety, and against participation in all capitalist conflicts. In all these areas a clear line emerged between adherents of the ultra-left and Trotskyism. However, today the term 'ultra-leftism' is not used simply to describe the hard adherents of these historical traditions of the communist left; we can see it as an area defined by certain political positions and attitudes, which may or may not be taken from the historic ultra-left.


Ultra-leftism presents itself as having a set of political positions distinct from or even opposed to standard 'leftist' positions. While leftists for a long time considered the USSR and similar regimes to be in some way socialist or at least post-capitalist, ultra-leftism very quickly saw them as capitalist; while leftists generally support trade unions as at the very least defensive working class organizations (while criticising their bureaucracy), ultra-leftists typically reject unions for incorporating the working class into capital and instead emphasize the workers' need to break from them and act independently; while leftism generally calls for participation in parliamentary elections in the form of 'critical support' for reformist working class parties or perhaps to support a strategy of so called 'revolutionary parliamentarianism', ultra-leftism rejects such methods as a promotion of illusions; while leftism supports national liberation struggles, ultra-leftism expresses hostility to all nationalism; while leftism for the purposes of 'winning over workers' generally adopts 'united front' or even 'popular front' strategies of uniting with social democrats and even liberals, ultra-leftism sees this as failing to separate revolutionary communist politics from bourgeois politics; while leftists are often led by some of these positions to take sides in capitalist wars, ultra-leftists tend to take an internationalist stance of opposition to all sides.

The differences here are so profound that one can see why the ultra-left see themselves as communist and sees leftists as the left wing of capital.

However, immediately after one sets out ultra-leftism as a set of positions or 'class lines', problems become evident. There is a tendency for many who identify with the ultra-left to define themselves negatively in relation to the left. There is the class struggle, the left relates to it one way, the ultra-left denounces this. The ultra-left becomes a negative impression of the left. When an organization, or for that matter an individual, appears to adopt some 'ultra-left' positions while retaining other 'leftist' ones, those identifying with the true, i.e. ultra-left, communist tradition are led into acts of demarcation and denunciation which appear as a defence of purity. Upsetting such an ideological operation is the fact that, as we have suggested, the groups that are clearly of the ultra-left do not even agree on all these positions themselves. In the face of this contradiction, it is possible to become partisan of one or other of these traditions to the exclusion of the other or to adopt a bit of a pick-and-mix approach. But whatever the (not irrelevant) fine points in the disputes between the wings of the historic ultra-lefts, which can't be explored here, there is for us a more profound issue.

If, to repeat a formulation we are fond of, communism is the real movement, it is not fundamentally about the adoption of a set of principles, lines and positions. Of course, the positions of the ultra-left emerged out of the class struggle, but such positions were only more or less right when they were made - they are approximations, an expression of 'as revolutionaries best saw it' - and thus something more needs to be done than just agree with them and proselytize. The class struggle can be seen as a wave that advanced to a high point around 1919 and as it receded left ideas around like flotsam in its wake. What these traditions represent is an attempt to maintain the historic lessons of this high point in the class struggle, despite the retreat of that movement. Moreover, the limits of that wave of class struggle - its inability to generalize as world revolution - led to varying revolutionary experiences in different countries expressing themselves in different lessons being drawn... and it is these that lie at the root of the historical spilt between the Lefts.

Part of the price that these tendencies paid for maintaining the more or less revolutionary ideas in the circumstances of the more or less complete capitulation of the workers' movement to Stalinism, anti-fascism and the mobilization for another slaughter was that the ideas became somewhat frozen and ideological. When theory becomes an 'ism' - a specific set of positions separate from the class struggle - it is a sign of the retreat of the movement. There is a stiffness in the way many groups and individuals identifying with the 'ultra-left' express themselves. For many, the adoption, reproduction and assertion of these positions mechanically in the face of the class struggle acts to reinforce their own identity as 'revolutionary', while reducing their ability to recognize and relate to the contradictions of real social movements. To think that the positions are simply revolutionary, or that adopting them makes one revolutionary, reifies what being revolutionary is. Communism is the attempt to express the real movement; but the real movement is not fully present until it is successful; thus communist theory is only partial - an aspiration - and the theoretical work is never quite finished. It is taken forward by advances in the class struggle and the reflection on this. Put another way, theory does not take the point of view of the totality but of the aspiration to the totality. It is inadequate and unhistorical to assume that the ultra-left had the right ideas but that they simply lost out to the wrong ones, and on this basis to assert its critique of trade unions and leftist political parties when the opportunity occurs.

