Bordiga and the Big City

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“Bright lights, big city, gone to my baby’s head” - Jimmy and Mary Reed, 1961


This article is being written in the midst of the global Covid-19 crisis, a startling confirmation that we are living through the terminal phase of capitalist decadence. The pandemic, which is a product of the profoundly distorted relationship between humanity and the natural world under the reign of capital, highlights the problem of capitalist urbanisation which previous revolutionaries, notably Engels and Bordiga, have analysed in some depth. Although we have looked at their contributions on this question in previous articles in this series[1], it thus seems opportune to raise the issue again. We are also nearing the 50th anniversary of Bordiga’s death in July 1970, so the article can also serve as part of our tribute to a communist whose work we value very highly, despite our disagreements with many of his ideas. With this article, we begin a new “volume” of the series on communism, specifically aimed at looking at the possibilities and problems of the proletarian revolution in the phase of capitalist decomposition

Revolution in the face of capitalist decomposition

In an earlier part of this series, we published a number of articles which looked at the way that the communist parties which emerged during the great revolutionary wave of 1917-23 had tried to take the communist programme from the abstract to the concrete – to formulate a series of measures to be taken by the workers’ councils in the process of taking power out of the hands of the capitalist class  [2]. And we think that it is still perfectly valid for revolutionaries to pose the question: what would be the fundamentals of the programme that the communist organisation of the future – the world party – would be obliged to put forward in an authentic revolutionary upsurge? What would be the most urgent tasks confronting the working class when it is moving towards the taking of political power on a global scale? What would be the key political, economic and social measures to be implemented by the dictatorship of the proletariat, which remains the necessary political precondition for the construction of a communist society? 

The revolutionary movements of 1917-23, like the world imperialist war which fuelled them, were clear proof that capitalism had entered its “epoch of social revolution”, of decadence. Henceforward the progress and even survival of humanity would be increasingly under threat unless the capitalist social relation was overcome on a world scale. In this sense the fundamental aims of a future proletarian revolution are in full continuity with the programmes that were put forward at the onset of the period of decadence. But this period has now lasted over a century and in our view the contradictions accumulated over this century have opened up a terminal phase of capitalist decline, the phase we call decomposition, in which the continuation of the capitalist system contains the growing danger that the very conditions for a future communist society are being undermined. This is particularly evident at the “ecological” level: in 1917-23 the problems posed by pollution and the destruction of the natural environment were far less developed than they are today. Capitalism has so distorted the “metabolic exchange” between man and nature that at the very least, a victorious revolution would have to dedicate an enormous amount of human and technical resources simply to cleaning up the mess that capitalism will have bequeathed to us. Similarly, the whole process of decomposition, which has exacerbated the tendency towards social atomisation, towards the attitude of “every man for himself” inherent in capitalist society, will leave a very damaging imprint on the human beings who will have to construct a new community founded on association and solidarity. We also have to recall a lesson from the Russian revolution: given the certainty that the bourgeoisie will resist the proletarian revolution with all its might, the victory of the latter will involve a civil war which could cause incalculable damage, not only in terms of human lives and further ecological destruction, but also at the level of consciousness, since the military terrain is not at all the most propitious for the flowering of proletarian self-organisation, consciousness and morality. In Russia in 1920, the Soviet state emerged victorious in the civil war, but the proletariat had largely lost control over it. Thus, when trying to understand the problems of communist society “just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges"[3], we must recognise that these birthmarks will probably be far uglier and potentially more damaging than they were in the days of Marx and even of Lenin. The first phases of communism will thus not be an idyllic waking up on a May morning, but a long and intense work of reconstruction from the ruins.  This recognition will have to inform our understanding of all the tasks of the transitional period, even if we continue to base our anticipations of the future on the conviction that the proletariat can indeed carry out its revolutionary mission – despite everything. 

The historic context of Bordiga’s “The immediate programme of the revolution”

Throughout this long series we have tried to understand the development of the communist project as the fruit of the real historical experience of the class struggle, and of the reflection on that experience by the most conscious minorities of the proletariat. And in this article we want to proceed with this historical method, by looking at an attempt to elaborate an updated version of the “immediate programmes” of 1917-23, one which has itself become part of the history of the communist movement.  We refer to the text written by Amadeo Bordiga in 1953 and published in Sul Filo del Tempo, “The immediate programme of the revolution”, which we have already mentioned in a previous article in this series[4] with the promise of returning to it in more detail. In our view, it is essential that any future attempts to formulate such an “immediate programme” bases itself on the strengths of these previous efforts while radically criticising their weaknesses. The whole text, which has the merit of being very succinct, now follows.

  1. With the resurgence of the movement which occurred on a world scale after the First World War and which was expressed in Italy by the founding of the PCI, it became clear that the most pressing question was the seizure of political power, which the proletariat could not accomplish by legal means but through violence, that the best opportunity for reaching that end was the military defeat of one’s own country, and that the political form after victory was to be the dictatorship of the proletariat, which in turn is the first precondition for the following task of socio-economic overthrow.

  2. The “Communist Manifesto” clearly pointed out the different measures are to be grasped as gradually possible and "despotic" - because the road to complete communism is very long - in dependence upon the level of development of the productive forces in the country in which the proletariat first attains victory and in accordance with how quickly this victory spreads to other countries. It designates the measures which in 1848 were the order of the day for the advanced countries and it emphasizes that they are not to be treated as complete socialism but as steps which are to be identified as preliminary, immediate and essentially “contradictory”.

  3. Later in some countries many of the measures at that time considered to be those of the proletarian dictatorship were implemented by the bourgeoisie itself: i.e. free public education, a national bank etc.

This was one of the aspects which deceived those who did not follow a fixed theory, but believed it required perpetual further development as a result of historical change.

That the bourgeoisie itself took these specific measures does not mean that the exact laws and predictions on the transition from the capitalist to the socialist mode of production have to be changed in their entire economic, political and social configuration; It only means that the first post-revolutionary, the lower and final higher stages of socialism (or total communism) are still antecedent periods, which is to say that the economics of transition will be somewhat easier.

