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John Molyneux

Marxism and the Party

6. Gramsci’s Modern Prince

While a beleaguered Trotsky fought to preserve and apply the Leninist theory of the party, another marxist, Antonio Gramsci, worked for 11 years in a fascist prison to develop new and original ideas on revolutionary strategy. The fruit of this immense labour, and the centrepiece of Gramscian strategy, was a new conception of the role and tasks of the revolutionary party, which constitutes the only fundamental addition to the marxist theory of the party since Lenin. Gramsci was able to achieve this breakthrough above all because of the unique philosophical perspective from which he approached the problem of the party. Consequently any analysis of Gramsci’s theory of the party must begin with a consideration of the philosophical premises on which it was based.

1. The philosophy of praxis

Like Georg Lukacs, the other outstanding marxist philosopher of the inter-war period, Gramsci came to marxism through Hegel and so ‘through philosophy’. The key figures in Gramsci’s intellectual formation were Benedetto Croce and Antonio Labriola. Croce was an idealist philosopher for whom the central purpose of philosophy was the understanding of history and who therefore called himself an ‘absolute historicist’. Gramsci regarded him as the highest representative of Italian bourgeois culture and indeed as one of the premier spokesmen of liberalism in the world. Croce was a critic of marxism but for Gramsci his work was on a much more advanced intellectual level than that of the vulgar marxism and positivism prevalent in pre-1914 Italy. Thus Gramsci’s relationship with Croce parallels that between Marx and Hegel – at first under his influence, then more and more seeing him as a major figure who has to be challenged and superceded in a new synthesis. What Gramsci took from Croce and developed was the rejection of economic determinism and positivism and the importance of the ‘ethico-political’ or ‘ideological’ moment in history.

The bridge between marxism and Crocean idealism was provided by Antonio Labriola, the ‘founding father’ of Italian marxism at the end of the nineteenth century. Labriola was a professor of philosophy at the University of Rome who came to marxism late in life having been a leading figure in the Italian Hegelian school. It was Labriola who first introduced the term ‘the philosophy of praxis’, used by Gramsci as a substitute for ‘marxism’ in the Prison Notebooks in order to get past the prison censor. [1] Gramsci had a high regard for Labriola, valuing especially his emphasis on the unity of theory and practice and the independence of marxism from any other philosophical currents. In the Prison Notebooks Gramsci describes him as ‘the only man who has attempted to build up the philosophy of praxis scientifically’. [2]

The direction in which Gramsci’s ideas were moving was clearly shown by the article with which he greeted the Russian Revolution, The Revolution against Das Kapital, in which he praised the Bolsheviks for their refusal to be bound by iron historical laws. And when, after the first world war, Gramsci became a fully-fledged marxist and communist, his version of marxism was completely different from the orthodox ‘scientific’ Amaterialism which characterised the Second International, and which largely dominated the Third Internatioal as well, except for Lenin who had revised his philosophical position in 1914.

For the mature Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks ‘the philosophy of praxis is absolute “historicism”, the absolute secularisation and earthliness of thought, an absolute humanism of history’. [3] It is totally opposed to all forms of transcendentalism, be it the transcendentalism of an abstract ‘human nature’ or ‘man in general’, of religion and derivative idealist philosophies, or the transcendentalism of metaphysical materialism basing itself on ‘objective laws’.

By defining marxism in an historicist/humanist way, Gramsci separates himself not only from Bukharin and Kautsky and from the neo-Kantians but also from Plekhanov, the philosophical teacher of all the Russian marxists, and this leads him to a critique of the standard presentation of issues which are of the greatest importance for the theory of the party: fatalism, prediction and economic determinism.

As we have frequently pointed out, fatalistic interpretations of marxism have repeatedly hindered understanding of the role of the party, and it is one of Lenin’s great achievements that he broke with the Second International’s fatalist conception of organisation. But what distinguishes Gramsci from Lenin, Trotsky and other opponents of fatalism is that the latter never really confronted fatalism as such at a philosophical level. The basic argument was always avoided by introducing the time factor. Of course in the long run, they would say, the unity of the proletariat, the victory of socialism etc. is inevitable, but the question is how to speed up this process, what we should do now and so on. In this way the baleful effects of fatalism were repeatedly warded off, but because of the concession of ultimate inevitability, fatalism itself was never fundamentally refuted. For Gramsci, however, although he recognises the historically ‘useful’ role played by fatalism, there is no such basic equivocation. ‘It should be noted how the deterministic, fatalistic, and mechanistic element has been a direct ideological “aroma” emanating from the philosophy of praxis, rather like religion or drugs (in their stupefying effect).’ [4]

In periods of defeat the fatalist view that ‘history is on our side’ has been a great source of strength and resistance, but when the proletariat takes the stage as the active director of events (i.e. in a revolution) ‘mechanicism at a certain point becomes an imminent danger’. [5]

