Trotsky’s Italian connection: Gramsci or Bordiga?

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Since the rediscovery of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks after World War II, there have been a number of attempts to adapt their heavily-coded theoretical content to various political projects. Particularly during the period of the New Left, Gramsci was interpreted and reinterpreted ad nauseam. Gradualists of a social-democratic stripe tried to fit the (allegedly anti-Leninist) “war of position” to their own frameworks. Figures like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe deploy the ubiquitous Gramscian buzzword of “hegemony” for their postmodernist, post-Marxist populism. Finally, theorists such as Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Peter D. Thomas have sought to reconcile Gramsci with a more classically Leninist program in light of critiques by Louis Althusser in France and Perry Anderson in England.

Gramsci = Trotsky?

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Trotskyists during the 1960s down to the present have followed suit. Even the Spartacist League, known for their strict orthodoxy, nodded approvingly toward a document by Cliff Slaughter from 1960 in which he relied heavily on Gramsci’s The Modern Prince. Just how compatible are Trotsky’s politics with those of Gramsci, though? Certainly during their political careers, they found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum within international communism. Not only did Gramsci support Trotsky’s expulsion from the Russian party in 1925 and 1926, but he continued to lambaste Bronshtein during the period of his imprisonment. Paolo Casciola, an Italian Trotskyist, explains the continued differences between Gramsci and Trotsky from 1926 up through the 1930s in his rebuttal to the “turncoat” Alfonso Leonetti:

Gramsci or Trotsky?

[I]t would be useful to pause for a while on the fable of the “identity of views” between Trotsky and Gramsci. Such a fable is based on the fact that Gramsci “broke” with Stalinism during his prison years, after the “turn of 1930” — a turn which Leonetti had continuously championed. This is a question with which we shall deal in future. What we want to emphasize here is that Leonetti used such an ostensible “identity” as a voucher to justify politically his adherence to Gramscism and Togliattism. It was a rather dubious historico-political operation which was made easier by the cooperation of a series of “Trotskyist” intellectuals and unscrupulous “historians of the workers’ movement.” As a matter of fact, Gramsci’s “moral break” with Stalinism was only a temporary disagreement with the “Third Period” policy, and he was reabsorbed after the Popular Front counter-turn of 1935. If this be the case, then certain things said in the article which Tresso wrote after Gramsci’s death seem somewhat rash. But whereas Tresso could not know anything about Gramsci’s evolution during the 11 years of his imprisonment, Leonetti was able to read several testimonies on that period. But he used them in his own unfortunate way.

To Leonetti, the “identity of views” of Gramsci and Trotsky lies above all in their ostensibly identical assessment of the “period of transition” from Fascism to Communism, as well as in the fact that they both raised the slogan of a constituent assembly for Italy. But this is a superficial and utterly false equation. As a matter of fact, whereas Trotsky emphasized that the “democratic transition” was only one possible variant of the post-Fascist development — linked to and dependent upon the revolutionary awakening of the working class — Gramsci saw such an event as “the most likely one,” and, on this basis, put forward the slogan of a constituent assembly within the framework of a gradualist, Menshevik, Popular Front perspective. It is not by chance that, a few days before his death, Gramsci let the PCd’I know that “the Popular Front in Italy is the constituent assembly.” The Stalinist continuity between Gramsci and Togliatti was thus re-established, after the interlude of the “Third Period.” On the other hand, the lack of identity between the views of Trotsky and Gramsci is shown by several other bits of evidence. According to the testimony of Bruno Tosin, whilst opposing the “turn of 1930” not only did Gramsci hold that the party had been right to expel the Trotskyist oppositionists, but in his Prison Notebooks he criticizes Trotsky every time he mentions him, ever inclined to legitimize the continuity from Lenin to Stalin.

I don’t irrationally hate Gramsci. For the most part I prefer his “liberal” Marxist phase from 1916-1920, when he was closer to Gobetti, and then his early Leninism in alliance with Bordiga. After 1923, Gramsci basically took his orders from Moscow, following all the zigzags coming out of the Kremlin. Had he not been imprisoned, I suspect he would have eventually become a more theoretically sophisticated version of Togliatti. Some of his historical and philosophical reflections are interesting, but politically he’s the pits.

Personally, it’s my opinion that the effort to sanitize Gramsci’s Dmitrovian popfrontism, in order to render them compatible with Trotsky’s views, owes to the intellectual celebrity of the former after World War II. And this celebrity is in turn largely a product of the PCI’s nonstop promotion of Gramsci since 1945. The definitive study of this historiographical shift is John Chiaradia’s “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci.” Chiaradia contends that many of the same tactics that were used to oust Trotsky from the Russian party were used to oust Bordiga from the Italian party.

This seems to be borne out by the documentary evidence. If you read anything written by communists about the Italian party before 1945, Gramsci’s name barely even appears. By contrast, Bordiga’s name appears repeatedly. In Franz Borkenau’s World Communism, Trotsky’s writings, Arthur Rosenberg’s books, Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Ignazio Silone’s section of The God that Failed, Bordiga is mentioned over and over. Like I said, after WWII he was mostly just known as Gramsci’s justly vanquished opponent.

