Bordiga: Early political views

Three part series on the pre-1917 political views of this Italian thinker who later became the first leader of the Italian Communist Party and then a Left Communist critic of the state capitalist regime in Russia (from Socialist Standard, January, March and February 2017)

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Amadeo Bordiga as Intransigent Socialist

I. Intransigent Socialist
Amadeo Bordiga (1889-1970) was probably the closest among Italian political thinkers and activists to the revolutionary ideas put forward by the World Socialist Movement. We would share his consistent opposition to reformism, militarism, and all forms of nationalism as well as some of his views on the use of parliament. We would, however, be entirely opposed to his advocacy of insurrectionary violence, his aversion for democracy (which was determined by his identification of it with the freemasonry of his day), and his support for a centralist control model.
His early political activity began when he joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in Naples in 1910 at the age of 21 while a student of engineering. According to Bordiga’s own later account, his enrolment in the PSI was a reaction to pressure being put on him to join the freemasons, whom he despised. The situation inside the PSI when Bordiga joined it was complicated. In theory, it was organized along the lines of the German Social Democratic Party, with the difference that the PSI did not have funds and so lacked organisers and professional politicians. There was a group headed by the leader and party secretary and as well as a parliamentary group elected by party members but there was often disagreement between the two, especially on political strategy. The parliamentary group was headed by Filippo Turati, who had been largely responsible for the creation of the party in 1892 and was a reformist despite the fact that he considered himself, and was often recognized as, an orthodox Marxist.
The PSI had expelled the anarchists in its ranks at its second congress in 1892 and likewise the revolutionary syndicalists in 1907. Yet in 1910 it was still home to a variety of political positions. There were ‘right-wing’ reformists such as Leonida Bissolati and Ivanoe Bonomi, the ‘left-wing’ reformists of Turati and Giuseppe Modigliani, and the ‘the revolutionary intransigent fraction’ led by Costantino Lazzari, who, according to Luigi Gerosa, influenced much of Bordiga’s early thinking with his 1911 pamphlet ‘The Principles and Methods of the Italian Socialist Party’. In his pamphlet Lazzari harked back to the Party’s 1892 programme and the various ‘degenerations’ of it that had taken place since then. As explained in a previous article (Antonio Labriola: A strict Marxist?, Socialist Standard, February 2016: ), it is arguable that the 1892 programme put forward a vision of Marxist socialism substantially as conceived by the World Socialist Movement today. Bordiga wanted it to remain faithful to its maximum goal, which was the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism rather than the minimum goal of changing capitalism by means of reforms. It was at this stage too that Bordiga started to develop the idea of a party that did not need leadership by individuals, but required, rather, a clear and unchangeable programme to be followed by its adherents.
Bordiga began stating this position in the PSI’s youth magazine Avanguardia and writing in particular in opposition to the Italian government’s colonial policy and to masonic anti-clericalism. In October 1911 when Italy invaded Libya, which was part of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, Bordiga attacked not just the government but alleged socialists in the PSI who supported the invasion. He also criticised revolutionary syndicalists such as Arturo (not to be confused with Antonio) Labriola who espoused the view of the economist Achille Loria that colonial expansion would present an opportunity for the socialist cause. Bordiga argued from the start that nationalism was a capitalist ideology which had nothing to do with socialism, since socialism was by its very nature anti-nationalist and anti-patriotic. This was an idea he would never depart from.
In the years 1911 to 1914 Bordiga and other like-thinking members of the PSI in Naples engaged in opposing those factions who favoured a policy of coalitions with capitalist parties, so-called blocchisti who they saw as revisionists. Bordiga wrote widely on the situation of the party in Naples, arguing strongly against the right of those factions to be in the Party, and also became the regional spokesperson for the Italian Federation of Socialist Youth.
