THESES ON TACTICS
OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF ITALY
Following the foundation of the Communist Party of Italy in January 1921 (Leghorn Congress) on the basis of the 21 points of Moscow and the programme that would later serve as the introduction to the theses republished below, the Left, which led the party until early 1923, embarked on a vigorous work of political (and then military) organization, of agitation and propaganda: most importantly of all, it participated in the mighty economic battles being waged by a proletariat which was still unbowed by the repressive actions of the democratic state apparatus and the fascist gangs which thrived in its shadow; a proletariat which had managed to resist the insidious work of political and organizational disarmament which was being carried out in its ranks by the reformists. Of all the sections of the International, it was the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I) which was the first to launch and energetically uphold the proposal of the trade-union united front: on the one hand it called on the three main workers’ organizations (the CGL, USI, SF) (1) then in existence to merge, and on the other it called for the various sectional disputes to be fused into a common platform of demands to be defended, as a "matter of principle", by the sole means of the general strike. A compact and effective network of communist groups was meanwhile formed to operate as the ’long arm’ of the party within the CGL with the aim of winning over the latter to it’s political leadership. Furthermore, the PCd’I was the one party to fight fascism on its own terrain: with violence. And although not ignoring, or concealing from the proletariat the unfortunate fact that the party was on the defensive – through no wish of its own – it didn’t hesitate, whenever circumstances allowed, to pass onto the eagerly anticipated, and necessary, counter-attack.
The PCd’I was (and there is no contradiction) a party on the offensive, as indeed it could hardly fail to be as a party in permanent opposition to the capitalist regime. And it was such, not because – as opportunists keen to cover up their betrayal will always maintain – it refused to retreat when necessary, or, worse still, because it cherished dreams of a coup de main by an audacious minority (something it always openly rejected and disowned as a non-Marxist method) but rather because it knew that History had placed it in the position, highly welcomed rather than deplored, of taking up the enemy’s supreme challenge. The party would never, not even in retreat, lay down its material and ideological arms and invoke Law, Rights and... Democracy.
In this battle to achieve a proper rearmament of the proletariat – unstinting in its day-to-day struggles although constantly abandoned or, worse, betrayed, by "its leaders" – the right and centre social democrats were perceived as the main obstacle. The struggle against social democracy was therefore an essential and integral part of the Party’s struggle against the bourgeoisie, against its central organ (the State), and against the military formations of fascism (which although "illegal" were largely funded by the government and by the industrialists and big landowners – under the table by the government and openly by the other two). Thus, the defeat of opportunism would be not only the premise for, but the consequence of, a substantial increase in the influence of the party: a party which – not because of its verbal proclamations but by force of deed and its consistency of practical as well as doctrinal positions – the proletariat would be able to recognise as its sole leader; a party which, despite having been isolated by the harsh facts of European and World history, hadn’t become disillusioned but had emerged with its resolve strengthened.
Meanwhile, contemporary developments within the Communist international need to be borne in mind if we are to understand the Theses on Tactics; especially considering that they were presented to the 2nd Congress of the Communist Party of Italy (2) as a contribution – with complete discipline to the final decisions of the Comintern Executive remaining undisputed – towards the settlement of complex and fundamental problems that were of concern to the entire communist movement. These developments need to be borne in mind, and we need to underline this, not because the theses have a merely contingent polemical value; but because within them is condensed a balance sheet of real struggles on a scale not just Italian but above-all European and extra-European, and from this balance sheet they derived not new "discoveries", but a confirmation of old directives. We therefore considered these directives as retaining a permanent and universal validity, and we have all the more reason to hold onto them today as a fixed and permanent acquisition.
