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The term ultra-leftism has two overlapping uses. One usage is a generally pejorative term for certain types of positions on the far left that are seen as extreme or intransigent. The term is also used—pejoratively or not—to refer to a particular current of Marxist communism, which is closely related to council communism and left communism.
Ultra-left currents within left communism are often subject to criticisms from other factions of the left. The left communist organization International Communist Current refuses to work with leftist groups except other left communists or internationalist anarchists. Gilles Dauvé (also known as Jean Barrot), a left communist theorist, argues that all bourgeois regimes should be opposed, and that revolutionaries should not defend liberal democracy against fascism.
Ultra-left current in Marxism
The term ultra left is rarely used in English, in which people tend to speak broadly of left communism as a minor variant of traditional Marxism. The French equivalent, ultra-gauche, has a stronger currency, as it is a more positive term in that language and is used to define a movement that still exists today: a branch of left communism descending from theorists such as Amadeo Bordiga, Otto Rühle, Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter and Paul Mattick, and continuing with more recent writers, such as Jacques Camatte and Gilles Dauvé.
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 wage labour. In opposition to Bolshevism, the ultra left generally places heavy emphasis upon the autonomy and self-organisation of the proletariat.
Ultra-left as a pejorative term
Used pejoratively, ultra-left generally criticizes positions, especially those the mainstream historical Marxist parties, that are adopted without taking notice of the current situation or of the consequences which would result from following a proposed course. The term is used to criticize 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 Vladimir Lenin's Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, which attacked those (such as Anton 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 Adolf Hitler's Nazis—as a strategy of ultra-leftism. The term has been popularised in the United States 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 leftist sectarianism, in which a socialist current might attempt to put its own short-term interests before the long term interests of the working class and its allies.