| Gramsci Photo credit The Economist | MR Online

Between Como and confinement: Gramsci’s early Leninism

Originally published: Marxist Left Review on No.14 Winter 2017 by Rjurik Davidson (more by Marxist Left Review) (Posted Nov 30, 2017)

Part One: Active or Passive Marxism?

A decisive confrontation

In May 1924, near the small town of Como, close to the border of Italy and Switzerland, the two great figures of early Italian communism faced each other at a meeting of the Parti Communista d’Italia (PCI) leadership.

On the one side stood Amadeo Bordiga, the dominant personality in the early years of the PCI. Bordiga was a charismatic man of uncommon drive and confidence, traits that made him a natural leader. For three years, since the party’s foundation in 1921, Bordiga had been its unofficial head. His policies had been outlined in the “Rome Theses”, provisionally adopted at the previous party conference, which emphasised separation of the communist party from all other currents.

For Bordiga, the Socialist Party (PSI) was as execrable as Mussolini’s fascists. The task, as he saw it, was to tear away the PSI’s support by strictly counterposing the communist current to them. In particular, he was against any fusion with the Third International (Terzini) socialists, the left wing of the PSI who claimed adherence to the policies of the Comintern. Indeed, the Third International had been promoting a merger between the groups for some time, but Bordiga was against it. As his Rome Theses argued, “the aggregation to the party of other parties or parts detached from parties…does not bring with it an ensemble of elements that can be effectively assimilated en bloc; on the contrary, it impairs the solidity of the old party’s political position…”1

Bordiga’s opponent at the Como conference, Antonio Gramsci, had been the pre-eminent leader of a group from Turin (which included other celebrated figures, Palmiro Togliatti, Umberto Terracini and Angelo Tasca), who had been centrally involved in the factory council movement of 1919-20. A small, hunchbacked man with an immense capacity for work despite his constant struggles with ill health, Gramsci had made his name as a gifted writer of iconoclastic articles that theorised the councils, especially for the newspaper he had edited during the “red years”, Ordine Nuovo. Even at this early stage, his polemical style had a kind of involution to it and often offered strikingly fresh formulations, indicative of his highly original way of seeing the world.2

Never entirely content with Bordiga’s leadership, Gramsci had for a year been reconstituting the leadership of the PCI around new policies. He had constructed a new “Centre” against Bordiga’s “Left” and the party’s “Right” led by Angelo Tasca. When the fascists had arrested Bordiga and up to 5,000 mid-level party activists in 1923,3 Gramsci had assumed de facto leadership of the party and a new executive had been appointed under the direction of the Third International. Under Gramsci’s leadership, the PCI ran a joint list called Unità proletariawith the Terzini in April 1924, a month before the Como conference.4 The PCI acquired thirteen seats in parliament and the Terzini five – a vindication of Gramsci’s new line.5

Now in an alberghetto (inn) in a secluded mountain valley near Como, Gramsci faced his first important party gathering, a consultative conference where the new leadership would explain its position and defend the resolution proposed for the conference (and opposed by resolutions from both the Left and Right groupings). Gramsci had the floor and tension must have crackled through the audience as he spoke, for he was facing the mid-level leaders, most of whom supported Bordiga. Sixty-seven officials attended, including 46 secretaries of the regional federations.6 Bordiga himself was present, having been acquitted of the government’s charges against him. After his release, he had refused to rejoin the party’s leading bodies: the changes in political line and the composition of the new leadership were anathema to him.

In his quiet, reedy voice, Gramsci calmly assessed the state of the party and outlined the development of the Centre of which he was the leader. The Ordine Nuovo group had always allied with the party’s Left against the Right, whom Gramsci considered “liquidationist”. But the situation in Italy had changed in recent years, he explained:

In 1919 and 1920, the whole working population – from the white collar workers to the North and the capital to the peasants of the South – was following, albeit unconsciously, the general movement of the industrial proletariat. Today the situation has changed, and only through a long, slow process of political reorganization will the proletariat be able to return to being the dominant factor in the situation. We consider that this work cannot be carried out, if we continue to follow the orientation which comrade Bordiga would like the party to continue to follow… [I]t is undeniable that our movement lacks the support of the majority of the proletariat.7

At this point, Bordiga called out: “We would have it, if we had not changed our tactics towards the Socialist Party! In any case, we are in no hurry”.

Gramsci replied: “Well we are in a hurry. There are situations in which ‘not being in a hurry’ leads to defeat”.8

For Bordiga, the essential thing was the clear separation of the communist party from all competing forces. The revolutionary movement would inevitably bring the working class into action, at which point the party would be ready. Bordiga’s position on this had always been consistent.9

In Gramsci’s eyes, this was an apocalyptic approach with theoretical roots in a mechanical Marxism, a kind of inversion of the Second International’s theoretical outlook, in which socialism was an inevitability.10 But nothing would happen automatically, Gramsci believed. “Predestination does not exist for individuals, and even less does it do so for parties”, he wrote during this period.11 During the “red years”, the Socialist Party had adopted a purely verbal “revolutionism” but didn’t carry out any action, and was thus chiefly responsible for the defeat of the factory occupations in 1919 and 1920. What difference, Gramsci asked in another article, “would there be between us and the Socialist Party if we too…abandoned ourselves to fatalism? If we cherished the sweet illusion that events cannot fail to unfold according to a fixed line of development (the one foreseen by us), in which they will inevitably find the system of dykes and canals which we have prepared for them, be channelled by this system and take historical form and power in it?”12

For Gramsci, people had always made their own history, and Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, which emphasised the active side of Marxism, remained touchstones for him. Gramsci thus emerged from a different tradition from that of the Second International, laced as it was with positivism and evolutionism. Indeed, his intellectual horizons were formed not by Kautsky or Plekhanov, but rather by the giants of Italian Hegelianism, Croce and Gentile, the original philosopher of “praxis” Antonio Labriola, and the French anarchist Georges Sorel.13 Like his philosophical sibling, Georg Lukács, Gramsci adopted a critique of bourgeois science and a humanism fundamentally at odds with the scientism of the Second International. “The tenacious will of man has replaced natural law, the preordained order of things of the pseudo-scientists”, he wrote in his early Crocean phase.14 The theoretical consequences of this philosophical lineage are clear. In Gramsci, we rarely read of the laws of history that we might find in the work of Leon Trotsky, for example (indeed, it was for the “mechanical” elements in his Marxism that Gramsci would later criticise the Russian leader).15

The danger of such a position is, of course, subjectivism (evident in Gramsci’s early analyses of the Russian Revolution, his famous article on the revolution “against Capital” and a second on “The Russian Utopia”).16 Yet if Gramsci’s early Crocean writings flirted with subjectivism, by the time the factory council movement of 1919-1920 had been defeated, he had altered his focus. He cleverly inverted the terms of his position – maintaining the active element as the primary theoretical component – and began to ask, if they are capable of it, why don’t people make their own history? This in turn led him to questions about the forms and institutions through which bourgeois hegemony is constructed, one of his lasting concerns. From then on, he reintegrated the subjective into a new notion of the objective, and it became a central part of a study of a complex totality.17

However one conceives of this emphasis on the active element, all those committed to a practical politics must accept an emphasis on it – even if it is mediated by structural elements – because it is the precondition of political strategy: all strategy depends on the belief that groups and collectives can intervene with definite effects. Indeed, Gramsci believed this outlook was essential for the PCI if it were to make the transition between an organisation of propaganda and agitation to a mass party of action. As Togliatti was to say later, Gramsci’s group was able to make “real qualitative progress in their ability both to understand objective situations, national and international, and to apply to these situations not only propaganda and agitation, but genuine political action” [my emphasis].18

Part Two: The Complexities of Strategy

The Third International and the geo-politics of strategy

Gramsci’s decision to work with the Terzini was a part of his acceptance of the policies of the Third International, as elaborated by their early congresses and which was later codified as Leninism. In this sense, Leninism is the strategy of building an organisation of militants, which would act as a vanguard of a differentiated and stratified working class. This party would struggle against all cases of oppression, no matter who was suffering, and in so doing win the hegemony of the class and its allies. Yet because working class consciousness was uneven and often found itself caught in the cul-de-sacs of capitalist ideology, a complex political strategy composed of variegated tactics was required. At some point during this process, a revolutionary upsurge would produce a situation of dual power, in which the masses would forge their own state, likely in the form of workers’ councils, break apart the old state and construct their own in its place.19

Endorsing these policies, Gramsci applied it in his own specific mode of reasoning, with his own particular inflections and emphases. Within certain limits, he extended the theory and developed a “Gramscian Leninism”, which would form the basis of many of the themes he later developed and which appear in the Prison Notebooks.

