The Struggle of Gramsci Against The Opportunism of Bordiga, And For the Bolshevisation of the Party

Communist Party of Italy

The anti-Marxist position of Bordiga regarding the question of the character and role of the party.

The formation of the Communist party was caused by the necessity to free the vanguard of the Italian proletariat from the reformist influence and to give it such a revolutionary leadership that the Socialist Party failed to provide. Now it was necessary to form a real union of the Italian working people around the industrial proletariat with the help of revolutionary activities.

It was that very path which was necessary to follow in order to go against the threatening assault of the reactionary forces. Unfortunately the Communist Party itself under the leadership of Bordiga made a number of mistakes that delayed the reorganisation of the revolutionary forces and facilitated the isolation of the Communists.

To understand the character and implications of these mistakes we should at least briefly look into the opportunist essence of the positions of the Bordigist leadership.

In spite of the fact that it was the group ‘Ordine Nuovo’ that had a programme with the provisions ‘quite corresponding to all the main principles of the III International’ – as Lenin pointed out about them, the leadership of the party came into the hands of Bordiga as the faction which had been headed by him before there were inside the party the decisive majority in numbers.

Contrary to Lenin’s concept, according to which the party is a part of the working class, its organised vanguard Bordiga stated that the party had to be ‘an organ’ of the working class which consisted of those different elements, of the offsprings of all social layers of the society who accept and support general principles of  Communism.

Imbued with the petty bourgeois ideology implication which was especially felt in the conditions of backwardness and scarcity of the working class in Southern Italy, Bordiga denied that the working class is the leading class in the socialist revolution and that due to this fact the party can be the party of the working class only according to its social composition,  its policy,  its tactical tasks, and its strategic aims.

The leftist indoctrination of Bordiga distorted the role of the party as a unit that embodies  the connection of the vanguard of the working class with the widest people’s masses and concealed  a threat of turning a young party into a sect isolated from the masses. To agree with Bordiga , that is to limit the role of the party to personnel training called to lead the masses when the development of  events   would lead these masses to the party meant to doom the party to the fullest isolation from the masses and consequently to depletion and death. On the contrary, Marxism-Leninism teaches that the party must be in constant contact with the masses to lead them any moment and under any changes of the real situation.

Marxism-Leninism teaches that a revolutionary situation does not occur by itself, it is not created artificially or by someone’s desire and that the party must be able to mobilise the masses to accelerate the victory of the revolution under all sorts of conditions. However Bordiga considered that ‘it was enough to have a well trained minority to make a revolution’ and that even only propaganda of the general principles itself was sufficient to create a revolutionary situation. 

According to these anti-Marxist and anti-Leninist guidelines Bordiga claimed  that the tactics were set once and for ever, while Leninism teaches that the tactics must be determined on the ground of the analyses of the situation and the mood of the masses. Bordiga denied the influence of the real historical facts, their value and their changes and development.

 Similar to the maximalists and Italian socialist leaders in general, Bordiga stuck to the fatalist concept of the revolution based on the belief in the spontaneity of mass struggle and spontaneous socialist victory.

The struggle of the Communists against fascist terror.

The sectarianism of Bordiga

Bordiga’s position reduced the party’s fighting efficiency.

After establishing the Communist Party, the political struggle in Italy escalated. Workers’ organisations and the labour movement leaders suffered frequent assaults by fascist squads.

The communist position was firm. Showing heroism and dedication, they were in the vanguard of those who strongly resisted fascist assaults. Here are some facts of this struggle:

On July 20, 1921 the fascists launched a major attack on labour organisations in the town of Sarzana, but they had to leave the field, suffering numerous casualties.

The resistance of the labour quarters in Rome was especially heroic. A general strike was announced in response to a number of fascist provocations. It continued for four days, from 10 to 14 November, 1921. Real combat took place in the districts of Trionfale and Trastevere. In the course of the struggle, the working people of Rome cleansed the capital of several thousands of fascists who came here from whole Italy.

The list of the communists who perished in the course of struggle for liberation of the Italian nation is endless. Murders on the sly conducted by fascists became a daily routine. Spartaco Lavagnini – the leader of railway workers and a journalist, was among the numerous victims; he was killed in Florence in his office by several revolver shots on February 17, 1921.

In the struggle against fascism roughly more than 6, 000 people perished who were communists in their majority.

The masses encouraged by the communists’ example also started armed resistance. In spring 1921 the ‘Arditi del popolo’ (People’s Squads) movement was established on the initiative of some anti-fascists. It was the movement of armed detachments that attracted all those who were ready to conduct an organised, and resolutely rebuff the violence and outrage of the fascists. Though in some areas some alien elements penetrated these armed detachments, the movement spread quickly almost over all of Italy as far as it corresponded with the mood of the masses strongly feeling the necessity of struggling against fascism.

