Robert Griffiths 1985

Was Gramsci a Eurocommunist?

A Reply to Roger Simon

Author: Robert Griffiths;
Publisher: Cardiff Marxist Forum, later re-published by the Communist Party of Britain;
Published: 1985;
HTML Markup: Pierre Marshall.


This pamphlet was first published in 1985 under the title Was Gramsci a Eurocommunist? - A Reply to Roger Simon, primarily as a contribution to the ideological and political struggle then taking place in the Communist Party. A group of Party members and supporters published it in the name of 'Cardiff Marxist Forum' following a series of talks on Gramsci's ideas and their misuse. This led to the author's suspension and expulsion from the Party by the revisionist leadership, soon afterwards.

More recently, the text of the pamphlet has been used as the basis for political education classes about Antonio Gramsci. Not surprisingly, the worldwide renewal of interest in the ideas of Karl Marx also extends to others in the same political tradition.

The text is unchanged from 1985, except for a few minor technical corrections and recourse to the more authoritative translations featured in Marx & Engels' Collected Works.

Robert Griffiths
May 2011


From 1917 until his death in 1937, Antonio Gramsci was a leading figure in the Italian Communist movement. Basing himself on what he called 'the fundamental principles of communism', Gramsci devoted his life and works to the overthrow of capitalism by any means necessary — including armed force.1 Proclaiming himself a 'Leninist', he advocated a proletarian dictatorship of soviets, and upheld the leading role of the Communist parties, the Soviet Union and the Communist International in the world revolutionary movement.

It is a bold project indeed, therefore, when a book purporting to present Gramsci's political thought proposes a constitutional road to parliamentary socialism, rejects the core of Marxist materialism, attacks the doctrines developed by Lenin, downgrades and narrows the scope of class struggle, abandons the leading role of Communist parties, disowns the Soviet Union and recommends the dissolution of the world Communist movement in theory and practice. Yet Roger Simon does all these things in his grotesquely mis-titled book Gramsci's Political Thought: An Introduction (published by Lawrence & Wishart in 1982). This work has been extensively promoted in the Communist Party of Great Britain as a primary source of 'political education'. As such it is part of the continuing campaign to 'revise' Marxism-Leninism, to empty it of revolutionary theory and practice.

But why has Antonio Gramsci — a revolutionary Marxist of impeccable credentials — been resurrected and recruited into the Eurocommunist fifth column? Anyone familiar with his life and ideas should regard him as an unpromising candidate for such a mission. Indeed, the criticism that could be made of him from a Marxist-Leninist standpoint would be not that he veered towards reformism, or worshipped at the altar of bourgeois parliamentarianism — but that he tended to undervalue the parliamentary struggle, was obsessed with 'insurrection' as the final apocalyptic show-down with capitalism, had an exclusively revolutionary perspective of hegemony, and was too industrial and 'workerist' in his approach to Communist Party organisation and membership.

However, on reflection, a number of other circumstances combine to facilitate his kidnap by the ignorant or the unscrupulous: firstly, Gramsci is dead and therefore unable to object to his conscription by any cause; secondly, the events and conditions that put him in Mussolini's gaols for the last eight years of his active life prompted him to think and write intensively on matters of ideology and strategy — which he did in a period of retreat, which particularly suits Eurocommunist defeatism; thirdly, the writings in his Prison Notebooks are highly intellectual and complex, made even more intimidating for the non-academic by Gramsci's use of coded terminology to confound his gaolers; fourthly, his name and record carry enormous prestige among Communists, socialists and progressives; and fifthly, because his imprisonment prevented any active participation in the mistakes of the Stalin era, Gramsci can be promoted by the Eurocommunists without embarrassment to their anti-Sovietism.

Several decades ago, these factors facilitated a major effort by the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) to portray Gramsci as the forerunner of their break with Marxism-Leninism. This is the same revisionist crusade which Roger Simon carries on in a British context. But now the counter-offensive is well under way, led by Communists and other progressives who, having gained access to more of Gramsci's works, refute the attempts to parade him in false colours.2

This pamphlet is neither a presentation nor an assessment of Gramsci's contribution to Marxism. Rather, it has the more limited purpose of contrasting the revolutionary Marxism of the real Gramsci to the Eurocommunist reformism of the dummy Gramsci sitting on Roger Simon's knee.

Robert Griffiths
Cardiff, 1985

The Materialist Base of Marxism

The problem of 'economism'

Extensive sections of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks dealt with the problem of 'economism' in the working-class and revolutionary movements. In theory and practice, economism stems from an exclusive or overwhelming concentration on economics and economic factors. In immediate terms, it takes the form of an obsession with the short-term, 'practical' struggles of the working class, with trade unionism and workplace battles over pay, conditions and employment. This, the practitioners of economism believe, will generate the desire, the organisation and the leadership to fight and defeat capitalism. Matters of politics and intellectual activity are very much secondary to the economic struggle, a mere adjunct to it, while issues and movements outside the traditional concerns of the labour movement are scorned, neglected or treated as inferior satellites.

Ideologically, economism directly and simplistically reduces all political, social, cultural and ideological questions to economic causes and content, to their real or imagined economic base. In the tradition of Marx, Engels and Lenin, Gramsci argued and fought against the various forms and features of economism. With them he insisted that the political battles on many fronts and many issues — including theory and political organisation — are essential for the development of the working class movement, for the growth of Marxism within it, and for the winning of allies.

But look at Roger Simon's presentation of economism, of Marxism's supposed relationship to it, and of Gramsci's alleged place in that alleged relationship:

Marxist theory has from the beginning suffered from a major defect: economism. This has prevented an adequate understanding of the nature of capitalist domination, and of the strategy required to end that dominatlon and advance to socialism.3

An economistic approach is reflected in the widespread use of the metaphor 'base and superstructure' which is derived from Marx's famous preface to the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859). The significant developments are understood to be those taking place in the economic base, whereas political struggles are considered only part of the superstructure erected on the base. This kind of 'mechanical determinism', as Gramsci called it ... tended to promote a passive attitude of waiting for the inevitable economic collapse and this discouraged the exercise of political initiatives by the labour movement.4

Although the Prison Notebooks contain many references to base and superstructure, the direction of Gramsci's thought, and his rejection of economism, is against it.5

Simon is saying that economism is a built-in defect of Marxism, not a deviation from Marxism or a misinterpretation of it; that the source of this defect is the base/superstructure conception; and that Gramsci's opposition to mechanistic determinism and economism (Simon is apparently unaware that the former is merely one form of the latter) led him in essence to challenge or abandon the base/superstructure analysis of society, history and change.

What we have here from Roger Simon is an attack on the materialist basis of Marxism, fuelled by his acceptance of an economistic interpretation of the base/superstructure metaphor. Whether this acceptance is out of ignorance or deceit must remain for now a matter for speculation. But we can be certain of one thing: his attack is not supported in the slightest by the genuine Gramsci, whose fight against economism was waged in defence of the base/superstructure method, properly understood and applied.

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci based his ideas on what he referred to as the 'fundamental principles of political science' to be found in Marx's Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.6 Gramsci's notes are peppered with quotes and paraphrases from this Preface, invoked to clarify, develop or repudiate points under consideration. Indeed, the editors and translators who brought Gramsci's Prison Notebooks to the English language world acknowledge the 'extreme importance' of the Preface as 'a source of Gramsci's Marxism'.7

Nowhere in the Notebooks does Gramsci do other than wholeheartedly endorse and deploy the principles and techniques of the Preface (especially its central base/superstructure conception). Hence Simon's inability to produce a single passage from Gramsci in contradiction to it.

The key section from the Preface, as utilised by Gramsci and attacked by Simon, is this:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social formation is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.8

This passage is one of Marx's most powerful expositions of historical and dialectical materialism; its base/superstructure conception is an essential part of the Marxist world-view. In attacking all this as 'economism', Simon is misinterpreting Marxism in order to reject it — although he would claim, as anti-revolutionary revisionists always have, that he is 'updating', 'modernising' or 'refining' Marxism.