Gramsci had been won to Leninism when he had been the Italian representative in Russia from 1922-1923. There he had participated in the day-to-day running of the Third International, attended meetings of the Comintern’s Executive Committee (ECCI), and come to know personally the leaders of the Russian revolution. In November 1922, Gramsci met with Lenin in a private discussion, where they discussed the “south” of Italy, the Italian Socialist Party and the possibility of its fusion with the PCI.20 During this important meeting, which until recently has remained relatively unknown, Gramsci outlined his “profound” differences with Bordiga, but pointed out that Bordiga claimed the allegiance of the majority of the party and hence it had been necessary to follow his direction. Around the same time, in November and December 1922, Gramsci attended the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, which was to have a powerful impact on him: echoes of it would be found in his subsequent thought and writing.

The first key strategic question on which he and Bordiga differed – a question that has wound its way through subsequent socialist history, resulting in political caesuras everywhere – was whether the Leninist strategy was applicable to the West or whether it applied only to Russia. This problem had arisen in the debates of the Third International as it had struggled to comprehend the defeat of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe between 1917 and 1921. Indeed, when Gramsci arrived in Moscow, the Third International was undergoing something of an unacknowledged theoretical crisis. While the revolutions of the other European countries had shared certain key features with the Russian revolution, the proletariat of the former had also shown an allegiance to reformist forces that was not seen in Russia. Whatever the errors of Marxist organisations or groupings during the revolutions in Italy, Germany, Finland, Hungary and elsewhere, it was clear that sociological and cultural factors had also played a part.21

In his reflections on this question, Trotsky’s report on the NEP and the world revolution emphasised the differences between the Russian revolution and challenges facing the European working classes. In Europe, he argued, the “bourgeoisie is more intelligent, more farsighted; it is not wasting time. Everything that can be set foot against us is being mobilised by it right now. The revolutionary proletariat will thus encounter on its road to power not only the combat vanguards of the counter-revolution but also its heaviest reserves… By way of compensation, after the proletarian overturn, the vanquished bourgeoisie will no longer dispose of powerful reserves from which it could draw forces for prolonging the civil war”.22

As he coalesced his new grouping three months before the Como Conference, Gramsci referred to this idea. In a letter dated 9 February 1924, which became one the PCI’s most important historical documents, he argued that:

[Bordiga] thinks that for the more developed countries of central and western Europe, this [the Russian] tactic is inadequate and even useless. In these countries, the historical mechanism functions according to all the approved schemes of Marxism. There exists the historical determinism which was lacking in Russia, and therefore the over-riding task must be the organisation of the party as an end in itself… I think that the situation is quite different. Firstly, because the political conception of the Russians was formed on an international and not on a national terrain. Secondly, because in central and western Europe the development of capitalism has not only determined the formation of the broad proletarian strata, but also – and as a consequence – has created the higher stratum, the labour aristocracy, with its appendages in the trade union bureaucracy and the social-democratic groups. The determination, which in Russia was direct and drove the masses onto the streets for a revolutionary uprising, in central and western Europe is complicated by all these political super-structures, created by the greater development of capitalism. This makes the action of the masses slower and more prudent, and therefore requires of the revolutionary party a strategy and tactics altogether more complex and long-term than those which were necessary for the Bolsheviks in the period between March and November 1917.23

This formulation is of particular interest, because here Gramsci defends the “Russian” strategic outlook against Bordiga’s mechanical view that focused on the purity of the party and the inevitability of revolutionary “development” of the situation. At the same time, it asserts the essential difference between the “east” and “west” in terms that prefigure his famous distinction in the Prison Notebooks. The difference here, Gramsci asserts, is to be found in the existence of the political superstructures and the labour aristocracy, which, interestingly, he equates with each other. The labour aristocracy and bureaucracy, we must remember, were in Zinoviev’s (and Lenin’s) memorable phrase, “agents of the bourgeoisie, destined to demoralize systematically the labor movement and to inculcate it with the virus of opportunism”. In other words, they were “the most reliable advance guards of the imperialist bourgeoisie in the camp of the working class”.24 As a result, as Lenin was to reaffirm, they must be “driven out of the trade unions” and the workers’ movement.25

Gramsci pointed out that, while in Russia the party led both trade union and political struggle against tsarism, in western Europe “an increasing division of labour grew up between the trade-union organisation and the political organization of the working class. In the trade-union field, the reformist and pacifist tendency developed at an increasing pace; in other words, the influence of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat grew steadily stronger”.26

For this reason, both at the Como conference and later in 1926, Gramsci insisted that “social democracy, although it still to a great extent conserves its social base in the proletariat, must so far as its ideology and the political function it fulfils are concerned be considered, not as a right wing of the working class movement, but as a left wing of the bourgeoisie”.27 Though the PSI may have initially emerged from the workers’ movement, it had failed the challenges before it, developed in a particular direction, and during the red years of 1919-1920 “was to a great extent the vehicle for [the] bourgeois ideology within the Northern proletariat”, in particular their prejudices toward the “southerners”.28 Indeed, this helped explain why both the PSI and the more right wing PSU disdainfully refused joint actions with the communist party.29 That is, for Gramsci, the reformist socialist party was in the first instance an instrument of bourgeois hegemony and the task was to break its working class supporters away from the party. Here he was echoing Lenin’s argument that the British Labour Party was “a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns”.30

It was not Bordiga’s Left who objected to the claim that social democracy was the “left wing” of the bourgeoisie – since they themselves tended to simply conflate social democracy with the right wing parties – but Tasca’s Right, whom Gramsci considered “liquidationist”. Tasca argued that “It is true that social-democratic ideology is a reflection of the bourgeoisie’s influence on the working-class movement… But this does not take away the class character or social structure of the workers’ movement, even when it follows social democracy. I therefore ask that this point be reworked…”.31 Gramsci rejected Tasca’s argument and the Comintern’s delegate Humbert-Droz, who was present at the meeting, agreed with him: “It is true that social-democracy sometimes has a social base in the proletariat, but it is a left wing of the bourgeoisie because of the political function which it fulfils”.32 The task was thus to ultimately “disintegrate” it, that is to tear away the support of those sections of the working class that still loyally followed it.

Whatever one’s typology of social democracy, for Gramsci – again prefiguring a famous formulation in the Prison Notebooks – argued that “in the advanced capitalist countries, the ruling class possesses political and organizational reserves which it did not possess, for instance, in Russia. This means that even the most serious economic crises do not have immediate repercussions in the political sphere”.33 If in the 9 February letter Gramsci makes a distinction between Russia and western and central Europe, elsewhere he divides Europe into advanced western Europe and the “peripheral states”, which include Italy, Poland, Spain and Portugal (and even France), where “a broad stratum of intermediate classes stretches between the proletariat and capitalism: classes which seek to carry on, and to a certain sense succeed in carrying on, policies of their own, which often influence broad strata of the proletariat, but which particularly affect the peasant masses”.34 In Gramsci’s view, Italy still stands on the periphery and yet, as we have seen in his debate with Bordiga, as part of “western and central Europe” it maintains some characteristics of the advanced capitalist societies too.35

Thus for Gramsci it behoved Marxists to distinguish between the more developed capitalisms and the less developed – these were variations of manifest importance. Yet such geopolitical differences did not mean that the Russian perspectives were obsolete in Italy – or in the “advanced capitalist” societies – but rather that they were more important. Striking a different tone from Lenin, who tended to emphasise the similarity of the strategy needed for West and East, Gramsci argued that Leninist strategy must be developed in greater detail precisely because institutionalised the reformism and complex capitalist development (of “civil society”, as he would later develop the idea) made the terrain even more variegated and intricate. It was to this task that he had set himself since his return from Russia.

