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Book Review: Proletarian Order

Book Review

Proletarian Order
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Proletarian Order - Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy 1911-1921. By GWYN A. WILLIAMS. (London: Pluto Press, 1975).

The title of Williams' book, perhaps selected for its popular appeal, must not cause a misunderstanding. With a far from superficial knowledge of the facts, Williams is one of the rare contemporary historians who does not take the occupation of factories in September 1920 in Italy for the eve of the revolution or still less as an instance, even a brief one, of the establishment of a «proletarian order». Let us say more, although the book is essentially devoted to Gramsci and Ordine Nuovo, Williams knows the ABC's fairly well enough to recognise the great distance separating Gramsci and his current from Marxism, and he does not fall into the mythology of elevating Gramscism to the rank of a variant of the Marxist doctrine, which it is not. He knows at least, since unlike too many historians he has read the documents of the years 1914-1920, that if orthodox Marxism had one, and only one, representative in Italy it was Amadeo Bordiga (1). On this point William is even so «heterodox» an historian that his book is a detailed account of the course through which Gramsci, with incessant oscillations and pains, partially freed his «conciliarism» of its Crocian and Sorelian idealist trappings in order to assimilate in a certain manner the Leninist and Bordigan conception of the party and Marxism.

If Williams' book was this, and only this, we would be able to prescribe it as an antidote, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, against the recurrent bouts of spontaneism and in particular against the recent «Gramsci craze» which is the posthumous incarnation of this same virus.

Unfortunately, however, this book does not limit itself to what could have served as a re-examination (and in the long run, like it or not, a demolition) of the Gramscian mythology in all its varieties. The author only destroys one pyramid of historiographical falsification to construct another («destruam et aedificabo» as Proudhon said). According to Williams, Gramsci's extra-Marxism or pre-Marxism has its historical justification, just as does the true Marxism of Bordiga (such a conception and the Hegelian version of Providence are as alike as twins...). For him the latter was science, and a communist party deserving of the name would be inconceivable without this fundamental requisite. The former was will, the complementary dialectical pole of theory, and even before being will it was the physical («molecular» as Williams says) living experience of the instinctive and elementary movement of the masses; without this supplementary ingredient there could be no communist party or proletarian revolution. Therefore, for Williams, the two poles are not in contradiction but they complete each other. Gramsci's «optimism of the will» made up for his «pessimism of the intelligence»; Bordiga's «optimism of the intelligence» would have been reduced to a «donothinguism» in practice if historical Providence had not caused a coming together of these two men. The synthesis resulting from this providential meeting, the Communist Party of Italy, would never have been born in January 1921 at Livorno, Williams continues, without the «Bordigan» scientific rigor, but it never would have become «Leninist» and therefore a true section of the Third International without Gramsci's «revolutionary passion». The rigor of the first necessitated the destruction, stone by stone, of the «theoretical» edifice of Ordinovism; the passion of the second by hidden ways, and without any doubt, providential ones, rehabilitated «Ordinovism» as the flesh of Bordiga's doctrinal framework.

Historical providence (or to use Hegel's term the «cunningness of Reason») has ways so complex that the semi-revalorization of Bordiga within the framework of a high-level synthesis leads, in the end, to the following conclusion:

1) «without Bordiga's sense of Marxism as a «science», without his fundamental 'rupture' from the bourgeois world, without his strong, combative and thorough assertion of Marxism, it is difficult to see how communism is possible. Without Gramsci's global and molecular marxist exploration of human experience [!?], without his examination, in total human reality, of the process of Bordiga's «conversion», it is difficult to see how communism is realisable» (p. 307).

2) «an effective communist movement» cannot «be built» if there is an exclusion of one or the other of the twin poles exemplified by Bordiga and Gramsci, Marxism as «science» and Marxism as «living history» (p. 179).

3) contrary to what both thought at the time, the «synthesis», the Congress of Livorno, made possible or to be more exact anticipated that final triumph of the late «turn» towards national-communism, polycentrism, and democratic and patriotic «communism».

Setting out with these premises, even the resistance of the Communist Party of Italy to the most «elastic» interpretation of the tactic of the united front in the Comintern (which admitted the possibility of a «front» between parties) and the harshness with which it denounced social democracy as the ally of fascism (2) becomes the providential precondition for the Italian Communist Party of today, the party of Togliatti and Berlinguer. To quote Williams:

«This [Bordiga's] underestimate of the specificity of fascism (which Gramsci was more alert to) had very serious consequences for the personnel of the party and resulted ultimately in its near-destruction as a human organisation within Italy. On the other hand, this kind of thinking, which survived Bordiga's displacement from the leadership, made the party quite remarkably tough, resilient and ultimately indestructible. It was in part because of the character given to communism in Italy by its first definition, that the party survived the twenty years of fascist repression to become the largest and in some senses the most effective communist party in Europe». (p. 300).

