Chris Harman



(Spring 1968)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 32, Spring 1968, p. 37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism
John M. Cammett
Stanford/OUP, 68s

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 reiterate established doctrines or just to extend in a quantitative 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 (e.g. Togliatti) or because they wished to glorify the development of theory and of intellectualism unrelated to concrete practice (e.g. 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. [2] 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 unparalleled 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 self-consciously 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.


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.

2. The worst example is the Lawrence and Wishart translation called The Modern Prince. Only two articles from this period are included, and one is so cut up as virtually to destroy the sense of the arguments. But less obviously Stalinist interpreters have been almost as bad: see for instance the output of those around NLR in this country or the review of Cammett by Genovese in Studies on the Left.

Last updated on 22 October 2020