In this text, whose French translation appeared in Camatte’s book Bordiga et la Passion du Communisme and which is translated into English for the first time here, Amadeo Bordiga lays out a concrete vision of communist society as reconstructed from Marx’s fragmentary writings on the subject. Communist production, while following “a common and rational plan”, will as a joyful act constitute “its own reward”. However, to attain such a state of affairs, a revolutionary “dictatorship over consumption” will first be necessary according to Bordiga.
Marxism and property
One topic that we have frequently found ourselves occupied with is that of the formula which in the communist program correctly counterposes the post-bourgeois historical era to the current one. To this topic was dedicated the old study in the first issue of Prometeo on Property and Capital1 . We discussed, and at our last meeting in Turin2 we returned to it with thoroughness, the most common propagandistic formula of pre-war socialism: the abolition of private property in the means of production (and of exchange). We use the parenthesis because this is how it is written in a fitting text by Engels.
The noun abolition has never been satisfactory. It reeks of a volitional act, and [as such] it is good for anarchists and (logically) for reformists. The adjective private raises the question of whether the relationship which we denote [by the word] ‘property’ should disappear in communist society, or only change its subject.
It is in the search for this new subject where, all things considered, lies the whole basis for deviations and for immediatism – old or new but always philistine. Will property pass from being private (in the vulgar sense: big owners’ property) to groups of producers, producer-consumer federations, the State, craft associations, or even to social subclasses?
Our research carried out in Turin and in the Corollarii3 within these pages (see issues 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17)4 led to the thesis that there must not survive any subject of property, contrary to the historically sterile petit-bourgeois ideologies, and that there must not survive any object, either: means of production or exchange, land, fixed plant, nor consumer goods; not even individual consumption goods.
Since formulas, once picked up, have a terrific staying power, the Corollarii were dedicated to proving that this is not a new thesis, but as always a classical one of Marxism, and we derived it from the luminous pages of Engels and Marx. We carried the demonstration forward until we established, using an essential passage from Volume III of Capital, that communism can be defined not even as ownership of land transferred from the individual to Society, because the relationship between society and the earth, to the extent that one wants to use a term of the conventional legal system, is not one of property but rather of temporary usufruct.
But perhaps someone may think that there are statements by Marx which make an exception for personal property, individual property; statements about consumer goods – at least those belonging to the wage worker, who has certainly not trafficked in the labor of others. It is to be shown that such a line of reasoning is not grounded in Marxism but in a vague and barren philosophy of exploitation which is at the core of many of today’s fake leftisms (see Chaulieu of Socialisme ou Barbarie as [an example of a] theoretician who is not naïve but [nevertheless] condemned to the sad immediatist circle).
For Marxists, every commodity in the current society is Capital – inasmuch as Capital is nothing but the mass of commodities that circulate; we’re talking the basics here! – and contains a fraction of surplus value, of extorted and unpaid labor. Whoever buys that commodity with money and consumes it appropriates the work of others, even if within the productive cycle others have appropriated his own labor in their turn.
In the course of this research, it is necessary, when we encounter these aberrations of innocent appearance, to go back to the characteristics that distinguish capitalism from pre-capitalist forms of production, and to ask ourselves what is the exact definition of the capitalist mode in classical Marxism.
It would be naïve to say that capitalism is the system in which there is exploitation of man by man, both because exploitation also existed in other modes of production such as serfdom and slavery, and because such definitions should not be concerned with the relation between one individual and the other, but rather interpret the unfolding of the whole social dynamic and the relations between the classes. Even the formula of the exploitation of one class by another, while better, is not complete.
One can posit, at least in theory, a society of private property, and therefore one which is not the least bit socialist, without exploitation of man by man or of class by class. Just think of a society of petty commodity production, or even – if you like – of a society of independent self-sufficient producers, that is of peasants and artisans, who only consume products that they have worked on.
Expropriation, not appropriation
For our school, defining capitalism does not mean defining a structure outside of time, but rather characterizing its historical origins. In Marx, capitalism is defined by the separation of the worker from the conditions of his work, as is made clear in every party text. Capital is formed by the expropriation of free producers who are left without land or instruments of labor, and who lose all rights to the products of their labor. These are the relations and conditions from which they are forcibly compelled to divorce themselves, remaining only bearers of labor power which they sell in exchange for a money wage. Capital does not create “privatism” that we, socialists, are then going to destroy; the thing is not so banal. Rather, capital “socializes”, because it concentrates in large masses the fragmented means which it has extorted from free producers, and in doing so attains an economically and historically positive objective insofar as it leads to large-scale cooperation among workers. Initially, this system satisfies better than the old one the needs not just of the capitalists, but of the whole society and of the workers themselves, above all in the field of manufactured goods, which were practically unknown to the poor of pre-bourgeois times.
