Hegemony, war of manoeuvre and position: what remains of Gramsci in Gramscism?

21 January 2021 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Communist Party of Italy. To mark the occasion, we publish a translation of an article by Francesco Giliani, which deals with Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks and how the author has been abused by those who claim to speak in his name. Read the original in Italian here.

“The Stalinist parties are today conservative bodies, which claim to impose their authority and direction a priori, suppressing within the party and the workers' movement any conscious and spontaneous acceptance of the principle of authority and dictatorship."

"Throughout Gramsci's work and revolutionary thought, the two terms freedom and dictatorship, authority and conscience are never formally separated or opposed, but find a living, dialectical link: a link that the Stalinised Communist Party has completely destroyed, replacing the concept of critical communism with a bureaucratic, idealistic concept of the party’s Task.”

(A. [Alfonso Leonetti], ‘Gramsci: l'Ufficio del Partito’, La Verità, Paris, no. 2, April 1934)


Gramsci's posthumous fate is a particular and strident case of the embalming of a communist's political thought. Few on the left criticise him, even the most inveterate reformists. This is the opposite fate to that endured by Lenin, who appears so frequently in Gramsci’s writings. ‘Gramscianism’ has thus become a reformist ideology.

The interpretative debate on the meaning of the Prison Notebooks is the key to understanding why Gramsci was not formally purged by the intellectuals and leaders of a left that was deeply degenerate on an ideological level and, in past decades, obsessively argued that Lenin is “too much of a Jacobin", Marx must be “freed from utopianism", Engels was a “positivist", and so on.

The Notebooks have rarely been read for what they are. Since the end of the Second World War, they have been presented and used to anoint numerous right-wing turns in the policy of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).[1] From Palmiro Togliatti's “Salerno turn” of 1944, with which the PCI abandoned its anti-monarchist stance and entered the Badoglio government; to the “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats put forward by the then-PCI secretary Enrico Berlinguer in the 1970s. At that juncture, when the leadership of the PCI presented itself more openly as the “party of the nation”, and not as a representative of the working class, the need to justify this shift in line with their communist tradition also increased. Above all, the leaders needed to disempower any mass movement on the party’s left that might override this turn. This was the basis for the Togliattian duplicity, the idea that his allegiance to nation and democracy was all a trick to fool the bourgeois.

Even in the 1980s, a slogan frequently chanted on the massive party marches was “W il grande partito comunista; di Gramsci, Togliatti, Longo e Berlinguer” [“Long live the great Communist Party; of Gramsci, Togliatti, Longo and Berlinguer”]. Even at the height of the long journey to prove itself to the Italian bourgeoisie as the 'responsible' and rational manager of the contradictions of capitalist society, the then-PCI leadership (Natta, Occhetto, D'Alema etc.) never condemned Gramsci. At most, it could happen that Gramsci, amidst rivers of praise, would be defined as “too fundamentalist”, as Alessandro Natta, then-Secretary of the PCI, declared in 1987.[2]This remained true even after the dissolution of the PCI and the birth of the Democratic Party of the Left (1991), and even after the foundation of the PD (2007).

Even today, in the Committee of Guarantors of the Gramsci Foundation, there are reformist and liberal politicians of PCI origin who will be remembered for the anti-worker policies and the privatisation of public property and the welfare state that they pursued in recent decades. Some names? Pierluigi Bersani, Gianni Cuperlo, Massimo D'Alema, Vasco Errani, Piero Fassino, Anna Finocchiaro, Giorgio Napolitano, Achille Occhetto, Ugo Sposetti, Aldo Tortorella, Livia Turco, Walter Veltroni, Luciano Violante...

The intellectuals arising from the PCI leadership considered Gramsci 'theirs'. They were always on hand to justify the most obvious contradictions between the Sardinian communist's writings and the line followed in the subsequent decades by the PCI. Even historians of a certain value, such as Paolo Spriano, fiercely defended the Gramsci/Togliatti continuity, even at the cost of temporarily shelving his rigorous research methodology.[3] An example of this tendency, both political and psychological, was the evasive response of the PCI intellectuals when, at the conference organised in 1977 for the 40th anniversary of Gramsci's death, Socialist Party scholars (Norberto Bobbio, Massimo Salvadori) partly pierced the veil placed over Gramsci – who had become the “noble father” of the “historic compromise” – by asking the PCI to abandon Gramsci as he was irreconcilable with Enrico Berlinguer's reformist path. But at that time there was still, within the PCI, a substantial layer of duplicity: certain things were done that were not to be said.

After the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-1991, the academic 'Gramscians' took up the baton from the 'Gramscians' in the PCI’s orbit – often the latter turned into the former. Gramsci was fully transformed into an academic intellectual: a priest of language and literature. The communist Gramsci, a man of the party and linked to the working-class avant-garde in Turin, the only one we know, has been overshadowed by an ethereal intellectual capable of refining Marxism (which, among academics, is considered crude a priori) into a sophisticated instrument of cultural analysis. Naturally, this analysis is devoid of any revolutionary objective to transform society, let alone any connection with the working class.

This transformation was anticipated in the 1960s and 1970s, when the academic archipelago of “Western Marxism”[4] made Gramsci one of its references; as opposed to “Eastern Marxism": a form of thought that by definition belonged to backward socio-economic areas. According to them, the greatest Eastern theorist was Lenin (or his essence, something they called “Leninism"), but which in reality was Stalinism, and was characterised by seizing power by military force alone. This thesis, which must have seemed a novelty at the time, had already been formulated in its essential elements by the reformist socialist Filippo Turati and by the Second International between the end of the 1910s and the beginning of the 1920s.

In short, saving Gramsci from Lenin and the October revolution has been, for decades, the battle cry of legions of intellectuals and professors, variously placed in the field of the reformist left – often former Stalinists but also of 'movementist' origin.

The interpretation of Gramsci's concepts of hegemony and of the war of position/war of manoeuvre from the Prison Notebooks are the basis on which the academics seek to transform Gramsci into merely a bookworm, a refined advocate of a democratic and cultural struggle to transform capitalist society, and perhaps even the human soul, from within. But this Gramsci – 'their' Gramsci, an authentic reformist – never existed. Notwithstanding all Gramsci's oscillations and mistakes, he always remained a communist.

At the head of the party: Gramsci between 'Bolshevisation' and the Lyon Thesis (1924-1926)

For a full understanding of the theses expounded by Gramsci in the Prison Notebooks it is particularly necessary to recall his political evolution in the years immediately preceding his arrest. We refer, in particular, to the period of 1924-1926, during which Gramsci was at the head of the young Communist Party of Italy (PCdI).

As late as June 1923, Gramsci believed it was necessary to form a bloc with Amadeo Bordiga's left wing against the right wing of the party led by Angelo Tasca, which he believed expressed a liquidationist tendency and sought conciliation with the reformist leaders of the [trade union confederation] CGL. Although he never adopted a vision that coincided with that of Bordiga, Gramsci opposed, together with the leadership of the PCdI, the united front and the slogan of the workers' and peasants' government: the main tactical elaborations of the 3rd and 4th congresses of the Communist International (CI).

Gramsci 1 Image public domainTo understand the Prison Notebooks, it is necessary to understand the background of Gramsci's development / Image: public domain

Even in that period, however, Gramsci had some understanding of the limits of a policy based on propaganda alone and founded on the expectation that the party would benefit from the workers’ disappointment with the reformist policies of the Socialist Party (PSI) and the CGL leaders. Moreover, the political passivity of the Bordighian PCdI during the crisis of the liberal political regime was manifest, for example in the abstentionism on the occasion of the rise of the “Arditi del popolo” movement.[5] The CI, on several occasions, harshly criticised the mere propaganda activity of the Italian section.

The leadership of the PCdI was abstentionist in principle, and had only agreed to participate in the elections on the basis of international discipline. The CI under Lenin understood elections as an opportunity to propagandise for revolutionary ideas. On the other hand, Bordiga and his men refused on principle any tactic which, with the aim of winning over the majority of the organised workers, included the possibility of unity of action with other political organisations of the workers' movement for partial objectives.

The CI sharply criticised this line, which was condensed into the Rome Theses, approved at the party's 2nd National Congress in 1922. In a letter of March 1922 from the CI Presidium to the PCd'I Central Committee, inspired by Trotsky and Radek, we read:

“We call on the PCI to fight for the dissolution of the Chamber in order to establish a workers' government. By setting a minimum programme for the demands to be realised by the workers' government, the communists must declare themselves ready to form a bloc with the social-democratic party and support it, insofar as it defends the interests of the working class. If the PSI accepts, struggles will begin, which will be transferred from the parliamentary terrain to other fields. This is the answer to the objection that the slogan of workers' government means nothing more than a parliamentary combination. If the PSI rejects our proposal, then the masses will be persuaded that we have shown them a concrete way, while the PSI does not know what to do.”[6]

Finally, in September 1923, Gramsci abandoned his opposition to the united front policy and the slogan of workers' and peasants' government.[7] His stay in Moscow, where he was able to systematically discuss with Bolshevik leaders, including Trotsky, undoubtedly played a role in this change of position.

A few months later, he went further and recognised that the tactic of the united front was universal and not limited to some geographical or socio-economic area of the planet:

“Firstly, because the political conception of the Russian communists was formed on an international and not on a national ground; secondly, because in Central and Western Europe the development of capitalism has not only determined the formation of large proletarian strata, but also thereby created the upper stratum, the working-class aristocracy with its annexes of trade union bureaucracy and social-democratic groups. The determination, which in Russia was direct and launched the masses into the streets in a revolutionary assault, in Central and Western Europe is complicated by all these political superstructures, created by the greater development of capitalism, makes the action of the masses slower and more cautious, and therefore demands from the revolutionary party a whole strategy and tactics far more complex and long-winded than those which were needed by the Bolsheviks in the period between March and November 1917.”[8]

This evolution of Gramsci towards the positions of Bolshevism took place at a particular moment. Firstly, in December 1923, the battle of Trotsky's Left Opposition against the bureaucratisation of the party and the Soviet state began. In reaction, a bloc was formed between Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin.

Gramsci also seemed to be aware of the ideological aspect of the debate in the USSR, that saw Trotsky opposed to the anti-Marxist doctrine of 'socialism in one country' formulated by Stalin in January 1924. At first, Gramsci also seemed to feel some sympathy for the opposition's theses:

“It is well known that in 1905 Trotsky already believed that a socialist and workers' revolution could take place in Russia, whereas the Bolsheviks only aimed at establishing a political dictatorship of the proletariat allied to the peasantry, which would serve as a shell for the development of capitalism, which was not to be affected in its economic structure. It is also known that in November 1917 (...) Lenin and the majority of the party had switched to Trotsky's conception and intended to tamper not only with political government, but also with industrial government.”[9]

Conflicts also erupted in the CI. After the failure of the October 1923 uprising in Germany, Trotsky predicted a relative stabilisation of capitalism. In contrast, the predictions of Stalin and Zinoviev, who did not recognise their defeat in Germany, were of imminent revolution. At the Fifth Congress of the CI in June 1924, the application of the tactic of the united front was ruled out, with the exception of its application “from below", i.e. as an ultimatum:

“The tactic of the united front takes on its most proper meaning when the united front is carried out under communist leadership among communist, social-democratic and non-partisan workers in the factory, in the works council, in the trade union.”[10]

In practice, this amounted to an invitation to socialist workers to leave their party. The united front was thus reduced to an ineffective ultimatum and the reformist leaders could present it to the workers who still followed them, as a kind of deception engineered by the communists.

In those tumultuous years of revolution and counter-revolution, events unfolded at a frightening pace. In the spring of 1924, following the assassination of United Socialist Party (PSU) deputy Giacomo Matteotti[11] by fascist hitmen under Mussolini's orders, the country entered a phase of acute political struggle. The masses were in turmoil, and the fascists had not yet consolidated their rise to power.

Almost at the same time, the CI put Gramsci and a small group of cadres who had matured with him since the years of the Two Red Years[12] at the head of the party. That leading group, still in the minority in the party, was put in the saddle by a manoeuvre of the CI, which was unable to discuss the issues politically with the Bordigian leadership. That act constituted a break with the Leninist political tradition of the early years of the Communist International. In a sense, it was the baptism, in Italy, of the Zinovievist methods that dominated the phase of the so-called Bolshevisation of the communist parties. Despite its name, 'Bolshevisation' was certainly not the acceptance of the lessons of the history of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, but rather a tendency to settle political issues by organisational means. It was the first stage in the degeneration of the CI.

Proof that Gramsci's group was in a clear minority within the party came at the extraordinary conference in Como in May 1924. Present were the inter-regional and provincial secretaries and members of the Central Committee. There were three documents under discussion: one from the right by Tasca, one from the centre presented by Gramsci and one from the left signed by Bordiga. 33 out of 45 federation secretaries voted for Bordiga; along with 4 out of 5 inter-regional secretaries, the Communist Youth representative and one Central Committee (CC) member. Tasca obtained the votes of five provincial secretaries, one interregional secretary and four CC members. Gramsci got four provincial secretaries and four CC members.

That vote delegitimised the Gramscian centre. But despite the result, Gramsci and his men did not think of questioning their leadership position, or considering that it is impossible to lead a communist party without the activist base sharing the line. But this was in accordance with the method of building the leadership groups dictated by Zinoviev, then secretary of the CI. Maintained over time, this method of leadership could only facilitate the development of a bureaucracy within the party.

Trotsky defined 'Bolshevisation' in these terms:

“The “Bolshevization” of 1924 assumed completely the character of a caricature. A revolver was held at the temples of the leading organs of the communist parties with the demand that they adopt immediately a, final position on the internal disputes in the CPSU without any information and any discussion; and besides they were aware in advance that on the position they took depended whether or not they could remain in the Comintern.”[13]

The Italian party was reorganised directly from Moscow. After the Fifth Congress of the International, the CC was increased to 17 members: 9 from the centre of the party, 4 from the right and 4 ‘Thirders’ [as in supporters of the Third International], i.e. members of a tendency of the PSI led by Giacinto Serrati, which in that year merged with the PCdI. Bordiga's left wing remained outside.

In April 1925, the Entente Committee was formed to link all elements of the left-wing current. The centre of the party went into a rage and dismissed all its members from their leadership positions. Bruno Fortichiari, among others, was removed as secretary of the Milan federation. The positions became even more divided when Bordiga openly took a stand for the Opposition in the USSR debate, in an article entitled ‘The Trotsky Question’ which, written in February 1925, was blocked for months by the party leadership and then published by l'Unità only in July. In that dispute, Gramsci had sided with the majority of the Soviet party. In a report to the CC in February 1925, he stated:

“In the motion it should, moreover, be said how Trotsky's conceptions and especially his attitude represent a danger, since the lack of unity in the party in a country where there is only one party, splits the state. This produces a counter-revolutionary movement; which does not mean, however, that Trotsky is a counter-revolutionary: for in that case we should demand his expulsion.”[14]

How did the Italian Communist Party, led by Gramsci and in the process of 'Bolshevization', act in the Matteotti crisis of 1924-1925? Its abandonment of the tactic of the united front sanctioned by the Fifth Congress of the CI led to mistakes and confusion.

