The life, times, and ideas of Antonio Gramsci

Submitted by martin on 19 January, 2021 - 9:18 Author: Martin Thomas

Transcript of a talk at a Workers' Liberty Zoom forum on 17 January 2021. Download the Powerpoint used for the talk here.

In February 1926 Stalin was challenged face to face by a non-Russian communist for the last time. That was by Amadeo Bordiga from the Italian Communist Party, at a meeting of the Communist International.

Gramsci was back in Italy at that time, and he didn't agree with Bordiga on all questions, but that confrontation tells us something about the movement which shaped Gramsci.

The inspiration of the Bolshevik Revolution and the struggles after the end of the First World War had brought forward a whole new generation of Marxists. Stalin would quickly disperse or stifle them. But the Italian Communist Party was a partial exception.

There had been a strong Marxist movement in Italy - with many weaknesses, but a movement - before 1917. And there were many new young activists brought forward by struggles in 1917 to 1920.

Antonio Gramsci was in the middle of that. He'd been born in rural poverty, but he got to university in Turin in 1911. By 1914, he'd been recruited to the Socialist Party. By 1917, he was working full time as a socialist journalist, and he was a full time socialist activist from then until he was jailed.

Italy was like Russia in some ways. It had a big, very poor peasant population; but it also had some advanced industrial cities within that. And Turin was the foremost of those industrial cities, with the big Fiat factory, for example.

Gramsci worked very closely with the workers' commission movement in the factories, which took consultation committees set up by the employers and turned them into something like the factory committees of the Russian Revolution, into organisations fighting workers' control.

Within the Turin Socialist Party Gramsci's friends were on the left, but they had a distinct profile within the left. They named their group the Communist Education Group.

In January 1921, after the struggles since 1917 had sharpened the divide between left and right in the Socialist Party, the left broke from the Socialist Party, across Italy, to form the Italian Communist Party. For the next year and a bit Gramsci worked for the Communist Party and largely deferred to Bordiga as the main leader of the party.

Bordiga was a distinctive figure in the rich and varied international communist movement of the time. He rejected the United Front tactic except in trade union activity, though not there. And he saw the task of the party, as he put it, to express an "invariant doctrine".

The climax of the post-1917 workers' struggles in Italy came with the September 1920 factory occupations. They weren't completely defeated or crushed, but they failed to move forward to revolution. And that failure led to things going backwards. In 1921 the far right grew very fast.

Trotsky recounted later on that when he had discussed with the Italian Communist Party leaders then, only one of them, Gramsci, thought it possible that the fascists would take power, or even thought it would make much difference if they did. The Communist Party was opposed to fascism, of course, but also to what it saw as bourgeois "anti-fascism". And Socialist Party's hope was that the police would stop the fascists.

We need to remember that fascism was a new movement then. It was ramshackle, it was not really full-formed. But Gramsci began to see more clearly than others how it was shaping up, although he kept that under wraps at the time out of deference to Bordiga.

In fact, Gramsci was right. In October 1922, the Liberal government collapsed and the king called the fascists to power.

By then Gramsci was in Russia. He had gone to Russia in mid-1922 for a Communist international meeting. He became very ill while he was there, and he remained there until late 1923.

During that time, Trotsky in particular sought him out, tried to convince him on the question of the United Front, and succeeded. By late 1923 Bordiga was in jail, and Gramsci took on the de facto leadership of the Italian Communist Party, working in the first place from the Communist International office in Vienna with Victor Serge, who was, like Trotsky, a supporter of the Left Opposition of 1923.

In May 1924, Gramsci returned to Italy. He could do so safely for the time being, because he'd been elected to parliament and the fascist regime wasn't consolidated in what we would think of as classic fascism until 1925 or 26. There was still space for legal opposition, there were still elections.

For two years, Gramsci led an Italian Communist Party which was semi underground. In that period, he put a lot of emphasis on educating the membership and on looking for alliances and openings, for initiatives against the fascist regime.

In 1924, the fascist regime went into a crisis and it looked like it would be overthrown. In fact, it survived and tightened up drastically. Gramsci was jailed in November 1926, and he would remain in jail until shortly before his death in 1937.

