The Italian Communist Left: On the pamphlet "Among the shades of Bordigism and its epigones" (Battaglia Comunista)

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Those who are today posing questions about the revolutionary perspectives of the working class come across a proletarian political milieu which is considerably dispersed1. The movement towards this milieu by newly arising militant forces is held back by several factors. First there is the general pressure of the ideological campaigns against communism. Then there is the whole confusion sown by the 'leftist' currents of the bourgeois political apparatus as well as the array of parasitic groups and publications which claim to be communist but which merely make the content and organisational form of communist politics look ridiculous2. Finally there is the fact that the different organised components of the communist left mutually ignore each other most of the time and run away from the public confrontation of their political positions, whether we are talking about their programmatic principles or their organisational origins. This attitude is a barrier to the clarification of communist political positions, to the understanding of what the different tendencies of this milieu have in common, and of the divergences which explain their separate organisational existence. This is why we think that anything which goes towards breaking with this attitude has to be welcomed, providing that it is based on a political concern to publicly and seriously clarify the positions and analyses of other organisations.

 

This clarification is all the more important as regards the groups that present themselves as the heirs of the 'Italian Left'. This current is composed of a number of organisations and publications which all refer back to the same common trunk - the Communist Party of Italy in the 1920s (which mounted the most consistent opposition to the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist International) and also to the constitution of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista (PCInt) in Italy in 1943. This 1943 PCInt was to give rise to two tendencies in 1952: on the one hand the Partito Cornunista Internazionalista (PCInt)3, on the other hand the Partito Comunista Internazionale (PCI)4 animated by Bordiga. Over the years the latter has dislocated and given birth to at least three main groups who all call themselves the PCI, as well as a multitude of more or less confidential small groups, without mentioning the individuals who nearly all present themselves as the "only" continuators of Bordiga. The label of "Bordigism" is often used (frequently as a term of abuse) to describe the continuators of the Italian Left, because of the personality and the notoriety of Bordiga.

 

For its part the ICC, while it does not refer back to the PCInt of 1943, does refer to the Italian Left of the 1920s, to the Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy which later became the Italian Fraction of the International Communist Left in the 1930s, as well as to the French Fraction of the Communist Left which in the 1940s opposed the dissolution of the Italian Fraction into the newly-formed PClnt, since it considered the constitution of the party to be premature and confused 5.

 

What are the common positions and the divergences? Why such an organisational dispersion? Why so many groups and "parties" coming from the same historical tendency? Such are the questions which any serious group has to deal with, if it is to respond to the need for political clarity which exists in the working class as a whole, as well as among the more politicised minorities which appear within the class.

 

It is in this sense that we have welcomed the recent internal polemics within the Bordigist milieu, which has shown an attempt, serious if a little timid, to go into the question of the political roots of the explosive crisis of the PCI-Programma Comunista in 1982 (see International Review 93). It was in the same spirit that we briefly took position, in the article 'Marxism and mysticism' in IR 94, on the debate between the two Bordigist formations which publish respectively Le Proletaire and II Partito Comunista. In this article we showed that while Le Proletaire was correct in criticising Il Partito's slide towards mysticism. these ideas did not come out of the blue but have their roots in Bordiga himself; and we concluded this article by affirming that Le Proletaire'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". And it is again in this spirit that we are welcoming the appearance of a pamphlet published by Battaglia Comunista on Bordigism: 'Among the shades of Bordigism and its epigones', a critical balance sheet of the Bordigism of the post-war period, which explicitly presents itself as a "clarification" as it says in the pamphlet's subtitle.

 
Although a rather difficult read for anyone not familiar with the differences between Battaglia and the Bordigists over the past 40 years this pamphlet is nevertheless a precious contribution to the understanding of these differences and for re-situating Bordigism and its specificities within the wider context of the Italian Left.6

A good critique of the conceptions of Bordigism

We share the essentials of BC's analysis and critique of Bordigism's conceptions about the historical development of capitalism: "In sum, the risk is precisely one of taking up an abstract stance in the face of a 'historical development of situations' of which - and here we are in agreement with Bordiga - 'the party is both a factor and a product', precisely because historical situations are never like a simple photocopy of each other, and their differences must always be estimated in a materialist fashion".