Base and superstructure in Gramsci

Gramsci, on the other hand, interpreted and utilised the Preface — and its central metaphor — in a correct and productive way. For example, in a discourse on the French Revolution and Paris Commune, he bases himself explicitly on Marx's materialist analysis of the class forces at work, and refers explicitly to the crucial underlying development at the 'economic base' of these events'.9 And when discussing the correct way to explain an historical event or course of events, Gramsci wrote that:

The level of development of the material forces of production provides a basis for the emergence of the various social classes, each one of which represents a function and has a specific position within production itself. This relation is what it is, a refractory reality ... By studying these fundamental data it is possible to discover whether in a particular society there exist the necessary and sufficient conditions for its transformation — in other words, to check the degree of realism and practicability of the various ideologies which have been born on its own terrain, on the terrain of the contradictions which it has engendered during the course of its development.10

Does this excerpt from the Prison Notebooks not reveal the closest adherence to Marx's Preface and its metaphor? Or again, when Gramsci considers an ideology which arises from forces and contradictions in the base (translated also as the 'structure') that are not historically decisive, he declares that: 'Politics is at any given time the reflection of the tendencies of development in the structure, but it is not necessarily the case that these tendencies must be realised'.11

Elsewhere in his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci is equally explicit in his adherence to historical materialism: 'The ensemble of the material forces of production is at the same time a crystallisation of all past history and the basis of present and future history'.12

This is not to claim that Gramsci had no qualifications, precautions or clarifications of his own to express. For instance, he urged caution when analysing any historical movement or event, referring to 'the difficulty of identifying at any given time, statically (like an instantaneous photographic image) the structure'.13

He also warned against a too-literal interpretation of Marx's statement that men become conscious in 'ideological forms' of the conflict between the material forces and the relations of production: people become conscious of not just this conflict, Gramsci added, but of 'ideological forms' themselves and of knowledge generally.14

Moreover, these ideological forms should not be dismissed as 'mere' super-structure. Ideas and beliefs could assume a 'fanatical granite compactness': Marx himself had declared that 'theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses' (although revolutions still required 'a material basis').15

This might be better understood in the light of Gramsci's proposal to regard 'ideas' or other superstructural elements as the form within which material forces are the content; neither is conceivable without the other, and on this level the distinction between base and superstructure may dissolve in practice — although differentiating them has instructive value.16

Far from being proof that 'the direction of Gramsci's thought' was away from or against the base/superstructure metaphor, such qualifications and clarifications in his Prison Notebooks illustrate how Gramsci utilised the metaphor to push forward Marxist theory on a number of previously neglected fronts.

In fact, Gramsci's rejection of economism was — contrary to Simon's incredible assertion — a vigorous affirmation of Marx's Preface with its base/superstructure conception. In opposing the 'Economists', their obsession with the base and their crude stripping down of everything else to economic and social factors, Gramsci was echoing Marx, Engels and Lenin. Thus he admonished Economists with these words of Frederick Engels (a favourite target of today's Eurocommunists), written towards the end of the latter's life:

According to the materialist view of history, the determining factor in history is, in the final analysis, the production and reproduction of actual life. More than that was never maintained either by Marx or myself. Now if someone distorts this by declaring the economic moment to be the only determining factor, he changes that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, ridiculous piece of jargon. The economic situation is the basis, but the various factors of the superstructure ... also have a bearing on the course of the historical struggles of which, in many cases, they largely determine the form.17

The use of the concluding word 'form' (and not 'content') is significant. Gramsci frequently referred to the above passage to underline his point that 'the economy is only the mainspring of history "in the last analysis"'.18 But Simon wants to go much further and, distorting Gramsci, denies even the concept of an 'economic base'.

To take Roger Simon's wrongly-related illustration, even when criticising 'mechanistic determinism' (the notion that developments in the base will make much-hoped-for changes and revolutions historically inevitable), Gramsci does so with recourse to a proper application of base/superstructure. In an assault on Bukharin's mechanistic determinism and generally vulgar materialism, he warned against constructing eternal truths and historical inevitabilities from Marxism. This is because, Gramsci argued, Marxism is a system of ideas and a world-view derived from forces and contradictions in the base that had yet — except in peculiar conditions in one country (Russia) — to transform the superstructure in reality. Rather, in the existing system, gaining revolutionary knowledge and consciousness was 'the superior elaboration of the structure into superstructure in the minds of men'.19

Marxism had not, in other words, moved from the reign of necessity to the post-capitalist reign of freedom, of liberation from the limitations placed on its visions, insights, conceptions and analyses by the present epoch. So far, only Lenin and the Russian Marxists had stood on the threshold of the new reign and its new 'Marxism', because only they had moved from science to action so far as the structure was concerned. Thus Gramsci estimated that in future years 'leninism will be acknowledged as the practical realisation of marxism'.20 His assessment of Lenin and the Bolsheviks' contribution, unaltered by anything in the Prison Notebooks, was somewhat different from that of today's self-styled Gramscians:

Leninism is the political science of the proletariat which teaches us how to mobilise all the forces necessary to demolish bourgeois dictatorship and to set up the dictatorship of the proletariat. For some, there is no such thing as a leninism different from marxism. This is not true. Leninism contains a unique world-view without which Marx today could not be understood.21

Leninism ... is the Marxism of the epoch of monopoly capitalism, imperialist wars and proletarian revolution.22

For Gramsci, then, Marxism-Leninism had raised our understanding of society, history and change to a new vantage point: but is also — according to its own doctrines — itself part of the unfolding of that history, a product of the material forces and contradictions, and as such will not escape the con-sequences of resolving those contradictions.23 Here, Gramsci subjects Marxism to its own method but he does so as a pupil of Marxist materialism, not as a Roger Simon renegade from it.

Furthermore, Gramsci argued that mechanistic determinism would wither as subordinate elements (e.g. the working-class) gained control of economic forces and thus had no further need of this form of 'moral resistance', of this 'stupefying' drug or religion. With the formerly 'subaltern' class now directing economic forces, taking responsibility for them, 'revision must take place in modes of thinking because a change has taken place in the social mode of existence' — and mechanistic determinism would be one casualty of such a revision'.24 So much for Gramsci's alleged rejection of base and superstructure in his repudiation of mechanistic determinism!

Dialectics the key

What, then, lies at the root of economism? Why this vulgarisation and misuse of the base/superstructure metaphor by those whom Gramsci derided as the 'pocket geniuses'?

Gramsci looked for the answer to these questions in the failure of economistic 'Marxists' to grasp the dialectical relationships between and within the forces in the base and the elements of the superstructure. Hence the application of the metaphor in a crude, one-sided, reductionist i.e. non-dialectical way. Gramsci illustrates this when dealing with the interaction of economic forces and political ideas; again, he begins from a criticism of Economists who underrate politics and depend on economic forces alone to lead the drive onwards to inevitable victory:

In such modes of thinking, no account is taken of the 'time' factor, nor in the last analysis even of 'economics'. For there is no understanding of the fact that mass ideological factors always lag behind mass economic phenomena, and that therefore, at certain moments, the automatic thrust due to the economic factor is slowed down, obstructed or even momentarily broken by traditional ideological elements — hence there must be a conscious, planned struggle to ensure that the exigencies of the economic position of the masses, which may conflict with the traditional leadership's policies, are understood. An appropriate political initiative is always necessary to liberate the economic thrust from the dead weight of traditional policies.25

From this, how can there be any misunderstanding of Gramsci's standpoint? In attacking economism, he does not for one moment abandon the base/superstructure metaphor or deny the ultimate decisiveness of the 'economic thrust' — and it is preposterous for Simon to claim otherwise. In these and related matters such as reform of consciousness, concepts of ideology etc. Gramsci opens up fertile and mind-expanding territory — but always through deployment of the base/superstructure metaphor, and often with appreciative acknowledgements of the supreme contributions of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

For Gramsci, a key question is: 'How does the historical movement arise on the structural base?' The answer, he states unambiguously and unreservedly, must begin with the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.26 Furthermore, in his examination of base/superstructure as a dialectical concept, Gramsci explained that: 'The complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures is the reflection of the ensemble of the social relations of production ... This reasoning is based on the necessary reciprocity between structure and superstructure, a reciprocity which is nothing other than the real dialectical process'.27

Obviously, Roger Simon understands little or nothing of the real dialectical process within Marxist materialism and its base/superstructure metaphor. He cannot conceive of any relationships other than formal and mechanical ones. This much he has in common with economistic 'Marxists'. But whereas they happily utilise their vulgarised base/superstructure conception regardless, Simon rejects it altogether. In fact, his one-sidedness is on the other side. He inflates one half of the metaphor into the whole, urging Marxists and the left to concentrate almost entirely on politics, culture and ideology with only the most general, bland and cursory acknowledgement of economic factors. This approach, he assures us in true revisionist style, 'does not conflict with the basic principle of historical materialism'.28

There is no doubt that Gramsci devoted his later studies to a consideration primarily of superstructural factors. This is accounted for by his concern to refute 'economistic' distortions of Marxism, by the specific circumstances in which he came to write his Prison Notebooks, and by his underlying belief that 'the objective conditions for proletarian revolution had existed in Europe for more than fifty years'.29 Only the first of these qualifications is fully recognised by today's Eurocommunists.