The dialectic of expropriation of the expropriators – which we have read about a hundred times in the Manifesto, in Capital, and in Anti-Dühring – cannot be reduced to a sin redeemed, to the restitution of loot, to a banal ‘give Caesar what is Caesar’s’, as it seems to the narrow-minded immediatist, but it is the historical addition of one leap forward to another, of a revolution to a revolution, which were generally widely separated in time but which both did a good job.
In capitalism, the most collective form of production replaced private production, and in essence this thesis also applies to the appropriation of products. Those [products] that were first distributed in minimal quantities among autonomous producers, who could consume them or exchange them, now become available in bulk to the few, or to those who are still fewer in number: the owners of enterprises.
That portion of products which we today call capital goods or instrumental goods (the first term is better because, in addition to tools and machines, it also includes the semi-finished products that will enter another processing cycle) continues to circulate in large masses, while only that portion of final products which is called ‘consumer goods’ finds on the market an opportunity to be more finely subdivided and widely distributed by being exchanged against money that comes from the wages of the proletarians, or from the revenue of the capitalists, or even from those belonging to other classes inherited from ancient societies.
Therefore capitalism is a mode of production that is no longer individual but social, and it is only its mode of distribution which is individual. However, even this second part of the thesis cannot refer to capital goods, which form the largest portion [of the social product], but only to direct consumption goods, which everyone does their share of buying, although certainly not in equal quantities.
It should be noted that not even this inequality, just like the previous injustice, is a valid defining feature of capitalism in our doctrine, which rather defines it as the suppression of the freedom of the producer. None of this has prevented the political superstructure of capitalism from decking itself out in freedom, equality, and justice.
Indeed, socialism will do much better than to subdivide land, means of production, and products into as many particles as there are human beings; a thing that would be manifestly absurd when it comes to all goods that are not directly consumable, and childishly expressed when it comes to those that are.
Lenin’s theoretical rigor
There is a writing [penned] by Lenin at the end of the 19th century, which will be further useful [to us], dealing with the vital subject of Crisis Theory and bearing the following title (making a mockery of the revisionists): A Characterization of Economic Romanticism. Perhaps the reader will recall that we have often employed the definition of romanticism for the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian revolution.
This writing is useful to us for some quotations which show that certain formulations, which some today still find it hard to get into their heads, have been the natural heritage of our school for a long time.
Lenin ridicules the Russian economist Efrussi for his mangled definition of crisis, which was also shared by the great Sismondi and by Rodbertus (the German who insisted that Marx had plagiarized his theory of wages). Lenin showed how certain deformations of post-Marxists did nothing but rehash the mistakes that had already been overcome and eliminated by Marx; we can now extend this truth to the present day, that is, for more than another half a century. Keynes and the welfarists in fact pick up where Efrussi left off and where Rodbertus and Sismondi left off; crisis is an unfavorable relationship between production and consumption, and solving it is a matter of stimulating and enhancing consumption, above all the consumption of wage laborers.
Lenin derides this lapalissade5 which claims that crises happen because not everything that is produced is bought, because there is no balance between production and consumption, or that this balance falls short because the producer (capitalist) did not foresee the demand. This is the effect, but not the explanation, of the cause. Lenin points out that underconsumption is a phenomenon characteristic of all economies, but that crises characterize the capitalist economy only.
Malthus and Sismondi stand against the classical economists because they derive social wealth not from production but from consumption: Rodbertus only took it one small step further when he identified the insufficient consumption of the workers as the cause and gave rise to the reformist and gradualist immediatism. Still following this theoretical line today are the economists who believe they can say more than Marx and (as we said at Asti6 ) exalt Malthus who delegated consumption to the noble landowners and priests in order to solve the economic riddle! In America, the ideal type of this modern priestling is the employee who – with his car, family home, TV set, etc. – shares in the profits.
But let’s get to the meat of the matter. Lenin excuses Sismondi and Rodbertus, but we cannot excuse Chaulieu or Keynes. The former were not “capable” of understanding that “the criticism of capitalism cannot be based on phrases about universal prosperity (Sismondi), or about the fallacy of circulation left to itself (Rodbertus), but must be based on the character of the evolution of production relations”7 . They were not able to understand it because they were writing before the rise of Marxism.
