100 Years Since Livorno

In January 1921, more than three years after the October Revolution in Russia, some two years since the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Berlin at the behest of the German Social Democratic Party, and in the aftermath of two wasted years of workers’ factory occupations in Italy itself, the intransigent revolutionaries in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), led by Amadeo Bordiga, finally won the day and broke from the old party of compromise and accommodation with capital to form the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I).

Submitted by Internationali… on January 22, 2021

To commemorate the centenary of this bitter/sweet event, we join with our comrades in Italy in re-publishing an article written by Onorato Damen for the fiftieth anniversary in 1971. In the run-up to Livorno, Damen himself was one of those who had been pushing for a clear split with Social Democratic fudging and against the idea that the Third — Communist — International could justifiably include elements who dithered and ultimately rejected the revolutionary core of the International itself. Already, behind the scenes in the run-up to Livorno, Bolshevik advisers had been urging for a new Party that would be able to accommodate elements who were somewhat less intransigent than Bordiga and the Left. As it was, the Party was formed without Serrati’s oscillating left Social Democrats but the isolation of the Russian Revolution had taken its toll and the new, intransigent-led Communist Party in Italy soon found itself up against the Comintern Executive’s united front policy. In Italy itself the working class was also on the back foot and the new Party almost immediately came up against the Fascist counter-revolution. As we recall the hopes and aspirations of the comrades who formed the revolutionary party in January 1921 and their aim to join the international struggle for a new world community (when the word ‘communism’ was not equated with totalitarian state control), we cannot but remind ourselves of the paramount lesson from the defeat of the post-World War One revolutionary wave: the need for an international revolutionary party of the working class which will be in a position to give intransigent political guidance to the insurrectionary battles provoked by capital’s attacks which will surely come.

Today it is more than ever necessary to place the construction of the revolutionary organisation in an international perspective. Over recent decades the working class has been fragmented and disoriented by the crisis and the transformations it has produced on an international scale. Wage workers are generally aware of being part of a world economy yet need their own political compass to point the way towards the overthrow of the global capitalist order, a task which only the revolutionary world working class can carry out. In this sense, the Internationalist Communist Tendency believes it can make a major contribution thanks to the political heritage of the “Italian Left” which began with the formation of the PCd’I way back in the Goldoni Theatre in Livorno a hundred years ago. It is a heritage that cannot be learned by rote, but is there to be built on by today’s class struggle and the revolutionaries who are looking for the political way forward.

For us the fiftieth anniversary of the Livorno Congress, which produced the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I), is not the time for a mere act of commemoration. It provides us with the opportunity to seriously re-examine and reflect on that distant event, which, for obvious political reasons, has come to the attention not only of historiographers but also of official publications1 which, in line with the bourgeois historical method of only acknowledging the victor, deliberately exclude the part played by certain men at the expense of others from the Party hagiography.

To make our task of updating political history and criticising the event easier, we have published a pamphlet based on an article in Prometeo no. 2 – February 1951 – Series II, which brings together the most significant documents from the Livorno Congress and the Imola Convention, including due reference to the Bologna Congress and the Theses of the Second Congress of the Third International.2 Re-reading these documents today, it is possible to unambiguously emphasise some facts which throw light on subsequent events in the PCd’I: the Party which would later become the Italian Communist Party (PCI),3 and the separate course taken by other currents of the same Party which would return to their historic roots of Livorno. We think it’s the best way to remember this 50th anniversary.

1. Only Bordiga, the first and best to do so, immediately sensed the historic necessity of forming a revolutionary party which had to be formed by breaking all ties with the PSI, which was always going to remain a parliamentary party despite a left-wing veneer given to its revolutionary rhetoric, something deployed only on electoral tribunes.
2. When Bordiga put all his efforts into building the Communist Party as a future section of the Third International, he remained isolated in this battle conducted inside a Social Democratic Party, entirely consumed by frenetic electoralism. Gramsci supported the unity of this Party which was mired in the great sea of the most futile maximalism, having argued that the “councils” would take up the revolutionary role that the PSI had failed to do.

Bordiga may have committed the error of believing that he could forge the Party on the theoretical, political and organisational basis of the Abstentionist Fraction, but at the Congress of Bologna and afterwards, he acted with a strong sense of urgency within the Party as a whole to liberate new, healthy political elements in the direction of the socialist revolution, a requirement that did not even begin to enter the political sights of Gramsci.