  1. The distinguishing mark of classical opportunism was to make believe that the bourgeois democratic state could accomplish all these measures from first to last if only the proletariat brought enough pressure to bear, and that it was even possible to accomplish this in a legal manner. However these various “corrections” - insofar as they were compatible with the capitalist mode of production - were in that case in the interest of the survival of capitalism and their implementation served to postpone its collapse, while those which were not compatible were naturally not applied.

  2. With its formula of an always more widely developed popular democracy within the context of the parliamentary constitution contemporary opportunism has taken up a different and more evil duty.

Not only does it make the proletariat think that a state standing over classes and parties is capable of carrying out some of its own fundamental tasks (which is to say it diffuses defeatism with regards to dictatorship - like social democracy before it), it deploys the masses it organizes in struggles for “democratic and progressive” social arrangements in diametrical opposition to those which proletarian power has set as its goal since 1848 and the “Manifesto”.

  1. Nothing better illustrates the full magnitude of this retrogression then a listing of the measures to take after the seizure of power in a country of the capitalist West. After a century these “corrections” are different from those enumerated in the “Manifesto”, however their characteristics are the same.

  2. A listing of these demands looks like this:

    1. “De-investment of capital”: means of production are assigned a smaller proportion in relation to consumer goods.

    2. “Increase of production costs” - so that as long as wages, money and the market still exist - more remuneration is exchanged for less labour time.

    3. “Drastic reduction of labour time” - by at least half as unemployment and socially useless and damaging activities will shortly become things of the past.

    4. A reduction in the mass of what is produced through an “under-production plan” which is to say the concentration of production on what is necessary as well as an “authoritarian regulation of consumption” by which the promotion of useless, damaging and luxury consumption goods is combated and activities which propagate a reactionary mentality are violently prohibited.

    5. Rapid “dissolution of the boundaries of the enterprise” whereby decisions on production are not assigned to the workforce, but the new consumption plan determines what is to be produced.

    6. “Rapid abolition of social services” whereby the charity hand-outs characteristic of commodity production are replaced by a social (initial minimum) provision for those incapable of work.

    7. “Construction freeze” on the rings of housing and workplaces around major and small cities in order to spread the population more and more equally throughout the land area of the country. With a ban on unnecessary transportation, limitation of traffic and speed of transportation.

    8. “A decisive struggle against professional specialization” and the social division of labour though the removal of any possibility of making a career or obtaining a title.

    9. Immediate politically determined measures to put the schools, the press, all means of communication and information, as well as the entire spectrum of culture and entertainment under the control of the communist state.

2. It is not surprising that the Stalinists and those akin to them, together with their parties in the West today demand precisely the reverse - not only in terms of the “institutional” and also political-legal objectives, but even in terms of the “structural” which is to say socio-economic objectives.

The cause of this is their coordination with the party which presides over the Russian state and its fraternal countries, where the task of social transformation remains that of transition from pre-capitalist forms to capitalism: With all the corresponding ideological, political, social, and economic demands and pretensions in their baggage aiming towards a bourgeois zenith - they turn away with horror only from a medieval nadir.

Their Western cronies remain nauseating renegades insofar as the feudal danger (which is still material and real in insurgent areas of Asia) is non-existent and false with regards to the bloated super-capitalism across the Atlantic and for the proletarians who stagnate under its civilised, liberal and nationalist knout it is a lie.

The text was published in the year after the split in the Internationalist Communist Party which had been formed in Italy during the war following an important wave of workers’ struggles[5]. The split, however – like the dissolution of Marc’s group the Gauche Communiste de France, which also took place in 1952 – was an expression of the fact that, contrary to the hopes of many revolutionaries, the war had not given rise to a new proletarian upsurge but to the deepening of the counter-revolution. The disagreements between the “Damenists” and the “Bordigists” in the Partito Comunista Internazionalista in Italy were partly about different appreciations of the post-war period. Bordiga and his followers tended to have a better grasp of the fact that the period was one of mounting reaction[6]. And yet here we have Bordiga formulating a list of demands that would be more suited to a moment of open revolutionary struggle. This text thus appears more as a kind of thought experiment than a platform to be taken up by a mass movement. This might to some degree explain some of the more obvious weaknesses and lacunae in the document, although in a deeper sense they are the product of contradictions and inconsistencies which were already embedded in the Bordigist world view.

Reading the remarks that introduce and conclude the text, we can also see that it was written as part of a broader polemic against what the Bordigists describe as the “reformist” currents, in particular the Stalinists, those false inheritors of the tradition of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The main reason that the Bordigists described the official Communist parties as reformist was not so much that they shared the illusions of the Trotskyists that these were still workers’ organisations, but more because the Stalinists had increasingly become partisans of forming national fronts with the traditional bourgeois parties and were advocating a gradual “transition” to socialism  through the formation of “popular democracies” and various parliamentary coalitions. Against these aberrations, Bordiga reaffirms the fundamentals of the Communist Manifesto which takes as its starting point the necessity for the violent conquest of power by the proletariat (in retrospect, we can also point out here the gulf that separates Bordiga from many who “speak in his name”, notably the “communisation” currents who often cite Bordiga but who gag on his insistence on the need for the proletarian dictatorship and a communist party). At the same time, still with his sights trained on the Stalinists, Bordiga makes it clear that while the specific “transitional” measures advocated at the end of the second chapter of the 1848 Manifesto - heavy progressive income tax, formation of a state bank, state control of communication and key industries etc – may form the backbone of the economic programme of the “reformists”, they should not be seen as eternal verities: the Manifesto itself emphasised that they were “not to be treated as complete socialism but as steps which are to be identified as preliminary, immediate and essentially contradictory”, and corresponded to the low level of capitalist development at the time they were drawn up; and indeed quite a few of them have already been implemented by the bourgeoisie itself.

