Between Bordiga and Mao: A Response to Eden Sauvage’s “Communist Orthodoxy and Its Discontents”

In the interest of spurring an inter-blog dialogue, I have decided to formulate a response to a recent post on the blog Eden Sauvage concerning their proposed “fusion” of Bordigism and Maoism. Both myself and the writer of Eden Sauvage have a mutual interest in a continuing conversation surrounding communist theory and practice in the 21st century, with this exchange being the first foray into such a discussion. The article itself attempts a merging of a Bordigist theoretical approach and understanding of the 20th century’s “actually existing socialism” with a practical line based on Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, while insisting that such a fusion is both coherent and necessary. While on the whole I agree with much of the broadly presented historical background information provided, there are a few areas in which an intervention is necessary, both to spark further dialogue and to refute assertions.

There are a few areas in Part 1 that I find myself in contention with, specifically the understanding of the October Revolution, Amadeo Bordiga’s importance, and the assessment of the Chinese Revolution. Regarding the conditions present during the years of civil war and external invasion immediately following the October Revolution the author states that:

Under such conditions, and given the failure of the revolution wave worldwide (the crushing of the German revolution among others), the weakened proletariat could not resist the development of a new state bourgeoisie from the remnants of the Tsarist bureaucracy. This bureaucratic bourgeoisie slowly took power during and after the incapacitation of Lenin in 1922 from a series of strokes, re-establishing capitalist relations of production, albeit under state ownership of the means of production. By 1924, the revolution had reached the point of Thermidor and the workers had completely lost control over the state apparatus to the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, at whose helm Josef Stalin stood.

While I agree that a new state bourgeoisie, albeit a nascent one, occupied positions in key parts of the state apparatus post-revolution, I disagree that they fully captured power during the period of 1922-1924(?). The political line of the Bolshevik party was still proletarian, despite both left (Trotsky and Preobrazhensky) and right (Bukharin and Rykov) vacillations that needed to be struggled against. The nascent state bourgeoisie was marginalized during this period due to the policies of “war communism” and the holding of political power by the proletarian party, as well as being held in check by the combativeness of militant sections of the town and city proletariat. Furthermore, this state bourgeoisie in this period was mainly concentrated in the city and town factories, with an even smaller bourgeoisie emerging as managers of the state farms, and according to Charles Bettelheim only numbered in the few thousands precisely because during this period only select industries were nationalized and state and collective farms were in the minority.

Secondly, capitalist social relations were not “re-established”, as they were never transformed into socialist social relations in the first place. The necessity of incorporating bourgeois specialists into the state, army, and sites of production, combined with the implementation of one-man management and Taylorism, all served to re-enforce bourgeois social relations. However, during this period the struggle against foreign and domestic counter-revolutionaries assumed primacy, rather than carrying on the class struggle to revolutionize social relations, which was a distinct advantage to remnants of the old bourgeoisie as well as the new bourgeoisie, but did not lead to a re-establishment of bourgeois social relations, but rather, their continuation in new forms.

The final point of contention is the assertion that by 1924 a “Thermidor”, or counter-revolution”, had been breached and the proletariat had lost all political power. Yet, knowing the struggles that were to come after 1924, in which an all out assault was launched on the rural bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie, combined with the further consolidation of state ownership and the institutionalization of the political monopoly of the Bolsheviks, can it be said that 1924 represented a “Thermidor” when the years to come produced the fiercest clashes against the remnants of the bourgeoisie, although leaving the state bourgeoisie relatively untouched and preserving bourgeois social relations?

Amadeo Bordiga of the Communist Party of Italy continued to defend Lenin’s legacy from both Stalinist and Trotskyist propagandists, both of whom defended a distorted Leninism, appropriated for the cause of national liberation and industrial-capitalist development in the case of the former, and for opportunism and arrogant self-promotion in the case of the latter.

Here the author also gives an unwarranted and overinflated sense of Amadeo Bordiga’s importance in the international communist movement, as by the late 1920s he and his followers were a politically marginal force scarcely represented outside of Italy. Furthermore, I don’t think that reducing both “Stalinism” and Trotskyism to two aspects helps readers to understand the intricate debates in which both tendencies formed, nor does it present each as fairly and accurately as possible. The author has a duty to readers to demonstrate why national liberation struggles cannot and should not be conceived of as a part of an overall communist strategy of proletarian class struggle and part of the world revolution, and secondly, to explain what they mean by “industrial-capitalist” development at a deeper level than seemingly equating all industrialization with capitalism. That’s not to mention the fact that presenting Trotskyism as nothing more than an exercise in arrogance and opportunism tells us nothing about the substance of Trotskyism itself, despite whatever disagreements myself and the author might have with Trotskyism, presenting it in such as way obscures rather than clarifies its relationship to the author’s position as well as to “Stalinism”. In a way, it repeats the style of many of the old formulaic and sectarian polemics of the 1903s penned by “Stalinists” in their attempt to discredit Trotskyism by any means necessary.

