Gramsci and revolution: a necessary clarification

Issue: 109

Roberto Robaina

The name of Antonio Gramsci is regularly invoked internationally by people looking for a version of Marxism that avoids references to revolution. Roberto Robaina challenges this approach, criticising fellow Brazilians who use it.

Brazil was one of the first countries in Latin America to rediscover Antonio Gramsci. This was important in itself, but it was also attended by the theoretical distortions of a left that, although it was breaking with Stalinism, still resisted the alternative of a revolutionary perspective.

The first disseminators of Gramsci’s thought, particularly Carlos
Nelson Coutinho, extended the discussion about the state to include questions of hegemony, the accumulation of forces and the necessity or otherwise of insurrection. And it was precisely on these questions that Gramsci has been most misused within the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), where his work has been represented as reformist. Concepts like hegemony and historic bloc, for example, have been consistently distorted. Some
leaders of the PT, indeed, are still using these concepts to defend a politics of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie, or at least sections of it.

The concept of the historic bloc, for example, has nothing to do with alliances with the bourgeoisie, nor can hegemony be transformed into a justification for concessions to the exploiting classes or a search for consensus with them—at least not in the name of Gramsci. When he led the Italian Communist Party, before he was imprisoned, Gramsci left no room for doubt as to the necessity for the movements of industrial and agricultural workers to build alliances with the peasants of the south and the islands.1 He affirmed the decisive role of intellectuals in the formation of these alliances, arguing that they played a key role in binding the peasantry to the big landowners, and arguing the urgent need to break that link by building a left current among
the intellectuals. Gramsci certainly pointed to the need for consensus among the broad peasant masses as a prior condition for mobilising them against capitalism—a consensus among the peasants, be it noted, rather than with the capitalists, with the purpose of breaking the links with the landowning class. This was the historic bloc that would have a determining role in social
change—it has nothing to do with collaboration between workers and capitalists, nor between their parties, be they populist, liberal or anything else.

Gramsci also made a clear distinction between hegemony and domination, affirming that domination was not enough, but that the object was hegemony—that is, a real capacity to lead, employing a complex network of relationships not based on coercion. The essence of his concept of hegemony is that it responds to the proletariat’s need to raise itself into a class
capable of leading its class allies in the struggle against capitalism:

Mass action is not possible while the masses remain unconvinced of the purposes it is pursuing or the means to achieve them. If it is to become a governing class, the proletariat must rid itself of all the residue of corporatism, of every syndicalist prejudice. What does this mean? It means that not only must the divisions between different jobs be overcome, but that to achieve consensus and to win the trust of the peasants and some of the semi-proletarian urban masses some prejudices have to be addressed as well as elements of egotism which still persist among workers even when they have left behind craft particularisms. The metal worker, the carpenter, the building worker will need to learn to see themselves as members of a class that will lead the peasants and the intellectuals, a class that can only win and build socialism if it is supported and followed by the majority of society. If it does not achieve that, and the proletariat does not become the leading class and those sectors,
who are still the majority in Italy, remain under bourgeois control, it will give the state the possibility of crushing the rising tide of workers’ struggles and breaking the movement.2

Gramsci was against the state. That could hardly be clearer. The
strategy of seeking democratic changes in the bourgeois state or seeking consensus with sectors of business or with public opinion in general appears nowhere in Gramsci’s work.

The discussion of the war of movement and the war of position
adds a rich new dimension to the discussion of revolutionary strategy. Gramsci took these concepts from discussions about the art of war: ‘In the East, the state was everything, and civil society was primitive and sticky. In the West, there was an appropriate relationship between state and civil society, and when the state was in turmoil, the robust structures of civil society became evident.’ The state was a frontline fortress ‘behind which sheltered a robust system of inner keeps and walls’. From that Gramsci deduces that in the East the war of manoeuvre is more appropriate while in the West it is the war of position, with much greater emphasis on the accumulation of forces within the institutions and civil society.