Trotsky on Bordiga

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In all his published works and correspondence, the only reference Trotsky made to Gramsci came in Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight it, published in 1931. He explained that Italian comrades informed him that “with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party would not even allow for the possibility of the fascists’ seizing power.” Appreciative enough, I suppose. The source of this information, the “Italian comrades” to which Trotsky alluded, can be easily guessed, however. Leonetti, the erstwhile Left Oppositionist who later defected to Stalinism — dealt with above by Casciola — corresponded with Bronshtein about Italian fascism frequently during those years. He remained a loyal Gramscian throughout every phase of his career, and was one of the few prior to 1945 who recalled Gramsci’s name. Deeply resentful toward Bordiga, Leonetti even wrote an article trying to convince Trotsky that the source of Stalin’s Third Period doctrine of “social fascism” was the communist left. From the reply Trotsky sent to Souzo (pen name of Leonetti), it would seem the former was briefly swayed:

February 14, 1932

Dear Comrade Souzo:

I have received your article on the Bordigists, which I find very good and extremely useful, especially the paragraph that shows Bordiga to be the father of the theory of social fascism.

Apart from this, Trotsky was overwhelmingly positive regarding Bordiga’s role within the Italian party. In 1929, he wrote a letter to the editorial board of the journal Prometeo, in which he praised “the living, muscular, and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” He underscored his longstanding respect for and personal acquaintance with the man who had inspired their movement: “I have become acquainted with the pamphlet ‘Platform of the Left,’ which you issued back in 1926 but which has only just now reached me. Similarly, I have read the letter you addressed to me in issue number 20 of Prometeo and some of the leading articles in your paper, which enabled me to renew, after a long interruption, my fairly good knowledge of the Italian language. These documents, along with my acquaintance with the articles and speeches of Comrade Bordiga — not to mention my personal acquaintance with him — permit me to judge to a certain extent your basic views as well as the degree of agreement there is between us.”

Bordiga, like Gramsci, was imprisoned at the time. Following his release in 1930, Togliatti had Bordiga expelled on grounds of alleged “Trotskyism.” Trotsky evidently took note of this fact. Referring to himself in the third person, he wrote: “In the Italian party, serious shifts have taken place recently. You know about the expulsion from the party, on charges of solidarity with Trotsky, of Comrade Bordiga, who recently returned from exile. Our Italian comrades have written us that Bordiga, having acquainted himself with our latest publications, did indeed make a statement, it seems, about his agreement with our views.” Meanwhile, Bordiga was placed under house arrest, forced into early retirement by the fascist government. He would only return to politics in 1944, under very different circumstances.

Still, Trotsky hoped to enlist Prometeo’s support against Stalinism. Even after relations soured between Prometeo and the Italian Left Opposition in the early 1930s, Trotsky was careful to distinguish Bordiga’s thoughts from those of his self-proclaimed followers. In his “Critical Remarks on Prometeo’s Resolution,” he wrote:

[T]he Bordigists evince an inverse parliamentary cretinism by apparently c0mpletely reducing the problem of democracy to the question of the national assembly and of parliament in general. But even within the limits of the parliatuentary frame of reference they are completely in the wrong. Their antidemocratic metaphysics inevitably implies the tactic of boycotting parliament. Comrade Bordiga took this stand at the time of the Second Congress, but later he departed from it. (I think in general that in polemic one should strictly distinguish Bordiga from the Bordigists. We do not know his views, since the conditions in which he exists deprive him of the opportunity of expressing himself. But we believe that Bordiga would hardly take responsibility for the parody-like views of the group of his pupils concerned.)

His patience wearing thin, Trotsky addressed another letter to the Bordigists indicating that their professed allegiance to Bordiga, a figure for whom he had a great deal of respect, would not be enough for him to overlook his substantial disagreements with their position. “Quite obviously, the conditions in which Comrade Bordiga, the authoritative leader of your faction, found himself might have explained for a while the dilatory character of your position (without, of course, reducing its harmful aspects),” wrote Trotsky. “In replying to your ‘Open Letter,’ I took this very important, even if personal, circumstance fully into account. I am sufficiently acquainted with Comrade Bordiga, and value him highly enough, to understand the exceptional role he plays in the life of your faction. But, as you will undoubtedly grant yourselves, this consideration cannot cover all the others.”

Bordiga on Trotsky

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For his part, Bordiga often found himself on the same side of the barricades as Trotsky. Bordiga not only supported the Peace of Brest-Litovsk, siding with Lenin and Trotsky in their opposition to Bukharin and the Russian communist left, but accepted virtually all of Lenin’s criticisms of his program in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In the 1920s, Bordiga once again supported Trotsky in the struggle against Stalin’s policy of “socialism in one country.” There were certainly important differences between Trotsky and Bordiga in their respective views, but I do think it is significant that the latter favored the former for the leadership position within Russia, and that he was the only major figure within Italy to defend Trotsky after he was expelled from the party.

After the last-ditch effort to stage a revolution in Germany failed in 1923, Bordiga turned to Trotsky seeking information about what had happened. In 1926, trying to make sense of the situation, he wrote to his Russian colleague:

Moscow, 2 March 1926

Dear comrade Trotsky,

At the current enlarged Executive, during a meeting of the delegation of the Italian section with comrade Stalin, certain questions were posed about your preface to the book The Lessons of October and about your criticisms of the October 1923 events in Germany. Comrade Stalin argued that there was a contradiction in your attitude to this po attitude to this point.