For Gramsci, then, the tasks and problems concerning consciousness, revolutionary strategy, the party and so on had become desperately urgent, given the 'over-ripeness' of the capitalist structure. Hence his strategic formulations of 'national popular', 'ethico-political', 'historic bloc' and the others that have become such unquestionable tenets of faith for some in the Communist movement fifty years on — formulations which were never intended by Gramsci to be lifted out of their dialectical relationships with the economic base, or to be used to justify class collaboration and reformism. Yet this is what the Eurocommunists have done, with their severing of the superstructure from the structure, and their consequent neglect of research, analysis and theoretical treatment of modern imperialism's economic structure. It is a throw-back to 'idealism', to the notion that consciousness and ideas determine social being rather than — in all its dialectical complexity — the other way around. It was in his struggle against idealism that Karl Marx began laying the philosophical foundations of Marxism.

Roger Simon cannot see that Gramsci's explorations and precautions are based on a correct utilisation of the base/superstructure metaphor — even applying it to Marxism itself — and not a rejection of it. Simon's conclusions, therefore, that (i) economism is innate in Marxism because of the base/superstructure metaphor which is wrong in itself; and (ii) the 'direction of Gramsci's thought' was against this central concept of Marxism, are profoundly mistaken.

The Politics of Marxism-Leninism

The state, democracy and parliament

In his prison cell, Gramsci pondered the strategic question of how the working class in developed capitalist Europe could win power to replace capitalism with socialism. According to Roger Simon, the position arrived at by Gramsci can be summarised as follows:

Power was highly concentrated in the state of Tsarist Russia and the capture of power in a single historical moment was possible. But in countries where civil society is well developed, as in Western Europe, a 'war of movement' has to give way to a different strategy, a 'war of position'. Revolution is a process of expanding the hegemony of the working class — of the building up of a new historic bloc — and is not a sharp rupture at a single moment when state power passes from one class to another. Thus the transition to socialism consists of two distinct processes, interacting with one another: the growth of working-class hegemony, and the transformation of the state into a socialist state.30

Roger Simon then counterposes this interpretation of Gramsci's standpoint to the 'orthodoxy of Marxism-Leninism' derived, in particular, from Lenin's work The State and Revolution (1917). This tract, Simon claims, has little or no application outside a specific time (1917-18) in a specific place (Russia). Its approach, we are told, is different from Lenin's own previous position as well as those of Marx and Engels.31 Further on, Simon bemoans the negative effect of Lenin's alleged teachings, with particular reference to Britain:

After the period of Chartism, however, the British bourgeoisie was particularly successful in achieving leadership in the process of broadening parliamentary democracy and in strengthening its hegemony by this means. This led many communists and others in the past, and Lenin's influence was especially strong here, to take the view that parliamentary democracy was an instrument of the capitalist class, and to counterpose to it direct democracy in the form of soviets, shop stewards' committees and the like; and this is still the view taken on the whole by ultra-leftists. A socialist revolution, according to this view, requires the replacement of parliamentary democracy by direct democracy, rather than a combination of both. In consequence a whole sphere of democratic struggle is surrendered to the other side. Instead, parliament and everything associated with it should be seen as a vital terrain, on which the struggle for political and ideological hegemony takes place.32

Lenin's theory of parliamentary democracy as adopted by the early world Communist movement became, according to Simon, a 'serious handicap' for Communist parties in the 1930s 'Popular Front' period. Then, it is alleged, the Communists were caught in the contradiction of defending what they had previously berated as an instrument of bourgeois rule viz. parliament. This supposed contradiction was, Simon continues, partly resolved by the 1951 Communist Party programme The British Road to Socialism which 'declared in favour of a parliamentary road to working-class power rather than a soviet road; the parliamentary state was to be transformed into a socialist parliamentary state, instead of being replaced by a soviet type of state'.33 The contradiction for Simon is only fully solved by abandoning, unequivocally, the Marxist-Leninist 'orthodoxy' that parliament is an instrument of class rule. (This is, of course, impeccable formal logic: if Communists become sincere disciples of bourgeois parliamentary democracy in theory and practice, there would no longer be anything contradictory about them defending bourgeois parliaments).

But it is Gramsci who receives Roger Simon's tribute for solving this 'contradiction' in full, for 'revising' the previous orthodoxy of Marxism-Leninism:

Gramsci's concept of hegemony provided the solution, based on the recognition that popular democratic struggles, and the parliamentary institutions which they have helped to shape, do not have a necessary class character. Rather, they are a terrain for political struggle between the two major classes — the working class and the capitalist class. In order to advance to socialism, the labour movement has to find the way to link these popular democratic struggles with its socialist objectives, building an alliance which will enable it to achieve a position of national leadership (hegemony).34

Elsewhere, Simon claims that Gramsci's concept of 'hegemony' also provides the 'theoretical foundation' for the 'transformation of bourgeois parliamentary democracy' instead of its replacement by proletarian dictatorship and democracy'.35 Thus Simon's interpretation of Gramsci is the cover and the justification for dumping Marxist-Leninist 'orthodoxy', for advocating a gradual and imperceptible parliamentary transition to parliamentary socialism (Simon's throw-away reference to the need for a 'combination' of parliamentary with direct democracy being a hollow gesture).

It is difficult to know where to start in dealing with Roger Simon's catalogue of confusions and distortions. They add up to a hideous caricature of Lenin, to the conversion of Gramsci into a parliamentary cretin, and to the liquidation of Marxism-Leninism and the very basis of Communist politics.

Lenin himself did not deny that certain features of the Bolshevik Revolution were specific to Russia, that they might not recur — and could not be artificially recreated — in other revolutions, in other countries and under different conditions. Ultra-left romantics believe otherwise. But the Marxist theory of the state and revolution in capitalist society, which Lenin elaborated and defended with unrivalled power and clarity, is in its essentials of general application. He maintained that the state was not 'neutral'. Quoting Marx, he argued that the state in capitalist society — with its army, police, bureaucracy, judiciary etc. — is a machine for the suppression of the working class.36 In differing proportions to one another, the 'democratic' bourgeoisie operates two methods of maintaining its interests and domination: firstly, one of brute force and coercion; and secondly, the 'liberal' one of reforms, rights and concessions. Its authority rests ultimately upon state force, but is also wrapped as much as possible in 'popular consent' — including consent for the use of force. This popular consent is usually obtained by fraudulent or oppressive means. As sharpened and deepened by Lenin, this analysis is echoed in several sections of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks.37

In Roger Simon's book, however, it is ultra-leftist to take a 'view of the state as an instrument of the capitalist class (or of the monopoly capitalists)'.38 That writes off the founders of Marxism-Leninism for a start! It also disposes of Gramsci, who wrote in prison of 'the fundamental economic group which really is the state', which uses the state apparatus for 'direct domination'; and of the 'bourgeois class organised into a state' (although in the interests of maintaining its national hegemony such a ruling class must project its state as representing more than the 'narrowly corporate economic interest' of a single class or group).39

Democracy, Lenin argued, is a form of state; under capitalism, bourgeois democracy represents a great historical advance from medievalism and feudalism. Communists must win the working class to fight for, extend and utilise democratic rights, because this struggle will 'school' the proletariat in the fullest spirit of democracy, and will attract allies around its leading role in the struggle for democratic demands ... the working class and Communists must 'champion the interests of every oppressed nationality or race, of every persecuted religion, of the disenfranchised sex etc.'.40 Democratic rights also permitted the working class and revolutionary movements more scope to organise and express themselves in pursuit of their short-term and longer term interests; and the more 'rights' and 'freedoms' that were secured under capitalism, the clearer would the working class and oppressed sections of the people see that at the root of their exploitation, and the major obstacle to their emancipation, was not 'lack of rights' — but is the existence of capitalism itself.41

