A Century of Internationalism

The following document is based on a presentation from an internal online education event aimed at sympathisers of the CWO which took place back in March 2021.

At the last meeting it was suggested that we discuss the Italian Left and the differences between us and other tendencies. The Italian Left can be a misleading term nowadays. For those who are new to communist politics, it may bring up images of Gramsci or maybe the autonomists of the 1960s, or at best, Bordiga. When we refer to the Italian Left however, we of course mean something else – the Italian Communist Left, a specific tendency of which Bordigism is only one part of.

In the 1920s, in most countries where the Third International had a serious presence, there was some kind of Communist Left. It might seem strange then that a small communist group in 1970s Britain – that is us – would come to identify with the Italian Left in particular. And initially that wasn’t the case.

When the Communist Workers’ Organisation (CWO) was first founded in 1975, we were in fact much more influenced by the more well-known German-Dutch Left of Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek, as you can probably tell by our name. It was only when a group in Italy – the Internationalist Communist Party (PCInt), also known as Battaglia Comunista after its paper – wrote a critique of our political platform that we came across the Italian Left proper. It actually took us weeks to translate it but we found it to be a comradely assessment which particularly singled out our view of the party question. Before that, we assumed, as was common at the time and still is today, that Bordigism was all that the Italian Left had to offer.

Over the next few years, in the course of debates and international conferences, we came to an agreement on the causes of the structural crisis of capitalism we were living through in the 1970s, and then gradually we also became convinced of the political views which Battaglia defended, to the point that in 1983 we united in one organisation – the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP), today known as the Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT). We changed the name in 2009 as new affiliates joined us and we wanted to avoid making the mistake, so to say, of putting “the Party” before “the communism”.

So back in the day, as communists looking for political alternatives to the confusions of Stalinism, Trotskyism and anarchism, it’s only natural that we looked towards tendencies which managed to preserve a living link to the struggles of the past – its lessons and experiences. It is something we lacked in Britain, where there was a vague Communist Left around Sylvia Pankhurst and her paper the Workers' Dreadnought, but already by the end of the 1920s it collapsed and left us with no living link to relate to decades later.

What does the Italian Left mean to us today? The documents we recommended for this meeting [see bottom of this article] have hopefully already given you some idea. But let’s look at it chronologically through some key dates – 1921, 1925, 1943 and 1952 – which can serve us as jumping off points for further discussion.


The First World War revealed not only the bankruptcy of capitalism, but also the bankruptcy of the Second International, the biggest supposedly Marxist anti-capitalist organisation at the time with national sections all over the world. With some notable exceptions (such as the Russian Bolsheviks, the Polish and Serbian Social Democrats, the Bulgarian Tesnyaki, and the Dutch Tribunists), in 1914 the parties of the Second International abandoned the internationalist cause and sided with their own ruling classes instead. This was also the case in Italy where the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) was paralysed by the question of the war and settled on the slogan “Neither Support nor Sabotage”. On the right of the party characters like Mussolini came to openly support the war. But on the left of the party there was a revolutionary Marxist fraction, headed by Bordiga, which recognised the need to not only oppose the war from a revolutionary perspective but also, under the influence of the October Revolution, to politically and organisationally split from social democracy.

Meanwhile in 1919-20 the Two Red Years, or Biennio Rosso, saw Italian workers clash with the capitalist class, but lacking direction the movement was confined to workers taking over factories without directly challenging capitalist rule. The Communist Party of Italy (Pcd'l) was only formed in January 1921 at the Livorno Congress when the split from the Italian Socialist Party became official. Unfortunately, not unlike in Germany, the split came about too late, already when the movement of the working class was losing momentum. Nevertheless it represented an important step towards differentiation between communism and social democracy, and the split was motivated primarily by the efforts of the Italian Left, although Gramsci’s group also went along with it. Upon its founding the Communist Party of Italy had some 40,000 members, plus a youth section of thousands, and it was the Left which enjoyed majority support from the membership. Naturally, it joined the Third Communist International.

At this point the Italian Left was anchored around the great contribution of Bordiga, although already we can see certain differences of opinion starting to emerge. As Damen would point out, some thought Bordiga had made a mistake by initially identifying his fraction with the particular tactic of “abstentionism”, as it distracted from the key issue of the creation of a separate communist party.


As it was, the new Party was formed at a time when the working class was already in retreat, when the Third International was beginning to degenerate and Fascist reaction was unleashed in Italy.

The Italian Left resisted the pressures from Moscow, as we can see most clearly in the 1925 Platform of the Committee of Intesa, the first document we recommended you to read. This was actually a resistance initially organised independently of Bordiga, but he did eventually become its spokesperson. The Committee of Intesa tried to relaunch a debate within the Italian Party, as well as the Third International, on the key questions of the time – the relationship between the party and the masses, the tactic of the united front, and the slogan of “workers’ government”. The Third International however ordered the dissolution of the Committee and never delivered on the promise to discuss these issues openly. Instead "Bolshevisation", instituted by the Third International in 1924, continued on and the Left was gradually removed from positions of influence within the party through bureaucratic means such as rigged votes and blackmail. Here both Gramsci and Togliatti did the bidding of Stalin.

Meanwhile, Fascism began to physically destroy the Party. By 1926, thousands of communists had been condemned in special tribunals. Damen himself had already been jailed for three years in 1919, and had to briefly go into exile, for his involvement in a gun fight after an ambush by Fascists. He secretly re-entered Italy in 1924, only to be sentenced for 12 more years in 1926. Many militants shared the same fate.

