The Party disfigured: the Bordigist conception

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

The Third International Conference of Groups of the Communist Left ran aground on a sandbank. The formal cause was the question of the party.

Nobody was in any doubt that this was only a pretext. The truth is, that since the Second Conference Battaglia Communista and the CWO have been feeling uneasy, and more concerned about the immediate interests of their group -- and so characteristic of the sectarian spirit -- than about the importance that International Conferences of Communist Groups may have in this period of rising class struggle. They have done all they could to bring about the failure of the Conferences.

This will be a great pleasure to the Bordigists of the International Communist Party, who have always claimed that no good could come of conferences between communist groups, all the more so since the One and Only International Party has already been in existence since 1943. That is to say, their little group. According to their own logic, the Bordigists consider themselves the only communist group in the world. The Bordigists are certainly consistent within their basic postulate -- that the program of the communist revol­ution was defined by Marx in 1848, and that since then it cannot vary one iota: amongst other things they claim that the party is unique (like God) and monolithic (like the Stalinist party)1. The Bordigists therefore refuse all discussion with anybody, demanding that all those who want to fight for commun­ism, join their Party purely as individuals.

Battaglia Communista seems more open to dis­cussion, But this openness is more apparent than real. For BC, discussion is not a con­frontation of positions, but a demand to be recognized as the Real Party: the only one worthy to speak in the name of the Italian Left. They do not understand, any more than Programma (the ICP), the process of regroup­ment amongst communist groups, scattered by the weight of 50 years of counter-revolution. This process, which opens with the rising proletarian struggle, and advances on the basis of a critical re-examination of the positions set out during the last revolut­ionary wave, and of the experience which has followed it, allows previous errors and immaturities to be overcome, and permits a greater theoretical-political coherence. This in turn makes a greater unity and cohesion possible in a future international communist party.

This article does not aim to go back over the misunderstandings of the numerous heirs of the Left Communist tradition, as regards the inevitable process of regroupment of the communist forces, and the place of the Inter­national Conferences in this process. We have dealt with this subject in numerous texts published in our press, particularly in the last issue of the IR. Here, we will limit ourselves to a single, but highly important question: the question of the party, its function, and its place in the develop­ment of the proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system.

Councilism and the Party: Real and Fictitious Divergences

To progress in the discussion of the party, we must above all be able and willing to establish the correct framework for the debate. The most unproductive way of conducting it consists in dishonestly blur­ring the boundaries between what can be called councilism and the convinced partisans of the necessity of the party.

Indiscriminately brandishing the councilist scarecrows against all those who do not share the Bolshevik conception of the Party, and esp­ecially its extravagant Bordigist caricature, only serves to maintain and develop the conf­usion over what councilism is and what the party is for.

The councilist movement appeared in the turb­ulent years of the revolutionary wave which followed World War 1. It shared with the Communist Left, apart from the Italian left, the fundamental idea that not only had the union movement as it then existed ceased to be an organ for the defence of the working class, but that the very structure of the trade union organization no longer corresp­onded to the needs of the proletarian struggle in the new historical period opened up by the war, a period that was now posing the necessity of the communist revolution. The tasks imposed on the working class in this new period demand a new type of organization. This type of organization could not be based on particular trade and corporatist interests, strictly limited to economic defense; it had to be really unitary, open to the dynamic act­ivity of the whole class, making no separation between the defense of the proletariat’s imm­ediate economic interests and its historic goal: the emancipation of the working class and the destruction of capitalism. Such an organization cannot be anything else than centralized and co-ordinated workers’ councils, based on the factories.

What separated the councilists from the Communist Left was not only that they denied the usefulness of a political party, but that they considered even the existence of a party as damaging to the class struggle. The councilists advocated the dissolution of the party in the unitary organizations -- the councils. This is the point that separated them from the Communist Left and led to their break with the KAPD.

As such, councilism represents a renewal of pre-war anarcho-syndicalism. And like anarcho-syndicalism, which was a gut-reaction against the electoralism and opportunism of the social-democracy. Councilism was a reaction against the ‘super-partyist’ tendencies in the communist organisation, which began by identifying the dictatorship of the proletariat with the dictatorship of the party and finished purely and simply by substituting the one for the other.

