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Antonio Gramsci, the united front, and geopolitics of strategy

December 16, 2017

Antonio Gramsci

Background note by John Riddell: The following text by Rjurik Davidson forms Part Two of Rjurik’s four-part study, “Between Como and Confinement: Gramsci’s Early Leninism.” It represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the evolution of Antonio Gramsci’s approach to united working-class action in the period preceding his imprisonment in 1926.

In late 1922, the majority of the Italian Socialist Party expelled its right-wing reformist wing and proposed fusion with the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) and the Communist or Third International (Comintern). The fusion was opposed by PCI leadership, headed by Amadeo Bordiga, but upheld by the Comintern World Congress in December.

Bordiga promised to apply the world congress decision, although some Comintern leaders later charged him with dragging his feet. A Socialist Party referendum then narrowly rejected fusion. Subsequently, the wing of the SP that continued to press for fusion was known as the Terzini.

This text is reprinted by permission; for the complete article, see Marxist Left Review. Rjurik Davidson ( is a socialist activist based in Australia.

By Rjurik Davidson. Gramsci’s decision to work with the Terzini was a part of his acceptance of the policies of the Third International, as elaborated by their early congresses and which was later codified as Leninism. In this sense, Leninism is the strategy of building an organisation of militants, which would act as a vanguard of a differentiated and stratified working class. This party would struggle against all cases of oppression, no matter who was suffering, and in so doing win the hegemony of the class and its allies.

Yet because working-class consciousness was uneven and often found itself caught in the cul-de-sacs of capitalist ideology, a complex political strategy composed of variegated tactics was required. At some point during this process, a revolutionary upsurge would produce a situation of dual power, in which the masses would forge their own state, likely in the form of workers’ councils, break apart the old state and construct their own in its place.[19]

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

Gramsci had been won to Leninism when he had been the Italian representative in Russia from 1922-1923. There he had participated in the day-to-day running of the Third International, attended meetings of the Comintern’s Executive Committee (ECCI), and come to know personally the leaders of the Russian revolution. In November 1922, Gramsci met with Lenin in a private discussion, where they discussed the “south” of Italy, the Italian Socialist Party and the possibility of its fusion with the PCI.[20]

During this important meeting, which until recently has remained relatively unknown, Gramsci outlined his “profound” differences with Bordiga, but pointed out that Bordiga claimed the allegiance of the majority of the party and hence it had been necessary to follow his direction. Around the same time, in November and December 1922, Gramsci attended the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, which was to have a powerful impact on him: echoes of it would be found in his subsequent thought and writing.

The first key strategic question on which Gramsci and Bordiga differed – a question that has wound its way through subsequent socialist history, resulting in political caesuras everywhere – was whether the Leninist strategy was applicable to the West or whether it applied only to Russia. This problem had arisen in the debates of the Third International as it had struggled to comprehend the defeat of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe between 1917 and 1921.

Indeed, when Gramsci arrived in Moscow, the Third International was undergoing something of an unacknowledged theoretical crisis. While the revolutions of the other European countries had shared certain key features with the Russian revolution, the proletariat of the former had also shown an allegiance to reformist forces that was not seen in Russia. Whatever the errors of Marxist organisations or groupings during the revolutions in Italy, Germany, Finland, Hungary and elsewhere, it was clear that sociological and cultural factors had also played a part.[21]

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

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

[Bordiga] thinks that for the more developed countries of central and western Europe, this [the Russian] tactic is inadequate and even useless. In these countries, the historical mechanism functions according to all the approved schemes of Marxism. There exists the historical determinism which was lacking in Russia, and therefore the overriding task must be the organisation of the party as an end in itself…. I think that the situation is quite different. Firstly, because the political conception of the Russians was formed on an international and not on a national terrain. Secondly, because in central and western Europe the development of capitalism has not only determined the formation of the broad proletarian strata, but also – and as a consequence – has created the higher stratum, the labour aristocracy, with its appendages in the trade union bureaucracy and the social-democratic groups. The determination, which in Russia was direct and drove the masses onto the streets for a revolutionary uprising, in central and western Europe is complicated by all these political super-structures, created by the greater development of capitalism. This makes the action of the masses slower and more prudent, and therefore requires of the revolutionary party a strategy and tactics altogether more complex and long-term than those which were necessary for the Bolsheviks in the period between March and November 1917.[23]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The temporalities of political strategy

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

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

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

By contrast, Bordiga’s Rome Theses [1922] had polemicised against the united front tactic.[39] When Gramsci and Bordiga clashed a second time at the Como conference, it was over a particular form of the united front, expressed in the slogan for a “workers’ and peasants’ bloc” or “workers’ and peasants’ government”, which flowed (in the words of the Comintern’s Theses on Tactics) “unavoidably from the entire united-front tactic”..[40] Again, the Rome Theses and the Left’s Como Conference Resolution had rejected this notion but the Unità proletaria election campaign with the Terzini had been a practical application of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alliances, corporatism and the councils