Initially, the initiative was in the hands of the liberal and reformist forces. On 14 June, the deputies of the opposition parties decided to stop participating in parliamentary work and formed the Opposition Committee. This was the start of the Aventine: a boycott of parliamentary proceedings combined with an appeal to the king to halt the rise of fascism. This bloc, made up of a large part of the bourgeois oppositions, as well as maximalists and reformists, also included the PCdI at first. The Opposition Committee was a democratic and legalist movement. Frightened by mass action, it rejected the communist proposal for a general strike: it should be the king and the judiciary to remove Mussolini from power – but they had no intention of doing so, and did not!

The parliamentary group of the Italian Communist Party (PCdI) left that committee and, when the CGL called for a 10-minute abstention from work on 27 June, the communists were the only ones to call for a general strike for the whole day.

After coming out of the Aventine blockade, the PCd'I fearlessly used the parliamentary forum but took an uncertain, general position. Its slogan: “Away with the government of murderers!", did not make it clear what kind of government it wanted to replace the fascist one. This indecision, in fact, meant extending an open hand to the Opposition Committee.

Subsequently, on 15 October 1924, the CC proposed to launch an anti-parliamentary formulation, i.e. to transform the Aventine into a parliamentary assembly of the oppositions:

“The Communist Party believes that the meeting of the parliamentary Opposition groups in an assembly convened on the basis of parliamentary rules as a Parliament opposed to the Fascist Parliament would have a value quite different from passive abstention, because it would widen the crisis and put the masses back in motion, which is an essential condition for an effective struggle against fascism. It therefore calls on the oppositions to convene this assembly.”[15]

The proposal was naturally rejected by all the other parties. The slogan launched by the Communist Party of Italy (PCd'I) sought to break with the passivity of the Aventine, but it did so with a formulation that opened the door to collaboration between parties representing different and antagonistic classes. Moreover, this unity, if achieved, would not have dispelled the illusions of the masses in the legalistic, democratic road forward, nor would it have separated the workers who followed the PSI and the PSU from their leaders.

In the same autumn, the PCdI launched national campaigns to strengthen the National Peasant Defence Association, directed by the party and opposed to the Federterra: a mass organisation led by the socialists. In the factories, the same line of action was practised through the Committees of Agitation for Proletarian Unity, which were in fact alternatives to the existing trade unions. The failure of these two attempts at a united front “from below” was a lost opportunity, at least to bring a sector of the socialist masses closer together. In fact, they were hardly kept in passivity by the “Aventine” line of capitulation to the liberals practiced by their leaders.

The “anti-parliamentary” proposal, was still claimed, even in the Lyon Theses of 1926, as an example of those “intermediate solutions to general political problems” that the party should have used on the agitational terrain in order to “represent a bridge to the party's demands”.[16] While formally the approach to the problem was essentially correct, confusion arose in its application, which was amplified by its juxtaposition with the tactics followed by the Bolsheviks towards the Kerensky government during Kornilov's attempted coup (August 1917).[17]

In June 1925, when Mussolini had regained control of the situation, the PCdI put forward the confusing slogan of a 'Republican Assembly on the basis of the Workers' and Peasants' Committees'. The formula was criticised by Trotsky, both in his correspondence with the Bordigian group Prometheus and with Pietro Tresso, Alfonso Leonetti and Paolo Ravazzoli: the three members of the PCdI's Political Bureau who were expelled in 1930 for Trotskyism:

“You remind me that I once criticised the slogan “Republican Assembly on the Basis of Workers” and Peasants” Committees”, a slogan formerly put forward by the Italian Communist Party. You tell me that this slogan had an entirely episodic value and that at present it has been abandoned. I would like nevertheless to tell you why I consider it to be erroneous or at least ambiguous as a political slogan. “Republican Assembly” constitutes quite obviously an institution of the bourgeois state. What, however, are the “Workers and Peasants” Committees”? It is obvious that they are some sort of equivalent of the workers” and peasants” Soviets. Then that’s what should be said. For, class organs of the workers and poor peasants, whether you give them the name of Soviets or committees, always constitute organisations of struggle against the bourgeois state, then become organs of insurrection, to be transformed finally, after the victory, into organs of the proletarian dictatorship. How, under these conditions, can a Republican Assembly –supreme organ of the bourgeois state – have as its “basis” organs of the proletarian state?”[18]

These oscillations were accompanied, in the Gramscian parabola, by an accommodation with the more opportunistic declination of the line imposed by Zinoviev and Stalin on the CI. The case of the Anglo-Russian Committee, formed between the Russian and British trade unions with the aim of creating an extra protective shield for the USSR, showed this clearly.

Even after the betrayal of the general strike of May 1926 by the British trade union leadership, in fact, Gramsci believed that this bloc had to be safeguarded:

“I think that in spite of the indecision, weakness and if you like the betrayal of the English left during the general strike, the Anglo-Russian Committee should be maintained because it is the best ground for revolutionising not only the English trade union world but also the Amsterdam trade unions.”[19]

Trotsky, on the other hand, criticised the leadership of the CPSU and the CI because, in May 1926, “it was necessary to keep pace with the most active forces of the British proletariat and to break with the General Council at that time as a traitor to the general strike.”[20] He also criticised the leadership of the CPSU and the CI as being “a traitor to the general strike.”

Marked by the 'scar' of the so-called Bolshevisation, in 1925-1926 the PCI was certainly not yet a Stalinised party. This is attested to by the theses prepared for the Third Congress, held clandestinely in January 1926 in Lyon, France.

It must be pointed out that those theses, which won 90 percent of the delegates' votes against 10 percent for those to their left, were also imposed by organisational and bureaucratic methods. For example, all members who did not vote for the left were counted as votes for the leadership.

Nevertheless, in those theses, some fundamental strategic points for a revolutionary communist party were strongly defended.

Thesis 4, for example, clarified the nature of the future Italian revolution and its main driving force:

“Capitalism is the predominant element in Italian society and the force that prevails in determining its development. From this fundamental fact derives the consequence that there is no possibility of a revolution in Italy other than the socialist revolution. In capitalist countries the only class that can bring about a real and profound social transformation is the working class.”[21]

The outlook on the mass movement that could overthrow fascism, which was also correct, prefigured a line opposite to the 'Salerno Turn' imposed on the party by Stalin and Togliatti in 1944:

“The possibility of overthrowing the fascist regime through the action of self-styled democratic anti-fascist groups would only exist if these groups succeeded, by neutralising the action of the proletariat, in controlling a mass movement to the point of being able to curb its development. The function of the bourgeois democratic opposition is instead to collaborate with fascism in preventing the reorganisation of the working class and the realisation of its class programme. (...) The opposition will only be able to return to being a protagonist in the action of defending the capitalist regime when the same fascist repression will no longer be able to prevent the unleashing of class conflicts, and the danger of a proletarian insurrection and its welding with a peasants' war will appear serious and imminent.”[22]

The role of defending the capitalist regime in 1943-1948 was to be taken on not only by the liberal bourgeois currents but also by the leaders of the PCI and PSI, which was decisive in disorienting and diverting the revolutionary thrust of the masses. This danger, identified in the Lyon Theses as the possible growth of a 'right-wing tendency' in the party, was also understood and anticipated in 1926, even if it was certainly not possible to foresee the scope it would have in 1943-1948:

“The very repression that fascism exerts tends to feed the opinion that, since the proletariat is unable to overthrow the regime quickly, the best tactic is the one that leads, if not to a bourgeois-proletarian bloc for the constitutional elimination of fascism, to a passivity of the revolutionary vanguard, to an active non-intervention of the Communist Party in the immediate political struggle, in order to allow the bourgeoisie to use the proletariat as a mass of electoral manoeuvre against fascism. This programme is presented with the formula that the Communist Party must be the ‘left wing’ of an opposition of all forces conspiring to overthrow the fascist regime. It is the expression of a deep pessimism about the revolutionary capacity of the working class.”[23]

The same formula of workers' and peasants' government, as formulated by the IV Congress of the CI in 1922, was finally brought into focus, at least in theoretical terms:

“All the particular agitations that the party conducts and the activities it carries out in every direction to mobilise and unify the forces of the working class must converge and be summed up in a political formula that is easy for the masses to understand and has the greatest agitational value for them. This formula is that of the 'workers' and peasants' government'. It also indicates to the more backward masses the necessity of the conquest of power for the solution of the vital problems that concern them, and provides the means to bring them to the terrain that is proper to the more evolved proletarian vanguard (struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat).”[24]

In this case, however, the party's oscillating practice during the phase of the Matteotti crisis was at the root of some confusion in the concrete definition of that slogan. The thesis went like this:

“In this sense it is a formula for agitation, but it does not correspond to a real stage of historical development except in the same way as the intermediate solutions mentioned in the previous issue [the ‘anti-parliament’], and then continues with a more correct and precise general definition: “A realisation of it [the formula of agitation of the workers' and peasants' government] in fact can only be conceived by the party as the beginning of a direct revolutionary struggle, i.e. the civil war directed by the proletariat, in alliance with the peasantry, for the conquest of power. The party could be led to serious deviations from its task of leading the revolution if it interpreted workers' and peasants' government as responding to a real phase of development of the struggle for power, that is, if it considered that this slogan indicates the possibility that the problem of the state will be solved in the interests of the working class in a form other than that of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[25]

Inherited from the line followed during the Matteotti crisis, the Lyon Theses included some not-entirely-clear references to the Republican Party, defined as petit-bourgeois, but included alongside the maximalists of the PSI and the PSU “unitarians” as among the formations to be considered in a united front policy.[26]

In the field of organisational conception, the 'Bolshevisation' had left a bigger mark. The theses of the Gramscian centre, in fact, prohibited fractions, opening the way to the subsequent Stalinist monolithism:

“32. The centralisation and compactness of the party demand that there be no organised groups within it which take on the character of fractions. [...] The existence and struggle of fractions are in fact inconceivable with the essence of the party of the proletariat, whose unity they break by opening the way to the influence of other classes”[27]

The main tragedy of the Lyon Congress lies, therefore, in the arrival at political positions that took up the essential features of the line approved in the first four congresses of the CI, but at the 'wrong' moment, because this coincided with the first phase of the bureaucratic degeneration of the CI. This latter process would loom large over the future of the PCd'I.

The same could be said, at the level of personal trajectory, for Gramsci. When he broke with Bordiga's ultra-left conception, events in the USSR and the CI posed an obstacle to his moving closer to the positions of Lenin and Trotsky.

This can be gauged in October 1926 from the content of the letter sent by Gramsci, on behalf of the PCdI's Political Bureau, to the CC of the Russian party. He feared a split in the Communist Party but if it were to happen he would attribute responsibility for this to Unified Opposition, which came into being as a result of the convergence of the Left Opposition, the “Democratic Centralism” tendency and the group of Zinoviev and Kamenev, who had broken with Stalin.[28] The opposition was even held responsible for the fascist regime's exploitation of the divisions in the Soviet Communist Party.[29]

On the substance of the political debate, Gramsci's stance was clear, even more so than in the past, in favour of Stalin's tendency:

“We now declare that we fundamentally believe that the political line taken by the majority of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR is right and that the majority of the Italian party will certainly pronounce itself in this sense, if it becomes necessary to put the whole question to the vote. (…)

“We repeat that we are impressed by the fact that the attitude of the oppositions affects the whole political line of the Central Committee, touching the very heart of Leninist doctrine and of the political action of our [Soviet] Union Party. It is the principle and practice of the hegemony of the proletariat that are being called into question, it is the fundamental relations of alliance between workers and peasants that are being disturbed and endangered, that is, the pillars of the workers' state and of the revolution.”[30]

The Opposition, for Gramsci, did not correctly pose the problem of the hegemony of the proletariat in Soviet society and would not be able to learn from the working class the need, at times, to sacrifice their own “partisan interests” in order to maintain “hegemony”. This is how he summed up his condemnation of the tendency that was fighting against the bureaucratic degeneration of the “October” regime:

“In the ideology and practice of the bloc of oppositions the whole tradition of social democracy and syndicalism that has hitherto prevented the Western proletariat from organising itself into a ruling class is reborn in full.”[31]

The request, in the final part of the letter, to employ clemency towards the leaders of the Opposition [32] was judged by Togliatti to be an excessive concession, but it certainly cannot be sufficient to attribute anti-Stalinism to Gramsci.

For Togliatti, to attribute even “a little bit of wrongdoing to the Central Committee” would have worked “to the total benefit of the Opposition”[33] and this would have been an unforgivable mistake. Embittered by Togliatti's letter, especially by its tone, Gramsci, however, wrote that he was willing to make a further concession, inserting his condemnatory judgement at the beginning of the letter, before the section on the risks inherent in a possible split in the Soviet Communist Party.[34] He however reiterated that “the oppositions represent in Russia all the old prejudices of class corporatism and syndicalism that weigh on the tradition of the Western proletariat and retard its ideological and political development.”[35]

A few weeks after this correspondence, Gramsci lost his personal freedom at the hands of the fascist regime. At the height of his political maturity, in prison, he would also carry with him all the signs of the 'Bolshevisation' phase.

Gramsci in prison and the history of the PCI

At the 10th Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (CI), held in July 1929, the adventurist turn associated with the theory of “social-fascism” exploded in the face of the PCI. In the CI's analysis, by now on the road to Stalinisation, social democracy and fascism had become 'twin stars'. This shift led, for example, to the refusal by the leadership of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD, Communist Party of Germany) to organise any kind of united front with the Social Democratic Party against the rise of the Nazis.

Returning to 1929, in the PCdI Togliatti quickly adapted the party line to Stalinist directives. This anticipated an imminent break-up of the fascist regime and revolutionary sloganeering completely divorced from reality, including the rejection of any democratic slogan. Gramsci, in prison in Turi, expressed vehement disagreement with the new ultra-left line, that he suffered as a “prick in the eye”. Gramsci did not believe the collapse of fascism was imminent, and insisted on the need to adopt democratic demands, such as that of a Constituent Assembly, with the perspective of a democratic-bourgeois interlude caused by the weakness of the revolutionary party.

In the post-war period, the unilateral presentation of this Gramscian position, without the necessary references to the international debate, allowed the Togliatti leadership to interpret it as an anticipation of the reformist policy followed by the PCI with the 'Salerno turning point'.