In numerous settlements, communists took part in these people’s detachments adding the communists’ morale, discipline and experience.

Bordiga took a clear stand opposing this movement, mentioning the so-called ‘principled objections’ and taking the leaders of the ‘Arditi del popolo’ without trust. He imposed the organisation of its own armed detachments on the party and threatened to expel those communists who joined the squads of the ‘Arditi del popolo’. Explaining his position, Bordiga stated that the movement was started on the initiative of the officers connected with bourgeois-democratic groups. That is why it could be used by certain bourgeois groups against other bourgeois groups and thus develop in the sphere of political interests alien to the working class.

In reality, whatever the background of ‘the Arditi del popolo’ was, the masses tried to use this movement to build a united front of resistance and armed struggle against the fascist terror. That is why the Communist Party had to take a leading role in this movement and turn it into a  wide  mass movement. Non-performance of these tasks was a severe political mistake. The Bordigists were characterised by full non-understanding of the role of the party, tactics of the united front, disbelief of the ability of the party to turn the spontaneous mass movement into an organised movement and to lead it.

 The general difficulties that the struggle against fascism faced, opportunism and disability of socialist leaders were aggravated by the sectarianism of the leadership of the Communist Party.

In 1921 when the struggle in the country got intensified, Bonomi forwarded the proposal to sign ‘a pact of appeasement’ between the fascists and representatives of the proletariat organisations.  The Communist Party understood at once that it was an attempt to lull the vigilance of the working class and to help the reactionary forces to suppress the labour movement. The Party openly exposed this attempt and called workers to respond to violence with violence.

Despite the exposures of the Communists, ‘the pact of appeasement’ between the fascists representatives and the socialist representatives was signed. This pact in which the Communists were accused of being the enemies of ‘the appeasement’ showed the aims of the fascists – to split workers and isolate the Communists who continued opposing the fascists' violence.

Difficulties of the struggle and fascist threats fed and strengthened the right opportunist wing inside the Communist Party itself. The representatives of this wing were Tasca and Graziadei. The more the fascists’ terror grew, the more these elements turned to the tactics of passivity and denial of active measures. This tactic brought about the threat of turning the proletariat into the reserve of the bourgeoisie. Mainly on the initiative of Gramsci, the Party started a crucial struggle against the rightist forces.

‘The pact of appeasement’ immediately went bankrupt not only because the fascists continued their violence (for example two months later after the pact had been signed deputy-socialist Giuseppe di Vagno was murdered in Mola di Bari) but also due to the fact that the masses were determined to oppose the fascism and continue the struggle uniting around the Communists. The example of the working people of Novara deserves to be noted among many episodes of the struggle. They responded with a general strike to the severe attack of the fascists who came there in tens of lorries. Being well-armed and having the protection of the police, the fascists gained the upper hand only after many days of violent clashes where both sides suffered a large number of killed and wounded.

 While the fascists increasingly used violence and the working masses were ready for decisive measures to bring the end to the existing situation, Bordiga once more showed his ignorance of the political situation and the aims of the party. Under the pressure of events, the Communist and Socialist parties, World Confederation of Trade Unions, Syndicalistic Union (Unione Sindicalista), Railroad Trade Union and the Federation of the workers on marine transport established “The Union of Labour”. (‘Alleanza del Lavoro’) This was an attempt to organise the united front of all the democratic forces of working people against fascism. Participation of the Communist Party was very hesitant due to the anti-Leninist position on the question of the united front taken by Bordiga; he agreed on the united front only in the field of trade union activities and opposed   united actions between the parties. The Communist Party could not stay isolated and took part in ‘The Union of Labour’, however, the communists who entered it were given strict orders to keep ‘The Union of Labour’ in the framework of the trade union establishment. Further events showed the fallacy of this position.

By the end of July 1922 in front of the growing fascist danger,  ‘The Union of Labour’ called for a general political strike which was named ‘the strike in the defence of law’ because it was held aiming to defend democracy and legitimacy. The Communists made the greatest contribution in the organisation of this strike which at once turned into decisive battles against fascists in a number of places. 

Fearing a counterattack and the threats of the fascists demanding to stop the strike, in one day the leaders of ‘The Union of Labour’ ordered the stopping of the strike. The leaders found shelters for themselves leaving the antifascist movement in the lurch. The Communists uselessly tried to change the bankrupt leaders. That was the result of the admitted earlier error –  neglect of the institutional strengthening and uniting of this movement.