* * *
Meeting from June 22nd to July 12th 1921, the 3rd Congress of the Communist International had been critical of the ill-fated "March Action" in Germany, and the policy known as the "tactic of the offensive" which had been advocated – amidst much confusion – by groups on the margins of, rather than from within, the German party. It drew two main conclusions and the Left in Italy had been the first to concur with them; both because it considered them, "in their sound and thorough-going approach, the common heritage of every communist" (3), and because the Left had already been directing the party along the same lines during one of the most difficult, and yet most active, phases of the proletarian struggle in Europe. The conclusions were as follows:
a) It doesn’t suffice to have parties solidly organized according to the principles of revolutionary Marxism, and based on the norms derived from them sanctioned during the founding congresses of the International, i.e., parties composed purely of elements possessing an accurate conception of the necessity for revolutionary struggle which don’t allow themselves to be diverted by the achievement, or hoped for achievement, of partial and temporary objectives. It is also necessary for these parties to strive to unite around themselves the growing battalions of the proletarian army which, in reaction to immediate circumstances, have been drawn into the general struggle against the class enemy and its government apparatus. Formation of genuine communist parties, and conquest of the masses, are two conditions which far from being mutually exclusive are entirely interdependent: the former being unthinkable unless as a function of the latter, and the latter being unrealisable on a class basis unless it relies on the former.
b) More than just proselytism and propaganda are needed in order to bring ever wider sections of the proletariat under the political influence, and eventually the material leadership, of the party, there is also the requirement for the party’s active and dynamic participation in the defensive battles which proletarian groupings join under the pressure of contingent material interests; interests and struggles which it would be naive and, worse still, anti-Marxist, to ignore since in the former resides the backdrop to every class conflict, and in the latter there is expressed the imperious growth of social antagonisms. The party must instead help them, "to logically unfold under their own impetus, channelling them into a general revolutionary action" (4). A party which dreams (in all situations, and consequently regardless of the balance of forces which it doesn’t even bother to try and alter) of launching the final conquest of power; a party which considers this the only activity appropriate to it is as foreign to Marxism as one which contents itself with "educational" work and bureaucratic recruit-hunting, whilst passively waiting for the "zero hour" to sound, i.e., voluntarism in the first case, and mechanicalism in the second!
For us, agreement on these points was unreserved and brooked no objections: it was total. But what the "March Action" and its aftermath would really highlight wasn’t so much the danger of a Blanquist coup de main (and in this specific case, even the 3rd Congress theses deny that one could refer to it as such) or of false left theorizations on the fringes of the movement, particularly in the KAPD, and so infantile as to be rapidly eradicated inside the 3rd International parties, but rather the unstable and restless oscillation of the young Central European parties swinging from passivity before the emergence of elementary movements (which would take them entirely by surprise) to verbal extremism after the event (such was the case in the Kapp putsch a year earlier, such was the case in March): in a word, the "March Action" highlighted the danger of an empiricism and knee-jerk eclecticism which was reflected in the scant ideological homogeneity especially of the German party, which although there from the start, had recently been aggravated by the hurried merger with the left independents. And a still greater danger was that this perpetual oscillation might eventually find its centre of gravity after a clear swing to the right, and such indeed would occur a few months later and a high price would be paid for it in the Autumn of 1923. A grave symptom of it all was the crisis within the Czechoslovakian party (severely criticized by the International Executive both before and during the 3rd Congress) which was as plethoric in its massive 400,000 membership (!) recruited at the cost of a slackening of programme and principles, as it was infected by parliamentarism, and, when faced with the extremely bitter social struggles initiated by the Czechoslovakian proletariat, with a shameful passivism (5). What greatly preoccupied the Left was the possibility that such oscillations around – let’s say – a right-wing barycentre, would gain a foothold in the International (as indeed happened) in the most tragic phase in the life of Bolshevik Russia, when its isolation made the need for a healthy influx of lifeblood and uncontaminated oxygen from the European proletariat all the more urgent.
