Two Letters to the III International
Written: November 1919 and January 1920
1. Naples, 10 November 1919.
2. Naples, 11 January 1920.
Abstentionist Communist Fraction of the Italian Socialist Party
Borgo Sant’Antonio Abate 221
To the Moscow Committee of the III International.
Our fraction was formed after the Bologna Congress of the Italian Socialist Party (6-10 October 1919), but it had issued its propaganda previously through the Naples newspaper il Soviet, convening a conference at Rome which approved the programme subsequently presented to the Congress. We enclose a collection of issues of the journal, plus several copies of the programme together with the motion with which it was put to the vote.
It should be noted at the outset that throughout the war years a powerful extremist movement operated within the Party, opposing both the openly reformist politics of the parliamentary group and the General Confederation of Labour and also those of the Party leadership, despite the fact that they followed an intransigent revolutionary line in accordance with the decisions of the pre-War congresses. The leadership has always been split into two currents vis-a-vis the problem of the War. The right-wing current identified itself with Lazzari, author of the formula "neither support nor sabotage the war", the left-wing current with Serrati, the editor of Avanti!. However, the two currents presented a united front at all meetings held during the war, and although they had reservations concerning the attitude of the parliamentary group, they did not come out firmly against them. Left elements outside the leadership struggled against this ambiguity, being determined to split the reformists of the group away from the Party and not even the 1918 Congress of Rome, held just before the Armistice, to adopt a more revolutionary attitude, was able to break with the transigent politics of the deputies. The leadership, despite the addition of extremist elements like Gennari and Bombacci, did not effect much change in its line; indeed, this was weakened by a soft attitude towards some of the activities of a right wing hostile to the orientation of the majority of the Party.
After the war, apparently the whole Party adopted a "maximalist" line, affiliating to the III International. However, from a communist point of view, the Party’s attitude was not satisfactory; we beg you to note the polemics published in il Soviet taking issue with the parliamentary group, the Confederation (in connection with the "constituent assembly of trades") and with the leadership itself, in particular concerning the preparations for the 20-21 July strike. Together with other comrades from all over Italy, we at once opted our electoral abstentionism, which we supported at the Bologna Congress. We wish to make it clear that at the congress we were at variance with the Party not only on the electoral question, but also on the question of splitting the Party.
The victorious "maximalist electionist" faction too had accepted the thesis that the reformists were incompatible with the Party, but failed to act on it for purely electoral calculations – notwithstanding the anti-communist speeches of Turati and Treves. This is a powerful argument in favour of abstentionism: unless electionist and parliamentary activity is abandoned, it will not be possible to form a purely Communist Party.
Parliamentary democracy in the Western countries assumes forms of such a character that it constitutes the most formidable weapon for deflecting the revolutionary movement of the proletariat. The left in our Party has been committed to polemicizing and struggling against bourgeois democracy since 1910-11, and this experience leads us to the conclusion that in the present world revolutionary situation, all contact with the democratic system needs to be severed.
The present situation in Italy is as follows: the Party is waging a campaign against the war and the interventionist parties, certain of deriving great electoral advantages from this policy. But since the present government is composed of bourgeois parties which were hostile to the war in 1915, a certain confluence results between the Party’s electoral activity and the politics of the bourgeois government. As all the reformist ex-deputies have been readopted as candidates, the Nitti government, which has good relations with them as may be seen from the most recent parliamentary episodes, will trim its behaviour to ensure that they are preferred. Then the Party, exhausted as it is by the enormous efforts it has made in the present elections, will become bogged down in polemics against the transigent attitude of the deputies. Then we will have the preparations for the administrative elections in July 1920; for many months, the Party will make no serious revolutionary propaganda or preparations. It is to be hoped that unforeseen developments do not intervene and overwhelm the Party. We attach importance to the question of electoral activity, and we feel it is contrary to communist principles to allow individual parties affiliated to the III International to decide the question for themselves. The international communist party should study the problem and resolve it for everyone.