You might be forgiven for taking this to be a refutation of invariance, the idea that the communist programme has remained essentially unchanged since at least 1848. In fact, Bordiga castigates the Stalinists because they “did not follow a fixed theory, but believed it required perpetual further development as a result of historical change”. And again, he argues that his proposed “corrections” to the immediate programme “are different from those enumerated in the ‘Manifesto’; however their characteristics are the same”. We find this contradictory and unconvincing. While it’s true that certain key elements of the communist programme, such as the necessity for the proletarian dictatorship, do not change, historical experience has indeed brought profound developments in the understanding of how this dictatorship can come about and the political forms that will compose it. This has nothing to do with the “revisionism” of the social democrats, the Stalinists or others who may indeed have used the excuse of “changing with the times” to justify their desertion of the proletarian camp. 

Many cons, but some important pros

Examining Bordiga’s “corrections” to the measures proposed by the Manifesto, you might also be forgiven for only seeing their weaknesses, most notably:

  • Despite all the lessons of the revolutionary movements of 1905-23, there is no indication at all of the forms of proletarian political power most suited to implementing the transition to communism. No reference to the soviets, no attempt to build on examples like the KPD programme of 1918 which lays particular emphasis on the need to dismantle the institutions of the bourgeois state, local and central, and to install in their place the power of the workers’ councils; no lessons drawn from the degeneration of the Russian revolution about the relationship between party and class, or party and state. Indeed the only mention of any form of political power following the revolution is the “communist state”, an atrocious contradiction in terms, as the previous article in this series argued via the contributions of Marc Chirik[7]. Again, we are faced with the underlying weaknesses of the Bordigist “doctrine” here: organisational forms are not important, what matters is the content injected by the party, which is destined to exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat on behalf of the masses. Furthermore, while Bordiga is of course right to insist in point 5 that production and consumption will be based on a global plan, his ignoring of the question of how the working class will take and hold power in its own hands at every level, from the most local to the most global, implies a top-down vision of centralisation. This is most evident with the paragraph dealing with the spheres of education and culture, where a kind of state monopoly is clearly advocated. We can contrast this with Trotsky’s view that the post-revolutionary state should have an “anarchist” approach on the question of art and culture – by which he meant that the state should interfere as little as possible in questions of artistic style, taste or creativity, and should not demand that all art should serve as propaganda for the revolution. More generally, there is little sign in his list of measures of the need for a vast political, moral and cultural struggle to overcome the habits and attitudes inherited not only from capitalism but from thousands of years of class society. He does talk about the need to struggle against “professional specialisation and the social division of labour”, but such a struggle demands something more than a ban on titles, while the call to remove “the possibility of making a career” only makes sense in the context of a wholesale reorganisation of production and the elimination of the wage system.
  • Bordiga was perfectly aware that abolishing “wages, money and the market” is a central characteristic of communism[8], and we know that it will not be possible to dispense with them all overnight. But apart from advocating “more remuneration for less labour time”, Bordiga gives us no indication of what measures can be taken – and taken from the very start of the revolution – that will lead towards the elimination of these key categories of capitalism. In this sense Bordiga’s corrections fail to build on, or coherently criticise, the proposals made by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme (the system of labour time vouchers, which we will have to return to in another article).

And yet the document retains considerable interest for us in trying to understand what would be the principal problems and priorities facing a communist revolution that would be taking place not at the dawn of capitalism’s decadence, as in 1917-23, but after an entire century in which the slide towards barbarism has continued to accelerate, and the threat to humanity’s very survival is far greater than it was a hundred years ago.

The methods of communist reconstruction

Bordiga’s document makes no attempt to draw a balance sheet of the successes and failures of the Russian revolution at the political level, and indeed only makes a cursory reference to the revolutionary wave that followed the First World War. However, in one respect, it does seek to apply an important lesson from the economic policies adopted by the Bolsheviks: Bordiga’s proposals are pertinent because they recognise that the road to material abundance and a classless society cannot be based on a programme of “socialist accumulation”, in which consumption is still subject to “production for production’s sake” (which is actually production for the sake of value), living labour subjected to dead labour. To be sure, communist revolution has become a historic necessity because capitalist social relations have become a fetter on the development of the productive forces. But from the communist point of view, the development of the productive forces has a very different content from its application in capitalist society, where it is driven by the profit motive and thus the urge to accumulate. Communism will certainly make full use of the scientific and technological advances achieved under capitalism, but it will turn them to human use, so that they become servants of the real “development” posited by communism: the full flowering of the productive, i.e. the creative powers of the associated individuals. One example will suffice here: with the development of computerisation and robotisation, capitalism has promised us an end to drudgery and a “leisure society”. In reality, these potential boons have brought the misery of unemployment or precarious work to some, and an increased work-load to others, with the mounting pressure on employees to carry on working at their computers anywhere and at any time of the day.

In concrete terms, the first four points of his programme involve: a demand to stop focusing on the production of machines to produce more machines, and the gearing of production towards direct consumption. Under capitalism, of course, the latter has meant the production of ever more “useless, damaging and luxury consumption goods” – exemplified today in the production of more and more sophisticated computers or mobile phones which are designed to fail after a limited period and cannot be repaired, or by the immensely polluting automobile and fast fashion industries, in which “consumer demand” is driven to the point of frenzy by advertising and social media. For the working class in power the reorientation of consumption will focus on the urgent need to provide all human beings, across the planet, with the fundamental necessities of life. We will have to return to these questions in other articles but we can mention some of the most obvious: 

