Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4
The Italian Communist Left
International Communist Current
IT IS certainly not to the credit of the revolutionary movement that it all too often allows Stalinism, the New Left and academe in general to set the agenda for the discussion of its history. At several public meetings over the past year militants from organisations such as the publishers of this book have been heard to complain that their views and their story have been condemned to silence. They have all the more right on their side since they feel that their very identity is being denied, when in spite of their repeated protests they are generally rather inaccurately described as ‘Bordigists’.
An obvious obstacle to understanding the history of Italian Marxism has been the lush growth of the Gramsci cult, fed by Social Democrats, Stalinists and Trotskyists alike, for its ambiguity is well fitted to their needs. The cryptic language Gramsci was obliged to use in his prison writings leaves as much scope for epigones, commentators and plagiarists as was enjoyed by Medieval theologians when interpreting the Book of Revelation. Gramsci’s refusal to commit himself in the conflict between Stalin and his opponents continues to inspire those who make a profession out of not taking sides, particularly on principled questions. The lack of continuity between the PC d’Italia of the interwar years and the post-1943 Italian Communist Party as reflected in this issue of our journal allows everyone to make out a claim to be Gramsci’s heir, especially as for some years now you have needed a political microscope to tell the difference between the practice (and theory) of the Italian Communist Party and those of common or garden Social Democracy.
It is to the great merit of this book that it shows that Italian Communism had another tradition, no less impressive than that deriving from Gramsci, and a good deal more intransigent. Unlike Gramsci, Bordiga and those who followed his lead did not waver over the question of Italy’s intervention in the war in 1914 (p. 17), came down firmly on the side of Trotsky against Stalin (p. 24), opposed the degeneration of the Soviet state and the Comintern (pp. 121ff.), and resisted the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Italian party that was intended, as elsewhere, to choke off free discussion (pp. 22–6; cf. Harry Wicks, Keeping My Head, pp. 40–1, and Harry Wicks: A Memorial, 1989, pp. 24–5, 43–4).
After 1926 this tendency could more accurately be called ‘Perronist’ rather than Bordigist, since after Bordiga retreated into silence its main inspiration in exile was Ottorino Perrone (Vercesi). But it was one of its many strengths that it refused to promote any individual in its dealings with the outside world, and ‘tried as much as possible to give an anonymous form to those militants who were most in view’ (p. 9). And contrary to what is often alleged, this did not mean that its theory remained on a primitive level, and did not develop: ‘whether it was on the union question, on “national liberation struggles”, or else on the state in the period of transition, it did not hesitate to make innovations, when it considered it necessary’ (p. 9). Its theory about the USSR, for example, whilst not approaching the sophistication of Trotsky’s, was firmly implanted within the traditions of classical Marxism (pp. 133–4). It began with the awkward formulation that ‘the Russian state, qualified as “proletarian”, was capitalist on the international arena; on the other hand on the internal level this state was described not as capitalist, but as Socialist on the strength of the “socialisation of production”’ (p. 72). By 1936 it considered, ‘following Engels, that the state is a scourge inherited by the proletariat’, since it was ‘both an instrument whose historical necessity arises from the inability of production to satisfy the needs of the producers (a historical circumstance which will accompany any proletarian revolution) and also, by its very nature, an organism destined to safeguard the supremacy of an exploiting class who will use its machinery in order to install a bureaucracy which will gradually be won over to the cause of the enemy class’ (p. 135). It was not until the Second World War that the Italian Left finally abandoned the defence of Russia as some sort of proletarian state.
But not all the insights of the Italian Left were equally profound, and it is fascinating to study the mechanism of its development. What began as a reflection of the highest consciousness of the Italian workers during a time of tremendous revolutionary upsurge, and was tempered in its struggle against the Fascist state, became ossified in the emigration, where its vital forces dwindled at the same rate as its opportunities.
Just as the Trotskyists refused to accept the decisions of the Comintern after its Fifth Congress, the Italian Left repudiated all those taken after the Second (p. 20). In so renouncing electoral and parliamentary action, to begin with Bordiga’s followers called themselves quite legitimately ‘the Abstentionist fraction’ (p. 18), rejecting any alliance with ‘elements whose goal is not the armed revolutionary struggle of the proletariat against the existing state’ (p. 20), the ‘defence of democracy’ (p. 28), ‘the slogans of the “workers’ and peasants’ government”, the “United Front”, and “proletarian anti-Fascist committees”’ (p. 59). By 1939 the Italian Left had withdrawn its support for colonial revolt against imperialism and the right of nations to self-determination, holding that ‘national movements can only develop on the basis of the crushing of the workers and this in connection with the movements of opposing imperialisms’ (p. 114). Since this was not only to apply to China’s war with Japan from 1937 onwards, but to the Abyssinian war of 1935–36 as well, it was a fatal mistake for any Italian revolutionary to make. For, like the Spartacists of today, but with more justification, they had by then become thoroughly expert at finding very good revolutionary reasons for abstaining from activity, and for attacking those who were mistaken enough to indulge in it.
