Debates between "Bordigist” groups: Marxism and Mysticism

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As we showed in International Review no. 93, the recent opening up of debates between "Bordigist" groups represents an important evolution for the entire proletarian milieu. In particular, we pointed to the May 97 issue of Programme Communiste, theoretical journal of the International Communist Party (ICP) which publishes Le Proletaire in France and II Comunista in Italy, as a clear illustration of this movement and of the fact that this group is presently moving the most. The intensifying attack of the bourgeoisie against the communist traditions of the working class - against the Russian revolution, against the Bolshevik party, and against their most consistent defenders, the organisations of the communist left - is compelling the latter to recognise, however tentatively, that they are part of a proletarian political camp which has common interests in the face of the enemy's offensive. One obvious expression of this recognition has been the very fruitful joint work undertaken by the ICC and the CWO[1]. But the fact that some of the Bordigist groups have begun not only to acknowledge each other's existence, but also to polemicise with each other, and even to recognise the proletarian character of other currents in the left communist tradition, is also extremely significant, given that an extreme sectarian isolation has up to now been a distinguishing feature of this branch of the Italian left.

Programme Communiste no.95 (PC)contains a serious polemic with the Programma Comunista/ Internationalist Papers group on the Kurdish question, criticising them for making grave concessions to nationalism; and what is particularly noteworthy is that the article argues that it was errors of exactly the same type that led to the explosion of the ICP in the early 80s. This willingness to discuss the crisis of the main Bordigist organisation in that period is a new and potentially fertile development. The same issue also contains a response to the review of the ICC's book on the Italian Left published by the UK Trotskyist journal Revolutionary History. Here, Programme Communiste show an awareness that the attack on the ICC contained in this review is also an attack on the whole tradition of the Italian communist left.


We refer our readers to the article in International Review no.93 for further commentary on these articles. In this issue, we want to respond to another text in Programme Communiste no.95 - a polemic with the Florence-based Il Partito group, criticising the latter for falling into mysticism.

Marxism against mysticism

At first sight this might seem to be a strange subject for a polemic between revolutionary groups, but it would be a mistake to think that the most advanced fractions of the proletarian movement are immune from the influence of religious and mystical ideologies. This was certainly the case in the struggle to found the Communist League, when Marx and Engels had to combat the sectarian, semi-religious visions of communism professed by Weitling and other; it was no less true during the period of the First International, when the marxist fraction had to confront the masonic ideologies of sects like the Philadelphians, and above all of Bakunin's "International Brotherhood".


But it was above all once it ceased to be a revolutionary class, and even more when it entered its epoch of decadence, that the bourgeoisie more and more abandoned the materialist outlook of its youth and relapsed into irrational and semi-mystical world-views: the case of nazism is a concentrated example. And the final phase of capitalist decadence - the phase of decomposition - has exacerbated such tendencies still further, as witness phenomena such as the upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism and the proliferation of suicidal cults. These ideologies are increasingly all-pervasive and the proletariat can by no means escape them.


The fact that the proletarian political milieu itself has to be on guard against such ideologies has been demonstrated clearly in the recent period. We can cite the case of the London Psychogeographical Association and similar "groups", which have concocted a snake-oil mixture of communism and occultism and have been busily trying to sell it in the milieu. Within the ICC itself, we have seen the activities of the adventurer JJ, expelled for seeking to create a clandestine network of "interest" in the ideas of freemasonry.

Moreover, the ICC has already briefly criticised ll Partito's efforts to create a "communist mysticism" (see the article on communism as the overcoming of alienation in International Review no.71) and Programme Communiste's more detailed criticisms are perfectly justified. The quotations from II Partito's press contained in the article in Programme Communiste show that the group's slide into mysticism has become quite overt. For II Partito, "the only society capable of mysticism is communism" in the sense that "the species is mystical because it knows how to see itself without a contradiction between the here and now ... and its future". Moreover, since mysticism, in its original Greek meaning, is defined here as "the capacity to see without eyes", the party too "has its mystique, in the sense that it is capable of seeing ... with its eyes closed, that it can see more than the individual eyes of its members" " ... the only reality which can live [the mystical] mode of life during the domination of class society is the party". And finally, "it is only in communism that the Great Philosophy coincides with being in an organic circuit between the action of eating (today seen as trivial and unworthy of the spirit) and the action of respiring in the Spirit, conceived sublimely as truly worthy of the complete being, that is to say, God".


Programme Communiste is also aware that the struggle of marxism against the penetration of mystical ideologies is not new. They cite Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticism, through which a combat was waged against the development of idealist philosophy in the Bolshevik party in the 1900s, and in particular against attempts to turn socialism into a new religion (the "God-building" tendency of Lunacharsky). Lenin's book - although suffering from certain important weaknesses[2] - drew a line in the sand not only against the relapse into religiosity that accompanied the retreat in the class struggle after the 1905 revolution, but also against the concomitant danger of liquidating the party, of its fracturing into clans.