In this context our firm and far from "Byzantine" opposition to the issuing of generic and ill-defined formulations can also be understood: we knew what Lenin and Trotsky meant might by the, but precisely because of their vagueness in a historic phase which required very precise directives, they lent themselves to the most disparate and, unfortunately, compromise prone, of interpretations. A typical example is the slogan of the "winning over of the majority of the working class" as the sine qua non for the seizure of power. «Of course – Lenin would clearly explain – we do not give the winning over of the majority a formal interpretation, like the knights of philistine ’democracy’ (...) When in July 1921, in Rome, the entire proletariat – the reformist proletariat of the trade unions and the centrist proletariat of Serrati’s party – followed the communists against the fascists, it was a conquest of the majority of the working class to our side (...) It was only a partial, momentary, and local conquest. But it was a conquest of the majority» (6). No wonder then that it didn’t take long before several parties (and even currents within the Russian party, causing repercussions in the International) were interpreting the slogan "winning over of the majority" to mean something altogether different: as meaning either the material winning over of a numerical majority by recruitment into the party (contradicting thereby the fundamental theses of 1920 on the role of the party in the proletarian revolution), or conquest no longer of the majority of the labouring classes, but of the "masses" understood in a generic sense, whether organised or not, whether proletarian or "popular". Even in the most generous of hypotheses, the slogan came to mean an abstract fixing of a statistically determinable level of direct influence (or, worse still, of actual control) over the working masses; a level considered necessary for the party to feel itself authorized by the relations of forces to launch the final battle. Thus would the importance of simple majorities be over-estimated and other much more important factors be ignored; such as the fact that in Russia in 1917 a party, not small out of choice, but solidly anchored in the continuity of its programme and practical activity within the working class, had managed to attain a commanding position during a critical phase of the struggle and had courageously grabbed the opportunity when it arose. A party is therefore entirely justified in asking that a verdict on the effectiveness of its practical activity isn’t arrived at by means of the arid and academic standard of how big it happens to be at the time (7). Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the bad habit of "judging" parties on the basis of their membership rolls, or on how well or badly they fared in the following elections, would take hold of the International, and in a sad prelude to future Stalinist praxis, the Enlarged Executive meetings would become� tribunals. Even worse deviations (brought into the open during the 4th Congress) would be committed by certain party wings and currents who would interpret the slogan "winning over of the majority" in terms of the most blatantly traditional parliamentarism, or use it to confer an absurd legitimacy on their yearnings to renew their waltzings, even to the extent of seeking organizational reconciliation, with wings and fragments of the social-democratic movement.
In brief, the general danger which loomed was believing that temporary defeats could be overcome, or the process of revolutionary maturation accelerated, by artificially "building" parties, to a presumed optimum size and capacity, by means of mergers with the flotsam and jetsam left along the way by the collapse of social-democracy or through painful diplomatic pacts on the basis of reciprocal concessions; and thereby effectively abandoning the compact discipline of programme, action and organization which is the one, sure, defining mark of the class party.
That the danger was not a hypothetical one, nor our alarm dictated by idealistic apriorisms, is proved by the fact that it was precisely at this point that the Comintern in Moscow agreed to discuss the conditions for a posthumous membership of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI); a party which historical events, branded with fire and iron into proletarian flesh, was showing itself yet again to be incurably counter-revolutionary (the first ’pacts of reconciliation’ with the fascists were signed even as the PSI ’pilgrims’ were wending their way to their Mecca of false penitence). Accepting the PSI’s ’appeal’ to join meant introducing the worse than equivocal figure of the ’sympathiser party’ into the Communist International alongside the official party and, on the same level as the latter, linked directly to Moscow (8). To ask the PSI, following Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev’s extremely well-aimed rebukes at international congresses, to split away from the Turatian Right (something it would not do, even at its next congress in Milan), meant questioning the validity of the original Conditions of Admission to the Communist International formulated in 1920: for if the lopping off of the Right of the PSI represented an effective ’litmus test’ before the founding congress of the PCd’I as proof of total acceptance of the ’21 Points’, it was no longer effective from the very moment the Serratian centrists and the Turatians in the PSI formed a bloc at the Leghorn Congress against the ultimatums from Moscow; and especially after the PSI had given a thousand proofs during the bloody course of class conflicts, and even during economic struggles, that it had made a de facto rejection of the International’s platform in the same way it had repeatedly condemned it in principle. Parties are not amorphous aggregations of individuals and groups: parties are organisms shaped by real historical circumstances, and endowed with an internal logic which cannot be reversed or distorted without undermining the basis and conditions for their future development. And it was useless to say that, all things considered, the PSI wasn’t as bad as some of the other 2nd International-type parties; for even if the Left had been directly affected by these sudden shifts during its hard work of rearming the proletariat, it didn’t treat the rejection of a merger with the PSI, or with parts of it, as a national or local issue, much less a stupid matter of prestige, but as a question of the correct international orientation. In any case, having lopped off the Right, what would the PSI consist of if not the local "Italian" variety of social-democratic centrism? And was this not enemy number one of Lenin and the Bolsheviks precisely because of its tendency to conceal its real character of gradualist and parliamentary reformism behind a mask of verbal "intransigence"? And once the PSI had combined with the PCd’I as an organized group within it, what effect would this have if not to replicate the unhappy situation of a party with not so much "two souls" within it (as was said then), but two conflicting bodies and mechanisms; a party which would end up completely paralysed, just as had happened so often at crucial times during the immediate post-war period? Finally, this compromise with the twelfth-hour penitents, might it not introduce, as it actually did, into the heart of the Communist International the disastrous praxis of continual backtracking; of oscillating now in this direction now in that; of a tactical eclecticism which allows the vicissitudes of the immediate situation to dominate over sound vision and historical foresight?