In April 1912 Bordiga founded the ‘Carlo Marx Circle’ aiming at propaganda activity and the study of Marxist writings. Already in March that year he had denounced the action of some exponents of the parliamentary group such as Bissolati, Cabrini, and Bonomi for supporting the King of Italy after he had been wounded during an assassination attempt. Bordiga demanded their expulsion from the Party, something that actually took place at that year’s Congress, incidentally allowing one Benito Mussolini to take up a primary position in the PSI. The Neapolitan Portici section had sent Bordiga as spokesperson to the Congress with the following motions: 1. to extend the tactic of ‘intransigence’ to local elections; 2. to exclude from the PSI members of bourgeois political associations such as the freemasonry.
In the same year, at the Congress of the Bologna Youth Federation, Bordiga was involved in discussions that took place on ‘the question of the culture of socialist youth’. While some of the participants saw the youth movement as having the role of imparting basic political education to its members while not questioning the party’s rulings, Bordiga proposed that the Youth Federation should have its own autonomy and its own magazine and engage in its own struggles against the system. Bordiga won the day and, in the magazine Avanguardia, he wrote, in reply to Gaetano Salvemini, editor of the newspaper L’Unità, that education should be based on action and that instead of saying to the people ‘you are exploited because you are ignorant, free yourself from the priest and you will be free’, socialists should say to workers ‘you are ignorant and cowardly because you are exploited, you are exploited because you submit to the yoke of slavery; revolt and you will be free and you will be able to become civilised.’ For Bordiga, therefore, socialism was based not on education or political culture but on proletarian sentiment and action.
In November 1912, in the Avanti newspaper, Bordiga wrote a piece on ‘Southern socialism and the moral questions’. Here he described the backwardness and inadequacy of the southern Italian capitalist class. He pointed out that the Italian State, which was managed by the capitalist oligarchy of Northern Italy, did not intend to develop the South, because the economic, agrarian and industrial development of the South could only ‘harm the present monopolistic groups of big industries, which are protected and have in the South their natural market of consumption’. The ineptitude of the Southern capitalist class and the corrupt administration of the South was, he argued, exploited by local political factions to further their own self-interest and this was often with the support and collaboration of the clergy. The main opponents of this he saw as the anti-clerical bourgeoisie, who put forward the ‘moral’ argument that what was needed was an honest bourgeois administration, an uncorrupted and ‘efficient’ bourgeois capitalism. Bordiga opposed this way of thinking too, stating that ‘thieving or honest bourgeoisies are the same thing’ and that the PSI should be ‘ultra-intransigent’ against these ‘moralists’, because socialism demanded something quite different.
Rewriting of the PSI’s pamphlet entitled Il soldo ai soldati (‘On Soldiers’ Pay’) was assigned to Bordiga and was then discussed at the 1912 Bologna Congress of Socialist Youth. In this pamphlet Bordiga railed against the ‘barracks’ as being an institution of bourgeois democracy, but took the position on elections that they should be contested but without any kind of agreement with the bourgeois parties. At this time he saw electoral activity largely as a means of propagating socialist ideas and winning supporters, but his distrust of the electoral system grew as the PSI suffered recurring defeats in elections despite the considerable effort it put into them. Increasingly Bordiga was developing the view that the PSI had ‘degenerated’, that reformism had ‘drowned’ it and that what was important was a defence of its original revolutionary programme based on the formation of class consciousness and working class anti-militarism. In the article ‘Our Mission’, published in February 1913, Bordiga expressed the view that the PSI’s role was to be the vanguard of the proletariat in the class struggle. In it he quoted the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin on the principle of mutual aid and affirmed what he saw as the natural altruism of the proletariat. At the same time he argued that it would be wrong to believe that the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, dominated by means of workers’ ignorance; instead it dominated by means of culture, by being able to impose its own culture on workers, so the tenets of bourgeois education took on a ‘moral’ dimension in workers’ minds.

Early Bordiga and Electoral Activity

In March and April 1913, the magazine Avanguardia published a series of articles by Bordiga entitled 'For the Theoretical Conception of Socialism'. In them he expressed his political vision.
'We should not be philosophers but men of action… the proletariat is still in search of its programme and it will not find it permanently until after a long series of struggles and inevitable mistakes committed in action. (….) We have a programme de facto: the abolition of private property and of the wages system. We have to pay attention to the deceits of bourgeois thought and in particular to idealist forms that seek to distract the attention of the proletariat from the economic problems that it seeks to resolve with the violent suppression of their domination.’
