1 March 2009

Gramsci as a revolutionary

Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism
John M Cammett Stanford/OUP 68s
(This appeared under a nom de plume in International Socialism, winter 1967-8)

When the hurricane of revolution hit Europe in the years after 1917 a new generation of Marxists rose to direct and aid it. Not content merely to r eiterate established doctrines or just to extend in a quantitave sense the compass of Marxist interpretation, they ensured that the revolution in practice was accompanied by a renovation of theory. The theories and writings of Lenin and Trotsky are only the pinnacle of an intellectual ferment in every social­ist movement in Europe. Yet this was not to last. The rise of Stalinism was once again to reduce Marx­ism to the level of an apology for a pre-ordained political practice. Those who had participated in the reforging of Marxism were either transformed into ideologues for the Russian bureaucracy or forced to try to maintain a scientific socialist tradition in the sort of sects on the periphery of the established movement from which they had emerged with the revolution.

Antonio Gramsci was to occupy a unique place in this movement. His personal history meant that like Lenin (who died just as the bureaucracy began its climb to power) he was never forced into an open head-on clash with the new deformation of socialism. Arrested by the fascists in 1926 he was to be in prison for the decisive years in which Stalinism established itself as an international force and was to die before the bureaucracy definitively settled accounts with the revolution by murdering its leaders.[1]

This has meant that his heritage has seemed to be peculiarly ambiguous. Within Italy all sorts of ten­dencies claim to follow his ideas: Stalinists and Trotskyists, Maoists and 'Revisionists,' bureaucrats and activists. Yet outside Italy his writings have until recently been largely unknown. And when reference has been made to him as often as not it has been by narrow groups of intellectuals who have presented his ideas only to distort them.

The appearance of Cammett's book must do much to remedy these deficiencies. Although at first sight it might seem like a typical product of the American thesis industry it is in fact a clear and accurate presentation of many of Gramsci's contributions to socialist theory which shows how these developed out of a real process of action and polemic. This is not only of historic interest; it must also serve as a corrective to the distortion Gramsci's theories have suffered in the hands of those who ignore the concrete situation in which they arose.

The crucial experience influencing Gramsci's theories was that which the working class of Italy (and in particular Turin) went through in the period between the first world war and the rise of fascism. This was characterised by an unprecedented level of in­dustrial militancy culminating in huge stay-in strikes when the workers actually took over the physical running of the factories and an adhesion to the most extreme left-wing form of social democracy. All this occurred in a period in which the ruling class was deeply divided over fundamental issues, the state machine half paralysed, while in the South peasant movements threatened the established order. Yet the outcome was not to be socialism but the complete destruction of independent working-class organisation.

Gramsci's practical concerns at this time and his later theorising in his Prison Notebooks were both a re­action against the sorts of policies and organisation that had been so capable of creating defeat out of insurgency.

Two series of concerns predominate in Gramsci's thought.

One is round the question of the state. What are the crucial differences between a workers' state and a bourgeois state? How can the elements of a workers' state be developed out of working-class struggle in bourgeois society? Where in the concrete reality of a given country (Italy) at a particular stage in the struggle are these elements to be found? The other set concerns the role of the party and of theory. How can this be developed so as to be able to relate to the experience of the masses while enabling them to transcend the routine of everyday existence in bourgeois society?

These concerns are intimately linked in Gramsci's thought. Although the question of the state tends to predominate in the period of Ordine Nuovo (1918-21) and the question of the party and theory in the Prison Notebooks (1926-34), they are organically linked in a total view of the problems of revolution­ary organisation.

It is only later interpreters of Gramsci who have separated the two, either because they wished to justify the rule of a party not based upon working-class democracy (eg Togliatti) or be­cause they wished to glorify the development of theory and of intellectualism unrelated to concrete practice (eg the epigones around New Left Review in this country). In fact both concerns arise out of the failure of the Italian revolution.

The concern with the state centres around the attempt to find an Italian analogue to the Russian Soviets. Here Gramsci differentiates himself from those who attempt to see the elements of the work­ers' state as being an existing party; in his time the left social democrats, the maximalists and the ultra-lefts, the Bordigists; today it is a position character­istic of Stalinists and certain would-be 'Trotskyists;' or in existing forms of official trade-union organis­ation. He holds that 'the socialist state already exists potentially in the institutions of social life character­istic of the exploited labouring class.

