Chris Harman


Ideas for here & now

(November 1978)

From Socialist Review, No. 7, November 1978, p. 24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Antonio Gramsci
Selections from Political Writings – 1921–6

Lawrence and Wishart £10.00

With the publication of this volume, a last act of historical justice is done to the memory of a great revolutionary.

Until recently, Gramsci’s writings have appeared in English is such a way as to make it seem that he should be the reformists’ favourite revolutionary. What have received widest circulation have been from the period when he was in one of Mussolini’s prisons, cut off from living political life, and forced to write in an elliptical, obscure style designed to deceive his fascist guards.

Because he could not easily write under such conditions about insurrection, the smashing of the state, or even the working class, his writings became biblical texts to those who wanted to regard themselves as Marxists but to deny the need for insurrection, the smashing of the state, or the working class.

The writings for 1921–26 prove that there was not an ‘old Gramsci’ who broke with the revolutionism of the ‘young Gramsci’. Quite the contrary. Already in 1921–1925 the major themes develop that find their expression in the Prison Notebooks: the problem of how the working class can free itself from the ideological inheritance of capitalism, the problem of how to build a revolutionary party that knows how to develop this ideological struggle through intervention in spontaneous upsurges of the class, the problem of how the working class in a semi-backward country such as Italy was in the 1920s can draw behind it the mass of peasantry, the problem of why the mass revolutionary movement of the years 1919-20 subsided and gave way to fascist counter-revolution.

Of course, Gramsci did not came upon ideas fully formed. In 1920 he still thought then that the left social-democrat Italian Socialist Party was a revolutionary party. In 1921 he reacted against his mistake by a long detour into real ultra-leftism, by going along with Bordiga, the founder of the Italian Communist Party, who insisted that only by keeping itself quite free from contact with even the most left-wing elements inside the Socialist Party could the new Communist Party avoid being infected with reformism.

This detour only came to an end in 1923 when the leaders of the Communist International persuaded Gramsci that you could keep yourself free of reformist tendencies and work alongside workers who were still within the reformist parties, so as to expose their leaders. Unfortunately, just as Gramsci was being won over by these arguments of the Comintern leadership, that leadership itself was changing. Lenin and Trotsky were being replaced by Zinoviev and Stalin.

The argument for the united front was soon accompanied by other arguments of a much more dubious sort – the argument for an authoritarian, monolithic party, the argument for the joint ‘workers government’ of social democrats and revolutionaries, the argument for the workers to form a ‘bloc’ with the peasants rather than to lead them, even in 1924, the first argument tht social democracy was social fascism. What followed was a disastrous detour, not just for the Italian Communists, but for the whole of mankind.

Gransci was not immune to these developments. Some of the new doctrines of the Stalintern find their way into his writings, both before his imprisonment and afterwards. After all, he was not Trotsky, with the self-confidence, even the arrogance, which came from having led the class to take state power in 1917. And even Trotsky was baffled by what was happening now to the revolution.

But in 1925 and 1926 it was still possible for leaders of Communist Parties to think and Gramsci did think. He thought as a revolutionary who had no doubt that the key to the history of the twentieth century was working-class revolution. This comes out in utmost clarity in his outstanding piece of writing, the Theses he wrote for the Communist Party Congress in Lyons in 1926 January:

‘There is no possibility of a revolution in Italy,’ he wrote, ‘that is not a socialist revolution’, even though ‘industrialism, which is the essential part of capitalism, is very weak in Italy’. There followed a long analysis of the development of Italian society over the last 50 years, culminating in the victory of fascism.

Gramsci concluded from this that it was not only fascist repression that kept the working class in check, but ‘a chain of reactionary forces’ which stretched from the fascists, through the bourgeois anti-fascist group to the reformists. ‘Each of these group strives to exert an influence on a section of the working population ... to cause the proletariat to lose its profile and autonomy as a revolutionary class’.

The revolutionary party had to be based in the workplace and be overwhelmingly working class in character. Although it needed to win the support of both peasants and intellectuals,

‘it is necessary to reject vigorously, as counter-revolutionary, any conception which makes the party into a “synthesis” of heterogenous elements – instead of maintaining that it is part of the proletariat, that the proletariat must mark its imprint on its own organisation and that the proletariat must be guaranteed a leading function within the party itself’.

Finally, the theses spell out the solution to the problem that has bemused many interpreters of his Gramsci’s later prison writings – the relation between the long drawn out war of attrition to gain ideological hegemony and the insurrectionary battle for power.

‘The tactic of the united front as political activity designed to unmask so-called proletarian and revolutionary parties and groups which have a mass base, is closely linked with the problem of how the Communist Party is to win a majority ... It is applicable in all cases in which, because of the mass support of the groups against which we are fighting, frontal struggle against them is not sufficient to give rapid and far reaching results ...’

But the party could not conceive of the realisation of the slogans advanced during this period of united struggle ‘except as the beginning of direct revolutionary struggle, i.e. of civil war waged by the proletariat, in alliance with the peasantry, with the aim of winning power.’

The Lyons Theses were the high point of Gramsci’s achievement. But throughout the period – even when most under the influence of ultra-left proto Stalinist conceptions – Gramsci had important and interesting things to say about problems that still concern us.

Get hold of the book (at £10 that probably means borrowing a copy, at least until Lawrence and Wishart can be persuaded to produce a paper back version) and read it, not as a set of unblemished texts, but as a brilliant record of one revolutionary successive attempts to come to terms with a bitter period of revolution and counter-revolution.

Last updated on 13 September 2019