To avoid the risk of quoting comrade Stalin’s words with the slightest inaccuracy, I will refer to the formulation of this same observation which is contained in a written text, i.e. the article by comrade Kusinen published in the French edition of International Correspondence, no 82, 17 December 1924. This article was published in Italian during the discussion for our IIIrd Congress (Unita, 31 August 1925). Here it is argued that:

  • before October 1923 you supported the Brandler group and you accepted the line decided on by the leading organs of the CI for the action in Germany;
  • in January 1924, in the theses drawn up with comrade Radek, you affirmed that the German party should not have launched the struggle in October;
  • it was only in September 1924 that you formulated your criticism of the errors of the KPD and the CI, which resulted in a failure to seize the most favorable moment for the struggle in Germany.

With regard to these supposed contradictions, I polemicized wittions, I polemicized with comrade Kusinen in an article which appeared in Unita in October, basing myself on the elements that were known to me. But you alone can throw full light on the question, and I ask you to do this through a brief note of information that I will use for personal instruction. It would only be with the authorization of the party organs that I would in the future use this to examine the problem in the press.

With communist greetings,
Amadeo Bordiga

Trotsky responded thus:

Dear comrade Bordiga

The exposition of the facts that you have provided is no doubt based on some obvious misunderstandings, which, once we have the documents to hand, can be dissipated without difficulty.

  • During the course of autumn 1923, I openly criticised the Central Committee led by comrade Brandler. On several occasions I had to officially express my concern that the CC would be un that the CC would be unable to lead the German proletariat to the conquest of power. This affirmation was noted in an official document of the party. Several times, I had the occasion – in speaking with or about Brandler – to say that he had not understood the specific character of the revolutionary situation, to say that he was mixing up the revolution with an armed insurrection, that he was waiting fatalistically for the development of events rather than going to meet them, etc etc…
  • It is true that I opposed being mandated to work together with Brandler and Ruth Fischer because in such a period of struggle within the Central Committee this could have led to a complete defeat, all the more so because, in the essentials, i.e. with regard to the revolution and its stages, Ruth Fischer’s position was full of the same social democratic fatalism. She had not understood that in such a period, a few weeks can be decisive for several years, and even for decades. I considered it necessary to support the existing Central Committee, to exert pressure on it, to insist that the comrades taking part in it act with the firmness demanded by their mandate, etc. No one at that time thought that it was necessary to replace Brandler and I did not make this proposal.
  • When in June 1924 Brandler came to Moscow and said that he was more optimistic about the development of the situation than during the events of the previous autumn, it became even clearer for me that Brandler had not understood this particular combination of conditions which creates a revolutionary situation. I said to him that he did not know how to distinguish the future of a revolution from its end. “Last autumn, the revolution was staring you in the face; you let the moment pass. Now, the revolution has turned its back on you, but you think that it’s coming towards you.” While I was fully convinced that in the autumn of 1923 the German party had let the decisive moment pass – as has been verified in reality – after June 1924, I was not in favor of the left carrying out a policy based on the assumption that the insurrection was still on the agenda. I explained this in a series of articles and speeches in which I tried to demonstrate that the revolutionary situation had already passed, that there would inevitably be a reflux in the revolution, that in the immediate future the Communist Party would inevitably lose influence, that the bourgeoisie would use the reflux to strengthen itself economically, that American capital would exploit this strengthening of the bourgeois regime through a wide-scale intervention in Europe around the slogans of “normalization,” “peace,” etc. In such periods, I underlined, the general revolutionary perspective is a strategic and not a tactical one.
  • I gave my support to comrade Radek’s June theses by telephone. I did not take part in drawing up these theses: I was ill. I gave my signature because they contained the affirmation that the German party had let the revolutionary situation pass it by, and that in Germany we were entering a phase not of immediate offensive but of defense and preparation. For me this was the decisive element.
  • The affirmation that I claimed that the German party would not lead the proletariat to the insurrection is false from start to finish. My main accusation against Brandler’s CC was that he was unable to keep up with events by placing the party at the head of the popular masses for the armed insurrection in the period August-October.
  • I said and wrote that since the party had, through its fatalism, lost the rhythm of the events, it was too late to give the signal for the armed insurrection: the insurrection: the military had used the time lost to the revolution to occupy the important positions, and, above all, it was clear that the mass movement was in retreat. It is here that we see the specific and original character of the revolutionary situation, which can change radically in the space of one or two months. Lenin did not say in vain in September/October 1917 that it was “now or never“, i.e. “the same revolutionary situation never repeats itself”.
  • If in January 1924, for reasons of illness, I did not take part in the work of the Comintern, it’s quite true that I did oppose what was put forward by Brandler in the Central Committee. It was my opinion that Brandler had paid dearly for the practical experience so necessary for a revolutionary leader. In this sense, I would certainly have defended the opinion that Brandler should stay in the CC had I not been outside Moscow at the time. Furthermore, I had little confidence in Maslow. On the basis of discussions I had with him, I considered that he shared all the faults of Brandler’s positions with regard to the problems of the revolution, without having Brandler’s good qualities, i.e. his serious and conscientious spirit. Independently of whether or not I was mistaken in th I was mistaken in this evaluation of Maslow, in indirect relation with the evaluation of the revolutionary situation in autumn 1923…

One of the main experiences of the German insurrection was the fact that at the decisive moment, upon which, as I have said, the long-term outcome of the revolution depended, and in all the Communist Parties, a social democratic regression was, to a greater or lesser extent, inevitable. In our revolution, thanks to the whole past of the party and to the exemplary role played by Lenin, this regression was kept to a minimum; and this despite the fact that at certain moments the success of the party in the struggle was put into danger. It seemed to me, and seems all the more so now, that these social democratic regressions are unavoidable at decisive moments in the European Communist Parties, which are younger and less tempered. This point of view should enable us to evaluate the work of the party, its experience, its offensive, its retreats in all stages of the preparation for the seizure ofon for the seizure of power. By basing ourselves on this experience the leading cadres of the party can be selected.

