Rescuing Gramsci the revolutionary: four articles

imagesAntonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was/is a major Marxist thinker, but also one who has been seized upon by reformers who want to smooth down the sharper edges of capitalism rather than get rid of it altogether.  Today, 79 years after his death – he died on April 27 – we are reprinting a set of articles that first appeared in issue #114 (2007) of International Socialism journal.  There are things in this which various folks at Redline might disagree with, such as the use of the term ‘Stalinism’, but the articles in general present an analysis of Gramsci well worth reading and also an antidote to the attempt by ‘radical democrats’ to remake Gramsci in their own likeness.  We have left the IS journal introduction as it was in that publication . . .

The violent conquest of power necessitates the creation by the party of the working class of an organisation of the military type…capable of wounding and inflicting grave blows on…the bourgeois state apparatus…at the decisive moment of struggle.
– Antonio Gramsci to a fellow prisoner of Mussolini in the early 1930s

downloadDuring the lifetime of great revolutionaries the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, to hallow their names while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.
– Lenin, State and Revolution

Few cases better fit Lenin’s comment than that of Antonio Gramsci. Since his death on 27 April 1937 those with attitudes the polar opposite of his have attempted to appropriate his ideas. So the organisers of the conferences in London on the anniversary of his death, in 1977 and 1987, claimed the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks as somehow justifying their own trajectory from Stalinism to Eurocommunism, and from Eurocommunism to a version of Labourism hostile to the party’s left. The main trend in ‘Gramsci studies’ since then has been, if anything, even more to the right. The name ‘Gramsci’ has gained a respectability in academic circles that ‘Lenin’ and ‘Trotsky’ will never have. Meanwhile, the revolutionary ideas of the real Gramsci are treated as irrelevant to today’s supposedly ‘postmodern’ world.

Here Megan Trudell, Chris Bambery, Chris Harman and Adrian Budd reclaim Gramsci for revolutionary Marxism on the seventieth anniversary his death.

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Gramsci: the Turin years

by Megan Trudell

Since the mid-1970s academics have rarely considered Antonio Gramsci’s revolutionary activism. The emphasis has been on ‘a more subtle and academically assimilable Gramsci’,1 a figure whose later work is separated from his political development in the Italian city of Turin in 1919 and 1920, known as the biennio rosso—the ‘two red years’. For example, Wolfgang Haug writes, ‘Simply to put together Gramsci’s “somewhat utopian vision” from the early twenties with his incomparably more experienced, far-reaching, and, at the same time, cautious reflections from prison would yield an incoherent concoction’.2

This is a serious misrepresentation. The strike wave and factory occupations in Italy in those years shaped Gramsci’s thought throughout his life, including, as Chris Harman’s article explains, the notebooks he wrote in prison. Gramsci’s later work was dedicated to understanding the processes he had been intimately involved in, and drawing lessons from them. There is no divide between his theory and practice—his theory was developed and matured out of his attempt to discuss and analyse the past practice of the Turin working class and the response of socialists.

War and transformation

The First World War was deeply unpopular in Italy. The country had been unified in 1860, but was far from united. Most of the inhabitants, who were mainly peasants, did not speak Italian at the time of unification. They were denied political representation in the new liberal state and were impoverished by its economic policies, which exacerbated the divisions between the relatively wealthy north and the extremely poor centre and south of the country. Industrialisation led to a growing urban middle and upper class in the north, but industrial workers and agricultural labourers faced poor conditions and low wages; in 1911 more than half the southern population was still illiterate, and diseases such as malaria were rife.3

Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies in May 1915 widened social divisions. The war was fought for Trieste and the Trentino, areas which meant nothing to peasant soldiers from southern Italy; the rich profited, while the poor suffered rising food price and shortages. Workers who stayed in the factories faced legislation to ban strikes, increased intensity of work and military discipline.4

From mid-1916, when social protest began to rise again after the disorientation of the first war years, it took place on changed terrain. The demands of wartime had rapidly accelerated the growth of industry. The expansion of engineering, chemical and other industries strengthened combative sections of the industrial ruling class. This class accrued enormous profits during the war: steel production rose from 5.2 percent of total manufacturing to 10.8 percent between 1914 and 1917, and engineering from 21.6 to 31.8 percent. The Fiat company’s capital leapt from 17 million lire in 1914 to 200 million lire in 1919, that of steel and engineering concern Ansaldo from 30 to 500 million, and engineering firm Ilva from 30 million in 1916 to 300 million two years later. This huge growth was concentrated in factories in the ‘industrial triangle’ of Turin, Milan and Genoa.5

The expansion of industry generated an explosion in the size of the working class, qualitatively altering the scale and nature of social conflict. Agriculture had dominated the pre-war economy, accounting for 59 percent of the working population in 1911. Now the rapid expansion of industry drew workers into the cities—the workforce of Milan increased fivefold between 1915 and the end of 1916; Fiat’s workforce grew from 4,300 in 1914 to over 40,000 in 1918. There were over 900,000 workers in war industries by the end of the war.6 The demands of wartime production gave the new workers, mainly women and former peasants, increased leverage and confidence expressed in growing militant activity against the impact of the war on living standards.

Frequent demonstrations in the countryside against conscription, requisitioning and food shortages increasingly assumed a political dimension, often leading to violence against the police and wealthy citizens. Many of the protests joined forces with strikes in the towns, which were often led by women workers who could not be punished by being sent to the front. Strikes were often encouraged or even provoked by soldiers, who wrote letters urging their families to protest at the low wages and inadequate food supplies, and to demonstrate against the war.7

In August 1917 a general strike began in Turin after police killed two people during a protest over bread shortages. It quickly became a powerful expression of a potentially revolutionary anti‑war movement. According to Marc Ferro, ‘The strikes…were reminiscent in many ways of those in Petrograd in February. Women and youth had a vital part in them, trying to fraternise with the carabinieri [armed police] and shouting, “Don’t fire at your brothers”.’8 The Turin rising was brutally repressed. Troops armed with machine guns killed over 50 people and wounded 800.9 Over 1,000 demonstrators, mainly Fiat workers, were sent to the front, and the war zone in north east Italy was extended to include the provinces of Genoa and Turin, and as far south as Sicily.

The human costs of the war were high: Italy mobilised 5.25 million men. At least 615,000 were killed, half a million disabled and a million wounded. Workers, peasants and soldiers greeted the end of the war with hope for the future and a sense that their sacrifices would be rewarded. Following a military disaster at the 1917 Battle of Caporetto, the government promised soldiers land after the war, and restitution to workers for the sacrifices made during the conflict. Instead they were faced with further suffering, unemployment and shortages as economic crisis set in and inflation rose dramatically. Industrialists tried to claw back profits as wartime production declined and landowners tore up agreements with agricultural workers.

The 1917 Revolution in Russia had a tremendous impact in Italy: news of the overthrow of the Tsar, of soldiers deserting, and of workers and soldiers forming their own democratic organisations had an electric effect on a country battered and exhausted by war, domestic repression and hardship. Bitterness and anger at employers and the state combined with the inspiration of revolutionary example, leading to widespread battles in agriculture and industry. Rural workers pushed for higher wages and tried to force employers to provide full employment and to pay for new machinery and crops. Workers fought for and won the right to an eight-hour day and increased wages. In the context of declining profits, these were revolutionary demands.

Gramsci had been a student in Turin since 1911 and lived through the war years, the 1917 events and the expansion of industry in the city. His analysis of the impact of the war on the Italian economy and the relative weight of its social classes is indispensable for understanding the biennio rosso revolt and the fascist reaction that followed. The war had a profound impact on the condition and psychology of all classes, the whole of Italian society was militarised and people’s lives were utterly transformed. Gramsci described the importance of these changes and the consequent challenge to socialists:

Four years of war have rapidly changed the economic and intellectual climate. Vast workforces have come into being, and a deeply rooted violence in the relations between wage‑earners and entrepreneurs has now appeared in such an overt form that it is obvious to even the dullest onlooker. No less spectacular is the open manner in which the bourgeois state…shows itself to be the instrument of this violence.10

The sharpening of class struggle meant that ‘a new class consciousness has emerged; and not only in the factories, but in the trenches as well… This consciousness is at an elementary level—no doctrinal awareness has yet touched it. It is raw material waiting to be moulded. And it must be our doctrines which do the moulding’.11 The old socialist suspicions of peasant backwardness should be left behind and ‘the cities must be welded to the countryside’. Four years in the trenches ‘radically changed the peasant psychology…selfish, individual instincts were blunted; a common, united spirit was fashioned; feelings were universalised… Links of solidarity were forged which would have taken decades of historical experience and intermittent struggles to form’.12

For Gramsci there was a moment of revolutionary opportunity opened by the war, which had restructured production and transformed mass consciousness.

The ‘biennio rosso’

In 1919 there were 1,663 industrial strikes, compared to 810 in 1913. Over one million industrial workers struck that year, three times the 1913 figure. The trend continued in 1920, which saw 1,881 industrial strikes. Peasant strikes also rocketed, from 97 in 1913 to 189 by 1920, with over a million taking action.13 The demobilisation of soldiers was delayed, adding to the unrest. The government was frightened of releasing hundreds of thousands of angry armed men, given widespread unemployment and the cessation of the traditional outlet of emigration. Across the country militant veterans often led the land seizures.

Social unrest sharpened the right wing opposition. In September 1919 the nationalist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio seized the port of Fiume with a band of mercenaries and held it in defiance of the Allies and the Italian government. Landowners and industrialists, furious at the erosion of their profits, were often frightened for their lives and turned to armed veterans for protection. Rumours of military coups against the state abounded. The fascists—though still a marginal force—were beginning to flex their muscles against the workers and peasants in and around Trieste. Gramsci located the base of this movement in the mass mobilisation of sections of the middle class by the state during the war.

The widespread desire for economic improvement and hope for change also generated enormous growth in the organisations of the left. The Italian Socialist Party (PSI) increased its membership almost tenfold—from 23,000 in 1918 to 200,000 in 1920—while the main CGL union federation grew from quarter of a million members to two million during the biennio rosso.14 In November 1919 the PSI and the Catholic‑based Italian Popular Party gained in the general election at the expense of the nationalists and fascists. The PSI won 156 seats with nearly two million votes, taking control of 2,800 local councils—a quarter of the total—and opening over 2,000 branches.15

Unfortunately, the party could not match up to the aspirations of its supporters. The PSI had opposed the war, unlike most of the socialist parties linked to the Second International, but it did so on a passive basis of ‘neither support nor sabotage’. The party had failed to play a leading role as social conflict increased from 1917 (the escalation in struggle from this year was on such a scale that some historians believe 1917 and 1918 should be taken with the ‘two red years’ to make four: the quadrennio rosso).16

The PSI was dominated by three main currents: reformists, including Filippo Turati and Claudio Treves, who controlled the CGL union federation, the parliamentary group and most local councillors; the Maximalists, who formed the official leadership of the party from September 1918, led by Giacinto Serrati, who controlled the paper Avanti and the party centre; and the abstentionist wing, led by Amadeo Bordiga, with a national network of supporters and significant support in the party’s youth section.

Paradoxically, the party had been ‘weakened rather than fortified by its…great increase in membership’.17 Aside from organisational challenges, it took a complacent attitude, assuming the revolution was now inevitable. According to Angelo Tasca, the party had a ‘parasitic psychology, like that of a future heir sitting at the bedside of the dying man (the bourgeoisie) and thinking that to try and shorten his agony just isn’t worth the trouble’.18

The exception, the one strand of the party that engaged with the struggles and understood the need to draw them together, was in Turin. The working class concentrated in Fiat’s huge factories was a powerful force. The growth of industry had ‘attracted the cream of the Italian working class’ to a city that would come to be regarded as ‘the Petrograd of the proletarian revolution in Italy’.19

In May 1919 PSI members Gramsci, Palmiro Togliatti, Tasca and Umberto Terracini launched the journal L’Ordine Nuovo in Turin. As Gramsci scathingly described it later, it began as a ‘journal of abstract culture, abstract information, with a strong leaning towards horror stories and well-meaning woodcuts…a mess’.20

Gramsci was interested in the question of soviet democracy raised by the Russian Revolution and wanted to investigate organisations in the Italian working class that could potentially play the role of embryonic soviets or workers’ councils. He was convinced that such councils had to be in place before a revolutionary situation arose, that they were key components of the revolution, not just structures for organising production in a post‑revolutionary society.

L’Ordine Nuovo carried its first article on the subject on 21 June 1919. In ‘Workers’ Democracy’, Gramsci argued that working class institutions contained the embryo of a socialist state: ‘To link these institutions, coordinating and ordering them into a highly centralised hierarchy of competences and powers, while respecting the necessary autonomy and articulation of each, is to create a genuine workers’ democracy here and now.’ His argument was inseparable from an attempt to reorient the PSI and the CGL towards direct engagement with workers: ‘For the great mass of workers, the exercise of the social power of the party and the [CGL] is achieved indirectly, by prestige and enthusiasm, authoritarian pressure and even inertia.’ However, the ‘workshop with its internal commissions, the socialist clubs, the peasant communities—these are the centres of proletarian life we should be working in directly’.21

Gramsci had an instinctive grasp of the concrete process of dual power that was missing from discussions in the PSI. Soviets, which first emerged during the 1905 Revolution in Russia, were recreated in the course of the February 1917 Revolution, eight months before the October insurrection and the seizure of power. The soviets had grown in confidence and assumed increasing power and influence during that year. For Gramsci, Italy was experiencing similar revolutionary conditions, inseparable from the international crisis of capitalism, and he recognised the need for workers to form their own organisations in advance of the moment of insurrection as a crucial element in the development of class consciousness during the process of revolution.

He argued that the internal commissions in Italian workplaces, which were analogous to British shop stewards’ committees, could be transformed into such organs of workers’ power: ‘The internal commissions are organs of workers’ democracy which must be freed from the limitations imposed on them by the entrepreneurs, and infused with new life and energy’.22

L’Ordine Nuovo’s concentration on the transformation of the internal commissions into factory councils met with a tremendous response from Turin workers. By August ‘the internal committee at Fiat‑Centro, the largest plant in Turin, resigned and called for the election of a council including a “commissar” from each industrial division of the plant’.23 Gramsci described how his group was invited ‘to speak in study circles and at big factory meetings; we were asked to factory committees to discuss with shop stewards and union delegates… The problem of how to develop the factory committees became the central problem, the idea of L’Ordine Nuovo. It came to be seen as the key problem of a workers’ revolution, as the problem of attaining “freedom” for the workers. For us and for our followers, L’Ordine Nuovo became “the paper of the councils”.’24

By October 1919, 50,000 workers across 30 plants were organised into councils, rising to 150,000 workers by the end of the year. The Turin section of Fiom, the metal workers’ union, adopted the principle of the factory councils in November.

In an open letter to factory council delegates, Gramsci acknowledged the role the paper had played: ‘In its pages, not only has the question been examined from a theoretical and general point of view, but we have brought together and analysed the results of experiences in other countries.’ That work, however, only had value because it ‘helped to give concrete expression to an aspiration that was latent in the consciousness of the working masses. This is why we were so rapidly understood; this is why the transition from discussion to realisation was effected so rapidly’.25

Gramsci believed it was necessary for institutions to exist that could organise the entire class, through which the class could educate itself and come to realise its revolutionary potential. He argued that changes in production during the war gave rise to the material conditions that made the formation of soviets possible. He pointed to the increasing autonomy of workers as factories got larger and more mechanised, and to the ‘proletarianisation’ of technicians, clerks and secretaries, which meant these sections could be won to unity with manual workers. The same process that made workers less dependent on technicians reduced the latter to ‘the status of a producer, linked to the capitalist via the naked and savage relationship of exploited to exploiter. His mentality sheds petty bourgeois encrustations and becomes proletarian, revolutionary in outlook’.26

L’Ordine Nuovo produced a programme for the councils in October 1919 outlining the principles of direct democracy. Delegates to the councils were to be elected by all workers, unionised or not, in each section. Only unionised workers could be delegates, however, owing to the need for protection against subversion and the need for factory councils to be involved in union questions. An executive committee was elected by delegates to take over from the old internal commission.27 Delegates’ tasks were concerned with three main areas: ‘defence of the rights of labour, preparation for the seizure of power in the factories, and education of workers’.28

Despite their success, the factory councils were opposed from all sides, including within the PSI. Turati and the reformists considered the idea of councils that included non-unionised workers to be a form of anarchism; Serrati also opposed the inclusion of non‑unionised workers and argued that the ‘only possible dictatorship of the proletariat is a conscious dictatorship of the Socialist Party’.29 Bordiga counterposed the need to build a Communist Party to the encouragement of the council movement, seeing the latter as purely economic in function and reformist, while the priority was to win political power. As long as the ruling class held power, the only ‘representative organ embodying the general revolutionary interests of the proletariat’ could be a Communist Party of dedicated revolutionaries.30 In a January 1920 letter to the Communist International, Bordiga described the councils as purely concerned with internal factory business, proposed setting up political soviets, and opposed Communist participation in parliamentary or municipal elections.31

What all three critiques had in common was a top‑down approach to the revolutionary process and workers’ struggle. Either the PSI or a new ‘pure’ Communist Party would lead the revolution, and the revolution would be conducted from above on behalf of the mass of workers and peasants.