First Gramsci set to running educationals with his fellow prisoners. In fact, he was in the same prison camp as Bordiga, and they worked together on the education program, sharing the topics between them. They were friends.

Then Gramsci was put into solitary confinement. In 1929, believing that he would probably be in jail for a long time, Gramsci decided to write his Prison Notebooks. In the course of writing them he became so ill that he thought that even if were released from jail, he wouldn't be able to be politically active outside jail. But he wanted to write something for the long term, as he put it, für ewig.

The Prison Notebooks are about 3000 pages, mostly short notes, which he would repeatedly redraft maybe some years after he'd done his first drafts. And they cover a huge range of topics: Italian history, economics, philosophy, educational theory, East and West, many other issues. Much of it is fairly obscure, which is one reason why not very left-wing people have been able to appropriate the Notebooks as authority for not very left wing ideas.

But Gramsci was not a sort of radical liberal, nor was he, as he would come to be presented, a prophet in advance of the Popular Front.

He had sympathised cautiously with the Left Opposition in 1923. In 1926, he was more hesitant, but he did write a letter to Moscow complaining about Stalin's methods against the opposition. That letter was put aside by the comrade in Moscow he sent it to, who thought that if he let it out, he would incur a lot of trouble. And soon after Gramsci was in jail.

In 1930, four of his closest comrades broke from the Italian Communist Party to form the first Italian Trotskyist group. It is said that Gramsci expressed sympathy with them. We don't know for sure. We do know from reading the Notebooks that Gramsci dissented from the Stalinist Third Period ultra-left line of the time when he was writing the Prison Notebooks between 1929 and 1935. After 1935, Gramsci stopped writing; and in fact, for a while before that, he mostly just wrote revisions of earlier notes.

He didn't break openly with the CCP. We don't know why. Maybe he was just too ill. Perhaps he hoped that the Communist Party would start again campaigning to get him out of jail, which they had largely stopped doing. Under the Italian regime as it was then, the idea that he might get released was not too far-fetched: Bordiga, in fact, did get out of jail in 1930.

I can't possibly cover the full range of the Prison Notebooks, so I'll discuss one aspect, Gramsci's writing on the revolutionary party - on how to organise socialists, on how to build an effective revolutionary socialist force.

He developed his ideas on that by systematic criticism of the old pre-1921 Italian Socialist Party, which was a left social-democratic party; of the so-called Bolshevised model of Stalinism; and of the "invariant doctrine" line of Bordiga.

He did that by in part by developing paradoxical images and phrases, to grab our attention and make us think. So, for example, he argued that to be a revolutionary socialist organiser is the same thing as being an intellectual. The two are inseparable.

That sounds like nonsense, he said, but revolutionary organising isn't about coaxing people by personal influence, it isn't about being a good administrator, it's about convincing and explaining. And that is an intellectual task.

He was using "intellectual" in a very wide sense. But wasn't just metaphorical. He criticised the old Socialist Party as relying for its culture on agitational speeches. To build a real party, he argued, you need a serious written culture. You need to emphasise the importance of writing and reading and study, as distinct from just agitational speeches and slogan, for the party to work. And you need to bring the whole membership into that culture, not just have a literary top layer which takes part in the written culture, and then a mass membership which is reliant on slogans and speeches.

If you didn't do that, he said, the party will not be able to strategise effectively and will not be able to consolidate its forces in hard times.

Another image he used was that of the "permanent persuader". He wrote that the work of the activist could no longer consist in eloquence or being a simple orator. In the old social democratic party, what activists did was that they made public speeches. Gramsci said that the activist has to be a constructor and organiser, in the workplace, in the study circles, in the neighbourhoods.

There's a painting of Marx in Brussels in 1847, when he was working towards developing the Communist Manifesto. In that painting, he's not making a speech to a large audience. He's arguing and discussing with a small group, convincing them one by one. Gramsci too saw that work as the core of revolutionary activity.

Another of his paradoxical images was what he called the "democratic philosopher". Again, that seems strange. Revolutionary activity isn't much like the forum in ancient Athens. But he wrote, everybody is by default a philosopher. Everybody actually integrates their experiences and their perception into a world view.

