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Amadeo Bordiga and the development of a revolutionary core

 

Amadeo Bordiga

 

By Doug Enaa Greene

 

"We do not wish to evangelize, but to ignite, and when the moment arrives the flame will burst forth."[1] These passionate words were uttered by the Italian socialist Amadeo Bordiga in 1912 and summed up his life's revolutionary mission: to organize for international communist revolution. Bordiga began his political activity shortly before the First World War on the far left of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) where he was opposed to colonialism, parliamentary participation, and a defender of Marxist orthodoxy. Bordiga's intransigence and his undoubted ability to gather a partisan revolutionary core capitulated him into the leadership of the newly formed Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1921. Yet Bordiga's orthodox zeal proved to be a liability when the post-war revolutionary wave receded in Italy and fascism came to power. He proved too inflexible and unable to adapt new strategies in a non-revolutionary period. Bordiga's adherence to revolutionary principle (as he understood it) or dogma (as his opponents saw it) made him a pariah in the eyes of the Comintern and, increasingly, within the leading bodies of the PCI who believed that the time had come to change tactics. Finally in 1930, Bordiga, who had already been ousted from the leadership of the PCI was expelled from the party for his refusal to condemn Leon Trotsky. Although Bordiga would spend the remaining forty years of his life in the political wilderness, he remains a representative figure of the communist revolutionary hopes in its heroic period in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

 

I. Beginnings

 

Amadeo Bordiga was born in Resina, in the province of Naples in 1889. His family was well-off and his father was a professor of agricultural economics. Arguably, Bordiga's interest later in life in the fundamental importance of the agrarian revolution to the characterization of capitalism and the USSR could be traced back to his family background. At an early age, Bordiga took an interest in both science and technology, which made his eventual career choice as an engineer a natural move. Bordiga's engineering training gave him, according to Loren Goldner, “a kind of theoretical rigidity, which was both exasperating and effective in allowing him to see things differently.”[2] For Bordiga, Marxism was a doctrine which could be scientifically proved.

 

In 1910, Bordiga joined the youth wing of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in Naples. He quickly identified himself with the far left of the party thatwas growing impatient with the party leadership's opportunism and reformism. The PSI, formed in 1892, had seen its vote totals grow and there were significant sections in the party (such as its parliamentary delegation) who were looking for mainstream acceptance and a place in government. From 1911-12, Italy was involved in a colonial war in Libya which revealed the fissures in the PSI. The Party's youth wing, led by Benito Mussolini agitated against the war in demonstrations and organized amongst conscripts (Mussolini would be arrested for these activities). However, the PSI parliamentary wing voted in support of the war.

 

Bordiga supported the radical youth and Mussolini as opposed to the Party leadership. He also proved himself to be a talented debater and political organizer, who was filled with boundless energy. In Naples, he formed the Karl Marx Circle, which championed against free masonry, opposed to the party's tolerance towards bourgeois politics, and careerism. Bordiga argued that the PSI needed to follow a singular strategy – where the party was guided by a small core of tested revolutionaries as opposed to a mass party that was diluted by pseudo-Marxists and parliamentary cretinism.[3]

 

In 1912, when the “maximalists” (or left-wing) took control of the Party during the Congress at Reggio Emilia, Bordiga remained unsatisfied with the new course. He argued that the local leadership in Naples had accepted the new line in words, but not in practice. By 1914, in a victory, Bordiga's Karl Marx Circle was recognized by the national leadership as the Naples branch of the PSI. Bordiga would be proven correct as to the inner rot and reformist practice of the PSI with the crisis following the outbreak of the First World War and its aftermath. Bordiga was not alone in criticizing the reformism within the PSI, other revolutionaries such as Antonio Gramsci, Angela Tasca, Umberto Terracini and Palmiro Togliatti shared his concerns. Yet Bordiga heaped scorn on the “culturalist” approach of those associated with Gramsci, saying in 1912, “the need for study is what a congress of schoolteachers proclaims-not a congress of socialists.”[4] He did not deny the importance of culture and education, but argued it should be left to individuals, avoid academic scholasticism, and be directed towards the class struggle. Bordiga took a distinctly national approach in regards to strategy and the need for a revolutionary strategy while others such as Gramsci were more focused on local concerns.[5] This far-sightedness on Bordiga's part would help to ensure his leadership within the emerging revolutionary left in Italy and, later, his dominant position in the Communist Party.

 

II. Invariance

 

In regards to theory, Bordiga believed that Marxism – with its communist program and methodology had been definitively established by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto in 1848. The creation of Marxism, according to Bordiga, “emerges with the modern industrial proletariat and which “accompanies” the latter throughout the entire course of a social revolution; and we continue to use the term “Marxism.”[6] Thus, Marx and Engels had discovered an “invariant” (or unchanging) method and communist program.

 

The importance of the “invariant” nature of communism was stressed by Bordiga who stated that

 

the revolutionary class will be capable of fulfilling its mission only if it acts throughout the entire course of this tremendous struggle by availing itself of a doctrine and a method that remain stable. And this doctrine and method will be stabilized in a monolithic program, regardless of the drastic fluctuations in the number of its supporters and the outcomes of the social stages and conflicts.[7]

 

For Bordiga, the communist program, was of the utmost importance since it “ is the emancipation of the human collectivity from bondage to the laws of economy, which once understood, can be dominated within an economy which is finally rational and scientific, and which is subject to the direct intervention of Man.”[8] Therefore, Marxists needed to maintain a fixed program and not make concessions as a result of the ebbs and flows of the class struggle, by succumbing to momentary popular moods or to opportunism. The party needed to agitate and educate around the program, avoid innovators and revisionists who would either dilute the program or lead the proletariat away from their revolutionary mission. It was imperative that communist principles be maintained.

