The conflict between Gramsci and Bordiga in the early days of the Italian Communist Party, and the Lyon Theses

This article explains the disagreements and political errors that marred the early years of the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I). The Lyon Congress of 1926 was a culmination of the contradictory nature of the PCd’I which – compounded by the bureaucratic degeneration of the Third International – tragically contributed to the defeat of the Italian communists, alongside the rest of the workers' movement, at the hands of fascism.


The first years of the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I), born out of the Livorno split in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in 1921 (after the PSI leadership had played a treacherous role during the Occupation of the Factories a few months earlier), were intense and difficult. This young and inexperienced party had to face challenges that were unprecedented for the communist movement: how to fight fascism – an unfamiliar, reactionary phenomenon – and how to engage with a Communist International (whose strategic and tactical orientation, decided at the third and fourth congresses, the young party did not share) that was soon thereafter taken over by the same process of bureaucratic degeneration underway in the International’s leading party, the Russian Bolsheviks.

The party born at Livorno was dominated by the ideas of Amadeo Bordiga (13 June 1889 – 23 July 1970) (who was the recognised leader and the founder of the PCd'I). He had played a key role in organising the most intransigent revolutionary wing of the PSI and therefore had great authority within the ranks of the new party. And although he was a revolutionary of great stature, he unfortunately adopted an ultra-left position and rejected the United Front tactic advised by the leadership of the Communist International.

He had been the most determined in preparing the split from the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). He had succeeded in uniting the left communist current in Milan – with its main leaders Fortichiari and Repossi, a group of maximalists (centrists) behind Gennari, and the group of the Ordine Nuovo – around himself and his faction, represented by the paper Il Soviet. Gramsci and Terracini were on the central committee from the beginning.

The split, although necessary, did not resolve on its own the problem of creating a revolutionary leadership in Italy: it merely created the basis upon which to build it.

The second congress of the PCd’I

The debates within the Comintern and in particular the polemic over whether the correctness of the united front tactic as a means of winning over the ranks of the social democratic parties, was not a purely theoretical or abstract disagreement, and it had very practical consequences, as was to be tragically demonstrated in Italy in that period.

The second congress of the PCd’I, held in Rome in March 1922, contained the essence of Bordigist thought: the rejection of any form of cooperation with social democracy and a refusal to adopt the slogan “For a workers’ government.” The united front tactic was accepted by the Italian Communists only on the industrial front: it was acceptable to work with D’Aragona (leader of the CGL union federation), but not with Turati (right-wing PSI leader).

In terms of political perspectives, the PCd’I saw on the horizon the opening of a social democratic phase in Italy. Social democracy would bring together all the other parties in a government of national unity. This perspective was shared by the overwhelming majority of the party leadership. See these words by Gramsci:

“The same process will take place in Italy as in other capitalist countries. Against the advance of the working class, a coalition of all the reactionary elements will form, from the fascists to the Popular Party and the socialists: actually, the socialists will become the vanguard of the anti-proletarian reaction because they know best the weaknesses of the working class.” (Paolo Spriano. Storia del Partito comunista italiano, Volume 1: Da Bordiga a Gramsci. p.138)

Gramsci Image public domainThe clashes between Gramsci and Bordiga defined the early years of the PCd'I / Image: public domain

It must be acknowledged, as Trotsky did later, that Gramsci was the only one who didn’t rule out a victory of fascism in Italy. Nonetheless, in 1921-22 the tactics of the PCd’I were guided by incorrect and sectarian positions. Clearly, the tactic of a united front against fascism was considered useless if social democracy and fascism were going to make a deal and become part of the same camp; and it would appear useless even to those who, unlike Bordiga, didn’t consider non-collaboration with social democracy a question of principle.

