Introduction to the Theses of the Abstentionist Communist Faction of the Italian Socialist Party (1920)
The Theses which we are publishing here were drawn up for the national conference of the Communist Abstentionist Faction of the Italian Socialist Party in 1920. This faction, to which we trace the origins of our party today, was to split from the Socialist Party in January 1921 to form the Communist Party of Italy. Although the Faction was officially formed in July 1919, it had already organised itself in the end of 1918 around the newspaper «Il Soviet» and had a long history of far-left opposition within the Socialist Party behind it. This opposition dated back to the struggle in 1912–1914 against reformism, electoral blocks with the bourgeois left, and the Libyan war (where our current opposed the annexation of Libya for internationalist reasons); later, during World War I, a small group of young Italian Marxists firmly and resolutely adopted the stance of revolutionary defeatism as advanced by Lenin.
The decisive question which confronted the Faction in May 1920 – just a month before the convening of the Second Congress of the Communist International – was the split from the Socialist Party. In the words of a motion adopted at the conference, the SP was
«absolutely incapable, given its present make-up and function, of assuming the leadership of the proletarian revolution. Its many deficiencies are the result of the presence within it of a reformist tendency which inevitably will take a counter-revolutionary position in the crucial moment of the class struggle, and of the practice of a verbal support for the communist program [this refers to the centrist current, the so-called Maximalists] coupled with the opportunist practice of traditional socialism in the area of political and economic actions».
The problem in short was that of laying the foundations of the Communist Party of Italy, Section of the Communist International. This party was born approximately six months later, on January 21st, 1921, on the basis of the same principles formulated in the document we are translating here. While it upheld the tactic of abstaining from elections and the parliament in such countries as Italy where the bourgeois revolution had long since been achieved and where there existed a long corrupting democratic tradition, it did not in any way turn this tactic into a matter of principle which might keep it from supporting the political, theoretical and programmatic platform of the Third International. On the contrary it unreservedly shared its cardinal points.
The importance of the Theses of the Faction lies in the first place in their international perspective, which is something that has always characterised the Italian Left. They do not present the platform of a national party but instead are a synthesis of the theoretical, programmatic, and tactical positions which necessarily distinguish the party of the world communist revolution. The «Theses» do not confine themselves to the Italian locality (which is not mentioned in any of the theses) but formulate the principles which delimit the communist party from every other supposedly working class political organisation and which must guide every communist party in any area of the world and in any phase of the era opened by the first world war and the Russian Revolution. This aspect of the Theses has a special importance in that one of the central demands of the Left at the Second Congress of the International was precisely that a single program for all communist parties should be formulated, a program binding for all without any exceptions because of supposed «national peculiarities».
In the second place the «Theses» respect the criteria which we also would have liked to have seen centrally applied at the Second Congress even if it were to be done in a condensed and even schematic form. The «Theses» develop the questions of theory and principle separately from the question of tactics and take up the tactical directives only after clearly defining the theoretical and programmatic foundations and ultimate objectives of the communist movement and only after clearly showing that tactics and program are closely interconnected and inseparable. The «Theses» thus respect perfectly the dialectical schema which Lenin, at the Third Congress of the Communist International, correctly reproached the infantile extremists and theoreticians of the «offensive at all costs», for having forgotten – or for never having learned – and in which doctrine, principles, final aim, program, and tactics each have their precise place and can not be lumped together indiscriminately in a terminological confusion. On the other hand the «Theses» very firmly insist on the bond without which the unity between theory and praxis, between thought and action – one of the cardinal points of Marxism – would be broken.
