The life, times and ideas of Antonio Gramsci

Submitted by Matthew on 16 April, 2010 - 3:55 Author: Martin Thomas

Antonio Gramsci arrived as a student at Turin University in 1911 and joined the Socialist Party in 1914. He had had a difficult struggle to get to university — his family was poor — and while at university suffered very bad health.

Turin was one of the foremost industrial cities of Italy. Its population had increased from 338,000 to 430,000 between 1901 and 1911, with the growth of the great car factories such as Fiat.

Turin and a few other northern cities were, however, the exception in Italy. Overall Italy was not much more industrialised than Russia. Only about 12% of the employed population were industrial workers.

Figures for 1910:

Cotton consumption, kg per head

Russia 3.0, Italy 5.4

Steel production, kg per head

Russia 38, Italy 28

Coal consumption, kg per head

Russia 300, Italy 270

Italy, like Russia, was a country with some big concentrations of advanced, large-scale industry in the midst of a mainly agricultural and backward economy. Italy’s agriculture was not more productive than Russia’s.

The biggest structural difference was the much greater development of the cities in Italy. In 1910, Russia had two big cities, and they contained about 2% of the country’s population. Italy had six, and they contained 9%. 86% of Russia’s population was in agriculture, and only 60% of Italy’s.

This also meant, however, that the industrial city of Turin was less central in Italian politics than the industrial city of St Petersburg in Russian politics. Turin was overshadowed in politics by the much less industrial cities of Rome and Naples. The workers of Turin could be isolated and marginalised in a way that the workers of St Petersburg — or London, or Paris, or Berlin, or Barcelona — could not.

Italy had vastly more small-scale urban crafts, small industry, and services than Russia.

Italy, too, was a more or less developed bourgeois democracy, shaped as such in the battles for the unification of Italy between 1859 and 1870. The feudalistic landlord classes of the south had been hegemonised and co-opted by the northern-based bourgeoisie.

The dominant strategy of Italian governments in the early years of the 20th century, under Giovanni Giolitti, was to co-opt northern industrialists and workers by concessions and protectionism, while squeezing the poverty-stricken southern peasantry (many already dependent on remittances from family members who had migrated to work in the USA or Argentina) without mercy.

The Turin working class had a history of big struggles. In spring 1906, after a general strike in most of the northern industrial cities, the textile workers of Turin won an eight hour day. In March 1906 Fiat signed a contract recognising the ten hour day and the workers’ “Internal Committees” (something like shop stewards’ committees).

In summer 1907 a strike for an Internal Committee at Savigliano failed, and in October a protest strike against the shooting of workers in Milan was defeated.

In January 1912 a strike for a shorter working week failed, but a 57 hour week was finally won by a 93-day general strike in 1913.

Italy initially stayed out of World War One, and the Italian Socialist Party opposed the war. By the time Italy joined the war on the side of Britain and France in April 1915, war enthusiasm was ebbing everywhere, and the Socialist Party continued to oppose the war.

There was a wave of strikes in 1915 against Italy entering the wear, and a bigger wave of strikes, with street-fighting, in August 1917. But the Socialist Party responded passively, rather than fighting to extend the strikes and bring them to victory.

The factory councils

By this time Gramsci was working as a journalist on the local Socialist Party press. He welcomed the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution, writing:

”The Bolshevik revolution is a revolution against Marx’s Capital. In Russia, Capital had more influence among the bourgeoisie than among the proletariat. It demonstrated critically how by fatal necessity a bourgeoisie would be constituted in Russia, how a capitalist era would be inaugurated there, how Western-style civilisation would flourish there, long before the proletariat could even think of its own liberation, of its own class interests, of its own revolution... “[This is an exaggerated reference to the role of “legal Marxists” like Struve who took Marx’s theory one-sidedly as a celebration of the progressive role of capitalism, and became important figures in bourgeois liberal politics].

“The Bolsheviks have denied Karl Marx, and they have affirmed by their actions, by their conquests, that the laws of historical materialism are less inflexible than was hitherto believed”.

The Socialist Party was dominated by the so-called “maximalist” faction, led by Giacinto Serrati. They made many loud calls for revolution — and sincere ones, too: Serrati would end up in the Communist Party — but could see no way of developing workers’ actual struggles towards that revolution other than strengthening the Communist Party and waiting for capitalism to collapse through economic crisis.

In March 1919 the whole Socialist Party voted to affiliate to the Communist International. Not even the reformist right wing — a small minority led by Turati, who however controlled the SP group in Parliament — dared oppose affiliation.

