From International Socialism (1st series), No.98, May 1977.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
‘DURING the lifetime of great revolutionaries the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, to hallow their names ... while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it ... The bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labour movement concur in this doctoring ... They omit, obscure or distort the revolutionary side the theory, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie.’ V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution
ANTONIO Gramsci died forty years ago, on April 27 1937. His death was brought on by years of ill-treatment in Mussolini’s gaols. Yet in some ways, he has suffered more misfortune since his death from the distortion of his ideas by those who have nothing in common with his revolutionary principles.
Gramsci was a professional revolutionary from 1916 until his death. Throughout this period he was insistent on the need for a revolutionary transformation of society through the overthrow of the capitalist state.
It was this that put him as a journalist in various socialist papers in the front rank of those demanding revolutionary action from the Italian Socialist Party in the fight against capitalism and war in the years 1916-1918. It was this that led him to the centre of the Turin factory councils’ movement in 1919 and 1920. It was this that led him to take part in the split from the reformist Socialist Party in 1921 to set up a genuinely revolutionary Communist Party. It was this that led him to take charge of that party in 1924-6. It was this, finally, that led him into Mussolini’s prisons, where he tried in note form – the famous Prison Notebooks – to develop his own ideas about Italian society, the strategy and tactics of the struggle for state power, the building of the revolutionary party, the revolutionary press. He hoped that these notes would provide some help to others who had the same revolutionary goal as himself. Yet his writings have been seized upon by those who want to turn Marxism into an academic and non-revolutionary area of study. This has been made possible by the systematic distortion of Gramsci’s ideas by the Italian Communist Party (PCI).
THE first period of this distortion began as soon as Gramsci died. The Stalinist leader of the PCI Palmiro Togliatti, had the Prison Notebooks in his hands within weeks. He left them unpublished for ten years.
When the Notebooks finally began to appear in 1947, it was in a truncated, censored form. Salvatore Sechi has shown what forms the censorship of Gramsci’s letters from prison took:
- To remove references to various Marxists – Bordiga, Trotsky and even Rosa Luxemburg – who were being portrayed as ‘fascists’ by Togliatti at the time;
- To conceal the fact that Gramsci had broken with the CP’s political line in 1931;
- To portray Gramsci’s private life as based on an idealised marriage, ‘a useful myth for making people believe, on the basis of a concrete example, in Communist loyalism with respect to the unity of the nuclear family, an instrument of the collaboration with the Catholics that the Communist Party followed in the post-war period’;
- To suppress the fact that Gramsci had tried repeatedly to get hold of books that would give him access to Trotsky’s thought after his expulsion from Russia in 1929. 
The aim of such distortions was to present Gramsci as the loyal Stalinist par excellence. As such Gramsci could provide an extremely useful weapon for an ideology that inspired virtually no social thinkers of note itself – a weapon that could be used to impress other Italian intellectuals with the rich theoretical heritage of the PCI and to conceal the intellectual poverty of the Kremlin and its followers, a weapon also to use against the left, to show that the PCI which governed jointly with the Christian Democrats after 1945, was the same party that split with even the extreme left reformist Maximalists of the Socialist Party in 1921.
The censorship and distortion of his thought was necessary because Gramsci in reality did not fit the Stalinist myth. His last letter before entering prison had been a protest to Togliatti about the bureaucratic treatment given to the Left Opposition inside Russia by Stalin. Togliatti tore the letter up. 
In 1931 Gramsci’s brother visited him in prison. Gramsci told him that he rejected completely the Stalinist ‘third period’ policy which Togliatti was implementing. (Togliatti had expelled three central committee members for opposing the line, and, under the pseudonym Ercoli, was himself in the forefront of those defending the line against Trotsky’s criticisms.) His brother was too afraid to transmit the news to Togliatti – he knew it would mean the party abandoning his brother’s defence.
Gramsci gave up his attempts to hold discussions with the other Communist prisoners because some of them, faithfully parroting Togliatti, denounced Gramsci as a ‘social-democrat’ (the line at the time ruled out all collaboration with reformists because they were ‘social-fascists’). One of the last political statements Gramsci made to his friends before his death expressed disbelief in the evidence against Zinoviev at the Moscow trials. Togliatti, of course, was in Moscow applauding the trials. 
After Gramsci’s death Togliatti tried to present himself as his lifelong political confidant. However, although they worked together closely in 1919-20 and again in 1925-6, they were often far apart over questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics in the intervening years. And there was no contact at all between them after Gramsci’s imprisonment in 1926.