Not six months would go by before this second danger, tentatively predicted by a leadership not given to superficial judgments or hasty condemnations (even if known for its frankness) would take explicit shape in the theses on the united front approved by the Executive of the Communist International on 28 December, 1921.
The 3rd Congress had formulated its theses on the organizational structure and development of the Communist Parties with the aim of winning over the masses; when the perspective still remained – rather over-optimistic perhaps – that a bid for power was more or less imminent. The view of the International changes towards the end of 1921 (although we considered the phase already underway): it was now the bosses who were considered to be on the offensive; in all countries proletarians were fighting a bitter struggle simply to defend living standards and jobs, and were instinctively carried beyond both political divisions, and professional categories, to move onto the broadest possible front and towards the greatest possible unity. How the 3rd International parties perceived this question at the time was set out in the Theses on the Proletarian United Front, in terms which fully squared with objectives which the PCd’I had defended since its birth at Leghorn: a campaign for a plan of tactical defence of the proletariat as a whole, which by using contingent demands and objectives to extend and generalise the economic struggles, in step with the elementary pressure of the working masses themselves, didn’t stop there but got ready (with militants and workers matured in the hard school of the defence of living standards) to sooner or later graft on to it a counter-offensive return on to the one true road of revolutionary action; upheld by communists and by communists alone. We read in the ECCI-RILU Manifesto on the United Front (January 1, 1922) «[Proletarians!]: All right, you do not yet dare to take up the fight for the new, the struggle for power, for the dictatorship, with arms in hand; you are not ready to launch the great offensive on the citadels of world reaction. But at least rally to the fight for bare life, for bread, for peace. Rally for these, struggle in one fighting front, rally as the proletarian class against the class of exploiters and destroyers of the world» (9).
In that sense, and within those limitations, the proletarian united front could have ended up like the one first vigourously proclaimed and defended by the Left in Italy, the united front we proposed – via our union network – to the big workers confederations in the certainty that the general movements of the whole proletariat, when grappling with problems of interest not just to particular categories or regions but to all categories and all regions, would only be able achieve its objectives in a communist way, that is, in the way we would have pointed out to them if it had been up to us to lead the entire class: in the certainty, therefore, that proletarians entering the struggle to achieve particular objectives and with methods of action which weren’t incompatible with affiliation to this or that political party of working-class origin (therefore common also to wage-earners who were social-democratic, anarchist, etc.) would draw on the experience of the struggle itself, stimulated by our propaganda and our example, to learn the lesson that even defending a basic standard of living was possible only by being prepared to go on the offensive with all its revolutionary ramifications, just as we are resolved to do. But the International’s theses, even if they strenuously insisted on this point, and reaffirmed that any return to organizational ’unity’ was ruled out after the previous splits, didn’t stop there. They would also reinstate and endorse some initiatives of the German party – which as we saw earlier was shifting back and forth in a state of perpetual oscillation – and propose a whole series of initiatives ranging from the sending of the notorious ’open letters’ to other parties right up to contracting formal agreements and alliances with them (even if only for temporary and contingent objectives), and from there even to parliamentary support for social-democratic governments by redefining them as "workers" governments; as had indeed already occurred in Thuringia and Saxony and was recommended for Sweden, home of the arch-opportunist Branting (10).
