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Bordiga and the Big City: A Critique

Updated: Oct 26, 2020


Vision of future vertical green city by Italian architect Paolo Soleri


By Marin Jensen


This is a response to an article published by the International Communist Current in International Review n°166.


The article titled “Bordiga and the Big City” is a welcome addition to the series on the “history of communism” which has been running since the early 1990s. It is all the more welcome inasmuch as the series had, to my mind, rather lost its way in the last few years, tending to decline into nothing more than a historical presentation of ideas present in the groups of the Communist Left, without really engaging with them, in the sense of using them as a stepping stone to the development of a coherent alternative perspective to present-day capitalism. This new article is a step forward from this point of view, all the more so since it announces an intention to start a “new ‘volume’ of the series on communism, specifically aimed at looking at the possibilities and problems of the proletarian revolution in the phase of capitalist decomposition”. This is an orientation that the ICC included adopted some time ago, so it is promising to see that it is being put into effect.


Since the article is the first in a new series, one supposes that it is intended to serve as an introduction: a summary of some of the main points in previous articles which it is planned to explore in forthcoming ones, and an enunciation of some of the major themes which it is proposed to treat. To my mind though, it falls rather between two stools, with long quotations from Bordiga and Engels which would be more appropriate to an in-depth article on a specific subject, yet with too many different subjects in one article for any of them to be treated in the depth they deserve.


Having said that, there is much in this article to agree with. Without being exhaustive, I would highlight: the importance of mankind’s relationship to its “natural body”, the metabolic exchange between humanity and the rest of nature; the need to resolve the contradiction between city and countryside, a question already raised by Marx; the question of human health, which as the article says has been brought to the fore by the Covid19 pandemic. All these are questions which demand a far deeper treatment than is possible in one article, and which I hope to examine myself in future essays.


That said, in the considerations that follow I want to concentrate on a few points where, in my view, criticism is in order, and in particular: the question of violence in the revolutionary process; the nature of the city and the “even distribution of population” that Bordiga proposes; transport, and the vision of future life under communism that Bordiga implies.


On violence


The article takes a sideswipe at the “communisers”, pointing out “the gulf that separates Bordiga from many who ‘speak in his name’, notably the ‘communisation’ currents who often cite Bordiga but who gag on his insistence on the need for the proletarian dictatorship and a communist party”. This strikes me as a little disingenuous, since I doubt whether Bordiga himself would see much difference between such “communisers” and the ICC. The ICC, after all, cites Bordiga at length in this article, yet “gags” on such fundamental tenets of Bordigism as its support for Red Terror, its uncritical belief in the notion of a “proletarian state” (or indeed, a communist one), the undivided rule of the Party, and so on. In its debates on the Transitional State and on Class Violence during the 1970s and 1980s, the ICC insisted on several points that would be anathema to Bordiga, notably the need to integrate the “non-exploiting strata” into organs of decision and action as peaceably as possible, the rejection of terror, and the rejection of all violence within the proletariat itself. However, on the question of violence within the revolutionary process, it seems to me fair to say that the ICC in a sense got stuck half-way. One lesson it drew from the Russian revolution was this:


given the certainty that the bourgeoisie will resist the proletarian revolution with all its might, the victory of the latter will involve a civil war which could cause incalculable damage, not only in terms of human lives and further ecological destruction, but also at the level of consciousness, since the military terrain is not at all the most propitious for the flowering of proletarian self-organisation, consciousness and morality”.


Here, the article updates the ICC’s original conclusions, on the basis of a better understanding of the ecological issue and the questions raised in its own debates on ethics and morality. The article concludes, rightly I suspect, that “the birthmarks [of the old society] will probably be far uglier and potentially more damaging than they were in the days of Marx and even of Lenin”. However, and here I think is where it fails to carry its reflection to a radical conclusion, the article never calls into question the whole idea of civil war between proletariat and bourgeoisie. If we take seriously the idea that “the bourgeoisie will resist the proletarian revolution with all its might”, including nuclear war, then a civil war under present conditions would potentially wipe out the entire species, and at the least would very likely destroy the material preconditions for constructing a communist society. If we want to know what a prolonged civil war would look like, we need only watch the TV news from Syria: the devastation wreaked by one tin-pot dictator on historic towns like Aleppo would be generalised worldwide; the ambition of at least one US general in Vietnam to “bomb the country back into the stone age” could very well become reality in the world’s proletarian centres. As the article rightly says, “In Russia in 1920, the Soviet state emerged victorious in the civil war, but the proletariat had largely lost control over it”, but we should remember that one reason for this was that the best of the proletariat, its most class-conscious and dedicated individuals who would have been the indispensable pillars of communist reconstruction, had died on the front during the civil war.


