Bordiga and the Idea of Socialism
“In the socialist form production remains social and thus there is no ownership by anyone of the instruments of production, including the land and fixed installations. In this society there will be no individual appropriation even for consumption; distribution will be social and for social purposes. Social consumption differs from individual consumption in that the physical attribution of consumer goods does not take place by means of commodity purchase and with a currency. When society satisfies all the needs of its members which don’t conflict with the best interests of its development independently of the greater or lesser contribution they have made to social labour, all personal property ceases and with it its measure, i.e., value and its symbol money” (translated from Bordiga et la passion du communisme pp. 79-80).
So stated Amadeo Bordiga in a lecture given in Italy in 1958, thus showing that the original idea of socialism as a moneyless, wageless society which we and our companion parties have kept alive in Britain and the English-speaking world has also survived on the Continent.
The rest of Bordiga’s views however are quite unacceptable. After playing a prominent part before the First World War in the youth section of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and in the campaign (together with, of all people, Mussolini, then also a member of the PSI!) against the openly reformist elements in that party, he opposed the war, and Italy’s entry into it, as an imperialist slaughter in which no working-class interests were at stake. He later emerged as the leader of the pro-Bolshevik elements within the PSI. By 1919 he had come round to a position which was to bring him into conflict with Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders: his experience of the failure of the PSI to control its MPs had made him an “abstentionist”, or opponent of contesting elections and participating in parliament. Nevertheless, he still became the leader of the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) when it was founded at Leghorn in January 1921 as a breakaway from the PSI.
His “abstentionism” was in fact an attempt to resolve the problem of reform and revolution which those in the pre-war Social Democratic parties of Europe who genuinely wanted socialism had had to face. Bordiga believed that, because of their corruption and oppression by capitalism, a majority of workers could never come to want and understand socialism while capitalism lasted (in this of course he agreed with Lenin). This led him to conclude that a policy of trying to obtain mass electoral support for socialism was not only pointless but dangerous in that it would lead a socialist party into reformism, by lowering itself to the non-socialist consciousness of the mass of the workers.
He favoured instead an elite socialist party, composed exclusively of those who understood socialism, whose policy should be not to advocate reforms or seek mass electoral support but to use working-class discontent to seize power and establish its dictatorship. On this point, Bordiga was quite open and frank: he advocated a dictatorship by the Party. He was in fact virtually a classical Blanquist. For Blanqui too, following in the tradition of Babeuf and Buonarotti, had held that the workers were too corrupted by capitalist rule to be able to liberate themselves and so would have to be liberated by the action of a determined minority seizing power, establishing a dictatorship and then educating the people in socialist ideas. Marx, although sympathising with Blanqui as a man of action, of course rejected such views, countering them with the declaration that the emancipation of the working class could only be the work of the working class itself.
As a solution to the problem of reform and revolution Bordiga’s view was quite inadequate though he was correct to see the danger, indeed the inevitability, of a descent into reformism if a socialist party sought electoral support on a programme of reforms. The founders of the Socialist Party of Great Britain also saw this danger but, because they did not accept that the working class was incapable of coming to want and understand socialism under capitalism, this led them to a different conclusion. The “education” of the working class to want socialism (the result of their own experiences and reflections as well as of the propaganda activities of a socialist party, thus “education” in the broadest sense) had to take place before capitalism could be abolished and indeed was a precondition for this. The danger of reformism could be avoided, not by renouncing the attempt to win an electoral majority, but by renouncing trying to win this on a programme of reforms. A socialist party, they said, should campaign among the working class only for socialism. This has remained our policy to this day and, as the solution to the problem of reform and revolution, represents our specific contribution to socialist theory.
Despite being a throwback to the 19th century, Bordiga’s views were supported by a majority of the members of the PCI during the first two or three years of its existence. This inevitably brought Bordiga into conflict with the Bolshevik leaders, particularly Zinoviev, head of the Comintern, and Lenin himself who devoted an appendix to his pamphlet Left-wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder to attacking Bordiga’s abstentionism.