Today we are resolved to work towards the formation of a truly communist party, and our fraction inside the Italian Socialist Party has set itself this goal. We hope that the first parliamentary skirmishes will bring many comrades towards us, so that the split with the social-democrats may he accomplished. At the congress, we received 3,417 votes (67 sections voting for us), while the maximalist electionists won with 48,000 votes and the reformists received 14,000. We are also at variance with the maximalists on other issues of principle: in the interests of brevity we enclose a copy of the programme adopted by the congress, which is the Party’s programme today (not one member left the Party as a result of the changes in the programme), together with some comments of our own.
It should be noted that we are not collaborating with movements outside the Party, such as anarchists and syndicalists, for they follow principles which are non-communist and contrary to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Indeed, they accuse us of being more authoritarian and centralist than the other maximalists in the Party. See the polemics in il Soviet. What is needed in Italy is a comprehensive clarification of the communist programme and tactics, and we will devote all our efforts to this end. Unless a party that concerns itself solely and systematically with propagandizing and preparing the proletariat along communist lines is successfully organized, the revolution could emerge defeated.
As far as the question of tactics is concerned, in particular the setting up of Soviets, it appears to us that errors are being committed even by our friends; what we are afraid of is that nothing more will be accomplished than to give a reformist twist to the craft unions. Efforts are in fact being made to set up workshop committees, as in Turin, and then to bring all the delegates from a given industry (engineering) together to take over the leadership of the trade union, by appointing its executive committee. In this way, the political functions of the workers’ councils for which the proletariat should be prepared arc not being tackled; whereas, in our view, the most important problem is to organize a powerful class-based party (Communist Party) that will prepare the insurrectionary seizure of power from the hands of the bourgeois government.
It is our earnest desire to know your opinion concerning: (a) parliamentary and municipal electionism and the prospects for a decision on this question by the Communist International; (b) splitting the Italian party; (c) the tactical problem of setting up Soviets under a bourgeois regime, and the limits of such action.
We salute both yourselves and the great Russian proletariat, the pioneer
of universal communism.
Naples, 10 November 1919.
Dearest Comrades,Naples, 11 January 1920.
Abstentionist Communist Fraction of the Italian Socialist Party
Borgo Sant’Antonio Abate 221
To the Central Committee of the Communist III International, Moscow.
We sent you a previous communication on 11 November. We are writing in Italian in the knowledge that your office is run by Comrade Balabanov, who has an excellent knowledge of the language.
Our movement is made up of those who voted in favour of the abstentionist tendency at the Bologna congress. We are again sending you our programme and its accompanying motion. We hope you received the collection of our newspaper il Soviet, and this time we are sending you copies of Numbers 1 and 2 of the new series which began this year. The object of this letter is to let you have some comments of ours on Comrade Lenin’s letter to the German communists, published by Rote Fahne on 20 December 1919 and reproduced by Avanti! on the 31st, to give you a clearer idea of our political position.
First of all, let us draw your attention once again to the fact that the Italian Socialist Party still contains opportunist socialists of the Adler and Kautsky ilk, of whom Lenin speaks in the first part of his letter. The Italian party is not a communist party; it is not even a revolutionary party. The "maximalist electionist" majority is closer in spirit to the German Independents. At the congress we differentiated ourselves from this majority not only on the issue of electoral tactics, but also on the question of excluding the reformists led by Turati from the party. Hence the division between ourselves and those maximalists who voted in favour of Serrati’s motion at Bologna is not analogous to the division between the supporters of abstentionism and the supporters of electoral participation within the German Communist Party, but corresponds rather to the division between Communists and independents.
In programmatic terms our point of view has nothing in common with anarchism and syndicalism. We favour the strong and centralized Marxist political party that Lenin speaks of. Indeed we are the most fervent supporters of this idea in the maximalist camp. We are not In favour of boycotting economic trade unions but of communists taking them over, and our position corresponds to that expressed by comrade Zinoviev in his report to the Congress of the Russian Communist Party, published by Avanti! on 1 January.
