Forty Years Since the Death of Onorato Damen

The document which follows comes from a speech at a public meeting held by the Internationalist Communist Party (Battaglia Comunista) on 16 October 1979, two days after the death of Onorato Damen. Neither we nor our Italian comrades have ever made a fetish of Damen, despite his stature as a revolutionary, and the enormous contribution he made to the foundation of what today is our Internationalist Communist Tendency. However, we could not let the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of his death go unmarked. We have already published in English his books on Bordiga and Gramsci, and have others in the pipeline, but as our tribute today we have re-translated this speech which introduces comrades of the new generation, albeit in a very basic way, not only to the biography of Onorato Damen, but also to the many battles inside the working class which led to the emergence of our political tendency. Communist Workers’ Organisation, UK Affiliate of the Internationalist Communist Tendency, 14 October 2019

Comrade Onorato Damen's Work in the Communist Movement

Comrades,

We have called this meeting to communicate the loss of comrade Onorato Damen from the Internationalist Communist Party and from the movement of the international communist Left. It is no exaggeration to say that Onorato played a real part in the political struggles of the international communist movement. The eulogies from abroad, as well as the attendance of representatives from other groups and currents, testify to the high regard in which comrade Damen was held. And, following Onorato's example, it is in the context of the workers' movement and the international communist movement that we present our profile of this great figure.

Our discourse begins with the shameful course taken by the Second International in the face of the first world imperialist war. The illusions of an indefinite period of capitalist reformism had swelled the ranks of opportunism and revisionism inside the workers' movement and within the socialist parties of the time. Opportunism had corroded the very framework of these parties; so much so that they capitulated in the face of the imperialist war and thus emptied the Second International of any revolutionary or class content.

Lenin's struggle within Russia and the Second International had brought the Bolshevik party into being. As history later demonstrated, it was the only one capable of moving the revolutionary activity of the working class forward: to a victorious proletarian revolution, including the destruction of the bourgeois state and the establishment of the first workers' state based on the councils, the exclusive custodians of the power of the class. But if it was difficult for any nucleus inside the other European parties to organise revolutionary opposition to the war — which meant the total capitulation of these parties — the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) chose to adopt the confusing and opportunist tactic of "neither support nor sabotage". Why? Not because the socialist Lazzari was an organisational genius, but because there were elements inside the PSI, currents who remained faithful to the basic tenets derived from a sound application of the method and principles of revolutionary Marxism: the proletariat never participates in a war of its own bourgeoisie, but struggles against it in order to overthrow the power and the system of the bourgeoisie itself.

Well, comrades, it was amongst these currents that comrade Onorato Damen was immersed, with all his youthful passion. He was a member of the abstentionist Left Fraction of the PSI, even if he already disagreed with certain forms of a priori abstentionism. And it is precisely due to his activity as a revolutionary militant — distributing leaflets against the war and inciting insubordination — that Damen ended up in prison. This was in 1917, after Italy had entered the conflict. And Damen remained in prison until 1919.(1)

The Russian Revolution had broken out. The world proletariat was inflamed but the class still found it difficult to find the means to set up and organise parties capable of leading the way to follow the victorious example of Russia.

In 1919 the Third International was formed under strong pressure from comrade Lenin. It was he who provided the driving force for revolutionaries to make the definitive break with social democracy. But in Italy, unlike elsewhere (it goes without saying) this impetus found a very favourable terrain. Why? Because the revolutionary elements in other countries were not so mature or independent as to be able to completely resist the counter-revolution in Russia and they did not comprehend what was happening in the Twenties. On the other hand the Left of the PSI had already been pressing for their own ideological and political demarcation from social democratic opportunism. In 1919, at the PSI's Bologna Congress, the break became inevitable.

And Damen himself — who took part in the Congress — analyses it in a work which for us draws valuable revolutionary lessons: The Fear of Saying No to the International's Possibilist Policy at the Congress of Bologna.(2)

The article discusses whether it was a mistake not to have broken at Bologna, given that the delay undoubtedly reduced the Communist Party of Italy's (PCd'I) scope for effective action. Did it amount to a real blunder? The debate over the specific historical situation remains open, but it remains the duty of revolutionaries to draw the lessons for the future. Damen reconsidered the Congress and drew the lesson. Let's read the final part of the article which reflects on what revolutionaries are called upon to do:

It was important to break with the Socialist Party, whose serious political members had disappeared, and very quickly make adherence to the International an accomplished fact by forcing the Fraction to directly take on the responsibilities of the Party. And if this task is not resolutely and speedily undertaken the Party will not exist at the historical moment when it is most needed; or rather it will be formed too late and instead of leading the proletariat to an assault on power it will be overseeing the retreat.