They forgot not only Marx’s distinction between a class in itself and a class for itself, but even reversed the argument that conditions determine consciousness. Like the Maoists of the 1960s, who believed that, irrespective of their relations with the means of production, those who disagreed with them automatically became capitalists, the Italian Left began to define the class nature of social formations on the basis of their ideas. Thus the Socialist parties ‘were no longer part of the workers’ world, but, since 1914, of the capitalist world, a fact which they proved by massacring the revolutionary proletarians immediately after the war’ (p. 76). It was but a simple step from there to dismissing the whole experience of dual power wherever it arose by claiming that ‘without a revolutionary party the revolutionary situation was absent’ (p. 94). By 1938 one of the factions of the Italian Left was even ‘insisting that any possibility of a proletarian struggle against capitalism consists of a definitive break with all forms of capitalist oppression, including the existing unions’ (p. 130). The final and ludicrous conclusion to this line of reasoning on the part of Vercesi in particular (p. 118) was that ‘without a powerful party, like the Bolshevik party, the working class no longer existed’ (p. 94), for ‘the proletariat derived its existence as a class from the Communist Party, which provided it with its consciousness, its goals, and its methods’ (p. 122). Hence ‘the proletariat will disappear as a class, if the party was absent’, so that during the Second World War ‘socially speaking, the working class had disappeared’ (p. 126).
It goes without saying that the elaboration of this form of reasoning must in the long run produce a paralysing effect, especially when concrete activity is called for in alliance with other tendencies, and whenever the Italian Left was faced with a problem of this type it resorted to hyper-revolutionary language and suffered a split. Its theory of Social Democracy, for example, prevented any struggle (united or otherwise) against the rise of Nazism at all, and led to its first break, with the Trotskyists:
‘It considered that Social Democracy and Fascism were two distinct, but complementary, methods for crushing the proletariat. Both were forces of the bourgeoisie, but they played a different rôle in that the first had to wipe out a revolutionary proletarian movement, whereas the second, with the world crisis of capitalism, had to finish the job by replacing the democratic method with the dictatorial one. This is why the Italian Left refused to give credence to the policies of Social Democracy through the “tactic” of the United Front.’
So its ‘solution’ to this supreme political crisis of the German working class was a resort to low-level trade union activity, ‘the “development of class movements” on an economic terrain’ (p. 64).
The crowded years of the 1930s represented a definite problem for this brand of politics, and in the year after the Stavisky riots, the Dollfüss coup and the Asturian Commune some 60 or 70 militants led by Candiani (Enrico Russo; cf. above, pp. 139ff.) came to the conclusion that ‘the perspective was one of developing class struggles with a revolutionary content’, as opposed to the assumption of the majority that ‘the historic period opened in 1927–33 was one of profound reflux’ (p. 82). Rapid confirmation of the minority’s opinions came from Spain, where civil war broke out a few months later, and 26 of them went off to join the Lenin Battalion of the POUM, where Candiani assumed command of a column in front of Huesca. Leaving what by then must have looked like a harem of political eunuchs, they joined Gaston Davoust’s Union Communiste.
A bizarre series of rationalisations is used in this book to account for the abstention of the Italian Left from the Spanish conflict. ‘The minority’s analysis’, it is claimed, ‘was based on a serious overestimation of the Spanish situation, sprung from a sentimental reaction rather than a real and mature reflection’, mainly because ‘the minority was above all fascinated by the acts of violence and expropriation’ (p. 97). For as far as our authors are concerned, the collectivisation of factories and the land was not an expression of a revolution actually taking place, but ‘a link in the chain tying the proletariat to its enemy both on the internal front and on the imperialist front’ (p. 96). Where Lenin saw such phenomena long before the October seizure of power as evidence of the depth of the Russian Revolution, these wiseacres intone that ‘in any genuine proletarian revolution, politics comes before economics’, and ‘it is only under the dictatorship of the proletariat, after the capitalist state has been smashed, that there can be economic measures in the interest of the proletariat’ (pp. 95–6). ‘Violence against the capitalists, the priests, the big landowners was no more revolutionary’, they add (p. 96), and the Italian Left’s interpretation of Lenin’s policy of revolutionary defeatism (actually a misreading of it: cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no. 3, Autumn 1988, pp. 2–7) led them to call for ‘desertion from the army and fraternisation between the soldiers of both camps, as in 1917’ (p. 96). The minority, who contrasted this with Lenin’s attitude to Kornilov, described their denunciation of the slogan of ‘arms for Spain’ as ‘incomprehensible and practically counter-revolutionary’ (p. 98), and demanded the right to ‘defend the Spanish Revolution with guns in hand, even on the military front’ (p. 99).
