The brain of society: notes on Bordiga, organic centralism, and the limitations of the party form - C. Derrick Varn

Amadeo Bordiga

Article examining Bordiga's idea that after the international class war is won, the organic-centralist party of the proletariat would, in a distant time, emerge as the 'brain' of the future, classless, stateless, communist society - the 'social brain', whose role would be to co-ordinate society's activities in accordance with the invariant communist programme.

Submitted by Craftwork on June 4, 2016

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bordiga?
One of the most obscure figures of Italian socialism, although he had a greater influence in Italy and France, was Amadeo Bordiga. Of the first three leaders of the PCI – the other two being Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti – Bordiga has had neither the academic reputation nor the prison years of Gramsci, nor the relationship with the USSR of Togliatti. Nor did Bordiga fly the banner of either democracy or cultural hegemony, during the Fascist years, when many of the National Syndicalists, kicked out by the Partito Socialista Italiano, flocked to Benito Mussolini. To the end of World War 2, Bordiga remained a critic of both fascism and democracy. These, however, are mere facts about history: why do I find Bordiga to be particularly important?

His influence and trajectory are often obscured by later figures, that are interested in him, but who adopt other elements of his ideas. Gilles Dauvé's “reconciling” of him with both Dutch/German councilists and French situationists, has led to many debates within a particular “left communist” community around communisation and real subsumption. These debates and their theoretical developments have largely been the subject of the journal Endnotes. Other versions of Bordiga portray him as an obstinate ultra-leftist, who even Trotskyists would not deal with, despite the fact that, unlike all other currents and tendencies of “ultra-leftists”, Bordiga (and later, his Partito Comunista Internazionalista) remained a “Leninist” as he conceived it. This “PCI”, or often called the International Communist Party, to avoid confusion, has left us with two tendencies: Internationalist Communist Tendency and the International Communist Current whose sizes are anyone’s guess, but they largely are seen as “atavistic sects.”

I flock around two key insights of Bordiga as well as one dangerous insight of his “disciple” Jacques Camatte. Bordiga’s first insight, and it does relate to the second, is that cities are inherently unstable, even if efficient, as a structure of society, and it would be more useful if the distinction between urban and rural life is collapsed. I use the term 'flock' specifically since I am unsure if the implications of these positions are ultimately palatable or even possible. That said, the collapsing here is just bringing much of the efficiency of the city into the countryside, which has happened to agricultural production in capital hubs with significant industry, but not to the structure of rural life in general. Furthermore, this is also to make the city less-parasitic on the production around it, since cities, even if massively more efficient, still cannot produce their own food and whatnot, and the infrastructure to support urban efficiency is energy and resource-intensive, for a set of structures so condensed. Unlike medievalists, conservatives, and some Maoist-influenced thinkers (like Pol Pot), this does not mean a return to pastoralism and peasant communalism. Nor, like primitivists such as John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, and the Black Mountains project, does this mean going back to some nomadic hunter-gatherer tribal form. Bordiga comments that history, as such, may not always “Progress” in the teleological sense, but one can’t go back to earlier points in history without a species-wide lobotomy: the amassed wealth, capital, and knowledge exists in the material world at that point. Thus, Bordiga implies that one should have a critique of the telos in technology: it was developed in its social context, for a specific purpose, and while parts of that development may be repurposed, some of its uses and structures must be abolished, otherwise the telos will remain. In this, Bordiga definitely split with even Lenin’s assumptions about industrialization and electrification along Taylorist lines. Camatte’s dangerous idea is that capital has subsumed community and altered the relationship to the biological world in a fundamental way, as he states in Capital and Community:

"Autonomization ends up by eternalizing social relations. Capital wishes to present itself as a natural fact having existed for all eternity and which has simply continued to improve down the centuries to reach its present perfect form. Hence the reification of social relations expresses, as we have seen, itself in the trinity formula which appears as a justification for the existence of classes. At a more developed stage, capital mediates all relations between men and negates classes. This also is included in its definition of self-valorizing value, it becomes the master of all use-values along with the “expropriation of all individuals of their means of production”. Negating class, that is, dissolving the proletariat in the middle classes, masks the fundamental antagonism. All men are slaves of capital. This slavery is expressed in an hierarchical oidering of men’s functions regarding capital. Capital fixes them into given social situations so as best to assure the reproduction of its value in process. That is the present form in which the social division of labour now appears." (Ch. 5)

