Chris Harman


What Gramsci didn’t say

(May 1983)

From Socialist Review, No. 54, May 1983, pp. 33–34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Gramsci’s Political Thought
Roger Simon
Lawrence and Wishart £7.95 (hardback) £3.50 (paperback)

Poor Gramsci. If he had died in 1926, he would be remembered today only by revolutionaries, like so many other of the lesser figures involved in building the early Communist International. If he had escaped from prison and into exile, in 1927, the memory of him would be restricted to those who fight in his revolutionary spirit.

His name would stand alongside those of all the other non-Russian leaders of world communism, whether from the ‘left’ or the ‘right’, who came to fall out with Stalin. That brilliant, lost generation of revolutionary activists such as Alfred Rosmer, Heinrich Brandler, August Thalheimer, Paul Frölich, Andreas Nin, Henk Sneevliet, Amadeo Bordiga, James P. Cannon, Victor Serge and Angelo Tasca.

Unfortunately for him he languished in prison for the last ten years of his life, cut off from the great debates about revolutionary strategy and about revolution and counter-revolution in Russia. His own attempts to intervene in these debates consisted of a couple of conversations in prison and jottings in notebooks which were not to be published until after his death and which in any case, had to be obscurely phrased to confuse his fascist jailer.

When these eventually saw the light of day, it was only after editing at the hands of Palmiro Togliatti, who once collaborated with Gramsci, but who took a diametrically different line to him in the arguments of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Togliatti defended the lunatic ‘third period’ of Stalinism against Trotsky’s call for a united front against fascism. He acted as one of Stalin’s agents in liquidating the 1936 revolutionary upsurge against Spanish fascism and then helped restore capitalist normality in Italy, in 1943–5, after the fall of Mussolini.

This book is the latest of many works by liberal sociologists, trendy, social democrats and dishonest Eurocommunists to attempt to exploit the obscurity of the Prison notebooks for their own ends. It should really be entitled What Gramsci really meant but did not say. For again and again it ascribes to Gramsci views which the author himself admits Gramsci did not actually hold.

For example, the author goes on at great length about how Gramsci’s ideas about ‘hegemony’ and ‘the war of position’ go beyond Lenin’s view of the state and so are embodied in the practice of the British Road to Socialism. We are told:

‘Gramsci’s war of position is founded on a new concept of democracy. It is important to demand that the limitations of parliamentary democracy must be overcome, by the abolition of the House of Lords, and monarchy, by giving the House of Commons more effective control over the cabinet and executive, and by a host of other reforms such as proportional representation.’

But then 12 pages later it is admitted Gramsci would not have believed in any of this:

‘It must frankly be admitted ... this book has gone far beyond the Prison Notebooks. Gramsci never abandoned his belief in the factory councils as the embryonic apparatus of power, destined to replace the bourgeois parliamentary state by a system of direct democracy which would, in his view, enable the worker to participate directly in the work of administration.

‘In a note written in 1933–34, Gramsci contrasts ... the factory councils of 1919–20 ... favourably with elective parliamentary systems. The few other notes where parliamentary democracy is mentioned are consistent with this approach. Thus Gramsci never went beyond the Leninist view that direct democracy based on factory councils should replace parliamentary democracy.’

In other words, he admits that Gramsci was 100 percent in agreement with those our author describes as:

‘Leftists who hold the state is an instrument of the capitalist class and the task of the working class is to smash it and replace it with a new socialist state.’

Yet it is these people he accuses of ‘rejecting Gramsci’s view’ on the matter!

The book is full of such contradictory reformist twaddle from beginning to end. Again and again it slanders a heroic revolutionary Marxist, ascribing to him reformist ideas he despised.

Gramsci, like any other Marxist, can be criticised for the mistakes he made. In particular he never came to terms with the phenomenon of Stalinism, and his understanding of strategy and tactics was to some extent distorted by the baleful influence Zinoviev and then Bukharin had over the conduct of the Communist International from 1923 onwards. But the mistakes he made were the mistakes of someone who lived and died a revolutionary Marxist and whose spirit was a million miles away from all forms of reformism.

Last updated on 5 October 2019