 

The “invariance” of the communist program gave Bordiga a powerful (albeit limited) tool to confront those who attempted to update the program, argued for changing the party line, or for discarding Marxism because it had been “proven” outdated by historical events. As Bordiga argued,

 

this long, hard struggle would have lost its connection with the future resumption of the revolution if, instead of drawing the lesson of “invariance” from this struggle, it were to have accepted the banal idea that Marxism is a theory “undergoing a process of continuous historical elaboration” that changes with the changing course of events and the lessons subsequently learned. This is invariably the justification offered for all the betrayals that have accumulated since its inception, and it explains all the revolutionary defeats as well.[9]

 

Rather, those who argued for updating Marxism or changing cardinal principles were betraying communism. The invariant nature of the communist program, would prove on the one hand, a rock for Bordiga to stand upon and defend Marxism from opportunists, revisionists and Stalinists, and to stay true to principles whatever the state of the class struggle, but on the other hand, there was a very pronounced tendency of dogmatism and sectarianism in the whole conception of invariance.

 

III. World War One

 

In 1914, the first World War began and the Second International collapsed as its member parties voted to support “their” governments in the slaughter. Italy did not initially join the war, remaining neutral for another year before joining the Allies. Yet the same cracks in socialist parties between pro-war and anti-war wings existed within the PSI. There was a pro-war or interventionist wing inside the PSI led by Benito Mussolini, who believed that the war would usher in a revolution. When the PSI rejected Mussolini's position, he left the party and quickly moved to the nationalist right, eventually founding the fascist party in 1919. Bordiga not only broke with Mussolini, but adopted a position close that of Lenin in favor of revolutionary defeatism. He argued that the war was not caused by the aggression of one nation, but that “the bourgeoisie of all nations are equally responsible for the outbreak of the conflict, or rather the capitalistic system is responsible.”[10] He maintained that the party needed to take a firm internationalist and anti-militarist line, stating, “we do not intend to disarm. Our war is permanent. It strikes, at times, as in June, in open revolt, but it does not concede armistices ... We are readily accused of pacifism ... But we remain open enemies, active and operating of the State.”[11] By 1917, Bordiga was calling for socialists to organize the discontent of the working class against the bourgeois state and the war.[12]

 

While Bordiga was gathering a revolutionary core around himself, the PSI found itself torn over what approach to take towards the war. Although the Party had rejected Mussolini's arguments for intervention, the reformists within the party did accept the need for “defensive wars.” To keep Italy out of the war, the parliamentary delegation did not look to mass agitation or general strikes, but the formation of a neutral government. The Socialists took an ambiguous stand of “neither support, nor sabotage” whereby they would not vote in support of the war effort, but they refused to contemplate revolutionary action to stop it. This position saw the PSI condemned not only by nationalists and reformists for treason, but the far left for not being revolutionary.

 

As the war dragged on, with the hundreds of thousands killed in the trenches, the profits of industrialists and the cost of living for workers both skyrocketed. There were mass demonstrations against the war in cities such as Turin and Milan with the army sent in to quell them. Even with the end of the war, which did not really benefit Italy despite it being one of the victors, the country was hit hard by an economic crisis. This sparked mass strikes in the north, peasants seizing land and the government appeared unable to manage the situation. On the far right, fascist squads were organized to attack socialists, workers and labor unions while the PSI approached the height of its influence, winning 32.0% and 156 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in the 1919 general elections.

 

IV. Biennio Rosso

 

The impact of the First World War and the success of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 were felt strongly in Italy. The PSI, formerly anti-war and a part of the Zimmerwald Conference, hailed it. Starving workers in the cities looked to it as an example. Antonio Gramsci said it was the Revolution Against Kapital, emphatically stating “Events have exploded the critical schemas determining how the history of Russia would unfold according to the canons of historical materialism. The Bolsheviks reject Karl Marx. And their explicit actions and conquests bear witness that the canons of historical materialism are not so rigid as one might have thought and has been believed.”[13]

 

In November 1918, Bordiga founded a new journal Il Soviet, where he called for the expulsion of reformists from the PSI. This call was done long before Lenin or the Comintern (formed only in March 1919) did so. Indeed, Lenin still hoped to win over the majority of the PSI. Bordiga's position was developed not so much in anticipation of Lenin's, but rather based on his own experience in Italy. In 1919, Bordiga and Il Soviet came out with an abstentionist position. Along with the expulsion of reformists, Bordiga believed that the PSI needed to purge itself of bourgeois contamination and the diversion of energies that resulted from participation in elections:

 

In this period, it is inadmissible to participate in these organs which function as a powerful defensive instrument of the bourgeoisie and which are designed to operate even within the ranks of the proletariat. It is precisely in opposition to these organs, to their structure as to their function, that communists call for the system of workers' councils and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Because of the great importance which electoral activity assumes in practice, it is not possible to reconcile this activity with the assertion that it is not the means of achieving the principal objective of the party's action, which is the conquest of power. It also is not possible to prevent it from absorbing all the activity of the movement and from diverting it from revolutionary preparation.[14]

 

Bordiga's abstentionist line was not shared within the wider PSI and it was defeated at the Youth Congress held in July 1919. Other revolutionaries such as Gramsci and Togliatti did not support abstentionism. Although later in life, Bordiga and the various left communist groups he was a part of would split over the question of electoral participation, he was not so rigid during these early years. For example, Bordiga did not make abstentionism a principle that would divide him organizationally from Gramsci and others when they formed the Communist Party in 1921. Furthermore, Bordiga believed in faithfully carrying out the dictates of the Communist International, who advocated electoral participation.