Even the 'most free' bourgeois democracy was restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical — 'hemmed in by the narrow limits of capitalist exploitation'. State secrecy, capitalist ownership of the press, the massive inequalities of wealth, the techniques of parliament and so on: all these and other features of capitalist society meant thousands of restrictions of democracy in practice for the majority of the people. No such restrictions prevented the bourgeoisie from taking any steps necessary to protect its interests. Here was the contradiction between the 'formal' equality of classes and citizens under capitalist democracy on the one hand, and the reality of the situation on the other: a contradiction which Lenin urged socialists to explain and expose — in order to prepare the people for revolution.42

Lenin developed Marx's view that bourgeois parliaments were part of the apparatus of class oppression; they nourished the illusion of popular sovereignty and democratic control; and they were vastly inferior to the institutions of direct democracy that would combine executive and legislative functions, and would embody the dictatorship of the proletariat.43 Yet this did not lead Lenin to the conclusion that revolutionaries should boycott bourgeois parliaments or the elections to them. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks had made effective use of the Tsarist Duma as a propaganda platform, and Lenin sharply admonished ultra-leftists in the British and German Communist movements who sought to elevate the boycott tactic (to be used in special circumstances) to the level of an eternal principle:

In Western Europe, the backward masses of the workers and — to an even greater degree — of the small peasants are much more imbued with bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices than they were in Russia; because of that, it is only from within such institutions as bourgeois parliaments that Communists can (and must) wage a long and persistent struggle, undaunted by any difficulties, to expose, dispel and overcome these prejudices.44

From the above, it is clear that the Communist parties did not contradict Marxism-Leninism in their defence of bourgeois democracy — including its parliaments — against fascist attacks in the 1930s, a defence which they linked to the struggle for socialism. Obviously, there is not the slightest validity in Simon's insinuation that 'Lenin's influence' would have leant in the direction of boycotting parliaments and 'surrendering' a whole sphere of democratic and ideological struggle to the capitalist class. Only an ignoramus or a deliberate falsifier could claim otherwise.

Dictatorship of the proletariat

What Lenin did insist upon, however, was that the working class must build up its own machinery under capitalism — soviets, workers' councils, the party, the armed people — in order to seize and exercise state power. This did not preclude the use of bourgeois parliaments before and during revolution, and thus only in a propagandist sense (rather than an immediate, practical one) did he counterpose direct democracy to bourgeois democracy during these phases, as the superior system which would be established under a proletarian dictatorship. Such a system would ensure a massive extension of real democracy in substance for the vast majority, while suppressing the resistance of the dispossessed minority. In all this, Lenin was merely elaborating the lessons drawn by Marx and Engels from the 1848 revolutions and the 1871 Paris Commune — that the working-class must 'smash' the capitalists' bureaucratic-military machine, not take it over and try to use it for the construction of socialism.45

Lenin expressed these positions, demonstrating their direct line of descent from Marx and Engels, with formidable vigour and documentation in his classic work The State and Revolution. There, he pinpoints the source of his differences with the Roger Simons of his era:

The petty-bourgeois democrats, those sham socialists who replaced the class struggle by dreams of class harmony, even pictured the socialist transformation in dreamy fashion — not as the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class, but as the peaceful submission of the minority to the majority which has become aware of its aims. This petty-bourgeois utopia, which is inseparable from the idea of the state being above classes, led in practice to the betrayal of the interests of the working classes ...

Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is what constitutes the most profound distinction between the Marxist and the ordinary petty (as well as big) bourgeois. This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism should be tested. And it is not surprising that when the history of Europe brought the working class face to face with this question as a practical issue, not only all the opportunists and reformists, but all the Kautskyists (people who vacillate between reformism and Marxism) proved to be miserable philistines and petty-bourgeois democrats repudiating the dictatorship of the proletariat.

With the political principles of Marxism-Leninism stated so forcefully and unambiguously, it is little wonder that The State and Revolution has been banished from political education programmes by today's Kautskyists.

But where did Gramsci stand in relation to these disputes? For example, did his views, actions and writings imply that 'parliamentary institutions ... do not have a necessary class character' and that the road to socialism in Europe should be a parliamentary and largely constitutional one, 'transforming' rather than abolishing bourgeois parliaments?

Before his imprisonment in 1926, when he was still at liberty to express his views, Gramsci did not dissent from the 'orthodoxy of Marxism-Leninism' and the Communist International on these questions. He agreed that Communists should utilise parliament as a platform for revolutionary propaganda, and to expose the real nature of bourgeois democracy; with Lenin, he argued that Communists in Western Europe should only consider boycotting parliament when decisive sections of the working class had been 'liberated ... from the illusion of parliamentary legality and bourgeois democracy'.46 He devoted himself to the creation of a revolutionary Communist party of the working class, and insisted at all times that its objective was the dictatorship of the proletariat; and he declared that 'to wait until one has grown to half the voters plus one is the programme of cowardly souls who wait for socialism signed by royal decree, countersigned by two ministers'.47

Nor is there anything in the Prison Notebooks to indicate that Gramsci regarded parliament as anything other than 'one of the organs of political hegemony' wielded by the bourgeoisie in a state based on class exploitation, a state which would have to be dismantled and replaced when the working class took power.48 Indeed, Simon realises he has no choice but to concede this last point:

In a note written in 1933-34 Gramsci contrasts factory councils favourably with elective parliamentary systems (SPN 192-3). 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.49

So Gramsci was an 'ultra-leftist' on this question too, according to Simon's previously-quoted criterion. A less ingenious way of concluding the above quotation would have been to say: Thus Gramsci never went back to the Kautskyist view that parliamentary democracy should remain intact after the socialist revolution, and that the case of Marx, Engels and Lenin for its replacement by direct democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat should be dumped.

In fact, it was Gramsci not Lenin who specifically advocated a direct democracy of 'Factory Councils', organs of proletarian power which would be transformed during the revolution into 'communist political soviets'.50 Clearly, Roger Simon is in some difficulty in his effort to convert Gramsci into a posthumous parliamentarian and constitutionalist. As if in exasperation, he writes about Gramsci that: 'His thinking ... on parliamentary democracy was not brought into line with his concepts of hegemony, civil society and war of position'.51

Therefore, we are meant to infer, Gramsci's concepts of hegemony, civil society and 'war of position' are more in tune with 'parliamentary socialism' than with proletarian dictatorship and a direct democracy of factory councils. What then, for example, do we find in those Lyons Theses drafted mainly by Gramsci (on behalf of himself and Palmiro Togliatti) and adopted by the Communist Party of Italy in 1926? This important programme was the last major document written by Gramsci before his incarceration. In it, he argued explicitly that the purpose of all tactics, slogans and alliances was to achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat; this goal would be reached after a 'direct revolutionary struggle i.e. a civil war waged by the proletariat, in alliance with the peasantry, with the aim of winning power'. It is to this end only that the working class should seek alliances with and leadership of — hegemony over — other anti-capitalist forces. Only with a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' could the crisis in Italy be resolved in favour of the workers.52

Class politics

Roger Simon's attempt to substitute the 'transformation' of bourgeois parliaments as the 'logical' objective of Gramsci's concept of hegemony is not supported by anything expressed by Gramsci before or during his imprisonment. Undeterred, Simon also tries to present Gramsci's notion of the 'national-popular' — that the working class must bring together and provide national leadership for popular struggles — as adding a new dimension to Lenin's concept of hegemony. The latter, we are informed, was confined only to class interests, whereas Gramsci called upon the workers to take the lead in popular and democratic campaigns not arising directly from the relations of production e.g. civil liberties, national liberation, women, peace, ethnic minorities etc.53 Yet, as already quoted, Lenin explicitly and consistently urged the working class to champion these democratic aspirations — and not even his severest critic could accuse him of ignoring the necessity to support national liberation movements. But Simon does not let indisputable facts deflate his boundless enthusiasm to drive a wedge between Gramsci and Lenin.