Long live «science» then if it makes possible the abandonment of all science in favour of the servile acceptance of the fact and the theorisation of this abandonment! Long live the internationalism of Lenin and Bordiga since the idealistic interpretation of history enables their internationalism to be reconciled with the «great power chauvinism» of Stalin and, in part, with the embryonic national-socialism of Gramsci and the fully developed national-socialism of Togliatti! Long live the «optimism of the will» if it places, by its mysterious ways, the scientific and organisational rigor of the «Bordighists» - these curious «do-nothings» who, according to the same Williams, were the only ones capable of providing the practical solidity and compactness indispensable for a revolutionary party -at the service of the «pessimism of the intelligence»!

• • •

A history in which the conflicts are toned down to the point of disappearing, in which all becomes relative and in which everything has its useful role for «humanity», a history such as this is simply on a par with revisionism. Revisionism presents the present as relative; a history such as Williams' presents the past as relative. If the aim is nothing and the movement is all, as Bernstein said, then in the movement itself, science and non-science, dialectical materialism and experimentalist eclecticism, theory as a necessary guide to action and action as a substitute for theory and a guide to it (or to use names, Marx and Proudhon, Engels and Sorel, Lenin and Bergson or Croce), all are on the same level since they are neutral moments of the «movement».

Revisionist opportunism is ready, if it becomes necessary, to physically eliminate revolutionaries or to politically outlaw them. But it revives them in a noble and even monumental way in the field of historiography in order to better kill and banish them a second time, turning them into the direct or indirect forefathers of the only reality which it can accept, the accomplished fact. In effect Williams' theses, details aside, are the same as the most recent of Giorgio Amendola or of Franco Livorsi (3) for whom Bordiga is no longer to be condemned as a «traitor» and as a «fascist» but is fully entitled to be entered in the Pantheon of revered «inoffensive icons» of the «new party». For Amendola, without the historical precedent of the Bolshevik discipline instituted by the Left in 1921 - although to him it was in a generally «erroneous» perspective - and without the persistence of this discipline, this «new party» would never have been possible (which is an indirect way of «redeeming» Lenin with respect to Stalin, Stalin with respect to the deStalinizers, and of readmitting them in the museum of historiography, to the eternal glory of... Kautsky, who has also been «redeemed»!). For Livorsi, Bordiga's politics and tactics are completely erroneous, his theory completely true, and his historical resurrection serves to remind a party which hates all theory that without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary action (but, take note, only to «remind», while neglecting revolutionary theory in fact).

This operation, obviously, is possible only if one does violence to history - to true history that is, not history revised and amended in the manner of Hegel or Croce. In the case which interests us, Gramsci can be given a place in the history of communism only on the condition of baptising as communist (as Williams does on each page) every mass movement of a certain magnitude (such as that of the Turin workers), every organisational form by which this movement seeks to free itself from the crushing weight of reformism (such as the factory councils of 1920), and every theorisation of this movement by the intellectual groups of various political and cultural origins (such as Ordine Nuovo). To give him this place would require that we forget the tenacious reluctance of Gramsci and the «Ordinovists» not only towards recognising the priority of the question of the party in general but also towards breaking with a party such as the Italian Socialist Party of the years 1919-20 in particular, and towards understanding that without the party-organ the revolutionary reversal of society was a vain dream however generous and powerful may be the outburst of the masses. It would be necessary to ignore that Gramsci's support fort the conception of the party as the organ of the revolution and of the proletarian dictatorship was so occasional - just as his support for the theses of the First and Second Congress of the Comintern - that he was the first of all the Ordinovists to promote the Stalinist liquidation, thus denying more than two years of disciplined submission to the leadership of the Left within the Communist Party of Italy. That he was the first to desert was not by chance but because he was the only one of the Ordinovists who during World War I and immediately thereafter did not develop as a militant of a class party (be it a rotten one like the Italian Socialist Party) but as an intellectual outsider, a fellow traveller (and one who kept his distance). To make a place for Gramsci in the specifically communist movement, we would have to ignore or hide the fact that support of the Livorno split signified, at least, since the Communist International had not reversed its principles, a total rejection of the postulates of Ordinovism, and that the «star» of Gramsci only appeared on the international horizon when the communist movement began to change its colours and potentially transform into a popular and national party. Finally, we could make a place for Gramsci only on the condition of admitting that there is still some bit of communism, be it only an atom, in the Italian Communist Party of today, a party which legitimately traces itself to Gramsci (if for no other reason than his attachment to the glories of the Risorgimento and to the national «tradition» and its culture). We could make a place for Gramsci only on the condition of affirming, along the lines of Croce, that the class antagonisms in their practical manifestations and their theoretical reflections are pure and simple exchanges in a dialogue and that, consequently, classes do not have irreconcilable interests and will not experience a collision but a collaboration.