Vladimir Pomar set out to synthesise these two concepts—the war of movement or manoeuvre would be the participation of the social movements, of all the struggles which produce tensions in the domination of capital, even the most reformist and localised: ‘The principal effort should be directed towards unifying these movements on an increasingly broad base— regional, provincial and national—so they converge in a social movement capable of achieving social transformation.’ The war of position, in this sense, would be the participation in and contestation of the apparatus of civil society and the political system ‘through trade unions, parliaments, governments, with the central purpose of interacting with the working class…mobilising them and working to resist their fragmentation and division’.

Some scholars, like the Argentinian sociologist Atilio Boron, define Gramsci’s position as giving priority to the war of position in returning to the arguments presented by Engels in his introduction to The Class Struggles in France,3 and more specifically to an approximation to the arguments of social democracy for wearing down the state. Given that Gramsci elaborated most of his ideas in the wake of the defeat of many of the revolutionary movements inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, it is possible that the Italian communists did take some inspiration from those ideas, although this is never explicit. The most probable explanation is that they derived them directly from discussions within the Third International concerning the workers’ united front.

The differences between the Russian Revolution and those in Europe had been forcefully argued by Lenin in 1918. Lenin, it should be remembered, never opposed the tactic of wearing down the state, but understood it is as a tactic and not as a strategy, in the way that Bernstein had argued it. His words at the Seventh Extraordinary Congress of the CPSU could not have been clearer:

The revolution will not come as quickly as we had hoped. History has spoken, and we have to know how to recognise the reality, we have to recognise that in the advanced countries the socialist revolution will not begin as easily as it did in Russia, the country of Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas, and where for a majority of the population it was a matter of indifference what kind of people lived on the periphery or what was happening there. In countries like these, starting a revolution is as easy as lifting a feather. But in a country where capitalism has developed and produced a democratic culture and organisations that involve every last person, it is absurd to imagine that the revolution can begin without proper preparation. If we fail to do that, we will destroy the socialist revolution before it begins. That is the reality.4

So Gramsci had learned from Lenin and was trying to develop his
ideas. It is possible that Kautsky also had some influence, but not the renegade Kautsky, still less the so-called legalistic and pacifist Engels, who exists only in revisionist falsifications. Yet Gramsci was to fall victim to the same falsifications, confirming once again the anxiety of reformists to find in the arguments of Marxists a justification for their abandonment of revolutionary theory.

A useful contribution to the discussion about the war of position has been transformed by reformist intellectuals into a negation of insurrection at the key moment of revolution and thus into the negation of revolution itself. Taking Gramsci as their starting point, intellectuals like Carlos Nelson Coutinho have argued that a country as complex as Brazil should be considered ‘Western’ (which we agree with), in order to legitimise a conclusion we find unacceptable—namely, that the war of position should define the political activity of the workers, while abandoning the perspective of insurrection. As we shall see, nothing in Gramsci justifies such a conclusion.

Two confusions

Gramsci’s writings certainly do leave some room for confusion and reformist reinterpretation. There is room for debate about his view of the capacity of the workers to achieve cultural hegemony before they have conquered state power, for example. The confusion arises from the analogy he draws between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions, without making it clear that the proletariat cannot achieve cultural hegemony in a bourgeois society precisely because of the nature of bourgeois hegemony and its domination of the most powerful ideological apparatuses—a very different situation from that of the bourgeoisie in its battle against feudalism.

According to reformist logic, then, the task would be the accumulation of forces until that hegemony was achieved. Elections would be the barometer of progress in this regard, and successive elections alone would provide the proof or otherwise of the level of consciousness of the citizens. This one-dimensional vision overemphasises the significance of elections and suggests the possibility of conquering hegemony over the whole of society, but without mentioning its class character, the very reason why the working class cannot achieve a position of leadership over the dominant classes and the upper middle classes, given that their interests are neither the same, nor even similar.