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

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

Such a development required a close and concrete analysis of the terrain. Indeed, Gramsci’s writings from 1924-26 are full of such concrete analyses of the dynamics of various class fractions and the significance of various grouping and parties. In a letter to young communists – importantly called “What is to be Done?” – Gramsci outlined the significance of such concrete reconnaissances. He began by asking the question, “How was the Italian workers’ movement defeated?” The response that the defeat occurred because of the lack of a revolutionary party was inadequate because it presupposed another question: why was there no revolutionary party? The formulaic answer that the cause was the “lack of a revolutionary party” – always true by definition – underestimates the difficulties of actually building such an organisation, which starts on a much more concrete level, one which takes into account the ensemble of social relations. “Why have the Italian proletarian parties always been weak from a revolutionary point of view?… They did not know the situation in which they had to operate, they did not know the terrain on which they should have given battle.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the full text of this article, see Marxist Left Review.


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Gramsci, Antonio 1978, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, International Publishers.

Gramsci, Antonio 2014a, A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926, edited and translated by Derek Boothman, Haymarket.

Gramsci Jr., Antonio 2014, La Storia di una Famiglia Rivoluzionaria: Antonio Gramsci e gli Schucht tra la Russia e l’Italia, Editori Riuniti.

Lenin, V.I. 1964 (1916), “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”,

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Footnote numbering is from the complete four-part article.

[19] While I’m sympathetic to those like Sandra Bloodworth who find the term “Leninism” unhelpful (Bloodworth 2013), I think this is a useful enough definition, and in any case essentially the one used by Gramsci himself. This definition also runs counter to Lars Lih’s valuable and erudite Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done’ in Context (Lih 2008). For all Lih’s usefulness, it seems to me that Lenin already had a conception and practice distinct from the Erfurt program before World War One, a conception further developed in his reflections on imperialism and the split in socialism (the development of “bourgeois labour parties”), and finally codified in the resolutions of the Third International. Alan Shandro argues a similar case in Shandro 2014.

[20] See Gramsci Jr. 2014. This information had come from key PCI organiser Camila Ravera. In his book, which contains the letter (p52), Gramsci’s grandson, Antonio Jr., asks, “But why had not [Camila] Ravera described this episode in her memoir published a few years beforehand? Why did it elude all of the Gramsci biographers, including as eminent an author as Giuseppi Fiori? And why doesn’t Gramsci himself ever mention it in any letter and in any article, in spite of all the admiration for Lenin and the strong connections of friendship of the family of Giulia Schucht with that of Ulijanov [Lenin]? It can’t be excluded that the cause of this strange silence is due to the modesty and correctness of my grandfather towards Amadeo Bordiga. In fact Antonio Gramsci, in spite of the political divergence, always had a great estimation of the true founder of the Communist Party, not to talk about their personal friendship.” [My translation – RD].

[21] Fernando Claudin, in his thoughtful book The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform (Claudin, 1975, pp46-102), outlines this theoretical crisis, even if he tends to over-exaggerate it.

[22] Trotsky 1953, pp221-22. Lenin had also made this argument in contracted form in “Left-Wing” Communism an Infantile Disorder, in Selected Works, Lenin 1976b, p320.

[23] Gramsci 1978, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, pp199-200. There are two translations in English of this important letter [the other is by Derek Boothman in Gramsci 2014a]. I’ve used both for the purposes of this article.

[24] Zinoviev 1942.

[25] Lenin 1976b, pp320-21.

[26] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation of our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p294.

[27] Gramsci 1978, Antonio Gramsci, and Palmiro Togliatti, “The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (‘Lyons Theses’)”, p359.

[28] Gramsci 1978, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question”, p444.

[29] See, for example, Spriano 1976, pp347-48.

[30] Lenin 1967, speech on affiliation to the British Labour Party, Second Congress of the Third International, 1920, pp183-4. This is a different emphasis to the more dualistic notion of a “bourgeois workers’ party” (or “bourgeois labour party” as found in Lenin’s 1916 piece “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (Lenin 1964), which leaves open the question of whether these organisations are workers’ parties with bourgeois leaderships, or bourgeois parties with working class memberships. Chris Harman’s conflation of Gramsci’s position with the bourgeois-labour party position overlooks the important differences between them. See Harman 1977.

[31] Tasca in Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission Nominated by the Central Committee To Finalize the Lyons Congress Documents”, p326.

[32] Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission…”, p338.

[33] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p408.

[34] ibid., p409.

