Antonio Gramsci 1925
Written: in April-May 1925, as “Introduction to the first course of the party school,” and signed “The agitation and propaganda section of the Communist Party”;
Translated: by Ben W.
We have decided to set up a correspondence school. The publication of the following study notes represents the start of this project. You may ask: What specific need of the class and its party (the Communist Party) has sparked this initiative?
For almost five years the workers revolutionary movement in Italy has been plunged into a state of illegality, or semi-illegality. The freedom of the press, the right to assemble, to organise and to disseminate propaganda have effectively been suppressed.
So the training of the leading cadres of the proletariat can no longer be carried out with the methods that were traditional in Italy until 1921.
The most active elements among the workers are persecuted. Their every movement and everything they read is observed. The workers’ libraries have been burnt down, or otherwise disrupted. The big workers’ organisations and the big mass actions no longer exist – or cannot be carried out.
The militants hardly participate. When they do, it is only in an extremely limited manner, in discussions and arguments. Consider how we are now obliged to operate: our cadres are isolated from the class and we can only hold irregular meetings, attended by invited guests. The habits that can be formed by such a political life (and that in other times would seem exceptional) arouse feelings, states of mind and points of view that are often mistaken, and sometimes even morbid.
The new members gained by the party in such a situation are evidently sincere men, with an ardent revolutionary faith. But they cannot presently be educated in our usual methods – of wide-ranging activity, loose discussions and mutual control – that are appropriate for a period of bourgeois democracy and legality.
In this way, a very grave danger arises. During the period of illegality, the mass of party members are likely to fall into damaging habits:
i) To focus only on the necessary expedients for avoiding the traps of the enemy.
ii) To believe it is only possible to organise short-term actions, carried out by little groups.
iii) Observing how the enemy appears to have won power, and held on to it, through the deployment of small armed groups, the comrades may gradually retreat from the Marxist conception of the revolutionary self activity of the proletariat. While believing themselves to be ever more radical, due to their frequently expressed extreme aims, and their bloodthirsty slogans, in reality they will become incapable of defeating the enemy.
The history of the working class, especially in the epoch we are living through, demonstrates that this is no imaginary danger. The recovery of revolutionary parties after a period of illegality is often characterised by an unstoppable impulse to pursue action for action’s’ sake. Another common failing is the absence of any consideration of the real relations between social forces, of the genuine mood of the workers and peasants, and of how well-armed the respective sides are, etc
In this way the revolutionary party has too often allowed itself to be crushed by a reaction that had not yet disintegrated, and whose reserves were not properly appreciated. Another key factor in such a situation is the spirit of the masses. They tend to be in a state of indifference or passivity. After any period of reaction, they will have become very prudent, and are easily thrown into a panic by any threat of a return to the old order from which they have only just emerged.
It is difficult to avoid such errors. Therefore the party ought to concern itself with them.
It should prepare its cadre and its organisation for such eventualities. It should elevate the intellectual level of the members who we find in our ranks during the period of the white terror – and who are destined to be the central nucleus of the party afterwards. They must be the most resilient in the face of all obstacles and sacrifices. They must be readied to lead the revolution, and to administer the proletarian state.
In fact, the problem under consideration is even larger and more complex than it appears. The recovery of the revolutionary movement – and especially its victory – will see an influx of masses of new elements into the party. They cannot be turned away (especially if they are proletarian). Indeed, their support will be one of the key signs that the revolution is being fulfilled. But the influx nevertheless poses a problem: how can we prevent the nucleus of the party being submerged and broken up by these new stormy waves?
We all remember what happened to the Socialist Party in Italy after the last war. The nucleus of the party, comprised of comrades who had remained faithful to the cause throughout the catastrophic events, had by then shrunk to about 16,000 members. Yet by the time of the Livorno Congress [in 1921] 200,000 members were represented. That is to say, the vast majority of the members had joined in a short period immediately after the war. They had undergone no political preparation, they were starved of almost any notion of Marxism – and as a result they were easy prey for the petit-bourgeois demagogues and braggarts who constituted the phenomenon of Maximalism during the years 1919-20.
It is not insignificant that the current leader of the Socialist Party and editor of ‘Avanti’ should be Pietro Nenni. He joined the party after the Livorno Congress, but he nevertheless sums up and synthesizes in himself all the ideological weaknesses and all the distinctive characteristics of the Maximalism of the post-war period.
It would be truly criminal if we allow what happened to the Socialist Party in the immediate aftermath of the war to happen again – this time to the Communist Party – following the fall of fascism. But such a course is inevitable, unless our party adopts a clear position in this arena: the party must take precautionary measures to reinforce its cadre and its members both ideologically and politically. They must be made capable of absorbing and cadreising still greater masses while ensuring the party does not suffer too many shocks or mutations of its character due to this influx.
We have posed the problem in its most important practical aspects. But it has a basis that goes beyond any immediate contingency.
The struggle of the proletariat against capitalism unfurls on three fronts: the economic, the political, and the ideological.
