Italy: Debate in Rifondazione Comunista - Marxism, violence and non-violence

Violent conflict is on the increase all over the world, both in terms of wars between nations and violent clashes between the classes. While war is waged in the Middle East we also see a growing tendency to use more brutal measures against the workers in struggle, with many being killed around the world. What should the position of Marxists be on this question? This has been the subject of debate within the PRC in Italy with Bertinotti taking the position that no form of violence is justifiable. Dario Salvetti gives a different answer.

As society goes deeper into crisis, the ruling class has to turn more and more to repressive methods to maintain control. A situation of economic crisis will inevitably be accompanied by an increase in organized violence by the ruling class. The war in Iraq is just the tip of this process. Over 220,000 US soldiers are now deployed abroad.

The USA is leading the way with an unprecedented increase in its military spending, but every imperialist power is involved, looking to protect its own interests and maintain its specific weight in the world.

It would take longer to list the conflicts in progress or the points of tension around the world than to name the countries that are formally at peace (a peace of hunger, unemployment and poverty). Every revolutionary movement in South America has met with police violence. In the December 2001 upheavals in Argentina alone, 21 demonstrators were killed by the police. 150 demonstrators lost their lives during the revolutionary process in Bolivia in 2003. As we write, the Venezuelan revolution is under threat from gangs of thugs, systematically organized by the bourgeoisie.

These are just the most outstanding cases, but there are countries where the murder of trade unionists is the norm. In Colombia, for example, 28,000 activists have been killed since the foundation of the CUT (the main Colombian trade union federation).

It is in this context that PRC Secretary Fausto Bertinotti has decided to launch a debate to eradicate violence… from the practice, the history and the theory of the labour movement.

The terms of the debate

"This combination of war and terrorism, that monopolistically takes over violence, this situation confronts us with an absolutely new problem. We cannot expect to fight this monopolized violence by war. Violence, in all its variants, whatever one's moral judgement, is ineffective because it is re-absorbed by terrorism, putting politics on the sidelines".

Fausto Bertinotti

In Bertinotti's view, war and terrorism have an undefined origin and no longer correspond with class, political and economic interests. Any violent response to either would in turn become war or terrorism, so we have to be non-violent. To complete the picture, Bertinotti points to the horror of individual terrorism in Palestinian kamikaze attacks in response to the barbarism of the Israeli army. Thus he shows at a stroke that whoever poses the question of armed resistance to an invader will end up on the side of terrorism.

If anyone dares to bring up historical examples such as the wars of national liberation or resistance to Nazi-Fascism, Bertinotti is quick to point out that his reasoning does not apply to the past, but is valid only "here and now". Immediately afterwards, however, he extends it retrospectively to the entire history of the labour movement throughout the whole of the 20th century.

Thus the concentration camps, the gulags, are "the extreme manifestation of a contradiction that communism bore in its womb and that arises from an idea of power and an idea of violence". Bertinotti poses the question: "Shouldn't we ask ourselves whether there is a relationship between Kronstadt, the gulags and certain episodes connected with our own history, maybe the Foibe?"*[See note]

The stew is now ready to be served up in the pages of the Corriere della Sera or la Repubblica. Kronstadt, the gulags, the Foibe, bin Laden, Bush, the Bolsheviks, the taking of power, all are conveniently lumped together under the name of "violence".

There is nothing very original in all this. The basic idea is that the very taking of power leads to the military degeneration of the revolution, to Stalinism and thence to defeat.

But has Bertinotti ever read the writings of the Left Opposition and the revolutionaries and communists who were eliminated in Stalin's concentration camps? Instead of rushing to write off Trotsky (yet another loser in his view) he might be better advised to consult The Revolution Betrayed and other writings where the Russian revolutionary analyses the Stalinist counterrevolution that wiped out the political gains of the October Revolution. There is a river of blood separating Stalinism from Bolshevism. Lumping all these things together will inevitably mean abandoning any idea of social revolution.