To collect to­gether these institutions to coordinate them and sub­ordinate them in a hierarchy of functions and powers, to strongly centralise them while respecting their necessary autonomies and articulations, means to have already created a true and proper workers' democracy in efficacious and active opposition to the bourgeois state, already prepared to replace the bourgeois state in all its essential functions . . . .' This cannot be achieved by the party or the unions which are of necessity voluntary organs, encompassing only the most conscious sections of the working class.

The party has to guide and educate the masses; it cannot absorb them so as to be the organ of their self-activity without failing in its own essential funct­ions. 'But the social life of the masses is full of institutions articulating with each other in a multi­plicity of activities.' These can give rise to a 'political form that contains in itself the power of developing itself, of continually integrating itself so as to become the foundation of the socialist state . . . .' For this reason Gramsci focusses on the workers' organisation he considers most intimately related to the life of the masses: the institution of 'factory commissars,' which in many ways resemble shop-stewards.

'The internal commissars are organs of working-class democracy that must be freed from the limitations imposed by the managers, and into which new life and energy must be infused. Today the internal com­missars limit the power of the capitalist in the factory and develop functions of decision and discipline. Developed and enriched they must tomorrow be the organs of proletarian power that replace the capitalist in all his useful functions of direction and ad­ministration.' (All quotations from Democrazia Operaia in Ordine Nuovo, Turin, 1954, p 10.)

This concern with the state attempts to adapt the theory of State and Revolution to the concrete situation of Italy in the period immediately following the first world war It is worth emphasising because most discussions of Gramsci in English minimise the importance of these writings. They in fact repre­sent one of the most fruitful attempts to extend and make concrete Lenin's writings on the state. But in concentrating on finding an Italian form for the Soviet, Gramsci tended to be less concerned with specifically political forms of organisation. In 1919 and 1920 the industrial struggle reached unparallelled peaks. But only in Turin did anything approaching the Italian Soviets envisaged by Gramsci develop.

While the maximalist leaders of the Socialist Party talked about Soviets they did nothing to give concrete form to them. Indeed the abstract adherence of the official leaders to the idea of a Soviet state impeded its actual development. Gramsci was well aware of this. 'The formula "dictatorship of the proletariat" must stop being a mere formula, an occasion for giving vent to revolutionary phraseology. If one wills the end one must will the means.' But he lacked the independent political organisation that could general­ise the experiences of Turin and present a viable alternative to the phraseology of the Maximalists. The tragedy of Italy in the twenties was that the working class was to suffer decisive defeats before such an organisation had been created.

It is in the light of this that one must view Gramsci's later concern with problems of theory and leader­ship. This centres around three questions: firstly, how to build an organisation that helps workers come to a consistent revolutionary socialist consciousness, by struggling against the ideas of the ruling class and their vestiges in 'common sense;' secondly how to develop an autonomous tradition of Marxist theory that does not itself reflect the existing subordination of the working class to capitalism by an over­emphasis on the element of mechanism and deter­minism in social life; finally there is a concern, arising out of specifically Italian developments, with the role of intellectuals in mediating between diffuse sub­ordinate classes (of the petty bourgeois and peasant type) and the competing programmes of the major classes.

This section of Gramsci's work is notoriously difficult to understand. Most of it was produced under ex­tremely difficult conditions while he suffered in fascist prisons. But just as in Lenin the theory of the party and the stress on the battle of ideas is a necessary correlate of the theory of the state. It is not for Gramsci, as for his epigones, a disjointed intel­lectual exercise. Here again Cammett's book is ex­tremely good at rendering many of the basic ideas comprehensible and implicitly correcting the self­consciously obscure interpretations of them that have often been circulated until now.

Any such work is bound to contain errors of inter­pretation and of fact. The main disagreement with Cammett must be over his tendency to equate Gramsci with the party that Togliatti later controlled. This is dependent however more on an acceptance of Togliatti's revolutionary pretensions than on a dis­tortion of Gramsci's own position. Thus Cammett notes the divergence of Gramsci from the party line on the United Front in the early thirties. Given Gramsci's history of opposition to a Bordigist position that in many ways resembled that of third-period Stalinism this was hardly surprising, but he ignores Togliatti's role in imposing these policies from the Comintern. He just ignores the contrast between the revolutionary spirit of Gramsci and the role of Italian Communism in helping the reimposition of a discredited capitalism after the war. But these are minor blemishes on a fine book. Get hold of a copy and read it.

Chris Harman

[1] This is not to say he was ignorant of everything that was happening. One of his last acts as a party leader was to write to Togliatti expressing dismay at the conflict within the Russian Party. Victor Serge, who had met him at Comintern meetings in Mos­cow, claims that Gramsci returned to Italy (and arrest) in 1926 as a reaction against the distasteful atmosphere in the Comintern

Antonio Gramsci: Prison Notebooks

Lawrence and Wishart, £6.