After Bologna the Fraction met again at Imola (28 November 1920) and prepared the split which occurred at Livorno (21 January 1921). At Livorno both the fraction Damen was part of and the l'Ordine Nuovo grouping entered the Party. Under the leadership of the Left, of Bordiga, the young Communist Party conducted its own battles, battles which were disowned and rejected by those dwarfs of the power apparatus: first Togliatti and later Berlinguer. During the early period Damen was a PCd'I deputy and member of the Trades Union Central Committee. He was at the forefront of the workers' resistance to Fascism in Tuscany, where he was involved in a gun attack at Pistoia.(3)

However, we know from his writings that the proletariat was in retreat. The Russian Revolution, whose definitive success Lenin realised depended on the victory of the proletariat in Europe, instead found itself isolated and the young workers' state was subjected to starvation and the devastation of the civil war. This led to the first concessions, not at the level of principles, not yet. But the Russian comrades were induced to take backward steps in the organisation of the economy which encouraged opportunist activity, something that always exists even in the purest revolutionary party.

Both within the International and inside the Italian Party there were dangerous signs of counter-revolution which only a successful revolution in Europe or in the East could have cut short: something we know did not happen.

But let's allow Onorato to speak again:

We've got to 1924-25, two years full of particularly important events for the workers' movement. With the removal of the Italian Left from the responsibilities of leading the Italian communist movement (a decision imposed from above), new leadership material: more flexible, more ready to compromise, came forward, even including people who had been with the Left in the formative period of the Communist Party of Italy (Gramsci, Togliatti, Terracini, Scoccimarro).

And as for the precise positions and responsibility of the new leadership we need only mention the works and thought of comrade Gramsci: not the mythologised Gramsci, not a theorised Gramsci, but Gramsci the man, who has been through the same experiences as all of us even if he observed them from a completely personal angle: all of which does not save Gramsci from the precise accusation of having yoked the Party, not to the requirements of an authentic revolutionary International, but to the immediate policy requirements of the Russian state, whether it’s called a ”workers' state” or not.

But what were the problems? Again, here is what Damen says:

For the new Party leadership, and thus for the Executive of the International, the problem of the hour was how to gain space on the Right; how to strengthen the Party's political influence within the nebulous politics of the Third Internationalists (Terzini) which would serve to draw an ideological bridge from inside the Socialist Party towards the Communist International and consequently towards our Party. It was thus Gramsci's objective to remedy the split “too far to the Left” which so far had dominated the Party.

The Left could not stay silent about the Gramscian leadership's precise policies regarding these objectives. In fact the outcome of the 1924 Como Conference was that the Left gained an even bigger majority in the Party. The body of the Party was still healthy even if its new Central leadership, imposed by the International, was at variance with both the Party's original constitution and the necessity for an ongoing revolutionary policy. The apparatus constructed by Gramsci's acute intelligence was in control. And this is Onorato's assessment of the apparatus:

Thus the apparatus assumed the appearance of a myth without a name; of a shifty political-economic organisation, almost always hidden behind the smokescreen of caste privilege; of an amateurish political body which never precisely defined itself but which stretched out its tentacles like an octopus, to the point of assuming its own lifestyle, separate from the rest of the Party organisation.

The United Front and the subsequent political suicide of the fundamentally opportunist policy of the Aventino, which was only belatedly and ineptly withdrawn, were enough to trigger a response from the most alert and responsible comrades. It was during this period that the direct polemic between Damen and Gramsci appeared in the columns of l'Unità — over the Aventino, the opportunity lost by the Party during the Matteotti crisis and Gramscian "moral questions".

Alongside Repossi and Fortichiari, Damen founded the Committee of Intesa “with the precise task of saving what was still saveable”.(4) This was the birth certificate of the Italian Left as a force of opposition to the Communist International and as a centre of theoretical elaboration and political struggle against the problems posed by a new historical period: that of the counter-revolution in Russia and in the world, that of the cruelest defeat which had the most tragic consequences for the working class.

Bordiga joined the Committee of Intesa when it was already established, and in doing so made some of his best and final contributions to the struggle within the Pcd'I. Onorato clarified this in 1966 against the defamation and distortions of an Italian Communist Party (PCI) scribbler:

The establishment of the Committee of Intesa took place in Milan on the initiative of a small group of comrades of the Left, outside and without the knowledge of Bordiga, although this comrade would later take on the responsibility for drafting most of the documents it published and disseminated in the name of the Committee of Intesa.