Gramsci’s response was to vigorously defend and promote the essence of Marxism—the self-activity of the working class as the heart of the revolutionary process—against those who claimed to lead the class according to Marxist principles. He argued that Turati’s narrow reformism and faith in capitalist democracy meant that, for him, ‘parliament stands in relation to the soviet like the city to the barbarian horde’. For Communists in the party, however, revolutionary experiences in Russia, Germany and Hungary demonstrated that ‘the socialist state cannot be embodied in the institutions of the capitalist state’ and that ‘merely to change the personnel in these institutions is hardly going to change the direction of their activity’.32

Against Bordiga, Gramsci attacked the idea that these organs of direct democracy and workers’ control could be established from the outside: ‘As long as soviets do not exist, the cry “All Power to the Soviets” is inane and indeed could actually damage the fortunes of the revolution, by discrediting the soviet movement itself’.33

Such notions failed to understand the dynamic of the revolutionary process: ‘The revolution is not a thaumaturgical [magical] act, but a -dialectical process of historical development. Every industrial or agricultural workers’ council that arises around the work unit is a point of departure for this development.’ The role of communists was to fight to extend and link the councils and to argue with workers within them to try to win a majority to revolutionary ideas. ‘If the foundations of the revolutionary process are not rooted within productive life itself, the revolution will remain a sterile appeal to the will, a false mirage—and chaos, disorder, unemployment and hunger will swallow up and crush the finest and most vigorous proletarian forces’.34

Gramsci was adamant that the party could not substitute for working class self‑organisation, that the revolutionary process lay in overturning the social relations at the point of production—in the factories. Therefore, although the party was a key agent of the revolutionary process, it was through the factory councils that this process would find its organisational expression. The factory councils ‘obey their own inner laws of development and, in so far as they respond to a vital need of the proletariat, in so far as they represent the historical expression of forces and desires existing in the factory working class, they are vital and alive’.35

Gramsci was clear that the uneven consciousness of workers required communists accepting ‘the electoral challenge’ in order to ‘create a unity and elemental form’ within the class and ‘bind it to the activity of the Socialist Party’. For him, the factory councils were a crucial area of struggle, but not the only one. However, he stressed that the masses must not be deluded into believing ‘that it is possible to overcome the present crisis through parliamentary and reformist action’; communists entered elections ‘strictly in order to create the conditions for the triumph of the proletariat… embodied in the system of councils, outside and against parliament’.36

Gramsci at times underemphasised the role of the revolutionary party in this process. This was due to his mistrust of the revolutionary capabilities of the PSI rather than any ‘spontaneist’ tendencies. His conception of the factory councils’ role was bound up with his frustration at the PSI and the urgent necessity to reorient the party. ‘Every day’, he wrote in January 1920, ‘sees the party lose contact more and more with the broad masses in movement…[the party] has fallen prey to a crisis of political infantilism and is today the most crippling of the social weaknesses of the Italian nation’.37 He feared that this passivity would lead to increased influence in the working class of reformism and anarchism.

In the course of arguing—correctly—against those who would stifle the movement by trying to force it into pre‑existing organisations, Gramsci did not draw the logical conclusion of an organisational break with the PSI until the immediate revolutionary crisis had passed. However, Gramsci’s writings on the relationships between the party, the working class, the unions and the factory councils are all concerned with the role of revolutionaries in developing and extending ‘communist’ consciousness among the most advanced workers at the time:

By forming themselves into permanently organised groups within the trade unions and factories, the communists need to import into these bodies the ideas, theses and tactics of the Third International; they need to exert an influence over union discipline and determine its aims; they need to influence the decisions of the factory councils, and transform the rebellious impulses sparked off by the conditions that capitalism has created for the working class into a revolutionary consciousness and creativity.38

For Gramsci, the party was failing to engage with the movement because of the reformist current within it. In January 1920 he wrote:

“The party’s activity has been confused with the action of the parliamentary group…it is obvious that: (1) The party’s leading bodies are being manipulated more than ever by the opportunists and reformists; (2) The impotence of the Maximalists’ actions is due to the fact that they have no firm and concrete conception of the stage through which the class struggle is passing, and no method that would enable them to counterpose a permanent activity of their own to the permanent activity carried out by the reformists and opportunists within the highest institutions of the proletarian movement.”39

Through the extension of the factory councils nationally, the PSI could reconnect with the mass of workers and begin to fight for leadership in the concrete struggles erupting across Italy.

Throughout 1919 and 1920 these arguments were characterised by a powerful sense of urgency. The pace of events was the ‘best indication of the fact that we are living in a revolutionary period: one senses that something new and different could crop up at any moment’.40 The inflexibility of the party and unions in the face of such flux made them incapable of relating to workers’ developing consciousness, undermining the chances of revolutionary success, unless they could be transformed or replaced: ‘The Socialist Party must renew itself if it is not be overwhelmed and crushed by events which are almost upon us. It must renew itself, for its defeat would signify the defeat of the revolution’.41

Gramci’s sense of urgency was justified. The paralysis of the PSI provided employers and the state with breathing space. At the high point of the Italian movement in March 1920, industrialists came together to form a centralised organisation, Confindustria, determined to destroy the factory councils. In August a landowners’ organisation was established in response to the land occupations and rural strikes. The government created a Royal Guard of 25,000 men, bolstered carabinieri numbers to 160,000 and increased police powers. These forces killed about 100 workers and peasants between October 1919 and May 1920.42

In April 1920 in Turin, half a million workers joined a general strike provoked by employers. The dispute rapidly became a battle for ‘control of the production process through the factory councils’.43 The state backed the employers and, fearing insurrection, turned Turin into an ‘armed fortress’. Fifty thousand troops were stationed in the city, ‘gun batteries stand ready on the hills…armoured cars are roaming the streets; in the suburbs reputed to be particularly rebellious, machine guns are trained on the houses, on all bridges and crossroads, and on the factory gates’.44 After 11 days the strike was defeated, largely because the PSI leadership refused to support the Turin workers and to spread the action beyond the Piedmont region.

Following the April strike, Gramsci reported to a PSI national meeting, emphasising what was at stake:

“The present phase of the class struggle in Italy is the phase that precedes: either the conquest of political power on the part of the revolutionary -proletariat and the transition to new modes of production and distribution…or a tremendous reaction on the part of the propertied classes and governing caste.”45

The PSI, he argued, failed to understand the real processes and was incapable of connecting and directing the various struggles:

“The Socialist Party watches the course of events like a spectator; it never has an opinion of its own to express, based on the revolutionary theses of Marxism and the Communist International; it never launches slogans that can be adopted by the masses, lay down a general line and unify or concentrate revolutionary action.”46

It was, he believed, urgent and ‘essential that the party should immerse itself in the reality of the class struggle…to be in a position to give real leadership to the movement as a whole’.47 Gramsci had a subtle and complex analysis of the changes wrought on the classes in Italian society that exposed the mechanical and sectarian approach of all three main currents in the PSI. For Gramsci, changes in social composition required new ways of relating as a party to the political challenges of the immediate post‑war years.

The PSI had a suspicious attitude to the peasantry and was incapable of relating to the new Christian‑based Italian Popular Party, which many peasants looked to. This inability to relate to the peasantry, to soldiers and to sections of the middle classes, all of whom were moving into struggle—often with confused ideological motivation that spanned political Catholicism, democratic reformism, and nationalism—meant that the party underestimated the genuine, albeit sometimes contradictory and confused, potential to forge revolutionary unity.

For Gramsci, this was a grave mistake. He was convinced that the peasantry, especially in southern Italy, could only be liberated from economic misery through alliance with the northern working class but that unity had to be ‘on a conscious and fully-agreed basis’ rather than simply a coincidence of struggles.48 He argued for a non-sectarian approach to the Catholic organisations. He saw that the left of the Italian Popular Party could organise in rural areas where the PSI could not and that, through action against the landowners, peasants could be won to an acceptance of the leadership of the urban working class—on the understanding that only workers’ control could raise levels of agricultural and industrial production, and end rural unemployment and poverty. He therefore stressed the importance of factory councils carrying out propaganda in the countryside to try to forge links between the various struggles.

During the summer of 1920 the debates on the nature of the councils began to divide the Communist groups within the PSI. In May disagreements between Gramsci and Bordiga on the councils, electoral strategy and Bordiga’s desire to lead a Communist split from the PSI intensified. Gramsci polemicised against Bordiga’s abstentionists, arguing that ‘no political party can be constituted on such a restrictive basis. It requires wide contact with the masses.’ Bordiga was, he said, leading people into ‘irrelevant hallucinatory trances’ in his insistence that ‘no socialist should go to the polls’.49 Gramsci was correct in most of these debates, but his stress on Communists winning influence within the PSI and his antipathy to Bordiga meant that he mistakenly resisted the formation of a Communist Party until late in 1920.

The debate with Bordiga was followed by disagreements within the L’Ordine Nuovo group, especially with Tasca, who urged that the factory councils should be linked to the unions under the CGL leadership. Gramsci’s view was that this misunderstood the different historical conditions which gave rise to unions—as defence organisations for workers under capitalism—and factory councils, which were representative ‘working class institutions of a new type’ generated by workers groping towards a sense of their own power in international revolutionary conditions.50

Gramsci’s stress on the capacity and initiative of workers themselves, rather than on the ‘leadership’ of trade union bureaucrats, the PSI or a ‘pure’ revolutionary party, was a necessary corrective to top‑down, elitist politics that mirrored each other from the opposing viewpoints of reformism and ultra‑leftism. In constructing its own representative and democratic structures, he insisted, the working class ‘rediscovers itself, acquiring consciousness of its organic unity and counterposing itself as a whole to capitalism’, and the relationship of the party and the unions to those structures should flow from that reality. ‘The party and trade unions should not project themselves as tutors or as ready made superstructures for this new institution, in which the historical process of the revolution takes a controllable historical form’.51 The disunity within the L’Ordine Nuovo group impeded the process of creating a national network of support. Later Gramsci described this failure as a ‘serious error’.52

The factory occupations

In August 1920 the Fiom metal workers’ union called for action after employers terminated contract negotiations in Milan. The Alfa Romeo company responded by locking workers out. Workers then occupied the plant and 280 others around Milan. On 1 September Turin workers joined the occupation movement, swiftly followed by workers in the majority of heavy industry plants in Italy and many smaller factories. ‘Wherever there was a factory, a dockyard, a steelworks, a forge, a foundry in which [metal workers] worked, there was a new occupation’.53 Production continued, now under the supervision of the factory councils. An estimated 100,000 workers in other industries followed the metal workers’ example. Spriano’s history of the occupations tells how ‘these hundreds of thousands of workers, with arms or without, who worked and slept and kept watch in the factories, thought the extraordinary days they were living through “the revolution in action”.’54

The Piedmont edition of the PSI newspaper Avanti, which shared L’Ordine Nuovo’s position on the factory councils, declared, ‘The Turin workers were right in April 1920: the Turin workers were truly in tune with history; they were in the furrow of world revolution. Today it is acknowledged there can be two authorities in the factories…such is the great pedagogic effectiveness of the gun in the workers’ hand, the factory in the hands of the working class’.55

Piero Gobetti, a liberal who knew and respected the L’Ordine Nuovo group, described the movement as ‘spontaneous and directed to other than material ends. This is a true and proper attempt to realise not collectivism but a labour organisation in which the workers, or at least the best of them, will be what the industrialists are today… We stand before a heroic fact’.56

Gramsci emphasised the significance of the action: ‘Social hierarchies have been smashed and historical values turned upside down’—the working classes have ‘taken leadership over themselves and found in their own ranks their representatives: men to invest with the power of government; men who will take upon themselves all the functions that turn an elemental and mechanical aggregate into an organic whole, a living creature’.57

However, the occupation of factories was not the same thing as a political seizure of power. Though ‘it indicates the extent of the proletariat’s power, it does not in or of itself produce any new, definite position. Power remains in the hands of capital; armed force remains the property of the bourgeois state’.58

Prime minister Giovanni Giolitti, not daring to attack the occupations, put his faith in the PSI and union leaders’ amply demonstrated desire for compromise. His approach enraged the industrialists but provided a way for the PSI and CGL leaderships to defuse the struggle. CGL leader Ludovico D’Aragona outlined three options to a meeting of union and PSI leaders: to restrict the occupation to the metal workers’ economic interests, to broaden it to demand workers’ control of industry or to prepare for insurrection. He offered to hand leadership of the movement to the PSI if it wanted to fight for more than the immediate economic demands. But the PSI leadership, for all its ‘Maximalist’ revolutionary words, was not prepared for that. Instead it insisted on a referendum of the entire CGL union -membership over whether to push for a revolution. The revolutionary proposal was lost by 591,245 to 409,569—due to the votes of conservative agricultural workers and Fiom’s abstention (worth 93,623 votes). PSI secretary Egidio Gennari concluded: ‘The pact of alliance [between the PSI and CGL] states that for all questions of a political character the party directorate may assume the responsibility for the direction of the movement… At this moment, the party directorate does not intend to avail itself of this privilege’.59

The PSI leadership thus formalised its opposition to the councils and its adherence to a bureaucratic and elitist approach, ignoring the Third International’s advice to attempt to link the occupations with the land -seizures and strikes and challenge for state power. The industrialists conceded the ‘principle’ of workers’ control—which they subsequently dropped—and took back the factories in the last week of September. Tens of thousands of workers who had believed revolution was on the agenda returned to work demoralised, just as rising unemployment was weakening their capacity to defend themselves against further attacks from employers. There was a radical alteration in the balance of class forces. Industrialists, landowners and sections of the state were embittered by the outcome of the war and the weakness of the liberal order, and frightened by the power of the social movements. They could now unleash their anger and frustration. Their receptiveness to the political alternatives of reactionary forces, especially the fascists, saw the latter grow rapidly in size and influence in the last months of 1920.60

The Turin experience was crucial in forming Gramsci’s theory and subsequent political preoccupations. The only way Gramsci can be presented as a ‘gradualist’ is to sever this experience of Italy’s revolutionary moment and its impact and ‘resolution’ from his later work. But such one‑sided views deprive his theoretical writings of their historical roots, and therefore of their meaning and continued value.

Any full consideration of Gramsci’s political life unequivocally shows the direct living link between his practice as a revolutionary activist and the theoretical understanding he developed in the most difficult and isolating of circumstances. His concerns in the L’Ordine Nuovo articles continue to resonate through his later work and remain an indispensable resource for revolutionaries today.


1: Carl Levy, ‘A New Look at the Young Gramsci’, in Boundary 2, volume 14, number 3, spring 1986, p32.

2: Wolfgang Fritz Haug, ‘Rethinking Gramsci’s Philosophy of Praxis from One Century to the Next’, in Boundary 2, volume 26, number 2, summer 1999, p102.