The direction of Roger Simon's thought on the question of hegemony, of the need for the working class to come to the fore in popular and democratic movements, becomes clearer when he argues that:

What all these movements have in common is that they do not directly arise out of the relations of production. Their position has been well described by Laclau and Mouffe: 'Their enemy is defined not by its function of exploitation, but by wielding a certain power. And this power, too, does not derive from a place in the relations of production, but is the outcome of a form of organisation characteristic of the present society. This society is indeed capitalist, but this is not its only characteristic; it is sexist and patriarchal as well, not to mention racist'.54

Thus capitalism is reduced to a mere 'characteristic' of present-day society — one among several, instead of it being the ultimately decisive and definitive system of that society. 'Racist' is another 'characteristic' alongside 'capitalist', rather than a feature whose form and content in the current epoch have been largely determined by capitalism (especially by the early colonial and later imperialist stages of it). Marxism-Leninism rejects the crude economistic reduction of every question to its class basis: but to imply that such questions in the present epoch do not have a form and content largely determined by class society is to repudiate Marxism-Leninism.

Denying the class character of these broad questions, abandoning a class attitude towards them, failing to link them to the class struggle against capitalism, leads in practice to capitulation to divisive, petty-bourgeois and liberal elements at the head of popular-democratic movements, and can lead even to the virtual abandonment of socialism as the objective. Is there anything, then, in the life or works of Antonio Gramsci to necessitate Roger Simon's enticement of the reader down this particular road in this particular book? Once more, he has to resort to ventriloquism: 'The distinction between class struggles and conflicts which do not have a necessary class character is not explicitly made in the Prison Notebooks, though it is implicit in Gramsci's conception of national-popular'.55

All Simon succeeds in doing here is to demonstrate his estrangement from Marxism-Leninism: he talks of class struggles ... which are distinct from non-class struggles. An infinitely more correct Marxist-Leninist formulation would be: there are economic or industrial conflicts over pay, working conditions, employment, trade union rights and the like (which are probably what Simon misleadingly calls 'class struggles'), and which often defend or promote the interests of social forces outside as well as inside the working class (e.g. civil liberties, community life, national economic planning); there are democratic or political struggles not related directly to industrial/economic questions and relations of production — but whose form and content are largely determined by class society based on class exploitation; and there is the class struggle of the working class against the capitalists and their system, against this or that aspect or effect of capitalist exploitation, and which gives rise directly to the industrial/economic conflicts mentioned above. Marxists seek to broaden this overall class struggle, to connect it with the great democratic questions that involve the interests of other social forces also, and to politicise and direct it towards socialist revolution. This will necessarily require working-class alliances with other social forces and class elements. Gramsci himself made it clear that his concept of hegemony is at its core a revolutionary and anti-capitalist one — not one wherein the labour movement merely supports feminists against 'patriarchy' or ethnic minorities against 'racism'; nor an alliance that limits its democratic demands to reforms under capitalism, or which is part of a mobilisation around the election and rule of a 'left' non-revolutionary government: 'The proletariat can become the leading and dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of alliances which allows it to mobilise the majority of the population against capitalism and the bourgeois state'.56

Gramsci and revolutionary strategy

Perhaps, at least, Gramsci's Prison Notebooks concepts of civil society and 'war of position' would — as Simon claims — have been more in line with parliamentary socialism than with direct democracy and proletarian dictatorship?

According to Gramsci, the colonial expansion of the 1870s had triggered a massive growth in the complexity of advanced European capitalist societies. The internal and external relations and organisations of the state had multiplied profusely; the voluntary, social, cultural and religious associations of civil society — that sphere outside the official state and economic production apparatus — had proliferated and meshed together into a web of interlocking power relationships, making bourgeois society more able to absorb and withstand economic shocks and crises, nurturing an appearance of popular consent for capitalism's superstructure which is utilised by the capitalists to popularise the base. These non-production and non-coercive bodies and relations are, according to Gramsci's model, like the trench systems, earthworks and fortresses of military warfare: they allowed for different lines of defence, and hugely obstructed the simple over-running of capitalist society by direct frontal assault.

Thus the 'war of movement', the insurrection or frontal attack that sweeps away the state (as happened in Russia in 1917), had in the West to give way to the 'war of position'. In the war of position, the working class had to win allies to its hegemonic leadership; it had to wage an ideological struggle and to secure positions in the trenches, earthworks and fortresses — to where considerable power has been diffused. The war of movement is reduced to a tactic, moving to occupy the non-decisive positions. When only the decisive positions remain — particularly those in the state and economic apparatus — to be wrested from the bourgeoisie, when the working-class has amassed enough hegemonic power, the final decisive siege sets in which, Gramsci warned, is 'concentrated, difficult, and requires exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness'.57

Would such a strategy in the West necessarily include the 'transformation' of bourgeois parliaments, or could it stay within the traditional Marxist-Leninist doctrine of 'smashing' the bourgeois state apparatus and exercising proletarian dictatorship through a form of direct democracy? If it rules out any final, identifiable rupture with capitalist power, then the 'logical' culmination of the strategy would indeed seem to be the more-or-less constitutional 'transformation' of bourgeois parliament into a 'socialist parliament': and this, according to Roger Simon, would be more 'in line' with the war of position strategy.

The Prison Notebooks do not provide any clear and complete answers to these questions — hence the opening for Roger Simon to inject another dose of present-day Eurocommunism. But there is one intriguing passage in the Notebooks where Gramsci appears to approve of Trotsky's attempt in 1922 'to begin a revision of the current tactical methods' with reference to Russia and Western Europe:

He made a comparison between the Eastern and Western fronts. The former had fallen at once, but unprecedented struggles had then ensued; in the case of the latter, the struggles would take place 'beforehand'. The question, therefore, was whether civil society resists before or after the attempt to seize power ... 58

So in the West, there still would be a recognisable 'attempt to seize power', albeit after the important positions had been captured in civil society. And in considering the 'relation of forces' between social classes, Gramsci explicitly includes 'the relation of military forces which from time to time is directly decisive ... The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organised and long-prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favourable (and it can be favourable only in so far as such a force exists, and is full of fighting spirit)'.59 Obviously, these excerpts do not provide a conclusive indication of Gramsci's standpoint on the questions under consideration. Indeed, the treatment of strategy, civil society, the state apparatus and other crucial matters in the Prison Notebooks is fragmentary and, in places, sharply abbreviated. The notes were written over different periods, and there are a number of instances of Gramsci changing or confusing the definitions and demarcations of his central concepts. In addition, his freedom of written expression was somewhat limited: his gaolers would not have been too tolerant of texts which, for example, discussed or advocated the forcible overthrow of Fascism and capitalism — that being the offence for which Gramsci had received a 20-year prison sentence.

Gramsci was able, though, to hold free discussions with his Communist fellow-prisoners. According to one of them, Athos Lisa, in a report to the Italian Communist Party's central committee in 1933, Gramsci had not abandoned the perspective of a final confrontation with the capitalist class and its state. Gramsci told Lisa: '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'.60

This position of Gramsci's in the early 1930s is consistent with that set out in the Lyons Theses of 1925, where he had analysed the Turin workers uprising of April 1920 and their betrayal by the leaders of the Socialist Party:

The defeat of the revolutionary proletariat in this decisive period was due to political, organisational, tactical and strategic deficiencies of the workers' party. As a consequence of these deficiencies, the proletariat did not succeed in placing itself at the head of the insurrection of the great majority of the population, and channelling it towards the creation of a workers' state.61

It was this failure of Italy's Socialist Party that led to the establishment of a Communist Party which now had the task to 'place before the proletariat and its allies the problem of insurrection against the bourgeois state and of the struggle for proletarian dictatorship'.62 Nor was Gramsci's advocacy of in-surrection and proletarian dictatorship confined to Italy: other speeches and writings made clear his estimation that this path would be taken in the 'capitalist states which form the keystone of the bourgeois system' — including England.63

As we might expect, this unpleasant and unconstitutional talk of insurrection and military struggle finds very little room in Roger Simon's censored version of 'Gramsci's Political Thought'.

Athos Lisa also testified to Gramsci's view in prison that the Communists should call for the establishment of a 'constituent assembly' in Italy, which the Party should use to win allies for the proletariat and then to expose 'all projects of peaceful reform, demonstrating to the Italian working class how the only possible solution in Italy resides in the proletarian revolution'. This must aim for a 'republic of worker and peasant soviets', Gramsci insisted (against the official Party call for a 'worker and peasant government').