A more careful reading shows that Gramsci lays great store by the achievement of cultural hegemony by socialists, not over the whole of society but over the classes exploited in one way or another under capitalism, with whom the workers and their organisations must build links and seek the strategies that will win them leadership. This is a very different position, even if it still leaves much room for question insofar as the struggle for cultural hegemony involves major areas like values, ethics and world view. It requires a very high level of class consciousness and maturity in a context in which even the best organised workers are not particularly well educated and in which political power has yet to be won.

And even if it were possible to exercise cultural hegemony prior to taking political power, the reformist conclusion that this would eliminate the need for an act of force to change the social relations of domination is plainly wrong. Even the bourgeoisie, whose cultural hegemony as a class over its allies enabled it to become the dominant class, was not able to take power by democratic or peaceful means, but had first to destroy the political apparatus of the feudal monarchy. This lack of clarity in Gramsci’s thought regarding cultural hegemony takes nothing away from the sharpness of his opposition to the illusion that the working class could lead or represent the interests of the whole of society prior to taking power. And it does not negate the need to incorporate Lenin’s key notion of the struggle for the hegemony of revolutionary strategy. The conquest of political hegemony refers to the capacity of the working class to lead political alliances and win its slogans and proposals for the intermediate classes (the peasantry and the impoverished middle class in particular)—that is a precondition for victory.

There is a second basis for confusion in Gramsci’s writings, revealing either a prejudice against or an ignorance of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. In formulating his theory of the war of movement and of position the Italian directly attacks Trotsky’s theory. These attacks were repeatedly used by reformists subsequently, as if permanent revolution referred to a continuous frontal assault on the bourgeois state. To place this
discussion in context, we should return to the last debates in the Third International before Lenin’s death.

As is well known, in the early 1920s Lenin proposed the united front tactic in opposition to the theory of the revolutionary offensive, which argued that the permanent task of the mass movements in Western Europe was to prepare for the insurrection. The united front tactic, by contrast, proposed the unity of working class parties, the unity of Third International
revolutionaries with the European Mensheviks, a politics of the accumulation of forces which would allow the majority of the working class to be won over before an insurrection. The so-called ‘offensivists’ accused Lenin of giving up on the very strategy the Bolsheviks had pursued in Russia, without stopping to consider the downturn the revolutionary movement had undergone since then—which Trotsky emphasised in his contribution to the debate.

The caricatures of Trotsky’s position fabricated by the Stalinist apparatus tried to suggest that the theory of permanent revolution and the revolutionary offensive were one and the same. And Gramsci repeated the accusation when it was clear that the founder and leader of the Red Army always defended the need for the accumulation of forces rather than the suggestion of a frontal assault on the state. Gramsci’s misunderstanding is
exposed when he points to the united front as the classic expression of the war of position and then argues that Trotsky is only concerned with the war of manoeuvre. Yet Gramsci must have known that it was Trotsky who presented the concept at the Congress of the International, and that he was always its most fervent defender. In fact, his most serious disagreement with
the Soviet leadership came on this very issue. The refusal of the German Communist Party to build a united front against Nazism was the direct cause of his final break with a now wholly Stalinised Third International.

Trotsky defended the united front in all the debates in the International, in his writings about the German situation in 1923, his articles of 1933 and his analysis of France between 1934 and 1936. Throughout his life he fought the parliamentary cretinism that refused to use bourgeois parliaments, proposing instead a combination of Gramsci’s war of manoeuvre and war of position according to the correlation of forces. If Gramsci argued that the united front was an illustration of the war of position, and Trotsky was one its principal defenders, how could Gramsci attack Trotsky?