For the deterministic marxist the great strength of marxism as against bourgeois ideology is its ability to foresee the future because of its insight into the ‘laws of history’. This claim is made by Bukharin, and it is a recurring theme in the writings of Trotsky and many others. Gramsci, however, writes that:

In reality one can ‘scientifically’ foresee only the struggle, but not the concrete moments of the struggle, which cannot but be the results of opposing forces in continuous movement, which are never reducible to fixed quantities since within them quantity is continually becoming quality. In reality one can ‘foresee’ to the extent that one acts, to the extent that one applies a voluntary effort and therefore contributes concretely to creating the result ‘foreseen’. Prediction reveals itself not as a scientific act of knowledge, but as the abstract expression of the effort made, the practical way of creating a collective will. [6]

If, for Gramsci, fatalism was akin to religion, then economic determinism was little better than superstition and a complete vulgarisation of marxism. Against economic determinism as a historical methodology he cites ‘the authentic testimony of Marx, the author of concrete political and historical works’. [7]

Gramsci sees ‘economism’ or syndicalism as a tendency in the working-class movement as derived more from laissez-faire liberalism [8] (the free play of economic forces) than from marxism, which aims through politics at the subordination of economic forces to man’s will. Syndicalism is the theory of an oppressed class ‘which is prevented by this theory from ever becoming dominant’. [9]

Ultra-left electoral abstentionism , absolute rejection of ‘compromises’ and hostility to alliances are all linked by Gramsci with ‘economism’ in that they are all based on the conviction that economic laws (especially as manifested in capitalist crises) will of themselves lead to socialism. To Gramsci this view of the role of economic crises was ‘out and out historical mysticism, the awaiting of a sort of miraculous illumination’. [10] On the contrary:

it may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historical events: they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life. [11]

For Gramsci a genuine marxist analysis of a situation must be a concrete study of the relation of forces in the situation with a view to changing it. Such an analysis must incorporate and distinguish at least three ‘moments’ or levels’. [12]

  1. ‘The relation of social forces closely linked to the structure, objective, independent of human will and which can be measured with the systems of the exact or physical sciences’. On this basis one can discover ‘whether in a particular society there exist the necessary and sufficient conditions for its transformation’.
  2. The relation of political forces: ‘an evaluation of the homogeneity, self awareness and organisation attained by the various social classes’.
  3. The relation of military forces. ‘Historical development oscillates continually between the first and the third moment with the mediation of the second’ [13], writes Gramsci, and it is precisely with the second, mediating, moment of politics that he is particularly concerned.

Gramsci, then, assigns to philosophies, conceptions of the world and the ideas men hold an important and active role in the making of history. Naturally this opens him to charges of voluntarism and idealism (and such charges were frequently forthcoming in inner-party struggles). In fact Gramsci is concerned not with philosophy in the abstract, but with the concrete historical development of particular philosophies, and above all with their impact on the everyday thinking and ‘common sense’ of the masses.

For a mass of people to be led to think coherently in the same coherent fashion about the present world is a ‘philosophical’ event far more important and ‘original’ than the discovery by some philosophical ‘genius’ of a truth which remains the property of small groups of intellectuals. [14]

Gramsci insists that ‘everyone is a philosopher, though in his own way and unconsciously’ [15], but what is necessary is to transform that which is implicit, contradictory and fragmented in the masses into a critical and systematic awareness which can result in the formation of a popular collective will to action. But a world outlook does not grow spontaneously in isolated individuals. The formation of a collective will requires a point of origin and a point of dissemination. There must be an active force working to develop it in both theory and practice. [16]

Thus Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis with its emphasis on conscious human agency in history and its rejection of all mechanical or rigid determinism led directly to the question of the revolutionary party and made him superbly equipped to deal with it. But on the basis of philosophical sophistication alone, Gramsci would not have been able to significantly advance the theory of the party. [17] For Gramsci’s theory of the party, there was a second precondition: profound involvement in political practice in the working-class movement and the concrete analysis thereof. It is to this that we now turn.

2. The Italian experience – revolution and defeat

The decisive political experience for the shaping of Gramsci’s thought was the rising of the Italian workers, spearheaded by the proletariat of Turin in 1919 and 1920. Gramsci’s intervention in these events, through the weekly journal L’Ordine Nuovo, brought him into the closest contact with the Turin workers. He recalled that

At that time no initiative was taken that was not tested in reality ... if the opinions of the workers were not taken fully into account. For this reason, our initiatives appeared as the interpretation of a felt need, never as the cold application of intellectual schema. [18]

Gramsci’s great achievement in L’Ordine Nuovo was the translation into Italy of the Russian idea of Soviets, through the development of the already existing factory internal commissions into factory councils as the foundation of a new state. In an important passage written in 1920 Gramsci summed up his basic conception of communism.