On Trotsky’s initiative, the Comintern harshly criticised these Theses. See this letter from the Presidium to the PCd’I:

“We invite the Communist Party to fight for the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies in order to install a workers’ government. By establishing a minimum programme for the demands to be met by a workers’ government, the Communists must declare themselves ready to form a bloc with the social democratic party and support it, insofar as it defends the interests of the working class. If the PSI accepts, struggles will begin, which will be transported from the parliamentary field of action to other fields. With this we answer the objection that the slogan of a workers’ government means nothing more than a parliamentary union. If the PSI rejects our proposal, then the masses will be persuaded that we have shown them a concrete way forward, while the PSI does not know what to do.” (Leon Trotsky. Scritti sull’Italia. p.82)

At the Rome Congress, the dissenting voices were a minority, easily identifiable in the “right” of the party around Tasca, which maintained a well-defined profile throughout the entire period leading up the Lyon Congress. The group around the Ordine Nuovo fell in line with the positions developed by Bordiga and the comrades around him. These positions expressed the dominant sentiment in the rank-and-file of the party, of the need for a radical break not only with the moderate positions of Turati (the leader of the openly reformist wing of the party) but also with the radical maximalism (i.e. Centrism) of Serrati, the party leader, which had proven itself incapable of leading the working class and had thus paved the way for fascism. This sectarianism had many genuine aspects: the task of a communist leadership should have been to educate the rank and file so as to limit and eventually eradicate these impulses; instead, the Bordigists fanned the flames of this ultra-leftism.

The Rome Theses did not stand the test of time. The coming to power of fascism, with the March on Rome in October 1922, refuted the perspectives put forward by the leadership.

Already, the creation of an anti-fascist movement like the Arditi del Popolo, a perfect example of a united front organised from below, started to delineate the first post-Livorno differences between Bordiga and Gramsci.

From Gramsci:

“Are the communists against the movement of the Arditi del Popolo? Quite the contrary. They strive for the creation of an armed proletarian force capable of defeating the bourgeoisie and to preside over the development and organisation of the new productive forces generated by capitalism.” (Quoted in Spriano, p.143.)

This was very far from the official position of the Party Executive, which can be seen here:

“We can only deplore the fact that certain comrades have been in contact with the Roman initiators of the Arditi del Popolo to offer their help and ask for instructions. If this were to repeat itself, harsher measures would be adopted. The Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Italy and that of the Communist Youth Federation of Italy warn all comrades and all communist organisations to be extremely wary of anyone who, in person or through correspondence, proposes to found, or act with, units of the Arditi del Popolo.” (“Inquadramento delle forze comuniste”, from La lotta del Partito comunista d’Italia, p.21.)

From this incident alone, we can see all the limitations of Bordiga’s dogmatic way of thinking: for him there could be no tactical flexibility on the road to winning over the majority of the proletariat to the communist programme. This rigidity was at the root of his abstentionist positions and his opposition to a united front in the political sphere, for example. Furthermore, Bordiga saw no substantial differences between bourgeois democracy and a Bonapartist or fascist dictatorship, as both were forms of domination by capital.

For Bordiga, the vanguard of the proletariat would become convinced of the correctness of the communists’ ideas of its own accord and would consequently join the party. It was enough to wait and educate the necessary cadres in order to be prepared when, at the nth hour, the revolution would come. This kind of messianic waiting, however, has nothing to do with Marxism.

The clash begins

It is precisely on the question of the united front that the first differences between Gramsci and Bordiga came to light. Already, at the fourth congress of the Comintern, the line of the PCd’I had been subjected to hard criticism by the International, which demanded that the Italian leadership accept the line of the congress [i.e. to adopt the United Front tactic aimed at the ranks of the PSI as a means of uniting the whole of the advances layer of the working class around the Communist Party] and guide the party on that basis.

This confrontation yielded the first organisational diktat emitted towards the PCd’I, at the hands of Zinoviev, who used his authority to nominate a new executive committee where three members were from the old majority (Fortichiari, Scoccimarro, Togliatti) and two from the right (Tasca, Vota). This was the first time the Comintern used its authority to nominate from above the leaders of a national section, without the agreement of the designated leaders themselves.

See below for an idea of the state of mind of this new leadership:

“Amadeo positions himself from the point of view of an international minority, we must position ourselves from the point of view of a national majority.” (Palmiro Togliatti. La formazione del gruppo dirigente del Pci, Editori Riuniti. p.197.)