Stalinist propaganda played its part. The debates about permanent revolution began in 1923. In 1926 Stalin elaborated his theory of socialism in one country, but the bureaucracy had already launched its attacks on socalled Trotskyism well before that, describing Trotsky’s politics as adventurist and irresponsible, claiming he was proposing an immediate international revolution when the conditions did not exist for it. In this period Gramsci wrote to the Executive Committee of the International criticising the opposition led by Trotsky. There is nothing to indicate that he did not understand the reactionary nature of the theory of socialism in one country or that he might even have identified that theory with the war of position. In the same letter he expressed doubts about both Bukharin and Stalin’s methods, indicating his independence from the Stalinist bureaucracy. It was sufficient reason for Togliatti, the Italian Communist Party representative at the Third International, not to deliver the letter—it was the source of the split between the two men, and the origin of Gramsci’s relative isolation within the PCI leadership. It is worth adding that at this stage Stalinism had not yet revealed its true horrors—and future Trotskyists like James Cannon and Andres Nin were at this stage still supporting Stalin against Trotsky.

It is also well known that Gramsci, in contrast to Trotsky, paid little attention to the art of insurrection. On the other hand, we cannot forget the conditions under which Gramsci was writing—under the eye of the Fascist censors. Jailed in 1926, he was virtually excluded from the debates in the International from then on. And after Trotsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1929 Gramsci had no access to Trotsky’s writings, even though he repeatedly asked to see them.

Against this background, it cannot be argued either that Gramsci
defended reformist positions, or that he was identified with Stalinism. There were certainly people who used Gramsci to deny the need for insurrection or the struggle against bourgeois power—there were sectors who wrote in conditions which would have enabled them to face reality, but they did not. So the discussion is not simply about Trotsky’s positions. It is Lenin himself and the strategy of the Russian Revolution that are called
into question when the different characteristics of the revolution in East and West are emphasised to the point where they deny the very idea of revolution and of insurrection as its decisive moment, as if this contradicted the idea of hegemony and the accumulation of forces.

There is a new attempt to confuse Marxism with Blanquism. Carlos Nelson Coutinho says that ‘Marx and Engels defended the Jacobin paradigm put forward by Auguste Blanqui—that is, of revolution as the product of the actions of a small battle-hardened and courageous vanguard… To consider the revolutionary strategy proposed in The Communist Manifesto as valid today is clearly an anachronism.’ An anachronism?! The writer is not only abandoning Marxism altogether—he is slandering Marx and Engels. How can Coutinho still call himself a Marxist? And his calumnies are not even original—he is simply repeating Bernstein’s allegations of nearly a century ago. Lenin said, ‘Bernstein, the leader of the reformists, has won a sad notoriety by accusing Marxism of Blanquism’.5

How did Lenin respond to Coutinho’s progenitor, Bernstein?

First, a successful insurrection must rest not on a trick, nor even on a party, but on an advanced class. Secondly, insurrection can only be based on the revolutionary rise of the people. And thirdly, it must arise at that turning point in the history of the growth of the revolutionary movement when the activity of the vanguard of the people is at its highest point, when the ruling class is at its most divided, and the weak supporters of revolution are at their most indecisive. These are the three conditions for determining when and where the insurrection shall take place—and which distinguish Marxism from the ideas of the Blanquists.6

For Marxism, revolution can only be the act of the masses, not of a small minority, and insurrection is the culminating point of the process, a qualitative leap organised as art. And to win the masses, to convince them of the socialist revolution, an arduous day to day activity will be necessary, wearing down the bourgeois political regime and accumulating forces within the working class. Engels devoted his whole political life to arguing this—in fact he was accused not of Blanquism, but of yielding to reformism towards the end of his life, an accusation as unfounded as the first. When he wrote his often quoted introduction to a new edition of Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, Engels analysed the German SPD at length and offered some important reflections on the revolutionary struggle. He showed that universal suffrage had been an important victory for the working class, and was an essential tool in the struggle. He argued that the struggle on the barricades would become less important in the future, but he never for a moment denied the necessity of revolution, the preparation for which must start with an understanding that the workers cannot be sent into the streets just like that—because defeat would be inevitable.