Comradely greetings,
L Trotsky

Upon receiving Trotsky’s response, Bordiga began to compose a text outlining his own position vis-à-vis the crisis in the Russian party. Following Trotsky’s polemical intervention into the debate over revolutionary principles in The Lessons of October (published November 1924), a triumvirate of Old Bolsheviks formed against him. They accused Trotsky of waiting until Lenin died to reintroduce his pre-Bolshevik, anti-Leninist political perspective. In the meantime, Bordiga wrote to his close comrade and collaborator, Karl Korsch. He indicated to Korsch, who’d already begun drifting toward councilism, that he was in solidarity with Trotsky.

“I am…enclosing some notes regarding our position on questions pertaining to the Russian left,” wrote Bordiga. “It is interesting that we see things differently: you who used to be highly suspicious of Trotsky have immediately subscribed to the program of unconditional solidarity with the Russian opposition, betting on Trotsky rather than on Zinoviev (a preference I share).” He stated he would not contest the Russian communist party’s state policy “as long as it remained on terrain corresponding to two documents, Lenin’s speech on the Tax in Kind and Trotsky’s report to the 4th World Congress.” Moreover, Bordiga made clear to Korsch that he considered the explanation Trotsky provided about his stance on the failed German Revolution to be adequate. “Trotsky’s positions on the German question of 1923 are satisfactory, as is his appraisal of the present world situation. The same cannot be said of the rectification made by Zinoviev on the questions of the united front and the International Red Union, or on other points which have occasional and contingent value, and place no trust in a tactic that avoids past error.”

Shortly after Bordiga published his tract on “the Trotsky question” in 1925, he was arrested by Mussolini’s government. After he returned from exile in 1930, as mentioned earlier, he was expelled from the party. It would seem that his high esteem for Trotsky as a revolutionary endured the eighteen years in which he removed himself from political discourse. Just as Trotsky differentiated between Bordiga and the Bordigists, Bordiga distinguished Trotsky from the Trotskyists. In his “Fundamentals of Revolutionary Communism,” from 1957, he wrote: “In Italy, France, and elsewhere there are many of these groups which have totally dissipated the first proletarian reactions against the terrible sense of disillusionment arising from the distortions and decompositions of Stalinism; from the opportunist plague which killed off Lenin’s Third International. One of these groups is linked to Trotskyism, but in fact fails to appreciate that Trotsky always condemned Stalin for deviating from Marx.”

Like Trotsky, he continued to defend revolutionary history from “the Stalinist school of falsification”: “One of the many falsifications of Stalin’s Brief History of the Communist Party was to lump Trotsky in together with these ‘workerists’ simply because he happened to be engaged in a debate regarding the tasks of the trade unions. In fact, Trotsky was completely on Lenin’s side at that stage, and the genuinely Marxist proposal he made was that trade unions should be absolutely subordinated to the proletarian state and party (a party which, back in 1921, he did not consider — and neither did we — as having degenerated).”

There is no sense in equating Trotsky’s positions with those of Bordiga, or even in exaggerating their closeness. However, it ought to be said that Trotsky and Bordiga were closer to one another than Trotskyism and Bordigism ever were. Closer, for that matter, than Trotsky was to “Trotskyism,” or Bordiga to “Bordigism.”

We conclude with Bordiga’s excellent statement on “the Trotsky question,” from February 1925.

Amadeo_Bordiga

The Trotsky question

Amadeo Bordiga
L’Unità
February 1925
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The discussion, which was recently concluded with the measures adopted by the EC and the Control Commission of the Communist Party of Russia against Comrade Trotsky, was based exclusively on the preface written by Trotsky to the third volume of his book Writings from 1917 (published in Russian a few months ago), dated 15 September, 1924.

The discussion on the economic policy and the internal life of the party in Russia which had previously put Trotsky in opposition to the CC, was completed by the decisions of XIIIth Congress of the party and Vth Congress of the International; Trotsky did not reopen it. In the present polemic, other texts are referred to, like the speech to the Congress of veterinary surgeons and the brochure On Lenin; but the first dates from July 28 and had not raised any polemic at that time, when the delegations of the Vth Congress were still present in Moscow; the second, written well before, had been widely quoted in the communist press of all the countries without meeting the least objection from any party organs.

The text of the preface around which the discussion is raging is not known to the Italian comrades. The international communist press did not receive it, and consequently, not having this text nor any other by Trotsky to support these theses, it published only articles against this preface. The article by the editorial board of Pravda which at the end of October opened the polemic against Trotsky was published in appendix by L´Unità. As for the preface itself, a summary of it appeared in Italian in Critica Fascista 2 and 3 of January 15 and February 1 of this year, and the beginning was reproduced by L’Avanti! of January 30. The complete preface was published in French in the Cahiers du bolchevisme, the review of the French Communist party ,  5 & 6 of December 19 & 26, 1924.