Against the syndicalists and other anti-Marxist revisionists, Bordiga affirmed the importance of a vanguard party and how the Party arises organically from the movement of the class in his works Party and Class and Party and Class Action, and clarified the nature of the Party through his concept of “organic centralism” in his work The Lyons Theses.

Here it should be noted that Bordiga’s insistence on “organic centralism”, as opposed to democratic centralism, stemmed more so from his general antipathy to democracy as such, even terminologically, and is rooted in his dogmatic conception of the Party and party life as a safe-keeper of communist orthodoxy.

Bordiga also provided a potent analysis of Stalinism as state capitalist ideology and of the Soviet Union as a capitalist social formation. This critique far surpassed the critiques of various Trotskyist and Maoist groupings, which remained mired inside the same state capitalist trappings that Stalinism found itself in.

The author is ignoring that both Trotskyists (especially followers of Tony Cliff and the Johnson-Forest Tendency) and Maoists have provided critiques of the Soviet Union as a capitalist social formation, albeit for different reasons and focusing on different periods. Furthermore, how are both Trotskyism and Maoism “mired” in the state capitalist trappings of Stalinism, when, in the case of Maoism, it premises itself on a theoretical and practical rupture with “Stalinism” and the conceptualization of a fully fleshed out theory of state capitalism to describe the phenomenon of what is colloquially termed “Stalinism”? Moreover, the author must be clear as to what they understand state capitalism to be, as theorizations of it vary across Marxist tendencies and often conflict in their formulation of what exactly state capitalism is. For instance, the understanding of state capitalism from the Maoist perspective differs from the Bordigist, as well as Trotskyist, understanding. Since we are dealing with an attempted fusion of Bordigism and Maoism, it must be made clear which conception of state capitalism, and what features define this state capitalism, the author is working from.

In 1949, Chinese radical bourgeois nationalist revolutionaries, led by Mao Zedong, won their decades-long People’s War with the corrupt Kuomintang, establishing the People’s Republic of China over the mainland of China. Though Mao was not a communist and though he viewed Marxism through the distorted lens of Stalinism, Mao still offered significant contributions to Marxist theory and revolutionary praxis.

If Mao was somehow not a communist, as the author claims, how then was he able to offer “significant contributions” to Marxist theory and revolutionary praxis? And again, what does the author mean specifically by “Stalinism”? Is it the notion of rapid industrial development mentioned earlier, which Mao thoroughly criticized, or is it the insistence on national liberation, which can be traced back to Lenin’s writings?

This sort of capitalism with red flags [Stalinism – K.B.] colluded with American imperialism to propagate the Big Lie of the 20th century: that the Soviet Union and its descendant states were socialist social formations. The Big Lie served both superpowers handily. For America, the Big Lie allowed the social construction of an ideological rival and a counter-model to demonstrate the so-called superiority of “free enterprise”. For the Soviet Union, it allowed the ruling state-bourgeoisie to misquote Marxists to disguise their system of capitalist class oppression as proletarian self-rule. The Big Lie served the United States in a second way. By showing workers that so-called “socialism” was in fact an authoritarian police state, scarcely better than “free market capitalism”, in which workers had little grasp on the levers of political power, it successfully emptied the workers’ movement of yesteryear, of course with the aid of state repression.

While it’s true that the American propaganda machine was able to present any movement or state as socialist, regardless of whether or not such a characterization was appropriate, this line of argument echoes Chomsky’s famous talks on the 20th century’s socialist projects. This reasoning papers over and obscures the really unfolding class struggle that shaped these experiments and instead opts to explain the twists and turns of revolutionary movements and capitalist restoration by appealing to an idealistic presentation of such events merely being the result of the relative power of a state’s ideological apparatus and propaganda. Yes, the conflation of the state-capitalist Soviet Union with socialism, and the reactionary propaganda coupled with it, allowed the U.S. ruling class to land serious blows against the workers’ movement, that alone was not enough, as state repression and class struggle were the real determining factor in the decline of the U.S. revolutionary movement. The same can be said of the state-capitalist Soviet Union and China in which the ebb and flow of the class struggle, and the battle for control of production and the state apparatus, did more to consolidate the power of the state bourgeoisie than any “misquoting” of Marxists ever did.

Maoism provided an immanent critique of Stalinism that identified many of the key flaws of Stalinist theory and practice, without fully breaking with Stalinist errors.

Can an “immanent critique” exist without fully breaking with what is being critiqued? According to the author, Maoism is simultaneously a development of “Stalinism”, yet also a break and critique of it. Furthermore, it remains unexplained what “Stalinist errors” Maoism fails to break with. An explanation of  what exactly these Stalinist holdovers are is necessary.