The fundamental lesson of the Russian revolution, as far as violence is concerned, is surely that a successful communist revolution will depend, as never before in history, on consciousness and perspective. The seizure of power by the Soviets in October 1917 was essentially bloodless because the proletariat’s self-confidence and conviction in its own socialist, internationalist perspective had disarmed and disintegrated any resistance: the army — at least the troops and even many of the junior commissioned officers — had come over to the Bolsheviks, they had the majority in the Soviets against the more wavering parties, the bourgeoisie had no confidence in their own government, successive versions of which had proven unable to offer any way out of the country’s disastrous situation, and consequently were incapable of rallying around it; even the Cossacks, the Tsarist regime’s most notorious organ of repression, were so politically demoralised that they offered no resistance or indeed even supported the revolution.


I would go further. In the ICC’s debates on “class violence”, Marc Chirik liked to compare the violence of the revolution to a surgeon wielding a scalpel: cutting a human body open is a violent act, but when the knife is wielded by a surgeon with the aim of healing, it is different in kind from the slash of a hoodlum with the aim to kill. The problem with this comparison is that the “surgeon’s knife” in revolution is not an inanimate object: real human beings must mete out violence, and violence traumatises and damages those who wield it, even to the point of rendering them inhuman. The exercise of violence as soldiers or political police will make those who use it unfit to realise the communist project. Lenin was aware of this problem when he appointed Dzerzhinsky, considered the most incorruptible among the Bolsheviks, to head the Cheka. A prolonged civil war, even assuming it could be won which is by no means certain, would not only cause physical destruction and the deaths of millions of proletarians, it would inevitably introduce a profound corruption into the heart of the proletarian power itself. One lesson to be learned from the Russian Revolution is that the proletarian revolution must be political, conscious; that it must use violence only as an absolutely last resort and keep it to a strict minimum; and that entering into civil war would mean in all probability the defeat of the revolution.


The question of violence in the revolution, or even more broadly in history generally, is far too complex to go into here. It is worth just making one remark, however, for future reflection. Throughout human history, violence has been almost exclusively the preserve of the male of the species. The October Revolution was also overwhelmingly male, in terms of the composition of the Soviets, the political parties (from the anarchists to the Bolsheviks), and of course the armed forces. One thing we can be sure of today is that the massive entry of women into the waged workforce since the 1950s will profoundly determine the face of any revolutionary movement. There are lessons to be learned in this respect, to take just one very limited example, from the early struggles of the South Korean working class in the 1970s; these were essentially women workers’ struggles since the great majority of the industrial workforce was made up of women migrants from the countryside, working in light industry (the ICC highlighted this point in a 2006 article on the Korean workers’ movement).


Authority


The ICC’s profound disagreement with Bordiga on violence and the proletarian state is of such long standing that perhaps the present article can be forgiven for not dwelling on it. But one can question whether it is in fact possible to separate, as the author does, Bordiga’s position on violence from his views on communist reconstruction. If we take Bordiga’s position as a unified whole, as it is expressed in the “immediate programme” (quoted in extenso), the picture that emerges is of a singularly gloomy and authoritarian society. Production will be limited to “what is necessary”, and there will be an “authoritarian regulation of consumption”. The “promotion of useless, damaging and luxury consumption goods is combated” and “activities which propagate a reactionary mentality are violently prohibited”. Not only that, there will also be “a ban on unnecessary transportation”. Who is to decide what consumption and transportation are necessary? Who will exercise the violence which prohibits the “reactionary mentality”? And who will decide what is a “reactionary mentality”?


On this question, Bordiga himself is perfectly clear: as he says, there will be “Immediate politically determined measures to put the schools, the press, all means of communication and information, as well as the entire spectrum of culture and entertainment under the control of the communist state”. A communist state is a contradiction in terms of course (as the article rightly points out), but Bordiga’s idea that such absolute power can be safely handed over to a state whose personnel would be “morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society” (as the article puts it) only makes sense if we accept his mystical concept of the Party and, of course, its “brilliant leader”. The state that emerges from Bordiga’s “immediate programme” would be a dismal authoritarian regime of consumption for the masses reduced to the necessary minimum, with all possibility of independent self-expression “violently prohibited”, and no chance to travel outside one’s immediate locality since “unnecessary transportation” is banned. One is reminded of nothing so much as the parliamentary Puritans in the English Revolution, who banned ungodly pursuits such as theatre, music and dancing — and who lost the support of the masses as a result. Moreover, given that the state functionaries would still be “stamped with the birth marks of the old society”, we can be fairly sure that “useless, damaging and luxury consumption” would be “combated” for the masses, but not for the functionaries.