The Left of the Party was suppressed, by Stalinism on the one hand and by Fascism on the other. All the militants of the Left were gradually expelled from the party they helped to found. It was at this point that the Italian Left first parted ways with Bordiga, who after 1926 retreated from all political activity. The likes of Damen, Stefanini and many others, continued to be active, whether within Fascist prisons or in exile through journals such as Bilan and Prometeo. In 1928 the Italian Fraction Abroad was born which in France and Belgium continued to analyse and reflect on the various political developments over the next decade – the rise of Stalin and Hitler, the Spanish Civil War and the ultimate re-integration of the Soviet Union into the imperialist framework. It was a process that Bordiga was unfortunately entirely absent from.


When the Second World War broke out there was an awareness among the scattered and defeated revolutionaries of the time that imperialist war could once again be followed by an international revolutionary wave. And in fact, the working class definitely did raise its head again, even if briefly. The USA saw the largest number of wildcat strikes in its history, workers’ councils were set up in Poland and Vietnam, and in Italy in 1942, as the Nazi occupation was disintegrating, there were mass strikes.

It was these mass strikes which gave a signal for the formation of the Internationalist Communist Party. This was a unique development. You have to keep in mind that by this point the Communist Left across the world had been smashed by the counter-revolution. The Internationalist Communist Party was the only party founded during the war which opposed all sides as imperialist. And it was thanks to those who persevered in Fascist prisons or in exile, those that kept this living link, that this re-organisation was possible.

If there is a myth that Gramsci was the leading founder of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921, there is also a myth that Bordiga was a leading founder of the Internationalist Communist Party in 1943. But in fact, he was never an official member of that party, and only eventually began to contribute to its press. Although the majority of the Italian Fraction Abroad came back and joined the new Party, Bordiga was not the only one who refused to do so – in France a small number of militants around Chirik also didn’t join it on the basis that it was “premature” (in the 1970s they would later give birth to the ICC, but that’s a discussion for another day).

But back to the Internationalist Communist Party. Upon foundation it had some 5,000 members and was highly active in the rising class struggle, to the point that the now reformed Stalinist Italian Communist Party of Togliatti began to see it as a direct threat. If previously Stalinism tried to politically destroy the Left, now, like the Fascists, it also tried to destroy it physically. In the 1940s leading militants of the Party were murdered by Fascists and Nazis on the one hand, and by Stalinists on the other. Fausto Atti and Mario Acquaviva died at the hands of Stalinist pawns, and Togliatti even ordered the assassination of Damen.


By the late 1940s it was clear however that capitalism had managed to repel and recuperate the class struggles of the post-war years. An era of reconstruction and so called social peace began. This naturally posed a challenge to the Internationalist Communist Party. When the class is on the advance, its political elements tend to unite. When the class is on the retreat, they tend to splinter. This is what happened in 1952.

When the Internationalist Communist Party was founded there were still a number of unresolved questions being debated within its ranks. Questions such as what is the nature of the Soviet Union, what should our attitude be to the trade unions, etc. As we established previously Bordiga had by this point come back to political activity, but he refused to embrace the lessons that the Italian Left in exile learned throughout the 1930s. Instead, he now advocated a so-called “return to Lenin”, that is, to the positions of the early Third International. Bordiga even began to question the very existence of the Internationalist Communist Party. The split came about when Bordiga, still not a member of the party, convinced his sympathisers on the leading bodies of the party to expel Damen, Stefanini, Bottaioli and Lecci from the Executive Committee, and the various Federations which they belonged to were declared dissolved. However, the expelled members appealed to the rest of the organisation in a new congress, and a majority backed their theses. These theses became the basis for the 1952 Platform of our Italian comrades, the second document that we recommended you to read.

It’s at this point that Bordiga parts ways with us – he and his followers would instead found the International Communist Party (which since then has split a few times, adding to the confusion as there is now four or more of International Communist Parties, which all claim to be THE party, but only one Internationalist Communist Party, our Italian comrades). A brief summary of the positions which differentiated us from Bordigism might be useful here:

  • On the trade union question, we saw them as increasingly integrated into the state apparatus, whereas Bordiga still saw a possibility for the creation of so called “red unions”;
  • On the national question, we recognised Luxemburg and not Lenin saw more clearly, whereas for Bordiga national liberation movements could still play a historically progressive role;
  • On the party question, we recognised that the dictatorship of the proletariat means the rule of workers’ councils and similar bodies, whereas for Bordiga it meant the dictatorship of the party itself;
  • On the organisational question, we saw democratic centralism to be the most suitable way to organise, whereas for Bordiga and his “organic centralism”, democratic decision making had no place in the party at all;
  • On the Soviet Union, we recognised it to be both state capitalist and imperialist, whereas Bordiga initially refused such categorisation.

The other big difference is that we don’t consider ourselves to be the one party. As we always repeat, our earnest hope is to engage with new groups and individuals who become conscious of the need to overthrow the system, to give them a political compass to rally around. At the same time we seek dialogue with existing groups, to actively cooperate where possible, agree to disagree where necessary, and ultimately to unite as history moves on and a real class movement develops. Unlike the legacy that Bordigism left behind, we don’t think the time for debate has ended in 1848, and we don’t believe in some “invariant” programme that declares any new insights to be deviations. We believe the Marxist method has to be a living, dynamic and critical theory and practice which doesn’t worship any holy cows. It is that approach – with all its lessons and experiences – which the Italian Left has passed down to us.

Recommended Reading:

Saturday, May 28, 2022