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Book Presentation : Onorato Damen, ’Bordiga – beyond the myth’

Validity and limits of a revolutionary experience

 

The ICT (Internationalist Communist Tendency) has published a 214 page book that throws light on an important, albeit little known, episode in the history of the Italian Communist Left : the disagreements and the split that came about within the Internationalist Communist Party in 1952. It brings together essential published documents and the correspondence between the two principal protagonists : Onorato Damen and Amadeo Bordiga.

 

 

The CWO wrote an introduction to this book and on it’s project of publishing the works of Onorato Damen in English : Damen on Bordiga - CWO Introduction

A critical assessment of Bordiga’s contributions to the Italian Left as well as a synthesis of his divergencies with the latter can be found in Damen’s obituary for Bordiga (1970) : Amadeo Bordiga - Beyond the Myth and the Rhetoric

The book can be ordered via the ICT (info@leftcom.org). Price per copy : 10 €.

The following document is the presentation of the book by Michel Olivier which we are making available to our readers.

 

Controversies, January 13, 2012

 


 

PRESENTATION (Michel Olivier, April 2011)

 

It is a happy circumstance that, 39 years after its first Italian edition in 1971, this book at last finds itself in the hands of French readers.

It sheds light on the disagreements of 1952 that existed between the two principal protagonists within the Italian Communist Left : Bordiga and Damen. It will allow the reader to distinguish the thought of Bordiga on the one hand from that of the Italian communist Left as a whole on the other.

Damen is very little known, if not unknown, in France. Nevertheless he is one of the “giants” of the workers’ movement of the XXth century on the same level as Bordiga, Pannekoek, Korsch and others. Like Bordiga he was one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party at Livorno in 1921. He was one of the most fervent partisans and even the initiator of the Entente Committee (Committee of Intesa) that the Communist Left set up in order to oppose the bolshevisation of the Communist Party. Last but not least he was in at the origin of the Internationalist Communist Party in 1943. The French have valid reasons to know him nevertheless. He was director of the weekly “l’Humanité” in the Italian language in 1924 and a member of the political bureau of the French CP charged in particular with the organisation of the Italian comrades who had emigrated to France.
This document allows us to state that Bordiga and the Italian Left are not completely the same thing, contrary to the amalgam that has often been made, first within the Communist International on its way towards bolshevisation, later within the International Left Opposition before 1930, even later as this Opposition became entirely Trotskyist and, finally, in recent years among numerous revolutionaries.

Certainly, as Damen himself explains, the Italian Left is much obliged to Bordiga :

“The object of this study is to finally render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and we will do it not by some general claim to objectivity which is always in fact partial and subjective even when it is done in good faith but through the known and documented experience of those years. If therefore Bordigism as a particular and “original” attitude of thought and tactic had more importance amongst the parties of the International than at home this is due to a polemical interest and a “tendency” of the leading organs of the Comintern which found it convenient to systematically confuse the movement of the Italian Left with the personal positions and thoughts of Bordiga.

It is necessary to recognise this in spite of the fact that four fifths of all the theoretical work of this current was down to Bordiga and that until at least 1923 his contribution to the politics and organisation of this current was also about four fifths.

That being said let’s see when and how Bordiga’s thoughts really only express his personal positions and when on the other hand they have become part of the theoretical and tactical inheritance of the Italian Left…”

[from Crisis of Bordigism ? Perhaps, In any case it’s not a crisis of the Italian Left in Prometeo 4/5 1953]

But the Italian Left is bigger than “Bordigism”. Let us remember the differences that already existed in 1927 between the communist Vanguard Groups around Réveil Communiste with Pappalardi and the Italian Fraction of the CP of Italy who published Bilan and Prometeo. They had important differences in their respective political orientations. This continued during the whole emigration period, first and foremost during the war in Spain in 1936 and 1937 which saw the emergence of a minority within the Italian Fraction. Subsequently divergencies broke out during the Second World War between the Italian Fraction, who regrouped in Marseille, and the group that had stayed in Belgium around Perrone (Vercesi). [1] Finally there existed differences between certain former historical members of the Italian Left who found themselves on new, overtly heterodox, political positions at the end of the Second World War in 1944, as was the case with comrade Fortichiari. The latter was stuck with an idealisation of “Livorno ’21”, as he often liked to remember. This meant to him : a bigger communist party pursuing the same politics as those which came out of the crisis of social democracy. But history was no longer the same !

Damen continues by defining the fundamental reasons for the disagreements :

“Here and there the Italian left was forced to disagree with Bordiga, on each occasion the origin of discord was the product of a different interpretation of Marxism.”
[Ibidem]

In consequence, he analyses the reasons for Bordiga’s withdrawal from political action whereas the Italian Left continued its struggle as a political body.

It is a fact that from 1926 on the Left had practically ceased to exist in the Stalinist International and all the subsequent evidence of the thinking, the press and organisation of this current took place without the physical participation of Bordiga on lines which diverged in a good part from his thinking and especially from his general “attitude” which wasn’t a casual but considered attitude and which continued until the fall of Fascism.

Let’s therefore analyse the roots of this isolation, its link with his way of dealing with problems in Marxism of an ideological and political type. Bordiga never stopped thinking that Russia was an economic reality in which socialist characteristics predominated : for him only the policies of Stalin and the International had degenerated.