YET in the end it was Togliatti who allowed the truth about the previous distortions to come to light by releasing Gramsci’s uncensored letters and notebooks for publication. In part this was because he was forced, as other old Communists began to spill the beans about what Gramsci really thought. In part this was because the passing of time made Gramsci a distant and less dangerous figure. But, above all, the aim was to inaugurate a new period in the distortion of Gramsci’s ideas.
In the early 1960s the PCI began to draw away from Moscow. Its leaders dreamed of being readmitted to the Italian bourgeois government from which they had been kicked out in 1947. To achieve this goal they tried to show the bourgeois parties that they were no longer dependent on the Kremlin. Togliatti, one of Stalin’s chief collaborators in the 1930s, became one of his main critics after 1956.
The switch in line led to bitter disputes with the defenders of Stalin internationally and with Stalinist loyalists within the PCI itself. It was a battle on two fronts – to assert the party’s independence from Stalin’s heirs in the Kremlin and to prove that a government that included the PCI would not mean a drastic change in the state machine. Gramsci’s previously censored criticism of Stalin became a weapon on the first front. And a distortion of Gramsci’s ideas on the state was useful on the second.
Gramsci, previously the patron saint of Italian Stalinism, became the patron saint of what is now called Eurocommunism. It is in this form, that Gramsci has been taken up by the intellectual right wing within the Communist Party of Great Britain. He has become the apologist for the ‘historic compromise’ and the PCI’s ‘benevolent neutrality’ towards the Andreotti government’s policy of wage controls and spending cuts. He is called upon by one of the CPGB’s would-be young intellectuals, David Purdy, to defend the view that the breakdown of the Social Contract would be reactionary – because of the harm to the Labour lefts’ ‘alternative economic strategy’.  It is no coincidence that the new draft of the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, is full of phrases torn out of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.
Yet there are few Marxist thinkers whose spirit was further removed from Eurocommunism than Gramsci’s. His ideas were based on notions today’s Eurocommunists castigate as ‘insurrectionist’, ‘workerist’, ‘spontaneist’, and ‘rank and filist’.
FROM HIS FIRST involvement in the socialist movement Gramsci had a bitter contempt for parliamentarians. He likened them in May 1918 to ‘a swarm of coachman flies on hunt for a bowl of blancmange in which they get stuck and perish ingloriously’. In words that could be applied to Italy today he argued:
‘The political decadence which class collaboration brings is due to the spasmodic expansion of a bourgeois party which is not satisfied with merely clinging to the state, but also makes use of the party which is antagonistic to the state (i.e., the Socialist Party – CH).’ 
The emphasis by Gramsci on the building of factory councils in 1919 arose from his conviction that only with new, non-parliamentary institutions could the working class carry through its revolution:
‘The socialists have simply accepted the historical reality produced by capitalist initiative. They believe in the perpetuity and fundamental of the institutions of democratic state. In their view the form of these democratic institutions can be corrected, touched up here and there, but in fundamentals must be respected.
‘We on the other hand remain convinced that the socialist state cannot be embodied in the institutions of the capitalist state ... The socialist state must be a fundamentally new creation’. 
Gramsci’s hostility to reformism was to increase still more in the following years. This hostility was aimed not only at the right-wing social democrats around Turati but also at the extreme left social-democrats led by Serrati – the so-called Maximalists, who mouthed a terminology that would send shivers down Eric Heffer’s spine. These reformists first stood back and allowed the workers of Turin to be isolated and defeated by the employers in a great strike of April 1920. Then they refused to give revolutionary leadership to the vast upsurge in militancy that produced in September 1920 the occupation of the factories throughout northern Italy. These betrayals led Gramsci to join those who split from the Socialist Party and founded the Communist Party of Italy in 1921.
Gramsci’s hostility to left and right reformists alike was not a sign of ‘political immaturity’, which he later outgrew as Betty Matthews of the CPGB would have us believe.  It remained an emphatic note in his last major effort for the Communist Party, before his imprisonment the Theses presented to the Lyon Congress of the PCI in 1926.
The Lyons Theses were the most mature of Gramsci’s published writings. And they were directed mainly against the ultra-left Bordiga group, which had hitherto dominated the PCI. The main point of disagreement was Gramsci’s insistence on exposing the reformist leaders by proposing to them united fronts on specific issues. But at the same time he was adamant that
‘The social-democratic party must be regarded, in respect of its ideology and political function, as the left wing of the bourgeoisie and not the right wing of the workers’ movement, despite its social base, to a very large extent in the working class.’ 
This is very close to Lenin’s definition of the reformist parties as ‘bourgeois workers’ parties’.