It is true that Stalinism has achieved what social democracy could never achieve: it wrested from the Bolshevik Party, that is to say from Marxism, the secret of the dictatorship on the state level and centralisation on the party level, in order to turn them against the dictatorship and the party of Lenin, with all the prestige of Red October behind it. But the historian who deduces from this a line of descent from Lenin to Stalin belongs to the world of «dialectic of differences» which Croce substituted for Hegel's «dialectic of opposites», itself already conciliatory in nature; it is thus the complete opposite of dialectical materialism which is the theory of the irreconcilable antagonisms between classes and between the parties which embody their historic interests. Only someone who conceives of science and doctrine as something completely apart from the struggle instead of the necessary instrument for its preparation and its indispensable guide, can consider that «science» and «will» have acted as «reconcilors of opposite poles» in the post-World War I period in Italy. For the Marxist militant (and a Marxist is a militant or is no Marxist at all) this is all a purely intellectual exercise. Only someone who interprets history merely through a distorting prism could imagine that Bordiga considered the party as some kind of «Creator» and the class as brute matter which the party can manipulate at will without any intermediate link to connect one to the other - no unions, no factory councils, nothing unless it is the «Word». «Dismissing the trade unions as counter-revolutionary, he [Bordiga] rejected any organization by category or craft»! (Williams, p. 107). The truth is that for our current it was not and could not have been a question of «dismissing» the economic organisations whether they were by industry or trade, but on the contrary of conquering them to communist political leadership as indispensable factors of the revolution. It was not a question of «rejecting» the union but of refusing to identify it with the party or to superimpose it over the party. Likewise it was not a question of disregarding the factory councils but of combating the mythology which placed them on the same footing as the Soviets or which pretended to substitute them for the party. At the same time it was a question of combating the conception which counterpoised the «intrinsically revolutionary» factory organisations to the «intrinsically counterrevolutionary» union and exalted the local and peripheral economic organisations to the detriment of the central and centralising economic organisations (that is to say this conception promoted organisations which were in a certain sense obligatory because they corresponded to the factory and its organisational fabric, to the detriment of the organisations which were in a certain sense voluntary). It was a question of recognising the Marxist principle that «revolutions are not created, they are led». In the Marxist perspective there can be no revolution without immediate and intermediary organisations localising the elementary and materially determined impulses of the masses; on the other hand, the revolution will stop mid-road and turn back on itself if it does not have a political leadership which, through its active presence, gives a revolutionary character to those organs which cannot be revolutionary in themselves. Those who study first hand (and not second hand) the history of the Communist Party of Italy when it was led by the Left, especially during the years 1921-22, will see that the entire effort of the party was directed towards winning over to its influence the great masses who could not be won over to its closed and rigorously selective organisation. Such a conquest is accomplished by taking part in ever episode, however small, in the struggle for immediate demands and impregnating these episodes with a political content. This is completely different from pure «science», as opposed to «will», and theory as opposed to practice!

If for Marxists there could be any sense in speaking of «optimism» and «pessimism», «will» and «absence of will» we would have to respond that «optimism of the intelligence» is by definition «optimism of the will» (see Theses on Feuerbach). Moreover a typical banner of reformism is an «optimism of the will» intended to compensate for its «pessimism of the intelligence», an optimism which in fact signifies the renunciation of struggling to break the structure of the capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois ideological and political schemes. Sorel invented «myths» as substitutes for the scientific laws of Marxism; Gramsci, as Mussolini before him, was a follower of the Sorelian school's fundamentally pessimistic view of history (if we must use this kind of vocabulary). The individual and the current who can only conceive of the revolution in the limits of the factory and socialism on the model of the capitalist enterprise, will logically become the theorisers of two gross blunders:

1. the theorisation of the revolutionary communist movement as the final completion of an incompletely achieved bourgeois revolution;

2. the theorisation of the proletarian dictatorship as the institution of the political and cultural hegemony of the proletariat to safeguard the national culture.