The preface of 1917 deals with the lessons of the Russian October from the point of view of the role of the revolutionary party relative to its historical task in the final struggle for the conquest of power. Recent events in international politics posed the following problem: objective historical conditions for the conquest of power by the proletariat being realized, namely the instability of the regime and apparatus of the bourgeois State, the élan of the masses towards struggle, the orientation of broad proletarian layers towards the Communist party, how can we ensure ourselves that this answers the necessities of the battle, just as the Russian party responded in October 1917, under Lenin’s leadership?

Trotsky presents the question in the following manner: experience teaches us that at the moment of the supreme struggle two currents tend to be formed in the Communist party; one which understands the possibility of armed insurrection or the need for not delaying it; and another which, at the last moment, under the pretext that the situation is  not ripe; that the relationship of forces is not favorable, propose the suspension of the action and assume a non-revolutionary and Menshevik position in practice.

In 1923 the latter tendency was on top in Bulgaria at the time of Tsankov’s coup d’état, and in October in Germany, where it determined the abandonment of the struggle which could have brought us success. In 1917, this tendency appeared within the Bolshevik party itself, and if it was beaten it was thanks to Lenin, whose formidable energy imposed on the hesitant the recognition that the situation was revolutionary; and their submission to the supreme order to start the insurrection. We should study the conduct, in 1917, of the right opposition against Lenin in the Bolshevik party and compare it with that of the adversaries of struggle which appeared in our ranks in Germany in 1923 and in other similar cases. The language of those who advocate the suspension of the struggle and their political positions are in both cases so similar that it raises the question as to measures to be taken in the International to make the truly Leninist method prevail in decisive moments, so as not to abort the historic occasions of the revolution.

The most important conclusion which arises, in our opinion, from the efficacious analysis to which Trotsky subjects the preparation and conduct of the October struggle in Russia, is that the hesitations of the right do not arise solely from an error in the evaluation of forces and in the choice of the moment for action, but especially from a true incomprehension of the principle of the revolutionary process in history: it believes that it can use another way than that of the dictatorship of the proletariat for the construction of socialism, which is contrary to the vital content of revolutionary Marxism supported and historically realized by Lenin’s titanic effort.

Indeed, the group of leading comrades of the Bolshevik party which was opposed to Lenin not only sustained that it was still necessary to wait; but it opposed to the Leninist watchwords — Socialist dictatorship of the proletariat, All power to the Soviets, Dissolution of the Constituent Assembly — other formulas, such as a combination of Soviets and a democratic Parliament, a government of “all the socialist parties,” i.e. of a coalition of Communists and Social Democrats, and these, not as transitory tactical expedients, but as the permanent forms of the Russian revolution. Thus two principle conceptions were in opposition: on the one hand, the Soviet dictatorship lead by the communist party, i.e. the proletarian revolution in all its powerful originality and which is in historical dialectical opposition to the bourgeois democratic revolution of Kerensky, which is the Leninist conception; and on the other hand to push leftwards, to deepen and defend against the foreigner the revolution of the people against tsarism, i.e. the success of the bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie.

Trotsky, splendid and without equal among those alive in the synthesis of experiences and of revolutionary truths, remarks with finesse that during revolutionary periods the reformists leave the terrain of purely formal socialism, i.e. the perspective of victory for the proletarian class by bourgeois democratic and legal means, for the pure and simple ground of bourgeois democracy while becoming defenders and direct agents of capitalism. In parallel to this a right wing of the revolutionary party will take its place in the vacuum left by the reformists, limiting itself in practice to call for a “true proletarian democracy” or something similar, even though the time has come to proclaim the bankruptcy of all democracies and go over to armed struggle.

This evaluation of the attitude of those Bolsheviks who, thus, abandoned Lenin is undoubtedly very serious, but it follows from Trotsky’s account through quotations, which have not been refuted, of the declarations of the rightists themselves and those of Lenin in response. It is necessary to raise this problem, since we do not have Lenin with us any longer, and since without him, we have lost our October revolution in Berlin, a fact of such international historical significance that it obviates any concern for the tranquility of internal life. Trotsky considers this problem in an identical way to that which the left of the Italian delegation maintained at the 5th Congress: one cannot liquidate the German error by allotting it to the right-wing which lead the German party; it shows us the need for revising the international tactic of the International and to re-examine its mode of internal organization, its way of working and of preparing for the tasks of the revolution.

The divergences in the Bolshevik Party on the eve of the revolution can be understood on the basis of a series of vigorous interventions of Lenin to rectify the line and to eliminate the hesitations. In his letter from Switzerland, Lenin had already undertaken this work. From the moment of his arrival he places himself resolutely against defensism, i.e. against the attitude supported by Pravda, among others, which pressed the workers to continue the war against Germany, to save the revolution. Lenin affirmed that we will only have to defend the revolution when the party of the proletariat, and not the opportunists agents of the bourgeoisie, have come to power.

It is known that the watchword of the Bolshevik party had hitherto been that of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” Trotsky does not claim in his text that this formula is false, but that it has failed historically and that Lenin substituted for it a formula equivalent to that of “permanent revolution,” which has been argued at other times by Trotsky and his friends.

Quite to the contrary, Trotsky asserts the accuracy of this formula which the revolutionary genius of Lenin conceived and applied, i.e. as a tactical and agitational slogan to be used before the fall of tsarism. And this is what actually occurred, since after tsarism, we do not have a pure bourgeois parliamentary democracy, but a duality between a weak bourgeois parliamentary State and the Soviets, nascent organs of power of the proletariat and the peasantry.