 
Similarly we are in general agreement with the critique of the vision of marxism held by Bordiga's epigones, with its cult of the 'brilliant leader'; of an 'invariant' marxism which needs to be restored through experience and which only needs to be 'restored' through Bordiga's texts: "The restoration of marxism is contained in the texts elaborated by Bordiga, who is the only one - according to the epigones - able to apply the method of the left and to provide the necessary theoretical ba aee. One can only go back to and start from these texts, say the most fundamentalist Bordigists. Any other approach would put in question not only the continuity of the left, but also the invariance of marxism. This is why it is absolutely necessary to index the works of the Master so that they can be given materally to new comrades, since the texts are out of print or dispersed. The solution lies in printing books which contain all the theses and 'semi-works' left by Bordiga and to pore over them. To sum up: the mythification of Bordiga's thought in the period after the Second World War is based on the conviction that it is only in his theoretical work that we have the 'restoration' of marxist science and the 'rediscovery' of real revolutionary practice".

We can also underline the validity of the critique that BC makes of the implications these conceptions have for the capacity of the organisation to live up to the demands of the situation: "It is a materialist truth that the party is also a historic product, but there is the risk of reducing this principle to a completely contemplative affirmation, to a passive and abstract view of social reality. There is the risk of once again falling into mechanical materialism, which has nothing dialectical about it, and which neglects the links, the phases the movement has to pass through over various situations. There is the risk of not understanding the relations which reciprocally influence each other in historical development, and thus of reducing the preparation and activity of the party to an idealist 'historic' presence, or to a 'formal' appearance".

 

A strong point of BC's critique of Bordigism resides in the fact that BC tries to go to the roots of the divergences, by going back to the various positions which already made their appearance within the PCInt of 1943, up to 1952 when the split took place between the Bordigists on the one hand and the Battaglists on the other. With regard to this we should note that BC has made a particular effort to document and analyse this period by publishing two Quaderni di Battaglia Comunista, no 6 'The process of the formation and birth of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista' and no. 3, 'The Internationalist Split of 1952, Documents'.

 

The richness of BC's critique also resides in the fact that it deals with aspects of the structure and functioning of the revolutionary organisation as well as with the programmatic positions it has to defend.

 

In the next part of this article, we will limit ourselves to certain questions relating to the first point, around which BC develops a very effective critique of organic centralism and the myth of unanimism as theorised by Bordiga and defended by his political heirs.

Organic centralism and unanimism in decisions

In substance, organic centralism, as opposed to democratic centralism, corresponds to the idea that the revolutionary organisation of the proletariat must not submit to the logic of the formal approval of decisions by the majority of the party; this 'democratic' logic is a logic borrowed from the bourgeoisie for whom the position that wins out is the one that receives the most votes, independent of whether it corresponds to the needs and perspectives of the working class:

 

"The adoption and general or partial use of the criterion of consul1ation and deliberation on the basis of numbers and majorities, when it is foreseen in the statutes or in the technical praxis, has a technical or expedient character, but not the character of a principle. The bases of the party organisation cannot therefore resort to rules which are those of other classes or other forms of historical domination, like the hierarchical obedience of simple soldiers to the various officers and leaders inherited from military or pre-bourgeois theocratic organisations, or to the abstract sovereignty of electors delegated to representative assemblies or executive committees which are typical of the juridical hypocrisy of the capitalist world, the critique and destruction of such organisations is the essential task of the proletarian and communist revolution" (Bordigist text published in 1949 and reproduced in BC's pamphlet 'The Internationalist Split').

 

We can understand Bordiga's fundamental concern when, with his return to active politics after the war, he was trying to stand up to the invasive ideology of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, to the grip they could so easily have over a generation of militants newly integrated into the PCInt, most of them inexperienced, not well formed theoretically and often even influenced by counter-revolutionary ideologies7. The concern can be understood, but we cannot agree with the solution that Bordiga came to. BC rightly responds:

"To condemn democratic centralism as the application of bourgeois democracy to the revolutionary political organisation is above all a method of discussion comparable to that used on many occasions by Stalinism ". BC then recalls how "Bordiga, after 1945, on a number of occasions ridiculed the 'solemn resolutions of sovereign congresses' (and the foundation of Programme Communiste in 1952 had its origins in precisely such a disdain for the first two congresses of the Partito Comunista Iniemasionalista)".

