Early Bordiga and Electoral Activity
The second part of our series on the views of Amadeo Bordiga up to the 1917 Russian revolution.
In March and April 1913, the magazine Avanguardia published a series of articles by Bordiga entitled ‘For the Theoretical Conception of Socialism’. In them he expressed his political vision.
‘We should not be philosophers but men of action… the proletariat is still in search of its programme and it will not find it permanently until after a long series of struggles and inevitable mistakes committed in action. (….) We have a programme de facto: the abolition of private property and of the wages system. We have to pay attention to the deceits of bourgeois thought and in particular to idealist forms that seek to distract the attention of the proletariat from the economic problems that it seeks to resolve with the violent suppression of their domination.’
If, on the one hand, this is a Marxist revolutionary position, on the other hand it has a strong taste of anarchist actionism. In a further Avanguardia article, in July 1913, Bordiga commented both on the recently translated book Revolutionary Socialism by the French revolutionary syndicalists Charles Albert and Jean Duchène and on an editorial on it by Mussolini in Avanti, the newspaper of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). According to Bordiga, the anarchists and syndicalists were too often criticized from the reformist point of view, that is, for rejecting legal revolution in favour of violence. Instead, for him, the shortcomings of the anarchist and syndicalist movements were in how they wanted to reach their revolutionary aim; the anarchists were too abstract and the syndicalists were too simplistic in believing that the unions would be sufficient to achieve everything.
Bordiga disagreed with the authors that Marxism was a fatalistic doctrine. On the parliamentary tactic, a key element of what would become Bordiga’s future thought on the question can be discerned in this article. He agreed with criticism of the justifications the anarchists gave for abstentionism. On the other hand, he accepted Albert and Duchène’s criticism that parliamentary action would suffocate any other activity, commenting that ‘it cannot be denied that the facts seem to prove that’. But for him, at this time, it was a question of whether parliamentary and electoral activity was of use or not for the maximum programme of socialism. A few years later his answer was to be that it was not, with the same justification for this given by Albert and Duchène. It was from this that his abstentionism originated.
In November 1913 Bordiga discussed the elections that had just taken place:
‘It is, in fact, undisputable that the conquests of Socialism, from the maximum to the immediate, must be a product of the large masses, which form a collective consciousness of their own interests and of their own future. The large masses must be convinced that, to guarantee and effectively materialize those conquests, they should not abdicate their safety into the hands of a few executives; they should also not ask for help of any kind from the economically opposing class. The Socialist Party must nurture and spread this collective consciousness… Nobody can deny the truthfulness of the observation that a man obliged to do manual labour is inclined to delegate to others, to the intellectuals, the management and therefore the control of social life. Even nearly conscious masses tend to entrust the achievement of whatever aim they have to a man or a few men, whom they follow too blindly… We want to deduce from it that, in the current conditions, any form of class action – not only the elections, but also syndicalist action and even street uprisings – present the risk that the masses will give up actual control of their own interests and entrust it to a given number of “leaders”.’
So at this time Bordiga favoured participation in elections as an opportunity for propagandising but at the same time he was concerned that elections could be used as a way for an intellectual elite to take control of the workers’ movement. He already foresaw how easy it was for electoral activity to degenerate into mere vote-catching, ‘to lose any aim which was not the numerical outcome’.
At the XIV National Congress of the PSI in Ancona in April 1914, Bordiga gave the leadership’s political report and also a report on the Southern question. He spoke on the Party’s tactic in ‘administrative elections’, i.e. elections to local and regional councils. He was for a policy of absolute intransigence against any type of coalition with bourgeois parties in the South as well as elsewhere in Italy, against the so-called blockists (blocchisti) who favoured electoral alliances with other parties. Despite the special conditions of the South of Italy, Bordiga invited the PSI to approach the question of the local and regional elections with the same political line everywhere on Italy, and ‘to make socialist municipalities a weapon against the capitalist and bourgeois State’.
On 7 June 1914, to commemorate the Albertinian Statute (the constitutional charter of the Italian monarchy), republicans and anarchists in Ancona organized a demonstration where a large crowd gathered. The gendarmerie opened fire on the crowd killing three people. Workers all over Italy reacted to this violent act with street demonstrations. The reformist leaders of the union, the General Labour Confederation (CgdL) were obliged to proclaim a mass strike. Writing in the 1960s Bordiga commented on what he regarded as a typical conclusion to an insurrection in Italian history:
‘… on 12 June when state power and the bourgeoisie were in trouble, the CGdL provided them one of its countless services; it ordered the end of the mass strike. It was straight from the anarchist and Sorelian syndicalist tradition, according to which the Union has the function of direct and violent action and the party the legal one.’
Though he never wrote about it, Bordiga’s involvement in this action had personal consequences for him. He was dismissed from the State Railways where he worked as an engineer for taking part in a demonstration in Naples. He had published a short note in Il Socialista on 25 June in which he extended greetings to the rioters in the name of the Neapolitan Section of the PSI.
When in his article ‘Democracy and Socialism’ Bordiga stated that socialism ‘established itself as the solemn condemnation of the historical failure of the democratic formula, and of the deceits that this contains’ he was referring to bourgeois democracy. He wrote that democracy (i.e. bourgeois democracy) ‘sees in the representative system the means to solve any problem of collective interest; we see in it the mask of a social oligarchy that uses the deceit of political equality in order to keep the workers oppressed’. In a key passage in this series of articles he wrote about what socialism means:
‘… socialism means thinking that today, based on an examination of the existing economic and social conditions, a class action is possible, which aims to destroy capitalism and substitute it with a new social order. Acting as socialists means to seek to spread the consciousness of such a possibility in an ever growing number of proletarians and with the greatest simultaneity possible in all countries and nations. Whoever, even if they recognize that the destruction of capitalism is a good thing, does not think that this is the moment to act but believes that it is better to first solve other problems, is not a socialist.’
In this series of articles Bordiga continued to support the ‘municipalist’ thesis that workers should aim to win control of municipalities through elections, close to the argument of Mussolini in Avanti. At this point, for Bordiga, while what might be able to be achieved for workers at the municipal level should not be ignored, the role of the party remained one of propaganda, proselytism and preparation for the final clash of classes.
(Correction: last month we gave the date of the founding of the PSI as 1882. This was a misprint for 1892)
(Next month: Bordiga and the First World War)