It is not surprising that, although they are among the best analyses Gramsci made, the Lyons Theses were among the last of his writings to become widely available (they are still not translated into English and are barely mentioned in the main biographies). Gramsci’s hostility to reformism was matched by a clear understanding of the necessity of armed insurrection. As the Lyons Theses put it:
‘The defeat of the working class (in 1919-20 – CH) was due to the political, organisational, tactical and strategic deficiency of the party of the workers. As a result of this the proletariat did not succeed in putting itself at the head of the insurrection of the great majority of the population.’ (my emphasis – CH)
Hence the need for a – Communist Party, whose tasks include ‘putting to the proletariat and its allies the problem of the insurrection against the bourgeois state’. Moreover, ‘the Communist Party has to demonstrate the impossibility of the regime installed by fascism being transformed in a “liberal” and “democratic” sense without a mass struggle that must inexorably develop into civil war.’ (my emphasis – CH) So much for the ‘negotiated break’ with fascism preached by the Eurocommunist Spanish CP!
Of course, there is no open mention of armed insurrection in the Prison Notebooks, written under the watchful eyes of fascist jailers. But Gramsci showed in one of the few conversations he had in prison that he had not dropped his ‘immature’ insistence on insurrection:
‘The violent conquest of power necessitates the creation by the party of the working class of an organisation of the military type, pervasively planted in every branch of the bourgeois state apparatus, and capable of wounding and inflicting grave blows on it at the decisive moment of struggle.’ 
THE key to the fight for power for Gramsci was the working class – the flesh and blood workers who toiled in the Turin factories, not the mythical, idealised workers of Stalinist and Maoist vintage. ‘Capitalist concentration’, he wrote in 1919, ‘produces a corresponding concentration of working human masses. This is the fact that underlies all the revolutionary theses of Marxism.’ 
This stress on the central role of the working class underlay Gramsci’s involvement in the Turin factory councils in 1919 and 1920 and is to be found in the Lyons Theses. ‘The party’, he insists repeatedly, ‘must be based on the place of production.’ It is ‘the party of a single class, the working class’. ‘All the objections to the principle of basing the party on the place of production arise from conceptions that are foreign to the proletariat ... They are the expression of petty bourgeois intellectuals who don’t see the workers as the conscious and intelligent agents of revolution.’ The party must have intellectuals and peasants in it, but ‘it must fight energetically as counter-revolutionary every conception that makes the party a “synthesis” of heterogeneous elements’. The reason is simple – it is the working class that is the decisive revolutionary force:
‘The practice of the movement of the factories (1919-20 – CH) has shown that only an organisation fixed in the place and system of production can permit the stabilisation of contact between the different strata of the labouring mass.’
Gramsci was far from denying the vital importance of winning the landless agricultural labourers and peasants to the revolution. He also saw great advantage to the working class in winning over sections of the middle class. But this meant for him the working class giving a lead, not hiding its socialist aims. The revolutionaries around had to be prepared fight alongside non-revolutionaries around slogans that stopped far short of socialism, like the demand for a Constituent Assembly. But it had to be clear that:
‘There does not exist in Italy the possibility of a revolution that would not foe a socialist revolution. In the capitalist countries the only class that can bring about a real and profound social transformation is the working class.’
It was on this basis that even after he had broken with Bordiga’s ultraleftism, Gramsci remained bitterly opposed to the right current in the CP led by Tasca (whose politics would put them way to the left of today’s Eurocommunists). Gramsci insisted that it was ‘pessimism’ and a ‘deviation’ to believe that
‘the working class is not capable of overthrowing the regime, that the better tactic would be a bourgeois-democratic bloc ... This programme is presented by the formula of the Communist Party as the ‘left wing’ of the opposition of all forces that conspires to bring down fascism.’
The Communist Party had to put forward the some of the same democratic slogans as the bourgeois opposition – but in order to ‘unmask’ the bourgeois parties.
No doubt if Gramsci were alive today his would-be admirers in the PCI and the CPGB would insult him, as they insult us, for not understanding the need for a ‘broad democratic alliance’ of all ‘anti-monopoly’ forces.
THE most developed single area of Gramsci’s thought concerns the fight to develop a revolutionary working-class consciousness.
He begins from the insistence that the working class cannot be trained mechanically for the struggle, like an army. Its discipline depends on its consciousness. And this in turn grows in relation to practical experience of struggle.
Gramsci’s ideas on this issue grew out of a polemic against the three other main currents on the left in Italy in the first year after World War One.