The Imola Convention (28 November 1920)

Why was Imola, and not Bologna, for example, great proletarian Bologna, chosen for the First Convention which would take on such great importance in the construction of the Communist Party? Because of its greater security or easier availability, given the presence of that fine administrator Marabini4 , or comrade Graziadei5 , also from Imola and part of the “motion passarella”?6 Or was it one of the numerous pre-Livorno attempts to break down the Centre bloc in the Party, represented by Serrati’s unitary maximalists?7 Maybe any one of these reasons? But a brief sketch of the situation in Bologna at the time is enough to justify one of these hypotheses.

After the events of the Palazzo D’Accursio8 , the large and powerful federation of Bologna was practically disarmed. The author of this text, who as party secretary during the proceedings of the Imola Convention had been tasked by Gennari9 to unite at least the most serious elements of the Bologna federation, found himself incapable of even partially carrying out his assigned task.

What is more, even in the months preceding the crime, the local Party had shown that it was incapable of even guaranteeing the armed defence of the local Camera del Lavoro [something equivalent to Trades Councils – CWO] against the repeated assaults of the Fascist squadristi. Every time this was left to the wider Imola organisation, supported by groups of very valuable fighters, who in this phase, albeit one of decline, showed that the workers’ movement could make sacrifices worthy of remembrance.

The albatross of “compromise” appeared for the first time at Imola. We have stated, in other writings, that in many ways the Imola Convention played a role not only of preparation for the Livorno Congress, but also untangled the knot of contradictions and immaturity which had long kept large currents of the revolutionary left imprisoned within the ranks of the Socialist Party. The central problem of the Convention rested on the fact that the creation of a Party presupposed the dissolution at the same time of the Abstentionist Fraction (Il Soviet), as well as the Turin group of Ordine Nuovo with its organisation of “Councils”. The author remembers the vehement and decisive demand for this made by Luigi Salvatori of Viareggio10 , one of the liveliest and most passionate voices of parliamentary maximalism in Tuscany at the time.

Incidentally, the Imola Convention had something in common with Garibaldi’s expedition of the thousand11 , and it would be more honest of Spriano12 , the PCI historian, if he readjusted the number of people he has present, delegates or otherwise. But he also mentions the presence of a small group of youths from l’Unita, who were possibly among the Figli della Lupa13 at the time of the Convention or maybe a little later.

To conclude on the historic importance of the Imola Convention, it must be said that, by accepting the compromise, the abstentionists and ordinovists had brought to the foreground the necessity of amalgamating the forces that had come into being, and we might add, under the influence that the October Revolution and Lenin’s thinking had over all of them. We cannot say that this marriage of forces had been a complete success, and this would later rebound negatively on the ideas and conduct of the future party.

From an organisational perspective, from the aspect of its early cadres and publicity channels, we can say that the Imola Convention effectively set in motion a miniature party within the larger space of the PSI, already a party within the party, but also, moreover, against this same party.

The divided spirit between the revolutionaries and the reformists was generally felt by those at the conference. The scope and magnitude of this split, which the Left posed as the fundamental problem, would reflect the limitations and temperaments of the political participants in the discussions at the conference. The same elements would participate at the coming Livorno Congress.

The Livorno Congress (21 January 1921)

The Congress at Livorno had a platform, an advertising launch and a choreography beyond what the modest theatre at Imola had been able to offer the Convention. But from the standpoint of ideological and political consistency and validity, the relationship was inversely proportional.

A touch of colour, which would soon become the most vibrant colour of the new course of Italian politics, was added by the fact that the members of the Congress were flanked en route from the hotel to the Goldoni Theatre by numerous groups of Fascists, who were ready to attack the more or less well-known delegates. These lurking squadristi would have to be dealt with.

It was the sign of the rising tide of the bosses’ reaction after the real fright they had had in the factory occupations, but which had ended with a compromise that gave the advantage to the capitalists. Above all this shows that while the Communist Party’s birth was logical and natural, it did not come into existence when the workers’ movement was in the ascendant, but in that of its tragic retreat. In short it found itself managing the failure and defeat of the proletariat, a period in which many cadres were injured, something which has a certain limited validity from the perspective of the heroism and sacrifice of the young revolutionary movement.