“What attitude should we assume politically? (...) If before the fifth congress the party has healed from this crisis, if it has a constitutive nucleus and a centre that has the trust of the Italian masses thanks to its own actions rather than the international situation, then we will have the luxury of criticising. For now it seems to me it is best for us to avoid the question and buy time.” (Ibid. p.262.)

This “opportunism” will have deep and negative consequences for the PCd’I.

The Como Conference

The group around Gramsci defended a line that was more correct than that of the Bordigists, but they were in the minority and it was only because of circumstance and the will of Moscow that they found themselves leading the party. The intermediate cadres of the PCd’I, the ones leading the local sections, were almost all with Bordiga.

Proof of this came at the special conference held in Como in June 1924. Present were the secretaries of the local branches, the interregional secretaries and the members of the Central Committee. There were three documents up for discussion: one presented by Tasca’s right wing, one from the “centre” presented by Gramsci, and one from the left signed by Bordiga. Bordiga got the votes of 33 out of 45 local secretaries, four out of five interregional secretaries, the representative from the Youth Federation and one CC member. Tasca got the votes of five local secretaries, one interregional secretary and four CC members. Gramsci got four local secretaries and four CC members.

The “centre” that was now leading the party was delegitimised by this vote. Even after such a clear result, Gramsci and his faction still did not contemplate allowing any challenges to their leadership. They didn’t see that it is impossible to lead a communist party whose rank and file does not share the line of the leadership. But this, after all, was the method dictated by the Secretary of the Comintern, which has aptly been named “Zinovievism”, i.e. resolving political questions with organisational methods.

Grigorii Zinovieff 1920 Image public domainThe Comintern based its relations with the PCd'I on “Zinovievism”, i.e. dealing with politics through organisational methods / Image: public domain

In the long run, this was to pave the way for the growth of a bureaucracy within the party.

The party was reorganised directly by Moscow: after the fifth congress of the Comintern, the CC was enlarged to include 17 members: nine from the centre, four from the right and four “terzini” (maximalist internationalists from the PSI who joined the PCd’I). The executive committee was made up of five members with the centre, Gramsci, Togliatti and Scoccimarro, having a majority. Thus, the left was completely excluded from the leading and executive bodies of the party.

We can say that the formation of the new leadership of the PCd’I, also the name of Togliatti’s famous book about that period, was carried out through a series of forced organisational manoeuvres, which heavily impacted on the future of the party.

The opposition around Bordiga reacted by organising itself more and more openly. In April 1925 they created an “Entente Committee” (Comitato d’Intesa) to bring together all the elements of the left. In a fit of rage, the leadership removed all Entente members from any and all leadership positions they held. Fortichiari, among others, was removed from the position of local secretary in Milan.

The disagreements between the leadership and the left spread to practically all aspects of Italian and international politics, including the debate unfolding in the USSR following Lenin’s death.

Already, at the Como Conference, Gramsci had tried to draw parallels between Bordiga’s opposition and Trotsky’s position. Their positions became even more divergent when Bordiga openly defended the founder of the Red Army in an article entitled “The Trotsky Question”, an article written in February 1925, blocked for months by the leadership and finally published in July, during the height of the campaign against the left.

Whereas in Gramsci we see an interest in international questions that is purely instrumental to the internal factional struggle in the Italian party, Bordiga was among the first communist leaders outside the USSR to grasp the danger of a degeneration of the Russian Revolution and to position himself firmly against it.

Bordiga understood that the attack against Trotsky launched by the budding Soviet bureaucracy was only the most evident symptom of the degeneration of the USSR, which was already starting to infect the International as well.

On this question, the most important one for the world communist movement at that moment, Trotsky and Bordiga went jointly into battle inside the International and met several times in the years 1924-26.

However, this common struggle could not develop into a stable political alliance, as there were too many points of divergence between the Bolshevik-Leninists (the supporters of Trotsky) and the dogmatic ultra-leftism of Bordigism.

