Against activism

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In this short article first published in 1952, Amadeo Bordiga addresses “activism” as “an illness of the workers movement” that exaggerates the “possibilities of the subjective factors of the class struggle” and neglects theoretical preparation, which he claims is of paramount importance. Recently a number of texts have emerged to challenge the unquestioned paradigm of “activism” among Marxists and radicals. Here’s a brief list that I’ve compiled:

  1. “Activism,” by Amadeo Bordiga (1952).
  2. “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” by Theodor Adorno (1968). Some notes on the decoupling of theory and practice.
  3. “Resignation,” by Theodor Adorno (1969). Responding to accusations made against the Frankfurt School.
  4. “Militancy: The Highest Stage of Alienation,” by L’Organisation des jeunes travailleurs révolutionnaires (1972). Following the wave of radicalism in 1968.
  5. “Action Will Be Taken: Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents,” by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti (2003). From the antiwar years.
  6. “Introduction to The Decline of the Left in the Twentieth Century: Toward a Theory of Historical Regression,” by Benjamin Blumberg for Platypus (2009).
  7. “Additional Remarks on the End of Activism,” by Theorie Communiste (2011).

As I’ve written elsewhere, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and others — one might add Luxemburg, Pannekoek, or Trotsky — would have found the word “activism” [Aktivismus, активизм] unintelligible, especially with respect to their own politics. Nowhere does it appear in any of their writings. Lenin only mentions “activists” [активисты] after 1918, and mostly then in connection with certain Menshevik factions that were “actively” opposed to Soviet power. Even when he’d use roughly equivalent terms like деятели [often translated as “activists,” though more literally “doers”], Lenin’s usual attitude was derisive. He referred, to give just one example, to “some local ‘activists’ (so called because they are inactive).” 

Bordiga’s article thus provides a vindication of sorts, coming from one of the old-timers who was involved in revolutionary agitation and organizing after 1917. Victor Serge described Bordiga as “exuberant and energetic, features blunt, hair thick, black, and bristly, a man quivering under his encumbrance of ideas, experiences, and dark forecasts.” Davidovich, for his part, praised “the living, muscular and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” Anyway, most of the others from this period didn’t live long enough to see “activism” become the modus operandi of the Left. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, the classical Marxist pairing of theory and practice gave way to the hazier binary of “thought” and “action.”

Here I think Bordiga is nicely complemented by some lines by Theodor Adorno, writing in a more scholarly vein:

Thought, enlightenment conscious of itself, threatens to disenchant the pseudo-reality within which actionism moves…[A]ctionism is tolerated only because it is considered pseudo-reality. Pseudo-reality is conjoined with, as its subjective attitude, pseudo-activity: action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevated into an end in itself. (“Resignation” in Critical Models, pg. 291)

The only thing I disagree with in the following article is Bordiga’s characterization of the USSR as “state capitalist,” by which he means something quite different than Tony Cliff (but which seems inadequate nonetheless). I like that he repeatedly invokes Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: A Infantile Disorder (1922), which is especially remarkable given that Ilyich aimed many of his sternest criticisms in that book at Bordiga. Translation modified here and there for readability’s sake.

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Activism

Amadeo Bordiga
Battaglia Comunista
November 7, 1952
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It is necessary to insist on the word. Just like certain infections of the blood, which cause a wide range of illnesses, not excepting those which can be cured in the madhouse, activism is an illness of the workers movement that requires continuous treatment.

Activism always claims to possess the correct understanding of the circumstances of political struggle, that it is “equal to the situation.” Yet it is unable to engage in a realistic assessment of the relations of force, enormously exaggerating the possibilities based on subjective factors of the class struggle.

It is therefore natural that those affected by activism react to this criticism by accusing their adversaries of underestimating the subjective factors of the class struggle and of reducing historical determinism to that automatic mechanism which is also the target of the usual bourgeois critique of Marxism. That is why we said, in Point 2 of Part IV of our “Fundamental Theses of the Party”:

…[t]he capitalist mode of production expands and prevails in all countries, under its technical and social aspects, in a more or less continuous way. The alternatives of the clashing class forces are instead connected to the events of the general historical struggle, to the contrast that already existed when bourgeoisie [began to] rule [over] the feudal and precapitalist classes, and to the evolutionary political process of the two historical rival classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat; being such a process marked by victories and defeats, by errors of tactical and strategical method.

This amounts to saying that we maintain that the stage of the resumption of the revolutionary workers movement does not coincide only with the impulses from the contradictions of the material, economic and social development of bourgeois society, which can experience periods of extremely serious crises, of violent conflicts, of political collapse, without the workers movement as a result being radicalized and adopting extreme revolutionary positions. That is, there is no automatic mechanism in the field of the relations between the capitalist economy and the revolutionary proletarian party.