What did they not know? No one can say it better than Lenin: “Crises are inevitable because the collective character of production comes into conflict with the individual character of appropriation”8 . This fundamental theorem of Marxism is repeated a little later with the addition of a parenthesis: “contradiction that is the distinguishing feature of only one system—the capitalist system, namely, the contradiction between the social character of production (socialised by capitalism) and the private, individual mode of appropriation”9 .
Lenin adds: “‘Anarchy of production,’ ‘unplanned production’—what do these (well-known) expressions tell us? They tell us about the contradiction between the social character of production and the individual character of appropriation”10 .
We take from this passage by Lenin the notion of underconsumption. Many eras have been marked by this phenomenon, the reaction to which was the decimation of the population. The capitalist era feigns to abhor it, and from this stems the myth of overproduction, for which overconsumption and overpopulation are required. It is time to rid ourselves of yet another imitative fixation on the bourgeois order: the proletarian revolution cannot hesitate to go through a period of underconsumption if that is what it takes to overthrow capitalism. Lenin’s revolution fourty years ago taught us that there was no need to hesitate, but the goal had to be the victory of the socialist system, and not of the system of capitalism. Nevertheless, there remains a great lesson for the proletariat and its party: the revolutionary dictatorship will have the character of a dictatorship over consumption – the only way to detoxify the servants of modern Capital, and rid them of the class stigma which it branded into their flesh and into their minds.
This is something incomprehensible to every immediatist circle: commune, federation, category, class of producers (we also need to recall Marx’s incisive phrase about the control of society that is not to be surrendered to one class of producers11 – that is, not even to a class of the non-idle and of non-exploiters). And it is something that adds to the chains of impotence [which constrain] every form of organization that is not the political party: unions, enterprise councils, local councils.
The correct formulation
Once again we claim the full mantle of Marxist declaratory judgment.
The separation of workers from the material conditions of their work is the capitalist form. By realizing this separation using means that are violent and even inhuman, capitalism transforms individual production into social production, but leaves to the appropriation of products its individual character.
The free producers expropriated by capitalism are reduced to proletarians who have no reserves and live by selling their labor power for money, with which they realize the purchase of a portion of the products for their own personal consumption – that is, the reproduction of labor power.
In the socialist form, production remains social, and therefore there is no property on anyone’s part in the instruments of production, including land and fixed plant. In this society, there will be no individual appropriation, not even for the purposes of consumption. Rather, distribution will be social and for social purposes.
Social consumption differs from individual consumption in that the physical allocation of consumable goods is not done through the mediation of commodity purchase and with monetary means.
When society satisfies all those needs of its members that are not inconsistent with the best [course of] social development, regardless of their lesser or greater contribution to social labor, all personal property has ceased [to exist] and with it its measure, that is value, and its symbol, money.
In the beginning of the struggle of the modern proletariat, incomplete formulas were often used, which is not to say, however, that these contained the overall expression of the doctrine. To this must be attributed the frequent recurrence of the expressions: “socialization of the means of production”, or rather: “respect for the personal property of the worker”. Historically, this did not lead to any serious ambiguities, since general plunder of the independent laborers’ measly personal property in tools and products was the norm until very recently. It is analogous to how Marx himself had to put up with the fact that in the general address of the International Workingmen’s Association there were left phrases about justice and the freedom of the individual and of the peoples, which he made sure were relegated to where they could not cause harm.
Today we find capitalism at a much higher point on the curve of its development, namely that which classical Marxism fully anticipated; and it is not enough – as it was then – for an agitation formula to be useful to the working class that it is directed against the powers that be.
Continuing the work of the Corollarii12 , we have a duty to keep giving the demonstration which in the case of the First International was given by Marx’s well-known letter to Engels, in order to remove any suspicion that where others make cuts to Marxism, we wanted to give you some additions of our own.
Rough outlines of future society
The ever more extensive research into the Marxist literature that is underway on all sides, [conducted] even by those currents which maintain that it is time to finish with all of this referring to Marx – thought by many to be too outdated – has had the result of tracking down and publishing even the simple marginal notes that Marx jotted on the pages of the books which he read and to which he dedicated his criticism.
The passage that will serve us now deserves attentive reading, and it is regrettable that it is interrupted by a comment that diminishes its continuity, and thus its power. It is taken from the notes written on the work of James Mill, the English economist who was the father of the better-known economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill, and whom Marx cited extensively in his later works and in his history of the Theories of Surplus Value. Here we are dealing with six pages written in a notebook that interest us not so much as a critique of Mill Senior’s system, but as a free excursion of Marx’s mind into the fields of communist society, which he was always reluctant to undertake.