The main left-wing faction in the SP was led by Amadeo Bordiga, an activist in Naples. Bordiga’s concept of revolution depended on building up an absolutely pure and hard Communist Party. If the Communist Party stuck to a pure revolutionary line, the masses would eventually come to it, and the Party would seize power. But otherwise the party would just bolster up reformist solutions for the bourgeoisie.

Up to mid-1920, Bordiga’s main quarrel with Serrati was that Bordiga opposing socialist participation in elections, while Serrati supported it.

Gramsci’s 1917 article represented a groping towards a more activist, interventionist conception of revolutionary politics.

In April 1919 Gramsci and a few others founded a new socialist party for Turin, Ordine Nuovo. Gramsci wrote later: ”The only unifying sentiment arose out of a vague passion for proletarian culture. We wanted to act, act, act...” They began to ask: “Is there in Italy, or Turin, the germ, the feeblest wish for, or even any fear of, government by Soviets?”

Gramsci answered yes. The germ was there in the Internal Committees.

The Internal Committees did not look promising as embryo Soviets. They were normally nominated by the trade union officials, and they ignored the numerous workers who were not trade union members.

In June 1919 Ordine Nuovo started its campaign for the Internal Committees to be transformed into factory councils, elected by the whole workforce. In September 1919 the first factory council was founded, at the Brevetti branch of the Fiat complex. By 26 October, 50,000 workers were represented by factory councils; by the end of the year, 150,000.

Gramsci wrote: “Ordine Nuovo, for us and those who followed us, became ‘the paper of the factory councils’.”

”The factory council is the model of the proletarian state. All the problems inherent in the organisation of the proletarian state are inherent in the organisation of the council.

In the one and the other, the concept of citizen declines and is replaced by the concept of the comrade... Everyone is indispensable; everyone is at his post; and everyone has a function and a post.

Even the most ignorant and backward of the workers, even the most vain and ‘civil’ of engineers, eventually convinces himself of this truth in the experience of factory occupation. Everyone eventually acquires a communist viewpoint through understanding the great step forward that the communist economy represents over the capitalist economy...”

The right wing and the centre of the Socialist Party were cool on the factory councils because they saw them as cutting across union organisation. Bordiga was cool because he saw the factory councils project as a syndicalistic diversion from fighting for state power. Arguably, he was not entirely wrong. The orientation to the factory councils in the big metal-working factories, where almost all workers were male, meant a lack of attention to other sections of the working class, including most working-class women.

The big metal-working factories were, however, the biggest working-class concentrations in Italy. In April 1920, they led a huge general strike in Turin. The Socialist Party ran no organised campaign to support the workers, and they were defeated.

In June the workers were in struggle again, occupying the factories and continuing production under workers’ management. The Socialist Party delegated the task of doing something about the occupations to the leading trade union officials. The union officials organised a referendum in September 1920, posing the question as immediate revolution or negotiations.

A small majority voted for negotiations, and the occupations were defeated. Gramsci wrote: “The emancipation of the proletariat is not a labour of small account and of little men; only he who can keep his heart strong and his will as sharp as a sword when the general disillusionment is at its worst can be regarded as a fighter for the working class or called a revolutionary”.

The workers’ defeat opened the way for the rise of fascism. Mussolini would take power in October 1922 and consolidate it by 1926. But that was six years. Much remained in the balance over those six years. Gramsci set about trying to shape a new Italian Communist Party to weigh in the balance.

Gramsci and the working-class newspaper

Some of the ideas he would bring in to that battle had already been shaped in Gramsci’s editing of the paper Ordine Nuovo.

Gramsci saw the common run of socialist journalism in his time as agitational, simplistic, bombastic, economistic. Ordine Nuovo was different, much more reflective and “highbrow”. He conceived of it as “a communist cultural review”.

”We have... set out what we believe a paper, a communist cultural review, should be. Such a paper must aim to become, in miniature, complete in itself, and, even though it may be unable to satisfy all the intellectual needs of the nucleus of men who read and support it, who live a part of their lives around it, and who impart to it some of their own life, it must strive to be the kind of journal in which everyone will find things that interest and move him, that will lighten the daily burden of work, economic struggle, and political discussion.

“At the least, the journal should encourage the complete development of one’s mental capacities for a higher and fuller life, richer in harmony and in ideological aims, and should be a stimulus for the development of one’s own personality”.

