Amadeo Bordiga and the Importance of the Agrarian Question for Capitalism

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Contextual Quote

"For Bordiga, capitalism was first of all the agrarian revolution, the capitalization of agriculture.


The enlightened absolutist states looting the peasants, through taxation, as a source of accumulation. These methods were a response to the successful civil societies already brought into existence in the "Calvinist" countries, whose success rested on the earlier capitalization of agriculture, above all and first of all in England. Capitalism is first of all t he agrarian revolution. Before it is possible to have industry and cities and urban workers, it is necessary to revolutionize agricultural productivity to have the surplus to free labor power from the land. Where this had not been accomplished by 1648 (the end of the Thirty Years' War and hence of the wars of religion), it had to be done by top-down statism. This created the continental mercantile tradition that, after the French Revolution, persist ed into the 20th century as a more mature mercantilism. This characterized Louis Napoleon's Second Empire (1852-1870) and above all Bismarck's Prussia and Prussia-dominated Germany.32 The latter, in particular, was copied by all the "late developers" all over the world after German unifica tion in 1870, starting with Russia. "

- Loren Goldner [1]




Loren Goldner:

"Amadeo Bordiga (best remembered, when remembered at all, as one of the "ultra-lefts" denounced by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder), on the nature of the Soviet Union, and more generally considers the thesis that the agrarian question, fundamental for Bordiga in the characterization of capitalism, is the actual, little discussed key to the history of both Social Democracy and Stalinism, the two deformations of Marxism that have dominated the 20th century. It puts forward the thesis that European (and above all German) Social Democracy itself, even when it spoke an ostensibly Marxist language, was a statist distortion of the Marxian project, and more a school for a higher stage of capitalism, the emergent Keynesian welfare state. It argues that what is disappearing today is the long statist detour in working-class emancipation, which was actually much more about a substitute bourgeois revolution for the industrialization of backward societies than about socialism or communism. It contends that any maintainance of the traditional rose-tinted view of historical German Social Democracy prior to the triumph of "revisionism" must lead to a complete impasse and absence of vision for the contemporary period. History, ever in advance of theory, is clearing away the debris of the statist legacy of Social Democracy and Stalinism. Today, the question of how the Marxian project became entwined, from the 1860's onward, with the statist project of Enlightened absolutism and its version of Aufklarung is more pressing than ever. Even more pressing, of course, is the question of how it c a n extricate itself. Attempts to focus on the centrality of the agrarian question in the Soviet experience are, in themselves, hardly new. Figures like Barrington Moore, within academia, developed such a focus long ago. But the mood of the 1960's, when Moore's book appeared, was still very much focused on industrial development as the essence of capitalism, and because Moore otherwise seemed to echo a more pallid version of Trotsky's theories of permanent revolution and combined and uneven development, his work made no particular impact on the Marxist discussion. Adam Ulam, even farther from Marxism, had written, in the Cold War period, about the real content of the Marxist movement being the agrarian question 2; his objective was to discredit "Marxism" (which he equated with Soviet ideology) by showing that it was the product of underdevelopment, not of capitalism. Gerschenkron, historically much richer than Ulam, also seemed to be a shadow of Trotsky? Undoubtedly the most important 20th century book influencing Marxist views on the agrarian question, within the the revolutionary anti-Stalinist milieu, is Preobrazhensky's New Economics, which, whatever its flaws, is essential to understanding the fate of the international left opposition. Preobrazhensky's concept of "socialist accumulation" off the peasantry is in turn heavily indebted to Rosa Luxemburg's Accumulation of Capital; Preobrazhensky posits that the "workers' state" can consciously and hu manely realize what, historically, the capitalist state had realized blindly and bloodily: the transformation of the agrarian petty producers into factory workers. (It was left to Stalin to realize this transformation con sciously and bloodily.) On the margins of this discussion, where most of the Western left is concerned, have been the ideas of the fascinating character of Amadeo Bordiga.