From that moment on the positions diverged. Whereas the Left continued to act on the traditional line inspired by a dialectical vision of history in general, and the proletarian struggle in particular, through which the party and the activities of revolutionaries were reduced to nullity due to changing objective conditions, Bordiga remained, in his determinist way of thinking went along with the situation.

After 1926 Bordiga withdrew entirely from political life until after the Second World War and beyond. For Damen the analysis of the nature of the USSR was a fundamental question. It constitutes the subject of five letters that Damen and Bordiga exchanged between them. Basically the Italian Left considered Russia as having a state capitalist nature. [2]

Bordiga held scrupulously to this position (see the quotation above) and he never bothered about what his comrades who had organised themselves as the fraction abroad were doing, in the same way that he was not interested in the first clandestine nuclei who were destined to renew the links which led to the formation of the party. And what was worse still was that colossal events like the proletarian insurrection in Spain, the collapse of the International and the Second World War all waited in vain for some comment, some critique and some collaboration on his part just to show the strength of continuity of Marxist theory and above all to really prepare the material of the ideas and experiences which were indispensable for the future revival of the party.

Effectively, the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left abroad continued to express itself and to defend its political analyses, whereas Bordiga had remained silent. As Souvarine visited Italy in the 1930s, he would meet Bordiga at Naples. The latter would reply to him that “there is nothing to do in this period” (according to relatives of Souvarine). [3]

From then on, the political positions of Bordiga would continue to diverge from those of his former comrades of the Italian Fraction of the CP in the first place, and later from those of the Internationalist Communist Party until the split of 1952.

From our point of view real Bordigism was born after 1952. After this period new concepts like “the invariance of Marxism” appear in his thinking. But this invention is the clearest counter-example that demonstrates that “invariance” doesn’t exist in Marxist theory and, above all, not even in the thinking of Bordiga himself. This shows that the “invariance” defended by him is in reality an idealisation that is neither expressed in the evolution of the thought of its progenitor, nor in political theory and practice.
How many times have I heard a confusion of the political positions of the Internationalist Communist Party of Damen with those of Bordiga after 1952 ? That is why this book is very opportune in re-establishing the political and theoretical differences between Damen and Bordiga, notably on “the invariance of Marxism”, on the trades-union question, on national liberation struggles, and above all on the party (the party-class relationship), etc...
The position defended by Damen on the question of the party, which is at the very heart of the political thought of the Italian Left, is totally different from that defended by Bordiga, It represents the continuity of the political tradition of the Italian Left of the 1920s. The reader may refer himself to the very enlightening text by Damen, The Overturning of Praxis in which he treats the party-class relationship.

The birth of the party does not depend, and on this we agree, “on the genius or value of a leader or a vanguard” but it is the historic existence of the proletariat as a class which poses, not merely episodically in time and space, the need for the existence of its Party. The proletariat would return to the ranks of mere plebeians if it lost its class character as the antagonist of capitalism ; and its possibilities as an exploited class which struggles for its own defence and liberation would be thwarted and rendered null and void if the motivation and physical forces for a revolutionary leadership were not produced from within it through its struggles.

Likewise, Damen wrote in “Points of Disagreement on the “Platform” of 1952 elaborated by Bordiga” on the question : who exerts the proletarian dictatorship ?

When Bordiga wrote :
“The proletarian dictatorship is exercised by the party.”

Damen replied :

“The statement is theoretically and politically correct and, despite the terrible recent Russian experience, is still valid though on condition that the party and its leadership bodies which exercise this dictatorship in fact act as a class party in unison with the interests, the struggles and the historic objectives of the entire proletariat right up to the disappearance of classes and the state. Historically the dictatorship is that of the proletariat and not that of the party in the sense that the proletariat as the class in power flows into and concentrates in “its” party and crystalises in it the causes, the forces and the will through which the dictatorship of the proletariat is sustained. Beyond these limits you get Stalinism, that is, state (party-state) dictatorship which has supplanted the proletariat and, on the day in which it succeeded in making the wheel of revolution turn in the opposite direction, brought oppression back.

We end this presentation here in order to push our readers to read and find out for themselves the differences that existed between two of the principal leading figures in the history of the Italian Left.

 

Michel Olivier, April 2011

 

English translation by : Jock Daborn, January 13, 2012

 

[1Michel Roger : Histoire de la gauche italienne 1926-45  ; Doctoral thesis, Paris 1982-3. Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales under the direction of Madeleine Rébérioux. Philippe Bourrinet : La gauche communiste italienne Paris, 1993.

[2Bordiga saw it as “state industrialism”, that is, he emphasised only the forced industrialisation of Russia which before the revolution had little industry. From this fact he saw the regime as having a progressive character carrying out the role of the progressive bourgeoisie in Western Europe in the nineteenth century. He also spoke of an anti-feudal revolution when characterising October.

[3Police information dated 15 October 1936 which said “Boris Souvarine, brother of Maurin’s wife, returned to Italy one day ago. He tried to see Bordiga but I don’t know the result of their discussions, the ideas and the intentions of the latter. I am trying to find out”. And Jean-Louis Panné p. 228 of Souvarine’s biography (Robert Laffont, Paris 1993) writes “During the summer Souvarine decided to go to Italy to carry out some research into Savanarola on the request of Anatole de Monzie. [(…) He left on September 10, 1936 (...)] Souvarine returned in early October.” Is it when this trip was made that the meeting took place ? See also Arturo Peregalli and Sandro Saggioro : Amadeo Bordiga – La sconfitta e gli anni oscuri (1926-45) , Edizioni Colibri , Milan 1998.