But from the opening of this phase, where history confirmed the accuracy of the Leninist conception of the revolution, Lenin passes immediately – in the political orientation of party, if not in the external succession of propagandistic formulations — to a more advanced position in preparation for the second and veritable revolution, of the march towards the soviet and socialist dictatorship of the proletariat through armed insurrection, of course always guiding the peasant masses in their struggle for emancipation from the feudal agrarian regime.

Trotsky was insistent on the problem of the incomprehension of the true strategic genius of Lenin by even those who, like so many of our Italian maximalists, are constantly invoking his theory and his practice of the “compromise” and of elastic maneuvers. Lenin maneuvered, but the maneuver never lost sight of the supreme objective. For others, the operation too often becomes the aim in itself and paralyses the possibility of revolutionary action, while in Lenin we see this suppleness giving way to the most implacable rigidity in his desire for the revolution and to destroy its saboteurs and enemies.

Lenin himself, in passages quoted by Trotsky, stigmatizes this incapacity to adapt to new revolutionary situations, and the fact of taking a polemical formulation, essential to the Bolsheviks at the previous time, as the ultimate word in their later policy. It is the grand question of the communist tactic and of its dangers, which we have discussed for years, even outside of the sphere of the conclusions necessary to draw to prevent all dangerous sleight-of-hand corruption of the real revolutionary contents of Lenin’s instructions.

Trotsky explains why for Lenin it has always been clear that after having passed through the transitional stage of the democratic dictatorship, i.e. by a petit-bourgeois phase, the Russian revolution would arrive at the phase of integral communist dictatorship, even before the advent of socialism in the Occident. When they recommended a coalition workers’ government and condemned the insurrectionary struggle, the rightists showed that they had adopted the Menshevik position according to which, even after having been liberated from tsarism, Russia had to await the victory of the socialist revolution in other countries before going beyond the forms of bourgeois democracy. In his preface Trotsky vigorously condemns this very characteristic error of anti-Leninism.

These questions were heatedly discussed by the party at the time of the April 1917 conference. From this moment on Lenin never ceases to forcefully reaffirm the perspective of the seizure of power. He denounces parliamentary deceit, later he castigates as «shameful» the decision of the party to take part in the “pre Parliament”– the provisional democratic assembly convened while waiting for the elections to the Constituent Assembly. After July, while following the evolution of the orientation of the masses with the greatest attention, and while understanding the need for a self imposed waiting period after the “test” and reconnaissance of the failure of the insurrection missed in the same month, he warns his comrades against the trap of Soviet legalism.

In other words, he says that one should not bind ones hands by pushing back the fight, not only to the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, but also to that of the second Congress of Soviets and to the the decisions of its majority which could continue to be in opportunist hands after the hour had sounded for the armed overthrow of the democratic government. It is known that at a certain time he declared that he would lead the party to power even without the Soviets, the reason for which certain rightists accused him of being “Blanquist.”

And Trotsky (upon whom the imbecilic champions of democracy would like to base themselves against the dictatorial theses of the Bolsheviks) once again instructs the European comrades not to make a fetish of majority, including within the Soviets: our Great Elector is the rifle in the hands of the insurgent worker, who does not dream of depositing a paper ballot but of striking the enemy.

That is not opposed to the Leninist conception of the need for having the masses on our side and the impossibility of substituting their revolutionary action by that of a handful of resolute men. But, when we have the masses with us, it is necessary, and this is the argument under discussion here, that a party or a military leadership does not prevent their struggle by diversions or hesitations. We can await the masses, and this is our duty, but the party cannot make the masses wait, under penalty of causing defeat. Here is the method of formulating the terrible problem which weighs upon us, since the bourgeoisie, in full crisis, still remains untoppled.

On October 10, 1917 the Central committee of the Bolshevik party decides on the insurrection. Lenin has won.

But the decision is not unanimous. The following day the dissidents send a letter to the principal party organizations on “the actual situation” which denounces the decisions of the majority, declares the insurrection impossible and defeat certain. On October 18 they write a new letter against the decision of the party. But on October 25 the insurrection is victorious and the Soviet government installed in Petrograd. On November 4, after the victory, the opponents of Lenin resign from the Central Committee to have the freedom to appeal to the party to support their theses: that one should not, as Lenin sustains, constitute a government of the party, but to make use of the power conquered to form a government of all the Soviet parties, i.e. with the Right Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries represented in the Soviets. It is also necessary to convene the Constituent Assembly and to let it function; these positions are defended including in the Central Committee, until the line of Lenin prevailed which the Constituent Assembly is say dispersed by the red guards.

The history of these dissensions is quite short. The comrades in question “recognized their error.” This is as it should be and it is not a question of cuffing these comrades around a bit. But it was inevitable that they would recognize their error, faced with the victory of the revolution and its consolidation — unless they were to pass directly into the camp of the counter-revolution. There remains the problem in all its gravity which flows from this simple observation: if Lenin had been in a minority in the Central Committee, if the insurrection had failed because mistrust towards it became widespread on account of of the initial distrust of a section of its leaders, those would have held exactly the same discourse which the comrades in charge of the leadership of the German Party had at the time of the crisis of October 1923. What Lenin managed to conjure up through entreaty in Russia, the International could not conjure in Germany. In these conditions, if the International wants to really live in the tradition of Lenin, it must make certain that it doesn’t find itself in this situation again: history is not generous with revolutionary occasions, and to allow them to pass by involves painful consequences which we all know about and all suffer from.

