Hegemony and revolutionary strategy

Issue: 114

Chris Bambery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The botched birth of Italian Communism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gramsci denies his instinct

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Comintern and the debate on revolutionary strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rearming the Communist Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In another letter Gramsci argued that Bordiga mirrored the reformist Second International in preventing individual initiative and leaving party members passively waiting on the party’s leadership, encouraging the idea that the party’s strength and very existence itself would determine the possibility of revolution: ‘The party has not been seen as the result of a dialectical process, in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organising and directing will of the centre converge’.19 He continued:

In central and western Europe the development of capitalism has not only determined the formation of the broad proletarian strata, but also—and as a consequence—has created the higher stratum, the labour aristocracy, with its appendages in the trade union bureaucracy and the social democratic groups… This makes the action of the masses slower and more prudent, and therefore requires of the revolutionary party a strategy and tactics altogether more complex and long‑term than those which were necessary for the Bolsheviks in the period between March and November 1917.20

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

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

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

The search for the United Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gramsci offered his vision of a revolutionary party:

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

Leadership required the party taking up immediate or partial struggles:

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

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

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

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

The road to Calvary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

7: Alastair Davidson, as above, p138.

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

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

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

11: As above, p56. Available online.

12: As above, pp151-154.

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

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

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

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

17: John Cammett, as above, p138.

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

19: As above, p198.

20: As above, p199.

21: John Cammett, as above, p166.

22: Alberto Pozzolini, as above, p42.

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

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

25: Andrew Lyttelton, as above, p248.

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

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

28: As above, p290. Available online.

29: John Cammett, as above, p169

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

31: As above, p367.

32: As above, p370.

33: As above, p357.

34: As above, p432.

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

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

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

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

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

40: As above, p459.

41: Perry Anderson, as above, p46.