3: Paul Corner, ‘State and Society, 1901‑1922’, in Adrian Lyttleton (ed), Liberal and Fascist Italy (Oxford, 2002), p21.

4: Giovanna Procacci, ‘Popular Protest and Labour Conflict in Italy, 1915-18’, in Social History, volume 14, number 1, January 1989, p37. See also Paul Corner and Giovanna Procacci, ‘The Italian Experience of “Total” Mobilisation’, in John Horne (ed), State, Society and Mobilisation in Europe during the First World War (Cambridge, 1997), p229.

5: Paolo Spriano, The Occupation of the Factories: Italy 1920 (London, 1975), p43.

6: Statistics from Paul Corner, as above, p19; Vera Zamagni, The Economic History of Italy 1870-1990 (Oxford, 1993), p225; and Giovanna Procacci, ‘Popular Protest’, as above, p34.

7: Giovanna Procacci, ‘Popular Protest’, as above, p46.

8: Marc Ferro, The Great War 1914-1918 (New York, 1989), p201.

9: Ambassador Rodd to Balfour, 26 August 1917, Public Records Office, FO 371/2947/170394. See also Giovanna Procacci, ‘Popular Protest’, as above, p48.

10: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920 (London, 1977), hereafter PW, p57. Some of these writings are available from the Marxist internet archive.

11: PW, p57.

12: PW, pp84-87.

13: Maurice Neufeld, Italy, School for Awakening Countries: the Italian Labour Movement in its Political, Social, and Economic Setting from 1800 to 1960 (New York, 1961), p547.

14: Jonathan Dunnage, Twentieth Century Italy: a Social History (London, 2002), pp48, 50.

15: Paolo Spriano, as above, p25.

16: Giovanna Procacci, ‘Popular Protest’, as above.

17: Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (London, 1990), p126.

18: Guiseppe Fiori, as above, p126.

19: PW, p313. Available online.

20: PW, p293.

21: PW, pp65-67.

22: PW, p66.

23: John Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Stanford, 1967), p77.

24: Guiseppe Fiori, as above, p120.

25: PW, p94.

26: PW, p164.

27: John Cammett, as above, p80.

28: As above, p81.

29: Quoted in Guiseppe Fiori, as above, p125.

30: PW, p221.

31: PW, p211. Available online.

32: PW, p76.

33: PW, p88.

34: PW, p93.

35: PW, p324.

36: PW, p129.

37: PW, p154.

38: PW, p268.

39: PW, p158.

40: PW, p137.

41: PW, p157.

42: John Cammett, as above, p97.

43: Giuseppe Fiori, as above, p129.

44: As above, p128.

45: PW, p191.

46: PW, p191.

47: PW, p192.

48: PW, pp140-1.

49: Guiseppe Fiori, as above, pp130-131.

50: PW, p262. Available online.

51: PW, pp263-264. Available online.

52: John Cammett, as above, p108.

53: Paolo Spriano, as above, p60.

54: As above, pp21-22.

55: PW, p344.

56: John Cammett, as above, p114.

57: PW, p340.

58: PW, p327.

59: Quoted in John Cammett, as above, p119.

60: John Cammett, as above, p121.


Hegemony and revolutionary strategy

by Chris Bambery

Lenin, Leon Trotsky, the young Soviet Republic and the Communist International saw Russia’s October Revolution as the prelude to a European revolution. Their hope and attention were focused primarily on Germany, but also on Italy. In April 1920 Giacinto Serrati, the dominant figure in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), told the French revolutionary Alfred Rosmer:

“The towns and countryside are with us; the workers follow our calls. The peasants are no less keen: in many rural communes, the mayors have replaced the portraits of the king in the town halls with pictures of Lenin. We have the strength; we have it so absolutely that no one, friend or foe, would think of disputing it. The only problem for us is how to use that strength.”1

The PSI was the only social democratic party in Western Europe to oppose the First World War and played a key role in organising the Zimmerwald Conference, held in September 1915 to rally the European anti‑war left. It was the first mass party to join the Communist International—the international grouping of parties, usually known as the Comintern, which supported the October Revolution. The impact of the October Revolution was so great that every component of the left and the trade unions felt it necessary to identify with it. In the summer of 1920 they all journeyed to Moscow for the second congress of the Comintern.

The Comintern was prepared to accept the PSI’s affiliation only if it expelled its reformist wing. But Serrati, leader of the dominant group in the party, sought to maintain the party’s unity even though it was cracking open as the revolutionary crisis in Italy developed. The other brooding presence in Moscow was the energetic Neapolitan, Amadeo Bordiga. He wanted to create a ‘pure’ Communist Party, free of any hint of compromise. There was one tendency not represented in Moscow—the grouping around the Turin journal L’Ordine Nuovo, edited by Antonio Gramsci. To the astonishment of the Italian delegates, Lenin delivered a speech that berated Serrati for failing to drive out the party’s reformist wing and creating a genuine Communist Party:

“We must simply tell the Italian comrades that it is the line of L’Ordine Nuovo members that corresponds to the line of the Communist International, and not that of the present majority of the Socialist Party’s leaders and their parliamentary group.”2

So little was known about Gramsci and his comrades that the Comintern’s leaders had to ask Bordiga to explain their position—which he did in an honest way after stating his disagreements with them. Lenin’s praise for L’Ordine Nuovo was based on an article setting out the need for a party capable of addressing the revolutionary crisis engulfing Italy. Gramsci wrote it after the PSI and the CGL union federation refused to act in support of a crucial general strike in Turin. It carried an awesome warning for the future:

“The present phase of the class struggle in Italy is the phase that precedes either the conquest of political power on the part of the revolutionary proletariat…or a tremendous reaction on the part of the propertied classes.”

It castigated the PSI for its failure to act as a national force, saying it operated simply as a ‘spectator’ and ‘…continued to be merely a parliamentary party, immobilising itself within the narrow limits of bourgeois democracy’. The cure centred on creating a party of a new type:

“A cohesive and highly disciplined Communist Party with factory, trade union and cooperative cells, that can coordinate and centralise in its central executive committee the whole of the proletariat’s revolutionary action, is the fundamental and indispensable condition for attempting any experiment with soviets.”3

Gramsci was calling on the vanguard of the Italian working class, the workers’ delegates to the factory councils—in Turin in particular—to form the basis for the leadership of a renewed PSI or, if that could not be achieved, a new Communist Party. Gramsci came late to this position—even as the second congress of the Comintern was coming to a close, the Italian working class was entering on its decisive confrontation, the occupation of the factories in September 1920.

The great strength of L’Ordine Nuovo was that it focused on building the factory councils as the basis of a new workers’ state. Despite their differences Serrati and Bordiga were united in opposing the factory councils. For them the party laid the basis for the new order, not factory councils. Throughout September 1920 Bordiga’s paper, Il Soviet, never mentioned the factory occupations in its editorials. In the following month it published an attack on Gramsci and other ‘heterodox’ Communists who had championed the councils.

Gramsci won Turin’s factory councils to the necessity of revolution, but in Milan and elsewhere the leadership of the PSI and the CGL dominated. A revolutionary party organised on a national basis was needed. However, Gramsci only began organising to create such a party after the revolutionary moment had passed.

Prior to that Gramsci identified with Lenin because he recognised a common concern with the centrality of the Soviets or factory councils. Alastair Davidson has argued that at the end of 1920 accounts of Lenin’s theory of the party were not clear or prevalent enough to make Gramsci reconsider his belief that the Russian’s main contribution was a theory of factory councils. But ‘Gramsci’s own activity during that year’ led him to favour ‘a renewal of the PSI’ and then ‘a split from the PSI and the formation of a Communist Party’. It was when the traditional union and PSI leaders in Turin attacked him, and not before, ‘that he was compelled to embark on a critique, first of the unions, and then of the party’.4

Hindsight is no comfort to revolutionaries. The end of the factory occupations was followed by rising unemployment, victimisations and a fascist counter‑offensive. Gramsci was haunted by a sense of failure. Looking back in 1924 he wrote:

“In 1919-20, we made extremely serious mistakes which ultimately we are paying for today. For fear of being called upstarts and careerists, we did not form a faction and organise this throughout Italy. We were not ready to give the Turin factory councils an autonomous directive centre, which could have exercised an immense influence throughout the country, for fear of a split in the unions and of being expelled prematurely from the Socialist Party… The problem is…that of relations between the central leadership and the mass of the party, and between the party and the classes of the working population.”5

This became a recurrent theme, which echoes strongly throughout Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.

The botched birth of Italian Communism

Gramsci’s warning of a ‘terrible reaction’ if the revolutionary moment was missed was almost immediately fulfilled. From November 1920 fascism went on the offensive, initially targeting the agricultural labourers’ unions of north east and central Italy. During local elections held a month earlier, Socialists won majorities in 2,162 out of 8,059 communes, and in 25 of 69 provinces. They broke the control exercised by the landowners in central Italy, who, in their rage, switched in ever greater numbers to the fascists. The fascist offensive began in Bologna where they attacked the Socialist council, beginning a series of such attacks on Socialist local authorities. The lack of any coordinated resistance encouraged them. By the close of 1921 the strength of the fascist squads approached 300,000. In the preceding 12 months they had destroyed 59 case del popolo Socialist centres, 119 camere del lavoro union halls, 107 cooperatives, 83 peasant trade unions and 141 social centres. They had left over 100 dead and thousands wounded, forcing councillors out of office and leftists and trade unionists to flee for safety. The attacks were not just on the left, but even on the most moderate Socialists and on rural cooperatives run by Catholics. Any independent organisations which threatened the dominance of the landowning elite were legitimate targets.

Meanwhile, the overall success of the PSI in the local elections meant that they now ran important local authorities, which had control of public works and could enforce a closed shop for the agricultural labour unions. This strengthened the hand of those who wanted to keep the party united, avoiding a break with the reformists; Serrati was confident of securing a majority of votes at the forthcoming party congress, although some of those in his own Maximalist group were prepared to expel the reformists in order to qualify for membership of the Comintern.

A Communist faction was created in October and November 1920, supposedly aimed at uniting all those prepared to act on the Comintern’s strategic advice. But the driving force in the faction was Bordiga’s followers, who were keen to keep out the left wing of the Maximalists. Lenin’s tactical advice, by contrast, was that the forces of the left should unite with the party’s leadership to oust the reformist right wing of the party; after all, the far left and the Maximalists shared a common fidelity to the Comintern and were fervent supporters of the Russian Revolution.

But things took a different turn in January 1921 at the PSI congress in Livorno. The far left walked out to launch a new Communist Party after securing 58,785 votes to Serrati’s 98,028 and the right wing’s 14,695. The voting figures exaggerated the new party’s strength. Three months later Gramsci estimated it had just 25,000 adherents. Bordiga was the architect of this botched birth, while Gramsci paid for his isolation in Turin.6 He did not speak at the congress, was not elected to the Communist Party’s leadership and was subject to abuse from all the factions for his supposed support for Italy’s entry into the First World War (a canard based on a confused youthful article). As Davidson points out, ‘Gramsci helped to create the sort of party he did not want’.7 It was formed too late to act at the decisive revolutionary moment in autumn 1920. It was too small and too sectarian to meet the danger now bearing down like a locomotive on the Italian working class – fascism.

The confusion was assisted by something else. A section of the Comintern leadership, acting independently of Lenin and Trotsky (who were preoccupied with civil war raging in Russia), had adopted ‘the theory of the offensive’—the notion that if the new Communist Parties in Western Europe adopted a continual insurrectionary approach they could spur the working class to make the revolution.8 Two Comintern emissaries to the Livorno congress—the Hungarian Mátyás Rákosi and the Bulgarian Khristo Kabakchiev—backed Bordiga’s approach. In March 1921 the German Communists, influenced by these ideas, launched an insurrection. It was a disaster, leaving 4,000 Communists in jail and halving the party’s membership of 350,000. Lenin and Trotsky led a full‑scale attack on such adventurism, on the ‘theory of offensive’ in general and on the ‘left’ Communists at the third congress of the Comintern later that year.

Meanwhile the failure of the Italian Communists to galvanise a fighting United Front of resistance to fascism was one for which the Italian working class and peasantry would pay a high price—as would Gramsci. The entire left and working class movement was in retreat. In 1920 the PSI had 216,000 members. A year later the combined membership of the PSI and Communist Party was just 100,000.9 The membership of the CGL fell from two million to one million. The retreat quickly became a rout in the face of mounting unemployment. In spring 1921 Fiat suddenly threatened to sack 1,500 of its 13,000 workers. When the internal commissions moved to oppose this, the company demanded they dissolve themselves, declared a lockout and rushed in troops to occupy its plants. The workers held out for three weeks before agreeing to Fiat’s terms. The factory councils were finished. As the lockout ended, a fascist ‘punitive expedition’ burnt down the casa del popolo. It was their first significant action in Turin.

No faction of the Italian left could offer a practical response to the fascist terror. The reformists and the CGL union asked workers to turn the other cheek, and even signed a truce with fascist leader Benito Mussolini (the truce remained a dead letter). The Maximalists intensified their rhetoric about revolution, acting as if it were still on the immediate agenda, while the Communists retreated into splendid isolation. All three groups turned in on themselves, in denial about the victory nearing Mussolini’s grasp. The new Communist Party turned its back on another piece of advice from Lenin that Gramsci later recalled:

“He told comrade Serrati: ‘Separate yourselves from Turati [the leading reformist], and then make an alliance with him.’ This formula should have been adapted by us after the split…though continuing the ideological and organisational struggle…we should have sought to make an alliance against reaction.”10

Gramsci denies his instinct

Gramsci was isolated even in Turin as the group around L’Ordine Nuovo disintegrated. Gramsci’s closest collaborator, Palmiro Togliatti, now sided with Bordiga. Gramsci slumped into nervous exhaustion and a breakdown. Yet what is striking about Gramsci’s writings in 1921 and 1922 is that his instinct was almost always correct, but ultimately he always fell in behind Bordiga’s line.

This was shown over the question of the arditi del popolo. These were groups made up of socialist, republican, anarchist, revolutionary syndicalist and Catholic activists. They aimed to fight off fascist attacks. They had close connections with the working class—for example, in Rome they received donations from builders, railway workers and post workers. They successfully prevented fascist squads attacking the working class areas of Livorno, Civitavecchia, Sarzana, Arezzo, Ferrara and Parma. On 9 November 1921 fascist bands from Emilia‑Romagna and Tuscany arrived in Rome for a national fascist congress intent on carrying out another punitive expedition. The arditi del popolo organised to counter them. The battle lasted five days and left seven dead and 200 wounded. The fascists were forced to beat a humiliating retreat from their national conference, burning the theatre they had met in.

Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo had printed a supportive interview with Argo Secondari, a key figure in the formation of the new anti‑fascist movement. Three days later the paper ran a piece by Gramsci himself in which he wrote, ‘Are the communists opposed to the arditi del popolo movement? On the contrary: they want the arming of the proletariat, the creation of an armed proletarian force’.11 Gramsci went on to argue:

“In each home in which working class families live, groups of proletarian defence should be formed in which able workers of all parties should participate. Each group, linking with the groups of neighbouring homes, should become an element of the neighbourhood unit… The arditi del popolo could effectively coordinate the workers’ squads, organising them in groups at pre-established points in every neighbourhood to intervene, in case of need…”12

Three days later the paper published an appeal for the creation of a single anti-fascist defence force. Turin’s Communists were involved with Socialists, anarchists and a range of the city’s working class organisations in creating a united arditi del popolo group. But the Communist Party leadership issued a circular instructing party members they could only belong to a defence force that was under party control and calling for members to quit the arditi del popolo. Later the leadership under Bordiga went further and denounced the arditi del popolo. Gramsci accepted this line. He not only bowed to the line of the leadership, but repeated the claptrap that fascism was just another form of bourgeois reaction, whose time in power would be brief, and that if fascism destroyed parliamentary democracy this would benefit the left because it would destroy illusions in parliamentary change. Yet he understood that fascism represented a mortal danger to the Italian working class. Later, in 1932, Trotsky recalled that Gramsci was the only Italian Communist who saw the possibility of a fascist victory.