Moreover, Gramsci was used as an indispensable resource to present the PCI as the party that carried the torch of Italian national and democratic culture. The Prison Notebooks became a 'finished product' to be included in the annals of Italian culture, completely removing the stormy conditions in which Gramsci was formed, between wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. All this led to glossing over aspects that cryptically dealt with controversial issues concerning the development of the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

The fact that there were disagreements between Gramsci and the party was evidenced most of all by the complete silence about him in the official PCI publications from June 1931 to December 1933.

Contrary to what Togliatti fabricated in his obituary,[36] in which there was a disgusting reference to “Trotsky, the whore of fascism", Gramsci in prison showed no interest in Stalin's thought and did not request any of his books from the prison authorities. And he certainly did not learn Russian to read Stalin's works, as Togliatti grotesquely claimed. On the contrary, according to the testimony of former Italian Communist Party deputy Ezio Riboldi, Gramsci's fellow prisoner in Turi in the first half of 1930, he commented on the fideism with which the Fourth Party Congress had accepted Stalin's prospect of the imminent fall of fascism in Italy, accompanied by the straightforward growth of the proletarian revolution:

“It must be borne in mind that Stalin's mental habitus is quite different from Lenin's. Lenin, having lived abroad for many years, possessed an international vision of social-political problems: something that cannot be said of Stalin, who always remained in Russia, preserving the nationalist mentality expressed in the cult of the ‘great Russians’. Even in the international Stalin is first Russian and then Communist: one must be careful.”[37]

This observation, which obviously cannot be verified categorically, penetrates the national narrowness of Stalin's political formation and is of considerable importance, especially since it would show the overcoming of the admiration expressed by Gramsci on several occasions, even before prison, about an alleged “national realism” of Stalin.[38]

But the eulogistic obituary written by Togliatti is not surprising. With the turning point of the CI's 7th Congress, August 1935, towards the policy of Popular Fronts – interclass alliances in which the Communist parties subordinated themselves to a fraction of the bourgeoisie – the first signs of change in the public handling of the figure of Gramsci can be seen. In an article by Ruggiero Grieco in Lo Stato Operaio, the party's theoretical monthly magazine, Gramsci was presented as a great intellectual and a “great Italian”. This idea has not stopped circulating. One of its many consecrations, in Italy, was the academic conference held in Cagliari in 1967 for the 30th anniversary of Gramsci's death.

The laborious and muddled reinterpretations of Gramsci were the product of the enduring duplicity of the PCI leadership, in the tension between its reformist politics and its revolutionary origins, which lived on in the collective memory of the exploited until the 1980s, and sometimes beyond. Pressed by democratic intellectuals on the need to break with Gramsci as a current political reference, the PCI leaders always showed a certain resistance. Even Giorgio Napolitano, an exponent of the right-wing tendency of the party (the “miglioristi") took a stand against the request to break with the “political” Gramsci formulated by Mondo Operaio, the theoretical journal of the then Italian Socialist Party.[39]

A few years later, in the article ‘Addio a lui e a Turati’ [Goodbye to him and to Turati],[40] Lucio Colletti, having cooled off following his youthful revolutionary ardour, but not yet having joined Forza Italia, went further and explained – with the frankness afforded someone who no longer obeyed any duplicity, because he had gone over to the bourgeoisie – that the choices made by the PCI had, in practice, marked an unbridgeable distance with Gramsci. Aldo Schiavone intervened to back up Colletti – the time being ripe for a shift towards the opposing social camp, even for the intellectuals linked to the PCI – and wrote of the total inadequacy of the “political” Gramsci. Gramsci, Schiavone maintained, had to be relaunched only on the cultural level to make him a classic author in the history of political doctrines. Like a Niccolò Machiavelli or a Thomas Hobbes.

Togliatti's Gramsci

The Prison Notebooks were first published in Italy in 1951. Having removed the conflict between Gramsci in prison and the Stalinised party, his figure was consciously used to present the PCI as a 'national' party and to get accredited by a large sector of intellectuals from non-communist backgrounds. The operation on the Prison Notebooks became crucial.

It was necessary to focus on the anti-fascist martyr and on the man isolated from his political actions. The first edition of the Letters from Prison, published in 1947 and carefully censored by Felice Platone, a man close to Togliatti, had already done this. The latter had deleted any friendly reference by Gramsci to Bordiga, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and minor figures, such as Lucien Laurat, disliked by Stalin. But only the Prison Notebooks, fraudulently presented as a finished product, allowed a qualitative leap in the mummification of Gramsci. Togliatti, in fact, had in his hand a set of notes that, although disorganised and fragmentary, were divided into blocks and proposed as an overall theory.

Palmiro Togliatti Image public domainThe 're-reading' of Gramsci began with Togliatti's PCI / Image: public domain

On the concept of hegemony, Togliatti bent the stick towards a cultural interpretation, but remained cautious and affirmed a continuity between Lenin and Gramsci. At that time, the PCI was still sworn to the embalmed and distorted thought of Lenin and it was not advisable to create contrasts between two 'holy men' of that calibre.

The discourse, however, changed on the concept of war of position. In this field, the re-reading of Gramsci began with Togliatti's PCI. The opportunity was great. A Gramsci who rigidly opposed the war of position (i.e. the slow construction of an anti-capitalist social bloc) to the war of manoeuvre (i.e. an open offensive against the bourgeoisie) was perfectly suited to the gradualist strategy embraced by the PCI: the so-called progressive democracy applied with iron zeal already during the Resistance. The war of position was presented as the theoretical image of the PCI's post-war policy. Gramsci became – without being able to object to anything! – the ‘noble father’.

The patient work of a PCI’s controlled local council or a “red” cooperative, the PCI's “Gramscian” casemates within capitalism, could thus be contrasted with the ambitions of those who considered it catastrophic to take the “Italian” (parliamentary and peaceful) path to socialism, which was adopted by the PCI's 8th congress in 1956. The state as well had to be conquered and emptied of its reactionary essence from within, by sending more and more deputies and senators to Rome, Constitution in hand, and centring the party's activity on parliament. This strategy of insertion into the bourgeois state had been pursued by the PCI since the “Salerno turning point", and a selective reading of the Notebooks helped to counter those who found that the accounts did not add up – due to personal or collective political experience or even because they had read with open eyes Lenin's State and Revolution, a text always detested by reformists.

It is fair, however, to ask whether there were any real weak points in the Notebooks on which the epigones based their reinterpretations and revisions. To answer this question, it is enough to follow the favourite quotations of Togliatti's commentators and Togliatti himself. Thus, in one of the first volumes of Gramsci's notes from prison, published by Einaudi, one finds the following consideration, inspired by Marx's introduction to his 1859 Critique of Political Economy, quoted in abundance by Togliatti and later bent to the extreme in a gradualist direction:

“It is necessary to move within the framework of two principles: (1) that no society sets itself tasks, for whose solution the necessary and sufficient conditions do not already exist or are not at least in the process of appearing and developing; (2) that no society dissolves and can be replaced unless it has first carried out all the forms of life that are implicit in its relations.”[41]

Is there, in this passage, room for forcing an interpretation of the transition from capitalism to socialism that mechanically follows the centuries-old formulation of the transition from feudal to bourgeois Europe?[42]

In the West, according to Gramsci, the state was not reducible to its central repressive apparatus because there were a series of “fortifications", “trenches” and “casemates” of the bourgeoisie around it, sometimes stratified over centuries. In general, therefore, Gramsci believed that in the West the proletariat would encounter greater resistance and would have to fight a long war of position around the “casemates” of capitalist society. So far, nothing objectionable. What, then, is wrong? That Gramsci did not clarify whether in the West the proletariat should and could have conquered power in the same way as the bourgeoisie, which had risen politically to the head of society after a very long phase of erosion of the economic supremacy of the nobility, i.e. after having broken up feudalism from within. Does suggesting this parallel, or not making explicit its inadequacy – as is perhaps the case with Gramsci – imply the possibility for the proletariat to impose its mode of production and its worldview without a war of movement, i.e. without a revolutionary break.

Beyond certain limits, the parallel with the transition to bourgeois society does not hold theoretically and brings with it distortions. While the bourgeoisie was, like the nobility, a propertied class and could thus live – in some cases for several centuries – alongside the feudal lords, the proletariat is a propertyless class. Indeed, it is the first such class to set itself the task of conquering power and abolishing private property. On this subject, Riccardo Guastini wrote in the 1970s:

“Finally, even without forgetting that we are dealing with the notes of a prisoner and not with a party programme, one cannot help but notice Gramsci's absolute silence on a crucial point of political strategy: the moment (when and how) of the revolutionary break. After the conquest of hegemony and its apparatuses, after the encirclement of central power, will the destruction (more or less violent, but certainly not painless) of the political apparatuses of the bourgeoisie still be necessary? Or should we expect an automatic involvement, a spontaneous fall of the remaining fortifications of capital? Gramsci is silent on all this. And for this reason Stefano Merli has spoken of Gramsci's doctrine as a ‘theory of revolution without revolution’, i.e. without revolutionary rupture and without workers' power.”[43]

The problem arises, therefore, in the assimilation of the structural position of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The extension of the concept creates problems. Many interpreters of Gramsci have written that his most original thesis was the idea that, in a capitalist social formation, the working class could be culturally hegemonic before becoming the politically dominant class. The idea is nonsense.

But Gramsci carefully distinguishes between the political hegemony to be exercised towards potential allies in the middle classes, and coercion of enemy classes following the conquest of power. Stefano Merli's hypothesis of a “theory of revolution without revolution”, therefore, is also partially shoehorned in.

To get to the bottom of the matter, the position of the proletariat is structurally different (in terms of wealth, education, leisure, etc.) from that of the bourgeoisie of the Enlightenment era, which was able to elaborate its culture within the Ancien Régime. But if one uses the term hegemony for both, confusion can arise. This confusion, which was also present in the Prison Notebooks on Jacobinism, allowed the later interpretation of Gramsci’s thought to indicate the possibility of 'cultural' hegemony by the working class, i.e. leading society without conquering political power and transforming its structure in its image. This operation was also successful because Gramsci, in the Notebooks, seems to have taken for granted the axiom of the first four world congresses of the Communist International on the historical necessity of force in the overthrow of the bourgeois state: a premise politically opposed by most of his later commentators. Gramsci, however, never questioned this principle, even if he did not return to it in the Prison Notebooks except in marginal notes. It is worth noting, in confirmation of this, Gramsci's criticism of Croce for his unilateral exaltation of the “consensual and ethical” moments in European history, to the detriment of the military moment and force. It is, therefore, questionable to construct interpretations on the indeterminacy present in Gramsci's Notebooks on the hypothesis that full hegemony by the proletariat can chronologically precede, in the revolutionary process, the conquest of political power.

On the concept in question, the history of revolutions has provided rather clear-cut answers. What else does a careful study of Soviet Russia during the years of the civil war teach us, given that even after the Bolshevik Party seized power it repeatedly clashed with more self-interested, short-sighted elements in the more professionalised sections of the working class – for example, the railway workers, who were still influenced by the Mensheviks. Moreover, the Red Army had to face, politically as well as militarily, bands of peasants who wanted nothing to do with either Whites or Reds.

The point is that, if capitalism has established and reproduced itself in an expanded form spontaneously within the pores of feudal society, a socialist economy will not be built 'in slices’, or with 'liberated islands' to be added one after the other. Moreover, those 'slices', born in moments of particular crisis of the system and strength of the movement, have never managed to coexist for long, like a happy island, with dominant capitalist economic forms backed by a state that remains capitalist. We already know from the history of the PCI or the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party of Germany) what is the outcome of 'hegemony' led by a party that is increasingly in government, supported by an ever-more 'responsible' trade union and a powerful economic wing in the cooperatives' movement, increasingly embedded in the banking, insurance and financial system.

But the war of position, necessary according to Gramsci to wear down the adversary even on the ground of hegemony, for him never meant acceptance of the rules of the bourgeois-democratic game and trust in the evolution of liberal institutions into proletarian ones. In Gramsci, there is no prospect of a peaceful conquest of consensus that would lead to new management – “from below” or “participatory” – of bourgeois institutions. Nicola Badaloni complained of this, from the point of view of Berlinguer's PCI, observing that Gramsci “does not come to think of democracy as the overall political site of the historical transition”. This is not, however, as Badaloni states, a “Sorelian devaluation of democracy”[44] but simply Gramsci's adherence to the Marxist conception of the state and revolution.

In addition to casting a thick smokescreen over the Prison Notebooks, it was necessary for the PCI leadership to make the Gramsci of the 1919-1926 period as little known as possible. This was the Gramsci who wrote the theses on factory councils as cells of communist society and, above all, the Gramsci who was fully involved in the debate in the Communist International before its national-reformist degeneration in the Stalinist period. This Gramsci, therefore, who was too little national and constitutional. One had to forget that Gramsci who, in the midst of the Red Biennium, could write:

“[T]he working class is not concerned about the bourgeois state falling apart, on the contrary it contributes to this fact with all its strength, it is in fact the only one that really tends to ‘save’ the fatherland and avoid industrial catastrophe: but for the fulfilment of this mission it wants all the power.”[45]

Such a Gramsci will never be digestible for reformism: his prose, in fact, does not exude a patriotic sigh about what Italy could have been and was not. He does not even think of eliminating the defects of development of Italian society within the framework of capitalism but, on the contrary, of using also the defects of a backward capitalism to bring it down.

If one looks at the publication schedule of Editori Riuniti, the publishing house of the then PCI, one will see that Gramsci's political writings of 1919-1926 received little attention. The first paperback edition was only published in 1973 in an incomplete form. This disproportion in the study of Gramsci still exists today and is indicative of persistent fears and deliberate ambiguities over his entire thought.

Western Marxism and Gramsci: a decisive interlude

Since the end of the Second World War, bourgeois democracy, mainly thanks to the economic boom, has experienced relatively stable times in the advanced capitalist countries compared to the previous historical phase. This fact has a link with the development of so-called Western Marxism. In the intellectual sphere, the less-bitter relations between the classes and the consolidation of social democracy and Stalinism in the working-class fostered and nurtured a split between research and political activism.

Many professors who considered themselves Marxists began to use an increasingly coded language, far removed from the class whose emancipation was sought. In this environment, Gramsci became an undisputed point of reference. His prison writings from the prison became a foreshadowing of the social and political situation of the 30-year post-war period in Europe, the US and Japan. This sentiment was amplified by a pessimism about the ability of the working class to emancipate itself. This pessimism, however, was not Gramsci's.