 Nevertheless, despite the failure of the strike, the Communists of Parma managed to show a wonderful example of what can be achieved in the struggle against fascism by initiative and organisation, by denial of sectarianism, by confidence in your own power and mobilisation of the masses. For more than a year the squads of the ‘Arditi del popolo’ successfully opposed all the attempts of the fascists to undertake a punitive expedition. Mass participation of the Communists, their initiative and organisational abilities turned these squads into the sharpest weapon of the people’s resistance. On the night of  August 1, 1922 more than 10,000 armed to the teeth blackshirts gathered in Parma coming from the districts of Emilia, Veneto, Toscana and Marche. After four days of heroic resistance under the leadership of deputy-communist Quido Pichelli, the working people of Parma gave a serious lesson to the black-shirts under the command of Balbo who had to go back home, leaving on the battle field 39 killed and 150 wounded. However, despite some manifestations of heroic resistance the breakdown of the strike opened the road to fascism. Two months later the fascist ‘March on Rome’ occurred and the fascists came to power.

The Struggle of Gramsci against Bordiga and his Supporters.

Criticism of the Bordigistas by the Comintern.

Gramsci – the Leader of the Italian Communist Party.

In the evening October 28, 1922 the police captured  the printing house of the newspaper ‘Ordine nuovo’ in Turin and passed it to the fascists who  vandalised  the place. Despite this fact several illegal issues of ‘Ordine nuovo’ were released during November and December. During that time the editorial office of the newspaper ‘Il comunista’ was captured and looted.  And only due to  exceptional composure Togliatti managed to escape from the fascist murderer who intended to shoot him. Thus by the beginning of the fascist ‘March on Rome’ the Communist Party had at its disposal only one daily newspaper ‘Il Lavoratore’ (‘Labour’) released in Trieste and joined the communists right after the congress in Livorno

Despite the fascists’ victory on the national scale in some big cities like proletarian Turin, the fascists failed to paralyse communist activities and deprive the workers of their hopes about their ultimate victory in future.

People eagerly read the illegal ‘Ordine nuovo’, passing it from hand to hand in Turin, which  annoyed the local fascists so much that with the consent of the leaders of their national centre and the national government they committed a number of  bloody murders that went down in history as the ‘December massacre’.

Communist Calro Berutti, the secretary of the Railroad Trade Union and a member of the municipality was brutally murdered in broad daylight in the suburbs of the town on December 18, 1922. The same fate befell  Pietro Ferrero, the secretary of the metallurgist section who was captured in the Chamber of Labour. In the night of the 18th and 19th December the Turin fascists had a bloody orgy: more than 10 people were killed and many tens were badly wounded. The illegal ‘Ordine nuovo’ had to stop its publishing due to such terror.

 The situation in Italy was discussed in detail at the III Congress of the Communist International during the second half of 1921. The Congress admitted that working movements in many countries survived the period of recession, so this situation dictated the necessity of changing the political line of the communist parties and bringing about the united front against the attacking reactionary forces. The Bordigists were sharply criticised by Lenin. In his speeches and works Lenin condemned the sectarianism of the Bordigist leaders of the Italian communist party. 

In this connection one should recollect the fact that since 1921 the party had been having controversies about the question of estimating the fascism and home situation in Italy. In one of his articles Gramsci  criticised a thesis of Bordiga according to which there was no difference between the regime of a bourgeois democracy and the regime of the open bourgeois dictatorship establishment which the fascists were seeking, as  events proved further.  Following this thesis Bordiga did not pay any attention to the victory of fascism. Furthermore he even excluded the possibility of such victory as well as he excluded the POSSIBILITY of the elimination of the parliamentary regime.

On the contrary, noticing all peculiarities of the fascist reaction and foreseeing that the victory of fascism would mean the end of democratic freedoms and consequently would give a blow to working people, Gramsci came to a conclusion about the necessity of changing the whole political line of the party. According to Gramsci the nearest aim was not the struggle for power, but the struggle for the urgent demands of the working class and defence of democratic freedoms.

 This new line had to lead to the establishment of the united front together with the Socialist party and all democratic forces on the basis of trade-union struggle, as on the basis of political struggle, but Bordiga, as it was stated above, was an outspoken opponent of the united front.

However, having made the right setting and agreed with the criticism from the side of Lenin and the Comintern, Gramsci still did not speak out openly and firmly against the Bordigan leadership, giving all his activity to strengthening the party struggle against the right opportunist wing.

The fight on two fronts for the party cleansing as from the right and from the left opportunism would not weaken the party, but strengthen it further – as the experience of the Bolshevik party taught and as the Comintern stated.

 Despite the criticism of the Comintern and the lesson taught by the events in Italy, Bordiga defended his former position at the II Party Congress held in Rome in January, 1921.

The theses that he presented lacked both the analysis of the situation in Italy and the threat of fascism coming to power. All home problems were set and solved according to a formal scheme. Bordiga strived to lead the party on the basis of settings of 1919-1920 paying no attention to the changes that had happened in the general situation in the country and in the correlation of the class forces.

