Philosopher Antonio Gramsci: How revolutionary?


“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters.”  “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” “To tell the truth is revolutionary.” — Antonio Gramsci, Italian communist leader and philosopher (1891-1937).

“We must stop this brain working for 20 years.”  — Prosecutor at Antonio Gramsci’s 1928 trial in fascist Italy.

Google the name of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher, Communist leader, and a prisoner of fascism, and you will find an amazing 16 million results. Gramsci has been used and misused by revolutionaries, reformists, and even bourgeois politicians, including rightists.

Say what they will, Gramsci viewed himself as a working-class revolutionary—a communist—for his entire life.

Interest in Gramsci began with the posthumous publishing of his “Prison Notebooks” in Italy in 1948-51. It then exploded worldwide in the 1960s until today. Buoyed by scholarly studies, his writings are frequently read to demystify social control under capitalism.

Gramsci’s concepts of “hegemony,” “war of maneuver,” and “war of position” were used recently by two long-time U.S. radical writers, Carl Davidson and Bill Fletcher Jr. (Links International, July 2019). For decades they’ve urged activists to work for change within the Democratic Party. Hegemony in this case would mean securing working-class dominance within a rich man’s party, the Democratic Party—a goal that is impossible to achieve. But, that highlights Gramsci’s contradictions as a theoretician.

Background: Gramsci and Italian Marxism

Gramsci was born into poverty in 1891 on the Italian island of Sardinia. His college years were spent in the working-class hotbed of Turin in Italy’s industrialized north. Gramsci was an admirer of Turin’s militant workers’ “factory councils.” The Fiat autoworkers, 40% women, struck massively in 1920 and occupied Fiat plants—some with arms in hand—but were sold out.

In 1923, the German revolution was likewise defeated due to indecision, ultra-leftism, and Moscow’s bureaucratic intervention. Both defeats heavily influenced Gramsci. Mistakenly, Gramsci viewed these failures and others as mere facts, not betrayals.

In October 1922, the “March on Rome” signaled the triumph of Benito Mussolini’s Italian fascism. By that time Gramsci had become a leader within the left of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and, in 1924, the head of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Gramsci was also a PCI representative in parliament. He chose to remain in Italy, bravely defying Mussolini’s repression.

Strategically, the PCI’s ultra-left leader Amadeo Bordiga and Gramsci refused any united anti-fascist front with the PSI. The PSI had signed a pacification pact with Mussolini and shamelessly told workers, “Do Not Resist!” Nevertheless, the position of the Communist 3rd International was in favor of a united front of all working-class forces, a concept Gramsci came around to in 1923. Mussolini banned all opposition parties in autumn of 1926 and arrested Gramsci in November. Gramsci spent 11 years in a fascist prison.

Gramsci was nearly immobile due to a deformed spine after being dropped when very young and suffered additional torments. In the end, “His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed …[he] vomited blood … [suffered] chronic insomnia … and headaches so violent he beat his head against the wall” (Antonio Gramsci, “Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds. International Publishers, 1971, p. xcii). Released to a sanatorium, Gramsci died in 1937.

He nevertheless managed to write 33 notebooks on capitalist society, in a dim prison light, under prison censorship and extreme deprivation. Gramsci frequently used coded language to evade censors.

Gramsci’s notebooks, the PCI believed—falsely—endorsed their political trajectory toward a parliamentary strategy and loyalty to the capitalist order. Gramsci’s writings gave the PCI an intellectual gravitas as it cynically moved rightward.

Postwar Italy saw the PCI disarming its mass-based, anti-fascist partisans and entering a capitalist government. The rightward drift continued in the 1970s and ’80s as the party embraced an unapologetically reformist trend known as “Euro-Communism,” an ideological embellishment for parties educated in Stalinist class-collaboration. In the 1970s, the PCI supported the Christian Democratic government’s austerity measures in the wake of the 1974 recession. Moreover, the PCI opposed abortion rights. Once the largest Communist Party in the Western world, the PCI dissolved in 1991 and its leadership formed the Democratic Party.

Gramsci’s ideas and their meaning

“Hegemony”: The term was used in the 19th and 20th centuries by Marxists Karl Kautsky and Vladimir Lenin and in communiqués of the Communist Third International. Gramsci made “hegemony” a more central concept than his predecessors.

Gramsci said hegemony manifests itself socially in two ways, as “domination” and as “intellectual” and “moral leadership” (“Selections,” p. 57). Simply put, hegemony functions in society as both consent and coercion, within civil society (the media, the church, schools, etc.) and the state (police, army, courts).

“War of maneuver” and “war of position”: Gramsci viewed society in the East as more unstructured, less complex and rigid, enabling the Bolsheviks to “easily” topple capitalism in Russia in 1917. In the East, the “state is everything,” Gramsci wrote. He called the class struggle there a “war of maneuver.”

In the West, society as more multi-layered, complex and surrounded by fortifications, “trenches,” an “outer ditch” of civil society that surrounded and protected the capitalist class from frontal assault. The class battles in the West were usually incremental and more a battle of “persuasion” and “consent,” mediated within “civil society.” In the West, said Gramsci, “[The] actions of the masses [are] slower and more cautious” (#4 p. 40). Thus a “war of position” was an aspect of Gramsci that tended to be “defensive,” in contrast to Trotsky’s aggressive prognosis.