The economic struggle has three phases:
i) Of resistance against capitalism – i.e. the phase of elemental trade unionism.
ii) Of an offensive against capitalism to win workers’ control over production.
iii) Of the fight for the elimination of capitalism by means of socialisation.
The political struggle also has three principal phases:
i) The fight to reign in the power of the bourgeois through a parliamentary state – i.e. to maintain or create a democratic situation, a period of relative equilibrium between the classes, that allows the proletariat to organise itself.
ii) The fight for the conquest of power and for the creation of a workers’ state – i.e. a complex political action through which the proletariat mobilises around itself all the anti-capitalist social forces (above all, the peasant class) and leads them to victory.
iii) The phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat, organised as the dominant class, to eliminate all technical and social obstacles that get in the way of the realisation of communism.
The economic struggle cannot be separated from the political struggle, and neither one nor the other can be separated from the ideological struggle.
In the first phase – the trade union phase – the economic struggle is spontaneous. In other words, it arises inescapably from the situation in which the proletariat finds itself under a bourgeois regime. But it is not of itself revolutionary. It does not necessarily lead to the destruction of capitalism, as the syndicalists have long argued (with some success).
In any case, the reformists and even the fascists permit some elementary trade union struggle. Or rather, they maintain that the proletariat as a class may not engage in any struggle but the union one.
The union struggle may become a revolutionary factor if the proletariat combines it with a political struggle. That is, if the proletariat becomes conscious of being the protagonist in a much wider battle – one that takes on all the most vital questions about the organisation of society (i.e. if it becomes aware that it is fighting for socialism).
The element of ‘spontaneity’ is never enough for a revolutionary struggle. It will never take the working class beyond the limits of existing bourgeois democracy. For that to occur, a conscious ‘ideological’ element is necessary. This entails an understanding of the conditions in which the class is fighting, of the social relations in which workers live, of the fundamental tendencies that operate within these social relationships, and of the development of society (driven by the irreconcilable antagonisms at its heart), etcetera.
These three fronts of the proletarian battle are reduced to a single one for the party of the working class. It fulfills this role precisely because it resumes and represents all the demands of the general struggle.
Of course, we can’t ask every worker to have a complete grasp of all the complex functions that his or her class will carry out in the process of humanity’s development. However, we must ask that of the members of the party.
One cannot propose, prior to the conquest of state power, the complete modification of the consciousness of the whole working class. That would be utopian, because class consciousness as such only changes when the living conditions of that class also change. That is to say, when it becomes the dominant class and has at its disposition the means of production, of exchange, and it holds state power.
But the party can, and must, in its entirety, represent this advanced consciousness. Otherwise the party will not be at the head but at the tail of the masses. It won’t be able to lead them – instead it will be dragged along behind them. This is why the party must assimilate Marxism, and why it must assimilate it in its current form – Leninism.
Theoretical activity, i.e. the fight on the ideological front, has always been neglected in the Italian workers’ movement. Marxism in Italy (with the exception of Antonio Labriola) has mostly been studied by bourgeois intellectuals, who distort it and bend it to the needs of bourgeois politicians, rather than to the needs of revolutionaries.
We can see one symptom of this neglect in the Italian Socialist Party, where the most disparate tendencies coexist peacefully. As a result, the SP issues statements whose underlying conceptions contradict each other. The leadership of the SP would never imagine that in order to liberate the masses from the influence of capitalism it is first necessary to defend Marxist doctrine within the party itself – and to defend it from every distortion.
This unfortunate tradition has not yet been broken within our own party – at least, not in a systematic manner, which requires significant and continuous activity.
Despite all this, they say that Marxism has been very lucky in Italy. In a certain sense this is true. But it’s also true that such luck has not been good for the proletariat, it hasn’t helped to create new means of struggle, and it hasn’t been a revolutionary phenomenon.
‘Marxism’ in Italy consists of various statements plucked from Marx’s writings, which have principally been used by the Italian bourgeois to demonstrate that in order for society to develop it is necessary to do without democracy, to trample on the law and to laugh at liberty and justice!
The ‘Marxism’ known to the philosophers of the Italian bourgeois consists of Marx’s observations on how the system functions, and the role of the bourgeois within that system. It offers them a scientific point of view, which then absolves them from any need to resort to justifications for their actions. Their very selective ‘Marxism’ is used to fight against the workers!
In order to correct this fraudulent interpretation, the reformists became ‘democrats en masse. They became incense-bearing acolytes for the deconsecrated saints of capitalism.
The theoreticians of the Italian bourgeois were able to develop the concept of the ‘proletarian nation’. They argued that Italy in its entirety was a ‘proletarian’ and that Marx’s conception must be applied to the struggle of Italy against the other capitalist states – not to the fight of the Italian proletariat against Italian capitalism. The ‘Marxists’ of the Socialist Party allowed these aberrations to pass without putting up a fight. Indeed, they were accepted by Enrico Ferri, who is taken for a great socialist theoretician!