 

Although Bordiga named his paper, Il Soviet, and called for the creation of a dictatorship of the proletariat based on workers' councils (or Soviets), it was clear that the idea of a communist party that mainly occupied his attention. It would not be an understatement to say that the creation of Communist Party was central to Bordiga's thinking and strategy:

 

This revolutionary struggle is the conflict between the whole proletarian class and the whole bourgeois class. Its instrument is the political class party, the communist party, which achieves the conscious organisation of the proletarian vanguard aware of the necessity of unifying its action, in space - by transcending the interests of particular groups, trades or nationalities - and in time - by subordinating to the final outcome of the struggle the partial gains and conquests which do not modify the essence of the bourgeois structure.

 

Consequently it is only by organising itself into a political party that the proletariat constitutes itself into a class struggling for its emancipation.[15]

 

For Bordiga, while soviet power was important, this potential would only become actualized when the Communist Party achieved leadership in them. This was not an abstract question in Italy in 1919-20, during the Two Red Years (or Biennio Rosso) when workers in northern cities such as Turin and Milan were launching mass strikes. The strikes were incredibly militant, bypassing the union leadership and involving hundreds of thousands of workers. As part of an escalating radicalization, workers occupied their factories, ran production and set up councils. For the Turin journal L'Ordine Nuovo and Antonio Gramsci, the factory councils were seen as the basis of a future socialist state in Italy.

 

As Gramsci stated:

 

The Factory Council is the model of the proletarian State. All the problems inherent in the organization of the proletarian State are inherent in the organization of the Council. In the one as in the other, the concept of citizen gives way to the concept of comrade. Collaboration in effective and useful production develops solidarity and multiplies bonds of affection and fraternity.[16]

 

And:

 

Such a system of workers' democracy (integrated with corresponding peasants' organizations) would give the masses a permanent structure and discipline. It would be a magnificent school of political and administrative experience and would involve the masses down to the last man, accustoming them to tenacity and perseverance, and to thinking of themselves as an army in the field which needs a strict cohesion if it is not to be destroyed and reduced to slavery.[17]

 

Bordiga on the contrary, put politics, or rather, the party, first. He noted that the factory councils were set up to workers' control production, but “while the factory is still protected by the bourgeois State, the factory council controls nothing.”[18] Bordiga did not oppose the establishment of councils, but noted that the main thrust of the communist party's “activity must be based on another terrain, namely the struggle for the conquest of political power.”[19] He also went on and stated that the “soviet, in our view, is not in its essence a revolutionary organ.” This was not to dismiss the revolutionary potential of soviets, but Bordiga noted that it was the content not the form which mattered. In Germany and Austria, there were workers' councils, but since they were controlled by the social democrats, they ultimately liquidated themselves and handed power over to the counterrevolution.

 

Bordiga believed he was following the example of the Russian Bolsheviks, where the Soviets can only become revolutionary not “by virtue of their form; there are only social forces that are revolutionary on account of their orientation. These forces transform themselves into a party that goes into battle with a programme.”[20] This unambiguously meant the Communist Party needed to be the leading force in the factory councils/soviets for them to be revolutionary: “In our view, a Soviet can only be called revolutionary when a majority of its delegates are members of the Communist Party.”[21]

 

Therefore, Bordiga said of the perspective of Gramsci and L'Ordine Nuovo that

 

even before the collapse of the bourgeoisie the workers' councils are organs, not only of political struggle, but of technico-economic training in the communist system, can only be seen as a return to socialist gradualism. This latter, whether it is called reformism or syndicalism, is defined by the mistaken belief that the proletariat can achieve emancipation by making advances in economic relations while capitalism still holds political power through the State.[22]

Bordiga's line in regards to the factory councils and the role of the communist party in the revolution was consistent with his whole theoretical conception. If the historical interests of the working class were represented by a pure program which could be realized only by the conquest of power of the communist party, then the councils needed communist leadership before they could become revolutionary. Otherwise, the factory councils were just a spontaneous upsurge without any revolutionary content and orientation.

 

While one can grant that Bordiga was formally correct on the need for a communist party to lead the councils, there is a sectarian purity to his whole position. Bordiga and his comrades were not, in fact, working to establish communist leadership in the factory councils. Rather, Gramsci and L'Ordine Nuovo were in the thick of events. They immersed themselves in this movement, created organic links with the working class while carrying out a revolutionary line. Yet L'Ordine Nuovo remained limited by its own localist perspectives which were only overcome through practice, as they saw the need for breaking with the reformists and creating a national communist party.