Beyond the personal actions of those who supported it, the Committee of Intesa was of much greater significance than most people generally know about it. Onorato was planning a contribution to remedy this in a general work on Gramscism that will be issued posthumously.(5) But that experience comes with a warning:

The warning that comes today from the Committee of Intesa lies in the validity of its perspectives that identified, in Bolshevisation and in the politics of the International, the beginning of that process of structural, ideological and political degeneration of the Communist Party of Italy, now enslaved to Stalinism and the changing orientation of a Soviet State which was now part of the imperialist nexus.

That this was the case was demonstrated in the way that experience ended. The attempt to relaunch debate in the Party and in the International on the key issues of the hour, was suppressed by the hypocritical blackmail of the International. Moscow’s envoy, Humbert Droz, came down to Italy and, as he himself admitted, ordered the dissolution of the Committee in exchange for the assurance that the same issues and problems would be taken up again by the International inside and between all its Parties.

This was enough for the comrades, who had been linked to the Party for years and still had confidence in the class party’s ability to revive itself. Stalin though would put the issue beyond doubt in his response to Bordiga in the Enlarged Executive of 1926.(6)

In fact, the policy of the Comintern, now completely subservient to Moscow, was reduced to the defence of the Russian State, via the tactic of "stabilisation", even if it still mouthed abstract declarations about international revolution. While the notorious Anglo-Russian Committee(7) was launched in London, the Exceptional Laws were passed in Italy. Fascism had definitively won. The Communists went to jail and with them Damen, who was sentenced to 12 years. Meanwhile, Bolshevisation carried on in the Communist Party of Italy and with it the marginalisation of the Left. The Congress of Lyon was such a travesty that not even CP historians like Spriano can completely hide the fact. We have already heard Onorato's judgment on the apparatus, and it was this apparatus that replaced the body of the Party in Lyon. He also explained how the Party Centre brought all the officials on to its side:

Few people know that immediately afterwards Gramsci summoned the Party officials who had participated in the Naples Conference (of the Committee of Intesa in 1925) and posed the usual administrative dilemma to them: either you carry out and defend the policy of the Party that pays you, or you will be fired. It was on the basis of this dirty but effective trick, that the consequent shameful capitulation of all, we stress all, took place, as if the militancy of a revolutionary in a class party had suddenly become a bargaining chip.

With their Lyon victory, the relatively slow work of the new social democrats against the Left received new impetus and inevitability. Comrade Damen was released from prison in 1933, but not before he learned from the fascist newspapers that he had been expelled from the PCd'I.(8) By now, the objective to win back the Party to revolutionary positions was no longer even theoretically possible. Not all the comrades who a few years before were in the Communist Left had the strength to resist on the basis of positions they now found uncomfortable.

Onorato Damen and others, however, did resist. It was a matter of a firm adherence to Marxism which gave a perfect point of observation to examine real historical events which were all now unfavourable to the proletariat.

The Chinese episode(9) had already come and gone; in 1936 the Spanish war was a testing ground for the forces that would engage in the world war; the complete and accelerated retreat in Russia ended with Stalin's purges of all the old Bolsheviks. There were thus a whole heap of tragic experiences which, in short, required analysis carried out in close proximity to the class.

What had happened and was happening in Russia? That was the key question and all the others were connected to it. That is, it was a question of resuming the analysis of imperialism and above defining its forces, because if Russia was rebuilt along capitalist lines, then it could only become a new pole of imperialism, both for the extension and wealth of the territory and in opposition to the other imperialist powers following the civil war of 1918-22.

The Internal Centre of the Italian Left began its analysis with these problems. This allowed it to declare definitively and clearly, even during the Spanish war, that the centrist forces have now become slaves to a new imperialist power governed by the state capitalism of former Soviet Russia.

Damen was in gaol throughout the years that covered the Spanish war and the outbreak of the Second World War (first gaol and then confino).(10) And it was from gaol that the events that weigh on the class were critically examined to draw out the lessons in order to revive the revolutionary platform; it is from gaol that clandestine contacts with the comrades outside Italy were maintained, in order to weave together an organised network. The fact that comrade Damen made this possible is testimony to his adherence to communist methods and principles.

Reading newspapers, even filtering facts from the bourgeois and fascist press. allows Marxists to keep up with events and draw lessons from them on what to do. And at the outbreak of the Second World War there could no longer be any doubt: it was time to work as a Party. As in 1915, the fundamental problem was that of a coherent and effective opposition to the war, for the transformation of the war into a Proletarian Revolution in an open political clash with all the forces of both the class enemy and the class traitors.