The ‘super-partyists’ or neo-Bolsheviks like to evade the criticism of their ultra-Leninist conceptions by insisting heavily on the fact that the Councilist movement originated in a split with the Communist Left, particularly in Germany. They use this observation, which is supposed to stain forever the Communist Left outside Italy with the original sin of councilism, as their ultimate argument.

This argument has as much value as reproaching the revolutionary left for having fought in the ranks of the Second International before the war. It is no less stupid than condemn­ing the Bolsheviks for having ‘engendered’ Stalinism.

Whatever the ‘super-partyists’ may think and say, the Communist Left is not the mother’s milk of councilism. Councilism feeds on the caricature that some revolutionaries make of the party and of its relation with the class. The aberrations of the former feed and strengthen those of the latter, and vice versa.

When the Bordigists and neo-Borrdigists, to help their own cause, call us councilist, this is a dishonest polemic, not a reply to our criticisms of their aberrations. Cer­tainly, it is easier to use the method of ‘he who wants to kill his dog first says it has rabies’ than to take the trouble of replying to arguments. This method, which consists of inventing no matter what and attributing it to the opponent, may pay in the short term, but turns out in the long term to be completely useless and negative. It serves only to confuse the debate instead of clarifying and highlighting each other's positions.

When, for example, Battaglia criticises councilism at a Conference of communist groups they are simply breaking down open doors. But when they try to stick this on the ICC, to justify their sabotage of the Conference, it makes you wonder what to think of a group like Battaglia, which has taken no less than 10 years to discover that it’s been discussing with a councilist group: And, better still, has been organizing International Conferences with this group for 4 years without noticing it was Councilist! As political flair and perspicacity goes, this leaves much to be desired. Instead of convincing anyone of this fairytale of the ICC’s councilism, Battaglia only discredits itself as a serious and res­ponsible political group. We don’t intend here to clear ourselves of the accusation of councilism. This is for our accusers to demonstrate. Even a slight acquaintance with the press of the ICC’s sections, and especially of our Platform, is enough to show that we have always rejected and fought against the aberrations that make up councilism.

But it’s even funnier to hear the same reproach coming from the CWO, who we had to argue with for months to make them go back on their analysis of the October Revolution and of the Bolshevik Party, which they saw as bourgeois. We had to drag the CWO by the ears to help them out of the modernist swamp of Solidarity. After ‘super-anti-partyism’, the CWO has now thrown itself into ‘super­partyism’ and the struggle against the ICC’s conceptions of the party.

So, let us leave to one side all these stupid fabrications about the ICC’s councilism2, and look at the real differences that separate us on the question of the party.

The nature of the Party

Many groups have difficulty in disengaging themselves clearly from Kautsky’s thesis, taken up and defended by Lenin in What is to be Done? This thesis holds that the proletarian class struggle and socialist consciousness spring from two absolutely different premises. According to this con­ception, the working class can only develop a “Trade-Unionist” consciousness, ie. one limited to the struggle for its immediate economic demands within capitalism. Social­ist consciousness, the understanding of the historic emancipation of the class is simply the work of intellectuals studying social questions. It follows logically from this that the party is the organization of these radical intellectuals, who give themselves the task of “importing this consciousness into the working class”. Thus not only do we have a being separated from its consciousness, a body separated from its spirit; better still, we have a disembodied spirit existing in itself. This is an idealist vision of the world taken from the neo-Hegelians, whom Marx and Engels thrashed so implacably in The Holy Family and The German Ideology.

With the Trotsky of the ‘Report of the Siberian Delegation’, with Rosa Luxemburg, and so many other revolutionaries, the ICC categorically rejects such a theory, which has nothing to do with Marxism -- which indeed turns its back on Marxism, Lenin himself, 10 years later, publicly admitted that he had gone much too far on this point, carried away in his pole­mic with economism. All the PCI (Programma)’s contortions and all the PCI (Battaglia)’s ‘dialectical’ somersaults to justify this theory of Kautsky’s (to mark their ‘fidelity’ to Lenin) only lead them into more and more contradictory affirmations. No anathema against ‘spontaneism’, no exorcism of ‘councilism’ will spare them from the obligation to declare themselves clearly, once and for all, on this fundamental point. This is not a question of a difference between Leninism3 and Councilism, but between Marxism and Kautskyism.