The temporalities of political strategy

Central to Gramsci’s strategic ideas, the tactic that would need to be “developed in greater detail”, was the policy of the united front, adopted after the Third Congress of the Third International and elaborated at the Fourth. According to this tactic, in a situation where the communist party was in a minority, and on the defensive (as they were in Italy since the triumph of Mussolini’s fascists in 1922), it should carry out joint actions with larger parties that commanded the allegiance of significant sections of the working class.

Gramsci’s differences here were not only about the nature of strategy towards the PSI but also in their assessments of fascism, a phenomenon still relatively untheorised in the Comintern. For Gramsci had always taken this new movement more seriously than Bordiga, for whom fascism was not fundamentally different from other versions of reactionary bourgeois rule. By contrast, Gramsci had argued as early as 1920 that if the proletariat did not take power Italy would face “a tremendous reaction on the part of the propertied classes and governing caste. No violence will be spared in subjecting the industrial and agricultural proletariat to servile labour: there will be a bid to smash once and for all the working class’s organ of political struggle…”.36 Over the next few years, Gramsci would develop an original analysis of fascism, as a movement of a decaying petty bourgeoisie, a savage recrudescence of base and barbaric outlooks, and ultimately a “servant of capitalism and landed property” and “agent of capitalism”.37 If his time in Russia had influenced Gramsci theoretically, fascism had shocked him into seeing these strategic developments’ decisive relevance. In this new context, he saw, the unity of the working class became a pressing exigency.

Like other classical Marxists, Gramsci believed that working class consciousness was brought about by activity rather than pure education. The point of the united front policy was to unify the working class around concrete struggles and in doing so to win the bulk of the class to the side of the communist party. Once he had accepted this line of reasoning, Gramsci’s entire orientation during this period was to build working class unity in action. He suggested the name of the party paper be L’Unità to reflect the policy.38

By contrast, Bordiga’s Rome Theses had polemicised against the united front tactic.39 When Gramsci and Bordiga clashed a second time at the Como conference, it was over a particular form of the united front, expressed in the slogan for a “workers’ and peasants’ bloc” or “workers’ and peasants’ government”, which flowed (in the words of the Comintern’s Theses on Tactics) “unavoidably from the entire united-front tactic”..40 Again, the Rome Theses and the Left’s Como Conference Resolution had rejected this notion but the Unità proletariaelection campaign with the Terzini had been a practical application of it.

At the Como conference Gramsci outlined the party’s new orientation towards the slogan of a “workers’ and peasants’ government”. In his eyes, bourgeois policy was to align itself with the labour aristocracy and bureaucracy of the north against the south, which became a kind of colonial outpost, denigrated by northern “common sense”. It was essential, Gramsci argued, that the working class work win the support of the peasantry, a position he had held since his Ordine Nuovo days.

“Why call it a ‘bloc’ and not simply Communist Party?” called out Bordiga, re-emphasising his isolationist view. “Does the Communist Party not have the alliance between workers and peasants in its programme?” Gramsci replied:

It is necessary to present things in the way one considers most effective to move even the most backward sections of the masses. Not all the workers can understand the whole development of the revolution… We must take account of such states of mind, and seek means to overcome them… If one of us went to my village to talk about “struggle against capitalists”, he would be told that “capitalists” do not exist in Sardinia. Yet even these masses must be won over. We have the possibility, given precisely the conditions created by fascism, to initiate a mass anti-reactionary movement in the South. But it is necessary to win over these masses, and this can be done only by participating in the struggles which they launch for partial victories and partial demands. The workers’ and peasants’ government slogan must serve to bring together and synthesize the content of these partial struggles, in a programme which can be understood by even the most backward masses.41

For Gramsci, the slogan was a popular way of posing the problem of a proletarian and peasant dictatorship. As one Comintern formulation explained, the slogan was not to be considered “a phase of democratic transition but simply like a method of agitation and of revolutionary mobilisation”.42 Gramsci didn’t believe, as Tasca’s Right did, that a “worker’s and peasant’s government can be constituted on the basis of the bourgeois parliament”.43 In Gramsci’s eyes this would lead to serious “deviations”. But the conflict with Bordiga had a different inflection. For Gramsci, it was essential to maintain contact with the popular classes and to express the Marxist perspective in terms they could understand. Later, Togliatti summarised the debate in this way: Bordiga believed the party would base itself on “foreseeing a future moment when it will be called upon to lead the working class in the final assault for the conquest of power” whereas in Gramsci’s view it should accompany the class in “all the intermediate positions it goes through”.44

For Gramsci, revolution had always been a process. Some years earlier, he had written that “the revolution is not a thaumaturgical act, but a dialectical process of historical development”.45 Now he combined this notion with the strategy and tactics of a supple Leninism, which implied a policy of multiple allies and quickly changing orientations. In 1925 he wrote that “Comrade Lenin has taught us that in order to defeat our class-enemy, who is strong, who has many means and reserves at his disposal, we must exploit every crack in his front and must use every possible ally, even if he is uncertain, vacillating or provisional”.46 As Gramsci himself notes, this is a direct development of Lenin’s argument in “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder (one of whose targets was Bordiga) where he states that “the more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, careful, attentive, skillful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest rift between the enemies, any conflict of interests among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisies within the various countries, and also by taking advantage of any, even the smallest, opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional”. Indeed, Lenin had affirmed in this important pamphlet that “the entire history of Bolshevism, both before and after the October Revolution, is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties!”47

In the 9 February letter, Gramsci had explained: “I do not doubt that the situation is actively revolutionary and that therefore, in a given period of time, our Party will have the majority on its side; but if this period will perhaps not be long in terms of time, it will undoubtedly be dense in secondary stages [my emphasis], which we shall have to foresee with a certain precision in order to be able to manoeuvre and not fall into errors that would prolong the experiences of the proletariat”.48

Alliances, corporatism and the councils

This conception of political temporality as composed of phases is key to understanding Gramsci’s version of Leninism.49 The idea of stages allows for the understanding that through the political process the party might enter into a series of alliances with separate political forces. Though for Gramsci the alliance between the workers and peasants was a strategic one, the forms that the alliance takes might differ markedly during different phases, as various parties and institutions emerge, develop and disappear – just as the working class might not have one single party or mass institutions, but be split between competing ones (this conception he later formulated as a “war of position”).50

Thus in his famous essay “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” Gramsci wrote: “The proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances [my emphasis] which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state”. For example, it would do this by making the demands of the peasants “its own from the social point of view; understanding the class demands which they represent; incorporating these demands into its revolutionary transitional program; placing these demands among the objectives for which it struggles”.51 In order to do this, the proletariat needs “to strip itself of every residue of corporatism, every syndicalist prejudice and incrustation”.52

Such a development required a close and concrete analysis of the terrain. Indeed, Gramsci’s writings from 1924-1926 are full of such concrete analyses of the dynamics of various class fractions and the significance of various grouping and parties. In a letter to young communists – importantly called “What is to be Done?” – Gramsci outlined the significance of such concrete reconnaissances. He began by asking the question, “How was the Italian workers’ movement defeated?” The response that the defeat occurred because of the lack of a revolutionary party was inadequate because it presupposed another question: why was there no revolutionary party? The formulaic answer that the cause was the “lack of a revolutionary party” – always true by definition – underestimates the difficulties of actually building such an organisation, which starts on a much more concrete level, one which takes into account the ensemble of social relations. “Why have the Italian proletarian parties always been weak from a revolutionary point of view?… They did not know the situation in which they had to operate, they did not know the terrain on which they should have given battle.”