  • Nourishment. Capitalism in decay has presented humanity with a gigantic contradiction between the possibilities of producing enough food for all, and the real and permanent undernourishment that haunts large parts of the planet, including sectors of the population in the most advanced countries, while both in the central and more peripheral countries millions suffer from obesity and poor quality diet deliberately maintained by the food producing and marketing corporations, which also contribute enormously to global carbon emissions, deforestation and other threats to the world’s ecology such as plastic pollution. The world’s supply of water has also become a fundamental problem exacerbated by global warming. The working class will thus have to feed the world but without resorting to the capitalist methods that have led us to this impasse, not least contemporary “factory farming” with its disgusting cruelty to animals and its probable connection to pandemic disease. It will have to resolve the antagonism between plentiful food and healthy eating. And all this on the basis of a social-economic transformation that cannot be solved immediately: it is one thing, for example, to expropriate the big “agri-business” and state-owned sources of food production, another to integrate the small-holding farmers or peasants into cooperative and then associated production, which will take time and will make it impossible to immediately overcome exchange relations between the socialised sector and the small holders.
  • Housing: homelessness has become endemic in all capitalist countries, not least the cities of the capitalist centre; millions are herded together in the vast slums that surround the cities of the “global south” (and again, also in parts of the “global north”); and in the last few decades the proliferation of war and ecological destruction has created a refugee problem of proportions not seen since the end of the Second World War, with further millions living in desperate conditions in camps which provide little protection from the elements, from disease, and from all kinds of exploitation, including modern forms of slavery. At the same time, the great cities of the world have engaged in a frenzy of building mainly devoted to speculation, luxury apartments and economic activities which would have no place in a communist society. Large scale expropriation of such misused and misconceived buildings can provide a temporary solution to the worst expressions of homelessness, but in the long term the housing of communist humanity cannot be based on patching up already inadequate and increasingly dilapidated housing stock where residents are squeezed into cage-like compartments. The re-housing of much of the world population poses a much greater challenge: the overcoming of the contradiction between town and country, which has nothing in common with the untrammelled expansion of the cities that we are witnessing in this phase of capitalism. We will return to this below.
  • Health care: health, as every report on public health concludes, is a social, class question. Those who are poorly fed and badly housed, with limited access to healthcare, die much sooner than those who eat well, have decent housing and can receive adequate medical treatment when they are ill. The current Covid-19 pandemic, however, is exposing the limits of all existing “health services”, even in the most powerful capitalist countries, not least because they cannot escape the logic of competition between national capitalist units, whereas a pandemic has no respect for national borders and underlines the necessity for something that can only be a nightmare for “Big Pharma” and the Trumps of this world, but also for that left wing version of nationalism which does not want us to see beyond “our National Health Service”: medicine, healthcare and research that is not state-run, but truly socialised, and not national but “without borders”: in short, a planetary health service.

Waste not, want not

But at the same time, these admittedly immense tasks, which are merely the starting point for a new human culture, cannot be envisaged as the result of a brutal increase in the working day. On the contrary, they must be linked to a drastic reduction in labour time, without which, we should add, the direct participation of the producers in the political life of general assemblies and councils will not be feasible. And this reduction is to be achieved to a large extent by the elimination of waste: the waste of unemployment and of “socially useless and damaging activities”.

Already at the beginning of capitalism, in a speech at Elberfeld in 1845, Engels stigmatised the way that capitalism could not avoid a terrible mis-use of human energy and insisted that only a communist transformation could solve the problem.

“From the economic point of view the present arrangement of society is surely the most irrational and unpractical we can possibly conceive. The opposition of interests results in a great amount of labour power being utilised in a way from which society gains nothing, and in a substantial amount of capital being unnecessarily lost without reproducing itself. We already see this in the commercial crises; we see how masses of goods, all of which men have produced with great effort, are thrown away at prices which cause loss to the sellers; we see how masses of capital, accumulated with great effort, disappear before the very eyes of their owners as a result of bankruptcies. Let us, however, discuss present-day trade in a little more detail. Consider through how many hands every product must go before it reaches the actual consumer. Consider, gentlemen, how many speculating, swindling superfluous middlemen have now forced themselves in between the producer and the consumer! Let us take, for example, a bale of cotton produced in North America. The bale passes from the hands of the planter into those of the agent on some station or other on the Mississippi and travels down the river to New Orleans. Here it is sold — for a second time, for the agent has already bought it from the planter — sold, it might well be, to the speculator, who sells it once again, to the exporter. The bale now travels to Liverpool where, once again, a greedy speculator stretches out his hands towards it and grabs it. This man then trades it to a commission agent who, let us assume, is a buyer for a German house. So the bale travels to Rotterdam, up the Rhine, through another dozen hands of forwarding agents, being unloaded and loaded a dozen times, and only then does it arrive in the hands, not of the consumer, but of the manufacturer, who first makes it into an article of consumption, and who perhaps sells his yarn to a weaver, who disposes of what he has woven to the textile printer, who then does business with the wholesaler, who then deals with the retailer, who finally sells the commodity to the consumer. And all these millions of intermediary swindlers, speculators, agents, exporters, commission agents, forwarding agents, wholesalers and retailers, who actually contribute nothing to the commodity itself — they all want to live and make a profit — and they do make it too, on the average, otherwise they could not subsist. Gentlemen, is there no simpler, cheaper way of bringing a bale of cotton from America to Germany and of getting the product manufactured from it into the hands of the real consumer than this complicated business of ten times selling and a hundred times loading, unloading and transporting it from one warehouse to another? Is this not a striking example of the manifold waste of labour power brought about by the divergence of interests? Such a complicated way of transport is out of the question in a rationally organised society. To keep to our example, just as one can easily know how much cotton or manufactured cotton goods an individual colony needs, it will be equally easy for the central authority to determine how much all the villages and townships in the country need. Once such statistics have been worked out — which can easily be done in a year or two — average annual consumption will only change in proportion to the increasing population; it is therefore easy at the appropriate time to determine in advance what amount of each particular article the people will need — the entire great amount will be ordered direct from the source of supply; it will then be possible to procure it directly, without middlemen, without more delay and unloading than is really required by the nature of the journey, that is, with a great saving of labour power; it will not be necessary to pay the speculators, the dealers large and small, their rake-off. But this is still not all — in this way these middlemen are not only made harmless to society, they are, in fact, made useful to it. Whereas they now perform to the disadvantage of everyone else a kind of work which is, at best, superfluous but which, nevertheless, provides them with a living, indeed, in many cases even with great riches, whereas they are thus at present directly prejudicial to the general good, they will then become free to engage in useful labour and to take up an occupation in which they can prove themselves as actual members, not merely apparent, sham members, of human society, and as participants in its activity as a whole”[9].