The political implications of this theory are still more serious than the philosophical and methodological aspects. It reduces the proletariat to a more economic category, where Marx recognized it as a historic class, bearer of the solution to all the contradict­ions that have entangled humanity through a succession of class-divided societies. The very class which bears the emancipation of all humanity in its own emancipation is down­graded to the point of denying it the capacity to become aware of itself and its role in history through its own struggle! Such a conception sees only the heterogeneous aspects of this class, and does not see that it is the most unified, the most “socialized”, the most concentrated, and the most numerous class in history. It ignores the fact that this class is the least alienated by the interests of private property, and that its misery is more than just its own misery: it’s the accumulated misery of all humanity. It does not under­stand that this class is the first in history with the capacity to develop a truly global, non-alienated consciousness. And it is from the heights of the mass of ignorance and non-comprehension about the nature of the working class that “consciousness” is supposed to be “injected” into it. Such a theory can only be the product of tiny megalomaniac brains or of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia.

And the Party? And the Communist Program? In contrast to Kautsky, to Lenin, and, with their permission, to all the Bordigists of every shape and hue, these are not, for us, some mysterious revelation, but, very simply, the product of the existence, life and activity of the class. And we share, with­out any fear of spontaneism, Rosa Luxemburg’s position, which countered Lenin’s form­ulation of “the party in the service of the proletariat” with that of “the party of the class”. In other words, an organism produced by the class for its own needs. The party is not some Messiah delegated by history to save the proletariat, but an organ created by the class in its historic struggle against the capitalist order.

The discussion is not about whether or not the party is a factor in the development of consciousness. Such a debate only has any meaning in confrontation with anarchists or councilists, but not between groups who identify with the communist left. But if Battaglia insists so hard on keeping the debate on this level, it is simply to avoid replying to the question of the nature of the party; that is, who and what does it come from? Battaglia’s obstinate repetitions about the “party-factor” appear in their true light; as a way of getting round recognizing that the party is above all a product of the class and that its existence and its evolution depend on the existence of the working class.

The ‘orthodox’ Bordigists of Programma don’t even need to resort to Battaglia’s so-called ‘dialectical’ sophisms, and proclaim frankly that the class only exists thanks to the party. If they are to be believed, it is the party’s existence that determines that of the class. For them, the party has been in existence since the Communist Manifesto.

Before that date there was no party and so no proletariat. Suppose this is so. This party would then possess the miraculous ability to make itself invisible, since according to them it has not ceased to exist since 1848. If we take a look at history, we observe that this doesn’t go with the facts. The Communist League existed 4 years, the First International 10 years, the Second International 15 years, and the Third International 8 years (counting generously), ie. a total of 37 years out of 132. What happened to the party for almost a century? This question does not embarrass our Bordigists, who have invented a ‘theory’ of the “real Party” and the “formal Party”. According to this ‘theory’, the formal, exterior and therefore material and visible body may disappear, but the real party lives on, no-one knows where, a pure invisible spirit. The Bordigist party itself has had a similar adventure, when it disappeared between 1927 and 1945 (exactly the time that Bordiga was asleep). And this is the shameless garbage that is presented to us as the quintessence of Marxism restored! As for the “complete and invariant Program” and the “real historic Party” they are incarnated today in 4 parties!, all of them PCI, and all of them laying claim to monolithism! All great swaggerers and eminent hunters-down of councilism. Diff­icult, very difficult, to discuss seriously with parties of this variety.

The Bordigists think they can support their conception of the party with quotes by Marx and Engels lifted arbitrarily out of their contexts. In doing so, they abuse the fund­amental spirit underlying the works of these great thinkers and founders of scientific socialism4. This is the case with the famous phrase from the Manifesto; “the organization of the proletariat as a class, and therefore as a political party”. Without wanting to do an exegesis on the literary merit of the translation5, it is enough to read the whole chapter from which the phrase is taken to be convinced that this has nothing to do with the interpret­ation put on it by the Bordigists, who transform this little word “therefore” into a precondition of the class’s existence, where­as for Marx it was a result of the process of working class struggle.