Bordiga is one of the most original, brilliant and utterly neglected Marxist theorists of the century. (His legacy could never be made palatable by the postwar PCI in the way that Gramsci's was.) He remained in Italy through the war (once he had been ousted and calumnied by the Comintern in the usual fashion, he was left alone by Mussolini and pursued a career as an engineer). But it is in some sense after World War II that Bordiga's work, where the present is concerned, becomes truly interesting. He lived in virtual obscurity until 1970, and even wrote a couple of articles on the upsurge of 1968. His mission after the war was, in his view, to salvage the "theoretical lessons" of the worldwide revolutionary surge of the 1917-1921 period. He felt, like almost all anti-Stalinist revolutionaries in 1945, that this required a settling of accounts with the "Russian enigma", and he wrote three books (never translated into English but they are in French) on the Russian revolution and the Soviet economy. He also wrote a 3-volume history of the Italian Communist Left (a term designating his own faction; the history unfortunately ends in 1921) and many little pamphlets and tracts.6 Much of his stuff is turgid and unreadable, but also well worth the trouble. What is unusual, and strangely contemporary, about Bordiga's view was, quite simply, his theory that capitalism equals the agrarian revolution. He probably developed this view in the pre-1914 period; some of his earliest articles are about the French and Italian Socialists' positions on the agrarian question? It is not always easy to follow Bordiga's trajectory; he believed in "revolutionary anonymity", abhorred the cult of personality, and often did not sign his written work, including his books. A Bordigist assessment of the Russian Revolution was published under the title On the Margins of the 50th Anniversary of October 1917 in 1967.8 It is something outside the "universe of discourse" of the conventional Stalin-Trotsky-(state capitalist) polemics in the U.S., Britain, France and Germany. (For example, Bordiga never uses the term "state capitalism", and rarely uses the term "Soviet Union" in recognition that the soviets were destroyed there long ago). For h i m, it was just Russian capitalism, not notably different from any other. Bordiga had a refreshing desire to want to "de-Russify" the preoccupations of the international revolutionary movement. He said that the workers' movement had been rocked by counter-revolutions before in history (i.e. after 1848 with Louis Napoleon) and that there was nothing special about Russia. On the other hand, his 25-year preoccupation with the Russian economy belies that sangfroid. (Of further interest is the fact that, in 1945, he had predicted a long period of capitalist expansion and workers' reformism, due to end in the next world crisis, beginning in 1975). Bordiga's analysis of Russia (as developed after 1945) is as follows. While his faction had totally supported Trotsky in the faction fight of the 20's, largely for reasons related to Soviet/Comintern foreign policy, the Bordigist analysis took its distances from the super-industrialization strategy of the Left Opposition, for ultimately "Bukharinist" reasons. He felt after 1945 that only something like Bukharin's strategy had had any hope of preserving the international revolutionary character of the regime, (which to Bordiga was more important than Russian industrialization) because it would not destroy the Bolshevik party. Bukharin said in the 1924-28 faction fights that the implementation of Trotsky's leftist "super-industrialization" strategy could only be carried out by the most elephantine state bureaucracy history had ever seen.10 When Stalin stole the left's program and put it into practice, he completely confirmed Bukharin, as Trotsky himself acknowledged in a backhanded way after most of his faction in Russia had capitulated to Stalin. Bordiga took more seriously perhaps than even Trotsky the idea of the international character of the revolution and of the Soviet regime; to him the idea of "socialism in one country" was a grotesque abomination of everything Marxism stood for, which it of course was. In his final confrontation with Stalin in Moscow in 1926, Bordiga proposed that all the Communist Parties of the world should jointly rule the Soviet Union, as a demonstration of the supra-national reality of the workers' movement. This proposal was, needless to say, coolly received by Stalin and his friends."


More information


Loren Goldner:

"One objective of this article was to make the person and ideas of Bordiga better known in the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, many of the sources upon which the article draws were published only in Italian or French, by obscure left-wing publishers, many of which no longer exist. They are thus, aside from the writings of Bordiga himself, virtually im possible to obtain. Readers who wish to acquire the available writings of Bordiga, in various languages, can contact the Partito Comunista Interna zionale, Via Mazzini 30, Schio, Italy.

The important writings of Bordiga are as follows.

Strottura economica e sociale della Russia d'oggi (Edizioni i1 programma comunista, 1976) is his major work on the Russian economy.

A large part of it was published in French under the title Russie et revolution dans Ia theorie marxiste (Ed. Spartacus, 1975). This was followed by a complete translation, Structure economique et sociale de la Russie d'aujourd'hui (Editions de 1' oubli, 1976, 2 vols.)

The Storia della sinistra comunista (Ed. il programma comunista), the history of Bordiga's faction fr om 1912 to 1921, appeared in 3 successive volumes beginning in 1964.

Shorter but fundamental theoretical statements are Proprieta e capitate (Ed. Iskra, F1orence 1980) and Mai /a mercesf amera l'uomo: Ia questione agraria e la teoria della rendita fondiaria secondo Marx (Ed. Iskra, 1979).

A French collection some of Bordiga's shorter texts, including his commentaries of Marx's 1844 Manuscripts, were edited with a preface by Jacques Camatte in Bordiga et Ia passion du communisme (Ed. Spartacus, 1974). There is, to my knowledge, no adequate comprehensive study of Bordiga.

Two works which avoid the worst errors and earlier calumnies are A. de Clement Amadeo Bordiga (Turin, 1971) and a biography by a PCI intel lectual, Franco Livorsi, Amadeo Bordiga (Rome, 1976).

A presentation of Bordiga's views on the Soviet phenomenon is Liliana Amadeo Bordiga: capitalismo sovietico e comunismo (Milan, 1982).

The best overall presentation of Bordiga and his theories as they influence the present article are in Jacques Camatte, "Bordiga et Ia revolution russe: Russie et necessite du communisme" in the journal lnvariance, Annee VIi, Serie II, No. 4.

A critical appreciation of the Bordigist faction is La Gauche Communiste d'ltalie, published in 1981 by the Courant Communiste Inter national. An overall "Bordigist" view of the Russian revolution and its aftermath is a special triple issue of Programme communiste," Bilan d'une revolution" (Nos. 40-41-42, Oct. 1967-June 1968), the theoretical journal of one of the then-contending Bordigist parties. I have not been able to ascertain if the views expressed in this issue were written or approved by Bordiga himself.

Two further works of interest which draw critically on Bordiga are Jean Barrot, Le mouvement communiste (Ed. Champ Libre, Paris, 1972), and Jacques Camatte, Capital et Gemeinwesen. Le 6e chapitre inedit et /'oeuvre economique de Marx (Ed. Sparactus, Paris 1978). Much information on Bordiga in his period of greatest mass influence is in the quasi-official history of the Italian Communist Party by Paolo Spriano, S toria del Partito comunista italiano, Vol. 1 Da Bordiga a Gramsci (Turin 1967). This work, like that of Livorsi, is to be used with caution."