We have therefore maintained: 1. that the revolution is not necessarily proletarian and communist if it proposes and obtains the overthrow of the bourgeois state; 2. nor is it proletarian and communist if it proposes and obtains the destruction of the representative institutions and administrative machine through which the central government exercises the political power of the bourgeoisie; 3. it is not proletarian and communist even if the wave of popular insurrection places power in the hands of men who call themselves (and sincerely are) communists. The revolution is proletarian and communist only insofar as it liberates proletarian and communist forces of production, forces that have been developing within the society ruled by the capital class. It is proletarian and communist insofar as it advances and promotes the growth and systematisation of proletarian and communist forces that can begin the patient, methodical work necessary for the construction of a new order in the relations of production and distribution. [19]

This emphasis on the creative, constructive aspect of the workers’ revolution as against the destructive aspect of overthrowing capitalism was to remain a constant theme in Gramsci’s thought.

But this experience was also a negative one in that it revealed the decisive weakness of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and the whole tradition of Italian maximalist socialism. The mainstream of Italian socialism completely failed to appreciate the significance of the factory councils, regarding them as a threat to the established order of the trade unions, and the Turin proletariat was left to fight alone. At the crucial moment, the PSI remained bureaucratically paralysed and unable or unwilling to give coherent leadership to the rising revolutionary movement; as a result the initiative was lost and the way opened for the vicious counterrevolution which had its climax in Mussolini’s march on Rome. Gramsci’s response to this betrayal was a devastating critique entitled Toward a Renewal of the Socialist Party [20] in which he indicted the party leadership for its failure to create a homogeneous fighting party purged of its reformist and non-communist elements, its failure to involve the party in the life of the Third International, its lack of a revolutionary opposition in the General Confederation of Labour, its attachment to parliamentary democracy and its abstentionist refusal to launch a struggle for power. These theses, which received the endorsement of Lenin, concluded that,

the existence of a cohesive and highly disciplined communist party with factory, trade-union and co-operative cells, that can co-ordinate and centralise in its central executive committee the whole revolutionary action of the proletariat, is the fundamental and indispensable condition for any experiment in Soviets. [21]

Thus not only Gramsci’s philosophical position but also his practical experience led him to the question of the party. At first, however, his originality was masked and he was unable to pursue an independent policy. This was due partly to the pressure of day-to-day events in the period of growing fascist repression, and partly to the position in which he found himself within the newly formed Communist Party of Italy (PCI). The PCI was split between the dominating figure of Amadeo Bordiga, an unbending ultra-leftist, and an opportunist right wing led by Angelo Tasca. Gramsci disagreed profoundly with Bordiga, but valued his presence in the party leadership and was unwilling to challenge him for fear of handing the party over to Tasca. It was not until his incarceration in 1926 that Gramsci had the opportunity to develop and expound his ideas, and by this time events on the world scene also loomed large in his concerns. He wished to learn the lessons of the defeat of the post-war revolutionary wave, not just in Italy, but throughout Europe; and in the growth of the fascist corporate state and the emergence of Fordism in America, Gramsci discerned new developments in capitalism which would pose new strategic problems for the workers’ movement.

This was the background against which Gramsci, in his prison writings, began to elaborate his concept of the revolutionary party.

3. The ‘Modern Prince’ and the dual perspective

In the Prison Notebooks Gramsci approaches the question of the party through a study of Machiavelli’s The Prince. The significance of Machiavelli for Gramsci is that he represented a pioneering attempt in Italy to show how to create a national collective will for the foundation of a new state (a unified bourgeois Italy). Machiavelli was a ‘precocious Jacobin’ [22], who through the myth-figure of ‘the Prince’ set out the political leadership, the strategy and the tactics necessary for the achievement of this end. The foundation of a new workers’ state also requires such political leadership – a ‘modern prince’. But Gramsci argues:

The modern prince ... cannot be a real person, a concrete individual. It can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will which has already been recognised and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form. History has already provided this organism, and it is the political party – the first cell in which there come together germs of a collective will tending to become universal and total. [23]

Just as Machiavelli shows the necessary characteristics of a successful prince, so Gramsci proceeds, basing himself throughout on the philosophical position we have outlined above, to discuss the necessary characteristics of the revolutionary party. Unfortunately this is not done systematically, but in a series of very rich and complicated observations which are more or less disconnected and in which prescriptions for the marxist party intermingle with analytical points about parties in general. Thus any relatively brief exposition of these ideas, such as this study, must necessarily attempt to pick out the main themes and give them a structure not present (at least explicitly) in the original. This must to some extent be an arbitrary and unsatisfactory process, but it is unavoidable. A useful starting point for understanding the originality of Gramsci’s theory is his notion of the ‘dual perspective’ with which the party must operate. The term itself actually derives from Section XIII of the Theses on Tactics adopted under the inspiration of Zinoviev by the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern [24]; but it is clear that Gramsci invests the concept with much greater universal significance and deeper content than its originator intended. He writes:

The dual perspective can present itself on various levels, from the most elementary to the most complex: but these can all theoretically be reduced to two fundamental levels, corresponding to the dual nature of Machiavelli’s Centaur – half-animal and half-human. They are the levels of force and consent, authority and hegemony, violence and civilisation, of the individual moment and the universal moment (‘church’ and ‘state’) of agitation and propaganda, of tactics and of strategy etc. [25]

Gramsci resists any mechanical separation of the two levels or any attempt to present them as successive stages, separate in time. The element of consent is always present in the application of force, and the element of force is always present in the achievement of consent. The editors of the English edition of Selections from the Prison Notebooks comment:

Perhaps one can see here an attempt to theorise the struggle Gramsci had conducted in the PCI against Bordiga on the one hand and Tasca on the other. Bordiga in this schema would represent an undialectical isolation of the moment of force, domination etc., Tasca a parallel isolation of the moment of consent, hegemony; Gramsci sought to theorise the unity of the two perspectives. [26]

But it is also true that, just as in the revolutionary dialectic of destruction/reconstruction Gramsci emphasises reconstruction, so, while never losing sight of the moment of force, it is the moment of consent which Gramsci emphasises and on which he develops his researches. The reason for this stress is partially polemical (i.e. the struggle against Bordigism) but primarily Gramsci’s profound reappraisal of the tasks facing revolutionary parties as a result of the defeat of the post-war revolutionary wave and the development of modern capitalism.

If the revolutionary party must pursue a ‘dual perspective’, it is because the ruling class maintains itself by the same method – by a combination of dictatorship and hegemony, which are respectively institutionalised in political state power and in civil society. But repressive state power and the institutions of civil society do not develop evenly or stand in the same relationship to each other at all times or in all countries. The revolutionary party must make a concrete analysis of this relationship and shape its strategy accordingly. In particular Gramsci believed that the post-war failure of the revolution in the West was the consequence of a basic difference between Russia and the West in this respect.

In Russia the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. [27]

And also

in the case of the most advanced states ... ‘civil society’ has become a very complex structure and one which is resistant to the catastrophic ‘incursions’ of the immediate economic element (crises, depressions, etc.) [28]

In Russia therefore the capitalist state stood isolated in its repressive functions and was susceptible to a speedy frontal attack, but in the West where capitalism was older and had struck much deeper roots in society a different strategy was required. Gramsci, using an analogy from military strategy, terms this ‘the war of position’, as against the previous ‘war of manoeuvre’. [29] At other points in the Notebooks Gramsci poses the question of transition from war of manoeuvre to war of position differently – not in terms of Russia and the West, but in terms of time scale. ‘In the present epoch the war of movement took place politically from March 1917 to March 1921; this was followed by a war of position.’ [30]

There need be no contradiction here, as Gramsci may be suggesting that the war of manoeuvre was always inadequate for advanced capitalism, but that it was only after the defeats of 1921 that this began to be realised (with the turn to the united-front policy by the Comintern).

In contrast to the war of manoeuvre which offers the prospect of quick victory, the war of position implies a long drawn out ‘reciprocal siege’ [31] which demands an ‘unprecedented concentration of hegemony’. [32] The struggle of the revolutionary party to undermine the consent given by the masses to the authority of the ruling class (which is secured through a thousand institutional and associational channels and penetrates deeply into everyday ‘common sense’ thought) and to establish its own hegemony must take place on three related levels. The first is the question of alliances:

The proletariat can become the leading and ruling class to the extent to which it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances which enables it to mobilise the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state. [33]

Such alliances, Gramsci points out, must inevitably contain an element of compromise. ‘If the union of two forces is necessary in order to defeat a third ... the only concrete possibility is compromise.’ [34] The aversion on principle of ultra-lefts to compromises and therefore to alliances is, he argues, a product of their fatalistic ‘economism’:

since favourable conditions are inevitably going to appear ... it is evident that any deliberate initiative tending to predispose and plan these conditions is not only useless but even harmful. [35]

Gramsci, on the contrary, placed especial importance on the strategy of alliances, because in Italy the revolution could be made only through an alliance of the northern proletariat and the southern peasantry – a question on which the record of Italian socialism was poor. The overcoming of all sectarian tendencies in the party is a precondition of its achieving hegemony. Thus it is not surprising that Gramsci was completely opposed to the tactics of the Stalinist ‘third period’, although this was concealed at the time. [36]