In October 1921, as fascist violence intensified, the CGL announced it was forming an alliance of labour (alleanza del lavoro) with the smaller anarchist and syndicalist union federations, as well the rail workers’ and seafarers’ unions, to fight the fascist onslaught. Gramsci’s initial response was to welcome this as a step forward, which the Communists could develop at grassroots level. Once again, however, he accepted the leadership’s rejection of any such alliance. Later Gramsci explained that he wished to avoid a split with Bordiga.13 Of all the Italian leftists, Gramsci was the nearest to Leninism in theory, but he lacked Lenin’s single‑minded determination and his readiness to take a minority position in the party if necessary.

The Comintern and the debate on revolutionary strategy

Gramsci escaped his political purgatory when he was appointed as the Italian Communist Party’s representative to the Comintern executive committee in Moscow. He left for Russia in May 1922. The stress of acting as a loyal party member while privately disagreeing with Bordiga’s leadership had taken its toll. In Russia he suffered a nervous breakdown. But his experiences in Russia enabled him to mature as a revolutionary. Events in Italy also played no small part.

On 28 October 1922 Mussolini arrived in Rome by sleeper train to be taken to the palace and appointed premier. Only then were the fascist squads allowed to march past their leader and the king, before being hurried on their way home. This was the reality of the ‘March on Rome’. In truth the various fractions of the Italian ruling class, the heads of the security forces and the king had decided to accept Mussolini as prime minister in an effort to secure stable government. As with Adolf Hitler 11 years later, Mussolini initially headed a coalition government in which the fascists held a minority of cabinet positions. Like their German counterparts, the Italian ruling class turned to fascism with distaste, believing they could co‑opt and neuter the upstart they had ushered to power.

The Italian working class was far weaker than the German working class—yet it offered far more spontaneous resistance to fascism. It was badly served by its parties. Days before Mussolini’s appointment Bordiga had penned a circular to party branches denying that fascism could triumph. Palmiro Togliatti, who was allied with Bordiga in the party’s leadership at the time, later admitted:

“Right up to the eve of the March on Rome, and even while it was taking place, the Communist Party was denying the possibility and the actuality of the coup d’etat. Immediately after the march on Rome the party’s theoretical journal published an article which maintained that the advent of Mussolini to power would not substantially change the country’s political situation.”14

The reality of fascism must have hit home to the exiled Gramsci when, three days before Christmas 1922, fascist squads attacked the capital of the Italian workers’ movement—Turin. The offices of L’Ordine Nuovo were sacked and 12 workers were killed. A fascist bomb exploded in the CGL offices, killing 20 workers. Gramsci grasped that fascism was not simply another form of reaction and that its violence would go far beyond normal means of state repression—destroying all forms of working class organisation and any body independent of the state.

Despite his illness Gramsci was able to participate in the fourth congress of the Comintern, held in November 1922, which centred on a continuing debate about the need to win a majority among Western European workers through the policy of the United Front. Powerful Communist Parties now existed in some Western European countries, but in none did they enjoy the allegiance of a majority of the working class. That honour remained with the reformist parties. Only by struggling alongside the reformists in defensive struggles could the revolutionaries break that hold. The term ‘hegemony’ was employed to explain the domination of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat through the latter’s acceptance of the division between economics and politics:

“The bourgeoisie always seeks to separate politics from economics, because it understands very well that if it succeeds in keeping the working class within a corporative framework no serious danger can threaten its hegemony.”15

There was still opposition from many ‘left’ Communists who believed that the revolutionary offensive should be continued at all times as the way to waken the working class and break it from reformism. Almost simultaneously Trotsky, as head of the Red Army, was countering those who argued that revolutionary military strategy depended on a permanent offensive theory—a war of manoeuvre. Trotsky argued that all wars require a combination of offence and defence—in other words of manoeuvre and position. Gramsci would have been familiar with these arguments among the leaders of the Red Army.

In Italy the fledgling Communist Party was the primary target of fascist violence and repression. By early 1923 its membership had slumped to around 5,000. Adopting the United Front strategy was now a matter of life and death for a party desperately isolated in the face of massive repression.

Rearming the Communist Party

Victor Serge provides a vivid pen portrait of Gramsci when both were living in Vienna working for the Comintern, in late 1923:

“An industrious and Bohemian exile, late to bed and late to rise… His head was heavy, his brow high and broad, his lips thin; the whole was carried on a puny, square-shouldered, weak-chested, humpbacked body. There was grace in the movement of his fine, lanky hands. Gramsci fitted awkwardly into the humdrum of day to day existence, losing his way at night in familiar streets, taking the wrong train; indifferent to the comfort of his lodgings and the quality of his meals; but, intellectually, he was absolutely alive. Trained intuitively in the dialectic, quick to uncover falsehood and transfix it with the sting of irony, he viewed the world with exceptional clarity.”

Serge explains Gramsci’s desire to return to fascist Italy:

“When the crisis in Russia began to worsen, Gramsci did not want to be broken in the process, so he had himself sent back to Italy by his party; he who was identifiable at the first glance because of his deformity and his great forehead.”16

Italy’s fascist rulers were unlikely to have forgotten Gramsci. In a speech in December 1921, Mussolini had attacked a certain ‘Sardinian hunchback and professor of economics and philosophy’ who had ‘an unquestionable powerful brain’.17

From Vienna Gramsci began organising to win the leadership of the Italian Communist Party from Bordiga, who had been arrested and jailed. The first step was to win the support of his old comrades from L’Ordine Nuovo—Togliatti and Umberto Terracini. In April 1923 Bordiga smuggled out a document which was fiercely critical of the Comintern leadership, which he asked other party leaders to sign. Gramsci refused, although Togliatti urged him to sign. This sparked a debate among the old L’Ordine Nuovo comrades. Gramsci wrote to Togliatti, arguing in favour of adopting a United Front approach:

“Three years experience has taught us, not just in Italy, how deeply‑rooted social democratic traditions are, and how difficult it is to destroy the residues of the past simply through ideological polemics. An immense and at the same time painstaking political action is necessary, that can break down this tradition day by day, by breaking down the organism which embodies it. The tactics of the International are adequate for this purpose.”18

In another letter Gramsci argued that Bordiga mirrored the reformist Second International in preventing individual initiative and leaving party members passively waiting on the party’s leadership, encouraging the idea that the party’s strength and very existence itself would determine the possibility of revolution: ‘The party has 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’.19 He continued:

“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… 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.”20

By March 1924 Togliatti and Terracini had swung behind Gramsci and the Comintern intervened to impose a new executive committee of the Italian party, including Gramsci. Bordiga and his key supporter resigned from the executive. Gramsci pushed through the creation of a cell structure, with factory groups, which better suited the new political situation (and held out the future possibility of initiating factory councils) and, in February 1924, the launch of a daily newspaper, L’Unità. Gramsci suggested the title and insisted it should involve the supporters of the Comintern expelled from the PSI. He himself edited a new fortnightly L’Ordine Nuovo.21 He stressed a degree of continuity:

“The specific aims of the review, in my opinion, should still be the factory and the organisations of the factory… We should seek to reconstruct among ourselves an environment like that of 1919-20 with the means we have at our disposal. Then, no initiative was taken if it had not been tested against the reality, if first we had not probed the opinion of the workers about it in various ways.”22

In May 1924 Gramsci finally returned home to Italy after his election to the chamber of deputies gave him parliamentary immunity from arrest.

The search for the United Front

The reorientation of the party came just as Mussolini’s regime was thrust into a crisis that threatened its continued rule. On 10 June 1924 the Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti was kidnapped on the streets of central Rome after a speech in parliament denouncing electoral fraud and then found murdered. The kidnappers were identified as a fascist squad operating under Mussolini’s control. The reaction to the assassination took Mussolini by surprise: ‘Spontaneous demonstrations in favour of the opposition broke out in the streets, which was something that had not been seen for a long time’.23 Mussolini’s attempted to crush the protests by calling out the fascist militia. But, as Gramsci wrote, ‘The first attempt to mobilise the national minority failed utterly, with only 20 percent answering the call; in Rome only 800 militiamen presented themselves at the barracks’.24 This failure meant that between 14 June and 16 June the anti‑Fascists had a chance to control the streets.

The liberals, republicans and Socialists quit parliament in protest, collecting together in an alternative assembly on Rome’s Aventine Hill. Gramsci and the other Communist deputies joined them, arguing that they should call a general strike and hold demonstrations. An anti‑fascist living in Rome recalled the atmosphere—and the paralysis which infected the opposition:

“We went almost every night to a restaurant…with the leaders of the Socialist Party… For a week or ten days there was no sign of the fascists on the streets of Rome. It was known that the people of Trastevere, all republicans, were ready to march with their clubs and revolvers. They only awaited the orders of the Aventine opposition… But no one wanted to give the order.”26

The Aventine leaders hoped they could appeal to the king to dismiss Mussolini. But as Mussolini played for time, the fascist squads rallied to him and the king reaffirmed his support for the regime. By the end of 1924 Mussolini was able to unleash the fascist squads again, this time targeting liberal and bourgeois opponents of fascism as well as the left, and establishing a far tougher dictatorship. Looking back Gramsci argued:

“If the Mussolini government had fallen, whatever the means which had caused it to fall, an extremely deep political crisis would have opened up in Italy, whose development no one could have foreseen or halted. But the opposition forces too knew this, and they therefore excluded right from the beginning ‘one’ way of bringing fascism down, the only possible way, the mobilisation and struggle of the masses.”27

Eventually Gramsci led the Communist deputies back into the chamber, seeking to use it as a platform for their views.

The efforts to create an effective anti-fascist United Front brought into the open the battle with Bordiga inside the party. Gramsci debated with Bordiga in Naples. Here Gramsci argued the necessity for ‘every member of the party’ to be ‘an active political element, a leader’. That required them, ‘each in his own milieu’, being ‘made capable of orienting themselves, of knowing how to derive from reality the elements needed to establish a policy’ so that ‘the working class will not lose courage but feel it has leaders and is still able to fight… Precisely because the party is strongly centralised, a vast amount of propaganda and agitation among its ranks is required. It is necessary for the party in an organised fashion to educate its members and raise their ideological level’.28

The party now experienced substantial growth, with 27,000 members by the end of 1925. The fascist secret police reported that the Communists had survived repression better than any of the other left parties—not only ‘maintaining ties with the masses but…semi-clandestine, it had also partly salvaged the essential structure of its organisation’.29 This was in part due to Gramsci’s insistence on a cell structure, rather than Bordiga’s preferred geographical branches. The factory groups in particular found it easier to hold together.

Gramsci now worked on theses for the party congress due to be held early in 1926 in the safety of Lyon, France. The ‘Lyon theses’ argued that the party had not capitalised on the factory occupations or intervened to attempt to stop fascism’s victory in October 1922:

“The defeat of the revolutionary proletariat in this decisive period was due to political, organisational, tactical and strategic deficiencies of the workers’ party…the proletariat did not succeed in placing itself at the head of the insurrection of the great majority of the population, and channelling it towards the creation of a workers’ state… The victory of fascism in 1922 must be seen, therefore, not as a victory won over the revolution, but as a consequence of the defeat suffered by the revolutionary forces through their own intrinsic weakness.”30

Gramsci offered his vision of a revolutionary party:

“The principle that the party leads the working class must not be interpreted in a mechanical manner… The capacity to lead the class is related, not to the fact that the party ‘proclaims’ itself its revolutionary organ, but to the fact that it ‘really’ succeeds, as a part of the working class, in linking itself with all the sections of that class and impressing upon the masses a movement in the desired direction and favoured by objective conditions. Only as a result of its activity among the masses will the party get the latter to recognise it as ‘their’ party (winning a majority); and only when this condition has been realised, can it…draw the working class behind it.”31

Leadership required the party taking up immediate or partial struggles:

“The Communist Party links every immediate demand to a revolutionary objective; makes use of every partial struggle to teach the masses the need for general action and for insurrection against the reactionary rule of capital… In every case, the party utilises the experience of the movement in question, and of the outcome of its own proposals, to increase its influence—demonstrating through facts that its action programme is the only one which corresponds to the interests of the masses and to the objective situation—and to transport a backward section of the working class on to a more advanced position.”32

The stress on the United Front does not stop Gramsci from continuing to define the ultimate tasks of the Communist Party as:

“(a) to organise and unify the industrial and rural proletariat for the revolution; (b) to organise and mobilise around the proletariat all the forces necessary for the victory of the revolution and the foundation of the workers’ state; (c) to place before the proletariat and its allies the problem of insurrection against the bourgeois state and of the struggle for proletarian dictatorship, and to guide them politically and materially towards their solution, through a series of partial struggles.”33

The vote at the Lyon congress reflected Gramsci’s rearming and rebuilding of the party—he secured 90.08 percent of the vote.

The road to Calvary

Gramsci had little time left in freedom after the success of the Lyon Congress. In autumn 1926 Mussolini stripped deputies of their parliamentary immunity and Gramsci was arrested on 8 November after being forced by the fascist police to abort a meeting with a Comintern representative. His Calvary at the hands of Mussolini lasted from then until his death. The abortive meeting was to have been with Jules Humbert‑Droz. He had been charged with persuading Gramsci to support Joseph Stalin and his ally at the time, Nicolai Bukharin, in their campaign against the Joint Opposition within the Russian party led by Trotsky, Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. Gramsci was not a supporter of the Joint Opposition. But in October 1926 he had written to the leadership of the Soviet party stating that this factional campaign was doing great damage at home and abroad and should be halted. Togliatti, representing the Italian party in Moscow, refused to pass on the letter, though he did read it out to Bukharin. Gramsci responded angrily to Togliatti.34 The stage was set for a more serious break with Moscow and with Togliatti. In 1929 Stalin declared that the world had entered a new ‘third period’ in which insurrection was on the cards virtually everywhere and in which the social democrats would help the bourgeoisie turn towards fascism. According to Stalin, the social democrats’ ‘social fascist’ character ruled out any United Front with them. Togliatti, under pressure from a pro-Stalin young guard in the party, agreed that Italy too was on the verge of a revolutionary crisis. Activists were dispatched across the alps to stimulate mass work—in reality returning to arrest and Mussolini’s jails.

Gramsci refused to endorse such lunacy. He had fought hard for the United Front policy against fascism, the strategy now being denounced by Stalin and Togliatti. He challenged the idea that the mass of Italian workers was breaking with reformism, and that the country was approaching a revolutionary situation that would sweep fascism away and install the dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead he pressed for united action with the Socialists and other anti-fascists, and for the raising of a demand for a constituent assembly. He believed that if fascism fell, as a result of the global recession that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash, for instance, the strongest likelihood was this would be followed by a period of parliamentary rule. In his prison writings he outlined his hopes that this might allow for the reconstruction of the factory councils and that they could prepare the way for a future insurrection. Interestingly, at almost precisely the same time, in May 1930, Trotsky was engaged in a correspondence with some of Bordiga’s sympathisers in the International Left Opposition over their attempt to combine the demand for a constituent assembly with a demand for workers’ and peasants’ committees. Trotsky argued that if fascism fell it might well be superseded by a period of democratic rule, rather than socialist revolution, and argued that revolutionaries could raise democratic demands and ‘invest them with the most audacious and resolute character possible’.35 Gramsci’s argument led to attacks from fellow Communist prisoners, who refused to talk to him, while Togliatti refused to let the wider world know of his criticisms of the new policy.

Gramsci had entered prison a staunch revolutionary. His final speech to the Italian parliament, where the small Communist group of deputies faced Mussolini and the massed fascist ranks with blackshirts guarding every exit, was brave and uncompromising:

“We are sure that we represent…the essential interests of the majority of the Italian people. Proletarian violence is therefore progressive and cannot be systematic. Your violence is systematic and systematically arbitrary because you represent a minority destined to disappear.”36

But Gramsci’s work as a mature revolutionary has been passed over or bowdlerised by those keen to utilise his name. This process started with the publication of his prison writings just after the Second World War, when Togliatti portrayed Gramsci’s strategy as a precursor for the Italian Communist Party’s decision to rebuild a capitalist Italian republic in alliance with Christian Democracy. The attempt to paint Gramsci as a figure who rejected insurrection and presented an alternative to Leninism continued into the 1970s and 1980s with the Eurocommunists and into the 21st century with today’s neo‑Gramscians.