The largest, led by Serrati, saw the Socialist Party as the embodiment of class consciousness. The dictatorship of the proletariat would be the ‘dictatorship of the Socialist Party’, as he put it. For him class consciousness was identified with the slow, methodical task of building up the party. The second current, the ultra-left revolutionaries around Bordiga, did not believe that Serrati’s party would ever dare to take power. But they also saw consciousness as embodied in a party, the Communist Party, conceived as a small elite group of highly trained and disciplined cadres. Only after it had taken power for the class would Soviets be formed.  The third current, the right wing of the CP led by Tasca, stressed teaching the workers on the one hand, agreements with the ‘left’ trade union leaders on the other. All three groups, despite their other differences, shared the notion that class consciousness was thrown down by the party leaders to the workers, like crumbs to sparrows.
For Gramsci, by contrast, the character and the lead given to the spontaneously developing struggles and institutions of workers determined the growth of their consciousness. For him, as for Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet was not an abstraction to be set up by the party at the right moment, but something born as an organ of workers’ struggle in the factory, perhaps initially around an apparently insignificant issue – the semi-insurrectionary occupation of the factories in September 1920 was sparked off by the breakdown of union-management negotiations over the engineer¬ing national wage agreement.  The Soviet had to develop out of an organisation that bound workers together, regardless of their craft, regardless of their union, regardless of whether they were even in unions, around the point of production, an organisation that united their struggles with those other workers linked to them in the productive process, an organisation that could express their growing awareness of their unity, strength and ability to control production. 
The workers’ councils in Turin did not emerge out of thin air. They began life as ‘internal commissions’ in the factories with similar functions in many ways to those of shop stewards’ committees in Britain. Gramsci saw the role of himself and his comrades on L’Ordine Nuovo, the paper they produced in Milan as being to foster this spontaneous development, to generalise the internal commissions, to broaden their base, to encourage them to take over more and more powers from management, and to link up. As Gramsci wrote:
‘The problem of the development of the internal commissions became the central problem, the idea of L’Ordine Nuovo. It came to be seen as the fundamental problem of the workers’ revolution: it was the problem of proletarian “liberty”. For ourselves and our followers, L’Ordine Nuovo became the “journal of the Factory Councils”. The workers loved L’Ordine Nuovo and why did they love it? Because in its articles they discovered part, the best part, of themselves. Because they felt its articles were pervaded by the same spirit of inner searching that they experienced: “How can we become free? How can we become ourselves?” Because its articles were not cold, intellectual structures, but sprang from our discussions with the best workers: they elaborated the actual sentiments, goals and passions of the Turin working class, that we ourselves had provoked and tested. Because its articles were virtual a “taking note” of actual events, seen as moments in a process of inner liberation and self-expression on the part of the working class. That is why the workers loved L’Ordine Nuovo and how its idea came to be “formed”.’ 
When he wrote these lines in 1920 Gramsci was still a member of the Socialist Party. It was only later in the same year, after the defeat of the occupations, that he saw the need to break with left reformism and to form a homogeneous revolutionary party. His writings on factory councils therefore lack any explicit discussion of the notion of how a revolutionary party is to work in them. But these writings do emphasise how individual revolutionaries, and the revolutionary paper, should operate to seize on the embryonic elements of communist organisation and consciousness as they emerge spontaneously, to generalise and co-ordinate them, to make workers aware of them.
Gramsci returned to the same questions in 1923, when he criticised his own willingness for three years to bury his views beneath Bordiga’s dogmatism:
‘We have not thought of the party as the result of a dialectical process in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organisational and directive will of the centre converge, but only as something floating in the air, which develops in and for itself, and which the masses will reach when their situation is favourable and the revolutionary wave has reached its height.’ 
Building the revolutionary party is not a matter of inculcating ideas into the masses through abstract propaganda. Nor is it a matter of waiting until the masses act, stirred on by the effects of economic crisis. It is a question of relating to every spontaneous, partial struggle and attempting to generalise from this. Gramsci took up exactly the same theme again expressed in the more abstract terminology of the Prison Notebooks.
He writes that the job of a party has to be to draw out the elements of ‘theory’ implicit in the collective struggles of a class, and to counterpose this ‘theory’ with all the other backward, preexisting ‘theories’ in the workers’ heads. To ‘construct a determined practice a theory that, coinciding with and being identified with the decisive elements of the same practice, accelerates the historical process in act, by making the practice more homogenous, coherent and efficacious ...’ [15a]
This is a far cry from the reformist vision of Eurocommunism – the struggle for socialism as a slow, purely ideological process of education that leads workers to vote in ever greater numbers for the correct combination of MPs and trade union officials.
