Preface to the Swedish edition (2002) of Communism is the Material Human Community: Amadeo Bordiga Today

The core of the following text was actually written in 1988, before the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and was then slightly modified for its first publication in English (1991) to briefly take note of the 1989-91 “events”. Over the past decade, it has been translated into seven other languages. The fact that it was written prior to the collapse (a collapse whose imminence I, like so many others, did not foresee), and continues to arouse international interest a decade later, is one indication that, whatever its flaws, it succeeded in resonating with some deep preoccupations of the contemporary world.

Indeed, since 1988, interest in the work of Amadeo Bordiga has only increased[1], and seems on its way to eclipsing (hopefully with happier results) the earlier 1960s/1970s fascination with Antonio Gramsci, who was, not incidentally, Moscow’s point man for the eradication of Bordiga’s influence from the Italian Communist Party in the mid-1920’s.[2] Of course, the great majority of “Gramscians” of the 1960’s and 1970’s were hardly aware of Gramsci’s real political role, but then they were hardly interested in the real politics of their own era either. The postwar Gramscians, particularly in the English-speaking world (we are thinking of figures such as Carl Boggs, admirer of 1970’s “Euro-communism”) rode on the wave of “culturalism” which included the Frankfurt School and French post-structuralism, which appeared to them (as to the broader social stratum from which they came, the radicalized middle classes) as the worthy successor to “vulgar Marxism”. (Had they been more than dismissively aware of Bordiga, they would undoubtedly classed him with such “vulgar Marxism”.) The Gramscians, like other currents of the culturalist camp, greatly preferred discussions of cultural hegemony to the “vulgar Marxist” issues such as the critique of political economy, not to mention the “art of insurrection”, and the decline of their influence parallels rather concisely the decline of the illusions of culturalism. Capitalism benefited greatly from the “cultural radicalism” of the 1960’s, which turned out to be a large part of the managerial wisdom of the 1990’s[3].

The influence of Gramsci obviously also declined along with the 1970’s Italian Communist Party and its strategy of historic compromise.

The flood of ideological effluvia that followed the 1989-91 period is too vast to be considered here. But the capitalist celebration hammered home the point that the patent “failure of Marxism” in Russia meant that capitalism had conquered all rivals. This climate naturally propelled revolutionaries everywhere to look back to the pre-1917 era in which various currents, from Rosa Luxemburg to the German-Dutch council communists[4] to the Spanish anarchists to the revolutionary syndicalists of England, France, Scotland and the U.S. (the I.W.W) had no need whatever to refer to the Soviet Union in order to pose themselves (rightly or wrongly) as the bearers of a society beyond capitalism. It is in the same new historical optic that Amadeo Bordiga re-emerges into view as one of the most brilliant, and forgotten, Marxists of the 20th century.

The capitalists and their acolytes of the “moderate left,” those for whom the “short 20th century from 1917 to 1991” constituted a needless aberration (convincing “everyone” of the inevitable Gulag waiting at the end of all infantile dreams of revolution) have overlooked one little fact: namely that the existence of the Soviet Union, and later the bloc which spun off it, constituted a STABILIZATION of the capitalist world order from no later than the mid-1920’s, and quite possibly earlier. The existence of the Soviet Union effectively “put the lid” on the historical memory of all the anti-capitalist currents mentioned above (whatever their problems, their disagreements with each other, and their inadequacy for a perspective for today), and once that lid came off, all those currents began to reappear in one form or another. We know today that the Russian Revolution will have the status in the history of communism that the Italian urban communes of the 11th century have in the history of capitalism, forerunners, rich with lessons for the future, but also overwhelmed by much of the crap of the past. (It is also true, and should not be overlooked, that the removal of the “lid” of the last vestiges of Cold War polarization also favored the return of unbridled “free market” capitalism, fascism and religious fundamentalism of all varieties.

Even more than when I wrote the following text, I believe that it is important today to situate Bordiga in the constellation of revolutionary Marxist currents that existed prior to the defeat of the Russian Revolution, as a figure of the very first rank, alongside Marx, Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Gorter, and also Lenin[5] and Trotsky, (and, secondarily, the more strictly theoretical figures of Korsch, Lukacs and Bloch) not in order to determine in some mechanical way “who was right” but to see ALL of them in an “array” of debates too complicated to allude to here[6], and which were badly refracted, distorted and buried by the ensuing (post-1921) 80 years of counter-revolution. I still think the challenge of the French neo-Bordigist left of 30 years ago[7] to rethink the strengths and weakness of the Italian and the German-Dutch left as the real revolutionary currents of the immediate post-World War I period remains a “task” today. It is curious, and revealing, that of all the figures named above, Bordiga (with the possible exception of Gorter) remains the least known. I believe this obscurity is the result of Bordiga’s origins in a country that was not a major power, where, after all, fascism first triumphed (1922) and forced the revolutionary left underground and into exile, and finally, where the largest Communist Party in the West after World War II virtually made him disappear from its early history, hidden above all by the near-sainthood of Gramsci.