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks can only be fully understood as a continuation of his political fight to rebuild and rearm the Italian Communist Party.37 Above all they are a sustained defence of the political strategy he championed during those years and drew heavily on the debates in the Comintern at its third and fourth congresses. Martin Clark points out that ‘Gramsci in prison thought constantly about the “revolution that failed” in 1919-20’ and that the ‘analysis of why revolutions fail is a major theme of the Prison Notebooks,’ providing ‘the stimulus’ for his views on hegemony, political organisations and parties, and intellectuals’.38

One of the key sections of the Prison Notebooks contrasts revolution in Russia and the East with revolution in the parliamentary democracies of the West. It is not to belittle the importance of the Prison Notebooks to point out that this was hardly controversial within the Comintern. Lenin recognised that ‘in Western Europe it will be much more difficult to begin the proletarian revolution than in Russia. But it will be much easier to continue and complete it.’ Bordiga had argued at the Comintern’s second congress for a policy of abstention from parliament and parliamentary elections because conditions for making a revolution were different in the West, where ‘bourgeois democracy has functioned for many years and…the revolutionary crisis will consist simply of a direct transition from that political system to the dictatorship of the proletariat…’ This ‘requires first breaking out of the limits of bourgeois democracy and demonstrating the deceitfulness of the bourgeoisie’s claim that every political struggle should take place within the parliamentary machinery’.39 Accordingly, claimed Bordiga, the experience of the Bolsheviks in the Duma (the assembly established under the Tsar) had no application in the West. Lenin countered:

“We are obliged to carry on a struggle within parliament for the destruction of parliament… Can one conceive of any other institution that all classes participate in to the degree they do in parliament? This cannot be created artificially. If all classes are drawn into the parliamentary struggle, it is because class interests and conflicts are reflected in parliament. If it were possible everywhere and immediately to bring about, let us say, a decisive general strike to overthrow capitalism at a single stroke, the revolution would have taken place in a number of countries. But we must reckon with the facts, and parliament is a scene of the class struggle.”40

Perry Anderson’s 1976 article, ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, written at a time when Anderson broadly identified with Lenin and Trotsky, showed that it is impossible to understand Gramsci’s prison writings outside the context of the debates in the early Comintern:

“The theory and practice of the Third International…had been saturated with emphasis on the historical necessity of violence in the destruction and construction of states. The dictatorship of the proletariat, after the armed overthrow of the bourgeois state apparatus, was the touchstone…Gramsci never questioned these principles. On the contrary, when he started his theoretical explanations in prison, he seems to have taken them so much for granted that they scarcely ever figure.”41

But the fact that Gramsci took them for granted is no excuse for neo-Gramscians pretending that he rejected them. The strategic stress on the United Front and the issue of the relationship between party and class were the dominant concerns of Gramsci in his years as an active member of the Communist Party. They remained so in his prison years and they resonate throughout the Prison Notebooks.


1: Alfred Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow (London, 1971), p21.

2: Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow, 1982), volume 31, p251. Available online.

3: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920 (London, 1977), pp190‑195.

4: Alastair Davidson, “Gramsci and Lenin 1917-1922”, in Socialist Register 1974, p125.

5: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926 (London, 1978), p268. Most of these writings are available online.

6: Gwyn Williams, Proletarian Order (London, 1975), p281.

7: Alastair Davidson, as above, p138.

8: Khristo Kabakchiev made two speeches, the first a violent attack on Serrati designed to win few friends and a concluding speech which announced that all those not voting with Bordiga and his allies would be excluded from the new international. Rakosi would become general secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party from 1945 and also prime minister from 1952 until the 1956 revolution. He described himself as ‘Stalin’s best pupil’. Trotsky described the Bulgarian as ‘a lifeless doctrinaire’.

9: John Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Stanford, 1967), p153.

10: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from political writings 1921-1926, as above, p381.

11: As above, p56. Available online.

12: As above, pp151-154.

13: Quoted in Alberto Pozzolini, Antonio Gramsci: an Introduction to his Thought (London, 1970), p43.

14: Palmiro Togliatti, ‘The Hegemony of the Working Class in the Anti-Fascist Struggle’, in David Beetham (ed), Marxists in the Face of Fascism (Manchester, 1983), p133.

15: Quoted by Perry Anderson in ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, in New Left Review 100, November‑December 1976, p18.

16: Victor Serge, Memoirs of a revolutionary (Oxford, 1975), p186.

17: John Cammett, as above, p138.

18: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, as above, p139.

19: As above, p198.

20: As above, p199.

21: John Cammett, as above, p166.

22: Alberto Pozzolini, as above, p42.

23: Andrew Lyttelton, The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929 (London, 1983), p241.

24: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, as above, p259. Available online.

25: Andrew Lyttelton, as above, p248.

26: Stanislao Pugliese, Carlo Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Anti‑Fascist Exile (Cambridge, MA, 1999), p41.

27: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, as above, p434.

28: As above, p290. Available online.

29: John Cammett, as above, p169

30: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, as above, p349. Available online.

31: As above, p367.

32: As above, p370.

33: As above, p357.

34: As above, p432.

35: Leon Trotsky, letter, ‘Problems of the Italian Revolution’, 14 May 1930.

36: Quoted in Alberto Pozzolini, as above, p75.

37: The party was known as the Partito Comunista d’Italia (PCd’I), or Communist Party of Italy, until 1944 when it was renamed the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI), or Italian Communist Party.

38: Martin Clark, Antonio Gramsci and the Revolution that Failed (London, 1978), p225.

39: In John Riddell (ed), The Communist International in Lenin’s Time: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, volume 2 (New York, 1992) pp434-438.

40: As above, p459.

41: Perry Anderson, as above, p46.



Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks and philosophy

by Chris Harman

Those who want to present Antonio Gramsci as someone other than a revolutionary Marxist focus on the notebooks he wrote in prison. Gramsci wrote his Prison Notebooks under the surveillance of a fascist jailer and often felt compelled to disguise his real meaning. So Marxism is called ‘the philosophy of practice’, Lenin is referred to as ‘Ilyich’ and the revolutionary party as ‘the modern prince’ (after the ‘prince’ who Niccolò Machiavelli hoped would bring about a revolutionary unification of renaissance Italy). Yet again and again there are references in the notebooks whose revolutionary meaning is obvious to those with eyes to see.

So, for instance, his writings on the most influential Italian intellectual of his time, Benedetto Croce—who greatly influenced the young Gramsci—are replete with criticisms of Croce for his ‘reformism’1 and for removing ‘iron and fire’ from history.2 One passage in the Prison Notebooks that could be directed at many of today’s supposed ‘Gramscians’ insists, ‘To conceive historical development as a game with its referee and its pre‑established norms to be respected loyally is a form of preconceptualised history…it is a question of continually patching up “from outside” an organism which internally is unable to keep itself healthy’.3

The reformist‑academic interpretations of Gramsci virtually ignore the passages on economics, which support the basic elements of Karl Marx’s economics and his analysis of the tendency towards a falling rate of profit,4 suggesting that this will lead eventually to great social crises precipitating mass action. For Gramsci, the ‘tendential’ must ‘be of a real “historical”, and not a methodological, nature,’ indicating a ‘dialectical process by which the molecular progressive thrust leads to a tendentially catastrophic result in the social ensemble,’ causing other ‘individual progressive thrusts’. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of the most influential attempts to use Gramsci against classic Marxism, that of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, ends up claiming ‘Gramsci is too much of an economic determinist’.5

Central to the reformist-academic interpretation of Gramsci is his concept of ‘hegemony’, which is counterposed to notions of class struggle and social revolution. Yet the person Gramsci honours for introducing the concept is…Lenin!

The greatest modern theoretician of the philosophy of practice [ie Lenin] has in opposition to the various tendencies of ‘economism’…constructed the doctrine of hegemony as a complement to the theory of the state‑as‑force.6

Note the word ‘complement’, which is the opposite of the reformist notion that the ideological argument can be a substitute for a revolutionary confrontation.

Gramsci went through a process of learning through struggle in the years between 1918 and his imprisonment in 1926, as Megan Trudell and Chris Bambery show in their articles. This process culminated in writings such as the Lyon Theses, in which he argued that the revolutionary party could not wait in isolation for the masses to turn to it but had to struggle for leadership of the masses by combining ideological struggle with economic and political struggle. A key element of this is the method of the United Front, which Lenin and Leon Trotsky argued for at the third and fourth congresses of the Comintern, held in 1921 and 1922. Much of the content of the Prison Notebooks is concerned with developing this approach theoretically. That is why the themes of hegemony, ideology, the revolutionary party, and the various forms of struggle (‘war of position’ and ‘war of manoeuvre’) are linked.

Gramsci was cut off from the practical struggle as he tried to develop these. ‘Books and magazines contain generalised notions and only sketch the course of events in the world as best they can,’ he wrote in 1928. ‘They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.’ Gramsci’s isolation meant that he only had indirect and confused knowledge of the important events occurring outside his prison—the effects of Stalinism and the victory of fascism in Germany—and the political controversies they produced. This combined with need to ‘use an ambiguous Aesopian language that concealed his real thoughts, not only from his jailers, but also from his Marxist readers and sometimes, one suspects, from himself’.7 The result is an abstractness and ambiguity in some of his formulations. In particular, he could not spell out clearly his continuing belief in the need for a revolutionary party capable of organising an insurrection as well as engaging in ideological struggle. As a result, his writings are open to misinterpretation in a way that is rarely the case with Lenin and Trotsky (which is one reason why ‘Gramsci studies’ flourish in academia, providing respectable quotes for PhD theses in a way that Lenin or Trotsky studies certainly do not). But the long years in prison did give Gramsci time to think through certain theoretical points, in a way that the other great activist Marxists of the first decades of the 20th century did not, providing theoretical resources that revolutionaries in our century can turn to with profit.

Hegemony and political struggle

Running through the notebooks are two related concerns. Why was the revolutionary upsurge in Italy unsuccessful, ending with Benito Mussolini coming to power? Why was the Italian bourgeoisie so much less successful than the French bourgeoisie in uniting the country in a capitalist direction, even though it started off, at the time of the Renaissance, so much in advance of the French? Gramsci moves from one experience to the other and back again in page after page.8 He does so because he sees a single answer to both questions—the inability of an economic force to translate itself into a political force with the mass capacity to draw all sections of the oppressed in a bid to overthrow an old political structure.

In 19th century Italy the most radical elements, first the Italian Jacobins and then the Action Party of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi refused to follow the French Jacobins in unleashing the bitterness of the peasants against the landowners and so providing a mass base for their project of creating a bourgeois Italian nation.9 In 1918 and 1920 the dominant figures in the Italian Socialist Party, on one side Giacinto Serrati, on the other Amadeo Bordiga, both shared the view that the economic power of workers would translate itself automatically into political power if they waited long enough. They differed over their attitude to the revisionists around Filippo Turati and to parliament but they shared a common failure to see the need to take the lead in practical and ideological steps to draw the mass of peasants, demobilised soldiers and the discontented layers of the petty bourgeoisie behind a revolutionary push for power. This left a political vacuum which the fascists were able to fill once the big bourgeoisie turned to them in 1922.

For Gramsci, the revolutionary movement failed because it organised around immediate economic interests (which he called ‘corporatism’) without drawing in other oppressed and exploited groups in a fight for a new society. He refers to Lenin’s example because this is exactly what Lenin argued, for instance, in What is to be Done?:

The awareness of the worker masses cannot be a genuine class awareness if the workers do not learn…to observe each of the other social classes in all the manifestations of their intellectual, moral and political life—if they do not learn to apply in practice a materialist analysis and a materialist evaluation of all sides of the activity and life of all classes, strata and groups of the population. He who focuses the attention, powers of observation and awareness of the worker class exclusively or even primarily on itself is no social democrat [ie revolutionary socialist]: the self-knowledge of the working class is inextricably tied to full clarity in its conceptions of the mutual relations of all classes of present‑day society…as they are worked out via experience of political life.10

The ideal of the social democrat should…be a people’s tribune who can respond to each and every manifestation of abuse of power and oppression, wherever it occurs, whatever stratum or class it concerns, who can generalise all these manifestations into one big picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation, who is able to use each small affair to set before everybody his socialist convictions and his democratic demands and to explain to each and all the world-historical significance of the liberation struggle of the proletariat.11

Gramsci’s concern is precisely how to carry through this task in a period which he does not see as immediately revolutionary. He also sees it as more difficult in the ‘West’ than it was in Russia, since, in his view,12 the ideological ties binding people to existing states are stronger than they were in Russia because of the existence of dense networks of formal and informal organisations (‘civil society’). These influence the lower classes but their leaderships are tied in one way or another into the structures of existing society and serve as a channel which feeds the ideologies into ‘subaltern’ [ie lower] classes.

The ‘hegemonic’ struggle is a double battle—to free the working class from ideas that bind it to the existing exploitative order and to bind other ‘subaltern’ classes into a ‘bloc’ with the working class.13

The battle of ideas

Gramsci describes this ideological struggle as a ‘philosophical’ one—meaning it is a battle between different conceptions of the world:

Everyone is a philosopher, though in his own way and unconsciously, since even in the slightest manifestation of any intellectual activity whatever, in ‘language’, there is contained a specific conception of the world, one then moves on to the second level, which is that of awareness and criticism.14

Anyone brought up in a certain society shares a ‘conception of the world,’ ‘mechanically imposed by the external environment,’ that is by the ‘social groups with which they are automatically involved from the moment of their entry into the conscious world’. Clearly thinking of Italian rural life, he writes they might be influenced by ‘the local priest or ageing patriarch whose wisdom is law’ or ‘the minor intellectual soured by his own stupidity and inability to act’.15 These different conception are what make up ‘common sense’—views that are taken for granted without more thought and which cause ‘people to “think”, without having a critical awareness, in a disjointed and episodic way’.16

Marxism begins by challenging such taken for granted conceptions of the world, with the aim, through polemic and criticism, of ‘superseding the existing mode of thinking’.17 It is ‘a criticism of “common sense”’ but it bases ‘itself initially on common sense, renovating and making “critical” an already existing activity’.18 There is an ‘elementary and primitive phase’ of ‘consciousness of being part of a particular hegemonic force (that is to say, political consciousness)’, ‘an instinctive feeling of independence’.19 But this is mixed up with other notions, producing ‘contradictory consciousness’ – a vital concept virtually missing from reformist – academic accounts of Gramsci’s thought:

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.20

The ‘verbal conception’ can feed back into the practical activity with disastrous effect, producing ‘a situation in which the contradictory state of consciousness does not permit of any action, any decision or any choice’ and resulting in ‘political passivity’.21 ‘Ideologies’ are ‘real historical facts which must be combated and their nature as instruments of domination exposed…so as to make the governed intellectually independent of the governors’ as ‘a necessary moment of the overturning of practice’.22

The crude formulations to be found in Karl Kautsky, and sometimes echoed by Lenin, that socialist ideas have to be brought to the working class from ‘outside’ are reformulated by Gramsci. There exist within the working class the elements that lay the basis for a new conception of the world. But they have to be distilled out from the mass of conflicting notions. And that can only happen insofar as organisation develops to carry through this task. The ‘multiple elements of “conscious leadership”,’23 which exist in any spontaneous struggle, need to come together to fight for the new conceptions. The struggle for ideological hegemony therefore also involves the struggle to build a revolutionary party – ‘the modern prince’:

A human mass does not ‘distinguish’ itself, does not become independent in its own right without, in the widest sense, organising itself; and there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is without organisers and leaders, in other words, without the theoretical aspect of the theory‑practice nexus being distinguished concretely by the existence of a group of people ‘specialised’ in conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas.24

Waging ideological struggle

The struggle for ideological clarity and hegemony takes place at different levels. At one level it is the arguments that take place in the locality or the workplace. A key role is played here by people who have some basic conception of what a movement is fighting for and who its opponents are. These are the key to organising and influencing much larger numbers of people (just think of the role played today by trade union activists, shop stewards and workplace reps, or of those who try to mobilise against racism or war). But these people do not hold onto their own ideas in a vacuum. They are influenced by the debates that take place at the top of their organisations, in the media, through national political channels, and so on.

