Why Bordiga Got Democracy Wrong

Date: 2022-01-07T02:23:50+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Daniel Melo takes issue with Amadeo Bordiga’s rejection of democracy. 

The Italian Communist theorist Amadeo Bordiga’s seminal essay titled The Democratic Principle is one of the more notable critiques of democracy by a left figure. It attempts to reject the notion of democracy in any absolute sense, claiming that it is not foundational to either truth of justice (or the pursuit of socialism for that matter).  While his rejection of any essentialization of democracy to the advancement of socialism has value, his ultimate conclusion falls short of an understanding of a fuller democracy and its necessity in the pursuit of economic justice beyond the confines of capitalism.

Bordiga is responding to the general sentiment of his time, with many communists “defend[ing] the Democratic character of proletarian organizations (the state system, of workers’ councils, trade unions and the party) and the application of democracy within them.” Against this, he posits a Marxist critique that bourgeois democracy is ultimately a facade–it “pretends to reconcile political equality with the division of society into social classes determined by the nature of the mode of production. Political freedom and equality . . . expressed in the right to vote, have no meaning except on a basis that excludes inequality of fundamental economic conditions.” The bourgeois notion of democracy pretends to give political power to the masses while effectively leaving the foundational economic conditions out of their reach.

Against this, Bordiga argues that the left cannot become the “inheritors” of the bourgeois notions of democracy and its failures. For him, a Marxist critique of the democratic principle denies its “universal” character. Bordiga argues that the advent of bourgeoise democracy was no more cause to celebrate than the passing of society from the hands of the feudal lords to the nascent capitalist ones. 

In this respect, he compares the preceding era’s attachment to the divine authority vested in certain individuals and how democratic equality is ultimately a new rendition of this romanticized attachment. He notes “In spite of its rationalist front, the democratic theory rests on a no less childish metaphysical premise than does ‘free will’. . . . Because it places itself outside of time and historical contingencies, the democratic theory is no less tainted with spiritualism . . . .” In other words, democracy and reason were held up as new principles that were sufficient in and of themselves, just like the Christian God before them. 

Essential to Bordiga’s argument here is what amounts to the rejection of a central tenet of democracy–that the individual is an end in herself. The revolution of values from the divine authority vested in a few was tentatively transferred to the collective, particularly in the form of voting where each individual has the same weight. Bordiga critiques this stance saying “It is already evident that this conception is unrealistic and unmaterialist because it considers each individual to be a perfect “unit” within a system made up of many potentially equivalent units . . . it postulates this value a priori with the hypothesis of the ‘sovereignty’ of the individual. Again this amounts to denying consciousness of men is a concrete reflection of the facts and material conditions of their existence . . . .”.  

Against this, Bordiga emphatically states that Marx’s critique has “demolished” this sort of idealism by examining the mode of production. Rather than democracy being a universal principle, he notes that it, together with the “juridical, political, military, religious and cultural” are rooted in production and class relations. Taking this up, he moves through social relations–the individual, the family, and later, the society–and argues that despite the biological reality of “individuals” existing, they “do not have the same value. The collectivity is born from relations and groupings in which the status and activity of each individual do not derive from an individual function but from a collective one determined by the multiple influences of the social milieu.” Having rejected the notion that the individual can be an end in herself, he then goes on to argue that everything constructed therefrom is equally nonsensical— “. . . these are so many sophisms, which, in the eyes of Marxist critique, are tainted with the same infantile idealism . . . .”.

Bordiga acknowledges that social forms like the family or even the state are steps in an evolutionary process of ways of organizing ourselves that will one day disappear and be replaced. He hones in on the fact that these changes and growth of complexity in social relations is an outgrowth by the systems of production but takes special care to point out that the division of labor and a degree of hierarchy is required. He uses this detour to then pivot back to a discussion of how the unitary bodies that make up groups organize themselves around the democratic principle. Those organized from the outside are the hierarchies established through things like supernatural or “divine” authority which doles out people’s place in their society. This was true, he posits, of the landed aristocracy of the Middle Ages, that concentrated power onto itself in the form of the monarchy to protect the class as a whole. The organization throughout society came from the outside, with the divine passing authority to the king and on down throughout the collective.