We must bear in mind that the young Marx had already developed the complete critique of Hegel's idealism, which he declared to have completed with his work on the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that dates from those years. However, his preferred form of exposition, particularly in a note not intended for the public, could not but “flirt” with the Hegelian method, a thing he even admitted doing in the preface to Volume I of Capital more than twenty years later.
It is therefore no wonder that this excerpt, which we choose as a true Manifesto against every form of individualism, sets up the polemic in the individualized form of a dialogue between the characters “You” and “Me”; this is probably the case because Mill’s text, when it dealt with the theory of exchange between the producers of commodities that satisfy different needs, did so after the old fashion of economists by trade (still not dead after all this time), and based all its analysis that would come to the defense of the market and of the law of exchange on the elementary case of Tom who had produced a commodity that is useful to Harry.
Marx adopts this scenario of a personal relationship, and dialectically lays the foundation for the construction of a critique that from the egoism of the two individuals, measurable according to the bourgeois economists in terms of value and money and the exact terms on which both of them approach the deal, rises above the base and vile borders of a market society. There is an evident concern throughout to place everything on the firm basis of material and real relations, even though the literary form may have an abstract flavor.
“As a man you have, of course, a human relation to my product: you have need of my product. Hence it exists for you as an object of your desire and your will. But your need, your desire, your will, are powerless as regards my product.”13
We apologize for this first interruption; we want to clarify that here we are describing a society of product owners. The member “You” cannot simply reach out a hand and grab the product of the member “Me” that “You” crave so much, because the social form forbids it.
“That [this powerlessness] means, therefore, that your human nature, which accordingly is bound to stand in intimate relation to my human production, is not your power over this production, your possession of it, for it is not the [faculty of appropriation (thus we translate the term Eigentuemlichkeit)], not the power, of man’s nature that is recognised in my production.”14 We’ll translate the meaning, if we may: the social form does not recognize the right of any and all human beings15 to consume my production; it grants that right only to me or to those who pay me – and that’s it for the foul language. That was Hegel.
“They (your need, your inner desire) constitute rather the tie which makes you dependent on me, because they put you in a position of dependence on my product. Far from being the means which would give you power over my production, they (your desires) are instead the means for giving me power over you.”16
Up to here, the description has been that of the greedy society of commodity production. Exchange, as a two-part substitute for primitive barter, is described by the various Mills as a matter of free wills that smile at one another as they meet each other halfway. But instead it is about two acts of consummation of an inhuman power. My power over the bread that will quell your hunger is to make you die, and you can only save yourself if you have the money that can slip underneath my power, the money that you received because you had to sell a garment on pain of the human being–buyer dying from the cold. Groundless fears of the young Marx? But who does not recognize [in this] the chapter of Capital on The fetish-like character of the commodity and its secret, in which the relation between commodities, marked by a candid arithmetic equality, becomes a relation between men, and one which proves to be worse than that between wolves?
At the recent congress of philosophers17 , Marx seems to have been on everyone’s mind. A Jesuit calls him a more fertile philosopher in the works from his youth, another professor calls him more mature in his old age, some Russophiles call him always consistent. For now, that’s enough about that congress, but our message is that none of the three groups has understood Marx, whom Stalin’s disciples cook up into a “dualist”!
The flight through time
The writer [then] makes a leap (and without warning, too, like he always does to the confusion of his censors), goes beyond the historical commodity form, and takes the bold approach of assuming that the citizens You and Me continue their dialogue, only we now know well that it is the Social Man who speaks with himself. But the little philosophical story is there to say that we have killed the person in him, his ascent to Freedom and Value stopped with our collectivism, Spirit nailed to matter in order to make of the two one.
Marx does not stop at annihilating the all-time adversary with one of his fiery sarcasms. He is going to show just to what heights the human being should rise once mercantile egoism has been killed in it, heights of the joy of a life unknown until then.
“Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings.”18 We must stop here; the reader will want to reread this, even if he has previously skipped over our dullness. Today we produce not as human beings but as slaves and as hucksters. Since we are [now] assuming that we produce without getting paid and not for the objective of getting paid, this means we have [earlier] assumed to have transported ourselves into communist society.
“Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person.”19 No one has therefore abnegated themselves nor their humanity, contrary to the sneering of the philistine. “1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man's essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man's essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.”20
In the superb writing of this passage, one could well say that the individual and the ego stay in the game as a logical subject and as a philosophical category; there is nothing contradictory in this – rather it is a valid game of our materialist dialectic. We want to arrive at the expulsion of the individual from history and from society not with metaphysical exercises sub specie aeternitatis21 but as a result of historical development. It looks like the “You” and the “Me” should be our dramatis personae22 , but the epilogue is their fusion in our category (unknown to the ideological superstructures of the pre-communist eras) of the human nature, the communal nature; a category in which we discover – in confirmation of the historical invariance of Marx’s thought – the Social Man of the Grundrisse from 1859, already known to us, which coincides with this point of arrival from 1844: “My human nature, my communal nature.”