Gramsci takes the case of ‘the man of the people’ with certain ideas but who has not had the chance to develop his own ‘intellectual formation’ and finds himself out‑argued by people who seems to know more than him. Should he change his views ‘every time he meets an ideological adversary who is his intellectual superior’? He will not do so, providing he knows there are people in the group whose views he shares who can win the argument. He remembers them putting forward the group’s view in a way that proves it is superior to opposing views even ‘even if the arguments in its favour cannot be readily produced’.25

So those holding on to the ideas at one level are influenced by the way the debate is conducted at a higher level—the ‘man of the people’ is influenced by the argument as carried on by the group’s activists and these in turn by the arguments that take place in the national media, parliamentary institutions, the universities and so on. Those hoping to win such an ideological battle are required ‘never to tire of repeating…arguments (though offering literary variation of form)’ and to work ‘incessantly to raise the intellectual level of ever-growing strata of the populace’ by creating ‘elites of intellectuals of a new type which arise directly out of the masses, but remain in contact with them’.26

For Gramsci, the arguments at the highest level take place between ‘organic intellectuals’ and ‘traditional intellectuals’. Organic intellectuals are people who consciously ground their ideas in the struggles of a particular class. Traditional intellectuals, by contrast, see the clash of ideas occurring simply at an intellectual level without any connection to material struggles, while themselves taking for granted many of the ideas of existing society. Their approach therefore tends to justify that society, relying as they do on their knowledge and their prestige to face down any challenges to these ideas. The revolutionary organic intellectuals have to be able to take on these arguments, without, however, ever themselves forgetting their own connections to practical class struggle.

The problem of theory and practice

The struggle for hegemony then is a struggle between different competing worldviews. But this can be seen as simply a struggle to impose different ‘paradigms’—each telling its own story and each as good as the other. This is the old ‘relativist’ view, resurrected by postmodernist, post‑structuralist and post‑Marxist thinkers (or, one is tempted to say, non-thinkers). Some of these have attempted to hitch Gramsci to their own antiquated bandwagon, although one of the key ‘post‑Marxist’ works of the mid‑1980s to use the Gramscian terminology—Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy—had to criticise Gramsci since ‘the concept of hegemony…introduces a logic of the social which is incompatible with those…basic categories of Marxist theory’.27

There are bits of ambiguous phraseology in the Prison Notebooks that can seem to justify a relativist approach. Reacting strongly against what he sees as the crude, mechanical materialism of Nikolai Bukharin’s Historical Materialism, Gramsci at one point inveighs against notions of ‘the external world’. But such phraseology stands in contrast to the many places where Gramsci writes about ‘objective’ knowledge, and should be seen as a reaction to the idea that knowledge of reality is something we get in an unproblematic way, simply by observing it. For Gramsci the concepts that determine how we observe reality have to be put to a test. And he refers again and again to the test—the test of practice. Hence his baptism of Marxism as the ‘philosophy of practice’.

His starting point is Marx’s second thesis on Feuerbach:

“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth—ie the reality and power, the this‑sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non‑reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”28

So Gramsci argues that it is only possible to talk of ‘truth’ and an ‘objective’ world as something discovered by human activity—‘objective means humanly objective’:29

“The historical value of a philosophy can be calculated from the ‘practical’ efficacy it has acquired for itself, understanding ‘practical’ in the widest sense. If it is true that every philosophy is the expression of a society, it should react back on that society and produce certain effects, both positive and negative.”30

Revolutionaries can only test the accuracy of their analyses of the material world in the process of trying to change it:

“If the problem of the identification of theory and practice is to be raised it is to be done in this sense, that one can construct, on a specific practice, a theory which, by coinciding and identifying itself with the decisive elements of the practice itself, can accelerate the historical process that is going on, rendering practice more homogeneous, more coherent, more efficient in all its elements…or alternatively, given a certain theoretical position one can organise the practical element which is essential for the theory to be realised. The identification of theory and practice is a critical act, through which practice is demonstrated rational and necessary, and theory realistic and rational.”31

This might seem to bring Gramsci close to the ‘pragmatist’ school of philosophy, which was very influential in the US a century ago. According to this school, the ‘truth’ of a statement is determined by its immediate practical utility. In fact, Gramsci writes that ‘the conception of language held by…pragmatists is not acceptable’, although ‘they felt real needs and “described” them with an exactness that was not far off the mark’.32

Clearly, the problem with any narrow view of the validation of ideas by practical activity is that it would seem to justify all sorts of views Gramsci would have regarded as false. Religion, for instance, could be held to be useful for people to whom it provided some sort of mental comfort, and therefore true. Or Mussolini could be held to be correct because he was successful and Gramsci himself wrong because he ended in prison. Gramsci rejects posing the validation of theory and practice in such a narrow limited sense. For him, what is in question is the historical development of humanity as a whole.

‘Philosophical innovations…will demonstrate themselves to be “historically true” to the extent that they become concretely—ie historically and socially—universal’.33 But this has to be for humanity as whole in its historical development, not just for this or that person or group. ‘Man knows objectively in so far as knowledge is real for the whole human race historically unified in a single unitary cultural system’.34

And such a unified cultural system can only come into being as a result of practical class struggles. ‘This process of historical unification takes place through the disappearance of the internal contradictions which tear apart human society.’ Such contradictions produce groups with ideologies made ‘transient’ by their practical origins. So ‘the struggle for objectivity’ is a struggle ‘to free oneself from partial and fallacious ideologies’ and is ‘the same as the struggle for the cultural unification of the human race’.35

This process has gone furthest in the physical sciences, where the different material interests of people have less direct effect on their approaches:

“Up to now experimental science has provided the terrain on which a cultural unity of this kind has reached its furthest extension… The typical unitary process of reality is found here in the experimental activity of the scientist, which is the first model of dialectical mediation between man and nature…through which man puts himself into relation with nature by means of technology, knows her and dominates her.”36

But when it comes to understanding social aspects of reality, the different practical concerns of different classes translate into different approaches to reality, with intellectuals associated with dominant classes never being able to go beyond partial insights. When they generalise these, they provide necessarily contradictory accounts of the world. It is because Marxism is the theory of the class whose struggle alone is capable of bringing about the unification of humanity that it is able to overcome the contradictions that beset previous systems of thought. Here Gramsci’s argument is very close to that put forward by Georg Lukács some ten years earlier in the central essay, ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, in his work History and Class Consciousness. Lukács argued that the great philosophers of the Enlightenment could only provide partial and contradictory insights into the world because they were associated with a rising class, the bourgeoisie, whose practical activity could not go beyond a certain point in confronting the society in which it lived and therefore in understanding its inner workings. This accounted for the ‘antinomies’37 (conceptual contradictions) of bourgeois thought, which could only be overcome by theories based on the one class which fights within the heart of capitalism against its roots in exploitation – the working class.

Marxism’s capacity to provide a non-contradictory worldview means it can also grasp the partial truths to be found in previous theories, and show why they end up in contradiction and falsity. That is, it can in a certain sense prove itself to be correct by its ability to criticise other views, even when practice does not seem to confirm its own theories. Marxists do not have to wait for the world revolution to justify all their opinions!

Gramsci provides an example of how Marxism should deal with the neoclassical (or marginalist) economic school:

“If one wishes to defend the critical [ie Marxist] conception of economics, one must systematically insist on the fact that orthodox economics does deal with the same problems, albeit in another language, demonstrating this identity of the problems being treated and demonstrating that the critical solution is the superior one.”38

This is the approach Marx takes in his economic writings to the ‘classical’ bourgeois economists who went before him. He points, in passing, to the interrelation between the development of their ideas and the practical concerns of the bourgeoisie. So long as it was a class trying in practice to transform the old society, it was able to develop theoretical ideas that undercut the myths perpetrated by that society. So Marx writes of the ‘scientific’ or ‘esoteric’ character of many of many of Adam Smith’s ideas. They are scientific because of Smith’s practical concern (to ensure the full dominance of capitalist relations in Scotland) ‘as the interpreter of the frankly bourgeois upstart’,39 using ‘the language of the still revolutionary bourgeoisie, which has not yet subjected to itself the whole of society, the state, etc’.40 This leads Smith to attempt to grasp the inner connections between the economic categories—or the hidden structure of the bourgeois system, ‘to attempt to penetrate the inner physiology of bourgeois society’.41

He counterposed to this the non-scientific, ‘exoteric’ elements in Smith’s thought which arose insofar as he looked uncritically at certain features of established capitalism. (The contrast comes out most clearly in Smith’s two versions of value theory, one based on the production of value through labour and, implicitly, exploitation, the other on the division of already produced revenues.) The non‑scientific, apologetic versions came to dominate with the emergence of ‘vulgar political economy’, which restricts itself to describing the surface appearance of the market. This was all the practical minded bourgeois was now interested in—and the presentation of what it was interested in as the only thing of scientific interest restricted the possibilities of genuine scientific inquiry. Capital is a critique which both completes the investigations of classical political economy and shows where their limitations and internal contradictions came from.

So Gramsci’s approach is very much along the same lines as Marx’s, even though many of Marx’s writings were still unpublished when Gramsci wrote. There is, however, one component in the relation between theory and practice which is only partially developed in Gramsci. He refers to the elements of a new worldview that exist, mixed up with other views, in the common sense of the masses. But he only provides a couple of passages that hint as to how this can be.

One such passage, quoted above, relates to contradictory consciousness, with its reference to the ‘man in the mass’ possessing a ‘theoretical consciousness…implicit in his activity’. In another passage Gramsci, while discussing the history of philosophy, writes, ‘Precedence passes to practice, to the real history of the changes in social relations; from these therefore (and therefore, in the last analysis, from the economy) there arise (or are suggested) the problems that philosophers set themselves and elaborate on’.42 But he does not spell out how practice becomes theory. To further develop this notion means adding to Gramsci’s insights some of those of Marx and Frederick Engels, and also those of one of the many Russian Marxists to fall foul of Joseph Stalin—Valentin Voloshinov.

Language, ideology and class

Marx and Engels argued in The German Ideology (one of the unpublished works Gramsci had no access to),43 ‘The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the material intercourse of men appears at this stage as the direct efflux of the material behaviour’.44 Language, ‘the immediate actuality of thought’, is necessarily social.45 ‘Language is practical consciousness that exists for other men and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men’.46

Language and practical activity are inseparable from each other. Insofar as human beings take part in practical activity with one another they have to communicate with each other, to find verbal expressions that correspond to aspects of that activity. And every time new forms of practical activity arise (whether it is a question of new ways of making a livelihood, new struggles between social groups, or anything else), there emerge new linguistic expressions (reinterpretations of old ones) and, with them, new ways of conceptualising reality.

Voloshinov (who was also ignorant of The German Ideology) developed a similar conception of the relation between practice, language and thought, but at much greater length, in two invaluable books – Marxism and the Philosophy of Language and Freudianism: A Marxist Critique. He argued that language develops in concrete social situations, always involving dialogue – someone saying something, someone replying, and so on. In the process people throw up new words and new concepts, which are inseparable from the practical context in which they are used.47 But changes in linguistic use necessarily affect people’s consciousness, since people express their thoughts through ‘internal speech’. So there are continual clashes between the attempts of ruling classes to determine how people think by fixing ‘a super‑class, eternal character on ideological signs’ and the way people give expression to their own practical interactions with each other.48 There are, for instance, contradictory interpretations of concepts such as ‘good’, ‘true’, ‘honest’, with the meaning that established society tries to impose on people clashing with the way the mass of people begin to express their own needs and experiences.

In this way Voloshinov develops a conception of contradictory consciousness very similar to Gramsci’s. But Voloshinov is mostly concerned with how these contradictions create confusion for the individuals, as they are torn mentally over what they can and should do, rather than paying attention, as Gramsci does, to the role of collective struggle in shaping consciousness.

There are some interesting parallels between the analyses of Marx, Gramsci and Voloshinov with some developments in linguistic philosophy associated with Ludwig Wittgenstein.49 Wittgenstein recognised that the way people express their experiences in everyday language clashes with attempts to fix meaning. But his conclusion was that attempts to fix meaning were bound to fail and it was necessary to accept that people interpreted the world through different ‘language games’. It was simply a form of ‘mental cramp’ afflicting philosophers that led them to think otherwise. This has allowed elements of Wittgenstein’s approach to be appropriated by post‑Marxists and postmodernists. By contrast, the Marx‑Gramsci‑Voloshinov approach sees different language games as corresponding to the different practical activities of different classes in an exploitative society. One of Wittgenstein’s most famous imaginary language games involves people using words to communicate with each other as they move stone slabs.50 What he does not consider, however, is the different meanings they might give to these words if one is a boss and the other slaving for him.

What is implicit, to varying degrees, in the analyses of Gramsci, Voloshinov, and Marx and Engels, is a view of consciousness as existing at different levels.51 When individuals act, they have an immediate awareness expressed in language of their actions and the part of the world they impinge upon which cannot be false (assuming they do not suffer from physical hallucinations). However, over and above this immediate awareness there is a more general consciousness, born out of the ideology of existing society, which attempts to locate immediate experiences in a framework explaining their connection with the world as a whole. It is this that leads to contradictions within consciousness. The established ideology says one thing about people’s lives, while their immediate activity leads them to say something very different—something which has the potential to develop into a whole new conception of the world.

In a capitalist society, it is the class from whom value is extracted through exploitation whose experiences are most consistently contradicted by the established ideologies and who are driven to rebel periodically and, in doing so, to develop the embryos of a different conception of the world. Their consciousness is contradictory because their practical activity is both constitutive of existing society (their work keeps it going) and driven into opposition to it. Recognition of this, of course, depends on recognition that it is labour that produces value and that the dynamics of capitalist society repeatedly clash with the hopes of those who provide that labour.

That is why Gramsci could see ‘value, alias the relationship between the worker and the industrial productive forces’, as a ‘unitary centre’ in economics.52 That, incidentally, is also why Laclau and Mouffe in their attempt to ‘go beyond’ Gramsci in the direction of reformism and autonomism, are forced to criticise him for ‘essentialising’ the economy, that is for believing that ‘the economy constitutes an insurmountable limit to society’s potential for hegemonic recomposition’ and falls into ‘the naturalist prejudice which sees the economy as a homogenous space unified by necessary laws’.53

It is Gramsci’s understanding of the working class as the object of capitalist exploitation that begins to turn against it (‘to become a subject’) that means he can insist, in contradiction to all the post‑Marxist would‑be Gramscians, that Marxist ideas do not stand in contradiction to all the notions that arise among the mass of people:

“A fundamental theoretical question is raised: can modern theory [ie Marxism] be in opposition to the ‘spontaneous’ feelings of the masses? (‘Spontaneous’ in the sense that they…have been formed through everyday experience illuminated by ‘common sense’…) It cannot be in opposition to them. Between the two there is a ‘quantitative’ difference of degree, not one of quality. A reciprocal ‘reduction’ so to speak, a passage from one to the other and vice versa, must be possible.”54

At one point in the notebooks he provides an account of what this means, referring to the Turin movement of 1918-20, which was accused of being ‘spontaneist’ and ‘voluntarist’:

“The leadership given to the movement was both creative and correct. This leadership was not ‘abstract’… It applied itself to real men, formed in specific historical relations, with specific feelings, outlooks, fragmentary conceptions of the world, etc, which were the result of ‘spontaneous’ combinations of a given situation of material production with the ‘fortuitous’ agglomeration within it of disparate social elements. This element of ‘spontaneity’ was not neglected and even less despised. It was educated, directed, purged of extraneous contaminations; the aim was to bring it into line with modern theory—but in a living and historically effective manner…the movement gave the masses a ‘theoretical’ consciousness of being creators of historical and institutional values, of being founders of a state.”55

It is this account which should be seen as a guide for every revolutionary who wants to contribute to building a hegemonic socialist movement in the 21st century.