The second level of the struggle for hegemony is that of the education of one’s own forces. For the war of position it is not possible to rely solely on the mobilisation of the mass of workers behind immediate demands and slogans. Rather they have to be won over at the basic level of their world view and welded into a ‘permanently organised and long prepared force which can be put into the field at the favourable moment’. [37] To do this the party must

never tire of repeating its own arguments (though offering literary variation of form): repetition is the best didactic means for working on the popular mentality (and must) work incessantly to raise the intellectual level of ever-growing strata of the populace. [38]

This requires a correction of the balance between agitation and propaganda (in favour of propaganda) [39], for the party must not only be an expression of the class but must ‘react energetically [upon it] in order to develop, solidify and universalise [it]’. [40] Sectarian dogmatism in theory is fatal for such a work of ‘intellectual and moral reform’, and Gramsci was always opposed to the appearance of, for example, crude anti-clericalism in socialist propaganda. The raising of the intellectual level of the masses cannot be brought about by the imposition of dogma, but must come through separating the element of ‘good sense’ in their ‘common sense’ from the element of confused prejudice and through working to expand and develop it. This requires a sophisticated and non-economistic marxist method.

The third level, which conditions the success of the first two, might be termed the struggle for the intellectuals, and this in turn has two aspects. First, it is necessary to create a stratum of intellectuals ‘organic’ to the working class. Here Gramsci is not using intellectual in the usual way to signify the man of letters, the philosopher, the abstract thinker etc, but to refer to the worker who has a clear conception of the world and of his aims, is an active participant in practical life, a ‘permanent persuader’ and who constitutes the organising directive element in the working class. In other words, the proletarian counterpart to the organic intellectuals of the bourgeoisie – the industrial technicians, the political economists, the judges and lawyers etc. [41]

The formation of ‘elites of intellectuals of a new type which arise directly out of the masses, but remain in contact with them to become, as it were, the whalebone in the corset ... is what really modifies the “ideological panorama” of the age’. [42]

But Gramsci is not utopian about this. He is fully aware from his own experience of the difficulty of intellectual labour and systematic study, especially for the worker, and recognises that the formation of worker-intellectuals is a long slow process that can be completed only after the conquest of state power.

It is also necessary, however, to carry out work in relation to non-proletarian intellectuals, though again Gramsci is clear about the limitations of this.

The intellectuals develop slowly, much more slowly than any other social group, because of their own nature and historical role ... To think it possible that this type can, as a mass, break with the whole of the past in order to place itself wholeheartedly on the side of a new ideology, is absurd. It is absurd for the intellectuals as a mass, and perhaps absurd also for very many intellectuals taken individually, despite all the honest efforts they make and want to make. Now the intellectuals interest us as a mass, and not only as individuals. It is certainly important and useful for the proletariat that one or more intellectuals, individually, adhere to its programme and its doctrine, merge themselves with the proletariat, and become and feel themselves an integral part of it ... But it is also important and useful that a break of an organic kind, characterised historically, is caused inside the mass of intellectuals: that there is formed, as a mass formation, a left-wing tendency, in the modern sense of the word, that is, one which is orientated towards the revolutionary proletariat. [43]

This is necessary not only because it undermines the exercise of bourgeois hegemony in general, but because Gramsci considers that the intellectuals play a key role in maintaining the system of alliances constructed by the ruling class with subordinate strata, and therefore can play a corresponding role in the system of alliances that must be constructed by the party of the proletariat. With regard to Italy, Gramsci analyses the role of intellectuals in the southern agrarian bloc, where they acted as mediators between the peasants and the big landowners; and argues that a left tendency among the intellectuals is one of the prerequisites for breaking this bloc and securing the alliance of the peasantry with the proletariat. In this connection Gramsci notes that the more developed the stratum of organic intellectuals of the proletariat, the greater the pole of attraction the revolutionary party will constitute for the intellectuals in general, and that such intellectuals are likely to be repelled if presented with a vulgar materialist version of marxist theory.

4. Spontaneity and leadership

Underlying the whole of Gramsci’s theory of the party is his conception of the relationship of spontaneity and conscious leadership, which can be regarded, at least partially, as equivalent to the relationship between party and class and which is the fundamental question of the marxist theory of the party. His presentation of the problem is a clear advance on that which was achieved by Rosa Luxemburg, the early Lenin or by Lukacs, and corresponds most closely to the position of the mature Lenin. Gramsci begins with a critique of the very concept of pure spontaneity.

It must be stressed that ‘pure’ spontaneity does not exist in history: it would come to the same thing as ‘pure’ mechanicity. In the ‘most spontaneous’ movement it is simply the case that the elements of ‘conscious leadership’ cannot be checked, have left no reliable document. It may be said that spontaneity is therefore characteristic of the ‘history of the subaltern classes’, and indeed of their most marginal and peripheral elements ... Hence in such movements there exist multiple elements of ‘conscious leadership’ but no one of them is predominant or transcends the level of a given social stratum’s ‘popular science’ – its ‘common sense’ or traditional conception of the world. [44]

Gramsci rejects those who counterpose this spontaneity to marxism and who extol it as a political method. This mistake in theory and in practice is based on a ‘vulgar contradiction which betrays its manifest practical origin – i.e. the immediate desire to replace a given leadership by a different one’. [45] But he is equally opposed to a disdainful attitude to mass spontaneity.