“The workers loved Ordine Nuovo (this we can state with inner satisfaction), and why did they love Ordine Nuovo? Because in the articles of the journal they found something of themselves, their own better selves; because they felt that the articles in it were permeated with their own spirit of self-searching: ‘How can we free ourselves? How can we realise ourselves?’

“Because the articles in Ordine Nuovo were not of cold intellectual construction but flowed out of our own discussions with the best workers and set forth the feelings, wishes, real passions of the Turin working class of which we had partaken and which we had stimulated. And also because the articles in Ordine Nuovo were almost a ‘putting into action’ of real events, seen as forces in a process of inner liberation and as the working class’s own expression of itself. That is why the workers loved Ordine Nuovo, and that is how the idea of Ordine Nuovo developed”.

The Italian Communist Party

After the Second Congress of the Communist International, in 1920, Bordiga accepted the policy of the International in favour of taking part in elections. The chief issue between him and Serrati came to be that of splitting the Socialist Party.

Bordiga wanted to split quickly and form a hard Communist Party, however small. Serrati wanted to continue with a united party, though he admitted that some of the worst reformists would eventually have to be expelled.

In May 1920, Gramsci wrote a document entitled Towards the Renewal of the Socialist Party. He warned: “The present phase.. in Italy... precedes either the conquest of political power on the part of the revolutionary proletariat... or a tremendous reaction on the part of the propertied classes and governing caste... a bid to smash once and for all... the Socialist Party and to incorporate... the trade unions... into the machinery of the bourgeois state”.

In response: “The [party] leadership... must become the motor centre for proletarian action in all its manifestations... Communist groups in all factories, unions, etc.... must develop the propaganda needed to conquer the unions, the Chambers of Labour [like Trades Councils] and the General Confederation of Labour in an organic fashion, and so become the trusted elements whom the masses will delegate to form political Soviets and exercise the proletarian dictatorship”.

The document gained the support of Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders. But from then to 1922, Gramsci largely went along with Bordiga. He made no attempt to organise a distinct faction outside Turin.

In January 1921 Bordiga finally forced through a split. It was messy. The Socialist Party had had 216,000 members in 1920. After the split the Socialist Party (Serrati-Turati) and the Communist Party had a combined membership of less than 100,000. In 1922 the Socialist Party expelled the reformists, and in 1924, under pressure from the Communist International and against Bordiga’s protests, the “Terzini” faction of the Socialist Party, led by Serrati, was separated from the Socialist Party and joined the Communist Party.


The fascist movement grew at enormous speed after the workers’ defeat in 1920. The bourgeoisie, frightened after 1920, and faced with economic depression in 1921-2, gave it support. Significant numbers of pre-1914 syndicalist militants rallied to the fascist leader Mussolini, who was himself a former member of the Socialist Party.

In October 1922 Mussolini took power. At first he went cautiously, not even changing the constitution for two years. In May 1924 the reformist-Socialist parliamentary deputy Giacomo Matteotti was murdered after openly denouncing Mussolini in Parliament. In the months that followed, the fascist regime was shaken by mass revolt. But it weathered the storm, and in October 1926 imposed the “Exceptional Laws” which stamped out all labour movement and political activity.

”The Italian Communist Party came into being almost simultaneously with fascism. But the same conditions of revolutionary ebb tide, which carried the fascists to power, served to deter the development of the Communist Party.

“It did not give itself an accounting as to the full sweep of the fascist danger; it lulled itself with revolutionary illusions; it was irreconcilably antagonistic to the policy of the united front; in short, it was stricken with all the infantile diseases.

“Small wonder! It was only two years old. In its eyes, fascism appeared to be only ‘capitalist reaction’. The particular traits of fascism which spring from the mobilisation of the petty bourgeoisie against the proletariat, the Communist Party was unable to discern. Italian comrades inform me that, with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party would not even allow for the possibility of the fascists’ seizing power...” (Trotsky, writing in 1932).

There was confusion not only in the Italian Communist Party but also in the International. Stalin and Zinoviev declared that fascism and social democracy were “twins”.

Yet Gramsci failed to fight for his analysis against Bordiga. In summer 1921 workers had spontaneously formed anti-fascist defence squads. Bordiga condemned these squads as a diversion from the proper task of the revolutionary party, and a taking of sides in an internal quarrel of the bourgeoisie with which workers had no concern. The fight against fascism was inseparable from the fight against the bourgeoisie as a whole, and must by led by the CP.

The Socialist Party also opposed the defence squads, advocating peaceful resistance. Gramsci seems to have disagreed with Bordiga, yet he did not support the small faction in the CP, led by Angelo Tasca, which argued for support for the defence squads and for a general policy of united front.