To pursue the argument further: the problem of leadership was also composed of the problems of the class; one could not be understood without the other. Specifically, the revolutionary parties had not succeeded in disseminating their ideology to the class, and hence the class had no ideology of its own, but rather was caught in the cul-de-sacs not only of reformist but also fascist ideology.53 This attitude contrasts strikingly with Trotsky’s, as expressed in his later Transitional Program, in which he goes so far as to reduce the problem of workers’ revolution to the problem of leadership.54

The influence of Lenin is not hard to detect in Gramsci’s emphasis on a concrete analysis of the terrain in order to construct working class hegemony through a system of alliances. This was a development of the argument the Russian leader mounted against economism in his famous pamphlet, What is to be Done? “To bring political knowledge to the workers,” Lenin had argued two decades earlier, “the Social Democrats must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions”.55 Indeed, working class “consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected… Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats [i.e. are not Marxists – RD]”.56

Here, Lenin is asserting the primacy of the political and its independence from directly economic demands posed in unmediated class terms. We need only remember that in 1917 the Bolshevik slogans were “Bread, Peace and Land” and “All Power to the Soviets” – that is, political demands, posed in non-class form (though with a class content, including, in the case of land, “peasant content”). It is this method that allows the party to win over its allies, and for this reason Gramsci was later to describe Lenin’s “greatest contribution” as the concept of hegemony.57

For Gramsci, this system of alliances would not be what was later known as a “popular front”, in which the party “chased after” an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie or the labour aristocracy – it was the party’s Right, led by Tasca, who posed this threat, which might desire if not “a bourgeois-proletarian bloc, for the constitutional elimination of fascism, at least to a tactic of real passivity, with no active intervention by our party, thus allowing the bourgeoisie to use the proletariat as electoral cannon-fodder against fascism”.58 Rather, these alliances would be based on common activity and struggle for immediate demands and eventually lead the “proletariat back to an autonomous position as a revolutionary class; free from all influence of counter-revolutionary classes, groups and parties; capable of collecting around itself and leading all the forces that can be mobilized for the struggle against capitalism”.59

Particularly important here were those groups that broke to the left of social democracy, not just the Terzini but also groups like the left of the mostly peasant Popular Party. Again Gramsci and Bordiga clashed on this question. For Bordiga these alliances represented an unnecessary dilution of revolutionary homogeneity but for Gramsci, even if these groups might still represent a minority of the working class and peasantry, they were crucial because they were breaks from the system of bourgeois hegemony and integration as represented by the PSI. To abandon these ruptures was to risk that these groups – the more politically advanced sections of the movement, even if they weren’t necessarily the strategically most important section of the working class – would be channelled back into that bourgeois network.

These alliances might take many forms: demonstrations, election campaigns, joint meetings. Yet one of the most important forms that the worker and peasant bloc would take was the development of workers’ and peasants’ councils.60 For Gramsci, the revolution was still a mass process carried out by the class and he still believed in the limitless “capacity for initiative and creation of the working masses”.61 As a result, Leninism “says that the party leads the class through mass organisations, and hence says that one of the key tasks of the party is to develop mass organization; for the far left, by contrast, this problem does not exist”.62

In the 9 February letter to his “Centre” grouping, Gramsci explained that the party had been entirely passive and had not tried to “stimulate the masses”:

The party’s error has been to put the emphasis, and abstractly at that, on the question of Party organisation, which then has meant just the creation of an apparatus of functionaries who were orthodox as regards the official conception. It was, and is still, believed that the revolution depends solely on the existence of just such an apparatus, arriving at the point of believing that this existence can bring about the revolution. The party has lacked an organic activity of agitation and propaganda, which is what should have received the whole of our attention and have given rise to the formation of real specialists in this field. We have not attempted, at every single opportunity, to create among the masses the possibility of expressing themselves in the same sense as the Communist Party [all emphases mine – RD].63

This argument integrates his earlier work on the factory councils, which would “transform the masses” from workers into producers: “If I did not have a certain fear of hearing cries of Ordine Nuovo-ism, I would say that today one of the most important problems we face, especially in the major capitalist countries [France, Germany, England], is the problem of factory councils and workers’ control – as the basis for a new regroupment of the proletarian class”64 So these non-party institutions were not to be the result of proletarian regroupment but the terrain on which that redeployment would happen. He incorporated the kind of argument he had made during the “red years” that “the Council is a class, a social institution… Hence the Council realizes in practice the unity of the working class; it gives the masses the same form and cohesion they adopt in the general organization of society… All the problems inherent in the organization of the proletarian State are inherent in the organization of the Council. In the one and the other, the concept of citizen gives way to the concept of comrade”.65

Gramsci is interested here in the creation of an intermediate layer of activists, some of whom may be non-party militants. Within the councils, the worker becomes a “producer”:

He has acquired an awareness of his role in the process of production, at all its levels, from the workshop to the nation and the world. At this point he is aware of his class; he becomes a communist, because productivity does not require private property; he becomes a revolutionary, because he sees the capitalist, the private property owner, as a dead hand, an encumbrance on the productive process which must be done away with. At this point he arrives at a conception of the “State”, i.e. he conceives a complex organisation of society, a concrete form of society, because this is nothing but the form of the gigantic apparatus of production which reflects – through all the novel, superior links and relations and functions inherent in its very enormity – the life of the workshop.66

In his later work, Gramsci believed an analogous process would happen in all the councils and committees that he was proposing, not only those located in factories, but ones which included the “participation of all the population not grouped in the factories, and with the inclusion of women”.67 Indeed, here he specifically ruled out the notion – held by some scholars of his later work – that the organisers of the class would be intellectuals. Rather, he insisted that they would workers themselves.68 He later developed this in his work on “organic intellectuals”, first examined in his essay on the southern question, where the party’s task, as he saw it, was to create a new group of “intellectuals” (again understood as technical specialists or on-the-ground leaders rather than “traditional” intellectuals) who would replace the traditional petty bourgeois leadership of the southern peasants and rural workers. In the Prison Notebooks, he would claim that “the weekly Ordine Nuovo worked to develop forms of new intellectualism and to determine its new concepts”.69 In other words, the factory council activists were exemplars of just such a new group of “organic intellectuals”.70

Part Three: Strategy and Organisation

Party, concept and organisation

Gramsci’s strategic perspectives could only have their effects on the very organisational form and internal norms of the party. This aspect of Gramsci’s Leninism is often overlooked, in part because scholars are rarely involved in the quotidian aspects of organisational activity. In these years Gramsci was, we must remember, primarily a party man, involved in the gritty, day-to-day struggle to forge a functional organisation.

Contrasting himself to Bordiga, Gramsci stated bluntly, “I have another concept of the party, its function, and the relations which should be established between it and the masses outside the party”.71 Under Bordiga, the party had not been seen as “the result of a dialectical process, in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organising and directing will of the centre converge. It has been seen merely as something suspended in the air; something with its own autonomous and self-generated development; something which the masses will join when the situation is right and the crest of the revolutionary wave is at its highest point”.72

For a party to be living and breathing suggests that “historically a party is never definitive and never will be…it will pass through a whole series of transitory phases, and will from time to time absorb new elements in the two forms which are historically possible: through individual recruitment, or through the recruitment of smaller or larger groups”.73 So if the political situation passes through a series of phases, in which the party itself must “manoeuvre” to build a system of alliances and to integrate and absorb other groupings, then the party itself must pass through a series of phases. Thus for Gramsci, a party could not be judged separately from the class. “Organisational work, the tenacious and difficult struggle to maintain the Party apparatus, are certainly important, but it is not on these things that we can draw up a balance sheet of the Party. It is not enough just to live: we must have a history…”.74 This different conception was reflected in the debate over whether the party should be considered an “organ” of the class (Bordiga) or a “part” of the class (Gramsci).