War and pacifism

For Marxists, imperialist war does not come about through the intrinsic brutality of human nature, or the madness of some government. Imperialist war flows directly from the contradictions generated by capitalism. In its development, capitalism has created an international economy. But in developing the international market it has maintained private ownership of the means of production and national borders. As a result, internationalisation of the markets has been achieved not in conditions of generalised harmony but of continuous tension between the different big business groups and imperialist blocs for the defence and extension of their market shares. Instead of peace internationally, the world has experienced two world wars.

After 1945 capitalism was able to create the illusion among wide layers of workers that a peaceful road of development had been found. Unprecedented economic growth made it possible to regulate the different imperialist tensions in "peaceful" terms. The naked law of the balance of forces was hidden behind the smokescreen of international law. The capitalist powers could follow a common line internationally, often under the blue veil of the United Nations.

It should be said, by the way, that this did not change the imperialist nature of their decisions in the least. In its class content, the war against Iraq in 1991, which was waged under the flag of the UN and in common agreement between the various imperialist powers, was no different from the 2003 war. However, given the present economic crisis, there is not now the same margin for agreement between the various imperialist powers as there was in 1991.

Anyone who opposes imperialist war today is commonly defined as a "pacifist". Of course, it is perfectly understandable for thousands of workers and students to declare themselves to be "pacifists".

And yet pacifism is a well-defined ideology with its own premises and conclusions. It claims to defend peace at all times and in all circumstances, but its limitations come to the fore precisely when faced with actual conflicts.

Pacifism limits itself to preaching peace and brotherhood among men, almost religiously. On the international arena this ideology calls for a peaceful, just world, but inside any country it preaches social peace and class collaboration. By refusing any form of violence, it rejects not only the wars caused by the capitalist class but also the class struggle against the capitalists.

A word about Gandhism

"I will use all my influence and authority against the class struggle. If anybody wishes to deprive you of your property, you will find me fighting at your side".


In his theorising, Bertinotti has several times held up Gandhi as an example of radical pacifism. In doing so he demonstrates just the opposite of what he sets out to prove. Few personalities are surrounded by such an unjustified saintly halo as Gandhi.

Gandhi's ideology did not flow from the thinking of a particularly enlightened, tolerant mind but reflected clear class interests. It was a reflection, at one and the same time, of the dreams and of the weaknesses of the Indian bourgeoisie (of whom Gandhi was a leading representative). The Indian bourgeois arose under the protective wing of British imperialism. They longed for independence but feared the possibility of a proletarian revolution far more. This contradiction was reflected in Gandhian asceticism and passiveness, in the hope that independence could be achieved through reforms without having to go through a people's uprising.

In 1920 a strike broke out in the Indian textile industry. The Congress Party immediately approved a resolution of loyalty to the British Crown and Gandhi railed against the strike as an episode of "red anarchy and disruption". In 1928 the British arrested a young militant, Bagat Singh, and put him on trial on a charge of subversion. There was a wave of protests and mobilisations around the Bagat Singh trial. It was precisely at this time that Gandhi decided to begin his civil disobedience march ‑ shrewdly tolerated by the British ‑ to divert the movement from a potential uprising.

The march ended on March 19, 1931 with the signing of a pact between Gandhi and the British Viceroy Irwin, with no mention of the possibility of granting a pardon to Bagat Singh. Four days later, Singh was hanged.

Between 1942 and 1946 India was rocked by a revolutionary wave which forced the British to grant formal independence. However, in order to derail popular anger along religious lines the British, with the collaboration of the Indian ruling class, decided to divide the sub-continent into two countries: India, with a Hindu majority, and Pakistan with a Muslim majority. In the end the peace-loving Gandhi accepted the creation of this barbaric border in a subcontinent that had always seen Muslims and Hindus living peacefully side by side. Partition between India and Pakistan led to a million dead and about 10 million refugees. Today India and Pakistan are two nations equipped with atomic bombs, with continuous tension along the border. So much for the peace and serenity achieved by the prophets of non-violence.

Bourgeois democracy and violence

"What is the actual function of bourgeois legality? If one free citizen is forcibly detained by another in a cramped, uninhabitable room (…) anybody can see that this is an act of violence. But if this operation is written down, in a book called the criminal law code, and the room is a cell of the Royal Prussian prisons, it is immediately transformed into an act of peaceful legality (…). To put it briefly, what is presented as civil legality is nothing but the violence of the ruling class, elevated to the rank of a law (…). In reality, bourgeois legality (and parliamentarianism is legality in all its force) is actually a given social manifestation of the political violence of the bourgeoisie which has arisen on an economic foundation".