Accordingly, the «Theses» are divided into three parts. The first summarises the fundamental premises of the communist doctrine and of its vision of human history. This history is the history of class struggles which culminate in the conquest of political power by the class whose very existence expresses the antagonism which has become unbearable between the forces of production and the relations of production. This conquest of power can only be achieved – and in fact has only been achieved – through violent revolution, which has as its necessary corollary the dictatorial exercise of political power by the victorious class. The «Theses» insist on the necessity of a centralised military organisation of proletarian forces against the assaults of the counter-revolution. They also give a picture of the economic and social transformations which the proletarian dictatorship will implement by means of «despotic inroads» extending up to the point of the complete suppression of capitalist economic relations, the abolition of classes, and consequently the dissolution of the state as a political apparatus of power which will be progressively replaced by the collective rational administration of economic and social activity.
Above all the «Theses» clearly bring out the primary function of the party. They state:
«it is only by organising itself into a political party that the proletariat constitutes itself into a class struggling for its emancipation» and further that «the dictatorship of the proletariat will […] be the dictatorship of the Communist Party».
These two concepts were very strongly insisted on in the «Theses on the Role of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution» adopted at the Second Congress of the Comintern; they were the criterion used by the Communist International to distinguish itself from all other supposedly close political currents. Many of these currents, although abstractly recognising the principle of revolution and therefore of violence, ignored or worse yet denied the following imperatives: 1) that this violence be guided before and after the conquest of power by a consciousness both of the general objectives and of the methods required to attain them, and 2) that it be directed by a centralised organisation.
For Marxism this consciousness and this organisation can only be materialised in the party. Nothing could better distinguish our current from the innumerable contemporary variants of workerism, immediatism, and spontaneism represented in Italy by «Ordine Nuovo», the anarcho-syndicalists or the anarchists themselves, and in Germany particularly by the KAPD. Nothing could prove with greater clarity that our view of the revolutionary process and its premises was exactly the same as the Bolsheviks. The question of the role of the party and the process of revolution and dictatorship was central to the great polemics of Lenin and Trotsky against both the infantile extremists and Kautsky; the positions of the latter two confirm the fact that all the variants of opportunism sooner or later end in the centrist negation of the very bases of the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Only a weak echo of these polemics reached Italy, yet this did not prevent the Italian Left from assuming once again a principled position on these questions that was identical to that boldly advanced by the Bolsheviks amid the cries of dismay from all the philistines flourishing in the ranks of the Western proletariat. In this respect as well, the Theses bear a clear international imprint, which makes them the one real support given by the West to the great task of re-establishing the cardinal points of the Marxist doctrine undertaken by the Third International. All this shows, moreover, that we not only had nothing whatsoever in common with the infantile extremists but were at the opposite pole from them.
The second part develops a critique of all the ideologies which communism openly criticises and combats: philosophical idealism and its translation into political terms, that is to say parliamentary democracy; petty-bourgeois and Wilsonian pacifism; utopian socialism in all its manifestations, from its classical form up to its most extreme offshoots, the latter of which see the forms of organisation assumed not only by the struggle for revolutionary preparation but by the conquest of power, and even by the exercise of the dictatorship, as a transposition of the immediate organisations in which proletarians are assembled under the domination of capital (that is according to their positions and their short-term interests within the bourgeois mode of production); reformism with its theory that the proletarian class can take power gradually, moving little by little from its position as an oppressed class to that of a ruling class, including here its conception of the exercise of this class rule; and finally anarchism which has its direct origins in bourgeois idealism and consequently is a reflection of the capitalist form of production and distribution.
In the third part, the entire spectrum of activities which the party is summoned to pursue as the representative, of the general and permanent interests of the class is deduced from the theoretical and programmatic principles of communism: theoretical work, propaganda, proselytism, active participation in the life of trade unions and economic organisations, anti-military propaganda within the army, revolutionary preparation including legal and clandestine work, and finally the revolutionary insurrection, the attempt to seize power. The «Theses» reiterate our rejection of the tactic of participating in elections and parliamentary activity in the countries with a long democratic tradition. This tactic clearly is rejected not for reasons of principle, valid in any period, but on the basis of arguments founded on the Marxist view of the historical period in which the revolutionary seizure of power is posed as the single, direct perspective for the proletarian class. In particular this rejection flows form a recognition of the enormous obstacle which is created for revolutionary preparation in the advanced capitalist countries by the persistence not only of democratic institutions, but also of illusions nurtured by the exploiting class among the oppressed class concerning the possibility that it can attain its emancipation by means of these institutions.