However even for this aim the councils are not enough: the party is necessary. Gramsci recognised this in the end and thereby ceased (but only in regard to this question) to be Gramscian. In any case, the simple recognition of the necessity of the party is not enough: even the reformists, including Stalin and his colleagues, recognise the necessity of the party and have a long experience in utilising it... in the service of the counter-revolution.

What distinguishes Bordiga (in our language, the Italian Left) from Gramsci (that is to say Ordine Nuovo) is not the question of ignoring or disregarding the national «specificity's» of the Italian situation. That is another historical untruth, and Williams would do well to read the enormous amount of work on this question that was done by the Communist Party of Italy in 1921-22. What distinguishes Bordiga is the decisive fact that he did not let himself be conditioned by these local and national «specificity's» in defining the strategy of the revolutionary process; this strategy must take these factors into account in applying the universal tactical criteria to the relations of forces between classes, but it must not subordinate the general principles to these factors, just as it cannot ignore (or, still worse, be defined in contradiction with) the principles of a struggle that is by definition a struggle on the world level. The heart of Gramscism lies in the opposite outlook, one that is empirical, eclectic, «situationist» and local; this is what places him in the sewer of reformism and marks him as the real, and not just reputed, father of the legal, democratic, national, reformist and moralist party of today, a party which is everything but communist. For us the national «specificity's» are a ball and a chain which we must take into consideration only in the aim of passing beyond its limits. They are an aspect of the relations of forces which we want to change, through the use of two weapons which are only formally contradictory: these weapons are programmatic rigor and, in order to realise the program, a careful consideration of all the aspects of the situation where we must apply our tactics, which in their general outlines are already known and established beforehand. For the Ordinovists, national «specificity's» were on the contrary the natural surroundings which had to be taken into account not with the aim of changing them, but in order to adapt the principles, the program, and the tactics to them. The Ordinovists found a place in the party constituted at Livorno only by disowning themselves and submitting to its discipline (that is, until Stalinism gave them the carte blanche). As for us, we would not have even thought of looking for a place in the «new» (i.e. Stalinist) party. Did Williams ever ask himself why the rise of «Bordighism» coincided with the period of the rise of the Third International, while the rise of «Gramscism» coincided with its fall? What can this mean if not that these two currents - which had come together due to a particular world historical situation that produced much greater rapproachments - were not two poles of a synthesis but the two extremities of an antithesis which were destined to separate in a different historical situation.

The historiography which awards the Bordigas (or the Trotskys) with academic honors only to reduce them to the involuntary but providential artisans of the worst democratism, is more destructive (because it is more subtle) than the historiography's written along the lines of police chronicles and drawing upon defames accusations. In the latter, however revolting they may be, there remains at least the sense of an irreconcilable class antagonism; in the first, there reigns «the night where all the cats are grey» with every dividing line erased - it is the historiography of interclassism elevated to a principle.

It is time to cry out loudly against those pretendedly impartial historians who place themselves above the conflict. It is necessary to emphatically state that the currents which were led fifty years ago by Bordiga and Gramsci (and the respective descendants of these currents today) were and remain two opposite poles which do not complete each other but on the contrary exclude one another. In 1922-23 «Bordighism» prevailed over «Gramcism»; after 1924 the situation was reversed. This corresponds to the succession of two phases: the phase of the rise of revolutionary communism, then the phase of its rapid decline. In Italy the Communist Party was founded on the basis of a radical extirpation of reformism. Consequently when it passed over to Stalinism it went through a complete reversal of direction (not of a few degrees but of 180 degrees) which would not have been possible without the organisational and disciplinary pressures of Stalinism coming down upon it (unlike the process in the countries where the roots of reformism had never been eradicated and where stalinisation did not necessitate an about-face and was possible without a radical alteration of direction). Today the Stalinist counter-revolution has triumphed on the world scale. The revolutionary course can begin again only on the programmatic bases of what historians like Williams call «Bordighism» and which for us is simply orthodox Marxism without any immediatist, idealist or Ordinovist deformation or interpretation. This is something that these historians will never be able to understand.

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  1. It must be understood that we do not accept the idea of the individual elevated to the rank of a protagonist of History without roots in the real movement or in a current that expresses this movement (such as the current of the Socialist Left of 1912-1920). [back]
  2. The ally, and not the same thing as fascism as Williams seems to think, whose knowledge of the CF. of Italy and its open and public positions does not go beyond what he can draw from the work of his idol, the Stalinist historian Paolo Spriano. [back]
  3. G. Amendola, Intervista sull'antifascismo, Bari, 1976; F. Livorsi, Amadeo Bordiga, Rome, 1977. [back]

Source: «Communist Program» no 4, April 1978

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