 

Despite Bordiga's differences with the factory council movement and L'Ordine Nuovo, he had supported the call for workers' control of production. And events in Italy brought the two wings of the revolutionary left closer together. By 1920, the factory council movement had launched several general strikes which had put the question of power on the agenda. However, the Socialist Party and the trade unions, showed that their bark was worse than their bite. Although verbally militant, the PSI fed revolutionary expectations among the workers, but they were never ready to commit themselves to make a challenge for power. When the workers were in the streets, they preached patience and calm. They had no idea how to mold the masses or to make the revolution, in fact they did not even think it was their responsibility to do so. In one of the strangest tragicomedies in history, in September 1920 the PSI Directorate debated whether or not to turn the factory occupations into a bid for power. They passed this responsibility for answering this question over to the unions who rejected any attempt at revolution by a vote of 591,245 to 409,569. The Italian factory council movement, which remained directionless and decentralized, was ultimately demoralized and fell apart. The stage was now set for fascism to pacify the working class and restore “order” through systematic violence which the socialists were unable to respond to.[23]

 

For both Gramsci and Bordiga, it was clear after September 1920 that Italy needed revolutionary leadership and the formation of a communist party. Although there was some question about whether the PSI could be renewed by expelling the reformists or if the communist faction would have to create a new party altogether. As events were to show, the communists wanted to break not only with the open reformists in the PSI, but with centrists such as Giacinto Serrati (who had actually led the Socialist Party into joining the Comintern), but refused to accept the Third International's 21 Conditions for membership (which included expelling the reformists and changing the name of the party to “communist party”). In January 1921, at the PSI's Livorno Congress, the communists received 58,783 votes as opposed to 98,028 for the communist unitarians (centrists such as Serrati) and 14,695 for the reformists. The communist minority walked out.

 

As opposed to the communists and Serrati capturing a majority of the PSI, only a minority party was formed. Serrati, while supporting the Comintern, had hoped to win over the majority of the working class, but was not doctrinally rigid. Bordiga believed that the PSI was beyond repair and was determined with a break with it. And he was not alone, Gramsci, Togliatti and other revolutionaries supported a hard break with the centrists in the PSI. In 1921, the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was formed, as a small, albeit militant and battle-tested group, under Bordiga's unshakeable leadership.

 

V. Leftwing Communism

 

Shortly before the foundation of the PCI, Bordiga was in Moscow for the Second Congress of the Comintern. While there, he participated in the debate over the 21 Conditions on membership to the Comintern – stressing the need to expell reformists and centrists from the Communist Parties. However, Serrati, who was also in Italy for the Congress, disagreed with Bordiga and the 21 Conditions. He downplayed the presence of reformists in the PSI and wanted flexibility in their execution. Needless to say, Lenin and the Comintern did not side with Serrati.[24]

 

Bordiga's position on absentionism was attacked at the Second Congress by Bukharin, who said,

 

I claim that anti-parliamentarism on principle exists in some comrades because they are afraid to emerge as revolutionary parliamentarians, as this ground is too dangerous for their liking and because they try in every possible way to run away from this most difficult revolutionary task.... Nevertheless, I think that there are many empirical proofs of revolutionary parliamentarism...If you have a really Communist Party then you need not be afraid of sending one of your people into the bourgeois parliament, for he will act as a revolutionary must act....I repeat, if we have among the parties of the Communist International really Communist Parties that do not shelter any opportunists or reformists in their bosoms, if we have already carried out this purge, then we have the guarantee that we will not have the old parliamentarism but a really revolutionary parliamentarism and a reliable method of destroying the bourgeoisie, the whole bourgeois state apparatus and the bourgeois system.[25]

 

In other words, Bukharin was stating that if a communist party possesses a revolutionary line, purged reformists and opportunists, then it is possible to utilize elections and parliament in a revolutionary manner.

 

Lenin shared Bukharin's criticisms of Bordiga in regards to parliamentarism. For Lenin, Bordiga was an example of a “left wing” trend in the newly emerging communist parties characterized by their (understandable) revolutionary impatience, anti-parliamentarism, leftist sloganeering and their insistence on purity at the expense of developing revolutionary practice and strategy. Significant left communist currents existed not only in Italy, but in Germany, Britain, and Netherlands. Some prominent left communists were Herman Gorter, Anton Pannekoek, and Sylvia Pankhurst. Bordiga's left communism was very much part of this general mood at the Comintern. From 1917-23, there were insurrections, general strikes and revolutionary openings across the continent in Germany, Finland, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, and Hungary. Only later, as the possibilities for revolutionary offensives dimmed, would Bordiga clash with the USSR and the Comintern.