Magnificent class fires were lit across Northern Italy in 1943 but the Party had not yet had time to begin to operate and take root in the class. If we can today agree with Onorato in criticising the delay in forming the PCd’I in 1921, if we can discuss the political responsibility of the actors of that time (when Damen himself made the best contribution), we cannot do the same for 1943. The Party was built by and in prisons. Damen was under house arrest in internal exile when the first leaflets of the Internationalist Communist Party appeared, and all were produced in the strictest secrecy. And it was in these conditions that the first series of Prometeo, the newspaper of the Internationalist Communist Party, was published.

In the issue of 1 December, 1943, we can read the article The Russia We Love and Defend. It is one of the most significant documents in demonstrating the unique, class and revolutionary character of our Party against the war, and for the revolution. We were a Party and we acted as a Party against the bourgeois fronts of all the others. For this reason, in 1945, Togliatti and PCI asked the Committee of National Liberation for the death sentence for the leaders of the Internationalist Communist Party, first among them Onorato Damen, as saboteurs with the added slanderous label of “agents of the Gestapo”.

But no one, and certainly not Damen, abandoned their revolutionary duty: the fight against war was prolonged into the fight against bourgeois reconstruction, and our Party continued to resist. From the foundation of the Party until today, other struggles, and also other bitter experiences, like the split of 1952, have engaged Damen. But his contribution to the struggle to revive the political organisation for the revolutionary battles of the proletariat yet to come has never faltered.

And it is precisely in these moments that the greatest characters, like that of Onorato, are formed.

The new crisis of capital accumulation has confounded a certain Marxism, that of the confused intellectuals, the Stalinists and the Social Democrats. But not the Marxism of the revolutionaries who foresaw and long understood this crisis. It is this real Marxism that resists today in the Party and in the teaching of Onorato. Bourgeois ideology, disguised as leftist, is the mask of those who have been its unconscious victim for so long, and for whom the only point of reference has to be the Communist Left, the International Party of the Proletariat.

Onorato contributed enormously to the creation of a framework for fighting back and laying the political and organisational foundations for the revival of the future International Party of the Proletariat. As militants created by the battles of comrades such as Onorato Damen, we swear to carry on with his teaching.

Notes

(1) At the outbreak of war Damen was conscripted with rank of Sergeant and sent to the Front; the War Tribunal in demoting him to the rank of Private and sentencing him to two years in a military prison stated it was because of his “public criticism of institutions, incitement to desertion and denunciation of the imperialist character of the war”.

(2) See Onorato Damen, Bordiga Beyond the Myth, p.132. Still available from our address.

(3) In which a Fascist was killed. Damen worked at that time in the Labour Chamber of Bologna and in the Granarolo Peoples’ House as secretary of the local council as well as secretary of the Chamber of Labour in Pistoia. He was arrested in 1921 and imprisoned for 3 years in Florence. On his release he was transferred clandestinely to France where he worked as editor of the weekly Italian version of L’Humanité. In 1924 he re-entered Italy clandestinely and was elected a deputy to the parliament in the Florence constituency coming top of the poll (and with his election acquired immunity from arrest as the Fascists had not yet established their dictatorship).

(4) For more on all these events see the introduction to our pamphlet Platform of the Committee of Intesa. We have not translated “intesa” since it has multiple meanings in English (understanding, alliance, entente).

(5) It was published in 1982 in Italian and is now available from our organisation address in English as Gramsci between Marxism and Idealism.

(6) For the context and full text of Bordiga’s speech see 1926, Last Fight in the Communist International. Naturally Stalin opposed any suggestion that the rest of the International had a right to discuss the degeneration of the revolution in Russia.

(7) The Anglo-Russian Unity Committee of 1926 was a proposal of Russian trade unions in an attempt to widen Communist influence in the trades unions in Britain. It was a failure and dissolved the following year.

(8) In 1924 Damen was imprisoned on the island of Ustica, then arrested again and sent to the Murate prison in Florence where he was part of the trial of Florentine communists who were accused of plotting against the state and condemned by Special Tribunal to 12 years in gaol, 7 of which he passed in Saluzzo, Pallanza, and Civitavecchia (where he organised a prison revolt). He was amnestied in 1933 as an “unrepentant communist” and sent to internal exile in Cantú in Brianza (Lombardy) for 5 years.

(9) See China 1925-1927.

(10) “Confino” was a form of internal exile for many enemies of the Fascist regime. The police records indicate that they considered this a way of isolating him from other prisoners after Civitavecchia. Fascist police files also tell of his many arrests over the events in Spain for spreading “propaganda material of the international opposition of the left against the policy of the Comintern and against Stalinism in Spain”. Arrested again at the outbreak of the Second World War he was to remain in internal exile until the fall of Mussolini in July 1943.

Monday, October 14, 2019