From the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
We begin a three part series on the pre-1917 political views of this Italian thinker who later became the first leader of the Italian Communist Party and then a Left Communist critic of the state capitalist regime in Russia.
Amadeo Bordiga (1889-1970) was probably the closest among Italian political thinkers and activists to the revolutionary ideas put forward by the World Socialist Movement. We would share his consistent opposition to reformism, militarism, and all forms of nationalism as well as some of his views on the use of parliament. We would, however be entirely opposed to his advocacy of insurrectionary violence, his aversion for democracy (which was determined by his identification of it with the freemasonry of his day), and his support for a centralist control model.
His early political activity began when he joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in Naples in 1910 at the age of 21 while a student of engineering. According to Bordiga’s own later account, his enrolment in the PSI was a reaction to pressure being put on him to join the freemasons, which he despised. The situation inside the PSI when Bordiga joined it was complicated. In theory, it was organized along the lines of the German Social Democratic Party, with the difference that the PSI did not have funds and so lacked organisers and professional politicians. There was a group headed by the leader and party secretary and as well as a parliamentary group elected by party members but there was often disagreement between the two, especially on political strategy. The parliamentary group was headed by Filippo Turati, who had been largely responsible for the creation of the party in 1882 and was a reformist despite the fact that he considered himself, and was often recognized as, an orthodox Marxist.
The PSI had expelled the anarchists in its ranks at its second congress in 1892 and likewise the revolutionary syndicalists in 1907. Yet in 1910 it was still home to a variety of political positions. There were ‘right-wing’ reformists such as Leonida Bissolati and Ivanoe Bonomi, the ‘left-wing’ reformists of Turati and Giuseppe Modigliani, and the ‘the revolutionary intransigent fraction’ led by Costantino Lazzari, who, according to Luigi Gerosa, influenced much of Bordiga’s early thinking with his 1911 pamphlet ‘The Principles and Methods of the Italian Socialist Party’. In his pamphlet Lazzari harked back to the Party’s 1892 programme and the various ‘degenerations’ of it that had taken place since then. As explained in a previous article (Antonio Labriola: A strict Marxist?, Socialist Standard, February 2016), it is arguable that the 1892 programme put forward a vision of Marxist socialism substantially as conceived by the World Socialist Movement today. Bordiga wanted it to remain faithful to its maximum goal, which was the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism rather than the minimum goal of changing capitalism by means of reforms. It was at this stage too that Bordiga started to develop the idea of a party that did not need leadership by individuals, but required, rather, a clear and unchangeable programme to be followed by its adherents.
Bordiga began stating this position in the PSI’s youth magazine Avanguardia and writing in particular in opposition to the Italian government’s colonial policy and to masonic anti-clericalism. In October 1911 when Italy invaded Libya, which was part of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, Bordiga attacked not just the government but alleged socialists in the PSI who supported the invasion. He also criticised revolutionary syndicalists such as Arturo (not to be confused with Antonio) Labriola who espoused the view of the economist Achille Loria that colonial expansion would present an opportunity for the socialist cause. Bordiga argued from the start that nationalism was a capitalist ideology which had nothing to do with socialism, since socialism was by its very nature anti-nationalist and anti-patriotic. This was an idea he would never depart from.
In the years 1911 to 1914 Bordiga and other like-thinking members of the PSI in Naples engaged in opposing those factions who favoured a policy of coalitions with capitalist parties, so-called blocchisti who they saw as revisionists. Bordiga wrote widely on the situation of the party in Naples, arguing strongly against the right of those factions to be in the Party, and also became the regional spokesperson for the Italian Federation of Socialist Youth.
In April 1912 Bordiga founded the ‘Carlo Marx Circle’ aiming at propaganda activity and the study of Marxist writings. Already in March that year he had denounced the action of some exponents of the parliamentary group such as Bissolati, Cabrini, and Bonomi for supporting the King of Italy after he had been wounded during an assassination attempt. Bordiga demanded their expulsion from the Party, something that actually took place at that year’s Congress, incidentally allowing one Benito Mussolini to take up a primary position in the PSI. The Neapolitan Portici section had sent Bordiga as spokesperson to the Congress with the following motions: 1. to extend the tactic of ‘intransigence’ to local elections; 2. to exclude from the PSI members of bourgeois political associations such as the freemasonry.
In the same year, at the Congress of the Bologna Youth Federation, Bordiga was involved in discussions that took place on ‘the question of the culture of socialist youth’. While some of the participants saw the youth movement as having the role of imparting basic political education to its members while not questioning the party’s rulings, Bordiga proposed that the Youth Federation should have its own autonomy and its own magazine and engage in its own struggles against the system. Bordiga won the day and, in the magazine Avanguardia, he wrote, in reply to Gaetano Salvemini, editor of the newspaper L’Unità, that education should be based on action and that instead of saying to the people ‘you are exploited because you are ignorant, free yourself from the priest and you will be free’, socialists should say to workers ‘you are ignorant and cowardly because you are exploited, you are exploited because you submit to the yoke of slavery; revolt and you will be free and you will be able to become civilised.’ For Bordiga, therefore, socialism was based not on education or political culture but on proletarian sentiment and action.
In November 1912, in the Avanti newspaper, Bordiga wrote a piece on ‘Southern socialism and the moral questions’. Here he described the backwardness and inadequacy of the southern Italian capitalist class. He pointed out that the Italian State, which was managed by the capitalist oligarchy of Northern Italy, did not intend to develop the South, because the economic, agrarian and industrial development of the South could only ‘harm the present monopolistic groups of big industries, which are protected and have in the South their natural market of consumption’. The ineptitude of the Southern capitalist class and the corrupt administration of the South was, he argued, exploited by local political factions to further their own self-interest and this was often with the support and collaboration of the clergy. The main opponents of this he saw as the anti-clerical bourgeoisie, who put forward the ‘moral’ argument that what was needed was an honest bourgeois administration, an uncorrupted and ‘efficient’ bourgeois capitalism. Bordiga opposed this way of thinking too, stating that ‘thieving or honest bourgeoisies are the same thing’ and that the PSI should be ‘ultra-intransigent’ against these ‘moralists’, because socialism demanded something quite different.
Rewriting of the PSI’s pamphlet entitled Il soldo ai soldati (‘On Soldiers’ Pay’) was assigned to Bordiga and was then discussed at the 1912 Bologna Congress of Socialist Youth. In this pamphlet Bordiga railed against the ‘barracks’ as being an institution of bourgeois democracy, but took the position on elections that they should be contested but without any kind of agreement with the bourgeois parties. At this time he saw electoral activity largely as a means of propagating socialist ideas and winning supporters, but his distrust of the electoral system grew as the PSI suffered recurring defeats in elections despite the considerable effort it put into them. Increasingly Bordiga was developing the view that the PSI had ‘degenerated’, that reformism had ‘drowned’ it and that what was important was a defence of its original revolutionary programme based on the formation of class consciousness and working class anti-militarism. In the article ‘Our Mission’, published in February 1913, Bordiga expressed the view that the PSI’s role was to be the vanguard of the proletariat in the class struggle. In it he quoted the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin on the principle of mutual aid and affirmed what he saw as the natural altruism of the proletariat. At the same time he argued that it would be wrong to believe that the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, dominated by means of workers’ ignorance; instead it dominated by means of culture, by being able to impose its own culture on workers, so the tenets of bourgeois education took on a ‘moral’ dimension in workers’ minds.
(Next month: Bordiga’s attitude to contesting elections)