What concerns Marx and Engels in the Manifesto is the unavoidable necessity of working class organization, and not specifically the organ­ization of the party. The organization of a particular party remains very vague in the Manifesto. Thus they can go to the point of proclaiming “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties”, and end the Manifesto with the call, not for the constitution of a communist party, but “Workers of the world, unite”!

It is possible to quote hundreds of pages where Marx and Engels envisage organization as the organization of the whole class. For them, the function of such an organization is not only to defend the proletariat’s immed­iate economic interests but also to carry out the proletariat’s historic aims; the destruct­ion of capitalism, and the creation of a classless society.

We will simply quote from the following passage, in a letter from Marx to Bolte, 23/2/1871:

The ultimate object of the political movement of the working class is, of course, the conquest of political power for this class, and this naturally requires that the organization of the working class, an organization which arises from its economic struggles, should previously reach a certain level of development.

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class as a class confronts the ruling classes and tries to constrain them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt by strikes, etc., in a particular factory or even in a particular trade to compel individual capit­alists to reduce the working day, is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political move­ment, that is to say, a class movement, with the object of enforcing its interests in a general form, in a form possessing general, socially coercive force.”

And Marx adds:

While these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organization, they are in turn equally a means of developing this organization.”

Here, the movement unfolds without any magic wand-waving by the party. When he talks about organization, Marx is thinking here of the International Workingman’s Association (the First International), where true political parties, like that of Bebel and Liebknecht in Germany, were only one element amongst others. Marx considered this same Inter­national, the general organization of all the workers, to be “the constitution of the prol­etariat as a political party -- indispensable in assuring the triumph of the social rev­olution and of its final goal, the abolition of classes.” This is so obvious that the text continues in these terms; “the unity of its forces that the working class has already realized through its economic struggles must also serve as a lever for the mass of the class in the struggle against the power of its exploiters.” This resolution of the September 1871 London Conference of the IWA “reminds the members of the International that, in the struggles of the working class, its economic and political activity are inseparably linked.”

Compare these texts of Marx to other affirm­ations of the Bordigists and Co: “As long as classes exist, it will be impossible for them or for individuals to consciously gain any results; the party alone can do so.” (Group no. 3, March-April 1957, p.38). But where does this virtue of the “party alone” come from? And why only to it?

The proletariat is only a class to the extent that it is grouped behind a pro­gram, ie. A collection of rules for action determined by a general and def­initive explanation of the problem faced by the class, and of the goal to be reached in order to resolve that problem. Without this program....its experience does not go beyond the narrowest limits of the misery that its condition imposes on it.” (Work of Group no.4, May-June 1957,p.10)6.

But where do these “rules of action” which constitute the program come from? Accord­ing to the Bordigists, it absolutely can’t come from the working class’s experience of its own struggle, for the simple reason that this “experience does not go beyond the narrow­est limits of the misery that its condition imposes on it.” But where then can the prol­etariat possibly find an awareness of its being? The neo-Bolsheviks reply: “through a general and definite explanation of the problem faced by the class.” Not only do the Bordigists affirm that, through “its condition” the class is absolutely incapable of “going beyond the narrowest limits of its misery”; they claim still more categorically that the proletariat is not even a class, and can have no existence as such, unless as a pre­condition, there exists a Program, “a gener­al and definitive explanation,” behind which it can group itself and so become a class.

What does this have in common with the vision of Marx, for whom:

Economic conditions have first of all transformed the mass of the country into workers. The domination of capital has given this mass a common situation, common interests. Thus, this mass is already a class in relation to capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have indicated a few steps, this mass unites itself, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle between classes is a political struggle,”

and this after affirming earlier on that:

In this struggle -- a veritable civil war -- all the elements necessary for the coming battle unite and develop. Once arrived at this point, association takes on a political character.” (Poverty of Philosophy).

While the Bordigists, with Proudhon, only sees the “misery” of the proletariat’s condition, we see, with Marx, a class in movement which passes from resistance to coalition, from coalition to association, and from the struggle, at first economic, to the political struggle for the abolition of class society. In the same way we can fully subscribe to this idea of Marx:

Much research has been done to retrace the different historical phases that the bour­geoisie has gone through...But when it comes to making an exact study of the strikes, coalitions, and other forms whereby the proletarians work out before our eyes their organization as a class, some are gripped by a real fear, while others display a transcendental disdain.” (ibid).