Once again, the issue is not one of unearthing some lost thread of unbroken “correct” continuity. It is rather to understand the radical upsurge of 1917-1921 in its proper context in the global history of capitalism, and to see the strengths and weaknesses of all the currents on the scene against the backdrop of defeat. Every major advance of the real movement (1848, 1871, 1905, 1917-1921, the return of revolution in 1968) allows us to truly “see” the past in ways that were largely impossible in the periods of ebb in between, or even at the time. (CLR James, in Facing Reality(1958), recognized that the Hungarian workers’ councils of 1956 gave us “new eyes” with which to view revolutionary history as far back as the English Revolution of 1649.)

Finally, mention must be made of Bordiga’s 1950’s and 1960’s writings[8], only a few of which were familiar to me when I wrote the following text. Bordiga was an civil engineer by profession, an experience which gave him unusual insight into the operation of ground rent, urbanism, the environment, and supposedly “natural” catastrophes such as floods which are in fact far more expressions of social relationships than was generally recognized at the time. Bordiga took far more seriously than any 20th-century Marxist the alienation between town and countryside as one more capitalist antagonism to be overcome. Bordiga always insisted that capitalism was born, from the 15th to the 18th century, in a massive expropriation of both tools (craftspeople, peasants) and of land (peasants) and that communism meant a “reappropriation”, in a completely

transformed way, of what had previously been estranged. His focus on the agrarian question at many junctures (as in his analysis of Soviet capitalism) flows directly from that recognition. Bordiga hated the idea of “originality”, arguing that the “invariance” of communist theory had been set down by Marx in 1847, but at the very least Bordiga was original in unearthing that invariance as it concerned agriculture and the land, and it is that, above all, which makes him (as the following text argues) “strangely contemporary”.

 

Notes

[1]-This groundswell is already so large that it can only be alluded to here. It is manifest not only is the six-volume series  of Bordiga’s writings currently appearing in Italy, but in major studies such as Arturo Peregalli/Sandro Saggior Amadeo Bordiga. La Sconfitta e gli anni oscuri (1926-1945)(Turin, 1998). The same authors also edited a comprehensive bibliography of Bordiga’s writings and of books and articles touching on Bordiga: cf. Amadeo Bordiga, 1889-1970. Bibliografia. Milan 1995. A mediocre English translation of Philippe Bourrinet’s book The “Bordigist Current” (1919-1999). Italy, France, Belgium is available on-line at the “Left-Wing Communism” web site. Finally, an international conference (more academic than directly politcal) took place in Milan in 1996, and some of the contributions were published in L. Cortesi, ed. Amadeo Bordiga nella Storia del Comunismo, Naples 1999.

[2]-John Chiaradia, “Antonio Gramsci: The Dark Years”. Unpublished manuscript. For the “orthodox Bordigist” critique of Gramsci and Gramscianism, cf. Ch. VI of Vol. II of theStoria della Sinistra Comunista (Milan, 1972).

[3]-Tom Frank, in his One Market Under God (New York, 2000) lays this out very effectively.

[4]-Cf.  La Gauche Hollandaise. (1990) published by the International Communist Current. The text is by Philippe Bourrinet who subsequently left the ICC, which nonetheless published an English translation TheDutch Left (2001). Bourrinet is preparing his own revised version of the book for future publication.

[5]-One finds today a number of people who are fascinated by Bordiga and for whom Lenin is a swear word.

The relationship between Bordiga and Lenin is complex, and Bordiga certainly considered himself a Leninist, despite frank disagreements between them in 1921-22. Bordiga may in fact have been a Leninist, but not all Leninists are Bordiga.

[6]-Again, Bourrinet, in The Dutch Left, on how the pre-1917 Lenin was influenced by no less than Pannekoek and Gorter. in the mass strike debate in the Second International.

[7]-i.e. the early 1970’s writings of Jacques Camatte and Jean Barrot aka Gilles Dauve, cited in the text.

[8]-Many of 1950’s and 1960’s writings of Bordiga are available in the reprints of the Partito Comunista Internazionale entitled Sul Filo del Tempo, of which there were 7 volumes as of 1998. They can be obtained by writing to the Edizione il programma comunista, Casella postale 962, 20101 Milan, Italy.