Extracts from this introduction were later republished to give the impression that Engels was a defender of the peaceful legal road. Engels himself, however, wrote to Kautsky protesting at the cuts made in his text and demanding its publication in full ‘to dissipate any possible misunderstandings’. His demands were ignored.

The defence of the socialist revolution, of the necessity for revolutionary violence to destroy the bourgeois state and establish the workers’ state, does not imply, however, any defence of ultra-left adventures that take the working class into the street only to be defeated. A revolutionary organisation has to know how to distinguish between the time for accumulating forces and the time to employ these forces in revolutionary actions. The terrible error of social democracy was to transform the need to accumulate forces into a permanent strategy, in which standing for elections became a strategy for taking power rather than a tactical instrument for accumulating forces, making propaganda for the party and convincing workers of the need to destroy capitalism, fighting ceaselessly for its immediate demands against whichever government was in power.

When we assert the actuality of revolution, this does not mean that we consider the victory of the working class to be an easy thing to achieve. The destructive capacity of the US military state was never as great as it is today, for example. If Engels emphasised the importance of accumulating forces before launching decisive offensive actions, and foresaw great difficulties for the insurrection given modern armaments, modern technology and even the new urban architecture which replaced the narrow streets of Paris with wide avenues which made it more difficult for workers’ insurrections, how much greater those difficulties are today. The whole 20th century has been devoted to developing new military technologies—the internet itself arose out of those experiments. In the 1990s pilotless planes were used for the first time in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. There have been great advances in computer technology, in the use of sensors, to the extent that the Pentagon’s strategy is to generalise remote control warfare.

That is why today more than ever mass mobilisations and a growing consciousness of the working class and the people of Europe and the US in particular are critical. No military response to imperial aggression can be determined centrally, yet preparation in these areas is crucial. The defeat of imperialism must be political, seeking above all to undermine internal
support for its external interventions. Internationalism and the solidarity of peoples in struggle have become a matter of life and death.

Marxists are always aware of the need to accumulate forces. Lenin more than anyone was always concerned with the issue of hegemony, with the party’s ability to lead. That is why the Bolsheviks did not take power in July 1917 when 500,000 workers were demonstrating in the streets of Petrograd, many of them with arms in hand. They did not take power because they did not have the forces to maintain it, and that July the Bolshevik line had the full support of Trotsky.

The prejudice against the Bolsheviks led to caricaturing the position of the revolutionaries as if their only concern was leading an assault on the Winter Palace. That is absurd. The assault on the palace was certainly a decisive moment, carefully and deliberately chosen. That was Lenin’s genius, knowing the exact moment when there was the greatest support for turning the country around, and breaking down the power of the bourgeoisie—a genius that Daniel Bensaid underlines in his essay ‘Lenin and the Politics of Time’. Such was Lenin’s achievement that there was minimal violence. The power of the bourgeoisie was broken with a minimum number of casualties, so mature and appropriate were the conditions for the ‘assault on heaven’.

This strategy will only be questioned if the objective is the conquest of hegemony over sectors of the bourgeosie. And that is incompatible with Lenin and with Gramsci. Here Gramsci shows that he is a revolutionary Marxist. In an article called ‘Revolutionaries and Elections’ he responds to the question of what revolutionaries, workers and peasants expect from
parliamentary elections:

They certainly do not expect half plus one of the seats in a parliament characterised by dozens of laws whose purpose is to blunt the sharp angles and facilitate cooperation between the classes—between the exploiters and the exploited. On the other hand, they do expect working class electoral activity to carry into parliament a good number of Socialist Party militants who will stand in the way of every move the bourgeoisie try to make, make it impossible to establish a strong and stable government, in a word force the bourgeoisie out of the democratic compromise, abandoning bourgeois legality and making possible a rising of the whole working class against the oligarchy of the exploiters.7

The caricature of Lenin, therefore, is also a caricature of Gramsci. But it is an expression of those who do not want to break the existing machine but want only reforms of the state. In this case, insurrection is irrelevant and the strategy becomes the search for 50 percent plus one of the parliamentary seats—the opposite of the strategy argued by Gramsci.