Gramsci himself reiterated this, reflecting on the function of his own political experience in times of ebb, in the Prison Notebooks:

“Something has fundamentally changed. And you can see it. What? Before, everyone wanted to be a ploughman in history, to have an active part. No one wanted to be the ‘manure’ of history. But can one plough without first fertilising the earth? So there must be the ploughman and the ‘manure’. Abstractly, everyone accepted this. But practically? As far as just ‘manure’ is concerned, we might as well have turned back, gone back into the dark, into the indistinct. Something has changed, because there are those who 'philosophically' adapt themselves to being the manure, who know they have to be, and they adapt. It is like the question of the man on his deathbed, as they say. But there is a great difference, because on the deathbed one is at a decisive act that lasts a moment; whereas in the question of the manure, the question lasts a long time, and recurs every moment. You only live once, as they say; your personality is irreplaceable. There is no spasmodic, instant choice to be made in order to play it, in which all values are suddenly appreciated and a decision must be made without delay. Here the postponement is of every instant and the decision must be repeated every instant. So it is said that something has changed. Nor is it a question of living one day as a lion or a hundred years as a sheep. You don't live like a lion for a minute, quite the contrary: you live like a sheep for years and years and you know you have to live like that. The image of Prometheus who, instead of being attacked by the eagle, is instead devoured by parasites. Jacob could be imagined by the Jews: only the Greeks could imagine Prometheus; but the Jews were more realistic, more ruthless, and also gave their hero greater prominence.”[46]

The pessimism and cynicism of many intellectuals was fuelled in the post-war period by the defeat of the world revolution, particularly in advanced capitalist countries, and the consolidation of Stalinism. But neither was it unrelated to the sociological characteristics of that group. It is also necessary to point out that in Europe, Stalinism appeared to many intellectuals fascinated by Marxism as the only working-class political incarnation with meaning, regardless of their personal political choices, which could be of adhesion, as in the case of Althusser, of critical support à la Sartre, or of rejection and isolation à la Marcuse.[47]

But the historical caesura was profound. Since the days of the Second International, national and international socialist leaders with an intellectual background had maintained a certain unity between theory and practice. But the birth of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, founded in 1923 by the Austro-Marxist Karl Grunberg as an institution affiliated to the University of Frankfurt, was a new development, even if there was still collaboration with the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. Until then, even bitterly conflicting workers' leaders such as Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg both despised the 'armchair socialists' (Kathedersozialisten) who avoided party positions in favour of teaching at the university.

In 1930, Grunberg was replaced by Max Horkheimer, who had no real political experience: his inaugural speech focused on school reform, his management marked the abandonment of historical materialism and the loss of interest in the Institute’s magazine in the history of the labour movement. His adaptation to the cultural interests of academia was accentuated by his exile in the USA following Hitler's seizure of power in 1933. After the war, academic recognition in the pro-Western Federal Republic of Germany and the depoliticisation of studies went hand in hand, until Horkheimer's apologia for capitalism in 1970. Adorno remained more removed from politics. Marcuse, who took more radical positions but was isolated from a Marxist political movement, ended up theorising about the integration of the working class into the consumerist mechanism and the impossibility for socialist thought to connect to the political activity of the contemporary proletariat in any advanced capitalist country.

This drift was certainly favoured by the narrow environment of the Stalinist parties. Free research was censored. But reflections that were far removed from the crucial problems of revolutionary strategy were sometimes, though not always, spared.

The basic feature of “Western Marxism” was its split from the revolutionary struggle, which ended up turning into hostility towards it. The silence of the prolific “Western Marxists” on the functioning of the capitalist economy, on the nature of the bourgeois state and, more generally, on the problems of revolutionary strategy is not accidental. That intellectual tendency moved decisively towards philosophy, which in turn was mired in long-term subjectivism.

Marxism was thus reduced to an interminable and intricate discourse on method, an epistemological obsession, an exaltation for reading Marx’s Manuscripts of 1844, published in Moscow in 1932, in an intellectual path that reproduced in reverse order Marx's own political education and development. The most common obsession was to look before Marx for a vantage point to reveal the 'true' character of Marx's work, combined with a superficial rejection of Engels’ philosophical writings. In short, in the “Western Marxists” there was no trace of Marx's Thesis on Feuerbach: the interpretation of the world no longer served the purpose of changing it from top to bottom. Theoretical activity became an esoteric discipline, polluted by an excessively technical and obscure writing style that is still rampant.

In the absence of a class-based, revolutionary pole, the main point of attraction, including for the cyclical proposals of a “return to Marx”, came from bourgeois culture.

One understands that the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks, with his analysis of what Engels would have called the highest levels of the superstructure, was the icon of the “Western Marxists”. But Gramsci, contrary to them, had studied the problem of the superstructure, seeing in its degree of autonomy a question to be investigated for the purpose of overthrowing the capitalist social structure. If, therefore, the “Western Marxists” have partly relied on certain weaknesses of Gramsci's notes in the Notebooks, Gramsci cannot, however, be included among their “spiritual fathers”.

False consciousness of the ‘Gramscian’ academy

Contemporary ‘Gramsciologists’[48] have deformed Gramsci more than Togliatti had done, together with Vacca, Ragionieri, Badaloni, Gruppi and company. Certainly, the most recent work of ‘depoliticisation’ of Gramscian thought would not have been possible if for some decades Stalinism had not moulded, with infinite patience, and enormous means at its disposal, a Gramsci in the image and likeness of the turns and counter-turns of the PCI.

Such intellectual pretensions even confused the bloodthirsty – but certainly not sharp – Chilean dictator Pinochet, who went so far as to claim that:

“The doctrine of the communist Antonio Gramsci is Marxism in an updated form... it is dangerous because it penetrates the consciousness of the people and above all the consciousness of the intellectuals.”[49] This is a rather fanciful thesis. In the academic use of Gramsci, in fact, one finds very few traces of subversiveness. The prevailing tendency is to distinguish Gramsci from Marxism, detaching him from the revolutionary tradition of which he was a part. Gramsci is presented in terms well summarised by Emanuel Saccarelli: “as the sophisticated Western Marxist (not guilty of the reductionism attributed to an unspecified and “vulgar” orthodoxy), as the competent theorist of the superstructure (already veering towards that cultural and linguistic turn embraced by large sections of contemporary academia), or, perhaps more surprisingly, as the theoretical incest of a post-Marxist turn."[50]

At times, this reinterpretation of Gramsci does not retain even a modicum of a sense of proportion, especially when it is forced to explore the political side of Gramsci. Thus, for example, Anne Showstack Sassoon, a leading academic, described Tony Blair's government as a ‘Gramscian project’ in a volume devoted to the rise of New Labour, and Tony Blair as the Gramscian “modern prince” of the contemporary era.[51] Stardust…

Other reputed interpreters of Gramsci such as Vacca, Cornel West and Adam Przeworki belong or have belonged to the social democratic tradition against which Gramsci fought all his life, even in his prison years. But little remains of Gramsci's opposition to reformism in their studies.

From the removal of Gramsci as a political cadre comes the fixation of academics on the Gramscian writings they find most familiar – ignoring his political journalism, congress reports or party circulars. The writings from prison are far more appealing to an academic, although this is mainly due to the tragic conditions under which they were produced: political isolation (even from most of the political prisoners in the PCdI), fascist censorship and, at a certain stage, physical decline and personal resignation. Gramsci is turned into a figure he would have mocked: a resigned intellectual confident in the corrosive power of cultural criticism.

Gramsci's work from prison is separated from his political choices. His disagreements with the party and the CI become an opportunity to develop the idea that Gramsci, at the end of his life, took a step back from revolutionary activity to become nothing more than a brilliant academic: a 'critical theorist' on whom to write books and commission doctoral dissertations. As Saccarelli notes, in universities “we read Gramsci in the way we would read, say, Michel Foucault. Brennan identifies the origin of most of the errors in this operation. The characteristic of revolutionaries, of party intellectuals as Gramsci was, is ignored.”[52]

Gramsci's temperament and reflections, even bitter ones, caused by disappointment with the evolution of the party and the international to which he had dedicated his life are turned into the abandonment of ideas. We see the emergence of a renegade Gramsci to be welcomed outside of the communist family. But Gramsci never sought a way to abandon political activity. The break with the party, in prison, was not the prologue to a rapprochement with other political tendencies.

Free from political ties to the workers' movement, the latest generation of ‘Gramsciologists’ has been able to devote itself to the transfiguration of the concept of hegemony. Tacitly accepting Togliatti's interpretation of the war of position as the only strategy for the capitalist West and not as a complementary tactical variant of the war of manoeuvre, the ‘Gramsciologists’ start from the unproven assumption that, in Gramsci, the concept of hegemony is dissociated from the perspective of the seizure of power by the working class. They argue that Gramsci, during his long years in prison, reconsidered the events of the 1920s and realised that revolution was only possible in the 'backward' East. Another variant of the distortion of the concept of hegemony is that assumed by Mario Tronti's workerism (‘operaismo’). As Alessandro Giardiello rightly observes:

“With the autonomy of the politician, workerism discovered the working-class use of capital and power. The working class was power: according to Tronti, the error of social democracy was not that it thought it could manage the capitalist state machine, but that it was subordinate to its initiative. Within labour a new hierarchy must arise, not of values, but of powers, a different distribution of force on the ground of direct politics.

“The hypothesis became that of an alliance of producers and a new NEP (New Economic Policy), a management of the capitalist economy under workers' political leadership that used the (bourgeois) state machine to defeat the backwardness of Italian society, to promote state reform and put development back on track.”[53]

Returning to Gramsci, we are not interested in knowing whether he envisaged the postponement of the world revolutionary assault on capitalism for a period longer than that envisaged by Lenin, Trotsky, Bordiga – the latter hypothesis, however, would be hard to sustain – or whoever. Who cares, one might say. The widespread academic thesis to be identified and countered is instead that Gramsci’s reflection on the defeat of the workers' movement, which proved unable to oppose the rise of fascism, extended to the need to redefine the historical mission of the proletariat. There is nothing in Gramsci's writings from 1921-26 to suggest this. On the contrary, Gramsci's pen is vibrant in denouncing the subjective political responsibilities and even the personal cowardice of the reformists at the head of the PSI and the CGL.

Decoupled from the working-class struggle for its own and humanity's emancipation, the concept of hegemony becomes purely spiritual. Dispensing with the relations of force and domination between classes, the ‘Gramsciologists’ dash off thousands of pages on “intellectual and moral reform” and the wonders of cultural struggle.

Gramsci's writings on the concept of hegemony say something else. First of all, it is useful to point out that the theory of hegemony is not set out systematically but is scattered and chopped up in dozens of historical, political and literary notes. With that concept, Gramsci points out an integral part of class domination: that is, the ideological supremacy of one class over the others by means of specific apparatuses (the Church, parties, the family, newspapers, schools, universities etc.). Hegemony is that which complements dictatorship in the strict sense, i.e. the repressive apparatuses of the state. For reasons of study, Gramsci artificially separates the two elements and specifically analyses the so-called moment of hegemony. Intellectuals are, therefore, analysed by Gramsci as the “clerks” of the ruling class for the exercise of cultural-ideological domination. Nothing in the Prison Notebooks leads one to consider the state anything other than “the whole complex of practical and theoretical activities by which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its domination but manages to obtain the active consent of the governed.”[54]

For Gramsci, the proletariat too must have its own intellectuals to spread its worldview. They must be gathered in the communist party. Without the party, no class is capable of gaining hegemonic positions. There is no courting of a progressive intellectual class separate from the working class in Gramsci.

Gramsci and Trotsky: hegemony, united front and Constituent Assembly in the shadow of “social-fascism”.

The Gramsci of the Notebooks possessed a valuable quality in the eyes of Stalinism. Namely, the Notebooks are littered with some rather negative, albeit crude and inaccurate, judgements about Trotsky.

At several points in the Prison Notebooks Gramsci accuses Trotsky of “political cadornism”,[55] i.e. of envisaging political action always and in principle on the offensive, without being able to adapt his political thinking to the concrete ups and downs of the class struggle. This alleged limitation is linked by Gramsci to the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution, which was put in the crosshairs of the Stalinist restoration as early as January 1924. Here is Gramsci:

“§ Past and present. Passage from manoeuvred warfare (and from frontal attack) to positional warfare also in the political field. This seems to me to be the most important question of political theory, posed by the post-war period, and the most difficult one to resolve rightly. It is linked to the questions raised by Bronstein [Trotsky], who in one way or another can be considered the political theorist of the frontal attack in a period when it is only the cause of defeat.»[56]

On the same theme, central to the Prison Notebooks's reflection, Gramsci explains himself further. Given the importance of the passage, we quote it extensively:

“§ War of position and manoeuvre or frontal war. It is to be seen whether Bronstein's famous theory of the permanence of the movement is not the political reflection of the theory of manoeuvred warfare (remember the observation of Cossack General Krasnov), in the last analysis the reflection of the general-economic-cultural-social conditions of a country in which frameworks of national life are embryonic and released and cannot become ‘trench or fortress’. In this case, one could say that Bronstein, who appears as a 'Westerner', was instead a cosmopolitan, i.e. superficially national and superficially Western or European. In contrast, Ilyich [Lenin] was profoundly national and profoundly European. (…)

“It seems to me that Ilyich had understood that a change was needed from the manoeuvred warfare, victoriously applied in the East in 1917, to the positional warfare which was the only one possible in the West, where, as Krasnov observes, in a short space of time armies could accumulate endless quantities of ammunition, where the social frameworks were in themselves still capable of becoming armed trenches. This seems to me to be the meaning of the 'united front' formula, which corresponds to the conception of a united front of the Entente under the single command of Foch. It is only that Ilyich did not have the time to go into his formula in greater depth, even taking into account that he could only go into it in theory, whereas the fundamental task was national, that is, it demanded a reconnaissance of the terrain and a fixing of the elements of trench and fortress represented by the elements of civil society etc.”[57]

portrait of leon trotsky by yury annenkov sd Image public domainTaken literally, Gramsci's criticism of Trotsky in the Prison Notebooks reproduces the standardised account of Trotsky propagated by Stalinism / Image: public domain

Taken literally, Gramsci's criticism of Trotsky in the Prison Notebooks reproduces the standardised account of Trotsky propagated by Stalinism. According to Saccarelli, these notes, written between 1930 and 1932, are “a protective screen built by the author to avoid the dangers of his harsh critique of the Stalinist doctrine of the Third Period.”[58] Compared to Lenin, Trotsky is presented as “an abstract internationalist and an ultra-left adventurist”[59] incapable of connecting the general principles of Marxism with the concrete situation and national peculiarities, as well as being averse to the tactical finesse of the united front.