Gramsci would later point out that that Bordiga’s line resulted in deep organisational problems in the “intermediate bodies, federations and city branches” and in “a widespread passive mentality of ‘waiting for orders’, namely the ultra-leftist conception that the P[arty] serves only for direct action and, while waiting for the great day, as a mass it has nothing to do but wait”.75 Elsewhere he pointed out that “passivity has the outward appearance of brisk activity [my emphasis – RD]; because there appears to be a line of development, a seam which workers are meritoriously sweating and toiling away to excavate”.76

The truth of these claims could only be ascertained by detailed research into the PCI of the early 1920s, but the theoretical conclusions are clearer. In Gramsci’s view, the explanation for a party’s evolution – both politically and organisationally – must be found in an examination of the complex totality of relations and events.77

There were two tasks as Gramsci saw it. The first was to plunge into practical work to build unity and working class activity, to “stimulate the masses” as he had said – because only this could guarantee the health and growth of the party. He later wrote in prison that the way to avoid “bureaucratic centralism” was to ensure a democratic centralism of “movement – i.e. a continual adaption of the organisation to the real movement, a matching of thrusts from below with orders from above”.78 The blame for bureaucratic centralism lay with “a lack of initiative and responsibility at the bottom, in other words, because of the political immaturity of the peripheral forces”.79 We can see then that the task of stimulating the masses becomes an essential component of Gramsci’s theory of party organisation: without it, the party cannot guarantee itself against bureaucratic centralism.

But this needed to be combined with a thoroughgoing education campaign in the fundamentals of Marxism, in which Gramsci took particular interest, to be carried out by a party school, a correspondence course, and the printing of new periodicals and pamphlets (he would later connect this task to the idea of “Boshevisation” proposed by the Comintern at its Fifth Congress in 1924).80

So where other organisations might accept the second task – to circle the wagons in conditions of reaction – Gramsci felt that the two tasks were complementary. How could “specialists in the field” be created without both processes? Gramsci, even in a period of fascism, insisted that the party must develop in interaction with the class, not stand aside from it. How else would one avoid creating a party of Bordiga-style disembodied functionaries?

The national and the international

Gramsci thus saw himself as elaborating the international political line of the Third International in the concrete situation of Italy, a process that was complex and multifaceted. His problem here was the “reconciliation of national traditions with an international framework” as Cammett puts it.81 Gramsci became acutely aware of this during his tenure as leader of the PCI. “For all the capitalist countries,” he wrote, “a fundamental problem is posed – the problem of the transition from the united front tactic, understood in a general sense, to a specific tactic which confronts the concrete problems of national life and operates on the basis of the popular forces as they are historically determined”.82 Indeed, his devastating assessment was that the united front had “in no country found the party or the men capable of concretizing it”.83

How much tension lay between these two levels of operation and what forms did that tension take? There can be little doubt that the presence of the Comintern helped both to illuminate and to confuse the strategic debates in Italy. While the Third International did much to generalise the lessons of postwar revolutionary strategy, Comintern meddling in foreign parties – which increasingly occurred throughout the twenties – also resulted in serious deleterious effects. In the case of Italy, Third International representatives had approached Gramsci to “take over” the leadership of the party, something Gramsci refused as an internecine intrigue.84 Only when he had been convinced that the political line had to change did he step forward to challenge Bordiga.

In the period leading up to Como, Gramsci switched allegiances without making much critique of the International’s processes, so that at the conference he was able to pose the debate in terms of loyalty to the “international party”. Was the national party greater than the international one? He was correct in asserting that if they continued with Bordiga’s policy, they risked expulsion from the International. As he had written to Terracini a few months before Como, “The Comintern cannot sit back peacefully and allow there to be formed in the international field a Party majority which is both in opposition and demanding a rediscussion of all the decisions taken after the Third Congress”.85

The limitations of this approach should be clear: no call to institutional authority can ever be a good argument for a position; it amounts to an organisational approach to a political question. On this, Bordiga was formally correct. For his part, Bordiga was prepared to face expulsion rather than abandon his principles.

The notion of loyalty to the Comintern was later used to silence opposition to the growing Stalinisation, a process in which Gramsci played a contradictory role. He certainly showed an “independence of mind in his judgement of all the post-Lenin Bolshevik leaders, bar none”, as Derek Boothman writes,86 and wrote perhaps the most critical letter to the Russian majority, imploring them to stop destroying their own work. The letter was too radical for Togliatti, who objected, but Gramsci had little time for the protestations and replied to Togliatti that “Your whole argument is tainted by ‘bureaucratism’”.87 Still, Gramsci was also prepared to lay the blame for the situation in the Russian party primarily on the Left Opposition and later the Joint Opposition (complicating things was Bordiga’s support for Trotsky, and in some cases Gramsci seems to conflate the two).88 These passages are the most discomforting to read in retrospect, even if Gramsci was one of the earliest International figures to begin to make criticisms of the bureaucratised Comintern leadership (James P. Cannon, for example, did not mount a criticism of Stalinism until 1928). 89

After his ascension to leadership of the PCI, Gramsci himself came to see the centrality of an independent, self-directed national organisation. He had already recognised a problem with “the way in which the so-called centralism of the Comintern has been understood: up to now, no one has succeeded in developing autonomous, creative parties that are automatically centralized by means of their response to the general plans of action arrived at in the [Comintern Congresses]”.90 This was a profound perception, contrary to the main lines of thought in the Comintern. The responsibility would have to fall on the Italians themselves, if they were to build such a party. “At any rate, I am more and more convinced that it is we ourselves who have to work, in our country, to build a Party that is strong, politically and organisationally well-equipped and resistant, with such a stock of clear general ideas, well-lodged in the consciousness of each individual, that there will be no possibility of these questions disintegrating with every blow aimed at them …”.91 Emphasis now had to be placed on the construction of powerful indigenous national parties, each with its own self-developed leaderships.

In this, Gramsci recalled a second speech at Fourth Congress of the International that influenced him greatly – Lenin’s “Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution”. In this speech, Lenin notes that at the Third Congress, “we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their work. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it. … [E]ven if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian – it has been excellently translated into all languages – but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit”. Lenin’s conclusion was that “the most important thing for all of us, Russian and foreign comrades alike is to sit down and study”.92 This came as part of a more general rethinking on Lenin’s part in response to the theoretical “crisis” in the Third International, when he was prompted to rethink the organisational consequences of the political rethinking that had emerged from the defeats of the revolutionary wave of 1917-21.93

As Francisco Fernandez Buey points out, “After the failure of the revolution in Germany [in 1923], Gramsci had been thinking about how to translate the internationalist tactic of the united front ‘into Italian historical language’. For him, such a translation would mean displacing the process of the formation of communist parties from the international terrain to the national, and, as such, it would then imply a significant change in the understanding of internationalism”.94 In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci would reaffirm this notion in an important passage, where he argues that “the international situation should be considered in its national aspect… To be sure, the line of development is toward internationalism, but the point of departure is ‘national’”.95

During his time as leader of the PCI, Gramsci increasingly pursued an independent policy, maintaining his emphasis on the united front even after the Comintern jagged sharply to the left in 1925, and once more became formally closer to Bordiga. Later, in prison, he criticised the Third Period of the Comintern, which echoed Bordiga’s theories almost word for word. This caused him considerable trouble and isolated him from the more “loyal” comrades. He was shaken by the expulsion of three leading PCI comrades for similar opposition. Around the same time, Gramsci seemed to be developing a critique of Stalinism (bureaucratic centralism, “Cadornism” as he termed it) in his prison notes. In this period he tried to get access to Trotsky’s writings, but the prison authorities only allowed him to read My Life, which seems to have reaffirmed him in his critique of Trotsky’s Marxism as overly mechanical. Still, after a conversation in which Gramsci expressed his doubts about the political line and actions of the PCI and the Comintern, his brother decided not to pass on his criticisms to Togliatti for fear that “not even Nino [Antonio] would have been saved from expulsion”.96

After the Como conference: Gramsci’s early Leninism crystallised

The Como conference of 1924 was an ambiguous victory for Gramsci. Though he had won over the majority of the central committee, he failed to convince the mid-level leaders. In the consultative vote, his position was defeated by a vote of 39 to four. In Gramsci’s mind, this probably reflected the fact that the secretaries present were exactly the orthodox “functionaries” he had criticised as having been created by Bordiga’s position. Gramsci thus found himself in a complicated position: he was in a majority in the Comintern and on the PCI’s highest leadership bodies, but in a minority among the mid-level leadership. What of the membership proper? Gramsci likely believed that the membership would, once they were made aware of the issues at stake, come over to his side. Tasca certainly believed before the conference that the majority would soon side with Gramsci, while Scoccimarro told Gramsci that he simply had to make open the “latent” support for his line.97 This is easy enough to believe, for under the conditions of fascism, the bulk of the party membership would likely be sympathetic to a policy of working class unity (and thus the united front). Indeed, some years before they had spontaneously joined the militant anti-fascist groups called the Arditi del Popolo, an activity that Gramsci had encouraged, before Bordiga banned such engagement, a tragic error.