Engels then goes to enumerate other examples of this wastage: the need, in a society based on competition and inequality, to maintain vastly expensive but entirely unproductive institutions such as standing armies, police forces and prisons; the human labour poured into servicing what William Morris termed “the swinish luxury of the rich”; and last but not least the huge waste of labour power engendered by unemployment, which rises to particularly scandalous levels during the periodic “commercial” crises of the system. He then contrasts the wastefulness of capitalism with the essential simplicity of communist production and distribution, which is calculated on the basis of what human beings need and the overall time needed for the labour that will satisfy this need.

All these capitalist ailments, observable during the period of rising and expanding capitalism, have become far more destructive and dangerous during the epoch of capitalist decline: war and militarism have increasingly seized hold of the entire economic apparatus, and constitute such a menace to humanity that certainly one of the most urgent priorities facing the proletarian dictatorship (one which Bordiga doesn’t mention, even though the “atomic age” had already clearly dawned by the time he wrote this text) will be to rid the planet of the weapons of mass destruction accumulated by capitalism – especially because there is no guarantee that, faced with its definitive overthrow by the working class, the bourgeoisie or factions of it will prefer to destroy humanity than sacrifice their class rule.

A militarised capitalism can also only operate through the cancerous growth of the state, with its own standing army of bureaucrats, policemen and spies. The security services, in particular, have swollen to gigantic proportions, as have their mirror image, the mafia gangs which enforce their brutal order in many countries of the capitalist periphery

Similarly, capitalist decadence, with its vast apparatus of banking, finance and advertising which are more than ever essential to the circulation of actually produced goods, has vastly inflated the number of people involved in fundamentally pointless forms of daily activity; and successive waves of “globalisation” have made the absurdities involved in the planet-wide circulation of commodities even more apparent, not to mention its mounting cost at the ecological level. And the amount of labour devoted to the demands of what is today called the “super rich” is no less shocking than it was in Engels’ day - not only in their inexhaustible need for servants but also in their thirst for truly useless luxuries like private jets, yachts and palaces. And at the opposite pole, in an epoch in which the economic crisis of the system has itself tended to become permanent, unemployment is less a cyclical scourge than a permanent one, even when it is disguised through the proliferation of short-term jobs and underemployment. In the so-called third world, the destruction of traditional economies has resulted in some areas of intensive capitalist development, but it has also created a gigantic “sub-proletariat” living the most precarious existence as shack-dwellers in the townships of Africa or the “favelas” of Brazil and Latin America.

Thus Bordiga – even if he was not coherent in his understanding of the decadence of the system – had understood that implementing the communist programme in this epoch does not mean advancing towards abundance through a very rapid process of industrialisation, as the Bolsheviks had tended to assume, given the “backward” conditions they faced in Russia after 1917. Certainly, it will require the development and application of the most advanced technologies, but it will initially take shape as a planned dismantling of everything that is harmful and useless in the existing apparatus of production, and a global reorganisation of the real human resources which capitalism continually squanders and destroys. 

The communist movement today – even if it has been late in recognising the scale of the problem – cannot help but be aware of the ecological cost of capitalist development in the past century, and above all since the end of the Second World War. It is more evident to us than it was to the Bolsheviks that we can’t arrive at communism through the methods of capitalist industrialisation, which sacrifices both human labour power and natural wealth to the demands of profit, to the idol of self-expanding value. We now understand that one of the primary tasks facing the proletariat is that of halting the threat of runaway global warming and clearing up the gigantic mess that capitalism will have bequeathed to us: the wanton destruction of forests and wilderness, the poisoning of the air, land and water by the existing system of production and transportation. Some parts of this “inheritance” will take many years of patient research and labour to overcome – the pollution of the seas and food chain by plastic waste is just one example. And as we have already mentioned, satisfying the most basic needs of the world population (food, housing, health, etc) will have to be consistent with this overall project of harmonisation between man and nature.

It is to Bordiga’s credit that he was already becoming aware of this problem in the early 1950s: his intuition of the centrality of this dimension is shown above all in his position on the problem of the “great cities”, which is fully in line with the thinking of Marx and especially of Engels. 

Breaking up the megacities

The city and civilisation derive from the same roots, historically and etymologically. Sometimes the term “civilisation” is extended back to include the entirety of human culture and morality[10]: in this sense the hunter gatherers of Australia or Africa also constitute a civilisation. But there is no question that the transition to living in cities, which is the more generally used definition of civilisation, represented a qualitative development in human history: a factor in the advancement of culture and the recording of history itself, but also the definitive beginnings of class exploitation and the state. Even before capitalism, as Weber shows, the city is also inseparable from trade and the money economy[11]. But the bourgeoisie is the urban class par excellence, and the mediaeval cities became the centres of resistance to the hegemony of the feudal aristocracy, whose wealth was above all based on land ownership and the exploitation of the peasants. The modern proletariat is no less an urban class, formed from the expropriation of the peasants and the ruin of the artisans. Driven into the hastily constructed conurbations of Manchester, Glasgow, or Paris, it was here that the working class first became aware of itself as a distinct class opposed to the bourgeoisie and began to envisage a world beyond capitalism.

At the level of man’s relationship with nature, the city presents the same dual aspect: the centre of scientific and technological development, opening up the potential for liberation from scarcity and disease. But this growing “mastery of nature”, taking place in conditions of mankind’s alienation from itself and from nature, is also inseparable from the destruction of nature and from a series of ecological catastrophes. Thus, the decay of the Sumerian or Mayan city cultures has been explained as the result of the city overreaching itself, exhausting the surrounding milieu of forests and agriculture, the collapse of which delivered terrible blows to the hubris of civilisations which had begun to forget their intimate dependence on nature. So too the cities, to the extent that they pressed human beings together like sardines, failed to solve the basic problem of waste disposal, and inverted age-old relationships between humans and animals, became the breeding ground for plagues such as the Black Death in the period of feudal decline or the cholera and typhus which ravaged the industrial cities of early capitalism. But again, we have to consider the other side of the dialectic: the rising bourgeoisie was able to understand that the diseases which strike down its wage slaves could also reach the capitalists’ doorsteps and undermine their whole economic edifice. It was thus able to begin and carry through astonishing feats of engineering in the construction of sewage systems that are still operating today, while rapidly evolving medical expertise was applied to the elimination of hitherto chronic forms of illness.