PC's criticisms of II Partito's errors are thus in continuity with the past struggles of the workers' movement and relevant to the fight against real dangers facing the proletarian political camp today. Il Partito's taste for mysticism is not its only weakness: its deep confusion about the trade unions, its disastrous misreading of the so-called "proletarian uprising" in Albania, its extreme sectarianism also mark it off as the Bordigist group most in danger of succumbing to bourgeois ideology today. PC's polemic - which explicitly warns II Partito of the danger of "passing to the other side of the barricade" - can thus be seen as part of the struggle to defend the proletarian milieu, a struggle to which the ICC is fully committed.

Roots of the Bordigist Mystique

For a critique to be radical, however, it must go to the roots. And a striking weakness of PC's polemic is its inability to the roots of Il Partito's errors - admittedly a difficult task since these roots are to a greater or lesser extent common to all the branches of the Bordigist family tree.


This is apparent early on when Programme Communiste upbraids Il Partito for its claim to be "the true and only continuators of the party". But if Il Partito is the most sectarian of the Bordigist groups, sectarian withdrawal, the practice of ignoring or dismissing out of hand all other expression of the communist left, has always been a distinguishing feature of the Bordigist current, and certainly well before the appearance of Il Partito in the 1970s. And even if we can understand the origins of this sectarianism as a defensive reaction in the face of the profound counter-revolution that prevailed at the time of Bordigism' s birth in the 40s and 50s, it is still a fundamental flaw of this current and has caused no end of damage to the proletarian milieu. The very fact that we are now confronted with the existence of three groups all claiming to be the "International Communist Party" is proof enough of this, since it tends to cast discredit on the very notion of a communist organisation.

But even on the question of mysticism and religion, it must be admitted that Il Partito did not pick its ideas out of a clear blue sky. In fact, we can find some of the roots of "Florentine mysticism" in Bordiga himself. The following passage is from Bordiga's "Commentary on the 1844 Manuscripts", a text that first appeared in Il Programma Comunista in 1959 and was republished in Bordiga et La passion du communisme, edited by Jacques Camatte in 1972):


"When, at a certain point, our banal contradictor ... says that we are building our mystique, himself posing as a mind who which has gone beyond all fideism and mysticism, when he holds us in derision for kneeling down to the Mosaic or talmudic tablets of the Bible or the Koran, to gospels and catechisms, we reply to him .... that we do not consider as an offense the assertion that we can indeed attribute to our movement - as long as it has not triumphed in reality (which in our method precedes any ulterior conquest of human consciousness) - the character of a mystique, or, if you want, a myth.

Myth, in its innumerable forms, was not the delirium of minds which had their physical eyes shut to reality - natural and human in an inseparable manner as in Marx - but was an irreplaceable stage in the single road to the real conquest of consciousness .... ".


Before proceeding, it is necessary to put this passage in its proper context.

First of all, we are not putting Bordiga on the same level as his epigones in Il Partito, still less as the present day "communist" occultists such as the LPA. As a marxist, Bordiga is careful to situate these statements in a historical framework; thus, in the next paragraph, he goes on to explain why marxists can have a respect and admiration for movements of the exploited in previous class societies, movements which could not arrive at a scientific understanding of their goals and thus grasped their aspirations for the abolition of exploitation in terms of myths and mysticism. We have also ourselves noted (in the article on communism in International Review no.71) that Bordiga's descriptions of human consciousness in a communist society - a consciousness that has gone beyond the atomised ego that sees itself outside of nature - are close to the descriptions of the experience of enlightenment in some of the more developed mystical traditions. We think that Bordiga was sufficiently cultured to have been aware of these connections; and, once again, it is valid for marxists to make them on condition that they do not lose sight of the historical method, which shows that any such anticipations must inevitably be limited by the material and social conditions in which they emerged. Consequently, communist society will certainly transcend them. Il Partito has clearly lost sight of the method, and as the strange and convoluted passages quoted above reveal, it has consequently fallen head first into mysticism - not only because of the obscurity of its prose, but above all because instead of seeing communism as the material and rational realisation of previous human aspirations, it tends to subordinate the communist future into some grandiose mystical project.
Secondly, we must also understand the historical moment in which Bordiga wrote such passages. In effect, he was polemicising against a version of the "end of marxisrn" ideology that was very prevalent during the post-war reconstruction period, in which capitalism gave the appearance of having overcome its crises and thus of having refuted the fundamentals of marxist theory. This attack on marxism as being out of date, as a kind of religious dogma, was very similar to the derision currently being heaped on the "Jurassic" communists who still defend the October Revolution and the marxist tradition. Not only Bordigism's inveterate sectarianism but also the closely-linked conceptions of "invariance" and of the monolithic party were defensive reactions against the pressure on the proletarian vanguard at the time - pressures that were very real as we can see from the fate of a group like Socialisme ou Barbarie which succumbed completely to capitalism's "modernist" ideology. Bordiga's defence of marxism as a kind of mystique, of the communist programme as a kind of Mosaic Law, has to be seen in this light.
But to understand is not to excuse. And for all Bordigas profound attachment to marxism, the fact remains that he himself overstepped the mark that clearly distinguishes marxism from any kind of mystical or religious ideology. The concept of invariance - "Marxist theory is one invariant block from its origin to its final victory. The only thing it expects from history is to find itself more and more strictly applied and consequently more and more deeply engraved with its invariant features within the programme of the class party" (Communist Program no.2, March 1978, p7) - is indeed a concession to an ahistorical, semi-religious conception of marxism. While it is true that the communist programme does have an unchanging core of general principles such as the class struggle, the transient nature of class society, the necessity for the proletarian dictatorship and communism, the communist programme is far from being "one invariant block" since its inception. It has been developed, concretised, elaborated by the real experience of the working class and by the theoretical reflections of the communist vanguard; and the epochal changes in capitalism brought about duping its decadent period (a concept which has been largely ignored or even dismissed in Bordigist theory) have in particular necessitated profound modifications to the programmatic positions defended by communists. When the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie sneers that marxism is comparable to a Bible or a Koran which is considered to be the word of God precisely because not a dot or comma can be changed, it is no answer to cry "yes, and what's wrong with that?". The concept of invariance is the product of a line of thought which has lost sight of the dialectical link between continuity and change, and, in doing so, tends to turn marxism from a dynamic method to a fixed and immutable doctrine. In a polemic in International Review no.14 "A caricature of the party: the Bordigist party", the ICC has already pointed out the real similarity between the Bordigist approach and the Islamic attitude of submission to an immutable doctrine. And as we pointed out in another polemic, no less "spiritualistic", ahistorical and non-materialist is the basic Bordigist dstinction between the "formal" and the "historical party invented to explain away the fact that the real, functioning communis parties have only existed for limited period during the history of the workers' movement: "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 in visible spirit" ("The party disfigured: the Bordigist conception", International Review no.23).