 

Shortly before the Comintern's Second Congress, Lenin had written the pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder in order to impart some universal lessons from the Bolshevik revolution for communists and educate them in a serious understanding of politics in order “to master all forms, to learn how, with the maximum rapidity, to supplement one form with another, to substitute one for another, and to adapt our tactics to any such change that does not come from our class or from our efforts.”[26]

 

Bordiga's abstentionism was criticized by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism, but it should be noted that this was counterbalanced by his praise for the Italian lefts. According to Lenin,

 

Comrade Bordiga and his faction of Abstentionist Communists (Comunista astensionista) are certainly wrong in advocating non-participation in parliament. But on one point, it seems to me, Comrade Bordiga is right...in attacking Turati and his partisans, who remain in a party which has recognised Soviet power and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and yet continue their former pernicious and opportunist policy as members of parliament. Of course, in tolerating this, Comrade Serrati and the entire Italian Socialist Party are making a mistake which threatens to do as much harm...[27]

 

Ultimately, Lenin saw Bordiga as an ally, who sided with the Comintern on the crucial issue of expelling reformists and setting up revolutionary parties. Bordiga would leave Moscow having repudiated absentionism. Bordiga's change of course allowed him to unite with Gramsci and L'Ordine Nuovo at a socialist meeting in October to oppose Serrati and the reformists within the PSI, and in favor of allegiance to the Comintern.[28] Despite Lenin's nuanced position on Bordiga, his opposition to Serrati and the leadership of the PSI, he argued that “it is the line of L'Ordine Nuovo members that corresponds to the line of the Communist International.”[29] However, no one from L'Ordine Nuovo group was present at the Second Congress and Lenin's words produced a violent reaction from the whole Italian delegation. Gramsci and his current were still a small current within the revolutionary left in Italy, localized in northern Italy. Gramsci had no national, let alone international presence. While Bordiga's dominance in the emerging Communist Party of Italy was uncontested, this favorable nod by the Comintern to Gramsci was a forestaste of things to come.[30]

 

VI. The Democratic Principle

 

Before moving on, it is useful to look at Bordiga's view of democracy and its relation to the party. Bordiga was in fact opposed to democracy as a matter of principle. Now this should not be understood as a reactionary or rightwing critique of democracy. For Bordiga, democracy was condemned because “The division of society into classes distinguished by economic privilege clearly removes all value from majority decision-making.”[31] Under democracy, the workers have no power. Rather, the democratic structures of society or representational structures such as parliament are designed to ensure the dominance of the ruling class: “In spite of the application of the democratic system to political representation, bourgeois society appears as a complex network of unitary bodies. Many of these, which spring from the privileged layers and tend to preserve the present social apparatus, gather around the powerful centralized organism of the political state.”[32] Bordiga claimed that democracy was “the form suited to the power of the capitalist class, to the dictatorship of this particular class, for the purpose of preserving its privileges.”[33] Bordiga saw the democratic principle, where the workers were reduced to powerlessness equally represented by Stalinism and fascism as well. Bordiga also believed that democracy encouraged the fetishism of popular sovereignty, whereby the vote and the majority is right, when in fact the exploitated were deprived of all substantive control, and are reduced to a mass of equal citizens (devoid of class content) who are open to manipulation.

 

Bordiga believed that communists must not make a fetish of democratic forms. “Democracy cannot be a principle for us.”[34] He believed that communist parties shouldn't even organize themselves around “democratic centralism,” but rather around “organic centralism” which would preserve democratic mechanisms, but he argued that centralism was a principle because it “express[es] the continuity of party structure in space; in order to introduce the essential idea of continuity in time, the historical continuity of the struggle which, surmounting successive obstacles, always advances towards the same goal...”[35]

 

For Bordiga, what counted for the party was

 

not its statutes or mere internal organizational measures. It is the positive characteristics which develop within the party because it participates in the struggle as an organization possessing a single orientation which derives from its conception of the historical process, form a fundamental programme which has been translated into a collective consciousness and at the same time from a secure organizational discipline.[36]

 

Again, program came first for Bordiga. The Communist Party could not go chasing after fleeting popularity or forming united fronts that necessarily involved programmatic compromises. The Party needed to keep the program pure and not compromise its principles.

 

Bordiga argued that if there were differences within the Communist Party, as opposed to uniformity, “this will prove that the party is marred by errors; that the party does not have the capacity to radically combat the degenerative tendencies of the working class movement, which normally manifest themselves at certain crucial moments in the general situation.”[37] By contrast, a united party without factions shows that the party is carrying out the correct line.

 

Lastly, Bordiga believed that a future proletarian state would be a dictatorship

 

because it is impossible that it be unanimously accepted and furthermore it will not have the naiveté to abdicate for lack of having a majority of votes, if such a thing were ascertainable; then it will not run the risk of being confused with a dictatorship of men or groups of men who take control of the government and substitute themselves for the working class. The revolution requires a dictatorship, because it would be ridiculous to subordinate the revolution to a 100% acceptance or a 51% majority. Wherever these figures are displayed, it means that the revolution has been betrayed.[38]

 

And whereas, at least in theory, even Stalin claimed that the USSR was ruled by the soviets and the democratic will of the people, Bordiga argued for a dictatorship of the communist party who “will rule alone, and will never give up power without a physical struggle.”[39] It is clear that Bordiga's views on the democratic principle open the door to an extreme authoritarianism and dogmatism with their emphasis on programmatic integrity and uniformity. For left communist groups, who have adhered to Bordiga's views on democracy, this has led to tiny microsects waiting for the “great day” of revolution while keeping the program pure and untainted by struggle. On the other hand, Bordiga's views on democracy could be read as an antidote to much of the left that is attracted to bourgeois democratic forms as opposed to looking carefully at their class content. Bordiga was correct that many leftists do chase after popularity by making compromises of principle with non-revolutionary forces. The example of left orientation towards Bernie Sanders is just the latest example. Bordiga's criticism of democracy should also be read by many critics of the Bolsheviks or other revolutionaries, who criticize them for not necessarily respecting formal democratic norms, but who carry out actions that ultimately favor the interests of the oppressed and exploited. At the same time, Bordiga's views on democracy could be used to justify the worst abuses and violattions of rights committed by a revolutionary state. In the end, the Bordigist position on democracy, whether in party or state, is an unappealing one.