None of this means that we should deny the differences between East and West, nor ignore the differences between more and less developed countries, nor fail to recognise that the instruments of cultural hegemony, as well as coercion and control, have become increasingly sophisticated. In that sense the bourgeois state is stronger than it was at the beginning of the 20th century, and thus more difficult to destroy.

Gramsci foresaw a problem which we in Latin America have come to know well, since the majority of military regimes were overthrown and replaced by bourgeois democratic governments which have continued the super-exploitation of the working class, yet they have survived for years without the working class articulating any kind of alternative institutional order. Gramsci did offer a not altogether happy solution to the problem of how to fight such states with his formulation of the war of movement and the war of position, without showing more precisely the necessity and manner of their articulation. That allowed others to take his ideas to places where they did not belong.

Bourgeois democracy and dictatorship

The discussion of the difference between East and West was one of Gramsci’s important contributions. Apart from the differences in economic structures and in the levels of industrial, technological and cultural development, the point can be developed to make clear the differences between dictatorial and bourgeois democratic regimes—and this has important implications for the different mass struggles as they confront a dominant bourgeois class.

In democracies, the weight of the ideological apparatus, of the mass media, of common sense, of the illusions of the masses and the capacity of the ruling class to achieve hegemony, are fundamental. Dictatorial states, on the other hand, rest more on the use of force, on coercion and domination, yet even they need some level of consent and shared illusion, one expression of which is fear.

In bourgeois democracies there are many institutions, and so the capacity to convince, hegemony, has a greater weight. But this does not change the nature of the state—it is still bourgeois. And when consensus is not achieved, it strips the bourgeois state of the ability to be what it also is, a dictatorship of capital, so that the repression of the masses is then lived out equally in both regimes, albeit in different forms and with different intensity—
although in bourgeois democratic regimes violence is widely and
systematically used when the mechanisms of consensus and hegemony fail to function.

In confronting these situations there must be a response from trade unions and mass organisations. That much is obvious. But the question is what the purpose of that activity is. The issue is not whether or not we fight for spaces of struggle against hegemony, but rather that interests we intervene to support, and over which classes we wish and are able to establish hegemony, whether we seek class conciliation or ‘the rising of the widest layers of workers against the oligarchy of the exploiters’.

In dictatorships the struggle for the machinery of civil society is much more difficult, and these apparatuses are often less important in defining the correlation of class forces. This is because it is rigidly controlled by the regime, or because it is simply absent—in dictatorships even the institutions of parliament often do not exist. Yet there are always spaces, mechanisms which can be contested. In regimes of this kind the process of defeating them develops through a slow, clandestine accumulation of forces until they erupt in influential sectors, be it the student movement, in emerging organisations (as was the case of UNE, the Brazilian student union), in trade union or
popular movements. It is not important which sector initiates the movement. In general, it takes on the character of a mass mobilisation after a long period of underground preparation driven by democratic demands—‘Down with the dictatorship’, ‘Down with the government’—which eventually alter the correlation of forces, finally undermining the dictatorial regime.

At first sight this appears to be a war of movement but, as always, it takes a combination to bring about an explosion—the rise of great struggles, the deepening of social contradictions. The social and political subjects of change win spaces, recover institutions and rebuild them, accumulate forces and thus stimulate in one way or another offensive actions. Although
the possibilities are fewer, it is also a matter of occupying spaces to demonstrate, with examples, propaganda and actions, the incompatibility between the interests of the working classes, the poor and the repressive regime.