As we said in our first editorial, the '60s and '70s saw a re-emergence of a whole series of theoretical currents, which included the ultra-left. But while a number of groups that sprung up regurgitated as ideology the theories they were discovering, others worked to actually develop theory adequate to the new conditions. The task before the new generation was to take up ideas, such as those of the historic ultra-left, in a non-ideological way. An irony was that the place where their legacy has been taken up in a dynamic and original way has not been Germany, Holland or Italy, but France. There is a real sense in which the 'modern' ultra-left has largely been a French phenomenon.


The May '68 movement, or at least its most advanced elements, gravitated towards a 'councilist' perspective: derived from the Dutch/German Left, councilism rejected Leninism and the party and put its faith in the 'workers councils'.

A total surprise to the left, the character of this movement had best been prefigured in the analyses of non-orthodox ultra-left influenced groups like the Situationist International (SI) and Socialism or Barbarism (S ou B), and its successor organizations such as ICO.
In the wake of '68, there was a surge of interest in the ultra-left. With the SI not taking new members, and busy expelling the ones they had, it was ICO that attracted a large part of the new influx. It expanded massively to become the largest ultra-left group in France, with a few hundred members. It had links with many local 'councilist' groups that emerged across France, one of the more significant of which was the one TC emerged from - the Marseilles-based Cahiers du Communisme de Conseils (Notebooks on Council Communism).

However, the adequacy of the council communist perspective was increasingly questioned by individuals and groups appropriating ideas coming from the Italian Left and in particular its critique of self-management. An important part of the dynamism of the French ultra-left lies in the fact that one of the main ways Bordiga and the Italian Left's ideas were introduced to France in this period was not by traditional Left Communists but by less orthodox figures like Camatte and others around the journal Invariance, and by Gilles Dauvé and the group Mouvement Communiste. In a text that has been translated as part of Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, Dauvé argues correctly that a problem with the (councilist) ultra-left is that it opposed the bureaucracy, state control and the Leninist party with another set of organizational forms - workers' democracy, self-management and the councils - missing the issue of the content of communism. If the defining politics of '68 - the social content was something else - had been 'self managementist', then the critique was a significant one.

Another group TC mention, Révolution International/ICC, are also connected to the dissatisfaction with 'councilism'. However, it has largely rejected any new thinking as 'modernism' in favour of a more fundamentalist -'the correct positions have already been arrived at' - Left Communism based on a select appropriation of the Dutch/German and Italian Left heritages. It managed to recruit many of the councilist groups and individuals that had sprung up in France and elsewhere on the basis of the line that revolution was imminent and it was necessary to get organized and build a left communist organization/party.

It is the less organizationally fixated and more theoretically questioning currents, of which TC are part, that are more interesting for us. As Loren Goldner puts it, debates in the French ultra-left in 1968-73 reapproached the issue of capitalism in terms of value "in order to insist, rightly, that communism was neither 'nationalised property' or 'workers' control of production' but the positive supersession of commodity production and all its categories: value, wage labour, capital, the proletariat as a social relationship, all grasped as an integral whole." Informing the debates, and allowing them to transcend an ultra-left version of Second International Marxism, were the newly available texts by Marx, the Grundrisse and the 'Results of the Immediate Process of Production' (the 'Missing Sixth Chapter' of Capital). Bordiga and the circle around him, including Camatte, had been amongst the first to recognize the significance of these texts. Whatever their problems, the strength of Camatte and others was that they did not take the theoretical ideas of either the Dutch/German and/or Italian Lefts, or even of Marx, as complete and finished doctrines simply needing to be propagated, but attempted to approach reality in a non-ideological way.

One example of the usefulness of a non-dogmatic taking up of the ideas of the Italian left was that the German/Dutch Left factoryist and economistic vision of self-management could be subjected to the critique of the Italian Left, but at the same time the Italian Left's conception that revolution is first of all a political act could be overturned with an idea of revolution as fundamentally neither political nor economic but social: communization - the direct negation of capitalist social relations, and in particular the enterprise form, and their replacement by human ones. If in the period up to and including May '68 the SI had been the most dynamic revolutionary tendency, an argument can be made that, in the years following, it was other tendencies more open (critically) to the Italian Left and to the newly-published texts of Marx's Critique of Political Economy that were at the cutting edge of theory and critique. Part of the SI's power was that they had not simply adopted council communism, but with their critique of culture and of everyday life, their practices of drift and diversion etc. had pushed and deepened the meaning of revolution. Similarly, the best French 'ultra-left' groups of the '70s, by not simply adopting a left communist ideology but using the newly available Marx to rethink what the overcoming of capitalism was, went further in a revolutionary grasping of what had been novel in the '68 events and in the new developments in the class struggle continuing to occur across the advanced capitalist world.

Without agreeing with every innovation of these currents, it seems clear to us that communist theory was being advanced in the French ultra-left scene not least through a questioning of the limits of 'ultra-leftism'. It is out of this milieu that TC emerged.


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