Vercesi, the Italian Fraction Abroad and the Internationalist Communist Party

The short document which follows is taken from the introduction to some articles by Onorato Damen on Ottorino Perrone (Vercesi) republished in Prometeo 10 (March 1958). It appeared as an appendix to Damen’s book “Bordiga, Fuori dal Mito” (Bordiga: Beyond the Myth).

Vercesi (1897-1957) was one of the most dominant but controversial figures in the history of the Communist Left. A founder member of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921 he was an early fighter against the degeneration of the Comintern (he was a signatory of the Platform of the Committee of Intesa 1925). After several arrests by the Fascist regime he emigrated first to France, from where he was expelled, then to Belgium in 1927. This meant he was not at Pantin (Paris) in 1928 for the foundation of the left fraction of the Communist Party of Italy. However he became principal editor with Gatto Mammone (Virgilio Verdaro) of Bilan and Prometeo, the publications to the Belgian and French fractions of the internationalist communist left. He condemned the Spanish Civil War as imperialist from the start (criticised here by Damen for his “theoretically impeccable formula” or lack of recognition of the social revolution which accompanied its very early days) but later split the Fraction over his oscillations over the Second World War. Right up until August 1939 Vercesi had maintained that the Munich Conference (September 1938) showed there would be no imperialist war and that the task of revolutionaries was to work to found a new internationalist communist party. However once it was clear imperialist war was going to break out he completely overturned his previous analysis. He now theorised the “social non-existence of the proletariat” and asserted that it was defeated. Vercesi’s defeatism was the final blow to the Fraction which had already been suffering from divisions even before the war began but now rejected Vercesi’s new line. For the next four years many of the Fraction abroad tried to survive in clandestinity but several perished in the Nazi or Stalinist camps. Vercesi hid in Antwerp sheltered from the Gestapo by members of the Belgian Socialist Party. As a result of his apparent gratitude for this he made his next error of judgement which was to join an “Anti-fascist Committee” in Brussels as a representative of the Italian Red Cross. He later maintained this was for humanitarian purposes only but to many of his former comrades he looked to have simply sided with the victors in the imperialist war.

Meanwhile in Italy the strikes that broke out in the north in 1943 were the signal for the comrades like Damen, who had spent much of the previous decades in Fascist prisons etc, to form the Internationalist Communist Party (PCInt). Operating in clandestinity at first, it recruited participants in the strike wave on a basic position of opposition to all sides in the war as imperialist. With the defeat of the Axis the Party could operate openly and many from the Fraction abroad returned to participate in the life of the new organisation. One who returned to Italy (but not to live there) was Vercesi. Not without vehement, even violent, opposition, his excuses re the Anti-fascist Committee in Brussels were accepted and he was allowed to join the Party in 1945. Damen makes clear that, for all its weaknesses, the Fraction abroad did help to take the analysis of the Italian Left forward and thus made a contribution to the eventual positions taken by the Internationalist Communist Party (on such things as unions, national liberation and even the imperialist nature of the USSR). However once the post-war wave of struggle began to subside the rapid rise of the PCInt began to slow. At this point (1948) doubts about the formation of the Party began to be raised by Bordiga. After almost two decades of non participation in the life of the Italian Left (see Damen’s comment about “this or that personality” below) he still did not join the Party but wrote a series of documents for it under the rubric “Sul filo di tempo” (On the thread of time). In these he did not openly attack the formation of the party but through correspondence with certain receptive party members (Vercesi in Belgium and Maffi in Milan) he began to propagandise against its existence. This eventually burst out into a split in 1951 when the Bordigists managed to outvote the original Party founders on the Executive Committee. Once again Vercesi had changed tack and became the spokesman first for the dissolution of the party then for the formation of the Bordigist alternative (Programma Comunista) until his death in 1957. Ironically after calling for the dissolution of the party because the proletariat would not support it both parts of the split increased their membership in the years that followed. It would take the full flowering of the post-war boom before this trend was reversed. The document below merely tries to highlight the incoherence and inconsistency of Vercesi’s (and Bordiga’s) thinking by pointing to some of their better quotations. Those wishing a brief introduction to the Italian Left can consult leftcom.org or leftcom.org

CWO

The Fraction and Bordigism

The historical period in which the Fraction – as representative of the Italian left – began to test the validity of its tools of critical analysis, the accuracy of its theory and the merits of its programmatic positions, was when the experience of Stalinist Russia (we characterised Stalinism as "centrism" in those years) was already in an advanced stage of putrefaction, and the Western world was smouldering in a crisis that would shortly lead humanity into the abyss of the Second World War. Although this was a particularly brutal time, it goes without saying that the Italian Left did not confine itself to mere intellectual criticism but threw itself into the fire of political struggle. Above all, more than in any other period in the life of the Italian Left, it developed the continuity of its thought which was experienced and expressed in full independence, without any inferiority complex in the face of this or that personality. The absent Bordiga was kept in mind by publishing some of his ideologically and politically more accurate and relevant documents from the past, but his influence on the comrades then was only through prestige.