So what has become of Roger Simon's claim that Gramsci's concepts provide a 'theoretical foundation' for the transforming of bourgeois parliaments into a 'socialist' parliamentary democracy? Where is the evidence that 'hegemony', 'war of position' etc. 'imply' the scrapping of Marxist-Leninist doctrines of a revolutionary seizure of power, the dictatorship of the proletariat and a system of direct democracy? Are not Gramsci's concepts — as he conceived them — perfectly consistent with each other, and with these doctrines of Marxism-Leninism? It could be argued that Gramsci's concepts are the product of a specific, Italian context. If so, by what criteria does Simon select some — and not others — to be lifted out of that context and applied to Britain over fifty years later?

Not even Roger Simon can conceal the mountain of evidence that Gramsci's critical reassessment of strategy in advanced capitalist Europe did not lead him to ditch fundamental principles of Communism (something he would have been entirely 'free' to do in a Fascist prison!). That is why Simon has to concede that:

This discussion of the war of position, in contrast with the social democratic and leftist approaches, has stressed that an integral aspect of the revolutionary process is the transformation of the state, not its replacement by a system of workers' councils or soviets. However, it must be frankly admitted that in doing so, this book has gone 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.64

Communists should not allow themselves to be disarmed by Roger Simon's show of frankness. There is, after all, a limit to how far even he can cover up and distort Gramsci's views while still retaining any credibility. His contorted efforts to masquerade Gramsci's Leninist conceptions as 'Eurocommunist' ones, and his consequently meaningless assertions that Gramsci did not follow them through to their non-existent Eurocommunist political conclusions, are as much a disgrace to academic integrity as they are to Marxism. A book purporting to present Gramsci's Thought spends more of its pages presenting ideas and conclusions that Gramsci would have driven out of any Communist Party under his leadership.

Communist Parties & the Soviet Union

Some of the starkest contrasts between Gramsci's Political Thought and Roger Simon's Political Thought are highlighted by the latter's treatment of Communist Party organisation and principles, the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement.

Simon outlines Gramsci's insistence on the Communist Party's imperative to combat any infiltration of reformist and economistic ideas into its ranks. One safeguard is for the Party to maintain its independence from other political organisations. Supremely, this 'Modern Prince' must develop its role as the 'vanguard of the proletariat', winning leadership positions in the working class movement as the preparation for insurrection. Only a new party of the 'Bolshevik' type in its ideology, organisation, mass work, strategy and tactics could fulfil this historic mission, according to Gramsci — who emerged as a champion of 'Bolshevisation' in the international Communist movement.65 Roger Simon therefore comments:

We may conclude that Gramsci does not advance the theory of a revolutionary party beyond the stage it reached under Lenin. His thinking on the party, as on parliamentary democracy, was not brought into line with his concepts of hegemony, civil society and war of position.66

Thus the task again falls to Simon to bring Gramsci into line. This he presumes to do by pointing to the record of the Italian Communist Party since 1944: it has become a party of government and national character, having decided it 'should be a mass, popular party, not a small sect of highly-disciplined cadres, and should be as decentralised as possible'. The PCI has built itself up in political and civil society to be a powerful hegemonic force. This alleged deployment of Gramsci's concepts culminated in the proclamation of 'Eurocommunism':

In the mid-1970s the Italian Party, in a series of joint statements with French, Spanish and other Communist Parties (including the British), declared that the advance to socialism could only take place on the basis of the extension of personal and collective liberties and the plurality of political parties. These statements gave rise to the term 'Eurocommunism'. But a Euro-communist strategy was not a new discovery made only in the 1970s; it was in fact the strategy of a war of position, of revolution as a process of democratic advance, which the Italian Communist Party had been following since the end of the war.67

Here the temptation must be resisted to explore the enormous damage done by Eurocommunism to the international Communist movement and to the once-strong and united Communist parties of Spain, France, Greece (now recovering under Marxist-Leninist leadership), Finland and elsewhere, Even its debilitating effects in Britain are unrecorded by Simon, who prefers to inform us that:

The British Communist Party ... has developed a clear strategic perspective, set out in its programme The British Road to Socialism, for a revolutionary strategy which is centred on a 'broad democratic alliance', which is a creative development in British conditions of Gramsci's concepts of hegemony and war of position. The perspective is for a 'Labour government of a new type' which would begin to carry out a major democratic transformation of the state, and implement the left alternative economic strategy for expansion towards full employment by means of a system of democratic planning, based on an extension of public ownership and public control over monopoly capital, combined with a great expansion of industrial democracy. This would not be a socialist government, but a first stage in the transition to socialism — a stage which, if successfully achieved, would mobilise popular support for subsequent left governments which would carry out more far-reaching programmes.68

Such is Simon's narrow interpretation of the British Road, without any reference to mass struggle, to new forms of democracy, or to the possibility of counter-revolution: it is a dreamy utopia about replacing capitalism gradually and by stealth — as if there were no lessons to learn from the wide-scale, multi-front mobilisation and display of state and capitalist power experienced under the Thatcher governments. To apply Gramsci's concepts and thereby produce this fantastic scenario, of an endless series of social-democratic governments inching leftwards constitutionally, with the labour movement physically and ideologically unprepared to pre-empt the inevitable sabotage or direct intervention by the capitalist class (with its press, courts, police, security services and imperialist allies), requires the creative powers featured in the Book of Genesis.

Can a 'war of position' really be fought and won without the capitalists massively resisting before their situation has become hopeless? At the very least, such an optimistic strategy is a reckless gamble when it does not prepare for the other — more deadly — contingencies.

Equally incredible is the notion that Gramsci's concepts — properly applied rather than distorted or abandoned — could have resulted in the 'historic compromise' proposed by the PCI to the Italian Christian Democrats and the CIA-backed 'Socialists' in the early 1970s. In defiance of the Comintern for several years, Gramsci displayed unwavering hostility towards the old Socialist Party — even after it had expelled its reformist wing. At no time did his call for a 'united front' of the left, or for an alliance between the workers and peasants, involve an alliance of the Communist Party with non-revolutionary parties — or support for non-socialist governments.

The claim that Gramsci's concepts could be applied 'in British conditions' to prescribe for the Communist Party the role of cheer-leader for Labour reformists, and of back-room/low-profile organisers for petty bourgeois-led progressive movements, is absurd: it is lifting these concepts out of the concrete circumstances and revolutionary Marxist-Leninist traditions in which they were conceived.

Proletarians and intellectuals

As an essential part of the ideological struggle against reformism and revisionism inside and outside the Communist Party, Gramsci insisted that the PCI must be a 'mass proletarian party', an organic part of the working-class, based primarily on factory cells not territorial branches. Hand-in-hand with this is the vital necessity of organised Communist work in the trade union movement:

In the capitalist countries, trade unions are the specific organs grouping the working masses. Activity in the unions must be considered essential for the accomplishment of the party's aims. The party which renounces the struggle to exercise its influence in the unions and to win leadership of them, de facto renounces winning the mass of workers and renounces the revolutionary struggle for power.69

Other social elements could be recruited to the party — but not at the expense of its proletarian character and leadership:

The conception of the far left, which places the workers and the elements who come from other social classes on the same plane, and is not concerned to safeguard the proletarian character of the party, corresponds to a situation in which the intellectuals were the most politically and socially advanced elements, and were therefore destined to be the organisers of the working class. Today, in our view, the organisers of the working class must be the workers themselves.70

The working class and its party cannot do without intellectuals, nor can they ignore the problem of grouping around themselves and giving a lead to all those elements who, in one way or another, are driven to rebel against capitalism. Thus the Communist Party cannot close its doors to peasants; indeed it must contain peasants and use them to tighten the political bond between the proletariat and the rural classes. But it is necessary to reject vigorously, as counter-revolutionary, any conception which makes the party into a 'synthesis' of heterogeneous elements instead of maintaining, without any concessions of this kind, that it is a part of the proletariat; that the proletariat must mark it with the imprint of its own organisation; and that the proletariat must be guaranteed a leading function within the party itself.71

In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci seeks to protect this proletarian character still further, arguing that the party and working class must produce their own, 'organic' intellectuals — to absorb the left-wing and 'traditional' intellectuals who come into the party from other social classes and strata. All members of what must remain a proletarian party should strive to be intellectuals.72

Yet Gramsci's rigid and thorough-going views on the inviolate proletarian nature of the revolutionary party — and its basis in factory cells — are not mentioned in Roger Simon's book. Nor is there any explicit reference in this respect to the central importance of Communist work in the trade unions. These omissions are conclusive proof that Simon is not seriously — let alone primarily — concerned with introducing his readers to Gramsci's Political Thought. He has also saved himself the task of having to justify the steep decline in the PCI's factory organisation, and the shrinking of the party's proletarian composition (from 98 per cent in the 1920s to 53 per cent in 1946 and to less than 40 per cent in the 1970s).