 

Naturally, in order to realise organic centralism, it was necessary to validate "unanimism", ie the idea that the party cadres are ready to passively accept the (organic) directives of the centre, setting aside their divergences, or hiding them, or at most circulating them discretely in the corridors at the official meetings of the party. Unanimism is the other side of the coin to organic centralism. All this can be explained by the idea - which was taken up by a large part of the PClnt in the 1940s (the part which was later to form Programme) - according to which Bordiga was the only one intellectually capable of resolving the problems posed to the revolutionary movement after the war. Let us cite this significant testimony by Ottorino Perrone (Vercesi):

 

"The Italian party is for the most part made up of new elements, without theoretical formation - political virgins. The old militants themselves have for 20 years been isolated, cut of ffrom any developing political thought. In the present situation the militants are incapable of dealing with problems of thought and ideology. Discussion can only disturb them and will do more harm than good. For the moment they need to walk on solid ground, even if it is made up of old positions which are now out of date but which have at least been formulated and are comprehensible to them. For the moment it is enough to group together those who have a will to act. The solution to the great problems raised by the experience between the wars demands the calm of reflection. Only a 'great mind' can approach them fruitfully and give them the answers they require. General discussion will only lead to confusion. Ideological work cannot be done by the mass of militants, but only by individuals. As long as these brilliant individuals have not arisen, we cannot hope to advance ideologically. Marx and Lenin were such individuals, such geniuses, in the past. We must await the arrival of a new Marx. We in Italy are convinced that Bordiga is such a genius. He is now working on a whole series of responses to the problems tormenting the militants of the working class. When this work appears, the militants will only have to assimilate it, and the party to align its politics and its action with these new developments" (taken from the article 'The concept of the brilliant leader', lntemationalisme 25, August 1947, reproduced in IR 33, second quarter of 1983).

This testimony is the expression of a whole conception of the party which is alien to revolutionary marxism, in that unlike the stupidities against democratic centralism cited above, we have here a truly bourgeois conception of the revolutionary vanguard. Consciousness, theory, analysis, are presented asthe exclusive task of a minority - and even at some level, of a single intellectual - while the party has to do no more than wait for the directives from the leader (imagine how long the working class as a whole would have to wait if it had a party like that for its guide!). This is the real meaning of organic centralism and the need for unanimity8. But how can this be squared with the fact that Bordiga was the comrade who, in order to defend the positions of the minority, created and animated the abstentionist fraction of the Italian Socialist Party, and who demonstrated his militant courage in defending the views of his party within the Communist International, and as a result of all this was an inspiration to the comrades in exile who, during the years of fascism in Italy, constituted the Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy with the aim of drawing up a balance sheet of the defeat in order to form the cadres of the future party? No problem: all that can be dismissed by saying that the Fraction is no longer of any use; now, the brilliant leader will resolve everything.

 
"The Party considers that the formation of fractions and the struggles between them within the political organisation is a historic process which the communists have found useful and which they applied when the old parties and leaderships were in a process of irremediable degeneration and when there was no party with a revolutionary character and function.

When such a party has been fanned and is active, it has no further use within itself for fractions which are divided ideologically and still less organisationally" (extract from 'Notes on the bases of the organisation of the class party', a Bordigist text published by the PClnt in 1949 and reproduced in BC's pamphlet 'The Internationalist Split').

 
There is nothing astonishing in the fact that once Bordiga had died, his heirs quarrelled among themselves, each one trying to get his hands on the political effects of the old leader in a vain attempt to find the responses to the problems posed to the revolutionary vanguard in an ever-more crucial manner. And all this had very little to do with the powerful, compact party boasted about by the different Bordigist formations. We think that those Bordigist comrades who have shown that they do know how to rectify past errors and who have a less and less sectarian attitude, have to be convinced to re-examine their whole conception of the party, for which they are still paying a considerable political tribute.9

The limits of Battaglia's critique

As we said before, we consider that BC's criticisms are very valuable and we agree on a good number of the points dealt with. There is however a weak point in the critique which has often been a subject for polemics between our two organisations, and which is important to clarify. This weak point concerns the analysis of the formation of the PClnt in 1943, which for us obeyed an opportunist logic - an analysis which BC obviously doesn't share - which is a considerable weakness in its critique of Bordigism. We cannot go back over each aspect of the problem here; in any case we have examined this question in the two recent articles we have already mentioned, 'On the origins of the ICC and the IBRP', but it is important to recall the main points:

 

1. Contrary to what BC says, ie that in any case we were always opposed to the formation of the party in 1943, let us remember that "When in 1942-43 the great workers' strikes began, that were to lead to the fall of Mussolini and his replacement by the pro-Allied Badoglio ... the Fraction considered, in line with the position it had always held, that 'the course towards the transformation of the Fraction into the Party is open in Italy'. The Conference of August 1943 decided to renew contact with Italy, and asked its militants to prepare to return as soon as possible" (IR 90).