These mass mobilisations in dictatorial regimes are usually multiclass in character, and even include sectors of the bourgeoisie. Yet the bourgeoisie as a class is inconsistent even in the struggle for democratic demands—it does not want any kind of revolution at any price for fear that the masses might go on to demand more than merely changes in the forms of domination. Despite this fear, sections of the bourgeoisie do participate at points during the struggle for democracy, generally when those struggles are approaching their high point, and in order to keep them within the framework of the capitalist mode of production. In the democratic revolutions, therefore, the bourgeoisie can use its economic and social power to manoeuvre and divert the revolution, freezing it in its democratic stage. This understanding was one of the Trotskyist leader Nahuel Moreno’s important contributions to the strategic analysis.

To unleash a revolutionary offensive of this sort—that is, a democratic revolution—it does not matter whether or not a revolutionary party has an influence among the masses, let alone leads it, although history suggests that in practice that influence has always been key to the achievement of democratic demands. Nor is it necessary that there should exist at that stage organs of workers’ power like workers’ and peasants’ councils, centralised or not.

And that is the qualitative difference in comparison with revolution in bourgeois democratic countries, where going beyond bourgeois democracy implies a completely different movement. Here the construction of organs of workers’ power is definitive, even when the bourgeois regime is exhausted and its hegemony in crisis. Marx always argued that the revolution would begin in France, England or Germany, yet it began in Russia, and no successful socialist revolution has occurred thereafter in any bourgeois democracy. This should not make us sceptical of the project. There have been rehearsals—May 1968 in France, the Portuguese Revolution of 1974—and today we are witnessing deepening contradictions at the heart of the system.

The fact that insurrections in bourgeois democratic regimes have not succeeded, however, should lead us to reflect on the preconditions for their success. It is particularly worthwhile to look at the Latin American experience of bourgeois democratic regimes from the 1980s onwards, and to clarify the differences between them and the experience of Russia. This raises an
important issue regarding the institutions—because only in the Russian Revolution of 1917 was an insurrection able to overcome a recently established bourgeois democracy. The first revolution which brought down Tsarism had at its disposal a revolutionary party and organs of mass mobilisation and self-determination, workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils.

What was peculiar about Russia was that a workers’ party was contesting the leadership of the revolutionary democratic struggle against Tsarism. Later, after February, it was able to assume the leadership of the whole process and drive forward a second revolution in the space of a single year. It was unique because the soviets already existed (having been created in 1905) and re-emerged at this time, and because there existed a revolutionary party with influence among the masses. So the victory of the democratic revolution, against a Tsarist regime which rested on the army and repression, could not be diverted by the liberal bourgeoisie in a direction that enabled them to build their own castles to replace the old ones. The soviets were already the main institutions, and the evolution of the internal struggle was decisive in shaping the new type of state.

The Russian experience was not repeated in the course of the collapse of the Latin American military regimes. In Brazil in 1984, for example, revolutionary pressure from below was combined with a self-reform from above which produced a negotiated transition and guarantees of civilian bourgeois domination. The repressive machinery of the previous regime was not even dismantled, though its role was much attenuated by the new constitution of 1988 which established a new legal order incorporating the popular democratic demands of the time. There were no mass organisations of any weight in the society, and the working class did not have an independent role, dissolving into the more general democratic movement. The bourgeoisie was able to set up its ‘new democracy’ and create an electoral process that was able to persuade the people that it was they who were determining the economic and political direction of the country.

A revolution began in Argentina in 1982. The military were literally driven out of power, which also explains why the military were unable to intervene in the crisis of December 2001. The fall of the military was not accompanied by the rise of soviet-type organisations, that is, organs of dual power. Nor did there exist any party with mass influence, although Argentinian Trotskyism was very influential among the vanguard. So the Argentinian democratic revolution of 1982, the Argentinian February we might call it, did not become the Argentinian October, when the workers eliminated the bourgeois state. The sector of the bourgeoisie that took power was then able to create its own machinery of control and its own means of deluding the masses.