We have no reason to be surprised that we find these sentences in Marx’s study texts and not in those intended for publication. Marx wrote at a time when Germany had not yet completed the transition from (bourgeois) critical philosophy to liberal revolutionary politics, which form two complementary aspects of the struggle against scholastic authority in theology and absolutist despotism in politics. We Marxists destroy the individual, but to make that happen we historically need the liberal revolution to have emancipated him.
Marx started from the critique of an economist who wanted to demonstrate that the two-sidedness of exchange was a “natural law”. His powerful deduction in its luminous course strips the relation of its give-and-take, quid pro quo attributes, and frees the productive act from its commodity character. In the society of commodity production, the producer works in order to find a buyer, the text under examination tells us; but in the communist society that will replace it, the producer will work not in order to sell and to find his individual “contractor”, but for a one-sided purpose that unfolds in a glorious sequence in which there is no longer any recompense for another’s work nor for another’s money. The historical dialogue between the “You” and the “Me” is no longer resolved, as it has always been throughout history, with the subjugation of one of the two, but neither is it resolved with their balance and equipollence in a society of free producers, a commodity-producing democracy, or, if you will, “popular democracy”, that vain petty-bourgeois ideology. The resolution of the dialogue comes after the victory of proletarian communism with the fusion of both traditional characters in the single reality of the Social Man.
The ultimate vision of the producer who finds satisfaction not in the craving for, and consumption of, another’s product, but in the one-sided act of producing and in that act alone, and consequently, in offering – this vision sketched out here as a matter of doctrine cannot be understood as referring to a society of autonomous producers, but only to a society of cooperative producers, no longer divided by any territorial or statistical borders.
We speak here of having attained the form of society-wide production tied to society-wide enjoyment, in which the end of production is not the consumption of the producer, but the donation of his product to society, in which he recognizes himself.
As a proof that this is not our addition, or a veil that only the past century allowed us to lift on prophetic sayings, we can only quote the words that close the citation in the text in our possession. “Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.”23 The triumphant invariance
But all of Marx’s texts spread out throughout his immense body of work converge among themselves. What we have expounded so far allows us to complete the exegesis of the writing on landed property, conducted in the Corollarii from Turin, which contained the classical theorem cited above: “To give up the soil to the hands of associated rural labourers, would be to surrender all society to one exclusive class of producers.”24
Marx sees the nationalization of land, a transitional measure, as an act that “will work a complete change in the relations between labour and capital and finally do away altogether with capitalist production, whether industrial or rural. Only then the class distinctions and privileges will disappear together with the economical basis from which they originate and society will be transformed into an association of ‘producers’ (italics in the text25 ). To live upon other people's labour will become a thing of the past. There will no longer exist a government nor a State distinct from Society itself.”26
Let us recall that this writing dates from after 1868. What splendid invariance! The text continues as follows: “Agriculture, mining, manufacture, in one word all branches of production will gradually be organised in the most effective form. National centralisation of the means of production will become the natural basis of a society composed of associations of free and equal producers consciously acting upon a common and rational plan.”27
Quite literally, this passage is clear enough to show that any economy organized by Regions (Russia) or worse yet by Communes (China) is outside of the historical road that passes through the first stage of socialism and offers the only basis for attaining full communism; and therefore to prove guilty of incurable doctrinal error the resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party from August 23, 195828 , which concludes with the following: “The primary purpose of establishing people’s communes (in which there can be introduced the system of wages!) is to accelerate the speed of socialist construction and the purpose of building socialism is to prepare actively for the transition to communism. It seems that the attainment of communism in China is no longer a remote future event (sic!). We should actively use the form of the people’s communes to explore the practical road of transition to communism.”29 In the meantime, another text is titled: “The Commune, the primary unit of the future communist society”.
Unless the possession of a doctrine is useless baggage, this exploration is already over and no longer in the need of space probes! The road is not, as the Chinese would like: communalism, socialism, communism; but it is, on the contrary, national concentration, socialism (international and commodity-less!), communism.