 

2. Once the modalities for building this party in Italy were known - modalities which consisted of regrouping comrades from the old Livorno party of 1921, each with their own history and its consequences, without the slightest verification of a common platform, thus throwing away all the work carried out by the Fraction in exile10, the Gauche Communiste de France11 began to develop some very strong criticisms, which we share in all their essentials.

3. Among other things, this critique concerned the integration into the party, and in a position of highest responsibility, of someone like Vercesi who had been expelled from the Fraction for participating, at the end of the war, in an anti-fascist committee in Brussels. Vercesi had not made the slightest criticism of his activity.

 

4. The criticism also concerned the integration into the party of elements from the minority of the Fraction in exile who had split to go and carry out propaganda work among the republican militias during the war in Spain in 1936. Here again, the criticism was not about the integration of these elements as such but about the fact that it had been done without any prior discussion on their past errors.

 

5. Finally, there was a criticism of the PClnt's ambiguous attitude towards the anti-fascist partisans.

 

A fair number of the criticisms that BC make of the Bordigist wing of the PClnt in the years 1943-52 concern errors that were really the expression of this unprincipled unification which had been at the basis of the formation of the Party; comrades of both wings of the Party were aware of this and the GCF had denounced it without any concessions12. The subsequent explosion of the Party into two branches in a phase of great difficulty resulting from the reflux of the struggles which had broken out during the war, was the logical consequence of the opportunist way the Party had been constructed.

It is precisely because this is the weak point of its text that BC is led into some strange contortions: sometimes it minimises the differences between the two tendencies within the PCInt at the time; at other times it makes out that they only appeared at the time of the split and, at still other times it attributes them to the Fraction in exile itself.

 

When BC minimises the problem, it gives the impression that before the PCInt there was nothing, that there wasn't the whole work of the Fraction beforehand and later of the GCF which carried out a major work of reflection and came to a number of important conclusions:

 

"When we reconsider all these events, the short but intense historic period in which the Pclnt was formed has to he kept in mind: it was among other things inevitable that after nearly two decades of dispersion and isolation of the surviving cadres of the Italian left, that there would he some internal differences, based mainly on misunderstandings and on different balance-sheets drawn from various personal and local experiences" (Quademi di Battaglia Comunista no. 3, 'The Internationalist Split').

When BC makes it look as if the divergences only appeared at the time of the split, it is simply committing a historical falsehood which tends to hide the responsibility of its political ancestors for trying to swell the party's ranks with as many militants as possible in a purely opportunist manner:

 

"What happened in 1951-52 took place precisely in the period in which certain of the most negative characteristics of this tendency - which would have continued to cause other damage, notably thanks to the work of the epigones - manifested themselves for the first time" (ibid, our emphasis). Finally, when BC attributes to the Fraction the divergences which later expressed themselves within the Party, it only shows that it has not understood the difference between the of a fraction and those of a party. The task of a fraction is to make a balance sheet of a historic defeat and to prepare the cadres of the future party. It is inevitable that in malting this balance sheet different points of view will be expressed and this is why Bilan defended the idea that, in this internal debate, it was necessary to make the widest possible criticisms without any ostracism. The task of the party, on the other hand, is to assume, on the basis of a platform and a programme which is clear and agreed upon by all, the political leadership of workers' struggles in a decisive moment of class confrontations, so that an osmosis develops between party and class and the party is recognised as such by the class "But in the Fraction before the Party and within the Party afterwards there cohabited two states of mind which the definitive victory of the counter-revolution ... was led to separate" (ibid).

It is precisely this incomprehension of the respective functions of fraction and party which has led BC (like Programma itself through its various splits) to carry on calling its organisation a party, even though the workers' upsurge at the end of the war was completely exhausted and it was necessary to go back to the patient but no less absorbing work of completing the balance sheet of the defeat and forming the future cadres. In this regard, despite the falsity of certain arguments put forward by Vercesi and other elements of the Bordigist wing, BC is also wrong to dismiss as liquidationist the idea that since the historic period had changed, it was necessary to go back to the work of a fraction:

 

"They were the first steps which would later lead certain elements to envisage the demobilisation of the Party, the suppression of the revolutionary organisation and the renunciation of any contact with the masses, by replacing the militant function and responsibility of the party by the life of a fraction, of a circle which would be a school of marxism" (ibid).

