The revolutionary ideas of Antonio Gramsci

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Contrary to interpretations of the Italian revolutionary popular in the academic world, Antonio Gramsci was fighter for working class struggle and socialist revolution, argues Penny Howard

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian revolutionary socialist who took part in some of the 20th century’s most inspiring struggles, but finally fell victim to some of its darkest moments.

Gramsci’s legacy is complex, particularly because in academic writing he has come to be considered the acceptable face of Marxism in a way that Lenin and Trotsky are not. In the 1980s in particular Gramsci’s writings were used by many Eurocommunists who argued for a parliamentary road to socialism, like Stuart Hall, to argue that revolutionary parties should be disbanded and replaced with social democratic parties. Hall argued that Gramsci’s analysis of his own defeat by Mussolini (and Hall extended this to Thatcher’s defeat of the UK left), meant that the kind of revolutionary social change that Marx and Lenin argued for was no longer possible.

A new wave of writing about Gramsci is now recovering his revolutionary legacy. This revival is not just taking place on the left (for example, in a special 2007 issue of the International Socialism Journal), but also challenging the stifling post-modern academic orthodoxy in disciplines such as anthropology and philosophy.

Gramsci’s life and times

Born on the Mediterranean island of Sardina, Gramsci won a university scholarship in Italy’s northern industrial city of Turin in 1911, joining the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) two years later. Italy was rapidly industrialising and Turin was the centre of Italy’s expanding working class. Preparations for war in 1914 accelerated this process. Carmaker Fiat’s workforce went from 4,000 to 40,000. Massive numbers of peasants were called up and altogether five million Italians were mobilised for the war.

The war was a disaster for ordinary Italians, with over 600,000 killed and many more disabled. At the war’s end there was massive unemployment and shortages of food and other goods. Gramsci wrote that “a new class consciousness has emerged, not only in the factories but in the trenches”. Veterans had high expectations that they would be repaid for their considerable sacrifices. In the countryside people demanded land redistribution, while in cities, workers demanded jobs and higher wages.

A general strike in Turin in August 1917, called after police killed two people in a protest over bread shortages, was brutally repressed. Then the Bolshevik revolution shook Russia, raising expectations in Italy even further. Despite the difficult circumstances workers won the eight hour day and increased wages. Membership of the PSI and trade unions increased hugely.

Two red years

The years 1919-1920 are called the “bienno rosso” or the “two red years”. During these years some of the greatest strikes and potentially revolutionary insurrections in all of Europe took place in Turin and Milan.

Unfortunately, while the leadership of the PSI talked about revolution, they made no plans for any such thing. The leadership had even refused to support peasant land seizures after the war on the grounds they were “petty-bourgeois”.

However, in Turin, Gramsci and others involved in the new L’Ordine Nuovo magazine argued that factory councils must now be formed in all workplaces. In a 1919 article titled “Workers’ Democracy” (see footnote), Gramsci and Togliatti ask “how can the present be welded to the [revolutionary] future”, arguing that the immediate tasks for socialists and workers was to “create a genuine workers’ democracy here and now—a workers’ democracy in effective and active opposition to the bourgeois State, and prepared to replace it”.

This new democracy should arise from the already existing potential “in the institutions of social life characteristic of the exploited working class”, such as the “internal commissions” of Italian factories. Individual factory councils should be linked to create local committees that were “an expression of the whole of the working class”. Much broader than the Socialist Party itself, such committees could “order the immediate and complete cessation of all work” in an area and give communists “a vast field for concrete, revolutionary propaganda”.

Gramsci consciously based his arguments for factory councils on the experience of the Bolsheviks and the workers’ councils, or soviets, in revolutionary Russia. However, sectarianism and ultra-leftism dominated the leaderships of both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. Amadeo Bordiga, the leader of the Communist Party, condemned the factory councils as economistic and reformist and a distraction from the necessity of the party seizing political power. These parties effectively wanted to substitute themselves for the independent activity and self-emancipation of the working class.

Gramsci addressed some of these debates in an L’Ordine Nuovo article titled “The development of the revolution”. Political parties could promise anything within “the tumult and carnival atmosphere of Parliament”, but the key was making workers “aware of their capacity to produce and exercise sovereignty … without the need for the capitalist”.

Thus every workers’ council was “a step on the road to communism”. Such organs would allow for the development of genuine workers’ democracy, and organised revolutionaries could participate in them, debate with their fellow workers, and stand for election.

L’Ordine Nuovo earned respect among workers for consistently advocating for factory councils and sharing information, experience, and practical ideas. By the end of 1919, 150,000 workers were represented by workers’ councils.

In 1920 the employers and the Italian state went on an offensive, killing about 100 workers. In April a general strike in Turin was met with 50,000 troops. The PSI refused to support or spread the strike and it was defeated after 11 days. In August up to 100,000 workers in Milan and Turin occupied their factories, with many re-starting production under union control. Debate raged on how to proceed. The Socialist Party and the trade unions insisted that the next step was to have a referendum. In what must have been the strangest resolution ever put to a union Congress, a vote to hold an insurrection (under the direction of the Socialist Party) was lost by 409,000 votes to 591,000 votes. The movement was defused, factories were handed back to the employers, and demoralised workers returned to work.