It could be the case, as in our current situation, that the economic and social world of the bourgeoisie is riddled with serious tremors that produce violent conflicts, but without the revolutionary party obtaining as a result any possibilities of expanding its activity, without the masses subjected to the most atrocious exploitation and fratricidal massacres being capable of unmasking the opportunist agents, who implicate their fate with the disputes of imperialism, without the counterrevolution loosening its iron grip on the ruled class, on the masses of the dispossessed.

To say that an objectively revolutionary situation exists, but that the subjective element of class struggle (i.e., the class party) is deficient, is wrong at every moment of the historical process. A blatantly meaningless assertion, a patent absurdity.

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It is true, however, that in every wave of struggle those who pose the greatest threat to the existence of bourgeois rule will often act in a counterrevolutionary manner, for all intents and purposes. Even when it seems that everything — the machinery of state, the social hierarchy, the bourgeois political apparatus, the trade unions, the propaganda system — has come to a halt and is heading toward its inevitable destruction, the situation will never be revolutionary if the revolutionary party is weak, underdeveloped, or theoretically unstable.

A situation of profound crisis in bourgeois society is susceptible to revolutionary subversion only when “…the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way…” (Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism”: An Infantile Disorder). That is, when the ruling class can no longer effectively operate its traditional mechanisms of repression, when “…a majority of the workers…fully realize that revolution is necessary.”

Such consciousness on the part of the workers can only be expressed by the class party, which is in the last analysis the deciding factor in transforming the bourgeois crisis into the revolutionary catastrophe of all of society.

In order to save society from the maremágnum [maelstrom] into which it has fallen, it is therefore necessary that there should be a collective revolutionary organ of thought and action that can channel and illuminate the subversive will of the masses. For this task the ruling class is incapable of offering any help, because it cannot discover appropriate new forms with which to liberate the productive forces that exist and direct them toward new development.

This “not wanting to live in the old way” of the masses — which alone provides the will to struggle and impulse to act against the class enemy — itself presupposes the crystallization of a solid revolutionary theory within the ranks of the proletarian vanguard, which is called upon to develop and guide the revolutionary masses.

In the party, consciousness precedes action, unlike what takes place among the masses and at the level of the individual.

If, however, someone were to say that this is nothing new, nothing really modern, and inquire whether we are trying to turn the revolutionary party into a small circle of scholars, of theoretical observers of social reality? Never. In Point 7 of Part IV of our 1951 “Fundamental Theses of the Party,” we read:

Although small in number and having but few [connections] with the proletarian masses, in fact jealously attached to its theoretical tasks, which are of prime importance, the Party, because of this true appreciation of its revolutionary duties in the present period, refuses to become a circle of thinkers or of those searching for new truths, of “renovators” considering as insufficient the past truth, and absolutely refuses to be considered as such.

Nothing could be more clear!

The transformation of the bourgeois crisis into class war and revolution presupposes the objective collapse of the social and political framework of capitalism. Still, this is not even possible if the great mass of the workers is not won over to or influenced by the revolutionary theory disseminated by the party a theory that is not to be improvised on the barricades. But will this theory be distilled behind closed doors by scholarly labors without any connection to the masses?

Against this stupid accusation made by the fanatics of activism, one may quite correctly respond that, the indefatigable and assiduous labor of defense waged on behalf of the doctrinal and critical patrimony of the movement, the everyday tasks of immunization of the movement against the poisons of revisionism, the systematic explanation, in the light of Marxism, of the most recent forms of organization of capitalist production, the unmasking of the attempts on the part of opportunism to present such “innovations” as anti-capitalist measures, etc., all of this is struggle, the struggle against the class enemy, the struggle to educate the revolutionary vanguard. It is, if you prefer, an active struggle that is nonetheless not activism.

Do you seriously believe that the arduous and exhausting task of restoring the revolutionary Marxist critique is merely a theoretical undertaking? The whole gigantic bourgeois machine is committed, from morning to night, not so much to the refutation of revolutionary theory — nota bene — but rather to the demonstration that socialist demands can be realized against Marx and against Lenin. Not only political parties but also established governments swear that they govern (i.e., oppress) the masses, all in the name of communism.

Who would dare to deny that this is also a political labor, an active struggle against the class enemy? Only he who is possessed by the demons of activist action could think such a thing.

Even if it is weak in terms of numbers of adherents, any movement that works to free revolutionary theory from unprecedented adulterations, from opportunist contaminations — in its newspapers, its meetings, the factory discussions that it holds — thus performs a revolutionary labor. It labors on behalf of the proletarian revolution.

By no means can it be said that we conceive the task of the party as a “struggle of ideas.”