Also conveniently omitted by Simon is any reference to Gramsci's deep suspicion of petty bourgeois intellectuals (whether of the ultra-left or the revisionist right) in the Communist and workers' movement. They tended to object to factory cells as the basis and safeguard of the party's proletarian character, because such intellectuals had 'a pessimistic view of the revolutionary capacities of the worker and of the communist worker'; their objection was 'an expression of the anti-proletarian spirit of the petty-bourgeois intellectuals, who believe they are the salt of the earth'.73 Nor does Simon mention the connection made by Gramsci, in the footsteps of Lenin, between petty-bourgeois intellectuals and 'revisionism' ...

After the victory of Marxism, the tendencies of a national character over which it had triumphed sought to manifest themselves in other ways, re-emerging within Marxism itself as forms of revisionism. This process was encouraged by the development of the imperialist phase of capitalism. The following three facts are closely connected with this phenomenon: the disappearance in the ranks of the working-class movement of criticism of the State, an essential element of Marxist doctrine, and its replacement by democratic utopias; the formation of a labour aristocracy; and a new mass transfer of petty bourgeois and peasants into the working class, hence a new dissemination within the proletariat of ideological currents of a national character, conflicting with Marxism.74

Petty bourgeois intellectuals rejecting the working class character of the Communist Party, sowing pessimism about the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat, showing contemptuous disregard for leading Communist trade unionists, neglecting the Party's trade union organisation, promoting an uncritical attitude towards the (neutral and 'non-class') state, dreaming up democratic utopias, peddling revisionism ... is this not the record of Roger Simon and the Eurocommunists in Britain? Are these not the views and attitudes currently filling the pages of Marxism Today, the nominal 'theoretical and discussion journal of the Communist Party' now dominated by the Eurocommunists? More than two-thirds of the journal's contributors are full-time academics or media professionals; less than one in ten of the contributions are from non-academic and non-media trade unionists ... none of Gramsci's organic working class intellectuals here (except for a tiny number who align themselves with the Eurocommunists).

The Eurocommunist policy has been to exclude from the intellectual and organisational leadership of the Communist Party, at national and district level, many activists who exercise real leadership in the trade unions and progressive movements. Eurocommunist supporters with little or no experience of trade union or mass work, let alone leadership in it, have been launched onto leading Party committees within a very short time of joining the Party. Against the background of these attacks on the class character of the Communist Party, and on the Gramscian notion of generating organic, proletarian intellectuals, it is no wonder that Simon fails to introduce his readers to Gramsci's Thought on such questions!

The Soviet model

Another characteristic common to many ultra-left and all the revisionist right petty bourgeois intellectuals is their hostility towards the Soviet Union. Thus, for example, Simon refers to the 'authoritarian style' of the 'monolithic' Soviet Communist Party, to the 'bourgeois political practices' inherited from Tsarist Russia and which have been compounded by 'serious defects in the Marxist theory of politics'.75 No positive features of existing socialism are mentioned. But the Communist Party in Britain has, Simon reckons, been greatly disadvantaged by the polarisation of the world into two main blocs (which can be decoded as: 'by the creation of the Socialist bloc'). Despite the British Party's criticisms of Soviet foreign and domestic policies, and its disavowal of the Soviet road to socialism, it still suffers from its association in the public mind with 'the negative aspects of the Soviet system'. The way forward, Simon urges, is for the Party in Britain to continue to assert its autonomy and to 'build friendly relations with all communist, socialist and progressive parties throughout the world' (including, presumably, the treacherous 'Socialist' parties of Portugal, Italy etc.): 'As the Italian Communist Party has declared, the idea of a world communist movement, homogeneous and separate from the socialist and progressive parties, is now outmoded and such a movement is no longer required'.76

In a book purporting to introduce Gramsci's Political Thought, what basis do we find for these lines of argument and policy? Simon's plea has a familiar ring to it:

While it is true that there is no explicit criticism of the Soviet model in the Prison Notebooks, there is a strong implicit criticism in the passage on statolatry ... 77

It is inconceivable, in Simon's view, that Gramsci's concepts of hegemony, war of position, civil society etc. could mean anything other than the acceptance of a multiplicity of parties and organisations, representing different classes and social groups, during and after the 'transition' to socialism; these concepts are 'incompatible' with a Soviet-style one-party state.

By 'statolatry' Gramsci meant a period of strong and all-pervading state rule, which was necessary when the new ruling group had been unable to develop itself morally and culturally — was weak in civil society — before attaining power. The state must be used to construct a civil society for the ruling group, one in which individual and collective initiatives would have a 'State character' even when they had not originated with the 'government of functionaries': state life will take new forms and become 'spontaneous'. But Gramsci also warned that statolatry must not become an end in itself, to be regarded as a permanent condition'.78

Simon concedes that Soviet society is not incompatible with the notion of 'statolatry', although — according to some undeclared timescale — this period there has been 'exceptionally prolonged'.79 In fact, neither 'statolatry' nor other passages in the Prison Notebooks provide a clear indication of Gramsci's attitude towards the one-party system in the Soviet Union. Certainly, in earlier years he believed that the revolutionary party must consider the problem of 'constructing a State apparatus which internally will function democratically i.e. will guarantee freedom to all anti-capitalist tendencies and offer them the possibility of forming a proletarian government'.80 Such a freedom for anti-capitalist tendencies (not necessarily for different anti-capitalist parties, even) is only contemplated within the context of proletarian dictatorship — and obviously bears no resemblance to a 'socialist parliamentary democracy' in which pro-capitalist parties enjoy guaranteed freedoms.

In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci applauds 'progressive Caesarism' and writes approvingly of the development of the ruling party into 'the integral State'.81 He also supports 'a more "interventionist" government, which will take the offensive more openly against the oppositionists and organise permanently the "impossibility" of internal disintegration — with controls of every kind, political, administrative etc., reinforcement of the hegemonic "positions" of the dominant group etc.'.82

And yet in other passages — some of them written a year or so later — Gramsci directs thinly-veiled criticism at Soviet 'bureaucratic centralism', at a 'narrow clique' which is defending its 'selfish privileges' by stifling oppositional forces that could not be reasonably regarded as anti-Soviet.83 He attacks the 'ossified thinking' and 'dogmatism' of 'narrow-minded wretches' — by whom he clearly means elements in the Soviet leadership — for their rejection of new ideas and experimentation in different fields of life.84 It should be noted, though, that this dissatisfaction with bureaucracy and its treatment of oppositionists in the Soviet Union was not prompted by any sympathy for the political line of Trotsky and company. Gramsci emphatically sided with Stalin and 'Socialism in One Country' against Trotsky and the 'superficial' internationalism of his 'Permanent Revolution' theory.

The international Communist movement

Nor should Gramsci's criticisms be magnified out of proportion. Many more references in his speeches and writings before and during imprisonment testify to the enormous pride and loyalty that Gramsci felt towards the first workers' state and the party of Lenin and Stalin. Whatever his early dis-agreements with the Communist International — particularly over the 'united front' tactic in Italy — Gramsci viewed the PCI as the national contingent of a world party, and fully embraced the leading role with in it of the Soviet Communist Party.85 He believed that the philosophical development of Marxism, once undertaken by single intellectuals like Marx and Engels, was 'today carried out by the communist parties and the International as a whole'.86

Ultimately, Gramsci insisted, the existence of a world Communist movement was indispensable for the PCI because 'the main force which holds the party together is the prestige and ideals of the International, not the bonds which the specific action of the party has succeeded in creating'.87 This was not to belittle the specific national conditions and forces with which Communists have to work, and which they have to analyse and understand in order to dominate and direct. The 'international class' (as Gramsci called the proletariat) has — in accordance with the international perspectives and directions of the Comintern — to 'nationalise' itself in a certain sense:

To be sure, the line of development is towards internationalism, but the point of departure is 'national' — and it is from this point of departure that one must begin. Yet the perspective is international and cannot be otherwise.88

Roger Simon wrenches the national from the international in economics, politics and culture; then, in total conflict with Gramsci's fundamental views on the Soviet Union and the Communist International, he advocates scrapping even the vestiges of the international Communist movement. The 'national' revisionism identified and condemned by Gramsci reaches the end of its cul-de-sac in Roger Simon: the destruction of Communist internationalism and of solidarity with the socialist countries is demanded, to be accompanied by the liquidation of the Communist parties into 'national' social-democratic politics and petty bourgeois liberal 'internationalism'.