It is not only that capital is altering human relations and making a structural imposition on individuals, not allowing them to realize that their political-economic condition is temporal and historical in its development. It attempts to subsume and also eternalize that relationship, but instead of using prior ideological notions like religion as a means for reification of value, it is the naturalization of these relationship and modes that makes history obscure in material ways, beyond the religious. (An implication Camatte does not consider is that this very secularization actually allows many religious ideas to persist, but decontextualized). This not a break from either Bordiga’s or Marx’s views, but a “radicalization” of them. However, since these views can lead to seeing all society as both vertically and horizontally altered by capital – the means of changing the means of production seems nigh impossible, and thus a paralysis of action can set in: not just as reforming action, or revolutionary action, but even anti-political action seems impossible. Camatte’s own example ends with a call to move into countryside to shield children from capital’s domestication.

You will notice that whilst both Camatte and Bordiga see alienation as altering any relationship to an organic world and an organic organization, both eschew talk of totally-unalienated nature – at least Camatte does until his later period. (Camatte himself – along with Adorno and Horkimer’s [i]Dialectic of the Enlightenment[/i ]– would be major influences of primitivist thinkers like Zerzan). This concern with the organic as a metaphor, and for integration of technological and natural/rural and urban spheres, marks Bordiga and Bordigists out from other Leninists, and this notion of the organic also makes Bordiga more akin to Lenin, if not “Leninists.”

Capital: The Community that Isn’t?
Marx and Engel’s noted in the manifesto something that even conservatives Daniel Bell and John Grey also note: capitalism is corrosive to semi-feudal notions of community and community-integration, for both good and ill. This is in the manifesto, explicitly. Furthermore, whilst liberals and even some socialists focused on “natural equality” – Marx noted in the Gothakritik that biological differences are not removed by notions of equal rights:

"But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"

The removal of community has led other structures to stand in its place, and through impositions of class, via abstract labor and exploitation, limit access in ways which “artificially” limit capacity: in other words, class matters even to your ability to fully-manifest your intelligence and skills, and to have the ability to find out what these are. Only in this sense, and in this sense alone, does Marx care about “equality.” Indeed, from reading this, it becomes clear that Marx thinks equality is often a mask for impossible contradictions (in a form of reification, that is also a form of bad faith).

As Bordiga understood this key Marxist point, and realized that the altering of community by capitalist production changes social being, this meant that democratic forms are institutionally problematic. This mirrors Kautsky and Lenin’s conception of “trade union consciousness”, but goes significantly beyond that. In this, Bordiga thought that the goal was for the party to mediate this transition – again, in line with both Kautsky and Lenin’s conception of a vanguard party. In the absence, and even the impossibility, of an organic community – things like “community organizing” or “cultural hegemony” can only be descriptors. All attempts of organic community on anything beyond a micro-scale are based on mystification: be it the imagined communities of nations or the lingering communities of the religious.

Furthermore, in the absence of community, politics becomes formal and administrative. Legitimacy is a formality of elections, which ensure the existence of legitimacy. That this is circular is beyond the point: this becomes an axiomatic assumption. Bordiga had very different conceptions of what this meant, from Camatte’s seeming despair. Indeed, he still saw answers in making Lenin’s “democratic centralism” more “organic” and less “democratic.” In fact, Bordiga saw in Marx’s conception of winning the battle “for democracy,” as mentioned in the Manifesto, as winning the battle against the democratic-form as necessarily incomplete.

The Organic Principle: Enter the Lyon Theses
Here is the second point of interest from Bordiga, and it is related to the above developments beyond Lenin. This understanding was crucial to the Lyon Theses where the idea of 'organic centralism' was first laid out:

“The communist parties must achieve an organic centralism which, whilst including maximum possible consultation with the base, ensures a spontaneous elimination of any grouping which aims to differentiate itself. This cannot be achieved with, as Lenin put it, the formal and mechanical prescriptions of a hierarchy, but through correct revolutionary politics."