If, on the one hand, this is a Marxist revolutionary position, on the other hand it has a strong taste of anarchist actionism. In a further Avanguardia article, in July 1913, Bordiga commented both on the recently translated book Revolutionary Socialism by the French revolutionary syndicalists Charles Albert and Jean Duchène and on an editorial on it by Mussolini in Avanti, the newspaper of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). According to Bordiga, the anarchists and syndicalists were too often criticized from the reformist point of view, that is, for rejecting legal revolution in favour of violence. Instead, for him, the shortcomings of the anarchist and syndicalist movements were in how they wanted to reach their revolutionary aim; the anarchists were too abstract and the syndicalists were too simplistic in believing that the unions would be sufficient to achieve everything.
Bordiga, however, disagreed with the authors that Marxism was a fatalistic doctrine. On the parliamentary tactic, a key element of what would become Bordiga's future thought on the question can be discerned in this article. He agreed with criticism of the justifications the anarchists gave for abstentionism. On the other hand, he accepted Albert and Duchène's criticism that parliamentary action would suffocate any other activity, commenting that ‘it cannot be denied that the facts seem to prove that’. But for him, at this time, it was a question of whether parliamentary and electoral activity was of use or not for the maximum programme of socialism. A few years later his answer was to be that it was not, with the same justification for this given by Albert and Duchène. It was from this that his abstentionism originated.
In November 1913 Bordiga discussed the elections that had just taken place:
'It is, in fact, indisputable that the conquests of Socialism, from the maximum to the immediate, must be a product of the large masses, which form a collective consciousness of their own interests and of their own future. The large masses must be convinced that, to guarantee and effectively materialize those conquests, they should not abdicate their safety into the hands of a few executives; they should also not ask for help of any kind from the economically opposing class. The Socialist Party must nurture and spread this collective consciousness… Nobody can deny the truthfulness of the observation that a man obliged to do manual labour is inclined to delegate to others, to the intellectuals, the management and therefore the control of social life. Even nearly conscious masses tend to entrust the achievement of whatever aim they have to a man or a few men, whom they follow too blindly… We want to deduce from it that, in the current conditions, any form of class action – not only the elections, but also syndicalist action and even street uprisings – present the risk that the masses will give up actual control of their own interests and entrust it to a given number of “leaders”.'
So at this time Bordiga favoured participation in elections as an opportunity for propagandising but at the same time he was concerned that elections could be used as a way for an intellectual elite to take control of the workers’ movement. He already foresaw how easy it was for electoral activity to degenerate into mere vote-catching, 'to lose any aim which was not the numerical outcome’.
At the XIV National Congress of the PSI in Ancona in April 1914, Bordiga gave the leadership’s political report and also a report on the Southern question. He spoke on the Party’s tactic in 'administrative elections', i.e. elections to local and regional councils. He was for a policy of absolute intransigence against any type of coalition with bourgeois parties in the South as well as elsewhere in Italy, against the so-called blockists (blocchisti) who favoured electoral alliances with other parties. Despite the special conditions of the South of Italy, Bordiga invited the PSI to approach the question of the local and regional elections with the same political line everywhere on Italy, and ‘to make socialist municipalities a weapon against the capitalist and bourgeois State’.
On 7 June 1914, to commemorate the Albertinian Statute (the constitutional charter of the Italian monarchy), republicans and anarchists in Ancona organized a demonstration where a large crowd gathered. The gendarmerie opened fire on the crowd killing three people. Workers all over Italy reacted to this violent act with street demonstrations. The reformist leaders of the union, the General Labour Confederation (CgdL) were obliged to proclaim a mass strike. Writing in the 1960s Bordiga commented on what he regarded as a typical conclusion to an insurrection in Italian history:
'... on 12 June when state power and the bourgeoisie were in trouble, the CGdL provided them one of its countless services; it ordered the end of the mass strike. It was straight from the anarchist and Sorelian syndicalist tradition, according to which the Union has the function of direct and violent action and the party the legal one.'