Rosa Luxemburg

What is considered as "peace" under capitalism is nothing but a "peaceful" system of exploitation, poverty and forced unemployment, maintained by the organized violence of the state and imperialist war. The daily violence which impregnates this system goes on behind the mask of a commonly accepted legality and morality. But legality and morality too are not eternal but historical constructions. Just as slavery was thought to be morally acceptable in ancient times, under the capitalist system it is considered morally right for a clique of capitalists to enslave millions of men and women and run the economy on the basis of their thirst for profit.

If a group of workers occupies a factory to run it democratically on the basis of need, they are committing an illegal, immoral act. If a detachment of men, dressed in blue and called policemen, are sent in to expel the occupiers and re-establish the owners' control over the company, they are carrying out a moral, legal act and their violence is justified. And this violence appears all the more justified if the policemen are acting with a warrant under the laws of a democratically elected parliament, the natural home of national sovereignty.

All men are equal in the rarefied air of bourgeois democracy. Umberto Agnelli has a single vote, as does a laid-off Fiat worker. But back on earth, in the world of real social and economic relationships, the laid-off worker has to think about how to make ends meet, while Agnelli holds the fundamental economic levers of the country. While parliament creates the impression of a democratic debate between the classes, a place where democratically elected representatives discuss and determine the fate of the country, in reality it is the bourgeoisie that controls the economy (and with it all the fundamental decisions), the press, television and publishing.

The taking of the Winter Palace

"This revolution," a fellow comrade said to me "was carried out with good proletarian manners: with organization. That's why it won - in Petrograd - so easily and completely".

From Year One of the Russian Revolution by Victor Serge

In his speeches, Bertinotti refers again and again to the "taking of the Winter Palace". This is not by chance. The episode of the taking of the Winter Palace by the Russian workers during the October 1917 revolution is held up as a symbol of the Bolsheviks' mistaken idea that the revolution could be won "in prevalently military terms", that power resided in a particular physical place and that an insurrectionary coup was all that was needed for the taking of power. Such ideas are indeed incorrect, but in no way do they correspond to the ideas of Bolshevism. As usual, Bertinotti's examples show the exact opposite of what he intends.

The October 1917 revolution was actually the second stage of the revolution that broke out in February that year. The February revolution had created the soviets ‑ workers' and peasants' councils ‑ and the October Revolution transferred all power to them. The old state apparatus, an instrument of oppression at the service of the big capitalists and landowners, was overthrown and replaced by a new state apparatus made up of thousands of workers' and peasants' councils. Of course the elimination of the bourgeois state apparatus was not an end in itself, but was the essential condition to begin transforming the economy from a system ruled on the basis of the capitalists' profits into a system democratically planned by the soviets on the basis of the population's needs.

The participation of the proletariat in the October days was so great that the state simply melted away. The awe-inspiring Peter and Paul fortress was conquered in a soldiers' meeting inside the fortress, where Trotsky won the garrison over to the side of the revolution. The Winter Palace was surrounded peacefully, a cruiser fired a few blank shots and the Palace surrendered. The tsarist generals were released if they gave their word that they would not organize resistance against the revolution. Within a few weeks these same generals were at the head of the white troops as they tried to crush the Revolution by massacres and devastation. And, even more important, while the Winter Palace was being taken, the national council of soviets, with delegates elected by millions of workers, peasants and soldiers, approved the distribution of the land to the peasants, the beginning of the building of the socialist economy and the immediate cessation of hostilities at the front, with the demand for peace without annexations.

As for the question of violence and non-violence, the alleged bloodbath of the October Revolution actually put an end to the real bloodbath caused by capitalism: the slaughter of the First World War.