“The repression of fractionism isn’t a fundamental aspect of the evolution of the party, though preventing it is.”

Thus, he is opposing the banning of factions and the closing of ranks within the Comintern, in which he had been a member. Both as had been done by Lenin, satisfied under the aegis of necessary in the Russian civil war and after, and as has been made theoretical doctrine within the party. Bordiga does not criticize Lenin for this, but for the theoretical justification of maintaining these relations. In fact, Bordiga has an almost evolutionary view within the party–even if he maintained a revolutionary view outside of it–that the fractionalism within the party itself helped the party progress by the opposition of ideas, and could only be suppressed in moments of dire need.

However, he did not oppose Lenin’s centralization nor did he think making party functions more democratic was actually an answer. The factions were not to oppose each other in electoral battles, but more the way opposed managers function within a capitalist firm, or theoretical sciences oppose each other in university. While in the Comintern he had stood up to Stalin on these grounds, demanding that all the parties represent their factions equally as long as the debate was within the Comintern. Still, this was not rooted in the same conceptions of humanism as were many of the other early oppositions, both in Russia and outside of it. It is important to know that Bordiga’s background was in the sciences, and it is likely that this was informing his views. When he met and worked with Gramsci early on, Bordiga worked in the sciences and Gramsci worked in the culture and literary section. (For more context on his life, read this article).

An article at Marx's Razor, which is highly sympathetic to Bordiga, goes into some of the non-democratic implications of Bordiga’s thought:

"Most democratoids will insist that communism is the pinnacle of democracy, that communism must be a democratic society. They see no other form as being compatible with communism than democracy, for, according to them, communism is the mass interests of all the people, and so is democracy. But do they forget when Engels explained “Democracy is, as I take all forms of government to be, a contradiction in itself, an untruth, nothing but hypocrisy (theology, as we Germans call it), at the bottom. Political liberty is sham-liberty, the worst possible slavery; the appearance of liberty, and therefore the reality of servitude. Political equality is the same; therefore democracy, as well as every other form of government, must ultimately break to pieces: hypocrisy cannot subsist, the contradiction hidden in it must come out; we must have either a regular slavery — that is, an undisguised despotism, or real liberty, and real equality — that is, Communism.”? Democracy is the rule of the people (or at least the majority), and therefore, democracy implies power and authority, which necessitates subversion and means politics, when in fact, Communism does away with political power; it does not decentralize it (as the anarchists would lead us to believe) nor does it put it into the hands of the mythical “people.” This was emphasized by Lenin in State and Revolution when he had commented that there would be no democracy under communism as “freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities, and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copy-book maxims.” When confronted with this, the detractors reply that what they had really meant was not democracy, but “democratic decision making.” There are multiple problem with this, one of which Dauve had so easily shown in his work, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Autonomy which outlines the list of the points of direct democracy, showing how each one is ultimately a failure and/or unnecessary. In his own words, Dauve’s critique of democracy in communism is that “in any case such freedom can’t be guaranteed by the democratic principle,” as this democratic form does not give necessarily assure that “libertarian principles” be followed, but rather a statistical list of beliefs (ideally at least, in practice democracy cannot even do that!). However, the critique of democratic planning in communism has to go deeper. Democratic decision making assumes that we are all autonomous individuals and all have separate interests (and whilst separate class interests are real, communism has done away with classes, and there exists only the “human interest”) when in fact, things such as a biological drive for the individual to preserve the self (which has been used to defend autonomism) is really just a biological drive to preserve the species. What is necessary for one person will of course vary for a different person, but usually people will need the same thing, their opinion and wants is determined by their social condition, their needs, their interests, which are all roughly the same in communism. Democratic decision making presupposes that these people, who all have roughly the same interest as they will be similar in both biology and in social condition, will somehow disagree on their interest – which runs contrary to Communist Theory. Communist Theory therefore spends no time worrying about democratic decision making, as the result will be the same, and democratic decision making is based on the view we all have wildly different interests, even though this is only true in class society; in fact, it is a justification for Class Society. Communism is organic, and it wastes no time on democracy, instead it develops organs most suited to dealing with problems. Then what form, these democratoids wonder, will communism take? Well, with machinery that is already built by the capitalists, this modern technology would help plan and figure out what is needed and wanted, and the amount of labor that would be necessary to go about doing this. The amount of work an individual does could be decided amongst them and the community, or some other fashion, and when work may affect a community, then a group of randomly selected experts could go and “negotiate” with these affected peoples – now, where is the democracy in that? Communism does not mean the workers control production, communism simply means production is done for use of the whole of human society, and is not produced for value. Communism is the abolition of money, wage-labor, the commodity and it is the unification of humanity that realizes they have one true common interests; communism is not decentralized democratic management of the economy."