Neglecting, or worse still, despising, so-called ‘spontaneous’ 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. It is almost always the case that a ‘spontaneous’ movement of the subaltern classes is accompanied by a reactionary movement of the right-wing of the dominant class, for concomitant reasons. An economic crisis, for instance, engenders on the one hand discontent among the subaltern classes and spontaneous mass 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 to give any conscious leadership to the spontaneous revolts or to make them into a positive political factor. [46]

Although Gramsci follows this with a reference to the rising of the Sicilian Vespers of 1282 (probably to divert the censor) he clearly has in mind the attitude of the PSI and the Bordigists to the events of 1919–20 as a factor in permitting the triumph of Mussolini.

As an example of the correct relationship between spontaneity and conscious leadership Gramsci cites the work of the Ordine Nuovo group.

The Turin movement was accused simultaneously of being ‘spontaneist’ and ‘voluntarist’ or Bergsonian. This contradictory accusation, if one analyses it, only testifies to the fact that the leadership given to the movement was both creative and correct. This leadership was not ‘abstract’; it neither consisted in mechanically repeating scientific or theoretical formulae, nor did it confuse politics, real action, with theoretical disquisition. It applied itself to real men, formed in specific historical relations, with specific feelings, outlooks, fragmentary conceptions of the world, etc. which were the result of ‘spontaneous’ combinations of a given situation of material production with the ‘fortuitous’ agglomeration within it of disparate social elements. The element of ‘spontaneity’ was not neglected and even less despised. It was educated, directed, purged of extraneous contaminations; the aim was to bring it in line with modern theory [marxism] – but in a living and historically effective manner. The leaders themselves spoke of the ‘spontaneity’ of the movement and rightly so. This assertion was a stimulus, a tonic, an element of unification in depth; above all it denied that the movement was arbitrary, a cooked-up venture, and stressed its historical necessity. It gave the masses a ‘theoretical’ consciousness of being creators of historical and institutional values, of being founders of a State. This unity between ‘spontaneity’ and ‘conscious leadership’ or ‘discipline’ is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes, insofar as this is mass politics and not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses. [47]

As a result of this analysis Gramsci then raises what he calls a ‘fundamental theoretical question’ which relates, though from a different angle, to Lenin’s view in What is to be done? that socialism must be introduced into the working class from the outside. Gramsci asks:

Can modern theory [marxism] be in opposition to the ‘spontaneous’ feelings of the masses? (‘Spontaneists’ in the sense that they are not the result of any systematic educational activity on the part of an already conscious leading group, but have been formed through everyday experience illuminated by ‘common sense’ i.e. by the traditional popular conception of the world) [48]

Gramsci’s answer:

It cannot be in opposition to them. Between the two there is a ‘quantitative’ difference of degree not one of quality. A reciprocal ‘reduction’ so to speak, a passage from one to the other and vice versa, must be possible. [49]

The contrast between Gramsci’s view and that of both the early Lenin and Lukacs should be clear. Gramsci establishes the link and reciprocal relationship (which is denied in What is to be done? and History and Class Consciousness) between the actual consciousness, experience and practice of the working class and potential socialist class-consciousness. And he does this without falling into the opposite error of spontaneism.

But Gramsci does not deal only with the strategic tasks of the party and with what its relationship should be to the mass of the class. The Prison Notebooks also contain a number of comments on the organisation and internal life necessary for it to be able to play the role assigned to it. Indeed he goes so far as to say that ‘the way in which the party functions provides discriminating criteria’ [50] for judging the party as a whole. ‘When the party is progressive it functions “democratically” (democratic centralism): when the party is regressive it functions “bureaucratically” (bureaucratic centralism).’ [51]

At the same time there is no trace of utopianism in Gramsci’s picture of the party and its membership. He begins by asserting the ‘primordial and (given certain general conditions) [i.e. the existence of class society – JM] irreducible fact ... that there really do exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led’ [52], and that although this division has its origin in class divisions, it operates also within socially homogeneous groups and therefore within parties. In line with this premise Gramsci analyses the membership of the party as consisting of three elements:

  1. A mass element, composed of ordinary, average men, whose participation takes the form of discipline and loyalty, rather than any creative spirit or organisational ability. Without these the party would not exist it is true, but it is also true that neither could it exist with these alone. They are a force insofar as there is somebody to centralise, organise and discipline them ...
  2. The principal cohesive element, which centralises nationally and renders effective and powerful a complex of forces which left to themselves would count for nothing. This element is endowed with great cohesive, centralising and disciplinary powers; also – and indeed this is perhaps the basis for the others – with the power of innovation ...
  3. An intermediate element, which articulates the first element with the second and maintains contact between them, not only physically but also morally and intellectually. [53]

Nor does Gramsci make any bones about the fact that of the three elements it is the second, the leadership, to which he attaches most importance.