In the following period, Gramsci led the party through the dangerous shoals created by Italian fascism, including the crisis of the regime created by the fascist assassination of the Socialist Deputy Giacomo Matteotti, the walkout of the anti-fascist opposition from the parliament to the “Aventine” that the PCI participated in and Gramsci hoped would become an “anti-parliament”, and the maintenance of the party underground structures and activity. Meanwhile, Gramsci campaigned tirelessly across the country to consolidate his new line and one year later, in a letter to Zinoviev, he declared the battle won.98 To another comrade in Moscow, he wrote that “there has never been an Exec[utive] that has worked, and that is making comrades work, as much as the present one, one that studies everything, right down to the small problems of the various local organisations, trying to advise comrades, to spur them on with letters and circulars, with visits and inspections, sending capable cadres to the spot… I just observe that the P[arty] in its entirety is more respected and appreciated by everyone, even by its most strenuous opponents; it comes over as a serious force that is developing relentlessly”.99

Gramsci’s attitude to leadership was noteworthy for its inclusiveness. In his eyes, the leadership should be composed of all tendencies within the organisation and a collective line would emerge through the discussions between them. In one of his famous letters to Togliatti on the “Russian Question”, Gramsci wrote that the “Leninist line consists in the fight for P[arty] unity, not only for external unity but for that somewhat more intrinsic unity that consists in there not being within the P[arty] two completely divergent lines on all questions”.100 Indeed, for this reason he believed that Leninism was opposed to factions – hardened groups who began to have greater loyalty to their faction than the party as a whole – and instead operated via “the organic collaboration of all tendencies through participation in the leading bodies”.101

There would be no driving of minorities out of the organisation under his leadership, and indeed he castigated Bordiga for refusing to take a leadership position. Yet Gramsci was also was prepared to censor Bordiga’s views within the party, which may have been justified considering the external threat of fascism and the fact that communist parties of that time often went through specific periods when discussion was closed off.102

The proof of any political organisation is in its practice rather than in its schemata. Under Bordiga, the party had suffered from a precipitous decline. By the end of 1921 its membership had halved to 24,638 and by the march on Rome in October 1922 it had fallen to 8,709 members (in a country of around 40 million). Some of this was likely due to the difficulties in establishing a new party under conditions of fascism, but the turnaround under Gramsci was dramatic. Quickly, L’Unità more than doubled its circulation to over 50,000 copies. In late 1924, the Terzini finally joined the PCI en masse, bringing with them a significant membership, especially in the rural areas. By December 1924 the party had roughly doubled in size to 17,373 and grew again to 24,837 in 1925. By this time, the party was accumulating the remaining assorted leftists in the remaining bastion of resistance to Mussolini.103 Gramsci was thus able to point out that “Our party is one of the few, if not the only, party in the International which can claim such a success in a situation as difficult as that which has been being created in all countries”.104 In these terms, Gramsci’s leadership of the party can only be considered a definitive success.

The PCI’s Lyons conference in 1926 finally crystallised the victory of the Gramsci’s early Leninism. The brilliant “Lyons Theses”, written by Gramsci and Togliatti and adopted by a vast majority of the delegates, codified Gramsci’s position (90.8 percent of the vote in support of the theses, with 9.2 percent for Bordiga).105 They represented the moment at which Gramsci’s Leninism was finally triumphant. In the words of Paolo Spriano, the Lyons Theses “represent the greatest effort led by the Italian party to apply the beginnings of Leninist tactics and strategy to the situation of a country like [Italy]”.106 Gramsci believed that the party had resolved the crisis in its development and could call itself a “mass party, not simply because of the influence it exercises on broad strata of the working class and the peasant masses, but because it has acquired…a capacity for analysing situations, for political initiative and for strong leadership which in the past it lacked”.107 Togliatti agreed: as he looked back on the years of the Como conference, he wrote that the “progress and fate of this movement, if the new leading group had not been formed, and formed at precisely that moment and in that way, through the initiative of Antonio Gramsci and under his immediate direction, would without a shadow of a doubt, have been different, even profoundly different”.108

Part Four: A suspended tradition

How might we assess Gramsci’s early Leninism? An emphasis on the subjective as essential to the development of the ensemble of social relations, a complex political strategy based on sensitivity to geopolitical differences and concrete national analysis, an insistence on the primacy of the political in building essential alliances – including through a policy of the united front and the slogan of the workers’ and peasants’ government – through a series of “secondary phases”, the measurement of the party in relation to the class, the building of a national party as more important than abstract internationalism, a focus on unity both in the working class and the party itself – Gramsci’s particular accents diverge from a current such as Trotskyism, the last surviving Anglophone Leninist tradition, which tended to emphasise international programs at the expense of the concrete and national.109 Indeed, on first reading, Gramsci’s pre-prison Leninism seem unfamiliar to those brought up outside Italy, for his intellectual touchstones include not only the various Bolshevik leaders, but also his own indigenous tradition of idealism, most obviously that of Croce and Gentile, Labriola and the Frenchman Sorel.

This in turn reminds us that Leninism is not some unitary theory, but rather a complex of interrelated propositions – a practical research program – that individual theorists might emphasise differently. As Francisco Fernandez Buey points out, “Amid the controversy of [the post-Lenin] years, Gramsci’s position cannot be assimilated to that of any other communist political leader of the time, either in the Russian party or in the International. Properly speaking, he was neither a Stalinist, nor a Trotskyist, nor a Bukharinite. He was too secular, too ‘Protestant’ to be any of those things”.110

As a research program, Gramsci’s Leninism continued. Indeed, his Prison Notebooks were in many ways a development of the themes outlined in this essay. Gramsci’s carceral project can be understood as an investigation into the failure of the revolutionary movements of the early 1920s.111 One aspect of this project, then, is a critical assessment of his own early political activity, first of all in the factory council movement in Turin of 1919-1920, and in the Socialist Party and then the Communist Party, and as a development of his early Leninism, influenced in particular by the Fourth Congress of the Third International. As a result, however one sees Gramsci’s later work – as continuity, rupture, aufheben – his earlier work provides one essential key to understanding it.112

As a political current, though, Gramsci’s Leninism was suspended by his imprisonment. The rise to power of Togliatti bound the PCI to the fate of the wider communist movement. From then on it struggled in the clutches of Stalinism through notable and yet tempered successes. In any case, Gramsci himself might not have survived this process. Thus an alternative version of Leninism was closed off, leaving that propagated by Trotsky as the sole remaining tradition which maintained fidelity to the first four congresses of the Communist International – those which had such an effect on Gramsci’s thought. The end of Stalinism however allows for a new rediscovery of this fertile form of Leninism, both in its early, pre-prison phase and in the rich and cryptic Notebooks.

