Three classic polemics with the ultra-left

Valerio Arcary

Retired Professor at the Federal Institute of São Paulo. PhD in History from the University of São Paulo. Studied at the University of Lisbon (1975-78). Participated in Portugal’s ‘Carnation Revolution’ as a Trotskyist militant. Returned to Brazil in 1978 and joined Convergência Socialista. Took part in the reconstruction of the National Union of Students (UNE) in 1979, the foundation of the Workers’ Party (PT) in 1980, and the formation of the United Workers’ Central (CUT) in 1983. PT National Executive member (1989-92). PSTU National President (1994-98). Current member of the National Coordination of Resistência/PSOL. Author of several books including ‘O Martelo da História’ (The Hammer of History).

On a warm September day in 1920, a few months after the arrest of his comrades Sacco and Vanzetti, a vengeful Italian anarchist named Mario Buda parked his horse-drawn wagon near the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, directly across from J. P. Morgan Company. (…) A few blocks away, a startled postal worker found strange leaflets warning: “Free the Political Prisoners or it will be Sure Death for All of You!” They were signed: “American Anarchist Fighters.” The bells of nearby Trinity Church began to toll at noon. When they stopped, the wagon — packed with dynamite and iron slugs — exploded in a fireball of shrapnel. (…) Buda was undoubtedly disappointed when he learned that J.P. Morgan himself was not among the 40 dead and more than 200 wounded — the great robber baron was away in Scotland at his hunting lodge. Nonetheless, a poor immigrant with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal, and an old horse had managed to bring unprecedented terror to the inner sanctum of American capitalism. (…) The car bomb, in other words, suddenly became a semi-strategic weapon that, under certain circumstances, was comparable to airpower in its ability to knock out critical urban nodes and headquarters as well as terrorize the populations of entire cities. [1]

Mike Davis Ideas do not govern the fate of the world, it is the world that governs the fate of ideas. Material interests condition political representations in contemporary society. This formula, while generally correct, is in itself insufficient.

Radical projects also become material forces when they gain influence among millions, and become the fuel for historical transformation. Without the force of powerful ideas, it would not be possible to change the world. That is why we must value the discussion of ideas.

Idealization of the wider masses and their willingness to fight, catastrophist analyses about the final crisis, forecasts of apocalyptic scenarios, desperation for parallel initiatives or exemplary actions, and substitutionist voluntarism are part of the classic repertoire of ultra-leftism. They have never worked.

In the heat of the ‘Fora Bolsonaro’ (Bolsonaro Out) campaign, the danger of “super-revolutionary” pressures on the Frente Única de Esquerda (United Left Front) has increased, and they may threaten its development. Historical experience teaches that ultra-radical phraseology is not revolutionary. What are revolutionary are the program and actions that are capable of putting the broad masses in motion for the overthrow of the government.

Ideas and initiatives that separate the advanced sectors from the masses do not facilitate the accumulation of forces. Any organization has of course the right to do what it wants. But division, dispersion, and the multiplication of demonstrations do not favor the spontaneous adherence of the masses. Concentrated force encourages confidence. The unwillingness to assess the correlation of forces leads to the confusion of what is a movement still finding its way with the immediacy of decisive battles.

Defending proposals which the masses are unwilling to take is ultimatism. Marxist politics do not proclaim, declare or herald ultimatums to the workers and youth. It establishes a dialogue. It presents a program of action which can open the way to victory, and it relies on increasing the confidence of the masses in themselves.

In the historical stage opened up by capitalist restoration, anarchist-inspired ideas with autonomist vocabulary once again influence the youth. The most powerful of these is the utopia that the world can be changed without fighting for power. This utopia is regressive. It is a romanticized return to the ideological infancy of the European workers’ movement of the nineteenth century.

Historical defeats have devastating social consequences, but also theoretical-political ones. The liberal narrative that equates bourgeois dictatorships with one-party Stalinist regimes has become hegemonic and has diminished the influence of the socialist project. This is a grotesque historical falsification. But it exerts a lot of pressure on the new generation in different ways, including those who identify with “Antifa” and engage in a strategy of “direct action”.

In Brazil, we are witnessing a political contest regarding the course of the ‘Fora Bolsonaro’ campaign. A part of the radical left does not agree with the centrality of the struggle for the ‘Frente Única de Esquerda’ (United Left Front). The ‘Fora Bolsonaro’ campaign took responsibility for calling the demonstrations of 29 May, 19 June, and now calls for people to take to the streets on 3 July. But a section of the radical left does not accept this leadership and has decided to take its own leading role, albeit in a curiously apocryphal way.

The immense fragmentation within the revolutionary left facilitates this dynamic. Revolutionary victories ignite militant expectations, theoretical renewal, and political unification. Defeats fuel the eclectic nomadism of parties, the theoretical dispersion of Marxism, and social diasporas within the intelligentsia. The dividing line between the two great camps of reform and revolution does not however exhaust the political identities among the left of Marxist inspiration and based in the working class.

Ultra-leftism searches for consistency in a program. It is characterized by a substitutionist perspective: it poses projects, demands, and actions for workers and youth, who in their majority do not yet identify them as their own, and which jump ahead of the experience of the bulk of the class.

They are sometimes willing, with the support of more radicalized sectors, to take exemplary actions that intimidate their enemies and encourage their allies. Their proposals are beyond what the majority battalions of the working class would be willing to undertake. In other words, they are ultimatist policies.

The influence of ‘ultra’ currents – Marxist or anarchist – tends to be inversely proportional to their actual implantation in popular circles. It’s a rickety minority at best. It has its roots in an overestimated appreciation of the relations of political and social forces.

‘Ultra’ policies underestimate the reactionary forces and the obstacles to workers’ mobilization and organization. But their voluntarist eagerness requires a strong identity and internal cohesion. The sectarians despise the importance, in each situation, of the politics that can effectively set the broad masses in motion, and they push the United Front to the sideline. They overestimate their influence and underestimate that of others.

There are three classic forms of ‘ultra’ tactics:

(a) They manifest themselves as calls for actions which the masses are unwilling to undertake, for example, election boycotts; occupations of factories and public buildings; the maintaining of strikes at “whatever the cost”; or the more common and unfailing call for the general strike;

(b) They are translated into the form of radical slogans, like the classic discussion around wage rises (10% or 50%?), or the recurring polemic on the value of minimum wages and salary levels;

(c) They take the form of an organizational ultimatism: they abandon the spaces of the United Front and its moderate leadership because its leaders are ‘pelego’ (traitorous) [2], regardless of whether the majority of the movement recognize this leadership or not.

Ultra-leftism or sectarianism, as well as opportunism, are valuations attributed to political orientations and practices. They are criticisms and should not be understood as insults. Ultra-leftism can therefore be defined as a political strategy and even a doctrine.



[1] Mike Davis, “The Poor Man’s Air Force: A History of the Car Bomb (Part 1)”, Tom Dispatch website, 11 April 2006,

[2] ‘Pelego’: A piece of sheepskin that the gauchos of southern Brazil and Argentina place on their saddles to cushion their ride. They can also be used as doormats. The term is synonymous with “yellow” and traitorous leaders, specifically union leaders.

This article is an English translation of “Três polêmicas clássicas com o ultraesquerdismo”, [], Esquerda Online (EOL), 29/06/2021.


Translation: Bobby Sparks