The militant, heroic anti-fascism of this period certainly did not limit itself to attacking hired squadristi, but aimed to attack capitalism as a whole with the weapons of class struggle. Compare this to the anti-fascism of later times: that of 1945 which would see the PCI triumphantly join in the democratic front for liberation during the war and in the partisan resistance movement; or the current anti-fascism, where the PCI can still be seen on the anti-fascist front after the bombing of Milan14 and the more recent bombing of Catanzaro. This is facile, wanton, diabolical anti-fascism, made up of empty polemics, which takes advantage yet again of the ingenuity and inexhaustible capacity for sacrifice of the working masses for the salvation of the bosses’ democracy and parliamentary institutions, the real causes of Fascism.

Recent history irrefutably demonstrates that every time the revolutionary movement departs from its origins, from its ideals and from the theoretical method which resulted in the important synthesis of the Livorno Congress, it inevitably adopts the worst tactics on questions such the First World War, imperialism and the October Revolution, tactics which lead sooner or later to compromise and then capitulation to class enemies. And this indeed is exactly what happened. This is why certain fundamental errors in the analysis of Fascism must not be ignored or underestimated if we wish not to repeat them. This goes for those who theorised Fascism as some kind of experience of peasant folklore (Gramsci), and those like Bordiga who in a tactical context underestimated its coherence, denying that Fascism was anything but a short-term prospect. Its rise to power can be dated precisely to the moment of the completely peaceful march on Rome, with the goodwill and consent of the monarchy and the clergy. Traditionally, these have been the two surest pillars of conservatism based on monopoly capitalism and big industrial and agricultural landlordism in a happy union which gave birth to that irrational monster which entered into history under the name of Fascism.

Yet from a strict class perspective, it is to the merit of the Livorno Congress that it posed and resolved, even if incompletely, the problem of the divisions between the various socialist political forces that already coexisted inside the Third International itself. On the one hand was Social Democracy, which saw in the most developed countries and the more advanced economies, in the USA and Western Europe, a progressive transformation which they took to be a living example of their own objective – the introduction of socialism by parliament. On the other hand the communist movement, liberated from all Social Democratic and parliamentary control was firmly on the path towards the construction of the party according to the lessons of Lenin and of the Bolshevik October.

This alone would suffice to consider the Livorno Congress as a milestone on the tortured path of socialism towards the formation of the revolutionary party.

At the Livorno Congress, the motion to split and form a new Party was called the Imola Motion because it was at Imola that the convergence of different currents was defined by what they had in common. They omitted what they did not agree on. This was the reason for the need for a compromise which could satisfy the Centre of the International and therefore the Russian State, but which would never be able to allay the underlying and still-latent disagreements which would resurface more acutely a few months later, most prominently in the Italian section:

1. The Third Internationalist Fraction (“terzinternazionalista”, dubbed “terzini”) who entered the Livorno Party with political weapons and baggage, that is, with all the demands of novices who consider themselves indispensable as bearers of a new politics and who thus demand the right to a presence in the leadership organs and the direction of the party newspaper. They would use every form of influence, direct and indirect, to give the impression, not only in appearance, of being a party in power within the PCd’I, by virtue and in honour of the whole, monolithic revolutionary party.
2. The Abstentionist Fraction concluded its political existence as a fraction at Livorno, officially dissolving its own organisation, consigning the theory of abstentionism, which was not just a theoretical question of principle but also a question of tactics, to the attic in the name of formal discipline, sincerely and consistently accepted but without conviction.
3. The Ordine Nuovo group were practically absent from the Livorno Congress because Gramsci, hiding behind Bordiga, had correctly calculated that the role of leadership would be assigned to his group, whose theoretical orientation and ready availability constituted a valuable base for the new course of the Russian State and which the Centre of the International hoped could be used to completely remove Bordiga and the “Italian Left” from its leadership.

The dismantling of the organisational network of the Left by the triumvirate of Gramsci, Togliatti and Scoccimarro unfolded methodically, progressively and not without violence. The decisive weight of the solidarity of the leadership of the International guaranteed the future success of the operation against the Left.