It is also true that neither could this element form the party alone; however it could do so more than could the first element considered. One speaks of generals without any army but in reality it is easier to form an army than to form generals. [54]

However this ‘realism’ is counter-balanced by another equally fundamental premise.

In the formation of leaders ... is it the intention that there should always be rulers and ruled, or is the objective to create the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary? [55]

Since Gramsci’s aim is certainly the latter, the authority of ‘leadership and discipline must not be based on

a passive and supine acceptance of orders, or the mechanical carrying out of an assignment (which, however, will still be necessary on particular occasions) but [on] the conscious and lucid assimilation of the directive to be accomplished. [56]

What must be achieved within the party, therefore, is ‘centralism in movement’ – i.e. a continual adaptation of the organisation to the real movement, a matching of thrusts from below with orders from above, a continuous insertion of elements thrown up from the depths of the rank-and-file into the solid framework of the leadership apparatus. [57] ‘One of the most important questions concerning the political party’, Gramsci argues, is ‘the party’s capacity to react against force of habit.’ [58] Parties are created in order to prepare for crisis situations, to be able to act at historical turning points, but often they become routinised and incapable of adapting themselves to new tasks. In this respect the main enemy is bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy is the most dangerously hidebound and conservative force; if it ends up by constituting a compact body, which stands on its own and feels itself independent of the mass of members, the party ends up by becoming anachronistic and at moments of acute crisis it is voided of its social content and left as though suspended in mid-air. [59]

But this question also must not be viewed only from one side – for while there is the problem of habit and routine, there is also the need to maintain continuity and establish a tradition.

There is a danger of becoming ‘bureaucratised’ it is true, but every organic continuity presents this danger, which must be watched. The danger of discontinuity, of improvisation, is still greater. [60]

Thus in the case of the internal life of the party, just as with the ‘dual perspective’, and the relationship of the party to the class, Gramsci envisages a dialectical unity between leaders and led, discipline and initiative, continuity and change.

5. A provisional assessment

What of the claim that Gramsci is ‘the theoretician of revolution in the west’? Leninism proved itself in Russia and in so doing broke new ground of universal significance. It was Gramsci, through his analysis of the development of civil society and the deep roots of bourgeois hegemony, who saw more clearly than anyone else the basic difference between Russia and advanced cat italism, and therefore the broadening of the framework of Leninisin that would be necessary. Lenin and Trotsky, as Gramsci was aware, had by 1921 begun to sense the problem, but Lenin was preoccupied with Russia and soon to die, and Trotsky, also beset with other difficulties, was unable to develop his insights beyond the level of tactics. [61] Gramsci, however, thought through the implications of his analysis as thoroughly and concretely as the isolation of his prison cell permitted. Moreover, history has proved to be ‘on Gramsci’s side’ in this respect. Western capitalism has shown itself to possess far greater resilience than the theory of the early Comintern marxists allowed for, and Gramsci’s analysis of the expansion of bourgeois social control in his study of Americanism and Fordism reveals him as a profound prophet of new tendencies in capitalism.

Philosophically Gramsci has also been justified: by the publication of Marx’s early writings and the Grundrisse and by the numerous modern researches into marxist philosophy. Can any serious marxist today doubt the baleful influence of fatalism and economic determinism on the revolutionary movement? Other later marxists approached if not equalled Gramsci in their insights into the structure of capitalist society and marxist philosophy, but Gramsci is distinguished from them all in that he, and he alone, was able to forge these insights into a coherent revolutionary strategy based on a development of the theory of the party. Gramsci is thus the only marxist to have added anything fundamentally new to Lenin’s theory of the party.

Nevertheless there remains a question mark over Gramsci’s contribution. His ideas have never been applied in practice. Like Machiavelli he was not himself in a position to change reality – ‘only of showing concretely how the historical forces ought to have acted in order to be effective’. [62]

Nor have Gramsci’s ideas found other hands to take them up and apply them, and what is more they could not have done so. Gramscian strategy requires as its starting point the existence of a Leninist party, but the combined effects of the long postwar boom and the ravages of Stalinism have meant that such parties have not in fact existed. The basic principles of Bolshevism can, within certain limits (and they are quite narrow limits), guide the activity of a small organisation or even a tiny group. This is not the case with the ideas of Gramsci. The war of manoeuvre, like guerrilla war, can be waged with relatively small forces, but the war of position demands a mass army. Without a mass party alliances will not be alliances between classes in a historical bloc but mere temporary co-operation between groups, which may often serve only to blur theoretical and programmatic differences. Without a mass proletarian base the formation of organic intellectuals and the struggle to win over traditional intellectuals will not, as intended, strengthen proletarian hegemony, but will degenerate into scholastic intellectualism and academicism. Gramsci, it must be remembered, wrote against a background in which the basic ideas of socialism were very widely spread in the working class and the PCI had been founded with a membership of about 40,000, of whom 98 per cent were workers and less than 0.5 per cent (245 in all) intellectuals. [63] To imagine that his ideas can be simply transferred to a situation in which the revolutionary movement is overloaded with students and petty bourgeois and has only the slenderest roots in the working class is crassly ahistorical.

