Antonio Gramsci 1919

The conquest of the state

Source: L'Ordine Nuovo, 12 July 1919;
Translated: by Michael Carney.

Capitalist concentration, determined by the mode of production, produces a corresponding concentration of working human masses. In this fact it is necessary to seek the origin of all of the revolutionary theses of Marxism, it is necessary to seek the conditions of the new proletarian culture, the capitalist disorder generated by free competition and by the class struggle.

In the sphere of general capitalist activity, even the worker operates on the plane of free competition, is a citizen-individual. But the starting conditions of the struggle are not equal for all, at the same time: the existence of private property places the social minority in conditions of privilege, makes the struggle unequal. The worker is continually exposed to the most murderous risks: his own basic life, his culture, the life and future of his family are exposed to the rough blows of variations in the labour market. The worker tries then to escape the sphere of competition and individualism. The principle of association and solidarity becomes essential to the working class, changes the psychology and customs of the workers and peasants. Institutions and organs grow in which this principle is made flesh; on the basis of these begins the process of historical development which leads to communism in the means of production and exchange.

Association can and must be taken as the essential fact of the proletarian revolution. Dependent on this historical tendency in the period preceding this one (which we may call the period of the First and Second Internationals or the period of recruitment) there were formed and developed the socialist parties and the trade unions.

The development of these proletarian institutions and of all of the proletarian movement in general were not, however, autonomous, did not obey laws immanent in life and in the historical experience of the exploited working class. The laws of history were dictated by the proprietorial class organized in the state. The state has always been the protagonist of history, because in its organs it gathers the power of the proprietorial class, in the state the proprietorial class disciplines itself and forms itself in unity, above the infighting and blows of competition, to maintain intact the condition of privilege in the supreme phase of competition itself: the class struggle for power, for pre-eminence in the direction and disciplining of society.

In this period the proletarian movement was only a function of capitalist free competition. The proletarian institutions had to assume a form not by internal law, but by external law, under the formidable pressure of circumstances and coercion due to capitalist competition. This was the origin of the intimate conflicts, the deviations, the wobbles, the compromises which characterize the whole period of life of the proletarian movement preceding the present, and which culminated in the bankruptcy of the Second International.

Some tendencies of the proletarian and socialist movement had explicitly posed as the essential deed of the revolution the organization of workers by trade, and on this basis established their propaganda and their action. The syndicalist movement appeared, for a moment, to be the true interpreter of Marxism, the true interpreter of the truth.

The error of syndicalism consists of this: in assuming as a permanent fact, as the ongoing form of association, the trade union with its present form and functions, which are imposed and not proposed, and thus cannot have a constant direction capable of development. Syndicalism, which presented itself as initiator of a libertarian “spontaneous” tradition, has been in truth one of the many disguises of the abstract and Jacobin spirit.

From this came the errors in the syndicalist tendency, which did not succeed in replacing the Socialist Party in the task of educating the working class to revolution. The workers and peasants felt that, for the whole period in which the working class and the democratic-parliamentary state dictated the laws of history, every attempt to escape from the sphere of these laws was vain and ridiculous. It is certain that in the general configuration assumed by society with industrial production, every man can actively participate in life and modify his surroundings only in so far as he operates as an individual citizen, member of the democratic parliamentary state. The liberal experience is not in vain and cannot be superseded without having gone through it. The apoliticalness of the apolitical was only a degeneration of politics: negating and fighting the state is a political deed just as much as engaging in the general historical activity which unites itself in parliament and the communes, the popular institutions of the state. The quality of the political deed varies: the syndicalists work outside reality, and thus their politics was fundamentally mistaken; the parliamentary socialists worked close up to things, they could make mistakes (they made many serious errors) but they were not wrong in the sense of their action and thus triumphed in the “competition”: the grand masses, those which by their intervention objectively modify social relations, organized themselves around the Socialist Party. Regardless of all the errors and defects, the party succeeded, in the final analysis, in its mission: to make the proletariat which before was nothing become something, to give to the liberation movement a direct and vital sense which corresponded, in general terms, to the process of historical development of human society.

The most serious error of the socialist movement has been of a similar nature to that of the syndicalists. Participating in the general activity of human society in the state, the socialists forgot that their position should remain essentially one of criticism, of antithesis. They allowed themselves to be absorbed by reality, not dominate it.

The Marxist communists should characterize themselves by a psychology which we may call “maieutic” (a method of questioning the interlocutor to help them throw light on their thought). Their action is not abandonment to the course of events determined by the laws of bourgeois competition, but critical waiting. History is a continuous making of itself, and thus essentially unpredictable. But this does not mean that “all” is unpredictable in the making of history, that history is the domain of the arbitrary and of the irresponsible caprice. History is together freedom and necessity. The institutions, in whose development and in whose activity history is made flesh, have emerged and continue because they have a task and a mission to realize. There have emerged and developed objective conditions of production of material goods and of spiritual consciousness of men. If these objective conditions, which by their mechanical nature are almost mathematically commensurate, change, the level of consciousness of men changes; the social configuration transforms, the traditional institutions are impoverished, they are adequate for their task, they become obstructive and murderous. If in the making of history intelligence were incapable of shaking a rhythm, of establishing a process, the life of civilization would be impossible; political genius is recognized precisely by this capacity to master the greatest possible number of concrete terms necessary and sufficient to fix a process of development and by the capacity then to anticipate the near and far future and on the line of this intuition set the activity of a state, risk the fortune of a people. In this sense, Karl Marx has been by a long way the greatest of contemporary political geniuses.