 

VII. The United Front

 

When Bordiga returned to Italy and the Communist Party was formed, it was a minority of the working class. However, the situation both in Italy and internationally was changing. Shortly after the formation of the PCI, the Soviet Union ended war communism and instituted the New Economic Policy, allowing for the creation of a limited free market. Within the Comintern, the days of revolutionary offensives were coming to an end following the failed March Action in Germany. In Italy, the left remained divided while Mussolini's blackshirts murdered workers and the government was incapicitated.

 

The Comintern saw the new situation as part of a temporary ebb in the class struggle that necessitated tactical changes by member parties. At the Third Congress, the leaders of the International such as Lenin and Trotsky pushed various Communist Parties to form united fronts with socialists and other reformists to defend the immediate interests of the masses and win the majority of the working class to their program. Only when communists managed to win a majority of the working class, through practice, would revolution be on the agenda. As we have seen, Bordiga (and the PCI in general) did not believe it was necessary to win a majority of the proletariat. Nor was the PCI willing to ally with the PSI or centrists such as Serrati, whom they had just split from.

 

In Italy, the question of the united front was a pressing issue as fascist bands acted with impunity. Bordiga was willing to countenance united fronts “from below” with the membership of the socialist party, but no pact with their leadership. This in effect meant rejecting the tactic since the majority of those socialists were not going to abandon their leaders to follow the communists. Bordiga did support united fronts on a trade union level though. Yet, Bordiga was only able to conceive of united fronts that were firmly under control of the Communist Party and took a dim view of those which were not. While many communists took the initative in forming or joining united fronts to fight the blackshirts, such as the Arditi del Popolo, they did so without the support of the Party.[40]

 

In the face of this crisis, Gramsci and other party leaders were growing critical of Bordiga's leadership, although this was largely muted and done with hesitation. Following Mussolini's March on Rome in October 1922, Italy came under Fascist rule, although it would be several more years before the new regime was consolidated. The Comintern's Fourth Congress was held shortly after the triumph of Mussolini and the International sharply criticized the Italians. Both Gramsci and Bordiga attended the congress. And while there, Gramsci, according to Thomas Bates, was approached by “Comintern spokesman Matyas Rakosi [who] cornered Gramsci and bluntly suggested that he replace Bordiga. Gramsci declined on the grounds that such a change would require extensive preparation in the party.”[41] Gramsci recognized that Bordiga had solid support in the PCI and that a change in leadership would take time and could not be done bureaucratically.

 

Not only were Bordiga's views on the united front out of line with the Comintern, but he had rejected fusion with the PSI, which under Serrati had expelled the reformists and declared their allegiance to the Third International. However, Gramsci and Bordiga remained united in their opposition to centrists and Angelo Tasca, who was on the right of the PCI and both feared that if Tasca received Comintern backing, he would liquidate the party back into the PSI. To the public eye, the leadership of the PCI appeared united, but already divisions were forming.

 

VIII. The Fall

 

When Bordiga returned to Italy, he was arrested on trumped up charges in February 1923 and acquitted later in the year. While in prison, Bordiga wrote a manifesto that defended his time as leader of the PCI and his positions on the united front. Most of the leadership of the PCI signed the manifesto, except for Gramsci.[42] However, Bordiga's imprisonment removed from both the leadership of the PCI and his place on the Central Committee. He would never regain either position.

 

Bordiga was coming to believe that the Comintern was showing signs of degeneration that would lead to the liquidation of the PCI. Bordiga's fears of degeneration in both the Comintern and the USSR found an echo with criticisms voiced by Leon Trotsky. By late 1923, an inner-party struggle was developing within the CPSU over which line would prevail – those of Trotsky and the Left Opposition or that of the Troika composed of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. By 1924, Stalin's bloc had launched the slogan of “socialism in one country” which stated that the USSR could develop socialism on its own without waiting for international revolution. For Bordiga, this theory was an abomination and by 1925, he was publicly supporting Trotsky.[43]

 

Although there is a certain irony to Bordiga's support for Trotsky, since the latter opposed him on many points. Trotsky, alongside Lenin, was one of the major proponents of the United Front at the Third Congress of the Comintern. Furthermore, Trotsky had collaborated with Gramsci in writing on Italian futurism. Gramsci, by contrast, was a supporter (with certain reservations) of the Stalin majority faction within the Soviet Party.

 

By 1925, the Comintern announced at its Fifth Congress, the new policy of Bolshevization, which was a major shake-up. Bolshevization meant that communist parties had to reorganize themselves along the lines of the Soviet Party, centralize, and become monolithic parties. As part of this campaign, supporters of Trotsky and the Left Opposition were removed from leadership in many communist parties. Although the Comintern wanted to establish greater control over its sections, there was also the reality that the post-war revolutionary wave had passed and new tactics and organization were called for. As Bates observes, “the thorough Bolshevization of European communist parties would have been inconceivable were it not for the isolation and impotence of these parties in their home countries.”[44] Ultimately, the prestige and example of the USSR was so great that many communists followed its lead in implementing the new line.