In other words, the centralization within the party is organic, according to Bordiga and most Bordigists: it is a metaphorical-literalization of Kautsky’s vanguard party. The party as the “mind” of the proletariat. Democracy is seen as a statistical illusion, granting legitimacy merely by a show of hands of a captive population to elect its leaders. It is not a general will, and even fails to protect the very liberties that it was justified under. Think of the Patriot Act in the US, or many other laws, to which the barrier of prior laws and constitutions much be summoned a-democratically, to protect the majority from the representatives' actions, often quite legitimately in-line with the popular opinion of the enfranchised population. One can see parts of Bordiga’s point.

Yet the Lyon Theses lay out this in clear language:

“One negative effect of so-called bolshevisation has been the replacing of conscious and thoroughgoing political elaboration inside the party, corresponding to significant progress towards a really compact centralism, with superficial and noisy agitation for mechanical formulas of unity for unity’s sake, and discipline for discipline’s sake.

This method causes damage to both the party and the proletariat in that it holds back the realisation of the "true" communist party. Once applied to several sections of the International it becomes itself a serious indication of latent opportunism. At the moment, there doesn’t appear to be any international left opposition within the Comintern, but if the unfavourable factors we have mentioned worsen, the formation of such an opposition will be at the same time both a revolutionary necessity and a spontaneous reflex to the situation.”

Is this really as libertarian as it would seem? Jacques Camatte’s French translation and archival of some of Bordiga’s dialogues and speeches spell out something much more developed and implied in the Lyon Theses. In the Dialogue avec Staline, Bordiga develops his vision of socialism and communism as well as its relationship to “organic centralism”:

The following schema can serve as a re-capitulation of our difficult subject…:

Transition stage: the proletariat has conquered power and must withdraw legal protection from the non-proletarian classes, precisely because it cannot ‘abolish’ them in one go. This means that the proletarian state controls an economy of which a part, a decreasing part it is true, knows commercial distribution and even forms of private disposition of the product and the means of production (whether these be concentrated or scattered). Economy not yet socialist, a transitional economy.

Lower stage of communism: or, if you want, socialism. Society has already come to dispose of the products in general and allocates them to its members by means of a plan for ‘rationing’. Exchange and money have ceased to perform this function. It cannot be conceded to Stalin that simple exchange without money although still in accordance with the law of value could be a perspective for arriving at communism: on the contrary that would mean a sort of relapse into the barter system. The allocation of products starts rather from the centre and takes place without any equivalent in exchange. Example: when a malaria epidemic breaks out, quinine is distributed free in the area concerned, but in the proportion of a single tube per inhabitant.

In this stage, apart from the obligation to work continuing, the recording of the labour time supplied and the certificate attesting this are necessary, i.e. the famous labour voucher so much discussed for a hundred years. The voucher cannot be accumulated and any attempt to do so will involve the loss of a given amount of labour without restitution of any equivalent. The law of value is buried (Engels: society no longer attributes a ‘value’ to products).

Higher stage of communism which can also without hesitation be called full socialism. The productivity of labour has become such that neither constraint nor rationing are any longer necessary (except for pathological cases) as a means of avoiding the waste of products and human energy. Freedom for all to take for consumption. Example: the pharmacies distribute quinine freely and without restriction.

This vision of socialism and communism is largely technocratic. Furthermore, the party is to be the brain of the organic organization of the communist society. The party does not “fade away” into higher states of communism, something for which there is no implication Marx’s writing. In this, Bordiga is in line with the Third International trend, to see the party as symbolic of the class, as well as the provider of education for the proletariat.