Through a critique (discovered only later) that the Livorno split had been made “too far to the left”; through the unreserved acceptance of Bolshevisation imposed on all sections of the International, which aimed to push local organisations aside and replace them with cells in factories and neighbourhoods; through the policy of the united front – the era of the Party of Livorno, which bore the mark of Bordiga and the Italian Left, came to an end. A new era began, the era of the Lyon Congress (1926), which initiated the epoch of Gramsci and Togliatti and their total capitulation to the Kremlin. The Stalinist slogan “socialism in one country” was translated, as far as the PCI was concerned, to mean “the Italian democratic and parliamentary path to socialism”.

The shipwreck of revolutionary Marxist ideas at Imola and Livorno was thus a fait accompli.

Onorato Damen
January 1971

  • 1Onorato Damen is being sarcastic here. When this piece was written the Soviet Union still existed, as did the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) with its programme of “Eurocommunism” which was trying to prove to the United States that it was no threat to Western “democracy” at the same time as maintaining close links with the USSR which had sponsored and protected the “certain” leaders who were always acknowledged in the histories of the Italian Communist Party (PCI): first Gramsci and then Togliatti, ignoring the role of Bordiga and the Left who founded the Party and who still held a majority of its members as late as 1926. It was only by manoeuvres that Gramsci and Togliatti were able to take control of the Party and turn it into the unquestioning tool of a degenerating revolution in Moscow.
  • 2For more information on the questions dealt with here, see the pamphlet Dal Convegno di Imola al Congresso di Livorno nel solco della ‘Sinistra Italiana’, available on our Italian website: leftcom.org
  • 3The Communist Party of Italy, Section of the Third International (PCd’I) took that name as a deliberate recognition of the need for a workers’ international to overthrow capitalism. When Stalin abandoned that perspective he adopted socialism in one country (1926). He finished off the job in 1943 due to the wartime imperialist alliance with the USA and Britain, when the Third International was dissolved. The new Italian Communist Party (PCI) of Togliatti would thus be a national party ready to assist in capitalist restoration in Italy after Togliatti returned there from Moscow in 1945.
  • 4Anselmo Marabini (1865-1948). Member of the leadership since the Ninth Congress of the PSI (Rome 1906); secretary of the PSI of Imola in 1910; member of the EC of the provincial federation of Bologna in 1912. Elected deputy of the province of Bologna in 1919, he became provincial councillor in 1920.
  • 5Antonio Graziadei, sometimes called Tonino (1873-1953). Economist and politician. Co-founder of the PCd’I.
  • 6Often called “the Marabini-Graziadei Circular”, or “passarella circular”, an attempt to bring the majority of the party to the revolutionary positions of the Third International. It was signed by Repossi and Fortichiari.
  • 7The Italian Socialist Party was basically divided between the old Right led by Tasca, which wanted to remain in the Social Democratic camp, and the Left which was forming under Bordiga, and which wanted to form a communist party inspired by the Russian Revolution. The complicating factor was a large centrist faction under Giacinto Serrati who had affiliated the Socialist Party as a whole to the Third International but without getting rid of the anti-revolutionaries. Serrati oscillated between the two and this confusion contributed enormously to the delay in the formation of the Communist Party of Italy. See: leftcom.org
  • 8The massacre of the Palazzo d’Accursio, which took place on 21 November 1920 in Bologna, was the result of the confrontations that broke out on the Piazza Maggiore between the Fascist squadristi, the Socialist Party Red Guards and the members of the Royal Guard when the new municipal council of the socialist maximalist Enio Gnudi was set up. 10 socialists were killed and 58 were injured outside the Palace as well as a liberal councillor inside, who died shortly afterwards.
  • 9Egidio Gennari had been elected PSI party secretary in 1918 and would become one of the original members of the Central Committee of the PCd’I in 1921. He left Italy in 1926 and undertook various tasks for the Comintern. He died in Gorky (USSR) in 1942.
  • 10Luigi Salvatori (1881-1946). Deputy, one of the 12 who joined the Communist Party at Livorno.
  • 11The Expedition of the Thousand (1860) was an ambitious and dangerous project since its aim was to conquer a kingdom with a regular army and a powerful navy with only a thousand men. The British navy under Admiral Rodney ensured that Giuseppe Garibaldi and his volunteers landed in Sicily safely to go on and overthrow the Bourbons who ruled the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
  • 12Official historian of the Stalinist PCI.
  • 13Fascist youth organisation.
  • 14Piazza Fontana in the centre of Milan, 12 December 1969.