 

On the contrary, it was precisely the formation of the Party and the pretence of developing the work of a party when the objective conditions for this did not exist which pushed and still pushes Battaglia to take a few steps towards opportunism, as we showed recently in an article that appeared in our territorial press about BC's intervention towards the GLP, a political formation that has come out of the autonomist milieu:

"Honestly, our fear is that BC, instead of playing its role of political leadership towards these groups by pushing them to clarify and to reach a political coherence, is tending out of opportunism to adapt itself to their activism, closing its eyes to their political deviations, and thus running the serious risk of being pulled into the leftist dynamic which the GLP contain"13.

 

This is a serious matter because, leaving aside the danger of sliding towards leftism, BC is limiting its intervention to that of a local group with an intervention towards students and autonomists. In reality BC has a vitally important role to play both in the current dynamic of the proletarian camp, and in the development of the IBRP itself.

5th September 1998, Ezechiele

To obtain the pamphlet in Italian Fra les ombre del bordighismo e dei sui epigone: Battaglia Comunista, Casella Postale 1753, 20101, Milano, Italy.

1 As we have already developed on a number of occasions in our press. what we understand by the proletarian political milieu is made up of those who derive from or who are moving towards the positions of the communist left. Because it is made up of groups and organisations who have been able to maintain the principles of proletarian internationalism in and since the Second World War, and who have always denounced the counter-revolutionary character of Stalinism and the left of capital. the communist left. With those who take up its principles and attach themselves to this tradition, is the only authentically proletarian political milieu.

2 See IR 94, 'Theses on parasitism'

3 This is the group which publishes Prometeo and Battaglia Comunista and which in the 1980s formed the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP) with the Communist Workers' Organisation of Britain.

4 The theoretical organ of the PCI after the split was Programma Comunista in Italy and Programme Communiste in France, the countries where it had its strongest representation.

5 See the polemic 'On the origin of the ICC and the IBRP: The Italian Fraction and the Communist Left of France', IR 90; 'The formation of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista', lR 91.

The different Bordigist groups have the bizarre habit of all calling, themselves the International Communist Party. To differentiate them we refer to them by the best known periodical each one publishes internationally, even when these groups exist in several countries. We therefore talk about Le Proletaire (which publishes II Comunista in Italy); II Partito (which publishes under the same name) and Programma Comunista, which is now distinct from Programme Communiste in France).

6 The pamphlet currently exists in Italian; it will be available in French at the end of 1998 and in English the following year.

7 Consider the following passage taken from a letter to the Executive Committee in March 1951 (this was right in the middle of the split) and signed by Bottaioli, Stefanini, Lecci and Damen: "In the Party press we often find theoretical formulations, political indications and practical justifications which show the determination of the EC to develop Party cadres who are not organisationally very reliable and are politically unprepared, rather like guinea pigs for experiments of political dilettantism which has nothing in common with the politics of a revolutionary vanguard" (our emphasis).

8 The alternative to organic centralism is naturally not anarchism, the obsessive search for individual liberty, the lack of discipline, but to assume one's militant responsibility in the debates of the revolutionary organisation and in the class, all the while applying the orientations and decisions of the organisation once they have been adopted.

9 See also the older polemics on this theme: 'The party disfigured: the Bordigist conception' in IR 23 'Against the concept of the brilliant leader', IR 33; 'Discipline. Our principal strength' in IR 34.

10 On the very low level of political formation of the party cadres, we have already cited at the beginning of this article testimonies both from the Battaglia and Programma wings of the Party.

11 The Gauche Communiste de France was formed around the positions of the Italian Fraction in 1942, initially taking the name French Nucleus of the Communist Left, then the French Fraction.

12 This is how the Bordigist group Le Proletaire put it in an article devoted to the 1952 split:

"Another point of disagreement was the way of seeing the process of the formation. of the Party as a process of 'aggregating' dispersed nuclei whose lacunae would be compensated mutually (this was in particular the case with the famous attempt at the 'four way regroupment' - quadrofolio - through the fusion of different groups, including Trotskyists, which went through various re-editions, all of them unfruitful, before being incarnated in the formula of the 'Bureau' ... " (Taken from 'The meaning of the
1952 split in the Partito Comunista Internazionalista', Programme Communiste 93, March 1993).

13 See the article 'The Proletarian Struggle Groups': an incomplete attempt to reach a revolutionary coherence', Rivoluzione Internazionale, soon to be published in Revolution Internationale.