As for the workers’ councils, these exist in only a few places in Italy and then they are exclusively factory councils, made up of workshop delegates who are concerned with questions internal to the factory. Our proposal, on the other hand, is to take the initiative in setting up rural and municipal Soviets, elected directly by the masses assembled in the factories or villages; for we believe that in preparing for the revolution, the struggle should have a predominantly political character. We are in favour of participating in elections to any representative body of the working class when the electorate consists exclusively of workers. On the other hand, we are against the participation of communists in elections for parliaments, or bourgeois municipal and provincial councils, or constituent assemblies, because we arc of the opinion that it is not possible to carry out revolutionary work in such bodies; we believe that electoral work is an obstacle in the path of the Working masses, forming a communist consciousness and laying the preparations for the proletarian dictatorship as the antithesis of bourgeois democracy.
To participate in such bodies and expect to emerge unscathed by social-democratic and collaborationist deviations is a vain hope in the current historical period, as is shown by the present Italian parliamentary session. These conclusions arc reinforced by the experience of the struggle waged by the left wing in our Party from 1910-11 to the present day against all the manoeuvrings of parliamentarism, in a country which has supported a bourgeois democratic regime for a long time: the campaign against ministerialism; against forming electoral political and administrative alliance with democratic parties; against freemasonry and bourgeois anticlericalism, etc. From this experience we drew the conclusion that the gravest danger for the socialist revolution lies in collaborating with bourgeois democracy on the terrain of social reformism. This experience was subsequently generalized in the course of the war and the revolutionary events in Russia, Germany, Hungary, etc.
Parliamentary intransigence was a practical proposition, despite continual clashes and difficulties, in a non-revolutionary period, when the conquest of power on the part of the working class did not seem very likely. In addition, the more the regime and the composition of parliament itself have a traditional democratic character, the greater become the difficulties of parliamentary action. It is with these points in mind that we would judge the comparisons with the Bolsheviks’ participation in elections to the Duma after 1905. The tactic employed by the Russian comrades, of participating in elections to the Constituent Assembly and then dissolving it by force, despite the fact that it did not prove to be the undoing of the revolution, would be a dangerous tactic to use in countries where the parliamentary system, far from being a recent phenomenon, is an institution of long standing and one that is rooted firmly in the consciousness and customs of the proletariat itself.
The work required to gain the support of the masses for the abolition of the system of democratic representation would appear to be – and is in fact – a much greater task for us in Italy than in, say, Russia or even Germany. The need to give the greatest force to this propaganda aimed at devaluing the parliamentary institution and eliminating its sinister counter-revolutionary influence has led us to the tactic of abstentionism. To electoral activity we counterpoise the violent conquest of political power on the part of the proletariat and the formation of the Council State: hence our abstentionism in no way diminishes our insistence on the need for a centralized revolutionary government. Indeed, we are against collaborating with anarchists and syndicalists within the revolutionary movement, for they do not accept such criteria of propaganda and action.
The general election of 16 November, despite the fact that it was fought by the PSI on a maximalist platform, has proved once again that electoral activity excludes and pushes into the background every other form of activity, above all illegal activity. In Italy the problem is not one of uniting legal and illegal activity, as Lenin advises the German comrades, but of beginning to reduce legal activity in order to make a start on its illegal counterpart, which does not exist at all. The new parliamentary group has devoted itself to social-democratic and minimalist work, tabling questions, drafting legislation, etc.
We conclude our exposition by letting you know that in all likelihood,
although we have maintained discipline within the PSI and upheld its tactics
until now, before long and perhaps prior to the municipal elections, which
are due in July, our traction will break away from the party that seems
set on retaining many anti-communists in its ranks, to form the Italian
Communist Party, whose first act will be to affiliate to the Communist