Works Cited

  • Adamson, W.L. 1980, Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory, Echo Point.
  • Bloodworth, Sandra 2013, “Lenin Versus Leninism”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer.
  • Buey, Francisco Fernandez 2015, Reading Gramsci, Brill.
  • Budgen, Sebastian, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Žižek (eds) 2007, Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, Duke University Press.
  • Cammett, John, 1967, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism, Stanford University Press.
  • Claudin, Fernando 1975, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, Penguin.
  • Coutinho, Carlos Nelson 2012, Gramsci’s Political Thought, Haymarket.
  • Davidson, Alastair 1977, Antonio Gramsci: Toward and Intellectual Biography, Merlin Press.
  • Davidson, Alastair 1982, The Theory and Practice of Italian Communism, Merlin Press.
  • Del Roio, Marcos 2015, Prisms of Gramsci, Brill.
  • Fiori, Giuseppe 1990, Antonio Gramsci, Verso.
  • Gramsci, Antonio 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers.
  • Gramsci, Antonio 1977, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, International Publishers.
  • Gramsci, Antonio 1978, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, International Publishers.
  • Gramsci, Antonio 2014a, A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926, edited and translated by Derek Boothman, Haymarket.
  • Gramsci, Antonio 2014b, Quaderni del Carcere, Eineudi.
  • Gramsci Jr., Antonio 2014, La Storia di una Famiglia Rivoluzionaria: Antonio Gramsci e gli Schucht tra la Russia e l’Italia, Editori Riuniti.
  • Harman, Chris 1977, “Gramsci Versus Eurocommunism”, Part 1, International Socialism(1st series), 98, May.
  • Lenin, V.I. 1964 (1916), “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm.
  • Lenin, V.I. 1967, “Speech at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern”, 1922, Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers.
  • Lenin, V.I. 1976a, “What is to Be Done?” in Selected Works, Vol. 1, Progress Publishers.
  • Lenin, V.I. 1976b, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, in Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers.
  • Lenin, V.I. 1977, Speech on affiliation to the British Labour Party, Second Congress of the Third International, 1920, in The Second Congress of the Communist International: Minutes of the Proceedings, New Park.
  • Lih, Lars 2008, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context, Haymarket.
  • Lih, Lars 2011, Lenin, Reaktion Books.
  • Riddell, John (ed.), 2011, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Fourth International, Haymarket Books, Chicago.
  • Santucci, Antonio A. 2010, Antonio Gramsci, Monthly Review Press.
  • Serge, Victor 2002, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, University of Iowa Press.
  • Shandro, Alan 2014, Lenin and the Concept of Hegemony, Brill.
  • Spriano, Paolo 1976, Storia del Partito Communista Italiano, Vol. 1, Einaudi.
  • Spriano, Paolo 1979, Antonio Gramsci: The Prison Years, Lawrence and Wishart.
  • Swartzmantel, John 2015, Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Routledge.
  • Togliatti, Palmiro 1979, On Gramsci, and Other Writings, Lawrence and Wishart.
  • Trotsky, Leon 1953, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2, Pioneer Publishers.
  • Trotsky, Leon 1971, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Pathfinder Press.
  • Trotsky, Leon, Leon Trotsky On France, Monad.
  • Zinoviev, Gregory 1942 (1916), “The Social Roots of Opportunism”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/zinoviev/works/1916/war/opp3.html.