The Fourth Congress of the Comintern

Bordiga was opposed to the “united front” policy of the Communist International, other than in the trade-union sphere, where he accepted it. In March 1922 his view was accepted by the Communist Party, in the “Rome Theses”. Gramsci voted for the Rome Theses, though later he would explain his vote as being because he did not wish to disrupt the party.

In mid-1922 Gramsci went to Russia for the Fourth Congress of the Communist International; after the Congress he stayed on as resident member of the Executive of the International, although much of the time he was out of action through ill health. He married Julia Schucht, a Russian.

In Russia Gramsci was won over to the policy of the united front. Early in 1923, the fascist government in Italy arrested Bordiga and other prominent leaders of the Italian CP. In June 1923 the Executive of the International decided to reconstitute the CP leadership from outside, and from September Gramsci became the effective leader of the party, operating from Vienna together with other people from the former Ordine Nuovo group.

The rank and file of the party was still deeply Bordigist, and it was not until 1925 or 1926 that Gramsci and his friends really reoriented the party. By then it was too late.

The process was complicated by the fact that the degeneration of the Communist International had already begun. In the “Lyons Theses” drafted by Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, and adopted by the CP in January 1926, Comintern policy on “Bolshevisation” was followed to include a ban on factions within the CP.

Still, Gramsci restated his claim for an interventionist party, against Bordigism. “Only as a consequence of its action among the masses can the Party obtain recognition as ‘their’ Party”.

The Lyons Theses also included a social-historical analysis of Italy, particularly of the “Southern Question”, and of fascism.

In May 1924 Gramsci returned to Italy. He was able to operate for a while with the legal privileges of a member of parliament. In November 1926 the fascist government put him in jail, and would keep him there until a few days before his death in 1937.

Gramsci in prison

For most of his ten years in prison Gramsci was seriously ill. For most of it he was also isolated (though there was an initial period when he was in the same jail as Bordiga and the two of them, personally friendly, shared the task of organising lectures and seminars for the other political prisoners). He depended heavily for his contact with the outside world on his friend Piero Sraffa (by then a professor of economics at Cambridge) and his sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht. His wife Julia suffered a nervous breakdown and would let months or years pass by without writing to him.

In 1930 Gramsci’s brother was able to discuss with him a crisis in the Italian CP. Three members of the Central Committee — Paolo Ravazzoli, Alfonso Leonetti, and Pietro Tresso — had been expelled for opposing Stalin’s “Third Period” ultra-left line. After being expelled, they formed a Trotskyist group, the “New Italian Opposition”.

Gramsci told his brother than he supported Tresso and the others against the “Third Period” line. Following that, the CP stopped mentioning Gramsci in their press until the late 1940s; then they would develop a veritable cult of him, and in the 1970s “appropriate” him as the fount of “Eurocommunism”, a mutation of the Communist Parties into social-democratic politics.

However, it would be rash to claim Gramsci as a supporter of Trotskyism. He had opposed Stalin’s persecution of the Left Opposition, and in the so-called “literary debate” of 1924 he expressed some guarded sympathy for Trotsky.

Yet Gramsci was aware of, and supported, the theses of the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in 1925, and his Prison Notebooks include several attacks on the theory of permanent revolution. The attacks, however, all rest on a poor understanding of Trotsky’s position. Part of the background may be that since October 1924 Bordiga had been the most prominent non-Russian supporter of the Trotskyist opposition. (Bordiga’s exiled followers and the Trotskyists would eventually part ways around 1930). Gramsci’s polemics against Bordiga “spilled over” into polemics against the Trotskyist opposition.

In prison Gramsci decided, as he put it, to do something “für ewig”, for the long term, and wrote 2848 pages of Prison Notebooks, dealing with philosophy; education; intellectuals and politics; Italian history; economism and the character of a revolutionary party; the organisation of political “hegemony”; “Fordism”; and other issues.

Much of the language of the Prison Notebooks was cryptic, making it easier for the Italian CP and then a whole swathe of “post-Marxist” intellectuals to “appropriate” Gramsci from the 1970s onwards. But a more loyal reading of the Prison Notebooks would see them as continuing to explore the ideas and goals of Gramsci before 1926.

“One attempt to start a revision of the current tactical methods”, he wrote, “was perhaps that outlined by [Trotsky] at the [Fourth World Congress], when he made a comparison between the Eastern and Western fronts. The former had fallen at once, but unprecedented struggles had then ensued; in the case of the latter, the struggles would occur ‘beforehand’...”