The assassination of Matteotti

During the fifth congress of the Comintern, the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti was carried out. Matteotti was a member of parliament for the Unitary Socialist Party (PSU), the reformists led by Turati who had been expelled from the PSI in October 1922 for breaking the ban on making alliances with bourgeois parties. He paid the price for denouncing the fascists’ use of fraud and intimidation during the April 1924 elections in a speech in parliament: he was killed by a group of fascist hitmen.

There was a great outburst of popular feeling, which led to a period of crisis for the fascist regime, lasting a few months. On 14 June 1924, the MPs of the opposition parties decided to boycott parliament and formed the “Opposition Committee”. This withdrawal became known as the Aventine Secession, named after the hill where plebeians were thought to have operated their own secession from the patricians in Roman times.

At first, the Communist Party joined this bloc, made up of all the bourgeois opposition parties (except the right led by Orlando, Salandra and Giolitti) as well as the maximalists and reformists.

Giacomo Matteotti Image public domainThe assassination of Giacomo Matteotti by fascist hitmen in 1924 marked a decisive point in the situation / Image: public domain

The Opposition Committee was a democratic and legalistic movement. They refused the communists’ demand for a general strike: in their minds, the task of removing Mussolini from office belonged to the King and the judiciary. The communist group left the Committee and when, on 27 June 1924, the CGL announced a 10-minute walkout in protest, the communists were the only ones who called for it to be transformed into a one-day general strike.

However, after leaving the Aventine bloc, the PCd’I adopted an unclear position with the slogan “Down with the assassins’ government!”, which lacked clarity as to what would replace the fascist government and thus left the door open for collaboration with the Opposition.

Bordiga developed a critical position that was partially correct: the communists should either be part of the Opposition Committee or fight it. The second option, however, lacked any proposal directed at the maximalists and reformists who, as the elections a few months before had shown, still had an important base within the working class. In the elections of 6 April 1924, held under a first-past-the-post system that scandalously favoured the fascists, the PSU had won 415,000 votes, the maximalists 341,000 and the Communists 268,000. This was a gratifying result for the communists, giving the party 19 deputies in parliament.

On 15 October, the CC launched the slogan of the “anti-parliament”, i.e. of transforming the Aventine Opposition into a parliamentary assembly of the opposition forces:

“The Communist Party believes that bringing together all the parliamentary groups of the Opposition in an assembly, convened on the basis of parliamentary regulations, as a Parliament opposed to the Fascist Parliament, would take on a very different meaning, as it would prolong the crisis and it would remobilise the masses, which is the essential condition for an effective fight against fascism. Thus, it invites the opposition forces to convene this assembly.” (Il partito decapitato. p. 149)

Naturally, the proposal was rejected by all the other parties. The slogan launched by the PCd’I was trying to move past the passivity of the Aventine Opposition but was attempting to do so with a formulation that opened the door for collaboration between parties representing different classes (including republicans, liberals, etc.). If successful, this wouldn’t have challenged the masses’ illusions in bourgeois democracy, nor would it have separated the workers in the PSI and PSU from their reformist leaders.

The left of the Communist Party, while reiterating its abstentionism on principle, reminded others that the line of the Third International was to exploit the parliamentary podium in a revolutionary way. The leadership finally accepted this and, on 12 November 1924, Luigi Repossi, one of the communist MPs, gave a powerful speech, pointing an accusing finger at the fascist government.

This decision did not come without its repercussions: the Comintern first banned the communists from returning to parliament and then demanded they only send one deputy and one delegate to the Opposition Committee. The latter, however, refused to receive even Gramsci!

The wavering tactics of the Comintern, characteristic of Zinoviev’s leadership, were thus also applied to Italy, with meagre results.

The King had no intention of getting rid of Mussolini and the Aventine experience finally exhausted itself miserably. Mussolini, now past the period of crisis, went on the offensive. In a famous speech in parliament in December 1925, he claimed full responsibility for the assassination of Matteotti and issued a series of decrees, later known as the Leggi fascistissime (Extraordinary Fascist Laws), resulting in the jailing of hundreds of opposition members and the definitive end of civil liberties, thus establishing his regime as an open one-party dictatorship.