 

Bordiga was an Italian representative at the Fifth Congress where he was offered a position as Comintern Vice-President by Zinoviev, which he refused. Bordiga also did not take up any leadership position within the PCI. By now, it was clear that he was in opposition to the line pursued by both the PCI and the Comintern. In 1924, Serrati's centrists had merged with the PCI. That same year, Gramsci with the support of the International, had risen to the position of General Secretary.

 

The next blow to Bordiga came in January 1926 at the PCI's Lyons Congress (held in exile). Two lines were presented – one defended by Togliatti and Gramsci who had the support of the Comintern and (arguably) the majority of the membership. Their theses analyzed Italian reality and class contradictions, supported the creation of a united front, and developing a system of class alliances in opposition to fascism and capitalism: “The proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois State.[45] Bordiga (unable to attend) and the left opposed them with their own left communist line in favor of united fronts from below, criticisms of the Gramsci leadership (such as around the Aventine Secession, see below) and the Comintern and Bolshevization.[46]

 

Gramsci and Togliatti's theses passed with more than 90 percent of the vote. However, many representatives of the left were unable to attend the Lyons Congress, so new branches were created by the leadership. There have been accusations in the years since of a purge of the communist left (beginning around 1925), vote tampering, and non-existent branches who voted for the leadership.[47] And while there is some truth to this, it should not be denied that Bordiga was inept at handling questions of strategy and politics. He adhered to a line of revolutionary offensive when that was no longer tenable and the logical result of his emphasis on program was that the communist party would a permanent minority and a sect in Italy. By contrast, Gramsci recognized that a change of course was needed, one that understood the realities of class struggle in Italy and developed appropriate strategies to deal with it. The application of the united front had already produced some positive results, as seen in the factory cells, neighborhood organizations and Red Aid in Turin from 1922-6.[48]

 

That same year, Bordiga attended a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, where he proposed that the Communist Parties of the world jointly rule the USSR in order to prevent its degeneration and demonstrate the international character of the communist movement. Not surprisingly, nothing came of that plan. At that same meeting, Bordiga also called Stalin to his face, “the gravedigger of the revolution,” and lived to tell the tale.

 

By now, the Mussolini regime had surived the political crises resulting from the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti and the Aventine Secession. The Aventine Secession occurred in 1924-5, following the murder of the reformist socialist Giacomo Matteotti by the blackshirts. In protest, the socialists and other members of the opposition abandoned parliament, hoping to pressure the King to dismiss Mussolini. The PCI supported this movement, believing that the downfall of Mussolini could open the door to revolution. Ultimately, the King took no action, but Mussolini did – establishing new restrictions on the press, removing the rebellious MPs and banning their parties. The result was the creation of a police state.[49] In November 1926, Communist members of parliament such as Gramsci, who theoretically had immunity, were arreted. In December, Bordiga was arrested and sent to a prison in Ustica, where he was reunited with Gramsci.

 

While there, the two men resumed their friendship, despite their political differences and undertook joint political education work with their fellow inmates - Bordiga directed the "Scientific section" and Gramsci the "Literature and History section." Bordiga was concerned about Gramsci's health, which was deteoriating due to imprionment, and planned to help him escape with the help of the PCI. Nothing ultimately came of the plan. In 1928, Bordiga was moved to another prison, and was finally released in early 1930. However, in March 1930, he was formally expelled from the Communist Party for supporting Trotsky. Now long years of isolation and wandering in the political wilderness lay ahead for Bordiga.

 

IX. Conclusion

 

Bordiga dropped out of politics and quietly pursued his engineering career until after the fall of Mussolini in 1943. Thereafter, he was politically involved in small left communist groups and wrote extensively on the nature of the Soviet Union and Marxist theory. Bordiga believed that the historical moment was unfavorable for revolutionary action and he devoted himself to propagating and educating Marxism to the few devoted militants who remained loyal to him. However, the left communist movement that Bordiga inspired remains miniscule and isolated. The fate of Bordiga has been unkind, he has generally been eclipsed in histories of Italian communism by Antonio Gramsci. While Gramsci is a far more creative Marxist, it needs to be said Bordiga was at times more far-sighted than him on what needed to be done – especially in the early days. It is unlikely that the Communist Party of Italy would have been created without his tireless energy. Ultimately, Bordiga's adherence to program provided him with stability and a political compass while others were led astray, but at the same time, he was prone to mechanical, rigid and moribund thinking that left him unable to develop the appropriate strategies needed by the PCI to endure fascism and build a mass movement. Bordiga remained frozen and faithful to a heroic moment that passed, which was both his strength and weakness.

 

Endnotes

 

[1] Quoted in Dan Radnika, “The Third Generation: the Young Socialists in Italy, 1907-1915,” Libcom. https://libcom.org/history/third-generation-young-socialists-italy-1907-1915-canadian-journal-history-1996

 

[2] Loren Goldner, “Communism is the Material Community: Amadeo Bordiga Today,” Libcom. https://libcom.org/library/communism-is-the-material-human-community-amadeo-bordiga-today

 

[3] “The Third Generation: the Young Socialists in Italy, 1907-1915,” (footnote 1).

 

[4] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), xxix.