The comrades should take into account that the contents of the debate are not to be found entirely in the reasons advanced in the public motion which blames Trotsky, nor in the polemical arguments repeated and summarized by the author of articles signed A.P. Concerning comrade Trotsky, the problems which were raised come back to what I have set forth; but it is true that the other side has responded by putting the political activity undertaken by the comrade Trotsky throughout his life on trial. There is talk of a “Trotskyism” which has existed continuously against Leninism from 1903 until today, and which always existed in the form of a rightist struggle against the positions of the Bolshevik party. This is how disagreements are poisoned, but worse, this diverted the discussion by eluding the vital problem posed by Trotsky in the passages on which we have reported.

I will say only a few words on the charges hurled against Trotsky coming out of the questions raised in his foreword.

There was a Trotskyism between 1903 and 1917; it was in fact an attitude of centrism halfway between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, rather confused and theoretically doubtful, oscillating in practice from right to left, and which was duly fought by Lenin without too much discomfiture, as was his habit vis-à-vis his opponents. In none of his writings from 1917 onwards, that is to say since his adhesion to the Bolshevik party, did Trotsky return to assert or defend his positions of that epoch. He recognizes them as erroneous: in his last letter to the Central committee he says that he “regards Trotskyism as a tendency which disappeared a long time ago.” There are only accusations of him having spoken of “errors in organization”.

But one should not seek the rupture of Trotsky with his anti-Leninist past in a legal act of abjuration, but in his efforts and his writings from 1917 on. In his preface, Trotsky makes a point of showing his complete agreement with Lenin before and during October; but he refers explicitly to the period which followed the February revolution, and he observes that before even returning to Russia, in articles written in America he had expressed opinions comparable with those of Lenin in his letters from Switzerland. He never thought of trying to hide that it is he, who, faced with the lesson of history, moved on to Lenin’s terrain, whereas previously he had wrongly combated him.

Trotsky discusses with all the right and position as member of the Bolshevik party who reproaches the right-wing of his party for having an attitude which repeats the same Menshevik errors of the revolutionary period. The fact of having been, in the period previous to the revolution and the supreme struggle, unscathed by such errors and at Lenin’s side, of his school, gave only greater responsibilities to Lenin’s lieutenants to genuinely support the action and not to fall into rightist errors.

It is thus to completely reverse the terms of the debate, based on partial information, to allot to Trotsky’s thesis in the foreword of 1917, the position according to which the proletarian revolution was impossible in Russia before it took place in other countries, since it is on the contrary a critique which states that this position was at the root of the errors of the right.

If we admit that there is a new Trotskyism, which is not the case, no link could attach it to old. In any event the new Trotskyism would be left, while the old one was from the right. And between the two ranges the magnificent communist activity of Trotsky against the opportunist social-democrats, besides this was recognized without hesitation as rigorously Bolshevik by all other collaborators of Lenin .

Where is the polemic of Lenin against opportunist better assisted than in the writings of Trotsky? And it is enough to cite only one of them: Terrorism and Communism. In all the congresses of the Russian party, of the Soviets, of the International, Trotsky has submitted reports and speeches which trace in a fundamental manner the policy of Communism in recent years; and they were never opposed to those of Lenin on the key questions: never, absolutely, if we speak about the International Congresses , for which Trotsky always prepared the official proclamations, in which he divided, step by step, with Lenin, the polemics and the body of work achieved to consolidate the new International in disencumbering it of opportunist residues.

During this period of time no other interpreters of Lenin have reached the surety of conception of Trotsky on the fundamental questions of doctrine and of revolutionary policy, whereas he had had risen to the level of the Master in the effectiveness, the precision of the presentation, and the explanation of these questions, in discussion and propaganda.

I do not want to even speak about the role taken on by Trotsky as a leader in the revolutionary struggle and in political and military defense of the revolution, because I do not have either the need or the intention to make his apology; but I believe that this past must be called upon to underline the injustice that there is in exhuming the old judgement of Lenin on Trotsky’s love of the“left revolutionary phrase,” an insinuation that it is best to reserve for those who showed that they can only see revolutions from afar, and perhaps most Western “ultra-Bolsheviks’.

It is said that Trotsky represented the petit-bourgeois elements during the preceding discussion in the party. We can’t take up all the contents of this discussion, but it should not be forgotten: firstly, that with regard to the economic policy of the republic, the majority of the party and of the Central Committee took up the proposals of Trotsky and the opposition; secondly, that the opposition had a heterogeneous composition and that in the same way that one cannot allot to Trotsky the opinions of Radek on the German question, similarly it is inaccurate to allot to him those of Krassin and others in favour of more wide-ranging concessions to foreign capital; thirdly, that in the question of the internal organization of the party, Trotsky did not support systematic splitting and decentralization, but a Marxist conception of discipline, neither mechanical, nor stifling. The need for examining this important matter more clearly becomes more urgent with each passing day and besides would require a separate exposé. But the insinuation that Trotsky was made the spokesperson of petit-bourgeois tendencies is destroyed by the charge according to which he underestimated the role of peasants in the revolution compared to that industrial proletariat — another free axis of the polemic, whereas Lenin’s agrarian theses found a disciple and a faithful partisan in Trotsky (on this subject Lenin wasn’t at all defensive in saying that he had stolen the program of the Socialist Revolutionaries). All these attempts to lend anti-Bolshevik  features to Trotsky do not persuade us at all.