The Lyon Congress

Just as Mussolini was tightening his totalitarian grip, the Third Congress of the PCd’I was held in Lyon from 21-26 January 1926. Four years had passed since the Rome Congress and all the changes that had been carried out within the party in that period were on full display.

Firstly, this could be seen in the way the congress was run and in the voting method adopted. Two documents were up for discussion: one from the Centre (which became known as the “Lyon Theses”) and one from Bordiga’s Left.

The document for the Centre, drafted by Gramsci, got over 90 percent of the votes, while the left only got 9.2 percent. It would thus seem that Gramsci had completely overturned the balance of forces since the Como special conference. But this is only partially true, since votes from the local sections were counted in a very ‘strange’ way: all members who didn’t vote for the Left were automatically counted as having voted for the Centre.

Comrades who weren’t able to get to the congresses and wanted to vote for Bordiga had to do this via postal vote (which was unheard of in Italy at the time), otherwise they would be counted as supporters of the Centre. This rule was designed to allow the Party Executive to win a very wide majority and to complete the process of so-called “Bolshevisation” of the party, the slogan with which the fifth congress of the Comintern had concluded its proceedings.

This Bolshevisation, however, did not consist in educating cadres politically about the lessons drawn from the history of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin’s leadership, but rather in a homogenisation of practices and political positions, under the diktats of the Comintern, which was undergoing a bureaucratic degeneration.

In The Third International After Lenin, Trotsky wrote:

“The “Bolshevization” of 1924 assumed completely the character of a caricature. A revolver was held at the temples of the leading organs of the communist parties with the demand that they adopt immediately a final position on the internal disputes in the CPSU without any information and any discussion; and besides, they were aware in advance that whether or not they could remain in the Comintern depended on the position they took.” (Part 4, section 11, ‘The Question of the Internal Party Regime’)

In the Lyon Theses, factions were explicitly prohibited:

“The centralization and cohesion of the party require that there should not exist organized groups within it which take on the character of factions. [...] The existence of, and struggle between, factions are in fact incompatible with the essence of the proletarian party, since they break its unity and open a path for the influence of other classes.” (Paragraph 31)

The Theses added that tendencies were possible, but it doesn’t take much to compare these words to the ones used by Stalin regarding the Left Opposition in the CPSU. In the context of a factional fight in the PCd’I, these words were tantamount to a threat of expulsion (which was later in fact concretised) by the majority. This threat was also made explicit:

“Ultra-leftism [...] must be combated as such, not just through propaganda, but through political action and, if necessary, through organizational measures.” (Ibid, Paragraph 27)

Trotsky Image public domainDespite Bordiga finding common cause with Trotsky against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Comintern, the major political differences between the two prevented any stable alliance / Image: public domain

The document also counterposed local organisations on the basis of production (factory cells) to territorial branches, imposed by the Bolshevisation process, which in fact had little to do with the Bolshevik method, as it entailed a rigid and pre-established model of the organisation and objectively favoured stricter control by the apparatus.

The Lyon Theses were an expression of the contradictions facing the leadership of the PCd’I at the time. On the one hand, they were a concretisation of the struggle to apply the resolutions of the third and fourth congresses of the Comintern to the Italian situation, especially with regards to tactics. On the other hand, they suffered the consequences of the new course of the International, especially from the organisational point of view, and defended the political mistakes made in Italy since the Matteotti assassination.

The Theses fully embraced the teachings of the Russian Revolution, when they affirmed:

“Capitalism is the predominant element in Italian society, and the force which is decisive in determining its development. This fundamental fact means that there is no possibility of a revolution in Italy that is not the socialist revolution.” (Ibid, Paragraph 4). This ruled out the necessity of a democratic phase led by the bourgeoisie, in complete opposition to the line promoted by Togliatti from 1943 onwards.

