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GramsciRevolution as strategy

Antonio Gramsci was the most notable Italian Marxist thinker of the early 20th century. A formidable journalist and political theorist, he was jailed by Mussolini and died shortly after being released from prison. Phil Sharpe shows the richness of Gramsci’s contribution.

Born in 1891 in Sardinia to a father of Albanian descent, Antonio Gramsci was the fourth of seven sons. His childhood was marred by poverty and health problems, but the young Gramsci was a brilliant student and won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin on the Italian mainland.

His Sardinian childhood gave him a different outlook to the prevailing north Italian view that the peasants were a reactionary mass. He joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1913 and went on to become a founder member of the Italian Communist Party in January 1921. He was imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascists in 1926. After languishing for eight years in jail, Gramsci died in Rome at the age of 46, but not before writing his famous Prison Notebooks.

From 1914 Gramsci edited and wrote for the chief Socialist and Communist newspapers of the day, such as Avanti! and L’Ordine Nuovo. In the disputes within the newly formed Italian Communist Party, Gramsci argued in favour of the perspective of workers’ control as the basis of the struggle against capitalism.

Antonio Santucci’s book provides a useful summary of some of the important aspects of Gramsci’s political life. While it is not primarily about his philosophical positions, Santucci does show that Gramsci was preoccupied with strategic issues.

Gramsci was aware that the revolutionary elements of the Socialist Party could not co-exist with the reformists in a principled manner, and so he supported the formation of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) led by Amadeo Bordiga. He travelled to Moscow in 1922 as the representative of the party. Gramsci’s return to Italy saw Mussolini’s government crack down on opposition parties including the PCI. Most of the leadership, including Bordiga were arrested.

Gramsci’s most important early contribution to Marxism was about how to oppose the advance of Mussolini’s fascism. He argued that the aim of the party should be to oppose the attempt of reaction to “push the proletariat back to the same conditions it endured during the initial phase of capitalism – dispersed, isolated, individuals, rather than a class that feels its unity and aspires to power.”  

He favoured a united front with the Socialist Party and an end to the elitist approach of Bordiga, who was suspicious of mass work and was not prepared for tactical compromises. When Gramsci was elected to the fascist-dominated Parliament in 1924, he was by now the recognised leader of the PCI and in the same year launched the official newspaper of the party, L’Unità.

Rejecting both Bordiga’s sectarian approach to political alliances against fascism and the parliamentary illusions of the Socialists, Gramsci sought to develop an active united front in order to successfully realise defensive tasks and therefore prepare for the offensive struggle. His approach recognised that it was necessary for the party to strive to develop a culture of opposition in the working class.  

Gramsci also began to develop his conception of “hegemony”, or control or dominating influence, a term first put forward by Lenin, in terms of the necessity to win the peasants and the intellectuals to the side of the workers and therefore end the reactionary agrarian bloc that favoured the forces of reaction. His political progress was cut short by his arrest and imprisonment in 1926. Despite intense hardship he wrote his Prison Notebooks, which would be the theoretical basis of his understanding of the importance of strategy.

The Notebooks are a classical work of strategy. Gramsci believed that the successful revolutionary perspective of October 1917 might not be applicable in the different economic and political conditions of the West. In Russia, a strong state dominated a weak civil society, and therefore the collapse of the power of the state had created the conditions for revolution in both February and October 1917. The working class had been able to seize power through the role of the Soviets and a dynamic revolutionary party. This was a process of frontal attack, which he associated primarily with Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution.

However, in the West, the forces of civil society are more important and are constructed in accordance with the ideological importance of hegemony of the ruling class. Consequently, Gramsci said, a “war of position”, or siege war, was necessary. Only by establishing different forms of hegemony could the subordinate classes acquire the political capacity to challenge the domination of the state by the ruling class. Gramsci stressed the importance of civil society, which had been a neglected part of Marxist theory due to vulgarised economic reductionism.  

This meant that the role of ideology acquired great importance for the process of economic and political transformation, insisting:

“But precisely in order to determine the conditions favourable to a change in the social structure, it is necessary to weaken the bourgeois class in the ideological field… Intellectuals, as organisers of hegemony have therefore a long task ahead, especially in the period of ‘war of position’.”

The weak point of this strategy is that the connections between party and class are not established and instead the party substitutes itself for the class in terms of being the “organic intellectual” who cultivates the alternative hegemony and so represents the dynamic aspect of the process of social transformation. Gramsci did not accommodate to reformism, which attempts to reconcile the antagonistic forces of capital and labour. Instead, he saw the role of parliament as connected to the success of the strategy of the “war of position”.

Revolution, in his view, was characterised by more than waiting for economic crisis and the political prospect of insurrection, but rather by a constant struggle of ideology and the contrasting claims of hegemony. Consequently, Gramsci opposed the passivity of economic catastrophism. He did not deny the importance of the role of economics, but he suggested that politics and ideology react in an active manner upon the role of economic activity.

For example, it could be argued that if capitalist economic relations are unchallenged this will be dynamically expressed at the level of ideology and the ideas which we use to understand the world. Hence, he is arguing that ideas are a material force that acts in a dynamic manner to shape and facilitate the process of social transformation. This standpoint is similar to that expressed by Lenin in his notes on Hegel’s Science of Logic.