The difference between this, and the Stalinist USSR, is infinitesimal, and I strongly agree with the insistence on “the need for a vast political, moral and cultural struggle to overcome the habits and attitudes inherited not only from capitalism but from thousands of years of class society”. But you cannot have your cake and eat it: you cannot keep Bordiga’s critical cake, without swallowing his deeply authoritarian mentality. This mentality is itself, I think, infected by an ambient ideology whose roots lie in Stalinism, and which was, and indeed still is, far more insidious than we once thought. Bordiga would have objected that his programme was a “monolithic bloc”, that you cannot have one without the other, and for once I would agree with him.


The article is absolutely right to highlight the need to reduce production and consumption in order to confront the ecological and climate urgency facing humanity, and it is interesting to discover that the demand for “negative growth” was already present in the communist movement in the 1950s. But there is nothing specifically communist about this today, or even particularly radical, since we get the same message from Professor Sir Ian Boyd, until recently the British government’s chief environment scientist.[1] What is specific about Bordiga is the means he proposes to arrive at such a result, which are in my view both doomed to failure in the unlikely event they were ever put into practice, and anti-communist in nature.


Communist suburbia

"Uniform distribution"? - Belgian suburbs


Let us turn from Bordiga’s repressive vision to what might pass for his positive perspective. One can certainly agree with much of Bordiga’s critique of the city under industrial capitalism, but again there is nothing specifically communist about it. A very similar critique was put forward, with a great deal more historical and, dare I say it, theoretical depth by Bordiga’s contemporary Lewis Mumford (cf The City in History). Bordiga’s solution is a communism which will be “horizontalist”; “the cement monsters will be ridiculed and suppressed”, he says, and the “giant cities deflated” in order to “make the density of life and work uniform over the inhabitable land”. Although this is hardly very precise, the general theme is this: uniform low-level density of population over the habitable land. There are several objections to this, even apart from the need to support and organise a population which has increased not just “considerably” since 1953, but by 300%.[2] These objections are both practical and social.


On the practical side, there is no doubt that it will be possible to distribute production more widely thanks to the extension of communications networks, though when we consider the relative difficulty of conducting online meetings during the present epidemic, it is clear that even with Internet technology there remains much to be done. It also seems to me that the concentration of production in one place — as tends to happen today — is a mistake from a systems architecture standpoint, since it creates “single points of failure” within the world productive system and reduces its overall resilience. However, a moment’s reflection should make it obvious that there are a whole series of technologies which will continue to require reasonably important concentrations of population: steelworks, shipyards, everything to do with the manufacture of infrastructure, energy production, etc etc. While the present situation with manufacture concentrated in a few places only, and vast quantities of goods shipped all over the world, is certainly an aberration (and a major source of pollution), it would be equally absurd to break down industry to its smallest possible component parts. Then there is the question of the association of labour. Marx already pointed out that bringing together workers under the roof of a single factory multiplied their powers by quickening the mental processes and this can be seen admirably on an even greater scale in the Chinese city of Shenzhen and the extraordinary creativity of its electronics industry centred in Huaqiangbei, or in California’s Silicon Valley. It is possible today for designers and even makers (thanks to 3D printing) to be brought together in a worldwide association of labour thanks to the Internet, but even today, nothing can replace the dynamism of regular close human contact. This is true of production, technology, and science; it is equally true of the arts and the humanities which have always flourished when human beings come together in greater numbers. Consequently, while there is certainly much to be done to bring the countryside into the city and vice versa, it will not be achieved by turning the entire habitable surface of the planet into a vast, uniform suburbia.