But Marx’s passage could still lead those readers who are somewhat… conservative to a misunderstanding: that the described communist society would be composed of multiple associations, in the sense that each one would have its own product at its disposal, and would exchange it with the others. That would be an enormous misinterpretation. It would mean returning to the error, already overcome a long time ago, of surrendering society to the cooperative of agricultural producers or to a confederation thereof. The associations of producers of future society, whose membership will normally change many times over the course of a person’s active life, will be associations that will have as their sole purpose the function, the act, the joy of producing. Not only because they will follow a rational common plan, and because society will be transformed into a single30 association of producers, as in the same context, but above all because these groupings – technical and not economic – will put all of their product at the disposal of society and of its central consumption plan.
We consider ourselves to have successfully proved that according to invariant Marxism, communist society does not permit ownership by groups (just as it does not contain individual owners), not even over the product of their labor and over the object of their consumption. Production, life, and enjoyment are in this system the same act, an act which is its own reward, and which is no longer carried out under the vile whip of consumerist appetites. The dialectical synthesis of work and need is only realized at the level of the Social Man.
Naturally, for the bourgeois philistine, Russian history has already demonstrated that this was a noble but foolish and impossible dream.
But the Western philistine will understand that he cannot cry victory when the Russian philistine spits out the confession that [his system] has nothing to do with Marxist communism.
Man and nature
The brilliant piece by Marx that was of service to the [present] speaker in elucidating questions of economics and social history brings into the argument the evocative subject of the relations between the individual and society in their development, as well as the question of whether it is possible for human knowledge (not individual but collective and of the party, there lies the crucial point) to establish the laws of the society of the future, and in doing so, leads us onto the ground of what is commonly called philosophy. It also gave rise to some criticisms directed by the [present] speaker at the speeches and references of the Marxists (of the Stalinist variety, alas) at the current congress of philosophers in Venice.
We maintain that it is possible to investigate the laws of future society insofar as we imbue the science of human society, as much as it is still in its infancy, with the same capability as the science of nature, which was already in full bloom at the beginning of the bourgeois epoch four centuries ago.
With this the Marxist has overcome the reverence for an insurmountable barrier between the forms of knowledge of the facts of nature and those of human facts. Our claim to be able to describe future society rests on the claim of the astronomer to predict eclipses, a very ancient achievement, and even the thousand-year-long stages in the life cycle of a star or a nebula.
There is no reason for the philosophy of history to be different from the philosophy of nature, and this can be more correctly expressed by saying that, however different their degrees of development, the sciences of nature and of history make use of the same methods of investigation for the sole purpose of establishing the uniformity between the past and present events, and from this rise to forecasting future events.
This would not obtain if one went along with the [hypothesis of the] estrangement of two worlds, that of material nature and that of spirit. On the basis of these elementary distinctions, all Marxists who have concerned themselves with philosophy and with critique of the conventional philosophies of the bourgeois world have proclaimed themselves monists, on the grounds of being materialists. Monist philosophy could also be one that is based on the sole world of Spirit, of which the material world could be considered an emanation or (in less abstruse words) a creation. On the other hand, those systems which hold the two worlds to be distinct and opposed to each other are called dualist. Marx and Engels called themselves monists in the face of Hegel and German idealism, Plekhanov and Lenin reclaimed this position when faced with the more recent bourgeois philosophers and with those who contorted classical Marxism even on the philosophical level.
But the so-called Marxists of the Venice Congress pride themselves on not being “monists” and attribute this label to “vulgar and bourgeois materialism”. Marx’s materialism is said to be, using Stalin’s favorite word, dialectic, and according to these parroters, the role of dialectics in this phrase consists in granting an autonomous position to the world of man, against and counterposed to the world of nature.
Man and nature was one of the topics in Venice, and this has led to a lot of talk about Marxism: but what Marxism? According to a report in September’s Unità31 , the Congress has been opposed to the tendency to resolve the two elements in each other, “nature in man (idealism) or man in nature (mechanism or vulgar materialism)”. The interpretation that is “fashionable” today has established that the two elements are “correlative”, and that Marxism is the most vivid if not the only (sic!) expression of this.
The very fact that a newspaper that calls itself Marxist goes looking for success in a symposium of official and professional philosophers is enough to illustrate the tremendous confusion of principles in which it finds itself.
Dialectics is wrongly invoked to smuggle in the claim that the field of human facts is opposed from the outside by the field of facts of nature, and this is nothing but a slippery slope to the confession that natural causes must not be admitted to determine human processes, and therefore, that one might as well introduce non-material factors of which the thinking man is the bearer and which change the world.
That is to suppose that nature is fashioned after models that made their first appearance in Thought, that is in spirit, and find there their whole genesis. The game of dialectics should instead be set up within a very different relation: not between nature and man, but between human society and the individual.