Gramsci is also concerned to show that the common sense of popular culture can be used in both conservative and radical terms. Therefore he saw the task of the “organic intellectuals” of the party as facilitating the ideological transformation of common sense in a manner that promotes the progress of the counter-hegemonic forces. This is not possible unless those who are the traditional philosophers of society are willing to learn from those that practice a crude form of common sense.

If a philosopher isolates him/herself from society the result will be the formation of an elite culture that supports the existing ruling class. But if an intellectual is concerned with the interests of the subordinated classes, the result can be an interaction of ideas which can facilitate the advance of democratic culture and politics. This is why it is of revolutionary importance to end the self-imposed isolation of intellectuals and instead develop the relation between the intellectual and the popular culture.

 “The subjects of history, the true protagonists of the present cultural and political ‘bloc’ are the masses,” he wrote, and the “great intellectual must then throw himself too into practical life, and become an organiser of the practical aspects of culture…he must democratise himself.”

Santucci concludes his work by analysing the role of Gramsci in the period after the so-called demise of “communism”. He fails to locate Gramsci in terms of the continuation of the relevance of proletarian revolution. Instead he argues that Gramsci is relevant in terms of his opposition to the corrupt relationship between deception and politics in that he upheld the relationship between truth and politics.

However, Santucci indicates that truth can only be represented by a counter-hegemonic bloc that is opposed to capitalism: “Bourgeois democratic power, instead, tends to disguise the real nature of their social and economic interests. They conceal the truth for the purpose of gaining passive consent, passed off as free agreement or even active support. The type of consent asked of revolutionary masses, the future subjects of self-government is of a different nature.”

However, the crucial question is how this form of truthful consent is realised. Santucci has reduced the conception of the hegemonic struggle to an ideal that cannot be realised under present conditions. Instead, we have to restrict our principles to more obtainable goals. The very struggle to realise truth is no longer based on the attempt to realise an alternative form of political power.

We can obviously not know what Gramsci would have thought of this pessimistic view. However, the legacy of Gramsci is that he was a man of action and thought and so would have been inclined to relate the challenges of the present in terms of the development of his strategic standpoint. What is characteristic of Gramsci’s approach is the fact that his Marxism is never static and complete because of the constant problems created by the necessity to develop ever new and creative forms of the process of emancipation. Gramsci would surely not have defined the so-called post-communist world as an excuse for political passivity.

This does not mean that his ideas are above criticism, but it does mean that the critic can only be constructive if he or she offers an approach that advances beyond the limitations of Gramsci’s strategic concerns. It is also important to understand that Gramsci’s approach is never pragmatic, and he does not reduce ideas to what is merely instrumental or useful. The coherence of ideas was never reduced to what was most influential at any given moment in time, but was instead about how ideas interacted in order to motivate people to think and act.

Hence his most important view was that the essential task was about developing those ideas that were able to challenge the domination of bourgeois ideology. This task would obviously recognise the importance of Marxism, but it was also about the connection between Marxism and the history of philosophy. Only if we understand philosophy was it possible to develop a philosophy of praxis. Consequently, his approach was not about differentiating between supposedly contemplative ideas from the role of praxis.

Gramsci’s ideas have been adopted by “post-Marxists” Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe to support the idea of a “retreat from class”, and the separation of agency from the relations of production. Obviously, we cannot comment as to how Gramsci would interpret this development of his views. However, we can argue that Gramsci is concerned to outline the relation of ideology to the role of the economic and political structures of capitalism. His work is attempting to overcome a possibly neglected aspect of Marxist theory, and not about developing an alternative to Marxist orthodoxy.

Gramsci’s work has developed Marxism in questions of culture, ideology and strategy, and Lenin carried out a similar elaboration of Marxism on issues of imperialism and revolution. Gramsci’s work has not been outdated by historical events, and nor can we reduce Gramsci to being the supporter of an alternative morality to that of capitalism.

He was important for indicating that without strategy the task of revolutionary transformation is undermined. It is this latter lesson that is possibly his most important contribution to Marxism. He remains one of the classical theorists of revolution and of the class struggle. The challenge is to advance and improve on his work.

22 July 2010

Antonio Gramsci. Antonio A. Santucci, Monthly Review Press, New York 2010

Your comments

Jonathan says:

The subordinating classes – the real wellspring of society - their struggles and forms of expression are a source of great inspiration for the ‘intellectual’ who will go there, as it is for the intellectual who arises from there. Crude form of common senses in relation to dialectics, broken continually on the new ground of practice. T...hese forms of intellectual practice made objective create a culture that feeds others. The stifling, claustrophobic and isolating place the notebooks were written. One of the main roles of Prison under any form is to constrain and give coercive and abusive framework to the materiality of ideas: Gramsci fought hard against this, and any critical understanding should take this into account.

Quoted in GRMSCI: State & Civil Society: written 1930-32 ‘In politics, the siege is a reciprocal one, despite all appearances, and the mere fact that the ruler has to muster all his resources demonstrates how seriously he takes his adversary.’ He then quotes Marx’s from the Eastern Question “A resistance too long prolonged in a besieged camp is demoralising in itself. It implies suffering, fatigue, loss of rest, illness and the continual presence of not the danger which tempers but of the chronic danger which destroy.”

This isolation, of course, applied to Gramsci, but the irony made sharper his comments ‘—another proposition of the philosophy of praxis is also forgotten: that “popular beliefs” and similar ideas are themselves material forces.’ At this stage of ‘civil society’ the intellectual will find that the materiality of ideas, and this fight for hegemony is both productive and rewarding. The rewards being in the new forms created.


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