Bologna 1919: A Page from History

In this short piece Damen goes right back to the revolutionary period sparked by the October Revolution in Russia and considers why it took so long for revolutionaries in Italy to break from the Socialist Party (PSI). This is not an academic question, especially for someone who lived through those turbulent times when, as he says, the situation was ‘incandescent’. Undoubtedly the working class in Italy were amongst the most ready to fight for their own version of October in order to claim “all power for the proletariat” alongside ‘the Russia of Lenin’ and the soviets. The question, the apparently very practical question was ‘how?’ Amongst the shifting scenes of class struggle, including countless strikes, local insurrections, land seizures and, of course, factory occupations there was never a concerted attempt to get rid of the capitalist state apparatus, much less replace it with soviet power. Above all else, the history of the Italian working class is a reminder that proletarian instinct alone is not enough to secure the revolution against capitalism.

The answer to the question of how practically to go about making a communist revolution is not simply a matter of logistics. It has to be based on political, specifically Marxist political understanding – the understanding that, unlike the bourgeoisie, the proletariat has no way of building up economic power within the existing state (contrary to Gramsci’s idea of workers gradually extending their power by taking over the factories); the lesson from the Paris Commune that the proletariat “cannot simply lay hold of the existing state machine” and the capitalist state apparatus, including its military set-up, has to be smashed (in contrast to the ‘maximalists’ of the PSI who clung on to the old social democratic goal of a democratic republic with ‘socialisation of production and exchange’); the recognition, based on proletarian experience from the Commune to 1905 in Russia and now the October Revolution, that class-wide bodies extending beyond the workplace into communities and run on the basis of direct democracy ­ – councils, soviets – are the means by which the proletariat can exercise political power. These historical events are confirmation, if any were needed, that the working class can never achieve power through parliament. By 1918 only the right wing minority of the PSI, led by Turati, openly advocated this.

Under the ducking and diving leadership of Giacinto Serrati the PSI had held together, even after its neutral stance on the war had been shattered by Turati’s blatant national defencism following the Italian rout at Caporetto. The PSI was amongst the first to welcome the October revolution in Russia. Moreover – in a move that undermined the moves of Bordiga and others on the left of the so-called ‘intransigent revolutionary fraction’ to push for the expulsion of the reformists – the Party’s Rome Congress (September 1918) pronounced its allegiance to the ‘maximum’ programme and greeted a message from Lenin to “the intransigent socialists of all countries” with loud applause. Suddenly the Party was full of ‘intransigents’. The message to those, like Damen and Bordiga, who wanted a revolutionary communist party must have been that intransigent allegiance to the old maximum programme was not enough. Even so, the struggle to form a revolutionary party was still couched in terms of expelling the reformists and this was the theme of the first issue of Il Soviet when it was published in December 1918 under the editorship of Bordiga. As the class struggle intensified the revolutionary posturing and shadow-boxing continued. At Rome the party had approved the dictatorship of the proletariat but in practice the PSI absolved itself of any responsibility to provide a political lead for the working class as a whole. The old PSI pact with the CGL (General Confederation of Labour) was renewed whereby the unions took care of the economic struggle while the party concerned itself with politics. (Implicitly this meant local and parliamentary elections and general inter-party wheeling and dealing.) No matter then that the PSI leadership was one of the first to adhere to the Third International (March 1919) or that the party membership was swelling. In practice, as the Biennio Rosso (Two Red Years) of Italian working class history opened, the PSI leadership made no attempt to give a political direction to the spontaneous struggles, including strikes, land seizures and food riots, which were occurring throughout the peninsula.

The pages of Il Soviet became increasingly exasperated by the failure of the PSI to break with its social democratic past. By early 1919, as the Party leadership began to preoccupy itself with the forthcoming parliamentary elections, Bordiga was already focussing on abstentionism as the clearest way of distinguishing a revolutionary practice from revolutionary posturing.