Against this obviously privileged stratification of classes, it would seem apparent that organizing around democratic ideals would be an improvement. Not so, says Bordiga–“it must be rejected without hesitation as without foundation since it takes no account of the situation of individuals in the economy and since it presupposes the intrinsic perfection of the system without taking into consideration the historical evolution of the collectivity to which it is applied.” From this premise, Bordiga thendraws a bright burning line in the sand, claiming  that “The division of society into classes distinguished by economic privilege clearly removes all value from majority decision-making. Our critique refutes the deceitful theory that the democratic and parliamentary state machine which arose from modern liberal constitutions is an organization of all citizens in the interests of all citizens. From the moment that opposing interests and class conflicts exist, there can be no unity of organization, and in spite of the outward appearance of popular sovereignty, the state remains the organ of the economically dominant class and the instrument of defence of its interests.”

In other words, no matter how constructed, any democratic attempt under bourgeoise rule will not only eventually fail, but is a failure before it even begins. There can be no political or juridical democracy under capitalism since it presupposes a political-economy of equality that does not exist in class relations and thus, bourgeoise democracy “is the form suited to the power of the capitalist class, to the dictatorship of this particular class, for the purpose of preserving its privileges.”

Thus, for Bordiga, there’s no intrinsic value to democracy, especially not the “crude” presumption that a majority is correct. He holds this as true even under a dictatorship of the proletariat as “there is not the slightest reason to establish a priori the concept of the sovereignty of the ‘majority’ of the proletariat.” Rather, Bordiga posits that debating forms of organizing is irrelevant to the Marxist revolution and that instead, the revolution is fundamentally only a “problem of content.”   

For Bordiga, the benefit of centralized, top-down authority possesses far more value, where they act swiftly and decisively rather than “assemblies of chatterboxes who discuss interminably without ever acting . . . .” While he acknowledges that “for the moment there is nothing better to do than hold to the majority principle” however, he refuses to hold democracy as an end in itself since there is nothing intrinsically best about the decision of the majority. He tops this by in his closing paragraph—”Democracy cannot be a principle for us. Centralism is indisputably one, since the essential characteristics of party organization must be unity of structure and action.” 

Bordiga is right to note that the mere imagining of democracy, the “proclamation of the moral, political and juridical equality of all citizens,” was (and is) wholly insufficient to bring about actual equality. Bourgeoise renditions of politics are subject to material conditions, the same as everything else. The bourgeoise notion of democracy, however revolutionary in its moment, was insufficient the moment it emerged in the world. Limiting the masses’ access to any actual power through the vote has long served as a pacifying means of working-class power, as their ability to control outcomes is far inferior to that of the capitalists. In this sense, Bordiga correctly hones in on the failure of bourgeois politics: it grants some modicum of participation while leaving an essential element–the means of production–out of reach.

In lieu of democracy, Bordiga posits that top-down centralism has intrinsic value since it can act quickly and strongly. In his eyes, centralism is of “indisputabl[e]” value to the Communist project.  This largely undefended statement goes to the heart of Bordiga’s two largest missteps. On the one hand, he limits his critique of democracy solely to its puny implementation in bourgeoise politics, throwing out the democratic baby with the bourgeoise bathwater. What’s more, his argument leaps from the failures of bourgeoise democracy to conclude that there is no value in majority decision-making itself. On the other hand, his vision of centralism rises to this same level of idealized and unexamined principle that he condemns, with precious little argument from Bordiga. 

In a way, Bordiga’s endorsement of centralism removes the human agency from the historical movement beyond capitalism, focusing only on overcoming it without thought to how we get there. Centralism, while certainly possessing some of the characteristics Bordiga ascribes to it, is nevertheless made up of people who have to struggle with each other and themselves for how to move forward. To contradict him directly, the revolution is absolutely a problem of organization, as all of the things he notes that are important–content, movement, action–follow from the organizational forms adopted by the struggle. If overcoming class relations is the aim of the revolution, then a very human question follows–what is the aim of the end of class relations? Are they not inherently wrong precisely because they so reduce the individual to something that mirrors the very commodity they produce? In other words, what is the point of overcoming capitalism if not because of what it does to human beings, both individually and collectively? Bordiga’s focus on these ends with a quick endorsement of centralism’s means is a dangerous one. To neglect the means of organization in a revolutionary moment to instead solely focus on ends, invites a kind of brutal utilitarianism that can (and arguably, has) cost millions of the very lives it is supposedly seeking to emancipate. Examining the justifications for methods of organization, of the means of the struggle against capitalism, remains essential. It remains relevant not just in the first instance of the struggle against capitalism, but ultimately, in what comes beyond–socialism is a fundamentally different way of organizing the political economy. 