In any case, Gramsci argued that a revolutionary hegemony must be achieved before a revolution, itself problematic.

Gramsci’s reformist (non-revolutionary) interpreters mistake the extension of working-class hegemony to deny the need for revolution entirely. Such misinterpretations envision a traditionally incremental, reformist path to socialism. But, Gramsci never denied the need for revolution in the East or West.

Gramsci’s conception of the social dynamics between coercion and persuasion changed many times. Early on, Gramsci gave first importance to civil society over the state. Much later he wrote, “Civil society and state are one and the same,” sensing society as essentially a monolith of repression and persuasion.

Gramsci’s vision of change included a central role for the “subaltern” or popular classes, meaning the voices of the working classes, including the peasantry concentrated in Italy’s impoverished South.

In the culture of the oppressed were ideas Gramsci labeled “common sense,” which congealed over time into concepts at a fundamental level. Those ideas were circulated by “organic intellectuals,” whom Gramsci said, were the “repository of revolutionary values” and “a permanent persuader” throughout the working class. Gramsci uniquely extended his concept of “the new intellectual” to the vast number of those performing industrial work. Gramsci even claimed that all men (and women — MG) are “philosophers” (Peter D. Thomas, “The Gramscian Moment,” Haymarket Books 2010, p. 411).

Gramsci also philosophically battled a vulgarized theoretical model of Marx’s famous “dialectical materialism” [“dialectics” refers to interaction and change — MG] emanating from a growing Soviet bureaucracy. Intellectual pursuit, including science, was measured by loyalty to the increasingly authoritarian Stalin regime and his cult of mediocrity. Unfortunately, Gramsci left unexamined bureaucratic hegemony in the worker’s movement, Trotsky’s forte.

Gramsci did criticize, for instance, Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin’s book “The Popular Manual.” Counterposed to Bukharin (later executed by Stalin) was what Gramsci called “Historical Materialism,” a more “objective” historical method that was grounded in practical activity (praxis), rather than a distorted, turgid “dialectics” that excused every twist and turn of Stalin’s policies.

Concerning Stalin and Soviet leader Trotsky, just before his imprisonment, Gramsci addressed a letter to Stalin to be delivered by the PCI’s Stalinist leader Togliatti. The letter objected to the persecution of Trotsky, but was never delivered.

Imprisoned, Gramsci was largely unaware of the battle against Stalin’s class-collaboration and repression. Nevertheless, Gramsci did attack Trotsky for ultra-leftism, but without possession of Trotsky’s documents.

The Gramsci discussion

Marxist historian Perry Anderson accurately described the shortcomings of the book, “The Gramscian Moment,” this way: “There is scarcely one concrete reference to what is known of his politics, let alone to the politics of his reception, in Italy or elsewhere.” More: “It’s not our task to pass judgement” on the treacherous PCI leadership (Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, Verso 1976, p. 13, p. 105).

Another disappointing disconnect was a Gramsci panel at the 2017 Left Forum in New York. Speakers addressed concepts like “hegemony,” but not the hegemonic grip of the Democratic Party and the urgency with which workers must break with both parties of capital (see https//

In all of the works about Gramsci that I cite—with the useful exception of “Trotsky and Gramsci”—embarrassingly little is said about the fundamental cleavage between Stalinist and Trotskyist strategies.

Stalinist parties sought multi-class “popular fronts,” in which workers’ movements submerged themselves or even joined “democratic” capitalist parties and/or governments, with disastrous results—i.e. Spain, France, Italy, and elsewhere worldwide. Trotsky proposed united fronts of workers’ organizations to fight fascism while organizing for revolution, never trusting the capitalist enemy. Different dynamics of “hegemony” would result between an electoral-reformist approach and revolutionary tactics, i.e., general strikes, factory occupations, and/or the seizure of state power.

Lenin, unlike Gramsci, has not been subject to as much misinterpretation. To be honest, the concept of hegemony is so vague that it cannot become an actionable, concrete strategy or tactic other than to simply increase one’s influence.

As Perry Anderson noted in “The H-Word” (Verso 2017, p. 96), “The result has been to detach ideas and demands so completely from socio-economic moorings that they can in principle be appropriated by any agency for any political construct … everything becomes articulation [political action — MG]. First hegemony, then populism, are presented as a type of politics, among others … and they become the definition of all politics as such.”

After decades of discussion, one may still wonder, “What are the actual, practical applications of Gramsci’s Marxism?” In my view, unfortunately, not too many. Gramsci wrote under the watch of prison guards, his analysis was mostly of what Marx called the “superstructure,” that is, the culture of capitalism. Would he have written differently if he were free? All we have are the notebooks.

Admittedly, Gramsci’s works lend themselves to misinterpretation—and are eagerly seized upon by reformists. Lenin also wrote about philosophy, but also brilliantly and in voluminous detail—as did Trotsky—concerning the dynamics of revolution. Why these two revolutionary giants do not receive the same volume of study as do Gramsci’s contributions says much about the sad state of so-called Marxist academia today. 

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