What characterizes all the ‘neos’ and ‘ultras’ who call themselves ‘Leninists’ is their deep disdain for the class, for its real movement, and potential. Their profound lack of conf­idence in the class and its capacities leads them to seek security in a new Messiah, who is none other than themselves. In this way they transform their own feelings of insecurity into a superiority complex bordering on megalomania.

The Party’s role and function in the class

If the party is an organ produced by the body of the class, it is necessarily also an active factor in its life. If it is a sign of the process whereby the class grasps an awareness of its struggle, its fundamental function, the task for which the class has engendered it, is to contribute to this process of developing awareness, to be the indispensable crucible of theoretical and programmatic ela­boration. To the extent that the class, living in capitalist society, can escape neither the pressure not the barriers that hinder its homogenization the party is the means of its homogenization. To the extent that the dominant bourgeois ideology weighs down and hinders the development of the proletariat’s consciousness, the party is the organ charged with destroying these barriers, the antidote to the ideology of the enemy class which unceasingly poisons the proletariat’s brain. The range of its functions necessarily evolves as society changes, and with it, the balance of forces between proletariat and bourgeoisie. For example, while at the beginning of the class’ existence, it was a direct and decisive factor in the class’ organization, this task has diminished to the extent that the class has developed, has acquired a longer experience and a greater maturity. While parties played a preponderant role in the birth and develop­ment of the union organizations, the same was not true for the organization of the councils, which emerged before the party understood the phenomenon, and to some extent contrary to the explicit will of the party.

The party does not then live independently of the class; it grows and develops as the class develops. Equally, like the class, it under­goes the influence of the enemy class. And, in time of serious defeat for the class, it can degenerate and go over to the enemy, or momentarily disappear. What remains constant is the class’ need for this indispensable organ. And, like a spider whose web has been destroyed, the class continues to secrete the elements for the reconstitution of an organ which remains so vital to it. This is the process of continuous formation of the party.

The party is not the unique seat of class consciousness, as the epigones who call them­selves Leninists claim to the bitter end. It is neither infallible, nor invulnerable. All the history of the workers’ movement is there to prove it. And history is also there to show that the class as a whole accumulates experience and assimilates it directly. The recent formidable movement of the class in Poland is a witness to its remarkable cap­acity to assimilate and accumulate the experience of ‘70 and ‘76, and to overcome them despite the cruelly-felt absence of a party. The Paris Commune is another example of the immense capabilities of class conscious­ness. This in no way diminishes the role of the party, whose effective intervention is one of the main conditions of the proletariat’s final victory. A major, but not the sole, condition.The party is the principal (not the sole) seat of theoretical elaboration; but again, it mustn’t be seen as an indep­endent body outside the class. It is an organ, a part of the whole that is the class.

Like any organ charged with a specific function within a whole, the party may carry out this function well or badly. Because it is part of the entire living body which is the class, and so is itself a living organ, it is subject to defects due either to external causes or to its own malfunctioning. It is not a motionless body, sitting on top of an invariant program, finished once and for all. It needs to keep a constant watch, and work on itself, to try and find the best means for its upkeep and development. Instead of exalting it as a restorer and museum curator, as the neo-Bolsheviks do, we should keep our eyes open for a particular illness that lies in wait for it (and against which Rosa, in her struggle against ‘orthodox Marxism’ before 1914, Lenin in his struggle against ‘Old Bolsheviks’ in 1917, and Trotsky in ‘the Lessons of October’, put revolutionaries on their guard): its tendency towards conser­vatism. There are no guaranties of ready-made recipes. The symptoms of this disease take the form of a strict fidelity to the letter rather than to the living spirit of Marxism.

The party suffers from defects, not only due to the weight of the past and its tendency of conservatism, but also because it is confronted with new situations, new problems.