(This appeared in International Socialism 1: 51 April-June 1972)

The appearance in English of a large chunk of Gramsci's prison notebooks is a welcome event for all Marxists. It will enable many people to begin to come to terms with his ideas for the first time.
In a rich and varied selection of writings produced over a number of years there are far too many topics dealt with to be even touched upon in a brief review. I only intend to deal with two of the questions here.

The best of Gramsci's writings are those on the role of Marxist theory, its relationship to previous systems of ideas and the class struggle, and the way it develops. He deals with all these questions at greater length than any other substantial Marxist since Marx's own early writings. Yet more often than not his views have been misinterpreted in order to justify a position diametrically opposed to Gramsci's own.

Central to Gramsci's thought is the contention that a philosophy can only be understood and its importance judged when it is seen in relation to the notions held by a mass of people engaged in practical activity. He argues that everybody is a 'philosopher' in the sense that they all have a set of ideas in their heads. The specialist philosopher is an individual who concentrates on developing these ideas into a more or less coherent system.

But the ideas of ordinary people cannot be divorced from their actions. Ideas guide actions. And people change their ideas, when they change them, because they find that they no longer accord with active experiences.

A philosopher, then, is someone who succeeds in drawing out from the hodgepotch of ideas and notions that most people hold, a clear and coherent set of ideas that correspond to a particular set of practical activities. Insofar as he is successful in his task his philosophy becomes an 'ideology', a means of tying people's ideas, and therefore their activities, together in a particular way, whether to defend the existing social structure or in revolutionary opposition to it.
Gramsci has often been accused of being 'idealistic'. Some of his professed disciples have accepted this epiphet, claiming that his 'idealism' complements the 'one sided materialism' that Marxist usually are said to support, producing a sytheses of the two, which is 'neither materialism nor idealism'. And some of Gramsci's own statements seem to bear out this interpretation (he objects to

talk of the 'materiar world, although he himself is prone to talk about the 'real'). Yet in fact there is nothing idealistic about Gramsci's position. He stresses what Marx stressed, that man is not a passive product of the world around him, but actively intervenes to change it. This intervention, however, depends on his ideas — even although these ideas in turn derive from previous experiences. Men are not automatons and how their ideas change depends upon debate, reasoning and argument.

Pretended Marxists who try to deny this basic truth end up themselves by falling into an idealistic position. They wait around for the revolution to occur independently of real, concrete human intervention. Marxism, on the other hand, is thorough-going materialism: it attempts to grasp the material procesess by which new ideas develop — men's interaction with the world and each other, the new understanding that begins to develop on the basis of this, the contradiction between this and methods, argument, propaganda, organisation — by which this contradiction is resolved.

The link up between theory and practice, ideology and struggle, was central to Gramsci's thought. That is why, when he had to think up a synonym for Marxism (so as to fool his gaolers) he wrote of the 'philosophy of practice'.

Some people have tried to water down this striking position. Indeed, even in this excellent translation, 'practice' is rendered as 'praxis', although he uses it to mean the same as the common-or-garden English word (and, after all, in German even doctors have their 'praxis'.)

But Gramsci himself is absolutely unambiguous on the question. 'One may term "Byzantianism" or "scholasticism" the regressive tendency to treat so-called theoretical questions as if they had a value in themselves, independently of any specific practice. ... In short the principle must always rule that ideas are not born of other ideas, philosophies of other philosophies: they are a continually renewed expression of real historical development. . . . Identity in concrete reality determined identity in thought, and not vice-versa. It can further be deduced that every truth, even if it is universal and even if it can be expressed by an abstract formula of a mathematical kind (for the sake of theoreticians) owes its effectiveness to its being expressed in the language appropriate to the specific concrete circumstances. If it cannot be expressed in specific terms, it is a Byzantine and scholastic abstraction, good only for phrase mongers to toy with) (p. 200).

Again, he writes that 'It is absurd to think of purely "objective" prediction. Anyone who makes a prediction has in fact a programme for whose victory he is working, and his prediction is precisely an element contributing to that victory. . . . Only the man who wills something strongly can identify the elements which are necessary for realisation of his will . . . predictions made by people who claim to be impartial . . . are full of idle speculation, trivial detail and elegant conjectures.'