All the ideologies that want to put man above the physical world and give him reign over it that frees him from being determined [by it], even when they do not say so, do not think of Man the species, but of man the person. All idealisms are individualisms. All the Croces32 who say that the origin of knowledge lies in the act of thinking alone take for their area of research the mind and brain, which belongs to an individual man.
The different materialisms
What is Marx trying to say when he speaks of vulgar materialism in contradistinction to his historical materialism? Something analogous to when he contrasts vulgar economy with the earlier classical economy, even though both are bourgeois. Vulgar materialism is not that which dates from before, but rather from after the French Revolution. In the Encyclopédie there is a philosophical materialism which Marx indeed calls classical, and to which he attributes the potential to lead from the destruction of all fideism in nature to that of fideism and spiritualism in human society. But the victory of capitalist society halts these classical doctrinal developments and reduces the economic science to vulgar economy, which conceals the extortion of surplus value and surplus labor, just as it reduces the classical materialism of Diderot and d’Alembert to a vulgar philosophy that does not undermine bourgeois domination and makes apologies for economic oppression after having condemned cultural and juridical oppression. Vulgar materialism in Marx’s sense of the word is that which later develops into the rightly ridiculed and scientist positivism of Spencer, Comte, Ardigò33 , and its various national versions, which decades ago proved to be so enticing for the revisionist socialists of Anglo-Latin countries, while the old-fashioned idealism lured in the Germans and the Russians.
We will try to identify the distinction between vulgar materialism and Marxist materialism in a more linear manner. Let us assume that in both, the substructure and material facts are foundational, and that one wants to derive from the dynamics thereof the science of human actions and behaviors as well as the explanation of human opinions and ideologies. The myopia of vulgar materialism consists in placing this relation within the narrow scope of the human individual.
For our historical materialism, a term Marx considered equivalent to economic determinism, the question expands its scope to the whole society and its history, and the research is no longer concerned with the behavior and thought of the individual, but with the predispositions and ideology of social classes and social forms that succeed one another throughout the course of history.
The determinism of the positivists reduces to a causation between physiology and psychology; the determinism of Marxist materialists takes the social economy as its point of departure in order to construct the explanation of the law, the religion, the morality, and also the philosophy of successive epochs.
The former view is sterile and insufficient, and moreover sets out on a dark and endless path. Like ours, it does take into account the effect of the physical environment external to man, but in a thousand of irreducible specificities, while we are interested in circumstances and general relations such as that between a given geographical climate and the adaptations and behaviors it induces in the people who live in it, as a constant average over all individuals.
Science is very far from being able to infer from the physical facts of the environment in which a human organism lives, and from… the menu of the dishes that are served on his table, the generation of thoughts in his brain, because the link between vegetative and neuropsychic systems has not yet been discovered. But in our materialism we believe we can apply scientific rigor, that is, substantial reduction of error effects, to the study of the causal relationship between the material conditions of life of a human collective, such as its relation to nature and relations between men (between social classes), and the features of its juridical political organization and so on.
The difference between the two materialisms does not lie in the fabrication that Marx decamped from the terrain of monism to establish an empty dignified parity between nature and man, a type of neo-dualism, but in the fundamental criterion that we do not chase that slippery determination which plays itself out within the individual organism and the personal brain, we do not search for the vacuous phantasma of “personality”, but rather base the relation on the material conditions of a social community and the entire series of its manifestations and historical developments.
On these grounds we firmly believe, with wealth of historical evidence, that the influence of a personality on social events is nil, and that the history of human sociology must be treated as one of the fields of description into which the knowledge of nature can be rightfully considered to be partitioned, without such a distinction and separation having any preeminent value over all others. Consequently, it is quite right to say that according to the Marxist doctrine, the science of human society is contained within the science of material nature; indeed, the latter must in its construction inevitably precede the former.
Translated in December 2018 and January 2019 from the Italian original published in Il Programma Comunista N°21 (November 18, 1958) and available from quinterna.org.
- 1Proprietà e Capitale. Prometeo, Series I, N°10 (June–July 1948), N°11 (November–December 1948), N°12 (January–March 1949), N°13 (August 1949), N°14 (January–February 1950); Series II, N°1 (November 1950), N°3–4 (July–September 1952). Available in the original Italian, with the first part recently translated into English.
- 2 The International Communist Party meeting that Bordiga refers to was held in Turin on June 1–2, 1958. The minutes were published in Il Programma Comunista N°12 (June 20, 1958), N°13 (July 5, 1958), N°14 (July 20, 1958), and N°15 (August 4, 1958) under the title Sfregio e bestemmia dei principi comunisti nella rivelatrice diatriba tra i partiti dei rinnegati [Affront and blasphemy against communist principles in the revealing diatribe between the renegades’ parties].