On the same register, Bergami had asserted that “the opposition, instituted in Notebook 7 (1930-1931), between Trotsky's advocacy of permanent war of movement and Lenin's advocacy of war of position, as a strategic solution suited to the ebb of the revolution in the West, does not account for the development of Trotsky's thought in the history of the Bolshevik Party and the Third International until 1926.”[60]

In fact, Trotsky formed a bloc with Lenin at the 3rd and 4th CI World Congresses to convince the majority of delegates of the need for a tactical reorientation, embodied in the united front policy. Gramsci's assertions, therefore, are completely wrong. And Saccarelli's conclusions are too forced when he writes that Trotsky was a “protective screen” for Gramsci. It can’t be ignored that the criticism of the “leftism” of Third Period politics, accompanied by a distancing from Trotsky's theses, was precisely the position taken by the “right-wing” and Bukharinist[61] opposition of the Comintern. That tendency, in 1930, formed the Internationale Vereinigung der Kommunistischen Opposition (IVKO, International Unified Communist Opposition), led by the German group around Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer: former leaders of the German Communist Party. It is probable that Gramsci's political development was in that direction, not least because of his recent past as a leader in Zinoviev's CI, and it would explain very well the need to mark a clear line of separation between himself and Trotsky. The IVKO, moreover, remained extremely critical of Trotsky's theses and did not condemn the Moscow sham trials until Bucharin was also caught up in them in 1938.

Gramsci could not have been unaware that Trotsky had drafted the most important CI political document concerning united front tactics. Yet, presented as the paradigmatic figure of the war of movement, Trotsky became in Gramsci's notes the theorist of the frontal assault, always and in every case. To Trotsky, therefore, Gramsci attributed the positions of the Hungarian communist leader Bela Kun in 1921, when he suggested and theorised the KPD's disastrous “March action", based on the confusion between putchism and mass revolutionary action.[62] This was the same Bela Kun for whom a furious Lenin coined the insulting expression: “making Kuneries”. Despite all this, it is Trotsky who figures in the Notebooks “as the crude one”.[63] To minimise the significance of this decision, to reduce it to a ruse, does no service to the truth.

On the other hand, one can agree with Bergami who writes of the “artificiality of Gramsci's criticism", which “constructs in advance a condemnation for Trotsky's conceptions on account of abstractness and inconclusive tendency to prophesy, deeming them tainted with anachronistic and anti-natural Napoleonism".[64] On the contrary, Gramsci's explanation of the war of position and of the situation in advanced capitalist countries contains echoes of Trotsky's report on the united front at the fourth world congress of the CI, in which Gramsci himself participated.

How, then, are we to judge Gramsci's notes identifying Trotsky, in contrast to Lenin, as the theorist of the disastrous wars of movement, of “bayonet assault”?

Either this was a complete political capitulation, or Gramsci wanted to keep his criticism of a tactical turn in the CI away from the overall criticism of the degeneration of the USSR and the CI made by Trotsky and the Left Opposition since 1923. The latter, as already mentioned, seems to us the most rational hypothesis. Also because it takes into account, in order to frame Gramsci's position with respect to the CI, not only one issue – be it the letter of October 1926, the criticism of social-fascism or something else – but the whole context known to us.

Some re-examinations of the events claim that Bukharin, and not Trotsky, should be contrasted with Lenin: Lenin would be the theorist of hegemony and Bukharin the theorist of its abandonment. In this regard, there is a cryptic reference in the Notebooks to Bukharin who, in 1921 as in 1931, defended ultra-left theoretical positions. Gramsci's criticism of Bucharin's attempt to systematise and popularise Marxism through the Handbook of Popular Sociology reinforces this perception, further underlining the political degeneration and decline of Marxism in the USSR. In those passages, Gramsci analysed Bukharin’s philosophical writings and wrote that the growing fatalism and mechanistic determinism of the official ideology of the USSR was a symptom of prevailing passivity and signalled that the “subordinates” of the past were unable to act as a social force conscious of their tasks. On the other hand, Gramsci stressed that when silence, and not tumult, characterised the life of the party, this was an indication not of the real unification of different viewpoints, but of the suppression of debate from above. In a note dated April 1932, Gramsci analysed the phenomenon of “statolatry”, writing that it was a necessary process for a class, the proletariat, unable to live an independent and free life before the conquest of political power. But it would be a problem, Gramsci continued, if statolatry became entrenched and perpetual because every initiative would continue to be determined by state officials.[65] Beyond this point of analysis – certainly significant because it was written while, in the USSR, the state bureaucratic apparatus was concentrating ever more power at the expense of the working class – Gramsci did not go further.

There are no Gramscian notes on the theme of the progressive extinction of the state, a central theme in Lenin's thinking at least from State and Revolution and the April Theses up to his last political interventions. Nor are there any reflections that even hint at an approach to the theses on the process of bureaucratic and 'Thermidorian' degeneration of the Russian Revolution. In other words, the Notebooks and Gramsci's political evolution up to 1926 do not in any way allow us to affirm that the criticism against Trotsky, however incorrect and unjust, can be interpreted in a way that is substantially different from the letter of the text, as affirmed by numerous scholars, even of the far left.[66] Let us remember, on the other hand, that the tradition of Marxists, when subjected to harsh conditions of imprisonment and censorship, has always been to express only some parts of their thought, but never to write something that they did not agree with. We would be surprised if Gramsci behaved in a way that differed from this.

The same explosive testimony of Ercole Piacentini,[67] Gramsci's fellow-prisoner, on Gramsci's reflections on Stalinism as the “Thermidor” of the Russian Revolution – that is, precisely the fundamental theoretical knot on which the Russian and International Left Opposition regrouped – is not found in the Prison Notebooks. The critique of the Soviet regime remains focused on the peculiarities of the Third Period, which was only one of the programmatic expressions of Stalinism. Moreover, far from adopting a sectarian stance – one remembers the opportunism towards the Chinese Kuomintang in 1925-1927 or towards the leaders of the British trade unions during the nine-day general strike of 1926 – Stalinism normally had an opposite orientation: postponing the struggle for socialism to an indefinite and distant future. Stalinism was sectarian only in tactical terms and in a narrow phase of its history – struggling against the so-called social-fascism of the 1929-1934 period – and instead tended to act as a force for class collaboration, first with the popular fronts and later with the governments of national unity during the Second World War.

Gramsci's own critique of forced collectivisation, moreover, hinges on the condemnation of the abandonment of the patient work of hegemony, including compromises and sacrifices on the part of the working class, beginning with the NEP, which for Gramsci was the authentic basis of the Soviet regime and the starting point for his 1924-1926 criticism of the alleged “partial, partisan outlook” of the Left Opposition.[68]

The Prison Notebooks' notes on Trotsky therefore require, as much and more than other topics, a knowledge of Gramsci's political history and a hypothesis on its evolution in relation to the debates of the international communist movement.

What we do know for sure is that the Stalinist leadership of the PCI hid the famous letter of October 1926, judged by Togliatti to be too soft, in which Gramsci took a stand, on behalf of the party secretariat, in favour of Stalin against the Unified Opposition of Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev. The first to publish that letter in 1938 in the Nuovo Avanti! was Angelo Tasca, who in the meantime had broken with the PCI from the right.

In that text, Gramsci only criticised Stalin's excesses in his handling of the battle against the Unified Opposition, his desire to “over-win", and seemed to be under the illusion that he could continue the work of distancing the PCI from Bordiga's extremist approach, as Lenin and especially Trotsky had proposed to him during his stay in Moscow in 1922-1923, by remaining partially above the fray on the questions that were inflaming the CI. This seems to be the basis for his criticism of Bordiga, who was stubbornly moving towards an “international perspective", while Gramsci maintained the primacy, at that time, of “a national perspective", showing that he was permeated by a certain “provincialism” in approaching the problem of the conflict in the USSR.

Other communist leaders, especially in Europe, were already in those years clearer and more lucid in analysing the seeds of Stalinism and attempting to oppose it head-on: think of the Polish CP leadership or the French leadership of 1923-1924.

Gramsci's tactical approach in 1926 can be explained. On the one hand, without doubt, Gramsci was afraid of splitting the political unity painstakingly achieved by the leading group of the PCd'I, formed in 1923-1924, through a polemic against the Bordigian left, which at the time was considered to be in solidarity with Trotsky, over assessments of the evolution of the USSR and the Communist International. On the other hand, he shared the political theses of the majority of the CPSU around Stalin's fraction and deluded himself, not being at all clear about the social depth of the conflict within the CPSU, that he could contribute to its attenuation.

After the war, thanks to the testimony of comrades who had met him in prison, it became increasingly difficult to cover up Gramsci's disagreements with the party and the CI. In fact, there was a real break.

The Trotskyist leader Pietro Tresso, expelled from the PCdI's Political Bureau in 1930, wrote that Gramsci's expulsion for his opposition to the turn on “social-fascism” was a fact, but was not made public because it was established practice not to expel anyone for political differences while in prison or exile. Bordiga himself, for example, was only expelled at the end of his three years in exile.

However, the very nature of the main political conflict between Gramsci and the CI, namely the theory of 'social-fascism' and the renunciation in Italy of the Constituent Assembly slogan, subsequently served to consolidate the idea of a Gramsci who if he was not loyal to Moscow and Stalin, it is because he anticipated the subsequent “democratic” move to the Popular Fronts – imprinted in the political memory of progressive intellectuals as the “pluralist” turn of the CI, but, in reality, carried out worldwide by means of purges, political trials and physical eliminations perpetrated directly by Stalin's NKVD.

What Gramsci said in prison about the necessity of the democratic slogan – of the constituent assembly in a probable transitional phase in which, after the fall of fascism, the proletarian revolution did not have the strength to impose immediately itself – was not different, in the method followed, from what the Bolsheviks did in advancing transitional slogans in the eight months between the February and October revolutions. On this point, Gramsci's loyalty to the Lyon Theses of the 3rd congress of the PCI in 1926 is clear.

Gramsci also emphasised that in the constituent assembly the communists would have to demonstrate in practice the absolute illusory nature of a socialist transformation by institutional and parliamentary means. This is how the communist Athos Lisa reported to the PCdI headquarters in 1933 on the positions taken by Gramsci in prison:

“The revolutionary prospects in Italy must be set at two: that is, the most probable prospect and the least probable. Now, in my opinion, the most probable is that of the transition period. Therefore the party's tactics must be geared to this objective without fear of appearing unrevolutionary. It must adopt, before the other parties in the struggle against fascism, the slogan of the ‘Constituent Assembly’ not as an end in itself, but as a means.

"The ‘Constituent Assembly’ represents the form of action in the bosom of which the most heartfelt demands of the working class can be placed, in which the Party's action can and must take place, through its representatives, which must be aimed at devaluing all projects of peaceful reform, demonstrating to the Italian working class that the only possible solution in Italy resides in the proletarian revolution.”[69]

If, however, one erases this Gramsci and creates the image of a man reflecting in isolation on the “prick in the eye” that social-fascism was for him, then it is possible to paint a Gramsci who breaks with the ultra-left adventurism of the CI to land on social-democratic positions. Scholars of Bordigist orientation have been arguing this for decades, making a mirror opposite to those who have tried to forcibly construct an analogy between Gramsci and Trotsky.[70]

To complete the operation, however, it was also necessary to erase from memory the correspondence on the issue of the Constituent Assembly between Trotsky and the three former members of the PCdI Political Bureau, who founded the Italian Left Opposition in 1930. In those texts is political content compatible with those of Gramsci, at least as reported by Athos Lisa, and the idea, claimed in the post-war period by Leonetti, that the 1930 turn had definitively buried the “party of Gramsci": in the programme, in the method of analysis and also in the question of leadership. Regarding the future transitional period after the fall of Fascism in Italy, Trotsky wrote to Tresso, Leonetti and Ravazzoli in May 1930:

“(3) Following from what has been said comes the question of the “transitional” period in Italy. At the very outset it is necessary to establish very clearly: transition from what to what? A period of transition from the bourgeois (or “popular”) revolution to the proletarian revolution – that is the one thing. A period of transition from the fascist dictatorship to the proletarian dictatorship-that is something else. If the first conception is envisaged, the question of the bourgeois revolution is posed in the first place, and it is then a question of establishing the role of the proletariat in it. Only after that will the question of the transitional period toward a proletarian revolution be posed. If the second conception is envisaged, the question is then posed of a series of battles,” disturbances, changing situation, abrupt turns, constituting in their entirety the different stages of the proletarian revolution. These stages may be many. But in no case can they contain within them a bourgeois revolution or its mysterious hybrid, the “popular” revolution.

“Does this mean that Italy cannot, for a certain time, again become a parliamentary state or become a “democratic republic”? I consider – in perfect agreement with you, I think – that this eventuality is not excluded. But then it will not be the fruit of a bourgeois revolution, but the abortion of an insufficiently matured and premature proletarian revolution. [...] The enthronement of fascism resulted from the fact that the 1920 proletarian revolution was not carried through to its completion. Only a new proletarian revolution can overturn capitalism. If it should not be fated to triumph this time either (owing to the weakness of the Communist Party, manoeuvres and betrayals of the social democrats, the Freemasons, the Catholics), the “transitional” state that the bourgeois counter-revolution would then be compelled to set up on the ruins of the fascist form of its rule would be nothing else than a parliamentary and democratic state. [...] (4) But does this mean that we communists reject in advance all democratic slogans, all transitional or preparatory slogans, limiting ourselves strictly to the proletarian dictatorship? That would be a display of sterile, doctrinaire sectarianism. We do not believe for one moment that a single revolutionary leap suffices to cross what separates the fascist regime from the proletarian dictatorship.

“In no way do we deny a transitional period with its transitional demands including democratic demands. But it is precisely with the aid of these transitional slogans, which are always the starting point on the road to the proletarian dictatorship, that the communist vanguard will have to win the whole working class and that the latter will have to unite around itself all the oppressed masses of the nation. And I do not even exclude the possibility of the Constituent Assembly which in certain circumstances, could be imposed by the course of events or, more precisely, by the process of the revolutionary awakening of the oppressed masses. [...] If the revolutionary crisis were to break out, for example, in the course of the next months (under the influence of the economic crisis on the one hand, and under the revolutionary influence coming from Spain, on the other), the masses of toilers, workers as well as peasants, would certainly follow up their economic demands with democratic slogans (such as freedom of assembly, of press, of trade union organisation, democratic representation in parliament and in the municipalities). Does this mean that the Communist Party should reject these demands? On the contrary. It will have to invest them with the most audacious and resolute character possible. For the proletarian dictatorship cannot be imposed upon the popular masses. It can be realised only by carrying on a battle – a battle in full – for all the transitional demands, requirements, and needs of the masses, and at the head of the masses.”[71]

Independently, therefore, Gramsci had developed a reflection on the situation in Italy similar to that of Trotsky and the three Italian communist leaders who were to join the International Left Opposition in 1930. With regard to their expulsion from the Italian Communist Party, however, it cannot be ruled out that Gramsci had expressed a contrary opinion. In fact, the fear of a virulent rupture led him to suggest to his elder brother, Gennaro Gramsci, that he keep quiet to the party about the response he received from Antonio regarding the expulsion of the three, as well as the new line of the PCdI. In 1965, shortly before his death, Gennaro Gramsci is said to have recounted the political content of that conversation to the journalist-biographer Giuseppe Fiori in these terms: “he did not justify the expulsion and rejected the new line of the International, shared by Togliatti in his opinion too hastily.”[72] 

The common evaluations on the nature of the revolution that would overthrow the fascist regime in Italy are extremely relevant but, of course, do not erase what has been said on the general understanding of that historical period. Suffice it to say that the only direct reference in the Prison Notebooks on Bonapartism related to the historical development of the USSR identified the embryo of a tendency in that direction in the positions expressed by Trotsky during the 1920 debate on the function of trade unions after the seizure of power.[73]

Prison conditions obviously did not help Gramsci form an in-depth opinion. The hysterical climate of opponent-hunting, the responsibility for which lies with Stalinism, also penetrated the prisons and confinement and gave the final blow to any collective discussion among communists imprisoned by fascist repression. On the other hand, to make Gramsci a “semi-Trotskyist” or an “unconscious Trotskyist” would be an arbitrary operation and would do a service neither to Gramsci nor to Trotskyism.