It has to be noted that the youthful Bordiga who led the effort to break with social democratic practice and form a communist party in 1919-20 was not the Bordiga who decades later turned the question of class and party into a philosphical reductio ad absurdum, who was ambivalent about state capitalism and Stalinist Russia and who had turned abstentionism into a political principle. On the contrary, Bordiga’s Karl Marx Circle in pre-war Naples had been particularly critical of the anarchists whose abstentionist stance during elections he saw as a cover for their apoliticism. Again, in 1919 his arguments were equally instrumental. At a time when "Three communist republics already exist, we are then fully on the historic course of revolution, outside of the period when the struggle is conducted inside the bourgeois order." In this situation, calling for the proletariat to go to the ballot box is tantamount to saying that there "is no hope of realising revolutionary aspirations" and he asks "How can this fatal contradiction not be seen?" Even so, as Damen indicates, abstaining in elections is hardly the basis for forming the revolutionary party. Instead of consolidating the revolutionaries into a single communist fraction prepared to make the political break, abstentionism became a point of contention amongst the communists. (In Turin Togliatti and Terracini would even go on to form the Electionist Communist Fraction.) While the communists argued about participating in elections Serrati’s maximalist motion, swept the floor. (Naturally confirming the party’s adherence to the International.) The reformist right-wing, of course remained and the PSI went on to win 156 seats in the November parliamentary elections.

At this point there is no doubt that Serrati had the support of Lenin and the Communist International and it was Serrati who took on the job of editing the new journal Comunismo which was intended to reflect the International’s standpoint. However, after Bologna, the International’s support for Serrati and his ‘do nothing’ policies was relatively short-lived. Bordiga agreed to renounce abstentionism and this opened the way for the coming together of all those who saw the need for a communist party to be formed on a new basis. It was not an easy road. For a start the International had to be persuaded of the necessity for the communists to split, as opposed to the wishful thinking that the party could be transformed into a revolutionary organisation by the simple expedient of expelling the rightwing. Bordiga’s insistence on a clause stating that party members “who fundamentally reject the conditions and Theses laid down by the Communist International are to be expelled from the party” must have opened a few eyes during the 2nd Congress of the International in July 1920. But, as disillusion with Serrati set in, Bordiga – hardly known except for his recent abstentionism which put him amongst Lenin’s “infantile” left – was not first choice amongst the Russians to lead a communist breakaway. As Damen indicates, the International wanted to win over as many people as possible from the PSI, even when the inevitability of a split was accepted.

It was the situation of the class struggle on the ground which more than anything else drove revolutionary militants inside the PSI (Onorato Damen amongst them) to unite in a communist fraction determined to make the break. The situation had become critical. On the one hand the bourgeoisie were “organising regular and irregular corps for the armed repression of the workers’ movement”. On the other hand, they were astutely conceding to workers’ demands so long as these fell short of revolution. Meanwhile the proletariat was beginning to quite rightly criticise the PSI stance which was “so much at odds with the revolutionary needs of the situation and in contrast with the revolutionary language of the party leaders”. During the factory occupations in northern Italy the PSI revealed just how blatant the gap was between its words and actions. Unwilling to be responsible for a struggle beyond economic demands D’Aragona, the CGL union leader, challenged the PSI Directorate to take over responsibility and direct the movement towards revolution. There was even a vote – 590,000 in favour of union control of industry, 409,000 in favour of revolution. As if the fate of the whole Italian working class movement could be decided by a one-off sectional vote. And as if a genuine revolutionary party would have absolved itself of any responsibility to take the movement forward. Many workers were now turning to “other militant revolutionary currents beyond the Party, such as the syndicalists and anarchists, whose conceptions of the revolutionary process Communists cannot agree…” (Quotations are from ‘Manifesto of the Communist Fraction After the 2nd Congress of the International’ in Il Soviet 17.10.1920, available in Italian on the ICT website.) By now there was no holding back. The whole purpose of the convention held by the communist fraction at Imola in late November 1920 was to ensure the creation of a communist party, based on Marxist materialist principles and which took membership of the International seriously.

The occasion of the break was to be the PSI’s 17th national congress at Livorno in January 1921. Even now, however, there was still the suggestion that the majority of the PSI could be won over (For example point 3 of the motion put forward by the communist fraction was that the party should change its name). In the run up to Livorno Russian emissaries from the International were working behind the scene to secure as wide a vote as possible for the communists. Zinoviev is reported to have said as late as 9th January 1921, that “the 'Centrists' will vote, in all probability, with the communists". In fact Serrati stuck to his ‘no split with the reformist right’ guns and his motion won the day. So it was that after almost a week of debate the communists walked out of the Teatro Goldoni singing the International, to the Teatro San Marco where the Communist Party of Italy formally came into being. It was not an auspicious beginning. The threat of attack from Fascist bands had obliged the communist fraction to hold their convention at Imola instead of Bologna and the Communist Party was founded at Livorno and not Florence for the same reason. The revolutionaries who had taken so long to politically distinguish and organise themselves were faced with a working class movement “in full retreat”. In this they were not alone. The post-war revolutionary wave across Europe was on the wane and the debate over the lessons revolutionaries draw from the subsequent counter-revolution still concerns us today.