And:

“In Italy, there is a confirmation of the thesis that the most favourable conditions for the proletarian revolution do not necessarily always occur in those countries where capitalism and industrialisation have reached the highest level of development, but may instead arise where the fabric of the capitalist system offers least resistance, because of its structural weakness, to an attack by the revolutionary class and its allies.” (Ibid, Paragraph 9)

The role of the proletariat as the protagonist of the Italian revolution was forcefully reiterated: “the proletariat appears as the only element which by its nature has a unifying function, capable of coordinating the whole of society. Its class programme is the only ‘unitary programme’”. (Ibid, Paragraph 9)

The Lyon Theses were the first congressional document of the PCd’I to raise the need for the united front tactic, as developed in the III and IV Congresses of the Comintern:

“The tactic of the united front as political activity (manoeuvre) designed to unmask so-called proletarian and revolutionary parties and groups which have a mass base, is closely linked with the problem of how the Communist Party is to lead the masses and how it is to win a majority.” (Ibid, Paragraph 42)

Additionally, the Party implemented a rectification against Bordigist schematism:

“The party combats the conception according to which one should abstain from supporting or taking part in partial actions, because the problems which interest the working class can be solved only by the overthrow of the capitalist order and by a general action on the part of all the anti-capitalist forces.” (Ibid, Paragraph 39)

At the same time, these correct theoretical analyses did not lead to equally effective slogans, with demands such as the “Republican Assembly on the basis of Workers’ and Peasants’ Committees” advanced as “a synthetic formula for all the party’s activity, insofar as it proposes to create an organized united front of the working class” (Ibid, Paragraph 41).

This slogan was criticised by Trotsky, both in his correspondence with the Bordigist group Prometeo and also with Tresso, Leonetti and Ravazzoli, three PCd’I leaders who were to join Trotsky International Left Opposition:

“Speaking of which, isn’t it Ercoli [Togliatti’s Comintern alias] who is trying to adapt to the Italian context the idea of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ in the form of the demand for a constituent assembly based on a ‘workers’ and peasants’ assembly’?” (Leon Trotsky. Scritti sull’Italia. p.149.)

And:

“You remind me that at the time I criticised the demand for a ‘Republican Assembly on the basis of Workers’ and Peasants’ Committees’ launched by the Italian Communist Party. You are telling me that this demand had a mere episodic character and that it has currently been abandoned. However, I want to tell you why I consider this demand to be wrong or at least ambiguous as a political slogan. A ‘Republican Assembly’ is undeniably a body of the bourgeois state. What are ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ Committees’, on the other hand? It is obvious that they are in some way equivalent to the workers’ and peasants’ Soviets. So this must be stated. In their quality of class organs of the poor working and peasant masses – regardless of whether you call them Soviets or Committees – they always constitute organisations of struggle against the bourgeois State, to then become insurrectional organs and finally be transformed into organs of proletarian dictatorship. How is it possible in these conditions that a Republican Assembly – supreme organ of the bourgeois State – could be based on organs of the proletarian State?” (Ibid, p.184.)

The main tragedy of the Lyon Congress lay therefore in the adoption of positions that reflected the essential traits of the line approved by the International of its first four congresses… but at the ‘wrong’ moment. Had this political line been adopted at the right moment, (i.e. in 1921) it would have made the rise to power of fascism far from inevitable and would have allowed for a reorganisation of the Italian proletariat. The moment in 1926 was ‘wrong’ because it coincided with the bureaucratic degeneration of the Third International, which was to inevitably mark the future development of the PCd’I.

From the point of view of the internal balance of forces, the Lyon Congress marked the definitive defeat of the Bordigist Left within the PCd’I. Bordiga suffered the same fate on the international level in February 1926, when he was sidelined from the Enlarged Executive Committee of the Comintern.

The PCd’I, meanwhile, was suffering widespread repression at the hands of the fascist government throughout 1926 with a large part of the leadership arrested and imprisoned, including Gramsci, who was to die in 1937 without ever seeing freedom again.

The ideas put forward by Trotsky and the Left Opposition were to be taken up a few years later by three members of the leadership of the PCd’I: Tresso, Ravazzoli and Leonetti. But that will be taken up in another article. Suffice it to say that the unhealthy bureaucratic Zinovievite methods used to defeat Bordiga, albeit to impose the correct position of the United Front, nonetheless prepared the ground for the Stalinisation of the party under the leadership of Togliatti.