[35] Walter Adamson divides Gramsci’s typology into a geographic division between East and West and three socio-political categories of Advanced Capitalist, Transitional, and Peripheral societies. The result is thus six “types” of society. See Adamson 1980, p89.

[36] Gramsci 1977, “Towards a Renewal of the Socialist Party”, p191.

[37] Gramsci 1977, “The Monkey People”, p374.

[38] Spriano dates this plan and proposal in September 1923 as the first concrete example of a turn in the PCI’s work. See Spriano 1976, pp298-299.

[39] Cammett 1967, p161.

[40] Riddell (ed.) 2011, p1159. For a short summary of the debate, see Riddell’s “Editorial Introduction”, pp20-27.

[41] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci’s Intervention at the Como Conference”, pp253-254.

[42] Quoted in Spriano 1976, p355. (My translation – RD.)

[43] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p391.

[44] Quoted in Gramsci 2014a, “General Introduction” by Derek Boothman, p30.

[45] Gramsci 1977, “Development of the Revolution”, p92.

[46] Quoted in Coutinho 2012, p37.

[47] Lenin 1976b, pp335-336.

[48] Gramsci, “Letter to Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Gramsci 2014a, p230. See also Gramsci’s discussion of phases in Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, pp409-410.

[49] Spriano notes its central importance in his history; Spriano 1976, p33-334.

[50] Spriano points out that at least in the time around the Como conference Gramsci, believing the situation was still revolutionary, tended to overestimate the autonomous role the party might play. See Spriano 1976, p345.

[51] Gramsci 1978, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question”, p443.

[52] ibid., p448.

[53] Gramsci 1978, “What is to be Done?”, pp169-171.

[54] See Fernando Claudin’s compelling and rather Gramscian critique of Trotsky in Claudin 1975, pp79-80.

[55] Lenin 1976a, “What is to Be Done?” in Selected Works, Progress, Moscow, p154.

[56] ibid., p145. As Lars Lih has shown, the basis for this attitude actually can be found in the Erfurt program’s “hegemony” scenario. See Lih 2008, pp96-101.

[57] Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 2, p187; Notebook 4, §38, pp464-65. Gramsci directly echoes this argument in “Elements of the Situation”, in Gramsci 1978, p308.

[58] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation and Our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p303.

[59] Gramsci 1978, “Elements of the Situation”, p308. See also Gramsci’s critique of the German communists Brandler and Thalheimer in the 9 February letter, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others” in Gramsci 2014a, p193.

[60] Some see Gramsci’s emphasis on this as a reflection of his continued Left–Communist approach to the united front, i.e. emphasising the united front “from below”. See Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, “General Introduction” in Gramsci 1971, plxxiii. However, Trotsky was to make a similar argument in his writings on Germany. See Trotsky 1971, pp193-199.

[61] Gramsci 1978, “Once Again on the Organic Capacities of the Working Class”, p419.

[62] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p395.

[63] “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Gramsci 2014a, p225.

[64] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p410. A decade later, Trotsky would compose a similar argument in his writings on France. See “For Committees of Action! Not the People’s Front!” in Trotsky 1979, pp129-134.

[65] Gramsci 1977, “Unions and Councils”, p100.

[66] Gramsci 1977, “Syndicalism and the Councils”, p111. Here Marcel Del Roio sees the influence of Sorel, especially in Gramsci’s “spirit of separation from the state and reformism”. See Del Roio 2015, p143. However, Del Roio underestimates the way Lenin too understood the party as a representative of the creative forces of its class, preferring to see Gramsci’s position as closer to “Sorel and also to Luxemburg”, p187. Lars Lih does a good job of dispelling this erroneous dichotomy in Lih 2011.

[67] Gramsci 1978, “Report to the Central Committee: 6 February 1925, p280.

[68] Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission”, p315.

[69] Gramsci 1971, pp9-10 and Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 12, p1550. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci would still associate the development of these organic intellectuals as intimately connected with the development of the party. See for example, Swartzmantel 2015, pp81-89.

[70] Indeed, Gramsci’s interest in the intermediate layers is revealed in his claim that “in every party, and especially in the democratic and social-democratic parties in which the organizational apparatus is very loose, there exist three strata” – of leaders, masses and an intermediate activist layer. Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p401. This prefigures once more a formulation in the Prison Notebooks. Gramsci 1971, p152; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 14, §70, p1733.

[71] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci to Scoccimaro”, p174.

[72] Gramsci 1978, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, pp197-198.

[73] ibid., pp198-199.

[74] “To Negri and Palmi”, in Gramsci 2014a, p236.

[75] “To Vincenzo Bianci”, in Gramsci 2014a, p332.

[76] Gramsci 1978, “Against Pessimism”, p213.


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