The currents of the communist left outside Bordigism have also criticised the inter-linked notions of internal monolithism and of the "great leader" which developed in the post-war party (see the reprint of the text by the Gau he Comrnuniste de France in International Review nos.33 and 34), and the use of the theory of "organic centralism" to justify elitist practices within the party[3]. These conceptions are all coherent with the semi-religious notion of the party as the guardian of a once and for all revelation accessible only to a select few; given this background, it is not altogether surprising that II Partiito should claim that the only true way of living the mystical life today is to join the Bordigist party!


Finally, we should also point out that all these conceptions of the party's internal functioning are profoundly linked to the Bordigist article of faith that the task of the party is to exert the dictatorship of the proletariat on behalf of, and even against, the mass of the proletariat. And the communist left - most particularly its Italian branch, in the days of Bilan, but also in the work of the GCF and the Damen tendency - have abundantly criticised this notion as well.

We thus think that Programme Communiste's criticisms of Il Partito must go deeper, to the real historical roots of its errors and in doing so, engage with the rich heritage of the entire communist left. We are convinced that we are not preaching to the deaf: the new spirit of openness within the Bordigist milieu testifies to that. And Programme Communiste even gives some important signs of movement on the party question itself, because at the end of their article, while still retaining the idea of the party as the "general staff" of the class, they insist that "there is no place in its functioning and its internal life for idealism, mystics, the cult of leaders or superior authorities, as is the case with parties who are about to degenerate and go over to the counter-revolution". We can only agree with these sentiments, and hope that the current debates in the Bordigist milieu will enable its components to take these developments to their logical conclusion.



[1] See the article on the joint public meeting of the Communist Left in defence of the October Revolution, published in World Revolution no.210, as well as in the CWO's Revolutionary Perspectives no.9.

[2] Programme Communiste neglect to mention that the historical communist left has made some serious criticisms of certain of the "philosophical" arguments contained in Lenin's book. In his Lenin as Philosopher, written during the 1930s, Pannekoek showed that in his effort to affirm the fundamentals of materialism, Lenin ignores the distinction between bourgeois materialism - which tends to reduce consciousness to a passive reflection of the external world - and the marxist dialectical standpoint which, while affirming the primacy of matter, also insists on the active side of human consciousness, its capacity to shape the external world. In the early 1950s the Gauche Communiste de France wrote a series of articles which recognised the validity of these criticisms, but in turn showed that Pannekoek himself was guilty of a kind of mechanical materialism when he tried to prove that Lenin's philosophical errors demonstrate that Bolshevism was no more than the representative of the bourgeois revolution in backward Russia. See the reprint of the 1948 article by Intemationalisme criticising Pannekoek's Lenin as Philosopher in International Review nos.25, 27, 28, and 30, and also our book on The Dutch Left, chapter 7 part 5.

[3] See Un chiarimento, Fra Ie ombre del bordighismo e dei suoi epigoni, supplement to Battaglia Comunista no. 11 , 1997.