“The Socialist Party”, Gramsci argued, “watches the course of events like a spectator … it never launches slogans that can be adopted by the masses, to lay down a general line and unify and concentrate revolutionary action.” This meant that not only did it “lose more and more contacts with the broad masses in the movement”, but that the level of coordination that was necessary to win power from the state did not exist. Workers had demonstrated that they were willing and able to take power into their own hands, but no organisation existed that could provide the political coordination to transform the factory occupation into a political seizure of power. Without the leadership of a revolutionary party with the support of the factory councils that were able to take action, “power remains in the hands of capital; armed force remains the property of the bourgeois state”.

Mussolini’s rise

In 1920, Gramsci had argued that if Italian workers did not succeed in gaining power, they would be subject to “tremendous reaction on the part of the propertied classes and the governing caste. No violence will be spared in subjecting the industrial and agricultural proletariat to servile labour.” In 1922, Mussolini came to power in Italy, and within a few years was able to forge it into a fascist state. Gangs of armed thugs were established in the countryside, terrorising rural trade unionists and socialist local authorities. They then moved into small towns, and then into the cities.

In response, the Socialist Party argued that workers should rely on the police to protect them (despite the fact that they were often part of the attacks). The newly formed Communist Party (of which Gramsci was a member) argued that even if Mussolini abolished parliament, it would just help break the illusions that working class people held in the institution.

By the end of 1921, the fascist squads were almost 300,000 strong, but there was still no serious opposition strategy from the left. People started forming groups called “arditi del populo” to actively oppose the fascists. In L’Ordine Nuovo, Gramsci argued that communists should support these groups and that “able workers of all parties should participate in them”, and link them to neighbouring groups. A single, unified, anti-fascist defence force needed to be created.

However, the sectarian Communist Party leadership insisted that its members should only participate in a defence force that was under Communist Party control. They ordered their members to quit the arditi del populo. Despite his instincts, Gramsci accepted this line. Later the trade unions initiated an alliance to fight the fascists. Once again the Communist Party refused to participate and once again Gramsci accepted this line. Both he and the Italian working class paid a high price.

A brief resurgence in the left saw Gramsci elected to parliament in 1924. He was able to shift the Communist Party from some of its sectarianism. Membership grew rapidly, but it was too late. In 1926 Mussolini arrested Gramsci and he spent the next nine years in fascist jails, his health constantly deteriorating. Gramsci died in 1937.

Prison Notebooks

Prosecutors at Gramsci’s 1926 trial argued that they must “stop this brain from functioning” for at least 20 years. Watched closely by jail guards and censors and plagued by ill health, Gramsci nonetheless managed to write his famous Prison Notebooks between 1926 and 1937. These Prison Notebooks (and not his earlier political writings) form the overwhelming majority of what is read and quoted from Gramsci today.

The Prison Notebooks consist of fragmentary notes which Gramsci never had the opportunity to pull together systematically into articles or a book. They are also written in a code to evade censors: thus the revolutionary party is called “the modern prince”, Lenin is referred to as “Ilich” and Marxism is called “the philosophy of praxis” (although some have argued that Gramsci intentionally used the term).

The obscurity of the writing in the Prison Notebooks have made them an academic playground open to misinterpretation by post-modernists anxious to abstract Gramsci from his commitment to working class struggle and socialist revolution.

In prison, Gramsci also had difficulty getting any information on what was going on in Italy and the rest of the world, in contrast to his earlier situation, which had made his writing concrete and concerned with developing the struggles going on around him.

The extraordinary struggles and horrific defeat that Gramsci had been involved in gave him plenty to think about. Most important was the question of why the struggle was defeated. What was the relation between struggle and the consciousness of workers who participated in them? How did people’s ideas develop and change? What did conscious political leadership involve? What was the relation between the ordinary lives of worker and peasants, and their political struggles? How did the powerful remain powerful?

Gramsci’s careful and thoughtful reflections on these issues are invaluable to this day and mix big political questions with a close attention to the daily lives and consciousness of ordinary people, and histories of how these have developed over time.

In developed capitalist democracies, Gramsci argued that governments did not simply rule by force. There were a mass of institutions like the church, the media, the political parties, and the education system; each part of the way capitalism maintained its power. Workers had “contradictory consciousness”: on the one hand, “good sense” which was “implicit in his activity and which really unites him with his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world”. The “practical transformation” of the world consisted of both political struggle, and the day-to-day work of production. In contrast, “common sense” was “superficially explicit or verbal … inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed”. This “common sense” view of the world was the one propagated through the media and various institutions of the state.

Thus, one important task for revolutionaries was to develop people’s “good sense” and challenge “common sense” ideas propagated by employers and state institutions. This was part of process for a revolutionary party to gain “hegemony”.

Reformists have used the idea of “hegemony” to argue Gramsci was a parliamentary or cultural gradualist who argued for bringing social change by slowly influencing parliament, education or the media.

However, Gramsci’s “hegemony” was not just ideological. Revolutionaries were not teachers transferring knowledge, they organised “to renovate and make critical [people’s] already-existing activity”. Nor was hegemony achieved by simply holding power over people. Hegemony was above all developed and demonstrated in practice and in struggle. It meant consciously linking struggles, generalising lessons learned, proposing concrete initiatives, raising the confidence and participation of broad layers of workers, and eventually providing credible and practical leadership to break from the old system to create a new one.

Gramsci was a profoundly dialectical, non-sectarian and non-determinist revolutionary who spent his life arguing for the self-emancipation of workers, for the importance of a united front approach and for providing practical leadership in struggle.

His “Lyons Theses” (which analyses the experience of the Turin factory councils), and his “Prison Notebooks” reveal a committed revolutionary socialist determined to understand how the ruling elite maintains its rule, all the better to bring its rule to an end.

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