Just as the events in the Spanish revolution were far superior to the participants, they also highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of our own tendency: the majority of Bilan appeared fixated on a theoretically impeccable formula which had the defect of remaining a mere abstraction; whilst the minority appeared on the other hand as being too concerned to go down the road to participation at any price, and were thus not always careful enough to avoid the traps of bourgeois Jacobinism when it took to the barricades.

When the proletariat goes on its revolutionary offensive, the solidarity, by which we mean active solidarity, of the revolutionary vanguard must not fail, no matter where the attack starts out. Unquestionably the Spanish movement not only had a clear class origin, but was organised in a proletarian manner within the workers’ own organisations and in the tradition of Bolshevik October.

The problem of active solidarity towards the Spanish proletariat posed a dilemma for our current. It had to avoid both an attempt to draw completely formal, scholastic and totally undialectical dividing lines between the phase of workers’ initiative from below and that of its incorporation into the anti-Franco struggle of the Republican formations, as well as the need to avoid the illusion that this class initiative could continue in the POUM battalions which were certainly anti-fascist but were not always anti-capitalist. Since the objective possibilities existed there, our Bilan comrades had to pose the same problem, as arose when our party was faced with the partisan movement, by inviting the workers who fought in them not to fall into the trap of imperialist war.

In such cases, one must have in mind that any class initiative has to be measured by the degree to which it expresses a class content and what it achieves in terms of a class strategy. And when the objective conditions don’t exist the implacable Marxist weapon of denunciation and criticism still remains, and this can be just as effective through intervention in events that take place beyond the class terrain. This would have been the only way to avoid the split, and it should have been avoided, in the rare and irreplaceable fabric of our Fraction abroad.

Finally, we wish to highlight how some of the major problems of the revolutionary vanguard which we can authentically document were perceived, and in a way which clearly shows the continuity of thought and tactical vision of the Italian left: first in the Fraction, then stronger and more mature as it became part of the experience of our party.

What did the Fraction state through the writings of Comrade Vercesi about the role of leaders? Here it is:

"Bordigism, reducing our movement to the person Bordiga, is the stupidest deformation of the opinion of comrade Bordiga himself who, following Marx, theoretically rejected any reference to the individual as such and proved that for the individual himself his only meaning can, and must be found, in the collectivity and in society.”

What did the Fraction state in the writings of Comrade Vercesi about the problem of revolutionary dialectic in relation to "economic automatism"?

Bordiga wrote:

"But Marxism has nothing to do with these gross distortions that would turn a historical science into economic and political alchemy in order to provide the philosopher's stone: the clash of economic interests automatically determines in every circumstance the ideology and role of social forces. While it is perfectly true that economic mechanisms push the classes directly down the road that leads either to their disappearance or their expansion, the dependence of classes in the production process follows an enormously complicated course.

Classes, _like all forms of social organisation appear, intertwine, develop, disappear, according to a law that immediately reflects the interests of the class that controls society, even one condemned by the evolution of the production mechanism. This "economic automatism" which diminishes Marxism can actually produce amazement at the "absurdity" of the situation in Italy and Germany where fascism was able to take power with the support of a part of the exploited masses whilst Marxism understands that these phenomenon, far from being "nonsense", can be perfectly explained by the immediate possibilities for political action which may be exercised by a class that, like capitalism itself, will be ultimately condemned by the development of socialism_.”

And finally what does the Fraction state in the writings of Comrade Vercesi on the relationship between party and class?

"Today, after _the experiences of the post-war period, it is clear that only a revolutionary party which is welded to the class by a system of principles, and a clear vision of reality, can represent the element that triggers the battle, pushing it in a historical direction prepared by all the antagonisms that have profoundly matured in the conflict between classes. Caught in the turmoil of events, without the party that would have prepared in advance the basis for action, the proletariat will only express vague aspirations, it will rise menacingly to collapse quickly, or it will be massacred by a ruthless capitalism ..._

For Marxists, what matters is the evaluation of contradictions which ripen in social relations and in the struggle that heightens them, because it is in this way that the proletariat acquires the awareness of its own strength. Once detached from top to bottom from the structure of capitalism it throws the relations of production out of gear, but only on the condition that it is headed by a guide, a consciousness, a party.”

And that is precisely what we have argued with Vercesi before, and also against Vercesi after (the split of 1951-2, Editor).

These are, as we see, indisputable principles of the Italian left, which are always the indisputable principles in the daily struggle of our party, waged against those who, at some point, thought to turn their backs on this way of interpreting Marxism, which nevertheless is the only way to interpret it.

Onorato Damen

Thursday, June 4, 2015