In the article here Damen avoids speculating about what might have been if the communists had organised themselves into a distinct political party earlier. We can’t go back and relive the past but we have to try to learn from history. Perhaps more than anything else, the failure of the revolution in Italy despite the readiness of the working class to follow ‘Lenin and the soviets’ during those ‘incandescent’ post war years confirms the limits of spontaneism. There is no question that the absence of a distinct political organisation with a clear vision of communism, able to spell out the steps needed to make the revolution was crucial. By the same token the Italian experience also confirms that the construction of the revolutionary organisation is not simply a matter of a last-minute change of programme, much less the adoption of the mass social democratic party machinery and practice. The future world party will be the outcome of a process of political clarification resulting from a shared understanding of Marxism. To paraphrase the words of Damen from an earlier part of this series,

… rather than organisational, statutory provisions and the dissolution of groups as such, we need to stress the dissolution of their ideology, whenever it is alien to Marxism. Unity is not simply a matter of formal organisation (dissolution of groups, individual membership, candidatures, etc.). Unity also has to be based on unqualified and comprehensive adherence to a theoretical-practical platform out of which comes the conscious discipline that unites forces, gradually resolves the contradictions and ensures continuity of the revolutionary struggle.


Bologna 1919: The Congress that was afraid to say no to the International’s policy of getting in as many as possible

[From Prometeo no.8, January-June 1966]

Today it is possible ­– we would say almost a duty ­– to make a retrospective, albeit one-sided, examination of the Bologna congress (1919). We have to ask ourselves whether this Congress or part of it, certainly the most combative part, bears a huge responsibility for having delayed the formation of the party, an error which we believe still weighs on the proletarian movement.

A delay of only a few years (but which included unexpected and decisive turning points) meant that the Communist Party was formed at a time when the objective conditions for going on the revolutionary offensive had passed. The urgent need now was for a tactical commitment to defend the conquests of the proletariat from attacks by the forces of fascist reaction. This argument will be deepened when we examine the post-Livorno situation which was a time of mounting reaction. In the meantime, we will critically examine the problem of abstentionism which was the focus of debate at the Bologna Congress.

Abstentionism or Anti-Parliamentary Electionism?

The debate on this issue is still open. Either you accept absolute abstentionism ­– which regards what came to be defined as the ‘democratic’ tradition of adjusting state or party policies according to the majority response, i.e. based on counting votes ­– as anachronistic, thus adhering to the principle of a priori abstentionism, an abstraction characteristic of anarchism and all those currents that see the world around them in idealist terms, or else you have to rely on the traditional positions of tactical abstention defended by Lenin and found in the programmatic theses of the Second Congress of the Third International.

The revolutionary party goes over to sabotaging elections when the proletariat is on the offensive and the prospect of the immediate conquest of power beckons. In this phase there is no place for the tactical use of the electoral system, and to act on such a terrain would eventually lead to the dispersal of the movement, always a dangerous thing and could lead to “constitutional” compromises such as those that divided the Bolshevik Party in Russia over the problem of power, and which in Germany resulted in the disastrous experience of the governments of Thuringia and Saxony.(1)

In a different phase of workers’ struggle, when the objective conditions for the revolutionary conquest of power do not exist, Lenin and the International proposed parliamentary tactics as a secondary but inevitable expedient for the strategy of the workers’ movement. Thus, the abstentionist tactic against any electoral participation and for boycotting parliament is valid in the crucial phase of class conflict, when the entire party organisation must not be diverted from the enormous offensive to conquer power. In all other cases, when faced with an electoral battle we have to assess whether or not to use the electoral system on a case by case basis. The abstentionists’ mistake in Bologna was that instead of stressing the need for a split and forming the party, they focussed on abstention. This was the real error: the authentic militants of the fraction were fixated on the completely theoretical postulate of abstentionism, in itself useless as the basis for focussing on the goal of forming the class party.

Even so, there was no shortage of people who intended to make the abstentionist fraction the prime nucleus of the class party by objectively posing the problem of a split. Verdaro(2), well-versed in the problems of the workers’ movement and a supporter of abstentionism, wrote in the preamble to the Theses for the Congress of Livorno:

The abstentionist fraction of the Italian Socialist Party therefore proposes to follow the process of its transformation into a party by implementing the split in the Socialist Party and founding the Italian Section of the Communist International.