  1. Amadeo Bordiga and Umberto Terracini, “Theses on the Tactics of the PCI”, in Gramsci 1978, pp95-6.
  2. Paolo Spriano’s two-volume Storia del Partito Communista Italiano (Einaudi, 1976) remains one of essential histories of this period, though it is hampered by its concentration on the central core of the PCI. Spriano was also a “party historian” for the PCI and this means his judgment is at times questionable.
  3. This number according to Terracini’s letter of 13 February, quoted in Spriano 1976, p260. According to Spriano, the objective of the arrests was to hamper any fusion attempt between the PCI and the PSI (p260).
  4. The PSI had been a party divided between revolutionaries and reformists, though unlike many of the other parties of the Second International it had not supported its government in World War One. During the 1920s it passed through a number of splits and realignments. The Terzini had been marginalised after the expulsion of the reformists (who formed the Unitary Socialist Party, PSU) by a faction in the party opposed to fusion and any united front or electoral alliance with the PCI. This new group quickly reinstituted the party’s dominant reformism and later reunited with the PSU.
  5. The Comintern later summarised the election campaign as “a consecration of the efficaciousness of the tactics of the united front”; quoted in Spriano 1976, p341. Around the same time the Central Committee first discussed Gramsci’s line. Spriano calls it one of the most important Central Committee meetings in the PCI’s early years. See Spriano 1976, p247.
  6. See Davidson 1982, p213.
  7. Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci’s Intervention at the Como Conference”, pp250-251.
  8. ibid, p251.
  9. See, for example, Davidson 1982, Note 81, p280 (see also p95).
  10. See for example Lars Lih’s discussion of inevitability in Kautsky in Lih 2008, p78.
  11. Gramsci 1978, “Problems of Today and Tomorrow”, p232.
  12. Gramsci 1978, “Against Pessimism”, p213.
  13. Mario Del Roio emphasises the influence of Luxemburg on Gramsci too. His book, Prisms of Gramsci, was published in English as this essay was being finished and to some extent runs parallel to it. See Del Roio 2015, pp12-50.
  14. Quoted in Santucci 2010, p62.
  15. Lenin, for his part, underwent a reassessment of his philosophical lineage after the outbreak of World War One, when he re-read Hegel. See Savas Michael-Matsas, “Lenin and the Path of Dialectics” and Stathis Kouvelakis, “Lenin as a Reader of Hegel: Hypotheses for a Reading of Lenin’s Notebooks on Hegel’s The Science of Logic”, both in Budgen et al. (eds) 2007.
  16. On this, see the analysis of “The Russian Utopia” in Buey, p73.
  17. Davidson 1977, pp158-9. See also “Gramsci’s Theory and Practice”, in Togliatti 1979, pp151-153.
  18. Togliatti 1979, “The Formation of the Leading Group of the Italian Communist Party in 1923-1924”, p261. Spriano makes the same point, see Spriano 1976, p503.
  19. While I’m sympathetic to those like Sandra Bloodworth who find the term “Leninism” unhelpful (Bloodworth 2013), I think this is a useful enough definition, and in any case essentially the one used by Gramsci himself. This definition also runs counter to Lars Lih’s valuable and erudite Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context (Lih 2008). For all Lih’s usefulness, it seems to me that Lenin already had a conception and practice distinct from the Erfurt program before World War One, a conception further developed in his reflections on imperialism and the split in socialism (the development of “bourgeois labour parties”), and finally codified in the resolutions of the Third International. Alan Shandro argues a similar case in Shandro 2014.
  20. See Gramsci Jr. 2014. This information had come from key PCI organiser Camila Ravera. In his book, which contains the letter (p52), Gramsci’s grandson, Antonio Jr., asks, “But why had not [Camila] Ravera described this episode in her memoir published a few years beforehand? Why did it elude all of the Gramsci biographers, including as eminent an author as Giuseppi Fiori? And why doesn’t Gramsci himself ever mention it in any letter and in any article, in spite of all the admiration for Lenin and the strong connections of friendship of the family of Giulia Schucht with that of Ulijanov? [Lenin]? It can’t be excluded that the cause of this strange silence is due to the modesty and correctness of my grandfather towards Amadeo Bordiga. In fact Antonio Gramsci, in spite of the political divergence, always had a great estimation of the true founder of the Communist Party not to talk about their personal friendship.” [My translation – RD].
  21. Fernando Claudin, in his thoughtful book The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform (Claudin, 1975, pp46-102) outlines this theoretical crisis, even if he tends to over-exaggerate it.
  22. Trotsky 1953, pp221-22. Lenin had also made this argument in contracted form in “Left-Wing” Communism an Infantile Disorder, in Selected Works, Lenin 1976b, p320.
  23. Gramsci 1978, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, pp199-200. There are two translations in English of this important letter [the other is by Derek Boothman in Gramsci 2014a]. I’ve used both for the purposes of this article.
  24. Zinoviev 1942.
  25. Lenin 1976b, pp320-21.
  26. Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation of our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p294.
  27. Gramsci 1978, Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, “The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (‘Lyons Theses’)”, p359.
  28. Gramsci 1978, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question”, p444.
  29. See, for example, Spriano 1976, pp347-48.
  30. Lenin 1967, speech on affiliation to the British Labour Party, Second Congress of the Third International, 1920, pp183-4. This is a different emphasis to the more dualistic notion of a “bourgeois workers’ party” (or “bourgeois labour party” as found in Lenin’s 1916 piece “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (Lenin 1964), which leaves open the question of whether these organisations are workers’ parties with bourgeois leaderships, or bourgeois parties with working class memberships. Chris Harman’s conflation of Gramsci’s position with the bourgeois-labour party position overlooks the important differences between them. See Harman 1977.
  31. Tasca in Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission Nominated by the Central Committee To Finalize the Lyons Congress Documents”, p326.
  32. Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission…”, p338.
  33. Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p408.
  34. ibid., p409.
  35. Walter Adamson divides Gramsci’s typology into a geographic division between East and West and three socio-political categories of Advanced Capitalist, Transitional and Peripheral societies. The result is thus six “types” of society. See Adamson 1980, p89.
  36. Gramsci 1977, “Towards a Renewal of the Socialist Party”, p191.
  37. Gramsci 1977, “The Monkey People”, p374.
  38. Spriano dates this plan and proposal in September 1923 as the first concrete example of a turn in the PCI’s work. See Spriano 1976, pp298-299.
  39. Cammett 1967, p161.
  40. Riddell (ed.) 2011, p1159. For a short summary of the debate, see Riddell’s “Editorial Introduction”, pp20-27.
  41. Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci’s Intervention at the Como Conference”, pp253-254.
  42. Quoted in Spriano 1976, p355. (My translation – RD.)
  43. Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p391.
  44. Quoted in Gramsci 2014a, “General Introduction” by Derek Boothman, p30.
  45. Gramsci 1977, “Development of the Revolution”, p92.
  46. Quoted in Coutinho 2012, p37.
  47. Lenin 1976b, pp335-336.
  48. Gramsci, “Letter to Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Gramsci 2014a, p230. See also Gramsci’s discussion of phases in Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, pp409-410.
  49. Spriano notes its central importance in his history; Spriano 1976, p33-334.
  50. Spriano points out that at least in the time around the Como conference Gramsci, believing the situation was still revolutionary, tended to overestimate the autonomous role the party might play. See Spriano 1976, p345.
  51. Gramsci 1978, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question”, p443.
  52. ibid., p448.
  53. Gramsci 1978, “What is to be Done?”, pp169-171.
  54. See Fernando Claudin’s compelling and rather Gramscian critique of Trotsky in Claudin 1975, pp79-80.
  55. Lenin 1976a, “What is to Be Done?” in Selected Works, Progress, Moscow, p154.
  56. ibid., p145. As Lars Lih has shown, the basis for this attitude actually can be found in the Erfurt program’s “hegemony” scenario. See Lih 2008, pp96-101.
  57. Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 2, p187; Notebook 4, §38, pp464-65. Gramsci directly echoes this argument in “Elements of the Situation”, in Gramsci 1978, p308.
  58. Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation and Our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p303.
  59. Gramsci 1978, “Elements of the Situation”, p308. See also Gramsci’s critique of the German communists Brandler and Thalheimer in the 9 February letter, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others” in Gramsci 2014a, p193.
  60. Some see Gramsci’s emphasis on this as a reflection of his continued Left–Communist approach to the united front, i.e. emphasising the united front “from below”. See Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, “General Introduction” in Gramsci 1971, plxxiii. However, Trotsky was to make a similar argument in his writings on Germany. See Trotsky 1971, pp193-199.
  61. Gramsci 1978, “Once Again on the Organic Capacities of the Working Class”, p419.
  62. Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p395.
  63. “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Gramsci 2014a, p225.
  64. Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p410. A decade later, Trotsky would compose a similar argument in his writings on France. See “For Committees of Action! Not the People’s Front!” in Trotsky 1979, pp129-134.
  65. Gramsci 1977, “Unions and Councils”, p100.
  66. Gramsci 1977, “Syndicalism and the Councils”, p111. Here Marcel Del Roio sees the influence of Sorel, especially in Gramsci’s “spirit of separation from the state and reformism”. See Del Roio 2015, p143. However, Del Roio underestimates the way Lenin too understood the party as a representative of the creative forces of its class, preferring to see Gramsci’s position as closer to “Sorel and also to Luxemburg”, p187. Lars Lih does a good job of dispelling this erroneous dichotomy in Lih 2011.
  67. Gramsci 1978, “Report to the Central Committee: 6 February 1925, p280.
  68. Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission”, p315.
  69. Gramsci 1971, pp9-10 and Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 12, p1550. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci would still associate the development of these organic intellectuals as intimately connected with the development of the party. See for example, Swartzmantel 2015, pp81-89.
  70. Indeed, Gramsci’s interest in the intermediate layers is revealed in his claim that “in every party, and especially in the democratic and social-democratic parties in which the organizational apparatus is very loose, there exist three strata” – of leaders, masses and an intermediate activist layer. Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p401. This prefigures once more a formulation in the Prison Notebooks. Gramsci 1971, p152; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 14, §70, p1733.
  71. Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci to Scoccimaro”, p174.
  72. Gramsci 1978, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, pp197-198.
  73. ibid., pp198-199.
  74. “To Negri and Palmi”, in Gramsci 2014a, p236.
  75. “To Vincenzo Bianci”, in Gramsci 2014a, p332.
  76. Gramsci 1978, “Against Pessimism”, p213.
  77. Davidson 1977, p159.
  78. Gramsci 1971, p188; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 13, §36, p1634.
  79. Gramsci 1971, p189; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 13, §36, p1634.
  80. See “To the Executive Committee of the Italian Communist Party”, in Gramsci 2014a, pp208-215.
  81. Cammett 1967, p168.
  82. Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p410.
  83. Gramsci 1978, “What the Relations should be between the PCI and the Comintern”, p155.
  84. “To Scoccimarro and Togliatti”, in Gramsci 2014a, p244.
  85. “To Terracini”, in Gramsci 2014a, p203.
  86. Gramsci 2014a, “General Introduction” by Derek Boothman, p41.
  87. Gramsci 1978, “Letter to Togliatti”, pp439-440.
  88. For Gramsci’s direct comparison between Trotsky and Bordiga and their attitude to the party see Spriano 1976, p361 and then the chapter “L’equazione bordighismo-trotskismo”, pp429-456.
  89. Victor Serge suggests that Gramsci was more aware of the situation than he could publicly admit and this partly explains his decision to leave Russia. See Serge 2002, pp186-7.
  90. “Quoted in Cammett 1967, p168.
  91. “To Terracini”, in Gramsci 2014a, pp263-264.
  92. Lenin 1967, “Speech at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern”, p676.
  93. See Claudin 1975, pp63-71 and Lih 2011, Chapter 5.
  94. Buey 2015, p88.
  95. Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 14, p187; Notebook 14, §68, p1729 and Gramsci 1971, pp240-1.
  96. See Fiori 1990, pp252-3. Paolo Spriano throws doubt on Gennaro Gramsci’s story, though there seems to be no reason for him to have invented the narrative. As a “party historian”, Spriano tended to minimise Gramsci’s differences with the official line. See Spriano 1979, pp56-60.
  97. Davidson 1982, p142.
  98. “To Zinov’iev”, in Gramsci 2014a, p346.
  99. “To Vincenzo Bianco”, ibid., p332.
  100. “To Togliatti”, ibid., p438.
  101. Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, “The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (‘Lyons Theses’)” in Gramsci 1978, p365.
  102. As Adamson suggests, Gramsci later in his prison notes seems to have conducted a self-critique of the internal functioning of the PCI during his time as leader. Adamson 1980, pp96-97.
  103. Davidson 1982, p150.
  104. Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation and Our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p293.
  105. Davidson 1982, p173.
  106. Spriano 1976, p496.
  107. Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p385.
  108. Togliatti 1979, “The Formation of the Leading Group of the Italian Communist Party in 1923-24”, p261.
  109. For example, the Fourth International and other Trotskyist currents took a disastrous “turn to industry” en bloc in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
  110. Buey 2015, p87.
  111. Coutinho 2012, p51.
  112. Marcos del Roio also makes a compelling argument for the continuity of Gramsci’s interests between his pre-prison and prison writings. See Del Roio 2015.
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