Though he never wrote about it, Bordiga’s involvement in this action had personal consequences for him. He was dismissed from the State Railways where he worked as an engineer for taking part in a demonstration in Naples. He had published a short note in Il Socialista on 25 June in which he extended greetings to the rioters in the name of the Neapolitan Section of the PSI.
When in his article 'Democracy and Socialism' Bordiga stated that socialism 'established itself as the solemn condemnation of the historical failure of the democratic formula, and of the deceits that this contains’ he was referring to bourgeois democracy. He wrote that democracy (i.e. bourgeois democracy) 'sees in the representative system the means to solve any problem of collective interest; we see in it the mask of a social oligarchy that uses the deceit of political equality in order to keep the workers oppressed’. In a key passage in this series of articles he wrote about what socialism means:
'… socialism means thinking that today, based on an examination of the existing economic and social conditions, a class action is possible, which aims to destroy capitalism and substitute it with a new social order. Acting as socialists means to seek to spread the consciousness of such a possibility in an ever growing number of proletarians and with the greatest simultaneity possible in all countries and nations. Whoever, even if they recognize that the destruction of capitalism is a good thing, does not think that this is the moment to act but believes that it is better to first solve other problems, is not a socialist.'
In this series of articles Bordiga continued to support the ‘municipalist’ thesis that workers should aim to win control of municipalities through elections, close to the argument of Mussolini in Avanti. At this point, for Bordiga, while what might be able to be achieved for workers at the municipal level should not be ignored, the role of the party remained one of propaganda, proselytism and preparation for the final clash of classes.

Bordiga and the First World War

In an article in Avanti, the newspaper of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), in August 1914 Bordiga identified as a dangerous development 'a sympathetic feeling for the Triple Entente [the alliance between Britain, France and Russia], not only justifying, but praising the attitude of the French socialists, to support that Italian socialists should hasten to fight in defence of France’. This was to become the position of Mussolini, at that point editor of Avanti.
For Bordiga, the concept of ‘fatherland’ was by definition anti-socialist and a defensive war on its behalf inconceivable. In September, in an article in Il Socialista on ‘Avanti and the war’, he addressed Mussolini's attitude openly, criticising the ambiguity of the line he had taken on the war in the party’s newspaper.
The ‘Manifesto against the War’ by the leadership and the parliamentary group of the party was published soon after, of which Mussolini claimed authorship. However, a few days later Mussolini’s famous article on 'active and operative neutrality' appeared in Avanti and which led the party to dismiss him as editor. Bordiga responded to Mussolini’s article with an editorial in Il Socialista entitled 'For an active and operative antimilitarism'. In it he wrote of the ambiguity of the concept of ‘neutrality’:
'The neutrality concept has for subject not socialists, but the State. We want the State to remain neutral with regard to the war, absolutely, until the end, whatever happens. In order to achieve this we act upon the State, against it, in the field and with the means of the class struggle. So we do not want to disarm. Our war is a permanent war.'
When Mussolini then started to attack the PSI, Bordiga, writing in Il Socialista, launched an appeal to boycott him. Finally, in December 1914 Mussolini's ‘socialist’ story came to an end. Because of his continuous attacks on the PSI he was expelled from the party. Bordiga reported this news in Il Socialista with satisfaction, and stressed that 'convictions against traitors are without appeal’.
Another series of his articles appeared in Avanguardia entitled 'Socialism of yesterday before the war of today', which give us some interesting insights into his thinking:
'The war… is certainly a destruction of capital, but the bourgeoisie as a class cares more for the preservation of the juridical relations which allow it to live off the work of the large majority than for the material possession of capital. Those relations, basic in every nation, consist of the right to monopolise the means of labour, which in turn are also the product of the work of the proletarian class. Thus for the proletariat the war is disastrous from all points of view while for the bourgeoisie it is a damage to material wealth, but it preserves and strengthens the potential relations for rebuilding such wealth, because it causes the class struggle to fade and turns it into national glorification.’
Modern states, he insisted, with their ‘democratic regimes’, maintain in economic slavery the working class who can be mobilized in 24 hours for the war front. For this reason, he noted, a revolutionary uprising will always have more chance of success in time of peace than on the eve of a war.