- 3Theoretical “appendices” or “supplements” published in Il Programma Comunista after each meeting. The Corollarii to the Turin meeting were published under the title Il programma rivoluzionario della società comunista elimina ogni forma di proprietà del suolo, degli impianti di produzione e dei prodotti del lavoro [The revolutionary program of communist society eliminates all forms of ownership of land, the instruments of production and the products of labor] and are available online in both Italian and English.
- 4 Meaning issues of Il Programma Comunista; see notes 2 and 3.
- 5Truism; a trite, self-evident statement.
- 6The meeting that Bordiga refers to here was held in Asti on June 26–27, 1954. The minutes were published in Il Programma Comunista N°13 (July 9, 1954), N°14 (July 23, 1954), N°15 (August 7, 1954), N°16 (August 28, 1954), N°17 (September 16, 1954), N°18 (October 1, 1954), and N°19 (October 15, 1954) under the title Vulcano della produzione o palude del mercato? (Economia marxista ed economia controrivoluzionaria) [The volcano of production or the swamp of the market? Marxist versus counterrevolutionary economy] and are available in the original Italian.
- 7English translation of Lenin’s text quoted here is taken from: Hanna, G., ed. 1972. V. I. Lenin: Collected Works. Volume 2. 1895–1897. Progress Publishers, Moscow, pp. 171–172. The insertions are Bordiga’s.
- 8Ibid., 170.
- 9Ibid., 167. Here the passage quoted by Bordiga differs slightly from the English translation, which splits the text in question into two sentences. The translation above conforms to that given by Bordiga.
- 10Ibid., 171. The insertions are Bordiga’s.
- 11A paraphrase of a sentence from the draft of Marx’s letter to Robert Applegarth from December 3, 1869. The letter itself was lost (see MECW Vol. 43, p. 393 and note 495), but its draft (variously titled “Nationalisation of Land” or “The Abolition of Landed Property”) was rediscovered and published first in Russian translation and then in the original English in The Labour Monthly, Vol. 34, No. 9 (September 1952), pp. 415–417. Nearly identical passages can also be found in a paper titled The Nationalisation of the Land, written by Marx and presented in only a very lightly edited form by Eugène Dupont in 1872 at the Manchester section of the IWMA (see MECW Vol. 23, pp. 131–136). Bordiga appears to have drawn from the former text.
- 12See The revolutionary program of communist society eliminates all forms of ownership of land, the instruments of production and the products of labor.
- 13English translation taken from MECW Vol. 3, p. 225.
- 14Ibid. Note that both insertions in square brackets are Bordiga’s, and that MECW translates the word Eigentümlichkeit quite differently, and arguably more accurately, as “specific character”.
- 15In the original Italian, the phrase l’essere umano is used both for the translation of Marx’s German (where MECW renders it as “human nature”) and in Bordiga’s paraphrase thereof, where it is more appropriately translated as “human being”.
- 16MECW Vol. 3, p. 225. The insertions are Bordiga’s.
- 17A reference to the 12th International Congress of Philosophy held in Venice from September 12 to September 18, 1958.
- 18MECW Vol. 3, p. 227.
- 20Ibid., pp. 227–228.
- 21“From the perspective of eternity”; a common philosophical idiom first used by Baruch Spinoza.
- 22The characters of a play; protagonists.
- 23MECW Vol. 3, p. 228.
- 24The Labour Monthly, Vol. 34, No. 9, p. 417.
- 25Bordiga’s insertion, which is not true of any of the extant English versions.
- 26The Labour Monthly, Vol. 34, No. 9, p. 417.
- 28Actually August 29, 1958.
- 29English translation taken from: Bowie, R. R. and Fairbank, J. K., eds. 1971. Communist China, 1955–1959. Policy Documents with Analysis. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, p. 456. The insertions are Bordiga’s.
- 30Bordiga emphasizes the word una, which in Italian can correspond both to the English indefinite articles (as in the translation of Marx’s passage above) and to the meaning of “(just) one”. In English, this semantic ambiguity does not exist, and what Bordiga accomplished by a simple shift of emphasis therefore requires inserting an extra word into Marx’s phrase.
- 31Official newspaper of the Stalinist Italian Communist Party.
- 32Benedetto Croce (1866–1952), an Italian liberal and idealist philosopher who influenced Antonio Gramsci and who was extensively criticized by the International Communist Party (see, for example, Communism and Human Knowledge).
- 33Roberto Felice Ardigò (1828–1920), an Italian Catholic priest turned positivist, politically associated with the bourgeois republicanism of Mazzini and Garibaldi.