Of course, this stress on the practical, 'pragmatic' relevence of revolutionary theory does not mean accepting the bourgeois philosophy of pragmaticism which asserts that to be valid ideas have to be an expression of the immediate activities of men as they take place in society as it is at present organised. That would be to ignore the fact that two sorts of practical activities occur in our society — those that sustain the present form of organisation and those that oppose it, pointing towards its eventual overthrow. Instead pragmatism reduces all human activity to the level of the forms of activity natural to bourgeois society and, in effect, backs up that society. That is why Gramsci can write 'the individual' philosopher of the Italian or German variety is tied to "practice" in a mediated way, and there are often many rings on the chain of mediations. The pragmatist on the other hand wishes to tie himself immediately to practice. It would appear, however, that the Italian or German type of philosopher is more "practical" than the pragmatist who judges from immediate reality, often at the vulgar level, in that the German or the Italian has a higher aim, sets his sights higher and tends (if he tends in any direction) to raise the existing cultural level.'

One could sum up Gramsci's position succintly with the formula 'the pragmatic element — yes; pragmatism — no.'

However, despite Gramsci's own opposition to any 'Byzantian', scholastic rendering of theory, he was unfortunately forced to use a style in the prison notebooks that deliberately avoided dealing explicitly with the real problems developing in the class struggle. There was no other way in which he could deceive his prison guards as to the real nature of his writings. Unfortunately, there are still those •on the left able to be confused by , this — usually because their own academic orientation makes them want to be confused — into believing that somehow Gramsci's 'philosophy of practice' can develop independently of the practical concerns of the revolutionary workers movement and that revolutionary theory cannot be expressed "in specific terms —
appropriate to specific concrete circumstances". Instead they deliberately cultivate the more obscure formulations to which Gramsci was forced to resort into a veritable mysticism which they parade under the name of 'developing Marxist theory'.

The second important question which is raised by this volume concerns Gramsci's treatment of the split in the international Communist movement from the mid-1920s onwards between revolutionary Marxism and Stalinism. This is not just a question of revolutionaries claiming Gramsci for our side'. His attitude towards the rising bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and the Comintern must reflect upon the significance of some of his later writings on the party and the state.

But it seems that Gramsci took a very confused position — possibly a consciously confused position — on the issues involved. For instance, at a whole number of points he accuses Trotsky of wanting to spread revolution regardless of the objective circumstances. He writes that 'Bronstein (ie Trotsky) in one way or another can be considered the political theorist of the war of frontal attack in a period in which it can only lead to defeats.' Yet Gramsci knew at the time of the march on Warsaw (1920) it was precisely Trotsky who urged the danger of an offensive action that ignored real possibilities, and, again, it was Trotsky who decisively backed up Lenin in opposing the ultra-left 'theory of the offensive' at the Third Congress of the Comintern. Again, while Gramsci was writing, it was Stalin's henchmen in the Comintern (including the Italian Party) who were urging the 'Third Period' policy of attempting inst .nt revolution everywhere. What makes the mystery deeper is that Gramsci, when given a rare opportunity to express himself, came out in favour of the position of the minority in the Italian CP who had been expelled over precisely this issue.

Perhaps this mystery will never be fully solved. But there does seem the possibility that Gramsci was prepared to make considerable concessions to Stalinist regime inside Russia and the Comintern, while also trying to maintain a degree of intellectual independence. In this, of course, he was not alone. After all, the majority of Bolshevik leaders from 1917 tried, during the twenties and early thirties to be with both Stalin and with the traditions of Oc'ober — until Stalin himself sent them to execution after 1936. And even Trotsky continued to believe that somehow that Stalin's apparatus of repression was a 'degenerated workers state.'

The difference between Trotsky and Gramsci was that while holding this position, Trotsky never relented in his criticism of Stalinist totalitarianism. Gramsci at points almost seems to justify it, as when he writes that "the war of position (of which socialism in one country seems one version — CH) demands enormous sacrifices by infinite masses of people — so an unprecedented degree of hegemony is necessary." But that involves a view of the state which is light years away from the 'state which is not a state' of Lenin's 'State and the Revolution' and from Gramsci's own writings of the 1918-1920 period.

However, none of these observations can detract from the value of this volume. Its editors are to be congratulated on both the translation and the footnotes (which are invaluable in guiding the reader through a veritable labarynth of references and names in the text), although the introduction is a little weaker (the editors, for instance, seem to me to completely distort the meaning of one of Gramsci's pre-prison writings, the Theses of Lyons, because of their own lack of comprehension of the problem of the united front). But the only real objection anyone can make to the volume is its price. Let's hope a paperback edition appears soon.

Colin Humphreys.