After the revolution Trotsky was opposed to Lenin, on the question of the of the Brest Litovsk peace and about State trade unionism. They are undoubtedly important questions, but they are not sufficient to qualify other leaders who had the same positions as Trotsky at the time as anti-Leninists. It is not on partial errors of this kind on which one can build a complex assembly to make of Trotsky our Antichrist with flurries of quotations and anecdotes where the chronology as well as the logic are upside down.

It is also said that Trotsky is in dissension with the International on the analysis of the world situation, that he considers it with pessimism, and that the facts have contradicted his forecast of a democratico-pacifist phase. It is a fact that he was entrusted with the mandate to write the Manifesto of the 5th Congress on precisely this subject, and that this was adopted with unimportant modifications. Trotsky speaks about the pacifist phase as a “danger” against which Communists must react by underlining, during these democratic periods, the inevitability of the civil war and the alternative between two opposite dictatorships. As regards pessimism, it is precisely he who denounces and fights the pessimism in others, in affirming, as Lenin said of October, that if one lets pass the opportune moment for the insurrectionary struggle, there follows an unfavourable period: the situation in Germany has confirmed this analysis only too well.

Trotsky’s schema on the world situation does not merely restrict itself to seeing the installation of left bourgeois governments everywhere; it is on the contrary a profound analysis of the forces at play in the capitalist world, which no declaration of the International currently actually calls into question, based on the fundamental thesis of the insurmountability of the current capitalist crisis.

Anti-Bolshevik elements are ready to support Trotsky. Obviously, they must be delighted at the official assertion according to which one of our major leaders is supposed to have rejected our fundamental political positions, that he is against the dictatorship and for the return to petit-bourgeois forms, etc. But already the bourgeois press have recognized that there was nothing there to hope for, that Trotsky more than any other is against democracy and for the relentless violence of the revolution against its enemies.

If bourgeois and social-traitors really hope that Trotsky undertakes a revision Leninism or Communism in their direction, it will be at their expense. Only the silence and the inaction of Trotsky could give some probability to these lies, to these speculations of our enemies. For example, the foreword which is in question was published, undoubtedly, by a fascist review; but the editors were forced of to announce at the end of the text that, unfortunately, no one on earth could think that the opinion of the review could be further away from that of Trotsky. And “Avanti!” simply makes everyone laugh when it speaks in praise of Trotsky, while at the same time it publishes the passage where, to support his theses, it cites the Italian case as a demonstration of the failure of the revolution because of the inadequacy of the parties, while thus referring precisely to the socialist party!

The German rightists accused of Trotskyism object that this is not true, because they support exactly the opposite of what Trotsky wrote: the impossibility of revolution in Germany in October 1923. Moreover the alleged solidarity of the other side can never be used as an argument in order to establish our positions. This is what this experience has taught us.

Trotsky must be judged on what he says and what he writes. Communists should not make questions of people; if some day Trotsky betrayed, he would have to be unmasked and scorched without regard. But one should not be convinced of treason by the excesses of his opponents or their privileged position in the debate. All the accusations about his past are bowled over by the simple observation that they have all been provoked by his forward to 1917 which does not refer to this question at all, whereas previously these attacks were not considered to be necessary.

The polemic against Trotsky left the workers with a feeling of sorrow and produced a smile of triumph on the lips of our enemies. So good, we want friends and enemies to know that even without and against Trotsky the proletarian party could live and overcome. But as long as the conclusions are those to which the debate leads today, Trotsky is not the man to have passed over to the enemy.

In his declarations he did not disavow a line of what he wrote, and that is not contrary to Bolshevik discipline; but he also declared that he had never wanted to constitute a faction on a political and personal basis and that he was more than ever disciplined to the party. One could not want anything more of a man who is among the worthiest of being the head of the revolutionary party.

But beyond the sensational question of his personality, problems that he raised remain: they should not be eluded, but faced.

5 thoughts on “Trotsky’s Italian connection: Gramsci or Bordiga?

  1. Gramsci was basically anti-Trotsky, but Gramsci admittedly did not have all the facts available, and wrote much while in prison. Trotsky made overtures to Bordiga, because Trotsky opportunistically tried to drum up support among any kind of tendency that rejected Stalin’s policies. The “super-radical” Left hails Bordiga as a great thinker which they have finally rescued from obscurity, but if you study his writings in detail you will be disappointed – a lot of hot-air rhetoric and very little content. Characteristic of the “super-radical” Left is that they recycle all the wrong thinkers. The basic reason is that they have a deformed ideology about what is actually necessary for intellectual progress today. Ultimately, they are religious people, and they think if people swear allegiance to some sacred truth which they discovered in some old scrolls, that the Left will progress. Not bloody likely.

  2. The French Bordigists – post-war – became part of Socialisme ou Barbarie:

    “En 1951, le groupe est rejoint par une des deux tendances de la Fraction française de la gauche communiste internationale (FFGCI), incluant une partie des membres de l’Union communiste d’avant-guerre.”

    http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialisme_ou_barbarie

    http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraction_fran%C3%A7aise_de_la_gauche_communiste_internationale

    To speak of their later incarnations would involve unspeakable complications of doctrine and organisation (I knew one of them and even he was not that clear about them).

  3. Would love to hear your take on the Laura Kipnis situation in light of your criticism of the Vampire Castle.

  4. Pingback: Leon Trotsky, “demon” of the revolution | The Charnel-House

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