The party remains central for Bordiga. Amadeo Bordiga in Structure économique et sociale de la Russie d'aujourd'hui:

"When the international class war has been won and when states have died out, the party, which is born with the proletarian class and its doctrine, will not die out. In this distant time perhaps it will no longer be called a party, but it will live as the single organ, the ‘brain’ of a society freed from class forces."

This is discussed clearly in an essay by Adam Buick’s on Bordigism, which is also a good source for many Bordigist texts translated into French but not into English, where Buick translates the French. If the brain of society is freed from class forces, how then is it not going to become a class? Not because of meritocracy or differing abilities… these things happen, and Marx clearly knew that. No, this would have to be a structure with some class components, since it would be a formalized, if organic, structure. The fact Bordiga does not seem to see this as a problem is interesting, considering that, unlike most Marxists, he saw the maintaining of strong rural/urban distinctions as a creator of class-differences (after all, is this not why proletariat and peasants are not the same?).

The Spectre of the Party Form
The party form is a spectre of what it was in the turn of the 19th century. Whilst political parties seem to dominate the bulk of discourse, their function is to provide an aesthetic, and a means for funding of candidates. The majority of the functions of the capitalist state have now gone to cabinet positions within the executive branch, and being appointed based on a mixture of political loyalty and competence, it is hard to see how this not a intermediate form to the organic technocrats within the party. Furthermore, Bordiga’s 'brain' sounds closer to visions by people like Technocracy, Inc., which came into being at roughly the same time, although in an entirely different context from the US, without any Marxist undertone, and with an entirely different understanding of the function of currency.

The hollowing out of the party-form is not new. Furthermore, even non-electoral parties seem to understand what the purpose of their form is: they tend to function in a tiny context, as a funnel for the particularly those advanced in alienation, and to attempt to “raise consciousness.” This is clearly a degeneration from the Kautsky vanguard party with its educational purpose, but in the context of the end of the Cold War, this is not particularly hard to imagine.

Furthermore, communalism itself seems like a non-starter. Particularly as Bordiga is right about the complete subsumption of the communal-form in everyday life, in a capitalist structure. A organic communalism just seems to recall primitive or peasant forms of social organization.

Could the party-form be useful in the transitional period, like in most traditional Marxisms, or have material conditions shifted too much for this to be case?

The Mammal or the Octopus
Furthermore, could this organic centralism be envisioned in a cybernetic or rhizomatic way, inter-linked and functioning without one central leadership? Could Bordiga’s critique of democratic forms still apply to this kind of functioning? What would be the organizational principle? What would be the mechanism for scientific-elite to show their innate talents according to Bordiga? Would it be a respect for factual consensus (as opposed to political consensus)? Would it be some form of testing regime?

If these functions are spread out in a multi-nodal manner, does that avoid some of the problems? Obviously, the left communists' and communisation theorists' attraction to Bordiga indicates that others see something key in his conceptions, without his notion of an eternal, central party brain. Still, it has led people like Adam Buick to conclude that Bordiga’s end goals were not quite socialism:

"Bordiga does not seem to have realised the extent to which restricting decision-making to a minority within society, even to an elite of well-meaning social and scientific experts, conflicted with his definition of socialism as the abolition of property. For property, as Bordiga well realised, is a social fact, not a legal state; it exists when control over the use of some thing is de facto in the hands of some individual or some group to the exclusion of all other individuals and groups. Clearly, this situation would still apply in Bordiga’s socialism, with the elite central administration as the owners (de facto controllers) of all the means of production, since the power to decide how to use them would be exclusively theirs."

However, as Buick notes, Gilles Dauvé, Camatte, and even the ICT/ICC largely ignored the technocratic elements of his positions, and also tended to downplay the centralist elements in organic centralism for the party. I do not agree that this is not socialism per se – it does seek to fundamentally change the relationships of value and production – but does not deal with all the problematic elements that could linger from a capitalist organization, if such a party would be allowed to maintain itself beyond such a transition. Bordiga’s own insight did not propel him beyond all the contradictions of his day, nor could we have honestly expected it to.

Taken from Symptomatic Commentary. Edited for clarity.