Hegemony: an old Marxist concept

Kautsky Image public domainThe basis for hegemony is longstanding in the Marxist movement / Image: public domain

Many intellectuals, not least Norberto Bobbio, have suggested that the concept of hegemony is a Gramscian innovation, but this is not the case. A brief history of the concept is essential to unravelling the issue and understanding what readings and debates Gramsci had behind him.

The expression hegemony, in the nascent Russian Marxist movement, was used as early as the 1880s to define the role of the working class in the struggle against tsarism. For Plechanov as for Axelrod, but also for Lenin, the term signified the need for the proletariat to engage in a political struggle, in polemic with economist tendencies, and assert its supremacy over other classes in the bourgeois revolution against tsarism. Shortly after the 1903 split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Lenin accused the latter of abandoning the idea of hegemony – “the crudest aspect of reformism in Russian social democracy”[74] – by subordinating themselves politically to the leadership of Russian capital in the bourgeois-democratic revolution against tsarism.

In the early 20th century, that debate moved to Germany, which was at the heart of the labour movement. Kautsky contrasted the “strategy of attrition”, indefinitely long and central to the West, with that of overthrow. Attrition typified class struggle in the West since the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 – and here there is a coincidence with Gramscian references in the Prison Notebooks. The historical occasion for the ignition of this debate was the Russian Revolution of 1905 – when the soviets, advanced forms of proletarian power, appeared for the first time, which Kautsky wanted at all costs to exorcise, considering them a phenomenon typical of backward societies and not generalisable.

Kautsky, who put his faith in the advent of socialism through a succession of elections until a parliamentary majority was achieved, was harshly answered by Rosa Luxemburg. For the 'pope' of the Socialist International, the frontal assault of the Russian Revolution of 1905 was the product of the backwardness of that society, the general strike was a “primitive and amorphous” form of struggle, inappropriate in the West where it would have provided reaction with a pretext to repress the workers' movement, otherwise destined for an irresistible and gradual rise.

Lenin, in 1910, intervened in the debate alongside Luxemburg. He denounced the rigid opposition proposed by Kautsky between Tsarist Russia and the Europe of parliamentary democracies as the rationalisation of a capitulation to electoralism. Luxemburg also criticised the “rigid antithesis between revolutionary Russia and parliamentary Western Europe”, seeing in it the roots of an opportunist orientation. For Rosa, the strikes in Russia in 1905 which gave rise to the Council of Workers' Delegates in St Petersburg were “so far from being "amorphous and primitive" that in boldness, strength, class solidarity, tenacity, material gains, progressive aims and organizational results, they could safely be set alongside any "West European" union movement.”

Rosa drove the blow home further, summarising Kautsky's reasoning as follows:

“In short, the horizon of the forthcoming Reichstag elections smiles so promisingly that we would be guilty of criminal frivolity if we thought of any mass strike, when we have a certain victory in front of us, guaranteed by the ballot paper.”[75]

After the October Revolution, the term hegemony fell into disuse among the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik formula of the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants” within the capitalist system did not materialise. The prospect of the hegemony of the proletariat in a democratic revolution also fell through. The theoretical controversy that had seen the concepts of hegemony and dictatorship of the proletariat opposed to each other also came to an end.

In the documents of the CI, the slogan of hegemony was used to indicate the task of the proletariat to exercise leadership over the other exploited sectors of the population in the struggle against capitalism. In the 4th world congress of the CI (1922), the term was extended to the domination of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat when the former succeeds in reducing the action of the latter to a trade unionist framework, i.e. to a division between political and trade union struggle.[76]

From reading the Prison Notebooks, it is clear that Gramsci started from this political and even lexical tradition: in particular from the need for the proletariat to ally itself with other exploited sectors. Taking up a concept formulated by Trotsky, Gramsci clearly distinguished dictatorship of the proletariat, to be exercised against class enemies even by force; and hegemony, to be exercised over the peasantry whose “goodwill and enthusiasm” must be able to stand alongside the proletariat.

However, there was a note in the Prison Notebooks in which Gramsci mistakenly and hastily dismissed the theory of permanent revolution – the prism of Stalinist distortion is evident – as an abandonment of the search for an alliance between urban workers and peasants, that is, as an abandonment of the concept of hegemony.[77]

What did that concept become in the Notebooks?

If in some passages hegemony seems to be the prerogative of civil society, as opposed to the domination or coercion of the state, in other texts hegemony is analysed as the synthesis of consensus obtained through bodies which are regarded as private usually (not always) but which are embedded in the bourgeois order (schools, churches, radio, universities, etc.) and coercion. In the bourgeois parliamentary regime, Gramsci observed, hegemony was to be achieved preferably “without force overpowering consent.”[78] However, if hegemony is understood as consent-coercion, then it moves within the state itself and, at most, Gramsci would have maintained a difference in nuance by distinguishing political – i.e. state – and civil hegemony. What appears indisputable is that Gramsci did not formulate an original theory himself.

In the Prison Notebooks the words state, civil society and hegemony undergo a conceptual shift. What is the thread of these shifts? In Gramsci's work, the reflection moves from the question of the social alliances of the proletariat, especially in the “East", to an analysis of the structures of bourgeois political power in the “West", i.e. in countries with advanced capitalism. It remains true, however, that the main configuration of these terms (posthumously) was turned into an opposition between the East, where “the state is everything” and manoeuvre warfare is appropriate; and the West, where the war of position predominates and the state is the “external peel” of a civil society that is “robust and able to withstand strong shocks”.

But, so have the errant Gramsciologists have reasoned, if in the West hegemony prevails over coercion as a mode of expressing the power of the bourgeoisie, then it is “the cultural ascendancy of the ruling class that basically guarantees the stability of the capitalist order.”[79] And here so many Gramsciologists scramble to go further and attack the Marxist theory of the state as an organ of class domination. Far more profound was Lenin when he observed that the tsars ruled by force while the British and French bourgeoisie did so by deception, flattery, parliament and democratic concessions aimed at preserving the sanctity of private property.

But if, like the social democrat Tamburrano,[80] one wants to make Gramsci say more than he writes, then one goes beyond Gramsci himself to affirm, as reformists do (with a dash of postmodernism) that the state in the West is essentially no longer an class organ of repression as it was in Tsarist Russia, and that power is concentrated in the media more than in the means of production. If, in the West, the power of capital had taken the form of cultural hegemony, we would be led to recognise as valid the old reformist dogma about the viability of the electoral route to socialism. But this view, never expressed by Gramsci, forgets to consider that the 'normal' conditions of ideological subordination of the masses are based on coercion, at times silent and barely visible, that makes this possible: the monopoly of legal violence by the state. Without this material prerogative, the system of cultural control would immediately become fragile.

In Gramsci, the reflection on hegemony becomes mostly a reference to the solidity and articulation of bourgeois rule in the capitalist West. A tendency towards a greater degree of consensus by the oppressed can reduce the conspicuous expressions of the bourgeoisie's coercive domination, as was penetratingly illustrated by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder. Lenin had analysed, as early as Imperialism (1916), that one of the political effects of this new phase of capitalism was the formation, in the imperialist countries, of a “workers' aristocracy” thanks to the crumbs afforded from colonial super-profits. This concept was taken up again in 1920 in Left-Wing Communism:

“In countries more advanced than Russia, a certain reactionism in the trade unions has been and was bound to be manifested in a far greater measure than in our country. Our Mensheviks found support in the trade unions (and to some extent still do so in a small number of unions), as a result of the latter’s craft narrow-mindedness, craft selfishness and opportunism. The Mensheviks of the West have acquired a much firmer footing in the trade unions; there the craft-union, narrow-minded, selfish, case-hardened, covetous, and petty-bourgeois “labour aristocracy”, imperialist-minded, and imperialist-corrupted, has developed into a much stronger section than in our country. That is incontestable. The struggle against the Gomperses, and against the Jouhaux, Hendersons, Merrheims, Legiens and Co. in Western Europe is much more difficult than the struggle against our Mensheviks, who are an absolutely homogeneous social and political type.” [Emphasis ours][81]

Gramsci sketched out an analysis of the characteristics of the political systems of advanced capitalist countries, which were more capable of withstanding rupturing events such as economic crises and wars. In these contexts, Gramsci argued, it would be unlikely for the proletariat to make a frontal attack on the bourgeoisie without a long and difficult war of position – in fact, fighting to shift the balance of power at the subjective level. In this, it bears repeating, Gramsci did not innovate with respect to the theoretical achievements of the first four world congresses (1919-1922) of the Communist International.

Gramsci and Trotsky: the notes on permanent revolution, or rather still on war of manoeuvre and war of position (and united front)

The situation is more complicated if one considers the fragment of the Notebooks on Permanent Revolution. The expression, in Gramsci's notes, refers to Marx's address to the League of Communists in 1850, when he hypothesised a drastic leap from the bourgeois revolutions of 1848 to proletarian revolutions. That hypothesis, according to Gramsci, was erased from history with the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871. From then on, according to him, the political strategy of frontal attack would seem to be adoptable only in colonial and backward countries and not in the bourgeois democracies of the West.

Hegemony becomes an explanatory principle of class power structures in the stable bourgeois democracies typical of the West. Manoeuvre warfare would become a residual strategy, on the fringes of capitalist development. By contrast, in the West, where the state is only the “external trench” of class domination, the core is civil society, itself external to the economic sphere, unlike the common use of the term in Hegel and also in Marx. However, the shadow of Trotsky appears again, presented as the proponent of a doctrine that has become abstract and outdated. As already noted, the doctrine of permanent revolution is described in a caricatured form:

“Regarding the 'Jacobin' slogan that Marx launched at Germany in 1848-49, its complicated fortune should be noted. Taken up, systematised, elaborated, intellectualised by the Parvus-Bronstein group, it manifested itself inert and ineffective in 1905 and afterwards: it was something abstract, something for a scientific laboratory. The tendency that opposed it in this intellectualised manifestation, on the other hand, without using it 'on purpose', actually employed it in its historical, concrete, living form, adapted to time and place, as springing from all the pores of the society that needed to be transformed, of an alliance between two classes with the hegemony of the urban class. In the first case, Jacobin temperament without the appropriate political content, Crispi type; in the second case Jacobin temperament and content according to the new historical relations, and not according to an intellectualistic label.”[82]

In Gramsci, the analysis of the state and the question of united front tactics are linked. The state, however, is defined in a way that oscillates between three non-coincidental nuances: at times it would be an entity in a 'balanced' relationship with civil society (as opposed to the East), at others the “external and almost unnecessary bark” of civil society, but elsewhere also a “massive structure” that annihilates the autonomy of civil society. Moreover, if in some notes the state is opposed to civil society, in other, later notes, Gramsci seems to include civil society in the state. One cannot escape the impression of a certain confusion.

From the web of Gramscian notes, according to Anderson, a general connecting and interpretative line emerges: civil hegemony = war of position = united front. The chain of equivalences is convincing and seems to indicate Gramsci's conviction that the united front was to be adopted not as a tactic but as a strategy for an entire historical epoch.

In preparing his argument on the revolutionary tactics best suited to the advanced capitalist West, Gramsci had referred to the strategic debate among the supreme military leaders in the First World War. The immediate target of his critique was so-called Cadornism: a kind of political analogue of the ultra-leftism Gramsci was attacking. This is how he framed the question:

“General Krasnov's observation (in his novel) that the Entente (which did not want an imperial Russian victory because it did not want the eastern question to be definitively resolved in favour of tsarism) imposed on the Russian General Staff trench warfare (absurd given the enormous development of the front from the Baltic to the Black Sea, with large swampy and wooded areas) while the only possible option was manoeuvre warfare, is mere nonsense. In reality, the Russian army attempted manoeuvre and breakthrough warfare, especially in the Austrian sector (but also in East Prussia) and had brilliant, albeit short-lived, successes. The truth is that one cannot choose the form of warfare one wants, unless one has an overwhelming superiority over the enemy, and it is well known how many losses the obstinacy of the general staff in not wanting to recognise that the war of position was 'imposed' by the general relations of the opposing forces. [...] The same reduction must take place in the art and science of politics, at least as far as the more advanced states are concerned, where 'civil society' has become a very complex structure that is resistant to the catastrophic 'irruptions' of the immediate economic element (crises, depressions, etc.); the superstructures of civil society are like the system of trenches in modern warfare. Just as in modern warfare a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the whole of the adversary's defence system but had only destroyed its outer surface, and at the moment of attack and advance the assailants found themselves facing a still efficient defensive line, so it is in politics during great economic crises; nor do the attacking troops, as a result of the crisis, organise themselves at lightning speed, let alone acquire an aggressive spirit; reciprocally, the assailants do not become demoralised or abandon their defences, even in the midst of the rubble, nor do they lose faith in their own strength and future. Things certainly do not remain as they are, but what is certain is that the element of rapidity, of accelerated time, of the progressive and definitive march as the strategists of political cadornism would expect, is missing.The last such event in the history of politics were the events of 1917. They marked a decisive turning point in the history of political art and science.”[83]

The last lines of this passage, together with the observation on the failure of the Red Army's advance on Warsaw in August 1920, raise the question of a possible contrast between the strategy of the Bolsheviks in 1917 – who also used the united front method in that crucial year – and a correct strategy in advanced capitalist countries? In a later passage Gramsci seems to proceed to a theoretical treatment of this point, contrasting East and West sharply:

“In the East, the State was everything; civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relationship between the State and civil society, and in the trembling of the State one could immediately see a robust structure of civil society. The State was only an advanced trench, behind which stood a sturdy chain of fortresses and casemates; more or less, from State to State, you understand, but this precisely demanded careful reconnaissance of a national character.”[84]

The conclusions of this note are the passage most often used by commentators who support Gramsci's break with the vision of the original Communist International. Curiously enough, such an opposition between East and West had also been proposed by Bordiga in his February 1926 speech – also prepared together with Trotsky and in which the Neapolitan communist opposed Stalin and Bukharin – to the VI Plenum of the CI Executive:

“The development in Russia does not therefore give us any experience of fundamental importance as to how the proletariat is to overthrow the modern capitalist, liberal, parliamentary state, which has existed for many, many years and has a great capacity to defend itself [...] We must know how to attack and conquer the modern bourgeois state, a state which in armed struggle defends itself even more effectively than the tsarist autocracy was able to defend itself, and which, moreover, defends itself with the help of ideological mobilisation and the defeatist education of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. This problem in the history of the Russian Communist Party does not arise.”[85]

Contrary to the picture that emerges from Gramsci's sibylline references, Trotsky was by no means an 'offensive theorist' even in the field of military doctrine. In reply to Frunze, Trotsky thus emphasised the kind of connection between the political and military plan in the Red Army debate:

“Unfortunately there is no shortage of naive supporters of the offensive among our newly minted doctrinaires who, under the banner of a military theory, seek to introduce into our army circles the same one-sided 'ultra-left' tendencies that were already expressed at the 3rd Congress of the International in the guise of the offensive theory: whereas we are living in a revolutionary epoch, precisely for this reason (!) the communist party must implement the policy of the offensive. To translate 'ultra-left' conceptions into the language of military theory is to multiply its errors.”[86]

Trotsky criticised those who made manoeuvre or position an absolute principle: “Victory cannot be achieved without an offensive. But victory belongs to those who attack when it is necessary to attack, and not to those who attack first”.[87] Having settled the debate with the “offensive theorists", Trotsky developed his positions precisely on the probable distinction between future civil wars between the classes in the West and in the East, without any 'crudeness', and maintaining a revolutionary approach. For Trotsky, it was highly probable that, in the West, the use of positional warfare would be greater than in Russia:

“In highly developed countries, with huge population centres, with an already militarily framed White Guard, civil war can – and in many cases undoubtedly will – take on a far less dynamic, much tighter character, i.e. a character akin to positional warfare.”[88]

To these notes, Trotsky added that it should not be understood that the war between classes in the West could be reduced to a pure war of positions. There is no such clarification in the Gramsci of the Notebooks. This left him vulnerable to interpretation by Gramscian academia.