Turning to whether democracy can function in this aim, Bordiga’s analysis stumbles headlong into a rather fatal error by conflating electoral politics as the heart and soul of democracy. Even electoral politics in the West, while rather impotent to engage in a serious transformation of social relations, cannot be wholly disregarded as a vehicle of change or a grounds of struggle. Without wholly deviating to an earnest debate of the merits of accelerationism or incrementalism, material gains—albeit ones that have been blunted of any real revolutionary power— can and have been won through the electoral process. However, even if we grant that electoral politics is not a worthwhile investment of the left’s time and resources, it simply is not the same as democratic power. Democracy, from the etymology of the word itself means “rule (cracy) of the people (demos).” While bourgeoise society has largely come to give this expression almost exclusively in the electoral form, this is not cause to cast aside democracy, any more than any other bourgeois failure to fully implement any other principle. In the same way that we should not wholly discard free expression, freedom of and from religion, or freedom the press simply because of their capitalist underpinnings, we should first explore what principles contained therein are worth keeping beyond capitalism’s dominance and what ones are forever incompatible with what lies beyond it.

This requires examining how far current-day bourgeois electoral politics are from actual democracy, from the true rule of the people (dare I say, the dictatorship of the proletariat). It implies an overused term—justice, which at its most base is a meting out of fairness in the dealings between people. To borrow phrasing from Frankfurt philosopher Rainer Forst: “democracy . . . is not ‘instrumental’ to justice; it is what justice demands.” In the Forstian account, justice, far more than the juridical sense, conceptually roots itself in requiring adequate, reciprocal justifications for decisions. Whether Bordiga realized it or not, he did not escape the requirements of justification for his choice of organizational structure (albeit poorly argued), as evident in his reasons for defending centralism over democracy in its ability to act quickly. In this framework of justification, there is no requirement to have a lofty, near-spiritual view of democracy, as Bordiga notes of bourgeois conceptions. Rather, we can see it firmly connected to the social relations between people. Democracy is necessitated not because of the sovereignty of the individual, but because individuals must be seen as ends, rather than means, in themselves. While Bordiga is right to critique bourgeoise notions of democracy that falsely idealize the individual as a sovereign (and simultaneously refuse to actually deliver on this ideal), he does not identify where exactly the individual is located within Marxist politics. He is not alone in this, as plenty of writing and debate since Marx has either left out the individual or worse, gone the complete opposite route (e.g., postmodernism) and lost the forest for the tree. Nevertheless, as noted above, his rejection of individuals possessing inherent value should alarm us. 

Without a vision of what the individual can be within the collective, where one begins and the other ends—which is possibly the aim of politics—we are doomed to reinstate the worst sins of our past, even those of bourgeoise flavor. True, there is nothing magical about democracy. Collective, even justifiable choices through some sort of majority or consensus process is fraught, can go wrong, and even fail. But this failure is most often one of ends, not means (and one that centralism does not dodge). Democracy and justifiable decision-making derive their essentiality from our inability to fully see the future and all possible consequences. It thus requires approaching the present choice as one that at a minimum, necessitates justifying the path chosen to those impacted by it. This, in turn, requires a non-negotiable participatory engagement with them. 

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. 

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. 

To risk overstating the case, to lose sight of this difference is potentially the difference of millions of lives. This is not to say that Bordiga in any way supported Stalin’s approach. On the contrary, he was adamantly against Stalin, viewing the regime as a kind of culmination of bourgeois democracy. He was leveling a critique of democracy situated in the liberal order of his time, an order that remains intact today. But to cast out the notion of democracy altogether because capitalism has yet to deliver its promises is to ignore the great possibilities that await by instituting a true “rule of the people.” Political, social, and economic equality are all bound up together. 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.

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