On the social level, Bordiga’s uniform distribution of population implies a uniform way of life. Bordiga calls for “A decisive struggle against professional specialisation and the social division of labour”, which seems to suggest that he is aware of the stultifying nature of the mental uniformity imposed by specialised labour under capitalism, but he is hardly very specific about this, and (as the article rightly points out) his practical suggestions go no further than “the removal of any possibility of making a career or obtaining a title”. But the real objection to Bordiga’s “uniform distribution”, it seems to me — and one could make the same objection to the way of life portrayed in William Morris’ News from Nowhere — is precisely its uniformity. In a truly communist society, where every individual would have the maximum possible opportunity to develop their talents and to express their individuality to the full, surely we can imagine that some people would want to live in vibrant city crowds, others in the more peaceful environment of an infinitely varied countryside, others still as hermits or custodians of Earth’s wild spaces. And even now, our life-experience today teaches us that individuals not only differ from each other, but are themselves different at different moments in their lives. Capitalism aims at uniformity while creating the preconditions for liberty. Communism is the realisation of the maximum individualisation, the individual’s maximum creative engagement with the world and with others. It is the enemy of uniformity.


A communist project?


One of the difficulties with Bordiga’s text, or with the article and this critique, or indeed with any attempt to envision a revolutionary perspective, is that one has to disentangle the immediate measures of the proletarian power, and the vision of the communist future. This is by no means easy, it is perhaps even impossible. We are, after all, “stamped with the birth marks of the old society” to the point where we are unable to imagine clearly what a communist society would look like — Marx understood this very well, hence his critique of the Utopians and “system-builders” for trying to do just that. It nonetheless seems to me necessary to make the attempt: the proletariat will not launch itself blindly into the revolutionary reconstruction of society without any kind of roadmap, and a roadmap is meaningless without some idea of the communist society we want to build, even if we are aware that our understanding of what that society should be, will necessarily change as we go along.


At the most general level, it seems to me that there is always a tendency in socialist attempts to imagine the future, to fall back into a vision of things derived not from Marx but from Christianity: an unchanging paradise in which all contradictions fall away and humanity finds peace at long last. This is explicit in William Morris’ News from Nowhere, which is subtitled “An epoch of rest”. Bordiga reminds me more of the Greek Hades, a land of gloomy shades where even the hero Achilles, appointed prince over all the dead, would say to Odysseus “I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead” (cf The Odyssey, Song XI).


Such perspectives, it seems to me, are deeply at variance with Marx’s vision of communist society as “the end of prehistory” and the first epoch of true human freedom made possible by man’s understanding of the laws of nature and by his mastery of his own technical and above all social powers. Such a degree of freedom can only be understood in both individual and social terms: the freedom of the individual to develop his capacities to the full, but also the freedom of society as a whole to develop social projects on a planetary scale. What could such projects be? Transforming the Earth into a garden, exploring the oceans and perhaps even colonising them with floating or undersea cities — these one can certainly imagine. But the enthusiasm for the science fiction literary genre suggests that an attempt to move beyond Earth, into the solar system at large, perhaps one day to other stars, would surely be another. One might even wonder whether such an effort is not inscribed in mankind’s genetic makeup. Ever since, at least, humanity’s first great migration out of Africa, curiosity and a longing for discovery has been one of our fundamental traits to the point where one can readily imagine that boldness and curiosity may have been selected for by the forces of evolution. Man is by nature a contradictory creature, curious and indolent, desiring both adventure and repose, longing for ease and perpetually unsatisfied when he has it.


Such a future would not therefore be free of contradictions, still less of disagreement. It would pose questions about the suitable allocation of natural resources which would be difficult to resolve: political questions in short, though not in the sense that we know them now when they are essentially a matter of class interest. Perhaps it would pose still more existential questions about our place in the universe.


The article points out that Bordiga’s attempt to assert the invariance of the “programme” since 1848 really doesn’t hold water. In fact, today a great deal of the article’s own critique of capitalism is now commonplace among ecologists, climate scientists, and even among large parts of the population. It is by no means uncommon to hear people laying the world’s problems at the door of “capitalism”, though what they understand by “capitalism” is invariably just a particular form of capitalism. It is commonplace enough to hear people say that our problems are worldwide, that they can only be solved worldwide, or that “health” should not be “tributary to the market”. It is not enough for communists merely to denounce capitalism’s misdeeds, any leftist can do that, or even left-leaning publications like The Guardian or Le Monde diplomatique.


This article is valuable in that it shows how far in advance of their time Marx and Engels were in postulating the fundamental underlying problems of man’s relationship to nature and to himself, which have to be solved if the problems posed by the destruction of the ecosystem are to be solved. But Bordiga’s vision offers us nothing positive, to my mind. Inasmuch as it is a critique of capitalism, it is a critique which is not specifically communist, inasmuch as it is a vision of the future it is fundamentally authoritarian, joyless, and as such anti-communist.


MJ, 22 September

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49499521 [2] From 2.55 billion in 1950 to 7.8 billion in 2020: https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/#table-historical

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