The Argentinian example is in no sense unique. The whole of Latin America experienced similar processes—the fall of the dictatorships in the absence of alternative organs of power, and a ruling class that was ready to use the institutions of bourgeois democracy to divert the mass movement and freeze the revolutionary process at its democratic stage.

The exception, many years earlier, had been the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and, to a lesser degree, the Nicaraguan Revolution 20 years later. In neither case did there exist any organs of mass self-determination, yet in both cases there did exist a situation of dual power in which a guerrilla army confronted a dictatorship. In both cases there was a democratic
revolution with the participation of the mass movement and, albeit reluctantly, some bourgeois sectors too. The bourgeois regimes were dismantled, and so too was the army and with it the bourgeois state, leaving room for the creation of a new type of state. This is what happened in Cuba. The US would not accept even minimal capitalist development, which drove the Castro regime to expropriate the bourgeoisie. In this way a new state was created, although one without mass democratic organisations. The deformations of Castro’s Cuba arise from
this limitation as well as the criminal US economic blockade and the no less criminal Soviet foreign policy, which gave aid to Cuba in exchange for its moderation on the Latin American and world scene. In Nicaragua, of course, it was a different story. The Sandinistas did not expropriate the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeois state was rebuilt, albeit in a state of continuing crisis in which it remains today.

These were the experiences of struggle that began with democratic demands and revolutions against dictatorial regimes. In general there were no organisms of dual power and, when there were, they were not mass democratic organisations but guerrilla armies. Yet there were mass mobilisations against dictatorships and they were victorious because the mass
democratic movement proved superior to a state based on a regime of fear and repression.

In bourgeois democratic regimes, however, the barricades and
fortresses, to use Gramsci’s phrase, are much more powerful—bourgeois hegemony and domination are surrounded by a network of defences. To overcome electoralism and the illusion among the masses that parliament is the only means through which to express their political will, even when bourgeois democratic institutions themselves are falling apart, the decisive
thing is to build alternative organs of power in the mass movement. Without them it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to overcome bourgeois domination even against the background of a hegemonic crisis of the bourgeois state. This largely explains the long period of bourgeois democracy that we have had in Latin America, although many of these regimes are now entering a period of crisis.

The process is a slow one. The bases of a different type of state are to be found in workers’ self-organisation, the factory committees, the organisations of the peasant movement like Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), the popular mass organisations like the MNLM in Brazil, which fights for the right to housing and against homelessness, in sum in the structures
and superstructures of the movements of those at the bottom of the social scale. In Ecuador we have recently seen clear embryos of dual power with the emergence of the People’s Parliament, and similar developments in Bolivia, with the Cochabamba Coordinadora de Agua (Coordinating Committee against Water Privatisation), and in Argentina in the local popular assemblies.

The fact that the traditional leaders of the mass movement are often unhappy with these developments and often work to dismantle them is certainly one obstacle to the radical transformation of society, which is why the urgent task is to build a revolutionary party that does share those strategies. There is no need to fetishise any one form; they might be soviets or councils, cordones industrials like those which arose in Chile in 1972-73, Ecuadorean-style People’s Parliaments or Popular Assemblies like those that emerged in Peru, or indeed any of the new forms that the revolution itself will throw up.

What is decisive is that revolutionaries work within the workers’
movement, among the youth, in the popular and peasant organisations, on the basis of this permanent strategy—to organise from below, to work for unity among them all, and to patiently explain the need to build a new kind of order based on the continuing mobilisation of the masses and on their self-organisation.

1: See A Gramsci and P Togliatti, ‘The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI’ (Lyons Theses), in A Gramsci, Selections from the Political Writings, 1921-26 (London, 1979), pp464-513.
2: The translation differs slightly from that in A Gramsci and P Togliatti, as above, p605.
3: Available on
4: Again the translation varies slightly from that available on
5: Available in a slightly different translation on
6: As above.
7: A Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings, 1910-20 (London, 1977), p188. 07gramsci 14/12/2005 1:24 pm Page 126