This statement was particularly significant because it clearly attributed to the fraction the following extremely pressing tasks: the cadres of the abstentionist fraction were to be the pole of the new party and bring about the split. These tasks had come about from the conviction that the Socialist Party could in no way be turned into a revolutionary party.

If the abstentionist fraction had really acted like this and presented itself as the centre of convergence and guide for revolutionaries during those very tumultuous years when the need to unite revolutionary forces was not always clear, the course of Italian history would have taken a quite different direction.

Given that the situation was incandescent, and on the edge of revolution, this tactic would have resulted in an infinitely more concrete and fruitful development than any participation in elections. However, an exaggerated loyalty to the fraction prevented a clear evaluation of the role of the revolutionary party, which gave their opponents the polemical pretext of comparing the abstentionist fraction to the Dutch "Tribunist" movement of Pannekoek and Gorter.(3)

Before and after Bologna it was impossible to be anything other than abstentionist and so you had to be oriented towards an authentically revolutionary policy. But who was going to carry out such a policy? What was the best way so long as the struggle was a function of the existence and preservation of the Socialist Party, a party dominated by the parliamentary group and torn inside by the irremediable conflict between the forces of reform and those of revolution?

If the abstentionist fraction had acted according to Verdaro’s postulates, which at the time were shared by the entire fraction (i.e. first split and then the fraction goes on to form the nucleus of the new party) we can assume that this initiative would have taken place. Inevitably it would have led to the significant strengthing of the left, with non-abstentionists from Gramsci’s "ordinovisti" together with those from the more general "maximalist" left!

The fact that such a glaring criticism can be made highlights the severity of the error. Bordiga, whose fault it was, himself also acknowledged this in one of his writings when he weakly comes up with the excuse that they were forced to compromise. This does not diminish but deepens his responsibility for the error, which is that had he proposed to the maximalists that they abandon their damaging abstentionism it would have resulted in the total castration of the fraction in exchange for the mess of pottage of the "excision" of the opportunist right (Il Soviet, 30.3.1919). The perspective was therefore to achieve a party without reformists rather than a new party built on the basis of the abstentionist fraction.

The Bologna Congress sanctioned neither perspective.

Why did the leaders of the abstentionist fraction fail in the tasks they had set themselves?

Who amongst the abstentionists has ever acknowledged that the perspective presented as the immediate goal was wrong, a perspective to which the entire fraction was theoretically committed? Apparently no-one. None of the members has ever addressed this problem; and from the thoroughly uncritical Bordigist publications themselves there is not much to learn in this regard.

Yet the objective situation posed the urgent need for a revolutionary leadership, and was particularly conducive to such an initiative. Potentially there were also significant numbers from the Socialist Party who were ready to join the undertaking. But no one dared to and, in the light of subsequent experience, it is possible to identify the reasons why they did not dare.

The basic error is always the same: namely, to see the problem above all from the standpoint of quantity. This is what led them to underestimate the role of the fraction from the point of view of its effectiveness and ability as an organisation; to minimise its influence amongst the masses and at the same time to exaggerate the consequences of electoral and parliamentary intoxication. In a word, the fear of failure, even if the masses were deeply motivated by the October Revolution, and the personalities of Lenin and Trotsky. Above all, there was a widespread belief that no serious revolutionary conquest could be made legally and by using the democratic parliament. All of this can be attributed to human frailty, to certain deficiencies of insight and revolutionary daring, but it does not explain everything.

The real reason, however, is to be found in the policy of the leading bodies of the Third International which, when confronted with the job of selection, of splits and regroupment, had adopted the tactical criteria of the maximum quantitative result and the least political discrimination, favouring, when not imposing, a split as far to the right as possible.

We know that in the face of such a political directive it was necessary either to passively accept or boldly break and leave the responsibility to others by going over to open opposition. In the specific case of the abstentionist fraction it would have meant breaking with the Socialist Party, cleverly emptied of its politically healthy elements, and promptly present the International with a fait accompli in order to force it to choose between the fraction, raised to the function of the party, as the only guarantee of the revolutionary struggle in our country, and the Socialist Party would have completely lost this historic task.