The question of self-defence

Pietro Ingrao [a leader of the old PCI, Italian Communist Party, regarded as belonging to its left-wing and now held up as a kind of “old father” of the movement. Editor’s note] was one of the first to respond to Bertinotti's appeal, declaring his enthusiasm for his innovations. However, after praising every word of it, he notes in passing: "There is a question that Fausto [Berttinotti] does not clarify (…). What is to be done against the armed violence of the aggressor? (…) What road can millions take, the peoples of the world, to repulse U.S. violence? Is there or not an obligation to resist also with arms? Is there not a right of self-defence which must not or cannot renounce the use of arms?"

We have tried to answer this question, even if in general terms. As Marxists we reject this system, a system containing the kernel of all violence in the exploitation of man by man.

We also reject terrorism, a tactic that is as counterproductive as it is barbaric and infantile. The power of capitalism does not reside in this or that minister, in this or that bank, and cannot be eliminated by assassinating a capitalist or blowing up a bank. The power of capitalism resides in private ownership of the means of production and this is what we aim to eliminate. But no ruling class has ever given up its privileges without a struggle. This will apply as much to the capitalist class as to any other; they will be ready to unleash all kinds of violence against the revolution. For Marxists, any consideration of violence starts from the simple, straightforward need for self-defence.

Of course, this does not justify the use of force in all cases, but only when it comes from the masses in the context of a perspective of transformation of society. This is why Marxists oppose the criminal terrorist acts of the Red Brigades or ETA, but intransigently defend all the great Revolutions of the past. And this is not only a historical debate. Marxists today defend the workers' and peasants' militias that are being formed in Bolivia or Venezuela to defend the revolutionary process against the violent aggression of the ruling class and imperialism.

March, 2004


*Foibe: the name of some rock cavities on the North-eastern Italian border area. There are about 1,700 on the Istrian peninsula.

At the end of the First World War, Italy, as a victorious power, extended its territory into the Istrian peninsula and Dalmatia on the pretext that these were "historically" Italian areas. International treaties about the "self-determination of nations" simply did not consider the half a million Slovenes and Croats who lived there. A process of Italianisation took place, particularly under the fascist regime, with the forcible suppression of the Slav languages and the Italianisation of names of people and places, along with the repression of the workers' movement as in the rest of Italy.

After the fall of the Italian fascist regime in April and the surrender of the new government in September 1943 the Yugoslav National Liberation Army took control of a part of Istria and maintained power there for 3-4 weeks. They held these positions until the Nazi-Fascists were able to re-establish control, massacring 13,000 Istrians and destroying entire villages.

At the end of World War II it emerged that during that interval of partisan rule a number of people had been killed and their bodies thrown into the foibe. They numbered about three hundred; they were mainly fascist leaders, fascist police and others who had collaborated with the Italian (and Nazi) occupation.

Undoubtedly there was some summary justice, often carried out by the local population who went beyond the orders of the partisans. But this was the reaction of ordinary people enraged by the terrible killings and suffering inflicted on them by the fascists. However, the whole episode has been blown up out of all proportion by the Italian Right, who periodically bring it up as an example of "communist violence", especially when there is discussion about Nazi atrocities or the brutality of Mussolini's regime. They claim that these people were killed just because they were Italians, in an ethnic cleansing operation. To give an idea of the exaggerations, no more than 20 bodies were recovered from the foiba of Basovizza, and yet they talk of 500 cubic metres of bodies, i.e. about 2,500 people.

The real number of people who disappeared as a result of arrests and deportations in 1943 and at the end of the war totalled 2-3 thousand, again mainly agents and collaborators of the fascist regime, those people who had been responsible for the terrible massacre of Slovenes and Croatians. Only a part of these ended up in the "foibe", while the Right continue to talk of tens of thousands massacred there by the Communists. They do this to cover up their own crimes, which involved the killings of thousands of Italian workers and also the deportation of the Italian Jews to the Nazi death camps.

The leaders of the Italian left should put such episodes in their correct context, and defend the right of a population to resist invasion and occupation and they should denounce the hypocrisy and exaggerations of the right. It should be pointed out that Italian fascist military operations in Yugoslavia from April 1941 to September 1943 cost the lives of over 250,000 people in concentration camps and prisons or in reprisals for partisan operations. Instead there has been a tendency on the part of the leaders of the left in Italy to back down in the face of right-wing propaganda, in their desperate search for a respectable, non-violent image. Bertinotti's latest speeches on the question are another example of this.

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