leftism

Ultra-leftism

[uhl-truh-lef-tist]
Ultra-leftism has two, overlapping uses. It is used as a generally pejorative term for certain types of positions on the left that are seen as extreme or intransigent in particular ways (see far left). It is also used – whether pejoratively or not – to refer to a particular current of Marxist communism, which is closely related to council communism and left communism.

The ultra-left current in Marxism

The term Ultra Left is rarely used in English, where people tend to speak broadly of left communism as a minor variant of traditional Marxism, but the equivalent term in French - ultra-gauche - has a stronger currency, as it is a more positive term in that language and is used to define a movement that is still in existence today: a branch of left communism descending from people such as Amadeo Bordiga, Otto Rühle, Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter, and Paul Mattick, and continuing to present day writers such as Jacques Camatte and Gilles Dauvé (also known as Jean Barrot).

The term originated in the 1920s in the German and Dutch workers movements, originally referring to a Marxist current opposed to both Bolshevism and social democracy, and with some affinities with anarchism. The ultra-left is defined particularly by its breed of anti-authoritarian Marxism, which generally involves an opposition to the state and to state socialism, as well as to parliamentary democracy, and to wage labour. In opposition to Bolshevism, the ultra left generally places heavy emphasis upon the autonomy and spontaneous organisation of the proletariat.

Ultra-left as a pejorative expression

Used pejoratively, the term generally identifies and criticizes positions, especially by those in the mainstream historical Marxist parties, to describe a position which is adopted without taking notice of the current situation or of the consequences which would result from following a proposed course - leftist positions that, for example, overstate the tempo of events, propose initiatives that overestimate the current level of militancy or which employ a highly militant tone in their propaganda.

The mainstream Marxist critique of such a position began with Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, which attacked those (such as Pannekoek or Sylvia Pankhurst) in the nascent Communist International who refused to work with parliamentary or reformist socialists.

Trotskyists and others see the Communist International’s Third Period -when it described social democratic parties as “social fascist” and therefore essentially no better than Hitler’s Nazis - as a strategy of ultra-leftism.

The term has been popularised in the US by the Socialist Workers' Party, who have used the term to both describe opponents in the anti-war movement and opponent Trotskyists including Gerry Healy. Ultra-leftism is often associated with left sectarianism, in which a socialist current might, for example, attempt to put its own short-term interests before the long term interests of the working-class and its allies.

Overlap between the two uses

Groups who belong to the ultra-left current within left communism are often subject to these sorts of criticisms from the rest of the left. For example, the refusal of the International Communist Current to work with any other left groups, or Jean Barrot’s critique of anti-fascism which suggests that all forms of capitalism are equally evil, and therefore fascism is essentially no worse than liberal democracy.

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