In truth, an international Communist movement does not — and has not — ruled out the closest alliances with socialist parties and national liberation movements. But to rule out the international Communist movement is to deny the existence of any fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism, of principles that should bind together the world's Communist and workers' parties. That these principles do exist is proved by the fact that Roger Simon has written an entire book attacking them.

In calling for the dissolution of the world Communist movement, Simon swims against the stream of economic, political, military and cultural 'globalisation' which requires greater coordination and unity between the Communist parties — as well as between Communists and all the world's progressive forces — not less. Simon might think that the concept of a world Communist movement is 'outmoded', but this is not yet the official view of the Communist Party of Great Britain; nor is it the position, for example, of the Communist parties of South America. At their joint conference in Buenos Aires in July 1984, they unanimously decided to work 'to convene a world forum of Communists to consider our contribution to the prevention of a nuclear war', and proudly declared:

Our parties are a vigorously functioning component of the world communist movement. They steadfastly adhere to the principles of Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism. We are part of the powerful current that will change the course of history and will create a society in which there will be neither exploiters nor exploited.89

Thus speaks the unanimous voice of the heroic Communists of South America, proclaiming their loyalty to the world Communist movement — including their comrades in Britain — after decades of continuing torture, execution, illegality and military dictatorship. In tossing this aside, Roger Simon supremely demonstrates his unsuitability to write a book on Gramsci's Political Thought with any honesty, and illuminates the depths to which Britain's Eurocommunists have sunk.


1. 'Protokoll der erweiterten Exekutive der Kommunistischen Internationale' (Hamburg 1925) p.104 (Minutes of the Enlarged Executive of the Communist International).
2. See for example Perry Anderson, 'The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci' in New Left Review 100 (1967-67); Massimo Salvadori, 'Gramsci and the PCI: two conceptions of hegemony' in Gramsci & Marxist Theory (1979) ed. Chantal Mouffe; Tom Nairn, 'Antonu Su Gobbu' in Approaches to Gramsci (1982) ed. Anne Showstack Sassoon; Chris Harman, Gramsci versus Reformism (1983) — a pamphlet marred by the intrusion of the Socialist Workers Party's peculiarly British brand of 'revolutionary' politics; John Hoffman, 'Marx's Theory of Politics' in World Marxist Review (No.7 July 1983) and his book The Gramscian Challenge — Coercion and Consent in Marxist Political Theory (1984); articles by Stephen White and C.K. Maisels in New Edinburgh Review No.27 ('Gramsci III: The Struggle for Hegemony').
3. Roger Simon, Gramsci's Political Thought: An Introduction (1982) p.11.
4. Simon (1982) p.12.
5. Simon p.27.
6. Quintin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowell Smith eds., Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (1971) (SPN) p.106.
7. SPN (1971) p.459; see the Name Index for some of the many references to Marx's Preface
8. Karl Marx: 'A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Part One' (1859) in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works Vol. 29 p.263.
9. SPN p.80.
10. SPN p.181.
11. SPN p.408.
12. SPN p.466.
13. SPN p.408.
14. SPN p.372.
15. SPN pp. 165, 404; Karl Marx, 'Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law. Introduction' (1844) in Marx & Engels, Collected Works Vol. 3 pp.182, 183.
16. SPN p.377.
17. 'Engels to Joseph Bloch, September 21-22, 1890' in Marx & Engels, Collected Works Vol. 49 p.34.
18. SPN p.162.
19. SPN p.366.
20. L'Ordine Nuovo, November 1, 1924.
21. 'Leninismo' in l'Unita, September 10, 1925.
22. Gramsci & Palmiro Togliatti, 'The Lyons Theses: The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI' (1925) in Quintin Hoare ed., Antonio Gramsci: Selections from Political Writings 1921-26 (1978) p.341
23. SPN pp. 404-7.
24. SPN p.337.
25. SPN p.168.
26. SPN p.432.
27. SPN p.366.
28. Simon p.86.
29. Quoted in Athos Lisa's 1933 report to the PCI central committee, published as 'Discussione politica con Gramsci in carcere', Rinascita 49, December 12 1964; and recounted in Athos Lisa, Memorie: In carcere con Gramsci (1973).
30. Simon p.28.
31. Simon p.17.
32. Simon pp. 43-44.
33. Simon p.17.
34. Simon p.18.
35. Simon p.116.
36. Karl Marx, 'The Civil War in France' (1871) in Marx & Engels, Collected Works Vol. 22 pp. 328-30; referred to in 'The State and Revolution' (1917) by V.I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 25 p.423.
37. 'Differences in the European Labour Movement' (1910) in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 16 pp. 350-51; see in particular SPN note on p.80.
38. Simon p.113.
39. SPN pp.12, 16, 182, 270.
40. 'A Protest by Russian Social-Democrats' (1899) in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol.4 p.177; see also 'The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination' (1915) in Collected Works Vol. 21 pp. 408-9.
41. 'A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism' (1916) in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 23 p.73.
42. 'The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky' (1918) in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 28 p.108; the direct quotation is from 'The State and Revolution'.
43. Marx, 'The Civil War in France' (1871) in Marx & Engels, Collected Works Vol. 22 pp. 332-33.
44. '"Left Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder' (1920) in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 31 p.65.
45. 'Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, April 12, 1871' in Collected Works Vol. 44 p.131 (NB. this translation renders the original 'zerbrechen' as 'break' rather than 'smash'); Marx, 'Critique of the Gotha Programme' (1875) in Collected Works Vol. 24 pp.94-95; 'Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852', Collected Works Vol. 39 pp. 62-63; Marx & Engels, 'Preface to the 1872 German Edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party' (1872) in Collected Works Vol. 23 p.175.
46. Gramsci, La Costruzione del Partito Communista 1923-26 (1971) p.300.
47. Sergio Caprioglio ed., La Citta Futura (1980), 'Essay: February 11, 1917'.
48. SPN p.246.
49. Simon p.115.
50. Quintin Hoare ed., Antonio Gramsci: Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920 (1977) p.162.
51. Simon p.122.
52. Quintin Hoare ed., Antonio Gramsci: Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926 (1978) (SPW) pp. 340-75.
53. Simon pp. 23-24.
54. Simon p.44.
55. Simon p.45.
56. SPW 1921-1926 p.443.
57. SPN p.239.
58. SPN p.236.
59. SPN pp. 183-85.
60. See note 29 above.
61. SPW 1921-1926 p.349.
62. SPW 1921-1926 p.357.
63. SPW 1921-1926 pp. 408-11.
64. Simon pp. 114-15.
65. See SPW 1926-26 section on 'The Lyons Congress'.
66. Simon p.122.
67. Simon p.124.
68. Simon p.127.
69. SPW 1921-26 p.369 (the theses by Gramsci and Togliatti for the Lyons Congress).
70. SPW 1921-26 p.315.
71. SPW 1921-26 p.363.
72. SPN pp. 15-16.
73. SPW 1921-26 p.362.
74. SPW 1921-26 p.341.
75. Simon pp. 78-79.
76. Simon pp. 128-29.
77. Simon p.115.
78. SPN pp. 268-69.
79. Simon p.78.
80. Gramsci, Socialismo e fascismo: l'Ordine Nuovo 1921-22 (Turin, 1966) pp. 59-60.
81. SPN p.267.
82. SPN 238-39.
83. SPN p.189.
84. Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere (Turin, 1948-51) 1805-6; see Guiseppe Vacca, 'Intellectuals and the Marxist Theory of the State' in Approaches to Gramsci (1982), a stridently revisionist volume edited by Anne Showstack Sassoon.
85. See for example SPW 1921-26 pp. 361-2, 428.
86. Gramsci, La costruzione del Partito Communista 1923-1926 (Turin, 1971) p.251.
87. SPW 1921-26 p.174.
88. SPN pp. 240-41.
89. Athos Fava, 'In a Spirit of Comradeship and Unity of Action', World Marxist Review (November 1984).