The disagreement between ourselves and the International really started here. Our "United Front" meant joint action by all categories, all local and regional groups of workers, all national proletarian trade-union organizations with a view to an action which, under the weight of its own internal logic and given the right circumstances, would eventually end up as a communist led struggle of the entire proletarian class: it didn’t mean, nor could it mean, a shapeless jumble of diverse political positions, a removal of the barriers between revolutionaries and opportunists, or an obliteration, even temporary, of our specific character as a party of permanent opposition to the State, and to all other political parties.
It is true that the International’s theses would affirm that an indefeasible premise of the political united front was the maintenance of the party’s absolute independence, but "independence" is not a metaphysical category, it is a real fact, and it ceases to exist not only in the extreme case of joint action committees and parliamentary alliances (let alone governmental alliances which would be called for later on), but also in the more moderate case of joint actions proposed in the expectation of their certain rejection, and precisely because rejected, useful in unmasking the class enemy. In the latter case independence also ceases to exist because it clouds the proletarian’s perception of the clear gulf which exists, and which we have always said exists, and whose existence justifies our existence as a party, between the reformist and revolutionary roads, between legalitarian democracy and proletarian dictatorship, in short, between ourselves and everyone else. It would be stupid, and anti-Marxist, to say, ’but it is different for us – we communists have been steeled in the school of hard struggle, are equipped with an immutable programme, and can therefore be allowed to practice such manoeuvres because we know we won’t be affected by them’. And why it is not necessarily the case is because although we are certainly factors of History, we are also its product. We may deploy the instrument of tactics with a steady hand, but we are conditioned by it in its turn, and conditioned negatively if we use it in such a way that we discredit our final objectives. All the more so for our followers and potential followers amongst the masses who accept our leadership precisely because we point out a way antithetic to our false "brothers" and "cousins"; a way which we will need to be seen to be sticking to, and shunning all "shortcuts". It is what we do, and not what we say we’ll do, which will win over proletarian sympathisers who do not yet formally subscribe to our positions. So then, if we were to offer the Olive Branch to parties we had previously denounced in public, and invite them to participate in actions which would inevitably go beyond defending proletarian living standards and raise the question of State power, and of our attitude towards the State and its associated structures, it would be completely disastrous. It would deprive us of that genuine, non-illusory autonomy which we had been at such great pains to create, whilst generating inside and outside our own ranks a level of bewilderment and disruption which would make the passage to the illegal struggle for the conquest of power all the more difficult. There is no contradiction in our tactical formula of proletarian trade-union front alongside an unremitting political opposition toward the government and all the legal parties. Can one possibly say the same thing – all good intentions aside – about the political united front?
It is true: in given conditions the accession to power (11) of a false workers’ party may be a useful factor in our struggle to win over broader layers of the proletarian class: not in the sense though that it represents in any way an intermediate stage on the road to taking power (as certain parties and even certain sections of the 3rd International would maintain in 1922-23) but for the altogether different reason that the exercise of power by the reformists would reveal before bemused proletarians the counter-revolutionary nature of gradualist and democratic reformism. So, this accession to power will not be useful to us, will not orientate the masses in a revolutionary direction, unless we have not only predicted but denounced the fatal outcome in advance. As well as denouncing it, furthermore, we would have needed to have acted unceasingly to ensure that the outcome of such an experiment – if we hadn’t managed to prevent it – wasn’t yet more disasters, yet more massacres of the working class.
At this point a problem crops up which we have always stubbornly insisted on raising: the necessary limitations of tactics. These limitations are not fixed by us; History fixes them, and we cannot ignore them without sacrificing the prime subjective condition for revolutionary victory, be it near or far, which is the continuity of the programme, of the practical activity and of the organization, which is just the other aspect of the autonomy of the party. Either it is admitted that there are historical constants which allow accurate predictions to be made about which camp the different parties will choose – "workers" parties included – or Marxism itself collapses in ruins. Either it is admitted that the strength of the communist parties lies precisely in being able to make these predictions – not as something to be embarrassed about but openly proclaimed as something which marks us out, as our raison d’etre – or the entire edifice of the revived International collapses in ruins.