On the subject of Gramsci as a critic of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution, let us point out that the whole training of the Sardinian communist after the foundation of the PCdI, and in particular a letter written by Gramsci in February 1924 from Vienna, suggest a very good understanding of the debate that broke out in the USSR after Lenin's death and also a certain initial inclination towards Trotsky's political perspective,[89] which was abandoned rather quickly.

How can we explain, then, that in the Notebooks Gramsci criticises Trotsky's position, caricaturing it as a desire to export the revolution Napoleonically, i.e. by military and bureaucratic means?

We have no means of understanding whether Gramsci had changed his position and, in an intellectually unloyal way, disfigured the position with which he was polemicising; or whether he had decided to cover himself, or whether there is another explanation. The contradiction is real and is in Gramsci himself, and adjusting it to one’s tastes years or decades later would be unfair and exploitative.

Gramsci's characterisation of the permanent revolution as a kind of 'offensive theory' is without foundation. Gramsci attributes to Trotsky the positions of the “offensive theorists” who belonged, especially at the third world congress of the CI (1921), to an ultra-left opposition against Lenin and Trotsky.

It was in fact the latter two who were the first to argue within the CI that capitalism had entered a phase of relative stabilisation after the failures of the revolutionary wave of 1917-1920, and that this should have implied a change of tactics, primarily in Western Europe, to patiently win over the majority of the organised proletariat. The tactic of the united front served this purpose and the opposition to it came not from some supposed 'Eastern Marxist' but from important sectors of the young Western European Communist Parties,[90] including the Italian one, and including Gramsci himself, who saw this as a principled rapprochement to social democracy and therefore a betrayal.

In Germany, the discussion had taken on a dramatic aspect in 1921 because the application of the theory of the offensive, inspired in Moscow by Bela Kun and Bukharin (then still on the left of the party), had provoked the tragedy of the 'March action' when, following the provocation of the Prussian and social-democratic Interior Minister Horsing, who militarily occupied the mining areas of central Germany where the KPD had some of its bastions, the communist leadership went on the offensive in an insurrectionary action that exposed tens of thousands of communists to ruthless repression by the state. On that occasion the extremely harsh criticism of the overly mechanical shift from war of position to war of movement came from Lenin and Trotsky, who in Germany had openly supported the positions of the right wing of the party, favourable to the united front, and led until March 1921 by Paul Levi, who was expelled from the CI for the way he had immediately and publicly distanced himself from the “March action”.[91]

All this, Gramsci knew, and not by hearsay. During his stay in Moscow between the summer of 1922 and November 1923 it was Trotsky himself who discussed intensively with him to provoke his detachment from Bordiga's fraction. Gramsci, although still in a bloc with the left wing of the party,[92] was in fact considered one of the elements on which to focus in order to overcome the sectarianism of the nascent phase of the PCI. One therefore feels a certain disappointment in commenting on certain crude stances contained in the Prison Notebooks.

Gramsci today

Gramsci Grave Image Gabriele Di DonfrancescoWe must have a sober and balanced view of Gramsci's life and thought / Image: Gabriele Di Donfrancesco

It is necessary to give Gramsci what is Gramsci's, without fear of also highlighting his mistakes. The task is made more difficult by the endless Gramscian literature, a real polymorphous ideological blanket that prevents one from recognising him as a communist. The Prison Notebooks have lent themselves more than any other of his writings to the deformation of his entire character, heavily embalmed in a dense layer of reformist and liberal commonplaces.

Separating Gramsci from the gang of pundits who invoke him is an elementary duty for revolutionary Marxists. This must not, under any circumstances, prevent us from seeing the Notebooks for what they are, even when their disorganisation struggles to communicate the general sense of that unfinished work or when their prose is sometimes very indirect and thus expresses confusion – the result of a desire to mock censorship? Of terrible prison conditions? Of involution of thought?

However, it will always be useful to bear in mind that Gramsci, conceiving during his exile the idea of a history of intellectuals in Italy, sought advice first of all from Amadeo Bordiga and proposed to him a systematic discussion of his work. More than anything else, this episode indicates that Gramsci intended, with the work of the Prison Notebooks, to contribute to the development of Marxism as a revolutionary theory in his preferred terrain. In these terms, as early as 1923, he had identified a gap in the theoretical output of the workers' movement in Italy:

“Just think: in more than thirty years of existence, the Socialist Party has not produced a book that studies the economic-social structure of Italy. There is no book that studies the Italian political parties, their class links, their significance.”[93]

There is therefore nothing to suggest that Gramsci wanted to 'surpass' Marx and Lenin, considering them too narrow in making ideological superstructures depend on economic structures: the genuinely dogmatic mantra of legions of post or ex (or never) Marxist intellectuals, whom the last three-four decades have copiously thrown up.

However, it is true that, after the crisis of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International, it was Trotsky who developed Marxism in order to cope with new challenges. New generations of revolutionaries today must take these contributions as their starting point, training themselves in preparation for the imminent battles that await us.

Not at all attentive to subtleties, especially if they are inherent to the history of the international communist movement, the so-called Gramscians have thrown themselves like madmen into criticising the mechanical transposition in the West of the war of movement adopted by the Bolsheviks in the 'East', and have made a fetish of it. The aim, after all, is to break Gramsci's link with Lenin and the October Revolution. Presenting October 1917 as a coup d'état goes in the same direction. This crude, as well as reactionary, view ignores the fact that, for the Bolsheviks to seize power, it was necessary to gain hegemony in the workers', peasants' and soldiers' councils: mass bodies that in February 1917 were overwhelmingly led by reformists.

But there is also a more fundamental ignorance, in the removal of the fact that the Bolshevik leaders were almost all (with the exception of Stalin) trained in broad cultural horizons that were not at all related to the ambiguous concept of the 'East': competent in multiple languages, participating in the debates of the then-Socialist International; and in contact with the workers' movement in Germany, England, France, Italy, Switzerland, the United States, etc. – countries to which they had emigrated.

Moreover, consider Lenin and Trotsky's articles of 1922-23 on the importance of cultural work, especially in the countryside. What did they indicate if not, to use Gramscian terms, the identification of the need to deepen the hegemony of the proletariat over the allied classes? [94]

It is grotesque that the 'Gramscians', who are largely ignorant of the history of the communist movement, end up attributing as a distinctive trait of 'their' Gramsci a fine connoisseur of the complex mechanisms of western society: a finesse that, in reality, he matured in the Communist International. Indeed, for some years Gramsci thought, along with a good part of the PCI, that the CI was too busy manoeuvring and not sufficiently anchored to the general and unifying theoretical principles of Marxism.

But this matter, for the academic 'Gramscians', is a closed book; like the communist Gramsci – the only one who existed. The one that Pietro Tresso recalled in the magazine of the French Trotskyists:

“The comrades who came out of prison also told us that, two years ago, Gramsci had been expelled from the party, an expulsion that the leadership had decided to keep secret at least until Gramsci could speak freely. This was to exploit Gramsci's personality for their own ends. In any case, the Stalinist bureaucrats went to great lengths to bury Gramsci politically, before the Mussolini regime physically succeeded.

"Gramsci is dead, but for the proletariat, for the young generations coming to the revolution through fascist hell, he will always remain the man who, during the last twenty years, better than anyone else, embodied the suffering, aspirations and will of the poor workers and peasants of Italy. He will remain an example of moral uprightness and intellectual honesty that is absolutely inconceivable to the Stalinist coven of sycophants whose slogan is: 'get by'.

"Gramsci died, but after witnessing the decomposition and death of the party he had so powerfully helped to build, and after hearing in his ears the gunshots fired by Stalin that brought down an entire generation of old Bolsheviks. Gramsci died, but after hearing that other old Bolsheviks, such as Bukharin, Rykov and Rakovsky were already lined up for the slaughter. Gramsci died of a heart attack: perhaps we will not know what contributed most to killing him – whether the eleven years of suffering in Mussolini's prisons or the gunshots that Stalin had fired into the back of the heads of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Smirnov, Piatakov and their comrades in the dungeons of the GPU.

"Goodbye Gramsci.”[95]


[1] We refer, in the first place, to the factional editing job on the publication of Gramsci's works that came out in 1947 for Einaudi by Elsa Fubini and Felice Platone, supervised by Togliatti. For references, see G. Bergami, Il Gramsci di Togliatti e l'altro. L'autocritica del comunismo italiano, Le Monnier, Florence 1991, pp. 133-138.

[2] F. Ottolenghi, G. Vacca, "50 years after the death of the great communist. So Gramsci taught us to innovate with courage. Riflessioni di Natta su un'eredità storica", l'Unità, 18-1-1987.

[3] He, for example, wrote: "But Gramsci's insistence in 1937, first and foremost, on the new link (inconceivable in 1930, for example) between the Constituent Assembly and the Popular Front, acquires a greater significance, no longer clashes, but rather comes close to what some, if not all, of the Communist leaders in exile in the foreign centre thought", in P. Spriano, Gramsci in prison and the party, p. 108. The only evidence for this, however, was a note from the Stalinist leader Mario Montagnana to Togliatti, written on the very day of Gramsci's death, in which Montagnana informed Togliatti that he had learned from Sraffa that: "He [Gramsci] said that the popular brother in Italy is the Constituent Assembly", P. Spriano, ibidem, p. 102. However, it was Sraffa himself who invalidated Montagnana's statement in a letter addressed to Spriano himself, in P. Spriano, ibidem, p. 103.

[4] For a reconstruction of the historical genesis of "Western Marxism", see P. Anderson, Considerazioni sul marxismo occidentale, Laterza, Bari 1969.

[5] The Arditi del Popolo were a spontaneous and mass anti-fascist movement that emerged in 1921 in various Italian cities. Although politically heterogeneous in character, the social composition of the Arditi del popolo was strongly proletarian. But the PCdI, opposed to the possibility that its activists could organise themselves on the political and military terrain with “ideologically non-communist” workers, preferred to form its own self-defence organisation, separating its activists from the rest of the class. A decisive opportunity to halt the advance of the fascist militias was thus lost.

[6] L. Trotsky, Writings on Italy, Erre Emme, Rome 1990, p. 82.

[7] A. Gramsci, " Lettera a Negri " [Mauro Scoccimarro], 5-1-1924, in P. Togliatti (ed.), La formazione del gruppo dirigente del Partito Comunista italiano nel 1923-1924, Editori Riuniti, Rome 1962, p. 150.

[8] Cf. Masci [Antonio Gramsci] to Palmi [Palmiro Togliatti] and Urbani [Umberto Terracini], 9-2-1924, in ibidem, pp. 196-197.

[9] Ibid, p. 187.

[10] "Thesis on the tactics of the Comintern", in A. Agosti (ed.), La Terza Internazionale. Storia documentaria, vol. II (1924-1928), t. 1, Editori Riuniti, Rome 1976, p. 121.

[11] A Party born out of a right-wing split in the Italian Socialist Party, which had taken place in 1922.

[12] A revolutionary movement that developed in Italy after the First World War, between 1919 and 1920, culminating in the occupation of the country's main factories. The movement was defeated mainly because of the wavering line of the socialist party. 

[13] L. Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, Samonà and Savelli. Rome, p. 160.

[14] A. Gramsci, "Relazione al Comitato centrale", 6-2-1925, in A. Gramsci, La costruzione del partito comunista 1923-1926, Einaudi, Turin 1974, p. 473.

[15] The Decapitated Party, L'internazionale, Milan 1988, p. 149.

[16] La situazione italiana e i compiti del PCdI, tesi approvate dal III congresso del Partito Comunista d'Italia, gennaio 1926, in A. Gramsci, La costruzione del partito comunista 1923-1926, cit., p. 512.

[17] "The presentation and agitation of these intermediate solutions is the specific form of struggle that must be used against the self-styled democratic parties, which in reality are one of the strongest supports of the faltering capitalist order and as such alternate in power with reactionary groups, when these self-styled democratic parties are connected with important and decisive strata of the working population (as in Italy in the first months of the Matteotti crisis) and when a reactionary danger is imminent and serious (tactics adopted by the Bolsheviks towards Kerenski during the Kornilov coup)", La situazione italiana e i compiti del PCdI, tesi approvate dal III congresso del Partito Comunista d'Italia, gennaio 1926, in ibid.

[18] L. Trotsky, A Letter on the Italian Revolution, May 1930., p. 184.

[19] A. Gramsci, "An examination of the Italian situation", 2-3 August 1926, in A. Gramsci, La costruzione del partito comunista 1923-1926, cit., p. 124. The text constituted Gramsci's report to the party's executive committee of 2-3 August 1926.