This was the ‘luck’ of Marxism in Italy. It served as a dressing for the most indigestible sauces that the most imprudent adventurers of the pen wanted to sell. Marxists of this stamp included Enrico Ferri, Guglielmo Ferrero, Achille Loria, Paolo Orano, Benito Mussolini etc.
To fight against the confusion that was created in this manner, the party needs to intensify and systematize its activity in the ideological field. The party should make clear that its militants have a duty to understand marxist-leninist doctrine, at least in its most general terms.
Our party is not a ‘democratic’ party – at least not in the vulgar sense that is commonly given to this word. The party is centralised rationally and internationally. In the international arena our party is a simple section of a much larger party, a party of the whole world.
It may be an absolute necessity of revolution, but what repercussions can this type of organisation have? Italy itself gives us an answer to this question. In reaction to the usual trends within the Socialist Party (where much is discussed but little is resolved, and whose unity is often shattered by the continuous clashes of different factions, tendencies and cliques) our party ended up not discussing anything.
The centralisation of our party and its unified direction and conceptions gave rise to an intellectual stagnation. The constant need to fight against fascism contributed to this tendency. Indeed, even before the party was founded, fascism had passed into its first active and offensive phase.
However, an erroneous conception of the party – submitted in the “Thesis on tactics” at the Rome congress – also contributed to the malaise. Centralisation and unity were conceived in a manner that was too mechanical: the central committee (or rather, the executive committee) was considered to be the party, rather than its representative and guide. If this conception were to be applied permanently the party would lose its distinctive political characteristics. It would become at best an army (and a bourgeois one at that). It would lose its powers of attraction, and would distance itself from the masses.
In order for the party to live and be in contact with the masses, every member needs to be an active political element – that is to say, a leader. Precisely because the party is strongly centralised, a large amount of propaganda and agitation among its ranks is required. It is necessary that the party educates its members and raises their ideological level in an organised manner.
Centralisation of this kind means that in any situation (even if under a state of siege, even if the leading committees cannot function for a certain period or are not able to link up with the periphery) all members of the party are able to orientate themselves in their own circles. It means that each of them should be able to draw from the situation the elements required to decide a political line – so as to ensure that the working class does not lose heart, but rather feels it has direction, and is still capable of fighting. The ideological preparation of the masses is therefore an absolute necessity for the revolutionary struggle. It is one of the indispensable conditions of its victory.
This first course of lessons for the party school proposes (within the limits that the present situation allows) to carry out a part of this general activity. We will develop three series of lessons: one on the theory of historical materialism; one on the fundamental elements of general politics; and one on the communist party and the principles of its organisation.
In the first part, which will closely follow (or even give a direct translation of) Bukharin’s book, comrades will find a complete treatment of the argument.
The second part, on general politics, will consider the basics of the following subjects: political economy; the development of capitalism until the epoch of finance capitalism; war and the crisis of capitalism; the development of economic forces; communist society and the state; the first and second international; the third international; the history of the Russian Bolshevik Party; the history of the Italian Communist Party; soviet power and the structure of the soviet republic during the period of war communism; the origin and base of the New Economic Policy; industry; agrarian and peasant policy; commerce and cooperation; financial policy; the unions, their function and tasks; the national question.
The third part will systematically address the doctrine of the party and the principles of revolutionary organisation. These will be developed in activities directed by the Communist International. The details of this were fixed in a more complete manner at the organisational conference held in Moscow in March of this year.
This will be the school’s basic course. It cannot be complete, and hence cannot satisfy all the needs of the comrades. In order to approach it in the most comprehensive and organic way, we have decided to publish pamphlets each month. They will be in a similar format to these study notes. Each pamphlet will address a particular argument.
One will be dedicated to the question of trade unions. It will treat the most elementary and practical issues of union activity – how to organise a branch, how to draw up rules, how to agitate for a pay rise, how to frame a contract of employment etc. That is to say, it will constitute a true manual for the workplace organiser.
Another pamphlet will address the question of the peasantry; a third will attempt to summarise the economic, social and political structures of Italy; other pamphlets will treat key arguments in working class politics according to the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism.
In each issue, then, alongside each of the three lessons, we will publish:
i) Study notes directly pertinent to the subject of the lesson
ii) Suggested frameworks for debates
iii) Educational advice for those studying without a teacher present
The students must examine the materials we supply closely. They should not be read hurriedly as if they were a newspaper or a pamphlet. Students must concentrate as if there was an examination to be taken at the end of the course. That is, they must strive to memorise and to assimilate the arguments – so that they will then be able to make a report on the subject, or give a short talk about it. The party will keep a list of the students, and when it needs a speaker it will turn to them before anyone else.
Students should not be dispirited if they initially find it hard to understand certain notions. We have tried to bear in mind the average ideological level of the majority of our members while compiling the hand-outs.
The subjects will be familiar to some comrades, but for others they will be completely new, and a little difficult to digest. It is inevitable that this will happen. Students must work out how best to overcome this unevenness. Working together in study groups and repeating past lessons can sometimes help in this regard.
In any case, we ask all students who need help to write to the organisers of the school to explain their situation, ask for clarifications – and recommend other methods or forms of exposition.