Bordiga and the First World War
The concluding article on the political ideas of Amadeo Bordiga up to 1917
In an article in Avanti, the newspaper of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), in August 1914 Bordiga identified as a dangerous development ‘a sympathetic feeling for the Triple Entente [the alliance between Britain, France and Russia], not only justifying, but praising the attitude of the French socialists, to support that Italian socialists should hasten to fight in defence of France’. This was to become the position of Mussolini, at that point editor of Avanti.
For Bordiga, the concept of ‘fatherland’ was by definition anti-socialist and a defensive war on its behalf inconceivable. In September, in an article in Il Socialista on ‘Avanti and the war’, he addressed Mussolini’s attitude openly, criticising the ambiguity of the line he had taken on the war in the party’s newspaper.
The ‘Manifesto against the War’ by the leadershipand the parliamentary group of the party was published soon after, of which Mussolini claimed authorship. However, a few days later Mussolini’s famous article on ‘active and operative neutrality’ appeared in Avanti and which led the party to dismiss him as editor. Bordiga responded to Mussolini’s article with an editorial in Il Socialista entitled ‘For an active and operative antimilitarism’. In it he wrote of the ambiguity of the concept of ‘neutrality’:
‘The neutrality concept has for subject not socialists, but the State. We want the State to remain neutral with regard to the war, absolutely, until the end, whatever happens. In order to achieve this we act upon the State, against it, in the field and with the means of the class struggle. So we do not want to disarm. Our war is a permanent war.’
When Mussolini then started to attack the PSI, Bordiga, writing in Il Socialista, launched an appeal to boycott him. Finally, in December 1914 Mussolini’s ‘socialist’ story came to an end. Because of his continuous attacks on the PSI he was expelled from the party. Bordiga reported this news in Il Socialista with satisfaction, and stressed that ‘convictions against traitors are without appeal’.
Another series of his articles appeared in Avanguardia entitled ‘Socialism of yesterday before the war of today’, which give us some interesting insights into his thinking:
‘The war… is certainly a destruction of capital, but the bourgeoisie as a class cares more for the preservation of the juridical relations which allow it to live off the work of the large majority than for the material possession of capital. Those relations, basic in every nation, consist of the right to monopolise the means of labour, which in turn are alsothe product of the work of the proletarian class. Thus for the proletariat the war is disastrous from all points of view while for the bourgeoisie it is a damage to material wealth, but it preserves and strengthens the potential relations for rebuilding such wealth, because it causes the class struggle to fade and turns it into national glorification.’
Modern states, he insisted, with their ‘democratic regimes’, maintain in economic slavery the working class who can be mobilized in 24 hours for the war front. For this reason, he noted, a revolutionary uprising will always have more chance of success in time of peace than on the eve of a war.
Bordiga, who still had some faith in the Second International, identified the real failure of socialism in the support of the socialist parties of France and Germany for the war. He argued that the leaders of those parties often due to their ‘superior culture’ (i.e. bourgeois culture) had too many links with bourgeois ideologies and felt more represented by ‘the nation’ than by socialism. So socialism must ‘replace on a more solid basis antimilitarist action and review in a more revolutionary sense its parliamentary action’.
On the national question, Bordiga developed the notion that wars now were carried out by states and not by nations. He therefore distinguished wars of national unification from imperialist wars and pointed to the justification, still used today, about spreading democracy at the point of a bayonet.According to Bordiga, this was obviously a bourgeois excuse. He published an article on the principle of nationality in Avanti in January 1915. His position on this is interesting if compared with the discussion on it between Luxemburg and Lenin, of which Bordiga was unaware at the time. He developed his own independent ideas on the national question, in which he distinguished wars of national unification (which he was prepared to support) from imperialist wars. According to him, cultural identity did not match the concept that the bourgeois state had of the ‘nation’. The state cared about economic interests not about cultural identity.
He went on to state, in clear contrast to the left reformists:
‘Pacifism? No. We are advocates of violence. We are admirers of the conscious violence of those who rise up against the oppression of the strongest, admirers of the anonymous violence of the masses, which revolts for freedom… But legal violence, official, that the authorities are free to use in a disciplined way, … that violence… is disgusting and repugnant.’
Several time he cited Karl Liebknecht for his anti-militarism and his speech in the Reichstag on 2 December 1914, opposing the war and the approval given by the German Social Democrats to war credits. Bordiga explicitly linked his own antimilitarism to that of Karl Liebknecht, the Social Democratic members of the Russian Duma, the Serbian Socialist Party, the British Independent Labour Party (probably referring to an article by J. Bruce Glasier in Avanti in which he mentioned Keir Hardie’s position inthe Labour Party) and the anarchist Sébastien Faure in France. This list shows that he was not taking into account the other policies of these figures, only their antimilitarism.
On the Russian revolution, we limit ourselves to Bordiga’s writings in 1917. This is because post-Lenin his political views changed significantly. In 1917 Bordiga wrote a series of articles in Avanguardia entitled ‘The Russian revolution in a socialist interpretation’. He saw the Russian revolution as a phenomenon that has already lasted fifty years. In contrast to Antonio Gramsci, who while supporting the revolution without reservation saw in it a contradiction with Marxian thought, Bordiga commented that, while it might seem that ‘the most rigorous application of the lines of the Marxian system’ was ill adapted to a politically underdeveloped country like Russia, ‘here a strong Party was formed – perhaps the most orthodox in the world’. He was referring mainly to the Bolshevik movement. In fact, a few lines later he wrote of them that ‘the extremist current is the most genuine … wants peace, it refuses even transitory collaboration with the other classes and calls for the seizure of power to apply the Communist Programme’. He noted, however, as did many other socialists, that socialist methods did not sit well with a country mainly consisting of immense masses of peasants.
Bordiga concluded his series of Avanguardia articles in December 1917 commenting on the triumph of the ‘Maximalists’, i.e. the Bolsheviks. ‘Finally, the government is overthrown’, he wrote, ‘and the seizure of power by the Soviets, in which the extremists have become the large majority, has taken place. While we write, in the jumble of contradictory and biased news coming to us, it is understood that socialists work to realize a programme along simple and grand lines – the same one as that of the Communist Manifesto – that is the expropriation of the private owners from their means of production, and in the meantime proceeding logically and consequently with getting rid of the war.’
Thus began Bordiga’s transition to Bolshevism and Leninism for which he is most well-known. The pre-Lenin Bordiga, however, showed himself to have had a clear idea of what revolutionary Marxist socialism meant. He was an intransigent, anti-reformist, class struggle socialist, though with a predisposition for anarchist-type direct action including the use of violence. Post-Lenin he was to lean towards Blanquist centralism, from which we can only distance ourselves.