Bordiga, who still had some faith in the Second International, identified the real failure of socialism in the support of the socialist parties of France and Germany for the war. He argued that the leaders of those parties often due to their ‘superior culture’ (i.e. bourgeois culture) had too many links with bourgeois ideologies and felt more represented by ‘the nation’ than by socialism. So socialism must 'replace on a more solid basis antimilitarist action and review in a more revolutionary sense its parliamentary action’.
On the national question, Bordiga developed the notion that wars now were carried out by states and not by nations. He therefore distinguished wars of national unification from imperialist wars and pointed to the justification, still used today, about spreading democracy at the point of a bayonet. According to Bordiga, this was obviously a bourgeois excuse. He published an article on the principle of nationality in Avanti in January 1915. His position on this is interesting if compared with the discussion on it between Luxemburg and Lenin, of which Bordiga was unaware at the time. He developed his own independent ideas on the national question, in which he distinguished wars of national unification (which he was prepared to support) from imperialist wars. According to him, cultural identity did not match the concept that the bourgeois state had of the 'nation'. The state cared about economic interests not about cultural identity.
He went on to state, in clear contrast to the left reformists:
'Pacifism? No. We are advocates of violence. We are admirers of the conscious violence of those who rise up against the oppression of the strongest, admirers of the anonymous violence of the masses, which revolts for freedom… But legal violence, official, that the authorities are free to use in a disciplined way, … that violence… is disgusting and repugnant.'
Several time he cited Karl Liebknecht for his anti-militarism and his speech in the Reichstag on 2 December 1914, opposing the war and the approval given by the German Social Democrats to war credits. Bordiga explicitly linked his own antimilitarism to that of Karl Liebknecht, the Social Democratic members of the Russian Duma, the Serbian Socialist Party, the British Independent Labour Party (probably referring to an article by J. Bruce Glasier in Avanti in which he mentioned Keir Hardie’s position in the Labour Party) and the anarchist Sébastien Faure in France. This list shows that he was not taking into account the other policies of these figures, only their antimilitarism.
On the Russian revolution, we limit ourselves to Bordiga’s writings in 1917. This is because post-Lenin his political views changed significantly. In 1917 Bordiga wrote a series of articles in Avanguardia entitled 'The Russian revolution in a socialist interpretation'. He saw the Russian revolution as a phenomenon that has already lasted fifty years. In contrast to Antonio Gramsci, who while supporting the revolution without reservation saw in it a contradiction with Marxian thought, Bordiga commented that, while it might seem that 'the most rigorous application of the lines of the Marxian system' was ill adapted to a politically underdeveloped country like Russia, 'here a strong Party was formed – perhaps the most orthodox in the world'. He was referring mainly to the Bolshevik movement. In fact, a few lines later he wrote of them that 'the extremist current is the most genuine … wants peace, it refuses even transitory collaboration with the other classes and calls for the seizure of power to apply the Communist Programme'. He noted, however, as did many other socialists, that socialist methods did not sit well with a country mainly consisting of immense masses of peasants.
Bordiga concluded his series of Avanguardia articles in December 1917 commenting on the triumph of the 'Maximalists', i.e. the Bolsheviks. 'Finally, the government is overthrown’, he wrote, ‘and the seizure of power by the Soviets, in which the extremists have become the large majority, has taken place. While we write, in the jumble of contradictory and biased news coming to us, it is understood that socialists work to realize a programme along simple and grand lines – the same one as that of the Communist Manifesto – that is the expropriation of the private owners from their means of production, and in the meantime proceeding logically and consequently with getting rid of the war.'
Thus began Bordiga’s transition to Bolshevism and Leninism for which he is most well-known. The pre-Lenin Bordiga, however, showed himself to have had a clear idea of what revolutionary Marxist socialism meant. He was an intransigent, anti-reformist, class struggle socialist, though with a predisposition for anarchist-type direct action including the use of violence. Post-Lenin he was to lean towards Blanquist centralism, from which we can only distance ourselves.