Nothing allows us to declare that, faced with situations never before seen in history it will be able to give the correct reply always and at once. History bears this out fully: the party can be mistaken. Moreover, the consequences of its mistakes can be extreme­ly grave and seriously alter its relationship with the class. The Bolshevik Party in power made quite a few, and the Communist Inter­national didn’t make any less. This is why the party cannot claim to be always in the right, and try to impose its leadership and decisions on the class by any means, including violence. It is not a ‘leader by divine right’.

The party is not a pure spirit, an absolute and infallible consciousness, before which the class can only bow its head. It is a political body, a material force acting within the class. It always remains res­ponsible and accountable to the class.

The CWO waxes ironical about our ‘fright’ over the ‘myth’ (sic) of the danger of substitutionism. Since the party is its most conscious part, the class have only had confidence in it, and so the party naturally and by definition takes power. But this is something that has to be proved: We might ask why Marx wrote The Civil War in France, where he emphasized the measures taken by the Paris Commune to keep a constant control over its delegates to public office, the most important of which was the fact that they were revocable at any moment? Were Marx and Engels councilists before their time? Is the CWO itself aware of the difference between an elected and revocable delegate, and the delegation of all power to a party -- because this is nothing less than the difference between the proletariat’s mode of functioning and the way the bourgeoisie operates. In the first case, we are talking about a person constantly responsible to those who have elected him for the execution of a task, and therefore revocable. In the second, we are talking about the delegation of power, all power, to a political body over which there is no control; its members are responsible to their party and to their party alone. The CWO sees our concern about the danger of sub­stitutionism a mere formalism, when in fact it would be falling into the worst formalism -- in other words the worst fraud -- to pretend that anything is changed by renaming the party central committee the executive committee of the councils! The class exercises its control directly over each one of its delegates, not by abandoning this control to someone else, not even to its class party.

The proletarian party is not a candidate for state power, a state party like the bourgeois parties. Its function cannot be to manage the state. This would bring with it the risk of changing the party’s true relationship with the class -- which involves giving the class a political orientation -- into a power relation­ship. In becoming the manager of the state, the party imperceptibly changes its role, and becomes a party of functionaries, with all the tendencies to bureaucratization that this implies. Here, the Bolshevik example is highly edifying.

But this point relates to a different questions that of the relationship between the party and state in the period of transition. Here, we have sought to limit ourselves to a demonstration of how hunting down councilism comes to serve as a pretext for the extravagant over­estimation of the role and function of the party. The end result is quite simply a caricature which terns the party into an elite by divine right.


1 No such monolithic party exists in the history of the workers’ movement.

2 To have done with all these spurious ‘criticisms’ let us recall that amongst the political criteria demanded for participation in the Conference, which we propose right from the beginning, there appears the recognition of the necessity of the party. Thus, in the letter which we sent to Battaglia in preparation for the first Conference, we wrote “the political criteria for participation at such a meeting must be strictly delineated by …6) The affirmation that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the class itself’ and that this implies the necessity of the existence of an organization of revolutionaries within the class” (15/7/76). Similarly, in the ‘Draft Resolution on the Tasks of Revolutionaries’ which we presented to the 2nd Conference (11/11/78), we wrote “the organization of revolutionaries constitute an essential organ of the proletarian struggle, as much before as after the revolution and the seizure of power; the lack of a proletarian party would mean an immaturity in the class’ consciousness, and without it, the working class is unable to realize its historic task: the destruction of the capitalist system and the building of communism.” And while the 2nd Conference showed up the differences on the role and function of the Party, it accepted unanimously the “recognition of the historical necessity of the Party” as a criteria for adherence to and participation in future International Conferences.

3 It is high time we banished from our vocabulary this terminology of Leninism and anti-Leninism, which hides everything and means nothing. Lenin was a great figure of the workers’ movement and his contributions is enormous. Nonetheless he was not infallible and his errors have weighed very heavily on the proletarian camp. The Lenin of Kronsdtadt is not acceptable because there was the Lenin of October and vice-versa.

4 That is to say, a scientific method, and not, as Battaglia put it, a Marxist science – which does not exist.

5 In French (la Pleiade) edition, M. Rubel translates this passage in the following way: “this organization of the proletariat into a class, and subsequently, into a political party” – a translation which is certainly more faithful to the real thought developed in the whole chapter of the Manifesto.

6 Bordigist review of the ICP (Programma).