Letters: Bordiga and the Bathwater

Date: 2022-01-08T06:11:00+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Daniel Melo’s recent article in Cosmonaut is rife with mentions of democracy but very few well-resolved statements of what they really mean by the term. I will admit up front that I am not knowledgeable whatsoever about the philosophy of Amadeo Bordiga, but I will comment on Melo’s piece because Bordiga’s life or thought broadly conceived seems hardly at issue here. The piece more so strikes at the heart of whether the reader should put any hope in democracy as a fundamental organizing principle and, if so, what kind of democracy. Melo answers the first question with subtlety and consideration: 

While electoral politics has functioned well to mollify class conflict by providing an outlet for proletarian frustrations, its inability to offer much more than this is an invitation to consider a future with a more, not less, radical democracy. And to give a final piece of credit to Bordiga—it may one day be true that even democracy is insufficient to realize the next stage of emancipatory development towards whatever might come after socialism. Only then, with adequate justification, will we be ready to cast it aside.

It is the question of what kind of democracy, or what is meant by the term (radical) ‘democracy’, that goes unanswered. If Bordiga opposes any democratic organizing principle based on bourgeois forms—the representative body, so-called popular sovereignty, and so forth—then what form of democracy does Melo say he overlooks? What form is truly more radical? It is very strong to reject an anti-democrat on the basis that they misunderstand democracy without offering one’s own vision of what counts as democracy. Melo must provide either a definition or some concrete examples of their own idea of democracy in order for their critique of Bordiga to be judged as either a success or failure. 

Melo does offer a very unresolved glimpse of their idea of democracy toward the end of the article:

Does this mean that when confronted with say, stripping all capitalists of the means of production, the ability to extract surplus value, and their material gain, we would have to shy away for fear that it fails democratic participation? After all, this would seem to be the case, since the capitalist would have to have adequate say and veto power in decision-making, as they would be most impacted by such a strong move. But this need not be the case; in fact, quite the opposite. Pulling them into the democratic framework would at once expose the more foundational problem regarding the question of what to do with their machines, supply lines, and goods: who has decision-making power over them.

In suggesting that capitalists be “pulled into the democratic framework”, Melo implies that the truly radical democratic form they imagine would exist prior to the abolition of the capitalist social relation and would offer the capitalist political rights in some democratic process that exists at once parallel and above-and-beyond the capitalist social relation. This appears to be falling precisely into the trap that Bordiga warns us about in the very quotations Melo offers toward the beginning of the article, namely, that Melo’s conception of democracy “pretends to reconcile political equality with the division of society into social classes determined by the nature of the mode of production.” How could the capitalist be brought into a democratic form alongside the worker? One has not succeeded against Bordiga unless one has proved that this political form can exist parallel to the inequality of classes. And if that is truly the argument Melo wants to make, then, once again, they must be clear about what kind of democratic form they are making reference to; and that form must also be able, at least plausibly, to offer equality of political rights parallel to a system of unequal economic relations. Otherwise, Melo makes the very mistake the bourgeois democrats make and that Bordiga criticizes, which is to believe that political equality among individuals can exist in a system of economic inequality between classes. Like most socialists, I don’t believe this is possible. 

I defer to Renzo Llorente’s recent article in Cosmonaut The Contradictions and Confusions of ‘Democratic Socialism’”, where Llorente breaks down the confusion about democracy and socialism that continue to plague the Left. 

Is the conviction that “working people should run…the economy and society” compatible with a commitment “democratic pluralism” (unlike “control of economic…[and] social…life by…government or corporate elites”)? If the workers must not “control” the economy through government, what are the mechanisms whereby they “run…the economy”?  And, not least important: What is the likelihood that workers will succeed in running “both the economy and society democratically to meet human needs” if capitalists and all those who do their bidding enjoy “freedom of speech…and…the freedom to organize…political parties, and other social movements”?

Given that it is firstly (temporally, but not necessarily principally) a revolutionary project to abolish the economic system of capitalism, socialism is incompatible with the capitalist having “adequate say and veto power in decision-making” in a governing body. Ergo, any form of democracy that grants the capitalist this power is incompatible with socialism. 

Melo goes on:

Democracy is not mere vote-casting in this instance, but a fundamental examination of the “who” in who makes political decisions. Forst likens it to a mother divvying up slices of pie to her children. There are two questions at play–not only how big the relative slices are for each, but who gets to make that choice. In Bordiga’s view, this is irrelevant, since unity possesses an inherent value beyond any essential justificatory framework. Capitalists would be stripped of their status because they are class antagonists, enemies of the centralized collective proletariat. In a fully democratic engagement and struggle, the outcome would be the same, but for a fundamentally different reason—they never should have had that status in the first place. The difference between the two is both wide and deep. All manner of things can be justified under the former. All manner of things must be justified under the latter.

This excerpt actually touches a very interesting question about the place of democracy among other organizing principles. And that is the question of whether democracy ought to be a democracy of demands or a democracy of actions. 

In Melo’s conception of a more radical democracy, do we give democracy the place of deciding priorities? For example, in Our Little Socialist Party (OLSP), maybe we allow organizing goals (membership enrollment, financial performance, campaigns, etc.) to be decided by general referenda. But maybe the strategies implemented, the means to achieve these goals, are decided by leaders promoted within the preexisting OLSP bureaucracy and delegated for execution by hand-selected cadres. Many democratic socialists would say this is a false democracy and merely a democratic veneer on an authoritarian structure. 

The alternative would be giving democracy the place of deciding strategy. This would mean that OLSP would either elect a representative body to deliberate on strategic questions or subject every turn of strategy to general referenda. Either one of these seems catastrophically inefficient. 

There are many third paths on this question and some that might transcend the problems with just these two examples, but none of these are considered by Melo, let alone are any concrete forms put forward. Instead, we are left with a vague notion of a more radical democracy than the bourgeois forms of representation and popular sovereignty and a general feeling that these vague notions are somehow important and must not be disregarded (trivially true). 

This is hardly convincing, so Melo ought to offer us a follow-up so that we can decide whether their critique of Bordiga is worth its ink.

Parker M. Shea

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