1: These writings are collected together in Italian in Il Materialismo Storico e la Filosofia de Benedetto Croce, and are contained in Antonio Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London, 1995), pp498, 524. These are now out of print and, I suspect, much less read than the first volume of selections from Gramsci’s prison writings. The further selections are not currently available from They are, however, to be found on Antonio Gramsci the Revolutionary Reader, CD‑ROM (London, 1999), details available from Further selections is referred to here as PN2, and page numbers are from the CD version. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London, 1971), is referred to here as PN1; page numbers also refer to the version on the CD‑ROM. Most of PN1 is currently available online.

2: PN2, p497.

3: PN2, p527.

4: See PN2, p589, where he provides an account that refutes criticisms of Marx’s theory of the sort that are today to be found in the writing of people such as Ian Steedman but which were already made more than a century ago by Croce in his Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx. Interestingly, Gramsci refers to the ideas of Henryk Grossman among others, and also refers to discussions with the Italian economist, resident in Cambridge, Piero Sraffa—which tends to suggest Sraffa was more of an orthodox Marxist than he is normally presented as.

5: Peter Ives, Language and Hegemony in Gramsci (London, 2004), p30.

6: PN2, p507. In this and other passages Gramsci used the Italian word ‘prassi’, which is translated in English‑Italian dictionaries as ‘practice’. Some people translate it as ‘praxis’, believing that gives it some deeper, almost mystical meaning. In fact, in Germany every medical doctor has a ‘praxis’.

7: Chris Harman, ‘Gramsci versus Eurocommunism’, in International Socialism, first series, May and June 1977, reprinted (with minor changes), as Gramsci Versus Reformism (London, 1983). This is now available online. Many of the same points were made in a powerful article by Perry Anderson, published shortly before mine, ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, in New Left Review 100, November‑December 1976. Anderson’s article was particularly significant because it involved a clarification of notions he had played a part in propagating before he came to see that socialist change could not come through the methods of the Labour left or the Communist Party (see p7 of his article).

8: This switching from the problems of bourgeois unification to those of workers’ revolution is confusing as well as illuminating because it blurs over important differences—especially the way in which its economic strength under absolutism enables the bourgeoisie to gain control of major means of propagating its worldview before taking state power in a way that is not open to the workers’ movement. The issue is further confused because some of Gramsci’s references probably refer to the problems arising from the attempt to build ‘socialism in one country’ in the USSR of the late 1920s and early 1930s. On these matters, see Perry Anderson, as above, pp45-46; and Chris Harman, as above, pp25-26.

9: See, for instance, PN1, p101.

10: Lenin, What is to be Done?, translation contained in Lars T Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, p737. Lih’s book brings out brilliantly the positive features of What is to be Done? and it counters the distorted image of it in liberal scholarship. Unfortunately, in doing so, it makes the mistake of equating Lenin’s ideas with the narrow, school teacherish approach of Karl Kautsky, with its lack of feeling for popular upsurges. An alternative translation of What is to be Done? is available online.

11: Lenin, What is to be Done?, translation contained in Lars T Lih, as above, p 746.

12: Gramsci’s view on this matter was by no means an original one. It is implicit in some of the comments of Lenin and is also be found in the writings of the Dutch ‘left’ Communist Antonie Pannekoek. See, for example, his article from 1920, ‘World Revolution and Communist Tactics’, in Pannekoek and Gorter’s Marxism (London, 1978). The article is also available online. According to Pannekoek, ‘Bourgeois culture exists in the proletariat primarily as a traditional cast of thought. The masses caught up in it think in ideological instead of real terms… The mental reflexes left over from the innumerable class struggles of former centuries have survived as political and religious systems of thought which separate the old bourgeois world, and hence the proletarians born of it, into groups, churches, sects, parties, divided according to their ideological perspectives. The bourgeois past thus survives in the proletariat as an organisational tradition that stands in the way of the class unity necessary for the creation of the new world; in these archaic organisations the workers make up the followers and adherents of a bourgeois vanguard. It is the intelligentsia which supplies the leaders in these ideological struggles. The intelligentsia—priests, teachers, literati, journalists, artists, and politicians—form a numerous class, the function of which is to foster, develop and propagate bourgeois culture; it passes this on to the masses, and acts as mediator between the hegemony of capital and the interests of the masses. The hegemony of capital is rooted in this group’s intellectual leadership of the masses. For even though the oppressed masses have often rebelled against capital and its agencies, they have only done so under the leadership of the intelligentsia.’

13: The use of the term ‘bloc’ is one weakness in Gramsci’s formulations. In part it derives from the French theorist of syndicalism, Georges Sorel. But it also reflects the arguments put by Gregory Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin in the mid‑1920s, after Lenin’s death, which stressed the ‘alliance’ of the working class with the peasantry, petty bourgeoisie and, in colonial countries, the ‘national’ bourgeoisie, rather than the working class providing leadership to the other classes. For Zinoviev’s position, see Zinoviev, ‘The NEP Peasant Policy is Valid Universally’, in Helmut Gruber (ed), Soviet Russia Masters the Comintern (New York, 1974). For a discussion on some of these issues, see Jeremy Lester, The Dialogue of Negation: Debates on Hegemony in Russia and the West (London, 2000), pp49-50.

14: PN1, p626.

15: PN1, p627.

16: PN1, p627.

17: PN1, p631.

18: PN1, p631.

19: PN1, pp641-642.

20: PN1, p641.

21: PN1, p641.

22: PN2, p548.

23: See the section Spontaneity and Conscious Leadership, in PN1.

24: PN1, p644.

25: PN1, pp650-651.

26: PN1, p652.

27: Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London, 1985), p3.

28: Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

29: Some of Gramsci’s formulations might seem to question the reality of the world apart from our conceptualisation of it in the way that some postmodernists do. So he writes, ‘The idea of “objective” in metaphysical materialism would appear to mean an objectivity that exists even apart from man; but when one affirms that a reality would exist even if man did not, one is either speaking metaphorically or one is falling into a form of mysticism’ (PN1, p808). But in the same passage he makes it clear that he sees there something real which human knowledge has to come to terms with, writing that references to places as ‘north’ or ‘south’ ‘are real, they correspond to real facts, they allow one to travel by land and by sea, to arrive where one has decided to arrive, to “foresee” the future, to objectivise reality, to understand the objectivity of the external world. Rational and real become one’ (PN1, p810). In a footnote, he suggests that Georg Lukács, in seeing the dialectic as existing in history but not nature, may have fallen ‘into a form of idealism’ (PN1, p811).

30: PN1, p661.

31: PN1, p688.

32: PN1, p663.

33: PN1, p663.

34: PN1, p807.

35: PN1, p807.

36: PN2, p432.

37: The word comes from a central passage in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where it is used to describe how philosophers starting from the same premises are driven to draw contradictory conclusions when they try to grasp the most fundamental character of reality.

38: PN2, p314.

39: Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, volume 1 (Moscow, 1963), p279.

40: As above, p291.

41: As above, p202

42: PN2, pp537-538

43: The German Ideology was first published in 1932. In prison Gramsci did not even have access to the long-published volumes of Capital. But it is possible he had some notion of the contents of The German Ideology from Piero Sraffa, who did get hold of a copy, according to Keiran Sharp, in Gavin Kitching and Nigel Pleasants (eds), Marx and Wittgenstein: Knowledge, Morality and Politics (London, 2002).

44: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, volume 5 (London, 1975), p36. Available online.

45: As above, p446.

46: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow, 1968), p41.

47: Valentin Voloshinov, ‘Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art’, in Freudianism, a Critical Sketch (Indiana, 1987).

48: Valentin Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge, MA, 1986), pp14, 24, 29. Sections of this work are currently available online.

49: It has been suggested that Gramsci’s ideas on language might have had some influence on the development of Wittgenstein’s through the medium of Piero Sraffa, who was a friend of both. See, for instance, Amartya Sen, ‘Sraffa, Wittgenstein, and Gramsci’, in Journal of Economic Literature, volume 41, number 4 (December 2003), pp1240-1255, and John Davis, ‘Gramsci, Sraffa, Wittgenstein: Philosophical Linkages’, European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 9 (2002). Interestingly (although probably only coincidentally) also in Cambridge at the same time as Wittgenstein and Sraffa was the brother of Mikhail Bakhtin, a major influence on Voloshinov.

50: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p3. For useful discussions on the relations of Wittgenstein’s ideas to Marx’s see Gavin Kitching and Nigel Pleasants, as above; Anthony Manser, The End of Philosophy: Marx and Wittgenstein (Southampton, 1979); and Susan Easton, Humanistic Marxism and Wittgensteinian Social Philosophy (Manchester, 1983).

51: Which is, in some ways, similar to the distinction to be found in Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind.

52: PN2, p52.

53: Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, as above, p69. They seem to forget their own attack on ‘essentialising capitalism’ when they later write that ‘today it is not only as a seller of labour power that the individual is subordinated to capital, but also through his or her incorporation into a multitude of other social relations: culture, free time, illness, education, sex or even death’—p161.

54: PN1, p 432.

55: PN1, p 431.


Gramsci’s Marxism and international relations

by Adrian Budd

Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are not an obvious starting point for the study of international relations. However, in the past few decades a group of radical scholars has drawn on his work to challenge the dominant ‘Realist’ perspective in this field. The Realist perspective is associated with key US strategists such as Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who provided the US state with its ‘intellectual compass’ during the Cold War.1 Realism takes the bourgeois view of human nature as a struggle between atomised individuals and transposes it onto the international system—its essence is inter-state rivalry and conflict. It assumes that since the time of the ancient Greek city-states the world’s states have had coherent national interests that they project internationally, chiefly by military means.

Given this abstract, ahistorical approach, in which there is no place for the rise and fall of modes of production or the class dynamics underpinning them, it is not surprising that there was ‘mutual neglect’ between Marxism and international relations for much of the 20th century.2 But recently, the ‘neo‑Gramscian’ perspective, initiated by the Canadian Robert Cox, has provided a convincing critique of Realism.3 Cox firmly rejects the label ‘Marxist’, and has merely applied to the study of international relations ideas derived from a selective reading of the Prison Notebooks—of which the most important is the concept of hegemony. The neo-Gramscians have helped enlarge the space for Marxist ideas in international analysis but their selective use of Gramsci and their idealist understanding of hegemony mean that they neither accurately represent Gramsci’s Marxism nor convincingly explain the dynamics of the international system.

Gramsci’s comments on international relations are fragmentary and under-developed. His use of the concept of passive revolution, however, illustrates a consistent appreciation of the interpenetration of the national and international. Passive revolution is central to Gramsci’s analysis of 19th century and early 20th century European history, including Italian unification (the Risorgimento) in the 1860s. It describes a top-down process in which a narrow, modernising elite brings about a transformation of traditional social relations by piecemeal reform. Unlike the Jacobins in the French Revolution, this elite failed to mobilise mass activity behind its revolutionary programme. The pressure behind this process arose not from domestic economic development, but was ‘instead the reflection of international developments which transmit their ideological currents to the periphery—currents born of the productive development of the more advanced countries’.4 Similarly, Gramsci argued that the Fordist development of early 20th century American industry, itself a passive revolution that transformed existing forms of capitalist relations, was reshaping European societies and forcing states to adopt structures and policies more supportive of free enterprise and economic individualism.5 Gramsci also suggested that Italian fascism represented a passive revolution designed to preserve the power of a decaying bourgeoisie faced with the revolutionary challenge from Russia.

Whatever their historical accuracy, these arguments illustrate Gramsci’s understanding of a national-international dialectic in which international forces both provide the context of change and penetrate and transform national political and social relations. There are hints of Leon Trotsky’s theory of the uneven and combined development of world capitalism here but Gramsci did not develop these ideas. Nor did he produce an analysis of imperialism like those of Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin, who both saw imperialist rivalry as a consequence of capitalism’s economic dynamic, particularly the growth of capitalist monopolies and the tendency for economic processes to transcend national limits. Nor did Gramsci place competitive processes (including capitalist accumulation, imperialist expansion and war) at the centre of the national-international dialectic, focusing instead on mechanisms of ideological transmission.6 Nevertheless, against much academic Marxism, which even today analyses social relations and state power in their specifically national dimensions, he understood that internal and international relations ‘intertwine’ and that Marxism should study how ‘the international situation should be considered in its national aspect’.7

Gramsci was a revolutionary internationalist who recognised that the capitalist world system must be overthrown internationally. Yet, while ‘the perspective is international and cannot be otherwise’, capitalism’s uneven development produces elements of national ‘originality and uniqueness’ which must be the concrete point of departure if the workers’ movement is to engage in effective struggle: the workers’ movement must ‘“nationalise” itself in a certain sense’.8 In the Italian context, this required the establishment of working class hegemony or leadership over other subordinate classes, notably the peasantry in southern Italy. The exercise of hegemony in a national context is a major theme in the Prison Notebooks but Gramsci occasionally extended it to the international system and highlighted, for instance, French attempts to establish hegemony over 19th century Europe. It is in their application of hegemony to the international system that the neo-Gramscians draw most heavily on Gramsci.

The neo-Gramscians and the Prison Notebooks

Drawing on the Prison Notebooks enables the neo-Gramscians to demolish central Realist arguments. First, where Realism largely ignores the social determinants of state power and sees states as expressions of coherent national interests, the neo-Gramscians place the class forces formed in the process of production at the centre of their analysis. By grounding state power in class relations the neo-Gramscians are consistent with both Gramsci’s view that international relations ‘follow (logically) fundamental social relations’ and his conception of states as terrains of struggle.9 Thus, against Realism, Cox argues that the essential entities of the international system are not states as such but state-society complexes, and that the international system should be understood not as an inter-state system but as an articulation of social forces, forms of state and world orders.

Second, following Gramsci’s rejection of a mechanical materialist interpretation of Marx, which sees human thought and action as automatic reflections of material circumstances, the neo-Gramscians recognise that ideas are themselves part of reality, and that, as Cox puts it, ‘theory is always for some one or some purpose’.10 The fact that mainstream theory takes state power and the inter-state system for granted, without enquiring into their social bases, is an expression of the ideological bias of those who are comfortable with prevailing structures of social power and seek merely to correct problems in their operation rather than fundamentally transform them. The neo-Gramscians label Realism as ‘problem solving theory’.

This leads to a third strength of neo-Gramscianism—its commitment to social change, including greater equality, environmental protection, justice and peace. Endorsing Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach—‘the philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’—the neo-Gramscians highlight the contradictions in prevailing social relations that can form the basis for progressive change.11 Here Cox echoes Gramsci’s argument that reality is not ‘static or immobile’ but ‘a relation of forces in continuous motion and shift of equilibrium’.12

Despite these strengths, and the fact that some neo-Gramscians mobilise Marxist arguments more systematically than others, there are major problems with the neo-Gramscian perspective.13 In particular, its approach to international hegemony deviates in important ways from a Marxist understanding of the capitalist world system, seriously diminishing its explanatory power.