The Italian Left obviously felt a bit self-conscious about its revolutionary credentials at this point, for, as our writers point out, ‘the fact that the majority sent a delegation to Spain showed that it was not indifferent to the events’ (p. 99). (How nice of them!) But their investigations came to the same conclusions as counter-revolutionary Stalinism, that a revolution was not taking place there. And adopting the same propaganda devices, such as ‘humanitarian aid’, having rejected the politics of the workers’ united front, they gradually assumed those of its opposite, non-class pacifism. ‘With the aim of showing that “the left fractions are not insensitive to the martyrdom and suffering of the war in Spain”’, they ‘decided to create a fund of financial solidarity to help the victims of the war, whether “Fascist” or “anti-Fascist”, “the families of all, the children of all”’, which ‘ended up in a sort of “Red Cross” under the auspices of the Italian Left’ (p. 107). This developed into a straight Popular Front of the usual variety on the part of Vercesi when in September 1944 he first founded a Red Cross to help ‘all Italians who are victims of the war’, and then joined an ‘anti-Fascist’ coalition in Brussels consisting of Christian Democrats, Republicans, Socialists and Stalinists (pp. 107, 154–5).
This disgraceful outcome was far from being what our writers describe as ‘antithetical to the tradition of the Italian Left’ (p. 156), for as they admit earlier, the logical conclusion of Vercesi’s theory that the working class had disappeared during the war was that ‘Communists could only engage in humanitarian activities – which is what he did’ (p. 126).
Everyone knows that theory divorced from practice ends in impotence, though few realise that it must lead to incoherence as well. Unlike the much-maligned Trotsky, who over a year before had set the date for the start of the Second World War to within a month, the Italian Left abroad even found it ‘difficult to say whether capitalist society was definitively moving towards world war’. Resignations multiplied, and its journal Octobre suspended publication for the whole of the crisis year, belatedly putting in a final appearance in August 1939 (p. 119). The groups left behind in Italy in the turmoil of the war and the fall of Mussolini could not, of course, afford the luxury of abstaining from the events, and an excellent penultimate chapter of the book (pp. 160–73) gives many interesting details about their activity, which should be read in conjunction with Peregalli’s account in this issue of our journal.
So it is not only as a valuable source of information on a woefully neglected Marxist tradition that this account shows its worth. It also stands as an awful warning against the separation of theory and practice. And whilst the increasing irrelevance of the Italian Left abroad was the result of long years of enforced émigré politics, what of those who today insist on being émigrés from their class whilst coexisting with it in the same country under conditions of bourgeois legality? This book should be on the shelves of all serious revolutionaries, if only to point out the logic of such a position.
There are, of course, gaps within it. The final chapter appears to be ignorant of the suspicion that Romero Mangano had acted as a police informer. And there are, of course, obvious errors. Some of these are of scant importance, and stem from translational difficulties in the English text: instead of a Bakuninist insurrection ‘in Romany’ (p. 14) we should of course read ‘the Romagna’, and something similar has happened in the sentence about ‘Trotsky’s attempt to create a IVth International in 1933’ (p. 71). But others are plainly produced by an excess of factional zeal, such as when we read that as far as republican Spain was concerned, Trotsky ‘implicitly defended the new regime as “anti-feudal”’ (p. 97), or that at the very time his followers were fighting the republic in the streets of Barcelona they had ‘gone over to the other side of the barricades during the massacre in Spain’ (p. 106). The fact that Trotskyists suffered in the jails of both sides during the Second World War gives the lie to such remarks as that Trotsky ‘called for the defence, not only of the USSR, but also of the “democratic camp”’ (p. 159, n6), and those who oppose the theory of Socialism in One Country can hardly be accused of holding the thesis that ‘the Russian economy was orienting itself towards Socialism’ (p. 132), or of considering ‘“the building of socialism” to be the fundamental task of the proletariat’ there (p. 138).
But even bearing these faults in mind, the book retains its value as the only source of information about the history of a once influential revolutionary current, as well as being a useful and powerful antidote against the Gramsci cult and what Marx would have called the ‘kathederer-sozialismus’ that arises out of it.
Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011