…Maoism is the most successful left tendency of today, owing to the strategic brilliance of the mass line, people’s war, two-line struggle, politics in command, class struggle under socialism, cultural revolution, and criticism/self-criticism. Unfortunately, such successful revolutionary practice is used towards the end of state capitalism, of recreating the state capitalist Chinese experiment throughout the Third World. This is a project of national liberation and development, not a communist program that aims towards the self-emancipation of all humanity through the global victory of the proletariat and its allies. We see that the Chinese road is paved with gold but we do not see the final destination of the Chinese road to be the authentic road taken by the global proletariat in its class struggle with the global bourgeoisie, based on our sober and honest Marxist analysis of the relations of production of the Chinese social formation.

Where has the “state-capitalist Chinese experiment” been recreated throughout the Third World? No revolutions guided by Marxism-Leninism-Maoism have yet to be successful in the sense that they moved beyond the stage of dual power or New Democracy. Furthermore, the false dichotomy created by contrasting national liberation and development to self-emancipation and communism is muddled. National liberation and development can, and must be, part of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat towards communism. Communism, which is self-emancipation, cannot co-exist with national oppression, nor can it exist in the absence of a high level of technological development, hence why both national liberation and development must be pursued from a communist standpoint, that is, according to a proletarian political line. Whether the author likes it or not, capitalist-imperialism has formed distinct nations which are oppressed and has developed the world unevenly. Accepting this as fact, and formulating a revolutionary strategy to overcome it and move towards communism, is the only sober and honest analysis one can undertake. Such an exercise in shutting one’s eyes to national liberation and development and casting it all as “bourgeois” forgets that in class society all things have a class character, including development and national liberation struggles. It is the duty of the communist to study these and to take the position of the revolutionary proletariat, not to assume a metaphysical dogmatism divorced from the realities of class and imperialism in creating the conditions for national oppression and systematic underdevelopment.

While my concerns and criticisms in Part 1 are mainly confined to issues of a historical nature, as well as a lack of clarity by the author regarding certain theoretical categories, my criticisms of Part 2 primarily center around the author’s attempt to fuse Bordigism and Maoism. The section begins with a clarion call to all Marxists to use Bordiga to “purify” Maoism.

…we must use Bordiga to turn Mao upside-down, wrenching the revolutionary core of Maoism from its Stalinist, state-capitalist shell. What does this critique of Stalinist Maoism entail? It will roughly look largely Left Communist in theory and largely Maoist in practice, with of course the necessary intercourse between the two tendencies in the intersection between theory and practice. Constructing the full text of this break with Stalinist Maoism is a monumental task, but as part of this project of purging Stalinism from Maoism…

The main problem here is that, while the author is seemingly aware of the problem of merging two differing trends, they do not seem to grapple with the conflict arising from upholding a theory that directly contradicts with its practice, and vice versa. The only way to maintain a “Bordigist infused Maoism” is to artificially separate theory and practice, which can end in nothing more than either isolation or opportunism of one form or another. Furthermore, these theoretical interventions cannot occur in a vacuum, nor can they be crafted out of thin air as a fanciful Frankenstein creation. Real developments in Marxist theory and practice are the result of class struggle and the advances and retreats of the proletarian movement. Intellectuals may give more life and explanation to the lessons of the revolutionary proletarian movement, but they certainly cannot abstractly create, as if molding ideas out of clay, a truly revolutionary praxis to then be imposed or adopted by communists and advanced workers.

From there the author issues four points that exemplify this “Bordigist Maoism”, while simultaneously stating that in all areas where Maoism does not contradict these points, they side with Maoist theory and practice.

1. Recognition that the USSR under Stalin and China under Mao were capitalist social formations with red flags and that Stalin and Mao were both radical bourgeois nationalists, but not Marxist communists. Commodity production persisted under both social formations, as admitted by official Stalinist and Maoist texts, yet is incompatible with socialism based on the invariant programmatic content of the Communist Manifesto, the Critique of the Gotha Program, and Anti-Duhring. Capital accumulation continued to occur so long as there was state ownership of the means of production but no proletarian control of the state apparatus, such that the state owner of the means of production confronted the propertyless wage-laborer in the labor market. (The full text of why we believe that the Soviet Union and China were not dictatorships of the proletariat can be found in Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia by Robert Thurston and Chinese Workers: A New History by Jackie Sheehan.) We do not confuse state ownership with people’s ownership. However, this does not mean that there are no lessons that communists can draw from the experiences of these two world-historic revolutions. Rather, communists must draw on the wealth of theoretical and practical knowledge opened up by the Soviet and Chinese experiments in order to move on to the future. All of Mao’s contributions to Marxist theory and revolutionary praxis must be reconfigured upon this theoretical understanding.