In the work of Friedrich Engels in particular, we can find the fundamental elements for a history of the city from a proletarian standpoint. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, he charts the dissolution of the old “gens”, the tribal organisation based on kinship ties, to the new territorial organisation of the city, which marks the irreversible division into antagonistic classes and with it the emergence of the state power, whose task is to prevent these divisions tearing society apart. In The Condition of the Working Class in England, he draws a picture of the hellish living conditions of the young proletariat, the day-to-day dirt and disease of the Manchester slums, but also the stirrings of class consciousness and organisation which would, in the end, play the decisive role in compelling the ruling class to grant meaningful reforms to the workers.

In two later works, the Anti-Duhring and The Housing Question, Engels embarks on a discussion about the capitalist city in a phase when capitalism has already triumphed in the heartlands of Europe and the USA and is about to conquer the entire globe. And it is noticeable that he already concludes that the great cities have overreached themselves and will have to disappear in order to fulfil the demand of the Communist Manifesto: abolition of the separation between town and country. Here we should recall that by the 1860s, Marx was also becoming increasingly concerned about the destructive impact of capitalist agriculture on the fertility of the soil, and noted, in the work of Liepig, that the annihilation of forest cover in parts of Europe was having an impact on the climate, raising local temperatures and decreasing rainfall[12]. In other words: just as Marx discerned signs of the political decadence of the bourgeois class after its crushing of the Paris Commune, and, in his correspondence with Russian revolutionaries towards the end of his life was looking for ways that the regions where capitalism was yet to triumph fully could avoid the purgatory of capitalist development, both he and Engels had started to wonder whether, as far as capitalism was concerned, enough is enough[13]. Perhaps the material foundations for a global communist society had already been laid, and further “progress” for capital would have an increasingly destructive result? We know that the system, through its imperialist expansion in the last decades of the 19th century, would prolong its life for several more decades and provide the basis for a staggering phase of growth and development, leading some elements in the workers’ movement to question the marxist analysis of the inevitability of capitalist crisis and decline, only for the unresolved contradictions of capital to explode into the open in the war of 1914-18 (which Engels had also anticipated). But the searching questions about the future that they had begun to pose precisely when capitalism had reached its zenith were perfectly valid at the time and are more than ever relevant today.

In “The transformation of social relations”, IR 85, we looked at how the revolutionaries of the 19th century – particularly Engels, but also Bebel and William Morris – had argued that the growth of the big cities had already reached the point where the abolition of the antagonism between town and country had become a real necessity, hence that the expansion of the great cities must come to an end in favour of a greater unity between industry and agriculture and the more even distribution of human dwellings across the Earth. It was a necessity not only to solve pressing problems such as waste disposal and the prevention of overcrowding, pollution and disease, but also as the basis for a more human pace of life in harmony with nature.

In “Damen, Bordiga and the passion for communism”, IR 158, we showed that Bordiga – perhaps more than any other Marxist in the 20th century – had remained loyal to this essential aspect of the communist programme, citing for example his 1953 article “Space Versus Cement”[14], which is a passionate polemic against the contemporary trends in architecture and town planning (an area in which Bordiga himself was professionally qualified), which were driven by capital’s need to herd as many human beings as possible into increasingly restricted spaces – a trend typified by the rapid construction of tower blocks supposedly inspired by the architectural theories of Le Corbusier. Bordiga is merciless about the purveyors of modern town planning ideology:

“Anyone who applauds such tendencies should not be considered only as a defender of capitalist doctrines, ideals and interests, but as an accomplice in the pathological tendencies of the supreme stage of capitalism in decay and dissolution” (no hesitations about decadence here, then!). Elsewhere in the same article he affirms:

Verticalism, this deformed doctrine is called; capitalism is verticalist. Communism will be ‘horizontalist’”. And at the end of the article he joyfully anticipates the day when “the cement monsters will be ridiculed and suppressed” and the “giant cities deflated” in order to “make the density of life and work uniform over the inhabitable land”.

In another work, “The Human Species and the Earth’s Crust”[15], Bordiga cites extensively from Engels’ On the Housing Question, and we cannot avoid the temptation to do the same. This is from the last section of the pamphlet, where Engels lays into Proudhon’s follower Mülberger for claiming that it is utopian for wanting to overcome the “inevitable” antagonism between town and country:

“The abolition of the antithesis between town and country is no more and no less utopian than the abolition of the antithesis between capitalists and wage workers. From day to day it is becoming more and more a practical demand of both industrial and agricultural production. No one has demanded this more energetically then Liebig in his writings on the chemistry of agriculture, in which his first demand has always been that man shall give back to the land what he takes from it, and in which he proves that only the existence of the towns, and in particular the big towns, prevents this. When one observes how here in London alone a greater quantity of manure than is produced by the whole kingdom of Saxony is poured away every day into the sea with an expenditure of enormous sums, and when one observes what colossal works are necessary in order to prevent this manure from poisoning the whole of London, then the utopian proposal to abolish the antithesis between town and country is given a peculiarly practical basis. And even comparatively insignificant Berlin has been wallowing in its own filth for at least thirty years.

On the other hand, it is completely utopian to want, like Proudhon, to transform present-day bourgeois society while maintaining the peasant as such. Only as uniform a distribution as possible of the population over the whole country, only an integral connection between industrial and agricultural production together with the thereby necessary extension of the means of communication – presupposing the abolition of the capitalist mode of production – would be able to save the rural population from the isolation and stupor in which it has vegetated almost unchanged for thousands of years”[16].