We do not really know what the war of position looks like in its practical details. Thus any judgement of Gramsci’s theory of the party must be provisional. If one is impressed and convinced, as it is hard not to be, by the coherence, depth, subtlety and concreteness of Gramsci’s ideas, then one must hold that they will face their decisive test in the future when advanced Western capitalism is once again confronted by mass revolutionary workers’ parties.


1. To deceive the prison censor Gramsci avoided all use of conventional marxist terminology, and all direct mention of well known revolutionaries. Thus ‘class’ is rendered ‘fundamental social group’; ‘oppressed class’ is ‘subaltern group’; Trotsky is Lev Davidovitch; Lenin is Ilych, or ‘the recent great theoretician’; and marxism is ‘the philosophy of praxis’.

2. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London 1971, p. 387.

3. ibid., p. 465.

4. ibid., p. 336.

5. ibid., pp. 336–37.

6. ibid., p. 438.

7. ibid., p. 407.

8. ibid., p. 160.

9. ibid.

10. ibid., p. 233.

11. ibid., p. 104.

12. ibid., pp. 180–81.

13. ibid., p. 183.

14. ibid., p. 325.

15. ibid., p. 323.

16. See ibid., p. 192.

17. To illustrate this point we have the example of Lukacs who similarly approached the question of the party on the basis of a critique of mechanical materialism, but who remained entirely within the terrain of philosophy. Lukacs conceived of the party as the bearer and embodiment of proletarian class consciousness, but because he defined class consciousness in an unhistorical and rationalistic way he fell into an idealised and elitist view of the party which failed to add anything useful to, indeed fell short of, Lenin.

18. Cited in John Merrington, Theory and practice in Gramsci’s marxism, Socialist Register, 1968, p. 165.

19. Antonio Gramsci, Soviets in Italy, London 1969, pp. 22–23.

20. Published in Soviets in Italy, op. cit.

21. ibid., p. 35.

22. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit., p. 123.

23. ibid., p. 129.

24. For the background to this see ibid., p. 169.

25. ibid., pp. 169–70.

26. ibid., p. 124.

27. ibid., p. 238.

28. ibid, p. 235.

29. ibid., pp. 229–39.

30. ibid., p. 120.

31. ibid., p. 239.

32. ibid., p. 238.

33. Antonio Gramsci, The Southern Question, in The Modern Prince and Other Writings, New York 1972, pp. 30–31.

34. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit., p. 168.

35. ibid.

36. Gramsci’s brother Gennaro visited him in prison to ascertain his attitude to the ‘third period’ but, on finding that he opposed it, kept the information secret in case his brother should be expelled. See Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of Revolutionary, London 1970, pp. 252–53.

37. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit., p. 185.

38. ibid., p. 340.

39. Gramsci makes this point as part of an analysis of Italian political parties ‘in general’ but, as so often with Gramsci’s ‘abstract’ discussions, there is a clear implication for the practice of the revolutionary party.

40. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit., p. 227.

41. For Gramsci’s analysis of ‘the intellectuals’ see ibid., pp. 5–23.

42. ibid., p. 340.

43. Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince and Other Writings, op. cit., pp. 50–51.

44. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit., pp. 196–97.

45. ibid., p. 197.

46. ibid., p. 199.

47. ibid., p. 198.

48. ibid., pp. 198–99.

49. ibid., p. 199.

50. ibid., p. 155.

51. ibid.

52. ibid., p. 144.

53. ibid., pp. 152–53.

54. ibid.

55. ibid., p. 144.

56. Cited in A. Pozzolini, Antonio Gramsci: An Introduction to his Thought, London 1970, p. 65.

57. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit., p. 188.

58. ibid., p. 211.

59. ibid.

60. ibid., p. 195.

61. See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit., pp. 236–38. Gramsci records that Trotsky began ‘a revision of current tactical methods’, along these lines at the fourth congress of the Comintern. But paradoxically, and for reasons that can only be the subject of speculation, he accuses Trotsky of being: ‘the political theorist of frontal attack in a period which leads only to defeats’. (ibid., p. 238)

62. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit., p. 173.

63. ibid., p. liii.

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