The majority of the congress delegates approved Bordiga’s theses and the necessity to launch a wide campaign explaining ideological and political problems became obvious.

An open rupture between Gramsci and Bordiga developed on the IV Congress of the Comintern held in 1922 on the question about merging with the maximalists as far as they had broken away from the reformists1. As long as the Congress spoke out for a merger while the majority of the Italian organisation was against it, Gramsci and Scoccimarro vigorously opposed the opportunist decision launched by Bordiga aimed at giving the party to Tasca and other rightist elements. The majority of the delegation approved the resolution presented by Gramsci and Scoccimarro which pointed out the importance of fulfilling the Comintern decisions, and Bordiga stayed in the minority for the first time. Since this moment Gramsci shouldered the leadership of the delegation upon himself. However the merger did not occur as it became clear that the majority of the maximalists were against it; those who were in favour of the merger united into the faction called ‘the third internationalist’.

In January 1923 the fascist government made numerous arrests among the communists; the party leadership and the leading workers of the federations2 were arrested. The party became formidably weakened on the whole.

In January 1923 an important and decisive turn occurred in the party. The full plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International having subjected the policy of the Italian communist party to a detailed criticism made a decision on changes of the membership of the Executive Committee of the Italian Communist party. Togliatti, Scoccimarro and Gennari entered the membership of the Executive Committee from the majority, Tasca and Bona – from the minority.

Extremely difficult tasks stood in front of the party at that moment. Together with the struggle that the party was leading against fascism in exceedingly difficult and absolutely unequal conditions, it had to lead the internal struggle on two fronts -  against the still governing Bordigists among the communists and against the rightist deviation. This struggle started under the leadership of Togliatti and Scoccimarro.

Great help in the struggle was given by the guidelines of the Comintern and valuable advice of Gramsci who stayed in Moscow at that time studying the richest experience of the Bolsheviks, so important to strengthen and develop the Communist Party of Italy.

In the beginning of 1924 the party was able to start political activities in the country having conducted a significant reorganisation inside its membership and  having been strengthened after the arrested comrades were acquitted by the court. The question about the internal situation in the party demanded an immediate solution and Gramsci vigorously started solving this problem on his return from Moscow.

The first successes of the Italian communist party under the leadership of Gramsci

Work on explanation of the ideological grounds of the Communist Party faced significant difficulties not only due to the general political situation and police prosecution from the side of the fascist government, but also due to the stand of many party members who continued supporting the Bordigist settings adopted at the Congress in Rome, and at the same time expressing confidence to the new leadership represented by Gramsci.

In this situation, surpassing all difficulties Gramsci himself launched a great effort pressing for mastership of the theory and methods of Marxism-Leninism from the side of the party members. ‘Staying in the Soviet Union for a year in 1922-1923’, – writes Togliatti, - ‘gave an opportunity to Gramsci to deepen his knowledge of Bolshevism. While he significantly studied the history of the Bolshevik party and the Russian Revolution, he studied under Lenin and Stalin; he formed himself as a leader of the party at the school of Lenin and Stalin, at the school of the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International. The working class of Italy owes to him the creation of its party, the Communist Party not as a sect of pretentious doctrinaires, but as the vanguard of the working class, as a mass party connected with the whole class, able to understand and express its interests, able to lead it in the most complicated political situation. It was Gramsci who made us take the first and decisive steps in this direction’.

In August 1923 in Milano the publication of a weekly called ‘Stato operaio’ started which made a significant contribution to the improvement of political and ideological training of the party membership. The newspaper ‘Il lavoratore’ published in Trieste was banned in July 1923.

One of the first results of the explanatory work led by Gramsci was a big party success during the parliamentary elections in April 1924. Despite the violence, carousing and fraud of the ruling classes during the election campaign the Communist Party got more votes than at the previous elections, and it received 19 deputy mandates.

The success of Gramsci's policy of proletarian unity that found its expression also in the name of the new organ of the party – the newspaper ‘Unita’ (‘Unity’) established in 1924, was the eloquent condemnation of the sectarian Bordigist policy of party isolation.

Editorial Notes

1 Socialist party split into the maximalist and reformist in October 1922 (Note of the editor.)

2 Party federations – Communist Party organisations of the Italian provinces. (Note of the editor.)

Source: ‘Italyanskaya Kommunistcheskaya Partiya, Kratkii istoricheskii ocherk’, Izdatelstvo inostrannoi literatury, Moscow, 1951, pp. 32-43. Translated from the Italian: ‘Il Partito Comunista Italiano’, Roma, 1950. Translated from the Russian by Elena Lavrina.

Click here to return to the April 2013 index.