In 1921 the Comintern decided on one of its many changes of tactic, this time to adopt the so-called “united front” which involved the new Communist Parties cooperating with the Social Democrats and even forming “Workers Governments” in coalition with them. This new line was not popular with the non-Russian CPs since they were now being asked to cooperate with the very people they had just broken away from and in many cases had opposed as reformists since even before the war. This was the case of Bordiga himself and he went to Moscow to oppose the new line, though he left accepting out of a sense of discipline the majority decision. The PCI, even under Bordiga’s leadership, thus did participate in elections even though he personally was opposed to this.
The Bolshevik leaders soon decided that Bordiga was quite unsuitable to be the leader of one of their parties and attempted to remove him; but they had to proceed carefully in view of his reputation and support in the Italian party. He was eventually removed and replaced by Gramsci (now the rage in leftwing circles despite the fact that he was little more than a Stalinist hack) in 1924. From then on Bordiga was on the way out as Stalin’s orders to suppress all opposition in the non-Russian parties were implemented. Bordiga, who was then in a fascist prison, was expelled in 1930, officially for having sided with Trotsky.
Bordiga, however, was no Trotskyist. He eventually came round to the view that Russia was state capitalist, or rather that the state capitalism under the control of the “proletarian state” which he held had existed under Lenin had given way, with the dictatorship of Stalin, to a simple state capitalism. Bordigist groups, with one of which he himself was associated from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1970, have existed in Italy, France and Belgium as rivals to the Trotskyists, propagating Bordiga’s Blanquist idea of the incapacity of the workers to become socialists under capitalism and of the need for them to be liberated by the dictatorship of a vanguard party.
Although Bordiga knew what socialism was (in the sense of using the word only in the way that we do) he did not stand for the immediate establishment of socialism. This followed from his basic position that the workers were incapable of coming to want socialism after capitalism and would have to be educated to it after capitalist rule had been overthrown. Thus he had to posit a transitional period between the overthrow of capitalist rule and the final establishment of socialism, during which this process of education would go on. When this had been completed then socialism, a moneyless, wage-less, Stateless society, could be established. It was because he believed that this was what Lenin had been trying to do that he had supported the Bolshevik regime even though he was well aware that Bolshevik Russia wasn’t socialist.
Not only did Bordiga insist that socialism would be a society without money, wages or the state but he also emphasised that it was the common ownership of the means of production by society as a whole and was a vigorous critic of syndicalists and others (like Gramsci, for instance, at one period) who advanced slogans like “the factories to the workers” and “the land to the peasants”. He correctly pointed out that, if these slogans were implemented, the result would not be socialism since they envisaged the continuation of private (non-social) property in the form of the ownership of the various means of production by sections only of society (those working in a particular factory, mine or farm). A point we have often made ourselves.
Bordiga and the Bordigist movement have influenced people and given rise to splits which have retained his correct description of socialism while abandoning some of his other views. The so-called “International Communist Current”, for instance, through its parent group in France Révolution Internationale has a Bordigist ancestry. Jean Barrot, author of a number of books including Le mouvement communiste, reviewed in the Socialist Standard in October 1973 and which contains a correct definition of socialism, has also been influenced by Bordiga. And in France a whole series of Marx’s writings on subjects like trade unions, Malthus, education, and utopianism has been collected together and introduced by a more or less orthodox Bordigist, Roger Dangeville who (while often distorting Marx’s views on other subjects such as violence and democracy) correctly points out that Marx’s conception of socialism involved the disappearance of money and wages.
Others have advanced further, coming to criticise the labour-time voucher system and to favour free access, as in the publication La Guerre Sociale. This group distributes the pamphlet entitled Le communisme: Un monde sans argent (Communism: A World without Money), extracts of which were published in the July Socialist Standard and which gives a description of future society which is identical to ours.
All these groups and individuals, however, are still mistaken on how to get socialism either because they still accept the idea of a vanguard party (the orthodox Bordigists of “Programme Communiste”, Roger Dangeville, the ICC) or because they deny that the establishment of socialism is a question of majority consciousness (Barrot, “La Guerre Sociale”). All of them favour violent insurrection rather than democratic political action (elections and Parliament) to try to establish socialism.