Bordiga’s Marxism, no way to unite theory and practice

August 22, 2010

Bordiga’s Marxism, no way to unite theory and practice

Necessity is an evil, but there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity. Everywhere the paths to freedom are open.
–Marx, Doctoral Thesis, 1841

Loren Goldner’s 1991 article, “Communism Is the Material Human Community: Amadeo Bordiga Today” was recently the topic of discussion among a group of anarchist Marxists, looking into critical perspectives on post-1917 Russian society. Bordiga, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, characterized revolutionary Russia from the start as a statist detour to capitalist development based, as Goldner puts it, on “his theory that capitalism equals the agrarian revolution.”

This obliquely refers to Marx’s view that a specifically capitalist form of commodity production is based on the dissolution of self-sustaining pre-capitalist agrarian relations, forcing peasants off the land, setting them “free” from their living with no commodity to sell but their own labor-power. Capitalism is thus production by alienated labor, meaning labor becomes a mere means to life and a means for extracting value and surplus value for the capitalist.


While Goldner traces Bordiga’s uniqueness among the spectrum of post-Marx-Marxist (Trotskyist and Stalinist) tendencies, the issue is Bordiga’s treatment of Marx, especially the meaning of the “agrarian question” in Russia. Neither Bordiga nor Goldner comprehends Marx’s view that the communal property form, still existing in Russia’s rural community, could be the basis of a new socialist beginning bypassing the torturous path of capitalism, if there was a Russian revolution complemented by revolution in the West.

The unearthing of Marx’s writings on this was a shock to the prevailing “Marxist” view of unilinear human development through fixed stages. This simplification came out of a narrow reading of Marx’s view that socialism requires the development of the “forces of production” as if that meant only technology and not the subjective powers of cooperative labor. Marx felt that if the latter prevailed, the Russian commune could appropriate modern production methods from solidarity with workers who have overthrown capitalism.

Goldner claims that “by his death, Marx had decided that Russia had missed the chance” to bypass capitalism. This contradicts Marx’s restatement in the 1882 introduction to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto that “the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for communist development.” If one fails to grapple with Marx’s remarkable theoretical elaborations on the Russian Commune, it can result in Bordiga’s reduction of theory to the inevitability, after the Russian Revolution, of a statist drive to create capitalism through uprooting the agricultural population.


This misses Marx’s multilinear view of revolution and human development. Even if the Russian communal form didn’t survive, Marx never gave up on the peasantry as a subject, potentially creating their own new spontaneous forms in what he called a “second edition of the peasant wars.” Marx’s multilinear view is also reflected in his investigations into the so-called “primitive commune” discovered by anthropologists, which, Marx noted, had a more advanced form of human relations than contemporary society as seen in the relations between women and men. In short, missing is Marx’s humanist dialectic of uniting theory and practice through all the alienations that emerge in the ways human relations shape material life.

Though Goldner points to Marx’s ties to Hegel, the active subjective side of Marx’s dialectic is not reflected in Bordiga’s theory. Bordiga’s theory became a way of accounting for what happened, instead of seeing dualities and tendencies that point to a totally different, that is, non-capitalist future, at each stage of development.


Marx theorized from the perspective of the highpoint of each revolutionary moment as a way to think about the next moment, whether in his summary of the 1848 revolutions or the 1871 Paris Commune. He knew that the Paris Commune was premature, only the first attempt at proletarian self-government and internationalism, yet it helped clarify his theory of fetishism that only freely associated labor can go beyond the self-alienating way objectivity presents itself to commodity producers.

Marx’s humanism, created out of a critical re-creation of Hegel’s dialectic in 1844, is the ground for his unity of theory and practice. That, rather than Bordiga’s truncated concept of theory, speaks to today because Marx’s humanism doesn’t stop with the overthrow of capitalism’s alienated labor, but is a concept of permanent movement through all the ways humans reproduce their humanity, including farming and what Marx then called the most fundamental relation of all: the man/woman relation.

–Ron Kelch

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