Antonio Gramsci 1919

Workers’ democracy

Source: L'Ordine Nuovo, 21 June 1919;
Translated: by Michael Carley.

A nagging problem afflicts every socialists who feels alive the sense of historic responsibility which hangs over the working class and the party which represents the critical and functioning consciousness of the mission of this class.

How to control the immense social forces which the war has unleashed? How to discipline them and give them a political form which contains in itself the virtue of developing normally, of integrating itself continuously, until it becomes the framework of the socialist state in which the dictator of the proletariat will be embodied. How to weld the present to the future, satisfying the urgent necessities of the present and working usefully to create and “anticipate” the future?

This article aims to be a stimulus to thought and work; it aims to be an invitation to the best and most conscious workers to reflect and, each in the sphere of his own competence and his own action, to collaborate on the solution of the problem, focussing the attention of comrades and associations. Only from a united and common work of clarification, persuasion and reciprocal education will the concrete action of construction be born.

The socialist state potentially already exists in the institutions of social life characteristic of the exploited working class. Connecting these institutions to each other, coordinating them and subordinating them in a hierarchy of competences and powers, strongly focussing them, while respecting the necessary autonomy and flexibility, means creating from now a true and proper workers’ democracy, in effective and active counterposition to the bourgeois state, already prepared to replace the bourgeois state in all of its essential functions of management and control of national property.

The labour movement is today directed by the Socialist Party and by Confederation of Labour; but the exercise of the social power of the Socialist Party and of the Confederation takes place, for the major mass of workers, indirectly, by force of prestige and of enthusiasm, by authoritarian pressure, thus by inertia. The sphere of prestige of the party expands daily, reaches working classes hitherto untouched, implants the consensus and desire to work vigorously for the coming of communism in groups and individuals up to now absent from the political struggle. It is necessary to give a political form and a permanent discipline to these disordered and chaotic energies, to absorb, assemble and empower them, to make of the proletarian and semiproletarian class an organized society which educates itself, which makes its own experience, which acquires a responsible consciousness of the duties which fall to the classes come to state power.

The Socialist Party and the trade unions cannot absorb the whole working class, except through the work of years and decades. They do not identify immediately with the proletarian state; in the communist republics in fact, they continue to operate independently of the state, as institutes of propulsion (the party) or of control and partial realization (the unions). The party must continue to be the organ of communist education, the focus of the faith, the repository of doctrine, the supreme power which harmonizes and brings to a point the organized and disciplined forces of the working and peasant class. Precisely to rigidly develop this its office, the party cannot throw open the doors to an invasion of new members, not used to the exercise of responsibility and discipline.

But the social life of the working class is rich with institutions, it articulates itself in multiple activities. Precisely these institutions and these activities need to be developed, organized together, connected in a vast and flexibly articulated system which absorbs and disciplines the whole working class.

The workshop with its internal commissions, the socialist circles, the peasant communities, are the centres of proletarian life in which it is necessary to work directly.

The internal commissions are organs of workers’ democracy which should be freed from the limits imposed by owners, and in which new life and energy should be inspired. Today the commissions limit the power of the capitalist in the factory and perform functions of arbitration and discipline. Developed and enriched, they should tomorrow be organs of proletarian power which will replace the capitalist in all his useful functions of direction and administration.

Already workers should proceed to the election of vast assemblies of delegates, chosen from the best and most conscious comrades, on the watchword: “All power in the workshop to the workshop committee,” matched to the other: “All state power to the worker and peasant councils.”

A vast field of concrete revolutionary propaganda would open for communists organized in the party and in the district circles. The circles, in agreement with the urban sections, should make a census of the labour forces of the area, and become the seat of the district council of the workshop delegates, the ganglion which ties and concentrates the proletarian energies of the district. The electoral systems can be varied according to the size of the workshops: however, the aim should be to elect one delegate for every 15 workers divided by category (as is done in English workshops), arriving, by gradual elections, at a committee of factory delegates which includes representatives of the whole labour complex (blue collar, white collar, technical). The district committee should also aim to include delegates from the other categories of workers living in the district: catering, haulage, trams, railways, refuse, white collar, self-employed, shopwork, etc.

The district committee should be an emanation of the whole working class living in the district, legitimate and authoritative, able to impose discipline, invested with power, spontaneously delegated, and order the immediate and complete cessation of all work in the whole district.

The district committees will be enlarged in urban commissions, controlled and disciplined by the Socialist Party and by the trade federations.

Such a system of workers’ democracy (integrated with equivalent peasant organizations) would give a form and a discipline to the masses, would be a magnificent school of political and administrative experience, would assemble the masses up to the last man, habituating them to tenacity and perseverance, habituating them to consider themselves an army in the field which needs a firm cohesion if it does not want to be destroyed and reduced to slavery. Every factory would form one or more regiments of this army, with its corporals, with its communication services, with its officers, with its general staff, delegated powers for free election, not imposed authoritarianly Through the rallies, held inside the workshop, with the unceasing work of propaganda and persuasion developed by the most conscious elements, a radical transformation of the workers’ psychology would take place, would render the masses better prepared for and capable of the exercise of power, would diffuse a consciousness of the duties and rights of the comrade and of the worker, concrete and efficient because spontaneously generated by the living historical experience.

We have already said: these rapid notes are put forward only to stimulate thought and action. Every aspect of the problem deserves a vast and deep treatment, clarifications, subsidiary and coordinated integration. But the concrete and complete solution of the problems of socialist life can be given only by communist practice: discussion in common, which sympathetically modifies consciousnesses uniting them and filling them with working enthusiasm. To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is to achieve a communist and revolutionary act. The formula “dictatorship of the proletariat” must cease to be only a formula, an occasion for outbursts of revolutionary phraseology. Whoever wants the ends, should want the means. The dictatorship of the proletariat is the inauguration of a new state, typically proletarian, in which combine the institutional experiences of the oppressed class, in which the social life of the worker and peasant class becomes a widespread and strongly organized system. This state is not improvised: the Russian Bolshevik communists have worked for eight months to propagate and make concrete the watchword: all power to the soviets, and the soviets have been known to Russian workers since 1905. The communists must treasure the Russian experience and save time and effort: the work of reconstruction will require for itself much time and much effort, to which every day and every act must be destined.