On the Origins and Early Years of Working Class Revolutionary Politics :
An Introduction to 'Left Communism' in Germany from 1914 to 1923
Introduction and Overview
What follows has been freely adapted from an Introduction to a Pamphlet
called 'From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution' produced in 1974
by a small group of partisans of 'Left Communism' who called themselves
'Socialist Reproduction' and 'Revolutionary Perspectives'. The main text of
this work which they translated, was written in 1921 by Otto Ruhle to
explain the basis of the a new politics that had been developed inside the
German working class of the period
We reproduce the introduction now because it gives a history of this
movement, showing how it arose within an existing movement in a period of
struggle during and after the First World war. It also discusses and
critically examines the issues this movement raised and the solutions they
worked out to the problem of the emancipation of the working class from
capitalism. It is universally acknowledged that this was a period when many
of the existing institutions of the workers movement came into question,
when new perspectives, ideas and institutions were being developed.
Although this essay is intended to introduce and discuss some of these new
perspectives, tactics and ideas, we would stress that anyone interested
should consult if at all possible the original documents referred to. It is
most important first of all to understand this movement, called here 'Left Communism' IN ITS OWN TERMS. Whatever conclusions we may arrive at today,
this previous movement stands, is a part of our history and must be
understood if ever we are to move forward.
Of course today it is impossible to recreate this movement, it was defeated
by a combination of counter revolution, demoralisation, isolation and the
assaults of the 'old workers movement' - social democracy, Stalinism etc.
and of course the rise of the Nazi movement. If we are ever going to gain
our emancipation and create a new form of society, some reconsideration of
the questions raised by this movement will be necessary . . . . .
Outbreak of World War
The outbreak of the international war in August 1914 between the various
capitalist states, marked a historical watershed for the capitalist mode of
production. Politically it also had the effect of shattering the old
In particular it marked the end of what was recognised as the 'old
struggle', a struggle that was part of a socially progressive phase of the
capitalist period of human history. Instead a new period opened up, one in
which we are still living, a period of the politics of mass murder,
stagnating society, destruction and waste of vast quantities of social
wealth, of the temporary stabilisation of one 'national' economy at the
expense of another or through the massive production of means of
destruction [the arms based economy]. All this and more has come to be
referred to in a short hand way as the period of capitalism's decadence.
[This certainly shows its origins in the 1970s - I do not think I would
write this now ! - Gra]
[It is important to remember that this idea of decadence is just that - an
idea or concept, an invention of our minds to describe social reality.
'Decadence' by itself is no more an active part of the world than the
metaphysical and theological concepts of 'evil' or 'original sin'. Anyone
who begins an argument by saying 'decadence is responsible for . . . . .'
or the like is employing the concept in an idealistic way and should be
pulled up sharply.]
For the 'old struggle', the struggle of mass Social Democratic parties and
the Second International this meant a profound change. This old movement
was based on a struggle to improve the situation of the working class
within a progressive capitalist society. This movement was founded on the
'principle of distinction', which led to the separation of the movement
into different organisations. A separation of the 'workers movement' from
the 'socialist movement', the trade unions from the parliamentary party.
This distinction is at the base of the separation of economics and
politics, the difference between civil society and private ownership of the
means of production, which is at the heart of the bourgeois view of the
world. The outbreak of the war showed that the material basis for this old
struggle was now dissolved into a dance of death. Crucially however if the
basis for the old reformist struggle was finished, if a politics that could
win real gains for the working class within the capitalist mode of
production was not possible, what was not clear was how this new reality
was going to be understood by the international working class - nor how
long this process was likely to be.
The working class has thrust upon it the task of creating a society for the
future of all humanity, a communist society of socialised humanity, out of
the decay of the society which gave birth to it. It cannot do this however
in any school other than the one of historical necessity. Moreover the
working class cannot find the tools and perspectives for such a struggle
within capitalist society's own political practice - in the world of
bourgeois democracy, interest groups, tactical alliances, voting strengths,
programmatic compromises, social consensus and the 'national interest'.
The working class cannot learn to stand alone as an international
revolutionary class, as a 'class for itself', unless it confronts this
bourgeois democracy. And having confronted it, learnt its bankruptcy and
utter emptiness, learnt that 'it cannot deliver the goods'. Even then
illusions persist that this is merely a temporary failing, that things will
return to how they were before. When they don't return, when 'the goose has
no more golden eggs to lay', even then dreams remain from the childhood of
capitalism, until such time as the inevitability of the class struggle and
the reality of the revolutionary project emerges out of the ruins of
stagnation and war.
All this is the dominant experience of the international working class, in
the developed capitalist countries in the period since 1914. Small wonder
then that when we ourselves begin to study the experience of our class in
the period during and immediately after the First World War, we cannot do
so with any expectation of being able to discover any ready made solutions
or insights that do not arise from the fact that we are of that class and
living in this same historical epoch. Nor do we have any illusions that
because we have come along later, this will give us any greater
understanding of the fundamental nature of this experience for our
revolutionary class any more than that of those who lived and fought
through it as revolutionary Marxists, from the stand-point of communism as
they understood it.
But for our part, our commitment to the communist project is grounded in
the necessity to make no concessions to capital or its representatives in
whatever guise. We now live in a period objectively favourable at least to
the maturation of the revolutionary potential of the working class - a
'class for itself'.
So if seventy odd years of capitalist counter revolution against this
potential, should cause us once again to return to the German 'Left
Communists' merely to indulge in ancestor worship or to prostrate ourselves
uncritically or to mouth long-standing and unreconsidered judgements;
judgements now turned to stone by this counter revolution, then this would
indeed be a waste. But for us the critical insights made by this early
movement are an encouragement to go beyond the partial views and insights
of a new movement that has come about as a result of the fragility of the
capitalist system since the early 1970s.
Nevertheless we recognise that our understanding is that of a class whose
old movement is still in the process of dissolution and not yet that of a
revolutionary class in the making.
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