[20] L. Trotsky, "Resolution on the general strike in Britain", July 1926, in L. Trotsky, On Britain, Monad Press, New York 1973, p. 255. The document was presented at the PCUS Plenum of 14-23 July 1926.

[21] La situazione italiana e i compiti del PCdI, tesi approvate dal III congresso del Partito Comunista d'Italia, gennaio 1926, in A. Gramsci, La costruzione del partito comunista 1923-1926, cit., p. 490.

[22] Ibid, p. 499.

[23] Ibid, p. 501.

[24] Ibid, p. 512.

[25] Ibid, p. 513.

[26] Ibid, p. 511.

[27] Ibid, pp. 505-506.

[28] "Such a split, regardless of the numerical results of the congress votes, can have the most serious repercussions, not only if the opposition minority does not accept with the utmost loyalty the fundamental principles of revolutionary party discipline, but also if it, in conducting its polemics and struggle, oversteps certain limits which are superior to all formal democracies", A. Gramsci, "To the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party", October 1926, in A. Gramsci, The Construction of the Communist Party 1923-1926, cit. p. 126. Gramsci, The Construction of the Communist Party 1923-1926, cit., p. 126.

[29] "This campaign, if it shows how immoderate are still the sympathies which the Republic of Soviets enjoys among the great masses of the Italian people who, in some regions, for six years, have received nothing but a scanty amount of illegal party literature, it also shows how Fascism, which knows the real internal Italian situation very well and has learned to deal with the masses, seeks to use the attitude of the opposition bloc to break definitively the workers' firm aversion to Mussolini's government and to bring about a state of mind in which fascism appears at least as an ineluctable historical necessity, despite the cruelties and evils that accompany it", ibid, p. 127.

[30] Ibid, p. 129.

[31] Ibid, p. 130. 

[32] “Comrades Zinoviev, Trotsky, Kamenef have contributed powerfully to educating us for the revolution, they have sometimes corrected us very energetically and severely, they have been among our teachers. We turn to them in particular as the ones most responsible for the present situation, because we want to be sure that the majority of the USSR Central Committee does not intend to win the struggle and is prepared to avoid excessive measures", ibid.

[33] P. Togliatti to A. Gramsci, 18-10-1926, in A. Gramsci, La costruzione partito comunista 1923-1926, cit. Gramsci, La costruzione del partito comunista 1923-1926, cit., p. 132.

[34] "In any case, precisely in view of this and of the possibility of such an appearance, in an additional letter I had authorised you to modify the form: you could very well have postponed the two parts and put our affirmation of the "responsibility" of the opposition at the beginning. This way of reasoning of yours therefore made a very painful impression on me", A. Gramsci to P. Togliatti, 26-10-1926, in ibidem, p. 135.

[35] Ibid, p. 136.

[36] P. Togliatti, "Antonio Gramsci capo della classe operaia italiana", Lo Stato Operaio, no. 5-6, 1937.

[37] E. Riboldi, Vicende socialiste. Trent'anni di storia italiana nei ricordi di un deputato massimalista, Edizioni Azione Comune, Milan 1964, p. 182.

[38] For an inversion of the relationship between national and international, read the following note by Gramsci: "Do international relations precede or follow (logically) the fundamental social relations? They undoubtedly follow", A. Gramsci, Notebook 13, Note 2. Or the following note, which is more articulate: "Certainly the development is towards internationalism, but the starting point is 'national' and it is from this starting point that we need to start. But the perspective is international and can only be so. It is therefore necessary to study exactly the combination of national forces that the international class will have to direct and develop according to the international perspective and directives. The ruling class is only such if it interprets this combination exactly, of which it is itself a component and as such can give the movement a certain direction in certain perspectives. On this point, it seems to me, is the fundamental disagreement between Leo Davidovici [Trotsky] and Bessarion [Stalin] as interpreter of the majority movement. The accusations of nationalism are inept if they refer to the core of the question. If one studies the effort from 1902 to 1917 on the part of the majoritarians [Bolsheviks] one sees that its originality consists in purging internationalism of every vague and purely ideological element (in a deterrent sense) in order to give it a content of realistic politics. The concept of hegemony is the one in which the demands of a national character are knotted together, and it is understandable how certain tendencies do not speak of this concept or only skim it. A class with an international character, insofar as it guides social strata which are strictly national (intellectuals) and indeed often less than national, particularist and municipalist (peasants), must 'nationalise' itself, in a certain sense, and this sense is not very narrow, because before the conditions of an economy according to a world plan are formed, it is necessary to go through multiple phases in which the regional combinations (of groups of nations) can be varied", A. Gramsci, Notebook 14, Note 68.

[39] Cf. F. Coen (ed.), "Hegemony and democracy. Gramsci e la questione comunista nel dibattito di Mondoperaio", supplement to Mondoperaio, n. 7/8, July-August 1977, pp. 64-65.

[40] L. Colletti, "Addio a lui e a Turati", L'Espresso, 8-3-1987.

[41] A. Gramsci, Notebook 13, footnote 17.

[42] The dynamics of that transition, however, must have been very clear to Gramsci, who wrote: "Differences between France, Germany and Italy in the process of the bourgeoisie (and England) seizing power. In France there is the richest process of developments and active and positive political elements. In Germany the process takes place in some respects in ways that resemble those in Italy, in others in England. In Germany the '48 movement failed because of the lack of bourgeois concentration (the Jacobin type slogan was given by the extreme democratic left: "revolution in permanence") and because the question of state renewal was intertwined with the national question; the wars of '64, '66 and '70 resolved the national and class question in an intermediate type: the bourgeoisie obtains the economic-industrial government, but the old feudal classes remain as the governing class of the political state with extensive corporate privileges in the army, administration and land: but at least, if these old classes retain so much importance and enjoy so many privileges in Germany, they exercise a national function, they become the ‘intellectuals’ of the bourgeoisie, with a certain temperament given by caste origin and tradition. In England, where the bourgeois revolution took place earlier than in France, we have a phenomenon similar to the German one of fusion between the old and the new, despite the extreme energy of the English ‘Jacobins’, i.e. Cromwell's ‘roundheads’; the old aristocracy remains as a governmental class, with certain privileges, it too becomes the intellectual class of the English bourgeoisie (after all, the English aristocracy has open cadres and is continually renewed with elements coming from the intellectuals and the bourgeoisie)", in A. Gramsci, Quaderno 19, Quaderno 19, p. 1. Gramsci, Notebook 19, Footnote 24.

[43] R. Guastini, Note sul Machiavelli, sulla politica e sullo Stato moderno, in AA. VV., Gramsci un'eredità contrastata. La nuova sinistra rilegge Gramsci, Ottaviano, Milan 1979, p. 82.

[44] N. Badaloni, Il marxismo di Gramsci. Dal mito alla ricomposizione politica, Einaudi, Turin 1975.

[45] Cf. Avanti! , 11-2-1920.

[46] A. Gramsci, Notebook 9, footnote 53.

[47] Cf. P. Anderson, The Debate in Western Marxism, op. cit., pp. 97-119.

[48] In this regard, a penetrating critique of contemporary academic production on Gramsci is available in E. Saccarelli, Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism. The Political Theory and Practice of Opposition, Routledge, London 2008, pp. 21-86.

[49] Quoted in J. Buttigieg, International Gramsci Society Newsletter, March 1993.

[50] "[A]s the admirably sophisticated Western Marxist (innocent of the reductionism of some unspecified vulgar orthodoxy), as the able theorist of the superstructure (already veering toward that cultural and linguistic turn that defines large sections of contemporary academia), or, perhaps most stunningly, as himself the theoretical incesto of a post-Marxist turn", Saccarelli, op. cit. , p. 23.

[51] Cf. A. S. Sassoon, "From realism to creatività: Gramsci, Blair and Us", in A. Coddington e M. Perryman (a c. di), The Moderniser's Dilemma: Radical Politics in the Age of Blair, Lawrence & Wishart, Londra, 1998, p. 160.

[52] "[W]e read Gramsci the way we may read, say, Michel Foucault. Brennan identifies much of what is wrong with such an operation. It ignores the distinctiveness of revolutionaries, of party intellectuals like Gramsci", Saccarelli, op. cit. , p. 25.

[53] A. Giardiello, " Operaismo. La disfatta di un'utopia letale ", Falcemartello, no. 1, 2015.

[54] A. Gramsci, Notebook 15, Footnote 10.

[55] By Luigi Cadorna, an Italian general of the First World War, known for launching a series of frontal offensives against the solid Austrian defence lines on the Isonzo and Karst, which resulted in bloody failures.

[56] A. Gramsci, Notebook 6, footnote 138.

[57] A. Gramsci, Notebook 7, Footnote 16.

[58] "[P]rotective device designed by the author to defuse the danger of his fierce critique of the Stalinist Third Period", Saccarelli, op. cit. , p. 83.

[59] "[F]lippant internationalist and a ultra-left adventurer", ibidem, p. 82.

[60] Bergami, Gramsci communista critico, Franco Angeli, Milan 1981, p. 76.

[61] By Nikolai Ivanovich Bucharin, a Bolshevik leader who, after advocating extremist left-wing positions in the first years after the October Revolution, had become the main exponent of the right wing in the party and the International.

[62] In March 1921 the German Communist Party launched a reckless attempt at insurrection, conducted at an unfavourable time and without the necessary support of the masses.

[63] "as the villain", Saccarelli, op cit. , p. 82.

[64] G. Bergami, op. cit. , p. 77.

[65] Cf. "For some social groups, which before the rise to autonomous state life have not had a long period of independent cultural and moral development of their own (as in mediaeval society and absolute governments was made possible by the juridical existence of privileged states or orders), a period of statolatry is necessary and indeed opportune: this 'statolatry' is nothing other than the normal form of 'state life', of initiation, at least, into autonomous state life and the creation of a 'civil society' which it was not possible historically to create before the rise to independent state life. However, this 'statolatry' must not be abandoned to itself, it must not, especially, become theoretical fanaticism, and be conceived as 'perpetual': it must be criticised, precisely so that it develops, and produces new forms of state life, in which the initiative of individuals and groups is 'state' even if it is not due to the 'government of officials' (making state life 'spontaneous')", A. Gramsci, Quaderno 8, Note 130. On the same theme, declined in the analysis of individual action, see also A. Gramsci, Note 142.

[66] In addition to the already mentioned Saccarelli, see P. Anderson, Ambiguità di Gramsci, cit.; F. Benvenuti- S. Pons, "L'Unione Sovietica nei 'Quaderni del carcere'", in G. Vacca (ed.), Gramsci e il Novecento, Carocci, Rome 1999, pp. 108-109 and 119. More recently, a forced attempt to harmonise Gramsci and Trotsky has been made by J. Dal Maso, El marxismo de Gramsci, Ediciones IPS, Buenos Aires, 2016.

[67] Cf. E. Piacentini, "Con Gramsci in carcere", test. Collected by P. Giannotti, in Rinascita, a. XXXI (1974), n. 42, p. 32 ; D. Gamba, In prigione con Gramsci. Storia di Ercole Piacentini combattente della libertà, Pascal Editrice, 2005.

[68] Gramsci, in particular, shared the criticism made in 1925 by Bukharin, who advocated a deepening of the NEP, of the theory of permanent revolution. See N. Bucharin, "The Theory of Permanent Revolution", Communist Review, a. V, no. 10, February 1925. 

[69] Report by Athos Lisa drafted in Paris on behalf of Togliatti on 22 March 1933, originally published in Rinascita on 12 December 1964, is now in A. Lisa, Memorie. Lisa, Memoirs. In carcere con Gramsci, preface by U. Terracini, Feltrinelli, Milan 1973, p. 88.

[70] Cf. C. Riechers, Gramsci e le ideologie del suo tempo, Graphos, Genoa 1993; A. Peregalli (ed.), Il comunismo sinistra e Gramsci, Dedalo libri, Bari 1978. Peregalli (ed.), Il comunismo di sinistra e Gramsci, Dedalo libri, Bari 1978.

[71] L. Trotsky, A Letter on the Italian Revolution (May 1930) https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/italy.htm.

[72] G. Fiori, Vita di Antonio Gramsci, Laterza, Bari 1966, p. 292.

[73]"The tendency of Leo Davidovi [Trotsky] was linked to this problem. Its essential content was the ‘will’ to give supremacy to industry and industrial methods, to accelerate by coercive means the discipline and order in production, to adapt customs to the needs of work. It would necessarily have led to a form of Bonapartism, so it was necessary to break it up inexorably. Its practical solutions were wrong, but its concerns were right. In this imbalance between practice and theory lay the danger. This had already manifested itself earlier, in 1921. The principle of coercion in the world of work was right (speech given in the volume on Terrorism and pronounced against Martov), but the form it had taken was wrong: the military ‘model’ had become a baleful prejudice, the armies of labour failed", A. Gramsci, Notebook 4, Footnote 52.

[74] V. I. Lenin, Complete Works, Editori Riuniti, Rome, vol. XVII, p. 215.

[75] R. Luxemburg, Selected Writings, Einaudi, Turin, p. 345.

[76] P. Anderson, Gramsci's Ambiguities, op. cit., pp. 29-30.

[77] Cf. A. Gramsci, Notebook 1, footnote 44.

[78] Cited in P. Anderson, Ambiguities of Gramsci, op. cit., p. 39.

[79] Ibid, p. 43.

[80] N. Tamburrano, Gramsci, Sugarco, Milan 1977.

m[81] V. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, 2003.

[82] A. Gramsci, Notebook 1, footnote 44.

[83] A. Gramsci, Notebook 13, footnote 44.

[84] A. Gramsci, Notebook 13, footnote 44.

[85] A. Bordiga, Scritti scelti, Feltrinelli, Milan 1975, pp. 190-191.

[86] L. Trotsky, Military Writings, New York, p. 47.

[87] Ibid, p. 88.

[88] Ibid, pp. 84-85.

[89] P. Togliatti (ed.), La formazioone del gruppo dirigente del PCI nel 1923-1924, cit. pp. 187-189.

[90] It should also be noted that, at the time, two figures like Korsch and Lukacs, who later became part of the elite of 'Western Marxism', opposed the tactics of the single front from ultra-left positions and imbued with a deep voluntarism about 'doing as Russia did', without having really studied the dynamics of October in depth.

[91] Levi's analysis of the March action, translated into English, is now in P. Levi, In the steps of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. by David Fernbach, Historical Materialism Books, London 2011.

[92] In June 1922, for example, Gramsci defended Bordiga's critical position on the united front at the second meeting of the enlarged executive of the Third International.

[93] A. Gramsci, La voce della gioventù, 1-11-1923.

[94] Cf. L. Trotsky, Revolution and Everyday Life, Savelli, Rome, 1972.

[95] Blasco [Pietro Tresso], "Un grand militant est mort... Gramsci", La lutte des classes, no. 44, 14-5-1937.

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