Totalitarianism, state capitalism, and the downfall of socialist revolution in Russia are not simply “ideas” to which we oppose our own ideas. They are real historical phenomena, which have eviscerated the proletarian movement by leading it onto the treacherous terrain of anti-fascist partisan formations, into the ranks of the fascists, the national front, and pacifism, etc.

Those who carry out a Marxist interpretation of these real phenomena and confirm its theoretical predictions assuredly perform a revolutionary service. Even if they are few in number, and far removed from the limelight of “grand politics” [die große Politik], they are nevertheless establishing an itinerary and point of departure for the proletarian revolution. And it seems to us that there has been no serious examination of these problems outside of the fundamental positions advocated in our journal Prometeo (especially the study “Property and Capital”).

A resumed revolutionary movement does not require a potential crisis in the capitalist system for its realization. Crisis in the capitalist mode of production is already a reality the bourgeoisie has experienced at every possible stage of its historical career. State capitalism and imperialism mark the extreme limits of its evolution, but the fundamental contradictions of the system persist and are becoming more acute. The crisis of capitalism has not been transformed into the revolutionary crisis of society, into a revolutionary class war, because the workers’ movement is still crushed under the weight of the defeats it suffered over the last thirty years. Even as the chaos of capitalist production gets worse, the counterrevolution still reigns triumphant due to strategic errors committed by the communist parties of the Third International — errors that have led the proletariat to look upon the weapons of counterrevolution as its own.

Resumption of the revolutionary movement is still nowhere in sight because the bourgeoisie — by implementing bold reforms in the organization of production and the state (state capitalism, totalitarianism), by sowing doubt and confusion, etc. — has delivered a shattering and disorienting blow. Not to the critical and theoretical foundations of Marxism, as these remain intact and unaffected, but rather to the capacity of proletarian vanguards to apply Marxist principles in interpreting the current stage of bourgeois development.

In such conditions of theoretical disorientation, is the labor of restoring Marxism against opportunist distortions merely a theoretical task?

No, it is the substantial and committed active struggle against the class enemy.

Ostentatious activism seeks to make the wheels of history turn with waltz steps, swinging its derrière to the symphony of electoralism. It is an infantile disorder of communism, but it spreads marvelously even in the nursing-homes [sanitaria] of politics, where retirees of the workers’ movement go to die.

Requiescant in pace… and then, almost magically, the activists mobilize like an armored division as soon as they’re dispatched to conquer the nuclei of our groups in the factories. (You really don’t need an electronic calculator to count our members). They laughably claim that these chickens and ducks, the imperialist blocs, are identical in weight, form, and color — that they’re all of equal strength. With this sophistry the activists thus exhaust their highly fluid analysis, which they moreover deny anyone else is capable of undertaking. And then, finally, they give in to the deadly temptation that the easy chairs of parliament (or some government ministry) exercise over their sorry old behinds…

All activist psalms end in electoral glory. Back in 1917, we saw the sordid conclusion of the social democracy’s hyperactivity. After decades of activity entirely devoted to the conquest of parliamentary seats, mixed trade union commissions, and political influence, they were bathed in an aura of unstoppable activism.

When the time came for the armed insurrection against capitalism, however, it became clear that the only party to engage in insurrection was the party that had the least experience “working among the masses.” During the years of preparation it’d been the one that, more than any other, worked to preserve Marxist theory. It was then seen that those who possessed a solid theoretical training marched against the class enemy, while those who’d enjoyed the “glorious” patrimony of the struggle shamefully choked on their own words and went over to the other side.

So we are familiar with the fanatics of activism. Compared to them, carnival barkers are gentlemen. That is why we maintain that there is only one way to avoid their contagion: the classic kick in the ass.

Amadeo Bordiga
Naples, 1952

Translated in November 2014 from the Spanish translation published in Internationalist Papers, No. 8, 2000.

Originally published in Italian in Battaglia Comunista, No. 7, 1952 as “Dizionarietto dei chiodi revisionisti: Attivismo,” Part II.
Spanish translation available here.

6 thoughts on “Against activism

  1. Thanks so much for this, Ross.

    Two days later, 27 November, a letter was published in the UK about a London branch (local) of Left Unity, a new party of about 2000 members. These paragraphs are apposite:

    “The usual turnout for Lewisham and Greenwich’s fortnightly meetings is around 10 or 12. Five or six of us attend regularly, while around a dozen others do so more infrequently. Amongst the latter are two comrades from Socialist Action, who are so involved in various single-issue campaigns that they often send their apologies. In fact they insist that we should reduce the frequency of our meetings to once a month, because there is so much to do.

    “In my opinion, this represents a peculiar view of the role of a party, which seems for them to be regarded as a formation that mobilises its comrades in support of existing campaigns rather than attempts to win leadership of the whole class. So debates about the kind of party we need, about the type of policy it should be armed with, are viewed as secondary questions [. . .]”.
    http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1036/letters/ (from Peter Manson )

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