Several strands of thought are suggested in this passage, and Bordiga is well aware of them. First, Engels insists that overcoming the antagonism between town and country is intimately linked to overcoming the general capitalist division of labour – a theme developed further in Anti-Dühring, in particular the division between mental and manual labour which appears to be so unbridgeable in the capitalist production process. Both these separations, no less than the division between the capitalist and the wage worker, are indispensable to the emergence of a fully rounded human being. And contrary to the schemes of the backward-gazing Proudhonists, the abolition of the capitalist social relation does not involve the preservation of the small-scale property of peasants or artisans; transcending the city-country, industry-agriculture divides will rescue the peasant from isolation and intellectual vegetation as much as it will free the city-dwellers from overcrowding and pollution.

Second, Engels raises here, as he does elsewhere, the simple but oft-avoided problem of human excrement. In their first, “savage” forms, the capitalist cities made almost no provision for dealing with human waste, and very rapidly paid the price in the generation of epidemic disease, notably dysentery and cholera – scourges which still haunts the shanty towns of the capitalist periphery, where basic hygiene facilities are notoriously absent. The construction of the sewage system certainly represented a step forward in the history of the bourgeois city. But simply flushing away human waste is itself a form of waste since it could be used as a natural fertiliser (as indeed it was in the earlier history of the city).

Looking back to the London or Manchester of Engels’ day, one might easily say: they thought these cities had already grown much too large, much too separated from their natural environment. What would they have made of the modern avatars of these cities? It has been estimated by the UN that around 55% of the world’s population now inhabit big cities, but if the current growth of the cities continues this figure will rise to around 68% by 2050[17]

This is a true example of what Marx already posited in the Grundrisse: “development as decay”, and Bordiga was prescient in seeing this in the period of reconstruction after the Second World War. The anthropologists who to seek define the opening of the period of what they call the “Anthropocene Era” (which basically means the era in which human activity has had a fundamental and qualitative impact on the planet’s ecology) usually trace it back to the spread of modern industry in the early 19th century – in short to the victory of capitalism. But some of them also talk about a “Great Acceleration” which took place after 1945, and we can see the juggernaut speeding up even more after 1989 with the rise of China and other “developing” countries.

The consequences of this growth are well-known: the contribution of the megacity to global heating through untrammelled construction, energy consumption, and the emissions of industry and transport, which are also making the air unbreathable in many cities (already noted by Bordiga in the “The Human Species and the Earth’s Crust”: “As for bourgeois democracy, it has stooped so low as to renounce the freedom to breathe”). The uncontrolled spread of urbanisation has been a primary factor in the destruction of natural habitats and species extinction; and last but not at all least, the megacites have revealed their role as incubators of new pandemic diseases, the deadliest and most contagious of which – Covid-19 -  is at the time of writing paralysing the world economy and leaving a world-wide trail of death and suffering. Indeed the last two “contributions” have probably come together in the Covid-19 epidemic, which is one of a number where a virus has jumped from one species to another. This has become a major problem in countries like China and in many parts of Africa where animal habitats are being obliterated, leading to a considerable expansion in the consumption of “bush meat”, and where the new cities, built to serve China’s frenzy of economic growth, have minimal hygiene controls. 

Overcoming the antagonism

In the list of revolutionary measures contained in Bordiga’s article, point 7 is the most relevant to the project of abolishing the antagonism between city and country: 

“’Construction freeze’ on the rings of housing and workplaces around major and small cities in order to spread the population more and more equally throughout the land area of the country. With a ban on unnecessary transportation, limitation of traffic and speed of transportation”.

This point seems especially contemporary today, when virtually every city is the theatre of relentless “vertical” elevation (the construction of huge skyscrapers, particularly in city centres) and “horizontal” extension, eating up the surrounding countryside. The demand is simply this: stop. The bloating of the cities and the unsustainable concentration of the population within them is the result of capitalist anarchy and is therefore essentially unplanned, un-centralised. The human energy and technological possibilities currently engaged in this cancerous growth must, from the very beginning of the revolutionary process, be mobilised in a different direction. Even though the world population has grown considerably since Bordiga calculated, in Space versus Cement, that “on average our species has one square kilometre for every twenty of its members[18], the possibility of a far more rational and harmonious spreading of the population across the planet remains, even taking into account the necessity to preserve large areas of wilderness – a need understood better today because the immense importance of preserving bio-diversity across the planet has been scientifically established, but it was something already envisaged by Trotsky in Literature and Revolution[19].

The abolition of the city-country antagonism was distorted by Stalinism into meaning: pave over everything, build “workers’ barracks” and new factories over every field and forest. For authentic communism it will mean cultivating fields and planting forests in the middle of cities, but also that viable communities can be located in an astonishing variety of locations without destroying everything around them, and they will not be isolated because they will have at their disposal the means of communication which capitalism has indeed developed at bewildering speed. Engels had already referred to this possibility in The Housing Question and Bordiga takes it up again in “Space versus Cement”:

The most modern forms of production, using networks of stations of all kinds, such as hydroelectric power stations, communications, radio, television, increasingly give a unique operational discipline to workers spread out in small groups over enormous distances. Combined work remains, in ever larger and more marvellous weaves, and autonomous production disappears more and more. But the technological density mentioned above is constantly decreasing. The urban and productive agglomeration remains therefore not for reasons dependent on the optimum of production, but for the durability of the profit economy and the social dictatorship of capital”.

Digital technology, of course, has further advanced this potential. But under capitalism the overall result of the “internet revolution” has been to accelerate the atomisation of the individual, while the trend towards “working from home” - particularly highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis and the accompanying measures of social isolation – has not at all reduced the tendency towards urban agglomeration. The conflict between, on the one hand, the desire to live and work in association with others, and on the other hand the need to find space in which to move and breathe, can only be resolved in a society where the individual is no longer at odds with the community.

Reduce your speed

As with the construction of human habitations, so it is with the mad rush of modern transport: stop, or at least, slow down!