The «Theses» proceed to emphasise the refusal on principle of
«agreements or alliances with other political movements which share with it [the Communist Party] a specific immediate objective [or even which accept insurrectionary action against the bourgeoisie] but diverge from it in their program for further political action».
As was made more explicit in our critique of the slogan of the political united fronts advanced by the Comintern in 1921, this refusal did not exclude the call for united actions by union organisations – including those linked to other political movements – in the area of the defence of the living and working conditions of all proletarians, whatever may be their ideological or political affiliation. Point 13 dealing with the soviets is in complete accord with the Theses later adopted by the Second Congress; it very explicitly states that soviets are not in themselves organs of revolutionary struggle, but become revolutionary to the extent that the party conquers a majority in them. Whereas on the one hand they can constitute a precious instrument of revolutionary struggle in a period of acute crisis, they can likewise present a serious danger of conciliation and combination with the institutions of bourgeois democracy whenever the bourgeoisie’s power is reinforced. Noteworthy also in light of future polemics is point 3 which does not make the «approval of the majority» or some gross numerical coefficient a precondition for the party’s action.
It might seem strange that the «Theses» reject the idea that majority approval is necessary in the area of class action led by the party, but state with respect to the internal functioning of the party that
«the party functions on the basis of discipline towards the decisions of the majority and towards the decisions of the central organs chosen by that majority to lead the movements» (part III, point 2).
One must not forget however that for our current, as was stated in the «Rome Theses» (1922),
«the proclamation of the Party’s program and the selection of people for the different functions of the organisation results in appearance from a democratic vote by delegates of the party. In reality, however, they are the products of a real process which accumulates the lessons of experience, and prepares and selects leaders, thereby enabling the program and the hierarchy of the party to take shapes».
Discipline is the result of this «real process» in so far as this process has no break in continuity. It cannot result from a mechanism which, like any mechanism, can have no intrinsic value independent of the purpose for which it has been devised and can produce results opposite from those for which it was intended. It its for this reason that our party later on utilised the formula of «organic centralism» (in place of «democratic centralism») which better expresses the party’s mode of functioning (see especially our text «The Democratic Principle»).
The «Theses» conclude with two formulae which express the unequivocal Marxist position which renounces in the Blanquist theory the idea of a coup by an audacious minority, the voluntarist act not based on an appreciation of the real relationship of forces in society as a whole; but which claims Blanquism as its own and as the very substance of Marxism, inasmuch as it is the theory of armed insurrection, dictatorship and civil war.
With the exception of the formulation of the tactic of electoral abstentionism – which was very important for us in regard to the formation of real communist parties from the elements and currents within the old socialist parties in the West – there is not a single point in the «Theses» to which the Bolsheviks could not then subscribe. When barely seven years had elapsed, the Italian Left, at the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Italy at Lyons and at the Sixth Enlarged Executive at Moscow, was obliged to remind the Leninist Old Guard – which was then locked in a tragic struggle by the vies of counter-revolution mounting within the very ranks of the party – that Marxism is a single global vision of the world and of history, and that tactical manoeuvring has and must have a limit because it necessarily has repercussions on a factor which plays a great role in the influence of the party on the class – namely the continuity of principles and program openly proclaimed, translated into practice consistent with them, and implemented by a close-knit organisation.
This conference was held in Florence on May 8–9, 1920. The «Theses» were published in nos. 16 and 17 of «Il Soviet» (June 6 and 27, 1920).
«Rome Theses of the Communist Party of Italy», part I, point 4. These Theses were adopted by the CPI at its Rome Congress in March 1922. The Italian text is found in «In difesa della continuita del programma comunista», the French translation in «Défense de la continuité du programme communiste». Also exists a Spanish and a German translation.