The socialists have, often supinely, recognized the historical reality produced by capitalist initiative; they have fallen into the error of the psychology of liberal economists: believing in the perpetuity of the institutions of the democratic state, in their fundamental perfection. According to them the form of the democratic institutions can be corrected, here and there touched up, but fundamentally must be respected. An example of this narrowly vainglorious psychology is given by the labyrinthine judgment of Filippo Turati, according to which the parliament is to the soviet as the city to the barbarian horde.

From this mistaken conception of historical becoming, from the long-standing practice of compromise and of a “cretinously” parliamentary tactic, is born today’s formula of the “conquest of the state.”

We are convinced, after the revolutionary experiences of Russia, Hungary and Germany, that the socialist state cannot form itself in the institutions of the capitalist state, but is a fundamentally new creation with respect to them, if not with respect to the history of the proletariat.

The institutions of the capitalist state are organized for the ends of free competition: it is not enough to change the personnel to send them in another direction. The socialist state is not yet communism, that is the instigation of the economic practice and custom of solidarity, but it is the state of transition which has the task of suppressing competition with the suppression of private property, of classes, of national economies: this task cannot be started by parliamentary democracy. The formula “conquest of the state” must be understood in this sense: the creation of a new type of state, generated by the experience of association of the proletarian class, and the substitution of this for the democratic-parliamentary state. And here we return to the starting point. We said that the institutions of the socialist and proletarian movement in the period preceding the present, did not develop autonomously, but as the result of the general configuration of human society dominated by the sovereign laws of capitalism. The war has upturned the strategic situation in the class struggle. The capitalists have lost pre-eminence: their freedom is limited; their power is annulled. Capitalist concentration has arrived at the greatest development allowed it, realizing the world monopoly of production and exchange. The corresponding concentration of the working masses has given an unheard of power to the revolutionary proletarian class. The traditional institutions of the movement have become incapable of containing such energy of revolutionary life. Their own form is insufficient for the disciplining of the forces which have been inserted into the conscious historical process. They are not dead. Born as a function of a free competition, they must continue to survive until the suppression of every residue of competition, until the complete expression of classes and parties, until the fusion of the national proletarian dictatorships in the Communist International. But alongside these there must arise and develop institutions of a new type, of a state type, which will precisely replace the private and public institutions of the democratic-parliamentary state. Institutions which replace the person of the capitalist in the administrative functions and in industrial power, and realize the autonomy of the producer in the factory; institutions capable of assuming the power of direction in all the functions inherent in the complex system of relations of production and exchange which link the divisions of a factory to each other, constituting the elementary economic unit, which link the various activities of agricultural industry, which through horizontal and vertical planning should form the harmonious edifice of the national and international economy, freed from the cumbersome and parasitical tyranny of private owners.

But drive and revolutionary enthusiasm have been more fervent in the proletariat of western Europe. But it appears to us that the lucid and exact understanding of the end is not accompanied by a similarly lucid and exact understanding of the appropriate means, at the present moment, for the reaching of the end itself. The conviction has thus taken root amongst the masses that the proletarian state is embodied in a system of councils of workers, peasants and soldiers. There is not yet established a tactical conception which objectively assures the creation of this state. It is thus necessary to create now a network of proletarian institutions, rooted in the consciousness of the grand masses, sure of the discipline and the permanent trust of the grand masses, in which the class of workers and peasants, in its totality, assumes a form rich in dynamism and possibilities of development. It is certain that today, in the actual conditions of proletarian organization, a mass movement is being established with a revolutionary character, the results will be consolidated in a purely formal correction of the democratic state, they will be resolved in an increase of the power of the Chamber of Deputies (through a constituent assembly) and in the assuming of power by sharp anticommunist socialists. The German and Austrian experiences should teach us something. The forces of the democratic state and of the capitalist class are still immense: there is no need to conceal that capitalism remains standing particularly through the efforts of its sycophants and its lackeys, and the makings of such rogues are certainly not gone.

The creation of the proletarian state is not, in short, the act of a miracle worker: it too is a making, it is a process of development. It presupposes preparatory work of organization and propaganda. It is necessary to give greater powers to the already existing proletarian factory institutions, make similar institutions develop in the villages, make certain that the men who form them are communists conscious of the revolutionary mission that the institution must adopt. Otherwise all our enthusiasm, all the faith of the working masses will not succeed in stopping the revolution taking place miserably in a new parliament of con artists, windbags and chancers, making new and more daring sacrifices necessary for the advent of the proletarian state.