The neo-Gramscians Stephen Gill and David Law erect a sharp distinction between Gramsci and Lenin, arguing that Leninism sought ‘to capture state power and then shape the state and society from above’, while Gramsci was committed to ‘the building of socialism from below’.14 Yet Gramsci acknowledged his own debt to Lenin, whose stress on the importance of political and cultural hegemony stood ‘in opposition to the mechanistic and fatalistic concepts of economism’, as the ‘essential characteristic’ of Lenin’s Marxism ‘consists precisely in the historico-political concept of hegemony’.15 Lenin and Gramsci’s common approach yielded an essentially identical political practice: Lenin counselled the immature Communist International against premature attempts to seize state power without first winning majority support among both workers and the wider subordinated classes, while Gramsci, reflecting on the Turin workers’ struggles of 1919-20, argued that ‘the social basis of the proletarian dictatorship and the workers’ state’ depend upon the creation of class alliances enabling it ‘to mobilise the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state’.16

Despite this practical affinity between Lenin and Gramsci, an important difference emerged in the Prison Notebooks with profound implications for subsequent readings of Gramsci. He extended the concept to cover not only relations between the working class and other subordinate classes, but also relations between antagonistic classes. While an aspirant ruling class, presenting its struggle against pre-capitalist relations as a universal struggle for freedom, may exercise leadership over subordinate classes to secure its rule, once in power it should not simply seek to dominate, but must ‘continue to “lead” as well’.17 Thus, while in one place in the Prison Notebooks Gramsci defined hegemony as ‘the combination of force and consent’, and while Gramsci repeatedly refers to the threat of force that underlies class rule, even under hegemony, his usual definition as simply ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ minimised the coercive element in class rule. The corollary of this was that Gramsci argued in various places that subordinate classes give their ‘active’ or ‘spontaneous’ consent to capitalist rule.18

These arguments are, in my view, mistaken.19 However, they should be understood not as the definitive statement of Gramsci’s views but as an attempt to convince the Italian Communist Party to continue the struggle for hegemony, rather than follow the Stalinised Communist International’s disastrous ultra-left ‘Third Period’ perspective after 1928.20 A more accurate reflection of Gramsci’s thinking is contained in an important passage of the Prison Notebooks where he analysed what he called the working class’s ‘contradictory consciousness’, combining conformist ‘common sense’ with an oppositional ‘good sense’ deriving from direct experience and forms of collective activity that contain the embryo of the ‘practical transformation’ of society.21 This passage is ignored by the neo-Gramscians, who consistently argue that the ruling class’s ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ is accepted by the working class. Thus Cox argues that the ruling class is hegemonic where ‘the weak accept the prevailing power relations as legitimate’, while Gill refers to subordinate classes’ ‘active consent’ to bourgeois rule, albeit that this demands that the ruling class make some concessions to their interests.22 Gill and Law go further still, suggesting the possibility of a consensus constructed ‘on the basis of shared values, ideas and material interests’.23

Thirty years ago Perry Anderson warned that the belief that capitalist power in the West rests predominantly on its cultural hegemony ‘is the involuntary temptation that lurks in some of Gramsci’s notes’.24 Unfortunately, it is this interpretation of the Prison Notebooks that the neo-Gramscians have mobilised to explain the dynamics of international relations. And, just as the idea of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ ignores more concrete economic and political realities that better explain domestic capitalist stability, so its explanatory power is limited at the international level. This is illustrated by Cox’s analysis of the post‑war world order.

Pax Americana

Cox sees what he calls the post-war Pax Americana as a hegemonic world order, defined as one in which power is exercised on a largely consensual basis. It is true that as the post-war era progressed America’s European allies broadly accepted US plans for an open world economy. But while the intra-Western imperialist rivalries that had dominated the first half of the 20th century were transformed as the economic and military aspects of rivalry became partially separated, they were far from transcended. European opposition forced the substantial moderation of plans for a US-centred world free trade system in the late-1940s, while after 1960 transatlantic relations were soured by a series of economic and political conflicts.25 If the persistence of intra-Western rivalry undermines Cox’s view of a consensually integrated world order, his focus on the West in isolation from the wider structures of superpower imperialism gives a completely misleading picture of the post-war era.

The corollary of Cox’s definition of a hegemonic world order is that ‘the more that military force has to be increased and the more it is actually employed, the less the world order rests on consent and the less it is hegemonic’.26 Yet in rejecting Realism’s exaggeration of military power in shaping the international system Cox largely expunges it as a determining factor in the Cold War. In reality, the dominant feature of the post-1945 era was the militarised rivalry between the superpowers. It was only within the framework of the Cold War that the US could hope to establish its supremacy within the non-Communist world, for its capacity to ensure Western solidarity rested crucially on its military defence of Western interests against any temptation towards Soviet expansion. If there was US ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ of the West, it rested in large part on the more material factor of what Mike Davis calls the US’s ‘nuclear imperialism’.27

A second material factor underlying the relative stability of the Western alliance was the long economic boom that was a major feature of the post-war era. Cox acknowledges the long boom but neither adequately explains it nor understands its significance. His explanation, the conventional Keynesian argument that it was sustained by expansionary fiscal policies, is contradicted by the evidence that fiscal policy was mildly deflationary during the boom. The most convincing explanation for the boom is that, for technical economic reasons, global growth and profitability achieved historically high rates due to the economic counterpart to superpower rivalry—‘the most massive rearmament effort the world had ever seen in peacetime’.28 The military aspects of world order thus had a double significance that is lost within the idealist concept of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’. Military power provided the central political mechanism of US leadership of the West, while its economic consequences helped moderate the intra-Western rivalry that may well have intensified in more economically difficult circumstances. Indeed, as profit rates declined and the boom faltered from the late-1960s, transatlantic tensions deepened, the US pursued unilateral economic measures detrimental to the interests of its Western allies, and US politicians demanded revision of the terms of Western interdependence. As US treasury secretary John Connally put it, the US should ‘screw the Europeans before they screw us’.29

Post-hegemony and globalisation

Cox notes the relative decline of US power and the transition to a new phase of global economic turbulence in his account of the decline of Pax Americana. But, failing to relate these changes to the return of economic crisis in the early-1970s, he describes, rather than explains, these changes. More importantly, his analysis of what he sees as an era of transnationalisation (more generally called globalisation) beginning in the mid-1970s is wide of the mark.

Cox argues that under transnationalisation states have ‘willy nilly became more effectively accountable to a nebuleuse personified as the global economy’.30 Far from occurring ‘willy nilly’, however, the globalisation that many mainstream commentators argue has eroded state power is itself the product of a sustained ruling class neoliberal offensive. Spearheaded by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, this offensive depended crucially on the mobilisation of state power against earlier social gains and to inflict major defeats on important sections of national labour movements across the advanced capitalist countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, despite ritual references to class struggle as a source of change, these real struggles are all but invisible in the neo-Gramscian literature. Indeed, Cox has recently argued that ‘the restructuring of world society…challenges the Marxist schema of the primacy of class-oriented identities’.31 This argument flows from Cox’s subjective conception of class and rejection of the understanding of class as the objective expression of exploitation. Consequently, the recent marginalisation of class-based discourse and retreat of class consciousness are identified with a secular decline in class as such.

Cox’s depiction of the global economy as a ‘nebuleuse’ conjures up an image of a cloud in which there is no centre of power. Yet, just as economic power is becoming more concentrated in the world’s major transnational corporations, so state power remains a cornerstone of contemporary capitalism. It is at its most naked in Iraq, where the US is pursuing its key strategists’ long-held dream of securing dominance over the world’s oil supplies and simultaneously enhancing its leverage over both its established and emerging rivals. But state power remains vital for capitalism more widely: in the provision of educational, transport, legal and telecommunications infrastructures; in promoting technological advance in the face of international competition; in seeking alliances with other states to advance the interests of home-based capitals; and, not least, in policing the working class and attempting to inhibit its unity—through racism and Islamophobia, for instance. Yet once again Cox misrepresents the actual state of affairs when he argues that the contemporary global political economy ‘is characterised by a “new capitalism” which opposes any form of state or interstate control or intervention’.32

Gramsci’s relevance today

The reason the promise of the neo-Gramscians’ application of Gramsci’s ideas to the international system has not been fulfilled stems in large part from Cox’s rejection of an essential aspect of Marxist theory, the concept of mode of production, which he argues produces ‘static and abstract’ analysis.33 Cox is mistaken, for Marxism conceives the mode of production not as a set of fixed categories but as a totality driven by internal contradictions towards constant innovation (technological, institutional, political, ideological, etc), although a mode of production’s dominant social relations do impose objective limits on the sorts of change that can be accommodated within their framework.

Rejection of this concept has a number of important consequences. The centrality of real contradictions and conflict in Marxist analysis is displaced in favour of an emphasis on ideas and on the system-integrating concept of hegemony. In mobilising this concept the neo-Gramscians pay little attention to the moments of force and coercion that Gramsci argued underpin it, but emphasise instead the ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ of leading states and ruling classes. This in turn entails a preoccupation with ruling class ideological strategies largely abstracted from the resistance of subordinate classes that always limits the exercise of hegemony.34 Finally, Cox’s failure to locate the inter-state system within the framework of the capitalist totality leads to the mistaken argument that the world order is characterised by ‘the duality of inter‑state system and world economy’, each subject to separate internationalising processes.35

Despite these criticisms of the neo-Gramscians, Gramsci’s ideas retain a powerful relevance for contemporary Marxist international theory and practice. At the theoretical level, in discussing national state-society relations Gramsci argued that ‘the complex contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures is the reflection of the ensemble of the social relations of production’.36 Internationalising this argument emphasises that war and the inter-state system on the one hand and the global economy on the other are interdependent aspects of a contradictory totality rather than, as Cox argues, a duality subject to separate logics. Thus to fight against imperialist war today remains just as imperative for anti-capitalists as it was for Gramsci in the First World War.

Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution also helps in understanding the political implications of the global extension of neoliberalism. Conceiving neoliberal transformation as a form of passive revolution, where the economic principles and priorities of the advanced countries are adopted by ruling classes in the Global South, leads to the conclusion that, in both advanced and poor countries, the working class’s immediate enemy remains the national ruling class. The Southern ruling classes’ opposition to neoliberalism, reflecting their independent interests, has been lukewarm and tempered by the common interests of the world’s rulers against the interests of subordinate classes. The world’s ruling classes remain, as Marx argued, hostile brothers.

The implication of seeing neoliberal globalisation as a passive revolution—that subordinate classes in the Global South should adopt the slogan of the contemporary anti‑capitalist movement, ‘Think global, act local’—applies equally in the advanced countries. It was recognition of the fact that the enemy is at home that led Gramsci to explore Italian history and politics so deeply, for he argued that the left must understand the elements of ‘originality and uniqueness’ in national social relations in order to ‘dominate them and direct them’.37 To achieve this demands, in turn, that the left take ruling class ideas seriously, for as Gramsci noted, following Marx, ‘it is on the level of ideologies that men become conscious of conflicts in the world of the economy’.38 Combating ruling class ideas is one of the key tasks of the sort of revolutionary party that Gramsci’s mature political life was dedicated to building. Those who wish to learn from Gramsci today should heed his words in what Perry Anderson calls ‘Gramsci’s effective political testament’. Reflecting on the coercive nature of ruling class power, Gramsci argued that ‘the violent conquest of power necessitates the creation by the party of the working class of an organisation of the military type’. Only such a party would be ‘capable of wounding and inflicting grave blows on it [the bourgeois state] at the decisive moment of struggle’.39 When a revolutionary party is able to achieve this in one or more of the world’s most advanced countries, a vital first step will have been taken towards the international transformation that, it is to be hoped, the neo-Gramscians desire.


1: Stanley Hoffman, ‘An American Social Science: International Relations’, in Daedalus, volume 106, number 3 (1977), p47.

2: John Maclean, ‘Marxism and International Relations: a Strange Case of Mutual Neglect’, in Millenium: Journal of International Studies, volume 17, number 2 (1988).

3: The founding documents of neo-Gramscianism are Robert Cox’s ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, volume 10, number 2 (1981), and his ‘Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: an Essay in Method’, in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, volume 12, number 2 (1983).

4: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks (London, 1971), pp116-117. Hereafter, PN. Many of these essays are available from the Marxists internet archive

5: PN, p293.

6: PN, pp116-117, 182, 317.

7: PN, p182, 240.

8: PN, pp240-241.

9: PN, p176.

10: Robert Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders’, in Robert Cox and Timothy Sinclair (eds), Approaches to World Order (Cambridge, 1996), p87.

11: Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, in Karl Marx: Selected Works, volume 1 (London, 1942), p473.

12: PN, p172. Available online.

13: The neo-Gramscian Mark Rupert systematically uses Marxist concepts. See, for instance, his ‘Alienation, Capitalism and the Inter-state System: Towards a Marxian/Gramscian Critique’, in Stephen Gill (ed), Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations (Cambridge, 1993). Gill’s neo-Gramscianism shows the pitfalls of academic Marxism. His academic work is often highly abstract and unnecessarily complex, but his writing in, for instance, The Socialist Register, is frequently insightful and highly critical of ruling class projects.

14: Stephen Gill and David Law, The Global Political Economy: Perspectives, Problems and Policies (London, 1988), p63.

15: Antonio Gramsci, ‘Letter to Tania, 2 May 1932’, in Hamish Henderson (ed), Antonio Gramsci: Prison Letters (London, 1988), p214.

16: Lenin, cited in Perry Anderson, ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, in New Left Review 100, November‑December 1976, p.59; Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince and Other Writings (New York, 1957), pp30-31.

17: PN, p58. Available online.

18: PN, pp244, 12.

19: Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill and Bryan Turner, The Dominant Ideology Thesis (London, 1980), presents a powerful critique of the argument that bourgeois ideology dominates working class consciousness. The under‑development of socialist consciousness is better explained by more material factors, including what Marx called the ‘dull compulsion of economic relations’. Additionally, Goran Therborn identified ‘ideological mechanisms of subjection’ more closely related to workers’ lived experiences than bourgeois ideology: these include accommodation to, or acquiescence in, ruling class power, fear of the consequences of resistance, and resignation towards the ways of the world. See Goran Therborn, The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology (London, 1980).

20: Duncan Hallas, devastating critique of Third Period Stalinism. He argues that the Comintern’s lunatic ultra‑leftism reflected the attempts of the USSR’s Stalinist ruling class to defeat its Bukharinite right wing while securing the international breathing space necessary to construct ‘socialism in one country’. Superficially, ultra-leftism appears poorly suited to the second goal, but rhetorical radicalism ensured, contrary to the politics of Lenin and Gramsci, that the Communist parties were politically passive and isolated from the wider labour movement, including social democrats (dubbed ‘social-fascists’). Thus political instability was minimised among the USSR’s neighbours and the confidence of the right was strengthened, including, of course, in Germany where the failure to pursue a United Front strategy allowed fascism to come to power.

21: PN, p333.

22: Robert Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders’, as above, p99; Stephen Gill, ‘Epistemology, Ontology and the “Italian School”,’ in Stephen Gill (ed), Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations, as above, p40. Gill’s article illustrates the point made about academic Marxism in a previous note.

23: Stephen Gill and David Law, The Global Political Economy, as above, p78.

24: Perry Anderson, as above, p41.

25: On the early post‑war years see Alan Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation‑State (London, 1984), and Peter Burnham, The Political Economy of Postwar Reconstruction (London, 1990). On the 1960s see Adrian Budd, The EC and Foreign and Security Policy (London, 1993).

26: Robert Cox, Production, Power and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History (New York, 1987), p.289.

27: Mike Davis, ‘From Fordism to Reaganism: The Crisis of American Hegemony in the 1980s’, in Ray Bush, Gordon Johnston and David Coates (eds), The World Order: Socialist Perspectives (Cambridge, 1987), p8.

28: Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (New York 1994), p297. For an analysis of the long boom see Chris Harman, Explaining the Crisis (London 1999), chapter 3.

29: Cited in Michael Smith, ‘“The Devil you know”: The United States and a Changing European Community’, in International Affairs, volume 68, number 1 (1992), p110.

30: Robert Cox, “Global Perestroika”, in Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch (eds), The Socialist Register 1992, p.27.

31: Robert Cox, The Political Economy of a Plural World (London, 2002), p85.

32: Robert Cox, ‘The Crisis in World Order and the Challenge to International Organisation’, in Cooperation and Conflict, volume 29, number 2 (1994), p99.

33: Robert Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders’, as above, p94.

34: See Randall Germain and Michael Kenny, ‘Engaging Gramsci: International Relations Theory and the Neo‑Gramscians’, in Review of International Studies, volume 24, number 2 (1998), pp18-19; Alejandro Colas, ‘The Class Politics of Globalisation’, in Mark Rupert and Hazel Smith (eds), Historical Materialism and Globalisation: Essays on Continuity and Change (London, 2002), p192.

35: Robert Cox, Production, Power and World Order, as above, pp107, 109.

36: PN, p366. Available online.

37: PN, p240.

38: PN, p162; see also p140. Available online.

39: Cited in Perry Anderson, as above, p72.