This would be interpreted by the Italian CP as indicating a struggle to win working-class hegemony in “civil society” — for example, by controlling city councils — bit by bit over a long period. What Gramsci meant was a longer process of united front tactics, of winning bases of support in the working class and influence in other plebeian sectors, of the sort he had sketched in his 1920 document on the Renewal of the Socialist Party.

“[Lenin]... did not have time to expand his formula [of the united front] — though it should be remembered that he could only have expanded it theoretically, whereas the fundamental task was a national one; that is to say, it demanded a reconnaissance of the terrain and identification of the elements of trench and fortress represented by the elements of civil society, and so on...

“The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there was a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks: more or less numerous from one State to the next, it goes without saying — but this precisely necessitated an accurate reconnaissance of each individual country.”

In other words, bourgeois rule rested on a vast complex of social institutions and networks (in many countries, though Gramsci did not make this explicit, on bureaucratised labour movements locked into a “loyal opposition” configuration).

The simple-minded approach, typical of many factions of Italian socialism before Gramsci, of agitation through superficial scandal-mongering against the bourgeoisie and championing the elementary economic demands of the working class, was inadequate in the face of such an enemy. Lenin’s idea of the revolutionary activist as “a tribune of the people” was vital.

The working class must educate itself as a future ruling class; organise on a whole series of levels; and show itself as a potential leader to the rest of the plebeian population (in Italy, the peasantry), before it could defeat the bourgeoisie.

Gramsci condemned traditional Italian socialism sharply for its attitude to the peasantry of the south (the “Southern Question”).

As Gramsci had written in an unpublished article of November 1926:

“It is well known what ideology is propagated through the multifarious forms of bourgeois propaganda among the masses of the North: The South is a lead weight which impedes a more rapid civil development of Italy; the southerners are biologically inferior beings, semi-barbarians, or complete barbarians, by natural destiny. If the South is backward, the fault is not to be found in the capitalist system or in any other historical cause, but is the fault of nature... The Socialist Party was largely the vehicle for this bourgeois ideology among the northern proletariat”.

The question had concerned Gramsci since his first socialist activity in 1914. In that same year, 1914, “there had occurred in Turin an episode which potentially contained all the action and propaganda developed in the post-war period by the Communists”.

The Turin socialists proposed to back Gaetano Salvemini for parliamentary deputy. Salvemini was a liberal rather than a socialist, but also the chief public champion of the southern peasantry. The Turin socialists wanted to use their control of a parliamentary “safe seat” — landlords, mafia, and the Church had electoral hegemony in the South — to give Salvemini a voice in parliament and demonstrate their support for the southern peasantry.

Salvemini did not stand, but he did speak publicly in support of the Socialist candidate.

For those who want to make Gramsci a pioneer of “Popular Front” tactics, it should be noted that the Turin socialists added: “The workers of Turin... will carry on their propaganda according to their principles and will not be at all committed by the political activity of Salvemini”.

Gramsci summed up the approach he was trying to develop as follows, in another article from the 1920s:

“The metalworkers, the joiners, the builders, etc., must not only think as proletarians and no longer as metalworkers, joiners, or builders, but they must take a step forward: they must think as members of a class which aims at leading the peasants and intellectuals, of a class which con conquer and can build socialism only if aided and followed by the great majority of these social strata. If it does not do this, the proletariat does not become a leading class, and these strata, which represent in Italy the majority of the population, remain under bourgeois leadership, and give the State the possibility of resisting and weakening the proletarian attack”.

Gramsci rejected the idea of the role of the Marxist party being just to build up organisational strength through crude scandal-mongering and economistic agitation, and to wait for capitalist crisis to rally the workers behind it. Its role was always to seek for political initiative and for the intellectual and political high ground.

“Statistical laws can be employed in the science and art of politics only so long as the great masses of the population remain… essentially passive… [But] political action tends precisely to rouse the masses from passivity, in other words to destroy the law of large numbers... In reality one can ‘scientifically’ foresee only the struggle, but not the concrete moments of the struggle... One can ‘foresee’ to the extent that one acts, to the extent that one applies a voluntary effort and therefore contributes concretely to creating the result ‘foreseen’. Prediction reveals itself thus not as a scientific act of knowledge, but as the abstract expression of the effort made, the practical way of creating a collective will.”

(These notes are a slightly-edited typing-up of a briefing paper for a London Workers’ Fight forum, August 1974)

• More Gramsci:

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.