 

[5] Ibid. See also Gwyn A. Williams, Proletariat Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy 1911-1921 (London: Pluto Press, 1975), 43.

 

[6] Amadeo Bordiga, “The historical "invariance" of Marxism,” Libcom. https://libcom.org/library/historical-invariance-marxism-amadeo-bordiga

 

[7] Ibid.

 

[8] Amadeo Bordiga, “Draft theses for the 3rd Congress of the Communist Party of Italy presented by the Left: Lyons Theses, 1926,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/bordiga/works/1926/lyons-theses.htm

 

[9] “The historical "invariance" of Marxism,” (footnote 5).

 

[10] “The Third Generation: the Young Socialists in Italy, 1907-1915,” (footnote 1).

 

[11] Ibid.

 

[12] Williams 1975, 62.

 

[13] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Political Writings 1910-1920 (New York: International Publishers, 1977), 34. Bordiga later said of Gramsci's article: “In November 1917, comrade Gramsci published an article in Avanti! asserting that the Russian revolution had given the lie to Marx’s historical materialism and the theories in “Capital”, and gave an essentially idealist explanation. The extreme left current that the youth federation belonged to responded immediately to this article.” “Draft theses for the 3rd Congress of the Communist Party of Italy presented by the Left: Lyons Theses, 1926,” (footnote 7).

 

[14] Amadeo Bordiga, “Theses of the Abstentionist Communist Faction of the Italian Socialist Party,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/bordiga/works/1920/abstentionists.htm

 

[15] Ibid.

 

[16] Gramsci 1977,100.

 

[17] Ibid. 67.

 

[18] Amadeo Bordiga, “Towards the Establishment of Workers' Councils in Italy,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/bordiga/works/1920/workers-councils.htm

 

[19] Ibid.

 

[20] Ibid.

 

[21] Ibid.

 

[22] Ibid.

 

[23] See Williams 1975, 256-62 and Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 169-72.

 

[24] Williams 1975, 234-6.

 

[25] “Minutes of the Second Congress of the Communist International: Eighth Session, August 2,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch08.htm

 

[26] V. I. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch10.htm

 

[27] V. I. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch07.htm

 

[28] Williams 1975, 283-291.

 

[29] V. I. Lenin, “The Second Congress Of The Communist International,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/jul/x03.htm The article singled out by Lenin was “Towards a Renewal of the Socialist Party” which can be found in Gramsci 1977, 190-6.

 

[30] Williams 1975, 235-6.

 

[31] Amadeo Bordiga, “The Democratic Principle,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/bordiga/works/1922/democratic-principle.htm

 

[32] Ibid.

 

[33] Ibid.

 

[34] Ibid.

 

[35] Ibid.

 

[36] Ibid.

 

[37] Amadeo Bordiga, “The Communist Left in the Third International: Bordiga at the 6th Enlarged Executive Meeting of the Communist International,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/bordiga/works/1926/comintern.htm

 

[38] Amadeo Bordiga, “Proletarian Dictatorship and Class Party,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/bordiga/works/1951/class-party.htm

 

[39] Ibid.

 

[40] This section is drawn especially from David Broder, “Bordiga and the Fate of Bordigism,” Weekly Worker. http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/991/bordiga-and-the-fate-of-bordigism/

 

[41] Thomas R. Bates, “Antonio Gramsci and the Bolshevization of the PCI,” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 11, No. 2/3 (Jul., 1976): 118.

 

[42] Ibid. 119.

 

[43] John Chiaradia, “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci,”16-7 Libcom. https://libcom.org/files/Chiaradia-Bordiga-Gramsci.pdf

 

[44] Bates 1976, 116.

 

[45] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978), 443.

 

[46] Ibid.

 

[47] For this see “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci,” 14-28 (footnote 43) and Bates 1976, 115-31.

 

[48] Antonio Sonnessa, “Factory Cells and the Red Aid Movement: Factory Cells and Neighborhood Forms of Organization and Resistance to Fascism in Turin, 1922-1926,” Science & Society 70.4 (October 2006): 480-509.

 

[49] Bordiga said of this episode: “The leadership were mistaken in abandoning parliament and participating in the first meetings of the Aventine when they should have remained in Parliament, launched a political attack on the government, and immediately taken up a position opposed to the moral and constitutional prejudices of the Aventine, which would determine the outcome of the crisis in fascism’s favour. This wouldn’t have prevented the communists from making the decision to abandon parliament, and would have allowed them to do so whilst keeping their specific identity intact, and allowed them to leave at the only appropriate time, i.e. when the situation was ripe to call on the masses to take direct action. It was one of those crucial moments which affect how future situations will turn out; the error was therefore a fundamental one, a decisive test of the leadership’s capabilities, and it led to a highly unfavourable utilisation by the working class both of the weakening of fascism and the resounding failure of the Aventine.” “Draft theses for the 3rd Congress of the Communist Party of Italy presented by the Left: Lyons Theses, 1926,” (footnote 7).

Comments

Biographical sketch

This reads as a fairly serviceable historical overview, albeit one devoid of insight or even a strong interpretive claim. Like, the facts here are competently listed and chronologically laid out, but there's very little in the way of commentary until the very end. And once he does finally decide to weigh in, it's some bland syncretic judgment which says: "Well there were good things and bad things about Gramsci, but also some different good things and bad things about Bordiga."

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