If the author is trying to insist that the sole defining feature of a capitalist social formation is that commodity production exists, then they will have trouble when studying feudal Europe where generalized commodity production was slowly emerging in a non-capitalist social formation prior to the assumption of power by the bourgeoisie and the transformation of feudal social relations. The point being that commodity production didn’t emerge all at once, nor will it disappear all at once, a point that Marx acknowledged in the very text cited by the author, Critique of the Gotha Program. Secondly, capital is not a thing, but a form based on the relationship between classes. In the case of the USSR during its pre-state capitalist period and China during the Mao era, the bourgeoisie was deprived of political power and private ownership of the means of production was eliminated, as well as there not being a market for labor-power. This means the very possibility for the Capital-Labor relationship existing is nonsensical. While a state bourgeoisie did exist as stated before, it did not hold state power and was unable, beyond illegal means, to exploit labor, accrue capital, and to dispose of means of production. Contrast this to the the USSR from the 1950s onward and China from the late 1970s onward where labor-power became a commodity once again, the state bourgeoisie had captured the center of political power (the communist party itself), and private ownership of individual factories and farms was widened, as well as the law of value ceasing to be suppressed and instead assuming a regulatory role in co-ordinating production as in capitalism.

2. Recognition of a distinction between the dictatorship of the proletariat (the stage between capitalism and communism) and socialism (the lower phase of communism), as elaborated in the invariant programmatic content of Critique of the Gotha Program and The State and Revolution. For the longest time, the equating of the dictatorship of the proletariat with socialism by Stalin, Trotsky, Hoxha, Mao, and their heirs has served to justify preserving all kinds of opportunist practice and capitalist features under so-called “actually existing socialism” (actually capitalism with red flags).

Here we have a misunderstanding which stems from a semantic issue. Both socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat are identified with the political power and hegemony of the proletariat and the continual movement and transformation towards communism. Both as discussed in the Critique of the Gotha Program, feature elements of dying capitalism and nascent communism; that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism both feature social property alongside elements of the old society, vestiges of old norms of distribution, classes and class struggle (in different forms), and even bourgeois social relations. Therefore, since Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat has been synonymous with socialism. Moreover, the needless distinction between the two serves no political purpose beyond a semantic debate since what the disagreement centers on is what to call the transition period between capitalism and communism, not that there exists the necessity for a transition period.

3. Rejection of socialism in one country as impossible. Socialism in one country implies foreign trade with capitalist social formations, hence the survival of commodity production and thus the negation of socialism. The dictatorship of the proletariat, on the other hand, can be established in one country at a time, yet because the dictatorship of the proletariat concurs necessarily with a social formation with capitalist deformations, Mao’s thesis of continuous class struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary to put in practice to mitigate against the restoration of a bourgeois dictatorship. In any case, the final victory of socialism and the guaranteed perseverance of the dictatorship of the proletariat in one country against capitalist restoration cannot be secured without international revolution and therefore, communists cannot prioritize national development over the inciting of world revolution.

Marxist-Leninist-Maoists would not disagree with this point in the main. We recognize that socialism is a period marked by class struggle, and therefore the need to suppress the bourgeoisie and defeat attempts at capitalist restoration through the mobilization politically of the proletariat and all revolutionary classes. We have never denied that the final victory of socialism cannot be assured in the absence of a world revolution, in fact even Stalin argued as much, the originator of “socialism in one country”! The fact is, this point is inconsequential to today’s communist praxis, simply because the theory of “socialism in one country” arose out of the conditions imposed on the early Soviet Union and in the struggle for the industrialization and consolidation of the proletarian dictatorship in that country. Consequently, the theory plays no role in modern day communist movements, nor do any Maoists dogmatically advocate for it because it makes little sense outside of the conditions of the pre-WWII USSR. Making a point to oppose it as a part of this theoretical “fusion” is resurrecting a long-dead theoretical justification for Soviet industrialization and political consolidation, and erecting it as a cardinal principle of contemporary Maoists everywhere as a straw man to superficially oppose.

4. Recognition of Amadeo Bordiga as a world-historical theorist for Bordiga’s defense of Leninism, his significant contributions to understanding the nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism, his analysis of capitalism in the USSR, his elaboration on the relationship between Party and Class, his theory of organic centralism, his theory of revolutionary totalitarianism, and his refutation of the democratic principle.




4 thoughts on “Between Bordiga and Mao: A Response to Eden Sauvage’s “Communist Orthodoxy and Its Discontents”

    1. >We have never denied that the final victory of socialism cannot be assured in the absence of a world revolution, in fact even Stalin argued as much, the originator of “socialism in one country”!

      I rather doubt this despite what Stalin explicitly says in his writing, his actions towards international revolution and the subordination of communist parties to the foreign policy interests of the USSR speak more loudly than his writings.


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