Here again, Bordiga is ahead of his time. The methods of capitalist transportation on land, sea and air, based overwhelmingly on the burning of fossil fuels, account for over 20% of global carbon dioxide emissions[20], while in the cities, they have become a leading source of heart and lung disease, particularly affecting children. The yearly world death toll from traffic accidents stands at a staggering 1.35 million, more than half of them “vulnerable” road users: pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.[21]And these are only the most obvious disadvantages of the present system of transport. The constant noise it generates gnaws away at the city dweller’s nerves, and the subordination of town planning to the needs of the car (and the car industry, so central to the existing capitalist economy) produces cities that are endlessly fragmented, with residential areas divided from each other by the ceaseless flow of traffic. Meanwhile social atomisation, an essential characteristic of bourgeois society and of the capitalist city in particular, is not only illustrated but reinforced by the lone car owner and driver competing for road space with millions of similarly separated souls.

Of course, capitalism has had to take measures to try to mitigate the worst effects of all this: “carbon offsetting” to make up for excessive flights, “traffic calming” and car-free walk-ways in city centres, the move towards the electric car.

None of these “reforms” go anywhere near solving the problem because none of them address the capitalist social relationship which lies at its root. Take the electric car for example: the car industry has seen the writing on the wall and is tending to switch more and more towards this form of transport. But even setting aside the problem of extracting and disposing of the lithium needed for the batteries, or the need to increase electricity production to power these vehicles, all of which has a substantial ecological cost, a city full of electric vehicles would be marginally quieter and somewhat less polluted but still dangerous to walk in and carved up by roads.

It’s possible that communism will indeed make extensive (though doubtless not exclusive) use of electric vehicles. But the real issue lies elsewhere. Capitalism needs to operate at break-neck speed because time is money and transport is driven by the needs of accumulation, which includes “turnover” time and thus transportation in its overall calculations. Capitalism is equally driven by the need to sell as many products as possible, hence the constant pressure for each individual to have their own personal possession – again typified by the private car which has become a symbol of personal wealth and prestige, the key to the “Freedom of the Road” in an era of incessant traffic jams.

The pace of life in today’s cities is far greater (even with the traffic jams) than it was in the second part of the 19th century, but in Woman and Socialism, first published in 1879, August Bebel was already looking forward to the city of the future, where “the nerve-racking noise, crowding and rushing of our large cities with their thousands of vehicles of all sorts ceases substantially: society assumes an aspect of greater repose" (p 300).

The rushing and congestion that make city life so stressful can only be overcome when the drive to accumulate has been suppressed, in favour of production planned to freely distribute necessary use values. In working out the transport networks of the future, a key factor will obviously be to greatly keep carbon emissions and other forms of pollution to a minimum, but the need to achieve “greater repose”, a certain degree of peace and quiet both for residents and travellers, will certainly be factored in to the overall plan. Since there is much less pressure to get from A to B at the quickest possible rate, travellers will have more time to enjoy the journey itself: perhaps, in such a world, the horse will return to parts of the land, sailboats to the sea, airships to the sky, while it will also be possible to use much faster means of transport when needed[22]. At the same time, the volume of traffic will be greatly reduced if the addiction to personal ownership of vehicles can be broken, and travellers can have access to free public transport of various kinds (buses, trains, boats, taxis and ownerless self-drive vehicles). We should also bear in mind that, in contrast to the many western capitalist cities where half of all apartments are occupied by single owners or tenants, communism will be an experiment in more communal forms of living; and in such a society travelling in the company of others can become a pleasure rather than a desperate race between hostile competitors.

We should also bear in mind that many of the journeys that clog up the transport system, those that involve travelling to pointless jobs such as those linked to finance, insurance or advertising, will have no place in a moneyless society. The daily rush hour will be a thing of the past. At the same time, production of useful objects can be re-designed and re-located to avoid the need for transporting products over long distances, which under capitalism is very often only determined by the aim of finding lower paid workforces or other advantages (for capital) such as lack of environmental regulation. The entire production and distribution of the use values we need will be reorganised and so many journeys between places of production and dwellings will no longer be necessary.

Thus the streets of a town where the angry roar of traffic has been reduced to a purr will regain some of their older advantages and uses– as playgrounds for children for example.

Again, we don’t underestimate the magnitude of the tasks involved here. Although the possibility of living in a more communal or associated way is contained in the transition to a communist mode of production, the egoistic prejudices that have been greatly exacerbated by several hundred years of capitalism, will not disappear in an automatic manner and will indeed often operate as serious obstacles to the process of communisation. As Marx put it,

"Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when we directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it etc, in short when we use it. Although private property conceives all these immediate realizations of possession only as means of life, and the life they serve is the life of private property, labour and capitalization. Therefore all the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by the simple estrangement of all these senses - the sense of having" (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, chapter on ‘Private property and communism’)

Rosa Luxemburg always maintained that the struggle for socialism was not just about “bread and butter” issues but that “morally … the working-class struggle denotes the cultural renovation of society[23]. This cultural and moral aspect of the class struggle, and above all the fight against the “sense of having”, will certainly continue throughout the transition to communism.



[2] “1918: The programme of the German Communist Party”, IR 93, and “1919: the programme of the dictatorship of the proletariat” in IR 95,

“The programme of the KAPD”, IR 97,

[3] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme

[4] “Damen, Bordiga and the Passion for communism”, see note 1

[5] We should point out that the text was adopted as a “party document” of the new organisation rather than being simply an individual contribution.

[6] But the Damenists were much clearer about many of the lessons of the defeat of the Russian revolution and the positions of the proletariat in capitalism’s decadent era. See “Damen, Bordiga and the passion for communism”

[8] See “Damen, Bordiga...”, op cit

[10]  See for example “On Patrick Tort’s The Darwin Effect

[11] Max Weber, The City, 1921

[12] See Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, New York, 2017

[13] On Marx and the Russian question, see a previous article in this series, “The mature Marx: past and future communism”, IR 81,

[15]  Il Programma Comunista no. 6/1952, 18 December 1952,

[22] Of course, people might still enjoy the thrill of travelling at dizzying speed but perhaps in a rational society such pleasures will mainly be obtained in arenas set aside for the purpose.

[23] “Stagnation and progress of marxism”, 1903,

Political currents and reference: 

General and theoretical questions: 


The communist programme in the phase of capitalist decomposition