GRAMSCI had nothing but contempt for reformist politicians who sought to restrict the development of the class struggle to narrow preconceived channels, ‘to obstruct its clear course, arbitrarily, by pre-established syntheses’ (e.g., the historic compromise – CH).  In 1919 he began to analyse the source of this obstruction, locating it in the Socialist Party parliamentarians and the trade union bureaucracy. He stressed the alienation many workers felt from their own unions and went onto analyse the origins of this phenomenon in the fact that trade unions operate to gain reforms within capitalism, and are staffed and structured accordingly.
The unions, Gramsci explained,
‘are all types of proletarian organisations specific to the period of history dominated by capital ... In this period, when individuals are valued only to the extent that they own commodities and trade their property, the workers too have become traders too in the only property they possess, their labour-power ... They have created these enormous apparatuses for concentrating living labour, and have set prices and hours and disciplined the market The trade union has an essentially competitive, not communist character. It cannot be the instrument for a radical renovation of society.’ 
‘Thus a veritable caste of trade union officials and journalists came into existence, with a group psychology of their own completely at odds with that of the workers.’ 
This analysis and the experience of the Turin factory councils led Gramsci progressively to come to see the trade union bureaucracy as an active saboteur of the class struggle: ‘The trade union official sees industrial legality as a permanent state of affairs. Too often he defends the same perspective as the proprietor.’  After the betrayal of 1920 Gramsci became fully aware of the counter-revolutionary role of the trade union leadership:
‘The Turin and Piedmont general strike clashed head on with the sabotage and resistance of the trade union organisations ... It highlighted the urgent need to combat the whole bureaucratic mechanism of the trade union organs, which form the most solid bulwark for the opportunist activities of the parliamentarists and reformists who aim to stifle every revolutionary initiative on the part of the working masses.’ 
He could write in the Lyons Theses that ‘the group that leads the Confederation of Labour must be considered as a vehicle for the dissolving influence of another class upon the working class’.
Nor did the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks abandon these ‘immature’, ‘workerist’ and ‘rank and filist’ positions. He wrote in 1930:
‘Neglecting, or worse still despising, so-called ‘spon¬taneous movements, i.e., failing to give them a conscious leadership or to raise them to a higher plane by inserting them into politics, may often have extremely serious consequences.’
He related the defeat of 1920, which paved the way for Mussolini’s coup in 1922, to the failure of Serrati, Bordiga and Tasca alike to offer such leadership to the spontaneous movements of workers and peasants:
‘It is almost always the case that a ‘spontaneous’ movement of the subaltern classes (i.e., working people – CH) is accompanied by a reactionary movement of the right wing of the ruling class for concomitant reasons. An economic crisis, for instance, engenders on the one hand discontent among the subaltern classes and spontaneous movements, and on the other conspiracies among the reactionary groups, who take advantage of the objective weakening of the government in order to attempt coups d’etat. Among the effective causes of the coups must be included the failure of the responsible groups (i.e., the Socialist Party – CH) to give any conscious leadership to the spontaneous revolts or to make them into a positive political factor.’ (my emphasis – CH) 
Of course, Gramsci was not a ‘workerist’, a ‘spontaneist’, a ‘rank and filist’ in the real sense of the words, in the sense of devaluing the interventionist role of Marxists in the class struggle. Quite the contrary. His own activity in 1919-20 and 1924-26 was a shining (although not, of course, perfect) example of such intervention.
1. Spunti Critici sulle Lettere dal Carcere di Gramsci.
2. A. Davidson, Antonio Gramsci, London 1977, p.240.
3. Ibid., p.269.
4. Speech at Gramsci conference, Polytechnic of Central London, March 6 1977.
5. A. Gramsci, Selections from the Political Writings 1910-1920 (hereafter PW), London 1977, p.43.
6. Ibid., p.76.
7. See her review of PW, Morning Star, March 3 1977.
8. All quotations from the Lyons Theses are by myself from Tesi de Leone, Rinascita, 30 Anni di Vita e Lotte del PCI.
9. Report of conversation with Gramsci by Athos Lisa.
10. PW, p.93.
11. See the articles by Bordiga in PW.
12. See P. Spriano, The Occupation of the Factories, London 1975.
13. See especially PW, section II.
14. PW, pp.293-4.
15. Quoted in Davidson, op. cit., p.208.
15a. Materialismo Storico, p.38 – my translation.
16. PW, p.46.
17. Ibid., p.99.
18. Ibid., p.105.
19. Ibid., p.268.
20. Ibid., p.320.
21. A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London 1971, p.199. Gramsci illustrates his argument with an example from medieval Italian history, but clearly he has the defeat of the factory occupations and the rise of fascism in mind. See also ibid., p.225.
Last updated on 16 November 2009