Writing a few days before the Rome Congress and a few days after the meeting of the 2nd Enlarged Executive (which had confirmed the December 1921 theses on the Proletarian United Front), this is what the Left would have to say: «What is indubitably true when considering the present situation is that the broad masses tend to act in pursuit of immediate objectives, and fail to see those more distant revolutionary objectives whose necessity is clearly understood by the communist party. We must utilize this tendency of the masses for revolutionary ends, participating in their movement in pursuit of day to day objectives». But we would ask: «Is this true in an unlimited sense? No. When we place limitations on our tactics, in the sense of never renouncing the characteristic communist Party practice of opposing the bourgeois government and legal parties, are we just theorising, or are we working correctly on the basis of experience?» (12).
A year before we had already given an answer to this question, and it wasn’t just a response plucked from our stubborn "theoretical" brains but was derived from the experience of the bloody aftermath of the war, and from the closely related collapse of the 2nd International which occurred at the start of the conflict. The balance sheet derived from these experiences was International rather than national, historical rather than contingent, just as the balance sheet derived by Marx and Engels from the class struggles in Germany and France in 1848-49 was international and historical, including as it did a definitive assessment of the stance the radical petty bourgeoisie and its parties would take at crucial junctures in the class war. And maybe this balance sheet – the result of tireless critical and practical action – could have spared, once and for all, the Western proletariat from, «the necessity of finding out for itself – learning at cost of its own blood – the true historical function of social democracy». This fatal and necessary function of social democracy is something we know about, and knowing about it prevents us from building organisational and political links, even transitory ones, with those we know to be the enemy; it also prevents us from softening our steadfast and irrevocable condemnation of this form of government if it were to be returned to power by the proletarian masses still blinded by the reformist mirage, in the expectation that disappointment would soon open their eyes. «Such an intermezzo, in the event that the proletariat was unable to muster its forces to prevent it (We must be certain about it and declare it beforehand) neither represents a necessary condition, nor a useful preparation for the advent of revolutionary forms and institutions. It represents instead a desperate attempt by the bourgeoisie to minimise and head off the impact of the proletarian attack, and to crush it under the blows of reaction should the working class still have sufficient energy to attempt the revolt against the legitimate, the humanitarian, the respectable government of social-democracy» (13).
So, there it is, the limitation! And the fact that it is a very practical limitation means we can’t bury our heads in agnosticism as though History could undo what it has already done; as though it could bestow on us some mysterious capacity for manoeuvring, for refined handling of neutral tactical instruments without deforming the hand which wields them; as though we could unpick, and weave again in a better pattern, the frayed weft of joint actions, joint committees, "benevolent neutrality" and even support for governmental combinations postulated as "a step" towards revolution and its corollary, the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Left was very conscious that behind the shield of the "political united front" (especially in the West, an area with an entrenched and pestilential democratic tradition, where the young communist parties were engaged in a process of programmatic and organisational demarcation which was much too fast and perfunctory) there might lurk a yearning for intermediary roads, for backward steps, and for a revamped unity; in a word, the Left saw the United Front as nurturing a nostalgia for solutions which were much less surgically precise than those which reality had imposed on the Bolsheviks and which the 1918-19 holocaust had rendered that much more imperative in the Europe of advanced capitalism. Behind the windbreak of the united front slogan; within the very party in Italy which, throughout the ’hot’ year of 1921, had moved as one body in a determined and incessant struggle against the capitalist offensive; there would start to emerge, here and there, regrets about a split which had been made "too far to the left"; about the refusal to make organic alliances with the "arditi del popolo" (14); and about the tenacious opposition to the reintegration – or rather the abstract wish for a reintegration – of Serratism. And in Germany the situation was even worse. We knew that the promoters of the United Front considered it of paramount importance for the party to remain completely independent in the midst of all the tactical manoeuvring – and the numerous warnings against the dangers of flexibility in the ECCI theses of December 1921 bear witness to this – but we didn’t think that that was the real issue. In an article published in March, 1922 (as also in the Rome