And when you do not act on this plan with the necessary decisiveness and speed, when you don’t start to construct the party at the historical moment when it is most needed, or, when the party is formed – as in Livorno – it is too late, then it will have to lead a proletariat, not in an assault on power, but in full retreat.

Onorato Damen


(1) Damen is referring to the disastrous consequences of the KPD’s (Communist Party of Germany) decision to apply the united front formula of joining a "workers' government" in Thuringia and Saxony in 1923. The policy of attempting to form ‘workers governments’ (later ‘workers and peasant governments’) was approved at the IV Congress of the Communist International (1922) as part of the wider united front policy aimed at maintaining Communist Party links with the masses. In 1923 the French occupation of the Ruhr and the infamous ‘great inflation’ provoked massive social strife. In a confused political framework (where ‘national bolshevism’ appeared to rival early Nazism) tens of thousands of workers went on strike against French requisitioning of food and other supplies. At Mulheim for example, workers took over the town hall, tried to form a workers council and their own militia. In August the Cuno government was forced to resign. As the situation became more polarised many workers turned away from the Social Democrats and looked to the KPD to give a political lead. The KPD leadership, however, typically swayed from one expedient to another. Having judged the situation unfavourable for workers to go on the offensive the KPD leadership under Brandler followed Russian advice and adopted a plan to join the left Social Democratic governments of Saxony and Thuringia. This, they knew, would provoke the national government, (headed by Ebert and the Social Democrats), to send in the army to which they planned to respond by calling a national general strike as the launch pad for a revolutionary insurrection. Of course the local Social Democrats reneged on the plan and the SPD as a whole refused to support a general strike. The central government duly sent in troops and the KPD leadership called off the action. News of this came too late for Hamburg where the local KPD attempted to launch the insurrection and fought on for three days against impossible odds. Thus ended the so-called ‘German October’ which signalled the eclipse of revolutionary hopes in Germany and elsewhere.

(2) Virgilio Verdaro (1885-1960) He joined the PSI in 1901. During the First World War he was accused of defeatism and sent into internal exile in Calabria. After the war contributed to Il Soviet and was an abstentionist delegate to the 1919 Bologna Congress. Present at the birth of the Communist Party of Italy, Livorno January 1921. Exiled to Russia in 1924 where his love of cats gave him the nickname ‘Gatto Mammone’. He used this pseudonym in Belgium after he had fled from Russia in 1928, having been accused of Trotskyism. Part of the communist left fraction, key contributor to Bilan and Prometeo. His wife was pregnant and obliged to remain in Russia until just before the Second World War. Expelled from the Communist Party and sacked from her job, she existed in extreme poverty and her child died. At the outbreak of war Verdaro left Belgium and he and his wife went to Switzerland, his place of birth. Ended up joining the Socialist Party of Switzerland in 1943.

(3) Herman Gorter (1864-1927). 1897 joined the Social Democratic Workers Party (Netherlands). 1909, part of the Marxist left current associated with the newspaper, De Tribune which was expelled over their criticism of the corruption and opportunism of social democracy. Gorter joined those who went on to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) which in the same year published Gorter’s Marxism and Revisionism. Unlike some of the SDP leaders, Gorter argued that workers had no interest in supporting either side in the world war and in Imperialism, Social Democracy and World War he argued workers must oppose war by the fight for socialism. After the Russian Revolution (1918) the SDP changed its name to the Communist Party of Holland. Gorter himself joined the German Communist Party (KPD) before becoming part of the minority who were expelled for opposition to participation in parliament and the unions. They went on to form the German Communist Workers Party (KAPD) and Gorter became its most famous theorist with the publication, in 1920 of his ‘Brief Reply to Comrade Lenin’ in response to Lenin’s ‘Left-wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder’. After the Third Congress of the Comintern, the KAPD split with Gorter adhering to those who attempted to form a new International in the shape of the KAI (Communist Workers’ International). Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960). Like Gorter he was a leading figure in the anti-revisionist battle in the Netherlands before the first world war; editor of De Tribune from which the German-Dutch Left were known as the Tribunists. Opposed the war on a class basis and shared the political trajectory of Gorter although an even more prolific writer. Famous for his elaboration of the ideas of council communism. However, it must be said that Pannekoek also argued that “the Party is the historically determined form of organisation which groups the more aware and prepared proletarians in struggle ... The communist party must have a well developed programmatic base, and must be organised and disciplined in its entirety from below, as a unified will”. In his opposition to Stalinism, Pannekoek also recognised the Russian economic system as state capitalism.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

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