The difference with a revolutionary is that we strive to make ourselves self-aware of our world view. Not to think that it is just a matter of common sense, which in fact means it's imposed on us by the society around us; but to have a constantly critically-reviewed, consciously-developed world view.

Gramsci wasn't at all an "on the one hand, on the other, truth must be somewhere in the middle" type. But he had an argument about polemic, too. That was to do with the polemics of the old Socialist Party and some of the polemic of the Bordigists. They would take on their opponents by exposing them, by revealing scandals, by seizing on particular stupid things they'd said.

Gramsci argued that polemic has to take on our opponents at their strongest. That's not just a matter of being nice or fair. It's only in that way that the socialists can educate ourselves and consolidate our forces, and make ourselves able to really deal with the arguments rather than just push them aside.

Gramsci wrote about prediction and perspective. He felt that the old Socialist Party, and the Communist Parties to some extent, had an idea that there was a perspective determined by economic laws, which would tell you that the revolution was coming and how the revolution was coming. The task was position yourself right to meet those predicted events.

He argued that there is no objective prediction in politics. It's not like predicting where a star will be on a certain date. The future is shaped not just by general economic laws, but by what we do, particularly if we're a sizeable socialist force - what initiatives we make, and with how much energy and coherence. Every perspective is tied up with a perspective for action as well as a prediction.

On that basis, he criticised the Bordigists' "invariant doctrine". He says that view depended on the belief that the form of working class struggle for which the "invariant doctrine" provided would be automatically produced by economic development. In fact, every important political development is new and unexpected, and has to be dealt with in the flow of real life.

Gramsci made another analogy between the socialist organisation and an orchestra. You can't lay down the doctrine for each situation in advance. For the socialist organisation to work in harmony, like an orchestra, you need periods which are analogous to the orchestra tuning up. Probably the tuning-up will sound like just a horrible noise, but it's necessary in order to create the later harmony in the actual performance.

A great deal of the Prison Notebooks, I think you can read as Gramsci trying to work through the idea of the United Front, which he had been convinced of in Russia with so much trouble. And not just as a tactic against fascism, but as a more general idea.

His drift was that the revolutionary party must constantly be seeking to reach out, to make new alliances around new initiatives, maybe, in Trotsky's terminology, to pick up on the logic of the class struggle.

It's well known that Gramsci wrote about hegemony. In my view what he had to say about that was not at all new and not at all clear. It wasn't a term that was special to him. A term that was special to him was that of a "hegemonic apparatus". That, in my view, has its own confusions in Gramsci's usage, too.

But the kernel of truth within it was the idea that the revolutionary party must develop a system of initiatives and alliances. I see that as casting some light on our idea that our task is to build ourselves as a socialist group, to be sure, but also to do that in the process of transforming the labour movement as a whole.

To conclude, I think we can see Gramsci's ideas here as a complement to what we can learn from Trotsky's writings.

In the early 1920s, a lot of people in the Communist Parties saw the revolution as something to be done instantly. They looked at Russia, they heard of the storming the Winter Palace, and their conclusion was that they should go on the offensive in their own country until they could storm their equivalent of the Winter Palace. That was called the Theory of the Offensive.

Trotsky argued with those communists that, in fact, they couldn't reject the long-term patient party-building methods of the pre-1914 Marxist parties. The approach which had been summed up by Wilhelm Liebknecht as "study, propagandise, organise". That got translated into English as agitate, educate, organise; but the original was "study, propagandise, organise", which is much more on Gramsci's lines.

Trotsky told the communists that they had to use those methods but in such a way that the routine of those methods didn't blunt their revolutionary spirit, as it had with the pre-1914 social democracy.

Trotsky never really got to develop that because, particularly in the 1930s, what he wrote about was almost always about short term crises, short-term reorientations of the labour movement in those intense crises.

Gramsci, in jail, couldn't respond immediately in that way.He was forced to write more with the long term in mind, and chose to write more with the long term in mind. I think we can learn from that today, when we have short-term perspectives, to be sure, but we also know it's going to be a long haul. Gramsci can help us work out how to organise and prepare ourselves for that long haul.

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