Theses) we would try and set out our position as clearly as possible: «In our view, the independent existence of the communist party is a rather vague formula unless the value of that independence is specified in terms of the reasons that obliged us to create it on the basis of a split from the reformists, and which identify it with the programmatic consciousness and organisational discipline of the movement. The party’s programmatic content and orientation can be adversely affected by tactical errors. This is because the party, both with regard to its own internal activity, and to its external activities in the trade unions and other fields, isn’t an inanimate machine but is at the same time both a product, and maker, of History». Therefore the practical conclusion to draw is: «Under no circumstances should the Party declare that it supports political postulates and courses of action which prepare the way for changes which are in conflict with its programme... nor accept any co-responsibility for actions which might, later on, be directed by other political elements who had managed to established their leadership within a coalition whose discipline the party had recognized beforehand (a discipline without which it wouldn’t have made sense to call it a coalition in the first place). Faced, then, with the problem of social-democratic government, the stance of showing that the latter won’t be able to solve the proletariat’s problems is necessary even before it is formed if we are to prevent the proletariat from becoming totally caught up in the failure of such an experiment. That this won’t hold up the real development to which this experiment leads is spelled out in our theses as well; and it is curious that one of our critics, clearly contradicting himself, admits this when he says that this development is accelerated by the revolutionary pressure of the masses. When the Communist Party refuses to line up with the forces which advocate a social-democratic Government, it is in fact making sure that it acts as the protagonist of this pressure – in the stance it takes, in its work of propaganda, and in its struggle – on behalf of the most revolutionary part of the proletariat. Thus it is that the antithesis becomes not only theoretical but practical; altogether different from the dialectics of some comrades, who seem to see dialectics as equivalent to ’taking a flexible stance’. In fact, it is precisely dialectics understood in the correct sense which explains how the opposition of communists both before and after the social-democratic experiment is a factor which accelerates the historical process of which that experiment is itself a part».
And the article concluded with words which today seem prophetic: «Reality prescribes the limits of tactics, not theory, and this is true to the extent that, without wishing to be birds of ill-omen, we predict that if we continue relying on this method of unlimited tactical oscillations, and contingent alliances between opposed political parties, we will destroy, bit by bit, all the positive results derived from the bloody experience of class struggle, and end up not with brilliant successes, but with a depletion of the proletariat’s revolutionary energy, and thus run the risk that opportunism may once again hold its saturnalias to celebrate the defeat of the revolution; whose forces it already depicts as hesitant and fluctuating and heading down the road to Damascus» ("Our party’s task" from Il Comunista, March 21, 1922).
Exactly that, unfortunately, would happen – providing further proof that the means will adversely affect the ends unless shaped by, and strictly related to, the ends.
In its Theses on Tactics, the Left (and through it, the majority of the party) made an accurate evaluation of all the factors highlighted by the history of the living class struggle, and used this evaluation to trace a way forward which was both clear and precise. Standing in sharp contrast to those, today, who are happy just to parrot yesterday’s polemics, the Left was careful not to ignore the changing prospects of revolutionary struggle. On the contrary, it tried to anticipate them and examine their possible repercussions on the party (worrying much more about their inevitable effect during periods when the struggle was in sharp recession that when at the high water mark) and also to link all these vicissitudes of the struggle to the final objective – an objective which doesn’t only inspire our ’thinking’, is not just something to aspire to at the end of a long struggle, but which permeates the less promising present, and makes the present an inseparable link in the chain that connects the past to the future, and contingent battles to the final battle. The Left would never use periods when the class struggle is on the decline as a convenient excuse to throw overboard, like so much cumbersome ballast, that very faithfulness to principles which is the condition for a better future.
Casting aside the anchor of programmatic integrity, continuity of
and the corresponding soundness of organizational structure would mean
the International falling headlong into the abyss of "socialism in one
country" and the Stalinist counter-revolution. By holding on to it
the left would ensure that the red thread of doctrine, however narrow
might be, was safeguarded, and ready to be used for the difficult,
– but secure – ascent! (15).
1. CGL: General Confederation of Labour; USI: Italian Syndicalist Union; SF: Railway-workers Union.
2. The Theses were first published in Rassegna Comunista, no. 17, January 30th, 1922; they were presented at the Party congress in Rome on March 20-24th, 1922 – whence the name Rome Theses.
3. From the series of articles on La Tattica dell’Internazionale Comunista, which appeared in the party’s daily L’Ordine Nuovo on January 12, 17, 19, 24 and 31st 1922. They are particularly important for an understanding of our stance on tactical matters.
4. Ibid. For further information on the party’s union activity in 1921-22 consult Il Programma Comunista, issues nos. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18 in 1967. The action it took against fascism is described in issues nos. 16,17,18,21 and 22 in 1967, and 1, 2 and 3 in 1968, (Il Programma Comunista was our party organ at the time).
5. Speaking on behalf not just of the Communist Party of Italy but also of the German and Austrian parties, Terracini made the mistake of not developing these points in a rigorously dialectical way. Whence the severe reprimand from Lenin, who, incidentally, in his habitually frank manner would eventually recognise that in reaction to badly digested "leftisms" he had had "to ally with the right" more than, as the events following June-July 1921 would prove, the actual problems of the international movement merited. (see especially Notes of a Publicist, March 1922, which violently criticises the likes of Levi and Serrati).
6. LENIN, A Letter to the German Communists, 14 August, 1921, in Collected Works, Lawrence & Wishart.
7. Even Trotsky, at the Enlarged Executive of February-March 1922, amongst many, powerful reaffirmations of our shared principles, would be induced to specify in percentage terms (3/4!) the necessary level of influence required to launch a bid for power: there was no lingering over such laboratory experiments during the glorious days of Red October on either his or Lenin’s part: indeed, had not even the arithmetical majority-minority relation within the Central Committee been turned upside down?
8. As is known, this figure of the ’sympathiser party’ would be institutionalised at the 5th Congress in 1924: where even the party of the hangman Chiang-Kai-Shek could be found "sympathising".
9. From The Communist International - Documents edited by Anne Degras.
10. Jumping ahead of ourselves slightly, we recall that the contemporaneous Theses on the Reparations Question already allude to the possibility of communist participation in a "workers government", «the question whether or not the communists in Germany should enter a worker’s government isn’t a matter of principle but of opportunity (!!!). Making the decision depends on the degree of strength the working class possesses at the moment when it takes power, and on the possibilities that arise for immediately augmenting that strength». The Autumn of 1923 was already casting long shadows.
11. From then on we would insist on the absurdity of describing a social-democratic government as a workers’ government (that is how the Macdonald government would be described soon afterwards!!!). «A party which voluntarily is closed within the confines of legality, or conceives of no other political action than that which can be carried out without use of civil violence within the institutions of the bourgeois democratic constitution, isn’t a proletarian party, but a bourgeois party», (from La Tattica dell’internazionale Comunista - see note 1).
12. From Our Party’s Task in Il Comunista, March 21, 1922.
13. From The Function of Social-democracy in Il Comunista, February 6, 1921. Article reproduced in Comunismo, no. 4, (June-September,1980).
14. An anti-fascist military organisation which claimed to be "above parties" (see on this subject Programme Communiste, no. 46, p.51)
15. We have stressed those aspects of the Rome Theses which directly bear on the history of the International and the entire communist movement in order to underline how the theses came about in response to real proletarian struggles, and actual physical confrontations, with the class enemy. They did not arise as the inspired lucubrations of "Great Brains". The organic nature of the party, relations with the class, relations with other political parties: these were the burning questions of a glorious, although shadowy, epoch. We have omitted the "Italian" part (which will be dealt with in future volumes of Storia della Sinistra), in order to place still greater stress on the international nature and relevance of the Theses, of which the "Italian" part was only a corollary, or if you prefer, the application, related to a specific analysis of the relations of force in a given country, as was also the case for the theses on the agrarian question and the trade-union movement.